Tag Archive | "Obama"

Adam Mansbach Analyzes Obama’s Toward a More Perfect Union

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Adam Mansbach Analyzes Obama’s Toward a More Perfect Union


AdamMansbachIn addition to being a great novelist whom I will interview on my forthcoming podcast series, Adam Mansbach is my neighbor–or he would be if he didn’t keep popping off to other corners of the world with his amazing partner and fantastic child. However, one way to keep up with a writer is as a reader, and this essay makes up for a dozen great conversations (twice that with toddlers present). Check it out here.

Part autobiographical investigation, part sharp (as in accurate) analysis of the current state of race and racism in America, this piece is pleasurably articulate and concludes with a set of proposals I support, even if I cannot, as Adam guesses, quite fathom not only how the proposed townhall conversations would go but also what lasting impact they would have.

This is part of a larger skepticism I’ve identified in myself recently, one that is forcing me to look at examples of character change I’ve seen or experienced and to imagine what it would take to change the characters I know best. This brings us back to fiction, but to an element of fiction tied in closely with politics: the dictate that a character either change or face the opportunity to change and let it pass by.

Does this element require that we writers of fiction believe that people can change, or can be presented with real opportunities for change? I think it does. In truth, I know I’ve changed, but not all of those changes or even most of them reflect the kind of change I necessarily want to create in my imaginary worlds. There are many parts of being a writer that people complain about and lament, but the need to maintain an optimistic sense that people change frequently and significantly is not one I hear discussed. I’d love to hear your thoughts.



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On Changing: the World, Diapers and Writing Habits


It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I never intended this to be a political blog. Still less did I intend it to be a blog about marriage, of all things. But sometimes you get seized by a political moment. It’s made writing my novel hard, although I am about to land my narrator in McCarthy-era Los Angeles, so maybe I can fuel all of these feelings right into the story. Never thought of that!

First, let me say that I am OVERJOYED about Obama’s election. This is past-due and gives me a renewed faith in this country. I really didn’t think we’d be willing to elect an intelligent man president . . .

I am so angry that I even have to think about the probable passage of Prop. 8 and the lawsuits these reactionary people have already filed to annul my marriage. This is a time of celebration and hope, and I am sitting here wiping crap pie off of my face.

So I want to talk about the practice of writing. Writing every day. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether you like how it’s going or not. Whether you have time, energy, inspiration or a clue. Much like parenting, this is the only way to develop a relationship with writing that will sustain it and you over the long haul. I have not done this always, and for that reason, I have accomplished more as an editor and a teacher than as a writer. But in the times when I do it–and this is one of them–I break through the romance of writing and take it up as a responsibility (to myself, because who else cares, really, at this point in the drafting?).

Imagining being a writer and actually writing are two such different experiences as to have almost no commonality. It’s like the first year of being a parent (at least when you have two): you have no time or capability for understanding or analyzing your experience. You are just living it, moment after moment, diaper after diaper, feeding after feeding, nap after nap, story after story, meal after meal, laundry load after laundry load, grocery shop after grocery shop . . . Wanting children is all about desire and imagination and feelings (sometimes hard feelings, when it isn’t going well). Having children, at least at first, has very little to do with any of that (except when the hormones through you over the emotional edge).

And yet, having children has connected me to myself and a sense of being human that has transformed me. It’s not a splashy transformation. Few people even know about it, I would guess, since I don’t have time or energy to telephone people anymore, and when you meet me at the park, I am running five different directions at once and conversations are choppy at best. Anyway, I think this is true of writing, too, and I’m not sure how I feel about it: paragraph after paragraph, attempt after attempt, each sentence structure, the lousy voice of judgment harping on in the background while the fingers move and move, the mind hoping for some combination of complete, transcendent brilliance and extra time left at the end of the evening to watch Californication.

Maybe changing the world works the same way. Conversation after conversation, rally after rally, defeat after defeat, the highs, the lows, a kind of daily commitment to believing that things can be other than they are, that things should be other than they are. One day, you look up, and there is a stack of manuscript pages in the printer, a grown-up person who was once your little jumping bean, and a President of the United States of America, whose own parents, like my sons’ parents, could not have gotten married at the time of his birth in 1961 in sixteen states in the Union.

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Redistribution of the Wealth: On Politics, Writing and Slavery


This morning, Angie went down to our local freeway overpass to hold NO ON 8 signs, alongside the imported yes on 8ers. The boys and I started to clean the house, and then we got a call from Angie that the yessers had huge signs strung all along the fencing, and she was there with only one other person.

So I called someone and she called someone and then I called my mom. Then I changed diapers and went off to drop the boys at a park with my mom and join Angie. By the time I got there, there were just two yes guys and their one big yellow sign, and several older women (my mom’s age) had shown up and were pressing a no on 8 sign against the fence, with the wind pushing back at them. I held a big tarp sign with a woman who teaches at Los Positas Community College. She told me that many of her students were voting for the first time today.

It was freezing on the overpass, and while we got a lot of thumbs up and honking from the west-to-east side, the folks going the other direction–who had the yellow yes sign to react to as well–seemed a lot more conservative.

I found myself feeling so angry. I wanted to turn to those yes on 8 men and say, “What does it feel like to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of family and the wrong side of Christianity??” They seemed more jovial than I–sort of that “we’re all in this together” feeling that you can get when everyone is pressing signs against the wind, and streams of traffic are gushing under your feet, shaking the cement structure on which you stand. I did not share their joviality, perhaps because this is my family and my marriage we are voting on.

This could be the most momentous, historic occasion of my entire life, past and future, if things go my way. If things go really, really wrong, I’m going to feel like getting out of here, though some folks on Talk of the Nation today suggested that this was an unsportsman-like attitude. In general, my slogan is that of Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  But I do want to keep my loved ones on one side of that line for as long as possible.

Meanwhile, I’ve pounded out 6017 words on my novel in the past three days. (I will start chugging on my next 1667-2000  words when I finish this blog.)  I always say that it is easier to write than to think about writing, but of course it’s easiest of all to do neither. At the same time, I get irritable and draggy when I stop writing for long enough. My father used to say, “If only coffee tasted the way it smells . . . ” (Angie says that it does, but then she is on a slippery coffee slope.) I wish that writing felt like reading feels.

The closest I get to that is when I just keep writing, past the extreme judgments of my inner editor (how come my inner editor is in there with my inner child and she still has time and brain power to be so harsh and detailed? Shouldn’t she be changing diapers or something?), past the hiccups and the slow, uphill inclines, past the raging uncertainty . . . and did I mention the judgments?

I think critics, inner and otherwise, are a little like yes on 8ers. They are angry and negative about something that really had nothing to do with them. There are, for example, a certain number of people who are really angry about NaNoWriMo. They say that it brings thousands of crappy manuscripts into a world overrun with manuscripts and makes thousands of people believe that they are writers when they are not. And the people opposed to gay marriage seem to feel that marriage is unravelling if all these extra people get to get married, as if we are producing shoddy relationships in a world overrun with relationships . . . Okay, I might be working too hard or not hard enough at this metaphor. I am sugar-filled and caffine-walloped and sleep-deprived, so I hope you can bear with me.

What I am trying to say is that people writing crappy manuscripts and people creating unorthodox relationships are NOT A THREAT to the establishment. People who write crappy manuscripts are more likely to buy published books and to read them well. People who are getting up together each day to figure out how to make breakfast, get everyone dressed and out the door, keep the house clean and the laundry done, make a living and have quality time with the children and each other are not ripping at the fabric of traditional marriage.

One literary-political note. In plots, when things are looking really good for the hero and you’re fifteen, twenty minutes from the end of the movie or, say, a quarter of the way to an eighth of the way to the end of the book, what are you thinking?

You’re thinking, in the immortal words of my sons, Uh oh. We know the rhythms of plot so well when we are consuming it (creating it is a different story for some of us). It does not bode well for our guy when things are looking up too far out from the end. And it’s been going well for Obama for a while now. Better and better. I hope that real life will do as it often does and rebutt our understanding of plot and just soar right on to victory.

Because it felt incredible to walk around Whole Foods today, grocery shopping, and look at all the people who populate my world and think, “We just might be electing an African-American man president today.” I want my boys to come to consciousness with a man of color in the White house. I want them to think that if it was ever another way, that was a long time ago, back in the last century . . . Besides which, our Cobra insurance coverage runs out next year, and it would be great to have an alternative to Kaiser . . .

I have yet one more undeveloped thought. As you know, we’ve never made any kind of reparations to the many Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in this country. I know that Obama may not be one of these, except possibly on his mother’s side, since we are all quite a lot more mixed up than we pretend. But it occurs to me that all this fear of “redistribution of the wealth” taps into a national knowledge that the original distribution of the wealth was acquired by theft and murder, and that a Black president might look at reparations in an entirely different way. I think the fear of redistribution of the wealth is a fear of honest reparations being raised as a real issue–some seriously messed up mortages coming due with a big balloon payment.

But walking around today, I felt excited. I felt like we might be able to do something far beyond reparations, and move right on over to fairness and representation and something that actually looks like democracy.

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On Being Anything: Chris Rock, Borges, and Raising White Boys


Last night we watched part of the new Chris Rock comedy special. Let me say, first of all, that the man is funny as heck. We were laughing hard. He had a lot to say about Obama that was not only funny but astute and telling. He’s also smart–he can read the audience and respond to that “uh-oh” feeling that comes from listening to edgy humor that takes no prisoners.

Angie and I were talking this morning about the part where Chris Rock said that if Obama were president, Black people could stop giving their kids the “you can be anything you want to be” speech every morning before they leave the house. He said, White people don’t give their kids that speech, because it’s obvious. This led Angie and me to discuss (not for the first time) the fact that we are raising two little white boys. They could be president, even in the old days (and let’s hope they are nearly over) when only little white boys could grow up to be president. Then we talked about whether having two lesbian moms would be enough of a handicap to prevent them from being president, and whether Clinton’s (Bill, that is) single mom and alcoholic step-dad were equivalent to having lesbian mothers. I said no; Angie said yes.

This is what we do with our free time while the boys are with their babysitter.

Then we go to the library, sit at the long wooden tables, and get to work. Around us, the economy is tanking, and taking us with it for the ride, I suppose, but we are all paid up on our library fines and have a clean slate when it comes to borrowing all the wealth in this bank of books. Wee-ha!

Just for the record, my mother did give me that speech, since I was a little white (half-Jewish) kid, but also a girl, and it wasn’t so obvious that I could be anything I wanted to be. Except as a reader.

Yeah–there’s the tie in to fiction: the gateway to success for those not wedded too closely to reality. Funnily enough, this is also exactly what most people–interviewers, say, or even readers–refuse to understand fully about writing fiction: characters can be invented out of the thick swirl of internal and external experience, out of the “what if” musings that run rampant in junior high kids like I was, for example, out of that feeling that who you actually are is a quirky twist of fate rather than a destiny, that you might as easily have arrived over there, in that body, in that life.

There but for fortune, we say, but is the fortune always good? I guess this is another confession: every time I hear a piece of someone else’s life, I zip into it and feel around for the fit. I overhear someone say that she’d finished her dissertation after twelve years. First thought: I should get a PhD. Someone writes to me from Kansas City with a look at living in a place that doesn’t value questioning over hierarchy as he feels the Bay Area does, but in an aside he mentions the lower cost of living. First thought: We could buy a house in Kansas City.

In life, I’m a bit of a push-over, then; indecisive and open to all manner of possibilities. My therapist seems to think (it’s hard to be sure between his nodding and questions and my own projections) that this has to do with my fear of committing to one life trajectory, since a single trajectory inevitably ends. Whereas Zeno’s paradox assures us that if we are jumping point to point, halfway to halfway to halfway again, we will never reach the end. In life, this is kind of weak, I suppose. But for the fiction writer, this same waffling, wafting search is like pumping iron for the imagination. I. Could. Be. Anything.

Sure, I can’t be everything. In life, I may only be able to be a handful of things (and some people might succeed in amending the constitution of the state just to prevent one of those things, so Vote No on Prop. 8). But there are lives ahead of me as a writer.

Borges said it better in “Everything and Nothing,” a piece out of Labyrinths which my father read aloud to me one day in what was then his living room and is now mine (speaking of changes . . .). My father had this sonorous voice, hushed in reverence to its own power, and when he read this I felt deeply understood. Which is not to compare myself to Shakespeare or Borges, but only to toss my headpiece in with the rest of the writers, to say, I live by my greatest weakness, which is that I cannot pick one life for good.


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How to Cheat in English Class: The Presidential Debate


Some years before I earned my M.F.A. in writing, I dropped out of high school. Before I dropped out of high school I wrote a paper on Billy Budd which my teacher, a notorious hard-a**, read aloud to the class. This is not the moment that made me become an English professor or a writer. Because, you see, I had not read the book.

I report this with shame now (though let me be clear: I did write the paper, based on class discussions and lectures), but it makes a good frame for my blog about the presidential debate, which is recorded and waiting for me, but which I did not watch live.

The problem with not watching the debate live is that its “liveness” is the only exciting thing about it. Sure, the first time around we (that is to say, every single person who posts their status on my facebook page and I) hoped Obama would wipe up the stage with McCain’s Maverick underthings, but the Vice-presidential debate taught us that there is NO WAY TO LOSE one of these things, because unlike an election, there is no Supreme Court to decide . . .

Once it’s taken place, ideally with shots aplenty and your rowdy, like-minded friends around you, the luster wears off instantly. The pumpkins are pumpkins and you know when you press “play” that they are not going to turn into coaches. The other glass slipper has not dropped. It’s like watching the World Series on TIVO when your team has lost and you know it. (I think.)

So I turn to my sources and try to do a little analysis.

Here is what I gather: McCain uses the term “friends” as loosely as Facebook does. People feel nauseous, and while some are driving to undecided states, others are doing pagan dances and crossing fingers, toes and eyes. Yes, more than anything else, this election has brought prayer back into the lives of the largely godless lefties who litter my Facebook page.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing


I am part of a loose network of published women writers. Lately, we’ve been discussing whether to discuss politics, and if the answer is no, in general, is this election and this particular historical moment too important–should we make an exception?

In debating this point, the NEA has come up as one specific organization that will be handled very differently under McCain than under Obama. But so, too, has the nearly inevitable extinction of polar bears under global warming been raised as a consideration. Rightly so, if you ask me. I mean, we have to write about something, and if the whole world evaporates, that will dramatic for a while and then deadly boring, with an emphasis on deadly.

I myself have been thinking about politics, and what role they might play in the life of my blog. Can one extol the virtues of casting against type in one’s novels (making the plumber a thin, gay Dartmouth dropout, for example), without explaining that one ought not go out-of-bounds in one’s own life and cast the small-town mayor as Vice President or the anti-choice hunter as a feminist trophy? Can one be clear that in a novel, choices must be real–between two goods or two evils, between a clear A and a clear B, rather than A or not-A–and still find oneself tormented by the fact that what seems from here a choice between good and evil, the exact wrong kind of choice for a novel–is being played out nationally and internationally with great suspense? (More on choices in fiction in a future blog.)

Panic has driven much of the argument for getting together to support Obama, even if some of our fellow published women writers don’t agree with these politics. (For the record, no one has come forward to say that they do not agree, though some have remained quiet and some prefer to do their politicking somewhere different from where they do their writing conversations.)

But I woke up this morning thinking that for the first time since I was thirteen, I feel excited about this election–not just panicked. What happened when I was thirteen? Well, the Democrats nominated a woman to be vice-president. I grew up surrounded by rhetoric about change: self-help change (change yourself, your organizational system, your bad habits, your eating patterns, your karma, your own tires . . .), spare change, and the inevitability of change. For one thing, it was Berkeley. For another, it was the era of the Cold War (the first Cold War?), and we knew that the choice was change or die. (This is another choice that doesn’t quite fit with the equation about choices in novels, above, but which made for a lot of earnest marching and learning of Russian lullabies and the making of several terrifying movies.)

Hence, as a child, I thought change was inevitable, and that a number of specific changes having to do with justice and peace and equality were right there on the horizon of my young life. Twenty-five years later, I am not excited to find that another woman has been nominated for vice-president, but I am hopeful–if you will–that the next president might be someone brilliant and nuanced and concerned about some of the major things that concern me. That seems like a change. And I will be glad if this country breaks out of its bass-ackwardness and elects a man of color. Maybe in eight years, we can then elect his wife. And get over the idea that we have to choose between having a woman OR a person of color as a candidate.

Anyway, I guess this choice thing is actually the crux of the matter. We are all trying to convince each other that one choice is the good one and one is the evil. It’s like sports–how the game plays out and what it means depends on who you are rooting for. In novels, you try to get everyone rooting for the same team, and yet you still want to humanize everyone. (James Baldwin was brilliant at loving all his characters.) Maybe that’s one of the great pleasures of reading: the reader gets to be the sole consciousness. No one else is there saying, But I agree with Miss Havisham. I liked the old Scrooge. Jean Rhys did write from the point of view of the crazy wife in Jane Eyre’s Rochester’s attic, but that was a different novel (Wide Sargasso Sea).

When we read novels we are subtly, pleasurably manipulated; in politics, the manipulation can sometimes be as subtle, but it’s rarely as pleasurable. If politics is a “choose your own adventure” story, as it claims to be, what can we readers do? Campaign, make calls, donate money, call in to radio stations, drive to Nevada, throw fundraisers, forward ghastly little emails . . . I don’t think we can market another story where the “drill, baby, drill” folks win another round. We have to hope for something new.



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