"Why shouldn't things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together."
--George Santayana

Benthic Zone

I published “Benthic Zone” in summer 2012 in Thunder Sandwich, but never posted it to this site, so I thought I’d reprise a version of it here. 

You say, “Hello, Thomas, I haven’t heard from you for so long. Lydia and I were worried.”

I pause, thinking how strange your voice sounds. As if the underwater communications cable had a leak. Your words gargle.

“I’ve been very busy, Dad,” I hear myself saying, wondering if my words, like yours, sound like mouthwash. I try to think of the next thing to say, but it doesn’t come to me. I let the background noise fill in the time. A long moment passes.

“Well. So you’ve been busy,” you answer, as if you needed to remind me.

My brow furrows. “Yes, too busy. I’m finishing up revisions for my latest book—the publisher wants them yesterday—and getting ready to go to Munich for a workshop.”

“Ah, the life of a famous novelist.”

“Well, novelist,” I say. “Don’t know about the ‘famous’ part.” I’m satisfied with my modesty and I smile.

“And how is Paula?” you ask. I think you ask this as a demonstration, but perhaps your care is genuine.

“Fine, fine. She’s been busy too.” I pause, wondering, as I always do, how much detail to go into. You are not someone who has spent time trying to understand contemporary art. I leave it at this: “She’s got a new exhibit opening in Düsseldorf next month, and she’s been rushing around like crazy getting everything coordinated. She’s a little frazzled.”

“Ah-hah,” you say, which irritates me since your tone suggests discovery or understanding. I think: you do not discover, much less understand.

More time passes. I imagine benthic creatures—lanternfish, bristlemouths, viperfish—inhabitants of the deepest part of the ocean, neighbors of the submarine communications cables that multinational corporations have spent billions of dollars laying and maintaining. Are the creatures eavesdropping on our stilted words as they cross back and forth along the ocean floor? Do they feel the same pressure I feel when I talk to you? Do they know—do they care—what would happen to them if they floated up to shallower zones? Do they think how the change in pressure would kill them as they move up the layers of the water column, away from their refuge of deep-water cold where light does not penetrate? Away from where they live off the organic matter that sinks down from upper levels?

“Lydia is fine, by the way,” you say.

“Alright.” I say this purposely. Not “good” or “glad to hear it,” but just “alright.” I make a point of saying as little as possible about Lydia. In fact, I try not to speak her name. I say, “your wife,” for example, when I talk to you, if I have to bring her up at all. You’ve stopped reminding me she is my stepmother. Forty years ago you left mom to marry that woman. So you live with her, and you leave me out of it.

“It would be nice if you at least sent her a birthday card,” you say. I let the benthic creatures speak for me. Why would you bring this up again in a trans-Atlantic telephone conversation? Probably because I haven’t seen you for ten years, the last time you visited Berlin, with that woman, the last time you were healthy enough to get on a plane and fly overseas. You feel you don’t have many chances to remind me there is a minimum standard of civility I ought to observe.

“Look, son, I have something to tell you. Important news. I wanted to discuss this with you face-to-face, but since that’s impossible…”

Did the lanternfish swimming along the cable now cast its light on our words? Could that light travel along the cable just as our vowels and consonants do? Should I shield my eyes?

“I know you vowed never to come back,” you say. I should take this as a mild reproach, nothing more. I’ve heard it so many times. But I’m reminded of something more serious, Zola’s J’accuse.

I say nothing. I keep my words to myself, or between me and the lanternfish. Summer 1968. The summer after the Summer of Love. After they killed Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. After Chicago, the convention, the beatings, the Yippies. After the Tet Offensive, which shocked Americans into realizing that the Vietnam War could not be won. The violence, the draft, the drugs, and the bleeding soldiers and peasants on the CBS News. After Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, because he had lost Cronkite, and that meant losing Middle America, and that part of Wisconsin you still live in, where I once lived with you and mom, my real mom, the one whose funeral I missed. The one you abandoned, divorced. It has been that long, and I have kept my vow, despite your anger, then your silence, and then our slow, miserable reconciliation of sorts, and your three trips to see Paula and me here in our comfortable apartment in Berlin’s Rudeloffweg. And my absence, which I once wrote about in a novel, a novel you have not read, I hope, entitled The Absence. The reviews were good. Not great, but good, at least for a political novel, which is not to everyone’s taste.

“I’ve had to make a tough decision,” you say. My God, just say it, I think. I’m a busy man, and the water pressure in the benthic zone is unbearable for all but the most stoic of creatures, like the bristlemouth, the Marcus Aurelius of the deep-water world.

“I’m ninety years old,” you go on. “People ask me how I feel and I say ‘ninety’.”

There is a pause. Should I chuckle? Are you trying to lighten the mood? To what purpose? You were always a joker.

“The long and the short of it, Thomas, is this.” Another few seconds pass. Or are they hours? Are you trying to increase the narrative tension? I hear no waves of background hiss, no crackles or clicks of indeterminate origin. No gargling. The connection is as clear as it can be, a marvel of global communications, with no interference from my friends, the bottom feeders, and the even deeper feeders who don’t glide a few inches above the ocean floor but burrow underneath it, waiting for their prey. I read that once a whale got tangled in an underwater cable. I told you about it. To fill in the conversation.

“I’ve decided not to have a certain medical procedure done.”

A certain medical procedure. Had one of my students written that, I would have made an annotation: Vague. Be specific.

“Well, don’t fix what isn’t broken,” I say. I rue the words as they come out of my mouth. Given all the time and sweat I have devoted to avoiding clichés, to writing authentic words, to being authentic, complex; and I say something like this. Yet it reflects my disdain for you, doesn’t it? I take your speech (and therefore your thought) to be trite, mundane, superficial. You never swim in the benthic zone. You never reach the deep. You stay in the shallows. My words are an insult to you.

You don’t take it that way. Without pause, you say, “Well, normally I would agree with you there, son, but in this case, we already tried to fix it and it worked for a while. But no more. I’m not going to have another surgery.”

I think, surgery? Which surgery? You had heart-bypass surgery, but that was years ago, and everything was fine. Wasn’t it? What other kind of surgery? I remember: colon cancer. You had chemotherapy.

“You mean for your colon?” I say.

“No, no. That’s all okay.”

I think: Well then, for Christ’s sake, what?

“It’s for a problem I didn’t tell you about,” you say. Now you are irritating me. You’ve kept a major medical problem from me, and I am in the dark. I may choose to live in the parts of the ocean where the light never reaches, but that is my choice. You, however. You do not keep me in the dark.

“Okay, Dad,” I say. “Tell me.”

“Three years ago. I had surgery for bladder cancer. Then chemo. It was tough, I was in a lot of discomfort, feeling like I’d lost control, had to take pills for the depression. Lydia pulled me through. I couldn’t be on my own without her.”

I stay on guard with my silence.

“Funny, isn’t it? What I just said,” you say. “I couldn’t be on my own without her, but that means I’m not on my own. I’m with her. And dependent on her.”

“Yes.” I think of Lydia, the woman Paula calls “Tammy.” Because she looks like Tammy Faye did. Lydia, the woman about whom I published a short story, a runner-up for the Pushcart Prize more than fifteen years ago. A woman with a southern accent, mile-long eyelashes, too much Bible-Belt churching. Who pursues a happily married man, and gets him. Or is he so happily married? If he let Lydia, or rather Jolene, the character in the story, seduce him, then how happy was he? That’s the point. You don’t know how happy he was. You only know he is unhappy now, after Jolene turns out to be a sister of Iris, a harpy, mythical snatcher of food and men, torturer. Yet it appears my dad is happy, and thankful. And Lydia has done what a faithful spouse should do, namely care for her aging partner. So who was the story about?

“You still there, Thomas?”

“I’m still here, Dad. I had no idea you had bladder cancer, or surgery.”

Or did I? Do I recall a weakness in your voice over the phone a few years back? A brief but distinctive catch as you spoke? A hesitancy in your response, which I took to be old age? Senility. Had I just not wanted to pursue an intimation I had that there was something more?

“It’s something I didn’t want to discuss. But that’s over. The cancer has spread now, well beyond the bladder, and the prognosis isn’t good. They gave me an option, laid out the odds, and I’d rather die here at home, God willing, than on an operating table. Or in a hospital room where they’re constantly sticking and probing you.”

Now comes the time when I have to ask how long you have. Right? Since I’ve never had to ask this question before, to use precisely these words, what tone do I adopt? Mom’s death was sudden. Paula and I were in Uzbekistan, of all places, at a time when communications were thin at best, before I had a cell phone, before Gorbachev, and I didn’t hear of her death until two days after the funeral. No decision necessary. So how do I ask the necessary question? Paula tells me I need to let my heart speak more. It would improve my writing. Yet that option, like more surgery for you, has been off the table for some time. My mind will have do the talking, even if it feels waterlogged.

I flail ahead. “How long do they give you, Dad?” I’m happy with the tone, but disgusted I am thinking about how I sound to you, how I’m coming off, as you face death.

“Oh, hard to say. Probably two, three months. It’s all guesswork. Important thing now is pain regulation. Lydia sees to that. And I let the rest just take care of itself.”

You are not worried about how you sound. Your voice has a calmness to it that seems genuine even though it comes from thousands of miles away. Even though it has been transmitted underwater, through a deep-sea world that we humans know almost nothing about. Uncharted territory. You have made a decision, and you have no second thoughts. I admire you, and hate you. You don’t need my “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand” help in determining how or where you will die. No response necessary. I am the superfluous son. Bystander. The un-son. Sauve qui peut.

Again I think of how clear the connection is. As if we were next-door neighbors. As if I had come over for a beer on a cool summer evening in the small town in Wisconsin where you have lived all your life. As if we are sitting on the screened-in porch, hearing the birds settle in for the night, the faint rumble of the Interstate in the distance. I wonder if you still have that screened-in porch. Or have you remodeled? Do you still sit out there? With Lydia? I think of the many summer nights we didn’t have. Those conversations we never had are as clear as this submarine fiber-optic connection. Startlingly present in their absence.

The doorbell rings. I know who it is. Before she left the apartment in her flowing green dress and sandals, Paula reminded me her agent was coming around today, delivering important papers for her exhibition.

“Dad, I want to talk more. But I have to take a special delivery and talk over some details for ten or fifteen minutes. For Paula. It couldn’t be handled by e-mail or cell phone. I have to be the middleman. I’ll call back as soon as I’m done.”

You are impressed. I never call. You are the one who calls me. Now I have promised. “Good, Thomas, good. I’ll be waiting here by the phone.” You know I would hang up if Lydia answered. Or maybe this time it would be different.


            I sit back at my desk. The agent who smells of cigarettes has gone. I’ve done my job, listened to the instructions, and it all took no more than five minutes. Before I call you back, I open my laptop. I made a decision while the agent still chattered. I type into the search box at the upper right of the screen: L-u-f-t-h-a-n-s-a. The pressure is immense as I float upward.



A self-sustaining synthetic life form that will destroy us one day…

I’ve never posted material about sports on this site, but since the UW-Madison Badgers men’s basketball team has been so impressive under interim (soon to be permanent) coach Greg Gard, I thought, why not? This snippet comes from ESPN.

Fun fact: Wisconsin doesn’t need a win at Purdue on Saturday to preserve one of its two totemic records throughout the Bo Ryan era. On Wednesday night, the Badgers’ win at Minnesota — the 11th in their past 12 games — ensured at minimum a fourth-place finish in the Big Ten. Ryan famously never fell further than fourth in any of his 14 seasons on campus. He also never missed the tournament. His retirement in December, amid the Badgers’ ugly 9-9 start (which included losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette, all at home) seemed to guarantee those two streaks would follow Ryan out the door. Instead, the Badgers enter the final weekend of the season with both very much intact. The lesson here is that Wisconsin is not a basketball program — it is some sort of self-sustaining synthetic life form created by alien robots to destroy us all one day. It’s as good an explanation as any.


More on Flint

Rep. John Conyers, Jr., a Detroit Democrat, has recently written on the Flint water crisis in The Nation (February 17, 2016). The U.S. congressman for Michigan’s 13th District and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers makes a point relevant to my post of February 8 regarding the Flint emergency manager law and its doleful consequences for people of the city. He notes that the Snyder administration had plenty of warning signs that Flint water was undrinkable and dangerous to local residents, and he points out the anti-democratic nature of rule by emergency managers in Flint, Benton Harbor, and Detroit. Too, he stresses that Flint will not be an isolated incident unless swift political action is taken. I excerpt below the last paragraphs of the piece.

“Governor Snyder and the Republicans in Lansing responded to all of these warning signs by doubling down on the flawed [emergency manager] law. Instead of listening to the voters and their elected representatives, independent experts, and watchdogs, they passed a substitute bill during a hastily called lame-duck session that retained many of its predecessor’s deficiencies. Even worse, the legislature added an appropriations rider, thereby preventing the citizens of Michigan from being able to overturn the new law. The same failed EMs [Emergency Managers] that had been in place earlier returned to work or were recycled to other jurisdictions. For example, Darnell Earley, who presided over the Flint water debacle, was later appointed to run the Detroit public-school system, where he ignored health hazards that endanger our teachers, students, and parents.

The sad part is that there are more sensible alternatives than the heavy-handed, top-down approach to which Governor Snyder clings. There are numerous cases in which more effective legal alternatives have been used to restore fiscal stability while remaining true to the principles of representative government through the use of financial-control boards and similar supportive fiscal devices. Such methods have been used in New York City (1975), Cleveland (1978), Philadelphia (1991), Bridgeport, Connecticut (1991), the District of Columbia (1995), and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (2011), among other cities.

But after we’ve seen cities starved of desperately needed revenues; and citizens denied the right to elect their own leaders; and short-sighted, mindless budget cuts and privatization schemes; and failed EMs recycled into new jobs; and a steady drumbeat of warnings—from the courts, elected officials, independent watchdogs, and the voters themselves—ignored, the real question isn’t how the disasters in Flint and the Detroit public schools could have happened, but how many other state-made catastrophes are looming.

We can’t undo the damage already done by the lead-poisoned water in Flint, or fix the harm already caused by the deplorable conditions in Detroit’s public schools. But we can make sure that the unaccountable emergency managers responsible for these debacles—and the legal system that empowered them—are not permitted to inflict further harm on our citizens.”



More Flints to Come

My recent blog on the Flint water crisis just appeared in Huffington Post. Below is the full text along with a link to the site.

The unfolding water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a sign of things to come. Flint was one of a number of Michigan cities run by an emergency economic manager appointed by the Republican governor, Rick Snyder. It was an emergency economic manager who oversaw Flint’s switching of its water supply to the badly polluted Flint River in 2014. An emergency economic manager was in charge when Michigan state public health officials suppressed scientific evidence and ignored local residents’ complaints about the dangers of Flint water. Snyder (like his Democratic predecessors) rationalized his use of managers by arguing that the economic and fiscal woes of Flint, Detroit, Benton Harbor, and other cities and school districts were unsolvable without extraordinary measures. But his unspoken rationale was darker and more damaging—and revealing of what the future holds.

Like his counterpart Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Snyder is unremittingly ideological and beholden to business interests. One of his signal accomplishments was to have so-called right-to-work legislation passed in 2012, making him a favorite of extreme right-wing business groups throughout the country. (Walker managed the same feat in Wisconsin, once the heartland of Midwestern progressivism, in 2015). Although he, like Walker, portrays himself as a pragmatist, his brand of conservative Republicanism is deeply suspicious of democratic decision-making and committed to undoing a liberal social contract between the American people and government that has been built up over decades.

Make no mistake about the common-sense ambience of this type of Republicanism. Snyder’s commitment to “relentless positive action,” a phrase he has used to describe his let’s-get-something-done approach to all things political, is both brutal and entirely negative for all but the minority of well-to-do Michiganders who have benefited from his policies. In the guise of business-friendly, rational economic management (made possible by Republican-dominated state legislatures), the new Republican conservatism aims for destruction of democratic checks and balances and replacement of rule by the many with rule by the few. Replace “positive” with “oligarchic” in Snyder’s catchphrase, and you get a fair approximation of what this Republican brand means for most Americans.

The Flint water crisis is one example of (I shudder to use the term) collateral damage from this push toward oligarchy. Clean water, clean air, safe food—none of this comes naturally. It has required the work of dedicated public servants, critical scientists, muckraking journalists, politicians, labor activists, churches, and many others. What has transpired in a devastated rustbelt city in Michigan is one tragic consequence of the Republican party’s decades-long pushback against such popular efforts. It is a consequence of Republicans’ wish to turn government over to businessmen (like the Koch brothers) or to public servants (Republican and Democrat) who think like businessmen. They believe that democracy’s messiness is much too costly and inefficient to satisfy the single calculus that determines every decision they make: the calculus of profit. They put money over people because money is what their system of governance—not to mention their patriotism—comes down to.

There will be more disasters of this sort in the future. Perhaps in Wisconsin or Ohio or any state where Tea Party-flavored Republicans rule. If not water, then something else. The crumbling of public health safeguards in Flint is linked to a larger hollowing out of the country’s infrastructure and democratic achievements, from voting rights to women’s reproductive rights. Failed bridges and toxic drinking water are of a piece with a new Republican normal in which austerity refers not only to eviscerated government budgets but also reduced chances for ordinary people to gain control over their lives.

More Flints to Come


The Fate of Wisconsin’s Progressive Tradition

The following opinion piece by Dan Kaufman, an astute observer of Wisconsin politics and former resident of the state, seems worth considering, not least because it offers an overview of the present governor’s tenure. I include it in full here as well as a link to the New York Times (January 17, 2016) site where it appeared. The article was entitled “The Destruction of Progressive Wisconsin.”

SHORTLY after his exit from an abbreviated presidential run last fall, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin returned to a more successful undertaking: dismantling what remains of his state’s century-old progressive legacy.

Last month, Mr. Walker signed a bill that allowed corporations to donate directly to political parties. On the same day, he signed a law that replaced the state’s nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, a body that is responsible for election oversight and enforcing ethics codes, with two commissions made up of partisan appointees. Now a new bill supported by Mr. Walker, which is expected to clear the Republican-dominated Legislature with a Senate vote soon, threatens to corrupt Wisconsin’s Civil Service.

In 1905, Wisconsin became the third state to enact Civil Service reform, helping establish it as a national model for clean government. The reforms were one of the many achievements of Gov. Robert M. La Follette Sr., who later founded the Progressive Party and ran for president on its ticket. But Mr. Walker’s new Civil Service bill replaces anonymous exams with résumés, opening the door to political or racial bias that would prove almost impossible to detect because personnel files are not part of the public record.

The bill lengthens the probationary period for new employees, during which they can be fired for any reason (or no reason). And it centralizes hiring within the Department of Administration, the most politicized agency in the state’s government. Incoming résumés would be judged by one of the governor’s appointees.

Besides rewriting the hiring process for new employees and the work rules that govern some 30,000 current state workers, the bill highlights Wisconsin’s role as a laboratory for a national conservative strategy to destroy the labor movement. That experiment began in 2011 with the passage of Act 10, which all but ended collective bargaining for the state’s public employees and helped inspire more than a hundred bills across the country attacking public-sector unions.

Last year, Mr. Walker signed a “right-to-work” law that weakened privatesector unions and also marked a significant national turning point: Half of the 50 states are now right-to-work. A national right-to-work bill, which already has 18 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Senator Ted Cruz, appears increasingly possible under a Republican president.

By adding the Civil Service bill, Mr. Walker brings Wisconsin closer to the achievement of a long-sought goal of the libertarian right: universal “at-will employment.” Unlike union workers or state employees, whose collective bargaining agreements or Civil Service rules generally require employers to demonstrate “just cause” for them to be fired, at-will employees can be terminated at any time for any reason. At-will employment is promoted by the Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council, which disseminates model bills to state legislators benefiting its corporate members and conservative private backers.

When Scott Walker was an assemblyman and ALEC member in the 1990s, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison-based watchdog group focused on corporate influence in government, ALEC adopted a bill called the At-Will Employment Act for state legislators to use as a template. In the past 20 years, many states, including Tennessee, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Kansas have eroded job-security protections for Civil Service workers, mirroring key aspects of ALEC’s model.

ALEC’s role was more explicit in 2011, when Jan Brewer, the former governor of Arizona, gave a keynote address at an ALEC conference indicating she would “reform” her state’s Civil Service. Several months later, she signed a bill (introduced in the Legislature by an ALEC member) that closely tracked with ALEC’s model and stripped Arizona’s state workers of virtually all Civil Service protections.

The Civil Service bill Mr. Walker supports also undermines protections against unfair termination. Under its rules, supervisors could fire workers for “personal conduct” they find “inadequate, unsuitable or inferior.” Like many of the bill’s opponents, Jim Thiel, a retired chief attorney for the state’s Department of Transportation, fears such vague language invites partisan retaliation and favoritism. “These words — ‘inadequate,’ ‘inferior’ — are empty vessels into which you can pour many things,” Mr. Thiel told me. “‘Personal conduct’ sounds like something outside the work environment.”

The Walker administration’s record of retribution gives credence to Mr. Thiel’s fears. In 2013, Mr. Walker abruptly withdrew the nomination of a student representative to the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents after discovering that the nominee had signed a petition calling for the governor’s recall. (Two local Tea Party groups have created a searchable database of the one million recall signatures.) In July, Mr. Walker eliminated a third of the Department of Natural Resources’ staff scientists, whose research on climate change, wildlife management and pollution from a proposed iron ore mine offered a compelling rebuke to his industry-driven environmental agenda.

Many public policy experts believe that Wisconsin’s Civil Service system would benefit from modernizing reforms, as it did in the 1990s under Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Mr. Thompson enacted changes recommended by a bipartisan commission of legislators that held public hearings across the state and also included representatives of employee unions. But like Act 10 and the right-to-work law, the new Civil Service bill was drawn up in secret, announced with little warning, and contained no meaningful input from affected parties. The Senate and Assembly granted a single day each of perfunctory hearings.

During the protests over Act 10, as Mr. Walker demonized public employee unions, he praised private sector ones, only to betray them later by enacting right-to-work. The Civil Service bill uses a similar tactic. In 2011, Mr. Walker assured state workers that they did not need their unions because of Wisconsin’s Civil Service rules. “In Wisconsin, the rights that most workers have have been set through the Civil Service system, which predates collective bargaining by several generations,” he said. “That doesn’t change. All the Civil Service protections — the strongest Civil Service system in the country — still strongly remains intact.”

Mr. Walker’s reversal, coupled with other divisive new measures like undermining tenure in the University of Wisconsin System, have contributed to his 38 percent approval rating in the state. They also suggest that his ambition may still be to win national office. In an October interview with a conservative Milwaukee talk radio host, he did not rule out another run. “I’m hopeful we have a Republican president for the next eight years after this election, but after that we’ll have to see what the future holds,” Mr. Walker said. In December, Senator Cruz encouraged his supporters to relieve Mr. Walker of his campaign debt, generating speculation that he might become the vice-presidential choice for the like-minded Mr. Cruz. The people least surprised by Mr. Walker’s reversal were the state’s beleaguered workers. A longtime Wisconsin civil servant told me that she worries about the security of her job if the bill becomes law. “If you’re an atwill employer, you can just tell someone goodbye,” she said, noting that 72 state employees in Arizona had recently been fired indiscriminately.

Despite the long odds of stopping the measure after the failure of large protests against Act 10 and the right-to-work law, the woman quietly helped organize a teach-in last week to raise awareness about the bill. As she talked about her efforts, however, it became clear that a culture of fear had taken root in the Wisconsin workplace. Though she describes herself as a “labor activist,” when I asked if I could use her name she declined. She was too afraid.

Wisconsin’s Progressive Tradition


Notes on the Season of Giving

Columnist Roger Cohen published the following piece, “Germany, Refugee Nation,” in the New York Times (Dec. 22, 2015). It’s worth considering in this, the season of giving in America.

There’s a new can-do nation. It’s called Germany. The United States, fear-ridden, has passed the torch.

Throughout the extraordinary process that has seen roughly one million refugees arrive in Germany this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel has had a consistent refrain: “Wir schaffen das” — “We can do this.” The gesture in question is the most extraordinary redemptive act by any European nation in many years.

Germans on the whole have understood. They have understood that to flee Syria through Islamic State checkpoints, place your family in flimsy boats on stormy waters and trudge across Europe in search of a home is not a desperate decision. It is a reasonable decision if the alternative is to see your children blown up by a barrel bomb or your daughter raped by a jihadist. Postwar Germans are reasonable people.

The United States would have had to admit about 4 million refugees this year to take in a similar proportion of its population. It has fallen more than 3.9 million short of that mark.

Most of the refugees in Germany are from Syria. The United States has admitted about 1,900 refugees from Syria over the past four years. Yes, you read that right. President Obama has now pledged to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees — a decision that had met defiance from more than two dozen Republican governors eager to conflate the words “Muslim” or “Middle Eastern” with terrorist.

Whatever happened to “the home of the brave”?

Set aside the fact that the Syrian crisis cannot be disentangled from the spillover of the Iraq war, and so America’s direct responsibility is engaged. Set aside the fact that Obama said in 2011 that President Bashar al-Assad must step aside, and so America’s responsibility is engaged. Set aside the presidential “red line” not upheld in 2013. Even then, by any reasonable measure, the American response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been pitiful.

For a land of immigrants peopled over centuries by families fleeing war, famine or hardship, it has been especially pitiful.

Germany has stepped in. Wir schaffen das — we can do this. The can-do spirit has made a trans-Atlantic crossing.

Merkel’s place in the history books was already assured. She was the woman who over a decade steered a united Germany to a self-assurance striking for a country that, even at the turn of the century, was still uncertain if it could allow itself a modicum of pride. But with her decision this year to admit Syrian and other refugees, she has become a towering European figure, certainly the equal of such postwar German giants as Konrad Adenauer, Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl — perhaps even surpassing them because her Germany is its own master whereas theirs was still under degrees of American tutelage.

“She does not want to be — she refuses to be — the person who witnessed a serious fracture of the European Union,” Julian Reichelt, the editor in chief of Bild Online, told me. “She will throw money at a problem, as with Greece. She will admit an unlimited number of refugees. And she will go down in history as a great European who defended the Union no matter what.”

When Merkel decided last summer to admit the refugees, she averted violence that might have spilled out of control. Critics within her own Christian Democrat party portray her as emotional. But for a leader committed to preserving the European idea, her decision was rational.

Raised in East Germany, she owes her freedom to European unity. It is a personal matter. The last time Europe was awash in millions of refugees was in 1945 as the Third Reich collapsed. It is a historical matter. Germany could not turn its back. Still the decision required statesmanship — that quaint, almost forgotten word — and the conviction that any risk of terrorism could be managed.

One million refugees change the landscape. They are in supermarkets. They are in hospitals. They are in schools. Germans have been accepting, despite the huge cost. A far-right party may benefit, but the consensus is this had to be done.

As a result, over the next generation, Germany will become a stronger, more vital, more dynamic, more open country. Abdulfattah Jandali, a Syrian immigrant known as John, was the biological father of Steve Jobs. Perhaps a future Syrian-German Jobs has just entered school.

Germany has shamed its European partners, including Britain. A Europe- wide program for refugees is needed. Germany can’t take in another million in 2016. “There is no real plan beyond buying time to get the rest of Europe on board,” Reichelt said.

In a grim year, Merkel has redeemed the Europe that once closed its frontiers to Jews fleeing Germany. When, at unification, Kohl spoke of a “blooming landscape” in the former East Germany, he was derided. But it came to pass. Germany can do this. As for can’t-do America, that’s another story. Fear and electoral politics constitute an explosive brew.


Do Americans Worship Guns?

Recently The Huffington Post invited me to become one of their bloggers on HuffPost Religion. Here’s my first post, with a link to the site below.

In 1996 after a 43-year-old man with 4 handguns murdered 16 children and a teacher at a school in Dunblane, Scotland, the British government reacted with a ban on private ownership of automatic weapons and handguns on Britain’s mainland. That legislation still enjoys widespread public support. The contrast with U.S. legislators’ know-nothing, do-nothing response to mass gun violence could not be greater. One wonders why.

In the same New York Times article that looked back at the Scottish example, Samuel Walker, professor emeritus at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska, commented that many Americans have an entirely different attitude toward guns than most other people around the world. Our autistic response to gun violence “reflects the worship of guns,” he argued, and our treatment of guns as “a religious object.”

Reading that quotation, I thought of a classic statement on commodities as religious fetishes from a source I occasionally use as required reading in my courses on modern European social history. In his magnum opus Capital, Karl Marx once wrote that in the nineteenth century commodities exerted an unnatural power over people. Everyday objects seemed like something from “the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world.” It was as if they were “independent beings endowed with life,” not unlike the natural fetishes of ancient civilizations in which–I quote from the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols–“shells, pebbles, pieces of wood, excrement” could possess magical powers over people.

Many gun-owning Americans would probably react with skepticism or outright anger to this suggestion. They would argue guns are a legitimate form of self-defense in an unfortunately violent society. They would argue guns are part of a family tradition, handed down responsibly and faithfully from generation to generation. They would point to how American frontier history was closely associated with guns as tools of everyday life. And others would recoil against the term “fetishism” itself, which in contemporary usage is inaccurately equated with sexual fetishism or perversion.

Yet there is much evidence around the country that guns do indeed command an authority usually reserved for sacred objects. Recently a pro-gun website, thetruthaboutguns.com, featured an article by Dan Zimmerman that began with the following passage: “Most people purchase guns as fetish items.” Zimmerman went on to argue gun owners should not only admit they fetishize guns but also be proud of their strange fascination with them. As for the idea of engaging in a DGU (an incident of defensive gun use), he opined there was as much chance of that in his lifetime as there was of winning the lottery.

Even more revealing was an Esquire article from 2013 by Stephen Marche entitled “Guns are Beautiful.” Marche wrote that, “guns are one of the primary avenues by which ordinary Americans experience beauty.” They are “the machinery fantasy of choice,” replacing the automobile as a fetish object. But Marche also argued that gun violence would stop only when such attitudes changed. Guns, he argued, were once associated with masculinity (they are, after all, also phallic symbols) and rugged individualism. But the American culture of frontier freedom, if it ever really existed, is no longer relevant in an interconnected world crisscrossed by environmental destruction, political and economic crisis, and rapid (and often progressive) social change. Marche’s final question is worth considering: “We’re all clinging to something. What can we find to cling to that isn’t machinery of death?”

There is bumper sticker circulating that reads “Pro-God. Pro-Guns. Pro-Life. Anti-Obama.” I find the juxtaposition both evocative and deeply disturbing. If it’s true that many Americans worship their guns, then not even the slaughter of innocents will move the country beyond its present murderous impasse.

Do Americans Worship Guns?


The Gun Epidemic

For the first time since 1920, the New York Times has run an editorial on its front page (page A1, Dec. 5, 2015). At a dangerous moment in our history, when Republican presidential candidates call for a new world war and stand in the way of common-sense gun control legislation (all the while pocketing huge campaign contributions from the NRA and gun manufacturers), the editorial strikes a note of reason combined with urgency. Its central claim is worth emphasizing: “​It is a moral outrage and national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency.” Here is the link: Gun Epidemic



Prick of the Spindle is a biannual print journal with often arresting and original artwork and a diverse lineup of short fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. My short story, “Lunula,” was just published in Issue 9 (Fall/Winter 2015). Below I excerpt the introduction and a link to the web site, where the print issue can be purchased.

The day I smashed my thumb in the driver’s side door of a ’62 Olds Dynamic 88 hardtop, the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself” was a big hit. It played on WLS from Chicago almost every hour. It was on the radio as Jimmy Smith steered the Olds two-door into the right-hand bay of the Sunoco gas station. Singing the lines, “Sugar Pie, Honeybunch”—which made me think of Natalie—Jimmy danced before getting to the job. He wasn’t much of a dancer. More like a linebacker in a ballet. My asparagus-stalk body had better moves on the dance floor than his big hulk did. But he did something I’d appreciate years later. He performed a kind of moonwalk—heavy, gliding, ghostly, but still a moonwalk—right there on the concrete floor of a station in small-town Michigan. He did a moonwalk before Michael Jackson made it famous. When the song was over, Jimmy stretched his arms over his head. He brought them forward and, holding them chest-high, pressed his hands together so that his biceps rippled. I’d seen biceps like that only in the “Charles Atlas” ads in the car magazines I looked at from time to time. The short sleeves of his blue Sunoco shirt were ready to explode. I wondered then why Jimmy, six inches taller than me, didn’t just call me “Benny” instead of “Benjamin.”

Jimmy started with an engine wash. It was dirty work, toxic as hell, and I could see greenish-black iridescent slime streaming off the greasy engine and down into the floor drain to who-knew-where. Maybe it was piped into the sluggish St. Joseph River, because those were the days when we dumped used batteries and oil directly into the ravine a mile from the station. Jimmy had me hose down the engine once he sprayed it with whatever radioactive substance he used. Some of the cleaning gunk splattered and I felt a burning sensation on my hands and forearms. My right hand would burn a lot more once I slammed the door on it, but that wouldn’t happen for another forty-five minutes.

Once the engine looked almost new, Jimmy dove into the interior. He told me to clean the inside of the windows while he vacuumed the floors and upholstery. He was like a mad anteater when he vacuumed, as if he had a grudge against every splotch of dirt, every French fry under the front seats, every cookie crumb left by some kid who didn’t understand that the cleanliness of a man’s car was a reflection of his being. He was Patton against Hitler, relentless in his struggle against dirt’s reign of terror. He was as profane as Patton too. He muttered “God damn it!” when he jammed his big knuckles feeling under the driver’s seat for loose change. He spit out “fuck!” several times when he vacuumed under the steering wheel, always the dirtiest spot in the interior, even if the owner placed the floor mats just so. It was the hardest spot to reach for a big man like Jimmy.

The green carpet on this car was so soiled that Jimmy resorted to the flowery-smelling pink cleaning agent Sunoco gave its stations. It came in an unmarked plastic spray bottle, which Jimmy wielded like a gardener spraying a prize orchid. He made a small spritz under the brake pedal, then up in the right corner, where the driver’s shoe always scuffed the carpeted transmission tunnel. Once he had the dirt out, he was careful that the scrubbed section’s nap matched the rest of the carpet.

Meanwhile, I sprayed vinyl conditioner on the light green dash and console. Jimmy liked the vinyl to shine like new; no streaks or splotches. I knew that when we drove the car out into the sunlight, Jimmy would get in the back seat and look at the dash from a distance to see if the shine was uniform. He wanted perspective, like a Monet or a Feininger. He wanted to see if the transformative effect he’d been looking for had been achieved. Then he’d get into the front seat to check all the dashboard controls for dust or fingerprints. Those controls had to look pristine, as if no human hand had ever touched them. Virginal. Several times that summer, he’d made me redo the job, which irked me. But once I got to be a veteran of the detailing wars, I understood what Jimmy wanted, and his satisfaction became my only goal. I found that polishing the dashboard, working the dampened rag into the crevices around the speedometer, dusting each button on the radio, had a surprisingly calming effect on me.

Jimmy was in his early thirties and the best auto detailer in Benton Harbor, maybe in Michigan. It was mid-August 1966, and he worked at my father’s gas station on the corner of Fair and Britain, in a neighborhood where most folks went to the African Methodist church and music by James Brown, Wilson Pickett, and The Supremes blared from open doors and windows on simmering summer nights. Jimmy’s full name was James Elijah Smith. When his friends stopped by the station to shoot the breeze they called him “James,” and I heard his mother call him that when she stopped in to get gas for her ancient, impeccably clean Buick. But we at the Sunoco called him “Jimmy,” and maybe we were the only ones on the planet who did that.

My father thought it would be good for me, a junior in high school, to learn the gas station business. He figured that soon, I’d escape St. Joseph, a snooty, chalk-white little town across the river from mostly black Benton Harbor. I’d want to go to college, and he knew I could because he always told me, “study hard,” which I did. I was the class salutatorian when I graduated, which was funny, because I didn’t know there was such a thing until they said, “you’re it.” But I was weak, my father thought, too bookish, too lost in ideas and daydreams, and so waiting on cars, doing oil changes, repairing flat tires, and working with Jimmy washing and waxing cars—all that would help me learn about “the real world” before I took up with the hippies and braless women at the university in East Lansing.

When the Olds’ door mangled my thumb, I was still getting over the night before, when my steady girl Natalie told me she wanted to date around. Things were too serious between us, she said, my hands were roving too freely, it was time to cool it. Maybe that was why my brain froze every few minutes when I was working with Jimmy—Natalie had put me in cold storage—and the door-slamming event happened during one of my personal little Ice Ages. I didn’t break the thumb, but the accident left an ugly blue-black-purple nail that disappeared only after a new nail grew in its place.

Prick of the Spindle:


Into the Old Testament

I’ve published a new short story in Eclectica 19, 4 (Oct./Nov. 2015). “Into the Old Testament” is about a young man who must decide on which side of the law he stands. This is my third story with Eclectica, one of the oldest online literary magazines in the country. It was founded in 1996 by Tom Dooley, the present editor, and Chris Lott, and has published stories by nominees for the Pulitzer Prize, the Nebula Award, and the Pushcart Prize. My story has gone through a number of iterations and benefited greatly from feedback I received from fellow-writers Rebecca Anderson-Brown, Charity Eleson, Curt Hanke, Will Lewis, and Paul Waldhart.  I include the introduction to the story along with a link to the magazine at the bottom of the post.  

They’d let me out of state prison three months before—one of several stays I’d had thanks to the generosity of Michigan taxpayers. Prison was no vacation, but the first few days on the outside were even scarier. In prison, I had respect. I had credentials. I was a veteran after all—not from the military, the military was in another galaxy from where I stood—but from the streets. I was short, dark like a Serbian should be, wiry as General Electric. People knew they couldn’t mess with me. What they didn’t know was I just wanted to mind my own business, get on with my life. When I got out, I took a good long breath, got drunk, found a woman to spend the night with. Then I tried to figure out what the hell to do next. My skills were specialized—armed robbery, extortion, credit card fraud. That was my official resume. The less said about the unofficial part the better. I was determined not to go back to the pen. Even if prison gave me a little security, I knew if I got sent away again, I’d be there till I was a rusted-out old man.

It was spring, 1975. I went back to my hometown, Benton Harbor, down by Lake Michigan just north of the Indiana state line, and along came Dimitri. He needed a driver. Would I be interested? I wouldn’t be involved in the rough stuff, he promised. I would have what politicians and CEOs called “plausible deniability.” I would just be a chauffeur. I wouldn’t know what went on at three in the morning in a boarded-up house on the southeast side. Gunshots? What gunshots? Nobody could demonstrate what they call “my willful association with a crime”—which was a line I got out of one of the law books I read in prison. I did a lot of reading in prison. That was how I got so damned smart. That’s why the guys started calling me The Prof, which was rich seeing that my educational attainments were on the lean side. But I was fine being called “Prof” this and “Prof” that. Had a ring to it. And it seemed to fit too once the prison eye doctor told me I needed glasses and so I got a pair of wire rims on the state’s dime. I looked like a real brain, and I grew a goatee ’cause I thought it fit the part. Looked sharp, I have to say.

“Nothin’ to worry about, kid,” said Dimitri, who called everyone “kid” even if they were called Prof on the inside, and even if they were his age, which I was, or almost. Dimitri and I had gone to Benton Harbor High School in the late ‘50s and we’d stayed in semi-regular contact since then. I admired him when I was a repeat freshman and he was a senior. He was tall, and if my hair was black, his was so much blacker I swear I could see blue in it when the light was right. Reminded me of a grackle’s head. Dimitri got along with everyone. Race, religion, the kind of clothes a man wore—hell, it didn’t matter to him. You name it, Dimitri would talk about it with you. The girls liked him, the rich ones above all. Those chicks knew that later in life they’d marry Boring, so this was their only chance to run with Danger for a while. So Dimitri ended up in the back seat of some fancy cars.

Dimitri went on to big things, while I made it to my sophomore year, spent a half-year in a reformatory where the food didn’t taste like food, and then decided it wasn’t worth it, fuck high school, and fuck anyone who tried to make me stay. I got traction down in the minor leagues running stolen goods between Benton Harbor and Chicago, while Dimitri played in the majors, at least for a while. By the time he asked me to be his driver, people said he’d lost his touch. He was doing jobs below his pay grade.

Some of it may have been connected to the mess my hometown was in. Back when we were growing up, Benton Harbor was hopping. Lots of stores, two movie theaters, wise guys from the South Side of Chicago, sometimes from Flint or Detroit too. Decades before, Al Capone thought of southwestern Michigan as his playground, and he would stay at the Hotel Vincent in Benton Harbor and the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, across the river. He and his people would go boating on Lake Michigan, lay around on the beach, maybe play a little golf. That was the Golden Age for local gangsters, and there was still something of all that, like submachine gun smoke hanging in the air, when Dimitri and I hit the market.

Then things went to hell in a hand basket. By ’67 and ’68, everyone had a gripe about something—Viet Nam, civil rights, the environment. Most white folks abandoned the city, and soon there were too few jobs, too many drugs, and too many politicians milking the issues. Benton Harbor’s glory days were over. A man had to deal in the lowest of the low stuff to make ends meet. I figured Dimitri had just adjusted to his market, like any good businessman. But I didn’t really care if Dimitri was feeding off the bottom a little more than he used to. I thought of him as my friend, and he had something to offer. I was no youngster anymore; it was time I settled down with a fixed occupation and started saving some money. Working for Dimitri was a very mature thing to do for a man who’d done time.

“You get to drive a nice car or two, right? You keep your mouth shut, which I know you will—I know you’re a standup guy—and I’ll see to it some things come your way in due time. Meanwhile, it’ll look like you’re staying out of trouble, and you got a regular job. What’s not to like, huh, kid?”

“Sounds okay to me, D.”

So I drove for him. It was as easy as he said. The work was steady, four or five nights a week, depending on what was going down. It was mostly straightforward stuff. Dimitri would lean on some chump in Paw Paw over gambling debts, or police his crystal meth operation in Coloma, where the farm boys couldn’t get enough of the stuff, the dumb shits. There was only one time when Dimitri had to rub out somebody who’d gotten in his way. But I don’t think Dimitri actually did that one because when it happened his gun was still in the glove compartment of the car I drove. Course he may have had another gun with him, or he took one from Vlad, a dangerous goon who usually rode with us. Vlad was a born killer, and he picked his nose a lot. I always hated that habit.

Dimitri followed through on his promise that I’d be paid well. I had more money than when I was out on my own. I had nice clothes, a little bit of savings, books I could actually buy instead of always going to the library, where the dried up old witch at the checkout didn’t like a man who had a naked lady tattoo on his neck. Driving for Dimitri taught me an important lesson. I once thought I could muscle the world by myself. I was a real romantic, a dreamer. I thought I was an anarchist, or a traditional hajduk, a Balkan bandit. I’d read about those guys in L. S. Stavrianos’s The Balkans Since 1453 my first time in the pen. That was one of the best books in the prison library, and the hajduks, man, those guys were straight-shot heroes to me. My strut was a little stronger and my hair a little blacker when I imagined I might have Balkan-fucking-hajduk blood flowing through my Slavic veins. But when it came down to it, I realized even a bad-ass hajduk needed to eat. That’s another lesson I learned in the prison library. Some whacked-out German poet once wrote, “first comes the grub, then morality,” or whatever. I needed to hook up with a good solid business enterprise like Dimitri’s. As Dimitri always said: “Small business, it’s the heart of America.” I was in the heart of America working with Dimitri, and it felt as natural as broken glass in an empty lot.