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Countdown to Trail Wood

July 4, 2020

It is nearly here…my very first writing residency. I will report to Trail Wood  this Sunday morning, and it will become my temporary home until the following Saturday.  It is a first for me.  I am nearly ready–I have selected the incomplete works I want to focus upon, brought plenty of paper for new works,  and of course, selected the music I want to write to (essential to my process).

What follows is the artist statement I sent in with my application, which should give you an idea of how I will be using the time…

Teale Beaver Pond

As a child, the beginning of the summer meant something more to me than simply the end of the school year.  It meant I was going to spend the summer with my grandfather.  A few days after the final bell I would be in a car or plane headed from my suburban San Diego home to the distant reaches of Duck Valley, Nevada.  My grandfather lived there on the Western Shoshone reservation, a proud tribal elder.  Living with him was like being transported to another world.   Of the many things he taught me was how to be an “Indian”–to live “En Dios,” to live “With God.”  His interpretation of this meant to live with nature.

Through his tutelage, I began to understand that truly living with nature didn’t simply mean the science of living in harmony with the environment.  It also implied the concepts of respect for land rights, spiritual practice, and a sense one oneness with the sacred. If any of these were denied to a group of people, there could be no true stewardship.  This notion is not only key to understanding the Native relationship with ecology; I think it is a key component for anyone striving to understand their role in the natural world.

It is my plan to explore my grandfather’s teachings at my stay in Trail Wood.  Being immersed in that environment and reflecting on the works of Edwin Way Teale have reminded me so much of the discussions my grandfather and I once shared.  The writings I have submitted are the beginnings of a book that will share the lessons of nature and life I absorbed from my grandfather.  The book will contain poetry, prose pieces, and journal entries about both the human relationship with ecology and a boy’s affection for his grandfather.

So now I have to do it.  I’m excited to see what happens.

Note: Trail Wood, by design, lacks any internet or wi-fi connection, so you will not hear from me until I return.  I expect to write daily journal entries of my experiences, but they will actually appear in this blog the following week.

Storytelling Workshop: “Leviathan”

May 31, 2020

This was the story I told in my first ever story slam (a virtual one) on May 15.  The topic was food.  I would find out a few days later that my story won the slam, meaning I am headed to the next level of competition at the end of the year.  

I had never heard a real explosion before.

Of course, you hear them on t.v. and in movies, and you think that’s what they sound like. Until you hear a real one.

It was September 25, 1978, just before 9 a.m.  I was in Mr. Mikholan’s sixth grade class, sitting at my desk next to Sandra Van Den Akker doing math problems.  I didn’t like math very much, but I liked Sandra–mostly because she smelled vaguely of coconut. 

The explosion hit just after nine. It was louder than a thunderclap and shook the entire school.  A couple of the students in my class were actually knocked out of their seats.  It was San Diego, California, and even though we were only in sixth grade, we knew what an earthquake felt like.  And this wasn’t it.

Mr. Mikholan had been both my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and I knew him well enough to know that he had earned two purple hearts during the second world war. We all turned to him and he didn’t look the least bit worried, or the least bit anxious.  Indeed, Mr. Mikholan did what he always did–he told a corny joke.

“Don’t worry,”  he said.  “Someone next door just dropped their pencil.”

We laughed, nervously, not because we believed him, or because it was funny, but because we thought that if Mr. Mikholan was calm, then everything was going to be all right.

That thought didn’t last.  Mrs. Lee from across the hall ran in and announced to all of us that she “Had just seen a plane crash!”

PSA Flight 182 Crash Animation - YouTube

We all filed over into Mrs. Lee’s class and stared out her window at a pillar of black smoke.  The window was the complete length of the classroom–and all you could see was the smoke.  Later we would discover it was a mushroom cloud, but we were too close to see any shape. 

Pacific Southwest Airlines flight 182 collided with a Cessna in the skies over San Diego, and the Boeing 727 crashed down to the earth taking the lives of 144 people.  It landed four blocks from my elementary school.

I walked home in a daze–the whole neighborhood seemed to be in a trance.  We could still see the cloud of smoke from every direction.  It smelled of burned metal, plastic, and other things that did not seem familiar.  We would later hear of stories about neighbors finding chunks of fuselage on their rooftops, body parts in their backyards.

When I got home, I was alone.  That was unusual, because my mother was usually there.  I looked around the house and the yard, but there was no sign of her.  I called a couple of her friends and finally found her at Elsie’s.  “I’m sorry, I couldn’t stay at the house alone.  Not on a day like today.  Are you all right on your own until I get back?”

I didn’t know how to reply, so I just said “Sure.”  After she hung up, I tried my dad at his apartment, but there was no answer. I stood in the living room, with no idea of  what else to do, where to go, or even what room I should be in. 
It was then that Guy Valencic and Mike Snyder showed up with their gloves and balls and asked, ‘Hey, you want to go play double-plays?”  And I said, “Sure.”  I grabbed my glove, and we played in front of Guy’s house, because what else was there to do?

We played for a while, and hardly talked to each other–until we noticed cars would slow down near us, and drivers would lean out their windows and ask, “Hey, do you know where the plane crash site is?”  We were so pissed off that these strangers would come into our neighborhood to be voyeurs to our grief that we started lying to the drivers and giving them false directions.

After a while, we didn’t want to play anymore, so we decided to head home.  It was dinner time, and there was no sign of my mom, but I knew my father would now be at work.  I called him there.

“Do you have anything to eat?”

“Sure, “ I said, “but I don’t know how to cook any of it. I’m afraid to try.”  

“Okay,” he said. “I’m going to try and get off early.”

Early turned out to be 11 p.m., so there we were at a fast food restaurant called Jack in the Box at 11:30 at night.  I was eleven years old on a school night, and I had a chocolate shake, a burger with two patties, and a plate full of french fries–the kind of meal my father would have never let me have on a normal day.

We talked about baseball, about the new Superman movie, about Sandra Van Den Akker smelling vaguely of coconut–we talked about anything but the leviathan that had fallen from the sky that morning.

**********

A few months later, I was at my father’s apartment and we were watching the news.  The newscaster announced that investigators had located the black box recording from flight 182’s cockpit.  The news station plated some of the tape. 

There is only one part of the tape I remember. The pilot was flying inverted, with a wing on fire, knowing he was moments from his own death. He spoke with a calmness that I imagine wasn’t much different when he ordered his breakfast from the flight attendant an hour earlier.

“That’s a school. I’m going to try to get us to the freeway.  I’m not letting this thing come down on a school.”

I shut the television off and turned to my father.

“Can we go get some ice cream?  Please?”

Storytelling Workshop: “Lost”

May 14, 2020

This is a written adaptation of the first story I told in the storytelling workshop.

I cannot believe he picked me.

It was Sunday morning, the last day of the camping trip.   I had finished packing my gear, when I heard someone shout my name.

It was the voice of the most senior scout in the troop–an intense 17 year old Eagle named Buck.  It didn’t take long for newbies like me to realize that Troop 18 was Buck’s troop.  I was 12 years old, and it was my first camping trip as a boy scout.  We were in the Anza Borrego desert, about 100 miles east of San Diego.  

Spotlight: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park | Visit California

This was a real camping trip–tents with dirt floors, cooking over a fire, strange insects.  I was embedded with a group of boys and adults I hardly knew.  I had hoped my father would have been able to join us, but he had to work, so I met up with the other fifteen or so scouts (along with Mr. Roth, the scoutmaster)  at a local church, accompanied by a sleeping bag, a couple changes of underwear, and not much else.

Of course, I brought the one thing I couldn’t leave behind if my life depended on it:  my stammer.

I spent most of the camping trip using the same method of survival that propelled me relatively unscathed through elementary school:  I didn’t say a word.  I listened, I paid close attention, but never spoke.  You learn very early not to draw attention to your stammer–it tries the patience of even those who are kind, and makes you the subject of ridicule by those who are not.

So even though it was Sunday morning, and not one of the other scouts knew what my voice sounded like, Buck at least knew my name.   “We’re going to do a hike.  Come along.”

The plan was this: The hikers would follow the Anza Borrego trial for twenty miles to the town of Ocotillo.  The rest of the troop would break camp and drive to Ocotillo in Mr. Roth’s Chevy van.   After meeting up, we’d  begin our return trip to San Diego. 

At 8 a.m., we began our march south.  I looked around and realized that the hikers were Buck, two of the senior scouts called Paul and Tom…and me.

We crossed state route two, maneuvering past cactus, cat claw, crucifixion thorn, and creosote bush.   We spotted desert cottontail, antelope squirrel, and kangaroo rat.  Buck pointed out every animal, often stopping abruptly when something popped into his peripheral vision.  He seemed to be an expert on every creature we encountered.  “Did you know the kangaroo rat can jump six feet? They also don’t have to drink.  They metabolize water from the seeds that they eat.” 

After about two hours, a crossroads.  We paused to devour our bag lunches. While the other scouts were packing up tents, dumping water on the campfire, and cramming into Mr. Roth’s Chevy van, we were in the shadow of the Pinyon mountains, far away from the campsite, far away from anyone, surrounded by desert agave and cool rats that could jump six feet, munching potato chips underneath a clear, blue October sky.  I didn’t want to seem weird, but I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.  Luckily, my companions seemed not to notice. 

“So, I think we should go left,”  announced Buck.  “Through the badlands.”

The Badlands? That’s the place Mr. Roth described. That’s the part of the desert eroded over the years by wind and water, leaving behind a labyrinthine network of hills and rocks.  The place Mr. Roth specifically told us not to hike, pointing out how disorienting the terrain can be.  We could easily get lost. 

“You got your compass?,” asked Tom.

“No,” replied Buck.  “I don’t need a compass.”  

Paul turned to me and asked, “What do you think, Kevin?  Should we go to the badlands?”  

No, I thought to myself, we should not!  We were told not to, and none of us has a compass.  This is a terrible idea!  So, I scanned all three faces and I…nodded. 

It would be fine, I thought to myself.  These are the senior guys, the veterans.  We’ll go through the badlands, reunite with the troop, and have a cool story that only I would get to share with Tom, Paul and Buck

I was going to love Boy Scouts.

We reached the badlands.  We climbed the first hill, took in the painted desert scenery, before racing down to the next hill, and then back up to the top of the next.  The Pinyons were still at our backs, right where they were supposed to be.

But then, as we worked our way through the badlands, the Pinyons began to shift.  They fell further away as expected, but no longer behind.  They moved to the left, then seemed to be almost in front of us, before shifting back again.  It was my first time hiking, but even I knew geography was not supposed to behave this way.

I looked at Buck, who no longer seemed relaxed, and had long ceased commenting on the terrain and the wildlife.  We climbed back up the hill before us, paused and looked around.  

The only thing you could see in any direction was the badlands.  

“We need to go left.”  Buck tried to sound more sure than he was as he headed off.  Unsure of what else to do, we followed.  We were supposed to meet the rest of the troop at two–it was now 1:30.  Maybe we’d still get there in time.  

We hiked another twenty minutes, and finally had some good news.  We were out of the badlands.  But now where were we?

I could no longer locate the Pinyons behind us.  Were they now in front of us, or was that a completely different mountain range?  Even the familiar scenery seemed to change–the types of plants, the heaviness of the sand, even the wind shifted direction.  

Buck continued to trudge ahead, and we followed.  It was now a little after three, and I began to hope that soon we’d turn the corner, see route two, and Mr. Roth’s Chevy van.  But we continued to walk.

It was 4:00, then 5, then 6.  It was getting closer to 7, and we were no closer to where we were supposed to be.  There were no roads, no trails, no hermits living in trailers for whom we could ask directions.  

Finally at around eight, we decided to stop.  It was dark, and though we had flashlights, we’d been hiking twelve hours. 

I finished whatever scraps of food I had and slurped up the last bits of water at the base of my canteen.  We found a spot to lay down.  I tried not to think about tarantulas, scorpions, or snakes.  We weren’t going to be there all night, we decided.  Just a few hours to rest, then we’d head on.  I closed my eyes, then heard the sound of an engine in the distance.  All of us popped up to look around where it was coming from.  Not on the ground, from the sky.  From the east?  Is that east?  If we knew that, we wouldn’t be lost.  

The sound got louder, and the red lights began to cut through the night sky. A cessna flew over where we laid. We jumped up and pulled out our flashlights to try and signal it. Was this our rescue?  Could the plane land here on the desert floor, then whisk us off to warmth, food, and safety?  The other boys screamed and yelled, desperately waving their hands. I hoped it would turn and circle around, so I frantically tried to guide it back to us. 

But it flew off into the night.

I dropped my head back down, and closed my eyes.  I could hear little creatures darting around in the darkness–their feet scrambling on the desert floor, the bushes rustling, the cries of the night birds.   

And then, the screams.  What was that?  Was that a baby? Why would there be babies screaming in the middle of the desert?  It’s definitely more than one.  Finally, the realization:  coyotes.  And they seemed to be getting closer.

We decided that was plenty of rest, and it was clearly time to resume our hike.

There were other planes that flew over that we again attempted to signal, to no avail.

We spotted a light tower, several hundred feet high, and decided to head in it’s direction until we noticed that the more we moved towards it, it seemed to drift further and further away.

We returned to our previous route, because Buck said so.  I was tired of Buck saying so, but Tom and Paul wouldn’t challenge them.  And of course, I kept silent.  

It was about an hour later  that we noticed the smoke.  A huge billow of white smoke, lit by red and yellow lights. My first thought was that maybe a spaceship had landed, and we would round out our sixteen hour hike with a close encounter.  As we descended the hill, it turned out to be much more terrestrial:  a plaster factory.  

We had reached Plaster City.  It was now 12:30 in the morning. We would discover later that we had hiked nearly 40 miles.  

We wandered into Plaster City, which seemed to be nothing more than the factory, a parking lot, and a bar–called, very appropriately, the Plaster City Bar.

The bar had a pay phone so Buck called his home.  A brief conversation with his mother, and then another dime to reach the Ocotillo Fire Department.  After Buck got off the phone, he let us know that Mr. Roth was coming to get us.  We would learn later that about 80 vehicles, several airplanes and a couple of hundred volunteers had scoured the desert looking for us. 

A half hour later, the Chevy van pulled up in front of the bar. The rest of the troop was already home, asleep in their beds.

Behind the van was a blue impala that looked remarkably like my Dad’s car.  Mr. Roth emerged from the van, and his whole body seemed to sigh in relief at the sight of us.  

My Dad appeared behind Mr Roth. Normally, I would have run to my father and leapt into his arms, but I couldn’t move. I stood there like a statue, perhaps one frozen in plaster.  Finally, my father approached, and pulled me into an embrace.  He kissed me gently on the head and asked, “Are you done?”

We climbed into the car, and my father pulled up to an intersection.  He squinted at the road signs, and seemed unsure of which way to turn.

With some effort, I managed to summon my voice–the voice I had kept silent for nearly sixty hours: 

“Don’t go left.”

 

A Class on Storytelling

May 12, 2020

A few weeks ago, Darlene and I decided to take a virtual class.  Given the shelter-in-place, and the fact we were both distance learning instructors, we thought we’d use the time to actually learn something ourselves.  Best of all, it was something we could do together.  Darlene found a class offered by the Hudson Valley Story Workshops on the fine art of performance storytelling–the sort of thing you experience listening to The Moth.

We both enjoy this type of storytelling, and even attended a storytelling event in Hartford a couple of years back wherein our friend Anne Stuart was one of the performers/storytellers.  We also thought it would be a fun way to deepen our writing skills.  It was three weeks long, and the price was right, so we went for it.

It turns out we were the only two in the class, which means we had instructors Christina (the literary one) and Caitlin (the theatrical one) all to ourselves.  We quickly learned that this type of storytelling is a very different from the writing to which we are both accustomed.

otf web image

One of the things you become very adept at as an author is the selection of words.  A great deal of time and energy is spent ensuring that each word, each description, each phrase, and every line of dialogue is carefully and precisely chosen.  Not so for this form of writing, because you aren’t writing something, and then reading it.  You are also not memorizing it.  You are telling it.  And that difference is crucial.

Like most stories, those that are performed have three basic elements:  theme, stakes, and an arc for the main character (thanks, Aristotle!).  When you settle on a story from your life you want to tell (and they are always from your life)  you figure out the elements.  If it doesn’t have one of those elements, it’s probably not a story–or at least, not a good one.

The next thing you find are your story points–you decide on a first line, your last line, and approximately five key story points that comprise the spine of your story.  Once you have that, you start practicing telling it.  Though this process, you discover what is essential and what is not. What merits more explanation, and what needs to be scaled down. That is essentially the extent of the writing process.  We were taught that if you know the elements, and your five points, you don’t need to memorize, or write your story out thoroughly.  Know your spine inside and out, then tell your story.

Darlene and I did write out our first assignments as if they were writing prompts–it felt like a good way to find the spine of our story if all of it was on the table  That did work, but I also found it difficult to trust the spine of my story–I was still attached to my word choices.  For our second assignment, we both focused on the spine, and didn’t write out our stores.  Sure enough, our stories, and our ability to tell them kicked up a notch.  This Friday, we will both be participating in our very first story slams!

For the next two blog posts, I will be adapting my stories into written form in order to share the experience with my readers.  Perhaps after public gatherings become a thing again, we will participate in non-virtual story slams, and there will be video to post.  But not just yet.

My First Residency

May 10, 2020

I recently learned that I had the good fortune to be selected as a writer-in-residence at Trail Wood–the historic home of Pulitzer prize winning naturalist Edwin Way Teale in Hampton, Connecticut.  It is the first time I have been awarded a writing residency and I will spend my week there this summer.

Trail Wood is owned and managed by the Connecticut Audubon Society, so the property Teale lived and wrote in is now a nature preserve.  There are a few miles of trails (connecting to a lengthy rail-to-trail project), and two ponds–one impressively managed by a colony of beavers.  Eighty eight species of birds have been identified at the preserve.

During the residency, I will be able to live in Teale’s home, and will have free reign to roam the grounds of the preserve.  Teale’s writing cabin is also accessible, and I understand he recreated it to the exact specifications of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  To be honest, the cabin is not that inviting–you will most likely find my during the day at a gazebo or a bench near one of the ponds.

Trail-Wood30665The Teale home at Trail Wood

Trail Wood is also 4.6 miles from the We-Lik-It Ice Cream stand.  You will likely find me there in the evening, rewarding myself for a productive day.

The residency will culminate with an autumn event entitled “Trail Wood Under the Harvest Moon.”  This will be a reception, open to the public at local Audubon center. Each writer and artist will share a sample of their work to culminate and celebrate the works created over the summer.

My application for the residency included several poems written about my Shoshone heritage.   It is my plan to begin to weave these poems into a book that would also be part journal and part memoir, based on my life on the reservation and the lessons on living harmoniously with nature I learned from my grandfather.

I am curious to see how the project will come together, as I have been focused largely on script writing over the last fifteen years.  A book project based upon poetry and prose will be a wonderful challenge, one that will flex different writing muscles.  I am excited to see where the residency helps me take the project.

Here is a link that tells you more about the Trail Wood and the Residency.

 

No Time To Mourn

March 26, 2020

It all started with a call from Meredith the hairdresser.  My mother made an appointment that week, and she hadn’t shown up. She hadn’t called to cancel, and Meredith had been unable to reach her.  She was growing worried, and left a voicemail for me hoping there was a simple explanation.  I hadn’t realized my mother had left an emergency contact number with her hairdresser—I didn’t know that was a thing.  I was also unaware that her emergency contact was me.

I called Meredith back, and she was already on the phone with the local police department.  Maybe she was visiting my sister and my aunt in California?  Maybe she was staying with friends somewhere and forgot to cancel?  I answered the questions with my own “maybe,” but I’m certain I didn’t sound convincing.  My mother, now living alone at age 82, didn’t travel anymore.  She didn’t go stay with friends.  And if you called her, she called you back. I promised Meredith and the police officer I would call both my mom’s numbers, my sister, and anyone else I could think of to see if they knew anything.  Meredith kindly hoped someone would know where Mom was.  I said–rather weakly, I imagine–me, too.

Of course, my sister and everyone else I reached out to had no idea.  No, I hadn’t heard from her.  Was going to call her this weekend.  Should I stop by?   Each response only strengthened my intuition about what had really happened.  I called the police officer back: no one has heard from her.  He respectfully asked my permission for a forced entry.  He didn’t actually need my permission, but I was grateful for the gesture.  I had a sense this wasn’t the first time the officer had been on a call like this.  He told me he’d call me back once he was inside.

I waited, clinging on to a tiny bit of hope provided by Meredith, that it was all some mistake.  But I knew what the officer would find.  The only questions was what room was she in.

Then the answer came:  the living room, in her favorite recliner.  It looked peaceful, the officer told me.

I called my sister back and gave her the news.  Seventeen years earlier, she had the unenviable task of telling me our father had passed.  This time, it was my job to tell her about Mom. I suppose there is some fairness in that.

Several more frantic phone calls, the location of a cheap flight online, and a trip down to my classroom to prepare six days of sub plans, and I was suddenly on my way to Colorado.  My sister would fly out from San Diego the same day, and Darlene would fly out from New York.  We would all connect at the airport in Denver.  Not the ideal circumstances for my sister and Darlene to meet, but life doesn’t always provide ideal circumstances. My sister’s husband would arrive the next night.  The good news is both my sister and I would be with the people we loved the most in the world.  We would both need it.

mom

My parents, sister and myself at Disneyland, summer 1972.

 

So the four of us were there ostensibly to mourn my mother’s passing, but there is no space for that.  Death is complicated in the developed world.  Sadly, we don’t have a culture that tells us, “take several days to mourn.  Visit with friends and family.  When she is buried, then you can take care of the business.”  No, the business comes first.

First, locate the will, and all of the other pertinent documents. Contact the bank, the credit card, the pension fund, the life insurance, social security, the mortgage company.  If you don’t, the creditors come after the next of kin.  If you don’t cancel the pensions and social security, they want to be refunded for any paid out after the death.  Then there’s the cable company, the electric company, the magazine subscriptions.  Economic lives are complicated, and they don’t unravel easily.   Your time is taken up with all of these tasks.  On the one hand, you feel useful, it gives you something to focus on.  On the other hand, you aren’t processing any of your grief.

Death is  also expensive.  Aside from bills you inherit as next of kin (bills always come before any assets inherited), you have to visit a funeral home.  The people at the funeral home are very nice, speak in soft voices, and say all the right things.  But they still wanted $2000 to cremate my mother.  As kind as they are, and as necessary as they are, they are still profiting from her death.  There’s no way that’s going to sit well with me.

Then comes the erasure.  The personal belongings have to go.  Multiple trips to Goodwill.  A call to the Restore to arrange furniture pick up.  A few items shipped home.  Food has to be eaten, and what cannot is thrown away.  Dumpsters get filled, and filled again. Each day that passes, more and more pieces of my mother’s personality are deleted: the furniture, the Monet and Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, the books, the magazines, the photographs, the crossword puzzles, the bear, frog, and cat themed chachkies.  All of the things that made it a home.  They all disappear gradually before your eyes, then before long you are standing in an empty home.

It’s not your home; you didn’t get to build it, but you get to take it apart.  A meeting with the realtor to arrange the sale of the home, and the dismantling is complete.  When you leave a house, you usually are on your way to someplace else.  You take your home with you.  Sure, things are in a different place, but you are still surrounded with the familiar. It’s on odd feeling to erase a home–especially one that isn’t yours.

None of the things that need to be done are really about mourning.  How do you mourn when you don’t have the time?

On the Electoral College

December 31, 2019

On occasion, I do use this blog to comment on social and political issues.  It usually occurs when I notice friends, colleagues and students asking my opinion on an issue.  I will share my thoughts below–albeit with more detail than I provide in conversation. I also have maps!

For years. one of the least controversial aspects of United States government one could teach was the Electoral College.  There appeared to be near universal agreement that the College was a terrible idea–a vestige from another time, useful to reinforce anti-democratic aspects of the original US Constitution, but of no real value in modern day America.  The only reasons it still existed was a) it seemed to always affirm the popular vote and b) few voters understood it well enough to find it objectionable.  

At times, it was hard to teach it with a straight face, and the questions from my students were as predictable as they were reasonable.  Why don’t we vote for the President directly? There really are 21 states where electors can vote for whomever they choose? How many times has that happened? (179).  What other countries run their elections like this? (Zero)

I also used to challenge my students:  try to explain the electoral college to one of the exchange students. Good luck!   I would also point out that when Presidents talk about “spreading democracy throughout the globe,” they never talk about exporting the Electoral College.  No one ever makes the argument that new or struggling democracies like Bhutan, Honduras or Somalia would be better off adding it to their electoral processes.  Back in the nineties, I used to confidently predict that the next time the electoral vote usurped the popular vote, people would become angry and the political will to amend the constitution would finally emerge.  Ah, to be that naive again.

Given that we have now had two of the previous five presidential elections decided by electors in conflict with the popular vote, a troubling new trend has emerged in political discourse:  people have begun to defend the existence of the Electoral College. I have a suspicion that those making the arguments are doing so largely because they are happy with the result the College has bestowed in those elections.  Indeed, the most recent beneficiary of the college’s existence had a different perspective back in 2012:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.

11:45 PM · Nov 6, 2012·Twitter Web Client

I suspect he has since changed his mind.  Either that, he considers himself a disaster for democracy.  If so, that is something on which we both agree.

There appear to be three  common electoral college defenses.  I’m going to deal with them all, and show why these defenses of the college don’t stand up to logical scrutiny.  

  • You can’t have the coastal states deciding the election.  The argument is that the liberal coastal states have an advantage because of their larger populations, so liberals have an inordinate say in the election of the president.  This is unfair to the red state conservatives, which dominate most of the states in between. The Electoral College therefore acts as a check on the power of the blue state liberals. The problem with this argument is that it assumes that the ideological tilt of the country’s geography is static.  Demographics change. Growing up in California, it was always a red state–Reagan’s Playground. It was big news in 1992 when Bill Clinton turned it blue.  Look at the electoral maps of 1976, 1984, 1996, and 2008. Notice a number of changes in the voting patterns:

 

Image result for 1976 electoral map

Image result for 1984 electoral map

Image result for 1996 electoral map

Image result for 2008 electoral map

The liberals in coastal states arguably have a population advantage now, but they haven’t always. And there is no guarantee they shall in the future. Furthermore, this argument assumes that the College exists to check the power of the majority.  It doesn’t–it overrides the majority. By definition, such a process is undemocratic, regardless of anyone’s hand wringing about California leftists. Or Texas conservatives, for that matter. 

  •  It’s unfair to the smaller states–the bigger states have most of the voters, so they decide the elections.  Yes, it’s true that the place with most of the voters would decide the presidential elections if the decision was made by a popular vote.  However, that’s going to be true in virtually every election. Congressional races are mostly decided by the large population centers in the districts.  Governors and US Senate races are mostly decided by voters in the state’s largest cities. The simple fact is in electoral democracy, the majority is supposed to decide.  Every other election in the United States is decided by that principle–except for the President, arguably the most important elected official. Furthermore, if you logically extend this argument, then Governors and US Senators should use a version of the Electoral College to keep those urban population centers from overruling the less populous countryside.  Oddly enough, no one is suggesting such a plan (much simpler to just make it harder for those urban dwellers to vote…).
  • The Electoral College keeps elections from becoming even more expensive.  I find this to be the strongest objection, because there is no doubt elections have become far too costly.  If the Electoral College is abolished, there will be no more focus on swing states–every state will be in play, because every voter becomes more important.  Certainly, the efficacy of every voter being important would likely improve voter turnout. And yes, campaigns would become more arduous, because they would require candidates to travel to all fifty states, other then the odd ten that can now decide a presidential election.  So, instead of the states with the largest total populations being the most important (i.e., where the majority of voters reside), ten states that don’t have the largest populations (but are filled with the largest number of undecided voters) are the ones that get to decide the election.  This hardly seems consistent with the principles of democracy. Furthermore, the real problem here is the cost of the elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United have opened the floodgates to multi-billion dollar elections.  Even if we grant the Electoral College can partially alleviate this problem, the issue of money overwhelming elections is excessively damaging to democratic principles.  It is simply not acceptable for a democracy to use one anti-democratic idea (the Electoral College) to redeem another antidemocratic idea (the overwhelming influence of money in elections.)  However, if there is a chance the Electoral College could be abolished before overturning Citizens United, that’s still not a good enough reason to keep the College. More democracy is always preferable to less. 

Thus, our initial intuitions about the Electoral College are still correct–and will be until the constitution is amended and it is done away with once and for all. 

Austin Film Festival Journal, Part Five

December 28, 2019

My final reflections on the Austin Film Festival…

I had been to other film festivals, and had a lot of great experiences (lunch with Terry Zwigoff was a definite highlight of Cinequest).  However, I have never quite attended a festival like Austin.

–I had never met so many accomplished writers and filmmakers in one place.  Best of all, I never once encountered an attitude along the lines of  “we’re the professionals, you’re the amateurs.”  Even though in many cases that would have been an accurate observation, that was never the case.  Michael Grillo, Lindsay Doran, Sofia Alvarez, Tawnya Bhattacharya, Philip Levens–they have imdb credits I can at this point only dream of, but not once did they talk down to us.  They treated us like peers.  It set a collaborative tone for the entire festival.

–I walked out of so many of the sessions inspired to write, and with ideas to make my existing work better.  I would have been happy if that feeling hit me on the plane home–but I was feeling that way after the first session, and I was perpetually invigorated throughout the entire experience.  One evening, when the film I wanted to see sold out, I sat in a coffee shop and wrote until they closed.  And when I walked through the door upon my return home, I couldn’t wait to start writing.

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–A coffee shop/improv theatre is a great idea. There should be more of them.

–I had hoped that I might make one professional contact who’d want to read a script of mine.  I never imagined I’d meet three–and it would be three different scripts.

–I tremendously enjoyed making new peer contacts.  I came back with an impressive stack of business cards, and have connected with many of these individuals on social media.  I also exchanged scripts with several of them, and I look forward to reading their words and learning from them.  It’s also great to discover what great work so many talented people are doing.

–As a producers badge holder in Austin, you will never run out of food or drink.  And the food in Austin is as good as advertised.

The script competition for 2020 is already open, and I cannot wait to return…

 

Austin Film Festival Journal, Part Four

December 27, 2019

Yes, there was a long gap in between the entries, but finally here’s part four.

This was my final day at the festival–I had a very early flight the next morning, but there was a lot on the agenda today–particularly my first sessions with the other playwrights. I decided to start the day with an impov class, taught by Second City veteran Dave Buckman.  It was a great way to start the day–nothing gets your brain going in the morning like having to think on your feet, improv style.  It was also a great reminder for writers, because improv teaches you the importance of listening.  Instead of thinking of the next thing you want to say, the process works best when you are listening to the other person in your scene.  Excellent to keep in mind while writing dialogue.

After the improv class, I headed to my first playwright’s panel discussion.  The three playwrights/screenwriters were extremely impressive:  Sofia Alvarez, Laura Eason, and Bekah Brunsetter.  They had great insight and stories, and their career arcs were very inspirational–especially for this east coast based playwright.  I also met very talented and intelligent Sarah Maraniss Vander Schaaf, a fellow playwright and second rounder.  She has also written many articles for the Washington Post, so she was awfully nice for being an “Enemy of the People. ”

After a quick lunch, I had the first of my two round table discussions.  A group of second rounders are seated in a round table, and various industry pros are cycled through for us to ask questions.  The first person I met was a development executive with a production company–a company with a development deal with Warner Brothers.  The discussion of the projects he was searching for prompted my to suggest one of my scripts–which he ended up requesting. That was two, so far…

The next professionals who cycled through were husband and wife writers Carolyn Stotesberry and Philip Levens.  Carolyn and Philip write together, live together and somehow manage to stay married–perhaps the most impressive feat I encountered my entire time in Texas.  I also met screenwriter Mikki Daughtry, whose career took off after winning the screenwriting competition at the Austin Film Festival.

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I had no idea Chuck Norris sold artesian water.  It was ubiquitous in Austin.

The second round table was for the playwrights–and here I met Sofia and Laura from earlier in the day.  I also met Elizabeth Newman, who runs the Filigree Theatre in Austin.  She requested a copy of “Invincible Summer,” since the Filigree devotes an entire season each year to the development of new plays.  That’s three…

After the round tables, Nickelodeon had a party just for the writers.  It was great to catch up with many new friends.  The food was pretty good, and aside from pads, pens, and Rubik’s Cubes they rechristened “Writers Blocks,” they provided us with writing prompt cards several of us figured out could be adapted into a Cards Against Humanity-style game.  I also met another playwright, Charlotte Murphy Giles, and reconnected with the awesome CJ Bratton–who discovered that night her new HBO series had just been picked up!

I finished the evening seeing a film–“A Patient Man.”  This was the slow-burn, intense story of a man patiently, methodically plotting his revenge against the man who killed his wife in a car accident.  Very well executed and acted–and enjoyed meeting members of the cast and crew after the screening.

It was late, so I headed back to my hotel, since it was only a few hours before the airport shuttle would arrive.  It was hard to believe that my time in Austin was finally at an end.

For Part Five, I will write my final reflections on the entire experience.

Austin Film Festival Journal: Part Three

November 10, 2019

Admittedly, this series turned out to be a bit less than daily.  Regardless: on to part three…

Friday was my first full day at the festival, and it started at 9 a.m: a Q & A with television writer Amy Berg.  The size of the session was limited, which I appreciated–it felt like an intimate round table discussion among friends.  If you aren’t familiar with Amy, she has authored upwards of fifty television scripts and produced eight different series, including “Person of Interest” and “Leverage.”  Amy was hilarious, and offered great advice and anecdotes from her career.  She also told what I think is the best story I heard at the festival.

When she was a production assistant at Nickelodeon, she wanted to break into writing, and was a huge fan of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”  She had written a “Buffy” spec and wanted to get it the show runner–a chap named Joss Whedon.  Unfortunately, show runners are not legally allowed to read spec scripts (in case a similar story turns up later on the show; thus, everyone is protected).  Not to be discouraged,  Amy pulled a genius move: she sent Joss a one act play.  The characters in the play were Joss and his writing staff, and the play was about why they should hire Amy Berg!  Three days later, Joss called her and interviewed her for a staff writing position.  She didn’t get the job, but the interview prompted Nickelodeon to hire her as a writer.  Thus, a career was born…

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My second session was also with an esteemed television writer: Tanya Bhattacharya.  Tanya has writing and producing credits on over thirty shows, is the show runner for the forthcoming “Ginny and Georgia” series on Netflix, and runs a television writing school. This session was entitled “The Mock Writer’s Room,” wherein we broke the pilot and first season for a re-imagining of the “Wizard of Oz” as a dark, gritty, drug-fueled street drama.  My suggestion that Dorothy (or Thea, as we called her) comes across a homeless woman who mysteriously seems to know Thea and is known on the street as “Auntie Em” went over very well.  It was a great exercise, putting us on the spot to be creative, building on each other’s ideas, and learning how to process and organize concepts.  I would love to be in an actual writer’s room–and I would really like to see this series.

The third session was with Lindsay Doran, who happens to be Emma Thompson’s producing partner.  Her session was called “The First Ten Pages,” and she randomly selected six screenwriting submissions and examined their first ten pages.  This was not for the faint at heart–if your script was chosen your first ten pages were projected on a giant screen while the estimable Ms. Doran described everything you did wrong to the entire audience.  I have to say, though, the criticisms were well thought out, and she presented them in the nicest possible way.  She pointed out things that were important to those first ten pages:  plenty of white space, clear character descriptions (that were not in conflict with character action), a quick pace. In short, your reader should not be totally confused by your first ten pages–if so, they won’t read any further than that.  It certainly convinced me to revisit the first ten pages of all of my scripts.

The rest of the day was spent with two social and networking events:  a barbecue dinner sponsored by the Texas Film Commission and a party sponsored by the Writers Guild of America, East.  The food was excellent at the former (you can see the view in the photo above), but the best thing about both events was all of the great people I met:  fellow writers Ruth Morrison, Erik Sternberger, C.M. Bratton, Morgan Eschmann, Michael Hubbard, Letitia Guillory, and Brigette ReDavid.  It was great to make connections, discuss our work, and have excellent conversations.

It’s always cool to meet fellow writers–especially when they feel like cool new friends.

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