Wednesday, September 29

the one thing

When I was a kid I wanted to write. I made up stories all the time. Storytelling was my best friend, literally. And then circumstances distracted me. Like life, and adolescence. I was a kid - shit happens. I got a second chance in my late twenties and realized that I still wanted to write. Sadly, I was complicit in my own betrayal and spent another ten years floundering around. A year and a half ago I got a third chance, saw an opening and jumped, sans parachute and without really looking. I’m not sure how this story ends, but the freefall is proving exhilarating. Most days.

Today I woke up and felt pretty fucking depressed. I didn’t want to work on the manuscript. I didn’t want to read news. I felt like I owed a blog post and couldn’t get in any kind of space to write it. There wasn’t even a topic. I toyed with my sense of ambivalence like a basketball, spinning it around and looking for a seam that I could pull open and pick at, but that felt about as close to masturbatory as I am inclined to discuss in this blog.

And then I realized what it was: After five days away, I missed my novel.


I missed it the way grass misses the spring, the way fish miss water. I missed my tortured characters. I missed their internal and external quandaries, their little moments of joy, hope and triumph. I missed the wide, wild, weeping landscape of the world I’ve created for them. I was homesick.

When I started the life-inversion and took the jump, the goal was to mold a creative life; something with a focus that allowed me to feel expansive. I wanted a one thing. You know, like in City Slickers. The novel has become, joyfully, the center of my own personal little internal solar system, both the thought of it and the creeping, oozing reality of it as it takes shape. It is my one thing, and neglecting it is a bit like not eating or sleeping.

Not good. You'd think I'd have figured this out before now. My obtuseness knows no bounds. (S’okay, there’s a happy ending.)

Here’s my point: I think the purpose of life is to find a purpose, a one thing, and give your self to it, without concern for destinations or accomplishments or milestones. The purpose of life is to know your passion and breathe into it with every breath, especially the last one. The purpose of life is to find a reason, the reason for you, and chase it like a junkyard dog until you get hit by a car and die. Just the purpose and the journey. The one thing.

For me, life works that way. I think.

My one thing and I were happily reunited this morning. Don’t look! It’s not polite.

This suggests a question, and I’d love to hear from you on this. Do you have a one thing? If so, what is it? If not, do you think you want one?

Saturday, September 25

Speak Loudly and Carry a Banned Book

It's Banned Book Week.

I wrote earlier this week about the trending Speak Loudly movement that's growing on Twitter and in the blogosphere. Well, whether accidental or intentional, the trend bleeds nicely into Banned Book Week, which starts today. If you're on Twitter, check out #BannedBookWeek and #SpeakLoudly for lists, quotes, author endorsements and some nifty twitterwit. SpeakLoudly also has its own, brand-spankin' new site, which is very cool.

All of this momentum is the joy of a confluence of current banning news (Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson), and the regularly scheduled Banned Book Week festivities. When you're thinking about banned books and why people get to antsy about them, understand this: Very little pisses writers and readers off more than someone thinking that literature shouldn't be available to people.

But then, if you read blogs, I'm preaching to the converted already...

If you check out the ALA's Top 100 Banned Books list there are some surprising and some not so surprising pieces of literature showcased. I find it hilarious that Harry Potter is considered too dangerous for anyone. And Of mice and Men? Really? (And by "really" what I really mean is, "What the fuck?")

So today, because this whole blog-thing started out with quotes, and because I said pretty much all that I wanted to say about banning books in the aforementioned post, and because I'm pressed for time, I thought I'd just provide a nice list of quotes on the evils of censorship. You know, in honor of my roots...

Here are my favorites:

"Libraries should be open to all except the censor." John F. Kennedy

"If all printers were determined not to print anything till they were sure it would offend nobody, there would be very little printed." Benjamin Franklin, 1730

"All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let's get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States -- and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!" Kurt Vonnegut

"A censor is a man who knows more than he thinks you ought to." Laurence Peter, professor of education, 1977

"Books won't stay banned. They won't burn. Ideas won't go to jail." Alfred Whitney Griswold

"God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide."
Rebecca West

"Every burned book enlightens the world." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." Oscar Wilde

"The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame." Oscar Wilde

"In every cry of every man,/ In every infant's cry of fear,/ In every voice, in every ban,/ The mind-forged manacles I hear." William Blake

And finally, because profanity is trending here in thinkingoutloud-land these days, and because he said it like a motherfucker:

"Take away the right to say 'fuck' and you take away the right to say 'fuck the government.'" Lenny Bruce

Me? I've managed to put enough scratch together to go buy Speak, so I know what I'll be reading tonight.


The response of bookish bloggers everywhere has been truly remarkable. There's even a list of blogs on the subject that continues to grow and grow. Check it out (along with a great post) at Reclusive Bibliophile and take a few minutes to appreciate an amazing video of Laurie Halse Anderson reciting a Speak-inspired poem called Listen.

Friday, September 24

What makes experimenting on women okay?

A few days ago I promised to blog on this story. Well, actually, I said I had to in order to address my overwhelming sense of angst. I said I'd do it in a few days in the hopes that I could find a second source for the story to provide me some clarification and perspective.

In regards to the former, no such luck. Just multiple versions of the original AFP piece (seen here in Google news) edited more or less depending on where it was printed, which wasn't too many places. Which is to say that barely anybody paid any attention.

In regards to the latter, I might have a little more perspective, but still most of the angst. If anyone reads this that can make an argument in favor of this kind of testing, especially the ones I'm taking issue with, please chime in. This is definitely not an area of expertise for me, but the angst is undeniable right now. If I'm wrong, please educate me.

At first glance I was mortified by the numbers - 9000 participants and no statistical difference in results between those using the prototype gel on trial and those using the placebo after 52 weeks - and the apparent risk these women were exposed to. Then I got angrier at the word "placebo". Then angrier still at the phrase "coercive sex".

You can read the articles (see above and below) to get the blurry details of this particular study and the buzz in the HIV/AIDS activism community about the promise that this research holds, especially for women in the most heavily impacted parts of Africa where "coercive sex" is a disturbingly commonplace issue. My few days of distance and reading have given me some perspective, as I'd hoped, but I still have some serious questions that I need to ask.

First, while I'm still calm, I think I'll start with the reason/excuse these trials are somewhat common in southern Africa (as best as I can explain it anyway). As the article suggests, "coercive sex" occurs too frequently in some of the regions listed, regions that sadly also possess some of the highest rates of HIV infection on the planet. An explanation for why "coercive sex" is so frequent would take pages,or hundreds of pages, not sentences, but it is a bit more complicated than the way we think of it in more developed parts of the world, partially due to extreme poverty, and largely due to dramatically different cultural perspectives on gender equality.

I'm not making a judgement call on that idea yet. Let's assume that's the way it is for now and keep moving.

In that environment, if we pragmatically accept that it's happening and will continue to happen, then the very real dangers that these kind of trials present, dangers that would never be accepted as justifiable in the "developed world", suddenly seem like a better option than no trial at all. It is, they say, that desperate.

For example, phase 2b trials of a drug called Caprisa 004, a gel form of the AIDS drug Tenofovir, were concluded in South Africa this year. Among the participants who reported using the cream according to directions, there was a 54 percent prevention efficacy rate, and a 39 percent efficacy rate overall compared to regional trends. That is definitely better than nothing. As one advocate suggested, assume that without Caprisa 004 ten women will contract HIV. With it, only six will.

I have a hard time jumping up and down in triumph over those numbers, but I can understand how it's good news just the same.

HOWEVER, the drug mentioned in the first article, the PRO 2000 gel, was in phase 3 trial, the "widest and most exhaustive" stage of testing. Like I said, 9000 participants. There's no info on how effective the drug was in earlier phases, but an insignificant difference between the test group and the control group in this double blind test is very bad news indeed. Just ask the women who contracted HIV. The article does not include exact statistics, only that there was no difference between PRO 2000 and the placebo. I guess only percentages count in East Africa.

But at least the tests concluded that it's safe for the women to use... Useless, but safe. Okay, the angst is back.

The people that run these trials will tell you that the women would have contracted HIV anyway: They were sexually active in a "coercive sex" environment in which they do not get time or the option of insisting on condoms (I really promise I'm coming back to that "coercive sex" concept), so they weren't put in any greater danger than they would have been anyway. Part of that might be true, and when the drugs being tested are like Caprisa 004 and show real potential then perhaps... perhaps there is a justification for levels of danger that we would consider unjustifiable by our privileged western standards.

But how does a drug get to stage 3 without some expectation that it's going to actually do something? And if and when it does, even with drugs like Caprisa 004, how is a double blind study justified when the scientists know that a control group will be given a placebo cream they are told will help prevent infection and then sent out to expose themselves to HIV? And that's not even including the two tests I read about where they encouraged women to either use a spermicide alone, or encouraged them to use a diaphragm with lubricant, neither of which have ever shown any reason to encourage hopes of efficacy! That makes about as much sense to me as, respectively, testing to see if Pledge is an effective protection against battery acid, or using a swim cap and sunscreen as protection from gunfire.

This is where my sense of dissonance starts to kick in.

I know that people with cancer and Huntington's and Alzheimer's participate in drug trails all the time. And I know that when they do they are told they might get the real thing and they might have a placebo. And I know that the participants weigh those risks and take the chance anyway, for a myriad of reasons.

But it's one thing to roll the dice when you're already sick and have no other hope, and quite another to be asked to do so when you aren't sick and the trial expects and requires that you expose yourself to an incurable and fatal disease. And it's a whole extra level to think that these women are being sent out with a diaphragm or spermicide to act as guinea pigs for western big pharma to effectively provide baseline data.

And that's the crux of it. We get a nice PR spin most of the time regarding these large drug tests occurring in the "developing world", but the truth of the matter is that large pharmaceutical companies go to these areas because there is a desperate population extant, uneducated in their corporate ways, and scared enough to buy the snake oil they're pedaling. And, to be clear, that population is female and deprived of power.

The pharma companies say that they are looking for new drugs to help treat the HIV/AIDS crisis, and they are, but when they find effective drugs and get approval in Europe and NA those drugs will not end up back in Africa any time soon. Just like the drugs that make up the effective HIV treatment cocktails now (which were also tested extensively on Africans), they'll be priced as high as possible and marketed like crazy to the developed world. It will take years and massive amounts of UN/NGO/activist pressure to get those drugs back to Africa where they'll actually be useful to women in desperate need.

That's the truth. Southern Africa is the incubator and petri dish of the large pharmaceutical companies right now. The companies' litigation exposure is minimal, the crisis desperate enough to make untenable practices seem reasonable, and the costs far lower than they would be in a developed nation.

These women are being used. Spin it however you like, but ultimately they are being treated like AS disposable lab animals.

The disconnect that must be present to treat people as lab fodder in this way astounds me, baffles me, makes me queasy. It makes me want to burn myself with cigarettes and play with sharp objects. It also makes me wish there were still a few Jonas Salks in the world of pharmaceutical research. (And if there are, please let me know - I could use the lift right now.)

And finally, before I let go of this: "Coercive sex"? Really? Isn't this just a denialist way of saying rape? Does it make it easier for researchers to call it "coercive" so they can sleep at night? Are they trying to distinguish between rape by a stranger and rape by a husband? And if they are, why?

A rape by any other name is still rape, and trying to blur over it with soft language does nothing except enable the rapists. Yes, there are cultural issues that might explain why rape occurs in some places and some situations more often than in others, but these reasons aren't excuses. Not fucking ever or anyplace. They stop being valid as explanations as soon as we know they exist and then do nothing to change it. I find the phrase offensive in the extreme. For the press to use it is tantamount to tacit conspiracy. Call a rape a rape, god-dammit, and quit making excuses.

And then, of course, maybe there's something we can do about it. For ideas on what to do and whom to support check the links below. I'm not saying "these are the ones!", just that it's a place to start. If you know of more, please link to them in the comments. Thanks...

Human Rights Watch
Solidarity for African Women's Rights
Equality Now
UN Women Watch

Wednesday, September 22

Switzerland - Women rule!

Switzerland has some issues, not the least of which is a rampaging far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) that has successfully spearheaded a recent Islamophobic law to prevent the prolific spread of mosque minarets (because the four - yes, four - that existed in the whole country are apparently already a threat).

I also mentioned them in my Blogger's Unite - Women's Equality Day post, pointing out that they were a dramatically late bandwagon hopper in the suffrage movement, not providing women the vote until 1971.

Well, they have apparently made some headway in those 39 years since women got the right to vote (even if it doesn't include religious freedom and tolerance), and have joined a select, small number of governments whose executive political cabinets are now dominated by females.

Good for them. Hopefully that makes a difference.

Monday, September 20

Speak, and Speak Loudly

I have to keep this short today (rarely an easy thing for me) as I have miles to go editing the novel. Let’s see if I can find ‘short’ in my vocabulary.

First, there will be a post on this article from the SBS in Australia on Wednesday or Thursday. It makes me fume in barely-expressible ways and I’m hoping that more stories on the report mentioned will surface before then so I can, perhaps, gain a little more perspective.

Tomorrow is World Alzheimer’s Day, so I’ll be busy elsewhere. If you get through your blog reading list of stuff, feel free to revisit my post on the subject. Better yet, if you blog and the subject resonates, join the cause and add your voice.

Today though… well, today I’m going to jump on Twitter's #SpeakLoudly bandwagon in light of this week’s controversy regarding Laurie Halse Anderson's YA book Speak, the story of a girl who is raped and must deal with the excruciating aftermath of that event. It’s an important story and, by all accounts, superbly written. When I have a budget for book buying again (there are aspects of poor artist life that I don’t like), it will be one of the very first books on my ‘to buy’ list.

Speak and Ms. Anderson are big literary news this week because Wesley Scroggins, a Business Management Professor in Missouri, has taken it upon himself to mount a campaign to ban the book from high school libraries because he considers it pornographic. Apparently Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five is also unworthy and dangerous. If you’re a fan of Sugar at The Rumpus (and you really, really should be), then you’ll know what I mean when I say that it sounds like Ms. Anderson writes like a motherfucker. This, in turn, seems to offend Mr. Scoggin’s delicate sensibilities.

Rather than see past his own overgrown social myopathy to the simple truth that the real is very often not pretty, and that writing about stuff that isn’t pretty is important, nay, vital to helping people (especially our youth) see the world for what it is, warts and all, Mr. Scoggins thinks that we should protect young people from said truth by banning anything he considers dangerous from the libraries of the world. As if ignorance ever solved anything.

We, of course, know better. We know that the ostrich method of dealing with tough stuff is bullshit. And we hopefully also know that fiction – real, hard, ugly and transforming fiction – can be an agent of expressing truth that is as or more piercing and disarming than any real news story can be.

That’s one of the many things I love about fiction: It can take us to places, put us in situations that we will (hopefully) never have to actually deal with in the really-real world, but that we still need to acknowledge and own. Fiction, good fiction, is an agent of empathy; perhaps one of it’s most powerful ones, and we live in a world that needs more empathy, not less; more knowledge, not ignorance; more truth, not a fucking cowardly commitment to denial and lies.

The response to the proposed ban has been heartwarming and heart breaking at the same time. #SpeakLoudly is trending nicely on Twitter and the lit blogosphere is rallying. For proof of that, check out Ms. Anderson's comments, Pimp My Novel, [Bloggers [[heart]] Books], Lisa and Laura Write, and C.J. Redwine's poignant post at The Last Word, just for a few quick examples.

Book banning just boggles my mind a bit, especially when the reasons are so spurious and the topic is so important. I find myself wondering how those of us who are proponents of banning can live lives so full of fear that ignorance seems like a better choice than reality. I don't get that kind of denial. It just seems pathetically selfish.

And yes, I'm being judgmental, and I'm okay with that right now. I'll feel remorse later. Maybe.

There’s a long way to go yet before we get to rest, so follow the links and join the cause, please. You can get a little ribbon for your Twitter and FB icons at Twibbon if you search for SpeakLoudly, join Laurie's FB page here , follow the Tweets here and here, and you can Tweet your ass off using the #SpeakLoudly hash tag. And buy Speak at a local independent bookstore too.

Okay, my novel beckons, and she's a jealous mistress...

Tuesday, September 14

World Alzheimer's Day - Sept. 21 - Bloggers Unite

(This is a Bloggers Unite cross-post)

When I was nine my parents split up. My dad, the aforementioned English teacher, left and, with him, so did our family’s sole source of income.

My mom has suffered from chronic depression and anxiety her entire life, has a grade 8 education, was emancipated by fifteen, spent a brief time as a street kid (imagine that in the 50’s), and worked as a data punch processor until she met and married my dad. By the late 70’s when they split up those data punch skills were archaic and useless.

We spent about a year living on welfare.

After Dad left she never spent another night in the hospital due to her depression, perhaps in part as a result of him not being there, but I think mostly because she just told herself that she couldn't. For me.

She managed to pay the bills and the mortgage until she got a job as a graveyard supervisor at a group home for the mentally challenged. She built that job into a career by turning our house into a miniature group home. By the time I was 12, she was caring full time for two developmental challenged paranoid/schizophrenic women. That was her career, seemingly forged out of thin air, and the means by which she kept us in hot dogs and hamburgers.

We never lost the house, I was always fed, always clothed, always loved, and mostly aware of how amazing all of that was. It was, at times, challenging being a teenage boy in that house, but it was also a priceless and unique experience.

To this day, I have a hard time calculating the scale of the sacrifices she made; how much focus and effort a life of service to those two women must have taken; how hard it must have been to not give up or give in to the depression that was and still is a giant cloud over her head; how much she overcame to keep our modified family together.

Thinking about it always leaves me dumbfounded and a little fucked up for a while, but in a good way.

So when I say that she is the most courageous person I know, please understand how serious I am. She is my hero.

Mom turned seventy early this year and has, over the last year or so, been slipping (mostly) gently into the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We’ve had some bad stretches already, but adjustments to her medications have helped her come back twice now, and we’re currently holding.

I know that, realistically, it won’t last forever, but I’m thankful for the time we have, and for her continued courage.

There’s no bullshit around the house. She’s aware of what’s happening and it scares the shit out of her some days, but we talk about it when it does.

We laugh whenever possible. We remember together, and the repeated stories never seem old. She tells me that she’s proud of me and I tell her I’m more proud of her. We say ‘I love you’ all the time, more than we used to, and that’s never a bad thing.

So far it’s a pretty gentle experience and we’re thankful for that too. We know that it won’t last forever, but while it does… well, while it does we’ll be in the moment and appreciate it.

Every moment. Every story. Every hug. Every ‘I love you’. Every. Fucking. One.

Hell, she’s my hero and this is just life. You deal, right?

It’s what heroes do. My Mom taught me that…

September 21 is World Alzheimer’s Day.

Maybe your folks are fine, maybe not. Either way, be thankful for the time you have. It’s precious and too short.

Friday, September 10

I hate advertising, but I'll make an exception this once...

Behold Nissan's new Leaf ad, and just stand in awe of it for a second. It makes me want one, and I'd rather wait for Tesla's Rav4 retrofit (not that I could afford it anyway, or the Leaf for that matter).

Enjoy, and use a recycled tissue...

Tuesday, September 7

Bloggers Unite -- September 8 -- International Literacy Day

I was three-going-on-four when my father, the high school English teacher, started reading “The Hobbit” to me before I went to bed. I’d apparently already started to show some reading potential and he used Tolkien to help foster it. I was completely hooked in no time at all. To be fair, I don’t remember too much of the boring song and poetry part in the middle, but the dwarves, spiders, elves and dragons sucked me in big time. By the time we’d made it half way through the book my sneaky dad had me swapping reading duties with him.

When we finished “The Hobbit”, we moved on to Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and, at the end of that, he emancipated me with the LOTR trilogy and told me I was on my own. I subsequently missed children’s lit altogether, a gross omission which I rectified in second year university by taking a whole semester on the topic, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I was taught to read at an early age, and then pointed at some really good stories to fuel my growing addiction.

My dad and I have had our differences over the years, but I’ve never been anything but monumentally appreciative for that gift. How could I not be?

Words and language unlock what might be, provide pathways into which we can drag our generation and usher the next, paths that lead to opportunity and revelation, to wisdom and discovery and empathy.

Literacy is the key to all of that. A world that can read and write is a world that can learn. In a world where literacy was ubiquitous everyone could learn. Ignorance could be banished to a minority opinion. Those who use ignorance to manipulate and control would be threatened unto extinction.

Can you imagine that? And to start, all we need to do is make it a priority to teach everyone to read. Compared to world peace, or sending people to the moon, or so may other projects that are important, this one seems relatively easy. We have, as they say, the means to slam dunk this one.

And yet we don’t.

Give a man a fish, they say, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to read, though, and he can find a book to teach him how to fish, and he’ll be fed for life. Hand him a computer and he can Google a helluva lot more than that.

And that’s probably the reason that the governments of the world don’t want us all to be able to read. An ignorant populace is a complacent one.

I will never, ever be able to thank my dad enough for the gift he gave me back when I was too small to appreciate it. He planted a seed and let it grow.

It would be wonderful if we could give that gift to everyone and see what would grow out of it.

September 8 is World Literacy Day. Give the gift, or support someone else who is.

Wednesday, September 1 of those days...

Do you ever have one of those days? You know the kind....

One of those days when the overwhelming weight of the world just seems to be bearing all of its deep gravity well down on you? When all of the culpability of the species just seems to be unfucking avoidable and you have to own it, hold it to you at the same time that you're trying to tear it out of you?

One of those days when you can't resist to the urge to take on the sins of your race, your country, your gender, your species? When every story, every song, every image reminds you of the incredible fuck up this all is, all of it, in spite of the good things, because of the unmitigated horror of the bad?

When the black hole is so dense that it's hard out get out of bed, off of the floor, out the door? When the sunlight hurts and smiles feel like razorblades? When the thought of peace, the ephemeral unlikelihood of it, the whisper of its possibility and the truth of its goddamn improbability, reduces you to tears?

When you want to slap every child you see push another down, ram your car into every self-involved driver that didn't see the person they almost ran over, strangle every self-serving politician you watch lie, again and again and again, destroy every person that ever hit their spouse in anger, knowing the whole time that it's the wrong answer to every one of those situations and not caring?

Knowing that even if you could, the shame would just be worse afterward?

One of those days when you can't see the hope through the fear, or the love through the hate, or the intelligence through the ignorance? When bigotry seems to be the rule and tolerance – not even real acceptance, just tolerance – looks like it's about a million fucking light years away from being possible?

When laughter makes you want to cry, crying makes you want to scream, and honesty makes you want to smash every mirror in the world?

One of those days? Do you know the kind I'm talking about?

I'm having one.

Sometimes it's good to just sit in awe and fucking own it for a day.

S'okay though. It's just a day. Tomorrow's a new one, and things'll be better. It's just one day.

Post Taglit-Birthright: 'We're not stereotypes' |

Post Taglit-Birthright: 'We're not stereotypes' |

Part six of Rachel Marcuse's seven-part series on her trip to Israel. Great writing and an amazing story of exploration. Highly recommended reading.