Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Everyone Who Can Bear to Know Knows

This photo of a starving polar bear dates from 2007, I think. (It's hard to find the original sources of photos that go viral, as this one has.) Who knows how many of these animals look this way now? I'm including it because my heart is well and truly broken by it and to explain why the nature of this blog is about to change (should you care).

I can't write anymore about the most important thing happening in the world now, that it's ending. Everyone who can bear to know knows. Nothing we can say to those in denial will break through their capitalism- or technology-will-save-us fantasies. If Naomi Klein, with her exhaustive documentation and crystal clear prose, can't persuade the literate, no one can. And the illiterate are drowning in a sea of broadcast lies. Now? According to the New York Times this morning, Mitch McConnell, soon-to-be majority leader of the Senate, has "vowed" to demand completion of the Keystone Pipeline and to limit the enforcement and impact of EPA laws. Two years of this? We don't have two days to waste.

So I'm going to write about writing, and reading, and maybe about going to movies. Not because I don't think about the rest, but because I do. Check in with me once in a while. I'll have some good recommendations for you. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Once you know who the bad guys are, what are your choices?

I'm interested in American movies. Trapped methane may be blowing holes in the Siberian tundra, but if Brendan Gleason or Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in a new movie, I'm there, and with almost no critical awareness. I read perceptively, I think, because I also write. But I've never made a film, even on my phone, or taken a film class, and I don't plan to. I don't pay attention to who directs a movie, or what the lighting is like or where the camera had to be to get a particular shot. In my local multiplex and in front of a Netflix menu, I'm just looking for stories that tell me something. I'm Jane Q. Public.

It's not that I don't have preferences, even standards. Car chases aren't high on my list of favorite things because they're boring. If I can't see the actors' faces during a sex scene, if I can't gauge the characters' investment, then my mind wanders pretty fast.

Until a year or two ago, I was terribly sensitive to violence on the screen. But I'm angrier now than I used to be, and sometimes I seek out bloody films. When the victims are women and children (as is increasingly the case), I'm gratified when the bad guys get blown away or gored by bulls or decapitated by giant robots. I might cover my eyes for a few crucial seconds, but I don't rush to the bathroom like I used to. I stay put, and I think, hmmm . . . what has happened to me? Why am I enjoying this?

A couple of weekends ago I went to see The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, on Friday night, and dragged my husband back to the multiplex the next morning to see A Walk among the Tombstones, starring Liam Neeson. As movie reviewers everywhere have pointed out, these two films are nearly identical.

In both films, an aging enforcer tries to resist being drawn into fights. But the bad guys are so bad, the victims so defenseless and brutally used, that the enforcer finally steps forward. No one else is going to stand up for those who are already dead or those in imminent danger.

In The Equalizer, Denzel's character  promised his late wife that he'd give up violence. He now lives a quite life managing a store resembling Home Depot. Something isn't right with him, though, because he can't sleep. He spends the wee hours in a diner reading Hemingway and chatting with other regulars, one of whom is a very young prostitute who ends up in the hospital, beaten almost to death. Denzel makes short work--mass murder takes him exactly 19 seconds--of those responsible, a local ring of drug-dealing pimps. A CIA connection tells him the men he's killed are a tiny branch of . . . wait for it . . . the Russian Mafia, popular bad guys in movies these days. Denzel pulls that tree up by its roots. Although he tells the young prostitute that she can be anything she wants, including a famous singer, Denzel himself returns to being what we used to call a vigilante, mainly, he says, because he can.

In A Walk among the Tombstones, Neeson's character helps a bereaved husband whose wife has been kidnapped, killed and chopped up, despite the fact that he paid a ransom for her. It turns out that the husband is a drug dealer, as are other victims' husbands and fathers. Neeson has to figure out what the connection is between their business and the kidnappings. It isn't the obvious one, a rival enterprise, but something a bit more surprising. The bad guys turn out to be what TV news anchors like to call mentally disturbed individuals, in this case two very scary men. As Neeson hunts them down, he also protects a young friend and sets him on a path to realizing his artistic talents. Neeson knows well what his own talents are and has every intention of continuing to use them.

The Equalizer is a simpler, less interesting movie than A Walk among the Tombstones, and more violent as well. But both give us loners who take matters into their own hands. American films are chock full of these figures. The prototype may be Gary Cooper in High Noon. In their worlds, the institutions that ought to bring down the bad guys are either incompetent or corrupt or immobilized by fear. If these lone crusaders don't do it, no one will.

I've been thinking a lot about . . . uprisings (trying to use a word here that won't set an NSA computer dinging).  It may be too late to do anything at all about the survival of life above single-cell levels on earth, but if we can bring ourselves to act--it's a lot healthier than passivity--we ought to begin by putting aside what we learned in Sunday School or at our therapists' offices: do unto others, forgiveness is always better than anger, every one of us is both good and evil.

Because at this point, it's pretty clear that a few people on earth have a big lead on the rest of us when it comes to evil. They've done and continue to do pornographic damage in Alberta and the Gulf of Mexico. They're emptying aquifers and cutting down forests and fishing out the oceans and writing off the poor of the world.  Any possible renewal of the old social contract that might require them to take the tiniest bit of responsibility for someone else causes them to cascade cash onto their lobbyists.

But let us not be loners. We'd do better to take these bad guys on together, given that no one I know has Denzel's purported skills. If the CEOs and chairmen of the board see themselves as special and apart, surely we ought to move in another direction and see ourselves as fellow creatures, empower each other to act, even to do violence if that is the only thing that will work.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Crack in the Wall

The fIrst storm of the year arrived last night in Bellingham. The temperature is still in the low sixties, but the wind billowed out the curtains at the open bedroom windows all night long, and this morning the rain is . . . light but heavy. I'm not sure how to say that better. The drops fall softly, but there are a lot of them?

Our neighborhood park is well on its way to becoming a swamp, as my dog, Alice, would testify if she could speak. (I think she's learned English but is still keeping it a secret.) Poet Carol Guess and her two dogs were at the park, too, but about the time we spotted each other, the sky opened, so we trudged in opposite directions, leaving the dogs on leash.

I'm coming out, I hope, of a depression that has lasted about a year. It did me good to see 300,000 people march in New York on Sunday. It's hard to believe that the ecosystem destruction already in progress can be stopped or even significantly mitigated, hard to imagine life here in 20 years as anything other than hot, wet, and ruled by overwhelming scarcity. But it was still good to see so many people addressing that reality, those fears, and even better to see the diehards show up and sit in at Broadway and Morris on Monday. I feel communal anger building. I sense the beginning of a truly oppositional culture. I feel less alone.

I'm about to start Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything. If you're reading it too, let me know what you think. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Simplest Wisdom

I've been inside during the last hot week, stepping outside only long enough to water the vegetables. This morning, a cool breeze blew in, so I went downtown to pick up some books at the library, see the bay, and walk along the creek.

A bronze bell like this one hangs along the Whatcom Creek Trail,  cast by sculptor Tom Jay.  The unattributed text that circles the bottom reads

"Our simplest wisdom is to follow the sea-bright salmon home."

These are the most comforting words I've heard in a long time.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"The Unknown Known": Rhetorical fallacies and Errol Morris's new film about Donald Rumsfeld

Facebook has not let me include a direct link to this post, for the first time ever, because of "security" issues. Maybe it's the map below, but that's widely available on the web. 


When I was teaching rhetorical fallacies to English classes, I often referred to examples I’d stumbled on in the news. These made a dry subject a little more relevant, at least to me.

The slippery slope fallacy is an easy one to spot. It argues that one event must necessarily flow from another, without providing the intermediate steps or the probability that the final step will happen at all.  About gay marriage, for instance: if we let women marry women and men marry men, soon we’ll be asked to approve the marriages of uncles and nieces, aunts and nephews, sisters and brothers, parents and children, humans and dogs. If we take that first step, any number of appalling and unnatural acts will become legal.

Donald Rumsfeld
My example of the appeal to ignorance came from Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush's Secretary of Defense until 2006. In this fallacy we’re asked to believe something based on evidence that is not presented or is unavailable to us. In the run-up to the war in Iraq, when UN investigators repeatedly failed to find weapons of mass destruction in that country, Rumsfeld steadfastly maintained that they existed. “The absence of evidence,” he said, “is not evidence of absence.” That is, just because the UN team couldn’t find the WMDs, that didn’t mean Saddam didn't have them. The UN team wasn’t looking in the right places; Saddam Hussein was a pathological liar; etc.

From The National Security Archive: "Eyes on Saddam"
American and international public opinion was insufficiently swayed by Rumsfeld’s argument, so photographic and other evidence was produced that Saddam was obstructing the investigation by moving nuclear material around and silencing Iraqi scientists. Colin Powell presented this evidence to the UN in February 2003.  He deeply regrets this speech because, although the evidence had been vetted by the CIA, or at least part of the CIA, it turned out to be wrong. He later learned that some in the US government knew it was wrong before he gave the speech. And as you know, when we invaded Iraq, no WMDs were ever found.

At one point Rumsfeld made this infamous statement: “Reports that say there's -- that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.”

Whether or not there were WMDs in Iraq turned out to be a known unknown rather than a known known, but Rumsfeld's and others' certainty that Saddam had these weapons, and their willingness to produce false evidence, became the justification for a pre-emptive war.  

Slavoj Zizek
Errol Morris titles his film about Rumsfeld with the fourth possible combination of known and unknown--the unknown known. I'm guessing that he is familiar with philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek's suggestion that this fourth category encompasses knowledge we have but cannot or will not accept. This unknown known, according to Zizek, amounts to the unconscious, which is where ideology comes from. The unknown known comprises our "unconscious fantasies, our silent prejudices." They are "the texture in which we are embedded . . . we literally don't even know that we know them." Our unknown knowns are the reason why, he said in 2008, "you are in such trouble in Iraq" (

As Morris pointed out in a presentation at Harvard last November (, when photographs of our treatment of prisons at Abu Ghraib began to show up in the media in late 2003, Rumsfeld pretended to be shocked and appalled. Yet he, along with others in the Bush administration, had suggested and approved "enhanced interrogation" techniques that fell just short of inflicting severe, prolonged pain leading to organ failure or permanent damage. Was it Rumsfeld's unconscious which kept him from seeing that what was happening in Abu Ghraib--the degradation, sexual abuse, stress positions, beatings, and (maybe unintended) deaths--had been made possible by procedures he'd authorized, that the Abu Ghraib practices were outgrowths of what he had already permitted?

Errol Morris
I still don't know the answer to this question. Morris isn't in the business of "pathologizing" the subjects of his documentaries. (See also his fabulous film about Robert McNamara, The Fog of War.) Morris does not fall into the trap of the appeal to ignorance himself, positing a gap in Rumsfeld's faculties or a particularly lethal belief. He doesn't try to "reveal the cloven hoof," "the smoking gun," "the one incriminating, irrefutable detail that gives you the key to everything." Although he jokes that his time with Rumsfeld  made him want to add another condition to the latest DSM, "irony deficit disorder," his overriding impression of the inner workings of Rumsfeld suggested to him there might be nothing there at all. Perhaps Rumsfeld suffered from "the absence of something rather than its presence."

From 34 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld, Morris has focused in his two-hour film on material that relates to Rumsfeld's use of language. The author of some 20,000 memos during his career, Rumsfeld sent out a barrage of "snowflakes" to the DoD, from 20 to 60 memos a day that show his efforts to formulate the role the U.S. should play or was playing in Iraq. He defined words like terrorism, insurgency, and defeat narrowly as a way of "hiding things from himself." In the November interview, Morris mentions an argument he had with Rumsfeld, not included in the film, over the definition of meretricious. Rumsfeld was under the impression that it was "synonymous with meritorious." I would have liked to see that clip.

Rumsfeld is unreservedly positive about what the US has perpetrated in Iraq. He may be disgusted by what was done at Abu Ghraib, but his confidence that the overall mission was well conceived doesn't waver. Morris provides some context for this sunny view by including Rumsfeld's response to the war in Vietnam (R. was also secretary of defense from 1975-77, when that war ended): "Some things work out. Some things don't. That didn't."  Morris calls this "fortune cookie talk."

When pressed, Morris describes Rumsfeld's philosophy as based on the belief that "weakness is provocative." Strength and its abuses, apparently, are not.

About the claim that the "absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence," the appeal to ignorance itself, Morris says it could be used "to justify anything." Rumsfeld and others relied on the supposition that if you believe something, then it must be true, that there is no objective truth. 

Zizek describes a similarly misguided notion when he speaks more broadly about the current western belief  that truth can be found in the stories we formulate and tell about our lives. No, he says--and I found this surprising coming from a psychoanalyst--"the truth is out there."

I was struck by how confident and cheery Rumsfeld is throughout Morris's film. Morris, on the other hand, when interviewed at Harvard, was scary--sharp-tongued and given to shouting. How little appearances tell us. 

I remain fascinated by Zizek's idea that our deepest attitudes are unknown knowns, beliefs we don't know we have.  He aims to discover these in cultural attitudes and practices. I want to discover them in myself. Maybe that will tell me something about my opposites, the powerful of the world. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

#2: Beyond Hope--Secular Voices

My husband and I both turned 60 this year. Now we receive regular offers about cremation arrangements through the mail from the Neptune Society. I haven't opened one yet, and neither has he. Pretty soon, maybe, we'll get around to putting "our affairs in order," revisiting our wills, buying burial plots near my brother's at the Bay View Cemetery in Bellingham or somewhere else, or planning to cremate instead. Because we're entering what is probably the last quarter of our lives, it makes sense to take these practical steps. Is doing that proof that we have no hope? Or does having this task behind us make it easier to live these last decades in the best way we know how or can discover?

The fate of the earth is now very close to that of my own body. Before too long it will cease to support life. All life? I don't know. Opinions differ. Probably most life. The Sixth Great Extinction, as it's being called, is under way, and we will not be spared. Human habitation will disappear, not everywhere at once but everywhere over a rather short time. We will no longer have those things that are even more basic than flush toilets and smart phones: places to live where we can maintain our body temperature, create some basic level of community, grow our food and find potable water. Whether human habitation disappears in 20 years or 80 or 200, some millions of years will pass before "biodiversity" is restored. Whether a species like ours will be included in that future biodiversity, no one knows.

We won't be able to think ourselves out of this, come up with new technologies, new fuels, build wind farms in every vacant field, spray sulfates into the sky. Sacrificing our "way of life" (which we probably won't do anyway) might slow things down, but it won't stop them. The carbon dioxide we've already put in the atmosphere will increase warming from one degree to two--that is, the crucial damage has already been done--and at two degrees, climate change careens out of control, feedback loops are triggered, the whole operation (as Jerry used to call his domestic arrangements on Seinfeld) comes crashing down.

The non-human I know best in her native habitat.
I hear people say, well, we might be finished, but the earth itself will be all right. That depends, I guess, on whether you believe that a planet that once nurtured life and loses that ability remains "all right." We're taking a lot of other species with us. Sometimes that seems to me to be the saddest thing of all and the place where all our efforts, useless though they may turn out to be, should now be directed.

Can we hope in the face of this? Some voices:

Giving up hope might kill you, and that's a good thing.

Derrick Jensen in 2006:  "Hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line . . . a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless. . . When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they—those in power—cannot really touch you anymore."

Hope leads to inaction. 

Chris Hedges in 2011: "This mania for hope is really a kind of sickness because it prevents us from seeing how dire and catastrophic our situation is if we don't radically reconfigure our relationship to each other and to the ecosystem."

Intention can replace hope.

Joanna Macy in 2012: "Active Hope [see her book of the same title] doesn't require our optimism, we can apply it even in areas where we feel hopeless. The guiding impetus is intention; we choose what we aim to bring about, act for, or express. Rather than weighing our chances and proceeding only when we feel hopeful, we focus on our intention and let it be our guide."

Hope is a gift we earn.

Chris Hedges in 2014: "Our only hope will come through rebellion."

Hopelessness is a spiritual practice.

Bruce Springsteen as quoted by Guy McPherson: "In the end what you don't surrender, well the world just strips away."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

#1: The Menace of Christian Hope

I've been gone. This is what I've been thinking about.

In the Protestant churches I’ve frequented, all falling into the category of "progressive," hope is a litmus test. You must have it. I would go so far as to say that in these churches the Ten Commandments are really eleven. The last is thou shalt not fail to hope.

"That's what they want, for us to lose hope," the widow of a famous left-leaning theologian once said to me--they meaning the oppressors of the world, the powers and principalities. "If we give up hope, they win."

If you "come out" in these churches as lacking hope, your fellow congregants will greet you with pitying smiles.

In a sermon I heard just a few weeks ago, the preacher insisted that every generation has feared that the world was about to end, yet it never has.

I don’t see the connection between the world not having ended so far and what is happening to the planet now, which ever more plainly points to its becoming uninhabitable for our species--and many others species--soon.

We will have to face the water flowing into our towns and cities, the beginning of great die-offs, the vegetables we have conscientiously planted expiring in the heat whether we hope or not. Not hoping may allow us to face these things with less confusion, to return to the stardust we came from in peace. Not hoping may allow us to discover what is sacred in our one and only life, the one we’re living right now.

According to the Pew Forum, seventy-eight percent of the American public identifies itself as Christian. Perhaps half (my estimate) anticipate a Second Coming. Some are even trying to hurry it along, supporting Israel’s militant wing, for example, in the belief that it may initiate the Battle of Armageddon.

Counting on a “new heaven and new earth” (Rev. 20:1), they see little reason to cherish the earth they live on now. Why address the danger, why try to mitigate it, when the cavalry is coming to whisk them away? Hope for a better world thus becomes denial that this troubled world is even important.

On the most basic level, why face any unpleasantness on the ground if one is sure that another, eternal life awaits in the sky?

Even progressive Christians, who read the Bible less literally, find it impossible to believe that their god of love could allow humanity and its fellow creatures to perish. Not to believe in hope is for them not to believe in God, or really, in anything at all.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The AWP and Bobbie Ann Mason--How Quickly We Forget

I went to the AWP in Seattle last week for two days of its three-day run. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference is attended by thousands of MFA students and graduates, by editors, teachers, and publicists, and by quite a few writers who speak on panels, sign new books, and give readings or lectures.

Some of my favorite writers were there: Ben Fountain, Chang-Rae Lee, and Timothy Egan (although I went home too soon to hear Egan). I ran into old friends with new books out: Michael Nava, author of the Henry Rios mysteries and a new historical novel about Mexico, The City of Palaces; and Kelly Luce, signing her collection of short stories Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. I learned how university presses work, why indeterminate endings are a hallmark of contemporary fiction, and what's happening in the field of flash, or very short, or micro, fiction.

The panel on flash fiction was called "Brevity"--no connection, according to the panel's moderator, Jane Ciabattari, to the wildly popular online magazine Brevity, or to its editor, Dinty Moore. Moore was also at the AWP, tabling for Brevity in the Book Fair, and doubtless involved in other activities. That's what the AWP is like. For $3.00, you can buy two short nonfiction flashes stapled into covers by Brenda Miller and Ira Sukrungruang  while having a conversation with Dinty Moore. You can blow past Sherman Alexie on your way to the restroom. You can get tangled up in the signing line for Chuck Palahniuk's new book until you realize what line you're in and move on. You can get exhausted and discouraged, but also stimulated and informed.

Anyway . . . the panel on flash fiction featured some cool people--Grant Faulkner, Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter, and BOBBIE ANN MASON. Ciabattari introduced Mason very briefly as the author of Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country (from which a Bruce Willis movie was made).

Now Bobbie Ann Mason is one of America's great short story writers and the author of several jewel-like novels. In the 70s and 80s, when minimalism was king and Gordon Lish was stripping down Raymond Carver's stories to their mysterious bones, Mason was writing in technicolor about the kinds of people  she grew up with in Kentucky and the Mid-South. Her characters were fully fleshed out, as vivid in their failures as in their successes, and, for all their lack of sophistication and direction, dignified. Mason dignified them. Or maybe she translated their dignity into terms New Yorker readers could grasp.  Here is a sample from the story "Midnight Magic," from the collection of the same title:

"Steve leaves the supermarket and hits the sunlight. Blinking, he stands there a moment, then glances at his feet. He has on running shoes, but he was sure he had put on boots. He touches his face. He hasn't shaved. His car, illegally parked in the space for the handicapped, is deep blue and wicked. The rear has "Midnight Magic" painted on it in large pink curlicue letters with orange-and-red tails. Rays of color, fractured rainbows, spread out over the flanks. . . The car's rear end is hiked up like a female cat in heat. Prowling in his car at night, he could be Dracula."

The car's rear end is hiked up like a female cat in heat. Only Bobbie Ann Mason could have written that. Only she could have written the novel Feather Crowns, set in Kentucky in the year 1900, when revivalist preachers talked hopefully of the end of the world, and one young woman gave birth to a set of quintuplets, thrusting her, her husband, and their "miracle babies" into the public eye, with tragic results. Feather Crowns is one of the great novels of the last fifty years, comparable, in my opinion, to Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter or Joyce Carol Oates's We Were the Mulvaneys. In her introduction of Mason, Jane Ciabattari didn't even mention Feather Crowns. So much for Jane Ciabattari.

I was puzzled by what Mason was doing in a panel about flash fiction, so I asked her. "I've never been able to write anything shorter than twenty pages," she said. "I'm a beginner at this." She offered a piece of short fiction that I didn't like much, but I didn't much like anything that was read in that hour and a half.

The description of this panel in the AWP program read, "Online and print journals are embracing flash as technology advances and life's pace quickens. Flash writing is often lyrical, much like prose poetry; laced with sensory detail." Mason should be good at it, then, since she can write sensory detail better than just about anybody. But why should she move in that direction?

Concentrated meaning is a wonderful thing, but so are Mason's sweeping characterizations of place, time, and the people that grow out of them. "Life's pace" also "quickened" for Christiana Wheeler, the heroine of Feather Crowns, and because of it she suffered great losses.

I still read novels, lots of them. Do you?

Mason, pictured above, is tiny and thin and past 70.  I spoke to her after the panel. I told her I'd been reading her for 35 years, that she was one of my heroes. For me the highlight of the AWP was getting to say that. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An Obvious Distinction That May Be Escaping Us

Michael Grimm as himself, former Marine turned federal investigator turned Congressman turned goon. 

Mark Harmon as Leroy Jethro Gibbs, former Marine turned federal investigator, turned introspective, large-hearted hero.




"The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted." -- D. H. Lawrence