Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Book Review: Potshot by Robert B. Parker

Sometimes you just need comfort food. While a trip to Cafe Poca Cosa is a delightful culinary experience, there are days when you want meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Similarly, there are times you don't want a literary experience with lots of meaning; you want a comfort read. This was a meatloaf week for me.

Robert B. Parker's Spenser series is one of my comfort reads. They're admittedly not great literature, there's lots of white space on the page, but you know exactly what you're getting. You're going to get Spenser and Hawk and a little bit of Susan as justice prevails and another crime is solved.

In this book, Mary Lou Buckman comes to Boston to hire Spenser to solve the murder of her husband in Potshot, Arizona. She's been referred by a Los Angeles police officer she knew from before she moved to Potshot. You have to wonder why she'd travel all the way across the country to hire a private detective and why the LA officer didn't recommend someone local, but hey, this is a Spenser novel and he had to get there somehow. (I cut Parker a lot of slack because I like his books.)

Spenser arrives and finds out that more than one man has followed Lou to Arizona from Los Angeles, despite the fact that she was married. Apparently both Lou and her husband played around, both before they left Los Angeles and afterwards. So these two men are immediate suspects in the murder, although one is the chief of police and another has a good alibi.

The suspicion is that the murder was actually committed by someone from the Dell. Originally some kind of hippy-style community just outside the town of Potshot, it's recently become something more sinister since a character called The Preacher arrived. The Preacher and his minions have intimidated the town. They collect payments from the local businesses and promise something bad will happen to those who don't pay up. Lou's husband Steve openly opposed them.

Spenser, of course, is intimidated by no one. When he, too, stands up to The Preacher, a group of local citizens approach him about cleaning up the Dell for a fee. Spenser thinks this is a good idea and goes back to Boston to pick up Hawk and recruits several other thugs from around the country to help out.

Of course there is the typical Spenser wisecracking and macho posturing and Susan eating like a bird along with a couple of twists. It's standard Spenser fare, if you like that kind of thing. And I do. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

I bought this hardcover edition quite a while ago from the bargain table at Barnes and Noble because its reduced price was less than a paperback. I used to do that a lot, before I got concerned about the amount of shelf space I needed and before I got addicted to reading on my Nook. And it was kind of nice reading an actual book with pages and stuff. I'll have to try it more often.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Dreams

Friday morning, the Endeavor made its final flight perched aboard the back of of a 747. I don't watch the news much nowadays, although I'll probably start again once the agonizing 2012 Red Sox season is officially over, so I wasn't aware that Mark Kelly had requested the flyover for Tucson until most of my colleagues had gone outside or were huddled around the windows watching it fly by.

It was a bittersweet moment seeing the last manned spaceflight vehicle in the clear blue skies over the Catalina Mountains before it turned south for its passage over the University of Arizona campus. I've written before about how sad I am that the space program initiated by John F. Kennedy and its push to land the first man on the moon has devolved to a paper-thin shell of its former self. I grew up reading Heinlein and Asimov and Clark, fully expecting to see colonies on the moon, heck, maybe even on Mars, at some point in my lifetime. Now I'm not sure that will happen. Ever.

That particular dream seems to have died.


I was reminded this past week of other dreams that died. On Thursday, CNN shared a staggering statistic: 46.2 million people in America fell below the poverty line last year. One in five children are poor.

To illustrate what it feels like to be poor, CNN decided to feature a blog post by John Scalzi that he wrote shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It was his response to the question lots of people were asking after seeing the devastation and loss of life in the 9th Ward: Why didn't they leave?

I spent parts of two days reading through the more than 600 comments on this blog, unable to stop  as so many shared their experiences of what it means to be poor, experiences many in the middle class can't imagine happening to anyone. The wealthy probably even less so.

My family wasn't as poor as Scalzi's was, nor as poor as many of the commenters, but reading through their experiences brought back memories I'd conveniently forgotten. I remember my mother taping bread wrappers over my shoes so I could play in the snow because I had no boots. I remember putting my winter coat on top of my blanket at night and huddling around an electric heater in the morning because my parents couldn't afford oil for the furnace. I remember a friend's mother commenting on my rundown heels and asking me if my feet hurt from them. I remember telling her no because I knew my parents didn't have money to buy me a new pair of shoes. We always had a roof over our heads and I don't remember going hungry for more than a few hours, but there were times when life was tough.

One of the consequences of being poor is that you often have no idea what your options are. Fortunately, my parents gave me options. They made sure I went to college and let me live at home for minimal room and board after graduation until I was able to make my own life. I went back to school and earned a second degree, one that allowed me to make a good salary through my middle earning years. I got used to buying books, owning my home, and developed a taste for Starbucks.

The other consequence of being poor is the fear that's always in the back of your mind that you might be poor again. You're always trying to make sure you have a safety net, a reserve you can fall back on for when times get tough. You get uncomfortable when the gas gauge in your car goes below a quarter tank or your bank account balance drops below a certain amount or the shelves in the pantry start to empty out.

As I get closer to retirement, the words "fixed income" take on new meaning.  For the past couple of months, I've been trying to live on my expected retirement income. It's amazing how hard it is to readjust to thinking poor. I thought groceries would be one of the easiest expenditures to cut, since I have a tendency to buy a lot of convenience meals (too tired to cook after work) and look down my nose at store brands. That includes for my cats. The cat diet got changed first. No more Proplan dry food from Petco. Grocery store brands had to be good enough. They don't seem to mind.

But still groceries were costing more than I'd allowed myself in my head. Last week I passed on the trip to Starbucks for a bag of Pike Place roast. I stood in the coffee aisle at the supermarket and finally put a can of Maxwell House French Roast--on sale for $2.99--into my cart instead. It's been a long time since I've looked at a row of products and had to weigh what I wanted against what I could reasonably afford.

I know I have a warped sense of what's necessary from the fat years. Cable TV. A subscription to Netflix. My smartphone. Reading about people who are homeless or starving or have clothes too ragged to go on a job interview and no transportation to get to one makes that clear.

There are far too many people in that situation due to the prolonged recession we've been in. How many dreams have been shattered over the past five years? How many dreams haven't even been dreamt of? I don't know the solution to that problem, but we've got to come up with one soon. Surely the nation that put men on the moon can make sure people have homes and food and jobs.

Photo attributions:
By Arnold de Leon (Flickr: Space Shuttle Endeavour over Moffet Field) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Hurricane Katrina by http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Infrogmation

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Power of Myth

It's pledge week on public television, which means, in between pitches for donations, they're showing some of the best programming ever created. This includes the Peter, Paul, and Mary concert, a Sinatra tribute, Yanni, Paul McCartney, some alternative health specials, and... Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth.

I don't believe I've ever seen the entire series. Back in the late eighties, when the series first aired, I was the mother of a young child in a failing marriage working a full time job while going to school at night. I didn't have a lot of time for television. I have seen bits and pieces of this series during past pledge weeks, but I've never seen the entire work.  I happened to see more of it today and was once again impressed by the wisdom of this man. It's amazing how an interview recorded thirty years ago is as fresh and relevant today as it was then.

Maybe more so.

I hardly know where to begin with the ideas that resonated with me. There was that much good stuff.

One thing Campbell said was that ritual exists to take you out of the everyday. He used the changes in the Catholic church as an example. Celebrating mass in the ritual language of Latin was a significantly different experience than using the vernacular. The altar used to be at the back of the chancel and the priest faced it, which meant he faced away from the congregation. I'd add that the use of incense and candles and the way they engage the senses also served to put you in a spiritually different place than the everyday world. Today, with the use of the vernacular and moving the altar forward and having the priest face the congregation may make the mass more accessible. But you lose some of the otherness of the ritual.

I've had a similar experience at my own church. While I enjoy the joyfulness of the contemporary service, there are days when I long for the traditions I grew up with. The liturgy remains basically the same throughout the year in a traditional service while changing weekly in the contemporary service. Particularly on holidays I find myself going back to that tradition, to connect to that other place of worship and to get nearer to God.

The church service or mass itself isn't the only place where our society has lost shared rituals. In the name of religious freedom and political correctness, many of the rituals at schools and public functions have been eliminated. Or participation has been made optional. As the recent brouhaha over the Democrat platform this past week showed, we're not sure whether to include God or not in our public life. Whether on purpose or as an accidental omission, God was not mentioned in the 2012 Democratic platform. The media focus on this led to God being put back in mid-week. I'm not sure everyone was happy with that.

One significant life event is the move from being a child to being an adult. In the past, religion was responsible for the rites of passage from child to adult in our society. For Christians, that was confirmation. For Jews, Bar Mitzvah. Campbell stated that the results of the loss of these myths and rituals could be seen in the New York Times. He said that most crimes are committed by young people because they did not have the ritual of becoming an adult. He contrasted that with the ritual a boy goes through in the aborigine culture of Australia. The men take the boy into a deep, dark cave and change his body (including circumcision). It is a frightening experience and the man who leads him in is not gentle with him. However, when he emerges, he is no longer a boy. There is physical evidence of the change and he's now recognized as a man. I suppose an argument could be made for high school graduation being our new ritual, except that the high drop-out rate reenforces Campbell's beliefs.

Throughout the program there was the emphasis on there being more than the physical world we know. That there is the other, the spiritual world that exists in parallel and beyond the physical world. And, according to Campbell, it is the artist's function to mythologize the environment of the time. Through stories, paintings, music, and sculpture, the artist uses current symbols to reach across to that other world, to express it for all of us.

And maybe that's why I am a writer as well as a Christian. In both activities I catch glimpses of that other world, the world that is more magnificent and mysterious than anything we know on earth.


Sunday, September 02, 2012

Ugly Americans


I am a Red Sox fan.


It's been a tough year for Red Sox fans. An entire year, counting the September Collapse of 2011. Friday night's game, which the Sox lost by the score of 20 to 2, was particularly embarrassing. It's been more than depressing.

Being almost 3,000 miles from Boston, I don't have much contact with other Red Sox fans. I do know three here in Tucson (Red Sox Nation is everywhere!), but we don't watch games together. During the games, just to get the feeling of being with other fans, I follow #redsox on Twitter. And I read comments on the Boston Globe articles to stay in touch. Fans on both venues have been pretty rough.

Frustration has come out in anger. The owners are blamed, the manager is blamed, the players are blamed. This is all standard stuff for sports fans, but the vituperation of this year's comments has been more than I've ever seen. It's not a lot of fun.

Following one of the infrequent wins--by Daisuke Matsuzaka, of all people--I decided to revel in the win and go back to a happier time. I watched Faith Rewarded, the NESN video of the 2004 season, and Fever Pitch, a joyful romantic comedy that captures the insanity of Red Sox fans. Now, it's easy to be upbeat when you win a World Series, especially when it's been eighty-six years since the last one. But I don't remember anyone being angry in 2003 when they didn't win. Baseball was fun, a game, and the self-described "bunch of idiots" had fun playing it. And the fans had fun watching it.

This year isn't fun and the fans aren't making it any better. I've stopped following the nastiness on #redsox during games. And I'm almost grateful that the commenting function on the Globe has been broken a lot this week.

You know what else is going on this year? Think hard. I'll wait...

Elections.

We've already been through a hotly contested Republican primary for president, not to mention the local races, including filling Gabby Giffords' seat here in Tucson. I am more than tired of the accusations and the lies of the various candidates and their proponents.

I read the comments on news web sites like CNN.  Most are the same tone as the Red Sox comments. There are still people, the so-called "birthers", ranting about Obama's birth certificate and whether he's a citizen or not. On the other side are those ranting against the Tea Party people. Or what Mitt Romney is hiding by not releasing ten years of tax returns. Rather than discussing the content of the news article, the comments degenerate into name-calling.

When did America become so hateful and angry?

Every candidate says they want to talk about the issues. In the beginning. They criticize the other guy for running negative ads. Then, as the race gets tighter and election day gets closer, more and more negative ads start appearing on television. Because negative ads work. Sad, but true.

My phone rings several times a night. I used to answer my phone before every call was a political robocall.  Now I don't answer it unless the person calling starts to leave a message and I recognize them as someone I know. I don't want to listen to more lies and accusations and pleas for my vote.

And so it was a welcome relief to listen to Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention this past week. It didn't have the flourish or the polish of President Obama's orations. It also wasn't filled with anger and accusations. It was a reasoned presentation of who Mitt Romney is and what he intends to do. I hope Barack Obama takes his cue from Mitt Romney and gives a similar reasoned speech at the Democratic National Convention. Because I don't need any more anger.