They’re GREAT!

A little break from the normal writing today to address something that’s been on my nerves for quite some time.

It’s the word: GREAT.

Specifically, it’s how that word is used in reference to our country.

Our country is great.

Our country is the greatest country in the world.

It’s a word that’s used so much that we don’t even think about it any longer. I find it hard to believe that the people using the once great word great to describe our country actually know what the word means, or what using the word implies about the noun it modifies. At the very least, it seems that anyone using the phrase, “The USA is the greatest country in the world” is employing an incredibly loose definition of the word “great.”

Those of you who would suggest that my calling into question the statement itself is somehow treasonous or unpatriotic: back off.

I don’t hate the United States. I love my country. I’m lucky to be me. I have all sorts of freedoms that other people around the world lack. I’m more privileged than a large percentage of the world. My father is a Disabled American Vet who served in Vietnam in the middle of his twenty year army career (he served under six US Presidents, from Eisenhower to Carter). I myself was brought up to respect my country. I learned about our constitution in school and about loving God and Country on my way to earning my Eagle Scout badge. In many ways, I live the American Dream. I own a big white farmhouse with a picket fence. I have a lovely wife and kick-ass daughter. I have a beagle. I don’t want to move anywhere else. But can I honestly say my country is the greatest country on the planet?

No. Right now, in the midst of this idiotic debt mess, I have a hard time wondering how we can even be in the top ten of world’s great countries. Sure, all countries have problems, but is there one aspect of our country that isn’t in trouble?

Economically, we are screwed. My grandkids will be paying off the intrest on our debt.

Educationally, everyone seems to think we’re screwed. Our kids aren’t placing in the top categories any longer. We’re falling behind everywhere. No one reads books. Books! People! We can’t be a great country if people don’t read books! I teach students who’ve never read a book in their lives! How scary is that? How can any generation anywhere be “great” without books (or, at least their digital editions)?

Medicine? Some people might spin it that we have the best health care in the world, but I know many people that were socked into debt because of medical issues beyond their control. How is that “great.”

Corporate Profiteering? All those companies not making anything in the US? How does that make us great? We can buy cheap jeans, but only because we let the populations of poorer countries work for peanuts in unsafe conditions. Are we great because our sneakers are made by near-slave labor? Or does that make us blind and self-centered?

Banks? Please. I downgrade us to “poor” because of our banks. Can any reasonable person believe these fat-cat institutions make us great?

Environment? Don’t even try to tell me we aren’t a major contributor to global warming. Don’t try to convince me that there is no global warming. I downgrade us to “poor” simply because we let the corporations “buy” their science. The vast majority of scientists are telling us that we are wrecking the planet. If the vast majority (not a tiny majority, but say, 10,000 to 1) of doctors told me I had cancer, would I be “great” if I ignored them and said I wanted to trust the voodoo man who said I had evil spirits?

Wars? An overtaxed military? Bickering assholes in our government? Hate everywhere? Elected officials shot at campaign rallies? Little girls killed by psychopaths with access to guns? A distrust of the experts in science and health and nutrition? Intellectuals made into demons? And LIES in the news every day! Lies from our leaders! More poor. Less upward mobility? Hungry kids? Intolerance of every type? Violent intolerance? Criminal intolerance? More debt, both personal and country-wide? Less healthy food? Overwhelming lack of civility and decorum in nearly all forums (and I’m not talking about standing on ceremony–I’m speaking about simply being courteous in our affairs)? Stressed families? Overworked parents? College kids that don’t know what they’re spending tuition for–the liberal arts education is derided and the jobs are absent upon graduation?

How in the world does any of this add up to the “greatest country in the world.”

Because we are free? Because our founding fathers gave us these incredible documents as a framework for a nation?

Having a framework does not make us great. That’s like saying, “Custer had a great battle plan. He was the greatest general ever.” Well, maybe, but he still got his ass handed to him at Little Big Horn. So, maybe he wasn’t so great then.

We aren’t great now.

Maybe we were once. Or maybe we’re only great because we say we’re great. Hey, look at us! We saved the world in WWII! Aren’t we great? What’s that old phrase?

The proof is in the pudding? Yes, that’s the one. Where’s the pudding, America?

Imagine if I stood at the front of my local grocery store on a busy Friday afternoon and proclaimed myself to be the greatest person in the supermarket simply because I’d been given a good foundation and framework. Without any proof of my “greatness,” I’d be laughed at. Plus, I’d look like a douchebag.

Hello! As a country, we’re standing at the front of the supermarket and shouting that we’re the greatest country in the world. Imagine being back by the deli-counter and hearing some jerk telling everyone how much better he is than you? All you wanted to do was buy some honey-roasted turkey and get ready for the weekend and here comes Johnny I’m Great to rile you up. How would you view him? I say, if he shouts like a douchebag, acts like a douchebag, and shits like a douchebag, then maybe he’s a…?

I’d love to see us actually be “Great.” But that means we have to get to work. We have to work together. We have to get dirty and sacrifice some of the things we think are important. I’d love for my kick-ass daughter to grow up and be able to say “I live in a great country.” And mean it. But are we giving her a great country? Can we? Or is that a pipedream?

All I can do is tend my own garden. Keep my head out of the larger mess. Love my family and friends. Sweep my sidewalk. Wave to my neighbors. Help them when they need help. Let the chips fall where they may as the leaders bicker over financial numbers that mean less the more I hear about them. Stay out of all that spurious business and hope we muddle through somehow.

Great is such a hard road to travel. Are we tough enough for that journey? If not, let’s back off of the hyperbole, okay? We’re a good country, or we are “a” country, or we are “one” country among many across the globe. If we can’t actually be “great,” at least lets be truthful about what we are.

wORds

These are the journals that I keep in the attic in a box.

What to do with them?

They contain most of my personal writing since I was fifteen. What purpose do they serve? Once, I stood in the bookstore and read some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal entries. Now,¬†those¬†journals had a purpose. I’m under no illusion that my scrawled rantings compare to those done by that bright mind.

I didn’t write them for anyone. I think I’d be mortified if anyone actually found them.

They aren’t sophisticated.

They are full of doubt. They trace my own personal path in words mostly honest. As honest as I could be with myself at any given time.

The old ones reveal a very naive boy.

I can’t say what the newer ones reveal.

Over time, the journals have gotten smaller. I like the compactness of the Moleskin or Moleskin-like journal.

I’ve thought about hiding them in the walls of my house. When we were renovating, I did slip some things into walls and other secretive places, but I didn’t put the journals anywhere. They could be my own private writing time capsule. Maybe someone would fine them when they decided to renovate the house long after I’m dead. An artifact of yellowing paper that they could get rid of how they see fit.

But that’s only one idea. What I’d really like to do is burn them. I’ve had the fantasy of burning my journals since I started writing them. I think it’s always been in the back of my head. Maybe I just want to have a whole heap of journals to burn. I’d have to get the timing just right. Don’t want to wait too long and miss out. Don’t want to burn them too soon and then get nostalgic and wish I hadn’t done such a thing.

What would it feel like to excise these words from the world?

Who would I be without them all? Throughout history, the world is mostly filled with untold stories. I’d become just another unrecorded life. The thought thrills and terrifies me. Would I be freeing myself from those words?

Of course, if I’m burning the pages, I’d have already deleted or destroyed the digital words. That would have to come first. Erase it all. Awake as a blank slate.

If you ever drive by my house and see me dropping papers into a fire, know that I’m erasing the best record of who I am.

Someday. Not today, but someday.

Hey Muse, Where the Frack are You?

Trouble with Apocalypse Nation today. That’s the title of my zombie book, by the way. Possible reasons:

The muse is not just a myth. She is not with me today.

I’m struggling with the subject matter and my identity as a writer (whatever that means) and whether or not I can be literary and have fun, too.

The end seems like a long way off and maybe too far.

Short stories are more fun, but no one wants them. C’mon ‘Merica… learn to like the short story.

I’m making my undead story too complicated. Can’t I just write about brains and stuff? How come I have to have business and politics and religion in there too? Give your characters some guns, let them go crazy. Enough with trying to figure out who they “are.” They are zombie killers, period. Right?

They aren’t just zombie killers. I want to like them. Even the zombies. I want to like them too. Grrrrr.

I hate calling them zombies. In the book, they’re never called zombies, by the way. Of course, in Part three, which I haven’t got to writing yet, the Haitians will explain the difference between zombies and what I’ve created. I’m actually looking forward to writing the Haitian characters. Kick ass zombie-hunters, I think.

I wish I could write the Haitian scenes now. But I’ve never been able to write out of order. I have to wait till I get to them. Boooooooo!

Normal ups and downs of writing. I spent six months starting and restarting the fourth part of The Aurora Project. Finally, it clicked and I wrote the damn thing. Anyone out there know an agent or editor that wants to look at a very cool novel of apocalypse and renewal that covers six thousand years?

Too much world. One of the reasons I’m the writer I am and not the writer I imagined myself to be is that I’ve never been willing to put the writing first. There’s simply too many important things taking up space and an unwillingness on my part to ignore those things. Family. Community. Livelihood. I’m thinking more about those things today.

Wondering if zombies are a worthy subject. It sounds snooty, I know, but zombies, really? The subject is so very different than anything I’ve written before. Am I writing it simply because I want to buy a private island? I’m only half joking when I mention private islands. I tried to get James Patterson to give me one of his, but he’s greedy. It was a small island, too. Hardly any trees. But nooooooo….

Maybe it’s just too humid to write?

Solar flares?

Fear of contracting bedbugs?

Not enough peanut butter in daily intake?

Always with the stupid writerly doubt?

Stupid writerly doubt! Hate it so much (shakes fist).

Writing is stupid anyway.

The future is here. Writing is dead.

What? Shut up and write.

The Rumors are True…

I’m writing a zombie novel. Sure, Colson Whitehead got to his first, but I’m hoping that we can have a nice writer feud that will help both our careers. I’m also hoping to start a writer’s feud with Justin Cronin. Hey, Cronin, your Virals will be nothing–NOTHING!–when they meet up with my creations.

Of course, I have to finish my version and get someone to publish it. Stupid writing. Hate it so much.

I hear James Patterson just got a 26 book deal from the folks that publish him. That should get him through this year, but what about next? What happens in 2012? Will he get another contract? I worry about him. He has to pay all those people who write those books for him, right? Those books don’t write themselves and he’s just too busy buying private islands and all.

That’s the first thing I’m going to buy with my zombie book money. A private island. When I get there, I’m going to prank call Colson Whitehead and Justin Cronin. They aren’t going to know what hit them. Hear that fellas? Take that successful writers.

Still, I’m having fun writing the zombie book. I don’t call them zombies. I had a superbad name for them–Eaters–until my wife sent me a link a Uwe Boll “film” by the same name. So I had to brainstorm a new word. Stupid writing. Always making me think.

I joke and tell people that I’m trying (for the first time) to write something that people want to read. But it’s only half a joke. I’m writing it for me, but I’m pretty sick of writing for no audience. I like people to read my stories. Maybe if I sell a gajillion zombie books, someone will look at the book I wrote before, The Aurora Project. I still think that book should have a home. I really like it, at least, and I’m super picky about what I read. Maybe if James Patterson agreed to knock off one of his contractually obligated books, there’d be room for my cool, strange, hopeful book about the apocalypse and renaissance of mankind. I’ll have to call him later and see.

Anyway, I am trying very hard not to be literary as I’m drafting this novel. I don’t mean that I’m trying to write badly, but that I’m just trying to tell a plot driven story. I’ve always been bad with plot. I’m enjoying trying to fit pieces together. A new endeavor. The problem with The Aurora Project is that the plot sort of moves sideways, the resolution is…funky. In the new manuscript, I’m trying to connect more dots, get more places. Plus, there’s just a ton of action.

Up until this afternoon, I was unsure of my narrator and thinking of switching to third person. But I got to a new place today. I started to hear his voice. He became real, quite suddenly, for me. That’s pretty cool. I don’t usually enjoy the process of first drafts. I love revision, but drafting is tough for me. But with this book, I’m kind of enjoying the invention.

Whitehead! Cronin! You’re on alert!

#GameofThrones

I haven’t read fantasy (aside from a Terry Pratchet book or two) for over two decades… but I really enjoyed the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones. I was so shocked by the penultimate episode… that I decided to read the series. I thoroughly enjoyed this first book and have moved onto the second. Excellent plotting and development of characters. Solid prose too. Loads of fun… although I do have to say that the lives of every single character completely suck. The entire universe of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic is in dire need of an age of enlightenment (as perhaps is our own dark era). The story leans toward the grim… but I tend to like grim, especially in fiction, where lack of conflict means death of story.

I’m going to spill story beans after this sentence. Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens. The death of a major character is pretty shocking for a television show. I can’t think of many (or any) major character deaths that enhance televised stories. So, when Ned Stark was beheaded, I was shocked. Until the sword came down, I was saying, to myself, “Something will happen… this won’t happen…they can’t kill Ned…” and after the sword came down, my immediate reaction was negative. He was the cornerstone of the series; its solid, moral core. Without him, how could the show continue? It is perhaps the riskiest death of a television character that I’ve ever seen. I had such a negative reaction that I thought perhaps I’d skip the final episode. I voiced my concerns on twitter and the kind folks at the #Baelor hashtag talked me off the cliff.

In the book, Stark is but one of many major point of view characters. Not to diminish his importance, but while his death is shocking in the book, it is tempered by the ongoing narrative, by the other characters points of view and their reactions. The thrust of the story, in Martin’s capable and well-plotted execution, immediately shifts to other characters and the story moves forward.

Although it made for exciting television, the more powerful telling of the story remains in the prose. Never has the difference between the written story and the televised (or filmed) story been so apparent to me. Stark’s death, near the end of the HBO series, provided a punch to the gut. Stark’s death in the book was the a catalyst toward an even larger epic–the boundaries of the entire endeavor increased with Ned’s death, the epic’s canvas grew even larger.

Now I’ve moved into the second book, A Clash of Kings, and I’m impressed with Martin’s vast vision of this strange, dark, violent world. At least when season two of HBO’s adaptation rolls around, I’ll won’t be surprised by who Martin kills off next.