Statement From Minnesota Public Radio

I link to the published statement of Minnesota Public Radio concerning the firing of Garrison Keillor today, and the termination of MPR’s relationship with A Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac.

If it is now gone forever, I shall miss The Writer’s Almanac.  In both its radio and print versions, it was one of the very few outlets to feature serious poetry from gifted writers, and its daily commentary on noteworthy persons in literary history was some of the best brief work around.



What Is Writing?

The late novelist James Salter, to whom success came at an age when the careers of other writers are winding down, not only explains “Why I Write” in this extended passage, but also what writing is.  His final two paragraphs are especially striking:

“A great book may be an accident, but a good one is a possibility, and it is thinking of that that one writes. In short, to achieve. The rest takes care of itself, and so much praise is given to insignificant things that there is hardly any sense in striving for it.

In the end, writing is like a prison, an island from which you will never be released but which is a kind of paradise: the solitude, the thoughts, the incredible joy of putting into words the essence of what you for the moment understand and with your whole heart want to believe.”

Salter actually uses two metaphors in his last sentence–“prison” and “island,” which suggests to me that he, like most writers, is conflicted about the level of commitment which the writing life demands of us.  It is a puzzle to me why he uses the phrase “be released” rather than the word “escape” in the sentence, since “escape” is what most writers want by the end of the day, even if they are as fully aware as Salter is of the happiness we feel when we know we are on the trail of producing good work.  (The metaphor of the Old West trail, by the way, would be my own choice to express the process we all go through.)

Writing can feel like time in a prison, I’m sure.  Millions of school and university students have doubtless felt that way going back hundreds of years.  But for those who sense the beauty of language, the fun of putting it together, and the power to move people that the finished product often has, the most proper metaphor, I believe, following Salter’s thought, has to be of a writer who willingly strands himself on an island, surrounded by beauties and wonders and terrors which must be described, but only by means of drawing from the enormous sea of words which also surrounds us.  The writer, like all other artists, is faced daily with an impossible task:  she must select from the realm of that infinite sea a combination of words which will breathe life and substance into the forms and thoughts that exist for us here on our tiny slivers of dry land.  No challenge is more daunting yet more thrilling than this one.  And no thought is more comforting than the realization, even at our most frustrated moments, that the task can be done, and is done, every day, by writers who are no less talented than we are.


James Baldwin’s Home

James Baldwin’s home in France will, apparently, be destroyed after all.  Socri, the owner of the property, plans to put up an apartment complex in its place, to be opened by June of 2019.

The effort to preserve Baldwin’s house, which he had lived in since the late 1940s, was a noble undertaking, but despite the warmth and respect with which the expatriate American was received by the French, there was, evidently, not enough sentiment among the people to preserve his place.  It would have been a good idea to start a writer’s and artist’s colony on the property, as some preservationists intended.  Now, there will be nothing there but another monument to progress that will last barely a decade.

I don’t even know whether to hope for a marker of some kind near where the house stood.  There should be one.  It ought to stand, not necessarily for Baldwin himself (he would be the first to acknowledge that he was merely a man), but for his words and the burning clarity of his thoughts.

He wrote about race relations in every line, but what distinguishes him from the present generation of social justice warriors is that his prose was inclusive.  He knew, in his bones, that every single person–white, black, European, Asian–had a stake in solving America’s race problem and he addressed those groups.  It is true that he separated himself from America in the 40s because he found the living conditions here intolerable, but he never spoke or wrote the language of separatism.  The United States, in all her intolerance, her ugly racism, her do-nothing religiosity, was still his country, and he fought as a writer does, with the only tools at his command–his words–to make others see that black people, African-Americans, as we now call them, were, and deserved to be, full citizens of the nation.  He exposed the hypocrisy of the political right and left on a daily basis, but neither he nor his prose ever once lost dignity in doing so.  The tribes of anonymous rabble who populate our present-day social media would have found a formidable adversary in Baldwin.  He could say exactly what he meant in 280 characters, and the strokes of his keys would be so sharp that his opponents would never feel a thing until others pointed out that the blood was flowing.

Yet, there was sympathy in Baldwin, too, sometimes abounding.  He honored the various survival strategies black people had developed since their forced entry into America:  the gospel churches, the music, the extended families, and he knew well the subterranean lives thousands of people had to live because society would not acknowledge their sexuality.  All of these concerns found their way into his essays and his fiction, and he wrote about them with feeling and warmth.  I’m tempted to say that every line he ever wrote was meant to bring him closer to home, but that’s not right.  In a strong sense, Baldwin the expatriate never left this country; in that sense, neither did James Joyce leave Ireland.  It’s more accurate to say that every line he ever wrote was designed, not to tear our country apart, but to show us where the frayed seams already were, and to suggest some threads we might use to stitch the fabric back together.

In thinking so, and in writing so, Baldwin held no illusions.  No one has to be a historian or an anthropologist or a sociologist to realize the embittering truth that humanity does not, never has, and might never live well together in massive groups.  The whole history of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and America is riven with the evidence of minority groups trodden upon or wiped out, and aggrieved groups reaching daily for the throats of those in power.  What’s remarkable–and it is more and more remarkable, as the days go by–is that our own particular American experiment has lasted as long as it has.  Some people, contemplating the follies of our current President or she-who-would-have-been President, or our bumbling leaders in the House and Senate, may see that experiment in its death throes, but I don’t think Baldwin would see it that way.  He would see it alive and damaged by both its friends and its enemies, but he would see it as worth repairing, worth preserving, so that the gains we’ve made in race relations and human understanding over the last century might not be lost, like his house and perhaps ours, forever.



Amazon’s Threat To Democracy

Since I buy most of my books these days from Amazon, I have watched with interest, as many of you have, the company’s recent efforts to entice bids from various cities to host construction of its second corporate headquarters.

Some of the bids are secret; only the cities involved know what’s in them.  Others are public, and certainly novel:  Chicago, for instance, has proposed that Amazon itself be granted control over how an estimated $1.32 billion in employee-generated taxes will get spent.  That tax money will not necessarily be spent on city or county services (fire departments or police departments) or civil improvements (water projects, schools, or roads).  If Amazon were to accept Chicago’s offer, it would, for all practical purposes, turn everything within Amazon’s dominion into a company town, a practice that hasn’t been seen on a wide scale in this country since the 1940s.

Two other proposals go even further.  Boston and Fresno, CA would both create special boards (in Boston’s case, the board would be Boston city workers) solely devoted to servicing Amazon’s needs.  Fresno, though it offers none of the traditional tax breaks that usually draw corporations to move their headquarters, has offered to create a board–half Amazon employees, half Fresno city employees–to oversee the expenditure of 85% of the tax revenue that Amazon will generate.  The effect of this decision, if it is made–will be to make Amazon an enormous part of city government.  The company won’t need to exert PR pressure on the city council to get what it wants, as big corporations like Disney have traditionally done in places like Anaheim.  Amazon won’t need to because they’ll already own the town.

The tax breaks traditionally given companies create a “win-win” situation:  the companies get an easier financial burden to bear as they expand into an area, and the cities involved use the tax breaks they have given as leverage to keep the corporations from swallowing municipalities as a whole.

Under the current proposals, the leverage cities would use to maintain their sovereignty has been completely swept away.  It is one thing to have influence, as the oil and chemical companies have in Houston and Pasadena, TX; it is quite another to have control over every aspect of citizens’ lives, which is what the various bidders, desperate as they are for tax revenue, are ceding to Amazon.  It is bad enough that Fresno is willing to tell itself that tax revenues already go into a “civic black hole” on the fringe of town and thus should go to Amazon.  Worse, opponents of the proposal inside Fresno now envision placards saying, “This park brought to you by Amazon,” with the company’s smiling logo underneath.  To my mind, that conjures up visions of a Detroit dominated by OCP–Omni Consumer Products–in Robocop, or all of western culture being controlled by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation in the Alien movies.  Except that those companies were fictional.  Amazon is quite real.

As a believer in capitalism and a sometime admirer of Jeff Bezos himself, I am inclined most of the time to defend both the entity and the man.  Corporations which generate tax revenues for communities have every right to voice their opinions and exert whatever influence they can under the law.  But the proposals now under consideration go way, way beyond allowing lawful influence.  They make a corporation–a huge one–the center of government itself, with no checks upon its decision-making power.  Other cities, having recognized that threat, have withdrawn from the bidding.  But Chicago, Boston, Fresno, and Newark, NJ, among others, remain.  Each city seems quite willing to yield its identity and democracy itself in exchange for dollars which may, but probably won’t, go toward sustaining the life of the entire community.


Reality Check

Bryan Curtis over at The Ringer, a sports blog, offers us an essay on what life is like for some in the wake of ESPN’s massive layoff of writers earlier this year.  He focuses, as any good journalist would do, on one man–Jayson Stark–but that man stands in for the multitudes who are living in the same situation after being laid off from the website they used to work for, the magazine for which they used to write, the newspaper to which they devoted a career.

The thought occurred to me as I read the piece is that what Stark and others so affected are now going through is what happens to every writer, every day, and it’s been that way for a long, long time.  Every writer is adrift, always seeking the next outlet, the next place to publish an article and thereby pay the rent.  Stark himself knows this, which is the main reason he refuses to feel sorry for himself.  He keeps going–on Facebook and God knows where else–because he can’t do anything else.  He’s a writer, and writers gotta write.

In a way, I compose these words with a heavy sigh, because the damage has already been done.  The layoffs have already happened, and there’s nothing anybody can do about them.  Yet, I’m stubborn enough to want to continue to complain about the situation because I thought ESPN was crazy–nay, suicidal–when they made the cuts, and I still think so.

The battle was not strictly economic.  The battle was “word” versus “video,” and video won.  ESPN let go just about every real writer, every real thinker, every real analyst they had.  (As a side note, they also let go of almost everyone who validated their questionable claim to be “the worldwide leader in sports,” but that’s another issue entirely.)  There’s nobody left who can break down the complexities of a game, of labor relations between owners and players, or of the ramifications of an athlete’s actions in society.  There are, on the other hand, plenty of people left who simply shout at each other all day in the name of entertainment (the “E” in ESPN):  Stephen A. Smith, the regular participants on Around the Horn, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon (two print guys who have found lasting happiness yelling playfully at each other every weekday on Pardon the Interruption).

The moves at ESPN are, of course, part of the much-larger movement away from word-based discourse in the world.  We have decided, the world over, that it is better to know instantly that things are happening than it is to know what is happening.  This shift toward immediacy and away from analysis and interpretation has enormous consequences for the survival of rational discourse in our politics and in our society.  Just give us the pictures, we seem to be saying, and we’ll figure out the truth for ourselves.

Well, some of us can; but thousands of us, perhaps millions, can’t.  Video didn’t fully explain the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; it doesn’t fully capture the effects of flooding in Texas, either, or the complexities of trying to rebuild damaged areas.  For the truth that video can’t provide, we need those skilled in putting words down on paper and on a screen.  We cannot truly live without them or the work that they do.

Layoffs happen every day in every field of endeavor, and every one of them hurts us in some way.  But those layoffs that rob us of our common privilege and responsibility to write and read and communicate with each other are especially damaging.  We have already started to see some of the worst effects:  laughably bad headlines because no one proofreads at the newspaper; truncated news stories with barely a paragraph of content; constant reliance on slideshows with captions in place of deeper analysis; and, worst of all, blaring video (both ads and content) that actually interferes with the story readers are trying to read.

In the face of all these developments, writers and other thoughtful people can do only one thing:  continue to write; continue to think; continue to get the word out.  Facebook has a word limit; so does Twitter.  But there are no limits to courage or to imagination.  The means of expression have not been denied to us.  As long as we have them, we must continue to use them, both to make a living and to contribute our share to society as a whole.




The Day After

Thanksgiving turned out to be splendid for all of my family.  We have abundant leftovers of some truly succulent turkey to tide us over the weekend, and my nephew’s boyfriend provided us a corn casserole, which is a new and quite delicious side dish I am going to add to my own repertoire some day.  The boyfriend is a vegetarian, which could have made yesterday an ordeal for him, but he’s also a good sport, and he has evidently adapted to meat-heavy holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas pretty well.

I am not a vegetarian myself, although I have kept the broccoli growers on the West Coast solvent now for many years, and I have eaten most of the corn there is in Iowa.  If there are  advantages to being a vegetarian, a key one has to be that the life is extraordinarily economical.  It costs relatively little to put together recipes for an evening’s meal, and there’s always the opportunity to use ingredients that are lovely in themselves, but often hard to use because they must be used immediately to avoid spoiling–mushrooms, for instance.

Food blogger Deb Perelman knows quite a bit about making economical meals.  Her regular blog, Smitten Kitchen, has many recipes based on the idea of using what we have on hand, and she’s not wedded to the idea that meat must be a component of every meal.  Some of you may know of her work and her cookbooks already.  I did not, until recently.  She began her writing career by blogging about weekend dates that went bad (a poor girl’s version of Taylor Swift, perhaps?) but after she met and married the man who became her husband, she rebranded herself and renamed her blog Smitten Kitchen.

In addition to going light on meat, I hear tell Perelman has a hard time cooking fish–as do we all.  There is one strong suggestion I would make to her and to you:  go over to Walmart or Amazon and get a T-Fal Optigrill, an indoor grill that cooks meat and fish by temperature.  The various temperatures are color-coded (yellow for Rare, orange for Medium, and red for Well Done).  Operation of the machine is thus goof-proof, and I have had excellent results with both fish and red meat.  If you’re not fond of grill marks on your food, I believe there’s a new model of Optigrill that cooks without them.  And if the idea of buying an infomercial product concerns you, then keep in mind that other companies, like Breville and Williams-Sonoma, also make indoor grills that will give you good service.  You’ll be free to put on your food whatever rubs or sauces or spices you wish, and you’ll be happy with the speed at which your entree is done.

Like almost everyone else, the Lauck household has one of those ubiquitous microwave ovens built-in over a standard below-the-stove oven, and we use it for reheating our coffee and the multitude of leftovers we have on long holiday weekends like these.  I recently invested, however, in a Breville multi-function toaster oven, and my sister and I use it almost exclusively now for all the foods that one might cook in a standard oven–including reheating that turkey.  The unit doesn’t heat up the whole kitchen, as a standard oven will, and it cooks about four minutes or so faster than a standard oven will.  (I learned that after burning the first frozen pizza I tried to cook in there.)  So far, we have baked and broiled and roasted and toasted with great success, and there are still functions we have not used yet.  If you are seeking to add, as I was, a little more versatility to your kitchen, the Breville toaster oven–either the 7-in-1 or 9-in-1 model–would be a good purchase to consider.  The various models are pricey (around $300), but they’re well-made and they do what they say they will do, which is exactly what we should expect out of our appliances the day after a holiday–or any other day of the week, for that matter.


Why I Like *The Scarlet Letter*

Novelist Tom Perrotta says it best:

“In this bewildering, depressing, and sometimes cathartic moment of sexual upheaval, when every day brings new revelations about the predations and misbehavior of powerful men, I’m grateful for The Scarlet Letter, that most prophetic of classic American novels. Hawthorne saw it all — the explosive intersection of power and desire, the punishment of the victim, the hypocrisy of the perpetrator, and the complicity of the culture. But he was also writing about a different time, when people still believed in sin, and were capable of shame. Dimmesdale literally dies of a guilty conscience; we’re living in the age of scripted apologies and defiant denials, led by a proud pussy-grabbing president who is incapable of shame and revels in his own hypocrisy. For all of its darkness, though, The Scarlet Letter is about Hester’s resilience and ultimate triumph; it’s a true survivor’s story.”

I made many of these same points many months ago, but there is both value and virtue in Perrotta’s brevity.  His comments are part of a long feature on books that twenty-two writers happen to be thankful for.  That feature is worth reading today, and I wish you and yours the most pleasant of afternoons, whatever you happen to be doing.