Saturday, November 29, 2008

Back to the Future

New variations on traveling through time ...

Nothing is more fun than time travel in the arena of science fiction. Ever since H.G. Wells came up with the original Time Machine in his 1895 novel, hordes of others have continued to explore the possibilities and paradoxes of moving at will through the medium we are normally stuck in.

A recent effort is Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine. In this one, an MIT lab assistant discovers that his latest gadget, a "calibrator" that serves as the novel's McGuffen or plot instigator, has the unintended characteristic that pressing its reset button sends it into the future. He quickly discovers a further flaw -- not only does it move only forwards in time, but it does so by a factor of twelve times farther each time.

It doesn't take long for him to figure a way to go along for the ride, and the adventure begins. Each jump takes him to a future world stranger than the one before, and complications soon have him hoping to find someone still farther ahead who might be able to send him back home.

An old favorite of mine is The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) by Barrington Bayley, unfortunately now out of print. It involves a war fought between two empires millennia apart, and their attempts to undo one another by altering each other's past. The final cataclysm turns the universe inside out and starts it over again, like a computer that crashes and reboots.

The book includes an interesting variant on the old paradox about what happens if you go back in time and meet yourself there. The character aptly named "Narcis" goes into the future and kidnaps himself back to the past so his twin selves can live in wedded bliss. The only problem is that they will eventually arrive at the night when a stranger from the past comes to kidnap one of them, leaving the other alone again.

Just for laughs, there's a short story called "A Niche In Time" that I remember from the 1950's or 60's, by an author I can't recall. It involves a man named Harry Styne who uses a time machine to avoid prosecution for murder by jumping ahead of the statute of limitations. Confronted with this dilemma the judge finds for the defendant, stating, "in this case, a niche in time saves Styne." [Groan, groan.]

But seriously, folks ... Perhaps the best thought-out successor to Wells' original is The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter's sequel that picks up where Wells left off with the return of the Time Traveler from the world of 800,000 years in the future. He plans to go back to where he left little Weena of the Eloi falling victim to the vicious Morlocks, only this time he will be prepared to rescue her and to bring proper (Victorian) civilization back to humankind.

The plan immediately unravels, however, when he finds that the future he saw on his first voyage is no longer there -- somehow by traveling forward and back he has altered things completely. And this of course means that the past has changed as well, and that he will never have a home to return to.

This book, which was sanctioned by Wells' literary estate, does a great job, especially at the beginning, of resuming the old narrative voice of the original. Along the way Baxter investigates several alternate histories located in the past as well as the future, and ends in the "multiverse" where the infinite strands of possibility all collide. Bringing his hero back from that is quite a trick. But remember, in sci-fi all things are possible -- regardless of how probable.

One more short piece on the subject is Cory Doctorow's "A Place So Foreign," which leads off with the information that the father of the boy hero is "the ambassador to 1975" (from the year 1898). But we soon see that it is not the 1975 we know, but a radically more futuristic one resembling that of the Jetsons. Eventually we learn that the problem is that time travel is causing the future to "leak backwards" as technologies migrate into the past along with those who travel back and forth.

Perhaps our fascination with this subject is because we are all time travelers, even though like the hero of The Accidental Time Machine we can move in one direction only. The older we grow, the further back our memories extend, and the less familiar the world around us comes to seem. Eventually we must all end up displaced, born into one century but living and dying in another, like ambassadors from the past, strangers in a strange land, with no way to get back home.

[Does futurism have a future? See this article from New Scientist on the future of science fiction itself.]

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part II

Continuing my saga of this year's Miami Book Fair ... If you missed it, you might want to start with Part I.



... Beginning with Peter Matthiessen, who has finally (after seven long years) reduced the epic trilogy that started with Killing Mister Watson into a single volume called Shadow Country. It seems to me that this project all by itself could qualify him for a Nobel Prize, or at least a lifetime achievement award from somebody. Actually he's up for the National Book Award, and he would have my vote if I had one.

His long-time interest in this subject began when he was a teenager on a fishing trip with his father in Florida bay. Their boat passed the ruin of an old house on the shore, and their guide told them "that's the old Watson place," and gave them a short version of the tale: how the evil Watson had been shot dead by a unanimous collection of his neighbors, a weird case of vigilante justice. The story hooked young Matthiessen like a fish.

He's 81 now, and eventually ended up spending a big chunk of his writing life pursuing the truth behind the legend and turning it into an exhaustive and definitive work. The new version should not be considered an abridgment, according to the author. Rather, the book has finally reached its intended form.

The original 1500 page version "frightened the publisher," who convinced him it could only be printed in three separate volumes, reduced to a mere 1300 pages. However, according to Matthiessen, the middle volume never worked as a novel in its own right even though it contained much of the best material. So he kept on going, and has finally honed it down to 900 pages crammed into a single narrative, as he originally intended.

In response to a question from the audience, he revealed that he reworked many of the characters in the process, eliminating or toning down some while bringing others to the fore. One example was the solitary black citizen whose bullet was "the first one to strike Watson, and the only one needed." In the earlier version he appeared but had no voice in the narrative; in the new version he has much to say.

So, OK, Mattheissen has done his part and it's up to the rest of us to meet him half way. I finally have to read the durn thing. Looking forward to it immensely.

Briefly -- because I could go on at great length about both of these -- the second session concerned (1) Marshall Goldman's Petrostate: Putin, Power, and the New Russia, which describes the strangle hold that Russia has on Western Europe though its gas pipelines, and (2) Andrei Cherny's The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America's Finest Hour. (Yes, two more examples of subtitles. They're everywhere.)

This second one forced me to revise my ideas about the occupation of Germany after WWII. We like to think we were welcomed as liberators and immediately used the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country in our own image. The reality was much more in line with our current experience in Iraq.

[Begin digression:]
The victorious allies started out with the idea of destroying Germany and its industrial capabilities far more thoroughly than had been done at the end of the First World War. The population was fed a starvation diet during three years of occupation, and opinion polls showed the vast majority of Germans would prefer living under Communism if it would guarantee them full stomachs.
But then the closing of the East German border by the Soviets and the isolation of West Berlin led to the Berlin Airlift, a conveyor belt of airplanes, one every 90 seconds, that kept the city's supply line open for nearly a year. In the midst of this, a simple act of human kindness, when an American pilot decided to drop some candy to the kids down below, became an international symbol of resistance and good will, and resulted in a reversal of public opinion in the rest of Germany.
More importantly, during those eleven months Harry Truman got re-elected and created the Marshall Plan to do for the rest of Europe what the airlift had done for Berlin -- foreign aid on a scale never seen before or since, and surely one of the best investments America ever made.
A slogan of peace activists is "Wage Peace" -- the idea that if we put the same resources into conflict resolution that we put into warfare, there is no telling how far we can go toward making a more peaceful and prosperous world. And if there is any doubt about whether it would work, just consider this question: Which was more responsible for building the resurgent continent of Europe as we know it today -- destroying its cities with bombs, or bombing its children with candy?
[End of digression.] Well, I warned you I could go off on either of those topics, so that was it.

Before heading to my last event I hit the streets again. This time I turned up some bargain jazz CD's at the WDNA booth -- two for five bucks, with a free bumper sticker thrown in. I can now proclaim "I [heart] Serious Jazz" on the back of my van. Along the way I also had a nice chat with a man giving away pamphlets that proclaimed "Islam - Religion of Peace." Amen to that. (You can read about it at www.alislam.org.)

Words in Pictures

Normally, graphic novels (meaning the ones that are mostly pictures, not the ones full of explicit sex and violence) give me the willies. They are too similar to those wordless pictorial newspapers in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, which were all people had to "read" after they had burned all their books. Nevertheless, I attended a session featuring four artists and their books, and came away very glad that I did.

First off, our friend Youme Landowne presented Pitch Black, a project she did in collaboration with Anthony Horton, a man who she met on a subway platform in New York and ended up following into the subterranean depths of the city to visit the tunnels where he had lived for some years. This slender volume belies the power of the story it tells, fittingly in stark black and white. I love the opening epithet: "Just 'cause you can't see don't mean ain't nothing there."

Ms. Landowne's Selavi, a children's book about a group of Haitian orphans who started their own radio station (true story!), received a lot of attention and four awards, including the Jane Addams Peace Award. It appears Pitch Black will extend her reach to an adult audience.

Swiss artist Alex Baladi showed several of his books of comic-style art, including Frankenstein -- not a retelling of the story, but set in his home town of Geneva which, he reminded us, was the original setting of Mary Shelley's novel.

Then Ralph Penal Pierre, from Haiti, impressed us with a comprehensive rapid-fire slide show of his highly professional illustrations. He's a working artist, making his way in one of the most difficult economies in the world by cranking out slick commercial work as well as his own creative projects. On the drawing board now: a highly realistic (in style) book-length "monologue on peace." Amen to that again.

Finally, syndicated cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, who publishes her daily strip "Minimum Security" online, introduced us to her first graphic novel titled As the World Burns, in which a half-blind bunny who escaped from a mascara testing lab joins the good fight to save the world from an army of alien robots. Stephanie herself is a bright-eyed young woman who talks cheerfully about reading a Communist newspaper and wittily about nearly everything. I haven't enjoyed having the comics read to me so much in ages.

Concluding on this upbeat note, that there is humor even in the end of the world, I departed with my autographed copy of Pitch Black resolved to come back again next year -- assuming we all survive that long -- and to have read a lot more books.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Marketplace of Ideas - Part I

The Miami Book Fair turns 25 ...

The world economy may be tanking, the value of your home and retirement funds may be shrinking before your eyes, but if the Miami Book Fair is any indication then the marketplace of ideas is still alive and thriving.

I doubt that even its most ardent supporters back at the beginning expected it to be the runaway success it has been, but our good old Fair has become the premier event of its type, and it just keeps on coming. Even with the five-dollar admission fee now being charged, the streets are packed, readings are filled to near capacity, and appearances by people like Art Spiegelman have to be managed by distributing tickets. Tickets! To hear a writer! Is this great or what?

Once again C-SPAN (their broadcast van still labeled "Campaign 2008") parked in the street to pump select venues to a national and international audience by television and the Internet. (The oddest of bedfellows: "Book TV.") All of this serves up as rich and varied an assortment of thoughts, fantasies, memories, histories, essays, and poetry as you might care to imagine.

My visit this year was somewhat more abbreviated than the marathon session I described a couple of years ago, but it was still packed with stimulating material.


The first session I attended was the troika of Florida International University professors and alumns: John Dufresne (please pronounce it "Dufrayne"), James Hall, and Dennis Lehane (rhymes with Dufresne -- and you'll understand why I emphasize it if you were there).

Dufresne's latest novel is Requiem, Mass., a title so fortuitous it's amazing no one has used it before. It makes me think of an exercise that John is fond of giving to his creative writing classes: First you come up with the name of a town (mine was Sheetrock, Fla. -- you can use it if you want to), then describe walking through it, then walk into one of the buildings, then meet someone ... perhaps they speak to you, or you to them ... and before you know it you are waist deep in a new piece of fiction.

In this case however Requiem is a fictional Worcester, so the town preceeded the name, and the main character is a sort of fictional Dufresne who "like me comes to Florida and works in my office but is not me." Obviously some of the material owes a lot to John's life, though the division between fiction and memoir has never been more murky. Perhaps if the oft-stated equality between the two is correct then we should give up trying to tell the difference. (Didn't Jack Kerouac do that many years ago?)

The first passage John read was a delightful though hair-raising confrontation between the boy Johnny and his authority figures in Catholic school, attending which "is a scab you pick for the rest of your life." I will only say that amorous priests are not the only things to beware of -- watch out for those vicious nuns!

The other selection about the fate of his first-crush babysitter was classic Dufresne, gentle, cruel, dispassionate, and heartbreaking all at once. Kind of like life.

James Hall -- who, along with host Les Standiford, was responsible for bringing Dufresne among us and establishing the excellent writing program at FIU -- is well known for his dramatically plotted mysteries. Today he shared a new twist on murder, that of a young woman killing an older one, which is a combo he's never dealt with -- although he freely confessed to killing many of his characters over the years, and in bizarre ways, too.

He is, in fact, a veritable poet of the genre, and this example from Hell's Bay is no exception. Both murderer and victim are carefully drawn, and the moment of truth approaches both breathlessly and meticulously. The setting itself adds the perfect ironic touch -- the idyllic Peace River in Central Florida.

Dennis Lehane, the FIU grad who has been following along in the successful wakes of his mentors, has just produced his most prodigious novel. At 700+ pages, The Given Day takes place in 1918, but before you start yawning let me hasten to add that it includes some of the snappiest writing about baseball I've ever heard. Babe Ruth lives!

In the second session I caught Scott Simon, one of NPR's most mellifluous voices, reading from Windy City: a Novel of Politics. This is about the best time I can think of to come out with a political piece set in Chicago -- and it's funny, too. Simon says his aim was to do something "about 80% humor and 20% serious." Sounds like a wild ride. And Simon showed off his acting abilities as he impersonated his character, Mayor Sonny Rupini, with great gusto.

Simon was also the first, but not the last, to elicit applause by referring to the recent election results. People are still gushing, and ever on the lookout for ways to show enthusiasm for our new President-Elect.

Also sharing the podium was Russell Banks, who has produced a meditative monologue on the American character called The Reserve. This began when he was interviewed for a French film the aim of which was to show the contrast between America as seen by its writers and America as perceived by the French through American cinema. How convoluted is that? Keep in mind it's a film about that, to be shown to the French.

Over eleven hours of interview was condensed to less than an hour in the film, so Banks took the entire transcript and edited a more complete version into book form. It appears to be full of insight, and of course beautifully written.

My apologies to Alan Cheuse -- who appears to have struck a similar chord in To Catch the Lightning: A Novel of American Dreaming -- for having to duck out during his reading. You can't be everywhere at once. But let me just ask publishers ... is it the latest thing that novels have to have subtitles so you will know that they're novels and what they're about? I thought that's what cover blurbs were for.

Anyway, I had just enough time left to consume my once-per-year arepa (a kind of grilled-cheese sandwich made with discs of sweet cornbread, yum) from the Arepa Queen in the food court, and to pick up a couple of bargains at the book stalls. Penguin was giving away free books containing sample chapters from eight of their current best-sellers, the first time I've seen that. "Collect the whole set," said the booth jockey with a grin. The Nation had free sample issues to hand out, including the one from election week. And I purchased one hardback from Florida University Press, a history of Florida railroads.

The book was $21, marked down from the retail of 27.50, so I saved more than enough to pay for my arepa. I don't know how business was overall, but it appeared brisk, at least to judge by the amount of browsing going on. However, I did see a sign at Pineapple Press, a publisher of books about Florida, that said ALL BOOKS 25% 50% OFF -- something you don't usually see until the final day of the fair.

And that brings us to ...

[Part II will be posted on Sunday.]

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Format Wars

We're having the Miami Book Fair this weekend (report next time), so here's something that affects the future of books, and why you should care how your documents are stored ...

A struggle for world domination has been going on in recent years that will affect your ability to read and write digital documents, whether they are your own or the property of others. 

The most prominent example is the battle between Microsoft's ubiquitous Office formats (consider the chutzpah it takes to trademark the word "office") and the alternative Open Document standard as proposed by a consortium of other companies, individuals, and organizations, and certified by the ISO. There is an old gag among computer hackers that says, "a standard is a good thing, so it's a good thing there are so many of them." The joke of course is that with enough different standards there is no standard at all.

That particular struggle is still unresolved at this point. Microsoft has managed to have their own proposal for an "open" format adopted as a second standard by the ISO, but neglected to fully support it even in their own software, leaving us with a "standard" that no one can use except theoretically. (Joseph Heller must be rolling over in his grave at this example of a Catch 22.)

Meanwhile the opposition -- represented by OpenOffice.org, Sun's StarOffice, and IBM's Lotus Symphony (all free and compatible) -- forges ahead by supporting both Open Documents and the proprietary Microsoft Office formats that people actually use, thus building a bridge across the troubled waters for anyone who wants to take it. In case you can't tell, I count myself in that category.

A footnote to this is that OpenOffice.org and its brethren also support saving documents as Adobe Acrobat PDF (Portable Document Format). If you wonder why Microsoft until recently required third party software to support this widely used feature, you only have to look as far as Microsoft's own answer to PDF -- the XML Paper Specification, or XPS, which they would prefer people to use instead of Acrobat, which is owned by a competitor. However at the moment XPS requires Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Windows, which kind of defeats the goal of making an electronic document universally readable.

By now you can see where this is going. Governments and big corporations are not the only ones who should be concerned about how their digital documents are archived. The issue of whether and for how long those documents will be readable is something we all have an interest in, whether as small businesses, students, writers, citizens, or anyone who has anything to save on a computer -- which pretty soon will include every last one of us. If your data format dies because your chosen software is driven out of existence by market forces, it is definitely a problem.

We know the nightmare can happen, because it has happened already. Long ago many law offices standardized on WordPerfect because at the time it was the only product that gave them the features they needed for legal documents. But now WordPerfect is struggling to survive in the face of the Microsoft juggernaut on one side and free competitors on the other. If and when it dies, an unknown number of critical legal documents may become unreadable, or garbled by imperfect (no pun intended) conversion programs.

As a writer I have had to migrate my work from the old DOS-based PC-Write to Lotus Ami-Pro, then through two semi-compatible versions of WordPro, and finally two versions of OpenOffice. (The first one was before the new standard.) And this is within a period of 25 years -- an average of just five years per format.

Even those who have exclusively used Microsoft's Word (there's that chutzpah again) will find that they can no longer read their oldest documents unless they have converted them as they went along and new versions came out. Coming up with new formats has proved to be an excellent marketing tool, since it forces all users to buy new software so they can read documents created by others who have bought it already. But clearly what works for the vendor does not work for the consumer.

And Now eBooks

Meanwhile a new front has opened in the arena of electronic publishing. Due to the understandable desire of publishers and authors to protect their work from piracy, an assortment of new standards for Digital Rights Management (or DRM) have sprung up, along with a separate assortment of file formats that work with one or another version of DRM. Unfortunately the result is that hacker joke all over again. (Here's a comparison between the various formats so you can see how bewildering the assortment is.)

Just as with music, when you acquire an ebook you have to choose one of the available formats, and this choice will determine what computers and other devices you will be able to read it with. After that there are many ways to lose access to what you thought you owned. Your format of choice may become obsolete so that it is no longer supported by newer devices. Your computer may die or be stolen, forcing you to plead for a replacement license for a new machine. Or the format that you like on your computer may not work with your phone or PDA or the new reader from Amazon or [insert vendor of your choice].

About the best you can do is to avail yourself of DRM-free documents in a form that is as widely supported as possible. There are many sources for works that are either in the public domain or which have been made available by their authors as freely distributable while remaining under copyright.

In the latter case you are free to read and share them, but not to sell them without arrangement with the author. Cory Doctorow and Bruce Sterling are notable examples of writers who have chosen to "give away" at least some of their work in this way, while continuing to sell traditional books in print form. It is arguably a way to insure wide readership which may in the long run enhance sales.

Free At Last

Alas, even with freely distributable texts there are problems. Since I acquired my Sony Reader last Christmas I've become all too familiar with them.

Project Gutenberg, the first attempt at creating a free library of public domain books, made an early choice to use "plain text" as their format in order to make their books as widely accessible as possible. (Now they are also using HTML and PDF for some books, and even audio -- a whole other can of worms.) While this avoids the pitfalls of those word processors of yore that are no longer with us, it leaves their online books as "plain vanilla" with no ability to use bold or italics or different fonts, and no diagrams or illustrations.

Worse still, their texts have embedded line breaks that make them difficult to adjust for different display sizes. Removing those line breaks can be difficult or impossible depending on what software you use and what your level of expertise is -- and yes, it is maddening that something so simple should be so hard.

In practice this means that when I read a Gutenberg document on my
Sony with its 5x7 page, there
is no combination of font size or orientation that matches where the line
breaks are. It doesn't mean I can't
read it anyway, but it's esthetically unpleasant. (Like this paragraph.)

PDF files can suffer similar problems, because they were not originally meant to have text that would reflow if the page size was changed.

One example of a new solution is the Epub format, created by the International Digital Publishing Forum and supported by Sony and an assortment of other vendors and online distributors like Feedbooks. It is able to handle fonts, page reflow, and even graphics, which makes epub documents a pleasure to read. However, at this point it is yet another new standard -- and the same old joke applies. Come to think of it, they work fine on my Sony Reader, but I didn't have any software that would recognize them on my PC until I downloaded and installed Adobe's Digital Editions.

Hey, wait a minute -- can you still read this? If so, it's because of the universal use of HTML (hypertext markup language) for text on web pages, which is a perfect demonstration of what a true standard can offer us. Let's hope we can someday agree on another one for books and plain old documents.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Conscientious Objector

On Veterans Day, let's remember that they also serve who do not fight ...

The most courageous man in the history of warfare may be someone you never heard of. I certainly had never heard of him until I discovered the excellent documentary film called simply The Conscientious Objector.

That's right, Desmond T. Doss was a Conscientious Objector during World War II, and the acts of bravery he performed in his service as a combat medic made him the only C.O. ever to be awarded the Medal of Honor.

To really get this story you should visit the website desmonddoss.com, or better yet, see the film, which is available through Netflix. Director Terry Benedict has done a magnificent job of telling the story with quiet emotional power, easily rivaling the best work of Ken Burns. He filmed extensive interviews with Doss just a few years before his death in 2006. He also filmed other friends and survivors who had served with him, and even got a few of them to accompany Doss on a visit to Okinawa, back to the very ground they had struggled to take from the Japanese near the end of the war.

The short version of this tale is that Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist with an aversion to violence that dated back to his childhood, when a dispute between his father and uncle put him in mind of Cain killing Abel -- a story he had never been able to comprehend. "How could a brother do such a thing?" he wondered. From the day he had to hide his father's pistol he swore he would never again touch a weapon. And he never did.

When WWII came along he was offered a deferment on religious grounds, but declined. Instead he volunteered to serve as what he called "a conscientious co-operator." He thought he could be a medic and help to save lives instead of taking them. But though the army accepted him they did not accept his conditions. His commanders expected him to take weapons training and to carry a sidearm once he was in the field, medic or not. Time and again he refused even to touch a gun it if was handed to him.

Almost more problematic was his effort to honor his chosen Sabbath every Saturday, when according to his precepts he was not supposed to work. Sometimes he was allowed and sometimes he wasn't. Always he had to pay, in having to do all the worst jobs on Sundays, and in the derision of his fellow soldiers. Once he was threatened with a court martial, but by then he had an established precedent in his record, a tacit agreement that his beliefs were to be honored, and that he would not have to carry arms.

Everything changed when Doss's unit finally went into action in the South Pacific. He quickly came to be known as the man who would never leave a wounded soldier untended, regardless of the risk to his own safety. This behavior culminated at "Hacksaw Ridge," the highest ground on the island of Okinawa, where horrific fighting went on for day after day.

When an all-out assault left only about one third of his unit able to retreat under their own power, Doss stayed behind with the dead and wounded atop the plateau. One by one he found the survivors, dressed their wounds as best he could, and dragged them single-handed for as much as a hundred yards or more to the edge of the cliff, where he finally lowered them by rope to those waiting down below. He continued this for twelve hours, under constant fire from the enemy. Praying the whole time, he said that he kept repeating, "Just let me get one more, Lord," and when he had done that, "Just one more ..." In the end he had personally rescued 75 of them.

But he wasn't done yet. In subsequent action he was severely wounded himself -- and even then it was in the act of throwing aside a grenade before it exploded, saving more lives. After spending five hours waiting for stretcher bearers to carry him off the field, he gave up his stretcher to a more seriously wounded man. Then he was hit again. This time he made a splint for his own shattered left arm from a rifle butt and crawled to safety, finally saving himself.

I'm getting choked up again just remembering all this. Some of the other guys in his unit, the same ones who had been saved by Doss after earlier ridiculing him, were feeling the same way. A Bronze or Silver Star was not enough for this man. They submitted his name for the Medal of Honor.

Harry Truman, who awarded the medal in a newsreel of the time, is supposed to have said this was a greater honor to him than becoming President. Doss was headline news, a genuine and unprecedented kind of hero. There was even a comic book version of his story, which became the inspiration for director Benedict's making of the film many years later.

Alas, honoring the hero is one thing, and caring for him is another. Doss was 100% disabled as the result of his service. Besides his damaged arm, and legs filled with shrapnel, he lost a lung to tuberculosis contracted in Okinawa. Then the army doctors made things worse by giving him an overdose of antibiotics that left him completely deaf. At the time of the documentary, in 2002, he could only hear somewhat with the aid of a cochlear implant.

For years he declined offers from Hollywood to make movies about him. He preferred to live out his days in peace and quiet on his small farm in the backwoods. Over time he was all but forgotten. But it's not too late to remember him now.

Desmond T. Doss. A man who simply lived his simple faith, and made it count.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Make Us Proud, Mr. President!

The change has been going on ever since the nation was founded. The struggle has been between the idealistic principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and the compromise that was written into the Constitution which gave representation to states based on all of their free citizens and three-fifths of their slaves.

Like an infectious virus the ideal has worked its way into reality, through the mortal fever of the Civil War, the symbolic victories of people like Jackie Robinson, and the adolescent growing pains of the civil rights movement in the 1960's. It found its most eloquent voice in the person of Martin Luther King, and its greatest tragedy in his loss.

But last night Barack Obama extended King's promise, "that we as a people will get there," beyond the boundaries of race to include all of us, both in this country and the rest of the world.

I'm old enough to remember the years before the civil rights movement began to change the culture of America. When my family arrived in Miami in the 1950's racial segregation was still deeply entrenched, even more so than it was in the New York we had left behind. My parents were embarrassed about the "Colored" signs that everywhere denoted the second class restrooms, waiting rooms, seating areas, and water fountains reserved for those who were second class citizens.

I particularly remember the water fountains. A common arrangement was to have a small, non-chilled fountain attached to the wall next to the refrigerated ones for whites. Sometimes there were cup dispensers labeled "cups for colored." Once in my ignorance I tried to use one, and a passing man told my father that I shouldn't. My father didn't believe in the system, but he was practical, and so told me that I should save the cups for the people who had no choice but to use them. He was right. The next time I passed the same fountain I saw that the dispenser beneath the "cups for colored" sign was empty, as perfect a symbol as I can imagine for the vacant promise of "separate but equal."

I was 16 years old when King delivered his "I have a dream" speech in August of 1963. Home from school for summer vacation, I watched the whole pageant unfold in fuzzy gray images on a small black and white TV. The size of the crowd and the mix of ethnicities in it formed a backdrop as powerful as that of the Lincoln Memorial. I knew I was witnessing history, live as it happened -- a feeling I have seldom had since. There was the moon landing in 1969, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and last night an acceptance speech in Chicago.

We changed the Constitution in the 1960's so that it was no longer at odds with the noble sentiment in the Declaration. But reality has been slower to come around. It took two years from King's speech before my high school was finally integrated during my senior year. Then the civil rights issue was swamped in the upheaval of the Vietnam War and the larger cultural and generational struggle that is still going on today.

But we've reached another turning point, another day when we can say that things will be different from now on. I've never felt more proud of my country and its citizens. The best thing of all, as revealed in the demographic studies of the electorate, is that we have all done this together, across all the traditional lines that have ever divided us.

"We shall overcome" is not the only part of the old song that has come to pass. It is also true, as it says in the second verse, that "we'll walk hand in hand someday."

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Election Special

We interrupt regularly scheduled material to bring you this special report from the front lines of early voting in a pivitol swing state ... "Florida, Florida, Florida ..."

Yesterday (Saturday 11/01) my wife and I finally voted early, helping to clear the decks for what we hope will be an unprecedented turnout on election day. It meant standing in line for over three hours, keeping company with thousands of other dedicated citizens who similarly felt that yes, it was that important. But what made it all worth while for me was seeing it through the eyes of our eight-year-old grandson, Vincent.

This is the first election he's been aware of in his short life, so he is not jaded as we are by decades of cynicism and dashed hopes -- not to mention stolen elections in the recent past. So his optimism knows no bounds. About the nearest thing to doubt that I've heard him express was the poignant question, "Do you think we'll win?"

Far be it for me to pour water on his enthusiasm. I told him I thought we would, but that it probably would be close and we would have to work very hard to make it happen.

I can tell you that if Mr. Obama does not win, it will not be through any lack of effort on Vincent's part. He made signs, participated in honk-and-wave events, and walked into a local campaign office and insisted that they give him something to do. (He sorted snacks to be given out to volunteers, and remade a poster for them on his home computer.) When the yard sign in front of his house was stolen, he made sure it was replaced with a new one.

We thought it only fitting to invite him to come along with us to vote. Accompanied by his even younger sister, he showed himself equal to the test of the long wait. Both kids found ways to occupy their time, and never once asked to be taken home.

The line we were in snaked around three sides of the Coral Gables library, and the wait was about an hour on each side. During this time we received the attentions of a number of people soliciting votes, or urging action on one of the ballot initiatives and State constitutional amendments that are also up for grabs.

I noted an interesting difference between the Obama supporters and those from the dark side. The Obama people quietly worked their way down the line offering stickers, bottles of water, and anything else they could think of that might be helpful. There were quite a few of them, and they had an enormous mountain of bottled water on hand, far more than was needed for this day.

The Opposition was represented by a couple of small groups carrying mostly handmade signs of questionable effectiveness. What do you make of this one: "If you think medical care is expensive now, just wait till it's free!"

Well, I think we see where they're going with this ... that we will all have to pay more if we want to provide coverage to those who don't have it. But doesn't it sound like a good thing if it was free? What if it was at least freely available, regardless of cost?

Another example was, "This is your change if you vote for Obama." It showed a profile of Obama replacing Lincoln on the penny. Again, we get the rather pointed message that a penny is all we'll have left after the spendthrift Democrats have had their way. But I kind of thought he looked good on that coin, and the comparison to Lincoln was both complimentary and historically resonant.

But the McCain camp followers were not content to insult our intelligence with idiotic signage. There was another pair of guys who went for street theater. One of them carried a sign that declared he was a "third generation Democrat voting No-Obama." His cohort had a "plumber's friend" or drain plunger stuck in his belt (he's Joe the Plumber, GET IT??) and accosted the captive audience to deliver what he called a "lecture." This consisted of using the plunger to point to another sign on the back of an SUV, this one written in black markers on a quilted silver sun screen, that said, "Obama=Welfare, McCain=Jobs." End of lecture. Short and sweet enough for you? But haven't we heard this somewhere before?

Half an hour later as we approached the final corner of the building he upped the ante. Now a new sign equated Obama with Fidel Castro -- both of them Marxists! Well, now we know, and the cat is finally out of the bag. But the best part of this was the spontaneaous response from the crowd.

A tall Latino man gave them a well-deserved fascist salute, which brought a McCain-style burst of anger from the Plumber. You're not an American, he shouted, you don't love your country, you should move to Canada, etc, etc. Our Latin hero got into it with him. Why should he have to leave the country? Back and forth. A concerned poll watcher intervened and counseled calm when a passing maintenance worker (picking up all those empty water bottles) got into the fray on the Obama side..

I was framing my own response, perhaps, "Hey, we're all Americans here," or even better, "Oye, todos somos Americanos aqui," but I was beaten to the punch by a young woman with less writer's block who simply raised her own sign and shouted, "Obama!" Delightfully, a big section of the line took up the cheer, probably not the reaction desired by the Plumber, who became somewhat more subdued.

Things were quiet after that. We soon passed the orange cone at the 50-foot barrier to proselytizing, and then finally gained access to the inner sanctum of American politics. Groups of ten were ushered into the room where an amazingly dedicated group of poll workers ran a smooth operation already more than two hours after closing time.

As we went I explained what was happening to Vincent. First they looked me up in the computer to make sure I was a registered voter, then I signed in to prove it was me, then they printed a customized ballot with my correct precincts and municipal choices on it. A very patient man delivered for the thousandth time that day a clear explanation of how many pages I had, how to make my selection, and what to do when finished. He was not Hispanic, but I noted he was equally capable of delivering his speech en espanol when it was called for.

At last we were alone together in front of the ballot in the small cube of private space allowed. And Vincent himself filled in the small circle beside the candidate of his choice.

He was so excited he actually held his hand over his mouth so he wouldn't SCREAM. This is a child who does not hope ... he knows that we can make a better world, and he knows that this is something he can do.

Would you tell him he's wrong or misguided to be so naive? Me neither.

[Sunday Update: We drove past the library twice on Sunday and saw the line was about 50% longer than the day before, extending around the fourth side of the building almost back to the entrance, and indicating a wait time of about 6 hours, which was later confirmed by news reports. But people were not leaving! An hour after the 5 PM closing time the line was still as long.]

[Monday Update: Local NPR news reports well over 300,000 votes cast early in Miami-Dade County alone, and an additional 140,000 absentee ballots already received. WOO-HOO!]

[Tuesday Update: Election day at last! I passed three polling places on my way to work and saw lines that were less than half a block long, indicating perhaps an hour wait. It would appear the turnout is heavy as predicted, but manageable. Of course it depends on how many people are waiting till the last minute, but it seems that early voting has helped.]

[Tuesday 10 AM: What a difference a few hours makes -- lines are growing, turnout is HUGE -- this is the closest thing we've seen to full participation by the electorate in living memory. Once again, WOO-HOO!]