Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Giving Thanks Teaches Us to Be Humble

Tomorrow, families gather to give thanks. They may remember the myth taught to them as elementary school-age children. They may now know, as adults, that the Pilgrims were much less kind to and far from grateful for the Native Americans.

Those at the table may simply be grateful for the bountiful feasts and for family members having gathered together once more. Or they may treat the day as a sacred one that begins and ends with their faith uppermost in their minds.

A Native American prayer seems fitting for all the reasons people gather and remember to give thanks. It is a Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving prayer, the full text of which can be found at a site titled First People.

The speaker expresses thanks to the People, Earth Mother, Waters, Fish, Plants, Food Plants, Medicine Herbs, Animals, Trees, Birds, Four Winds, Thunderers, Sun, Grandmother Moon, Stars, Enlightened Teachers, and the Creator. In other words, the prayer is comprehensive, universal, and nonsectarian. It teaches its hearers to be humble and grateful, to acknowledge the connections between all elements and people of the earth.

Some might call the prayer pantheistic. Some might try to diminish the prayer's focus upon our earth, its climate, and our role therein. But the truly grateful must grant that the very air we breathe, the water that nourishes us, the foods that strengthen us, and the brotherhood that sustains us are the timeless and borderless elements that unite us.

Let us give thanks for speakers and writers, for earth, wind, fire, and water, for all that was and is and will be.

Reading Challenge:

Read the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Prayer.

Writing Challenge:

Write your own comprehensive and universal prayer of thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On This Date in History: Recorded Sound

On this date in history, one hundred and thirty-six years ago, Thomas Alva Edison announced the invention of a talking machine, later named the phonograph, a tool to record voices and the sound of birdsong, exquisite musical performances, and the noise that now makes up a day.

Right now, Diane Rehm and several guests urge me to support returning U. S. servicemen affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), unemployment, and strained personal relationships. The dryer thumps rhythmically as the sheets spin dry while the water softener hisses to treat our water so that it will not corrode our pipes. The coffee pot adds soprano notes when it signals that it will turn off its warmer just ahead of the dishwasher’s alert that it has done its work.

Outside, the world beyond is even noisier, especially during the summer season when big Merc motors growl a large cruiser into life and jet ski engines, like motorcycles on asphalt. reverberate across the cove. How much noise we’ve added with every generation and iteration of Edison!

But Edison’s original gift has also given us audio-books, unabridged and sometimes read by the author. I enjoyed Beloved this way, and now, when reading snippets, I hear Toni Morrison’s nuances and rhythms. I understand the syntax as melody, and language as lyrics.

From Khaled Hosseini’s reading of The Kite Runner, I learned how to say Baba and Kabul and to enjoy their softer, lovelier sounds. Now I translate in my mind when I hear newscasters speak of Kabul, and I mourn the loss of such beautiful places as those Hosseini describes, nostalgia imbued in every passage.

As their inventor, Jeffrey Eugenides understands his narrative choices, its shifts and turns, better than anyone, and thus, his reading of the award-winning novel, Middlesex, becomes a conversation between his narrators and readers. I felt as if he was seated in my living room telling me a long epic tale.

Even when others read an authors’ work, we enjoy special delights. Sissy Spacek as Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, does not manufacture a Southern drawl. Unlike some actresses who learned English in other regions of the world, Spacek, a native Texan, speaks naturally and drawls correctly the lines I love so much. 

Frank Muller performs Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses with respect and appreciation. He seems to ride the plains with the characters and ache as they suffer. His performance renders McCarthy’s language as poetry.

One could do worse than listen to the sounds of the words that authors choose so carefully and wisely. I recommend it without reservation. We hear the rhythms more clearly. We understand the power of words bouncing upon other words, their similarities strengthening them and their differences distinguishing them.

Reading Challenge:

Listen to language online, using YouTube or other sites, including Download and/or stream one free audio-book. Choose a favorite and experience it anew.

Writing Challenge:

Read aloud a passage from your own work. Let the sounds teach you about revision.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Roadmap to Grief

What if someone provided you with a detailed road map leading you from the place upon which you stand to unimaginable sorrow?

Doomed Oedipus had such a map, thanks to the Oracle at Delphi; still Oedipus rushes headlong and heedless into his own darkness.

Gifted Hamlet knows that the odds are heavy against his survival. His own mother dissembles, his stepfather commands traitors disguised as childhood friends, and assassins await opportunities to eliminate him. Nevertheless, he engages, telling his dear friend, Horatio, “If it be now, / 't is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be / now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the / readiness is all” (5.2). Thus prepared for what Fate will deliver, Hamlet enters the arena where he will die.

Clever Tom Stoppard re-imagines the play, Hamlet, from the point of view of Hamlet’s so-called childhood friends for a play-within-a-play known as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  In Stoppard’s account of Hamlet’s trials, the Players rehearse a play to prick the conscience of the King and tease truth into the light. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the rehearsal, seeing two figures dressed exactly as they are, hang by their necks until dead, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to see their current course as one leading to the same sorrowful end. They sail on to England, and they die at the end of a rope.

Dystopia 1. Photo by Al Griffin

Cormac McCarthy explores the same dystopic path in the human experience through his original screenplay The Counselor. In another epic tale of Innocence dragged through the Desert of Depravity, an ambitious attorney sets a course for utter annihilation by conspiring to import drugs provided by a cartel. Two experienced importers warn him to walk away and describe horrific methods employed by the cartel to insure their own survival and power. One involves a high-tech, inescapable garrote that delivers terror as well as death for the victim knows there is no escape possible for him. The other describes a snuff film in which the pleasure derives from having a victim genuinely innocent and truly afraid for her life. Each horror story moves the Counselor, but he fails to believe that his own end might involve such brutality. He still signs his name in blood at the bottom of the Devil’s contract, protesting that he’s only interested in one shipment, one opportunity to become wealthy beyond any one person’s needs.

Dystopia 2. Photo by Al Griffin

Of course, his fate, as all fates really, turns upon a single random moment when he agrees to help an imprisoned client’s son get out of jail. The boy works for the cartel and is a target for opportunists. In fact, soon after the boy's release from jail, he's executed so that a poacher can seize the money he carries. The Counselor has nothing to do with the theft, but in a purely business decision, the cartel decides the Counselor must die. Someone ordered that boy's death, and circumstantial evidence, especially guilt by association, condemns the Counselor. 

Others guilty by association will also die: the two who warned the Counselor to walk away. One will fall after a bullet passes through his brain; the other will suffer the final, breathtaking moments inside a garrote.

But another, the Counselor's beloved, not guilty of association with anyone other than the Counselor will also die as a consequence. She will star as the innocent and terrified victim in a snuff film. The Counselor appeals, hoping to save her and rewrite the past, to create a different ending, but of course, that’s impossible. His exit was written the moment he embarked upon a dystopic path. He lived as if mercy and beauty could be partitioned off, as if illegality and greed were shadowy figures never to be brought into the light where justice and truth prevail. He was wrong.

Oedipus learns that the gods may have ginned up a trap for him, but his deeds tightened the ropes that bind him in the end. Hamlet learns that he is in fact cursed to have been charged with setting things right in Denmark, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern observe that there must have been a moment when they could have said “no,” but they missed it. Well, the Counselor had several moments when he could have said “no,” but he cried “yes” instead and rushed heedless into his own hell.

So too is this a motif stitched into the human experience. In spite of warnings from older, more experienced people, in spite of literature’s revelations, and in spite of our own guts warning us against tempting the unknown, we step into it today and tomorrow, every moment that we live. Some of us will escape dystopia; a few will not.

Dystopia 3. Photo by Al Griffin

Reading Challenge:

“Read” The Counselor, now playing in theaters. Observe its ties to classic archetypal themes. Note its existential warning: we shape our realities and pay the consequences for our choices.

Writing Challenge:

Respond to these words from Hamlet, Act 5, scene 2:  “There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Read for Our Veterans

I admit to clamping my jaw and putting undue pressure on my molars every time I see a Support Our Troops magnet slapped on the butt of a car. What our troops do for us is far too unpleasant and much too important for us to be so facile, especially because the troops receive none of the profits from those magnets.

Let no one misunderstand me, however; I absolutely support supporting our troops--not because I am a Neocon, Hawk, Republican, warmonger, arms dealer, employee in the defense industry, or private contractor who may benefit from troop deployments around the world. In fact, other labels including Progressive, Independent, Dove, and retired public school teacher describe me much better. I simply believe we must support our troops because it is our duty to do so

If we call upon the patriots among us to stand and fight, then we must arm them with more than weapons. We must give them training in how to make peace when they return from war.

If we need men and women to perform unpleasant tasks such as making war, carrying out our dead, and quelling violence, then we must give them trauma-free days and nightmare-free nights. We must provide support groups and medical care and safe harbor when they return.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin

If we ask boys and girls to disrupt their lives to serve their country, then we must insure that they must not also endure want. They should earn a wage far above one that would allow them to apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Their families should not be in danger of losing their homes when one earner is overseas because of mortgage bubbles, Wall Street greed, or impending government shut-downs. We must grant them peace of mind with regard to basic needs such as food and shelter.

Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Photo by Al Griffin
Note: Al Griffin has a series featuring homeless people, and several of them are veterans.

Some officials do not seem to agree with my assertions. More money goes to making war than making peace, more to defense contractors than enlisted men and women, more to weapons than healing. I submit, therefore, that officials must read some of the award-winning and classic war literature available to them. Some of these titles include:

Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War wherein decision-makers may learn about collapsed economies and lost national prowess, both long-term, irrevocable consequences of the conquering spirit.

From Homer’s The Iliad, decision-makers may learn about the effect of war upon a civilization. Homer narrates the sorry reasons for which men put their honor and lives on the line. The Greeks devastate an entire city and all its citizens, even those in the womb and those long past the strength to fight. Collateral damage and soul-smothering deeds characterize a war fought for the purposes of loyalty and honor.

Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur may teach officials lessons about humility and hubris. Sir Gawain’s determination to recover lost family honor is an inciting cause that leads to the loss of Camelot and its king.

Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies chronicle the differences between those who seize and defend power and those who are at the mercy of powerful men. Macbeth, once a valiant soldier, grows thick calluses against sympathy and moral restraints. Othello, a valued general and strategist, cannot endure the loss of his honor, executing the perceived enemy as he might on a battlefield, thereby blurring the line between civilian and military codes. In addition, through the Roman plays and English King histories, Shakespeare reveals the political machinations that construct a belief which lead men to march …somewhere else, to grief (from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles”).

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries chronicle a war of ideologies, in particular skirmishes and battles for human dignity and rights against monarchial, colonial, religious, and economic oppression. Hobbes and Locke both reacted to and shaped civil unrest that served revolutions undertaken in the name of justice and opportunity for all-- in theory. As the next three novels listed reveal, in practice, men proved to be less evolved than the intellectuals’ philosophical arguments.

In the nineteenth century, British author Charles Dickens used The French Revolution: A History by Thomas Carlyle to develop A Tale of Two Cities (, a compelling story about the human costs of social and economic change. In France, Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables, a long, impassioned tale of Jean Valjean’s struggles to escape a cruel, stratified world and live in one where more people do more than just endure, they thrive. Hugo sets this personal quest in a time and place on the verge of revolution, linking the macrocosm to Valjean’s microcosm wherein he must, once again, sacrifice and summon extraordinary bravery. From Russia, Tolstoy added the epic War and Peace, a novel that reveals the violent, bloody combat that accompanies both noble and ignoble ambitions leading to war.

The work of early twentieth-century poets lyrically portray the horrors of war. Thomas Hardy’s “The Man He Killed,” Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “ The Rear-Guard” reveal the terrible price that men who make war must also pay.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque is a must read for decision-makers who should be moved from the introduction through the last page. They will, we hope, heed, Remarque’s introductory cautionary remarks: This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and lest of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air is an account of one man trying to return whole to the civilian world after service in World War I. Decision-makers need Orwell’s insights; too many veterans suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and too many, unable to cope, commit suicide

Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, a novel about the British Navy on the Atlantic during World War II informs us that any and all honor in war is wholly vested in the individual, and every reason or policy leading to war leads inexorably to unacceptable suffering.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a dark, sardonic portrait of war’s absurdities, including the machinations of men at headquarters absent any understanding of the human cost of their decisions.

More recent wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan have inspired prize winning literature from Tim O'Brien and poet Kevin Powers. The Things They Carried by O’Brien and The Yellow Birds by Powers prove how random are the losses in war, how inevitable the brutality, and how unrelenting the tension and tedium.

Oklahoma City, OK Cemetery. Photo by Al Griffin

None of the titles I’ve referenced celebrates war. All demonstrate that whatever leads a nation to war is insufficient. Causes shrivel when compared to the human costs that war delivers.

General and President Eisenhower agreed; he said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Eisenhower was a soldier, the architect and contractor for D-Day. He was also a politician charged with making war and peace, and he labored for peace as president because he understood how brutal war truly is.

So, dear decision-makers, please read, then amend our policies. We must retire war in order to support our troops

Dear readers, please support our troops by making your understanding of war known, by informing policy-makers of the great costs of war.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all titles cited in this list of war literature, one that merely skips through time, one that skips over and past worthy titles.

Writing Challenge:

Write a pledge vowing to support our troops. Be sure to include reasonable actions to take in order to demonstrate support.