An Odd Couple of a Different Order…

They are very different but shared a common goal–fomenting the collapse of the modern social order. Both were noted for their intelligence. Both were Harvard educated. One became a hermit. The other sought the limelight. One was a mathematics genius. The other a presidential advisor.

Both were convicted of federal crimes. Both went to prison. One for murder. The other for money laundering, conspiracy and a scheme to defraud. One is dead. The other is still threatening.

Ted Kaczynski died in prison last week. A reported suicide (without details). Steve Bannon is alive and well on an estate in Oro Valley, AZ.

Both were raised in middle-class Catholic families. Kaczynski’s was Polish- American and he was raised in the Chicago area. Bannon’s was Irish-American and he grew up in Norfolk, Virginia.

Both men abandoned their careers in an effort to bring down the American social order. Kaczynski, regarded by his teachers as a mathematical “genius” left a promising academic career at the University of California, Berkeley, to live as a recluse in a remote one room cabin he built in rural Montana while supporting himself with odd jobs and financial aid from his family.

Bannon’s path took him in the opposite direction. After seven years in the Navy, he earned an MBA at Harvard, went to work at Goldman Sachs, migrated to Hollywood, left Goldman to become a producer and later co-founded Breitbart News, the far-right website, with the ultra-conservative Mercer family.

Their differences are classic. Kaczynski chose a frontal attack, and though he studied political philosophy and wrote a 35,000 word manifesto entitled Industrial Society and Its Future his method of attack was primal. Philosophically he argued “that damage to the environment and the alienating effects of technology were so heinous that the social and industrial underpinnings of modern life should be destroyed.” To affect his goal he made bombs and either mailed or delivered them to various targets–university professors, business and airline executives, The Boeing Company, UC Berkeley, a computer store in Salt Lake City. He became known as the Unabomber.

In 1995, determined to have his manifesto published, he offered it to various media outlets. By then three people had been killed and 23 wounded by his bombs, but the FBI had been unable to identify him. They and Attorney General Janet Reno urged the media to publish it in an effort to track him. Penthouse Magazine offered but Kaczynski thought the New York Times and Washington Post were more prestigious and turned down the offer. The Times and Post co-published it in 1995.

His sister-in-law thought she recognized the writing style and urged her husband, Ted’s brother David, to contact the FBI. He did so, and that led to a careful stakeout of the Montana cabin in part due to the fact that FBI fiascos at Ruby Ridge and Waco had inflamed Ted earlier. In 1996, after evading capture for almost 20 years, he was lured from the cabin and captured.

He was convicted of several crimes including murder and imprisoned in a super-maximum security prison in Colorado where he struck up friendships with Timothy McVeigh (the Oklahoma City bomber) and Ramzi Ahmed Yousef (first World Trade Center bomber). 

Bannon’s attack on America’s social order was more calculated. He used his Breitbart platform to disseminate an ultra-conservative message while looking for a candidate with credibility to carry it forward. In 2015 he identified Donald Trump as his candidate–a well-known TV star with unbridled ambition and no scruples. He was an empty vessel he could manipulate and promote to “deconstruct the administrative state”–meaning the system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that have stymied economic growth and infringed upon American sovereignty. It would be an attack from within, unlike Kaczynski’s one man frontal assault.

Bannon’s approach was clearly more successful. Despite the fact that he is a convicted felon, and Trump is under federal indictment for mishandling classified information, charged under a separate indictment in New York and likely to be arraigned in two other cases, Bannon’s goal has already been reached.

Trump was his unwitting suicide bomber. As his Attorney General Bill Barr said yesterday, he’s toast if the facts in the 37 count federal indictment can be proven. It doesn’t matter. The suicide vessel detonated, and the damage is extensive.

The U.S. government is in tatters. The administrative state has been seriously deconstructed. The country is polarized. There has been a violent attack on the Capitol. Congress is paralyzed and the Supreme Court is a self-dealing swamp with no legal means to sanction its members for abuses or the failure to recuse.

At this very moment, Trump is at the federal courthouse in Miami being fingerprinted and charged with 37 federal crimes. Ted Kaczynski is dead and Steve Bannon is in Arizona gloating over the wreckage his vessel wrought.

Suzy

None of us is going to dodge the bullet. The inevitable. We know it. We ignore it. But as the end approaches all those Kubler Ross nouns comes into play–denial, anger, depression and especially bargaining. Oh Lord, please. Not before the Beaujolais Nouveau release this fall. At least not before I see Trump in an orange jumpsuit. Can we make that deal? Everything’s in play but acceptance. We live like we’re immortal until we aren’t.

It was so Suzy to die in the restroom of a hair salon clutching her bag of special products. The ones she believed were better. Perfect timing. After a wash, a cut, blond highlights and lots of hair spray. Perfectly coiffed. She excused herself went to the restroom and died. Not in the chair during the shampoo. Discreetly in the restroom. It was so Suzy.

Her mantra – The higher the hair the closer to God.

She was perfect in other ways too. Raising quadruplets as a single mom. And helping them all become accomplished responsible adults. Not many can check both of those boxes. And, where was dad? Well… it was too much for him. He said he really wanted them. He encouraged her to take the fertility drug. But it was hard work, so he left town with a girlfriend when the quads were six months old.

Impossible? Not for Suzy. She was resourceful. And her parents were supportive. The five of them moved back to Chicago and in with her parents where she regrouped, and when the kids were in pre-school she launched herself again. First she found work as a research assistant at People Magazine, then as a stringer and photo editor for Time covering entertainment. She left print, to take a job as a location scout for the Illinois Film Office and became so indispensable she was promoted to Director.  She loved the movies, and we often sat in her living room sharing a bowl of popcorn and watching a double or triple bill. She became one of the most successful film office directors in North America, working on films like Risky BusinessThe Untouchables, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off while mothering the quads like a juggler with four flaming torches.

And when the torches were making decisions about college, Suzy discovered the film office director’s job in the state of Washington was open. Two of the quads were headed for Washington schools so Suzy snagged it to stay close.

Everybody loved her. There were hundreds of friends at her Celebration of Life. The staff at the hair salon attended and the shampoo girl asked if she could keep Suzy’s bag of products. She wanted a memento to remember her by. It was so Suzy.

The NRA is a Terrorist Organization…

In justifying his opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel Alito wrote,

“Roe was egregiously wrong from the start. Its reasoning was exceptionally weak, and the decision has had damaging consequences. And far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.”

“Until the latter part of the 20th century,” he writes, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.”

The same “egregiously wrong from the start” and “until the latter part of the 20th century” language is equally applicable to the recent expansion of 2nd Amendment rights established by the Roberts Court. The amendment, as written, only says:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

It does not say the “right” may not be regulated. Each right in the Bill of Rights is and has been subject to reasonable regulation.  But, it was not until 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller that the a private owner was guaranteed the right to keep a handgun “in his home for self-defense.”

“In its decision, authored by Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court was careful to stress the limited nature of its ruling. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia noted Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. [It is] not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” (Giffords Law Center)

Yesterday, in the 191st mass shooting in the first 127 days of the year, eight people were slaughtered and seven critically wounded by a gunman with an AR-15 at a Texas outlet mall. This is both astonishing, outrageous and unnecessary. This AR-15 was not a handgun “in his home for self-defense.” It and every AR-15 is a weapon of war. It is intended to kill and neutralize enemies in wartime.

Last year 40,620 Americans were shot and killed by a firearm. The 40,000+ figure is up from 30,000 just ten years ago. If 30,000 were the average annual body count it would mean 300,000 were killed in the last 10 years–but it’s more than 300,000. By comparison, in our ten years in Vietnam, 58,000 Americans died from all causes. I remember. And I’ve written about this domestic arms race repeatedly. It’s totally unacceptable and unnecessary.

Historically, I think the 2nd Amendment was a reasonable inclusion when it was adopted and ratified in 1791. At that time in our history the country was newly established and vulnerable from foreign and domestic opponents. But the amendment has been turned on its head and the 400 million guns owned by Americans are no longer part of a “well regulated Militia” or “necessary for the security of a free state.”

*****

January 6, 2021 and 191 mass shootings in 127 days should make this clear. There are reasonable regulations ready for adoption. They won’t eliminate the astonishing number of gun-related deaths, but they will mitigate and address the problems associated with them.

  • Ban the sale of automatic weapons like the AR-15.
  • Make background checks universal and close the internet, gun show, mental illness, and domestic violence loopholes.
  • Do not allow the applicant to buy a gun just because the time frame for the background check is extended.
  • Initiate gun buyback law to get guns off the street.
  • Require evidence of firearm awareness and training before allowing the purchase.
  • Require safe storage to avoid improper access or accidental discharges.
  • Eliminate the gun manufacturer’s immunity from liability, so victims can sue when negligent or intentional fault can be assigned to the manufacturer. Think marketing to “real men.”

This is not an exercise in blame, but isn’t it reasonable to ask who’s responsible for the gun violence epidemic? It isn’t hunters or sportsmen, and it isn’t law enforcement who would like to see fewer guns on the street and out of the hands of the irresponsible and mentally ill. The root of the problem is profits–profits earned by gun manufacturers with the support and criminal advocacy of the National Rifle Association.

In listening to the speeches of its leader, Wayne LaPierre and the advocacy in its media and printed materials I believe the NRA should be designated a terrorist organization. The organization is not about gun safety. LaPierre and the NRA are corrupt, self-serving, and in service to the gun manufacturers. Because of this he was re-elected almost unanimously in 2022 by the NRA board despite a recent lawsuit charging him with misappropriation of funds. He is also currently under investigation by the New York Attorney General for mismanagement of NRA funds, and a judge recently denied the association’s attempt to declare bankruptcy and move its headquarters to gun-friendly Texas.

The NRA has lost more than one-million members in the last decade because of its change of focus and unwillingness to address the critical need to address the gun violence issue. But like a wounded animal or lone terrorist it remains a serious and dangerous enemy.

I’m tired of railing at our cowardly Congress’s lack the courage and failure to address this national problem but grateful that my own state, Washington, adopted significant restrictions related to gun safety last week. Thank you, Governor Inslee.

Please–No More Thoughts and Prayers–Please

Action!!!

No Life is Inconsequential…

Eleven years ago when memoirs were becoming the literary flavor of the day, A New York Times editor named Neil Genzlinger wrote an essay in the Book Review lamenting the proliferation of the “absurdly bloated genre.” It was entitled The Problem with Memoirs. Yes, the moirs strikethrough was intentional to emphasize the Me in memoir. In his essay Genzlinger raged against the “age of oversharing” arguing that “unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

Mr. Genzlinger’s essay went largely unnoticed until Lorrie Moore, a much more accomplished writer, mentioned it along with the phrase “oversharing of inconsequential lives” in her own essay on the subject. On behalf of all would-be memoirists, here’s my response:

Dear Mr. Genzlinger:

With all due respect… There are many reasons we as writers commit to memorializing our own stories. As an established writer you should be encouraging rather than discouraging others. Stop bitching, judging and setting rules for others. Let the marketplace decide what is worthy and what is not.  

 Jack

To be fair, and we always want to be fair, Mr. G is a capable writer. At the apogee of his career when this essay was published, he was an editor. Since then he’s been assigned to obituaries. It sounds like he’s red-shirting now, but he is still on the team. I’m not quarreling with his colons and semicolons. That’s for the Times to monitor. My issue is the snarky hubris of a writer few have heard of setting the rules for who should and should not write memoirs.

There may be an abundance of memoirs on bookstore shelves, but I’m pro-choice in this area–let us decide for ourselves. If a writer wants to publish and finds a publisher who agrees, I say go for it. Let the marketplace decide if it’s worthy. And this goes for any genre not just memoirs. I stand with my response. What looks like “oversharing” to Mr. G. may be inspiring to someone else. Stay in your lane, Mr. G. Let the public be the judge.

When I was a student in the San Francisco State creative writing program it was one of a handful of such programs in the country. Today, every university and most community colleges offer one. An explosion of interest. Self-expression. Some writers yearn for recognition. Others may only want to leave something for their families to remember them by. Memoir is one of many ways to share personal stories with friends, family and/or the general public.

Here’s the message I’d like to convey; No life is inconsequential. Each is unique. Each is a story worthy of note. Many of my friends and acquaintances have told me they’d like to “write a memoir,” which usually means leave a record of their lives for family and friends. I often feel my own children don’t know much about the events and friendships of my life. Writing has given me a way to leave them something in the way of family history.

So, I wish Mr. Genzlinger well in his quixotic effort to cleanse the genre of unworthy contributions. It seems like a Sisyphean task. I’d rather encourage would-be writers to throw their stories at the wall and see if anything sticks. 

In defense on “inconsequential lives” I submit this from Jack Kerouac: 

Capricious and Arbitrary…

Fifty-years ago I wrote a short story about a deceased bachelor lawyer in San Francisco who wrote fiction secretly for 40-years. When his townhouse was cleared following his death, the executor discovered the manuscripts neatly stacked in a closet and contacted a publisher to determine if they had literary worth. He said yes, and when published they were celebrated as a national literary event.

I’ve always been interested in the distinction between the creative process and its end product. My character was reclusive but felt compelled to write. He noted in his journal that with the volume of literature, mostly unread, filling library shelves was overwhelming and he had no interest in adding to it.

Is it the process or the product that drives an artist? I was married to a talented visual artist for thirty-years–a painter (chalk, pencil, watercolor, oil, acrylic, encaustic) and printmaker (woodcuts, linotypes, etchings, lithographs, monoprints, multi-media, collage). She had been an artist since early childhood. I loved her work and for years encouraged her to seek representation so others could see how good she was. She resisted until she was in her 40s, claiming her satisfaction came from making it not showing it. Eventually, an artist friend introduced her to a gallery owner who gave her a one-woman show. She continued making art. It’s what fed her. She made a moderate splash, developed a following, attracted a dealer and was represented by several galleries.

Nevertheless, in spite of her success, not everything sold, and the unsold inventory is currently in a family storage locker. It may seem like magical thinking, but I believe she’ll be re-discovered sometime in the future, chez Vermeer, and Antique Roadshow will tell one of her descendants that it’s worth millions. But art celebrity is capricious and arbitrary. She understood it was the process not the money or recognition that fed her creative spirit.

Over the years I’ve known many artists; writers, painters, potters, sculptors, musicians, some famous and some not, but recognition is not what drives most of them–it’s the need for self-expression. It may feel good to be recognized, but it’s the process that feeds their souls. It’s a relative few who can support themselves solely from the product. J. K. Rowling and Andy Warhol are rare exceptions.

Interesting facts: “Only 1 in 3 books make back what the publisher spent to acquire and release the book. Two-thirds of those numbers sell less than 1000 copies.” (Tim Grahl: Story Grid). I have great admiration for those artists who stay the course in spite of the odds against making a living at it. It takes courage, conviction, dedication and hard work.

Earlier this week I had a conversation with two writers, both published novelists, about their processes. Cecily Wong is finishing her third novel. Each one has taken five years from conception to publication. Her friend, Julia Pierpont is 200 pages into a second novel seven years after publication of her first, Among the Ten Thousand Things. Both are committed to their art, but need to support themselves with outside work – teaching, copywriting and in Cecily’s case managing a family store. Writing is not a get rich quick business.

Cecily and Julia are both fiction writers, but I also had a conversation with Delia Cabe, an old friend and non-fiction writer, who teaches magazine writing at Emerson College. I wanted to see if her process differed from theirs.

She told me that nonfiction is different. Rather than submit a completed manuscript, publishers and agents only want a proposal and sample chapters. This is great for the writer, who doesn’t have to spend time researching and writing without a contract. The publisher directs the author to create specific content he or she believes will sell.

In Delia’s case, she came up with the idea for a book about bars that were like libraries, pitched the idea to her agent who asked her to put together a PowerPoint proposal. It went out to multiple publishers, but only got a few nibbles. Two years later, the agent noticed an uptick in publishers wanting cocktail books and re-circulated the proposal. One publisher came back with an alternative: How about a book about bars in NYC with strong literary ties?

She took the idea and ran with it–spent three months of intensive writing and research (including countless days pounding the streets and bars of Manhattan and Brooklyn). The publisher loved it, passed it to a copy editor, and in 2017 The Storied Bars of New York a delightful romp through the literary watering holes of The Big Apple was published to great acclaim. BookRiot called it “One of the 10 Great Books for Booze-Loving Book Nerds.”

I occasionally submit an article or essay to Post Alley, a Seattle-based writers collective whose contributors are mostly retired journalists. “It taps an extensive talent pool of “displaced journalists,” experts and informed citizens — many of whom lack ready platforms for their work. The site is supported by contributions of time, writing, and editing by members of the Post Alley writers’ collective (now about 55 members).”

I’m flattered whenever one of my articles is published and even more so when a veteran journalist adds a favorable comment. But I write because I get satisfaction from the process. Writers–fiction, non-fiction, and journalists seldom hit the home run that leads to affluence and/or influence, but what they do is meaningful in every sense – personally and hopefully for the audiences that read them.