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Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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The road Most Traveled: Good Intentions, Catastrophic Results

A Federal judge has just ordered Apple to unlock the phone used by one of the two San Bernardino shooters so it could access the phone’s records. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said the company will fight the order, stating that it has neither the ability to bypass its own strong encryption and that this would set a dangerous precedent. Although I’m not an Apple user, I’m 100% with the company on this and applaud their decision.

The question here is a simple one of the road to hell. It all begins, as usual, with good intentions: we want to stop terrorism. But as Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a back door. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control.”

Yet we continue to jog blissfully into an Orwellian future in which the state (the UK is no different) not only insists but has also persuaded a good many of its citizens that their lives are in dire and imminent danger from foreign threats, and that any violation of privacy or individual freedoms is secondary to fighting that threat. Politicians of course make huge capital on this, and the media does nothing to bring some perspective and reality to the actual real threats to our daily lives, which for most people are to do with poor education, debt, poverty, ill health, unaffordable housing, the criminal cost of healthcare, and long-term insecurity—not terrorism.

The US has been in a state of perpetual war for over thirteen years, and continues to be. Its misguided foreign policy actions have destabilized a huge region of the world by trying to impose Western notions of government on nations utterly ill-equipped to embrace democracy (you have to have an Enlightenment before you can consider democracy, and when you still think tribally, corruption and self-interest are going to quickly corrode and ruin any attempt at forging a new state).

Saddam was undoubtedly a brute, and Bashir-al Assad (still in power today) not much better; Gaddafi was mercurial and unreliable. But although some individuals and/or sections of those societies were persecuted during these leaders’ rule, the vast majority of people in Iraq, Syria, and Libya had jobs, food, and a reasonable, often happy and secure standard of living. Today they’re straggling across Europe by the millions like beggars, taking handouts and desperately looking for places to settle—and that’s if they haven’t drowned in the Aegean or Meduterranean after having been fleeced by a whole new class of local criminals our good intentions have benefited: people smugglers. In the process, the rest of Europe is being destabilized.

I fully understand that government has a primary mandate and responsibility to keep its people safe. But in reality, the risk from terrorism is infinitesimally small: if you live in the USA, your chance of dying in a terrorist attack is about 5,000 times less than that of being shot by a US citizen (and even that’s not something that keeps most of us awake at night). The simple act of getting on a plane has already become a tedious, time-wasting hell despite the fact that study after study has shown TSA checks to be up to ninety-five percent ineffective at detecting threats. If you live in a city, your actions while out in public are already recorded on countless cameras; your cellphone and the plastic in your wallet provide extra layers of tracking and monitoring. But government insists it needs a further backdoor into everyone’s lives, and argues tooth and nail that any level of  inconvenience and curtailment of individual privacy and liberty is justifiable.

Every day we see evidence of how the well-intentioned use of electronic records ruins lives. The undiscriminating and poorly-thought-out register of sex offenders is one: is it—to take just one example—really okay that because an eighteen-year-old had consensual sex with a seventeen-year-old, he should be viewed as a sexual predator in the same data bucket as a child molester? How many of my readers didn’t have underage sex of one kind or another in their high school or college days? And let’s not even talk of the teens whose lives have been upset by the (silly, but, hey! these are kids) practice of sexting one another.

The argument of course is that an honest citizen has nothing to fear from all this. Really? Try telling that to someone who’s been accidentally put on a no-fly list because of some data entry error or some other innocent reason (it happens). And although China’s new Social Credit System—a data-driven rating system similar to our own credit rating systems but with the emphasis on your status and trustworthiness as a citizen—isn’t likely to be replicated in the US  anytime soon, the reality is that all kinds of aggregated data, including your online browsing and shopping habits, are already finding their way into databases that can affect your ability to rent a home, get a job, obtain credit, and a great deal more.

Nor is it just government. PayPal has just clamped down on allowing account holders to use its system to pay for VPN (virtual private network) subscriptions, presumably on the grounds that VPNs, which are used to mask a user’s real computer identity (IP address), may be used for terrorist communication or other illicit activity. What about the many hundreds of thousands of people who use VPN for entirely legitimate activities such as researching sensitive subjects (journalists do this all the time), getting around censorship in countries under authoritarian rule, or simply  avoiding being tracked by advertisers. (PayPal are of course doing this not out of any noble motives but simply to forestall any possible future heat from government over enabling the masking of criminal communications).

Consider the slew of new voice- and audio enabled devices that are appearing in your home, like the Amazon Echo, which “hears you from across the room with far-field voice recognition, even with music playing”: do you really want that in your house? Even if it doesn’t come with a backdoor or a camera, what do we think happens to all the data it collects about our and our family’s daily habits? You don’t think that’s mined? Increasingly sophisticated AI can do that with ease and extract every ounce of commercially  valuable information about us.

You’ve already been carrying around a tracking device (your phone) for years. Within the very, very near future, your home is going to be bursting with microphone- and camera- equipped devices which are all connected to the net as part of the IoT, or Internet of Things. If you’re not concerned about this, you should be. Quite apart from any government surveillance, just about anyone can hack in to these devices. For a single, chilling example, the camera on the monitor in your childrens’ room is ridiculously easy to hack, its IP address quite possibly already on a website. Think about it.

Everything—everything—that takes place in your home and car will—unless tech companies hold a hard line, and good luck with that one—be available on production of a court order. Right now the bar is terrorism; but other, more everyday, criminal activities will soon qualify. How long before all that data becomes available to your ex’s divorce lawyer? What if your current prospective employers can one day gain access to the data mined from these devices? Because you can bet that it’s all going to be for sale, legally or otherwise. And don’t forget that security on the current IoT is just about non-existent (this is in fact a big concern with self-driving cars, which can currently be hacked with such ease that a person with a laptop can take control over the car with very little difficulty from anywhere in the world).

In conclusion, I believe that tech companies have an absolute responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of their customers at every level. Not only should devices not come with a backdoor, ever, but every possible measure should be taken to ensure that networked devices, from our phones to our cars, refrigerators, baby monitors, and home thermostats are protected against intrusion and hacking by strong encryption and security measures. The emphasis and primary focus should be on the inviolability of the consumers’ privacy and individual rights. And we should demand that of them.

After all, it is we, and our hard-earned dollars, that have made Apple, Google, and Amazon what they are today.

 

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Easter on Skopelos, the “Mamma Mia!” Island

In celebration of Greek Easter this weekend, I decided to post the following short chapter from my 2011 nonfiction book, “Aegean Dream.” This chapter describes the Easter we  were part of when we lived on the tiny island of Skopelos–the real “Mamma Mia!” island–in 2007. Χριστος Ανεστι!

Truly He is Risen!

Easter was rapidly approaching. Church steps were scrubbed and cleaned, and fresh coats of limewash applied. Bells pealed. Masses were crowded. The larger churches had been holding daily services during the week leading up to Good Friday. There was such a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air that at times both of us wished we were believers, so as to more directly experience the joy in the air.

Not wanting to miss the Easter celebrations as we had Carnival, we asked Sofía and Rita what the schedule was.

On the Thursday evening, they explained, each parish’s ceremonial bier would be garlanded with flowers by the girls and women of that parish, in preparation for Good Friday, when the Christ-effigy was taken down from the cross and placed within the coffin before being paraded through the streets.

Good Friday was a day of mourning. The very devout ate only sour foods, in memory of Christ’s being given vinegar to drink. The evening procession was the big event of the day.

“The next evening,” said Sofía, “at the Saturday night Mass, all the lights except one candle on the altar are put out. Then, one by one, everybody lights their candle from this one. It is incredible to see this. They carry the lit candle home, and make a cross with the smoke over their front door, to bring them blessings for the rest of the year.”

Linda asked if it was all right for foreigners to participate. “Yes, Yes!” said Sofía. “Come at seven-thirty. We will have aperitifs together, and then we go.”

Katerína, the Frenchwoman who worked at Gorgónes and who had hooted with laughter at my attempts to translate my website into Greek, had warned us about a language pitfall specific to the season. In Greece you grow used to replying to greetings with the word epísis, meaning ‘you too’, or ‘and you also’. But on Easter Sunday, and for days afterward, it was traditional to greet everyone with the words, Chrístos anésti, Christ has risen.

“So in my first year,” she said, “when somebody said to me, ‘Chrístos anésti!’, I would reply, ‘epísis,’ the normal answer to a greeting in Greece. People were shocked, even angry, because I was saying ‘You also are risen!’“

“So what’s the correct form?” said Linda, when we’d stopped laughing.

“You must say, ‘Álithos anésti’, which means, ‘truly He is risen’. Telling someone they too have risen from the dead is not considered polite!”

 #

We arrived at Sofía’s house a little before seven-thirty on Good Friday, had a Campari and soda, and strolled together to the church. The night was cool and clear.

Several dozen people were already gathered in small groups on the large terrace outside the building. Inside was a press of people, beyond which we glimpsed a mass of flowers covering the top of the bier. The moody owner of the pharmacy on the paralía (shoreline) was on the steps; Alexándra Tsoúmas was coming out as we entered the church.

Once inside, we discerned a distinct current among the crowd, a circulation toward the bier and then back toward the entrance. As we approached, I saw first Sofía, and then Rita, dip forward. They were kissing the brow of the Christ-effigy in the coffin.

Linda, who was ahead of me, didn’t miss a beat; I followed her example. I leaned into the cave of flowers, and for a second entered another world, a place of bright, sweet-scented blooms and the warm candlelight dancing on the olive-skinned face of the Savior.

We lit our candles and joined the growing crowd outside. The candles came with little plastic guards to keep the flame from blowing out in the breeze. Rita and Sofía met friends, some of whom they’d not seen in years. We chatted and watched the crowd.

A little before ten, the bier was brought out from our church as the head of the procession arrived. The procession had started at the parish farthest from the paralía. As the first bier and the priest of that church arrived, he was greeted by the priest from our church, litanies were exchanged, and the procession moved on. Ten minutes later, the next bloom-bedecked bier arrived, and the process was repeated.

The flowers, the incense, the liturgical chants by the light of hundreds of candles, the faces recognized as the entire village flowed steadily past like a great, slow river, the knowledge that we were witnessing a ritual unchanged over centuries: these were the invisible cables that bound this community together. Witnessing it, I felt a great peace, a comforting sense of security and permanence. It was beautiful.

When the final group had paused and moved on, the bearers of the bier from our church followed and we all folded in behind. An hour had passed since the first bier’s arrival. The night had become crisp, and we were glad of our leather jackets.

We flowed down the narrow streets toward the paralía, borne by the current of villagers carrying candles. Nearby was Lázaros Tsoúmas, CEO of the Próton grocery, walking solemn-faced with his children. The procession was hushed. It was, I remembered, a day of mourning.

As we arrived at the last small church before the paralía, the procession ahead began to dissolve as if by unspoken command, breaking into small groups that trickled away without fuss. “We can leave our candles here,” said Sofía, pointing to the interior of the little church. Other people were doing the same: the small space pulsed by the light of hundreds upon hundreds of half-consumed candles, its saints staring out of their icons among a sea of rich wood and glinting gold.

“Shall we go to Ánemos and get a drink?” said Rita. We were more than willing; it was eleven-thirty, and there was a general movement toward the paralía and its bars just one street down. Both of the big ferries that served the islandthe G&A Lines Jet Ferry and the Hellenic Seaways Skiáthos Expresswere moored alongside one another in the harbor, something I’d never seen in the off-season: the sons and daughters of the Spórades had returned to spend this most important of all holidays with their families. Above the giant, dark opening of the loading bays, the red digital banners that usually displayed the ferries’ sailing time and destination glowed with Easter greetings.

The bars were doing a roaring trade. Ánemos was packed, so we settled ourselves at a small outdoor table. I saw the owner of Omorfiá, one of two high-end craft stores on the island, a place where we both hoped to place our products, sitting with a group of friends. A few minutes later Kákos, our lawyer, walked by. Rita greeted him by his first name; he acknowledged her without stopping.

We sipped our drinks and took in the atmosphere. People kept stopping by to greet Rita and Sofía. There was merriment as friends and relatives who hadn’t seen one another since the previous year became reacquainted. The day may have been one of mourning but, as after any funeral, celebrations were now appropriate.

By one-thirty we’d begun to feel the cold. Rita, with her twenty-year advantage over her Mom and ourselves, was just starting to liven up and was ready to party. There were men out there, and the night was young. We gave her a farewell hug and accompanied Sofía to her door on our way home.

Greek Orthodoxy, Linda and I agreed, was a religion we could live with: big on ritual and eye candy, party- and alcohol-friendly: a faith wherein both Saturday night and Sunday morning could coexist.

 #

We’d arranged to join Rita and Sofía again the next evening for the Saturday night mass; but Linda, who is somewhat allergic to pollens, had broken out in an alarming rash and was feeling awful. We called to apologize and spent a quiet evening at home.

Next day, Easter Sunday, found Linda on the mend. This was fortunate, since Spýros and Mára had booked us several weeks earlier for the big Easter feast at the kalívi (country cottage). We’d had several other invitationsfrom Tákis, Vasílis, and Apostólos, the neighbor above our workshopall of whom were grilling lamb and hosting large gatherings. We assured them we’d at least stop by late in the day if we had the steam left.

But how to dress? It was sunny, and there was a good chance we’d be outdoors. But in the past we’d more than once found ourselves underdressed for an event, so clueless were we about the social protocols of this land. Given the importance of the day, we decided that casual-smartslacks and dress shoes for me, a crisp dress for Lindawould be appropriate. Best to err on the side of elegance.

Strátos and Anna picked us little before noon. We arrived to find several people already seated outdoors in the small meadow by the chicken coop. A long wooden table had been set out, flanked by two long benches and an assortment of chairs. A little distance away, Spýros was turning a spitted lamb over a fire, while Dimítris, Anna’s employer, likewise attended to a goat; on the same spit, a dark, sausage-like mass three feet long was sizzling away. Spýros had started the cooking a couple of hours earlier, and the meat was about halfway done.

We were hugged by all those we knew, and greeted with expressions of Chrístos anésti, which we countered with the requisite and traditional password álithos anésti. We were grateful we’d been coached in this beforehand.

Everyone, except for a small old gentleman and two black-garbed, elderly women we’d never met, was wearing jeans. We were seriously overdressed. And it was warm here on the southerly side of the island. Shorts would not have been inappropriate.

We were introduced to the older guests, who turned out to be Dimítris’s parents and aunt, and to his two sons. The sons could not have been more different. One was round and flabby, with long, frizzy hair tied back in a ponytail, and owlish eyes behind alarmingly thick glasses; the other was a small bull of a man, with hard, close-set eyes and a distinct aura of menace about him. Father and sons owned a car hire business as well as the ACS courier agency where Anna worked. Another couple, friends of Strátos’s, had come from Alónissos for the day.

Linda had baked chocolate chip cinnamon rolls for the occasion, and these, along with our bottle of premium red wine, were whisked off to the kitchen. I was handed a glass of the usual thin homebrew, and took a turn cranking Mr. Goat’s spit. Between the greasy smoke and the occasional spritz of goat fat, the smart clothing was a wasted nicety. But it was pleasant to sit in the spring sunshine, smelling wood smoke and crisping meat. Spýros and Mára had once more made us feel like family. We were very blessed.

The sausage-thing was first off the spit. By now everyone was hungry, and lightheaded from the wine and sun. “Koukourétsi,” announced Mára, with her usual enthusiasm, sliding three thick slices of the stuff onto our plates. A casual question confirmed my suspicions: we were being served the organs and innards of at least one of the spitted beasts, and were left in no doubt that this was considered a great delicacy by everyone present.

With the notable exception of foie gras, I’m not a fan of organ meats: haggis, brains, tripe, kidneys, tongue, blood puddingall deserve a polite but firm no, thank you in my book. And nowoh God!how was I going to get out of eating this stuff?

But with our dear hosts sitting so close, and Mára clearly eager to see our faces light up as we sampled this treat; and Linda encouraging me to ‘just try a bit;’ and the admittedly mouthwatering smell coming from my plate as, fork poised, I tried and failed to find a graceful exit from my predicament; and the undeniable fact that it looked pretty much like a dark and lumpy version of cotechíno, a variety of cooked salami served in northern Italy which was, face it, one of my favorite foods on Earth…

I cut off a piece and popped it in my mouth.

Bit down on it, ready for a quick swallow if the taste proved unmanageable.

To my great relief, it was rather like a salami of some sort, albeit a very complex, nuanced, and distinctly liver-flavored member of the family. But it wasn’t bad, and I was able to muster appropriate sighs and moans of delight without feeling too false about it. Mára and Spýros beamed.

Salads came, along with beans, slabs of féta, olives, and more sour, wine-flavored liquid. Before long, the lamb arrived. Spýros and Strátos set it down at the end of the table in front of Mára, and slid out the skewer. Mára made a couple of big incisions, plunged both hands into the steaming carcass, and began to tear off big hunks, piling them onto our plates as we handed them down the table to her. She was chuckling. We’d never seen meat served this way at a dinner party, but at least it must be tender.

They set the half-emptied lamb on the table not far from Linda, the ghastly remains of its face, complete with pointy teeth and cooked, milky eyeballs, facing us. We tried not to look that way.

The meat was excellent, at once more fatty and gamey than any lamb we’d eaten in the past, with the spiciness you’d expect from a flock whose diet included wild sage and oregano. Happily, Mr. Goat never even made it to table, so stuffed was everyone by the time it was even mentioned. This was a good thing, since neither Linda nor I are fond of goat.

The sun grew hot. Dimítris sat to our right, one of his sons beside him, one facing. He spoke some English, but insisted on making us work hard at our Greek. I liked the man: he was charismatic, with a gentleness that belied his dark, weather-beaten exterior. He liked to laugh, and it was clear he thought Linda a good sport as they bantered in Greek. I was proud of her: my wife had proved herself courageous, adaptable, and wonderfully crazy. Not for the first time, I could hardly believe we lived among these extraordinary people.

The chocolate chip cinnamon rolls came and went, along with coffee, and the party began to break up. The remaining few of us adjourned to sit at a table in the shade of the house. Linda and I excused ourselves and took a stroll up the lane and back, admiring the nearby kalívis and olive groves. Many of the houses still had working wells complete with iron bucket and crank, and I was unable to resist lifting the lid on one of these and peering in to see my head silhouetted against a perfect disk of deep blue in the blackness some twenty feet below.

We returned to find a neighbor had arrived, a loud, fat man who’d clearly drunk more than was good for him. In an aside, Mára let us know she wasn’t pleased at the man’s arrival, and it was easy to see why: he’d monopolized the conversation and showed every sign of going on for hours. Spýros saw me watching and did a surreptitious eye-roll to indicate his own feelings, but our hosts were too polite to interrupt their new guest.

By now it was evening, and when, a short while later, I asked Strátos if he could give us a ride home sometime soon, he and Anna seemed happy for an excuse to leave.

Mr. Goat, all wrapped up in yards of tinfoil but still on his spit, stood propped against the front door frame, ready to ride back to the Balabánises’ in the back of the pickup, where I imagined he would end up in the freezer.


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The Lockdown of Boston

“The return of terrorism to the U.S.”, was a phrase used on NPR today, as the city of Boston was literally locked down by the authorities.

The return of terror? Two young nutcases with low-tech bombs?

I don’t for a moment want to minimize the horror of what happened in Boston. Moreover—as an Englishman who lived in London all through the murderous IRA terror campaign of the 1970s and 1980s—I’m relieved to see just how robust and solidly the people of Boston reacted to the event. My personal fear when the bombing occurred was that, just like after 9/11, this media-saturated nation so unused to terrorist attacks on its own soil would go into a tailspin of fear, bringing the fragile economic recovery to a screeching halt. Instead, Bostonians were out on the streets the next day, laying wreaths at the bomb site and vowing not to be cowed.

Today, the streets of Boston are deserted except for thousands—no exaggeration—of heavily-armed police, FBI, and other authorities looking for the surviving mad bomber. A major metropolitan area locked down to find one nineteen-year-old.

I usually don’t believe in second-guessing police and intelligence forces—they have a phenomenally difficult  job to do, and typically do it pretty well. The decision to lock down the city, shut down transport (not to mention cutting off cellphone service immediately after the bombings)… I can’t imagine these decisions were made lightly.

On the other hand, I think we might consider whether this isn’t (i) overreaction, and (ii) a sinister, Orwellian glimpse of a post 9/11 security state in full action.  My point being that this is one individual at loose here, not a platoon of terrorists. One kid—admittedly armed and desperate, possible even carrying explosives—but still, one kid.

What kind of message does the willingness on the part of the authorities to shut down a city to hunt down one single person send? We can glimpse some of the reasoning: doing this might save lives, prevent a hostage event, make it much harder for the killer to flee…but still, is this a proportionate reaction? Or does it project an image of hysteria, amplifying an already tragic event and—with the all-too-eager help of the news media—turning it into a full-blown national crisis which will rock the nation’s already-fragile psyche? Now this precedent has been set, we can expect it to happen again.

I read not long ago that one of the morbid calculations that regulatory bodies have to make is the dollar value of a human life—a necessity when trying to decide whether to, say, build a pedestrian overpass, ban a chemical, etc.; in short, a cost-benefit analysis. Just a few years ago, that figure—the dollar value of a life—had been determined at around $8M; with the recession, it’s dropped to something closer to $6M, I believe.

Now let’s consider what it costs to shut down a city like Boston for a day. The business and production lost, the damage to personal incomes, etc. I can’t imagine it’s anything less than many billions of dollars. So in terms of pure cost-benefit, locking down the city seems a non-starter.

I can only think, then, that this has been done for two reasons: first to reduce the chances of the killer getting away to as near zero possible; and second, to send a message that the authorities will stop at nothing to catch anyone who commits an act of this sort.

These last are very powerful arguments, and I both understand and applaud them; I know for sure I wouldn’t ever want to make a decision like that. Still and all, I can’t help but feel that it sets a terrible precedent and—worse—underscores the idea that we’re all in danger, all the time, now that “terrorism has returned to the U.S.”. I think the authorities over-reacted.

If terrorism is ever to be defeated, it won’t be because of the application of overwhelming force by the state: it’ll be by people, by individuals, by every single one of us refusing to be cowed, refusing to live in fear. If they blow up a plane, get on a flight the next day; if they bomb a subway car, get on the subway; if they destroy a building, rebuild it taller, and don’t be ten years over it. And let’s stop dignifiying them with the name “terrorist”—these people are, and have always been, mad bombers, no more.

Terror is a state of mind.

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An Even More Inconvenient Truth

Have you seen the short, unsensational YouTube video with the graphs of wealth distribution in the US, comparing what Americans believe the wealth distribution is, what they believe it should (in fairness) be, and what it actually is? You should: it’s both eye-popping and sobering, and I’ve linked it at the bottom of this post. For the moment, the takeaway is that one percent of the population owns fifty percent of the nation’s stocks, bonds, and mutual funds—effectively, the nation’s wealth, and, more importantly, the tools to greater personal wealth. The figures are verifiable, and almost five million people have seen the video.

It’s no secret that the middle class is shrinking and doing less well. Nor is it surprising: in a society whose economic model resembles nothing so much as a wealth transfer system for lining the pockets of the rich and near-rich, and where democracy is patently and unashamedly for sale, the American rags-to-riches dream, though still attainable, is only going to work for a tiny minority. For the rest, it’s the soup kitchen or multiple part-time jobs, with few or no benefits.

There are, at present count, somewhere around 600,000 homeless in America. To house them all in “efficiency units,” small but well-appointed 200- and 300-square-foot housing modules of the sort now being built for real rents in places like New York and San Francisco, could probably be done for around $35Bn. The cost of one and a half Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, that’s really not a lot; in fact, a few of the very wealthiest Americans, certainly any pair of the first ten or so, could cover the whole sum and still have enough left over to live beyond most people’s wildest dreams.

Stay with me, because this isn’t about the anonymous homeless multitude: it’s going to get personal. I’m going to be talking about you and me.

Unfortunately, the ranks of the homeless in the US (and elsewhere, for that matter) are likely to grow rather than diminish. Despite the delusional optimism of articles like the recent one in the Huffington Post which suggests that the post-war/baby boomer generation is about to reshape the social order, when you’re playing against a stacked deck the chances of that happening (without violent social upheaval, and none of us wants that) are close to zero. Instead, as this generation enters what would once have been the Golden Years—now more like the Tin Years—a society that promotes eternal youth and beauty is going to have to deal with the grim reality of its aging population.

Consider. A large proportion of the boomer generation, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, has nowhere near the savings to sustain them, even if they don’t require expensive healthcare—which a great many of them will. Ask a financial planner today how much you should have set aside for when you retire, and they’ll tell you anywhere between one and two million dollars.

Million?

Yes, million. Because whereas we once had the decency—thanks to widespread smoking and simpler medicine—to keel over within a decade or so of retirement, we boomers are living an average of fifteen years longer than our grandparents. To make matters worse, those of us who don’t have savings or families that can afford the $4,000 or more a month to park us in some generic assisted living facility are, to put it mildly, in trouble.

This is a crisis as serious as any asteroid strike or tsunami for those affected—and that’ll be tens of millions of people in the US alone. Vast numbers of people are living on razor-thin safety margins, and their kids are likely doing even worse. Unless you’re one of the dwindling group who’ve carefully set money by and own a good home, had the luck to father a doctor, have a USPS pension or one from the golden age of GM, and aren’t bankrupted by healthcare costs before Medicare kicks in, well…as entitlement programs begin to pop their rivets under the strain of a huge demographic bulge—the majority of whose constituents suffer at least one chronic disease—your future is looking rocky.

I know, this is a grim topic. But it’s important, not least because the vast majority of us will be affected, but because there’s so damn little straight talking about it. Nobody wants to look the issue in the eye, let alone do anything about it.

And it gets worse.

However unhappy our circumstances of our dotage may be—and I truly hope they aren’t, and that your sunset years are happy ones—the combination of a predatory healthcare system and the tyranny of people who think their beliefs and moral values trump ours conspire to deny us even the degree of compassion we afford our pets, namely a gentle, painless exit. Unless you live in one of the very few places (such as Oregon) where you have at least a notional right to death with dignity, you’re stuck with being kept alive by heroic measures long after your sell-by date whether you like it or not. Don’t assume that your DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order will make a damn bit of difference, either, because the realities of the ER are such that unless it’s waved in the doc’s face by a firm and clear-minded friend or relative, you’re going to be kept alive whether you like it or not.

What’s to be done? Well, you can vote, for one thing. You can lobby, write your congressperson, and make your voice heard. You can talk to people and spread the meme. If you’re a writer, you can write about these issues*. If you have some savings, you can consider getting together with a few friends or couples, pooling your resources, and buying a large house, even setting up some sort of elder commune, and taking care of one another, an idea whose time has certainly come and which, correctly planned and executed, can offer a viable model. But whatever you do, don’t just put off thinking about this stuff because it’s unpleasant.

I wish you well. I wish you a golden old age surrounded by loving family and friends, in a better world. It could happen. But it’ll only happen if we have the will to bring it about.



The video of US wealth inequality can be found here. Watch it.

*My own thriller/adventure novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” despite being a rousing, upbeat romp, features older protagonists dealing with their own declining years.

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Theme: What it is, and Why it Matters

One of the main things that make a book resonate with the reader is theme. Often confused with plot, theme is what a book is about.

This confusion is quite apparent when someone tells you they’ve just finished a book. Ask them what it’s about, and nine times out of ten they’ll tell you what happens in the course of the book—that’s plot. So whereas the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” may be to do with a Hobbit finding the arch-enemy Sauron’s great Ring of Power, and so on, the main theme of LotR is simply the conflict between Good against Evil (there are sub-themes, such as the arrogance and temptations of power, the power of humility, and courage in the face of certain defeat). In “Star Wars,” the primary theme is the struggle for freedom against tyranny and oppression.

In order to avoid preachiness, it’s best to approach the creation of fiction with the idea of simply telling a story. If the story contains Truth—by which I mean universal human truths, verisimilitude, reflection on the human condition—it’s very likely that theme will be present and emerge organically from character and situation, without premeditation on the part of the author.

When I began to conceive my just-released novel, “Sutherland’s Rules,” I’d been thinking a good deal about aging (since I turned sixty last summer, this will come as no surprise). I’d wanted to write a kind of anti-hero, high-tech, fast-paced thriller for a while, and this idea collided in my head with my concerns about aging to create the driving idea for “Sutherland’s Rules:”

Billy Sutherland, an aging, retired dope smuggler seizes the opportunity to cash in a forty-year-old IOU given him by an Afghani hash farmer in 1971 after a deal went sour. At sixty-six, Billy can’t do it alone, and so asks his oldest friend, Christian, to help him in this crazy, illegal, and highly dangerous adventure. Billy doesn’t need the dope, and doesn’t plan to sell it: it’s all about closure to him, and not going gentle into that long good night.

When I’d let the first draft cool and went back to the book, I realized it was overflowing with theme, and sub-themes, too: aging, the need for closure, the last hurrah before night falls, loyalty, the power of friendship, intergenerational debts of honour, freedom…not quite what you’d expect from a thriller about two old ex-hippies trying to smuggle a huge load of hashish halfway around the world and into the UK without coming to the attention of fortress Europe’s police authorities and the UK’s sophisticated detection tech.

Now, I’d not set out with the aim of addressing such lofty concerns—my desire was simply to write a cracking good story and have some fun doing it. But looking at the reviews, readers get these thematic notes: one reviewer described the book as “life-affirming;” another spoke of “an interesting take on aging”; and two others remarked on the underlying, touching melancholy of these two lifelong friends on what will certainly be their final adventure.

These themes emerged, I believe, because I can’t help putting a great deal of myself into a book, and that includes my reflections on life and death and society. These things are my truths.  As a result, I believe I ended up with what I’ll call “an intelligent thriller,” as opposed to the typical, generic technoporn where forgettable characters just act out the plot, sowing mindless mayhem as they go.

So when Billy tells Christian, “And look, man, the game—our game, our life—is coming to a close. Maybe ten more good years, fifteen at most, then it’s good as over. I’ve got my exits mapped out, but I’m buggered if I’m going to die feeling I missed out”, he’s talking about what any reader who’s hit middle age—and certainly any reader old enough to remember the sixties—is very, very aware of: the final curtain coming down, the finish line clearly in sight, the end of adventure.

Theme matters because life is themed. As we blunder through this passion play, we can’t help coming to some conclusions, seeing universal patterns and currents, understanding that some things matter. When a writer puts all they have of themselves, of their Truth, into a story or novel, the reader will notice, and nod, and care.

In the words of the great poet, Robert Graves,

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.



What’s your take on this?

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