Through a Glass, Darkly: A Meditation for this Orwellian Season

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

That line from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians has always haunted me. I can vividly remember lying awake when I was young, wrestling with my brain to know more: Who am I? What am I doing here? and What is God?

Now that I’m at the other end of life, I understand a truth I’ve learned from science as well as from just plain living. Human understanding is limited by human physiology. What a piece of work is a man, said Shakespeare, and it’s true. But what a piece of work is a dog’s nose. A mosquito’s flight. A whale’s sonar. We know in part, because part of existence is all that our human senses can detect, and our human brains can process. They’ve evolved to cope with the fraction of reality that’s essential to our survival.

We feel like we know and understand the world. But in fact, we live in metaphors. In fact, the sun and moon are not the same size, and stars are not candles in the sky, and a piece of wood isn’t solid. It’s mostly space, dotted with atoms flying faster than a mosquito. We treat it as solid because that’s how we perceive it, and because we have a practical need for it to be solid, as furniture or fuel or whatever.

As the world has become more global, I’ve been trying to be aware how different people’s metaphors are, according to the person, and even more, the culture. Westerners think villagers in country X are backward because they believe diseases are caused by demons, whereas we know they’re caused by germs. The villagers think we’re backward because we’re always washing our hands, when we should be praying or casting a spell. What matters more? If a metaphor is true, or if it works?

I spent Thanksgiving week in London and Barcelona. London is gearing up for Brexit, to leave the European Union, and Barcelona’s preparing for an election following the recent vote for their province of Catalunya to secede from Spain. I worried it would be crazy over there, maybe dangerous. But after the US, I felt like I’d left a place of chaotic insanity for a healthy safe atmosphere that I used to define as normal.

But my chaotic insanity is some people’s normal. Apparently there are American citizens who felt as threatened by President Barack Obama, or almost-President Hillary Clinton, as I feel by the current occupant of the White House, who to me is so threatening that I can’t call him the president of my country. I watch him gleefully dismantle economic recovery measures, and environmental protections, and just about every strand in the social safety net, and I see a crazy dangerous man who is deeply hostile to the values of community and justice that for me define my country. My expat friends in England told me that most of the world sees him, not me, as an accurate representation of my country: it’s not about community and justice, but warfare and profit, oppression and exploitation.

And I look at my cat, fighting the imaginary mice under the living room rug; and I wonder: Are they imaginary? Maybe in her metaphor, she’s keeping me safe from deadly demons.

So here we are, preparing to celebrate Christmas. The birthday of a man we know was not born on Dec. 25, whose coming was probably not announced by a new star, whose humble manger was not surrounded by adoring cows, donkeys, shepherds, and wise men, much less by falling snow; whose mother was probably not a virgin, nor visited by an angel. We celebrate a metaphor. You could say Christianity has perceptively linked the values of Jesus, from rebirth to nonviolent resistance and love, with the winter solstice, when the sun turns back in its path across the heavens, and daylight stops getting shorter, and we can trust that warmth will soon return, and lakes will thaw, and crops will grow, and life will be safer again.

I still hope that someday I will know and understand a larger reality than this. But right now my job is to be human, and I have to live by a metaphor, not a full knowledge of truth. And since this metaphor is incomplete, I cherish the values we celebrate at Christmas: the brave generosity, the community, and the commitment to justice which offer our best hope of keeping us, and life, and our world, safe and healthy.

Meditation for the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, San Francisco, December 10, 2017

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Who Killed Pronoun? Mysterious Death of a Promising E-Publisher

The dashboard announcement is startling and terse. The explanation is corporate-ambiguous:

Two years ago Pronoun set out to create a one-of-a-kind publishing tool that truly put authors first. We believed that the power of data could be harnessed for smarter book publishing, leveling the playing field for indie authors.

That’s an allusion to Pronoun’s launch 2 years ago as a rebirth of Vook, an early cutting-edge multimedia e-book platform whose greatest asset turned out to be its data innovations. As Publishing Perspectives reports:

“Vook specialized in combining electronic elements for storytelling such as video and social-media links with text. In 2014, Vook also developed a sales-tracking revenue dashboard for authors called AuthorControl, and was said at the time to be supplying book-publishing software services to several news-media corporations.”

In May 2015 Pronoun arose from Vook’s ashes, after the latter’s acquisition of “Booklr (a data analysis service for e-book sales founded by Brody), Byliner (a literary e-book publisher), and Coliloquy (a choose-your-own-adventure platform using enhanced e-books and apps).”

When Macmillan bought Pronoun a year later, the consensus was that they were after these data assets more than the stylish e-books Pronoun was producing. Although the connection to a major publisher may have been a carrot for aspiring authors, it did not propel them into any lucrative contracts with their new parent.

Pronoun’s obituary claims: “We are proud of the product we built, but even more so, we’re grateful for the community of authors that made it grow. Your feedback shaped Pronoun’s development, and together we changed the way authors connect with readers.”

Publishing Perspectives adds:
The statement doesn’t elaborate on how Pronoun is deemed to have “changed the way authors connect with readers.” And its message is sobering: “Unfortunately, Pronoun’s story ends here.” [It] avoids any clear explanation of why the [sic] Pronoun is being shut down. “While many challenges in indie publishing remain unsolved,” the statement reads, “Macmillan is unable to continue Pronoun’s operation in its current form. Every option was considered before making the very difficult decision to end the business.”

So far, the analyses I’ve seen agree that what doomed Pronoun was its start-up policy of free services to authors. That changed in 2017; 100% royalties to the author became a sliding scale starting at 65%. Not enough, evidently.

We’ll probably learn more in the days ahead about whatever financial losses, fears, or moving of the goalposts prompted Macmillan to pull the plug. My own diagnosis is that, in various ways, Pronoun’s reach didn’t match its grasp. For instance: despite its author-centric rhetoric, the only way to ask a question or solve a problem was by e-mail; I often fumed at having to wait a day or two for a reply from Elissa Bernstein, Author Happiness Advocate (a higher bar than one rep could hope to meet). Pronoun did pioneer in offering useful analyses and guidelines on keywords and categories. Its publishing process was straightforward, easy, and quick. As an aggregator, it distributed e-books to the 5 outlets I most wanted to reach: Amazon, iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble. On the other hand, Pronoun’s 6 book-design templates — The Shelley, The Austen, The Didion, The Lamott, The Sandberg, and The Rowling — didn’t fit their titles, but ran a visually narrower, stuffier gamut.

Of course it makes sense for an e-book publisher to aim to be all things to all people. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing hits that mark with a brisk, bland breeziness. Pronoun chose to shoot for a cutesy specificity of tone — Valley Girl meets Lizzie Bennet — and gambits like The Verb, a chatty dashboard-topping distraction with heads such as “Are You a Pantser or a Plotter?” that to me felt more patronizing than professional. Still, they did move the needle toward authors as the core of publishing, a valuable nudge to the industry. I’m sorry to see Pronoun go. I’m sorry to see one more hole blasted in the hull of that noble frigate, the book.

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Why Quit Reading?

Lately the pile on my bedside table is so tall it’s toppling, and even my tablet can’t remember what e-book I was halfway through. As the SF Public Library’s annual Fall Big Book Sale looms, it’s time to winnow . . . and wonder what tips the scale from “keep reading” to “let it go.” Here are a couple of books I liked but just didn’t finish.

Death Comes for the ArchbishopDeath Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I love plots, and this limpid lucid book has none. It’s fascinating if you’re in a mood to slow life’s hectic pace to a crawl and let your gaze linger over long stretches of Southwestern landscape, traveling by mule or foot with two French clerics dispatched to secure Catholicism’s grip on pre-U.S. New Mexico. I enjoyed as much of it as I read, but didn’t find it compelling enough to look forward to at day’s end. Tipping point: my old copy is literally falling to pieces.

The Strange Files of Fremont Jones (Fremont Jones, #1)The Strange Files of Fremont Jones by Dianne Day

A charming, compelling voice gets this novel off to a zippy start. Once under way, though, I began to suspect that her narrator’s voice and a few plot ideas were all Dianne Day had planned. In 1905, rebellious bluestocking Caroline Fremont Jones flees Boston for San Francisco, drops “Caroline,” and sets up as a typist. Excellent premise! However . . . Another reviewer has compared Day to Sue Grafton; I agree in that both authors meander and vamp, as if they’re not sure which way to steer their narrators. Fremont Jones vacillates much more than Kinsey Millhone: sometimes she’s a take-charge amateur detective, sometimes a rather limp romantic heroine, sometimes a bystander in a Poe tale. The pre-quake San Francisco setting is dotted with just enough anachronisms to put me off (“mom and dad”? no formalities between ladies and gentlemen? and the big sex scene is a Harlequin classic); and by midway through the story, suspense–alas!–had dissipated.

Ascension Day Part 2 of 2Ascension Day Part 2 of 2 by John Matthews

This book is well written and fast paced enough to keep me reading (a freebie from BookBub) while I traveled. But once I stopped, I realized I wasn’t learning anything from these characters or this story, and I haven’t picked it up again. Too many mysteries and thrillers out there — too little reading time!

View all my reviews

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Free e-book! ZAPPED: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery

Like mysteries? Try ZAPPED!

Thanks to Authors’ Marketing Club and Book Funnel, you can get a free e-copy of ZAPPED: An Edgar Rowdey Cape Cod Mystery (while supplies last). Here’s the deal: Click this link, download and read the book, then write an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads. Short or long, it doesn’t matter. But start the wheels turning now — the freebies are almost gone.


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Taking Alcatraz, Part 2

From November 20, 1969, to June 11, 1971, the island of Alcatraz was occupied by San Francisco Bay Area Indians who claimed it by right of discovery. (See Taking Alcatraz, Part 1.) When the California Historical Society hosted a showing of John Ferry and Grace De Soto’s film Taking Alcatraz on June 15, 2017, it also hosted a reunion. The second half of this collaboration between CHS and the New Museum Los Gatos (NUMU) was a panel discussion of occupiers and supporters. As hugs, handshakes, and a few teary eyes testified, some of them hadn’t seen each other in decades.

Stories emerged at CHS that were news to many of us in the overflow audience. Filmmakers Ferry and DeSoto and photographer Hartmann reconstructed the occupation, and the events that led up to it and followed it, in a series of interviews with spearhead Adam Fortunate Eagle and other participants. Hartmann’s extensive photographs are on view at NUMU (see also www.ilkahartmann.com). As described in my previous post, the occupation built from a small group of Sioux, to a larger multitribal group formed in response to a judge’s rejection of their original claim, to a 19-month live-in force of 79. That number fluctuated over time. Opponents claimed that commitment gradually dwindled. As the occupiers recalled it, reality intervened: commitment remained strong, but students had to go back to school, and other responsibilities called people away.

images from http://burymyart.tumblr.com/post/103187682673/native-american-activists-occupy-alcatraz-island

The U.S. government, mainly in the form of the Coast Guard, struggled from the start to remove the Indians from the island. Water, electricity, and phone service were cut off. So the occupiers lived in the guards’ quarters, where they had water and a generator. Food was ferried over by a crew of supporters, which grew along with popular awareness and support. Herb Caen ran regular updates; Creedence Clearwater Revival donated a boat. One skipper and panelist, Mary Crowley, was part of the original fleet that had transported the Indians to the island under cover of night, without lights.

Panelist Alan Harrison, a tribal member of the Robinson Rancheria, California “Pomo” Native American tribe on the banks of Clear Lake in Lake County, was one of the youngest occupiers at age eight or nine. His memories included playing with the toys donated by Mattel. Even younger was baby Wovoca Trudell, named for a Paiute religious leader, delivered on “liberated land” by Dr. Larry Brilliant when expectant mother Lou Trudell refused to leave.

Panelist Eloy Martinez, involved from the outset, recalled sailing over with the second party of occupiers and living on the island for seven months. He remained involved in civil rights, working with Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, among others. Actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather could only join the occupation on weekends. She’d been studying with Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger TV series and ran the Indian Actors’ Studio.

“Everything about it felt right,” Mary Crowley summarized. “It was a peaceful, positive action. . . . A lot of good came from Alcatraz.”

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Taking Alcatraz, Part 1

The Summer of Love and Monterey Pop aren’t the only anniversaries San Francisco is celebrating. Last night a standing-room-only crowd at the California Historical Society had the rare treat of watching John and Grace De Soto Ferry’s 2015 film Taking Alcatraz, followed by some riveting personal recollections from the filmmakers and the participants.

Around 50 years ago, as Adam Fortunate Eagle tells it onscreen, the Bay Area’s diverse Native Americans yearned for a stronger sense of heritage than they and their children were getting from assimilation. Spurred partly by the Civil Rights movement, partly by the U.S. government’s neglect of its treaty obligations, they started working more and more collectively. When a local Indian center was destroyed by fire, and the feds declared Alcatraz Island and its abandoned prison to be surplus property, they remembered the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) between the U.S. and the Sioux. That treaty returned to Native peoples all retired, abandoned and out-of use federal lands.

First a few Sioux took a boat out, swam to shore, and claimed the island. The feds contended that if any Indians had any right to Alcatraz, it wasn’t the Sioux. So the next foray included members of more tribes. This time the claimants issued a proclamation:

We, the native Americans, re-claim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery. We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty: We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for 24 dollars in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. We know that $24 in trade goods for these sixteen acres is more than was paid when Manhattan Island was sold, but we know that land values have risen over the years.

On November 20, 1969, 79 Native Americans began a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz. They wound up living mainly in the guards’ quarters, after water and electricity were cut off to the other buildings. Creedence Clearwater Revival donated a boat; individuals and restaurants donated food. Dr. Larry Brilliant, who offered medical assistance, delivered a baby for John and Lou Trudell when Lou insisted their child be born on liberated Native American land. Herb Caen used his popular column in the Chronicle to keep San Franciscans informed. When he polled support for the occupation vs. the Coast Guard’s persistent attempts to end it, the occupiers won 80 to 20.

The government’s antagonistic response seems to have been softened by Vietnam-beleaguered President Richard Nixon. He halted the objectionable federal policy of removing (by carrot and/or stick) Indians from their reservations to eight designated cities, and met enough of the occupiers’ other terms that they agreed to leave the island. Although some accounts state that they were forcibly removed, participant Sacheen Littlefeather and other speakers at the June 15 joint presentation by CHS and New Museum Los Gatos saw it differently. They accepted a swap: Alcatraz (which suddenly was no longer surplus, but a major potential tourist attraction) for 200 acres of land near Davis, CA. There the Native Americans created DeganawidahQuetzalcoatl University (DQU), a two-year college from which students could go on to complete a four-year degree at UC Davis.

More on this historic turning point coming soon in Part 2.



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Did not read the book, but LOVE the box!

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Coming in May: ANOTHER NUMBER FOR THE ROAD a Cory Goodwin Mystery

Remember the Summer of Love? What cooler way to celebrate 50 years since the Human Be-In, peace love & flowers, and Monterey Pop than with the new Cory Goodwin mystery?

When legendary guitarist Dan Quasi reunites Boston’s top 60s rock-protest band for an upscale exchange program, Cory wants to know why. A free trip to Paris? A new revolution? Or cover for murdering his vocalist?

Boom-Books is rushing the publication date to have ANOTHER NUMBER FOR THE ROAD out in time for the Bay Area Book Festival (Sunday, June 4) and the North Beach Festival (Saturday & Sunday, June 17-18). Come find us there, or pick up a copy after May 19 on Amazon.


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Escape from Fiction: Lunch at the Beach

Day 3 of a heat wave. Why I love San Francisco, #6: I can clear my head with a long lunch break — set aside book-cover design, music credits, and marketing strategies to zip out to Ocean Beach for a Chino’s burrito and a walk in the hot sun and chilly sea. Three other beaches are closer, but the road to this one runs through a flower-speckled, eucalyptus-scented park, along a clifftop above the Golden Gate, to a wide stretch of sand where there’s nothing but water between me and Japan.

Or, usually there isn’t. Today the horizon’s encrusted with a rim of white, as if a glacial island had drifted in to block sea traffic. That’s the famous San Francisco fog massing offshore to invade the bay. Splashing into the shallows below the Cliff House and Sutro Park, I can feel its chilly breath. I look south and see an unexpected vagueness, a blurry octopus-arm of fog reaching across the scorching sand. People stroll into it and disappear.

Tra-la, it’s May! A lusty month for sand crabs, evidently, as well as for songwriters. Desiccated shells and legs spatter the high-tide line. Gulls fly, swoop, dive, and do their flat-footed Charlie Chaplin waddle through the foam, waiting to snatch whatever the next wave brings in. Each wave launches a flurry of scuttling as beached crabs dig for safety, or, failing, roll over and over toward the undertow. When I reach the Disappearing Fog Zone, I look down at my feet and see thousands of tiny semi-transparent baby crabs in the swirling water.

For half a minute I stop walking, to avoid stepping on them. But nature is profligate with life. Whether it’s green grass or wet sand under our bare feet, we’re always squashing something.

Nature also is profligate with beauty. The sand dollar I pick up (is it alive, to be thrown back? — no, let this bleached shell lie, a find for some other treasure-hunter) awes me with the delicately etched five-petaled design on its back; but to the gull behind me, that’s just a wrapper to rip off in search of a meal.

As humans discover that animals communicate, feel emotions, form social groups, make tools, and cross one wall after another that we thought separated us, is our appreciation of beauty the last frontier?

What about creativity? Writing, for instance?

I left my cat curled up in a rocking chair and my characters safely stowed in a French hotel room. Now I can feel someone’s breath on my neck. Not the cat. Two lovers are following me down this beach. She’s recalling something he told her in Paris: It always clears my head to be in San Francisco. Is that happening now? His eyes, hidden by sunglasses, gaze at the green-glass waves rising and then crashing into a champagne froth. Is he thinking of his friend who was bludgeoned to death long ago with a bottle of Dom Perignon? Or wondering why no surfers are out today? They pass a bevy of maidens — as common to beaches as gulls — who pretend to be scared of the water, daring and teasing, shrieking when a wave sneaks up and licks their feet. Across the sand on the inland side, pink flowers cascade down a fake-rock cliff face, under a waxing gibbous moon which floats in the baby-blue sky like a Portuguese man-of-war.

In about two minutes she will pick up a piece of shell sculpted into the shape of a gull, and carry it over to a pool where she can rinse off the sand. He’ll wait for her, until the unforgettable moment when she reaches over a log left by last night’s bonfire revelers and discovers —


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