Friday, November 28, 2008

Some Ivy is Poison

As the Obama transition team announces their appointments of people to run the government in the next four years, I note with dismay and a shiver of jealousy, that the preponderance of his picks are mostly graduates of the Ivy League colleges. Indeed, an Ivy League education is undoubtedly an automatic leg up and a badge of entitlement signifying to those in this elite cadre that they are superior in intellect and achievement and truly fit to enter the exclusive domain of the group that runs things for the rest of us.

After all, these are the golden boys and girls who probably got double 800’s on their SAT’s and were surely valedictorians or close to that vaunted status when they graduated high school. Unquestionably they are the celebrated best and brightest, vetted by their peers and the parents of their peers, polished and preened to be the chosen ones. Admittedly some of them are heritage kids, automatic enrollers into the high precincts of Ivyhood by blood lines, and the sons and daughters of super wealthy contributors to their bloated endowments.

Throw all those egalitarian pre-election promises into the rubbish heap Barack. These are your guys and gals right out of the elite and super-achiever playbook, your ex-classmates and the ex-classmates of ex-classmates who attend their self-congratulatory reunions and toast themselves on their achievements in the real world. Many of them quite marvelous. Indeed, note how they dub each other “brilliant.” To be a graduate of these schools is the highest honor to be bestowed, a charter membership in America’s most exclusive club. It's hard to argue the contrary.

I guess that most of the rest of us are considered the dumb kids, especially those of us underachievers who never could get into the Ivy League schools, who had to take second, third or fourth best, who labored in two year community colleges or State Universities because of some perceived shortage of brainpower, aptitude, funding or background.

Just look at the lineup of Ivy League graduates that have held high office and you’ll see a preponderance of Ivy Leaguers bunched at the top. Obama, Bush, Clinton, are just the last three. Take a tiny peek at the roster of their wannabe opponents of recent vintage, Senators Kerry and Clinton for starters. At times in some past elections, Kerry versus Bush for example, resembled a fraternity food fight between Yalies. And Obama’s drumbeat against Bush could be likened to a lethal spitball attack at a Yale -Harvard football clash.

And if you want to really nitpick, take a peek into the educational backgrounds of the people in the media, another aspect of our society where the Ivy League network and the old school tie is alive and well. How is that for diversity?

If some disgruntled reverse snob wanted to prove his point, he could take the time to research all government appointees and business movers and shakers in American history, and come up with a vast majority of Ivy Leaguers that would make one’s head swim. No wonder their endowments are bursting with billions.

The Obama team is stacking up to be no exception in its appointment strategy. Is this what is called ready on day one, to pack the team with Ivy Leaguers, a safe credential bet since some of those hayseeds in Congress, many from State schools, are roundly intimidated by this elite cadre of super-achievers? Hell, if they graduated from one of those big shot schools, don’t they have to be smarter than the rest of us? Not that our dismal recent history and screw-ups led by battalions of Ivy Leaguers is any guide to future success.

Strange isn’t it that many of the architects who helped create or at the least passively approved those wacky financial derivatives and other risky instruments, are now the principal economic advisors to the new President. You guessed it. Most are Ivy Leaguers. When they screw up big time, their brothers and sisters in the media hasten to forgive them, and a recent New York Times editorial proclaims a fervent hope that “they learn by their past mistakes.” If they had graduated from Squeedunk U, you can bet your booty that the Times would have called for their permanent exile to purgatory.

As every parent knows an Ivy League diploma puts you immediately at the head of the line, and they will try, short of murder, to get their kids into the Ivy League feeder private schools. Who can blame them?

Put me down as a disgruntled reject from the Ivy League culture, riddled with jealousy and green-eyed envy, resentful that I am not eligible for their charmed circle, or considered the best and the brightest by the Ivy elite. Can you feel the moisture of my crocodile tears?

To tell you the truth, my marks in high school were lousy and I was too busy working odd jobs after school to find the time for extra-curricular brownie points. My chances for admission to an Ivy League school were somewhere short of nil. With the exception of English, my college transcript is an embarrassment. How can I make my point without revealing my credentials?

The fact is, I was an underprivileged, unfunded and odd job working depression kid who lived at home and traveled to college by subway at a time when the only school that deigned to enroll me was NYU, now a hot number in the University pantheon.

Nevertheless, I loved my teachers at NYU, particularly in the English department, the subject of my major, and I am eternally grateful that I was inspired by my freshman English Professor Don Wolfe to be a lifetime novelist. Bless him through all eternity.

I’ll bet that most of the Wall Street geniuses who screwed up the economy were mostly graduates of the much touted Ivy League business schools. Now there was a badge of entitlement. What the hell did they teach in those schools? Was there a course in greed? What hot B school Professor taught how to con the suckers or some polite version of same? It sure as hell worked, at least for them, but not too well for us dumb guys who couldn’t survive the admission process and entry into the network.

In all fairness, while I cannot ignore the outstanding achievements of the vast pool of Ivy Leaguers who have contributed to our country’s greatness in every field of endeavor, I am not prepared to worship at the Ivy League shrine on all matters, especially government service. I’m sure the defenders of the Ivy League culture can topple me easily with their eloquent debating skills, their airs of elitism and entitlement, and put me down as a resentful ingrate. But then, not all Ivy is verdant and pretty. There is such a thing as poison ivy.

I am here to cheerlead for the rest of us, we unwashed and unpolished lessers who never graced their pristine lawns, and for whatever reason were forced to be educated down a rung or two from the great spires of their campus culture. Nevertheless, I’d like to leave this field of contention, surely pursued by the invective and insult of the vast battalions of aristocratic and haughty Ivy Leaguers with the following parting thoughts.

Our two greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, never went to Ivy League colleges. Indeed, they never went to college at all and were both self-educated. And the two Presidents who made the most important decisions in recent history: Harry Truman, who authorized the use of the atomic bomb that ended World War II and saved Europe from soviet domination with the Marshall Plan, never went to college, and Ronald Reagan, who graduated from tiny Eureka College, an institution that most Ivy Leaguers would dub as far below their lofty standards, was instrumental in helping to crush the Soviet Union. To borrow a show business phrase; “that’s achievement!”

Before the Ivy leaguers screw it up yet again, I would suggest to the President elect that it might be a good idea to expand his vision and put some folks on the payroll who went to school in the boonies and maybe even a few from that most famous college where three out of four of our greatest Presidents aforementioned got their degrees, The College of Hard Knocks.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Obama Miracle

Whatever your political leanings, there can be no question that the election of Barack Obama is a miracle of self-realization, an inspiration to all that self-discipline, singleness of purpose and creative imagination can achieve astonishing results.

The arc of Barack Obama’s narrative is dazzling in its implications. We all know the story and marvel at its denouement. One can find parallels in history, both ancient and recent, in which the will and determination of a single individual finds a way to achieve what is truly an impossible dream.

“Yes, we can,” was exactly the right slogan for the Obama campaign. He certainly proved that he can indeed and his victory against extraordinary odds is a historic event that will be cited and celebrated for years to come. If all of the self-help and inspirational books ever written were piled to the moon, they could not convey how this man achieved the most powerful and most coveted political prize in history.

While we marvel at his achievement, many of we questers who seek through art or science to find the key to human behavior, puzzle over this miracle of aspiration. How the hell did he do it? To me, discovering that link to his inner world is the most interesting aspect of his victory.

Like most of us inspired by his journey, I yearn to know the crucial secrets of the inner man. Who on earth wouldn’t want to emulate him? To all of us, he is the ultimate role model.

I look for clues, unique symbols, characteristics, actions, words, body language and relationships. After all, I am an outsider to his world. I never met him and all I know about him is what his campaign let us know, what was reported to us through various information outlets, the television images of him in action as a campaigner and through his interviews and speeches.

Admittedly, my analysis of the inner man is purely subjective, reflecting my own life experiences and the projection and insight that is fundamental to the novelist’s art. Taking a crack at what goes on in the mind and heart of another human being is a risky endeavor indeed and I do it with some trepidation, although there might be an attempt to put a political spin on my analysis. No way. I assure everyone reading this essay that it is politically neutral.

For some odd reason I find Obama’s choice of clothes, particularly the white shirt, the ubiquitous white shirt he wears, one of the most important clues to his character. A white shirt is a unique symbol of self-discipline. Making color choices detracts from focus. It tells me that anything that interferes with his single-mindedness is simply unworthy of his time.

I’m sure a psychoanalyst might find another explanation, but I cannot get away from the notion that this is a man whose determination is so acute that anything that does not serve his focus is rejected. I do not say this in a pejorative way. Nothing great is achieved without total focus and I frankly and enthusiastically admire him for such discipline.

Then there is the matter of his exercise routine. He knows the true meaning of keeping his body tuned and alert and what we have learned is that nothing, absolutely nothing interferes with his exercise routine. How many of us yearn for such physical discipline?

I am also fascinated by his walk, the cool graceful manner of his walk. There is something totally unique in the way he moves. In some ways, he reminds me of the late John Wayne, an actor with a manner of moving that stands as a marker of his heroic character.

Observe his cool demeanor as he slowly moves to the stage to confront countless thousands. Imagine your own reaction when faced with such a normally intimidating and formidable situation. Think of the self-confidence required to perform this feat. What does he feel inside of himself? I truly believe that his self-confidence knows few bounds. Here is a man who truly believes in himself and is completely comfortable in his own skin.

His facial presentation is also unique. His smile is broad, attractive and exudes charm and ingratiation. It captures his magnetism and allows him to be self-deprecating about his big ears and other features of his face. I found it perfectly acceptable and interesting to characterize himself as a “mutt”, citing a biological diversity that we know from our DNA, is ubiquitous in all of us.

His speech is deep and soothing and the delivery of his words and phrases is impeccable. His oratorical ability has surely been carefully self-trained and his eloquence is formidable. With his resonant voice and phrasing, his speeches have been honed to hit the right notes at the perfect moments and they truly move people, an absolute attribute for a great leader.

It is also worth noting that his choice of mate offers yet another lesson in discipline. He is matched with a formidable, brilliant and strong woman who has quite obviously been extremely helpful in his rise, someone who is a true believer in his uniqueness. You can easily see that the discipline and work ethic that they have lived by is being transferred to their two daughters, both of whom they are trying to make as super achievers as themselves.

As a role model to all of us and especially to people of color, he can be inspirational by showing us what self-discipline can achieve, how a focused outsider who believes in himself and his mission can, with luck, astonishing luck, make it to great heights of success. He shows us by example that the two parent family offers the best alternative to rearing the next generation, a severe dysfunction in the African American community where most child rearing is done by a single parent. If his example makes even a small dent in this area, he will have gone a long way to improve the lot of his brothers and sisters of color.

Whatever he achieves in his governing, his message to all of us is profound. Indeed, he has already carved his legacy into the public consciousness.

It is no wonder that people are clamoring to witness his inauguration. If I were a person of color, considering their horrendous history, I would be camping out in front of the White House even now to get a glimpse of this man in his moment of glory.

When I think of the daunting problems that face him as President, I begin to despair for him and the rest of us. At this moment in our national history, the act of governing seems untenable. The issues debated during the campaign did not even begin to address our problems, some of which may be impossible to solve.

For example, the population of this country doubled in the last 50 years and is likely to double sometime in the next four decades. How can a country that is now 300 million cope with a population that will be 600 million in the lifetime of many of those now living. When you contemplate that situation, you realize that our country’s future is in peril and we will have to be enormously creative when we consider immigration, health care, our economy , our infrastructure, energy and the big elephant in the room, terrorism.

Worse, there are so many people needlessly slurping in the public trough, locked into entitlements that are not sustainable and others who are dependent on the public purse, that extracting them from this habitual form of largesse will be close to impossible. A largely incompetent and unpopular Congress is facing an avalanche of states, corporations and seekers of all stripes with tin cups looking for handouts.

Obama will need to call up all his reserves of self-discipline and persuasion skills to tame the appetite for giveaways by a dysfunctional Congress and the greed and endemic selfishness that is corrupting every aspect of our system. Shifting the balance to protect the truly needy will be a challenge, requiring steel nerves and restoking the talent of persuasiveness Obama brought to bear during his campaign.

For the record, I did not vote for Obama. As someone even older than John McCain I am, admittedly, locked into the ideas that have sustained us through the great Depression, World War II and the Cold War. I understand that mindset and the echoes and slogans of those historical moments. In that arena I was in sync with McCain. Unfortunately, my idea of change is to look backward and contemplate the changes that have occurred in my lifetime. Future change is not a happy concept for a senior citizen whose stake in the future is in the worrisome fate of his offspring, rather than the prospects of his own life on which the curtain is descending.

Nevertheless, the old fashioned verities still persist in my zeitgeist. One of these is respect for our President and the patriotic notions of flag and country. As a soldier I marched under that flag and followed the orders of my Commander in Chief and I will continue to do so under our new President.

With all sincerity, I wish him Godspeed and good luck on the treacherous journey ahead of him. …and us.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The E-Book Revolution

Twelve years ago, I took the astonishing step of gaining the reversion of all my books from my English language publishers and converting them into digital formats. Most people thought I had lost my mind, since there was no user friendly portable reading device even remotely on the horizon and the books had to be read on either laptops or immovable computers.

My motives were twofold. I did not want to suffer the fate of so many of my fellow authors whose books were declared out of print by publishers while existing copies were moldering on shelves in private homes and in libraries where they would be eventually discarded. Another obvious motive was an attempt to keep my authorial name in the public eye for the foreseeable future.

There is, of course, a great deal of ego involved in such an investment of time and money, but as every author knows, the writing of a book whether it be a work of the imagination, opinion or scholarship, is essentially a product of an inner voice that is determined to be heard.

Before the age of digitization there were few options for authors to preserve their work for future generations. Now that digitization makes such preservation possible, there is no reason for any author to accept the extinction of his or her work through unavailability.

Of course, keeping these works alive and available does not mean that anyone will ever read them in the future. Even the most popular writers of yesterday disappear from public view at astonishing speeds, a fate that is sure to be shared by most contemporary best sellers. Digitization will not guarantee readership and many digital books may simply float aimlessly through cyberspace until the end of time, a lonely exile into infinity.

While that long time bet remains in force, digitizing my books involved a shorter term bet as well. I felt certain that, despite all the numerous failures and the dashing of high hopes which ravaged the e-book dream, that reader friendly devices, would one day emerge from the brains and skills of our electronic engineers and eventually reward both readers and entrepreneurs.

I knew in my gut that this would happen and it has. The issue has always been convenience, portability and reading clarity. That issue has been resolved and will now be improved upon exponentially. The first generation Kindle, the Sony Reader and variations of smart phone technology will in a few short years surpass the paper book as a method to distribute content.

I have been making that statement for more than a dozen years. I have been excoriated, pummeled, insulted and cajoled for making such a statement in various public forums. Time and again, people have extolled the technology of the paper book as the only acceptable format for conveying content.

People would declaim:“I love my paper book, the tactile feel of the it, the smell of it, the look of it. I will never abandon my love for the paper book. For me it will be the only way to enjoy stories and absorb information.”

It was difficult to deflect such a view since I, too, love the paper book. My passion is books. Reading them, writing them, savoring them not only for their content but for the beauty of their appearance, the feel of them. For me they represent one of the joyful wonders of life. Admittedly, there were moments of doubt, not doubt about the ultimate clarity and portability of content, but whether or not the human mind would accept the transference and absorption of digital content in a way that would provide people with a satisfactory experience that could rival what one achieved through the paper book.

Even with those devices currently on the market, particularly the Kindle, all of my doubts have been put aside. In fact, I can say with absolute conviction that reading books on this new device has increased the pleasure and absorption of content that not only rivals but in some cases surpasses the experience of reading a paper book. It has even made the act of purchasing the book more convenient and user friendly. I can make my choice, sample it first with excerpts, then buy it at a huge discount from what I would normally pay for a paper book and download it to my device in a matter of seconds.

There are still some obstacles to book selection which may never be overcome, although there are attempts to inform and review the various books that are offered by the companies that dispense them. Unfortunately wading through the hype and the lack of credibility and bias among the reviewers is an enormous problem and my instinct is to ignore them and make my selection based on the downloaded samples and excerpts.

Frankly, although she is widely respected, I do not take my reading cues from Oprah and I have long eschewed reviews from the media and the roar of the publishing company flacks and their profusion of buddy blurbs.

I have no doubt that the day is coming when these portable devices will dominate the educational system. Backpacks will disappear. Libraries will morph into other uses connected with books. Brick and mortar stores will change their focus. Newspapers as we know them today will fade into other forms. Digitization will take over as the method of conveying all forms of information in every profession. It is easy to be carried away by such prognostications.

Unfortunately not all of this orgy of digitization will be good. A new addiction will begin to inflict us, if it hasn’t already, information glut. Too many incoming information missiles assaulting us. But that is a matter for another discussion.

There is nothing, nothing, more wondrous, more powerful in their capacity to teach, persuade, inform and amplify the imagination than words. Stories form the very basis of our civilization. The imagery they insert into the human imagination is the power that fuels the engine of humanity. How these words are delivered may not be as important as the information they impart, but I am happy to report that the e-book method of delivery has surpassed my wildest dreams.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How I got the idea for my novel NATURAL ENEMIES

Of all the questions asked of fiction writers, the one most common is: Where do you get your ideas? It is a crucial question that goes to the heart of the storyteller's art. One might generalize and assert that it comes from an amalgam of one's life's experiences, stories told by others, books read, movies seen, dreams and fantasies, and the molten mix in the cauldron of one's imagination. This is one writer's attempt to pinpoint the spark that ignited the idea that became the story and its aftermath.

Peter Mayer, when he was the editor of Pocket Books, suggested that I write a book about a heroic woman who takes the lead in a situation of extreme danger and saves her male companion through superior ingenuity and pluck.

It was a time when the publishing industry was making a conscious effort to attract women readers through inspirational scenarios where they are portrayed as winners. I had no quarrel with the concept since I always believed in many aspects of the equality of men and women in dangerous situations. In fact, I had portrayed many women characters in defiance of those who believed that men could not create viable and accurate female characters.

I conceived of an exciting scenario in which a married couple, through various circumstances, find themselves lost in the wilderness and must find a way to survive and find their way to safety. They confront many natural dangers and circumstances that push them to the edge of death, only to find a way out at the very last moment.

Unfortunately, I needed to do some heavy research since, aside from my Boy Scout camping experiences and my Army basic training, I had little knowledge of the remote wilderness and even less knowledge about survival skills.

To do this research properly, I hired two female outfitters in the Denver area to take me into the remote wilderness for a week. Following their instructions, I arrived in the area properly attired and mentally ready for the adventure. The two young women were tough, knowledgeable and ready to take on this city slicker whose experience of the wilderness was many decades behind me.

We entered the wilderness in a remote area in Colorado identified on a map, if I remember correctly, as Little King Ranch. We carried heavy packs filled with dehydrated foods and other essentials for survival in the wilderness. It was tough going, climbing up and down steep hills, and in some places having to hack our way through uncharted paths. These ladies were real ecology fanatics and in superb condition.

They cut me no slack and were unmerciful and relentless in their determination to show me the very worst of wilderness travel. I was totally unprepared physically and dragged myself forward with sheer grit and willpower. Somewhere along the trail, my macho genes kicked in and I was soon in mano mode unwilling to be bested by women. It was no contest. I was a blundering weak tenderfoot. As they trudged ahead, their contempt for me became apparent. Although they knew I was researching a book, they quite obviously considered me a dilettante, effete and corrupted by city life.

Indeed, although I tried to make myself as pleasant and charming as I could be under the circumstances, they had obviously bonded together to humiliate me and were deeply critical of my performance. They had me set my pup tent up at a good distance from theirs and were adamant in lecturing me on the proposition that anything brought into the wilderness must be brought out, especially trash. Toilet paper had to be burned in the campfire after use, the ashes buried when we broke camp.
Although I was paying them, I was far from in charge since I needed them to get me the hell out of there. After four days and nights of hard hiking and tough sleeping, I insisted that they take me back. By then, we were barely talking. It has always been a mystery to me why they held me in such contempt and, at the time, my mind conjured up fearful scenarios of being left alone to fare for myself fated to be a dinner time snack for the wildlife that abounded in the area.

On the return trail, they deliberately moved swiftly and it was quite impossible for me to keep up. They seemed to delight in my struggle and would often disappear while I huffed and puffed my way up steep inclines only to find them chatting amiably at the peak of the climb.

I did manage to get back to civilization in one piece and paid my bill without further confrontation. To my eternal regret I neglected to ask them why they had taken such an obvious dislike to me. I have mulled this over for many years concluding only that they must have seen me as an intruder into what they might have believed was their guardianship of the wilderness. Perhaps my attitude was what put them off. I’ll never know, but I did accomplish my research goals.

The book was published to fairly good reviews and was optioned for the movies but never made. Nevertheless, like all experiences, good or bad, the strange adventure offered me insights and knowledge into a world in which I was a total stranger.

Ironically a few years later, my wife and I moved to Jackson Hole and loved to hike the many mountain trails in the Tetons.

To purchase a copy of Natural Enemies, click here.