Monthly Archives: November 2012

Good-Bye, Farewell, and Amen

(With bonus points to readers who recognize from whence The Curmudgeon borrowed this title)

Remember Hal Linden, star of the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller?

Linden was a late bloomer professionally.  He was forty-three years old when Barney Miller hit the airwaves, and until then, he was pretty much unknown.

As Linden traveled the talk show circuit as the star of a new and successful television series – a circuit that, back in those days, consisted entirely of Johnny, Merv, and Mike – he would tell people that he wasn’t new to show business and that his roots were on Broadway.  Then, he’d grab a microphone and sing to prove his point.

That’s kind of where The Curmudgeon finds himself today.  He’s written for a living since 1982 and his passion has always been writing fiction – primarily, short stories.  He’s never been published, mostly because he doesn’t know how to go about that and, based on what he knows about what literary journals pay for short stories, he suspects it wouldn’t be worth the effort.  He also questions whether he could get published even if he tried.  Of course there’s always the question of whether his stories are good enough, which despite his own very high opinion of himself he wouldn’t even consider asserting.

The main reason for his doubts is that, as someone who occasionally reads contemporary short fiction, he finds that it’s a lot like women’s fashions:  there are things that are in style and there are things that aren’t, and if what you’re selling isn’t what people are buying this year, you’re out of luck and your stuff is going to end up on the miscellaneous crap rack at Marshall’s.

And The Curmudgeon suspects that what he writes is Marshall’s material (the out of style part, not the crap part).

So what’re they buying in the short fiction world these days?

For starters, they’re seriously – seriously – into profanity.  Most of it doesn’t really contribute to the story, but for some reason, people seem to think that if it doesn’t have nasty language, it isn’t “real.”  The Curmudgeon’s short fiction rarely has profane language.  He can recall one time, about two years ago, when he absolutely agonized over the use of profanity.  He was writing a short story about a young woman who was trying to coax her father out of the lethargy and indifference that consumed him after the violent and tragic death of his wife and daughter.  She was reminding him that he had once criticized someone for having too much time on her hands, citing that person’s regular reading of The Economist and The New Yorker as proof, and she says to her father

“Now you’re the only who’s reading…” she stopped, gasped, and swallowed, her eyes filling with tears, and when she spoke again, her voice was louder, stronger, but clearly pained, “…who’s reading The New Yorker and the goddamned Economist, so now you’re the one who needs to get a life.”

The Curmudgeon recalls agonizing over the use of “goddamned” – not because he thought it was too strong but because there was a stronger word that begins with f that would probably have fit much better.  In the end he decided that “goddamned” was strong enough and got the point across and also enabled the young woman (she was a college student) to speak very strongly to her father without crossing a line.

Next, there’s usually gratuitous sex in today’s short stories – again, something that might be enjoyable for some people to read but, at least in these stories, doesn’t do anything to advance the plot.

Third, there’s at least one gay character for no particular reason.

Fourth, there always seem to be peripheral characters in these stories who weren’t born in the U.S. – again, for no particular reason except perhaps as a gratuitous nod to diversity.

The fifth, most striking, and most disturbing thing that’s so noteworthy about today’s short stories is the unusual degree to which they’re long on character and very, very short on plot.  It’s like watching an episode of Monk – or pretty much any series on the USA cable network.  They’ve developed some nice, interesting, quirky characters, but when the final credits roll, it dawns on you that you just lost an hour of your life watching a show that was about…was about…well, was about pretty much nothing.

Didn’t these people ever learn about Chekhov’s admonition that if in the first act of a story you describe a room as having a gun on the wall, it had better go off before the story’s over?  In other words, if it’s not absolutely essential to your story, you need to drop it.  The Curmudgeon can’t begin to count how many times he’s written some interesting, clever, or decidedly delicious anecdote or observation in one of his stories, only to practically weep as he deleted it because despite how much he loved it, it just didn’t contribute to advancing the story and therefore didn’t belong.

Needless to say, this is not how The Curmudgeon writes fiction.   He’s short on character and long on plot, using the plot and the action to tell readers what they need to know about his characters; he’s particularly fond of using dialogue to advance his stories.  His feeling is that if the story’s not interesting – and to The Curmudgeon, “interesting” begins with a strong plot – why would a reader ever turn the page?

In other words, The Curmudgeon is selling bell bottoms in a skinny jeans world.

But writing short stories is his true love, and he misses it.  Writing a blog is more fun than he ever imagined, but it’s also a lot of work.  For the past eleven months he’s tried to find time to work on short stories amid all of this blog writing, but it never worked.  He’d get a great short story idea, start writing, get about a third of the way through, and then find that he needed to catch up on his blogging.  He started several short stories while blogging but hasn’t finished even a single one, although he did manage complete first drafts of two – but only during the two-week vacation he took in August when he had no access to a computer and left his blogging behind.  (Yes, The Curmudgeon was away for two weeks in August.  Through the technology offered by WordPress, the blog’s host, he was able to post two weeks worth of material before hitting the road, and then he kept his fingers crossed that no one he mocked in any of those pieces would die a sudden and tragic death while he was not in a position to adjust the blog to accommodate such a development.)

So now, The Curmudgeon believes the time has come to step down from his soapbox and get back to the business – really, the joy – of writing short stories.  Like Hal Linden, he wants to grab a microphone and belt out a smoky rendition of “Stormy Weather.”  He misses writing short stories, and a few ideas are just burning to be written.

At the same time, he deeply regrets that the notebook and folder sitting on his desk bursting with dozens upon dozens of ideas for blog entries long and short will go unexplored and unexploited.  So many subjects he wanted to take on:  the Kardashians; the practice of Congress and state legislatures paying higher salaries to people in party leadership positions (like majority leaders and whips and minority leaders and whips), essentially spending public money on party business; that small stable of male actors who specialize in playing, well, douche bags; the abomination that is Nancy Grace; the manner in which television news and internet news web sites abuse the term “breaking news;” and the hypocrisy of Republican governors who claim to want the federal government to stay out of their business but who now are refusing to create the health insurance exchanges needed for health care reform and instead are letting the federal government they love to hate do it for them.

He also wanted to write about the incompetence of the security staff on the Jerry Springer Show; the reasons why football symbolizes so much of what’s wrong with our society and our culture today; about the obsession NASCAR fans have with the number on the side of their favorite driver’s car; about how the only black guy on the old Lawrence Welk Show was – unbelievably – a tap dancer; about all those ads asking people to donate the unneeded car sitting in their driveway, as if we all have extra cars sitting around; about the television series about women who hunt wild pigs (The Curmudgeon is not making this up); and about how Sarah Palin is the living personification of the adage “no guts, no glory,” because if she’d just had the guts to slog it through the messy Republican primaries, you just know that, in light of how strongly Mitt Romney ran in many places he lost, she might very well have destroyed President Obama in Tuesday’s election.

And then there were the pieces he contemplated about the fraud of the shamrock shakes and pink ribbons and how the businesses that sponsor such promotions get huge publicity benefits from them in exchange for making miniscule contributions with mostly their customers’ money; about the continued fall of Donald Trump, which would be sad if it weren’t so, well, so wonderful; about his sneaking suspicion that all those people on CNBC and other cable channels who talk about the economy have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about; about how the children of the 1960s and early 1970s who vilified their parents for the conspicuous consumption of driving those big old wood-paneled station wagons (remember the Vista Cruiser and Country Squire?) are now driving around in gigantic, gas-guzzling SUVs; about how The Curmudgeon wants to choke reporters who continue to refer to the Bush administration’s ramp-up of forces in Iraq with the administration-approved word “surge” instead of the “escalation” that proved so incendiary during reporting about Vietnam; about the idiotic developer in Cherry Hill, New Jersey who’s building apartment buildings that are supposed to look like city row houses, doing so in a town that people move to specifically to escape the city; about how almost all of VHI’s reality shows seem designed to make black people look ridiculous; and…and…and…the list is endless.

Before he takes his leave, The Curmudgeon would like to thank you for reading over these past eleven months and 242 blog entries.  He is most grateful for the time and attention you gave his words and for the occasional kind word you passed along as well.

But now, he can finally return to not referring to himself in the third person.

Ahhhhh, what a relief!

Mini-Rumination: An Election Day Reminder

While The Curmudgeon wrote last week about his lack of regard for get-out-the-vote campaigns, he trusts that his readers are intelligent, engaged citizens who routinely make their voices heard on election day.

So he will dispense with the usual rhetoric and simply offer his favorite, Philadelphia-style encouragement:

“Get out, vote early, and vote often!”

Thou Shalt Not Vote for Republicans

The Curmudgeon hates the idea of making blanket statements like “You shouldn’t vote for any Republicans.”

Yet he’s making it anyway.

Though he’s decidedly liberal, The Curmudgeon has voted for many Republicans over the years.  He’s done most of his voting in Philadelphia, and during that time he voted for Republicans for every local office:  mayor, city council, district attorney, judge, and the minor offices.  He’s voted for Republicans for state offices:  governor, state representative, state senator, attorney general, treasurer, auditor general, and appellate court judges.  And he’s voted for Republicans for federal offices:  House of Representatives and Senate.  He even once voted for a Republican for President, although that Republican was running as an independent candidate at the time (remember John Anderson?).

But no more.

There are a lot of good people out there who are Republicans, people The Curmudgeon likes and respects, people who have excellent reasons to be Republicans.  Some of them are even related to The Curmudgeon.  But their party has been taken over – hijacked, really – by a lunatic fringe that seeks to undermine American life and the American way in ways that make other radicals blush.  They are more extreme than communists, more extreme than anarchists, more extreme than libertarians, more extreme than the most extreme of liberals.

They are America’s own homegrown, homeland terrorists bent on overturning a way of life.

The Curmudgeon has no beef with those who disagree with him about how best to stimulate the economy, stop Iran from producing nuclear weapons, or reduce American dependence on foreign oil.  He welcomes different ideas about what to do about the middle east, how to produce a more educated population, and how to improve the country’s infrastructure.  What he cannot accept, however, is the obvious desire of this “new” Republican Party to dismantle virtually every aspect of our social safety net.  Ironically, people who don’t believe in the science of Darwin (and yes, it’s science, not a theory), or any other science that gets in the way of their financial interests, are themselves social Darwinists, committed believers in the survival of the fittest – and the willful destruction, by the fittest, of everyone else.

They want to take your Social Security, or your parents’ Social Security, and turn it into a business opportunity and feeding frenzy for the same financial interests that are responsible for the mess our economy’s in today.  If doing so leaves the elderly unable to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, that’s just fine with these people.

They want to take your Medicare, or your parents’ Medicare, and turn it into something that will leave many older people, possibly even most older people, without the ability to pay for or obtain medical care at the very time of life when they will most need such care.  If doing so leaves them sick and dying, that’s just fine with these people.

They want to take Medicaid, that most important health care safety net, and turn it into something that will not be there when misfortune strikes and people need it most.  If people who have come upon hard times find themselves unable to obtain care when sick or injured, that’s just fine with these people.

They want to take public schools and turn them into an investment opportunity for their friends and a subsidy for the private education of their own children, doing so in a manner that will certainly help a few but would do so at the expense of the many – and especially, at the expense of the many of limited means.

They want to reserve college, the key to the future for many young people, as a privilege only for the privileged.

But they aspire to do more than merely destroy the social safety net.

They want to reduce your mothers, your sisters, and your daughters to the status they had a hundred years ago, with no right to make important decisions about their lives and their bodies and their futures.  That some of these people are themselves women is absolutely frightening.

They want to prevent from voting the very kinds of people who might vote against them – the elderly, the poor, and the non-white.  And while they’re at it, they’ve put the American political system up for sale to the highest bidders.

They want to dismantle the constitution based on the misguided concept of “original intent” that for all intents and purposes didn’t exist until the 1970s – as if anyone knows what Madison and his colleagues were truly thinking when they wrote the constitution, as if The Federalist Papers were anything more than a sales document, and as if anyone can seriously argue that a 21st-century society should be governed according to 18th-century principles.

They want to reduce the federal government to an extremely limited instrument that, among other things, would be an impotent spectator today in the aftermath of the storms that struck the east coast last week.

They want to turn the tax structure into a system that helps the rich get richer while avoiding paying their fair share.  They’ve waged open warfare on working people and the poor for more than thirty years, helping themselves to larger and larger pieces of the American pie, and now that those working people have awakened to what’s been done to them and have started fighting back, they have the audacity to charge those working people with seeking to wage class warfare.

They want to take any work that can be done cheaper elsewhere and send it overseas, turning millions of Americans into virtually minimum wage workers.  They’ve chosen as their national standard-bearer a child of privilege who made millions pioneering that very practice ­– a man who sees high unemployment and instinctively thinks “cheap labor.”

While they’re at it, they’d love to gut that minimum wage, too.

They want their limited government to bow to the needs of large businesses in distress but turn a blind eye to ordinary people in similar distress.

They want to eviscerate regulations that keep the air clean, the water pure, and people safe.  It’s more important, they insist, for businesses to have the opportunity to make money unfettered by such nuisances.

They want to destroy unions, depriving vulnerable working people of the only protection they now have from employers, already rich, who want to grow richer by reducing their pay, cutting their benefits, working them harder, making them more vulnerable to injury and illness where they work, and telling them they should be grateful to have any work at all.

Democrats are far from perfect.  The Democrat running for re-election to the Senate where The Curmudgeon lives, in New Jersey, is truly vile.  The Democrat running for re-election in Pennsylvania, where The Curmudgeon used to live, is the personification of mediocrity.  But on their worst days, both of these men, who might struggle under ordinary circumstances just to earn an honest living and put bread on their families’ tables, are light years better than the extremists who seek to unseat them.

No, the people who’ve taken over the Republican Party have almost nothing in common with people we normally associate with Republicans.  They have almost nothing in common with people we normally associate with America.

And they don’t deserve your vote – not a single one of them – until they change their ways.

 

 

Oh Sandy Girl!

Oh Sandy girl

You knifed me in the heart

Tore down the overhead wires

And plunged me in the dark.

 

So here I sit

On a borrowed PC

While the current of civilization

Sits dead beneath a tree.

 

All the long pieces

And all the ruminations

Lay idle on a silent Mac

Deprived of their destination.

 

So The Curmudgeon dashes off to you

This rhyming little essay

To say that if the light’s restored

He’ll return to you next Monday.