The Spirit of Barbie

March 26, 2023

Is that image kind of … creepy? Well, yes, in my story “Ghost on the Wall,” just published in The Summerset Review, a Malibu Barbie doll has a malignant influence. The overall story, though, isn’t creepy, I don’t think. There are hints of redemption, spiritualism, even romance. And a ghost named Jellin.

It’s a longish tale, one of my nutty attempts to write a mini-novel in story form, but readers who have the time may enjoy it. In the background is a jealous friendship between two girls from different classes, a theme also prominent in the issue’s story by Kathleen Zamboni McCormick.

A new story of mine, “Immigrants,” has just appeared in The Del Sol Review. It’s about a family Thanksgiving dinner in which politics comes up. Much goes wrong, as you might expect, and the idea of being thankful is kind of lost. Just your typical American family, right?

Many thanks to editor Kara De Folo and others at the magazine.

Civil Rights vs. Religion

December 18, 2022

The controversy caused by Lorie Smith, an anti-gay Colorado website designer, has prompted me to think through my position on the issues she raises—issues that pit her religious beliefs against the rights of her (hypothetical) customers. Some of my liberal friends, predictably, have lined up against her. Though I’m way-left on the political spectrum, I don’t find the matter so simple.

To review the situation: Planning to expand her business to include wedding websites, Smith has preemptively sued the state to prevent it from charging her with discrimination if she declines to serve gay couples on account of her religious principles. The U.S. Supreme Court has heard the case and is expected to rule by the end of its current term.

Given Colorado’s actions in the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop case, maybe Smith has grounds for worry. In the Masterpiece case, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ruled against a baker who refused to design a wedding cake for a gay couple, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in the baker’s favor.

Of course there’s a large element of political grandstanding in cases like these. They’re based on situations that would never occur in daily life. Any self-respecting gay couple wouldn’t let that baker anywhere near their cake, nor would they let Lorie Smith have a byte of their website.

Still, in spite of the political flapdoodle, cases that pit one person’s rights and moral/religious beliefs against another’s deserve some thought. Imagine a gynecologist who believes that abortion is murder. Would you force her or him to perform an abortion when neither the woman’s nor fetus’s health or welfare demanded it? I wouldn’t, and most Americans probably agree with me on that. Yet if the woman’s life was in danger, the operation had to be done immediately, and no other doctor was available, my opinion would change.

So where do we draw the line? How do we balance the conflicting rights and moralities?

My thinking has coalesced into what could be called a three-pronged test, a term with a nice legal ring to it. Perhaps because they have spiky personalities, judges favor tests with prongs.

Let’s call the parties the Provider and the Customer. Here are the three aspects of the test:

1. The nature of the moral/religious objection. Is the Provider’s disapproval of the Customer based on the latter’s behavior or on unchangeable attributes? It could be that Ms. Smith and some of her right-wing supporters don’t like serving African Americans, but they have enough sense to realize they’d get no sympathy for such a stance, even if they claimed a religious basis for it. People can’t choose their race or skin color. By targeting gays, conservatives are picking a group that engages in behavior they condemn. Yes, LGBTQ folks contend, with reason, that they are born with their gender and sexual preferences, but they don’t have to get married, nor do they even have to have sex. It is, whether we progressives like it or not, a question of their behavior. Passing this behavior test is a precondition for moving on to prongs 2 and 3.

2. The Provider’s degree of involvement with the Customer.

2a. Is the Provider’s involvement passive or active? Jack Phillips, the cakeshop owner, could have no legitimate objection if a gay couple came into his shop and bought a cake from the display case. He probably wouldn’t know they were gay, and even if they identified as such and smooched in front of him, his involvement with them would be minimal: lifting the cake from the case, boxing it, ringing up the sale. In contrast, when they asked him to design a custom cake for them and have it ready on a certain day, they were demanding he take an active role in their wedding, even a “creative” one.

2b. If the involvement is active, to what degree does it involve direct participation in the disapproved behavior? Imagine that Phillips had been asked not just to design and bake the wedding cake in the back room of his shop, but to help cater the event—to come out to the wedding venue, preside over the ceremonial slicing of the cake, and serve the guests? That would be a greater degree of involvement in celebrating an action he considered immoral. An even better example is a wedding photographer who interacts personally and repeatedly with the couple and their relatives and guests.

At step 2a, if the involvement is active rather than passive, I begin to favor the Provider’s point of view, and at 2b I definitely side with him or her. In my daily work, I offer book production services to clients of various backgrounds. If Paul Manafort asked me to edit, design, and print his next memoir, which I suppose should be called A Sleazeball’s Campaign Against Truth and Decency, I’d refuse him on moral grounds. Luckily, sleazeballs are not a protected class, so the law couldn’t compel me.

3. The extent to which the Provider’s service is vital to the Customer’s well-being. I suppose most people take wedding cakes and websites far more seriously than I do. Frankly, I consider them trivial, and my own wedding was the opposite of ceremonial. We didn’t have a cake or website, and we’ve done fine without. Since services like that are not vital—and, besides, are available from multiple vendors—I think the Provider should be free to refuse them even for relatively minor reasons. The opposite would be true of the gynecologist mentioned earlier—the only doctor available when the patient’s life is at stake. In that case, the Customer’s great need should prevail over the Provider’s sense of morality.

Finally, there’s an underlying thought at work here. Most of us get very annoyed when government regulations restrict us personally. We especially hate bureaucrats and their nitpicking, irrational rules. Yet we don’t mind it much when the government restricts others. Let’s keep that in mind. Whatever we think of bigoted bakers and website designers, we should recall that they believe what they believe, and what a government can do to them it might possibly, under other circumstances, do to us.

Too Distressing?

August 17, 2022

Photo by Umesh R. Desai on Unsplash

A new story of mine, “A Topic Too Distressing to Mention,” is now posted on the Bangalore Review website. This marks my first attempt to deal with transgender issues, and it’s also an experiment in communal voice, the narrator being unidentified except as a member of a certain club of women. Anyone who has a chance to read the story is welcome to post a comment here, as long as it’s reasonably polite.

Susie’s e-book

July 30, 2022

Susie Alioto, the namesake protagonist of The Bourgeois Anarchist, may be 66 years old and struggling a bit with her health, but she’s always been up-to-the-moment, so it’s no surprise that her story is now available in a Kindle-type ebook. The co-protagonist, her math-geek son Eric, ridicules her for surrendering to such a gross and uncool form of capitalism. But to understand the odd balance of their relationship, as well as Susie’s complicated links with her anarchist heroes, you’ll have to read the book.

(NB: Susie may be visible in the cover image, which shows a protest march somewhere in the world on some recent date. Details are blurred to protect the guilty.)

Kandi Neal has included my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist in a post on the captivating blog shereads. The post is headlined “Books to Read If You Liked Don’t Look Up,” and I’m flattered to be included in the list. Actually, I don’t know whether I liked Don’t Look Up because I haven’t seen it. It’s a movie, right? I continue to struggle to keep up with pop culture.

Anyway, this is what Ms. Neal graciously wrote:

“Instead of moving into her own place after graduating college, Susie chose to live in an anarchist commune, and that’s where she stayed for the next twenty years. Now, at sixty-six years old, she lives a comfortable life and teaches at a high-end private school. Even though her apolitical math-loving son calls her the bourgeois anarchist, she’s still committed to fighting the good fight. When she gets injured at a rally and rescued by a female in Antifa gear, the police interrogate Susie, looking for answers. But it’s her son and his unexpected, hilarious point of view that really put things into perspective.”

I’m glad she found Susie’s son Eric hilarious, as he was intended to be. The blog also promises that the ten books listed are “full of page-turning suspense that will have you on the edge of your seat.” For Susie’s story that may be a bit of exaggeration, but hey, it’s better for an author to have readers on the edge of their seats because of suspense than because they’re impatient to get to the bathroom.


February 13, 2022

It had to happen sometime. One of my most shameful adolescent acts has come to light, prompted by a seemingly innocent opportunity to share a “favorite library memory.”

I don’t know why I suddenly spilled the beans. Perhaps I was confident that the librarian in the story must have since retired. But now I’m worried. Is it true that librarians, when they remove their glasses and let down their hair, are vengeful beings with superpowers?

If you happen to click the image and explore the link, let me know if you can offer a good place to hide.

Book Launch

November 23, 2021

We’ll be officially launching The Bourgeois Anarchist on November 30, 2021, via Zoom, at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Being a taciturn curmudgeon, I’m extremely lucky to be joined by Elizabeth (Libby) Mosier, an extraordinary writer who’s a much better conversationalist than I am. Most likely, Libby will ask intelligent questions to which I will give confused, nonsensical answers. It should be fun!

To witness this spectacle, and maybe ask questions of your own, you have to register in advance for the Zoom link. The event will be hosted by our friends at Main Point Books in Wayne, PA, which is offering signed copies of the book.

Blurred Choices

November 17, 2021

Ellen Prentiss Campbell, an award-winning fiction writer and member of the National Book Critics Circle, has kindly reviewed The Bourgeois Anarchist in Tiferet Journal. Throughout the novella, she notes, “the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, blur”–proving she firmly grasped the book’s main theme.

Though the magazine is available by subscription only, I can offer a quote from the end of the piece, summarizing her take on the 66-year-old protagonist, Susie Alioto:

Susie is an irresistible force. Readers, especially those of a certain age, aficionados of Anne Tyler’s quirky heroines, will enjoy Susie. She carries the baggage of years of living and experience with almost reckless, youthful abandon. And begins to reckon with some skeletons in her own closet and to figure out what’s next.

You can purchase the novella on Bookshop.org.

Out of My Shell

November 5, 2021

Over the past couple of months, in an attempt to promote my novella The Bourgeois Anarchist (Finishing Line Press), I’ve done three interviews with obliging bloggers. They were fun, especially when I could give a subversive answer to the questions. Here are the links, with a few selected quotes:

Hasty Book List, by Ashley Hasty:

Q: Book character I’d like to be stuck in an elevator with:

A: Elizabeth Bennet from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I might try, with no luck, to woo her away from Darcy. More to the point, she’d understand how to get us out of the elevator.

Q: Place I’d most like to travel:

A: Berkeley, CA, where I went to college. I’d like to connect somehow with the idealist I was then, though it’s probably impossible.

Linda’s Book Bag, by Linda Hill:

Q: What can we expect from an evening in with The Bourgeois Anarchist?

A: You’ll fall in love with Susie [the protagonist], I can almost guarantee it. She’s tremendously good-hearted, an idealist, and about ten times as tough as you’d guess from her diminutive size. And yet she gets entangled in a situation that proves almost too much for her.

The plot includes arsonists, mobsters, sleazy cops and life-threatening violence, but the real focus is Susie’s conflicting loyalties and difficult moral choices. She’s long been an anarchist, at least theoretically—she spent two decades in a militant commune—but now her principles leave her floundering in her time of need. You might say the quandary involves her head versus her heart, but her head is on both sides, and her emotions are flipping about like butterflies.

Jerry’s Circumlocution, by Jerry Harwood

Q: What does literary success look like to you?

A: Groupies! But where are they? Why don’t I have any?


Okay, that’s enough silliness for one post. Check out the links if you want more.