We All Are Orphans

My Life

My Life

Lemony Snicket delivered the prime example of what critic Lenika Cruz called “postmodern literature for children” (Atlantic, October, 2014). The Baudelaire siblings, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (a snappish baby with sharp teeth), endured thirteen volumes of misery in “A Series of Unfortunate Events” starting with a house fire that killed their parents. They managed to escape a sequence of unreliable relatives and wannabe guardians, depending instead on Violet’s inventiveness and Klaus’ reading habits to move toward independence. Our granddaughter outgrew them, but when they were her bedtime companions I heard enough to worry about. Among other things, postmodern literary works contain “a sense of alienation and fractured identity.” The bright child put it more succinctly: “I like to read about kids with difficult lives because of my difficult situation.” She is a victim of divorce, but agrees with the author Snicket (aka Daniel Handler), that whenever you are in trouble you head for the library.

There are lots of kids with serious problems populating kid lit these days. I heard another grueling adventure in the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. At Camp Half-Blood, the abandoned boy learns he has a father, Zeus, for whom, with friends who also have roots in mythology, he sets out across the country to find the Lightning Bolt, fighting a multitude of monsters and even passing through Hades. I seem to recall they rode part of the way in a VW bus, but that may be from my own nightmarish memories.

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 1

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 2

Scary Thing 3

Scary Thing 3

 

What I now recognize is that heroic children in books have to be orphans, or nearly so. If they had helicopter parents, they would never have any dangerous fun. I was able to put this in perspective when I woke up the other day thinking about my own series under construction, in which Sophie George is a widow.

Sophie remembers her husband with dreamy affection but also annoyance. He liked to deep-sea fish, but never seemed to get the boat in condition early enough in the day to do so. She felt their home on the Gulf of Mexico was more trouble than it was worth so she sold it when he and his illusions passed away, then moved inland where she would never again have to scrape barnacles off the sea wall.

It is quite a surprise, then, for Sophie to feel an attraction to another man when she retires from her job as a librarian and starts to assist Detective Samuels with his more difficult crimes (SOPHIE REDESIGNED, 2010). In the rest of my series (not yet published), their romance gently twists in the wind rather to come to fruition. Having a sweetie is one thing; having to cook for him is another. You can’t just drive off or fly away to investigate hunches without explaining yourself.

I thought about this again last week as I read THE OXFORD INKLINGS by Colin Duriez. While most of the men in this literary group had female attachments, they were socially and intellectually independent of them, Oxford being what it is. The meetings in college rooms and in pubs to discuss their works in progress were never undermined by having to get home at a certain time. I suspect today’s dons do take their turns shopping at the supermarket, as their partners undoubtedly have equally demanding jobs, and I suspect it is thus much harder to find time to philosophize. Too bad. Tolkien and Lewis and their friends were much concerned with the battles between good and evil in their fiction and in their lives. Beneath the storm clouds of two world wars, they were questioning their faith, girding it with collegiality and respectful encouragement.

This experimental painting by Constable has a gold moon sjpwing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

This experimental painting  has a gold moon showing through a cut-out in the canvas. Courtauld Gallery, London.

I think that is what the purpose of fiction writers might be in any decade for any audience, to tell stories based on confrontations with monsters. Children need constant reminders that they can handle them, and in our sunset years, when we still are hounded by self-doubts and fear of the unknown, we also are haunted by failures, disappointments, regrets, and unresolved resentments.

One hopes that by parading bad situations before readers of any age, they are reduced to size, and that the hands and minds that hold the book will feel more capable moving forward.

“Well-read people are less likely to be evil,” Snicket tells us. That’s nice to know as we approach the Pearly Gates.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

My Dear I Wanted to Tell You

The Glorious English Countryside in 2014

The Glorious English Countryside in 2014

Louisa Young, London journalist and novelist, and wife of a composer, grew up in the house where the story Peter Pan was written by Sir J. M. Barrie. Some older readers will remember the boy who does not want to grow up and lives with other Lost Boys (who fell out of their baby prams) in the fairy world across the street in Kensington Gardens, in “Neverland.” The flying child visits the Darling children at night, and with her brothers, the memorable girl named Wendy follows him home and runs into all kinds of terrible adversaries, most notably (in my memory of my mother’s copy of the book) a pirate named Captain Hook who had lost his hand to a crocodile.

I only learned after finished Young’s stunning novel MY DEAR I WANTED TO TELL YOU of the house connection. The fictional Darlings lived about where writer Barrie had his home, and where in this novel, in 1914, Nadine’s family resides nearby. For over 100 years tourists have visited the elaborate Peter Pan statue the writer erected for the children of London. Its woodland charm hardly recalls the dangers illustrated by  Arthur Rackham in the book’s 1904 edition.

Child Going to Kensington Gardens 2014

Child Going to Kensington Gardens 2014

 

Young’s novel does. When Riley, a working class boy who plays in the park, is introduced to his friend Nadine’s artistic upper class world, and eventually falls in love with her, he is innocent of the war to come.  Objections to their marriage is the wall that causes him to enlist for what is supposed to be a short battle but continues on through four hellish years during which flesh and blood, bone and  putrifying wounds thoroughly rid Riley of any romantic illusions.

Brompton Cemetery in West London

Brompton Cemetery in West London

In January 2014, while living in London, my husband and I happened upon a remarkable musical by Phil Willmott, based on Peter Pan, in which the Lost Boys are recruited for the Great War and have to face adulthood. I don’t recall ever before leaving a theater visibly crying. It was completely sold out.  In June we saw War Horse, also stirring. These prepared me for Young’s dark and realistic novel, the best one I know to capture the psychological horror of having to trade Christian conscience for patriotism in order to kill other men, and the dehumanizing aftermath of disturbed minds. It also documents the emerging art of reconstructive facial surgery. The parallel action on the home front shows that women, too, were evolving from pretty adornments in gentlemen’s lives into persons on their own who learned to  cope by finding a larger purpose to their lives.

Sophie Redesigned

In my first mystery novel there is an underpinning war theme. SOPHIE REDESIGNED introduces a villainous family corporation with the means to quench the desire for revenge against those responsible for the war deaths of brothers, fathers, husbands and friends. In reflection on why I chose that theme — minimally, the nearly invisible thread of Sophie’s Jewish family history woven through my series — I realize that Sophie would remember World War I. It would be from an American perspective, of course, but nevertheless horrific, and tangible in the streets of New York where she spent her early childhood. There would have been in her experience many  legless beggars, starving orphans, and maybe even faceless relatives shut up in back rooms of houses. There would be marriages broken by the changes in personalities, much more permanent that the changes in fortune. Many of Sophie’s generation would go on to rebuild their lives, cope with another war, and wake up one day in a suburban development of split level homes with a car in the garage in the 1960s. Other would never recover.

 

Are You a Silver Surfer?

“The silver surfers did not impress Elizabeth, who still preferred a good old conversation on the telephone.” 

Murder: Then and Now, Diana Jackson

The clever fiction quoted above spans 100 years, with the present being 2019, and the means of “surfing” the Futurenet. The Elizabeth mentioned is a holdout, as nearly everyone else has adopted the latest technology. ” Her son offers to set her up with a screen on the refrigerator door. She could have voice-activated software (Siri?)and he was pleased that, “By the movement of his eyes the screen could instantly change appearance as it searched for information.”

I believe we have this mind-reading technology in 2015, or almost. Every time I am perusing my online NY Times, ads pop up offering things I will eventually need, like underwear and frying pans. Of course the genie inside the box has been paying attention to my keystrokes, not my eyeballs.

“Another generation and things had not changed, just the eerie wowing of the most up to date technology producing an innovative sound they called music.” (Ibid.)

Well, that is precisely how I heard about computers in 1958, Moog synthesizers, to be precise. Our music professor stuck his head in the door where I was filing slides for the art historian and bid us both to go with him to the basement of a dorm, where he played a symphony that sounded almost musical, changing the instruments and themes just by turning knobs and flipping switches, and, I thought, not enough to crow over. I missed my parents’ 33 1/3 rpm records of the First Piano Quartet.

Sophie Touring Bok Tower Gardens

Harold Garber observes our sleuth sleeping.

My fictional silver surfer, Sophie George, has seen a lot of change in her work as a librarian, from shelving print books,  photocopying pages in reference materials, and mailing overdue notices  in the 1930s to providing “customers” instant access via computer to Information around the world. She has survived by becoming an even better researcher, and that’s how she met “Sam,” the top cop detective in Dorado Bay. As his private assistant in WINDOW ON THE POND she delves into subjects as diverse as murky real estate deals and sexy religious scandals. And it’s all because she had to lie down on a park bench and snooze.

It was not that she couldn’t keep up with her adult son and his fiancee touring Florida’s historical  botanical gardens. And it’s not that she didn’t enjoy the brief chat with a visitor, a man about her age who came to rest on another bench.  She doesn’t want to. She would rather breathe deeply in the heavy perfumes of tropical plants, and feel an occasional breeze ruffling the map over her eyes, even brush away a fly tickling her arm.  Timeless. Then she hears the music in The Singing Tower, a carillon, the real thing,bronze bells, 60 of them, the largest nearly twelve tons.

While the bold tones are wafting  out over the  lily pond and probably across the sunny citrus orchards that surround the park,  someone is waiting in the shadows of the wildlife observatory, ready to make his move across the sand floor silently. Is it the man from Boston to whom she had just revealed a little bit about her impoverished New England childhood, something she rarely  mentions but never forgets?

Gentlemanly Harold Garber is pulled away from the shack toward a waiting squad car as Sophie and her children watch from their position on the wide path leading to the alligator enclosure, now blocked by yellow tape. Within a week, the librarian will talk the small town deputy into letting her take charge of the hapless and probably innocent man to make a detour to Miami and another to Connecticut to trace the real killer and establish the identity of the nameless victim. And she will be doing this without the supervision of Chief of Detectives Reuben Samuels.

Projected release date: January 2016.

 

Can I Start Over?

Eldersleuth:  librarian or another curious person who is past the age of employment as a police detective, but who perseveres in trying to solve mysteries

Eldersleuth: librarian or another curious person who is past the age of employment as a police detective, but who perseveres in trying to solve mysteries

Five years ago I published SOPHIE REDESIGNED, the first in a planned series of six not-quite-cozy mysteries, exploring the issues of aging and featuring an female sleuth.” Brainy and bored, librarian Sophie George retired early to work for the Dorado Bay, Florida, top police detective, “Captain Sam.” A technology klutz (like many older men were even in 2010), Sam had been coming to her in the public library to help him find facts about suspicious persons using the Internet. The story had two themes common in my septagenarian age group, one, the financial dependence of women on men,  and the other, the inability of some people to let go of the lifelong desire for revenge.

My launch included two book store events, attended by friends who loyally bought my book, and with the Kindle version “up” I began to post on www.moxiecosmos.com quite regularly, hoping to gain a following of people who enjoyed the observations of a “curmigeon” (my husband’s term for a feminine curmudgeon), and stimulate interest in SOPHIE REDESIGNED, thereby promoting sales. I had received many verbal kudos and mostly positive reviews, but one friend wrote to say the Kindle version was badly formatted. I was stymied by the prospect of how to correct it through the publisher, who had cashed my checks and then more-or-les stopped contacting me.

Also, I had trouble with the “ask” (“Will you buy my book?”) and, while I had some encouraging comments on my blogs, my followers didn’t make the connection. I had to think of something else that my shy nature could overcome to promote my writing.

Instead, like many women, I let a family tragedy and self-imposed obligation intrude on my marketing progress, and soon I stopped worrying about sales at all. I did continue to write, however. My idea has been to make five more Sophie George mysteries available on Kindle. 

Last year at this time we were in London and for six months my posts were about my adventures there, including the difficulties an older person has getting around in a big city.

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Staircase at the Courtauld.

Staircase at the Courtauld.

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Very old exhibit.

Brompton Cemetery

Brompton Cemetery

 

Natural History Museum (14)

Queuing at the Museum of Natural History.

Yesterday, our youngest grandchild asked about my book and I gave her the title. Within minutes, this ten-year-old had looked on Amazon and read my reviews, became excited about her”famous granny,” and asked if she could have an autographed copy.

That did it. Today I listened to a free webinar on promoting books by regular emails and signed up for a course. Within the next two months I shall be compiling my mailing list in anticipation of launching WINDOW ON THE POND in October, five years after SOPHIE REDESIGNED introduced my eldersleuth. She will not have aged five years, of course, just as I have not aged.

Overthrow of government?

Tucson Unified School District wanted to implement “culturally relevant” courses as required by the desegregation act of decades ago. State legislators passed the Ethnic Studies Law in 2010 to rein in Mexican American Studies from going too far. In February 2013, the federal court adopted the Unitary Status Plan to guarantee equal opportunity for students. It outlines how students should be assigned to schools, provision for their transportation, faculty and staff assignments, and equal access to quality education, including facilities and technology.

005TUSD has been under federal supervision since the 1970s when a case was brought by “minority” parents against TUSD and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund demanding changes that would benefit their children academically. The most recent efforts, Mexican American Studies classes, have improved academic standing for the students, but state legislators are concerned that they are being recruited to a political cause to overthrow the government by their Mexican American teachers. And, while the MAS teachers say they just want to foster debate and critical thinking, across this nation education critics have been worrying about our kids not getting any training in civics, aka American democracy.

In 2000, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam documented with numbers the decline of involvement in civic activities such as the PTA and other groups because of changes in work and family structure and the impact of suburban life and television. He is not the only one who has noticed this. The low voter turnout in most elections has resulted in renewed efforts to familiarize newcomers and new voters with our democratic system, allowing mail-in ballots, and offering rides to the polls.

Putnam, born in 1941, is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. He has served as chairman of that university’s Department of Government, Director of the Center for International Affairs, and Dean of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is author or co-author of more than a dozen books and more than thirty scholarly articles published in ten languages. Educated at Swarthmore College, Balliol College, Oxford; and Yale University, he has received honorary degrees, served on the staff of the National Security Council, and been President of the American Political Science Association. Among his many awards is the National Humanities Medal, presented by PresidentBarack Obama in 2013 for “deepening our understanding of community in America.”

Professor Putnam maintains a website (bowlingalone.com) and continues to work to re-connect Americans with their communities. His Saguaro Seminar, series of meetings among academics, civil society leaders, commentators, and politicians to discuss strategies to revive American “social capital,” that is the “bonding” of individuals with similar interests and “bridging” with people who are not like you to create peaceful societies out of diverse populations.

Arizona’s new governor has announced that he supports adding a civics course to the high school graduation requirements. This kind of thinking is a decent response to Bowling Alone. But another announcement has been made that might take things in another direction: Mark Zuckenberg, founder of the networking website Facebook, is starting a book club. He is going to allow followers to comment on books they read together, and this will bring their voices out of isolation. He gets to choose the books. The first is The End of Power by Moisés Naím. He selected it because “it explores how the world is shifting to give individuals more power that was traditionally only held by large governments, militaries and other organizations.”

Is this a good thing? Technology futurists have often said so.

Naim is a widely-respected journalist and expert on international affairs. In this book he warns that “65 million people with vastly contrasting aspirations are added to the global urban population” each year. To me, this looks like anarchy.

Zuckerberg, not yet thirty years old, is a good example of someone who goes his own way. Its given him tremendous power. At Harvard, he helped three other students launch Harvard Connection, a website that compared pictures of students on campus and allowed users to vote on which one was more attractive. This was shut down by the administration as inappropriate, but Mark kept working with the idea, found venture capital, and developed his own social media site. By December 2005 it had 5.5 million users and attracted advertisers and potential buyers. And we all know he quit Harvard.

In 2006 the creators of Harvard Connection claimed that Zuckerberg had stolen their idea, and insisted that he pay for their business losses. This was settled out of court for $65 million after lawyers revealed incriminating Instant Messages from Mark. He then admitted that he was immature for sending those messages and had since “learned a lot.”

Zuckerberg remains the target of critics, but he has announced, following the example of Bill Gates, that he will give 50% of his wealth (currently $33.1 billion)to charities.

Here’s the relevance: He donated $100 million to save the failing Newark Public Schools system in New Jersey, on a plan that leaned toward unique charter schools. The first million dollars went towards a poorly conducted community survey, and then a foundation board was established — with only one community member — to decide how “the Facebook money” would bespent. A law professor at Rutgers University described the donation as a catalyst for “a broader top-down strategy” and, indeed, the plan for reform was presented by the mayor, known as a proponent of social media, who was made an equal partner. Cory Brooks has moved on to the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the superintendent Newark hired is at swords point with the board. The parents are rabid. Most of the money is gone, millions to consultants. Nearly $50 million of went to pay for unusually generous performance pay – on the model of Silicon Valley — for teachers who are “highly effective.”  Interestingly, half of the required matching funds have come from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and New York hedge fund donors.

Now – to return to the original question — who is likely to overthrow the government? Or, put another way, where is our democracy headed?