Posts Tagged ‘Mark Twain’

UNCERTAINTY

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “…nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Mark Twain repeated that. But the real author was Englishman Christopher Bullock in 1716. Recent decades have supported Bullock and Franklin (and Twain) with the dictum that the only certainty is change. Look around.

The President of the United States fills each day with uncertainty. Will policy indicated in last night’s tweets be overturned in this morning’s tweets? This afternoon’s? Probably. So how do we as a nation plan for tomorrow?

Last Tuesday, the Federal Reserve sought to counter economic uncertainty. The economy’s tax cut-fueled sugar high is wearing off and our trade war with China continues. The dreaded “R” word (recession) is making the rounds. So the Fed lowered interest rates to 2.00 percent, its second cut of the year. I’m not betting that investors and economists are reassured.

Uncertainty is keeping us in the dark regarding the recent attacks on Saudi oil processing facilities. Directly or indirectly, the finger points to Iran. But where’s the proof? Washington hasn’t been terribly forthcoming. And how to respond? The president wants more information and a sense of direction from Saudi Arabia. Isn’t that turning things inside out? Shouldn’t the Kingdom be getting guidance from the United States? I’m uncertain, although I suspect some American and Saudi leaders have common financial interests.

I’m sure that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the attacks an act of war. But on whom? Will the U.S. place more sanctions on Iran and Iranian leaders? Will we strike limited Iranian military targets? Sit on our hands? Of this, I’m certain: Whatever we prepare to do could change in a heartbeat. That happens in international matters, so let me be more accurate. America’s response may change on a whim (or Fox News editorializing).

The Middle East being a region of great uncertainty, let’s turn to Israel. Last April’s election was so close, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu couldn’t form a government by assembling a coalition requiring 61 seats (a majority) in the Knesset. A new election took place this past Tuesday. The Blue and White Party, headed by former IDF commander Benny Gantz, seems to have a seat—or two—advantage over Netanyahu’s Likud party. Not yet certain since final results won’t be announced until next week. Who will President Reuven Rivlin charge with forming a new government? Also uncertain.

Uncertainty in Israel can bring grave consequences, as it can in the United States. At the last minute, Netanyahu pledged to annex Israeli settlements in the heart of the West Bank. That would bring one certainty: the impossibility of a two-state solution. But few Israelis—even those who support that position—believe Netanyahu will do what he said. Still, Israel, the Palestinians and the rest of the world remain uncertain about where things will go.

Let’s be honest. People talk about loving adventures. That’s fine for a road trip or getting off a plane overseas and winging the experience. But it doesn’t work well for managing an economy. And it’s particularly dangerous for maintaining peace and stability anywhere in the world, especially in the volatile Middle East.

So I’ll paraphrase Bullock/Franklin/Twain: Nothing is as certain as the danger of uncertainty. Will world leaders take heed? I’m not sure.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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LOUISIANA

Most Californians think about Louisiana—New Orleans aside—as God, guns and gumbo. Carolyn and I spent Thanksgiving week in Baton Rouge with our son Seth, a graduate student at Louisiana State. The visit demonstrated that there’s more.

Our hotel room overlooked the Mississippi River. We were thrilled. Here flows one of the hearts of America—a highway meandering 2,300 miles and antedating the railroads and interstates. Long strings of barges still carry goods up and down the big river. No surprise—I’m now re-reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

West lies Cajun country. People were unfailingly cheerful and polite*. I like southern Louisianans, who differentiate themselves from folks further north. The owner of the company with which we took a swamp tour asked Seth if he lived north or south of Interstate 10. Seth lives south. Our welcome was confirmed, although our host asked the question tongue in cheek.

I enjoy food in southern Louisiana, although I eat kosher-style. That eliminates shrimp, crawfish, catfish, pork and bacon. What’s left? I had fabulous fried chicken and a great biscuit at the Boudin Shop in the Cajun town of Breaux Bridge. Baton Rouge menus included steak, brisket, barbecue chicken and salmon. Also, very good pastries, including a wonderful carrot cake and a super-rich pre-birthday chocolate cake for Carolyn. Sadly, the beignets didn’t come close to those at New Orleans’ Café du Monde. Maybe it was a bad day.

Near our hotel, we discovered the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in a refurbished railroad depot. The planetarium offered a show about the constellations. Then—to our surprise—it played animated videos featuring classic (non-religious, fortunately) Christmas songs. The last video filled the dome with five-pointed stars. But in the middle floated one star with six points—the star of David! I don’t know if the audience got it, but we did. Someone on the animation team signaled that Jews also exist.

*Asterisk time: Yosi, who is transgender, felt uncomfortable in Breaux Bridge, where Santa Claus was about to start the Christmas Season. They don’t do “the holidays” there. Yet Yosi has lived in the South—including New Orleans—for years, previously stopped in Breaux Bridge on tour and traveled the state.

I’m a realist. Donald Trump won 58 percent of Louisiana’s presidential ballots. Behind the smiles and good wishes lie different points of view and possibly some awkwardness. A garrulous Lyft driver mentioned that all the quarters at plantations had fireplaces because owners were good to “the help.” Carolyn used the word “slavery.” He continued referring to “the help” as if we spoke different languages.

I conclude that America remains a patchwork of diverse regions and cultures. Our problem consists of too often dwelling on the differences—and equating different with bad—rather than acknowledging what we share. A timely symbol of the latter may be the cell towers that rise above flat, swampy Cajun country just as a similar tower peers over the Presidio National Park blocks from my house.

Yes, differences do matter. They can’t be sugar-coated like beignets. Still, we might spend more time listening to each other and getting past stereotypes. Real human connections could unite Americans and help the nation offer life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens.

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LET THE BOOK BURNING BEGIN

Political correctness recently broke out in Brisbane, Australia. Officials at a writers festival were so upset with novelist and keynote Lionel Shriver (The Mandibles), “they censored her on the festival website and publicly disavowed her remarks,” according to the New York Times. What horrific things did she say?

“Ms. Shriver criticized as runaway political correctness efforts to ban references to ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation from Halloween celebrations, or to prevent artists from drawing on ethnic sources for their work.” (“Lionel Shriver’s Address on Cultural Appropriation Roils a Writers Festival,” Rod Nordlund, 9-12-16). Re artists, some people believe that white authors should not create non-white characters. Ms. Shriver disagrees. “She deplored critics of authors like Chris Cleave, an Englishman, for presuming to write from the point of view of a Nigerian girl in his best-selling book ‘Little Bee.’”

Right on, Lionel! Like Incendiary, Cleave’s first novel, Little Bee is fabulous. Little Bee, the Nigerian girl who Cleave created, exhibits biting humor and remarkable courage. She offers a different perspective on England—one well worth examining. Oh, and Cleave creates sympathetic white Britons, as well—women as well as men.

Political correctness seems to demand that authors, playwrights and screenwriters create segregated worlds. Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner) would be long forgotten. But all writers would pay the price. The Good Lord Bird by African-American James McBride would have its wings clipped since the white abolitionist John Brown plays a prominent role. Sherman Alexi, the Native American writer, would have to eliminate whites though they’re integral to his novels and stories.

Amy Tan? Imprisoned in Chinatown and the Middle Kingdom. Englishman Tom Rob Smith’s magnificent Child 44 set in Russia? Nyet! The late Bernard Malamud’s stories set in Italy with a Jewish protagonist and all those Italians? Bury the Italians. I’m sure I can find enough people to say Kaddish.

The foolishness never ends. Jewish Steven Spielberg directed the film version of The Color Purple with a screenplay by the Dutch-born Menno Meyjes. Scandalous! The Broadway smash Hamilton features minority actors playing America’s white founding fathers and mothers—and rapping. Man (and woman) the barricades! Then there’s earthling George Lucas creating all those aliens in Star Wars. Talk about intergalactic cultural insensitivity!

Let’s get real. Writers tell stories by drawing on their experiences with people of all ethnicities. They observe. They do research. And they imagine. Good writers create characters of any ethnicity who reveal human nature at its best and worst.

I don’t restrict my characters to Jews. Specifically, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews. Specifically, men. Specifically, old men. In Flight of the Spumonis, the street kid Jimmy Q represents four different ethnicities, one of them Jewish. Do I get a pass? The private eye Moonbeam Cherney is a woman but Jewish. Cut me some slack? In my newest novel, the powerful executive director of a major museum, the holder of law and MBA degrees, is Black. Have I crossed a forbidden boundary?

Sure, we could purge our libraries, bookstores, Amazon and homes of all books guilty of cultural appropriation. But then we’d appropriate the cultures of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, China and much of the Middle East. And our shelves would be bare.

If you enjoy these posts, suggest to family and friends that they check out davidperlstein.com. Post something on Facebook, too. And read a good book—whoever the author is and whatever ethnicity the characters. It’s a human thing.

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BILLIONS AND BILLIONS

Those of us who saw the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan on TV remember the glee with which he emphasized that the universe contains stars numbering “billions and billions.” If only a small percentage host habitable planets like Earth, Sagan proclaimed, life must exist elsewhere. Now, more refined numbers are coming in.

In Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle, science writer David Perlman (yes, sometimes people think I’m him) reported on calculations by a team of planet hunters from UC Berkeley. It seems that our Milky Way Galaxy contains 50 billion stars resembling our sun. These stars serve as hubs for 11 billion planets the size of Earth. Each orbits its sun at a distance yielding temperatures mild enough to enable the existence of water—and thus life.

I did my own math. Unfortunately, my calculator couldn’t display a number as high as 11 billion (11 plus nine zeroes). So I wrote the number down and struck through two zeroes. Bingo! If biochemical processes work out on just one percent of those planets, 110 million of them harbor life.

But let’s say biochemistry works out on only one-tenth of one percent of those 11 billion planets. We’re down to “only” 11 million planets. That’s a bunch. Moreover, this is just in our local galaxy. Estimates of the total number of galaxies range from 100 million to 500 million. Odds seem reasonable that life exists elsewhere. And if just one percent of planets with life host intelligent life…

Can we find that intelligent life? In 1985, Lily Tomlin starred in a one-woman Broadway show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” by Jane Wagner. It later came out on film. The show left audiences laughing. It also left them continuing to search since they to exit the theater for the everyday world.

Indeed, it can be tricky to locate intelligent life right here on Earth. Mark Twain wrote, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Human nature is perplexing. We boast impressive knowledge of the workings of the universe. We also indulge in immense cruelty and folly. Where does humanity stand in the greater scheme of things? The 18th-century Chassidic rabbi Simcha Bunem understood our dual nature. He taught: Every person should have two pockets. In one should be a note stating, “For my sake the world was created.” In the second, a note should advise, “I am but dust and ashes.”

Cognitive dissonance led me to write a short story, “Beautiful!” A former astronaut feels great unease on his 80th birthday. He can’t help considering the overwhelming awe he experienced in space and the plight of a homeless man in his suburban neighborhood.

I could list humanity’s greatest accomplishments and failures, but you know them. What none of us knows is whether intelligent life actually exists out there and in what form. This arouses in me a measure of fear. Not that, as in much science fiction, intelligent life on another planet may be different from us. But that it may be much the same.

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Read the first three chapters of SAN CAFÉ and of SLICK!, named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the 25 Best Indie Novels of 2012, at davidperlstein.com. Order at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com or bn.com.