The best of David Harris

If you’re of a certain age, you most likely think of David Harris as an anti-war activist in the early ’70s and the one-time husband of singer Joan Baez. You may or may not know that after serving 20 months in federal prison for refusing to fight in Vietnam he also went on to a long and distinguished career as a journalist, writing for Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine and other publications.

Now 73 years old and retired in Mill Valley, California, just north of San Francisco, Harris has just come out with a collection of his best work spanning five decades. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee: Reporting, Sallies, and Other Confessions” is a marvelous collection of 18 essays and, dare I say, essential reading.

The book arrived under the Christmas tree, a gift from my wife, and I wasted no time diving into it. It could not have come at a better time considering the events of recent days, capped by yesterday’s shameless display of demagoguery in the nation’s capital.

The book’s cover photo depicts Harris peering into the camera, unsmiling, with a faded American flag draped around his shoulders. The message? The author has seen a lot and lived through a lot in his lifetime, but he remains dedicated to this country and its democratic ideals. Put another way, the weathered red, white and blue cloth is a potent symbol of Harris’ enduring patriotism marked by civil diosobedience.

Contrast that to Wednesday’s political theater in Washington. A horrified nation looked on in real time as ill-informed supporters of a delusional president, still seething over his election loss, stormed the U.S. Capitol with the aim of preventing Congress from certifying, once and for all, that Joe Biden will become our 46th president on January 20th.

They failed, of course. But for hours we were subjected to the spectacle of the lame duck’s most loyal followers waving their “Trump 2020” and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Most disgustingly, the Confederate flag even flew inside the Capitol.

Read more about that in this essay by Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson.

Love him or loathe him for his stand on Vietnam, David Harris stood up against what he believed to be an immoral war and fully accepted the consequences. In his opening piece, ” I Picked Prison,” published in 2017, he recounts the decision he made at age 20 to become one of the more than 250,000 men who violated the draft law that required them to register for military service and face possible deployment to Vietnam.

“About 25,000 of us were indicted for our disobedience, with almost 9,000 convicted and 3,250 jailed,” Harris wrote. “I am proud to have been one of the men who, from behind bars, helped pull our country out of its moral quagmire.”

For his actions, I would call him a patriot but the word, like Old Glory itself, has been hijacked by the right and become widely understood as a synonym for white nationalist, blind loyalist and xenophobe. That’s a shame because Citizen Harris loved his country, but hated the misguided war it waged in Southeast Asia.

He felt strongly enough about his convictions that he dropped out of college one semester shy of graduation and wound up doing nearly two years in a maximm security prison. Six years later, divorced from his first wife, nearly broke and with no journalism training or experience, he embarked on a writing career. All these years later, he’s produced a body of work to be proud of.

The new book samples the arc of his work, drawing from 11 books and four dozen articles. The first three articles are devoted to the Vietnam War, the most searing among them “Ask a Marine,” a profile of Ron Kovic, the former Marine sergeant whose anti-war memoir was turned into the film “Born on the Fourth of July.”

From there the collection expands to include a variety of topics touching on social, political and economic topics, ranging as far afield as South America and the Middle East. As a whole, they reflect deep reporting and top-notch writing. Individually, the articles and essays are engaging, especially so because they are presented from a West Coast point of view.

Credit: Jason Henry

So many books, especially novels, are set in New York or Washington that it can get tiresome. As a native Californian and fellow Baby Boomer, I appreciated Harris’ perspective and progressive politics. He is a 4th-generation Californian, born in Fresno, and went on to Stanford University, where he was student body president in the Class of 1967.

I’ve always thought of Harris first and foremocst as the famed draft resister, so it was a pleasure to delve into his journalism over the years. I gained a host of new facts and new insights from his work, enhanced by my own interests and experiences.

For instance:

  • “The Bloody End” is about a Stanford classmate who becomes a protege of the former New York congressman, Allard Lowenstein, and drops out of college to become a civil rights activist in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. The young man becomes mentally ill and winds up murdering his former mentor. Little did I know that the killer had grown up here in Oregon and graduated from Clackamas High School.
  • “Behind America’s Marijuana High” is the harrowing story of a Colorado drug dealer who smuggles a huge amount of dope out of the mountains overlooking Oaxaca (wah-HA-cah) in southern Mexico. Oaxaca is a poor state that’s home to the indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec peoples and a favorite destination of American and other international tourists. The state capital, also named Oaxaca, is a lovely city of about 300,000 with a zocalo (town square) that serves as a gathering place for all ages. In this piece, Harris tags along with the gringo drug dealer and his gun-toting Mexican accomplices as they venture into the mountains in the darkness of night, depending on personal connections, trust, luck and fortunate timing to evade the authorities in highly dangerous circumstances. My gauzy view of Oaxaca was given a jolt, mainly because I could envision all these events occurring in and around places I’d been to as a tourist and a reporter myself: Mitla, Monte Alban, Teotitlan and the zocalo in Oaxaca.
  • “The Battle of Coachella Valley” recounts the battle between the United Farm Workers of America and the Teamsters to represent the mostly immigrant workforce laboring in the farms and fields of southern California to put fruits and vegetables on American tables. Both of my parents came from large Mexican American families (nine siblings in each) that worked the crops in the decades that preceded the UFW and its leader, Cesar Chavez. I was in college when the UFW sought to build on the union’s first table grape contract, only to run into the ugly tactics of the rival Teamsters, aligned with the growers. This piece spoke to my heart.

“The UFW spent five years on strike and boycotting to win their original contracts with the table grape industry,” Harris reported. “Before the union’s victory, base wage in grapes was $1.20 an hour, with a ten- to twenty-cent kickback to the labor contractor. The 1970 union agreement started at $2,05 and created the first hiring hall in grape-growing history. It also forced the growers to accept pesticide regulations much stiffer than the State of California’s, plus an employer-financed health plan, banning workers under sixteen, and no firing without just cause. The contract lasted three years.”

There’s much, much more, including an investigation of blood banks run by sleazy for-profit companies on L.A.’s Skid Row; a profile of Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate; a moving essay about California’s majestic redwoods; and an examination of Greater Sao Paulo, the Brazilian megacity of 18 million people (now 22 million) held up as a warning of where we are headed as a planet as more and more people, driven by economic desperation, move into already-crowded cities wracked by pollution, sewage, traffic and corruption.

There’s also a sympathetic look at the plight of the Kurds, some 25 million people living among four nations — Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria — as a perscuted minority without a homeland of their own. This piece, along with the one about Sao Paulo, speak to my increased interest in international affairs, owing to a college course I recently audited.

Lastly, not but least, there’s a compelling story set in 1977 about a 2-year-old girl, the daughter of two hippies living amongst a collection of squatters in the hills above Palo Alto in the San Francisco Peninsula. The girl, named Sierra, is clinging to life after a drowning accident and Harris does a masterful job of chronicling her struggle to stay alive at the same time her parents and other neighbors face eviction from their idyllic community just off Page Mill Road in San Mateo County. It’s a life-and-death story about the child, as well as the community she was born into.

A final note: I’m glad this book fell into my lap when it did. Harris’ daughter, Sophie, is a family friend and Emmy-nominated documentary film producer based in Portland. She touted her dad’s newest book as the holidays approached, and both Lori and I took notice.

George’s 2021 book giveaway

Here’s a nice way to start the new year. Who wants a free book?

The first five people to respond to this post — down below with an actual comment/request — will receive a book from me sometime this year.

Each book will be chosen specially for the person that will receive it. And I will decide how and when the book is delivered. Perhaps I will mail it; perhaps I will drop it off, depending on where you live.

The only criteria is that you post this challenge to your wall, offering five books to five people. They don’t have to be new books or your favorite books. Just books selected with care and thought for each individual.

One of these books, or maybe a different one, could be yours.

Just so you know, this is a one-way giveaway. You don’t need to send me a book — in fact, please don’t. I have plenty, believe me, to keep me going all year long.

I’d much prefer to see your generosity channeled into giving away your own books.

So, who wants a book?

2020: A year for new perspectives

On this final day of a year like no other, I struggle to find the right words for a headline above this piece.

Millions of people are eager to say good riddance to 2020, but I’m neither despondent nor depressed. In fact, in many ways I know I’m blessed and have little reason to complain after seeing our world turned upside down by an invisible enemy — the novel coronavirus.

Was I inconvenienced by off-and-on lockdown orders that restricted our movement and customary socializing? Of course.

Was I disappointed that my wife and I, newly retired together, couldn’t travel domestically or abroad as we’d planned? Of course.

But was there ever a moment when I felt a sense of dread, not knowing whether we’d be able to pay the mortgage, keep the lights on or put food on the table? No.

After June, I didn’t have to work anymore. At no point was I saddled with the responsibility facing many younger parents, that of helping their school-age children with remote learning. And while I could no longer visit the neighborhood gym to swim in a heated pool, I got out into the outdoors more than ever before, just as I had resolved to do at the start of the year.

***

What stands out to me about this year is that it’s brought the opportunity to gain new perspectives on life itself.

In a practical sense, I am more grateful than ever to enjoy good physical health and mental health. I’ve spent more time on my bicycle than ever before, not just working my legs, lungs and heart but enjoying the feeling of seeing the city of Portland from a different vantage point. I’ve also explored the city on foot, venturing several times into Marquam Nature Park, completing the last of 20 urban hikes I’d begun four years ago, and occasionally running at some of my favorite wooded parks.

From an intellectual viewpoint, I’ve gained new insights into history and cultures as a result of reading several outstanding works of fiction and nonfiction; watching high-quality television series set in different countries; and taking an introductory course on international relations at the university where I used to work. Envisioning the world as if it were turned upside down (as depicted in the image above) was a great catalyst in that regard. As the year ended, I was delighted to make personal connections with smart, interesting people on three continents that helped make the world feel like a smaller, friendlier place.

From a societal and political perspective, I’m appreciative of all those doctors, nurses and other medical workers who’ve labored heroically to save lives and provide comfort during the pandemic, as well as grocery store workers, farmworkers, first responders and other essential workers who’ve kept us fed and safe. And I am so relieved that we have a new administration taking office Jan. 20 that can get to work undoing the damage of the Trump years and speed up the effort to get the Covid vaccines widely distributed.

But the biggest takeaway is the most personal one: knowing that family relationships matter more than anything. Lori and I celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary in September. Our love and respect for each other has only grown during this past year, when we have been around each other 24/7, and found things to do together and individually that allow us to keep our heads up.

We’re lucky to have our two oldest children living nearby: Nathan and his girlfriend, Erin, are 10 minutes away on foot. Simone and her wife Kyndall are 10 minutes away by car. And though our youngest son, Jordan, and his wife Jamie and daughter Emalyn are on the East Coast, they are always just a video call away.

Not a single one of us has been infected by the Covid-19 virus. For that, I am eternally grateful. As the calendar turns to another year, I hope that all of us will continue to enjoy good health and that Lori and I will have an opportunity to visit Jordan and family when air travel is safe for us to do again.

***

In past years, I’ve taken a look back at favorite concerts, sporting events and destinations. That’s not possible this year, given that our lives were turned inward and often onto a computer screen. But still, here’s a quick review:

On a muiltuse trail with Charlotte at Seaview State Park in southwest Washington.

Travel: In early February, Lori and I visited our longtime friends, Tom and Elsa, at their place on the Oregon Coast. In late October, we snuck in a two-night stay at the Sou’wester, a funky trailer park resort on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington.

Retirement: Since July, I’ve had the luxury of easing into the life of a retiree: rising without an alarm clock, few obligations on the calendar, and diving into whatever book, movie, TV show or podcast I like. I miss the interaction with my students at Portland State, but I have no regrets of walking away after the spring term ended.

Pets: Our sweet cat, Mabel, died in September after 17 years with us. Her passing leaves us with feisty Charlotte, who turned 7 years old in October, not long after she had survived an attack by a larger dog at our neighborhood school.

Friends: Like most everyone else, Zoom has become a part of our pandemic life. I had to quickly learn how to use it during the spring term, my final one, at PSU. Since then, we’ve used it to connect with friends on both coasts, as well across town. During the summer, we were invited by two of my former students, Roy and Chris, to join a happy hour group that began in-person and then turned into a virtual get-together.

Through Roy and Chris, I learned of the Senior Adult Learning Center (SALC) program that allows Oregon residents 65 years and older to audit PSU courses at little or cost. I wasted no time enrolling in a terrific summer course, “American Families in Film & Television,” and an eye-opening fall class, “Introduction to International Studies.” Next week I begin a new class, “Arab American Literature,” that’s sure to expand my horizons.

More recently, I’ve connected online with Anna, an aspiring actor in London; Jina, a writer living near Ramallah, Palestine; and Elsa, an academic reseacher in Johannesburg, through an assortment of serendipitous circumstances explained here. I look forward to nurturing these fledgling relationships in the new year.

Friends, Part 2: An annual highlight is Voices of August, the guest blog project that allows me to feature the writing of friends and family from around the country. This year, we got a bonus. Voices of April gave several new contributors, as well as regulars, a chance to talk about how they were dealing with psychological and economic challenges posed by Covid-19.

Music: Sigh. No concerts this year, but hoping to see a postponed show with Steely Dan and Steve Winwood this coming summer.

Books: Where do I begin? Since I’m no longer working, I finally have the time to catch up on a long list of books I’d set aside, plus several more I’ve snagged from free lending libraries in our neighborhood. I’ve read 20 books this year, all but one of them since retiring. You can read my reviews here, if you like: https://georgerede.wordpress.com/category/books-literature/

Among my favorites: “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi; “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys,” both by Colson Whitehead; “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong; “Preston Falls” by David Gates; “While The City Slept” by Eli Sanders; “Pizza Girl” by Jean Kyoung Frazier; and “It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” by Dale Beran.

The latter is a book, published in 2019, that would have been useful in teaching Media Literacy. As I wrote in November: “Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel so much better able to understand so many things: the origin of 4chan, the alt-right website that became an internet cesspool for young, disenfranchised males; the toxic stew of despair, resentment, hate and irony expressed by so many of these trolls; and the intersection of this bubbling-below-the-surface culture with national politics, including the 2016 presidential election and the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.”

Entertainment: Where would we be without the ability to stream movies and TV shows whenever we like? No, I didn’t get sucked into “Tiger King.” But I loved “Pose” and “Schitt’s Creek” and enjoyed many more: Ramy, Dead to Me, The Handmaid’s Tale, Little Fires Everywhere, Atypical, Normal People, Love on the Spectrum, Woke, Mrs. America, Broadchurch, Doctor Foster, Nanette, The Queen’s Gambit, and The Crown.

Four of the amazing cast members of “Pose”: From left, Dominique Jackson (Elektra); MJ Rodriguez (Blanca); Indya Moore (Angel); Billy Porter (Pray Tell).

I also got my act together and finally jumped into the world of podcasts. I loved “Dolly Parton’s America” and enjoyed two seasons of “This Sounds Serious,” featuring a fictional podcaster who delves into 9-1-1 calls and investigates true-crime cases, all of it done as comedic parody.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for your time. I hope your 2020 has brought at least some positives along with the stresses that everyone has faced. May we all experience relief and recovery in the coming year.

A story about family, memory, and math?

After reading more than my fair share of books this year about heavy topics — slavery, racism, crime, war and poverty — I was more than ready for a change of pace.

Something lighter, something uplifting and, hopefully, fewer than 200 pages, would be ideal.

I picked up “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” by Yoko Ogawa, an award-winning Japanese writer, and dove in. Sure enough, it was the contrast I was looking for. And while I liked the book, I can’t say I loved it.

The book was published in 2003, so it was written at a time that predates our internet-satured culture. It’s a throwback to a simpler time that meshes well with the simple plot and its three main characters, only one of whom is named.

Imagine a 64-year-old math professor living alone for years after suffering a traumatic brain injury that has left him with only 80 minutes of short-term memory. Each day begins anew, with no memory of what he did the day before, no recognition of people he interacted with. It’s as if his mind were a DVD tape, scrubbed free every day and capable of storing only 80 minutes of new memory before shutting down.

Now imagine a young housekeeper with a 10-year-old boy who is hired to care for him. The professor has gone through nine aides before her, dismissing each one of them as inadequate at the urging of his domineering sister-in-law, who lives nearby. The new housekeeper must adapt to this highly unusual client by bringing order to his daily existence without saying or doing anything that might upset his routines.

That means respecting the professor’s privacy when he retreats to his study for hours of thinking and working on extraordinarily complicated math problems presented in a professional journal. He submits his answers to those problems and regularly wins cash prizes, but seems to take no satisfaction in his winnings — it’s the challenge that he cares about.

Adapting to the professor also means respecting his idiosyncracies, such as wearing a suit and tie every day, and the notes on scrap paper he pins to his jacket to remind himself of things — the location of his spare razor blades, for instance, or a picture of the housekeeper’s face.

The housekeeper brings her son along as a matter of necessity, as she is unmarried and he would otherwise be at home alone after school. The professor is a lifelong bachelor yet seems to come alive around the boy, who he promptly nicknames “Root” because his flat head reminds him of the symbol for square root.

With me so far?

As the novel plays out, Ogawa tells an interlocking story of family, memory, and math. She explores the bonds between the brilliant mathematician and the humble caregiver, as well as between the man and the boy. (Don’t worry. Nothing kinky here.)

Initially, the professor and housekeeper find common ground in his love of numbers. In lieu of the usual chitchat, he opens a conversation by asking her shoe size or her birthday. From there, he makes connections between those numerals and the vast reservoir of equations and theorems that live in his brain. He is infatuated with prime numbers. He explains terms such as “amicable numbers” and “triangular numbers” and asks questions like, “What is the square root of -1”?

In time, all three of them bond over baseball, a sport whose fans are known for their devotion to data. The boy loves the game and listens to his favorite team, the Hanshin Tigers, on an old radio with scratchy reception. He tracks the players’ batting and pitching statistics and, lo and behold, it turns out the professor has an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s history and numbers. Sadly, memories of his favorite team and player are decades old, locked into the 1960s.

Neither the boy nor the professor has attended an actual game, so the housekeeper arranges to buy tickets — a rare outing for all three. They enjoy themselves, but complications ensue — and I’ll leave it there.

As the novel winds toward its conclusion, more of the professor’s backstory emerges. The concluding chapter brings together several threads but that is where I found it somewhat lacking. Perhaps there were too many subplots to wrap up. Or maybe I found the premise, and the Hallmark-like relationships among the characters, just a tad beyond belief.

In any case, I appreciated Ogawa’s writing. She does an amazing job of explaining math concepts by working lots of numerals, formulas and even diagrams into the text. She is also a gentle storyteller in the style of the British author Kazuo Ishiguro (“Remains of the Day”) and the Korean-American writer Chang Rae-Lee (“Aloft”). That is, she constructs simple sentences that convey humility and understatement.

Yoko Ogawa, bestselling Japanese author.

For instance: “My son’s needs always took precedence with the Professor, who only sought to protect him. Watching over my son was the Professor’s greatest joy. And Root appreciated the Professor’s attentions. He never ignored or took these kindnesses for granted, and acknowledged that they should be fully recognized and respected. I could only marvel at Root’s maturity.

“If I was setting out their snack and gave the Professor a larger portion than Root, he would invariably scold me. It was a matter of principle that the biggest piece of fish or steak or watermelon should go to the youngest person at the table. Even when he was at a critical point with a math problem, he still seemed to have unlimited time for Root. He was always delighted when Root asked a question, no matter what the subject; and he seemed convinced that children’s questions were much more important than those of an adult. He preferred smart questions to smart answers.”

Ogawa, 58 years old, has published more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, and has won every major Japanese literary award. “The Housekeeper and the Professor” was adapted into a film, “The Professor’s Beloved Equation.”

Her most recent book, “The Memory Police,” has won rave reviews. It’s a dystopian novel, set on an unnamed island, where objects — like flowers, hats, photographs, boats — are disappearing, and the government’s “memory police” work to make sure they’re eternally forgotten.

Sounds intriguing, but I’m off onto something else.

Another gem: ‘The Nickel Boys’

In the 1990s, students at the Dozier School for Boys, in Marianna, Florida., installed grave markers on the property to memorialize the children who had died there. The now-defunct reform school inspired Colson Whitehead’s novel, “The Nickel Boys.” (Photo credit: Meggan Haller for The New York Times)

It took me four years to get to Colson Whitehead’s magnificent novel “The Underground Railroad.” It took me two months to get to his next one, “The Nickel Boys.”

Wow. And wow.

I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical. How could any writer, no matter how gifted, win two Pulitzer Prizes for back-to-back novels published three years apart?

In October, I praised “The Underground Railroad” (2016) as a masterpiece, an enthralling tale about a 15-year-old runaway slave in the antebellum South. Swept up in Cora’s journey from a Georgia cotton plantation to an Indiana farm, I found the story both appalling and heartbreaking as Whitehead described hideous acts of cruelty by slaveowners and slavecatchers. But it was inspiring, too, to see how Cora’s bravery and resourcefulness, coupled with help from black and white allies alike, carried her from one place to another in the face of constant danger.

Earlier this month, I picked up “The Nickel Boys” (2019) and devoured it in three days — quite unusual for me. I don’t think I would put it quite at the same lofty level as “The Underground Railroad” but that’s only because the earlier book is truly superlative. Still, I can see why Whitehead won the second Pulitzer. “The Nickel Boys” is a story of a different place and different time, but it, too, sparkles with gorgeous writing and burrows into your heart.

It is a book that touches on friendship, trust, loyalty and faith in the midst of a state-run institution that thrives on racism, violence and intimidation of its young charges.

Whitehead tells the story of two Negro boys (to use the term then in vogue) who have been sent to the Nickel Academy. a notorious juvenile detention center in the Florida Panhandle. The novel is based on the very real Dozier School for Boys that operated for 111 years in a small town west of Tallahassee, finally shutting down in 2011, after years of brutal beatings, torture and suspicious deaths alleged to have occurred on the 1,400-acre school grounds.

A forensic anthropologist and her students at the University of South Florida were instrumental in calling attention to dozens of unmarked graves where young offenders were buried on the property. The work of identifying these unfortunate souls — many of whom died with no family connections — continues today.

“Following a catastrophic storm, a new investigation begins at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys” – CNN

Whitehead’s novel throws harsh light on the sinister history of the reform school, and does so elegantly.

The novel’s main character is Elwood Curtis. He’s a bright, quiet boy growing up in the 1960s in Tallahassee. Raised by his conservative grandmother in a home with no TV, he is inspired by a scratchy LP recording of “Martin Luther King at Zion Hill” and tries to lead a virtuous life based on the reverend’s calls for nonviolence and principled behavior.

His conscience is tested regularly. Should he tell the owner of the store where he works after school that other kids are stealing candy? Later, at Nickel, should he divulge the location of a secret hiding place on the grounds where another boy goes for respite? And, of most consequence, should he find a way to surreptitiously submit a list of names, dates and other details he’s kept of staff members’ brutality to state officials who’ve come to inspect the reform school?

Doing so means risking his own safety and trusting that the authorities will take seriously the allegations coming from a poor Black boy. Fat chance, right?

The other main character is Turner. He’s a fellow “delinquent” who befriends Elwood and does what he needs to survive in their hellhole. Turner believes his friend is naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble at all costs.

In short, Turner is a realist and Elwood an idealist. Even in the face of beatings and neglect at the reform school, Elwood continually turns the other cheek, trying to live up to Dr. King’s admonition to cultivate pure love for their oppressors:

“Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom.”

The capacity to suffer. Elwood and Turner and all the other Nickel Boys are tested daily. Is it possible to not only endure, but to rise above the hateful behavior and love their tormentors?

Elwood wants to say yes. Turner says no.

Later, looking back on their time served and how their experiences warped their outlook on life, is it possible to grasp some shard of acting honorably? Of choosing to do what was right, at great cost, instead of what was practical?

Elwood thinks about King’s famous letter from the Birmingham jail, how he had been moved by the famous man’s powerful appeal in spite of the mistreatment that had shaped the arc of his young life.

“The world had whispered its rules to him for his whole life and he had refused to listen, hearing instead a higher order. The world continued to instruct: Do not love for they will disappear, do not trust for you will be betrayed, do not stand up for you for you will be swatted down. Still he heard those higher imperatives. Love and that love will be returned, trust in the righteous path and it will lead you to deliverance, fight and things will change. He never listened, never saw what was plainly in front of him, and now he had been plucked from the world altogether.”

Whitehead’s prose is meticulous and elegant, his storytelling simple and seductive. In “The Nickel Boys,” he has conveyed the horrors of a miserable, racist institution through the fictional lives of two boys caught in the jaws of something bigger than themselves.

As with “The Underground Railroad,” some of the violence in “The Nickel Boys” will make you cringe. But, like that masterful novel, this one also will leave you in awe of the human capacity to act conscientiously and to honor the memory of those who’ve influenced our lives for the better.

Colson Whitehead: Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (Photo credit: Colorlines)

‘Searching for Gurney’: Reliving the pain of Vietnam

“Searching for Gurney” is hard to read. And it should be.

For anyone who’s never served in the Armed Forces, this fine novel by Jack Estes is a bracing and brutal tale of four soldiers whose lives intersect during the Vietnam War and whose bodies and minds are forever impacted by their wartime experiences. That’s putting it mildly.

The four main characters — three U.S. Marines and a North Vietnamese Army soldier — may be separated by geography, race and the circumstances of their upbringing in rural versus urban areas, but they have much in common as they struggle mightily in the aftermath of their service. Two of the Americans, both white, are from Oregon; one, from Chicago, is Black. Their enemy comes from a small village in the Nam.

All four men are wounded in battle during a ferocious firefight, but more than physical injuries, it is the psychological issues and emotional stresses that pervade their return to civilian life — and which, sadly, create gulfs of misunderstanding with family members, friends and employers, and bouts of self-doubt.

Estes’ novel is reminiscent of other war literature that has dealt with traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt, ranging from Vietnam to Iraq. Novels such as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”; Kevin Powers’ “The Yellow Birds”; and Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War.” Each one, as Caputo puts it, is about “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.”

In this telling, the author is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 and now lives in suburban Portland. I was already familiar with Jack’s work, having edited a few of his op-eds over the years when I was editor of The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section. He’s also written two other books: a memoir, “Field of Innocence,” and a novel, “A Soldier’s Son.” His new book was released in November.

“Searching for Gurney” is well-written and makes for a fast read of its 321 pages, with 24 short chapters alternating among the characters’ points of view. Estes puts you right there on the ground, writing with the authority that comes from having experienced the camaraderie among these brothers in arms, as well as the terror from violent, deadly encounters with the enemy, often in the blackness of night.

The novel begins in Portland in the summer of 1969, when we are introduced to J.T., a young husband and father who’s freshly returned home with hopes of a good job, a nice home and a loving marriage.

Next we meet Coop, in Eastern Oregon during the winter of 1970, who’s slumped on a barstool doing shots of tequila in Joseph, the tiny little town where he grew up hunting with his late granddad, the only one who cared for him and understood him.

Then we skip back in time to Hawkeye, standing handcuffed in a Chicago courtroom in the summer of 1968. He’s 19 years old, facing a crossroads where he could be sent to prison for his latest crimes or given a chance to enlist in the Marines.

Finally, we’re transported to Hoa Binh, Vietnam in 1969, where a boy named Vuong was born years earlier in a bamboo hut. Now a teenager, he aspires to follow in the footsteps of his father, who fought against the French colonialists and later against the American invaders of their homeland.

As these individual stories unfold, going back and forth in time, we see how these young men begin their military service with some mix of pride, bravado, idealism and adventure — but also get a glimpse of their fears. We see how they bond (or not) with fellow warriors, how they are shaped by their battlefield experiences, and how they deal with domestic life, often feeling isolated and alienated.

J.T.’s story is especially gripping and surely emblematic of many of the 2.7 million Americans who served in uniform in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and the proud father of a baby girl. Yet he’s tormented by flashbacks of what happened in the dense jungles, rice paddies and mountain trails of that sweltering country. Too often, he’s impatient and angry, late to work, and unreliable running errands. He’s barely able to contain his contempt for those who have no idea what he’s gone through and too quick to get drunk.

“Didn’t she get it?” J.T. thinks to himself after a fight with his wife Ashley after running late on a trip to the grocery store. “He was out of control. He couldn’t stand being out of control. This wasn’t who he really was — she knew that. A few weeks ago, he had power. He was a Marine with a machine gun and was feared by the enemy. He could call in artillery and napalm, make life-or-death decisions. He saw his friends shudder and die as life left their eyes. She didn’t know what that was like, but damn it! She should trust he was doing his best. He’d made it home, and that was a big deal.”

The author Jack Estes.

J.T.’s story has particular resonance for me because it’s set in Portland. Several events occur in and around the downtown campus of Portland State University, and there are references to familiar businesses, street names and other Northwest cities.

The book as a whole also spoke to me on two other levels.

As a college student in the early ’70s, I managed to avoid military service thanks to a high draft number (288), so I never went through the rigors of basic training or any assignment that would have come afterward. How drastically different would my life be had I drawn a lower number and been conscripted?

As a father, I had to hope and pray for the best when our youngest son was deployed for a year in Afghanistan. Jordan enlisted in the Army soon after turning 21 and served a four-year stint in the infantry. In mountainous Afghanistan, a world away from tropical Vietnam, he endured sub-freezing temperatures in the winter, dusty days in the broiling summer, and limited engagement with Taliban fighters.

Thankfully, Jordan returned home in December 2012 with sound body and mind, and is now living in a rural area of upstate New York with his wife and our 4-year-old granddaughter. I couldn’t help but imagine how even more worried I would have been had his overseas experience been more like that of the Nam.

Bottom line: Jack Estes has written an outstanding novel that’s painful to read, but also important to our understanding of the demons that so many of our veterans live with. You can buy the book here on Amazon and you can read Jack’s bio here.

Two memoirs. Two women. Two worlds apart.

As 2020 winds down, I’ve just finished two memoirs that could serve as bookends for the genre.

At one end, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” — a newspaper journalist’s look back at the five years she spent as a foreign correspondent reporting on the Taliban and the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would be Kim Barker, a Montana native, feminist daughter of hippies, and a single woman trying to navigate work and romance in two of the most dangerous countries on the planet.

At the other end, “Where The Light Enters” — a divorced community college professor’s earnest account of her journey to becoming the wife of a widowed politician and mother to his two young boys. That would be Jill Biden, an East Coast native, the oldest of five daughters, former Second Lady and now about to become First Lady of the United States.

Could these women and their memoirs be any more different? I don’t think so.

Normally, I’d give each book and author their due in a separate blog post. But reading of their experiences back to back cries out for some comparisons and contrasts, beginning with how I came upon each of the books.

I was out on a morning walk with Lori when we came upon a neighborhood lending library. I spotted the “WTF” book and recognized the author, Kim Barker, as someone I’d met about 20 years earlier when she was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune and I was The Oregonian’s recruitment director. Turns out that Kim had graduated from West Linn High School in the Portland suburbs and gone on to major in journalism at Northwestern University.

The book was published in 2012, originally titled “The Taliban Shuffle,” and there was a July 2015 TriMet bus pass tucked inside. I was intrigued.

Meanwhile, I sought out the Biden book at a local bookstore shortly after Joe became president-elect. My wife Lori had already read Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” memoir and enjoyed it very much. I figured she’d be interested in Jill’s, too, as a way to celebrate the incoming administration. Lori zipped through it quickly and I decided to give it a read, too.

So, what are these two books about? And why would you want to read either or both of them?

Both memoirs present strong-willed women striving for independence. One, with no kids and no husband, wants to be taken seriously as a journalist within the male-dominated world of foreign correspondents while also trying to make room in her life for a serious relationship. The other tries to find her place as a young wife and mother — and later a working professional — after she marries a U.S. senator whose first wife and 1-year-old daughter were killed in a car accident.

The importance of “family” — of fitting in to a tight-knit clan — is central to the Biden memoir, whereas “self-reliance” — getting by on guile and guts — in the face of political instability and ultra-conservative religious strictures is the dominant theme in Barker’s book. Their circumstances are so radically different it’s impossible to imagine one in the other’s place.

***

Let’s start with “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Unbeknownst to me, the book had been made into a 2016 movie starring Tina Fey. The actress read the book and loved it, and so it was released as part comedy, part drama.

Barker says the book started as comic relief as an antidote to all that was falling apart during her stint from 2004 to 2009. Not only was the region wracked by violence and incompetence, but toward the end of her time there, the Tribune was sold and the newspaper suffered massive layoffs along with a change in editorial direction toward lighter fare and local news. Indeed, there’s a rich vein of black humor coursing through the book. But while there are plenty of absurdities that make you shake your head, the reality of life and death in a war zone is sobering.

By her own admission, Barker was in over her head when she got her first overseas reporting assignment in 2002. She’d never been to Europe, she spoke only English, and she knew little about Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. She began as a fill-in correspondent, did well, and became the South Asia bureau chief, based in India, in 2004.

With little structure to her job, she tried to find topics that went beyond Islamic militants, sectarian violence, political corruption and inept reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. Working with a fixer named Farouq, she traveled constantly in his Toyota Corolla throughout the mountainous country, in punishing heat on dusty, barely passable roads, to interview warlords and villagers alike. In Pakistan, arguably the more dangerous place, she covered the authoritarian former President Pervaz Musharraf and the assassination of his political rival Benazir Bhutto.

At 5 feet, 10 inches, the American reporter towered over Muslim women, and with her blue eyes she stood out wherever she went despite dressing conservatively. She describes being hit on by prominent politicians in both countries, and victimized by sexual harassment that ranged from invasive body searches at security checkpoints to being pinched on the ass through her burqa, even as she tried to cover a funeral in Pakistan.

Barker is an excellent reporter and writer who tells great stories with a rollicking, irreverent tone. She is honest about her shortcomings and self-doubts but always entertaining and illuminating. For her, Afghanistan was like Alaska, where the men far outnumber the women. But the capital city’s social scene was akin to Kabul High, she said, full of cliques, nerds and posers and heavy drinking.

Trying to forge friendships, let alone romance, in a limited universe of military personnel, contractors, diplomats, NGO workers and fellow journalists was a challenge, to say the least. Barker is candid about those relationships, which often ended because of conflicting career paths with potential partners.

She is equally blunt about the spineless, unreliable leadership of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the folly of U.S. hopes to bring lasting democratic reforms to an impoverished country entrenched in its ancient ways. What was America expecting when so many police recruits there were illiterate, had no experience with guns, and couldn’t lace their boots properly because, well, they’d never owned boots?

Barker describes a visit to an Afghan National Police station on the outskirts of Kabul while on patrol in a Humvee with U.S. soldiers. “In the parking lot, basically a pile of rocks, the Americans lined up fourteen Afghan officers. With all their equipment, the Americans basically looked like superheroes. The Afghans looked pathetic. Six did not have weapons because they were not qualified to have weapons. Of the other eight, only three said they had been to the police-training center. And one was probably mistaken; he grinned wildly and raised his hand to every question.”

Taking stock of her time in both countries and weighing a return to the U.S., Barker said she could imagine a string of stories involving more bombs, more death, more adrenaline if she stayed in South Asia.

“Never had I felt so alive as in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so close to chaos, so constantly reminded of how precious, temporary, and fragile life was. I had certainly grown here. I knew how to find money in a war zone, how to flatter a warlord, how to cover a suicide bombing, how to jump-start a car using a cord and a metal ladder, how to do the Taliban shuffle between conflict zones. I knew I did not need a man, unless that man was my fixer. But also I knew I had turned into this almost drowning caricature of a war hack, working, swearing, and drinking my way through life and relationships.”

***

Turning to “Where the Light Enters,” Jill Biden takes us into an utterly opposite world, one where family seems to supersede almost everything else.

In Jill’s telling, this dynamic creates a sense of belonging, dictates holiday traditions, underlies a years-long routine of Sunday dinner gatherings, and cements relationships between and among different members of the Biden clan. It’s comforting for her but strikes me as suffocating at times.

She comes from a “Leave it to Beaver” background herself as the eldest of five girls raised by a middle-class couple in a small town near Philadelphia, with long, stable marriages among her parents and both sets of grandparents. Her mom was a homemaker; her dad served in the Navy and worked his way up in the banking business, starting as a teller.

Jill presents herself as being like any other suburban teen, with a mild rebellious streak. She quarrels with her sisters, she smokes cigarettes, and she breaks curfew on summer nights to sneak off with a girlfriend to use the community swimming pool. Later, as a married woman, she clashes with her adolescent daughter over the girl’s wearing of her mom’s headbands and recalls a couple of pranks she pulls around her husband’s campaign staff. It’s pretty mild stuff. But, then, she’s not a journalist reporting on the Taliban. She’s the wife of a senator and not about to let loose in print.

Jill Jacobs was a high school cheerleader and a good student when she enrolled at a junior college, intending to study fashion merchandising. She married a classmate at 18, but they didn’t last long, and she was leery of another relationship when Biden, nine years her senior, asked her out on a blind date set up his brother Frank, who happened to know Jill.

Long story short: Her suitor wins her over, though it takes five wedding proposals before she says yes, and Jill sets her mind to building a new family without disrespecting the role that the senator’s first wife filled in the lives of Joe and his boys, Beau and Hunter. She wants to fit in with Joe’s extended family, especially his sisters, and yet she wants to pursue her own career path. They marry in 1977.

The young newlywed teaches high school English in Wilmington, Delaware, and four years later gets her first masters degree in education in 1981, the same year she gives birth to daughter Ashley. She stays at home for two years to raise the three children but then returns to work and, taking one course at a time at night, eventually obtains a second masters degree in English in 1987. Through the years, she works in public high schools and community colleges, as well as at a psychiatric hospital teaching emotionally disturbed children, and finally gets her doctoral degree in 2007.

As one might expect, Biden’s language is carefully calibrated as she describes the journey from those early years to the later ones resembling life in a fishbowl, as her ambitious husband advances in the Senate, runs for president in 1988 and, in 2008, is tapped to run for vice president alongside Barack Obama.

All this means greater attention and demands on the family. Joe’s an extrovert and welcomes the exposure; Jill’s an introvert and shies from it. Secret Service agents become a part of their daily lives and privacy is hard to come by.

Biden depicts her life as ordinary as anyone else’s, attending youth sports and school events with Joe, and bonding with family over big meals. But the author’s privilege reveals itself when she talks fondly of spending their Thanksgiving holidays in Nantucket and even traveling to Rome one year to get a break from the routine. Plus, who else gets married in the Chapel at the United Nations in New York City? And how many people can say, honestly, they are close friends with Barack and Michelle?

Still, the memoir has a lot of appeal and it is poignant, for sure. Some of Biden’s strongest moments come when she discusses her involvement with military families, including visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed hospital; the heartache of meeting with relatives of the nine parishioners who were slaughtered in a Charleston, South Carolina, church; and her loss of faith after Beau’s death from brain cancer in 2015.

The book was released in 2019. “Over these last three years,” she writes, “I have been saved by the kindness of family, friends and strangers. I have learned to lean on them when I can’t stand as tall as I’d like, to let my starving heart be fed.

“I now know the power of pain, to lay each of us bare, to strip away our pretenses and break down the structures we thought held us together. But I know, too, the power of compassion, like air for the drowning. I know that a gesture, even small, can become an act of mercy — a phone call, a joke among friends, an unexpected note. When you have been hollowed out, these connections, these moments of kindness, are the only things that can begin to fill you. They are the only language your heart can understand.

“My family is broken but we are still holding on to each other for dear life. We are connected to this sorrow forever — to each other and to the world of fragile, hurting people around us. It is a lesson I hated to learn, but one I think — I hope — we are capable of surviving.”

***

Though they are wildly different, I enjoyed each of the memoirs. After all, they served the purpose of sharing one person’s experiences and giving the reader pause to reflect on any lessons or truths that might resonate from them. I couldn’t help but wonder if Barker and Biden had been in Afghanistan at the same time, but evidently not. Kim left the region in 2009. Jill and Joe visited U.S. troops in Iraq in 2010.

Barker is now an enterprise reporter at The New York Times, focusing on long-term projects and narrative writing. And the former Second Lady is about to become the First Lady, ready for the next chapter in a public life where she and her husband will do their best to help the nation heal.

Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’

Over the years, Ireland’s Roddy Doyle has become one of my favorite authors.

Doyle is a prolific writer with 16 novels, 7 plays, 8 children’s books and a memoir about his parents to his credit. And he is a master of dialogue, with an ear for what people say and precisely how they say it. Which is to say: a jumble of slang, F-bombs, single words and terse sentences, reflecting everything from humor to anger to sadness.

I previously read three of his books — two that made me laugh and one that made me cry — and just recently finished a fourth: “Smile.”

I picked up the novel at a used bookstore in Seaview, Washington.

It’s a seductive book about a lonely middle-aged man in Dublin who looks back on his life, replaying scenes from his troubled childhood and events leading to divorce from his beautiful wife, Rachel.

We meet Victor, the protagonist, at a neighborhood pub where he has made a routine of settling in, alone, for a pint. Into his life comes a fellow named Fitzpatrick, a loud, large man in a pink shirt he immediately dislikes. Fitzpatrick says they attended secondary school together but Victor has no memory of him.

At first resistant to this stranger, Victor gradually opens up and the two men begin to talk regularly. Victor still cannot remember Fitzpatrick, but with prodding he recalls the merciless teasing he received at the Christian Brothers school they attended. And that is where the book’s title comes into play.

As a fresh-faced new student, barely three to four weeks into the school year, Victor was in a class full of boys who were pleading with their French teacher on a sunny Friday afternoon to let them out of their weekend homework. Brother Murphy listened to the boys and grinned, and then singled him out: “Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile.”

Well, no surprise that Victor’s classmates beat him up that afternoon as a suspected queer (Doyle’s term) and tormented him all the way to graduation. And no surprise that Brother Murphy was quickly replaced by another teacher, never to be heard from again.

Victor becomes a magazine writer and meets Rachel outside a local radio studio. She has a catering business, winds up on television and becomes a national celebrity. Victor cannot believe that such an accomplished, gorgeous woman has fallen for him. But the marriage doesn’t last.

Back at the pub, Fitzpatrick is still asking probing questions. Victor finds himself reliving painful memories but also drawn into conversation with other men at the bar. It’s a new experience for him, as he was never part of a group of guys growing up, but it also seems to trigger some resentment or jealousy from Fitzpatrick.

As the novel goes back and forth in time, we see young Victor grappling with one set of issues and aging Victor grappling with another set of concerns and regrets. Much of the action, as it were, takes place in the pub. But much of it also spills out in the form of interior dialogue where Victor takes stock of his life. Tension and mystery build as we learn more. Complications ensue when yet another character at the pub, a woman named Brenda, enters the picture.

***

The book jacket praises “Smile” as having “all the features for which Roddy Doyle has become famous: the razor-sharp dialogue, the humor, the superb evocation of adolescence.” But it also says this is a novel unlike any previous book of his, “the closest thing he’s written to a psychological thriller,” according to The New York Times Book Review.

I would agree.

Reading “Tne Snapper” (1990) and “The Van” (1991), I found myself laughing out loud at Doyle’s working-class characters, hilariously funny and foul-mouthed. However, I was moved to tears by “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors” (1996), the story of a 39-year-old woman who covers up years of domestic abuse by telling doctors that her bruises were the result of various accidents and falls.

“Smile” puts you right in the middle of conversation with Victor and Fitzpatrick, with Victor and Rachel, with Victor and his newfound drinking buddies and, lastly, with Victor and Brenda. The story is authentic and it evokes a sense of melancholy over squandered opportunities. Bottom line: it’s another fine book by Roddy Doyle.

Interested in “The Snapper”? Read my 2017 review here.

‘Something Awful’ is an awfully good book

As the calendar ticked down to Election Day on Nov. 3rd, I found myself absorbed in a fascinating book with an irresistible title that took me back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” is a mesmerizing account of so many things that I was vaguely aware of, but not fully informed about, relating to such topics as ’90s nihilism, misogynistic meme culture, and Pepe the Frog, a comic book cartoon figure that evolved into a symbol of hate.

If you’re a Boomer like me and baffled by one or more of those references, join the club. “Something Awful” explores the way culture and counterculture, the internet and reality, and politics and entertainment reflect one another in sometimes confusing, sometimes illuminating ways.

It’s an absorbing book, well-written and meticulously researched. I dog-eared at least two dozen pages, and found myself constantly saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that” or “Ah, now I see how this connects to that.”

Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel so much better able to understand so many things: the origin of 4chan, the alt-right website that became an internet cesspool for young, disenfranchised males; the toxic stew of despair, resentment, hate and irony expressed by so many of these trolls; and the intersection of this bubbling-below-the-surface culture with national politics, including the 2016 presidential election and the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.

The book was published in 2019 by Dale Beran, a Baltimore-based writer who comes at his subject with a certain expertise. As an East Coast college graduate with a liberal arts degree, he, too, was once aimless, broke, and interested in webcomics, like so many other underemployed, internet-savvy young men during the late 1990s and 2000s.

Dale Beran

From this insider perspective, and building on a magazine piece he wrote in 2017 about these same issues, Beran writes with authority about the mindset of these jaded computer geeks — known as “otaku,” super-fans of Japanese anime and manga — and their attraction to the anonymous message board known as 4chan. He explains how this website started by a 15-year-old American who was “bored and in need of porno” began as a place to trade pictures of anime girls with friends and ended up churning out pro-Trump propaganda.

The first section of the book traces the history of countercultures from the 1960s to 4chan, and how they all eventually got swallowed up by mainstream marketing campaigns that celebrated “rebellion.”

The second section details how chan4, founded in 2003, won a race to the bottom to see “who could be more screwed up, offensive and grotesque,” as its devotees used internet tools to post “sliced-up, digitized chunks” that skewered pop culture, entertainment, advertising, and video games through a culture of jokes — memes.

The third and final section details how 4chan spawned the alt-right, as a new generation of young people immersed in screen worlds flooded onto the site and older Gen-X users found themselves flailing after the 2008 economic crash.

Many of them were unemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs, were socially awkward, and living in their mom’s basement with few real-life connections — a sad group of isolated, powerless individuals so lacking in identity that they began to obsess over it, Beran said. Finding each other on 4chan, these self-proclaimed losers clung to race as a means of self-definition and turned to white supremacy and fascism.

By 2015, Beran explained, they would team up with Steve Bannon and others to back the candidacy of Trump, “who promised America’s losers that he would make them win so much they would set sick of winning.”

(Yes, that Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and of Trump’s 2016 campaign who became senior counselor to the president, and who was arrested this summer on charges of defrauding donors to a private fund-raising effort intended to build new sections of wall on the Mexican border.)

Plenty of others associated with the alt-right and acts of violence are mentioned here, their roles explained and connections to recent headlines knitted into a coherent whole. They include the Proud Boys, the disgraced blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, the neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the Charleston gunman Dylann Roof, the “incel” (involuntary celibate) Elliot Rodger, who killed seven people and wounded 14 others in a murderous rampage near Santa Barbara, and James Alex Fields, the 19-year-old who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville and killed a 32-year-old woman.

In the case of the three young men — Roof, Rodger and Fields — I can see how their young minds may have been influenced by nihilism, the viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs have no value, and that life itself is senseless and useless.

***

What’s most fascinating — and scary and repulsive at the same time — is Beran’s explanation of what drew so many aimless teenagers and young male betas (as opposed to alphas) to 4chan and its predecessor, the website known as Something Awful.

Because 4chan permitted anonymous posts, the anything-goes content quickly turned into a sewer of weird fantasies including sexualized anime girls, My Little Pony fetishes, and an infamous 2010 thread in which a man posted photos of creepy dolls that filled the house he shared with his wife and children.

Beran writes that these dolls were human size, svelte and female, and had different animal faces with snouts resembling a cross between Miss Piggy and an old-fashioned teddy bear. Some were dressed in skimpy underwear, others in cheerleading outfits. “The images were so weird that even 4chan, den of freaks, freaked out,” Beran writes.

But what about Pepe the Frog and Donald Trump?

Back in 2005, a California artist named Matt Lurie created a comic strip with a frog character named Pepe that became an internet sensation. At some point, harmless and funny representations of Pepe became political, and far-right groups began to use the cartoon frog’s image in hateful memes — for instance, dressing him up as Hitler or a Klansman.

In October 2015, none other than Trump retweeted an image of himself as Pepe, along with a link to a YouTube video of his performance at the most recent Republican debate, and called it to the attention of Breitbart News and the Drudge Report, another right-wing site.

Then a candidate for president, Trump retweeted this image to right-wing news websites.

Trump’s 4chan fans celebrated. But it wasn’t until a few months later, January 2016, that Pepe went from innocent cartoon character to white supremacist symbol. A Twitter exchange between a conservative cable news pundit and young Trump supporters resulted in a flood of racist, pro-Trump memes featuring Trump-loving Pepes gripping assault rifles and wearing swastikas on their foreheads. 

Later that year, the Anti-Defamation League officially declared Pepe to be a hate symbol.

***

With all the tension leading up to this month’s election, reading “Something Awful” was something of a diversion, a time-traveling experience that recalled the Clinton vs. Trump campaign and the disgusting Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.

The book came to my attention in the fall of 2019, thanks to a Portland State University librarian who knew I was interested in the topic of Media Literacy. I wish I’d had time to read it while I was still teaching; I certainly would have incorporated some of Beran’s material into my classes.

Nevertheless, I gained so much from this book. It not only gave this Boomer a broader context for understanding internet memes and their role in pop culture and politics. It also gave me a better understanding of the worldview of a troubled demographic: impressionable young men with low esteem, lousy employment prospects and poor social relationships who turned to 4chan to escape, to commiserate, to vent, to hate.

Four stars for Dale Beran and “Socially Awkward.”

Bonus: An excellent review of the book in Wired is here.

An end to my world

(Credit: Livescience.com)

By Sam Shearer

Editor’s note: And now for something radically different. I recently asked the son of some friends if he wanted to publish a piece on this blog, knowing he had an interest in creative writing and a lively imagination to go along with it.

Let me introduce you to Sam Shearer, 20 years old, a recent graduate of Portland’s Grant High School, currently taking time off in the pandemic from his studies at University of Redlands.

This is a piece of fantasy fiction, more of a myth than a conventional story, and part of a much larger narrative and imaginary world that Sam is working to create and develop. In fact, this is the last chapter in that evolving story. I’ll let Sam explain further.

— George Rede

***

Prologue: All my worlds have an Armageddon-like event that destroys the old universe and gives way to a new creation. This story takes place in the world I call Nayodin. The first thing to know about this tale is that each character is a god, demon, titan, or other above mortal being. I have drawn inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkein and Norse mythology’s Ragnarok for the events but the characters themselves are all strictly and completely my own.

There is no particular time in the future when these events take place; the best I can say is that it will be far, far from “present day” Nayodin. Most mortals fight on the side of the gods, against Almic-Zal (whom I would consider the villain to Neyodin). Some people want a takeaway from this, a sort of connection with the real world. But this piece is meant to be a total escape from reality and so I didn’t write it with any real life influences.

For me, this story symbolizes the need for an end to everything. It can be as big as life itself or as small as a trip to the store. Every journey, every story must have an end point or it will have no point to it. All things must have an end — that is what this story is for me. But as a reader you may draw new definitions and meanings from what you read and the characters in those stories. Without further ado, here is my story.

— Sam Shearer

An End to My World

This is the tale of the end. When the heavens fight to keep all creation. When Almic-Zal is freed and all gods and more go to war. When it starts, it’s said that the god of knowledge and wisdom Neros will take charge of the forces of the gods. He will command the gods’ army against the almighty Almic-Zal and his forces of fallen angels, gods, and demons.

As legends go, the forces of the gods will have the upper hand in this many millennia long war so long as Neros is in charge, but all the heavens will be betrayed. The titan of death, The Grim, will kill Neros. Without its head the armies of the gods will begin to fall apart. It will start with discourse in the ranks of heaven.

Not knowing who to trust and who not and without a wise leader the armies of the gods will fall apart. Then in a fit of rage the goddess of the dead, Igris, will rally many other gods and spearhead a charge toward Almic-Zal. In this charge the god of medicine, the goddess of swiftness, and the god of the earth will all die and the deity of love will be captured.

But even with these losses the spear will pierce the armies of the dark god all the way to its leader, Almic-Zal. There the goddess of the dead, the god of luck, the god of destruction, and the god of heroism will all die by the hand of Almic-Zal. With both the god of knowledge and luck dead, wisdom and luck will have left the armies of the gods. Without luck or wisdom the gods will begin to die. Arik, goddess of the seas and all water, will kill The Grim, only to die at the hands of the dark god’s son, Void. Void will soon after be slain by Idam, goddess of archery.

It is at this time the last hope of the gods will die. Leumas, god of war, who is set to hold the west side of the world for ten thousand years with his wife, will fall to Ilotle, a being far beyond any of the gods of heaven. Evol-Ybur, goddess of flame and wife to Leumas, will flee to what remains of the armies of heaven.

Now wisdom, luck, and war itself will have abandoned the gods. With no skill in war left, with all the luck run dry, with no wisdom left to pull from, heaven’s loss will have been assured.

In a last ditch attempt, Leumas’s greatest general, the spirit of war, will take most of the remaining titans and great heroes to find the book of time, an artifact that will make anything written on its pages into reality. But this will prove futile. This endeavor will have split the army of the gods in half and of those who went on this search only a small handful of titans will return. At that point, only four gods will live: Ayam, deity of choice, Idam, goddess of archery, Sigis, god of strength, and Evol-Ybur, goddess of flame.

Nyrb, deity of love, will live as well but now corrupted from their many millennia as Almic-Zal’s prisoner. Sigis will go on his own to challenge Almic-Zal and, while he will wound the dark god, he will perish. Ilotle will slay both Ayam and Evol-Ybur. Idam will be met on the field of battle by a corrupted Nyrb and the two shall die by the other’s hand.

With the fall of the last four gods, heaven’s forces will be no more. Whatever remnants of the armies of the gods still stand will fall soon after. With that it will be up to Ortarr, the creator of all things, to step in. He will effortlessly destroy all of the forces of the dark god. Yet he too will be filled with fear for Almic-Zal will be waiting for him at the end of all things.

The two greatest and most powerful beings in all of existence will clash and their duel will destroy all of the already ruined reality. Simply being in cosmic proximity to the clash of these two will rend everything until none of creation remains, until all is sent back to the nothingness that it was before the first being broke. What happens after is anyone’s guess, for there is none who can see past the destruction of all things.