Archive for November, 2012

ROME AND TEXAS

Lately, I’d been tossing three items around in my head. They finally converged, reminding me of a lesson I learned on a ride at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. Don’t lean back. You can’t stop the inevitable. Here’s what I mean.

For starters, the world really has gotten smaller. My parents never traveled outside the United States. Carolyn and I traveled through Western Europe a year after we were married. Our kids in total have covered Western Europe and a good bit of Asia—Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, China and Japan. (Carolyn and I can claim Thailand, Cambodia and Japan.) We’ve all been to Israel, and Carolyn and I to Jordan. And we’re not big travelers! My take on this? Many Americans share as much in common with “globalists” from other nations as with fellow citizens. Maybe more.

My thoughts also drifted to the Roman Empire. Chris Wickham, in The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400–1000, posits that the Western empire began to fall when “barbarians” conquered the grain fields of North Africa. Cheap grain held the empire together. Without it, various regions had to depend on themselves for food, acquiring more agricultural land and defending it. By the sixth century, they began to see themselves not as Romans but as separate ethnic identities.\

Finally, I’ve been intrigued that President Obama’s re-election has induced movements to secede from the Union. Conservative groups are sending petitions to the White House for response (a minimum of 25,000 signatures required). Texas leads the pack joined by Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma, Florida and Ohio.

So what’s going on? As the world shrinks, some folks want to relive “the good old days.” But those days as often divided people as united them. To these folks, the lessons of history mean nothing. The smaller states that replaced the Roman Empire in the West produced shrinking economies and lessened prospects for most people in a world dominated by local kings and nobles continually at war.

What, I ask, are the secessionists thinking? Do they seek to bond in a new but not necessarily contiguous nation? If so, will they find states’ rights any more prominent than they are now? Or do they want to form their own smaller, independent countries—an English-speaking Balkans in which a bevy of national identities risks creating new waves of international mistrust? And how will all these new countries afford the militaries conservatives so prize? The nuclear subs, carriers, jets, choppers, tanks, missiles and communications systems they might want cost big bucks—and belong to the U.S.A.

Of course, the secessionists basically are making a statement. They’re unhappy. Their candidate lost. But their message isn’t encouraging. Not because I expect another Civil War. But because the people promoting such dramatic change tend to abhor change.

At a certain level, it’s easy to understand the desire of many people to build walls and maintain the status quo. The older you get, the tougher it is to keep up. Some of my kids will tell you that. But in the real world, not moving forward inevitably means moving backward.

Several readers thought last week’s post, “An Affront to Humanity,” concerned a real woman’s real experience on a San Francisco Muni bus. Mea culpa. Sometimes my fables turn out a little more dry than anticipated. Think Israel and Hamas, re-read it and you’ll see it in another light. Whether you got it or not, please let me know.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

AN AFFRONT TO HUMANITY

I was waiting for a bus the other morning when a woman I know slightly approached. A sling encased her left arm. “What happened?” I asked. She proceeded to tell me about an experience that left her confused—and me, as well.

Two days earlier she took the bus home from work. Standing room only. A seat opened up. She sat. Then a burly man approached the double seat in front of my acquaintance. “Get up!” he barked at a middle-aged man and a young woman, seemingly unrelated. “These are my seats!” he bellowed. The man got up. The woman remained in place gazing out the window.

The burly man sprawled in his new seat. His arms and legs intruded on the space around him. He turned to the young woman. “Get up!” he shouted. “That’s my seat!” The young woman ignored him. Then, according to my acquaintance, the burly man punched the woman in the arm. “Stop that!” the woman yelled. “Get out of my seat!” the burly man returned. Again he punched the woman in the arm. Again the woman responded, “Stop that!”

“What about the other passengers?” I asked. “Didn’t anyone confront the man or at least complain? Didn’t the driver stop the bus?” No one, my acquaintance related, did any such thing. “People don’t like to get involved.” I asked, “What happened next?” It seems that the burly man, having been given quite a bit of leeway, punched the woman yet again. This time the woman said nothing. She simply turned and drove her fist into the man’s face. He rocked back. Tears flowed down his cheeks. Blood gushed from his nose. He left the woman undisturbed.

My acquaintance’s cheeks reddened. “I was appalled. Outraged,” she said. “At the man’s violent behavior?” I asked. “His behavior?” she retorted. “Her behavior! It constituted an affront to humanity. He had every right to sue that woman.” I said her reaction surprised me. “Why?” she asked. “The woman obviously escalated the situation. Hitting that man in the face and drawing blood… that was out of all proportion to what he did. That woman should be banned from MUNI. She was probably just slumming anyway, taking the bus until her BMW was repaired.”

I glanced at my acquaintance’s sling. “And your arm?” She heaved an audible sigh. It seems that my acquaintance took the same bus the next day. Again it was SRO. But she found a seat at the window. And who should appear but the burly man, his nose bandaged. A woman with a shopping bag sitting next to my acquaintance rose to get off. The burly man sat. “Get up!” he shouted at my acquaintance. “This is my seat!” My acquaintance looked at the man with disbelief. Hadn’t she empathized with him as the victim of a terrible wrong?

We stood in silence for a moment. “And your arm?” I asked. She grimaced. “The fracture should heal in a month.” She shook her head. “I don’t drive so I have to take that bus.” She bit her lip. “You don’t think he’d hit me again, do you?”

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

HUMILITY

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey just won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award. (The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera won the AL MVP.) I hope neither tells the world, “I’m humbled.” Baseball players often say that, given the game’s roots in small-town America where seemingly no one can be humble enough. But I’m rankled by false humility and the inability to offer a gracious thank you. Maybe it’s a Jewish thing.

I’m taking a class on Mussar (ethics or soul-traits) with Rabbi Larry Raphael at Congregation Sherith Israel. We’re reading Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis. From a Jewish perspective, humility doesn’t mean denying one’s worth but rather acknowledging it without inflating it. Morinis graphs the teachings of Maimonides in which humility runs on a scale from self-debasement (“I’m not worthy”) to arrogance (“I am the greatest.”) Writes Morinis, “Proper humility means having the right relationship to self, giving self neither too big nor too small a role in your life.”

Recently, we’ve seen humility practiced and also abandoned. Republicans thought that Mitt Romney would be a shoo-in to win the presidency. We know how that went. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie showed humility by complimenting Federal relief efforts and President Obama. He also wisely instituted alternate-day gas rationing. In New York City, according to The New York Times (11-9-12), Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered rationing “and also mused in the Sunday meeting that perhaps the best option was to simply allow the free market to dictate how people would find gas.” Days later, the hubris of free markets having failed, Mayor Bloomberg instituted rationing. The situation improved immediately.

Recent geopolitical events also have demonstrated a lack of humility—and disastrously so. The George W. Bush administration believed that the United States could assert its will anywhere—even in the treacherous Middle East. It provided us with debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. So did our generals, according to Thomas E. Ricks (“General Failure”) in the November Atlantic Monthly. Ricks states that American generals, particularly after World War Two, increasingly have let a lack of humility keep them from developing more informed and nuanced understandings of the wars they led and the broader, long-term implications of their decisions.

Now we approach the Fiscal Cliff. If President Obama and Congress believe they have solutions to America’s sluggish economic growth and burdensome deficit, that’s good. Problem solving requires healthy egos. Who would vote for a candidate who says, “I have no clue but give me your vote anyway”? On the other hand, real humility dictates that we learn from others and that while we have thought through our positions, we may have overlooked other options along the way.

Hopefully the President and Congress will agree on sound policy decisions in the coming weeks. If so, the culture of politics is not likely to lead them to say, “I’m humbled.” But if uncompromising partisanship leads us over the cliff the American people will rightly say, “You have a lot to be humble about.” And just maybe, voters will do something about it in 2014.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

QUESTIONS

The election is over. We can all take a breath. But that breath better be short. Because looking back—and forward—a lot of questions come to mind.

1. If the nation is as bad off as so many people believe, why did President Obama win? Discontent should have swept Mitt Romney into the Oval Office as it did Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he trounced Jimmy Carter. Granted, Mr. Obama won on a narrow popular-vote basis. Do those who voted for him know something about this nation that Romney supporters don’t? (Thursday’s report of first-time state jobless claims dropped to 355,000, a continuing sign that employment is slowly expanding.) Can Republicans learn something from this election?

2. If the Republican Party is a party of “old white men,” how did Mr. Romney come so close? The GOP seems trapped within a narrowing demographic. Yet many disaffected voters who aren’t “old white men” almost put Mitt Romney in the White House. The ideologues on the right opposed Obama from day one. But many Americans who voted for Obama in 2008 or didn’t take to Romney demonstrated disappointment with the President’s  record. What did they think Obama should have done? What does Obama believe he should do differently? Can Democrats learn something from this election?

3. Will Congressional leaders choose patriotism over power? House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi face re-election every two years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who elevated making Mr. Obama a one-term president to the top of his priority list in 2008—also faces re-election in 2014. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has until 2016. All want to be re-elected. Have they and other Congressional leaders the courage to move to the center and end Washington’s gridlock? Or will they keep pandering to their political bases and hold the nation hostage to their ambitions? Can Congress learn something from this election?

4. Will the American people face reality? Many Americans believe that the President and Congress can control both the domestic economy and global economy. Washington can regulate pragmatically to help prevent the kind of economic bubble that led to the Great Recession. It also can encourage the building of infrastructure, from roads and bridges to better schools. But what assurances can it make of success? Will Americans continue to believe that the economy can be controlled like a dancing bear in a circus? On the geopolitical front, the U.S. can help foster positive outcomes. But do we really believe that “American Exceptionalism”—and this indeed is a great nation—grants us not only the right to recreate the world in our image but also the unfettered ability to do so? What lessons have we taken from Iraq and Afghanistan? Can the American people learn something from this election?

America in 2012 is not the America of 1952… or 1972… or 1992. The rest of the world has changed even more. One of our great strengths is flexibility. Will we use it? Or will holdouts on the edges of the right and left look backward?

I believe that Americans can look forward to better times. But we will never provide suitable answers to our extensive challenges until we start asking suitable questions.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

TWO HUNDRED PAGES

Nothing turns a writer’s thoughts to what constitutes a good novel than launching a new novel of his own. This weekend I’m launching San Café—about revolution, murder, betrayal and a great cup of coffee. As to how novels are judged—and misjudged—a recent conversation proved revealing.

A friend, who knows literature well, showed me a novel she was reading. It had achieved critical success and doubtless earned the author reasonable financial reward. So I was surprised when my friend revealed, “It took me two hundred pages to get into it. But that’s just me. I have a friend who only needed a hundred pages.”

How, I asked myself, can novelists and publishers succeed when they often dare their readers to become engaged? The literary marketplace seems continually to be flooded with critically acclaimed books that leave me wondering about an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome. Over the last several months, three novels had me wondering indeed.

A woman long deemed one of America’s great contemporary writers authored the first. My wife liked it, although she said it took a long time to get into it. I failed to take the hint. I started reading. Great opening—for four or five pages. After that, nothing much happened. The story petered out. After slogging through fifty pages, I put it away.

I started another novel, this by a woman hailed as one of today’s great young American writers. The book was nominated for prestigious awards and made the New York Times bestseller list. I began with high hopes. I discovered a distinctive voice, clever language and quirky characters. But where was the conflict? After sixty pages waiting for something to actually happen, I abandoned ship. (My wife didn’t get as far as I did.)

So I started a novel by a man with a solid literary reputation built over more than three decades. Terrific opening. And then…

Aristotle wrote, “Plot is character revealed by action.” Scott Fitzgerald followed up with, “Character is plot, plot is character.” They got it. So, by the way, did Karl Marlantes, author of the justifiably acclaimed Vietnam War novel Matterhorn, which I mentioned last week in “Snake Eyes.”

I hope that with San Café I got it, too. I write satire—San Café is geopolitical satire set in Central America—because I love humor and puncturing pretentions. I also love quirky characters. But most of all, I love telling stories. So I filled San Café, like Slick! before it (same protagonist but set in the Persian Gulf) with interesting twists and turns and lots of surprises.

I invite you to read the first three chapters of San Café at davidperlstein.com. It’s free. Should you want your very own soft-cover or digital copy—this is my blog; I can flog my books all I want—just go to iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com. You can even see me.

This I promise. You won’t need two hundred pages to get into San Café. And you’ll only have to read 252 pages to get out.

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