Hiding Behind the Mentally Ill

In my professional life, before I began writing novels, I was a psychologist. In the course of my work, I met hundreds of wonderful, courageous, loving, generous people. They all suffered some form of mental illness.

After each drumbeat of the tragic mass shootings in our beloved country, a chant arises from the right wing of the choir.

Like any chant, it follows its rubric carefully, meticulously. (Chants, you know, have no power if they are improvised, disorderly, undisciplined. Ask any monk, any member of any choir.) The chant goes like this:

We are outraged: This evil strikes again

 For the victims and their families, women, children, men:

We send our thoughts and prayers.

 

It is too soon to speak of guns,

We must honor our departed ones,

And offer them our thoughts and prayers.

 

The killer was mentally ill, an animal, deranged.

Not like us, not like those of us who exchange

Our thoughts and prayers.

 

This chant is an obscenity.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not the anti-dote to mental illness, treatment is. But what has the present administration given us regarding mental illness? A law expanding access to guns for the mentally ill!

As if to say, “We will arm your killers, and when you are dead, we will pray for you.”

Yes, outrageous. But an even deeper outrage, to me, is the way politicians hide their cowardice toward the NRA behind tough language about mentally ill persons. Their veiled (but only thinly veiled) implication is that every mentally ill person is a potential mass murderer. If “mental illness” causes mass shootings, then . . . This is not only nonsense, it is insidious, hateful nonsense. It casts a shadow on every law-abiding, loving, hard-working person who happens to suffer from a mental illness.

If I were to twist the truth in the same way about gun owners, I could write: “All mass shooters are gun owners. The problem here isn’t guns, it’s owning a gun.” (This is a variant on the NRA’s “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It just takes it one logical step further—therefore, owning a gun is the problem.) But that would be nothing else than hateful, dishonest, and cruel nonsense, equal in depravity to “guns don’t kill people, mentally ill people kill people.”

Just as millions of gun owners are lawful, decent, caring human beings and the gun owners who kill are a vanishingly small number of them, so too millions of Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness are upright, caring, and decent people and the number of mass shooters with mental illness is infinitely small. To tar all those good people in either group with the cowards’ brush—“We don’t have a gun problem here, we have a mental illness problem”—is perhaps a more hateful and fateful evil than gun violence itself.

Why?

Because it is an evil perpetrated by those who do not need to do it, who commit it to divert attention from the real causes, the real problems, the real issues that make gun violence “as American as apple pie.” It is a vast smear against millions of decent people that further divides and weakens our country.

We don’t need to “make America great again”—it is already great.

We need to make America honest again.

Why Teach the Humanities?

In the Nov. 9, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books, author Marilynne Robinson writes an impassioned and thoughtful defense of the humanities and liberal education in general (read it here). She reminds us that liberal education—under attack from many quarters in our rapidly deteriorating intellectual climate—is “an education worthy of a free people.” As she says, “[T]he object [of political attacks on public higher education in general and the teaching the humanities in particular] is clear—to create a virtual army out of the general population who will compete successfully against whomever for whatever into an endless future, at profound cost to themselves.” Education as boot camp for robot-like workers in the perfect capitalist economy.

Then, wryly, she adds, “All this differs from military engagement in one great particular. The generals [CEOs, in this case] are always assumed to be free to abandon their armies and go over to the other side, if there is profit in it.”

The attack on the humanities arises, she contends, out of an insistent belief that public education should be oriented only to “skills training” for the competitive economy. This article of faith is in turn driven by a world view  (dare I say “religion”?) that defines competition as the only meaningful criterion of value.

In defending the humanities and liberal education, Robinson notes that “literature had been made a kind of data to illustrate, supposedly, some graceless theory that stood apart from it, and that would be shed in a year or two and replaced by something post- or neo- and in any case as gracelessly irrelevant to a work of language as whatever it displaced.” We’re all familiar with “modernism,” “post-modernism,” “constructivism,” “post-constructivism,” “neo-post-constructivism,” and on and on. Trendy—and empty—when you set those theories side by side with Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, From Here to Eternity, or Ulysses.

But she ends on a hopeful note. “And yet, the beautiful persists,” she writes, “and so do eloquence and depth of thought, and they belong to all of us because they are the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.”

“. . . the most pregnant evidence we can have of what is possible in us.” A call to grace in a graceless time.

“Taking a Knee”

Last weekend, we went to our grandson’s 7th grade football game. Midway through the game, after a hard tackle, he didn’t get up. His dad was a linesman, carrying the down marker; his mom was sitting beside my wife, her mother. Our breaths caught in our chests as the doctor rushed out, and knelt at the side of our grandson’s small body.

As she and the coaches were gathered round Aspen, the boys on the field were taking a knee. Sudden memory returned—when I was a boy, my football coaches trained us to take a knee when a player was down, perhaps injured. Taking a knee was a sign of respect, of concern and attention and almost of prayer.

Taking a knee, in football, symbolizes acknowledgement that an injury has occurred and that attention should be paid. We attended, watchful with worry, until Aspen stood up and we burst in applause.

And as that happened, I realized something.

Most of you, no doubt, have been aware of the controversy about the NFL players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem. What I realized is that Colin Kaepernick—and now more than a hundred NFL players, and some MLB players—are taking a knee because there has been an injury to which they want to attend, to express concern, to show respect for the injured, perhaps to have a moment of prayer:

For the injury of racial injustice and the lingering sin of white supremacy in America, the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Basho, Wisdom, and War

This morning, after the U.S. sent bombers and fighter jets perilously close to the airspace of North Korea over the weekend, the foreign minister of that country countered with a chilling statement:

Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho – CBC News

“Donald Trump [in a Tweet in which he said that Kim Jong-Un ‘won’t be around much longer’] has declared war on us,” and added that N. Korea has a right, as any country at war has, to shoot down American planes even outside their air space.

Friends, this is horrifying.

After I read the foreign minister’s words, I glanced down at my desk where a yellowed index card has rested, hidden under scraps of other notes and desk clutter, for years. It contains a translation of a haiko by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). I picked it up and re-read it, and it brought tears to my eyes:

How fortunate the man

who sees a flash of lightning and

does not think “how brief life is.”

When I see the flashes of lightning striking out between Trump’s tweets and the madman of North Korea, I cannot help but think how brief life is. We are still bearing the burdens of the longest war of our country’s history, yet our president wishes us into another that will dwarf the agonies of Afghanistan and Iraq. And those countries have no nuclear arms (although our last Republican war-mongerer lied to us that Iraq indeed posed such a threat). We stand on the brink, once again. And again, we’re asking, Why?

How brief life is. I was a little boy during the Korean War, a teen and young adult during the Vietnam War. As a young man, I watched the invasions of Panama and Grenada and then the first Gulf war. In my middle age, it was the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. How brief life is when you can count your years by their wars. And how full of rage–or cowardice– my country’s leaders seem, as they stand silent while Trump strains to unleash war—by words, and, he seems to desire, by weapons of mass destruction.

Basho was so right—how fortunate the person is who, hearing yet again the drums of war brought out and pounded, does not think how brief life is.

My ten-minute timer just notified me that my time is up. I pray that our leaders find the sanity to hear their alarms before all our time is up.

J.S. Bach, Stephen King, And Creating Suspense

At readings or book club gatherings, I’m often asked some variation on the question, “When you’re working on a book, how do you ____?” Sometimes it’s “. . . come up with your ideas?” Sometimes, it’s “. . . develop your characters?” One of the most interesting questions is, “How do you create suspense?”

The usual answer is, of course, to hint at some trouble that’s going to happen to an important character, but don’t give enough information that the reader can figure out what it’s going to be. This advice is useful to a point, but for me, at least, it’s easier said than done. When I’m writing, I know what’s going to happen, and I can get far too confident that I’ve nicely concealed it from the reader. But like Freudian slips of the tongue, unconscious slips-of-information find their way into the writing, sometimes in the form of hints that go too far, at other times not-so-subtle clues that I hadn’t meant to divulge till later.

This is why an evaluation and critique by a good editor is so important. Even before I send a manuscript off to my editor, Lorna Lynch, my wife Michele will have often read a passage and said, “You’re making it too obvious. I’ve figured it out already!” (Back to the manuscript for another re-write!)

I follow a number of writers’ craft websites, where experienced writers offer advice on the multitude of “how to do its” that comprise the writing craft. This morning I came across a fascinating video by an editor, Dave King, in which he discusses how to generate strong suspense in a novel. What’s fascinating, though, is that as he explains his points, he illustrates them by playing a segment of the monumental Fantasia and Fugue in A-Minor, by J.S. Bach.

Being an organist myself—well, having studied pipe organ for about eight years in my teens and early twenties—this music is one of my most beloved pieces by my all-time most cherished composer for pipe organ. So, it was doubly exciting to hear Dave King play the segment he played, and also to see how skillfully he used it to illustrate what Stephen King (no relation to Dave) does to create suspense in his books.

Like to hear the music and what Dave King tells us about creating suspense? It’s at the Writer Unboxed website. I promise you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll learn (or re-learn) something about good writing!

Okay, my ten-minute timer just went off, so I’m off, too. See you next week.

Thinking of the poor after Harvey, Irma, and Katia

(This post is another in my ongoing experiment with writing for only ten minutes. Period. I do allow for an additional ten minutes for proofreading. Please let me know what you think.)

My friend, Lou Kavar (whose blog at http://blog.loukavar.com) is well worth following) posted a meaningful link that reminds us that it is all well and good for governors to order evacuations in the face of hurricanes, but that the story is more complicated than that.

The article in The Guardian tells the stories of “two Hurricane Irmas.” The first descends on the wealthy citizens of Miami Beach, many of whom have second homes elsewhere and can afford to travel there, or they have houses designed to withstand hurricanes like this, with hurricane-proof windows or built-in shutters and backup generators and plenty of fuel. Their pantries are stocked with many days’ worth of food and water—these are folks who can afford to leave OR to stay.

The second Hurricane Irma descends on the inner city of Liberty Beach, a few miles north of Miami Beach, whose residents either haven’t got cars to escape in or cash for enough gas to get safely away. Those who might be able to get out often can’t afford lodging if they can’t find a public shelter. Many, the article asserts, can barely buy enough groceries for today’s meals, much less three or four days’ stock of bottled water. These folks, like the wealthy of Miami Beach only a few miles away, will also ride out the storm, not because they are safe, but because they have little choice.

Farther south, in the Caribbean, some of the islands devastated by Irma are coming to grips with the reality that their communities have, effectively, been destroyed. 95% of the buildings on St. Maartin, for instance, have been damaged or destroyed. The devastation on the island of Anguilla (where my great-grandparents once lived), was worse. Across the path of Irma, countless families are homeless.

Last week, Harvey. This week, Irma. Next week, Jose?

Katia in Mexico.

These storms do not discriminate between the wealthy and the poor. But their impact does, and because you and I contribute to the recovery effort, let’s be sure we do not. Let’s not forget.

My ten minutes is up. See you next week!

Some Thoughts After Harvey

It’s heartbreaking to see the video of all the people being displaced by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Just heartbreaking. The images bring to mind those  of the refugees from Syria washing ashore in Greece, utterly displaced in every possible way.

Two years ago, in a cool Budapest park, we heard a talk by a college professor who had started a movement of professors and ordinary folks. Their goal? To protect and to care for the tens of thousands of refugees who’d made their way to Budapest and were stuck in its three huge train stations, nowhere left to go. The Hungarian government—led by racist nationalists—refused to help the refugees, and instead built a wall on the border to keep more of them out. Sound familiar?

Anyway, this gentleman mobilized hundreds,  then thousands of people to create tent cities, provide food and supplies and medical care, and generally provide the basic human necessities to the suffering refugees. A modern saint, and a movement of honorable citizens more moral than their government.

The images from Houston and Corpus Christi and Crosby and Beaumont and the other cities devastated by the storm show ordinary people doing the same thing, time and again. Helping old people onto boats to rescue them from the flood. Establishing shelters and attending to the basic human needs of the thousands of Texans who escaped death with hardly anything of their own.

Meanwhile, the president’s budget proposal cuts disaster relief. Medical research. Funding for flood insurance through FEMA. Funding for FEMA itself. What takes priority? More war in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A wall on our southern border. Redistributing more of our national treasure to the wealthy, who already own so much of it.

There are floods and hurricanes and wildfires. There are earthquakes. There are killing blizzards and murderous heat waves. None of these are under our control, and we all know they are getting worse. As I write, we are surrounded by hundreds of wildfires around the northern Rockies, their smoke utterly obscuring our view. But far more damaging, there are also the moral outrages and the incessant drumbeat of war, the disruptions of our rights and our freedoms, the rallying fascists who feel so emboldened, and the vacating of our values in favor of those who would turn America into an oligarchy.

My ten minutes have passed, and I must stop. So this ends on a sorrowful note. I apologize for that. Next week’s ten-minute post will be the antidote—but perhaps sorrow is not inappropriate for a time like this. Meanwhile, I will look for the hope.

“Small Everyday Acts of Kindness”

(I’m still experimenting with writing these posts in ten minutes or fewer. I’d love to hear from you about what you think of them!)

Gandalf, the great wizard in Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, was asked why he’d chosen a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to go up against Sauron, the evil lord who threatened the existence of goodness itself. Gandalf answered, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Frodo Baggins? I am afraid. He is small, but he gives me courage.”

In our world, it seems to be the case that many people think differently. I listen, particularly, to certain of our politicians, whom I can only conclude must be terrified, to judge from their relentless rhetoric of war and their chest-thumping cruelty. It is as if by threatening, by promising death and destruction, by blithely ripping families apart and condemning a generation to poverty, these men—and they are always men—think they can have their way with whomever they wish. Can they?

I doubt it. We wanted to have our way in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and now North Korea in 2017. After 16 years, we are still in Afghanistan, after 14 we’re still in Iraq, and we’re not getting our way. We wanted to have our way in 1950 in Korea as well, and we are still there, still bellowing in frustrated fury at its leaders.

“Small everyday deeds,” said Gandalf, “keep the darkness at bay.” He was too wise to think that anything could make the darkness vanish and give victory to the light. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is to hold off the darkness, and whatever small everyday deeds of kindness and compassion that you and I can perform will do so.

But what small everyday deed can I do that will keep North Korea or ISIS or any threat at bay? I think that’s not the right question: On the world stage, nothing you or I, as individuals, do will stop the Saurons of our time, nothing, that is, except to vote carefully and to pressure our representatives in government to do the same, and keep pushing for the best. A better question is: What small act can I perform today that will improve my life, my family, my community, the world around me?

The Ring of Power has been handed to each of us, as it was to Frodo, and each of us must find our own particular small everyday act to perform, faithfully, in order to play our small role in the great deeds of our time.

Well, my ten minutes are up. I’ll see you next week!

Context is Everything

Context is Everything

(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with allowing myself only ten minutes to write my blog posts. So far, it’s been fun. Today’s experiment should be fun too.)

In writing fiction (well, in anything that people do together), context is all-important. I’ll stick to fiction, but consider: If you didn’t know the context of President Trump’s infamous blaming of the victims of the Charlottesville fascist rally, you would not realize how wrong his “there’s blame on both sides, on many sides” was. So, to fiction: If the context of a dialog or a series of actions and interactions is clear enough to the reader, much can be left out. Result: The writing can be leaner, faster, cleaner.

For example, consider this piece of dialog in light of its context: A young woman is being seduced by an older man who, despite his age, holds an unaccountable allure for her. And he knows it, knows that she is almost ready to succumb:

She says, “No, this is wrong.”

“Ah, but no one is watching.”

Without knowing the context, a lot of additional dialog would be needed, because the reader would not know how close the girl is to agreeing, nor how well the man understands her. Context allows a great deal to be left out, which in turn permits the reader to exercise much more imagination.

Let me illustrate the importance of context another way, with a marvelous joke that makes exquisite use of missing context:

Farmer Joe was suing a trucking company for injuries sustained in an accident. In court, the company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Farmer Joe.

“Didn’t you say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?” asked the lawyer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule, Bessie, into the trailer and . . .”

“I didn’t ask for any details,” the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?”

Farmer Joe continued, “Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and I was driving down the road . . .”

The lawyer objected. “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman that he was just fine. Now, several months later, he’s suing my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”

But the judge was interested in Farmer Joe’s story and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his mule, Bessie.”

Joe thanked the judge and proceeded. “Well, I’d just loaded Bessie into the trailer and was driving her down the highway when this huge semi-truck and trailer ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Bessie was thrown into the other. I was hurting real bad and couldn’t move. However, I could hear ole Bessie moaning and groaning, so I knew she was in terrible shape.

“A highway patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moaning so he went over to her. After he looked at her, he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then he crossed the road with his gun in his hand and looked at me.

“He said, ‘Your mule was in such bad shape I had to shoot her. How are you feeling?’ ”

Context is everything!

Okay, my ten minutes is up. Hope you enjoyed this one. See you next time.

Ripples that Reveal

Three groups of people specialize in studying ripples: Detectives, psychologists, and people who fish. That’s right, fisher-people. Why?

Ripples point to something hidden, something lurking just below the surface. When I fished, there were two kinds of things I looked for. First was the kind of under-water structure (submerged trees, weed beds, gravel beds, and so on) where fish hunt for food. Dropping the bait in where they were, and making sure it was the kind of bait the fish liked, usually led to a catch.

Well, sometimes. Okay, now and then.

The second thing I looked for was ripples that didn’t match the pattern of waves, ripples suggesting something moving below the surface–like a fish traveling nearby. The underwater structure created a context that promised fish, and the presence of an occasional ripple above that structure suggested the movement of a fish. “Something’s there! Cast!”

Detectives and psychologists look for a different kind of ripples, although they really are similar to those in the water: They look for unexplained disturbances in the field. (I borrowed the phrase “disturbances in the field” from the excellent novel of the same name by Lynn Sharon Schwartz.) Like the ripples in the water when a stone is thrown into it, these disturbances in the field—the “field” being the client’s usual emotional equilibrium or everyday behavior or the suspect’s story, alibis, and emotional demeanor—suggest something disturbing below. The client seeking help in building self-confidence who, unexpectedly, suffers a panic attack at the mention of her father. The unassuming neighbor who starts receiving strange visitors late at night and suddenly buys a flashy new car.

Such disturbances in the person’s normal presentation of self are suggestive—nothing more—of some anomaly. If the disturbance in the field recurs—for example, if the mention of the client’s father again generates an unexpected anxiety, or the quiet stay-at-home neighbor buys a Porsche and then suddenly flies off to Monaco—the psychologist or the detective may now have a pattern to start analyzing. And that pattern may—or may not—lead to a discovery of something important. Like a fish hidden in the lake.

My ten minutes are up, so next week, I’ll write about how, in my current work-in-progress, “A Patriot’s Campaign,” such ripples make the main character, Deputy Andi Pelton, suspect something is going on with her antagonist, Deputy Brad Ordrew. See you then!