Monday, March 28, 2011

Lives of the Saints: Three Memoirs

When Eliyahu Teichberg left his domineering Momma and repressive Brooklyn upbringing, he successfully reinvented himself as Elliot Tiber.  But while Greenwich Village welcomed a struggling gay Jewish student in ways Bensonhurst couldn’t, Tiber still hadn’t found meaning in life.  Palm Trees on the Hudson describes how, in those pre-Stonewall years, interior decorating opened Manhattan’s glitziest doors—but one shady job nearly undid everything.

With dry wit and a keen eye for detail, Tiber recreates the transition from his Bensonhurst boyhood to the razzle-dazzle world awaiting one short subway ride away.  Finding his identity isn’t easy in that culture, but several chance encounters put him in the hands of vivacious mentors and eager sponsors.  Each little victory lets him discover that much more of the self lingering under the repressions of his conventional upbringing.

But Tiber’s sassy Momma never strays far from his heart.  His struggles to win her approval loom as large as his victories in the cutthroat interior decorating world.  Whenever Momma manages to bring him down, he finds solace in his life’s only constant: Judy Garland.  So when a big commission lets him meet his idol, while evading Momma, he grabs it, getting the chance to meet Judy barely a year before her sudden, untimely death.

Too bad Tiber’s boss proves to have deep Mob connections.  Suddenly, Tiber can only flee to the one place he’s constantly avoided.

Tiber’s highs and lows echo Pat Cooper’s life.  How Dare You Say How Dare Me! dishes dirt on the richest comedy career you’ve never heard of.  He didn’t hit the limelight until after thirty, but boy did he make it.  If Cooper’s name rings no bells, it’s because he’s done little TV or film.  He’s spent his life perfecting the possibilities of the stage, and along the way, he’s met famous names he doesn’t blush to drop on these pages.

Born Pasquale Caputo, Cooper too grew up resisting his conservative Brooklyn family.  But rather than fleeing, Cooper mined them for comedy.  He perfected outrage comedy before it was hip, and his laser-like dissection of society’s deep-seated issues gave him a ready-made audience.  Unfortunately, he also had enemies, because every joke ruffled somebody’s feathers.

As he rocketed to comedy’s upper echelons, he managed to offend every ethnic group, every community, and every musical act he ever opened for.  But the same gags that PO’ed big-name stars won over audiences, so he just kept climbing.  It seems like, the more special interests he angered, the more bookings he got, with bigger paychecks and more eager audiences.

Unfortunately, at the beginning of his career, Cooper managed to alienate his first wife and their kids—a breach he still hasn’t healed.  His family has orchestrated an Internet campaign to hold Cooper responsible for his past bad choices.  Several portions of this memoir seem notably defensive, so if you wonder why, Google his name.  You decide whose story you believe.

The past haunts the best of us.  Musician and humorist Reggie Dabbs has learned that the hard way, and also learned how to face his ghosts.  REGGIE tells the story of a man who started off with less than nothing, and made something of himself.

In second grade, Dabbs learned he’d been adopted.  His biological mother, a sixteen-year-old dropout with three other kids, made a desperate bargain to feed the kids she already had.  For the next several years, he struggled to understand his own identity.  Along the way, he discovered that his past might be fixed, but his future was his to mold.

A lifelong struggle with weight caused Dabbs endless grief until his build made him a football star.  Then he discovered untapped saxophone talent.  Suddenly he had a skill that could pay the bills.  But chance revealed the one talent that would come to define him, while letting him come to grips with his past: he proved to be a master at telling a touching life story.

Where Cooper writes for jokes, and Tiber writes for insights, Dabbs hopes you’ll learn from his life.  He makes parallels between his life and great events, literature, the Bible, superheroes, and more.  Sometimes he resembles a Sunday sermon, but when he does, he pulls back, tells an apropos joke, and reminds us we all live in the here and now.

Despite some rocky moments, these three memoirs, in their own ways, remind us that each life is made of possibility.  And each memoir is packed with laughs.  Keep living, folks; these guys show you how.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Borders Doesn't Matter

Borders Books at 1807 Fordham Boulevard in Cha...Image via WikipediaWhen Borders, the book superchain, announced in February that it would euthanize nearly a third of its stores and lay off thousands of workers as part of a Hail Mary bankruptcy plan, op-ed pages and blogs erupted with predictable jeremiads portending the death of print books.  The Kindle, web publishing, and our media-saturated environment had finally delivered the killing stroke that prophets of doom said movies, television, and radio would provide in previous generations.  As a writer and English teacher, I felt justly concerned.

Until a front page article appeared in the USA Today on February 10th, 2011.  According to Bob Minzesheimer, the future still looks bright for independent booksellers who provide good service, participate in the community, and recognize that literacy isn’t just a process, it’s a lifestyle experience.  (Click here for the original article.)

Looking back on the panic-stricken response to Borders’ announcement, I notice it lacks one important consideration.  Books are not a product.  Especially in our digital society, where most information waits one Google click away, people who choose books—who seek out the physical, sensory experience of reading—choose a culture, not a commodity.

Over a decade ago, Naomi Klein wrote, in No Logo, that many workers at chains like Borders, Barnes & Noble, and their subsidiary mall stores, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, have grown frustrated and left bookselling because their employers would rather invest in constant growth than living wages or meaningful work.  I can attest the truth of this claim.  While my peers flipped burgers or sacked groceries, my first high school job involved stocking shelves and ringing sales at the B. Dalton four blocks from my house.

It would sound like a whine for me to claim that workers wanted to make a career at the chain, but usually felt we couldn’t do so.  Wage slaves who had jockeyed the counter since our store opened complained that they saw little hope of advancing beyond substandard pay, and most maintained second jobs.  But workers have often wailed against their employers.  Such complaints say little new.

I was more surprised, in a Reagan-Bush-era Junior Republican way, when my managers voiced the same complaints.  As the chain opened and closed stores faster than a shell game, my bosses felt helpless to tell home office that, if they didn’t get paid better, they couldn’t hopscotch among work sites.  When a box cutter notched a two-inch slash in my manager’s forearm, she pressed paper towels into the wound and told me that, since she had no health coverage, I needed to work through lunch while she bandaged the bleed.

But the corporations would rather grow.  When B. Dalton’s business model proved depleted, the parent corporation created the Barnes & Noble chain, which spurred international growth.  Appointed like a plush gentlemen’s club, B&N got people through the door, buying books and coffee, but the stores felt little connection to the community.  This left the public ripe for diversion to the neonatal Internet.

Meanwhile, as megacorporations reduced books to the same asset mentality as coal or cola, Chris, who owned the local bookstore in the town where I lived before college, cultivated himself as a community giver.  People came and went all day, bringing coffee and home-baked cookies, and sat around the counter talking.  Sometimes we talked books, sometimes politics and current affairs; but people seldom left without purchasing at least a Newsweek.

Chris never got rich, never formed a chain, but he made a living and gave book buffs someplace we could call our own.  And when I took a wild hair to start reading counterculture heroes of yesteryear, he kept me supplied.  If I ordered a physical book from, I had to wait at least two days.  I told Chris: “I’d like to read Ginsberg’s Howl.”  Chris paused for a moment, then disappeared into a dark corner, returning with the book in hand.

Conglomerated media power over the last two decades has helped no one.  Mass media organizations like Clear Channel, the Tribune Corp., and Bertelsmann have grown bloated and been forced to choose between divesting their interests—which no one but other conglomerates can possibly afford—or go broke.  Media moguls demand profit margins that would make drug kingpins blush.

Books will maintain a treasured place in our digital society.  But that place will be defined by culture, not commerce.  Values, not marketing, bind book readers together.  Our future, if we’re bold enough to claim it, lies in each other, not any chain or corporation.
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Monday, March 21, 2011

Put Your Money Where Your Soul Is

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
         —Matthew 6:21

When Theodore Malloch, author of Doing Virtuous Business, calls capitalism an ethical enterprise and religious calling, I believe him.  When he says spiritual values like stewardship, humility, and patience enable free enterprise, I agree.  When he claims responsible capitalists form humanity’s best bastion against predatory financiers, I nod and smile.

But when he seeks virtuous capitalist exemplars at Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods, turning a blind eye to egregious labor violations, environmental records, and criminal convictions, I run.

Though mainly Christian, Malloch says every religion supports faithful enterprise.  He explains the virtues well, deftly citing scripture and multiple economic philosophers.  But when he leaves abstractions and regards the real world, his entire book turns into a pro-corporate whitewash.

I especially enjoy Malloch’s encomium to Tyson Foods CEO John Tyson.  Google “Tyson Foods” and “class action.”  Tyson has been sued in recent years for gender bias, hiring undocumented workers, withholding wages, and deliberately mislabeling food.  If Tyson weren’t a CEO, we’d call him a felon.

But Malloch calls this a “left wing caricature,” dubs trial lawyers “predators,” and praises Tyson for opening his heart to forgive his workers.  Come on.  Once he’s broken that many laws, refusing to bear a grudge doesn’t matter.  Tyson’s company has committed crimes.  By manufacturing quasi-religious justifications, Malloch is an accessory after the fact.

Edit: it's even worse than I thought.  Click Here for an exposé on this book's true, deep-rooted dishonesty.

Mark Stevens skips forcing religion to excuse abuses and declares that Rich is a Religion.  But even less will I pray at that church.  Like Malloch, Stevens praises reasonable, upright values, but applies them to an appalling rogue’s gallery, while heaping disdain on workers.

Bad enough that Stevens praises Sam Walton and Carl Icahn as apostles of his faith.  Both were/are notorious bullies with legendary disdain for workers.  Walton admitted in his memoir that he disregarded any laws which inconvenienced him.  Both lived modest, frugal lives, but so what?  If someone stays at a posh hotel where "hot dogs, beer, and potato salad" runs $88 for four, I’m unimpressed when he's too parsimonious to pay the check.

But then Stevens openly disparages hourly workers, who can only earn as much money as they have hours in the day.  These suckers pale, in his exegesis, beside his boyhood neighbor, who owned five lucrative dry cleaners.  If his neighbor worked in one store, four others still made money.  Indeed, if he stayed home, he still made money, which is the only way to get rich in Stevens’ faith.

Pause, though, and consider why they made money.  I suggest it was because somebody stayed there doing the work, probably for an hourly wage.  By sanctifying wealth, Stevens turns those who create that wealth into sinners.  Not for nothing did another religious leader say that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

Malloch and Stevens could both stand a good dose of Wendell Berry.  In What Matters?: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, the award-winning poet and farmer proposes an invigorated approach to wealth, community, and society.  Though Berry, like Malloch, starts from a Christian perspective, his heart lies with “the least of these,” not those who rule others.

Berry exposes the rot beneath Malloch and Stevens, and beneath an economic structure based on consuming resources.  Whether we mean natural resources, financial resources, or human resources, Berry points out, they all exist to be consumed.  We have mortgaged our posterity for a Faustian grab at wealth beyond our gifts.

When we see how financiers sell debt at a profit, while the gap between workers and paymasters reaches near-feudal levels, Berry says we cannot doubt how the promises of false industry let us down.  Yet Berry sees the problems running much deeper.  Post-industrial poverty only exists when we lose our sense of place.  We must reclaim traditional virtues of neighborliness and community, alien to big business.

Corporations, governments, and central plans inevitably yoke us to means of life which ultimately don’t include us.  Tyson and Wal-Mart don’t abuse workers because they don’t like us; they abuse workers because they don’t know us.  They can only exhaust labor, town, and resources, because they have no stake in place or people.

Berry’s austere vision requires more of us than Malloch or Stevens.  He demands we take an active role in our place and community.  But his humane, spiritual, and surprisingly conservative vision for humanity’s economic future gives me far more hope than those other authors’ arrogant, self-righteous money cults ever could.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Magic on the Streets; Wizard War III

Charlaine Harris and Jim Butcher have pioneered a fantasy market combining JRR Tolkein’s epic scope with Dashiell Hammett’s savage street smarts. Browse any bookstore: half the fantasies published lately use this popular hybrid, usually not very well. Three new urban fairylands prove their field harbors startling relevance.

Harry Connolly sticks close to home in his debut, Child of Fire, using style I can imagine buried deep inside Butcher’s next novel. But he’s no mere mimic. Connolly courts Butcher’s public, but crafts mythology more pessimistic and action-oriented than Butcher would dare. Despite some wobbles, Connolly hits the “urban” harder than any urban fantasist I recall.

Self-taught hedge wizard Ray Lilly claims he didn’t earn his death sentence, but agrees when the Twenty Palaces Society trades his life for his service. Now senior mage Annalise Powliss uses him as cannon fodder fighting magical abuse. Their radar pings when an entire Washington town forgets its vanishing children, but they arrive to find a situation far beyond some sheer Pied Piper.

Connolly uses fantasy to spin a yarn of civic collapse, exposing bitter secrets lingering beneath suburban tact. He skewers how economy distorts public ethics, as people contort themselves to fit community molds. When Ray suffers in the grip of people frantic to maintain their illusions, we wonder: if some wizard spoke my bitter truth, would I resist too?

Two hiccups distract from the overall novel. Ray keeps picking fights with yayhoos, who force him into vans at gunpoint. Maybe Connolly’s fingers found a comfy place. Then the abrupt ending leaves too many dangling threads for future volumes. But these gripes can’t derail such a good book. I look forward to Connolly’s progress.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Finch explores Connolly’s Stygian gloom from a more cerebral angle. Where Connolly questions public deceit, VanderMeer probes how individuals lie to themselves. His antihero, John Finch, keeps secrets, deals doubly, and wears a quisling’s polite public mask so well that he forgets his own face, until circumstances confront him with his caustic heritage.

The gray caps, giant walking fungi, have seized the human city Ambergris. Its earthy steampunk edifices teem with biological arcologies, and humanity fears its short, subjugated time on earth. When the gray caps task Finch, a cop, with a double murder of a gray master and human slave, Finch becomes sole owner of a secret that may save or damn all of reality.

Where Connolly assails our senses from page one, VanderMeer builds creeping Lovecraftian dread that seems sluggish until we realize the nightmares have oozed up to surround us. In his forlorn world, philosophical ruminations seem useless when humanity lacks definition. The story never stops building, right up to its final operatic conclusion.

But VanderMeer’s subtle optimism peeks through unexpectedly, whenever horror seems most pervasive. When humanity finds honor enough to make its desperate stand, we realize he’s not just fashionably cynical; he really believes humankind deserves salvation. That covert faith raises Finch above any twenty hip apocalypses cluttering shelves today.

China Miéville carries VanderMeer’s speculations onto the world stage with The City & The City. Miéville uses bleak Orwellian allegory to critique the selective blindness nations turn on each other. The city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same ancient foundations, so do they “unsee” each other by magic? Or do forces more bureaucratic keep them apart?

When someone dumps an American student’s body in shabby post-Soviet Beszel, Inspector Tyador Borlú faces an uphill battle. But when evidence reveals the body crossed the border from shiny urbane Ul Qoma, homicide turns into a multinational disaster. The victim may have died inches from where she fell, but proving it may mean war.

Only the mysterious Breach separates Beszel and Ul Qoma. One side of a wall may belong to one city, one side to the other; neighbors don’t know each other, not because of incivility, but because even a friendly nod violates international law. When Inspector Borlú’s chase antagonizes both cities, he discovers truths about his home that he cannot forget.

Miéville, a political economist, highlights the magical power of borders to divide people from each other. Nations perform elaborate rites to defend lines that lack physical presence, and force occult blinders on citizens to maintain necessary illusions. Violating official sorcery invites lightning wrath and stern infernal curses.

Urban fantasy’s popularity in recent years conceals the genre’s astute power. These novels allegorically unpack modern society in ways both insightful and entertaining, reminding us that we need a little adventure and magic in our lives today.
Note: I wrote this review in the fall of 2009, then the paper canceled my column, and this review has sat unread for nearly a year and a half. I have chosen to publish it here because I feel strongly about these books. Evidently, I'm not alone in that, because Child of Fire has produced a moderately successful franchise, while The City & The City won the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Get Up, Do Something, Do It Now!

Through 1940, “inventor” was a legitimate occupation category on U.S. Census forms; by 1950 it was gone. Why? When did we lose respect for people who create something new? What threatens us about novelty, risk, and change? How much do we lose when we only follow others’ blueprints?

Business guru Seth Godin wonders the same. His pocket-sized “manifesto,” Poke the Box, demands that readers stop rehashing certainties. Once, Godin says, humans thrived by keeping quiet and fitting into our landscape, but that time has passed. We flourish today be stepping up, standing out, and doing something no one has ever done before.

In a market jammed with identical MBA handbooks, Godin doesn’t burden us with more of the same. Weighing in under ninety pages, Poke the Box doesn’t bandy numbers, print road maps, or explicate how to repeat others’ success. Indeed, he names that as one reason our economy has softened—and not just since 2008, either; mediocrity kills innovation and strangles economy.

Instead, Godin’s near-Buddhist approach demands we ruminate on nugget-sized essays, with titles like “Brainwashed by the Pit Boss” or “The Person Who Fails the Most Usually Wins.” His short gut punches contain tightly packed energy, ready to burst. He talks of “opportunity,” “innovation,” and “situation” in refreshing ways when we’ve burned out buzzwords like “access” and “leverage.”

Godin’s quick-draw insights don’t pretend to teach you skills. He’d rather see you do something new, revolutionary, and radical, and skills only permit what someone has done before. But to break new ground and uphold Godin’s aspirations, you need skills on the road. That’s where Piers Steel and Bart R. Wendell come in.

Steel’s The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done braves the topic you meant to research earlier, but never did. Procrastination is perhaps humanity’s most common behavior, and our most decried; yet we squander more energy rationalizing this vice than we would spend just doing the work.

Steel admits researching procrastination for years before specializing in the field (hah!). His hands-on experience, combined with wry humor and a talent for germane observation, turn this from a dry psychological treatise to a go-get-’em dynamo. He tells bare truths in ways that sell us his topic without alienating us.

Turns out, people procrastinate for three core reasons. Either we don’t value the work, we don’t value our time, or we don’t check our impulses. We all do each from time to time, sometimes all at once. Each motivation gestates in a different brain region, and each requires unique responses if we want to quit dithering and finish the job.

For instance, when Godin says to start something new, why do you hesitate? Does abandoning your map scare you? Steel would tell you to start something new and small, like pushing old hobbies to new levels, or perhaps going someplace you’ve never been, so you literally leave the map. Fear can be tamed, Steel says, and you deserve to try.

Or what if you can’t answer Godin’s call because work has become a drudge? Steel would say to make it a game, by racing your colleagues, or creating small goals and rewards. If you can infuse work with meaning, you wrest control from the forces that suck the joy from your job.

Once you find motivation to plant that field, you can’t plow the row alone. You need people, so you need Wendell’s Hot Leaders Cool Facilitators: Learning to Lead One Meeting at a Time. This book purposes to teach you how to run meetings, but Wendell actually reaches deeper: you can’t lead people, start anything, or stop obstructing yourself until you first understand who you are.

Like Steel, Wendell imbues humor and voice into a usually dry topic, but he goes beyond that. He dismantles psychological barriers to apply the Enneagram, a personality system, to how we relate in purpose-guided groups. Because we can’t guide others unless we first guide ourselves.

Wendell’s elaborate but comprehensible system doesn’t condense into a précis. And though most of the book has great candor, Wendell sometimes wanders into analytical jargon that jeopardizes clarity. But his systematic approach directs readers not only to understand our own personalities, but the parts of ourselves we don’t admit—our “shadow,” which we must harness to make any progress.

If we know ourselves, and don’t impede our own path, we can answer Godin’s call. We can do something new. And when we do, the world is ours to nurture and lead.