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The original Gerry-mander: 1812 cartoon of a district in Massachusetts, a salamander-like shape that the artist named after Governor Elbridge Gerry

Regular readers of this blog (both of you) may have noticed that it’s become increasingly political over the years. Like almost all sentient Americans, I’ve been sucked into the partisan fray. Even my recent fiction, such as The Bourgeois Anarchist (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press), tends to have political themes.

In real life, I’ve become involved with the Philadelphia branch of Fair Districts PA (FDPA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, all-volunteer organization aimed at ending gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. It’s a spinoff of the state’s chapter of the League of Women Voters, and like the League, it’s very polite and well-behaved, sometimes to the frustration of our more ardent activists who’d like to get up in the faces of our idiot legislators.

The mantra of FDPA goes like this: Gerrymandering—the drawing of legislative district maps to favor one party or the other—fosters the extreme partisanship we see today, which leads to gridlock in the legislature, which means no progress on dozens of major issues. Why is this true? Gerrymandering creates safe seats, that is, seats that will always be won by a particular party. A politician in a safe seat has no incentive to listen to voters in the other party or to compromise with colleagues across the aisle. The only threat to that legislator’s job is a primary, and to make sure he doesn’t face a strong primary challenge, he’ll cozy up to his party’s leaders, to the “core” voters of the party, and to the big donors. You can see why this process pushes Republicans to the right and Democrats to the left. You can also see why it discourages people from voting—if the outcome is predetermined, why bother?

By the way, if I use male pronouns to refer to our state legislators, it’s not just addiction to outdated convention. Our state’s lawmakers are overwhelming male. And white. And middle-aged. They look a lot like the U.S. Senate, which in purely aesthetic terms is not an attractive sight.

In every state, new district maps are drawn every ten years, after the Census. For the last two decades, with each set of maps, Pennsylvania has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the nation. And therefore our legislature—the largest paid one in the country—does very little. It passes few bills. It takes lots of recesses. It even avoids matters that seemingly ought to be bipartisan, such as lead in drinking water. (We have 18 cities with more lead than Flint, Michigan, but that statistic can’t get the lead out of the legislature.)

Though gerrymandering has been around since 1812, it’s worse than ever because of two tools that have come into play in this century: Big Data, which allows map drawers to pinpoint the locations of each party’s voters, and inexpensive mapping software, which makes it easy to output a map that meets whatever biased criteria you input. In 2011 an obscure GOP strategist named Thomas Hofeller helped Republicans draw maps that would ensure their domination of both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state’s congressional seats. Unfortunately, they got so greedy that the state Supreme Court—after it turned Democratic in 2015—threw out the congressional maps, though the warped districts for state House and state Senate remained.

When maps are redrawn this year, Pennsylvania will face an odd situation. For the congressional maps, Republicans still have an initial advantage. Re-elected in their gerrymandered districts, they still control both houses of the state legislature, and the new maps will be drawn by their caucus leaders, presumably in secret. However, the legislation establishing the new maps has to be signed by the governor, a Democrat. Standoff? You bet. Though compromise has been anathema to both sides lately, that seems to be the only possible outcome.

For state House and state Senate maps, the process is entirely different. A five-member Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) draws up the maps, and the governor has no say in the matter. The LRC is composed of the majority and minority leaders of both House and Senate, or their designates—that’s two Democrats and two Republicans—plus a fifth member, the chair. The fifth member can be chosen by agreement among the first four. Of course they won’t agree, and in that case the fifth member, the deciding vote, is appointed by the state Supreme Court, which is now—as noted above—dominated by Democrats. Thus we’re poised for a Democratic gerrymander, vengeance for what the Republicans did in 2011.

For years now, Fair Districts has backed legislation to stop gerrymandering by either party. So far, the majority Republicans in Harrisburg have resisted, even though their own seats will be subject to Democrats’ revenge. It seems like pure stupidity, doesn’t it? Sometimes I think it’s an Alamo mentality. These old white guys see themselves as Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie defending the Alamo. The place is surrounded by Santa Anna’s troops, but will they negotiate? No way! They’ll go down in glory, six-guns blazing, coonskin caps perched jauntily on their bloodied skulls.

If Republicans are being so obstinate, what about the Democrats? Some progressive Dems do agree that redistricting ought to be fair, but many of the leaders hesitate to embrace such a radical idea. Reportedly, one Democratic lawmaker has stated, “We bought the Supreme Court [via big political contributions in the 2015 judicial elections], and now we’re going to get our money’s worth.” Another, who represents a high-poverty, mostly African American district, has told FDPA folks that he can’t afford to worry about fairness when his constituents are dying.

That last comment gave me pause. In many ways he’s right: Democratic priorities often involve a fight for life itself. Cops killing young black men. Rampant gun violence. Industries spewing deadly pollutants in minority districts. The opioid epidemic. Not to mention food insecurity in what is supposedly the richest nation on earth. Crummy education because of underfunded schools. Climate change, which will cripple us all if we don’t do something fast.

It’s very tempting, then, to say, “Let’s accept a Democratic gerrymander so we can fix these problems. Once we get that done, we can worry about ‘fairness.’”

But there’s a flaw in that reasoning. The big issues that concern Democrats don’t lend themselves to easy fixes. We can’t pass one bill, or even a dozen, that will end poverty, repair the schools, get guns off the streets, reform the police, etc. etc. These problems require long-term, sustained action, and to accomplish that we need buy-in from both parties, which is not likely until we give politicians a motive to actually do their jobs by making them accountable once more to the people at large rather than to their party leaders.

Take school funding as one example. Our Democratic governor has proposed a budget with additional money for struggling public schools like those in Philadelphia. Our Republican legislature has already dismissed the idea. With a Democratic gerrymander we’d change the balance of power in House and Senate. We’d be able to pass an education-friendly budget for the next ten years—and wouldn’t that represent long-term progress? A full decade to fix the schools! Only problem: the state will elect a new governor next year. Since PA has a habit of alternating parties in the statehouse, there’s a good chance that the next governor will be a Republican who’ll veto any Democratic initiatives. Controlling the legislature will be a hollow victory for Democrats. Moreover, as we’ve seen on a national level with Obamacare, extreme partisanship means that any substantive action by one party gets “weaponized” by the other. Can you imagine the Republican rhetoric if Democrats raise taxes to benefit public schools? You don’t have to be a high-paid political consultant to write the attack ads.

In the end, I come back to the idea of fairness on which Fair Districts was founded. The best road for progress is the high road. Or, as the adage puts it, honesty is the best policy. For the Democrats—my party, dammit—what’s most right is also most practical.

Will the Democrats listen to this complicated reasoning or opt for the easy, short-term advantage? Will Republicans realize that, instead of dying in the Alamo, they could mosey out the back door?

Stay tuned for the exciting news from the state where the USA was born.

Baseball Magic

April 15, 2020

For those, like me, who are pining for baseball during our quarantine, a just-published story of mine relates to the game: “The Magic Ball,” included in the April 2020 anthology Onward! issued by Wordrunner eChapbooks.

I have to admit that the story doesn’t include much about the game itself, but it does feature a single signed baseball that has magic in it. Maybe.

You can download a PDF of the entire anthology at the main page. The publishers also invite comments on their Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the Phillies, my home team, remain undefeated.

Many triggers

November 4, 2019

A story of mine has just appeared in Storgy Magazine, with a very appropriate illustration.

Those who know me may be amazed that a rose could be relevant to any of my fictions. It is truly so, however. You’ll have to read the story to find out why. Click on the image to go to the Storgy site.

Trigger warnings: gruesomeness, religiousness, anti-religiousness, dysfunctional family, gunfire. And probably others I haven’t noticed.

Many thanks to the editors of Storgy who somehow weren’t triggered.

Sirens

December 21, 2018

On certain days in the city, they seem almost continuous, always in the background, waxing or waning, closing in or fading. Police sirens. Fire trucks. Ambulances. Maybe I imagine them when they aren’t there. But they always have to be there, don’t they?—because at any given moment, there must be an emergency somewhere.

Just as the dog says when he refuses to go out: “I don’t care if the sun is shining here, I hear thunder somewhere.”

Whether the threat is real or imagined, I imagined a character for whom it’s both imagined and real, and she’s in the Adelaide Awards Anthology for 2018, in a story called “Sirens.” If you can tolerate the interface called Anyflip, you can read for free here, starting on p. 77: http://online.anyflip.com/fypa/nifd/mobile/index.html

If you find Anyflip unbearably annoying, just flip it one and go listen to sirens on your own. They’re everywhere, like the thunder. 

Fundamentals

January 11, 2011

“Oddly, I may have less of a clear and distinct sense of myself now than at any time in my life. Even odder, I do not find this especially disconcerting, since it seems perfectly in harmony with how I have come to look upon life and the world: as things we do not come near to understanding, for all our philosophy and science. I have become enthralled over how unanswerable the fundamental questions of being are.” —from Frank Wilson’s column at When Falls the Coliseum

Holiday blues and greens

December 30, 2010

Relatives enjoying Christmas appetizers at the Gridley residence; note high-class footwear and napkins

 

The week between Christmas and New Year’s has long been for me a time of increasing sadness. The feeling goes back, I suppose, to the childhood malaise when all the presents have been opened, explored, exhausted, their magic reduced to mundanity, and a new trove of toys can’t be expected until one’s birthday. Partly, too, it’s the letdown after any big festivity, especially one accompanied by too much food.

Yet by the time I’d reached my thirties, I was also sensing a difference in character between the two holidays that bookend the Ameri-Christian winter celebration. For all its commercialization, Christmas remains a family day, when you hug relatives you barely remember and enjoy the warmth of an extended clan along with Aunt Kay’s mince, apple, pumpkin, and lemon meringue pies. (How did she ever bake so many?) New Year’s Eve, in contrast, is the quintessential party/dating time, the night of silly noisemakers when we get dressed up, get drunk, and strive to get laid. For a wallflower who was terrible at drinking and partying, the choice was clear. Christmas I loved; New Year’s I detested. All those people having fun on New Year’s—I looked down my bumpy, nerdy nose at them.

Moreover, to the extent that my secular soul could be moved by religious images and music, I always found the tale of Christ’s birth and death haunting and poignant, and this added to my enjoyment of Christmas. New Year’s was empty revelry, with no redeeming content. Party hats, streamers—bah, humbug.

Recently it occurred to me that Judaism puts its important days in a better order. The High Holy Days in the fall start with the New Year and slide inexorably toward Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, so that, in a sense, you end the holiday season on a downer. But it’s a meaningful downer, and after fasting, confessing, and perhaps participating in all five traditional prayer services, you should feel enlightened and unburdened. Unlike Christians, who exit the holidays with a hangover.

In an attempt to bring a serious note into New Year’s, then, I’ll quote from my favorite Christian holiday lyrics, which mix Christmas and New Year’s references in a philosophical blend. In his review of a recent Piffaro concert, Tom Purdom mentioned how much he admired these sixteenth-century verses. To the tune of Greensleeves:

The old year now away is fled,
The new year it is enterèd;
Then let us now our sins downtread,
And joyfully all appear.
Let’s merry be this day,
And let us all both sport and play.
Hang grief, cast care away.
God send you a happy new year!

The name day now of Christ we keep,
Who for our sins did often weep.
His hands and feet were wounded deep,
And his blessèd side, with a spear.
His head they crowned with thorn,
And at him they did laugh and scorn,
Who for our good was born.
God send us a happy New Year!

And now with New Year’s gifts each friend
Unto each other they do send;
God grant we may all our lives amend,
And that the truth may appear.
Now, like the snake, your skin
Cast off of evil thoughts and sin,
And so the year begin:
God send you a happy new year!

Pondering Philip Hensher

August 9, 2010

Sheffield by Lewis Skinner (detail), Wikimedia Commons

Been reading The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensher, recommended a couple of years ago by a friend who follows the Man Booker nominees. Feeling so strangely about it that I checked Goodreads to see what others are saying online. Not only are opinions mixed. but a number of readers, like me, seem to be struggling with their own reactions.

The long saga of two very ordinary, and on the surface boring, English families, The Northern Clemency opens in the 1970s and advances with great ponderousness into later decades. The writing is vivid, though too decorative for my taste, and the characters turn out to be mildly interesting—at long last, after the reader has become even more fed up than they are with their tedious lives. Obviously, since I’ve kept reading for nearly 600 pages now (of more than 700), it’s not the tedium that makes me ambivalent. Nor is it that the characters are mostly unlikeable as human beings.

One of my problems, I think, is the sheer moment-to-moment unpleasantness of the daily life and the environment, as Hensher describes them and as the characters experience them. Here’s a passage from early in the book when the Sellers family, transplanted from London, first encounters Sheffield:

“‘This will have been cleared by bombs,’ Bernie [the father] said, ‘these gardens, in the war. See where the old buildings stop and the new ones start? They’ll have been bombed during the war because of the steel, see?’ Francis [the son] looked around and it was right: a ripped-out space had been created, a kind of shapeless acreage, and into it, dropped in as exactly as false teeth, were new and extravagant buildings, the egg-box, a building with brass globes protruding from its top floor, others whose smoked mirrors for windows made no allowances towards the church-like blackened solemnity of the old town hall, a figure poised heroically above the entrance like Eros.”

The false teeth and the egg-box, jumbled in with a strange allusion to Eros (as a hero? on a public building??), give the scene a faintly revolting tinge. Now, I’d be the last to defend postwar architecture wherever it happened to be plopped. Granted, too, these are Londoners who don’t yet (and may never) appreciate the North. Yet it feels like the author’s own disgust must be creeping in. The first several hundred pages of the novel have so many passages of this variety that the narrative seems to be overhung with a fetid gas.

Thankfully, in later chapters, as certain of the annoying, pedestrian characters fumble into an everyday brand of heroism (with little help from Eros), the author’s lip seems less firmly curled. Here he describes a hidden wooded area from the point of view of Daniel Glover, a young man who seemed irredeemable at the start of the novel:

“He loved the summer here; loved the hover of the dragonflies over the soupy surface of the river’s pools in summer; loved those clouds of gnats like a hot fog about your head, clustering under the stickiest trees; loved the underwater hover, like a mirroring of the dragonfly hover above, of the sticklebacks, and the occasional glimpse of a bigger fish, or the thought of a bigger fish as the surface of the water gulped like a hiccup, and it must have been a carp, perhaps, taking an insect.”

There’s little conventional beauty here, and still much to repel, but we understand why Daniel loves the area, and we see that it has attributes that might be loved. Much like the ungainly, sticky, soupy characters themselves, perhaps.

Did Hensher consciously manipulate his prose to lead us on a long journey from ickiness through resignation into appreciation? Or did his style simply mellow as his characters and their actions grew less loathsome?

Enough speculation; got to finish the book.

(Later update: Reached the end. Still ambivalent. A bit of sensationalism late in the book felt arbitrary, unnecessary to the plot, making me realize that after hundreds of pages I had little sense of what the characters would do next. This uncertainty is probably true to life, but annoying in a novel. Shouldn’t a literary work have more logic than the messy world out there?)

The Quiet Style

July 29, 2010

Following up my last post praising Susan Darraj for her “quiet style,” I thought I should develop that idea, so I went searching on my bookshelves for a good example. Now, my shelves haven’t been organized since the room was painted more than a decade ago (and my wife and I still quarrel about whose fault that is), so my choice here is almost random. But when I spotted a novel by William Trevor lying sideways in a heap, I figured that’d be a good source, and I found a likely passage in less than three minutes, early in the book when Trevor describes two servants in a once-grand house:

Favouring black in clothes worn tightly, accentuating plumpness, Zenobia has soft hazel eyes in a soft face, her cheeks streaked like two good apples, her hair flecked with the grey her forty-nine years demand. In contrast, her husband is a hawk-faced man, dark-jowled and lankly made, his servant’s wear—black also—completing the priestly look he cultivates. [His] interest is the turf.
—from Chapter 1 of Death in Summer

It’s a simple paragraph that offers a vivid picture of the two characters, and look how Trevor constructs it: with a dead metaphor, a semi-resurrected one, and a single but homely live one.

The dead one: As you sped over “hawk-faced,” did you even picture a hawk?

The semi-resurrected one: Trevor plays on the dead metaphor “apple-cheeked,” bringing it partly back to life as “cheeks streaked like two good apples.” He gets us to see the healthy redness there and also the variegation, the smudginess of a human complexion. (With the subordinate implication that good apples themselves are streaky, an appetizing thought. We might also explore “good apple” in the sense of good person, but let’s not get too deconstructionist here.)

The live one: Though “priestly look” isn’t quite dead as a phrase, it’s so ordinary and quiet that it scarcely functions as a comparison until it plays off against the man’s predilection for the horses. It’s the implied contrast, not the metaphor itself, that most strikes us.

To me, this is just plain good writing, and few writers practice it. Far too often I pick up a highly praised book only to find that the author bedecks nearly every sentence with gaudy metaphors that dangle like jewels around the plump arm or creamy throat of a Hollywood starlet, shimmering and dancing, demanding such attention that, distracted by the glitter, stumbling like a sleepwalker through this film producer’s lavish party, I forget to notice what, in the midst of such glamor, has in fact been said or implied, leaving my dreaming mind suspended in the bright-speckled, alcohol-fumed air (not to mention the syntax) until I’m as befuddled as the young but wizened man who sits in the corner with a glare malty as the Scotch he nurses in his bone-pale hands.

Some people like that kind of clutter. Some writers, to give them credit, can pull it off, for a while at least. But as a reader I tire after a few pages. What’s the point? Does every clause need decoration? Is this world of ours, or the world of the story, so colorless that it has to be tarted up?

Thank you, Mr. Trevor, and the small class of others who preserve the quiet style.

Creating a World

July 17, 2010

Recently I finished The Inheritance of Exile, a book of closely linked short stories I had the good fortune to buy from the author herself, Susan Muaddi Darraj, at a local book fair. Published by the University of Notre Dame Press in 2007, it was a finalist in the AWP award series and picked up some good reviews, but it deserves more attention.

Set in South Philadelphia, the stories center on four young Palestinian American women, friends whose lives intertwine. Each character is given a section of the book, three or four stories, and in each section one of the tales focuses on the young woman’s mother. Shifting the point of view back to the parents’ generation is a great technique; it helps the reader put the young people’s struggles in perspective.

No violent dramas occur in this book. In fact, the conflicts are somewhat predictable—the traditions from the old country versus the demands of modern American culture, the identity problems of those caught between. The young women are also pretty damn nice, for South Phillyites. None of them gets into drugs. None of them goes so far as to slap her nagging mother. None even gets a tattoo. So the action is tame, you could say.

Yet the stories add up to far more than the sum of their plots. A world slowly emerges as the young people’s lives grow from and envelop those of their mothers, and it feels genuine.

I also admire the author’s quiet style. There’s so much showmanship in contemporary fiction that I find myself drawn to writers who can create a strong scene without overloading it with too-clever metaphors. Here’s the beginning of the story “An Afternoon in Jerusalem”:

“I wondered if I should do the melodramatic thing and burn Kareem’s picture. That’s what would happen in an Arabic soap opera, with an actress, her eyes lined Cleopatra-style (à la Liz Taylor) with kohl, sniffling as she set a match to the photo of her heartless lover, the flame reflecting dramatically against her hennaed hair. An American soap actress would do the same, tossing it into the fireplace and watching the flames lick and blacken his fair skin and blond hair. But my apartment didn’t have a fireplace, and besides, I needed to do something unscripted, hard, real, something that maybe hurt, like bursting a blister before the white liquid inside made it explode. It was still pain, but at least you held the pin.”

That bursting metaphor at the end is uncharacteristic of Darraj, but she earns it, building up through a series of vivid pictures. And though I might object that ignored blisters rarely “explode,” the image of lancing your own wound makes perfect dramatic sense here, leading into a story in which the narrator figures out how to puncture her inflamed memories of deceitful Kareem.

These are fine stories, combining to make an even better book, and reminding us that the best way to create a fictional world is often through the commonplace, the daily, the unadorned.

Props to New Jersey

July 12, 2010

Today my editor at New Door Books informed me that the first advance order for my new novel, The Shame of What We Are, has been received—from a person in New Jersey.

The buyer’s address is appropriate because, after a short Prologue, the book begins in Camden in 1951, where the nerdy five-year-old protagonist, Art Dennison, sets out on his tricycle to discover the world. Already trying to escape his family, he’s going to spend his life pedaling from one disaster to another, though he doesn’t know that yet.

My own memories of New Jersey are somewhat ambivalent. For instance:

  • As a young editor working in Manhattan, I took the bus home to our apartment in Jersey. One time, absorbed in reverie, or perhaps in revenge fantasies about my boss, I missed my stop and didn’t get out until the next town over. I had no idea where I was: some other town tucked between cloverleaf intersections.
  • My son was born while we lived in Jersey. Leaving wife and son in the hospital, I drove home to get some sleep, and next morning found the car and the roads so iced in I couldn’t get anywhere–an immediate comeuppance for someone determined not to be as “absent” as his own father had been. In retrospect, the ensuing phone conversation must have been funny: the young husband claiming he’d tried his mightiest to be with his wife and child, but the roads were just impassable; the young wife sounding patient but perhaps wondering if this was a sign of things to come; the baby blissfully indifferent.
  • Young liberal arts majors, we knew nothing about home maintenance and repair. Thus, when the ceiling of our apartment dripped a bit after a rain, we thought little of it. The next day, half the ceiling fell on us. I think this was after the baby came home. He probably realized right away that his parents’ understanding of the world left much to be desired.

Since settling in Philadelphia, I’ve developed a great respect for the state on the other side of the Delaware River. It is, at the very least, a buffer between us and the Mets. And now, I discover, the state likes my book. Thank you, New Jersey!!

(For those who don’t get the soup-can image: Camden has long been the home of Campbell’s, and in the memory of some old-time residents, large swaths of the city used to smell faintly of tomato soup.)