More Newspapers!

February 1, 2017

Yesterday I subscribed (digitally) to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. I already subscribe to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (my excellent local paper) and The New York Times, and I really don’t need more reading opportunities. However, as I think about strategic action in these troubled times, I keep coming back to investigative reporting. We need reporters who dig deep and present facts about complicated matters. (We have plenty of opinions already.) Sorry, TV and the internet don’t do that. Newspapers do. And they need money!

I look on these added subscriptions just like my annual contributions to the Yosemite Conservancy and my local public radio stations and Amnesty International. They are for the public good.

Dinosaur News

January 31, 2017

You may remember I wrote about paleontologist Mary Schweitzer in The Adam Quest. Mary has continued her scientific work, and one of my pleasures is occasionally to come across summaries of it. Today Science sums up her latest in what they call a “milestone” paper. Its still astonishing (and controversial) that she found collagen in 90-million-year-old dinosaur fossils.

A Couple of Cultural Notes

January 12, 2017

Book Recommendation: News of the World is a great yarn, set in a very interesting time (1870 Texas), and beautifully written. The relationship between an old man and a very young girl who’s been a captive of the Kiowa is the heart of the book, but there’s plenty of adventure too.

Movie: Queen of Katwe is a story of some slum kids in Uganda who take up chess. It captures the rhythms of life in East Africa way better than any other movie I’ve seen. A sweet story, with the settings, the accents, the wordings, the clothes, the eyes, the attitudes spot on. This is some kind of miracle: a classically Disney inspirational story, but the look and feel are not Hollywoodized at all. Anybody who loves Africa should see it.

What To Do  

December 16, 2016

A lot of us are alarmed about the state of America, and many are asking what they can do. Here’s my answer: subscribe to a newspaper.

There are so many issues that require good reporting. Just to name a few, we have questions about whether the FBI or the CIA has been politicized, questions about whether, how and why Russia tried to influence our election, questions about the future of healthcare. None of these can be answered by pontificating partisans on TV, let alone by Twitter. They need careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting.

A bigger question is whether America has become a post-truth society, with citizens who think the world is just a big reality TV show. At the least, we are drifting that way. Countering these tendencies requires citizens who read careful, thoughtful, diligent reporting, and don’t get their information from TV talking heads and tweets.

Good reporting and reliable sources of information start with newspapers. Nothing so far has surfaced to replace them. Yet newspapers are economically imperiled, and their readership has dropped. Therefore, a very practical contribution to these difficult times is to subscribe. That way, the newspapers get your money to pay their reporters; and you get better access to information.

Waiting for Publication

December 13, 2016

I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life. Writing is solitary work. I can tell you what I am writing about, but I can’t really share the stuff that preoccupies me: how to knit a subject or a scene in such a way that it becomes a seamless, almost dreamlike reality for the reader. Not even my wife Popie knows what I am doing at that level. I wouldn’t know how to explain it.

While writing is solitary work, it is not fulfilled in solitude. I write for an audience. It may turn out to be small or large, and I don’t usually know which it will be in advance. Actually the size of the audience doesn’t much affect what I do. What matters is that I will have readers. If there were no readers, writing would be something quite different.

While I’m writing, the work is almost a part of me. Then there’s an interim period, while the publisher edits and proofs and designs and markets. Finally, months later, sometimes after more than a year, I see a printed copy. By then I am usually pretty emotionally detached. It’s mine but it’s no longer me. Nevertheless, publication is an absolutely necessary part of the process. It’s then that my work finds its fulfillment in being read.

Waiting for publication is completely passive. I do nothing. I don’t even worry. I know that the book or the magazine article is coming, and I wait with expectation. After publication, the work is mine but it belongs to the world. I can’t get it back. I can’t change it. It finds its life in my readers.

I know it’s hazardous to compare my work to God’s, but I wonder if God’s creative process is something like this. God’s creation begins with the making of the heavens and the earth, but that is just the introduction of the story. God goes on to draw out Israel, in all its dramatic detail: kings and prophets, wars and sacrifice, laws and songs.

Yet that, too, is only the beginning. What God wants to make is his Son, Jesus, born of Mary, raised a Jew, executed as an enemy, raised as King of kings. That is the work God prepares for us, his audience. He intends us not just to read, but to eat—to take into ourselves his amazing work, his actual self expressed in a human life, so that it becomes part of us forever.

Being God is solitary work. But it is not fulfilled in solitude. It is fulfilled when we take Jesus into our lives—all of him. And just as I wait for publication, so God waits to see his work completed, in us.

 

 

Predictions

November 11, 2016

No more gridlock! With Republicans controlling all three branches of government, we will see action on all kinds of fronts.

I realize that making predictions is a fool’s game, but I’m writing down what I expect to see in order to test myself. Nothing would delight me more than to be wrong on many of these prognostications… but we’ll see.

Health care. Obamacare is toast. Mostly we will revert to the status quo ante, which was not good. The one piece I can’t quite foresee is whether Republicans will repeal the law requiring insurance companies to insure everybody, regardless of pre-existing conditions. The one piece I am sure of is that they will repeal the mandate that everybody buy insurance. Without that mandate the economics of the insurance-based system don’t work, especially if the insurance companies have to insure everybody. Obamacare tried to patch up the existing system; it was questionable whether it could succeed even if encouraged. We’ll never know! I predict that health care will be in crisis within Trump’s first term. Eventually (in the next decade) we will end up with single-payer insurance, which we should have had in the first place.

Trade. Not much will change. There will probably be a show of saber-rattling, maybe with China, but Republicans are the party of big business and business interests are strongly for maintaining the status quo. .

Immigration. Not much will change. There will be an early show of building a wall—a Potemkin wall about 10 miles long somewhere in Texas. Immigrants, legal and illegal, will continue to come, but there will be a great reduction in the number of refugees accepted through legal processes. The millions of immigrants living without papers will continue doing as they have done; they will not be deported—business and farming interests will make sure of that–nor will they be given a path to citizenship.

Tax reform. Taxes will be cut, especially for the rich along the lines of Paul Ryan’s proposals. This will result in huge deficits, which will result in legislation cutting programs for the poor. The deficits will continue to mount until we reach a financial crisis.

Infrastructure. We will finally get money for roads and bridges. This will last until huge deficits catch our attention, probably in 2-3 years.

Regulation. The regulatory apparatus of the federal government will be reduced in every area, but especially regarding banks and financial institutions, consumer protection, and the environment. The impacts of these changes will be diffuse and hard to measure, except regarding banks and financial institutions, where they will inevitably create a crisis that will require a bailout. How long before this happens is hard to predict, but that it will happen is as close to a sure thing as we know. Banks and financial institutions have not learned how to regulate themselves; and Republicans both hate regulations and love banks and financial institutions.

Climate, coal, solar. Attempts by the federal government to slow climate change will end. Problems with climate change will continue to grow (as they probably would even if we did our best). I can’t foresee how cataclysmic the problems will be, nor how soon they will become cataclysmic. The coal business in America will continue its death spiral, as fracking spreads (with less regulation!) and keeps the price of energy low. Solar and wind energy will grow due to their efficiencies and also because some large states (California) will subsidize their use.

Social issues. Abortion will continue unabated, though perhaps the Supreme Court will allow more restrictions in Southern states. Gay marriage will be universally accepted. There will probably be more latitude for people and institutions to discriminate by, say, refusing to bake a wedding cake or make facilities available for gay marriages, but people will care less and the issue will all but disappear. Marijuana legalization will continue to spread; problems with illegal drugs like heroin will also continue to grow. Over all, America will continue to move toward more liberal and hedonistic values, as seen on TV.

Social Security and Medicare. There will be benefit cuts. Social security’s finances will be stabilized, probably by raising the age of retirement; and Medicare will continue to grow hugely more expensive, prompting even more cuts. See Health Care, above.

Foreign relations. Not much will change. There is no appetite for “boots on the ground” nor for a policy that enables Iran to build a nuclear bomb. The world will be slightly friendlier for dictators, but they weren’t doing badly before. Terrorism will continue unabated for the foreseeable future; the problems of the Middle East will continue and the refugee crisis will grow.

The unknown. By definition, the unknown cannot be predicted, except for this: we will be confronted by problems that we do not anticipate. Some possible areas: financial meltdowns, events of nature (storms, earthquakes), cyber disasters, terrorism, war. But there may well be categories that we don’t even know exist. How will the new Republican/Trump administration respond? That is hard to foresee, but recent history does not encourage a rosy view of Republicans’ ability to cope with reality. For the last eight years Republicans running Congress have majored in outrage, not in governance. And President Trump has no experience in governance at all. He does not seem to be a calm and measured person. The category of “unknown” is by far the most frightening of all—as it always is.

 

 

After the Nightmare

November 10, 2016

 

The election results were a nightmare to me. I mean a real nightmare, the kind where you flee shape-shifting monsters and can’t escape. It took me a long time to get to sleep after the result sank in. The sun did come up this morning, and I feel better. Numb, incredulous, but pretty sure I am going to live.

I have no wish to rehearse all the reasons for fear. Better commentators than I have done that ad nauseum. Almost half of America chose to ignore those reasons. We live in a democracy. We honor our constitution. Time to move on.

But how do we do that? How do we behave, going forward?

I don’t want to duplicate what Republicans did to Obama. The quest for power through tearing down and obstruction is an approach I can’t respect. I want our country to prosper, whoever is in power.

I plan to pray for President Trump, persistently. It is not impossible or unknown for someone to become a better person.

Also, I think it’s imperative that we stay politically engaged, because there may be places where constructive engagement can result in positive action, and there may also be places where vigilant, forceful opposition is necessary. For example, maybe we can fix our roads and bridges. For example, I will do anything in my power to ensure that our authorities do not return to the practice of torture.

Finally, the practice of our personal lives will be, I believe, the most potent of all our responses. We all have the opportunity to care for poor people in our communities. We can strengthen our neighborhoods through cooperation in everything from Little League to hiking clubs. We can treat each other with kindness and respect despite our differences. I’m a believer that the political regime ultimately reflects the people’s character, lived out locally. We build from the bottom up. If our communities are rotten, degraded, violent, addicted, angry, that will be reflected in our leadership.

I’ve toyed with the thought that our troubles as a nation—our divisiveness and rancor, particularly—stem from the fact that we have abandoned God. I realize that’s old-fashioned. In the past I’ve tended to scoff at sermons that treated every problem as a symptom of religious failure. Now I’m not quite so sure. There’s no doubt that much of America—the left, in particular—has discarded faith and looks on religion with condescension and suspicion. It became obvious in this election that conservatives also—evangelicals in particular—have abandoned God, else they could not possibly go against everything they say they believe to support a serial liar and bragging adulterer for President. The truth is, I think, a lot of us have abandoned God. Some of us want him to disappear, others to co-opt him as a useful prop in our quest for power.

If things are going to change, it’s useful to review what God says that he wants from us: “to act justly and love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) That applies under all political regimes, and it is primarily local.

N for Nazarene

October 12, 2016

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Bob Blincoe from Frontiers, an organization that works with Muslims in the Middle East, brought to my church these tiny mosaics (useful as coasters) made by Iraqi Christians in exile in Jordan. The symbol is the letter N in Arabic. When ISIS invaded Syrian and Iraqi villages they spray-painted Christian homes with this N, standing for Nazarene. It was like being red-tagged by the building department. It meant: either convert to Islam, or get out now, otherwise you will be killed.

It occurred to me that the Iraqi Christians making these mosaics are doing exactly what the earliest Christians did with the cross. They adopted as their own the chilling symbol of oppression and violence used against them. It reminded them of what Jesus the Messiah had suffered, and of what they too might be called on to endure.

Maybe we should put these “N” symbols next to our crosses, to remind us of what they stand for.

The mosaics come from Aslan Child Rescue, an organization working to help churches in the Middle East and in Europe who have opened their doors to persecuted Iraqi Christians.

Publishing Woes

September 23, 2016

Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.

However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.

I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.

I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.

It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.

The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.

She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:

“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.

“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”

According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.

Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.

And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.

Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.

 

 

National Parks

September 5, 2016

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I liked this column New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof posted a couple of weeks ago, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the US National Park system, and describing the delight he and his daughter found in hiking the John Muir Trail last summer.

It so happens I was on the same trail, along with three of my friends. We did the most southerly section of the trail, from Kearsarge Pass to Mt. Whitney. Being of mature ages we took our time. In younger years I did this section in five days, if I remember correctly. This time we took nine. No regrets. I noticed—though there are no official markers, nor will a google search discover any acknowledgement of it—that Mt. Whitney is considerably higher than the last time I climbed it—perhaps a thousand feet, by my estimate.

We had a wonderful trip, one of the best hikes I’ve ever done. As a result I’ve been thinking about the national parks, and the John Muir Trail (JMT) that goes through three of them. The JMT was built during the Depression, and—remarkably—it is very little changed in the more than 75 years since it was completed. I find these mountain valleys, streams, lakes and passes almost exactly as I remember them from when I first began hiking them 50 years ago.

Surely this preservation is an entirely good thing. It is one orchestrated completely by government action. Left to private actors, this glorious land would be paved and settled and commercialized. I’m leery of government’s power, but surely there are cases when it is extremely beneficial—and this is one.

I’ll go one step further. I’ve witnessed the parks and the national forests endeavoring to figure out how to preserve these beautiful mountains from the people who love them. I saw this first in the 1970s, when daily quotas were first used to allocate permits for backpacking trips. I wasn’t happy about it—it meant that I might not get to do exactly the trip I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. But it wasn’t long before I saw that the trade-off was worth it, because I wasn’t fighting for space with masses of people. Today, what with a vastly increased number of people doing modern pilgrimages on the JMT and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) there are more potential stresses than ever. We saw a lot of these folks in our week-long trip, taken in a popular late-summer period. But thanks to the quota system, we were never really crowded. The system doesn’t prevent people from hiking, but it spreads them out over the summer. Only when we were on Mt. Whitney—a hyper-popular hike—did we camp within sight of anybody else. The rest of the time, we saw plenty of people on the trail, but we never had a traffic jam, and we never had competition for an isolated campsite.

There’s also the regulation of fires above 10,000 feet. I remember when this came along—in the 1980s?—and how sad I was to give up campfires. Nowadays, campfires are the exception in the high country. (Only once on our nine-day trip were we allowed to build one.) It’s not because of forest fires. At that altitude, it’s hard to locate enough wood to start a blaze. The problem is that no one could convince people to quit hacking away at the tiny bonsai-style lodgepole pines in their efforts to find wood for a bonfire. These lovely high-country trees had begun to look as though beaver had been chewing on them. I didn’t realize how bad it had become until I saw the effect of prohibiting high-altitude fires. Within a few years those alpine lakes looked the way God meant them to. I still miss the fires, but I think it was a fair exchange.

Finally, bear canisters were first required in the back country during the 1990s. I strongly resisted them. I’d been hiking and coexisting with bears for 30 years by that time, and I didn’t like adding a couple of pounds to my pack. But the bears are great learners, and they had educated themselves and their children in techniques for taking food strung up in trees by backpackers. You could no longer keep bears from getting your food. It was bad for hikers and very bad for bears. So, the bear canisters. The bears took about ten minutes to realize they couldn’t get into them. This summer I met an old ranger in Sequoia National Park who told me that they no longer have problems with marauding bears in the back country. Even in Yosemite Valley, bear problems have all but disappeared. The regulations are working.

I love these mountains, and I hope I live to take my grandchildren into them. If I do, I feel reasonably confident we will find them almost exactly as I first did when I was 12 years old. For that, I thank those who, 100 years ago, had a sense of where government could do good. And I thank those who, working for government as park and forest rangers, apply common sense to make regulations work for the common good.