Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Read it all -- you might be a winner on Jeopardy

The history teacher from Texas won the $100,000 Teachers' Challenge on Jeopardy last week. He clinched the championship because he knew that New Orleans was the U.S. city that dropped off the top-50 cities list but reappeared 10 years later. He permanently moved into first place the day before because he because he knew the author of a very famous book. This very famous book, written in 1936, is 1,037 pages long and the only novel published by the author in her lifetime. You won't find it on any literary lists, mainly because it is basically a southern romance. Not only that. If it doesn't exactly glorify the southern cause in The Civil War, it does portray members of the KKK as brave protectors of southern womanhood.

You know the answer: "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell of Atlanta. A big potboiler of a book that was transformed into a big potboiler of a movie in 1939. The book sold well in its time, but it really took off when the star-studded movie came out. The movie is considered a classic. The book, not so much. That's probably why the two English teachers in the Jeopardy semifinals did not know the answer. They guessed Edith Wharton and Jane Austen. Very smart modern women who knew two members of the American Literary Canon. But didn't know a best-selling author who died too young when run over by a car in downtown Atlanta in 1949.

These two English teachers didn't know GWTW because schoolkids don't read it. I know why (see reasons above) but still, they are all missing out on something good. Have you ever read a big, fat, bloated novel? Of course you have. James Michener excelled at these. In "Hawaii," it takes the reader a 100 pages to get to the spot where human beings actually appear on ancient Hawaii. In "Centennial," set in my part of the country, the author takes his time reaching the arrival of Native Americans to pre-state Colorado and Wyoming. Neither of these books are part of the canon, although you might find both in history classes or, worse, in multicultural studies classes that exhibit books of "cultural appropriation."

Political correctness rears its ugly head.

My liberal self knows that the whole anti-PC movement is an excuse by racists to be racists, misogynists to be misogynists, Trump to be Trump, etc. Still, we are caught up in a ridiculous fight over who has the right to speak for who. Is it valid for a white writer such as myself to speak in the voice of a black woman or a Native American? Yes, because writers have the freedom to write from any POV, including non-human and intergalactic ones. What's that Harlan Ellison story told from the POV of a planet-exploring dog? Fantasy and sci-fi are filled with mythical characters who come alive in the hands of skilled writers. We live in an era of fantastic beasts and superheroes. Not enough of these writers are women or people of color. But that is changing, albeit slowly. The push is on for a balanced perspective, pushed by the country's changing demographics and tastes

But back to "Gone with the Wind." My grandfather Shay boasted that he read GWTW once a year. He was not  a Southerner but an Iowa farm boy who served in the Great War and came home to be a Denver insurance salesman for 60 years. My father was a GWTW fan, which is probably how I came upon the book, sitting forlornly in Dad's library after he and my mother finished with it. I was thrilled by the war narrative but rushed through the mushy stuff, hoping to find sex scenes, but in vain. Meanwhile, I was trying to get my hands on Terry Southern's "Candy." A copy was circulating through Sister Theresa's eighth grade class at Our Lady of Perpetual Chastity Grade School. The girls bogarted the book, which led to the ringleaders being discovered and forbidden from graduating with the class. Some of the boys read it too, although only the girls were punished. Catholic school was instructive in so many ways.

I knew that GWTW was the answer to the Jeopardy question.

"The English teachers will know that," said Chris.

"No they won't."

She seemed shocked when I was right. I told her about the status of GWTW on college campuses and in high school classrooms. At the same time, Mayor Mitch Landrieu had crews dismantling Confederate symbols around New Orleans. A week ago, alt-right demonstrators carrying torches (really guys, torches?) showed up to protect a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some guy drives around Cheyenne in a white pick-up flying a large confederate flag.

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

So wrote William Faulkner in "Requiem for a Nun."

In the South -- and in some parts of Wyoming -- the past is present.

So public school teachers in California don't read and don't teach GWTW. So, the Cali school teacher on Jeopardy was an also-ran in the big Teachers' Challenge prize.

While all of the Cali population was not alive in 1865, about half of the state's population is now non-white. GWTW would hurt their feelings. But they will always miss out on a compelling story. They might know the movie but not Mitchell's language and style, which is a damn shame, my dear. They may be an English major at UW or Stanford. They will get to know Austen and Wharton, Toni Morrison and and Jame Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros and Flannery O'Connor.

I've read Michener and Michael Crichton and tons of thrillers and detective novels. I've read treacly romances and predictable Zane Grey westerns.

Read it all.

Don't limit your world. That's how we got into this mess.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Reading a novel of letters -- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It takes skill to pull off an epistolary novel. That's one of the reasons I was so impressed by "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," co-written by American aunt/niece duo Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows. The authors reveal the story through letters from the main characters. The voices ring out through the letters, a lost art, unfortunately. You can find out so much about a person through letters, material you won't get through Twitter and Facebook.

One of the fascinating things about "Guernsey" is how much we learn about communication in the England of 1946. Letters to Guernsey on the Channel islands arrive by boat and airplane. Characters send cables and telegrams. On the island, note are slipped under doors. There are phone calls that are recalled via letter. When they aren't writing, people talk to one another, hang out together and take walks. They later write letters about it.

On the surface, the book is about the main character's effort to find a suitable topic for her next book. Juliet Ashton's claim to fame is her biography of one of the benighted Bronte sisters, Anne. She followed this up with a collection of newspaper columns she wrote during the war, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War." Ashton's plucky alter-ego recounts, with humor, her spirited efforts to make it through the home front during the Battle of Britain.

Did you know that the Channel Islands were occupied by the Nazis during World War Two? I guess I did, in an offhand sort of way. The occupation went from 1940-45, which is longer than some of Europe's German-occupied countries. The Channel Islands were isolated, closer to France than England. The British War Office realized bombing or invasion would kill more civilians than have any lasting effect on the war. A Resistance existed, with citizens sabotaging the Germans in subtle and unusual ways. Some hid escaped Todt (imprisoned) workers. That spells doom for one of the islanders, Elizabeth McKenna. She is sent to a Nazi concentration camp and, for most of the book, we await news on her fate. We also await the future path of Elizabeth's daughter Kit, conceived in an illicit affair with a German officer who was more human being than Nazi automaton.

The novel is a bit of a potboiler. Will Juliet find love with the American millionaire or the rugged islander? Will she adopt Kit? Will he ever write the book about Guernsey occupation during the war? Alas, dear reader, you have to read the book made up of many letters. Or you can watch the cable series (Showtime, I think) in the works for 2018.

As you know, the book is best.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Scouting report: Finding the best Wyoming spot to watch the eclipse

View from The Castle, looking west toward Laramie Peak.
The family and I drove to Guernsey State Park for Mother's Day. This is only my second visit to the park in the 26 years that I've lived in Wyoming. The first visit was in May 2008 when I joined my colleagues at Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources to celebrate the 75th anniversary of FDR's New Deal, which included the Civilian Conservation Corps and WPA projects for writers, artists and actors. Writers earned a buck from Uncle Sam by writing field guides of the states and conducting oral histories of residents, as Zora Neale Hurston did with ex-slaves in Florida. Nelson Algren and Richard Wright researched and wrote in Illinois. Noted author Vardis Fisher wrote the Idaho guide, still regarded as one of the best of its kind.

CCC workers built many magnificent structures in this park. Guernsey is home to The Castle, a rock-and-timber shelter that overlooks the park. A few paces down the walking path is a restroom dubbed the Million Dollar Biffy. The interpretive sign says that workers gave it that name not because it took a million dollars to build, which is a lot of Depression-era money, but that it took so darn long to build. Unemployed young men from Iowa and Tennessee hewed the timbers and cut the rock and forged the iron. It should last a thousand years, causing archaeologists of 5017 to remark, "These ancient humans certainly built quality restrooms." In 5017, the biffy and The Castle may overlook a teeming inland sea. The waves will be bitchin'.

We visited the park to see if it would serve as an outpost to watch the total solar eclipse set for high noon on August 21. We are a bit late getting started. Some have been planning eclipse activities for years. Hotels in Casper, eclipse epicenter, have been booked up for months. Campgrounds, too along the event's path in WYO, which runs from touristy Jackson in the west to sleepy Torrington in the east, with stops in Riverton, Hell's Half Acre, AstroCon 2017 in downtown Casper, the burg of Glenrock, and Douglas, home of the state fair,  Chris and I  are trying to find an eclipse-watching spot somewhere in there. We bought a Guernsey day pass for Aug. 21. We also got on the campsite waiting list. We thought that might be fun during this grand ol' party celebrating the majestic universe which can't be any older than 6,600 years, give or take.

Chris and I won't be around the next time, when Colorado gets the nod in 2045. By then, we will have experienced a total eclipse of the heart. We hope that the words of the Federal Writers Project will survive, although in what form it's hard to say. Thee printed word has gone through amazing changes since Gutenberg. Since the 1930s, books have gone from typed-and-printed form to e-books. It happened a lot quicker than that -- from the 1980s to now.

One hopes that books survive as long as the biffy.

Friday, May 12, 2017

"The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things" -- what will it be for Trump?

"The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things", painting by "Hieronymus Bosch" (disputed), Public Domain,
How many days has Trump been in office? Only 100-something. It seems like a thousand. If it was a thousand -- we hope that day never comes -- we will all be dead or living on the streets. The policies put forth by Trump and his Republican minions amount to cruel and unusual punishment, which would be unconstitutional if we were imprisoned. How did we put our precious country into the hands of a madman? That's not entirely accurate -- and unkind toward those with mental illness. Trump may indeed be mentally ill. Or he might be one of those twisted leaders thrown up regularly by history.

Trump has many SM nicknames. Tweeter in Chief. Twitler, The Orange One. Twitler is a handy one as it evokes images of Herr Hitler. But then we are back to madmen again. Hitler was human, after all. My father's black and white photos showed him and his Signal Corps pals at Berchtesgaden in 1945. He also had photos of newly-liberated death camps. He knew what Hitler wrought. But, as he liked to say on occasion, "Even Hitler loved his dogs." Great quote from an accountant who loved to read actual books. It was too easy to label Hitler as a monster. He loved his dogs. Humans? Not so much.  Also, the quote is a cautionary tale for us kids. Sure, that person may love his/her dogs, but notice how they treat people. Is it with the same kind of affection? Or would they like to throw you into an oven?

My parents were kind. I've inherited their attitude toward people. I also like dogs and cats. I also am a fallible human being. I hate Trump as president because I believe he is unqualified. Would I like to toss him in an oven? No. Would I like to toss him out of office? Yes. I hate Trump because he favors inhuman policies toward me and my family. He is fallible in the way that all humans are fallible. They are born with original sin, as the catechism says. They also are subject to the failings of the Seven Deadly Sins:  Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

Trump is a greedy bastard. He admits his lustful thoughts, or at least he admitted he did before Inauguration Day. Sloth -- too much golf? His political style shows much wrath. He envies Hillary Clinton's victory in the popular vote. Pride? Just look at his photos. And his figure exhibits gluttony, as do all of the photos showing him surrounded by gilded stuff, food included. His bloated body also shows signs of too much, too much.

Does this make Trump a monster? No, just human. Extravagantly human. Exorbitantly human. Does it make him president? Well, it did, according to the rules of the Electoral College.

Above is an illustration of the Seven Deadly Sins by artist Hieronymus Bosch.

Recently, Hieronymus Bosch became a script line in "Bosch" the Amazon Prime series. Actually, Bosch is always alive on the show and in Michael Connelly's Bosch detective novels. LAPD Detective Harry Bosch is known for taking shortcuts on the way to convicting the bad guys. The bad guys have failings in one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins. But so does Bosch. Is he a bad guy or good guy? When confronted by his partner, Bosch answers: "We do what we have to do."

The struggle is at the heart of most memorable detective novels and movies. Most novels, period. Sam Spade is having an affair with his partner's wife. His partner gets killed following up one of Spade's leads. Spade has to step in and find the killer which opens up "The Maltese Falcon," which contains most of the deadly sins. They are personified by the characters who show up in search of the falcon. Spade falls in love with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the one who killed his partner -- Spade discovers this along the way. He turns in O'Shaughnessy and makes this confession:
"When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's-it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere." 
Bad for business. Nothing to do with right or wrong. We know it's just an excuse. Sam Spade is a cad. But he's also the avenging angel. He's somewhere in that Bosch illustration. As is Trump. As am I.

I have to sound a spoiler alert for the following.

I just finished watching the final episode of season three of "Bosch." It ends with Bosch sitting in the dark in an auditorium. At the podium, Mayor Ramos and Police Commission President Bradley Walker have just pinned the captain's bars on Irvin Irving. Walker, we have discovered through hours of binge watching, is guilty of the murder of Bosch's call-girl mother 30 years earlier. Bosch, we know from the look on his face and from reading many of Michael Connelly's novels, will get his revenge. He is the avenging angel. In the process, he may be cast into the fiery pit. By Captain Irving. By Walker. By L.A.'s notoriously fickle justice system. By Satan himself.

How will it end for Trump? Could it be one of "The Four Last Things?" They are

1. Death of the sinner
2. Judgment
3. Hell
4. Glory

Any one is possible.

God only knows.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Happy 35th anniversary, Christine Marie Shay

Chris and I made solemn vows 35 years ago today in Ormond Beach, FL. First, we got married. Second, we vowed to never smush cake in each other's faces. Third, we vowed to toast our good health as often as possible. So far, so good. Happy 35th anniversary to my beautiful wife.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Happy birthday, Anna Marie Hett Shay. I miss you.

Happy birthday to my mom, Anna Marie Hett Shay, who would have been 91 today. Unfortunately, she died from ovarian cancer at 59 in 1986, a year after my son Kevin was born and seven years before our daughter, Anne Marie Shay, was born. In photo, it's just me and mom at our house at 1280 Worchester St. in Aurora, Colo., circa 1952. This is the only photo I have of just the two of us just hanging out. Soon, I would be joined by my brother Dan and then a succession of siblings, as was the Irish-Catholic custom back then.

Friday, May 05, 2017

We need more than sound and fury to defeat the GOP's cruel policies

Chris and I wore tutus to a local bar last Friday night.

Nobody beat us up. 

Our tutus were homemade from strips of tulle and, well, left a little bit to be desired. They were blue and black. We wore them over our jeans. Not as noticeable or as flamboyant as the pink tutus worn by others at Accomplice Brewing Company at the old train station. 

People all over Wyoming wore tutus to work and school and bars on Friday. It was in response to Sen. Mike Enzi's April 20 comments.  

This from the #LiveAndLetTutu Facebook page:
During a recent event at Greybull High School in Greybull, a sophomore courageously stood up to ask Senator Mike Enzi a question -- what he was doing to support LGBT youth in Wyoming? To which Senator Enzi responded, "I know a guy who wears a tutu and goes to bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it." This message delivered directly to the youth of Wyoming sends the message that if you're bullied in high school things are NOT going to get better. His comments say that to find happiness you must leave Wyoming.
Patrick and Brian Harrington came up with the #LiveAndLetTutu theme and hashtag. They are creative people in Laramie, You may have seen Brian's excellent photos all over the place. On April 22, he took great shots of Laramie's March for Science. The two brothers are from Greybull. They know some of the stigma attached to people who are a bit different in any small town. That's why Enzi's remarks rankled me. It was if he was proclaiming that there was a correct way to be a Wyomingite and an incorrect one. Many incorrect ones. If you follow any of these paths, you will get your ass beat. Or worse. Remember Matthew Shepard.

This is an era when our differences define us more than our similarities. Too bad, since we have so many things in common. For 25 years, I traveled Wyoming promoting the arts. I met all kinds of people. We talked art and not politics. The two are intertwined, but most people in Wyoming what's best for their families. The arts and arts education mean a lot. I once saw a performance of "Annie Get Your Gun" at Greybull High School, the same one when Sen. Enzi made his comments. The whole town, it seemed, turned out that night. It was a high school performance so not all of the voices were stellar and a few lines were dropped. "Annie Get Your Gun" is a bit dated, what with its portrayal of Native Americans and women and the West. Still, any attempt at high school theatre must be applauded. Most schools in Wyoming still have art teachers but theatre teachers are in short supply. Plays are usually supervised by a local with theatre background or a faculty member who (as I did) played The Second Dead Man in a minimalist version of "Our Town."

An event such as #LiveAndLetTutu" features elements of protest and theatre. Protest is always partly theatre. Clever signs and outrageous costumes play a part. So do music and poetry, as in the recent March for Science in D.C., and our own homegrown one in Laramie.

Is protest as theatre effective? It helps us get our ya-yas out. It does nurture community. But it didn't stop the House GOP from passing the so-called American Health Care Act. The better name is Trumpcare. Or Ryancare. Or Tryancare. More creative challenges for us wordsmiths. The GOP has effectively taken over enough state houses to gerrymander the hell out of many states. Their voter suppression efforts have paid off -- for them, anyway. Margins can be thin when half the electorate stays home because you've made it too hard for them to vote. Or their brains have been turned to mush from too much Fox.

Trump & Company only understand one thing -- raw power. We shut them down by voting them out and changing the laws that feed the oligarchy. This won't be easy as we've grown complacent. The theatre of protest will have some effect. But without serious involvement, I am but
a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage/And then is heard no more: it is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.
Sound and Fury. We need more than that. Much more.