"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

Nail in the Eye

The slipstream genre is as fluid as a glass of water, though not as ordinary. It combines influences from the past (including magical realism, surrealism, and social science fiction) and present, as in the “weird fiction” of China Miéville and others. (For an informative New York Times review on Miéville’s latest short story collection, see here). I find the slipstream genre interesting not only because of its imaginative reach but also its usually oblique or occulted social-critical charge. I just had a piece of flash fiction published in Danse Macabre, 93 (2015), entitled “Nail in the Eye,” which might qualify as slipstream, though in this case my referents are closer to Hermann Hesse’s dreamlike writing in Steppenwolf (1927) and some of Ernst Jünger’s more sinister imaginings in his Das Abenteuerliche Herz: Figuren und Capriccios (1938). Here’s the story in full.

I found myself in a leafy neighborhood in a city somewhere in the American Midwest. I’d walked for half an hour to escape a boring conference that had oppressed me most of the morning. Just when I decided it was time to return to the hotel for another round of insufferably dull presentations, I saw a coffee shop that looked inviting. Why not kill a little more time reading the Times and sipping coffee?

My wife once said I’m the most unobservant person in the world. She exaggerated, but on this morning it must have been true that my powers of observation were at an all-time low. I ordered coffee and a roll and found a table near the back of the shop against a brick wall covered with photos and paintings. Although I noticed that the wooden tables were painted black and red and the cups and saucers were white, I paid no attention to the clientele other than to note that the shop was busy. I sat, opened my newspaper, began to read. I felt encapsulated in my own world, as I often did when I was alone in a strange city.

I learned long ago that an informed person must develop a fairly thick skin in order not to let all the horrific news become overwhelming. But on this particular day, the newspaper’s cavalcade of civil wars, industrial accidents, and political atrocities weighed on my mind. I thought of how nice it would be if we could close a paper or a web browser and end human suffering, at least temporarily. I couldn’t bear to read another line, so I looked up, thinking I would enjoy a few minutes of coffee-shop ambience before walking back.

Then I noticed the faces, which were etched with tension. The woman at the table next to me wore a red blouse. She sat with her head in her hands and looked as if she were about to cry. In back of me, a man in black-rimmed glasses sat drumming his fingers on the table as his companion, a woman, sighed heavily while she folded and unfolded her white paper napkin. She shook her head, and said, it can’t be, I can’t believe it, is this really what our fate is?

Thinking that jet lag and boredom had made me a bit over-sensitive, I looked away from the people and concentrated on the pictures on the wall. They provided no relief. Most were paintings or photos of car wrecks, collapsed bridges, bombed-out buildings. There were several photographs of Hitler and Mussolini and a faded reproduction of Picasso’s famous painting Guernica. There was a black-red-white photomontage that looked like a contemporary interpretation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I resolved then to make a quick stop at the rest room and flee the coffee shop.

When I exited the men’s room at the end of a long hallway where the clang of cups and saucers was muffled, I saw a door to which I was inexplicably drawn. I wondered why I’d not noticed it before. The door was painted red, and unlike every other door in the shop, its upper edge was rounded, giving it an old-fashioned look. The doorknob was black. I don’t normally go around opening strange doors in strange coffee shops, but this one was irresistible. I reached for the knob, turned it, and saw a stairway, at the bottom of which I saw a bright white light, which reminded me of an operating room or the dentist’s chair. There was no choice but to walk down the stairway.

The room was painted white, which accentuated the almost unbearable brightness of the overhead lamps. As if standing in intense sunlight, I shielded my eyes with my hand. I could see two men and a wooden plank held up by sawhorses at either end. One of the men was naked and bound to the plank with what looked like piano wire. His body was covered with bloody cuts and bruises, and the wire had made horrible looking red gashes on his wrists and ankles. Almost inaudibly, he groaned. The other man, clothed in black trousers and turtleneck, stood over him with a hammer and long nail. The nail looked to be about six inches long, and it reminded me of the heavy-duty 60d nails we used to sell to building contractors at my father’s hardware store. It looked as if the man with the hammer was ready to drive the nail into the bound man’s left eye. As he raised the hammer, I said a single word: No.

I found myself at the coffee shop counter. I hurriedly told the young woman at the coffee machine what I’d seen. I asked to talk to the owner, something needs to be done, I blurted out, there’s a man being tortured and murdered in the basement. The woman had the same inscrutable look of anxiety everyone else in the shop had. She said nothing.

Thinking I would get a policeman, I raced outside but found the street deserted. I pulled out my cellphone and dialed 9-1-1. The connection was horrible and at first I heard only static. When I heard a woman’s voice ask me for my location, it occurred to me I didn’t know the name of the coffee shop. I looked up and read the stylish sign: Nail in the Eye. I reported the name, and for some reason I added that everything in the shop was done up in the colors red, white, and black. The woman snorted loudly and said, then get in line, hon, get in line. The words made a powerful impression on me, and as I stumbled back to my hotel, I realized that each customer in the shop was anxiously waiting for a summons to the basement.


Nixon Redivivus

The feature article in the most recent issue of The Nation (August 17/24, 2015) is by Madison’s own John Nichols. Its title is revealing: “Get Ready for Scott Walker…and the Ruthless Politics of Walkerism.” But what’s really interesting about the piece is the way it puts Governor Scott Walker in conversation with Richard Nixon. Read the article here:



A recent story of mine, “Rustle-y,” concerns a young man in Nazi Germany who discovers something about himself from an unlikely source. It’s published in a new online literary magazine from the UK, Empty Oaks.  The lineup of writers is impressive, and I’m honored to be included in the first issue. I include the introduction here along with a pdf of the issue at the bottom of the entry.

I’m on the outside now. I’d better keep my nose clean, or I’ll land in the hole again, and then it won’t be months but years. I’m at Annika’s, and I’ll be happy to see her. I’m hoping she’ll be happy too. It’s nine in the morning, and I’m standing in front of her Berlin apartment building, looking at the nameplates. I look over my shoulder like a perp in a detective story. Why? Because I’ve been inside and now I’m outside, where I have to watch myself. That’s rich, isn’t it? What the Nazis have managed to do is get me to watch myself. In other words, self-police. Spy on myself.

I find Annika’s name and I ring. The few seconds it takes for the heavy wooden door to click open are longer than three months in Dachau. When I’m inside, I see the black and white checked linoleum in the foyer, and that’s familiar. I see the heavy, dark wooden railing winding up to the fifth floor, and that’s familiar. The smell in the hallway outside Annika’s door is familiar too, a mix of cigar smoke and bacon from the family across the hall. But when Annika opens the door in response to my knock, her face is not familiar. Three months have meant five years for her acorn-colored eyes. There are faint lines in the skin around her mouth. She frowns but not angrily. It’s an anxious frown. I want to say, “Annika, what’s wrong?” And she’ll say, “oh, nothing, come on in, Berthold, haven’t seen you for so long.” But I can tell that won’t work. Right now, I have no words to match Annika’s look, and Annika has no words either. We stare.

I feel I have to say something. “I’m out” comes from somewhere in my throat, and I regret it the moment I say it. I wish the words had stuck in my craw like fish bones. I don’t see Annika for three months, I’ve gone through hell, I thought several times I’d never see the outside again, the Nazis would do me in, out by the latrine maybe, where they’d beat me to death, or maybe they’d do it simply with a bullet to the base of the skull. One less Bolshie, they’d say as they pissed on my sorry-ass corpse. After all that, and I manage only to utter the obvious.

Annika raises her finger and signals me to come in. In my dreams, that thin, beckoning, assertive finger has often meant a world of soft, perfumed skin and clean sheets and waking up with her head in the crook of my arm. It has made me imagine how she would sigh under the weight of my body. The kind of dream I was having when they rousted me out of bed and sent me to the camp. But her silent finger doesn’t do that for me now. No, it makes me even more worried. She doesn’t hug me, doesn’t even look me over to take inventory. It’s as if she knows what she’d see anyway. She closes the door and says, “Sit.” I’ve never heard that tone from her before. It tells me there’s only one choice. I sit.

She goes to her bedroom, a room I’ve been in just once and then only by accident because of too much schnapps (my fault) and too much imagination (also my fault). Annika laughed about it the next morning and told me how she’d shuffled me out and deposited me on her faded green living room couch, where I awoke next day at noon with the Berlin subway careening through my head. It taught me a lesson, namely that schnapps plus imagination make a man an idiot. Yet from idiocy comes insight, and so I learned a second thing, namely that I’m not her type.

She walks out of her bedroom now with someone I’ve never met, though he looks damned familiar. He’s quite a bit shorter than me—I’m a little over six feet—and he’s dumpy in a pear-shaped way. He approaches me like a gravedigger; the expression on his face says that when you know what I do you’ll run like hell. He’s introduced as Heinrich but I know he’s no Heinrich. I know Heinrichs, and he’s not one of them. A Heinrich looks like someone ready to serve a summons or foreclose on a poor widow’s property. This character is beyond that kind of mundane evil. His hair is wrong for a Heinrich too—it slants down over his forehead instead of being combed back and greased with pomade. He’s got almost a full beard; he’s in the process of growing it out, it would appear. I see something through the beard that reminds me of someone else, and I wonder if my eyes went to hell when I was in the camp. I recall several years ago seeing some bigwig, a movie star or politician, strolling on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin, but I’d only seen pictures of the man, so I thought it couldn’t be him because I was still looking through an image my mind had formed.

I look at Annika and I see her eyes flutter, which is a nervous tic she often has. But now those acorn eyes flutter a lot, so I know she’s nervous a lot. My eyes return to this Not-Really-Heinrich character. And then it hits me.

“Jesus!” I say. Then, “I can’t fucking believe it!” That should be enough to express my surprise, I figure.

Annika’s lovely, tired eyes are about to flutter out of their sockets while the alleged Heinrich smiles a smile that looks like a brass-knuckle smash to the face.

Empty Oaks Issue 1 Summer 2015.


Stop Swinging Hammers at Wisconsin Education

Galen McKinley, a mother of two young children and associate professor of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote this opinion piece for The Cap Times (June 23, 2015). The title was “Scott Walker, Legislature, should stop swinging hammers at Wisconsin Education.”

“Building something is hard, but all you need is a hammer to destroy it,” a colleague said recently. Think of an iPhone — a product of countless hours of precision engineering that a hammer could turn to scrap in no time flat. The same can also be said of the education systems of our state.

The great K-12, undergraduate and graduate education systems of Wisconsin have been built by the hard work and investment of generations. But to destroy them, the Legislature and Gov. Scott Walker need only to continue swinging the hammer of their destructive legislation.

First, they have dismantled the unions that helped to make a career in K-12 education an attractive career for talented people. Now they propose to greatly weaken teacher licensing standards. This would move Wisconsin from having some of the strongest standards to some of the very weakest. It is the commitment of the well-educated teachers of Wisconsin that has made our K-12 system one of the strongest in the nation — why would we take a hammer to a system that has proven so successful?

At the same time, cuts to public school funding have led to reduced services and increased class sizes. In my husband’s high school science courses, 22 students was the norm in 2005, but for fall 2015, he is looking at more than 30 students per class. When my daughter was in kindergarten just two years ago, 17 shared her classroom; my son’s kindergarten class this year had 21. Their teachers are expecting even larger classes next year. When teachers have bigger classes, each student gets less attention, and the quality of education suffers. More cuts to public education, whether direct or in the form of vouchers that drain money off to private schools, are not what we need.

The world-class University of Wisconsin System is also the target of the swinging hammer. Following continuous budget cuts over the last 10 years, the UW System faces an additional $250 million reduction for the next biennium. And this is despite the fact that we already spend the least per student in the Midwest on higher education. Losses will be inevitable in course offerings, degree programs, student support, Extension, and our ability to conduct the world-class research that contributes enormously to our state economy.

Faculty tenure is another hallmark of the hard work of building something. Following seven to 10 years of post-graduate training, a six-year probationary period as an assistant professor and a grueling review process, tenure is granted only to those who have proven their ability to both do top-notch research and to be a great educator. Only 60 percent of those who start on the tenure track at UW-Madison are successful. The job security of tenure allows the UW-System to attract and retain the most promising scholars. Tenure is an investment in human capital by the citizens of Wisconsin that has been proven time and again to be worthwhile.

Professors at UW-Madison solicit grants from federal agencies and nonprofit foundations that bring in $1 billion per year of outside money. Grant money largely pays the salaries of students doing research, research staff and administrators. At the same time, these funds support training of the next generation of leaders — graduate students — and many undergraduates also get a chance to learn by participating in research. At the same time, this research develops the new ideas and technologies that are the basis for a myriad of successful start-up companies.

But the competition for grants is relentless. Typically fewer than one in 10 proposals gets funded, and so only the best and brightest people with the most innovative ideas can be successful. These new proposed cuts to tenure, coming on top of years of slashed budgets, makes UW-Madison substantially less attractive for the best and brightest. We can only expect these academic stars to go elsewhere and to take with them their competitive edge.

What have we built here in Wisconsin? We have built a world-class education system that builds the human capital on which our prosperity depends. Of this, we should all be very proud. We should choose now to stop swinging the hammer of continual cuts, and instead follow the path of most states toward reinvestment. If we do this, we can continue to offer our children a great K-12 education and a world-class university system, and thus give them a head start in the race of life. At the same time, we can continue to wisely invest in a well-educated state where 21st century businesses can thrive.

For our sake and for that of our children, the Legislature and Walker should put down their hammers. They should not destroy that which we have all worked so hard to build.


It’s About Academic Freedom

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published this editorial on June 12, 2015:

Fear not, intrepid professor: Tenure isn’t dead in Wisconsin.

Those changes to shared governance? Minor stuff.

And that new policy written into the state budget to make it easier to fire tenured professors like you? Just a little additional “flexibility” for your boss.

Don’t worry: Teach an extra class or something.

The faculty in the University of Wisconsin System isn’t buying this hokum, and you shouldn’t, either.

At the behest of a governor fast on his way to the presidential sweepstakes, the Legislature’s budget-writing committee has voted to remove tenure for university professors from state statute, weaken the faculty’s voice in the administration of campuses and make it easier to fire tenured professors. Gov. Scott Walker has bragged that it’s “the Act 10 of higher education.”

We agree: UW administrators need more freedom to run their campuses. They should be able to make their own decisions about travel, procurement and campus building projects. They need control over the major decisions on their campuses including what courses of study are offered.

But Walker and his Republican allies in the Legislature have gone too far; they are putting academic freedom at risk with language inserted into the proposed budget bill that creates, effectively, tenure-lite.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) said on the television show “Upfront with Mike Gousha” recently: “I’ll be frank. I don’t really support tenure, period.” And in a statement earlier, Vos noted that “Assembly Republicans believe no one should be guaranteed a job for life.”

Which is, of course, a willful misreading of the whole idea of academic tenure. Tenure was developed to protect professors and researchers from political pressure. The concept goes back at least 100 years and was aimed at giving faculty the freedom to teach without interference from politicians and the freedom to follow their research wherever it led. At the University of Wisconsin, it has led to some of the world’s leading research in the life sciences.

Faculty are rightly skeptical of relying on the Board of Regents to secure tenure and shared governance. Twelve of 17 board members were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, the same governor who proposed a massive $300 million cut to the University of Wisconsin System budget and tried to rewrite the university’s central mission — the Wisconsin Idea — earlier this year.

With Walker expected to announce his run for the presidency before the ink is dry on the state budget, the move in Wisconsin is being watched nationwide. “Within the higher ed universe, this is being seen as an extremely consequential signal event,” Barmak Nasirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told The Associated Press.

Tampering with the University of Wisconsin is something that Wisconsin residents may well regret. Watering down tenure and shared governance risks driving away the university’s best talent and making it harder to recruit.

The Board of Regents has voted to adopt tenure as board policy and chancellors have said they will try to persuade legislators to remove the offending language or to interpret it in a reasonable fashion. But it’s foolish to believe the Legislature or Walker will take back the language inserted by Republicans that would allow administrators to fire faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.”

“Tenure will be gone as we know it, and I think it’s a step backward for our relationship with faculty members,” state Schools Superintendent Tony Evers, a regent, said after a recent meeting in Milwaukee. “Bottom line, it means if the Legislature passes the Joint Finance Committee plan as is, regardless of what the regents want to do, tenure will be governed by that (GOP) plan.”

Unfortunately for the UW, its faculty and Wisconsin’s citizens, Evers is right.


In Defense of Sifting and Winnowing

The statement below comes from the American Historical Association in conjunction with 20 other scholarly associations within the American Council of Learned Societies.

June 11, 2015

The American system of higher education is the envy of the world. It’s not perfect; few things are. But at a time when many Americans fear their nation may be falling behind competitively, U.S. colleges and universities continue to be universally regarded as the best in the world. The University of Wisconsin system, in particular, is noted for its standards of research and teaching excellence, with the Madison campus recognized among the top fifteen of American public universities by U.S. News and World Report. The University of Wisconsin is a critical contributor to the state’s economy that provides exceptional value with its thirteen campuses serving over 180,000 students. With $1.2 billion of state investment, the system generates over $15 billion of economic activity.

The undersigned associations of scholars across a wide variety of disciplines are gravely concerned with proposals pending in the Wisconsin legislature that threaten to undermine several longstanding features of the state’s current higher education system: shared governance, tenure, and academic freedom.

By situating the locus of control inside the institution, in a partnership between faculty and administrators, the U.S. system of higher education has generated an unmatched diversity that enables students to find the educational environment that works best for them. And by granting faculty tenure after an appropriate period during which their work is rigorously evaluated, we have ensured the continued intellectual vitality and classroom independence so essential to innovation, dynamism, and rigorous scholarship.

Academic freedom is the foundation of intellectual discovery, including in the classroom. It nourishes the environment within which students develop critical habits of mind through encounters with diverse perspectives, experiences, and sources of evidence across disciplines. Our democracy depends on the educated citizens that this system is intended to produce: wide-ranging in their knowledge, rigorous in their ability to understand complicated questions, and dedicated to the public good.

Wisconsin in fact helped pioneer the concept of academic freedom for the entire United States when its Board of Regents declared in 1894 that they would not terminate the employment of economist Richard Ely even though his research and teaching on the benefits of labor unions had offended one of its own members. The Regents’ report in the wake of that controversy remains one of the most ringing endorsements for academic freedom in the history of American higher education: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere,” they wrote, “we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

The policies recommended by the Joint Finance Committee and included in the 2016 budget pose a direct threat to academic freedom by expanding the circumstances under which tenure can be revoked (beyond dire financial emergencies and just cause) while simultaneously removing its protection under state statute. Tenure is a linchpin of vigorous shared governance and independent rigorous scholarship. This assault on the structure of Wisconsin’s model arrangements poses a threat to the university’s stellar reputation and international leadership in research and education—and it betrays a celebrated Wisconsin tradition that began with the Ely case in 1894.

Since 1904, the “Wisconsin Idea” has stood as an inspiring educational model for the entire nation, demonstrating the immeasurable benefits of a robust partnership between the state university and state government predicated on intellectual independence and active engagement by students and faculty members with the wider world. An earlier draft of the current budget bill sought to remove language about the Wisconsin Idea from the mission statement of the university. This most recent draft now poses no less a threat by undermining several of the most important practical pillars of shared governance and academic freedom that have made Wisconsin a beacon among its peer institutions around the world.

Rather than making the University of Wisconsin system more fiscally nimble, the Joint Finance Committee recommendations threaten to damage, possibly irreparably, the distinguished educational system that has justifiably been the pride of Wisconsin residents for more than a century and a half.


American Academy of Religion

American Anthropological Association

American Comparative Literature Association

American Folklore Society

American Historical Association

American Society of Comparative Law

American Society for Environmental History

American Sociological Association American Studies Association

Association of College & Research Libraries

Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies

College Art Association

German Studies Association

Modern Language Association

National Communication Association

National Council on Public History

Oral History Association

Rhetoric Society of America

The Shakespeare Association of America

The Sixteenth Century Society and Conference

Society of Architectural Historians

World History Association




Right to Work (for Less)

Dan Kaufman is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn. He grew up in Wisconsin and has written about the changes occurring in his home state for The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. This informative piece, titled “Scott Walker and the Fate of the Union,” appeared on June 12, 2015 in The New York Times Magazine. Among other things, it discusses the troubling political origins of so-called “right-to-work” legislation. It also cites evidence indicating how ineffective “right-to-work” laws have been in creating jobs or raising household incomes. Although “right to work” may result in freedom from paying union dues for those workers who choose to do so (sociological literature refers to them as “free riders”); it is a Faustian bargain since it means less of everything else as well–pay, security, benefits, job safety, training. I excerpt the first paragraph below and provide a link to the full article:

On his first day of work in three months, Randy Bryce asked his foreman for the next day off. He wanted to go to the Capitol in Madison, Wis., and testify against a proposed law. Bryce, a member of Milwaukee Ironworkers Local 8, was unloading truckloads of steel beams to build a warehouse near Kenosha, and he needed the job. He has an 8-year-old son, his debts were piling up and a 10-hour shift paid more than $300. But the legislation, which Republicans were rushing through the State Senate, angered him enough to sacrifice the hours. Supporters called it a “right to work” bill, because it prohibited unions from requiring employees to pay dues. But to Bryce, that appealing name hid the true purpose of the bill, which was to destroy unions.

Read more


Speaking of Big Mistakes in Little Wisconsin

John Wiley, of Madison, was chancellor of UW-Madison from 2001 to 2008. His career at the university spanned four decades; he was a graduate student in the 1960s, an engineering professor in the 1970s and 80s, and an administrator until his retirement. He published this thoughtful piece on the Wisconsin Republican party’s policies toward the university in Wisconsin State Journal (June 2, 2015), with the title “UW has put Wisconsin on the world map.”

I am frequently approached by people — whether friends and acquaintances, or total strangers — who want to ask or complain about something involving the university.

My usual response is: “I’m retired. That’s someone else’s problem now.”

But that is a flippant response, and only partly true. Yes, I am retired. No, it’s not just someone else’s problem.

Everything that affects the university affects us all, and should be of concern to every Wisconsin citizen. This state has invested a great deal in the university since its very founding, and has a lot at stake in preserving that investment.

With a population of 5.8 million, Wisconsin is a middle-sized state (1.8 percent of the United States population and 20th out of the 50 states; somewhat below average in per capita income). Having lived in New Jersey for seven years, I can tell you that most Easterners can’t find Wisconsin on the map. In fact, they know only three things about Wisconsin: cheese, the Green Bay Packers and UW-Madison. Those things they know and admire — probably better than most Wisconsin natives.

In 1900, Wisconsin was one of only 14 research universities that came together to form the now prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU is now 62 universities, including all the well-known, household name schools).

The purpose of forming the AAU was to secure for America a deserved place among the older and better-established European universities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Zurich and others. Of the 14 founding members, 11 were private (mostly Ivy League) schools. Only three were public schools: Michigan, California (now UC-Berkeley), and Wisconsin (now UW-Madison). The AAU has succeeded to the point where AAU schools totally dominate world university rankings.

How did little Wisconsin end up in such elite company? How has Wisconsin stayed there for 115 years?

Unless state leaders can answer those two questions convincingly, they had better be very, very careful about tinkering with the details of an organization they don’t understand, and one that has been and is critical to the past, present and future of Wisconsin.

The latest huge budget cut (the fifth in the last six biennia), together with extraordinarily ill-conceived changes in our governance structure, may well mark the start of an irrecoverable decline. It’s much easier to remain on top than it is to climb back after sliding down a steep hill. And the hill is steep, indeed.

There are now more than 4,000 degree-granting universities in the United States, almost all of which aspire to displace UW-Madison. Wisconsin has been easily in the top 14 of those 4,000 schools by any measure for 115 years — often in the top 2-3 among all universities in the United States.

Where would state leaders like us to be? Number 100, 500, 2,000, 4,000? Just follow Gov. Scott Walker’s path if that’s what state leaders want.

It’s easy. It’s mindless. It takes no thought understanding money, or effort at all: just careless stupidity. The rest of the 50 states will applaud if Wisconsin takes itself out of the competition.

In the meantime, Wisconsin will deserve what it voted for and ends up with, and Gov. Walker can take his run at ruining the entire country instead of a middle-sized, Midwestern state that, until now, has punched way above its weight class and has put little Wisconsin on the world map.


Saving Hermann Hesse

I have a new story, “Saving Hermann Hesse,” appearing in the most recent issue of Eclectica magazine (Vol. 19, 2, April/May 2015). It deals with a German storm-trooper in Berlin in 1933 whose love of literature alienates him from everything the Nazi party stands for. Read the introduction here and follow the link below to read the full story:

Josef Klaren feared he would stumble on the steps. His entire body ached, just as it had most of the time since the Great War. He looked back at the other two stormtroopers, whom he’d met only hours before. They too had their arms loaded with books as they walked down the stairs toward the waiting truck. It was impossible to see his shiny black jackboots; all he could do was to feel one stair, then the next, like a blind man tapping his way with a cane, until he reached the sidewalk.

People lined the path to the truck. Several held arms out straight, gave the Hitler salute, shouted, “Get rid of the trash,” or, “No more un-German books!” Most gawked at the three men as if they’d just picked up a corpse from the upstairs apartment. He wondered if the other two could sense what was going through his mind, or if someone in the crowd suspected him. He was certain that the two books he found were at the bottom of the stack held by his left hand, his strongest. He would slip them under the bench in the back of the truck, and at the right time, move them to his rucksack.

He’d never seen so many books in his life. The writer’s library was lined from floor to ceiling with bookshelves. Only a door, a window, and a small space on the wall opposite the large cluttered desk broke the rhythm of columns of books. There was a single picture, a female nude, legs spread, garish red-purple shadings, all angles and slashes. Josef recognized the style, a woodcut, Expressionist, popular just after the war but now considered depraved. His son had lectured him about it. Josef found the woman’s smile humorous, even ironic; he wondered why the artist had given her this expression when the rest of the painting struck a threatening note. He dared not look at it too long.

There were two library ladders in the study. Josef stood atop one, throwing books onto the floor while the other two men checked their list for targeted authors, gathered the books, and hauled them down two flights of stairs to the street. Then one of the other stormtroopers, who introduced himself as Heinrich, climbed up while Josef and the third man, Stephan, sorted and hauled books. It took several hours, and Heinrich was pleased with the mess they left behind. Papers and torn books were scattered about. Heinrich had taken the globe from the desk and smashed it on the floor. “Jewish swine!” he muttered several times. Stephan spat “Shit-Jew” and “Pig,” then looked up at Josef and said, “Man, this shit-Jew was one of the worst, an absolute Bolshie Arschloch. He’s not so high and mighty now, is he?”

Josef nodded, smiled. He felt lucky to be on the ladder at that moment rather than down on the Oriental carpet ripping at books and swearing. Neither of the other two men knew his last name, and he would keep it that way. They could call him “Comrade Josef.”

The writer was rumored to be abroad, having fled the country when Hitler came to power four months before. His disheveled desk and the clutter of the apartment suggested a hasty exit. There was a woman’s vermillion bathrobe thrown over the back of the living room couch, a man’s black slippers strewn on the terracotta tile in the foyer, dry cat food in a small white bowl on the kitchen floor.

The author was on every local party group’s list. In university towns all over the country, his novels, plays, and collections of short stories now fueled bonfires. All the other giants joined him in the holocaust—Brecht, Einstein, Freud, Hesse, Hirschfeld, Luxemburg, Werfel, Tucholsky, even Hemingway and Jack London. Josef had heard Stephan say he would cart off anything in French, no matter by whom, no matter how old or valuable. “The more valuable looking the better,” he said. “I’ll never forgive the goddamned French for killing my brother in Verdun.” The author had dozens of French language books in his study, including several illustrated works of pornography over which Stephan and Heinrich pored with immense interest and without a single word.

It would be impossible to salvage any of this author’s work, thought Josef. But he would steal away two books by Hermann Hesse, whom the Nazis accused of decadence and being un-German. He was a dangerous figure, the regime said, a pacifist, corrupter of youth. I don’t care, thought Josef, no matter the risk, these two books, just these two, will never see the fire.

Later they sat in the back of the truck, books piled high around them. Heinrich and Stephan talked and laughed about one of the books of French pornography, which Heinrich had open on his lap. He said he would give the book as a present to a woman he’d been seeing, but Stephan insisted it should go on the bonfire. Josef sat across from them, responding with a curt ja or nein or a noncommittal shrug and Ich weiß nicht. Hesse’s volumes hid under his rucksack.

A boisterous crowd greeted the truck at the university square. It was almost dark, and the fire was high. Students, Hitler Youth, and many others ringed the pyre as SA men kept the crowd from moving too close. With each new pile of books thrown on the fire, the crowd chanted, “Down with the un-German spirit,” or, “Jews go to hell.” Hitler Youth members danced, imitating the war cries of American Indians. A band played Nazi songs and marches. A crowd mingled—curious passersby, lovers arm in arm, businessmen on their way home. Around the edge of the fire there were hundreds of books that had fallen short. Every few minutes, SA men, like locomotive firemen, used shovels to scoop up the volumes and hoist them into the flames.

Heinrich, Stephan, and Josef carried load after load of books through the cheering crowd. Heinrich and Stephan laughed and shouted as they threw their bounty onto the fire. They were giddy with hatred. Josef dropped his books to the ground, letting others consign them to the flames. His back throbbed like an exposed tooth nerve. On the fourth or fifth trip, he let Heinrich and Stephan go ahead of him, saying he had to take his boot off and straighten his sock. In their absence, he climbed, wincing, into the cargo area, undid his rucksack, shoved the books in. Both were thin; his pack looked as it always did. He slid it back under the bench, retrieved more books, and passed Heinrich and Stephan on their return trip.

Once all the books were unloaded, Heinrich and Stephan wandered off into the crowd, now larger and even more riotous than before. Neither bothered to say goodbye to Josef, who held back from the main throng as he stood with his pack and craned to see his son.

(Read more)


Courageous Naming: In Memory of Philip Levine

In his masterful Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press, 2014), Thomas Piketty refers to economists’ unfortunate habit of calling workers “human capital” (p. 46). He might also have mentioned the term “human resources,” which is only apparently an improvement. Such euphemisms have mounted in recent years, and they extend throughout neo-liberal economies, where neither capitalists nor bosses exist any longer, but rather “job creators.” With the death on February 14 of the great poet Philip Levine (1928-2015) we have lost a courageous artist who was unafraid to call “workers” by their proper names, or to bring us inside the often devastating experience of work. Here is one of many examples, “When the Shift Was Over,” from Breath (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004), p. 71:


When the shift was over he went out

and stood under the night sky a mile

from the darkened baseball stadium

and waited for the bus. He could taste

nickel under his tongue, and when he swiped

the back of his hand across his nose

he caught the smell of hydrochloric acid.

There were clouds between him and the stars,

not ordinary ones but dark and looming,

and if rain had begun to fall, he thought,

could it be black? Could a halo form

on those fine curls his Polish grandma

loved to brush when he was a boy, cupping

a hand under his chin? How silent

and still the world was after so much

slamming of metal on metal and the groans

of the earth giving way to the wakened fury

of machines and the separate cries of people

together for these nights. How odd that he,

born of convicts and soldiers, men

and women who crossed and recrossed the earth

carrying only the flag of their hopes,

should stand numbed by the weight

of a Thursday shift and raise his head

to a heaven he’d never believed in and sing

in a hoarse voice older than his years,

“Oh, Lordy Lord, I am, I’m coming home!”

He, who had no home and no hope, alone

on a certain night in a year of disbelief,

could sink to the ranks of closed houses

and cars, could sing as clear rain fell.