my review of Only Witness by Jim Powell

Short stories, a university professor once told our class, offer us a glimpse into a life, a moment, often a defining one, when the character of the people in the story is clearly visible. At least that’s how he explained how short stories were different than novels. Often I find that the case with stories that are concerned with character as opposed to dazzling the reader with language for language’s sake. It certainly is true of the 19 stories in Jim Powell’s collection Only Witness.

Whether it’s one snowy night in a  Midwestern smalltown bar or on board a train heading toward Vienna, these stories capture that moment when people are exposed in all their faults or strengths. Here a wife confronts her marriage to a sex addict while burying her father, two young men involved with the same woman try to reach an understanding over the welfare of the little boy they have both, in their own way, come to love, an eleven year old boy faces the consequences of a rash act, a son confronts his own responsibilities toward his mother who is slowly descending into dementia. These people, whether one could consider them admirable or misguided, are drawn with a clear eye and an understanding heart by Powell. He understands them and presents them without judgment. They are exposed in that moment for us to understand, too. This author writes with the wisdom gained from what must be a life rich in experience who possesses the mind, the heart, and the skill to portray it with insight and compassion. These are stories I will return to again and again. What better way to understand human natüre than in the hands of a talented writer.Only Witness

To Those Who Follow Me

I’m off to London for the week: the Book Fair, some theatre, a museum or two.

So I may not be dropping in here very frequenctly. Instead I’ll be immersed in a world where the natives speak English, though perhaps not exactly as we  do in New York. But they sort of been doing it longer, which explains a lot.

on teachers & teaching & bigger hearts

Last week we had Teachers’ Day here in Turkey and I saw several postings on Facebook and Instagram acknowledging that and basically in praise of the profession and those who work at it. One cartoon in particular made me pause, not because of what it said exactly or because of who posted it (a teacher I know personally to be one of the most committed and talented ones I had the privilege of working with) but because of what it implied: that teachers have bigger hearts than normal.

Now I know I risk offending those who might read this and are teachers at some level of instruction at a primary school, secondary school, college, or university, just as I myself taught both high school and college/university, and though many of you might indeed have hearts bigger than average (like that teacher I know who posted that cartoon), I have to say that from my personal experience of over 30 years in education, not just as a teacher but as someone who created language programs and administered them, I found that teachers were not necessarily teaching because of their commitment to education or because of their desire to help educate the masses, but were in many cases there for reasons other than altruism. As one high school teacher told me early in my career, “I teach for three reasons: June, July, and August.”

Now granted vacations and flexible working hours, and this mainly applies to teachers in the US and in some cases in other countries, are attractive, especially considering that teachers don’t always make as much money as people in say private industry or other professions like doctors, lawyers, and accountants (though, of course, not all of them make extravagant salaries and also most endure extreme stress that teachers are generally free from), but those vacations certainly do give one something to look forward to. And, of course, many teachers do take work home after hours so those flexible working hours aren’t always as flexible as they appear.

But I’m not comparing working conditions here, just the size of hearts. For what that cartoon implied was that teachers have bigger hearts than normal, that is than most other people, and thus that translates to more compassionate, more caring, and kinder than others. And here is where I beg to differ because one thing those 30 odd years in education taught me was that teachers, and by extension administrators at schools, were not uniformly endowed with bigger hearts at all.

Now I have, as I like to say, had a rather eventful past and have done many things in my life, worked at several different occupations and often in a managerial capacity so my experience has been not only in the trenches, so to speak, but supervising others in the same field so I have a view of things beyond the actual job. What happens with many people who have only worked in one capacity in one type of job all their adult lives is that they develop a narrower view of their occupation based on their own experiences and those of the colleagues they have associated with. But I encountered many teachers who would schedule advising hours when they knew students were least likely to come, avoid committee work unless it was necessary for promotion, taught from the same syllabus year after year without change, did not seek ways for professional development, spoke disparaging of students based on race, religion, ethnic background, or gender, were more interested in the gossip of the workplace or of their students’ lives and picking apart colleagues than they were in empowering those in their classrooms.

I could give numerous examples but I think any teacher reading this can fill in with examples of their own if they just thought about it and honestly assessed colleagues either past or present they have worked beside. Granted, if one just concentrated on one’s own work in the classroom, and if one was as dedicated as say the teacher who posted the cartoon, then one might be apt to generalize, but generalizations lead to stereotypes which ultimately run the risk of bordering on bias and prejudice.

I certainly do not intend to “blow my own horn” because that is not necessary. I know what I have done both in and outside of the classroom, the effect I have had on many throughout my career, especially in the US where one could exercise academic freedom, and not just in education but in other occupations I worked at as well. This is not about me but about what determines the size of one’s heart and just who in life is a candidate for that acknowledged honor. There is no one profession that can lay claim to that characteristic nor one set of criteria for evaluating it. Besides, the size of one’s heart is determined long before one settles into a profession. One’s upbringing, the influence of family and environment, the kinds of friends one associates with, all these factors influence whether the heart grows or shrinks, and perhaps an occupation is not picked because of it but more than likely one picks an occupation based on aptitude, not how large or small one’s heart is.

I truly wish that all teachers have bigger hearts just as I truly wish that all mechanics do not overcharge, all doctors have great bedside manner, all police do not exercise racial profiling or excessive force, all military personnel do not kill innocent children, women, and the elderly, that all customers never get tempted to switch labels, that all farmers do not produce genetically engineered food products, that the rich all pay their fair share of taxes, and poverty, racism, and sexism become obsolete words in all languages, and that all politicians do not lie. But as optimistic as I can be, history and personal experience give me little hope of seeing that in my lifetime.

But back to the cartoon. I saw compassionate hearts and kindness bestowed by many people in the medical profession, law enforcement, social services, even restaurant workers giving food to the homeless and retail managers marking down clothing for single mothers and the poor, many individuals from all walks of life volunteering their time and energy in programs like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys Club, the Salvation Army, orphanages, prisons, community centers, old age homes, hospitals, rape crisis hotlines, suicide prevention programs, etc. etc. etc. Bigger hearts than normal are not exclusive to teachers nor do all teachers/educators have them. People are people: some good, some bad, some indifferent. And most, I have found, operate on the principle of self-interest. So when it is in their interests to be kind or compassionate, they usually are. But it is not so common for individuals to be compassionate and kind all the time and to all people. My mother used to say judge a person by how kind they were not just to their family and friends but to strangers and even to people they did not necessarily like. Judge them by what they do when no one is looking. Just as a really law abiding citizen stops at a traffic signal at three o’clock in the morning on a deserted street corner, a really kind person does acts of kindness even when there is no potential profit, even to their egos. We are what we do, not what we say we do. And kindness and compassion, those very virtues that signify a heart larger than average, exist in many people in many different occupations in many countries in many cultures among the various religions of the world.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what could be seen as a harmless cartoon on a day dedicated to a profession that often feels it is not rewarded enough or acknowledged enough for the good work they do in preparing the young for productive lives in the future. But unfortunately I have seen too much pettiness and jealousy in academia in both countries I’ve worked in and from what others tell me of their experiences in the field, it is not uncommon. A close friend who is a tenured professor at UCLA explained to me once that academia bred pettiness and jealousy because academics had too much time on their hands, which, of course, explains why an assistant director at a Turkish college told me it was necessary to keep teachers busy at all times or else they would just gossip over tea. And pettiness and jealousy are not signs of a bigger heart than normal. They are signs, though, of small minds, selfish people, self-centered individuals. Which brings me back to the main point: only people who do not act with regard to self-interest but are truly other-centered in whatever occupation they dedicate themselves to have bigger hearts indeed. This has been true throughout all history. As George Washington once said: “The motives which predominate most human affairs are self-love and self-interest.”

And if that is true, that self-love and self-interest guide the actions of most people, then only those who can somehow rise above both those motives clearly illustrate what it means to have a bigger heart regardless of what profession they are drawn to. A principle, I might add, found in all major religions but not always followed by those professing to be religious. One only has to look at the state of the world to see that. And educators and religious leaders, unfortunately, who we have charged with ensuring that have had little impact on changing what seems to be basic human behavior. Bigger hearts are truly needed in us all.


voting in 2016

Since I live overseas, I applied for my Absentee Ballot while in the US during May and finally received it in the mail today.

Like many elections I’ve voted in, I find I am voting against someone, not really for a candidate. But this election has given me someone to vote against not just because of his policies, or I should say lack of any specific policies, but because “this guy”, as they would say in the neighborhood, is so despicable as a human being.

I know there are many who find his opponent untrustworthy but when I think not just of the future of the Supreme Court but of how the world, apart from Putin, would view the United States with a leader so unfit to govern, that I find there really is no choice but to add my vote to canceling out some misguided individual in New York who can’t accept the fact that the United States is no longer the country that was reflected in TV shows like Leave It To Beaver or The Ozzie & Harriet Show. There is no “taking back” of America. It has moved forward into the 21st Century just as it is meant to. It is a land of hope, equality, and freedom for all its citizens and those who come to its shores for refuge and better opportunities, just like my grandparents and all the other immigrants who sailed into its harbors or disembarked at its airports and yes, even walked across its borders. That is the greatness of America, not the picture painted by a racist, sexist narcissist.

There are problems in the US but they can only be solved by someone who understands they must bring people together, not push them apart.

There is no mystery in whom I am voting against. The only mystery to my way of thinking in how did this sleazy individual ever capture the nomination of a major party and be in a position to possibly govern a country that stands for everything he is not.

There are those of you who may disagree with me, which is your right in a free, open democracy. But it is because I believe in that free, open democracy that I will cast my vote against someone who seems to think belittling critics, demeaning opponents, disrespecting people of different races and religions, and preying on women is proper conduct. That is not only unacceptable in my eyes but downright immoral.

There is a place for people like him but it certainly is not as the head of state of the most powerful nation on earth. My grandfather, a naturalized citizen of the US, took pride in his right to vote in every election. I, too, take pride in that right and so do not want to waste my vote by abstaining. Instead I will  vote my conscience as I hope all citizens of whatever country they reside in will do.

And as they say at the end of every State of the Union Address and at ball games, too: God Bless America.

to an old friend who asked why I post so much world literature on my blog

Recently an old friend of mine from my NYC days in the 1970s who found me through a Google search a while back and who is a facebook friend and an occasional reader of this blog asked me in an email why I post so much literature, especially poetry, of other writers from other countries/centuries even. He knew me as a fledgling novelist and so was even surprised at my own poetry but could understand that. He just didn’t see why, even though he liked some of it, I posted all those other poets/writers. I answered the email, after giving my reply some thought, and then thought there might be other people out there, especially facebook friends from my past who remember me in a different light: teacher, administrator, bookstore owner, boy scout leader, actor, shoe store manager, warehouse supervisor, madman who liked to perform tricks with beer bottles at parties, pinball junkie, etcetcetc.

Of course some people who knew me in those various guises know of my longstanding love of Asian literature, especially the Chinese, my obsession with Hannibal and Scipio Africanus, love of coffee and some other beverages not necessarily good for me, addiction to Sabrett &/or Nathan’s hotdogs, and a tendency to dance up or down staircases when no one is looking, but don’t necessarily get why I post so many poems especially from what is called these days “world literature”.

So okay. I’m going to say this now and hope it clears it all up for anyone from my past who is still trying to adjust their perspective of me.

I read. A lot. Always have. Literature mostly, and quite a bit of history, but for different reasons. History to understand events because history teaches us lessons about the consequences of events but does not normally teach us about the people, the average, “common” if you will, people who lived during the times those events took place. Oh, we get descriptions of leaders and we see governments, whether they be those of empires or nations or tribes, but we don’t often see the pawns who get played by those leaders in those events. We must look elsewhere for that.

And art is where we look. Whether it is to literature—fiction/poetry/stories/tales—or music or the visual arts, including theatre and now film, it is there we get to see how people personally felt about what was going on around them, how they lived day to day, what they thought about, their passions, disappointments, sufferings, joys. Those were all, are still, being expressed through art in whatever form it takes. And the beauty of immersing oneself in the art is we not only find an outlet for our own thoughts and feelings but we can see and understand that we are all basically alike, that what we experience today has been experienced by others for thousands of years and in every corner of the world regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, eye color and shoe size. It is through art that we can comprehend that we are all in this together and so it can erase those misconceptions we have of “the other” because we all have misconceptions of some “other”. And once we understand there is no “other”, then maybe peace will reign because we will reject those leaders who try to separate us using fear as their weapon and embrace each other instead.

That is why I post literature from other countries/other time periods. Why I hope that by doing so the misconceptions people in the West have of people in the East and Middle East will vanish, like a fog finally clearing. That is my hope and I only wish more was available in translation because I know we Americans are so poorly educated in foreign languages, and which is why I value those who translate so much. Because they are the ones who act, whether they are aware of it or not, as ambassadors of good will for their countries, their cultures. And good will is something we need so desperately these days to combat the ignorance and biases that keep us apart.

Hope you read this, old friend. Hope this clears it up.