Friday, December 14, 2012

When Things Fall Apart: The Confusion That Susan Rice Symbolizes

Source: The McCain Train, Phoenix New Times
Whenever our national politicians get seriously odd, you have to wonder if they know what they’re really saying. Attacks on Susan Rice, particularly by John McCain (who I’ve always felt was a decent and intelligent man with a balanced sense of decorum), over the past several months are a case in point. The general argument, somehow, was that she is either incompetent or a liar in the role she played communicating what happened in the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Things became seriously heated when a post-election Obama team began to bandy her name about as a successor to Hillary Clinton as Secretary State. On the face of it, this could just be a simple case of skewering the President at a time when there is a sense that he won a mandate from the people. Rice is a good friend of Obama’s and is certainly close to Oval Office personnel. For a party that lost a historical election and is now expected to back down on the bizarre tax structure gang-plank they let a non-elected ideologue build for them, sticking it to the President in any way possible might just take him off his game (it’s worth a try anyway, right?). At the very least, forcing him to deal with something somewhat personal creates one more wedge to work with in negotiating the country away from the so-called fiscal cliff. Some folks also point to the politics of McCain's cohorts: Lindsay Graham is up for re-election soon and newbie Kelly Ayotte needed an issue she could sink her teeth into.

But poking at Susan Rice’s eyes and impugning this Rhodes Scholar, Stanford Phi Beta Kappa graduate’s intelligence really does seem over the top and just strange. Especially in light of the fact that McCain was someone who nominated Condoleezza Rice to the same post in a Bush Administration that will go down in history as either truly inept or outright despicable for conjuring up “evidence” about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction — with Rice playing a key communications role as National Security Advisor.

By now, you know all of this. You should probably feel as well that the way the Administration handled this disaster was pretty wishy-washy. It’s interesting that Hillary Clinton kept herself out of the mix. And if you read Fact Checker’s breakdown of “he said, she said,” there’s no question that Obama’s team really screwed up here, but that John McCain et al continue to willfully twist the truth, and have no case to stand on. As Fact Checker concludes: “Susan Rice essentially mouthed the words that were given to her.” As my dad would say, "Weird!"

The politics of this whole kerfuffle (and that’s really all it is) are probably muddied by a lot of stuff the media has only partially reported. Rice is a somewhat polarizing figure and has, as they say, demonstrated “sharp elbows” during her career. She has ticked off people on both sides of the aisle. There are also reports that Secretary Clinton did not support her nomination. At the same time, Presidents get their way with who they nominate to head the State Department.

So what gives? Is this just a simple case of beating up yet another smart African American who would be nominated to one of the highest offices in the land? Was Susan Rice getting the same treatment that Elizabeth Warren got — another whip-smart, fearless, “in your face” charismatic woman — when she was under consideration to oversee a consumer financial watchdog institution that would finally reign in Wall Street excess? The obvious subset of these two categories goes without saying. A liberal black woman may well be some people’s biggest nightmare.

But I don’t think any of this is even that rational (and it is rational if you try to think like one of the good ole boys). Nope. There’s more going on here.

Recall that the Democrats took a huge step this year, particularly our President, by coming out foursquare in support of same sex marriage. And then they won the election. Every major national poll shows that the country as a whole is trending markedly towards acceptance of gay marriage.

Worse, perhaps, we saw the de-criminalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado. It’s only a matter of time before the cards fall nationally on this issue. Along with the morality of legalization for users, the revenue and justice system logic is just too strong. But marijuana is not like alcohol. Cannibinoids are psycho-active chemicals that typically alter people’s minds in very interesting ways. Grass ain’t acid or peyote, but it tends to raise a user's mind about things like authority, the beauty of nature, and the pleasures of the senses. This may sound stupid, but marijuana truly is a big threat to the American Way of Life (of course, to some of us who love this country dearly, that’s a good thing).

There’s more too. As the election approached, Hurricane Sandy smote waterfront neighborhoods in New Jersey and New York. Both sides had shamefully stayed away from talk of climate change, but Mother Nature herself reminded everyone with half a brain about what’s real and what ain’t. It was the biggest nail in the coffin that global warming deniers are making for themselves.

So when you add all of this up, plus the re-election of a young, princely, intelligent, handsome, vibrant bi-racial leader unafraid to speak his mind, well, how over-the-top does that make certain people in this country? Recall as well, that Republicans had more money at their disposal and that one of the key propaganda techniques they used was distorting the truth (Susan Rice’s situation is just a carryover).

I’m still quite perplexed that John McCain is at the center of this babbling lunacy. He’s made a fool out of himself and given voters even more reason not to want to elect Republicans in the next election. He’s also very likely really pissed off the President, not to mention the Ambassador to the United Nations. Why would you do that if you weren’t just freaked out of your mind at how this country is changing and how it’s not going your way?

To close, just let me predict that this type of behavior will continue from Republicans over the next few years. One of the things about people who feel that morality is more important than reason (and that is the distinction here folks) is that when their backs are against the wall, they lose their common sense. You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all dealt with that guy who yells louder than anyone else at a meeting because folks disagree with him. Or the parent at the soccer game who runs out onto the field threatening the ref? Or how about all those bullies we all had to deal with in junior high? That stuff doesn’t go away when you become a politician, you just get better at grabbing power so that you don’t have to use it.

So watch what happens over the next few weeks as we all approach that fiscal cliff. I hope I’m wrong, but I doubt it. Things are going to get very interesting. And we’re all going to forget about McCain’s lunatic month of truth or dare, because someone else is going to step up to the microphones. No telling who it will be or what they will do, but I assure you, it will sell papers and keep you glued to the news for at least 5 days until Sunday's NFL games.

God bless the United States of America…and God bless Susan Rice and her sharp elbows, too. God bless us one and all.

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Monday, October 08, 2012

One Trippy Book Trailer Coming Right Up: Beyond the Will of God

Just in time for the fall reading season (and thinking about holiday presents for the hard to shop for), I'm proud to present this video book trailer for my novel Beyond the Will of God. I'm especially happy with this creation because of the music. I've written about Global Illage in the past here, but I love the drum work done by here by my good friend Jim Hamilton and the atmospherics of his bandmates, Tim Motzer, Dan Sears, and Chris Cuzme. Without a doubt, once you read my novel, you'll understand when I say this is transcendant music of the first order. We are a nation built on freedom and improvisation. Don't ever forget that. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

African Violets: A Story Excerpt

Below you will find the first few pages of a story featured in my new collection Implosions of America: Nine Stories, due out this fall. 

African Violets

One of our kids started Claudie out with an African violet about a year ago. She put it on our kitchen window sill above the sink. Right around then I started thinking about the fact that I seemed to be on the way out of our marriage. It wasn’t Claudie, it was me.  
After a month in our kitchen, the plant was almost dead. I found her at 5:30 one morning standing at the sink crying.
“We’re going to kill every plant that enters our house,” she said softly. “What does that say about us?”
Claudie cries quietly when she’s mad at herself. I know enough to keep my mouth shut when she’s crying quietly.
“Look at this thing,” she continued between sniffs. “I love its furry leaves. Even now.”
She was still taking deep breaths, but seemed to be on the downside of her pain.
I peered at the plant and sure enough, its wilted leaves had a graying mat of fuzz on them. I thought they looked like my tongue felt sometimes when I’d been drinking too much at night and sneaking smokes out back of the office near the parking lot with some of the secretaries and maintenance crew.
“I went to the library and found a book on houseplants,” she continued. “Did you know the botanical name for African violets is Saintpaulia ionanantha? Can you believe that? Saint Paul. And there are dozens of different hybrids with names like Whispering Hope, Little Dancer, Baby Sunshine, and Ravishing Ruth. I looked at photos of some of them. Their blossoms are so beautiful, and they’re not just purply. There are blue and white flowers, fire red and sunset pink.”
She seemed like she wanted to cry again, sniffing some unknown sweet liquid sadness through her nostrils every few minutes. “I really wanted to see what kind of blossom ours produces. But look at it.” She stopped and we both looked at the little plant, a shriveled fist of hairy, dying leaves that seemed like they would fall into the garbage disposal if you touched them.
I held my wife in my arms and wondered who would grow to hate me for leaving her. She told me that besides beautiful tiny flowers, healthy African violets had thick emerald leaves that glowed in the sunlight, and some of the leaves could also turn blood purple like the palm of a newborn.
We eventually decided that she should talk to people at our neighborhood garden club. It’s well-known in the region. Every several years at least one of the members wins an award in the Mid-Atlantic Flower Show. We read about them in our neighborhood newspaper. 
Claudie imagined that most of the members would have an air of preferred knowledge about them. We’re both scientists. Claudie is a pharmacist and I am a laboratory technology researcher at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. It is part of the scientist’s job to pass knowledge on to people. Scientists are only stuck up about statistical truth, not their opinions.
“I’m going to go to a meeting,” she finally said. “But I’m just going to get information. Those people are probably no different than wine connoisseurs or the Dayton’s.” The Dayton’s are a couple we know who are on the board of directors at the Melton Art Gallery. They have a son at Oberlin and a daughter at Princeton. People who consider themselves experts are despicable if they make you worry about whether you should have an opinion about something like a glass of wine or a watercolor.

We were married just after college but waited another ten years to start having kids. The first two arrived in our mid-thirties. Jake, the youngest, was not planned and showed up when I was forty-three. I think I had been falling away from Claudie since Jake started Kindergarten and Neddy was heading off to college with Tyler already on the run with his friends and lost to teendom.
I watched younger women on the street, at work, in restaurants, in stores, admiring as much as wanting them, attracted by their aesthetics and the promise of -- what? I don’t know. Perhaps only the promise of my imagination. Breasts you imagine have still not yielded to long-term physics. Asses shaped like half a small planet rather than rolling up flat the curve somehow lost to age, hidden beneath draped skirts, long sweat shirts, and looser jeans.

     There was one person in particular with an uncommonly deep voice. She rode her bike to work most of the time and showered in the bathroom off the employee wellness center. Her name was Angeline. At a Christmas party several years back she joked...


Read the rest of this story when it's released in November. Sign up for emails from this website near the top of the page.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Fourth-Wall Friday: Support Your Local Blogger

I've written about book bloggers in the past. I recently had an op-ed piece published at that brought bloggers up as the solution to fake and paid reviews on Amazon. You can read that piece, "Can You Trust Online Reviews?" here. It's a prelude to the column I will be writing for called "Talking Indie." Watch for the column's first entry in November. 

Today, though, I wanted to point folks towards one of the more creative and exuberant book blogger sites you'll ever find, Kristine Morton, aka Cabin Goddess, is truly remarkable. You need to bookmark her site and read her reviews. Also, her bacon porn references are downright oral. 

Kriss just posted a little conversation I had with Janie Hawthorn (who happens to appear in the title story of my new, soon to be released collection, Implosions of America) in the middle of the country about the meaning of Beyond the Will of God (which she is also a character in, a dark, but silly character). Kriss has a whacky feature she does called Fourth-Wall Fridays where authors submit creative guest posts that she then gussies up into a wonderful page that's fun to visit often. This week she gave me her attention. Check it out here, "The Body Era" and then go peruse some of Kriss's other pages. She's amazingly off-beat and kooky. You gotta love her!

Make sure to wander around TalkingWriting, too, when you go there (use my link, above). I know you don't have a lot of time. But I also know there's really cool stuff online if you just give it 15 minutes. 

All the best to y'alls.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Implosions of America: A Cover Story

This is a draft of the cover for Implosions of America prepared for a review copy I'm sending out to short story bloggers for the title story. I will continue working on this for another 10-days or so, then move to press -- both digital and paperback to proof the whole book. I know what I want by way of a cover photo. I've written the photographer to ask his permission. He does great work. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Here's the list of story titles. 

Drink, Smoke, Search


So Beautiful

Implosions of America

African Violets

A Civil Marriage

Everyone Always Wants to Do the Cooking

The Exact Black of Night


Thursday, September 13, 2012

Implosions of America: A Sample Short Story

Read "Stripers" from Implosions in America
The story "CHOICES" was posted here from September 14 - 17. It is from the collection Implosions of America: Lessons in Love, Loss, and Confusion. You can read the first third of it at the Work in Progress page on my main website,

"Choices" is one of several stories in the collection, Implosions of America, that addresses love, romance, and marriage in a non-genre fashion. Romance novels are usually about how people fall in love. But they should also be about how people stay in love, and how they lose that love, how sad they become, but also how much they want love to work. Is there anything more important in life than keeping love going? And what is it that lets some of us continue to love even after our partnerships break down and our hearts break apart?

There's a lot more to Implosions of America than mature love. Stay tuned. You will be able to buy the book in digital or paper form soon enough.


Monday, September 10, 2012

On Beauty, Genius, and Paying Attention: Tim Williams Got Me Through So Much

"Morning of the Magicians"
From about 1993 through 2000 I worked as best I could on my first novel. I am deeply indebted to nearly 20 friends and colleagues who read various drafts over that period.

From 2000 through 2005 I tried to get agents and publishers to pay attention to my insane story -- best described as a psychedelic mystery about music and consciousness. I came close a couple times, but no one took me on. After over 100 rejection letters and cards I packed it in and tried to focus on my day job (environmental consulting). I wrote my friend Paula Silici, "That's it. I'm done. No more writing. What a waste of time. How could I have done that to myself?"

I went on with my life. My mom died in 2007. My oldest son graduated from college in 2010, the same year my second oldest son was a first round draft pick by the Philadelphia Phillies out of high school.  And Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad and the iBook Store which became true competition for Amazon's Kindle system. The other thing that happened in 2010 was that my youngest son was old enough to tell me what he thought of me, which amounts to, "Dad, I thought you were a writer. Why'd you quit?"

"Missouri River Above Easely"
By Thanksgiving of 2010 my wife and I began to research the whole indie author scene, and by June of 2011 I was back at work, ever so gently, on my novel. I knew it needed some modernizing. I also wanted to see what would turn up if I Googled places like Rocheport and Easely, Missouri near where my novel takes place. I wasn't feeling inspired. I was really just going through the motions, looking, inquiring, diving as deep as I could in search of something...I didn't know...just something to pull me in again where that thing they call MoJo is. I was looking for the keys. I needed to start the engine up again. 

That's when I stumbled upon Tim Williams' artwork -- on Flickr of all places. The first piece I found was called "Yahweh's Bluffs in Rocheport Missouri." The next was called "Missouri River Above Easely." These paintings of Missouri completely flipped me out. I recall a Sunday afternoon just randomly looking at the sets that the artist had posted. I had no idea who he was. And at that time I wasn't really very mindful of pursuing the brilliant talent behind the art. I didn't even pay attention to the fact that The Artist Tim Williams went by the name of Shitao (which is such a great Buddhist name!). 

"An Almost made Up Poem (Self-portrait)"
Nope. I didn't pay attention to much, except that this work had illuminated the MoJo machine I'd lost inside myself. That art work had somehow been in my mind as I wrote the insane story of The Redhouse Gang where Elvis, Jesse James, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and so many others still lived. I needed to get back to the story I'd given so much of my mind to for so many years. 

And I did. It took another year and a life-changing realization that I had to leave my 30-year career as a consultant on a hook somewhere so that I could fully focus on writing fiction, but I published Beyond the Will of God as an ebook in June of 2012 and then as a paperback (pbook) on July 4th. 

A month later, after a lot of sliding up and down the book marketing learning curve, I had time to reflect on what I'd done. Rather quickly, I recalled the paintings that had started me down that last bit of road I needed to travel to get to where I am today. It sucks being 54. I couldn't remember the artist's name. I couldn't remember the web address for those paintings. I spent a whole day trying to triangulate and Google my way back in time. 

"When night becomes day...the ride of Rhodopis"
Eventually, my hard and essentially random desperate typing paid off. I found the Yahweh Bluff painting again. From there I backed into all of the oils and water colors in Shitao Tim Williams' Flickr photo sets again. And this time (maybe because I am 54 and not 53) I made sure I bookmarked the land I found myself in. I also noted Tim's contact info and started digging. I wanted to track down his email address. It took some guesswork and luck, but I eventually stumbled into his Tumblr account. And then I moved to FaceBook and found him fairly easily. 

Tim lived just outside of Columbia where the novel takes place. He was a devout Buddhist and highly respected. His artwork was part of several online music and poetry videos. I read up and down his FaceBook wall. I wanted to leave him a message and tell him how important his work was to me. It was so important. It changed my life. 

So I read up and down Tim's wall. We were alike in many ways although he was older than me. His Tumblr art was always accompanied by spare but beautiful poetry he admired. He was focused on Oriental principles a lot in that Tumblr work. I liked that. I never had that kind of discipline. I should have. 

I read up and down, and then I stopped. 

Tim's wife had posted on his wall in the spring that he had died unexpectedly on December 19, 2011. I had just read a Tumblr entry of his from December 18. His birthday was February 26, 1953. Mine is February 26, 1958. I do not know the details of Tim's passing. It hardly matters. He is gone and I never got to tell him what his work meant to me...and what meeting him would mean to me. 

Yahweh's Bluffs in Rocheport Missouri

An unattributed poem was posted at that last Tumblr entry:

Since entering the mountain,
too dried out and emaciated
Frosty cold over the snow
After having a twinkling of revelation
with impassioned eyes
Why then do you want
to come back to the world?

It would have been easy to pay attention on that day that those paintings so inspired me. My feet were lit up by Tim's swirling oily flaming dimension. I would have done well to send a quick note to the artist as I watched my legs and torso catch fire. That's what they were doing. But I wasn't paying attention. I was self-absorbed and rather over-pleased with my new mental state. I thought it was mine -- that mental state. I didn't understand...I do now. 

I also know the importance of paying attention. It's not easy. We slide and glide and twist and turn through images on the screen and the smell of audio smoking in our brains. Paying attention is hard because the object is to look for what matters. But there's so much that doesn't matter. If you're not careful, like me, you forget to pay attention, and you miss what matters. Sometimes that just drifts away and you never remember what might have been. But sometimes, like me, you tumble backwards and get lucky, you pay attention just enough. Only I wasn't quite lucky enough, was I? 

I originally thought of this as one of those tragic lost opportunities that is a hard slap on the back. But we are all trained to forget lost opportunities and hard slaps on the back. Otherwise, life would be nothing but a series of disappointments and regrets. There are always lost opportunities. I still appreciate Tim's work -- and his spirit and what his presence in my life (however ephemeral) taught me about paying attention. But there's something more there, too. The strange connection I fell into when first I saw Yahweh's Bluffs was what all this art stuff is about -- paintings, stories, music, plays, sculpture -- it's all connected when you pay attention and you let your mind do what it wants to do and say what it wants to say. It's why we feel that our best work is coming through us, and why art has the power it does in this world. That's something most people forget. Tim didn't. Now I won't either. Pay attention when your feet light up and the flames start flashing up your legs. Be consumed by the fire. It is you, within, and it is the rest of us too. We are all in this together.

Thank you Tim. You did more than you'll ever know. 


To see the full set of Shitao's photo images of his paintings, go HERE.

To check out his Tumblr page, go HERE

Friday, September 07, 2012

Results of My Experiment in Publishing

Source: Shitao, "Don't ever let go of my hand......."
Last week I reported that I was doing an experiment on the Kindle Direct Publishing promo system. I wanted to see what would happen if I didn't use the multi-pronged marketing apparatus that's set up around KDP free books. See the blog entry for that HERE.

The results are in and not so happy. Over a two day period, Saturday and Sunday, I received 230 downloads of my novel, Beyond the Will of God. Two weeks earlier, I'd pushed on the marketing apparatus hard and received over 10,000 downloads in three days. 

This was not a controlled experiment. The biggest wild card in it is that the poor showing last weekend may have been because those fishing for free books were saturated from my offering just two weeks earlier. If that's so, it makes me doubly wonder about readers in search of freebies. Maybe it's a smaller group than we realize. Or maybe they don't use Amazon's standard Kindle Free listings that pair with the Kindle Bestsellers list. Maybe they use places like Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today. 

Whatever the case, I know a little more firsthand now. It pays to put on the dog if you're going to optimize the KDP system. For what it's worth, though, I've only sold about 60 copies of my novel since that initial free weekend with 10,000+ giveaways. It's not making a lot of sense to me to give Amazon an exclusive deal for my book through their KDP program. I can offer it free directly from my website. In fact, that may well be the next experiment I do in electronic publishing. 

We'll the mean time, click on the cover image to the right and buy yourself a copy of the weirdest and funkiest novel you'll read this year. Where else are you gonna find Jimi Hendrix, Jesse James, Elvis, John Lennon, the CIA, Deadheads, wanton sex, experimental drugs, questions about consciousness, and a full-tilt argument for the spiritual and intellectual magic of loud guitar music? 


To see more amazing art work by Shitao, go here: 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Experiments in Independent Publishing

Several weeks ago I used three of my Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) free days and watched 10,110 people download my novel, Beyond the Will of God. The book is currently priced at $2.99 (that will change in the fall and go up to $4.99). By most accounts that's a fairly successful KDP promo. Unfortunately, Amazon has changed their algorithms around in the past few months. Whereas once my successful free days would give a novel lift in the Amazon ranking system that would extend past the promo, now their calculations give my book very meager support. Within a few days Beyond the Will of God had dropped from being in the top 20 popularity list for mysteries out of the Top 100. 

I'm not complaining. There are many benefits to getting exposure to 10,000 ereaders in a three-day period. The main one, obviously, is that my book is out there. When people like it, they'll let others know. Amazon's networking approach to sales is also impacted. My book will show up on lists like "Customers Who Bought..." and "What Other Items Do Customers Buy After Viewing This Item?". I'm still receiving 2-3 purchases a day. 

What's most intriguing to me here, though, is that in order to achieve that huge number of downloads I followed the advice of another author and went to town promoting my free days through Twitter, Google+, and nearly a dozen websites that promote "free" books. One thing I found in this whole process was that there were a number of what I call "robot sites" that manage to track down free stuff for listing online. See HERE for an example. I don't know how they come up with their data. Many of them aren't even book oriented. And there are dozens of them. 

I have two promo days left on my KDP account and my agreement with Amazon for exclusive rights to Beyond the Will of God ends on September 9th. I don't know if I will extend that agreement. I'd like to promote the ebook at Barnes and Noble (they do carry the paperback already), Smashwords, iTunes and other sites. Although, I'm not sure at all whether they will provide me any further sales edge (Amazon is freaking awesome, to tell the truth, in their reach). 

At any rate, I'm using my last two promo days this weekend (September 1-2) but being quite laissez faire about the whole thing. I'm not going to post to Twitter and I've only posted to one indie website with free listings. I will likely post to several FaceBook sites because they're easy and I think a lot of folks pay attention to them. But I'm basically just going to let it ride and see what happens. 

I will document what I do, but the point here is to see what happens just modestly getting worked up about the promotion. My hypothesis is that I'll get over 1,000 downloads with very little work.

This all came to me because of two insights: 

1) As I watched my account rack up 10,000 downloads, I realized that people who go for "free" stuff are possibly not the same as those who are truly interested in books and that there are dozens of sites online appealing to these Free Folk. (You can read an article I posted this week at A Knife and a Quill  called "The Challenge With Free").

2) Earlier this year I posted my collection of short stories, Trying to Care, without any networking at all. It got 500 or so downloads in two days. I have no idea where anyone found out about that book. It may just be that folks page through the Free Kindle listings on Amazon and pick out what they want. 

So this is an experiment. I'm also using up my free days because I was completely non-strategic and rather haphazard in my planning. Partly, what I want to do here is give Amazon one more opportunity to show me why KDP has any value. We'll see, I guess. I know this isn't a controlled experiment. You can't really do that in the world of books. They don't give you enough meaningful data. That's okay. I don't need to report to a board of directors. I'll report back here next week. You know what they say, "It's good enough for blogging."

In the mean time, I don't care if you read my book, just read somebody's book. It's the best form of ESP I know of and it's very good for you. 

Happy Labor Day!


Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Adoption Option: Teen Pregnancy in America

The author with his first son in 1988.
This blog, The Formality of Occurrence, began as a series of episodes that became the story of how I found my birthmother. I was adopted in 1958. My birth parents were both teenagers living in a small city in Indiana. My particular story was driven as well by the desire to understand my biological roots for my three sons beginning in 1988. I'd grown up with dark features and skin the color of creamed coffee. It was important to me to understand the story of my origin because the older I got the more I felt somehow cut off from all of society with no idea where I came from and what my beginning was in the story of my life. I didn't want my sons to even remotely feel that way.

I found my birthmother (the story will be out as a book sometime within the next two years) and I now know that I am mixed race. My birthmother and I are very close. I am close as well to her husband and my three half-brothers. I'm proud to claim two quite separate lineages in the tree of life. And I'm proud as well to be adopted in this world. The adopted are special people. We spend our lives feeling separate and different, but we also spend our lives reaching out to everyone who will let us, embracing and loving, always knowing how precarious and risky life is. We know deep down inside how chance and luck play in to all human interaction. There are some of us who struggle with this weird situation we were born into. Some of us have anger. Some find it hard to trust others. I think it's fairly likely that all of us carry with us a very powerful fear of rejection. I know for me, it wasn't until I found the love of my life (we have been married now for nearly 22 years) and had children that I was finally able to lay down this quiet though determined sense of loneliness and disconnectedness in the world. That is a good thing. But I have experienced at times in the past two decades the sense that I might lose my connection to my wife and to my sons. I am advanced in age at 54, but my fear of loss is still profound and very powerful. 

But adoption is a good thing. I love my birthmother and my mother both. And I know that by adopting me my mother, Ellen Horgan Biddle, had her life changed forever. I know as well that adopting me allowed my birthmother to move forward with her young life and become the successful woman she became -- and the loving mother of three other boys, my half-brothers. 

Daniel Taylor Source: Phila Inquirer
It is with this knowledge that I read a commentary piece today in The Philadelphia Inquirer on teen pregnancy. The article, called "Teen Pregnancy's High Cost,"  points out that the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has dipped by 40% since 1990, but it goes on to point out that minorities have the highest rates by far and that 7,000 girls under 15 had babies in 2008. Written by pediatrician, Daniel Taylor, the article also points to the health problems of babies born to teenagers. It also points to the cyclical problem of teens having children who go on to become teenage parents themselves. 

We don't talk about this issue enough. In this election year where politicians act like they care about poor people and the disadvantaged, there's a lot of talk about welfare reform and modifying our health care system. But teen pregnancy has to be one of the single most obvious problems directly related to welfare, healthcare, education, and the health of "the family" in America. 

We all know that "right to life" proponents are hostile to the idea of giving women the right to make choices about their bodies. We know as well that "pro choice" advocates are concerned about women's reproductive lives and often derisively at odds with right to lifers. The interesting thing is that those hostile to abortion are often strong advocates for adoption. But because in many states they have such a powerful connection to the adoption community, pro choicers have a hard time fully addressing that issue. The result all too often is that the question and issue of adoption is left out of the debate. 

It is also left out of the article I site above. How many of the 367,752 live teen births annually in America (3,500 in Philadelphia alone) end in adoption? We don't know. The article doesn't deal with this issue at all. Why? Because according to the Gladney Center for Adoption less than 2% of young girls who have babies put them up for adoption. I went to the website of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. As far as I can tell that website provides nothing substantive on adoption at all. Adoption is called the third option. It is also called the silenced option. 

I don't like the idea of abortion, personally. I also don't like the idea that someone with a religious agenda and differing values can tell a woman (or a teenage girl) what to do with her body. But I also think that it's very clear that if we know that teen pregnancy is a major problem for low income and minority communities in America, we need to do something big to change that. I would like to see pro-choice and pro-life advocates get together and figure out how to make adoption a definitive and viable option for everyone. Such a partnership should be organized and managed by the NAACP and probably the National Council of La Raza since the Latino community is more affected by teen pregnancy than most minorities (read Taylor's article!).

Adoption is so important to this country's future. We all know that many young married couples who struggle with fertility invest dramatic sums of money in the fertility industry. Why is that? Partly because people think that having their own "flesh and blood" is somehow important. But also partly because adoption seems so daunting and bureaucratic. The number of available children for adoption is far outstripped already by the number of families on waiting lists.   

This is a very sticky issue, I know. I am aware that I oversimplify here, but it's also quite clear that teen pregnancy can't simply be addressed by prevention campaigns and political rhetoric about the pros and cons of abortion rights. Adoption doesn't just give babies a better chance in life, it also clearly gives young girls (and boys) the opportunity to mature and pursue educations and careers -- and more normal family lives in the future. Adoption is very likely one of the most effective tools we have to stop the cycle of poverty.

The change I'm advocating here is not something that needs to happen off in a corner of urban America. We've been doing that for decades. Adoption needs to be culture-wide and upfront and in the center of things. I think every famous person who was adopted needs to make that public and a focal aspect of their identities. Maybe we should all wear turquoise ribbons on National Adoption Day (and maybe our adopting parents should wear bright blue). 

Athletes, actors, and politicians need to go out of their way to support American adoption centers. The next versions of Madonna and Brangelina looking for babies should make a point of staying within our borders. And the media needs to start covering adoption as an option for teenage mothers in a positive and empowering way. 

Don't kid yourself. There's still a stigma attached to adoption. It confuses people on all sides of the question. But I believe we're getting smarter and less judgmental by the day. What we need is a world where 15-year-old girls who have had their futures jeopardized by pregnancy can consider a humane and realistic opportunity for the babies they are responsible for. I know we can make that happen. It's too obvious and powerful a solution to just ignore or forget...or silence. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Mobiusing the Self: Deep By Sound Alone

A review I did for back in January of 2011 has been reposted as part of their summer "Writing and Music" feature. "Deep By Sound Alone," (a magically crafted headline by Martha Nichols, founder and editor in chief at Talking Writing) is a review of The Anthology of Rap.

I recall being quite happy with the final state of this review. Typically, writing book reviews freaks me out. The more I publish the harder it gets to be critical of someone else's work. I know firsthand what it takes to bring a book to press. I also know that the blood, sweat, and tears a writer and her team put into producing a book is not about looking to be criticized. 

But this review is about more than whether I liked The Anthology of Rap as an anthology. It's about me learning to appreciate a form of music that I haven't given a chance over the years. I've even said that rap isn't music. In fact, I sort of say that in my review: 

I don’t agree with the premise that rap is poetry. Combined with its beat and sampled tape loops and all the other technological magic set to accentuate rhythm and meter, I’d say we’re listening to a new form that’s only beginning to understand itself.

The idea of new forms of expression, new perspectives on art, forms that go beyond our expectations, is so important to be aware of these days. New ideas about art and the human experience tend to portend big swells of societal change (look what rap did). We see our current economic malaise as this noose around our necks, but the truth is all the problems of commerce in this country (in the world!) are just symptoms of the need for change, or, as some are now saying, evolving. 

What we need to guard against now as this change begins to solidify is our innate irony and cynicism. Irony and cynicism can twist the logic of change and the excitement of possibility into self-referential flippancy. I was strongly reminded of that yesterday while reading an excellent New Yorker online essay by Maria Bustillos called "What Lester Bangs Taught Me."

Lester Bangs is the legendary rock critic version of Hunter Thompson. He straddled the waning days of rock "as cultural expression" when it was morphing into New Age and punk. Bangs often wrote chunky, seemingly profound essays that began with questioning a rock star about, say, some fairly esoteric song but then went on for paragraphs linking every aspect of culture in his eyesight to the first question. Reading Bangs was like a mixture of words on the page by William Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Margaret Mead, and Johnnie Rotten all climbing on each others shoulders. 

Lester Bangs (Source: The New Yorker)
I was struck though, reading Bustillos' wonderful reminiscence on experiencing Bangs' words when she was growing up, that in the end he still put a big X across his mouth more often than not. He would spend whole essays profoundly wandering around the frontier cutting edge of social change and the meaning of life only to scribble it all into oblivion saying something like, "...but in the end, who the fuck am I to actually think I know what I'm talking about?"

Yeah. Well, who the fuck is anyone? We're not stuck in some rut these days. Everything is changing as fast as hell. The only thing we're not getting good at, yet, is figuring out how to create new meaning on the fly. It would be easy to just let it all shift and turn and not make decisions about what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is utter bull shit. But that doesn't work after a while. You get confused and vague like a lot of The Occupiers, or angry and insane like many of The Tea Partiers -- or like the media is today with respect to the upcoming elections...and the politics of self-centered propagandists for greed in general.

I wrote a comment on The New Yorker website when I finished Bustillos' Bangs piece. I want to share it here. If it doesn't make any sense, that's okay. It does to me. Read her piece! It's all deep by sound alone. If you don't get that yet, keep trying.

I grew through the Bangs Era absolutely clueless of him, but not what he addressed. That was our End Time…for a time. He was, it seems, it’s maw and soundtrack. Years later I bought Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. I was floored. I am grateful to Maria Bustillos for this rememberie. Besides the content of this essay, the writing itself is so perfectly twisted, I can see how someone with no bend or twist might get lost or frightened. In the end, I do think Bangs took the easy way out as a critic. He sort of Mobiused on himself. When you point at all the crazed revolution, and marvel at it (and its SOUNDS), but then make fun of yourself for drooling and say, in the end, it’s all bullshit and carburetor dung, well, yes, you are mimicking the Three Stooges quite well. There is meaning though, or anyway, or despite the Mobius cuteness Bangs arrived at. Yes, culture is all a joke and a plaything (especially rock music), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also dripping with the darkness of our unconscious. I totally agree that “the first mistake is to assume Art is serious.” But the second mistake is to think that means you disregard its comedy as frivolous. Twist the Mobius brain a half more and you learn that the sublime and the ridiculous combine into the power of emotional intelligence and informed curiosity. Bangs led himself to the edge. I think David Foster Wallace figured out how to get out there over the edge, but it’s a stretch…the creative human mind is truly so much more powerful than we give it credit for and there is something you might call a New Way of Reasoning. It’s just still stuck on the tip of our tongues…or forks.

-Look for me on your local baseball field

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Plagiarism and Other People's Words: Welcome to the Revolution...or the Nuthouse

As an independent author, I am always tuned in to plagiarism and copyright issues. I've written on these topics already this year, but they are so vast and dynamic I want to first reiterate something important for all readers, writers, agents, publishers, and editors to think about. This industry is in the process of re-making itself from the ground up. There are no real rules anymore. There's a revolution going on in the publishing world. And when things are hot during revolutions everyone's confused as hell -- especially those who think they know what's going on.

The core principle of publishing has always been copyright law. The associated tacit principle "thou shalt not steal from another writer" has always been the first law of professional ethics. But these two issues are now getting a major overhaul whether we like it or not. And what's really fascinating is that since no one really knows where we're going and there are no longer rules in the industry we have lots of confusion and gray area to deal with. 

Take for example the most recent plagiarism scandal highlighted by the online mainstream press over the last week or so. Fareed Zakaria, a CNN program host and a columnist with Time magazine, admitted to copying several paragraphs written by New Yorker writer, Jill Lepore, for a piece he wrote on gun control. What’s most interesting about this story is not Zakaria’s quick and definitive admission of guilt, but a difference of opinion between Edward Jay Epstein in his "Fareed Zakaria Didn't Plagiariaze!" piece posted by The Daily Beast, and Seth Mnookin, whose "No, Really, It's Plagiarism," was picked up by Read the comment section after each of these articles to see how bizarre this one is. It's actually quite hilarious.

Let's go one step further. Earlier this summer we saw an interesting twist in the plagiarism game – Jonah Lehrer, a rising star who moved from Wired to The New Yorker, was accused of “self-plagiarism.” In essence, he was accused of cutting and pasting pieces of blog entries into blogs he wrote for The New Yorker. The problem was attribution, I suppose, but it really seemed to me that Lehrer was being treated like a 14-year-old accused of statutory rape because he figured out how to masturbate and act like nothing is wrong with it. Not exactly plagiarism, but it was too weird for everyone to deal with, so he got in trouble.

From my perspective, these recent word theft scandals are just part of frontier life for all of us in publishing. Confusion about self-plagiarism and Zakaria copying someone else's words, comical as both situations are, shows that we’re (and I truly mean all of us) living out a sort of "King of Hearts" revolution. The Internet is like a vast lunatic asylum masquerading as a pro sports team locker room. If you don't believe me, check out Michael Barthel's long piece on the Zakaria scandal

I am not an expert on these issues. I’m not sure you can be an expert on anything in the publishing world anymore. But it's important to look at plagiarism and copyright issues as an area where we are all forced to reconsider what we thought we knew about books and writers and reading. If you ask me, this re-thinking doesn't start with journalists and mainstream writers, it starts with a much larger, more diffuse, and truly influential group -- indie writers.

Us small fry in the publishing world are at the mercy of venal, money-grubbing con-artists and thieves. My first independently published novel has been available through Amazon's Kindle Store for just a bit more than two months and already weird stuff is happening with the paperback version. You probably know that Amazon's sales pages always offer new Amazon copies but also have links for independently sold books and used books. In the past two weeks, the paperback edition of Beyond the Will of God is being offered off Amazon's site for anywhere from about $14.00 to nearly $35.00. That's all very interesting since the paperbound version is priced at $15.99 brand new through Amazon and CreateSpace. You can't make money below that price, and who would buy something for double the cost when its readily available through Amazon at such a reasonable price?

It's very likely that hundreds of indie writers recycle blog material and copy and paste from each other all the time. The only reason they aren't "caught" is that they aren't in the mainstream (and money isn't involved). There's no question in my mind as well that indie stories and books are being mined for ideas and plots. I am about to take advantage of the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program and offer as a promotion this weekend three days of free downloads of my novel. I'm going to guess I get several thousand takers. Thousands of other KDP writers will do the same thing this weekend. Who is doing the downloading? I have no idea. When "Free" is involved, random takes over. And in this world, "Free" is a global proposition. There could be syndicates in Eastern Europe or Africa or Asia downloading, breaking the digital rights management code, and then repackaging my story for sale at any price they want. What can I do? 

Paranoid ramblings? Hardly. Already people are selling my book irrationally and I don't see a dime from their success. Writers have had to deal with this issue forever, just not at such dramatic volume. Do I care? Not really, although its still all very interesting. I know that hundreds, if not thousands, of good-hearted, gentle readers will also be downloading my book. I hope they read it. I hope, too, that they like my writing enough to want to buy my collection of short stories. I'm banking on building up a group of folks who want to buy the other two novels I will be putting out over the next year and my second collection of short stories. If there are assholes looking to profit off of illegal copies of my work or folks who want to steal ideas and even paragraphs from my blog entries, so be it. 

There's one rule in this whole publishing frontier that is essential: writers write. Some people won't follow this rule very well for whatever reason (I can only imagine the pressures Zakaria and Lerner were under that would cause them to cut corners like they did). For most of us, especially us indie folks, the whole game may be lawless and out of control (and insane), but working hard to come up with great stories, relatable characters, and new ways of talking about the world is still the whole idea. What distinguishes a writer is not whether he or she has a contract with a Big Six Publishing House but production. For indie writers, production is wholly self-motivated. No one tells us what to write and no one gives us deadlines. We can post love stories between giraffes and zookeepers just as easily as we can kinky romances between billionaires and breathless twenty-something Lolitas. 

The system is in place now to get whatever we're writing out there directly to readers. We don't have to posture or guess what our market segments will be (although we do need to make sure people know our books are available). And we shouldn't be too worried about this revolution that's going on and whether folks are trying to figure out how to make money off our hard work without us benefiting. 

The lessons the pros are learning right now (and their publishers) will help all of us get a better handle on professionalism and ethics and what it means to be out here on the frontier leading-edge of things. Hopefully the big guys will re-employ fact checkers and develop explicit standards of conduct that make sense. That may take a while, though, since the publishing world is all of a sudden chaotic and super competitive. 

In the end, I believe that quality, original writing and creative, thoughtful insights through that writing will carry the day. I'm sure Jonah Lehrer and Fareed Zakaria know this now. You as a reader have always known this. Keep watching as "content providers" try to police themselves and figure out who they're becoming. We really are like a bunch of lunatics let loose in a locker room. The weird thing is that we get to go out on the field whenever we want, and whoever is out there gets to watch us do whatever we think we're supposed to do. It's going to require some time, but eventually the rules will become obvious again and things will settle down. I hope it takes a while for that, though. I kind of like being free to make things up as I go along.

I hope Lehrer, Zakaria and all the other nuts who are getting sent to the showers can get back on track with this freedom thing. As Patti Smith once sang: "This is the era where everybody creates." Welcome to the era, then. It's a nuthouse.


If you want to read more on what plagiarism implies, see my April article, "The Word Thieves," at HERE.