Wednesday, June 17, 2009

If I Were A Kid In Iran

If I were a college kid in Iran, I’d really be pissed off.

If I were a guy I would see my future foreclosed by a bunch of religious fanatics trying to convince me that they were getting their messages directly from God. My future is a lot longer than those guys who run the show and won’t let me be young, have my own opinions, dream my dreams, have a chance at a future that tastes the good life, the fulfilled life. I’d be sick to death of tired old men telling me how to live my life. Screw them.

I’d consider what I had to face after graduation. Limited employment opportunities, high inflation, broken dreams, a drumbeat of unfulfilled promises, my future in the hands of idiots who insist that my thoughts be in lock-step with their antiquated views. I’d not be happy about my President going around the world acting like some bigoted clown and making my country look like we’re a bunch of hateful yahoos who support crackpots who go around blowing themselves up in the name of what? I love life. I’d want to have joy and fun and speak freely without some guy with a baton batting me on the head or threatening me with prison.

Hell, I don’t think America is the Great Satan. I’d like America and I’d like Americans. The kids in college in America have a much better shot at the good life than I could have here. Darn right I’d go to protest. This other guy I’d be supporting is not so hot either, but at the very least I wouldn’t want to hear any more bullshit about democracy. There’s no real democracy here. I’d want my vote to count. I’d want a better shot at the future.

Come on America. Go Europe. Can’t you see we’re locked up in a prison cell? Help us.

If I were a gal in college, I’d be doubly pissed off.

Look at what I’d have to face when I graduate. The men who run our country want to keep us down, encourage us to be a bunch of mindless breeders and wear that black outfit that completely demolishes my individuality.

Don’t I have a right to dress pretty, to exercise my right to celebrate my femininity? Why do they foreclose on my future? I’d feel trapped, chained to old rules created by old men who haven’t a clue what goes on in the mind and heart of a young woman. I wouldn’t want to be a second-class citizen. Stop stepping on my future. I’d want freedom and opportunity. Who wants bombs? Not me. Why are these morons wasting our money? Who are we going to bomb? Jews? I’d wonder what the Jews have ever done to us? Besides, I’d never met one. They left here long ago.

Sure I’d be going out to the streets to protest. What would I have to lose? I’d see on television how other women live in other countries. Why can’t I live like them? What do I threaten? I am a young woman with dreams like young women everywhere. Tear down those stupid barriers, you dirty old men. And I’d wonder where was the support of my sisters in other countries who won their rights by raising their voices? How about if they raise their voice for me? Where are they? Come on American women, I’d shout. Speak up. Your sisters are prisoners here in Iran.

My President?, I’d say. You’ve got to be kidding. You don’t represent me. I don’t want to be told how to dress, how to live, how to love. And I wouldn’t want my money spent to help spread chaos in other lands. For what? So that other women in these other lands can live like me. No way.

See me march in the streets, I’d shout. For crying out loud Americans, say something, support us. Believe me, this is no place to be young. It’s bad enough for young men and, believe me, I’d say, it’s worse for young women. We are drowning here. Help us.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In Defense of Sarah

I have spent years as a political groupie and an observer of the personalities who played major and minor roles on the political scene. Living in Washington for decades, I knew many of the political figures who appeared on and off the stage, including Presidents, Senators and Congressmen.

Before my literary career gained traction, I ran a number of political campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans and can say, with modesty, that I understand how the system operates. I have seen political stars rise and fall for reasons both deserved and undeserved.

I do admit to a centrist position as my personal political doctrine. Admittedly, I am, like many novelists, more of an observer than activist and I do feast on argument and contention as a learning experience.

Having reached the age of entitlement, I say what I think, however outside the mainstream of prevailing opinion and I do believe in the polite laws of debate. I love hearing contrary views, listen carefully, applaud and encourage them in others and passionately refute them without restraint or personal animosity.

All that said, I vociferously disagree with obtuse entertainers like David Letterman and the vast Army of media mavens and talking heads who have been bashing Sarah Palin. It disgusts me.

Governor Palin, to my mind, is the ideal of a certain type of feminine achiever, a role model to a vast majority of women who have aspirations to have it all, meaning marriage, motherhood and achievement in a profession that requires hands on leadership skills. Others might not consider this path the paragon of female aspirations nor does it disparage them to offer her as an example.

Imagine, this full time devoted mother and wife, a woman of tireless energy, who brought down the old boy network in her home state and worked her way into the Governorship and is considered one of the most popular Governors in the United States to be the object of the vilest personal attacks in modern political life.

One might argue as Harry Truman did, that if you can’t take the heat stay out of the kitchen. Indeed, our political life has been filled with vicious accusations of sinister motives hurled by journalists, talking heads and political enemies against people with whom they disagree. Every politician knows he or she is fair game.

While I don’t agree with Governor Palin on every issue, I admire her achievement, her pluck and her remarkable restraint in the face of the worst underserved drubbing of a political figure in modern memory. I’m not an Alaskan or a Midwesterner but I do know of her remarkable achievement in pushing a gas pipeline that will carry Alaskan gas through Canada to warm the homes of many Midwesterners. Even her enemies will acknowledge this as a major accomplishment after years of fruitless negotiations by others.

As Americans we all have a right to excoriate our politicians, to vocally blast them when we think they are wrong, but I do think that remarks like those of an insensitive TV host insulting a 14 year old child is beyond the pale, in fact nauseating. What devoted and loving mother or father wouldn’t kick back when their child is insulted? Remember Harry Truman writing that letter to the music critic who wrote an insulting review about his daughter’s singing. Every politician who knows the sting of such criticism should have come to her defense and the idiot host should have apologized. Are you listening Carters and Clintons?

Sarah Palin, whatever you may think of her, has proven that she can take care of herself. She may not be some Ivy League hotshot, many of who have screwed up the country in the last couple of decades. She may not speak with great rhetorical flourishes or offer an image of gravitas so beloved of talking television heads. Indeed, she may even be too attractive to be taken seriously by those who expect their female politicians to be more matronly, prefer pants suits to dresses and not be burdened with the messy mommy problems of child rearing.

I need not wonder how Michelle Obama would have reacted if some TV host had disparaged her two beautiful girls. Mr. Letterman would not have been able to sit down for days.

Those like myself, who celebrate the rise of women in our society after years of restriction should be defending Sarah Palin, especially in this instance, not demeaning her.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My Most Influential Professor

When I arrived at the University Heights campus at NYU at the age of seventeen in January 1945, I was astonished at its beauty, the wonderful landscaping and the architectural wonders that fully realized my fantasies of what a college campus should look like.

World War II was in its European death throes and the ASTP boys in uniform were, if memory serves, still active on the campus. The trip from Brooklyn from the Kingston Avenue IRT station to Burnside Avenue was more than an hour and the walk to the campus another fifteen minutes. I didn’t mind. I was teethed on the subway. My family never owned a car.

My parents could never afford to pay for campus dormitory housing and having traveled to High School by subway, I did not find it a hardship at all. By every measure I was attending a real college on a beautiful campus in a jewel of a setting high above a sparkling river. Sadly, it is no longer part of NYU, a historical mistake in judgment.

I registered for an accelerated course which would mean that I would earn my degree in two years eight months. Life was uncertain for a seventeen year old in that time. In less than a year, I would register for the draft and the prospects for ending the war with Japan were not promising. The Japanese although pushed back to the mainland were apparently determined to fight to the end.

At that stage in my life I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had just graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School, an elite school that filled its ranks from students who had passed a rather difficult test and allegedly had a high enough IQ to pass the demanding courses. It took me one term to determine that I was not very interested in technical matters. Besides, it was an all boys school, a feature not very attractive to a young student whose testerone level was rising precipitously. I went through classes like an automaton, graduating somewhere in the lower half of a class of more than 700 graduates.

I was captivated by the Heights campus, made friends easily and, by some miracle of oratory and what must have been a deftly written speech I was elected President of the freshman class. This election produced a clipping in the campus newspaper that my father carried in his wallet until the day he died. I loved my days on campus and proudly wore the uniform of the ROTC. Unable to afford much else, I worked after classes in all sorts of odd jobs. I did not think this a hardship or unusual since I had worked after school ever since I was eligible for working papers when I was fourteen.

All freshman courses were required curriculum. But it was my course in English, taught by Professor Don M. Wolfe that, in retrospect changed my life forever. Many college students can cite similar experiences, the mentor, the inspiration, the great teacher who took the student under his or her wing and made the crucial difference, who pointed the way to a fulfilling and prosperous career.

Although I read compulsively and diligently, mostly the great adventure stories for boys that I found on the shelves of the Stone Avenue children’s library in Brooklyn I had never seriously imagined myself as a writer of the imagination. Nevertheless, in retrospect, I believe the spark must have been there. Perhaps it was my mother’s example. She was an inveterate customer of the lending libraries that were all over Brooklyn in those years, where for pennies a day you could rent all the novels that you could consume. It was part of her regular routine after the housework was over to concentrate on novels. Returning from school, I found her always with her nose in a book. If that was the spark, Dr. Wolfe was the one who provided the kindling.

He was not robust, nor did he have the propensity to charm his students with professorial humor or was he a master of the sardonic rebuke. He was pleasant and businesslike, hardly warm and fuzzy. He was clearly a dedicated teacher, but he was not given to socializing with students. He was not mesmerizing, but it was obvious that he loved teaching. I had no knowledge of his past or his background. He had arrived in my life full grown as himself, sent my way as a kind of miracle.

He assigned compositions and encouraged us to stretch the use of the language to create imaginative imagery and use muscular words to tell our stories and create our plots and descriptions. He was extremely diligent in his reading of our material. When I would receive one of my compositions back, he wrote his criticisms in red ink scrawls and you felt dead certain that he had read every word. It was through those red scrawls that I interpreted his message. You can write, son. Keep at it.

He did not single me out as anyone special in the class. Indeed, I can’t remember that he ever singled anyone out at all, but receiving those critiques, mostly words of praise and encouragement, clipped and copious, was all I needed to make my lifetime decision. I don’t know if he ever knew the impact that these tiny critiques made on my life, but he kindled something deep in my psyche, an ambition that still burns inside of me to this day. Is that not the ultimate reward for a dedicated teacher? For that reason alone, I will always love my alma mater.

I got an A in freshman English and, in fact, in all my English courses, two of which stick in my mind as essential building blocks in career, the European novel taught by Professor Ranney and the Bible as History taught by Professor Baer who was the Dean of the College of Arts and Science in those years. I extend to them my belated gratitude.

Believe me I am not exaggerating the impact of Professor Wolfe and the enhancement of the other professors. I was not as successful in my other courses, especially the sciences. Summers as part of my accelerated program I went to Washington Square, but none of the Professors there made as much of an impact on me as Doctor Wolfe.

A year after graduation I followed Dr. Wolfe to the New School to take a creative writing course. By then I was committed to spend my life writing novels, short stories and plays. Taking his course was like the icing on the cake. In my class was Mario Puzo and a number of other writers of great talent who I feel certain were equally inspired by Dr. Wolfe. At the New School, Dr. Wolfe arrange for the publication of a number of short story collections. Included in those anthologies was the work of remarkable talents among them Puzo and William Styron.

Was he aware of the fact that he was the greatest influence in my life? Perhaps in the lives of others as well? I doubt it. Sixty two years after my encounter with Dr. Wolfe, I credit him with continuing to be the greatest influence on my life and work.

Even today in my still very active career, he is still my teacher and guide. I cannot write a single sentence without wondering what Dr. Wolfe would say about it in his red ink scrawls.