That time my mom tried to make me a Gerber baby

I don’t often write about my parents, who died many years ago (my mom in 1994, my dad in 2007), but given that I just turned 45, I find myself thinking of them more than usual. I got rid of A LOT of old stuff after my dad died (my sister, thankfully, saved a bit more), but one item I held onto  was the following correspondence. I guess the complete novelty and weirdness of it all was too much for me to just toss in the garbage with the rest of my old report cards, yearbooks and photos (I’m pretty sure my sister made me save the one I posted at the top of this post). Anyway, after filing these letters away in my desk for the last decade, I have decided to now make it all public.

My mom once tried to make me a Gerber baby.

This was certainly news to me in 2008 or so, when I located it among the many, many things my parents had saved. If my mom had told me about when I was a kid, I’d long ago forgotten it. Anyway, my mom had saved a hand-written copy of the letter she sent to the Gerber Products Company, apparently on June 15, 1972 (according to a note she stapled to the correspondence). Here’s what she wrote (the JP at the end stands for JoAnn Pignataro):

I have no clue why she made this copy (much less why she saved the whole correspondence). But a week later (!), a representative of Gerber responded to my mom:

While this is likely a form letter (I can’t imagine my mom was the only woman in America who thought her baby was worthy of a career slopping up mashed peas on television), I am impressed that they responded so quickly.

So there it is: I was a failed television star before I was even six months old.  Well, I guess that’s showbiz.

Why I dedicated my new Maui novel ‘Pau Hana Time’ to my friend Chris

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It’s finally happened: Event Horizon Press has published my third novel, titled Pau Hana Time. You can find it right now in paperback at Amazon (click here to buy it). An e-book version is coming soon, which will also be available at Amazon.

This was a far more difficult novel to write than I originally anticipated. You’d think that a trashy noir novel about contemporary Maui would be easy to write, especially since I’ve already written two earlier novels in the series. But this novel proved more of a struggle because the real-life guy who provided much of the inspiration behind the book’s protagonist killed himself just as I was starting to write it.

My friend’s name was Chris Atencio. He was an officer in the U.S. Army, and rose to the rank of captain. An Iraq War veteran, he found himself discharged in the summer of 2013. Six months later, he killed himself (a disturbing number of veterans kill themselves every day in this country, which is why I wrote about Atencio five months after his death).

Atencio and I met around 2000, before he joined the service. We were neighbors in Newport Beach, California, living in tiny studio apartments just steps from the beach. He was working a variety of jobs back then–bartender, doorman, retail clerk–but he had already traveled the world extensively and spoke a variety of languages. He was smart, no-nonsense, cosmopolitan and an incorrigible flirt.

He joined the army in 2003, and at least for a while, seemed to have a better time than I’d anticipated. The structure of the military seemed to agree with him, though his life-long inability to tolerate bullshit did pose problems. Atencio was still in the service in 2008 when I started writing Small Island (which Event Horizon Press published in 2011), though I decided early on that the hero of the novel–”Charley Ridgway”–would be a former army officer. Ridgway was to be smart, well-traveled, a bit cocky, flirtatious and completely intolerant of  injustice and stupidity. What’s more, I decided that he had left the military after becoming frustrated with its regimented, bureaucratic empires, and moved to Maui, where he followed the well-worn path of many mainlanders into the service industry, where he found work tending bar at a popular resort.

The novels expose the reality that lay beneath Maui’s tourist veneer, but are meant to be nothing more than entertaining beach reads. Above all, the novels are supposed to be fun. Ridgway is flawed, but well-meaning; a man of action, but with a conscience. It was easy to base the character on Atencio, though he’s in no way a copy of him.

In any case, I sent Small Island and its sequel The Dead Season to Atencio while he was stationed overseas, and he told me he loved them (though I don’t recall ever telling him I’d had him in mind while drafting the Ridgway character). I was still thinking about book three–what eventually became Pau Hana Time–when Atencio told me he’d been discharged. He visited my girlfriend and me on Maui in the summer of 2013 on his way back to the Mainland, and we talked a lot about his options, which were considerably better than returning to work as a bartender somewhere. But six months later, while still considering his future and battling PTSD, he killed himself.

Writing Pau Hana Time suddenly seemed impossible. The outline of the story–which included a sub-plot about an army friend of Ridgway’s who was struggling with PTSD–now horrified me. Did I fail Atencio when he needed me the most? Had I misunderstood Atencio’s personality all along? I put the novel aside (and even considered scrapping it entirely), focusing instead on writing about Chris, which took a few months of careful reporting and research.

Eventually I finished that story, which ran in both OC Weekly and my own paper MauiTime. Around that time, my publisher at Event Horizon asked how my latest novel was coming. I told her my thoughts and fears, and she gently suggested finishing it and dedicating it to his memory.  I returned to the outline, made a variety of changes, and then just started writing. To my surprise, it went quickly. As for the dedication, here’s what I settled on:screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-10-13-55-am

In truth, this is probably my favorite Ridgway novel, though that’s just my opinion. The one guy I wanted to read it will never do so.

Donald Trump is scary because America is scary

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The enslavement of Africans and African-Americans. The Pequot War. The Olowalu Massacre. The Trail of Tears. The Mexican War. The Civil War. The Sand Creek Massacre. Wounded Knee. 

I’ve seen this Feb. 9 Vox.com post from Ezra Klein, titled “The rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics,” a few times already in my social media feeds. This is probably because its point is so simple and digestible:

“Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.”

There can be no doubt that Trump is a straight-up fascist, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate back in November. Indeed, he’s one of ugliest, nastiest presidential candidates I’ve ever seen (assuming he’s not an agent provocateur aiming to destabilize the Republican Party from within–a possibility we still can’t entirely rule out).

But let’s assume Trump really wants to be President. Reading over Klein’s essay, I got the feeling that he was painting Trump as some kind of outlier, an aberration in American politics. “Behind Trump’s success is an unerring instinct for harnessing anger, resentment, and fear,” Klein wrote. “Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.”

Jim Crow laws. The Spanish-American War. The annexation of the Philippines. The Philippine-American War. The annexation of Hawaii. The Ludlow Massacre. The Great White Fleet. Lynching.

Donald Trump is no aberration. The violence and racism of his message don’t break away from American politics, they stem directly from it. Before Trump there were men like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and General Edwin Walker. All preached hate, and all were tremendously popular.

This is because America was built on violence and hatred. Other nations see it vividly, but here, it’s something we’d rather not talk about. That’s why John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan scored so many points when they quoted from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and referred to America as a “city upon a hill.” No one running for office today can deny American exceptionalism–even Barack Obama, falsely slurred by Republicans as someone who doesn’t love America, still believes that America is exceptional.

But what, really, makes us exceptional? Our shared belief in liberty? Our supposed commitment to justice? Ask the Cherokee nation about that.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. The overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The Bay of Pigs invasion. Myriad assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. 

Every single adjective Klein uses to describe Trump–terrifying, racist, sexist, narcissist–can be used to describe America, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. Trump isn’t a fool–he knows what American history looks like; he’s just rich and powerful enough to not give a damn about what he says.

American politics today demands that we shun even recent history. We hang on the words of presidents, but ignore their actions. George W. Bush only said we use “enhanced interrogation” at our black site prisons around the world, so it’s all ok, right? And why should anyone around the world be afraid of CIA-orchestrated kidnappings if we call them “extraordinary rendition?”

American history is largely the same story told over and over, of white men seizing power, land and resources.  Our founding documents list many ideals of human decency and voice, but our actions rarely deviate from the insatiable desire to attain national security by whatever violence is deemed necessary.

The Vietnam War. The bombing and invasion of Cambodia. The bombing of Laos. The invasion of Grenada. The invasion of Panama. The Persian Gulf War. Guantanamo Bay. The invasion and occupation of Iraq. Abu Ghraib Prison. Drone strikes in Pakistan. 

“[S]hame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery,” Klein writes. “Most people feel shame when they’re exposed as liars, when they’re seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested. Trump doesn’t. He has the reality television star’s ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won’t, to say what others can’t, to do what others wouldn’t.”

The painful truth is that exposing Trump as a liar and bully does about as much good as saying the same thing about America. Where is America’s shame at two centuries of racist laws and brutal wars of conquest? Where is the call to replace childish notions of “American exceptionalism” with a humble but thorough accounting of past crimes?

Yes, Trump is a monster. But is he worse than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger–all of which have the blood of thousands, perhaps millions of people on their collective hands?

Hey, here’s what would truly make American exceptional: a fearless resolve to honestly account for our own crimes. Make that the historical and political bedrock of America, and gutter trash like Donald Trump will have no hope of becoming president.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

UPDATED: Remembering the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

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It’s hard for me to believe that the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 30 years ago today, killing all seven astronauts aboard. I was in the 8th grade when it happened–at Katherine Edwards Middle School in Whittier, California–and my first reaction upon hearing other kids talking about it was that it was BS. But when I walked into science class and saw the television, I knew it was true.

Thinking back, the loss of the crew probably affected me more than other kids my age because of my dad. At the time, he was an engineer at Rockwell International, which of course had built the Shuttle. Though the ultimate fault of the accident lay with the orbiter’s booster engines during liftoff, I distinctly remember that my dad had never been a fan of the shuttle’s design or engineering.*

“Would you fly on the space shuttle if you could?” I once asked him, before the doomed Challenger flight had taken place.

“Fly on it?” he said. “I don’t even want it flying over me.”

His gallows humor about the shuttle had actually peaked a few months before the disaster, when I was still in the 7th grade. We had some sort of parent-teacher night, and we were visiting all my classes. Of course, we spent extra time with my 7th grade science teacher–Mr. Golden.

Golden was probably the most interesting, colorful and difficult teacher I’d ever had in my life. Back in elementary school, teachers warned us about him–even said he’d be harder than most college professors we would encounter. And they were right–he was a stickler for detail, and was rough on everyone, regardless of how well you were doing in class.

But he was also a flying fanatic. In fact, he’d hung dozens of model airplanes from the ceiling. So naturally, when my folks stopped by, and he found out my dad worked for Rockwell, his face lit up like he was one of his students.

“They’re going to send a teacher up on the next space shuttle mission!” Golden told us.

My dad nodded. Indeed, it had been in the news for some time.

“I applied to go,” Golden then told my dad. “Can you get me on a flight?”

“I can only get you a one-way ticket,” my dad joked, and we all laughed.

Of course, it turned out the teacher chosen to fly on that mission–Sharon Christa McAuliffe–really did have a one-way ticket.

Yeah.

I miss my dad.

****************

*UPDATE, FEB. 1: After I published this blog post, I discovered that Longform.org had put up physicist Richard Feynman‘s remarkable essay Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle, which had been included in the official Rogers Report on the Challenger disaster as Appendix F. Feyman’s first sentences left me cold:

It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management.

Further on, Feynman noted in great detail just how alienated NASA bureaucracy had grown from engineers like my father:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

For years I figured my father’s distrust of the very program he spent so many years working on merely stemmed from his own exacting engineering standards. I had no clue that his views represented the norm at firms like Rockwell, not the exception.

This unfortunately begs many questions as to the extent my father and those in his group spoke out about their concerns–questions, given his passing in 2007, I can never ask.

Photo of the remains of the Challenger’s crew at Dover Air Force Base: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Remembering when I first remembered the 9/11 terrorist attacks

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For me, remembering the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings and attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon means remembering my friend Chris Atencio. My Newport Beach, California neighbor and close friend at the time, it was he who woke me up that morning to tell me what was happening (he didn’t own a television, but had been alerted shortly before by a telephone call from his mom).

We watched the news together that morning, though the only live images we saw were of the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Sixteen months later, overtaken by a burst of patriotism and purpose, Atencio joined the U.S. Army. Rising to the level of captain, he saw service in Korea, Germany, Iraq and Japan. In the summer of 2013, the army honorably discharged him. Six months after that, Chris killed himself.

But before all that happened, before U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq killed many, many thousands of people and shattered both states’ civil societies, I wrote a story in 2002 for OC Weekly about how Orange County commemorated the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Really a series of three dispatches, the story shows that many people in Southern California, though separated from the attacks by a year and a couple thousand miles, still exhibited some pretty harsh emotions over them.

We like to think nowadays that the immediate reaction to that day’s destruction was national (even to some extent world) unity, and while that certainly happened, it was long over by Sept. 11, 2002. And why not? The 9/11 attacks happened because of politics, and politics are very often divisive–especially in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S.

Anyway, I’m reprinting that 2002 story here because OC Weekly‘s online archives don’t go back that far:

*

HOW OC REMEMBERED SEPT. 11

By Anthony Pignataro

Sept. 20, 2002

RICHARD NIXON LIBRARY, SEPT. 7, 11:15 A.M.

Several hundred people stand and sit by the Nixon Library parking lot in the blistering sun. Thirty-six U.S. flags in three sets of 12 are arrayed before them.

Some are firefighters. Some are Boy and Girl Scouts. And some are wearing shirts that say things such as “Raise a glass for duty and humanity” and “Support your local Soldiers for Jesus.”

They’re in the parking lot, quietly waiting for a caravan of police and fire vehicles escorting two huge flatbed trucks. They’re quiet because a Nixon Library official asked for “a moment of silence” to “pause and reflect.”

Preceded by Highway Patrol motorcycles and a black Cadillac Escalade limousine, the flatbeds carry World Trade Center scrap. The first hauls a New York hook-and-ladder fire truck wrecked in the WTC collapse; the second flatbed holds 18 tons of rusted scrap steel.

For a while, the only sound is camera shutters snapping. Then the speeches begin. The San Bernardino officials who brought the WTC junk to California for a future memorial speak first.

“Everywhere they went, crowds gathered,” says disgraced, outgoing San Bernardino County District Attorney Dennis Stout, describing the scrap’s journey across the U.S. “People wanted to see and touch the steel.”

The people in Yorba Linda were no different, but the officials keep speaking. Last up is Peace Corps boss and bankruptcy-era Orange County Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez. He notes the sweltering heat and promises to be brief, but isn’t.

“I didn’t know anyone on Flight 92,” he says to a crowd of sweating, irritable people hungry for the touch of memorial steel. “But they are all heroes.”

Only after Vasquez finishes are the people allowed near the wreckage. The fire truck has broken windows and a few flat tires. A torn and dirty American flag is tied to its rooftop ladder.

People file slowly past the fire truck but linger around the beams. They reach up and touch them, then hold the pose while friends and relatives snap photos. Having already been viewed and touched by many people before today, the beams are covered with graffiti:

• “We love America The Morrellos”

• “Robert P. Long Ironworkers Local 433”

• “God Bless The Wilkersons”

• “How does our BOOT feel in your A** United America”

HYATT REGENCY IRVINE, SEPT. 9, 7:15 P.M.

About 600 people jam a hotel banquet hall. Some are in jeans, but many are dressed in suits and skirts.

Near the entrance is a bar serving bottles of Budweiser, Miller Lite and Heinekin beer. Next to that are stacks of Ayn Rand Institute literature, including free excerpts of Rand’s books. Some people are seated against the far wall. Hotel staff members are still bringing in dozens of chairs when lecturer Dr. Yaron Brook begins his speech, “Why America Is Losing the War.”

Brook tells the attentive audience that America’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks has been “abysmal” because the nation’s leaders refuse to admit we’re in an “unmistakably ideological war” against “militant Islam.” He says they also refuse to “show the world we are committed to win. At most, we have shot some missiles into the desert.”

According to Brook, the enemy, led by the “nihilist” Osama bin Laden, wants to reestablish a “Muslim Empire in the Middle East.” America, “a shining sun of capitalism,” is “an affront” to such an empire,” he says.

“What has made America so pathetically weak?” Brook asks rhetorically–before quickly answering. “Our professors.” College professors “condemn science,” sport “stale Marxist nonsense” and want to “thrust American culture into the gutter. Altruism and moral relativism have crippled America’s ability to defend itself. American professors, because they cripple us intellectually, are our own worst enemies.”

We were attacked last year, Brook says, because we are “moral cowards” who “appease” our enemies. The 1991 Persian Gulf War showed America to be “weak” because then-President George H.W. Bush “rejected our moral right to act unilaterally and sought the approval of others.”

“Iran, not Iraq, should be our primary target,” says Brook, who adds that our “obsession” with civilian casualties “has needlessly prolonged this war. We shouldn’t grovel before allies. We should bomb ruthlessly. We are at war. We dare not show compassion. Civilian casualties are inevitable in war. They are the responsibility of Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia is comparable to the Taliban. We should take out these regimes by any means necessary. We should systematically assassinate the terrorist leaders. We should grind our mortal enemies to powder.”

At the end of the speech, which lasts about an hour, a dozen or so people walk out. The rest–several hundred at least–give Brook a thunderous standing ovation.

HUNTINGTON BEACH PIER PLAZA, SEPT. 11, 6:40 P.M.

Standing at the edge of Pacific Coast Highway, a little girl in blue smiles brightly. She’s waving a sign that says, “Peace,” and giggles every now and then when a passing car honks.

Not quite 30 people–some teens with green hair, some older folks–stand around her. Their backs are to the ocean and the setting sun. They also have hand-painted signs–”Know Justice, Know Peace,” “Stop the INSANITY Now!” and “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.” They’ve been out by the pier since 6 p.m.

“I love these people,” says clean-water activist and Huntington Beach City Council candidate Joey Racano, enthusiastically waving a colorful World Peace Flag.

“Yeah,” I say. “Wish there were more of them.”

Racano pauses and stares at his feet. “I know what you mean, but you can’t think that way. You have to be positive. Remember this is the most conservative city in the most conservative county in California.”

One activist holding a cloth flag displaying a large peace sign who hadn’t heard that conversation comes over. “It’s a good group we’ve got here,” he says. “Several hundred… in spirit.”

Occasionally, a guy driving by will flip off the activists. They respond by laughing or blowing kisses. A blond girl on a bike riding by yells “Go to New York and hold that sign. See how long you last.”

Across the street and in front of Jack’s Surf Shop, three counter-demonstrators take up position. They yell and gesture at the peace activists. One of the guys, who looks about 20, holds a crudely drawn cardboard sign reading, “Nuke Iraq Cut Your Hair.”

Photo of the World Trade Center towers in 1990: Edgar de Evia/Wikimedia Commons

Why would anyone love America?

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I usually reserve this space for something pithy or maybe an update on my novels, but right now it seems more fitting, more necessary, that I just write out some feelings. The massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on Wednesday night has been on my mind a lot, and I just feel the need to get a few things on the record.

Nine people are dead. Nine African-American people are dead. Allegedly murdered by a white man who desperately wanted to murder African-Americans. His own words, according to a friend of the suspect, were that he hoped to “start a civil war.”

That we are debating whether these murders rise to the level of “terrorism” or whether they were caused by “racism” seems absurd to me. They were the very definition of terrorism–acts designed to terrify a person or group of people. Even if he wasn’t photographed previously wearing patches that depicted the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, we can tell that the killer is an undeniable racist.

More people died at Emanuel than in Boston during the marathon bombing. Indeed, since 2002, domestic terrorists have killed more Americans than foreign organizations. And yes, I admit to feeling bitter humor at watching the white male Republicans running for president bend over backwards to avoid deeming the massacre an act of terror caused by a racist.

We live in bad times. Last night I found myself asking whether this country was headed towards a new race war, then remembered that for African-Americans living in the South, there never really has been peace. The violence imposed on them by slavery at the founding of this nation has changed in form over the last few centuries, but never really went away. The victory of the Union in the Civil War merely eliminated slavery, but did little else to bring full citizen status to African-Americans.

The premature end of Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow in the south–laws of restriction and segregation that took a century to undo in the courts. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan ran wild.

What progress have we made since the U.S. Supreme Court undid segregation? What civil liberties victories can we look to since the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act passed in the 1960s? African-Americans are still living in fear in the South–indeed, in much of the U.S. There are disproportionate numbers of them in our prisons. The racism and discrimination they still face is in itself an act of violence.

You want to know how bad it is? Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ brilliant “The Case for Reparations,” which ran in The Atlantic a year ago. I’m ashamed to say I only first read it a few weeks ago. It’s a long essay that’s full of profound thinking and heart-wrenching reporting, and every American should read it. Even better, they should think about it.

Coates wants a national reckoning–a point at which all Americans think about their history, acknowledge its horrors and then agree to do better. When I was younger I know I would have thought that possible. Now, today, after Wednesday–I doubt it.

I’ve never been to the deep South, which is at least part of the reason I find their definition of “heritage” requires them to genuflect before dead racists and slave-holders to be nonsensical. Why is the Confederate battle flag still flying over the South Carolina state capitol? Why does the State of Mississippi’s flag still depict the stars and bars? Why are at least 10 U.S. Army bases named for Confederate generals–men who commanded divisions and brigades that killed U.S. Army soldiers?

And while I’m at it, why are while male southerners like Rick Perry–a craven poser who wants power but lack the wisdom, judgment and raw intellect of someone who can wield it responsibly–treated like serious presidential candidates? Men like Perry (who has laughably, insanely, characterized the Emanuel AME killings as an “accident” stemming from drug use) seem perfectly happy with the status quo; with the racial injustices African-Americans face on a daily basis. And they’re perfectly unwilling to describe a racist murderer as anything other than someone who’s “evil,” as though he exists on another plane of reality.

Above all, the right-wingers in this nation (and indeed, many who would call themselves moderates) refuse to acknowledge that America is, at its heart, a violent nation. Ask the Africans forcibly brought here to run the South’s economy. Ask the Native American tribes who ranged from the Atlantic to the Pacific–until Manifest Destiny all but exterminated them. Ask Central American, South American, Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean nations who’ve regularly contended with U.S. military invasions and occupations over the last century. It doesn’t matter who’s President of the United States, or which political party is in charge–the solution to terrorism is simply to build vastly greater weapons (and secret prisons) and then go bomb other nations.

I can remember teachers telling my class in elementary school that ours was a generation of peace–what a nasty joke that now seems. Nearly as rotten as the worst slur the right can throw at the left–that it “hates America.” Given the totality of violence that permeates American history and society to this very day, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would love America.

Photo of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston: Spencer Means/Wikimedia Commons

We live in an era of giant statues, errors and robots

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People still get fired for incompetence in this country, right? I mean, it’s difficult for me to believe that given some of these developments:

• This week the U.S. Postal Service released a new “Forever” stamp bearing poet Maya Angelou’s likeness and a quotation that actually comes from someone else.

• In the fall of 2014, Indiana University’s Media School erected a bronze statue of the famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle that somehow misspells the word “correspondent.”

• A new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial goes up in Washington DC that misquotes one of King’s speeches.

What wasn’t a mistake was Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek’s recent construction of a giant robot statue in the middle of his city, apparently because he’s an authoritarian and wanted one. Ordinarily I’d use this as an opportunity to call on Washington, DC to put a similar statue of Day the Earth Stood Still‘s Gort in the Washington Mall, but they’d probably end up casting the words “From the hit TV series Lost in Space” in its leg.

Photo of Gort at the Robot Hall of Fame: RobotJunkie/Wikimedia Commons

Third Charley Ridgway Maui noir novel is in the can

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So yeah, yesterday I “finished” my third Charley Ridgway novel. I put “finished” in quotation marks because it was more like me just deciding not to tweak it anymore. I emailed it to Event Horizon Press yesterday afternoon, and now just have to wait and see what they say.

The hard thing about writing a series of novels is staying out of the trap of writing the same thing over and over. There’s a certain familiarity that readers expect, but at the same time I still want to stretch out and try new things. Like all books in any novel series, this installment brings back familiar faces and settings while introducing new characters and conflicts. To an extent greater than I first imagined when first starting the book over a year ago, it plays off of relatively minor figures in the first two books (especially the second one, The Dead Season). While it stands on its own and doesn’t require reading earlier books in the series, this story will provide new surprises for those who’ve already read the earlier Ridgway novels.

Ultimately, I wrote this third book because I still have things to say about Maui, an island of amazing contrasts that makes it an ideal setting for noir tales. And I have ideas in my head for at least two more books, which either makes me prolific or a hack…

In other news, today’s New York Times has a great and chilling story about a 98-year-old man who flew Zeros for Japan during World War II and is now trying to convince his government not to re-militarize. Given that my 2014 play War Stories (which somehow won Second Place at the Maui Fringe Festival and the Audience Appreciation Award at the Playbuilders Festival of Original Plays) dealt with a similar (albeit younger) Japanese veteran trying deal with the aftermath of the war, it felt rather eerie to read this bit of non-fiction.

Photo: Angelo DeSantis/Wikimedia Commons

Thinking about Ray Bradbury and my latest Maui novel

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Perhaps because I’m working on a new novel (the third in my “Charley Ridgway” series of trashy noir set on Maui), I’ve been reading a lot more old interviews in The Paris Review than I used to. Considering that I never before read The Paris Review until I installed Flipboard on my iPad, even just the few of the journal’s long Q&As with famous writers that I’ve read so far have been illuminating.

Especially this one with Ray Bradbury, published in the Spring 2010 issue. Seriously, this is gold for anyone who looks upon writing predominantly as art:

INTERVIEWER

Why do you write science fiction?

RAY BRADBURY

Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.

The whole interview is like that–optimistic and full of life and heart. Bradbury’s an American treasure.

On the flip side, I found that a surprising number of these interviews delve into what I consider the dull nuts and bolts of writing. Seriously, do people really care whether a writer uses a computer, typewriter or Mont Blanc fountain pen to churn out pages? What difference does it make, except to show off some writers’ technological eccentricities? Maybe I’m just weird, but I want to know why the writer put the ideas on the page in the first place, not how.

I’m undoubtedly prickly on this issue because that novel I’m working on is still nowhere near publication. It’s in the Done-but-I’m-not-happy-with-it stage. Of course, I’ve never really been happy with any of my books, but I’m not at the point where I can send it to my publisher (that would be Event Horizon Press) with confidence.

Some background: I’ve been working on this particular novel for well over a year now, though that’s a bit misleading. I started writing it in late 2013–had it all out outlined and even wrote the first few chapters. But then my good friend (and partial inspiration for Ridgway) Chris Atencio committed suicide in January 2014, and finishing the book dropped off my list of priorities. For a year, I didn’t even look at what I’d done on it. Then early this year, I re-opened the files and impetuously decided to finish it.

I completed the first draft in about two months (it’s amazing what you can do if you force yourself to write at least 1,000 words a day, every day). I put it through one complete page-by-page revision, and now a friend is reading it to make sure the whole thing makes sense. And this is the hard part–just waiting for news, like a patient jumping every time a phone rings because a doctor’s supposed to call with test results.

But hey–that’s writing.

Photo of Ray Bradbury: Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons

Remembering road trips to Benicia, California Northern magazine and writing for free

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And now to reminisce: Back in early 2011, I was still living in Northern California. My girlfriend Angie and I enjoyed taking road trips (an activity not really possible on Maui), and one weekend we drove from Sacramento to Benicia, in East Bay. She’d been there, but I never had.

We had a great time, and not long after we returned I discovered a new print magazine called California Northern. It published just twice a year, but it was filled with great writing about the upper half of the state. The magazine had a section called Notes From The Field, which were short dispatches from various places around Northern California. Enjoying Benicia so much, I wrote up a short essay on our trip and submitted it, even though they didn’t pay for such features (I also apparently wrote it very early in our relationship, because in it I keep referring to Angie as Angela).

Anyway, they loved it, and published it in their third issue (though the magazine didn’t pay for such features, I have to say that it was probably one of the most heavily edited stories I’ve ever had published anyway).

The magazine as since gone on hiatus (they apparently stopped at Issue 6) and they never really posted stories online, but here’s the Benicia piece:

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BENICIA, SOLANO COUNTY

Eight years or so had passed since my girlfriend, Angela, last visited the small town of Benicia, located on the shore of the Carquinez Strait–which empties into the northeastern part of San Francisco Bay–just a couple of hours from our Sacramento home. I had barely heard of it, but she said it was quaint, and a nice place to look at the bay and pop into an antique store or two, so we made a day of it. Though it lacks the bohemian feel of other seaside artistic towns, today Benicia is predominantly known for its glassblowers and its otter-filled wetlands. We found ourselves more drawn to Benicia’s historical roots, though. It used to house a massive military arsenal and a pre-Civil War corps of camel-mounted cavalry. And, oddly enough, it was once California’s state capital.

Since 1849, five cities have served as the home of the California Legislature, and Benicia filled the role from February 1853 to February 1854. In fact, the Benicia capitol building is the only pre-Sacramento seat of government still standing. It’s a cramped, two-story affair, with imposing columns, brick walls, creaky wooden stairs, and a $3 admission charge. The building is open to the public every day, though with the perpetual budget crisis in the contemporary capital, you never know when that might end. After she claimed to know no more than we did, the park ranger at the door eventually conceded that she had heard the building might soon be open only on the weekends.

Like the town that surrounds it, the Benicia capitol building is cozy but chilly in the winter. The town was mostly empty on the Sunday we visited because it was still a bit too cold to check out the wetlands, but Angela said it really fills up in the spring and summer months. The capitol was also mostly devoid of visitors, which made for a fairly quick tour of the first floor Senate and second floor Assembly chambers. We spent just enough time in each to notice that many of the hats placed on the members’ desks for voting (right side up is yea, upside down is nay, I think) still had their original labels on the brims. These remnants made a poster placed on one assemblyman’s desk all the more chilling–it advertised an exhibition of the severed head of Joaquin Murrieta, a hated (or loved) bandit of the Gold Rush, who was also sometimes known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado.

We continued our exploring, and soon found the Benicia Fire Museum (the town boasts the state’s oldest continuous fire service) was up and running–blind luck, since it’s only open for three hours a few Sundays a month. There, we saw two 1960s vintage fire trucks, an old net for jumpers, an more fire extinguishers, helmets, and fire hydrants than we’d previously imagined could fit into one building. The docent told us that jumpers’ nets are seldom used now that ladders can generally reach as high as the seventh floor. Also, so many jumpers simply bounced off the nets and into the attending firefighters that they caused nearly as many injuries as they prevented.

Benicia seems proud of its history, the well-maintained buildings as well as the detritus. Indeed, Angela found the rusting crane and half-sunk barges on the waterfront more photo-worthy than the capitol building. And the old Southern Pacific railroad depot makes a fine modern visitor’s center, even if the associated tracks that used to run out to a ferry now simply jut out into the bay. According to a photocopied handbill that I picked up at the capitol building, Benicia is a place of firsts. California’s first chamber of commerce was here, as well as its first Protestant church, public school, girl’s school, cast bell, newspaper (the Californian, first published on August 15, 1846), and Anglo cemetery. It was also a place of romance, being the site of the first truly legendary California love affair, between Concepcion Arguello and Nikolai Rezanov. (It didn’t work out, though apparently not because he was forty-two and she was only fifteen.) In any case, Angela and I tested Benicia’s modern capability by making out in the old capitol building’s empty assembly gallery, and found it very much alive.

-reprinted from California Northern Magazine, Summer/Fall 2011

 

Photos: Angie Thompson