Friday, September 22, 2017

The Arrogance of Youth in a Troubled Time...

The most interesting thing about the times we live in, is the degree of ignorance about simple concepts - the same concepts that were a given of a good public education as I was growing up. It's obvious to most thinking people, regardless of generation, that our public education system has failed to educate a few generations now. And the unfortunate result is that we have a nation of "millennials", the majority of which demonstrate mouths full of nonsense and brains void of substance.

Nowhere is this more evident this week (and that's saying something nowadays!) than the case of Garfield High School in Seattle, where the entire football team and several coaches decided to take a knee during the national anthem. The reason given was to "protest social injustices".  My bet is that if you took these kids into a room one at a time and asked them specifically what social justices they are protesting and how specifically disrespecting our flag, citizens and millions of dead soldiers can change that, not one could give you a coherent answer.

Some digging reveals some interesting facts surrounding the case, such as that Garfield has a history of accusations of racial discrimination, some rather dubious. Perhaps one need consider, though, that we live in a time where every sixteen year old thinks they have been discriminated against and every white adult is to blame. For example, Latino students at Garfield protested that a play about Latinos should have had a Latino cast. (Really? Then I guess every play written about white people should advertise auditions with: Minorities Need Not Apply).

Some of the players in question complained that they were horrified by the third stanza of the National Anthem, when they were exposed to that terrible song. This, according to a Seattle Times African-American reporter, Jayda Evans. The offending lines:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave; from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” . . . 

Evidently, Ms. Evans, the school faculty, and these unfortunate children, can't grasp the concept of historical context. Ms. Evans giddily chirps that the lines are in reference to the blacks that aligned with the British in the war of 1812 in order to flee slavery.  Given that few "slaves" were free to be gallivanting around to join the British Army - I find that a bit surprising. Where blacks did join - and they joined both sides - I would give them enough credit to have good reasons, even love of the birth country and freedom of all men. Evans, all fluffed up because of a few lines she failed to understand, apparently feels the entire anthem - and the love of a nation behind it - needs to be scrapped. But these days, "journalism" abounds with irresponsible, underinformed people with faulty judgment.

The bigger point here is that these kids lack two building blocks of good character: a good education and a respect for those who died fighting for our freedoms.  Some argue that kids need to think about social injustices and get a taste of peaceful protest. Fine. But in an age when every yahoo is protesting some exaggerated - if not semi-fabricated - ill or another, it's hard to take anyone seriously. And there are certainly more productive, less annoying, ways of protesting. Insulting half a nation doesn't seem to make much sense.

What is truly offensive is a bunch of fresh-faced kids, inundated daily with the luxuries of the life of an American teenager, making any sort of public political statement. They aren't old enough to vote, barely old enough to shave, and they obviously lack the education - yet - to really think anything of real value. Their prime has not occurred; they have a ways to go to earn the right to tell adults how to live. We forget to teach our youth humility, on top of everything else.

If they had been raised with the humility that an educated youth was, say, in the time of Francis Scott Key, the author of the National Anthem - you know, back when an education included discussions of character and duty and honor - they would know the horror of choosing to defend an ideal with one's life. They would have some understanding of the ideals that build the country that hands on silver platter the convenient little toys that decorate their everyday lives. Not to mention the right to play a game for the public and then spit in that public's face in a very public way. That kind of education might allow them to even grasp the idea of their own ugly arrogance.

Which brings up the biggest point: Garfield is a publicly-funded school. The National Football League is apparently rife with owners who haven't the balls to reign in the idiots on their teams - their cowardice is costing them millions in tickets and weekly viewers. In the end, a professional team is a business: you displease enough of the public, often enough, your business will fail. The beauty of capitalism. However, Garfield is not a business, and not privately-owned. The administration that condoned this disgusting display forgets where their funding is generated. It seems especially arrogant that they would stick it to taxpayers.

Taxpayers - many of whom are patriots, some of whom are veterans, some of whom lost loved ones in war so that the spoiled little brats at Garfield football could take a knee during the required few minutes of respect to the country that gives them so much. The taxpayers in Seattle should be very worried. 

I am grateful to have come from a generation that was taught the cost of this country. I am grateful I come from a school system and a family that knew the meaning of respect. It's very sad that we as a nation have come into an era of selfishness, of make-believe causes for vengeance, of inability to accept one's own burdens while acknowledging that every life - regardless of race - has its injustices and hard burdens. We have brought up generations of youth who are too selfish and angry to ever fight to defend a country. Where will that lead us, except to ruin?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Protecting the Vile

I had a disturbing encounter this evening with a person who mistook one of my comments. This person was a conservative, someone who knew nothing about me and the fact that I have written on the dangers of radical Islam for over a decade, extensively, under a pen name.

In response to a call from someone to ban the Muslim advocacy organization CAIR (Center for Arab-Islamic Relations), I had suggested that banning wasn't the answer, since banning organizations starts us down a dangerous road, as Americans. The conservative in question jumped on me, shrieking that I was defending an organization of "pedophiles" who believe in beheadings and female genital mutilation. When I explained that they had in fact misunderstood my tweet, they screamed that I was being condescending and repeated the accusation that I was defending the likes of CAIR.

It got me thinking about something that has become more and more disturbing as the country's political stances grow further apart, and the rhetoric gets hotter and hotter. There seems to be a trend amongst young people - with the best of intentions - to "ban" anything they don't agree with. We have to ban organizations, ban houses of religion, ban publications (the Koran), ban even ideas. These people are the product of an educational system that has failed to help them understand why our First Amendment exists, and specifically what it protects. Furthermore, they seem to have no comprehension of a world where we have tossed that most important amendment away.

Out of this zeal to ban what we don't like, rises movements like the current Antifa movement and its droves of indoctrinated, wide-eyed and loud-mouthed eighteen year olds, who storm the buildings and auditoriums hosting conservative speakers at college campuses. For two years, those of us who do understand the value of the First Amendment have cringed to watch these incidents, and grown nauseous at each failure of school administrations to stop it. This casual determination to allow the silencing of speech - and thus ideas - is terribly dangerous to our entire way of life. But how do you communicate that to an entire generation that never learned the concept of freedom of expression? They have grown up free to speak their minds - they never had to pause to question that ability. Worse, they have never had to stop and consider the real potential evil of forcibly taking it from another person.

It was a small light in this dark, turbulent political night we have been living in, when this week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against censorship of freedom of expression, stating that no right exists to prevent another person or entity from using a brand name that others may find offensive. Apparently, a pop band made of Asian musicians, which calls itself "Slant" was sued by some social justice warriors who just had to point out that the name could be interpreted as a racial slur; they appointed themselves the PC police and took the poor kids in the band to court, with the attempt of actually forcing them to change their name - something the band has stated they use with a sense of pride. (But never mind how the people with the slanted eyes actually feel about it. What has that to do with anything, in this world where we must correct others for thinking the wrong thoughts?) The ruling of SCOTUS is an enormous pro-First Amendment statement. The owners of the Washington Redskins, to name just one nervous entity - not to mention their many fans - are breathing a hopeful sigh of relief.

This is not about allowing anyone to be insulted. It isn't about supporting an offensive slur, gesture, or book. What it is about is freedom and respect. It's about giving each other the respect to back off and allow another to decide what is right and wrong for them; it's saying that we cannot appoint ourselves to be the thought monitors of other people.

I have been more than a little disturbed by the public celebrating this past week when a conservative journalist, Laura Loomer, rushed the stage at a Central Park, Shakespeare in the Park performance of Julius Caesar in which the lead character is a Trump lookalike, and of course undergoes the inevitable assassination. Conservative talk show hosts were cheering Loomer right and left, for standing up for civility. But from where I stand, she was simply lowering herself to the same tactics the Left has been using for two years, and somehow doesn't understand the hypocrisy.

In this political climate, it's always going to be the other side who is wrong. It's always their hypocrisy when they perform exactly the same act that we ourselves might feel morally justified in doing. That's why it is so imperative that we hold ourselves to a higher standard. The problem is, we lose all legitimacy to complain about protesters interrupting conservative speakers the next time that happens, when today we applaud the likes of Laura Loomer, who did exactly the same thing. Remember, the 1st Amendment doesn't exist to protect speech we like, it exists to protect the most vile of speech. If we start censoring this thing... why not that thing, and the next and next?

Then it gets very messy, because the question becomes - who decides what speech is going to be acceptable? The Left? The Right? No... THE GOVERNMENT. And then there we are, in Big Brother territory. We just can't condone the actions of Loomer, if we want to stand for Freedom. It's true that the First Amendment comes with exceptions - but these are inevitably exceptions that have to do with imminent public safety - never with censoring ideas. Never.

Some might argue that when the protected speech has to do with killing our president, it's gone too far. There have been cries of "inciting violence" - a totally inaccurate application of that legal concept (the violence in "inciting violence" must be under very specific conditions, and it must present immediate public danger). But actually we have already said as a nation - through previous rulings of the Supreme Court - it hasn't gone too far. We allow for example the burning of a flag - an act that so many of us find so vile and heartrending that it is almost beyond words. But because it doesn't pose immediate public threat, it is protected expression. We have decided as a nation, that the expression of a passionate political idea - no matter how disgusting - is more important than is stopping the expression of that which some may find objectionable.

Laura Loomer is wrong. If she wishes to complain about students banning conservative speech on campuses, she must allow a Julius Caesar Trump, and furthermore she should allow the audience the respect to view the play and make up their own minds. (It is worth noting that the play's entire theme is anti-assassination and anti-violence; the assassination scene is intentionally performed as tragic and emotionally alarming). And those who want CAIR banned are wrong. CAIR is suspected to be a funder of Hamas, and has been declared a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia. But in this country - where we don't regulate the thoughts of citizens - and where CAIR has yet to commit a violent act - we don't ban organizations for their ideologies.

We have to start correcting our younger generations when they talk about "banning" what they don't agree with. Our forefathers - and in cases like my father, our ancestors - shed their very blood for the idea that a person should be free to express themselves politically as they choose. We can't let these commitments to the First Amendment change, if we want to remain America.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Value of a Few Forgotten Virtues: Katie McHugh and Modern Millennials

Reporter Katie McHugh has a big problem. It isn't, as she might imagine, that her voice has been silenced.

McHugh was fired - according to her - by conservative online news-site Breitbart, when in the aftermath of tragic terror attacks in London she posted to Twitter what some consider "racist" remarks. As usual, the liberal Left screams "racist" when anything inflammatory is posted toward the Muslim community - "Muslim" not being a "race", notwithstanding.

This tweet started it all:
McHugh objects that she was simply stating the truth (as she sees it). Funny thing is, on its surface, if one considers it from a purely logical point of view, it is true. But unfortunately McHugh inores the obvious fact that, in a culture that has assimilated Muslims for centuries - and only recently has a radical jihadist issue terrorized the nation - you can't demand that all Muslims be eliminated from the population. I have to believe she understood her own irony, and was using the hyperbole to make a more forceful point.

But McHugh is an employee of a major news outlet that has a reputation to protect. Breitbart is not a government-funded organization. She doesn't work for a publicly-owned entity. This is where McHugh's immaturity catches up with her: her employer has every right to set standards for their employees, and particularly for those who are most visible to the public and working for a communications outlet. I would argue that although she might consider her Twitter account private, she is a voluntary public personality, and as such represents her employer and should consider their image as well as her own when tweeting.

Strangely, McHugh is as much a product of her age group as are the millennials who pontificate screaming into the faces of their educational and intellectual superiors, on college campuses. This sense of intellectual arrogance that young adults possess is alarming - not only because it is so distasteful to the rest of us, but because it is so counterproductive to successful navigation into and through adulthood. Believing that your own beliefs are infallible and unchangeable, is perhaps common to every young generation. But the current one seems particularly arrogant and definitely far more militantly vocal about it, and far less able to measure their own words.

I wonder what the dynamics are. Does the advent of social media and the opportunity to get up on one's soapbox and scream at strangers, with no real correction or accountability or consequence, help to form minds that never question themselves? Is it that we have raised a few generations of kids now that were only hesitantly told "No!" or only occasionally corrected, or maybe never told to be silent in the presence of adults or others who knew more than they did? Is it that their high school teachers and college professors model behavior that is intolerant of other points of view?  Is it a mix of all these things?

The notion of humility as a virtue, in the traditional understanding of that word, is something that needs to be revived. How many modern parents would even know what that word means? How many young adults do?  At its most basic, Humility is an ability to see your own abilities and worth beside those of other people, and accept those things others do better than you do, as well as your strengths. It is a realistic sense of yourself, including your intellectual capacity and your possible lack of insight or life experience. It may be argued that true humility better enables a person to appreciate others, and also to appreciate his or her own unique contribution.

Humility is beneficial first to the one who cultivates it within himself. When internalized as a virtue, it encourages a person to stop and consider the limitations of her or his own opinion, before publicizing it and facing embarrassment. Or loss of the respect of others. Or firing.

McHugh has posted some good pieces at Breitbart, and she may even have some interesting ideas and valid points to make. But she lacks the humility to consider the limitations of her own voice and experience, and the humility that might have caused her to stop and measure her words more carefully, before she hanged herself with them.

At present, she is loudly protesting her firing quite publicly. I wonder if she has considered how unprofessional or fit for another news position that makes her appear? No one hires a troublemaker, after all.  With all the typical recklessness of today's millennial, she rages about, decrying her own victimhood without considering how doing so will harm her. Regardless of how she feels about it, or whether Breitbart was right or wrong - the truth is that Breitbart did what any private employer can. I hope that McHugh received some warning before this happened, or at least had been given in the past some idea of the expected employee conduct as regards social media and other public communications. But whether this happened or not, McHugh can't control what Breitbart has done, while she can control the conduct she chooses for herself from this point on.

McHugh's tweets lacked tastefulness. They were obviously intentionally provocative, and I think she meant them to be sardonic and even funny. They weren't. They fell flat because they danced too close to meanness and unfairness, and lacked tact, good taste, and common sense. They came from a young mind that hasn't yet learned the value of temperance, the benefit of humility. A statement being true isn't all that matters: the truth of it has to be weighed against the necessity and fairness of it and any fallout that may result from its being voiced.

From the looks of things so far, McHugh may be too much a product of her own generation to exercise much of those virtues - temperance, fairness and humility - in the near future. And in that, she has much in common with other millennials who lack that subtlety of understanding that leads to the kind of nuanced communication skills which would earn them the respect they so loudly - and too often undeservedly - demand.

Monday, August 15, 2016

REVIEW: "Polarity in Motion", by Brenda Vicars

Genre:  Young Adult, Coming of Age, Whodunnit
Publisher:  Red Adept, 2014
Length: 266 pages

This book was recommended to me as being an especially good representation of the genre. I almost never read young adult novels - they just rarely interest me, and so few are well-done. So it was with a little reluctance that I began Polarity in Motion.

About ten pages in, I was hooked. The opening was expertly-written, immediately grabbing the reader as it should. As I read, it occurred to me that I would like to use it as an example to beginner novelists I am working with as a mentor and/or editor, as I try to instill in them the terrible importance of a great opening to a novel. At that point, I double-checked to see how many books the author had under her belt; I was surprised to find out that this was her first novel.

The next thought I had was that she had an excellent editor. Not only was the text clean (I think I found two typos and one grammar error - this is present in any novel, no matter how thoroughly edited), but the book was structurally extremely sound. This wasn't an easy task for a beginning novelist: the book is at its core a mystery, and with that type of book plot structure must be near-perfect: in order to keep the reader wondering and the story flying along, a writer has to do some painstakingly careful plotting. Foreshadowing must be continuous but not overwhelming; tension must be maintained to a high degree; most importantly, all the strings of plot must come together neatly at the end. The reader must be surprised by the ending, and yet satisfied and not surprised at all by what they learn. This book, for the most part, accomplished that.

Polarity in Motion is about a young girl caught up in a sexting scandal at a high school - one in which she is victimized. We follow her as she is removed from her school and home, and - during the impending formal investigation - becomes a temporary ward of the state. I really liked this section of the book, because I think it deftly illustrated the confusion, helplessness and anger of a child in such a situation. The main plot revolves around the discovery of who set her up, where the photo originated, and how it came to be a tool of bullying as it was disseminated among the peers in Polarity's social and academic world.

This book is entertaining and suspenseful and would entertain anyone from 12 to 80. It contains a lot of teen angst, crazy teachers, annoying parents, bullies, cute boys and a little romance. It really is a bang-up debut young adult novel, and is far above most others out there in terms of both quality of writing and of story.

As an editor, I did have one reservation about it, and it is one particularly interesting for me to bring up because it concerns all beginning novelists. This book makes one mistake that is very common in first books: it wants to be too many things. It hovers between being a mystery novel and meandering into various social issues that really have little to do directly with the plot. Although these passages do build layers of character and add atmosphere, they are a bit clumsy and neither advance the plot nor affect the outcome of the story.

I want to take a moment to speak about this in general terms, for the benefit of writers. Oftentimes, first-time novelists try to work a social issue that is near and dear to them personally into their story. This is perfectly fine, as long as the issue is shown within the plot of the story and has some effect on the plot's outcome. Too often, a new novelist wanders occasionally from the narrative of the plot to get on a soapbox of some sort. In terms of the technique of writing there are a few problems with this:

1 - It slows down the tension of the plot. In some cases pontificating about some moral concern goes on for paragraphs, in the middle of what should have been a continuous build of dramatic tension. The new writer will justify this as "well,  but the main character is talking about it, so..."  I appreciate that it is worked into the character's thoughts or dialogue, but that isn't enough. It still has to advance the plot, and be directly related to the story.  Otherwise the impatient reader is skipping those passages in frustration.

2 - A reader is satisfied by a well-defined theme. A great reading experience requires that the book know what it's about. As I said above, this problem is so common with beginning novelists - especially the intelligent, involved, engaged people who have real passion about a cause - and I often find myself saying to someone I'm editing, "Do you want to write a good novel, or do you want to do some real research and write a good non-fiction book about this issue? Because you need to pick one." When the narrative is interrupted by paragraphs of moralizing - even when it is part of the characters' thoughts - and that moral message doesn't directly affect the plot or move it along, it causes the reader to get an overall sense of disorganization in terms of theme. It's very hard to explain to someone inexperienced with writing that a novel is not the place to lecture the reader about social issues. Which brings me to my next point...

3 - Readers don't like unsolicited lectures. The reader of a novel is in it for two reasons. The first is enjoyment. An uninvited, unexpected lecture on a moral issue can be annoying and takes away from the enjoyable experience of being told a story.  But secondly, some people like to learn something as well from a novel. It may be argued, in fact, that the greatest novels in literature explore the social issues of the day. I would absolutely agree with that. But I guarantee you that every one of those great novels presents that social issue in a way that it is 1) incidental to the fabric of the story (that is, it never interrupts the flow or reads like a lecture to the reader) 2)  completely and intricately woven into the plot itself: that is, the social issue is the primary cause of tension, affects the plot, and affects the outcome.  It takes some very experienced writing to deftly work a moral lesson into the weave of a good story, and the best writers learn to do it well... which brings me to the last point...

4 - Readers don't need to be beaten over the head. Especially not with the author's life philosophies. Not outright, anyway. Ask my editing clients how many times I said to them, as we worked on a first novel, "Less is more. Less is more."  What I mean is, if you are going to work in philosophizing - and you certainly have the right to as a the author - work it in subtly. Most beginners don't understand how smart the reader is going to be, and how much a reader likes to work things out for themselves. Do you remember when you were a child how your mom used to tell you the same thing over and over to make her point, and how annoying that was?

Beginning authors explain way too much about the meaning and morality of the tale. They need to show it, not tell it. Too much telling - in this case talking about this social or moral issue or that (regardless of who is doing the talking) - feels to the reader like being hammered over the head with a moral. Especially when there are several (let's define that as three or more) places in the novel where that happens. I would argue it doesn't ever need to happen in a well-written novel, because the moral message should be conveyed subtly by the very action of the tale alone, and never have to be stated outright.

In the case of Polarity in Motion, the moralizing is separate from the plot. There is a lot of talk about race, and a lot of talk about inequality of privilege as regards race. But within the story this point is not illustrated: all the kids at the school seem to have the same opportunities for success, and successful individuals are presented in all races. Consequences for characters have everything to do with action, and nothing to do with race. Everything that happens in the story could have happened regardless of what color everyone's skin is. There is some suggestion that only kids of color end up in juvenile detention, which anyone who has worked with teen offenders knows is hooey  (I can say from personal first-hand work experience that many are white). There is suggestion that the kids of color are less often guilty of the charges that put them there - but it is never shown positively that this is true. And again, it's a side-plot.

One disturbing element was Polarity's many descriptions of her love interest's skin color - so many that the reader wonders if the girl is a bit obsessed with him precisely because he is black. Which would be in itself, of course, a type of racism, wouldn't it? And that would be a subject for a whole different story and possibly a legitimately interesting plot it itself. But it doesn't belong here - because in the end his skin color has nothing to do with anything.  I think this feeling comes, again, because the reader is being beaten over the head by the fact his skin is brown - the implication being isn't it cool that this white girl can fall for this great black guy. But I think most modern 13-year-olds already know that.

At the end of the book, to her credit, the author valiantly tries to tie together bullying, racism, economic under-privilege (of white "trailer trash" and blacks), and then other various notions about inequality, all together... but it ends as a jumbled bit of yet more philosophizing (not to mention some bad poetry - such as that our 15-year-old character would in fact write) and it ultimately feels out of place - because there is too much effort to make it fit neatly in to a package. The mystery story works well, and would have felt more organized, if this moralizing had all been left out or had been worked into the actual plot with subtlety.

I don't mean to seem to pick on this book - I want to state again that it is overall well-done and an exceptionally competent first effort at a novel. I simply want to clearly illustrate for potential writers who read my blog how easy it is to get caught up in trying to convey one's personal passion and political philosophy; and without the skill to do it right, you can end up lowering the quality of the novel for the reader.

I did some research on the author of Polarity in Motion after reading it, and find that she has an extensive background in secondary education. This was apparent in the book, in which the reader is taken into the inner workings of high school administration.  Ms. Vicars has openly stated her passion for questions of inequality among teens, and I'm sure that it was tempting to try to work some teaching into her novel.  I really hope to see another novel, and perhaps some of these sub-themes worked in again, but less blatantly and more closely with the plot line.

Polarity in Motion is widely available and can be found at Amazon, where I posted a portion of this review.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Some thoughts on the kindness of PC . . .

Ironically, the day before the Orlando massacre, I had an unpleasant Twitter exchange with someone I had previously enjoyed.  This East Coast university professor shared an interest with me, in medieval literature and history.  It isn't always easy to find kindred souls in that area (yeah, we're geeks), so I always appreciate fellow medieval fanatics.

But on this day, he tweeted a tweet that I found so disturbing, I couldn't stay silent. It was a statement to the effect that people who didn't share his world view (liberal) and weren't PC, were somehow less intelligent (conservatives).  I replied something to the effect that his comment seemed elitist, and that it wasn't my experience that those who embraced PC ideology were always more intelligent than others. He shot back that they had a "kinder and more humane vision".

Oh. Not elitist at all.

I'm sure this man sees himself as intellectually superior to me and to most people around him. He is amused that I am not enlightened enough to appreciate his view. It will never occur to him that I have thoroughly considered his view - indeed years ago I may have even embraced it. At the time of the exchange, I dismissed him as rather limited in his viewpoint; I had to laugh to myself, considering the environment - liberal academia, increasingly intolerant of diversity in viewpoints. No wonder he's as blind as he is to common sense.  I still question his ability to think through layers, despite his Ph.D. level education. But all week I've been haunted by the exchange for another reason: this man is a prime example of one of the biggest myths about the PC culture and the biggest points of misunderstanding of the Left:  that a PC-driven set of values is "kinder".

Maybe it's because of what happened in Orlando. Maybe it's something that has nagged at the back of my brain for quite some time. But I've been chewing on this question all week: is it really kinder? Every cell in me screams, "No way!"  and I have been driven to define for myself specifically how it is unkind.

I agree with this misguided professor that the PC movement was born of the intention to make interactions between people kinder. Back in the 1980s, the term "politically correct" didn't make me cringe; it was an invitation to simply stop and think something through, consider if prejudice was present, if discrimination was present. It began as a nice idea.

But today, in 2016, it has mutated into a tool for intimidation, thought-shaming, censorship, and ultimately, an attempt to control. Read that list again: it has a lot in common with "socialist" (read: progessive) movements in history that ended up oppressing and eventually murdering their own people.

Besides its blatant ignorance of history - or its willful desire to selectively forget history - there are several things that frighten me about the PC culture in 2016. I mean, really frighten me.

  • It seeks to censor the world of journalism. It seeks to control the free flow of ideas in the mainstream press. Those within that structure who disagree with any element of the PC world view are isolated, ridiculed, even bullied out of their jobs. At this point, we have journalists selectively editing anything from interview footage to statistics, in order to deceptively present them in such a way that the PC narrative is protected. The accompanying willingness to ignore simple - simple! - fact is astounding. Worse, the intellectual arrogance of a journalist who would manipulate factual information to fool his or her audience into adopting a particular view is ... well, immoral. 
  • It seeks to censor the world of science. Working with the press, the PC culture has demonized and ostracized formerly-respected scientists by creating a mythology around "climate change". While fact is that many of these scientists tell us that although the climate is changing, a tiny fraction of the change is due to human influence, the PC culture continues the narrative that any scientist disagreeing with their view that climate change is an imminent disaster is a nutjob. This they perpetuate through the press. 
  • It seeks to control the world of education. A serious study of the industry of textbook publishing in recent decades will make it obvious to a thinking person that some of our history is being rewritten and taught in such a way as to align with the current PC thought. Now it may be argued that as any society evolves, its textbook material also evolves. But the problem here is that it has evolved in a very specific direction, favoring very particular ideologies that may or may not be based upon the humane values of our traditional past. These would include such things as liberty, freedom of thought, freedom from an intrusive government, freedom of speech, responsibility toward one's fellow man, integrity of one's right to protect home and family. The PC culture seeks to alter actual history in such a way that it will align with the rest of the narrative. The facts be damned; so many are inconvenient. 
  • It seeks to control the world of art. In an area of society where all viewpoints should be explored at the deepest and most creative level, we have thought control. In my view, this cheapens all of art. Consider the loudest and most arrogant of Hollywood voices - they seem to project an absolute zero tolerance for a conservative viewpoint. If you have read up on that issue, you know that many actors, writers, technicians, have reported being persecuted - from being harassed verbally, to being ostracized from social events, to being outright fired because of their views. Hollywood has sought to create an environment where one point of view rules. Consider the music industry. It's even worse. What do you think would happen to a conservative who, upon accepting some award at the Grammys, got up and expressed a view the room didn't share?  This used to happen, and be accepted. No more. Recently I watched episodes of Seinfeld and realized they wouldn't fly today. Not because they are not thought-provoking, but because the PC crowd running television media would be overly sensitive to them. It even seeks to squelch humor - except humor at the expense of the opposing view. 
  • It seeks to define morality for all society. I don't deny that we, as the collective humanity, must define a common morality. Most of western society, at least, can agree that enslavement, punishment without trial, rape, child abuse causing injury, political imprisonment, racial bias, gender bias, are all wrong. But PC culture seeks to define minutia, for all of us. Although the United States was founded by a group of people seeking the freedom to practice Christianity as they chose without governmental interference, the PC culture has used the laws growing out of that centuries-old history to silence all non-secular expressions of religious faith. Or at least, two religious faiths that they don't like. Thus we have courts dealing with situations where a creche is removed from view, but another symbol is welcomed. Or where school children are taught the tenets of some religions, as part of a "cultural sensitivity experience", while other religions are ignored or even demonized.  Again, some views are oppressed in favor of those
    that fit the narrative. 
  • It seeks to control the free flow of information, aside from media. Consider the environment that has grown in the state-funded universities of this country, where by definition all views should be welcome. We now have young people who insist they should be considered adults who need "safe places", and "time-outs" when they hear speech they don't agree with. We have students who see no moral problem with their behavior when they interrupt and stop a presentation by a conservative speaker. In their arrogance, they truly believe that they have a monopoly on intelligence, on Truth, and this justifies silencing opposing opinion.  Consider the behavior of the mobs of "protestors" - some there for hire and some too young to know better - who have recently perpetuated real violence at rallies for Donald Trump. These people have one aim: to prevent the free flow of ideas, by preventing others from hearing ideas that they don't agree with. Historically, they have this in common with rising fascist movements. But they are too young, uneducated, naive... and maybe too arrogant, to know history and understand the patterns.
I could go on. But my point is, when people are silenced, intimidated, bullied out of jobs... is it kind? When people are terrorized, pummeled with rocks, eggs, and even fists, at a rally, is it kind? When people are lied to about the value of their own heritage in favor of another group's, is it kind?  When people are shamed in 2016 for actions of their ancestors in 1800, or 1700, or 1600, is it kind?  When people's work and struggles are erased because of their skin color, and their right to reap benefits of their labor denied, is it kind

The current PC culture has come with a sense of entitlement and superiority that is alarming. Like the most dangerous and ultimately oppressive socio-political movements of the past, it justifies unethical behavior by virtue of a sense of moral/ethical/intellectual superiority; the immoral has become relative to how the behavior serves the goal. PC culture justifies shaming someone for their views as "stupid". It justifies ignoring factual information in order to convey what one considers a bigger message. It justifies robbing people of livelihoods, personal safety, the right to an idea. It justifies, even, taking a "protest" as far as violence. Because, you know, the Greater Good.  
Problem is, that greater good is coming at a higher and higher price to the integrity of this nation, as the PC culture grows more and more certain of its own superiority. And sadly, it comes at a higher and higher price to the individual.

So I'm just going to say it. I think this pattern of PC thought is the worst of the worst kind of just plain mean. It devalues Truth in favor of New Narrative. It devalues the right -the right! - of a human being to acquire real, factual information before making up his own mind. It distorts our world when it distorts science, education, journalism, arts, political discourse. It robs us and cheats us and binds us in ways we never agreed to. It presents a false picture to us, which is ultimately misleading. And it is deliberate in its deceit. Because it believes it knows what is best.

Call me old-fashioned, but I come from an era where lying and deceit no matter the reason were
immoral. I come from a time where people understood the meaning of the word "humility" (wonder how many 20-somethings can even define that?). I come from a time when, to assume one's own intellectual superiority was not only immoral, but to assume the right to rob others of their autonomy and liberty and rights by virtue of one's own intellectual superiority, would be unthinkable. 

It doesn't take much courage to stomp one's foot and shout over an opponent until they are silenced or slink away in defeat. It doesn't take any courage to shame someone into non-opposition, conveniently ignoring your own shortcomings. It takes no courage to join a group of like-minded bullies to shout another, minority, view into silence.  It takes zero courage and less character, to assume your own ideas and opinions are so perfect that they can never change or alter in keeping with new information. It takes nothing to assume you're superior to another human being because they don't share your narrow view of the world. 

It takes real work and time to seek out and research factual information. It takes real patience to listen to someone whose life experience has led them to have views different from yours. It takes intellectual courage to examine the ways in which information that makes you uncomfortable may have merit (that would go to allowing opposing speakers and opposing theories a platform at universities, wouldn't it?).

We are becoming a society of cowards due to a rising PC culture. It demands persecution of any voice it doesn't like. If it can't legally silence, it does it by intimidation and harassment. Again, this is the beginning of fascism - that word so many of our youth, with their PC-saturated minds and view of the world, throw around so easily to describe the opposing view, all the while never really understanding its history or meaning. This is the beginning of one loud societal group silencing another. 

The real irony of PC culture is that it becomes the very thing it seeks to stop. In striving to emphasize certain races, histories, art forms, groups, that it has deemed persecuted, it begins the same persecution of other groups. Thus, Christians are bad, conservatives are bad. Police, whites, are bad. Some people deserve persecution more than other people - and we have come full circle. We've simply swapped victims.

My hope is that the part of the American spirit that has defeated fascism again and again in this world, will rise in a common voice that will say, "Enough."  That, although the ideas that gave birth to political correctness may have been noble, it's gone too far. When it stepped into oppression territory it went too far. 

The PC culture doesn't value character. It doesn't value integrity. It doesn't value truth - not the real,
unpleasant, inconvenient truth that often accompanies fact. It doesn't value humility. It doesn't value real equality - you know, that old ideal where people would have the same rights regardless of their background or skin color or what their blinking ancestors did four hundred years ago. It doesn't value diversity of ideas, or ideology. It doesn't value diversity of heritage - not really, because it overvalues and re-invents the heritage of some and ignores and re-tells the heritage of others. The PC culture wars within itself because it never stops shrieking long enough to really hear and examine all points of view, and come to real compromise. Compromise does not fit the narrative. The patience required to accept that most social change requires time to happen humanely, is not part of the PC mindset. 

Sorry, Professor, but there is nothing kind about it.


UPDATE:  The Benghazi hearing concluded on June 28, and the following came to light: Obama's administration, after the Sec. of Defense ordered that our military needed to go in to Libya and rescue Americans who were under attack, fretted over what impression our military uniforms would make upon the Libyan terrorists. Because we didn't want to offend their sensibilities, our citizens suffered over 13 hours under severe attack, and our ambassador and three others met horrible deaths (which we now know for a fact Obama and Hillary lied about, Hillary even lying to the families of the victims - to save the election which for Obama's second term which was 59 days away).  One serviceman reported that he and comrades changed clothes four times (!) - in vain, as it turned out, because by the time the administration came to any conclusion about attire, it was too late to help, and none was ever sent.  This is a prime example of how political correctness is not kind, it is not sensible, it is not reasonable. It is selfish; it seeks to value one point of view over another, and it seeks to silence any opposition.  Political correctness out of control, in this case, killed four brave Americans. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Me, He, and She: A Writer's View on Infidelity

So I'm sitting with a long-time friend recently, chatting about our mutual lives and people in them, and she alludes to something that causes me to glance up at her in astonishment.

"You knew I had a boyfriend, right?"

I burst into astonished, semi-amused laughter. "No, I did not know that."

This friend has been married for nearly thirty years to the same man. They were married very young. I have never asked, but knowing their background, I would say that they probably got married because everyone expected it, and were too young to really have a clue about anything beyond puppy love. Four kids and several grandkids later, things have soured. Her husband has health issues and a problem with erectile dysfunction. Despite her pleading with him to seek medication and/or marriage counseling, he has refused to show any interest in fixing the problem. The problem being not so much that he can't get it up, but that he doesn't want to, and she is a good-looking, red-blooded and often horny woman. This isn't a novel. This is a real adult life.

My writing buddy recently asked how my new book was coming along, and as I heard myself enthusiastically relay some possible plot twists I had considered, it occurred to me that I am again writing about - and maybe obsessing about? - infidelity. It's a subject that is so interesting to me that I can't stop working it into my plot lines.

As a writer, I have learned a lot about the subject of infidelity; I have learned more as a writer, perhaps, than I did years ago as a cheated-on wife. Now, there is something I never would have thought possible.  I thought you all - writers and others - might like to hear about some of that.

My book Gentlemen's Game involved quite a bit of cheating. Some of it was mindless "for fun" cheating - where the spouse doesn't find out and the perpetrator feels no guilt.  Some of it was "I'm cheating because you have given me no choice by your behavior".  I think that it took many years for me as a person to understand that sometimes, there is justification.  Sometimes, as in much of life, the issue isn't all that black and white. I had to laugh at the many reviews for G Game that mentioned the infidelity, usually in the vein of "there is cheating, but . . ."  and some praise of the book as a whole.  People really, really don't stomach infidelity easily.  And I noticed more than once that it is the young, the more recently-married (say less than ten or fifteen years), who are the least tolerant of the notion.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that fidelity as a concept should be morally acceptable! I'm saying that for me, there was a point in life where I realized that cheating is common (more than it should be), that all who cheat are not pigs, that people can be good spouses and still cheat, that people can be good people in much of their lives, and still cheat.  It's more complicated than we want it to be.  I am speaking about tolerance of the notion in the sense of a writer - that when one has the maturity to tolerate the thought of infidelity enough to try to understand it and allow one's mind to explore it, a given book might be more enjoyable and more of an enlightening experience than simply an emotionally difficult one.

Infidelity in the publishing world is interesting. In literary, mainstream fiction, it's acceptable.  In the romance genre, it most often isn't; publishers' guidelines will state outright that infidelity is not to be presented. Most interesting to me, many publishers of erotic romance - the most X-rated - also don't like to publish infidelity, unless it's a group sex thing where the spouse/significant other is involved. This is amazing to me:  so often the conflict of relationships, in real adult life, involves some sort of infidelity, whether strictly emotional, or sexual. And yet it makes readers of romance so uncomfortable that publishers are shy about it.

I confess that I was once one of those readers. Well, I never could stand romance novels - haha! - but I was that kind of person. I could not read about infidelity. I could not watch a movie about it. I was terrified. I did a lot of thinking about why I was terrified (I'm a writer, it's what we do - obsess about the whys of human behavior).  This is what I believe:  I could not allow my mind to go to a dark place where everything I wanted to believe in would be rendered, perhaps, null and void.  I was afraid the book or film in question would present cheating in a sympathetic light. And then what would that mean for my beliefs and my views of the world?  Would it suddenly have to be a place where The Cheaters were not so bad, and we - the ones who would never cheat - were doomed to be deceived, lied to, hurt? What kind of backwards Hell would that be?

If you've read this far, I'm going to reward you with a juicy personal story. I want to tell you the story so that you understand how my feelings about cheating evolved as a writer to a point where I can write a sympathetic character that happens to be cheating. And there will be a point to all of this, I promise. Here goes.

I was about thirty-five or so. I'd been married for about a dozen years by then. I was fairly attractive, I had a lot of friends. As a wife I was fun, kind, if a little bullheaded. My husband was not so kind, not much fun, and I had married him too young to know that someone who is egocentric doesn't get better through the years, but worse. But I was raised with some old-fashioned values, which is probably why I hadn't walked out years before, and as long as he was faithful, I was committed.

He had a colleague and best friend, whom I'll call Mark. He often hung out with us. I didn't care much for him.... he was fairly young, maybe late twenties, and he had a high-school level locker room style humor that often offended me. And I had nothing in common with him. Plus, my forty-year-old husband acted like an immature ass when they were together. But Mark never knew my feelings. His maturity level wasn't his fault. And they had known each other and worked together for several years by then.

The day came when Mark suddenly got married, to a girl from his hometown he'd known for a few
years and dated off and on. He said his parents didn't like her - I wondered why - and didn't explain further why the relationship hadn't been more on than off.  But at any rate, now they were married, and he brought her to our area to live and work.  My husband met Angela, came home and mentioned how gorgeous she was. She was from another country and culture originally - not unusual in our circle, since my husband was also foreign and many of our friends were immigrants.

They married on Valentine's Day.  Within a month, the four of us were spending a lot of time together. Angela was also much younger than I was, and I had little in common with her either. She was nice enough, but a little full of herself. I chalked it up to the age and maturity level, and did my best to help her feel at home in a new place. She adored me. She used to bring me little gifts, tell my husband how wonderful I was. I liked being looked up to.

Meanwhile, my husband insisted we spend a lot of time with them. Maybe two evenings a week, plus time on weekends. I gradually started to resent it. Before, we had always had Friday as a "date night". Now the date was always a double date. Always. When we weren't with them, he was talking about them. I started to go a little nuts with it. But the months went on, and I didn't say a lot. After all, Angela was getting used to being married, in a new place, and she often sought my advice.

 Once, she confided in me that she appreciated my friendship, because she had never had a lot of female friends. "Women don't like me. They always think I will steal their boyfriends." She laughed. I thought it was a rather arrogant thought on her part. But I couldn't argue, she was a very pretty and very, very sexy girl. She was from South America, and displayed an easy physical sensuality that so many Latina women have. In addition she was funny and charming, and had just finished a law degree. I imagined she might invite a lot of jealousy from women.

And advice she needed. They both did. The fights were often, and childish. My husband and I spent not a few evenings with them indulging in a bit of impromptu marriage counseling. But they seemed to be a good match, and Mark certainly loved the girl. I never could quite figure how she felt about him, but I didn't want to judge something so personal.

I spent early evening of Halloween at their apartment. Angela had summoned me there, saying she was in some crisis and needed to talk. I remembering listening to her and wondering what the issue actually was. She rambled on about the usual, her frustration with Mark, their fighting. But I didn't get a feeling of crisis and wondered why I had had to drop everything and drive over there. It was weird, and I felt rather manipulated. Mark and my husband arrived at some point, and things were even weirder. Mark seemed oblivious. My husband seemed annoyed. Have you ever had that feeling that something is definitely going on in a room, but you haven't been made privy to it and can't put your finger on it?

Next morning, my husband nervously told me he had to tell me something. I remember him shaking as he told me - sitting there on the side of the bed, this man who usually didn't care what I thought about anything - that he and Angela had been having an affair since May. Since two months after her marriage. He was having an affair with his best friend's wife.

Now... this is where it gets really interesting. Because this is where I started learning what infidelity really is, and what it really means.  It isn't about someone having sex with someone. That is just a tiny detail in the end.  It hardly matters. (Believe me, it doesn't.)  What matters is that your judgement failed you.  You failed to see the signs. Your mind failed to protect you from your worst nightmare. You were deceived by the person closest to you. Everything you believe about yourself, and the reliability of your intelligence, explodes around you. He would not have told me because of an attack of conscience, mind you. He told me because they had quarreled and she had threatened to tell me. He had merely beat her to it.

I didn't scream. I didn't yell. I was numb. He asked if I was going to leave him. I told him I didn't know. I cried a little.  It was immediately apparent to me that this man who was often so cold, so arrogant, so dismissive of me, was now shaking, so small and terrified that he would lose me. I wondered if he was surprised too. (Looking back, I know he was. He never saw her again. Hilariously, after that day the fun of it was gone for them. The sneaking around made it interesting. They didn't even like each other much as people, and both were painfully aware of it in the end, much to my great amusement. Last laughs, poetic justice, all that, you know.)

And then as I watched him sitting there wringing his hands, I said something that surprised me as much as it did him. And I am proud of it to this day, because I learned how terribly strong I was, and I knew in that moment that of the four of us, I was the strongest. And I knew he knew it too.

I said, "I don't know what will happen. But I will tell you this: you have 24 hours to tell Mark. If you don't, I will."

He said quietly, "You would do that, wouldn't you?"

I said, "Try me. He deserves to know the truth about his life and what he is married to. He deserves better than her. And better than YOU."

In the end, he told Mark, after begging me to be present. He told him like a man, apologized like a man. A few hours before, Angela, forewarned, had gone crazy. She begged, threatened, cried to me, "You don't understand! Mark isn't like you! He isn't going to understand and he'll divorce me."

Tough cookies, little girl.  You made this bed.

Not like me?  Who said I wasn't going to leave?  What did she imagine I was? A saint? I was no saint, but I was no fool either.

Mark surprised me, moved me, and humbled me by his reaction. He was calm, he didn't try to kill my
husband. Within weeks, he'd forgiven him and they were working out together. He did file for divorce the very next day.  I didn't feel sorry for her one bit.  I did feel sorry for Mark. He did deserve better. Anyone would.

I stayed in my marriage for several years, but I should not have. It took time to get my mind to stop obsessing over the deception.  Because that's what you obsess over. It isn't flashes of possible sexual rendezvous. It's memories of the moments your partner looked you in the face and lied. And questions about how you were so easily fooled.

Here was another surprise. A revelation. It took a while to come to me. But finally one day I said to my husband, "You know... I have a feeling that Angela's sleeping with you had something to do with..."

"... fucking you?  Of course it did. It wasn't about me at all."  He finished the thought for me.

Infidelity is ultimately a terribly selfish act. It's the deliberate deception of the person who relies on you to keep them emotionally safe in this emotionally brutal existence we all share. It's the ultimate betrayal from the ultimate friend. It's ugly.

It's also selfish on the part of the co-cheater. Angela wanted to stick it to me: someone she couldn't be. She called me, in fact, a few months after the divorce. "Mark and D-- are still friends. Why can't we be friends?" she whined.

"Are you crazy?  You fucked my husband. That is why we are not going to be friends. I have no respect for you. Now get the hell off my phone."  I knew that she knew I was a bigger person than she was. That was enough for me. I hope she grew from it, but I really don't care. She was a big girl, she destroyed a marriage and nearly two. She knew what she was doing. Now for the rest of her life she gets to know what she did and regret it.

When I was younger and more innocent, I thought infidelity was always unacceptable. I don't believe that now, despite the ugliness of what Angela and my ex did. I think of relationships, particularly marriage, as a literal contract. You screw me, prepare to be screwed.  I used to tell my husband in those latter years, "I guess you owe me a freebie."  Meaning that I could, without guilt, sleep with a man of my choice for a few months. At any time. I enjoyed watching him squirm, wondering if I'd do it.  I never did. Because in the same way he chose to live deceptively, I chose to live honestly.  Like I said before, I should have left him immediately after. But I was young and dumb. Marriages may survive infidelity but they are never the same again. This is the bottom line: A person who is capable of that level of deception will always be capable of it. Each individual has to chose whether living with such a person and the fear of the havoc they can wreak in your life, is really worth it. When I did leave him finally, he knew that I would always deserve better than he had been. Because I never would have done to him what he did to me.

Characters are never interesting if they are saints. Sometimes good people do bad things. Selfish things. Maybe even unforgivable things. The wounded party, after an affair, understands this as no one else can. All of this makes for multi-layered relationships, real multi-layered characters, and interesting stories. Affairs are common. We all know the stories. We all can predict every scene and the ending.  But can we all understand the emotions? The nuances of the experience?  I think that is where one can weave a unique tale. And we are all individuals, certainly experiencing infidelity differently, both as the offender and the offended party.

I do believe that some philanderers have good reason - or at least an understandable reason. Coming up with those reasons as a writer is the fun part, and does allow me to reflect and invite the reader to reflect, on some of the more difficult aspects of human behavior.  Jack Miles, in Gentlemen's Game, came to believe he was in a terrible, bad marriage, to a selfish person, and strayed to explore who he really was. Jack was basically a good man who did some bad things.  In my story Frozen, Ethan is a selfish man who keeps a young gay man on the side, masquerading as a straight and happily-married man with small children.

My friend, after bowling me over with her announcement that she had a boyfriend on the side, quickly explained that her husband knows and doesn't seem to care.  I listened for half an hour, and at the end of our conversation, I said, "Good for you, Girl!"  And I meant it.  Her boyfriend is also married, his wife knows, and this works for all of them. Divorce for either couple would affect children and many lives, and isn't the best option. For them it is not a moral one.

Life is messy. People are messy.  A writer that is afraid of looking at messy never gets their hands dirty, and misses a lot of fun playing in the mud.  Okay, my writing buddy Becky is the Queen of Metaphors and I'm not, but you get my point.  Wallow in the mud, Writers!  Figure out the real whys of why people do what they do.  Putting all behavior in a "this is good" and "this is bad" box is cowardly for a writer, and will stifle your voice and imagination. Don't be afraid of exploring the darkest places.

You are not your characters.  I would never do what Jack Miles did. I would never live as Ethan's piece on the side.  I am infallibly honest to my friends and lovers.  But then . . . I'm much less interesting than my characters are. ;)

Gentlemen's Game and Frozen can be found at and other online retailers. See reviews on this page and at .  

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Tragically Disappearing Value of Letters

I have a letter dated 1852. It is written by an ancestor - Reuben Peacher - to his son-in-law Zachariah Elkins and his daughter Nancy Jane. The young couple, who had been married some three or four years by then (she had been only fifteen, but he almost a decade older), were living only a few counties away, but in an age when there was no email, no phone, no motorized vehicle, it was a few days journey. They both came from large, tight-knit families, and it must have been a big decision to leave; in a few years more, they would join the wagon train on the Oregon Trail, going from Independence, Missouri, to a new home at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

The letter tells us a great deal about them. It is written on light blue, unlined paper. The weight and quality is such that it has survived intact for 164 years. The black, uneven ink pen lines belie the use of a fountain pen. The hand is neat and well-schooled, the grammar good but not perfect. Spelling wasn't yet standardized. Reuben was educated. Zachariah was obviously capable of reading it - although he had been raised in the wilderness of Kentucky and later Missouri. I don't know whether Nancy Jane could not read or whether common custom dictated that the men should write to one another and bypass the women.

At any rate, Reuben had a bit to say, over two pages.  Although the details are mundane, they paint a picture of domestic life for a frontier family, and the very real individuals who lived what we can hardly imagine now. Imagine their world, where one couldn't exist without a horse or a plow or an ax or a rifle or a thorough knowledge of agriculture and hunting. Imagine staining your fingers with ink as you wrote, knowing that news of a death in the family or a new baby would take a week to get there. Imagine that visiting on a whim was impossible - a move across country meant saying goodbye for a very, very long time, if not forever. Imagine that our journeys of a few hours took days or weeks. This is the world the letter allows me to visit - and as I hold it in my hands I wonder about the hands that first made the creases in it and sealed it with wax, and then saddled the horse or hitched him to the wagon, to travel several miles to post it.

The point is, these letters can be held in a hand, my experience of it mingling with a man's of 164 years ago, his skin cells mingling with mine. Letters are a tangible piece of the evidence of lives of the past. And they are quickly fading from our experience.

When I was young, letters were a fact of life. There was no internet, no email. I wrote and received
letters from relatives who lived four states away, across the prairies and cornfields of the Midwest and West. I still have a few of those letters. When I was maybe about ten years old - my favorite grandmother taught me about writing a proper letter.  She said it had to begin with some personal news. Then, a good story - which must include some description or drama or something else of entertainment value to the recipient. And it should end with affection and some plan to write again or to see the loved one again. I have a few of her letters in a box; she's been dead for a few decades now. When I look at them I remember the way she formed words, and the slow, careful way she spoke. She had a wonderful, warm chortle in her voice. I marvel at the uniqueness of her hand and her style.  And I experience her again as an individual and miss her. Without those letters, I don't think I could get so close.

The earliest letters I have read were those written between kings in the early medieval period. Such as letters from Charlemagne, king of Franks (and part of what is now France) and the great Mercian (England) king, Offa. They survive on vellum, a material made from lambskin and dried. They are written in Latin, which in that world enjoyed the universality similar to today's English. They show the personalities, the daily concerns, and the world, of two powerful men in the eighth century. Twelve hundred years ago. I envy the researchers who protect these letters, and who have held them in their hands. A part of me believes that the energy of the past world travels through such objects - what a gift it is to reach back through time and touch the eighth century.

Letters exist between family members, friends and lovers, that reveal details of famous lives. Mozart's wife understood the enormous value of letters to reveal secrets: she burned all of the great musician's letters upon his death. I can almost forgive her - Mozart was mentally ill and so difficult to live with that she had left him years before and they lived apart. But in the end she was there, and his friend, and she had the foresight to protect his privacy.  She robbed us all of a glimpse into his mind and genius, of course.

The great Persian poet, Kahlil Gibran, enjoyed a decades-long romance with a woman through letters. It is believed that although their letters are affectionate and romantic and show devotion and respect, they never met face-to-face.

In December of 2015, a New York man was remodeling the fireplace of this vintage home and found letters over a century old - written by the two young children of an Irish immigrant family that had once lived in the house, to Santa Claus. Ten-year-old Mary's words reveal much about their lives, their values, and the thoughts of a generous-hearted little girl:

"Dear Santa Claus . . . My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to  bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best. - Mary   P.S. Please do not forget the poor. "

Letters reveal the most intimate relationships of the famous people of the past, and also the lives and cares and dreams of people who no one would remember if not for a surviving letter - a bit of a person that survives for decades or centuries beyond death. What are we losing, as we allow the art of letter-writing - in my generation something so common - to fade from our experience?  What are we sacrificing?  How will people, hundreds of years from now, know how we spoke and how our experience of the world around us differed from theirs?  How will they know the things that letters have preserved for us about our past?

They will have books, of course, but letters are different. They are informal, intensely personal, and reveal personality more clearly than any carefully-written prose ever could.  How sad it is that people in the future won't hold the leaves of a letter, with beautiful handwriting and a lingering scent of perfume, in their hands and glimpse the private life of someone else who has passed away?

From now on people will not know the joy of receiving into their hands a personal letter - its paper once handled by the hands of a distant loved one or a lover, the individual's unique handwriting decorating the front. They won't know the surprise of finding a feather, or a piece of lace or fabric, a lock of hair, or other surprise. Or the familiar welcome scent of cigar smoke or perfume. The intimate nature and privacy of a letter is forever lost in the age of computers and emails.  Now, with schools discontinuing the training of children in handwriting skills, future generations won't be able to write a letter if they want to.

I have made a decision that soon I will have that old letter laminated, so that it will survive for decades to come. I won't be able to touch it anymore in the same way, and that bothers me greatly, but it's time to give that up in favor of its preservation. I hope that someone in a coming generation appreciates it as much as I have, and the view of the past and three pioneers' lives, that it offers.



Reuben Peacher lived to old age and is buried in Howard County, Missouri, on the land that once belonged to his farm, from where he wrote the letter and many others. His grave still exists. His own father had come from Virginia and wealth but had been ousted from the family by his father, along with his brother. The two, once the heirs of a rich Eastern family, would eventually be hanged in the wilds of Kentucky for stealing horses. But their children, Reuben and his wife and first cousin Anne, would live the quiet life of farmers in Howard County, Anne preceding her husband in death by a few decades.

Zachariah Elkins took his young family by wagon train to Colorado around 1861. He worked as a cattle rancher on the eastern plains of Colorado Territory, until his death in 1880. In 1870 a census taker asked him what year he was born in, and he wasn't certain, according to a marginal note. But I know now that it was about 1825. Funny that I know and he didn't. He did know that he had been born in Missouri, but when asked where his parents were born he didn't know that either; it was Kentucky - of that I am certain. He died in his fifties, in 1880. His grave has been lost.

Nancy Jane Peacher Elkins was married to the boy who lived on the farm next door, about 1848, at fifteen. It must have been a bittersweet day, because only a few days earlier her 13-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister had both drowned, in the creek that divided the two farms. One can safely assume the brother died trying to save the sister, or the other way around. Several children still survived, including Nancy Jane, and life had to go on. She is buried in Colorado, between her son and his wife on one side, and an infant grandchild on the other. She lived well into her nineties, and was photographed with four younger generations, including my grandmother who is an infant on her lap.

I wonder if they would smile to know that I have and treasure that letter.