Thursday, April 23, 2009

No More Yo Ho Ho

Let’s see what has been happening on the Pirate Stock Exchange. In the days of the Barbary pirates their stock was very low, perhaps because they were dangerous and brutal, sending many a ship and her crew to Davy Jones’ Locker. Their stock began to rise in the era of pulp fiction and movie serials, when pirates became the center of swashbuckling adventure and romance on the high seas. For the past five years their stock has soared to unprecedented heights: we convinced ourselves that all pirates looked like Johnny Depp and were mischievous at worst. On “Talk like a Pirate Day” (admittedly a holiday that never quite broke through to the level of Valentine’s Day) many an otherwise sane and balanced person would break into a hearty “Arrrr!” and make reference to eye patches and parrots.

The Somali pirates have caused the Pirate Stock Exchange to crash even more severely than the Dow Jones; I am not sure that “Talk like a Pirate Day” will ever recover. When we had gained enough distance from piracy we remade it into something funny and romantic. Now that it is back on the front page again our perspective is more sober and realistic. Granted, these are very different sorts of pirates than those of earlier times. My understanding is that the phenomenon began when poor fisherman whose Somali government had collapsed (and therefore left them completely without protection) attempted to drive off foreign vessels that were illegally fishing Somali waters and dumping toxic wastes in them. They quickly learned that holding ships for ransom was more lucrative than fishing and, human greed being what it is, a new era of piracy was born.

Just as we lost all perspective on the horrors perpetrated by the pirates of old, we have likely overly vilified a ragtag bunch of poor, uneducated fisherman from a lawless society. The international community must put an end to their activities, of course, but the young man presently being held by the US court system is not a terrorist combatant or a criminal genius. We are so hungry for both heroes and villains that we have demonized what is likely a frightened, clueless kid.

Why is it that we always project “evil” onto whoever we regard as the enemy of the moment, then when the threat from that enemy ends attempt to convince ourselves that the evil never existed? As a kid I watched a television show called “Hogan’s Heroes” in which Nazi prison guards were portrayed as bumbling but lovable incompetents. Didn’t that trivialize evil as surely as “Pirates of the Caribbean” did? And why do we only look for evil in the other – the enemy – and not in ourselves? Do we think Jesus was way off base when he talked about our desire to remove the speck from someone else’s eye while ignoring the stick in our own?

So long as we see evil only in whoever happens to be our enemy of the moment we fail to take evil seriously. And that is a very dangerous thing to do.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Can we Challenge this Culture of Death and Violence?

There have been far too many terrible stories in the news about someone entering a public building with guns blazing, claiming many innocent lives before ultimately taking his own. The Columbine High School massacre in 1999 was not the first such incident, but it seems to have established a horrible template that has been followed many times since. A person with a grudge of some sort snaps and forms a plan to take revenge. Weapons and ammunition are attained all too easily, the disturbed person goes on a deadly rampage, and we have another tragic headline. No public setting has been spared – schools and universities, offices and factories, churches and nursing homes.

There are many things we can lament here, beginning with how pervasive violence has become in our society and our failure to come to terms with gun violence in particular. But I have become morbidly fascinated by how news coverage of these stories is affected by the identity of the victims. If they are young – high school or college students – it is front page news for many days. But a recent massacre in which 14 people died at an immigration center in Binghamton, NY, flickered briefly across the front page and quickly faded from view. Most of the victims were Hispanic immigrants: is that why this shooting was considered less newsworthy?

The week before, eight people died violent deaths when a gunman who was angry with his wife stormed into a North Carolina nursing home. This story never made the front page at all. Is it because there were “only” eight victims, or was it because they were elderly persons with dementia? One person living nearby said in an interview that it was horrible and that she felt bad for the victims, but that she took comfort in knowing that “they were going to die anyway.” Really? The students at Columbine were also “going to die anyway;” we all are.

Many things shape how we allow tragedies to impact us, including distance and time. Tragedies half a world away – earthquake victims in Italy, children starving in war-torn regions of Africa – are sad, but also a bit abstract to us. A year after floods ravage Iowa or a hurricane devastates New Orleans people are still suffering, but our attention has moved on. And I suspect we are hard-wired to view the violent deaths of children and young adults as more tragic than the deaths of older adults. But all persons are of infinite worth and no human life is more or less valuable than another. It seems to me that unless we can overcome our short attention spans and learn how to grieve, grieve deeply and truly, we will never summon the collective will needed to confront and change this culture of death and violence that we have tolerated for far too long.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Bear Suit Follies

An odd post here. It has been more than three years since I published Bear Suit Follies: the Songs, Stories and Letters of Antonia. It was a labor of love, gathering the writings of a remarkable woman who has been an important part of our lives since 1969, a peculiar urban auntie to our children when they were young, a seminal figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, and pivotal to the band that has most greatly influenced my musical life, the Holy Modal Rounders. Almost no one in Appleton knows about the book, since in order to represent Antonia accurately I had to include a sampling of the (very witty) porn she wrote along the way (a signing at the local bookstore would not have reflected well on First Congregational). I may one day do some more writing about this interesting corner of my life, but for now it is put to rest.

I write this post because I just received the three additional copies I ordered from my publisher, having given my last copy away over the weekend. I checked the publisher's website and learned that to date nearly 200 copies have been sold, not all of which were purchased by me. Amazingly, selling those few copies puts it in the upper 4% of all books published (most sell fewer than 25), which says something about the state of publishing, and of vanity.

I am in no immediate danger of recovering my costs for this project. But in a pique of curiosity I just Googled the book title for the first time and it was an amazing experience. It is a "print on demand" publication, but one seller claims to have 100 copies in stock (see above: 190 total copies sold to date). It is available in Estonia! The retail price is $14 (as author, I can get them cheaper), but some sellers want as much as forty bucks for a copy (don't even think about buying one in Australia). And many, many vendors steal the reviews from Amazon and give no credit for them.

A word about the power of on-line reviews. Antonia has a grand-daughter she had never met and who knew very little about her. Said grand-daughter - a beautiful multiracial fashion consultant - was traveling in Italy shortly after the book came out. she met an old Italian man in Venice who told her he liked American music by a band called the Holy Modal Rounders. In astonishment she said "Antonia Stampfel is my grandmother!" He patted her arm and said "there is a book about your grandmother." When she got back to the states she went to Amazon and entered "Antonia" into the search field. The first book to come up was Willa Cather's "My Antonia," the second was "Bear Suit Follies." Out of this she ended up meeting her grandmother. That's her story and she's sticking to it...

Because it is a print-on-demand book, it may never go out of print (because it really is not in print), so it may haunt me the rest of my life and haunt my progeny long after I am gone. I am still glad I wrote it. If you want to learn more about it (or even purchase a copy) you can find it at