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                   Café Talk

Wednesday
Oct102018

Rainy Day Musings on My Insignificance

It has occurred to me that I serve no purpose. I don’t say this because I am struck with some morbid debilitating melancholy. I don’t say it because I am depressed by self-doubt. I don’t say it because I am afflicted with self-loathing. No, all in all, I’m okay with myself. Yes, improvements could be made, but overall I’m okay. At least for now. Still, three immediate points need to be made.

One, a cold hard rain is falling outside my window.

Two, I’m saying I serve no purpose, not that have no purpose.

Here’s the definition of “have”(today I’m using the English Oxford Living Dictionary):  

  1. Possess (a quality, characteristic, or feature)
  2. Provide or indulge oneself with (something)
  3. Be made up of; comprise.
  4. Used to indicate a particular relationship.
  5. Be able to make use of (something available or at ones disposal).
  6. Have gained (a qualification).
  7. Possess as an intellectual attainment; know (a language or subject).

I clearly have a purpose. My very existence mandates I have a purpose. Well-being. Health. Self-improvement. I have qualities and characteristics and features. Who doesn’t. Yes, I do indulge myself (sometimes). Not answering the phone. The extra glass of wine. The money I spend on books, cooking magazines, the occasional t-shirt advertised on Facebook. I’m made up of a seemingly endless assortment of experiences, influences, memories, thoughts, feelings, and relationships. I have a wife. I have friends. I have acquaintances. I have enemies. I make use of many many things. How could I not? I have gained qualifications. Two, almost three. And I know a hell of a lot of things. I’ve been around for a while after all. I have purpose. But none of this is what I’m talking about.

Here’s the definition of “serve” (again the English Oxford Living Dictionary):

  1. Provide (an area or group of people) with a product or service.
  2. Be employed as a member of the armed forces.
  3. Spend (a period) in office, in an apprenticeship, or in prison.
  4. Present (food or drink) to someone.

At first glance, it would seem I also serve a purpose. While I do not provide anyone with a product or service, at least not in the formal sense, I’m not in the armed forces, and I’m not in an office, apprenticeship or prison, I do provide someone with food and drink. Which leads me to the third immediate point I need to make.

Three, when I say I serve no purpose I’m talking about the big picture, the grand scheme of things, the whole damn universe, not the everydayness of life. In the everydayness  of things I cook my wife’s dinners and she counts on my doing so. I serve a purpose. I share my body with some 90 million microbes. About 57% of the cells in my body are not mine. They belong to around ten thousand other species. I’m a walking ecosystem. I definitely serve a purpose every day. I keep 90 million microbes alive, not to mention all the tiny creatures making their home in and on my skin, and I present food and drink to my wife, just to name two of the more important services I provide. But again, these kinds of services are not what I’m talking about.

Perhaps if I quote John Lennon it will help to make my point. Actually, perhaps if I tear All You Need is Love[1] apart a bit, leaving out the “all you need is love” bit, you’ll understand.

There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung
Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game
It's easy
Nothing you can make that can't be made
No one you can save that can't be saved
Nothing you can do, but you can learn how to be you in time
It's easy

There's nothing you can know that isn't known
Nothing you can see that isn't shown
There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be
It's easy

I’m a big Beatles fan and I know the song was more than well received in 1968. All you need is love, and flower power. But for me at least, while love is great, love is imperative, it’s not all we need, not in the face of the above lyrics. Not in the face of one’s utter irrelevance, so callously made obvious by Lennon. Nothing, nothing, nothing. I relate better to what Devin McKinney wrote about the song[2]:

Even the anthem written as benedictory to the Beatle-hippie triumph, “All You Need Is Love,” was conflicted: buoyed by an aura of revelry, it was at its core as bone-tired and fuzzy-tongued as the ragged end of a long party. John sang the words of the title with an unmistakable flatness of vocal aspect, laying sarcasm and the smack of chewing gum between the lines.

And, of course, “it” isn’t easy. More than not “it” is hard. Certainly learning how to play the game, which ever game you’re talking about, can be hard. Ian MacDonald described the “It’s easy” refrain as “half-ingenuous, half-sarcastic.”[3] However, I digress. I don’t really care if the song was the flower power anthem of all time or the most shallow, lazy, cynical lyric ever written. My point here is that it nicely represents how I feel about things on this raining cold day. Nothing I have done hasn’t been done before. Nothing I can imagine hasn’t been imagined before. It’s even possible, nothing I have thought hasn’t been thought before.

Over dinner I asked my wife what the difference was between having a purpose and serving a purpose. Without hesitation she said: “Having a purpose is about identity. Serving a purpose is about utility.” She was right. Having a purpose is easy, in that I am the purpose. But serving a purpose, having genuine and unique utility, now that’s something else. I serve no unique utility, or if the word utility seems too mechanical, substitute efficacy, or effectiveness, or even worth.

Remembering we’re taking about the really big picture, it’s time to ask: So where’s the light?

Václav Havel wrote, and I must confess I don’t remember where, that the Soviet dominance in eastern and central Europe collapsed in part due to the almost entirely unnoticed actions of individuals. He gave this example: A person writes an samizdat essay, makes twelve carbon copies which are handed from reader to reader. The act itself is insignificant—twelve copies of one essay read by a handful of people in the face of Soviet oppression. However, Havel insists that the accumulation of virtually invisible acts brought down the great Soviet edifice. If true, that unseen writer with his almost unnoticed essay had a purpose in the big scheme of things. 

Let me put it another way. The moral and ethical integrity of an act is not determined by its efficacy. Years ago when the world began acting to end apartheid in South Africa, I withdrew my $500 from the Bank of America because of that bank’s investments in that country. I wrote a letter to the bank president explaining the reasons for my decision and actions. I never heard back from the president. I dare say, the withdrawal of my pitiful $500 went unnoticed in the bank. However, two things are important here.

First, the moral integrity of my decision and action was not undermined by the efficacy of the action. Regardless of the acts almost meaninglessness in the big picture, the bank, it still had value and served a purpose, in this case the purpose of moral/ethical integrity. Obviously I’m making an assumption here, that moral and ethical integrity are import in the big picture.

Two, like the thousands of invisible samizdat writers in Eastern Europe years ago, the accumulative effect of little people like me removing our money from a big bank did eventually have an impact, and since I was one of the invisibles, I too served a purpose.

I think that’s the best I can do, though more thought may be needed. Or, perhaps, a sunny day would help.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] All You need is Love by the Beatles, credited to Lennon—McCartney, but written by John Lennon.

[2] McKinney, Devin. Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 200.

[3] MacDonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. London: Fourth Estate, 1994, p. 210.

Wednesday
Sep262018

The Great Philosophical Question about Half Filled Glasses

I often say this to people:

When someone asks me if my glass is half empty or half full I say: ‘Glass? What glass? Where the hell did you get a glass?’

Of course I mean it as a joke, an exaggeration. Still, while it implies that sometimes my glass is way worse than half empty, it certainly does state that within the parameters of the question, my glass is always half empty.

I suspect it is generally thought that having a glass half full is better than having one half empty, and the implication of that is that people with half full glasses are better off than people with glasses half empty. After all, being an optimist must be better than being a pessimist. Optimist are happy, pessimists are unhappy. Right?

I googled like crazy to discover the etymology of the idiom, but could find no consensus. However, I did find two references. The first claims the first recorded citation of the words came in 1985 from a Ronald Reagan quote in the New York Times: “you can say it’s like the glass half full or half empty…” I confess it’s hard for me to believe that a great psychological and philosophical tool came from Ronald Reagan, but as we know Trump is making all past Republican presidents look great.

The second reference claims that the expression is part of a proverb that originated in the first half of the 1900s. The proverb asks whether a glass that contains 50% water and 50% air is half full or half empty. Obviously in the proverb the glass is always full, so if you say the glass is half empty you have a negative worldview and if you say it is half full you have a positive world view.

There are, of course, two ways to ask the glass question: Is your glass half empty or half full; and, is the glass half empty or half full. The first is psychological and the second philosophical. The first can be seen as a kind of litmus test to determine a person’s psychology and/or worldview. The second indicates that a particular situation can be seen in different ways, both positive and negative.  

I’ve often found that half full people don’t appreciate my half empty perspective, and on occasion get downright annoyed with me—for God’s sake quit all your bitching. Here’s the thing:

Whether it was the cause of nature or nurture, or both, ever since I can remember there has always been a “but” in my life. My mom says, “It’s a beautiful morning,” and I respond, “But it might rain this afternoon.” My wife says, “The Paris climate change accord is a great step forward,” and I respond, “But it all depends on follow through, which is doubtful.” I say to myself, “I have a wonderful home,” and respond to myself, “But millions of people are living in abject poverty.”

Somewhere along the way I realize that this “but” and my half empty glass area a sensible technique for maneuvering my way through life. It dawned on me a long time ago that my “but” and my glass are not signs of negativity but evidence that I embrace a hermeneutic of suspicion and always have.

The term “hermeneutic of suspicion” was first coined by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur in his work of interpreting texts. In general “hermeneutics” is the theory of interpretation and began with the interpretation of biblical texts. Since the nineteenth century the term and methodology have been expanded to include the interpretation of all texts, including literary fiction, pop songs, legal documents, etc.

Ricoeur was uncomfortable with, indeed suspicious of, the notion that we the reader are capable of discerning the intentions of the author, especially if the author had been dead for some time. He thus wanted to ground his interpretation in objectivity, rather than in a subjective reading of an author’s intentions. In other words, he wanted to ground his interpretation in the text itself, not in the author’s mind. He believed that the text itself will guide us to its correct truth, though it is imperative to appreciate that “the truth” included a range of possible understandings. But, while there may be many interpretation of the truth of a text, there is not an unlimited number of valid interpretations. Because there may be a range of possible truths, but not an unlimited number of truths, it is important to proceed with a healthy dose of suspicion. Ricoeur argued that we had to remain open to what the text is saying to us, which he believed could and would lead us to its truth. Ricoeur wrote, "Hermeneutics seems to me to be animated by this double motivation: willingness to suspect, willingness to listen; vow of rigor, vow of obedience."[1] In a nutshell: be suspicious and be open; remain disciplined and meticulousness.

As the term and methodology moved from biblical texts to all texts, it has also moved from textual analysis to the areas of cultural, social, anthropological, feminist, and theological studies.[2] In cultural, and particularly feminist interpretations, the methodology demands we are suspicious of the dominant culture, politics, status quo. A theologically a hermeneutic of suspicion states that all aspects of God’s good creation can become bad.[3] So, borrowing from Ricoeur’s textual methodology, we must be suspicious of human thought, practice, traditions, behaviors and be open to what they can tell us. We must be disciplined and, as far as possible, objective in our study.

I had no way of knowing it, but as a child I embraced a hermeneutic of suspicion. It’s the “but.” It’s the half empty glass. It’s the best way I can survive the journey of life. It is not negativity or negation. It’s suspicion. It is not hopelessness. It is suspicion. It’s not the denial of sunshine. It’s the steadfast refusal to forget or ignore that dark clouds have gathered somewhere.

Admittedly, an all embracing hermeneutic of suspicion is a challenge to maintaining a steady state of happiness. Still, I’m comfortable with who I am. Those who find me unbearable can always unfriend me, though I bet they wouldn’t mind having me around if those dark clouds are gathering around them.

I do wonder from time to time what I would say about the glass if it were half filled with red wine and air.


[1] Ricoeur, Paul, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 27.

[2] Often people utilizing a hermeneutic of suspicion treat the cultural, social, or theological area of study as if it were a text.

[3] Even love if an obsession becomes a negative.

Wednesday
Sep122018

Remembering One Hot Summer in Areopolis ~ Joy, Spiders, and Bemused Tourists

Years ago I had a friend who owned a small house in Areopolis, Greece. I once spent a month there by myself. I spent a lot of time sitting in a taverna called Estiatopion writing in my journal.

Areopolis was hot. As I sat in a taverna on the piatsa I knew just how hot. The taverna was called the Estiatopion. It was owned and run by a family and a young girl served me as often as not. I would discover that her name was Joy in English. She found my name interesting and was utterly curious about me. She asked in broken English, what I was doing and, as best I could, I explained I was writing down in a journal what I was seeing and experiencing and that she was now  in my journal as well. When she finally understood, she was thrilled and beautifully self-conscious.

AreopolisI sat drinking retsina taken from a large wooden barrel in the kitchen and served in an orange aluminium half pint pitcher, old, chipped, and dented. Before me, on the railing of the taverna, was a spider weaving its evening web. I could not see the web itself nor where it was attached to the railing. It seemed the spider hung in mid-air, oblivious to the demands of gravity. It was, nonetheless, busy, creating invisible and dangerous threads.

From my table I looked out upon the open piatsa. To my left was one of the twenty churches in Areopolis, small, attractive, well taken care of, and open. I wondered what purpose it served here on the public plaza. Perhaps just the purpose of being taken care of. Perhaps witness.

As I poured more retsina into a small glass, the spider finished its construction and sat quietly and patiently in the middle of its web. Joy came from inside the taverna with my bread, tzatziki and salad. As a gift she brought me watermelon. She seemed to like me, and that was welcomed. The spider made its first catch, a small gnat, the very kind that liked to swim along the surface of my retsina. A little girl passing in front of the church crossed herself three times. In the piatsa boys played football, young men strutted their stuff, and young girls tossed their hair. At a table to my right a grandfather ate with his grandson, demonstrating such tenderness toward the boy that it almost brought tears to my eyes.

AreopolisThe next day Areopolis was hotter still and I returned to the Estiatopion. Joy brought me a frappe without my asking. The Estiatopion was one of five tavernas in a row facing the piatsa. To the right was Nicola's Corner. Interestingly, Nicola's was the second in the row, not on the corner at all. Obviously, Nicola (and I chose to assume there actually was a Nicola) did not want us to read the word "corner" literally. In fact, Nicola demanded that we put aside our Enlightenment and scientific positivistic seductions and deceptions and read corner poetically. If we did not, could not, we missed the whole point, and poor Nicola would turn out looking like a bloody fool. But if we did, well, the word "corner" would evoke all kinds of images, feelings and desires, some of which Nicola's Corner would satisfy. But I mention Nicola's Corner because it was also where the buses stopped. Local buses, Athens buses, tourist buses.

Opposite Nicola's Corner, across the street, on the actual corner of the piatsa was a small kiosk. Inside the kiosk sat an old woman in black. She sat there all day and late into the night. She sold ice cream, smokes, snacks of all kinds, plastic offensive toy weapons and time on the telephone. You really had to want the time, however. It was expensive.

About half the piatsa was covered with tables and chairs owned by the five tavernas and identified by territory and colour. Whites, yellows, reds, striped large coverings on metal frames, huge white umbrellas all busy until midnight. Also on the piatsa was a statue of the local hero who started  a revolution that swept across old Greece.

Petros MierrokasAreopolis is a town on the Mani Peninsula and the name means the “city of Ares,” the ancient Greek god of war. On March 17, 1821 the Greek War of Independence was started in Areopolis by Petros Mierrokas, the very man now standing frozen in time in the piatsa. Now the children play at the base of Mierrokas’s statue. The weeds grow and the tourists take pictures, though I'm sure they have no idea who the man with the large sword actually was.

As I sat drinking my frappe, a tourist bus arrived in front of Nicola's Corner. From it exited, it seemed to me rather reluctantly, white, limp, camera laden tourists. Some came straight to Nicola's Corner and took a seat. One family ventured up the three steps of Estiatopion. Some walked across the street to the piatsa and took pictures of the local statue. And a few ventured into town.  

The centre of Areopolis was to the right of the piatsa perhaps 100 meters down a narrow street. As these few adventurers walked down that street, they passed a post office, a chemist, a couple of old markets selling fruits and vegetables, and a few rather cheap shops selling goods to tourists. At the point where the road narrowed still more, they turned and came back to the bus. There they hovered aimlessly waiting for the bus engine to come to life and the door to open.

Sadly, if they had continued walking, they would have entered the old plaza at the end of the narrow street. They would have walked upon cobbles aching with age and history, the actual place where the local hero began the revolution. They would have seen the old church and the old bakery. If they had had real courage, they would have bent low to pass through the small door of the bakery, tripped over hard bread covering every inch of surface space, and seen an old woman sweeping soot out of an older stone oven with a carbon black cloth on the end of a long wooden pole. Outside the bakery, they would have seen old houses and the famous Mani towers. But instead they returned to their bus.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug292018

What Did Sandy and Heihei See in the Dark ~ I Don’t Really Want to Know

I have been fortunate to welcome in my home two nonhuman guests. I know the “nonhuman” is insulting. It’s like saying “nonwhites” or that women are human beings without penises. Nonetheless, both were female mammals, the first a small dog by the name of Sandy and the second a kitten called Heihei. I have to say both Alexa and Hey Google were somewhat vague on the meaning of the name Heihei and so I had to email Heihei’s owners who are Chinese. Heihei is a Cantonese name, the Chinese character being . The name means “joyjoy.” Fortunately, Alexa and Hey Google were more forthcoming with the name Sandy: originally a diminutive of Alexander and as a feminine name a diminutive of Alexandra or Sandra. Of course, it also refers to a color and in the case of my guest it was very appropriate. Sandy means “protector of humankind.” I have no difficulty seeing Sandy as a protector, in this case of me for a week, and Heihei as joyous. She sure liked to play, or sleep. It was playing or sleeping and not much else. However, I digress.  

I must say, Sandy and Heihei were excellent guest, though I found Heihei more challenging—I did worry sometimes her very sharp claws would meet my favorite brown chair in the snug, which I will get to momentarily. They both were pleasant and enjoyable to have for the week each stayed. They both enjoyed playing and neither did any damage. They both liked to sleep in my lap. They both quickly became loving companions. For the record, they were much better guests than some humans I’ve had, though it’s best not to elaborate. It was sad to say goodbye to Sandy and Heihei when their respective weeks ended. However, there is a “however” coming.

SandyIf you sit on my sofa in the living room, across the room the dining area is directly in front of you and the kitchen to the left of the dining area. At a 45 degree angle to your left in a direct line of sight is a small room my wife and I call “the snug” (we lived in Britain for 30 years). The snug is where Roberta practices her cello and I read, though not at the same time, obviously. It’s a very pleasant room with three bookshelves descending in height from tall to medium to short along one wall. There is a big leather chair and foot rest in the corner next to small and large windows. In the summer I open the large window and luxuriate in a gentle breeze while reading. There are large and small cabinets, a floor lamp next to the chair, and a small table lamp on the small cabinet in the corner opposite the chair and windows. Above the medium bookshelf are two original paintings from Venice and above the small bookshelf an original piece from Shanghai. To the right of the large window, as you look at the window, is a 300 year old map of Scotland (I’m still fascinated that I own a map older than the United States of America). Above the large cabinet is an abstract metal sculpture holding several small candles. And above the small cabinet is a painting by my wife’s father. All in all, it may be the most pleasant room in the house.

On more than a few occasions, as the evening was slipping into night, and night into late, while Sandy and, then months later, Heihei were sitting with me on the couch, they both, independently and in their unique way, suddenly struck a pose of what I can only describe as extreme alertness. Their back feet on the couch seat and their front feet on the arm of the couch, they held their bodies perfectly still and rigidly tense. Their faces were frozen concentration. Though it sounds contradictory, they both looked ready to attack or flee at a moment’s notice. When I turned to them and asked what they saw, neither moved. Neither turned her head towards me. Neither acknowledged my existence. Their eyes remained staring lasers-like into the dark snug.

I’m not a superstitious person, though I must confess I am afraid of the dark, just a little. I assume my fear is simply a species specific genetic inheritance. Such is life. However, I must also confess, seeing first Sandy and then Heihei so suddenly and utterly zoned in on the dark snug did make me to feel more than a little uneasy. As I said, when I questioned them, neither acknowledged my presence when just a moment ago we were pleasantly watching TV together.

HeiheiOf course I assumed they were seeing or sensing something in the snug that I could not see or sense. The fact that two different mammalian species independently and at different times from one another had almost identical reactions to the sung served to confirm that supposition. I also assumed that the “something” either seen or sensed, or both of course, was more ethereal than corporeal. And I chose to believe that whatever Sandy and Heihei were seeing/sensing was benign, if not friendly. I chose to believe this because the snug is such a welcoming and peaceful space.

Do I believe anything I just said? Probably not. Do I believe in ghosts? Probably not. Do I believe animals can see/sense things I can’t? Probably yes. I have come to think that being agnostic about many aspects of reality is probably the more intelligent and reasonable way to be. Am I agnostic about everything? Absolutely not? Am I agnostic about what’s going in on my snug late at not? Probably yes? Do I read in the snug late at night, even without my mammalian friends? Definitely yes. Do I wish I could somehow “speak” with Sandy and Heihei in order to identify what they were experiencing? Probably not. Eventually they both turned their heads to look at me, then back at the snug, and then did an about face and returned to my lap. Neither seemed concerned. In fact, both fell asleep.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Thursday
Aug162018

False Equivalencies All Over the Place

The grocery store is a short walk from our house. I walk a path along a rather pleasant wooded area filled with trees, bushes, plants, ducks, rabbits, squirrels, birds, and goodness knows what else. When it rains the entire area becomes a large pond or marsh. The path leads me to the back of the grocery store where trucks and vans make deliveries.

Today as I stepped from the path onto the blacktop behind the store there was a white van with the radio blasting. The first thing I heard was that the male announcer’s voice was aggressive, angry, and hate-filled. I heard Rosa Parks’ name mentioned though I don’t think his hate was directly aimed at her. He was saying, almost shouting, that taking a bullet in a foreign country for the United States of America was real service. You, you just sit at the phone everyday asking for donations and you think you serve the United States of America. Taking a bullet is real patriotism. He went on in this vain, and as I said, I don’t know who all the venom was aimed at and what it had to do with Rosa Parks, but I wouldn’t be surprised if race had something to do with the hate-filled tone.

Next to the van were two men. One I assumed was the driver making a delivery and the other a grocery store employee accepting the delivery. They were both yelling, Yea! Yea!, and applauding the announcer. Whatever was going on they sure agreed with him. As I walked by, the following scenario played out in my imagination:

I walked up to the two men and said: Hi, I’m not sure what the guy on the radio is talking about, but I don’t think drawing an equivalency between taking a bullet for your country in a war zone  is fair. Two things bother me. First, if you’re talking about service to your country, what job equals serving in the military in a combat zone? And second, what sacrifice is equal to being wounded, maimed, crippled, or killed? I mean, if your criteria for patriotism is being shot for your country then hardly anyone is a patriot, including the hundreds of thousands of men and women in the military who have never seen combat and the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have been in combat but have never “taken a bullet.”

It’s not fair. You’re a van driver and delivery man. Compared to the person taking that bullet you’re not a very great American. Right? I mean, you just drive your van every day. And you, you work at a grocery store taking deliveries. Same goes for you. Same goes for me, because I’ve never taken a bullet for my country either. And here’s a flash. I wouldn’t be overly surprised if that fucking announcer has never taken a bullet for his country either—though I don’t know that for sure and if he has, my apologies. But even if he has, he’s still spewing hate-filled false equivalencies that none of us can live up to. The guy’s full of crap, and really stupid crap at that.

So, listen you guys, you van driver and you stock boy, have a great day. And remember, given what you’ve been applauding, there’s nothing you can do to make that guy happy except signing up and going out and getting shot. So, good luck with that.

Two things need to be made clear. First, I didn’t stopped to talk to the two men. Second, there is nothing wrong with being a van driver making deliveries and there’s nothing wrong with working in a grocery store accepting deliveries. In fact, both jobs are important for keeping things going, for holding society together, for feeding people. What’s wrong are false equivalencies and we’ve been hearing a lot of those lately.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug082018

David Bean ~ Remembering an Author

From June 1985 to June 1986 I lived in Castle Carrock, a small village in Cumbria, Great Britain. I rented a small cottage in the village and across the narrow street was a pub called the Duke of Cumberland. The pub was run by Lynn and John, a married couple from Edinburgh. Lynn had been a journalist and John an architect, both giving up the fast life to run a small country pub, at least for a while.

It was in this pub that I met David Bean. I don’t remember how it got started, but I gathered with a small group of men each Tuesday early evening for our “Tuesday Seminar.” The group consisted of a doctor, an architect (John, also pulling pints behind the bar), an ophthalmologist, a minister (me, at the time), and an author (of course, David Bean). We talked about life, the universe, and everything as we drank pints of beer, and the occasional whiskey (it was the doctor, Hugh, who introduced me to Macallan).

I was in the village on a year’s leave from the San Francisco Bay Area supposedly writing my Ph.D. dissertation. For reasons not important now—in fact they hardly matter anymore it was so long ago—I never did get my proposal accepted and instead turned to writing a somewhat mediocre novel (if only I had known at the time).

David BeanI’m pretty sure, unless your British, you will have never heard of David Bean. Nonetheless, he was a human being worth knowing and an author worth reading. He’s certainly worth remembering. David and I became passing friends during that year. He smoked a pipe and I remember the first time I got in his small somewhat beat up red car the floor, on both the driver and passenger sides, was completely carpeted with Swann matches—his match of choice for lighting his pipe. When I knew him he had brown hair and beard, and a face that was both intelligent and kind. We talked books and plays. He gave me a copy of his books Sounding Brass and The Hard Case. I would recommend both, though The Hard Case is the better. I believe his first published novel was The Day of the Bugles. I haven’t read it yet, but did find a hardback copy on AbeBooks.com.

David died at the age of 80 in hospital. I found part of an obituary in The Journal (Newcastle, England) but unfortunately there was not a date included. Nonetheless, David worked for various newspapers when he went north from London to live. In 1960 he went freelance and wrote for The Guardian and the BBC. He wrote plays for Radio Four and films for the BBC. His novels include: The Day of the Bugles; Sounding Brass; The Hard Case; The Big Meeting; Waster’s Sabbath; The Restoration; The Chronicles of Boggerthwaite: An Everyday Story of Lakeland Folk; and more. (That’s all I got from the obituary because I could only read a portion. To read the rest would have meant joining Questia for an outrageous cost.)

When I remember that year in Castle Carrock the two people I think of the most are John (the Duke of Cumberland) and David. Towards the end of my year, during a beautiful summer, David asked me to listen to a play he had written being performed on Radio Four. I said I would, but I didn’t. I don’t remember why, but I do remember the look of disappointment on his face when I told him I had missed it. No BBC on demand back then, so the play was gone. Here was a man who made his living by writing, and he had respected me enough to ask me to listen to his play so we could then discuss it. What makes it even worse is I had asked him to read my novel, and he did!

The novel was entitled The Night is Nearly Over. David’s first comment when we were sitting outside at The Duke on a sunny day under an umbrella was that he wasn’t overly impressed by the title. He had written ten comments about my book, three of which he said were major and seven minor (the comment about the title actually made eleven). We sat drinking our pints and he graciously, kindly, intelligently, respectively talked about my book. When he was done he said something like this: “Those are my thoughts. I could be wrong. It might sell a million.” It didn’t.

David Bean at the Duke of CumberlandThe Night is Nearly Over never got published, though I still have a copy which is sitting on the desk to the left of my computer staring me in the face as I write this. It’s a story of locked in syndrome, lucid dreaming, religious fundamentalism, political intrigue, and love (of course). It begins: “Arthur Mohandas Desai found himself on the corner of High and George IV in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was the twilight hour. The streets were empty.” Perhaps now you have an idea why it was never publish. And was the reference to Scotland really necessary?

I kept a journal that year and only made one reference to David Bean:

I have read The Hard Case and it was very good. David agreed to read The Night is Nearly Over. I have, of course, mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I am very pleased. It is my hope that he likes it and also gives me tips. On the other hand, he may hate the book and give me reason for depression. I have a hope to learn the art of writing. I need some reason to continue.

Poor me! I must have been scared to death. “Need some reason to continue,” indeed. There was no reason to be nervous. David Bean was a kind soul and a good writer. He was not famous, but he did good work, and a lot of it. As The Journal wrote: "Since 1959, Mr Bean is said to have written more than 500 documentaries for television and a comparable number for Radio Four." He wasn’t wealthy, but he made his living and made a difference to people. To ask for more in life might be a bit boorish.

I will always remember his smile, his pipe, the Swan matches, sitting in The Duke of Cumberland drinking more than one pint of bitter, certainly his books, but most of all sitting at the outside table of The Duke talking about my first novel. Too bad about the play.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Aug012018

Climate Change ~ I Chose Option 2 and So Should You

I’ve become involved in an energy program in my wife’s church that will increase the energy efficiency of the building, to include changes to lighting, heating, insulation, and the installation of solar panels. Two people came to the church to conduct a survey of the building. They walked through the building asking questions and taking notes. They climbed up on the roof. They turned on their laptop to give us the lowdown on the benefits of solar panels. It was all very interesting and encouraging.

Towards the end of our time together I had a conversation with the person responsible for upgrades to the building. She told me that as a climate change scientist she had made several visits to the arctic and that at one point a number of years passed before returning. When she finally did return she was shocked by the changes in the environment due to climate changes. As a result of the shock, she decided to form a company to help people counter climate change by improving their energy usage.

She said something that moved me to respond, “Yeah, when I see a small child I think to myself that that child might see the end of human civilization.” She responded without missing a beat, “Oh, it’s not might.”

She was dead serious and I confessed that I said “might” because I didn’t want to sound alarmist and crazy, but that in fact I believed human civilization was coming to an end due to climate change and that I was only slightly agnostic about the extinction of our species, along with the millions of other species we will be taking with us. She agreed, again without hesitation and with frightening seriousness. I almost asked her that if she believed things were going to collapse and our very survival was a risk, why she does what she does. I stopped myself, because I thought I knew what she would say.

 If you believe it is too late and the collapse is coming, and especially if you believe the extinction is inevitable, you can do one of two things:

Option 1: You can say there’s nothing you can do to prevent the tragedy, so you’re going to live your life as if the end weren’t coming. You’ll fly here and there. You’ll heat your home with fossil fuels and as warm as you want. You’ll drive a gas consuming polluting car and maybe a big one at that. You’ll invest your money where you can make the most profit, even if it’s in fossil fuels. You’ll eat steak. You’ll use plastic bags to carry your groceries and use your plastic straw only once before throwing it away. You’ll continue to vote Republican (in the US). You’ll do whatever you damn well please because it doesn’t matter anyway. And you certainly won’t waste good money on special light bulbs and solar panels.

Option 2: You can conclude that even if there is nothing you can do to prevent the inevitable collapse, your helplessness and the inevitability does not relieve you of the moral and ethical obligation to live as if your choices and behavior can change the future for the better. Of course it goes without saying, if you chose Option 2, you have to avoid as best you can all those things in Option 1, including voting for Republican Party candidates.

I’ve opted for Option 2, which does not in any way make me a hero. It’s just the choice I’ve made, even though I believe there is little to no hope. And to that end, my wife and I have bought an all-electric car, we rarely use the central heating in our house (each room can be warmed separately), we’ve been replacing the lightbulbs, we’ve made sure the house is properly insulated, we mostly eat vegetarian (though I do eat fish and poultry and the very occasional hamburger in the summer), we’re looking into installing solar panels (when we can afford it), etc.

Unfortunately, not believing climate change is real—like a rock is real, like the round earth is real, like gravity is real—doesn’t make it go away. Disbelieve all you want. Your foot will still hurt if you drop a rock on it. You still have to fly around the earth to get to the other side, not under it. You’re still stuck to the planet. While we can disagree if the sunset is beautiful or not, whether or not the Beatles was the best band ever (obviously it was!), we certainly should not be disagreeing on whether or not the earth is round (here’s a heads-up, NASA checked, it is), and whether the earth is hotting up.

Be clear about one thing. You do not install solar panels to save the planet. The planet will do just fine without us, probably better. Earth can host life for another 1.75 billion years. After we’re gone, and, again, having taken millions of innocent species with us, the earth will recover and numerous forms of life will emerge and thrive. No, the solar panels are an attempt to save ourselves.

If you think I actually am a crazy alarmist always bitching about my glass being empty, I would suggest you’re not keeping up. The human species is facing its greatest existential crisis, ever. Just three very real, real like the rock and the round earth, hints to get you started:

Watch the Methane (CH4)

You think CO2 is bad. CO2 is nothing compared to CH4 now bubbling out of the Arctic oceans and spewing from the permafrost. CH4 traps up to 100 times more heat than CO2 in a five year period and 72 times more heat in a 20 year period. The good news is that CH4 decays into CO2 within a decade or two. However, while it’s in the atmosphere it warms the planet on steroids for that decade or two. Of course, CH4 begets CH4 in a positive feedback loop. As this particular climate steroid heats the planet scientist talk of a Methane Tomb Bomb and a 50-gigaton (that’s 50 billion ton) “burb” of methane from the thawing Arctic permafrost as highly possible at any time. And remember, CH4 is constantly being released into the atmosphere. So don’t take too much comfort in that decade thing, if you know what I mean.

Watch the WBT

WBT stands for “wet bulb” temperature, a measurement of the deadly combination of heat and humidity. Once WBT reaches 35C the air is so hot and humid the human body cannot cool itself by sweating. Even healthy people die within six hours. Your body won’t really care if you believe in climate change or not. It will still die. By the way, we are already nearing a WBT of 35C in many parts of the world. Since air conditioning feeds climate warming, don’t put your hopes there. It’s another one of those nasty climate change positive feedback loops.

Watch the Coastlines

The maps included with this blog give an indication of what the earth will look like after climate change. The earth’s coastlines will change dramatically as the sea level rises due to the melting ice sheets and glaciers. As I write, Iceland and Greenland are melting. Bad news for New York, London, Shanghai, to name but three huge coastal cities. It's estimated that over 634 million people live in coastal areas that are at risk of rising sea levels. This number represents one-tenth of the global population—at present! As the sea levels rise and coastal cities fail to cope, a lot of people are going to migrate inland. Raise your hand if you think that will happen peacefully.

I could go on, but those three very real and well-argued expected changes should get you started. My advice: chose Option 2. After all, maybe I’m wrong about the future. If I am, you might help save civilization and the species (and I’m sure the millions of species on the planet will be very grateful). If I’m right, well, perhaps you can postpone the inevitable for a little while, but if not, you can still feel really good about yourself. However, if you have children and grandchildren, you have no excuse. Option 2 is really your only choice if you want to be both honest with yourself and sleep at night.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Friday
Jun292018

You Got a Revolution, Just Not the One You Expected

For those of you who, like Susan Sarandon (a most articulate spokesperson for the cause), thought it best to have Trump instead of Clinton as your president because reaction to a Trump presidency would usher in an immediate Sanders-like revolution, well you got a revolution, just not the one you expected. Thanks.

Make no mistake, we are living in a political revolution. The president of the United States attacks, and thus far fairly successful if the polls are to be trusted, every foundational principle of our democracy:

The president of the United States seems to favor authoritarian rulers even as he criticizes and attracts our allies. He supports and praises rightwing nationalists groups in Europe that want nothing less than the break-up of the European Union. Some of the rulers Trump has voiced support for or admiration of: Vladimir Putin (Russia), Xi Jinping (China), Kim Jung-un (North Korea), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Prayut Chan-o-cha (Thailand), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Marine Le Pen (France), Nigel Farage (Great Britain).

The president of the United States is undermining the agreed consensus of the West (political, economic, and military) that has been in place since the fall of Hitler and fascism, which can only delight Putin and Xi Jinping, and maybe his new friend Kim Jong-um. He declared that NATO is a “bad thing.” Europe is actually having to ask itself it the United States is now an unreliable if not hostile state. Trump tried to persuade France to leave the European Union

The president of the United States said that there were good people among Nazi marchers. He’s a favorite among the KKK, American Nazis, and the alt-right. He has brought known white supremacist into the White House.

The president of the United States has, not only encourage violence, but has called for it (against protestors and suggested the police should treat suspected offenders with more aggressiveness).

The president of the United States is in large part defined by his mendacity, so impressive that it is difficult to believe anything coming out of his mouth. The Washington Post has documented his lying: 3001 lies in the first 466 days of this presidency, or 6.5 lies a day. The lying, while a reflection of the man’s character, is much more than a personal failure. Trump’s lying undermine our shared understanding of what is factual and thus our very democracy. As James Pfiffner writing for Brookings reminds us, the frequency and character of his lying contradict our commonly held understanding of the Enlightenment principle that there are actually things we identify as objective facts identified through rationality, investigation, empirical evidence, and the scientific method. Given that “political discourse involves making logical arguments and adducing evidence in support of those arguments,” the very nature of our democratic process is undermined by a president who apparently can’t stop lying.  Pfiffner writes:   

Even though his narcissistic lies are detrimental to the democratic process, Trump’s continued adherence to demonstrably false statements about politics and policy strikes at the very heart of democracy and the whole project of enlightenment epistemology. If there are no agreed upon facts, then it becomes impossible for people to make judgments about their government or hold it accountable.

You were right. Trump did usher in a revolution (and I haven’t even begun to address his supporting cast: his kleptocratic gang in the White House and cabinet, and, of course, the radical rouge party known as the Republican Party). We are now beginning to reap the benefits of the revolution, which include, to name only a few:

  • A budget that supports the oligarchy and vastly increases the national debt;
  • A radical dismantling of provision for ordinary people in favor of the oligarchy;
  • A possible trade war that is already costing the jobs of some those forgotten and left behind workers;
  • The legalization of gerrymandering;
  • The attack on Medicare and Medicare;
  • The sabotage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare);
  • ICE and the separation of families;
  • The suggestion to cancel due process and the rule of law on our national borders; and
  • A travel ban based on people’s religious faith.
But let me mention one consequence which is having a profound impact one our society and will continue to do so for decades into the future: The Supreme Court.

This really is American politics 101. The president nominates a candidate to become a Supreme Court justice. The Senate confirms by a simple majority. Through a political coup Trump has so far nominated one justice. Given that Kennedy has announced his retirement, Trump will nominate, and the Senate will confirm, a second right-wing judge to the Court. And given Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s age, it is not totally unreasonable to worry that Trump will nominate a third. The implications of a rightwing Court are frightening to think about. Of course, Clinton would have nominated moderate to liberal judges, but you wanted a Sanders-like revolution.


Well, suck it up. Fasten your seatbelt. Things are going to get much worse. And there’s nothing you can do about the next Supreme Court appointment. As it stands, given that it takes a simple majority to confirm a candidate, there is nothing the Democrats can do to stop an confirmation before the November elections. Not fair I hear you cry, since the GOP help denied Obama a nomination with almost a year until the next election. Hypocrisy you scream. Do you think the GOP gives a damn about fairness and hypocrisy? Get real. It’s a done deal. So resist all you want, but remember this resistance will last for decades. You can’t vote out a Supreme Court justice. They leave when they retire or die.

Yea, Clinton wasn’t perfect. She didn’t embrace all your values. It didn’t occur to you that the election wasn’t just about you. It was about the commonwealth and the common good.

Well, welcome to the revolution.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Jun132018

How to Live in Trumpland ~ Being in Such a State as to Be Ready to Do or Suffer Something

A good friend posed the following question: How do we fit ourselves into these obviously bad times? He repeated the question a couple of time always using the word “fit.” The question came from a conversation we were having about the now burden of conviction that to be a good person and citizen we needed to be informed and that the act of being  informed, in “these obviously bad times,” was depressing, really depressing. My friend said he simply could not digest the news in the morning because he had to prepare for work (he teaches at a major university) and needs to be in the right state of mind. I said I read the news first thing in the morning, but for the first time in my life I was thinking about creating a news free zone around myself—no reading, listening to, or watching news, ever.

I’ve written about this before from the angle of happiness: Pursuing Both Knowledge and Happiness ~ The Impossible Possibility, April 14, 2014. 2014 was way before America became Trumpland. I had no idea at the time how bad things could get and what I wrote in 2014 may be inadequate for living in Trumpland in 2018, though perhaps not. My friend and I agreed it did no one any good, most of all ourselves, if we were depressed all the time, that we had to find a way to fit, because being uninformed was not acceptable.

The word “fit” is interesting in this context. I had reworded the question in my mind: How do we situate ourselves in these obviously bad times? Or: How do we live day to day in these obviously bad times? Nonetheless, I looked up the word “fit” on line. I found the obvious expected definitions, but down the list was this:

Being in such a state as to be or seem ready to do or suffer something.

This made sense to me. To live in Trumpland, in these obviously bad times, I have to be in such a state (of mind, heart) to be ready to do something and, perhaps more importantly, to suffer something—as you see, I dropped the “or seem ready” because for me to simply give the appearance of being in a state of mind to be ready to do or suffer seems disingenuous. This is no time to fake it. So, in order to “fit” in these obviously bad times, I need to be in such a state that I am ready to do something and very possibly suffer something. I suspect the something to do and maybe to suffer won’t be hard to find.

In our conversation I identified three areas that make it difficult to fit, of which I share here very briefly, comments being mere hints of what is happening. I’ll start with the least dramatic of the three, which is saying something about how bad these obviously bad times. 

 

Living in an Immoral Society Governed by a Kleptocracy  

I find it difficult and distasteful living in the kind of society that Trump, his kleptocratic gang, and the Republican Party, a party that by any historical standards has gone rogue,  are creating, though live in it I must. Just three examples:

  • Trump campaigned to make American great again for the working class that had been left behind. In fact, he and GOP invertebrates are doing what should have been expected of millionaires and billionaires. They are protecting and nurturing the American oligarchy. Have a look at the budget.[1]
  • America is now the country that separates children from their parents, not as an effort to protect the children, but to punish the parents and to discourage immigration. We traumatize children to punish their parents. Immigration is complicated and impactful, but a stated policy to separate children from their parents is deplorable. As our Attorney General Jeff Session said: “If you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law,” Sessions “If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border.”
  • The rise of white supremacy, racism, Nazi rallies. The worse of our society have been emboldened to climb out from under their rocks in no small part because of Trump’s own racism, encouragement of violence, and white supremacy.

 

Absorbing the Constant Attacks by Trump on the Foundations of American Democracy

Trump continually undermines the very foundations of democracy:

  • Electoral System: As a candidate he declared he would not accept the outcome of the election if he lost. As the president he claims there is widescale voter fraud when there is no evidence to support his claim.
  • Judiciary: Trump’s attack on the judiciary is both personal and political, claiming the judiciary puts the country at risk and attacking individual judges.
  • The Media and Free Speech: Trump has called the media the enemy of the people and has now convinced the majority of Americans that the mainline press is nothing but fake news. One poll reported that 77% of Americans believe traditional television and press news is fake some or all of the time. His attacks have focused on undermining the legitimacy of the free press and arguing for changes to the libel laws to make it easier for people to sue the press. He has called the press the enemy of the people, that it puts the country in danger, that it is a source of fake news, that it is out of control and disonest, that it is failing, and that it is not my or your priorities.
  • Rule of Law: Trump has consistently attacked the Department of Justice and the FBI. Trump has questions the very heart of our constitutional democracy: the checks and balances between the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. In an interview with Fox News he said: “You look at the rules of the Senate, even the rules of the House — but the rules of the Senate and some of the things you have to go through — it's really a bad thing for the country, in my opinion. They're archaic rules. And maybe at some point we're going to have to take those rules on, because, for the good of the nation, things are going to have to be different.” And: “You can't go through a process like this. It's not fair. It forces you to make bad decisions. I mean, you're really forced into doing things that you would normally not do except for these archaic rules.”

 

Living in a Country where the President and the Ruling Party Deny Science and Climate Change

I confess I have lost hope on the issue of climate change. I see a young kid in the grocery store and think he or she will probably see the decline and fall of human civilization. To me, that is a given. What I’m still agnostic about is whether or not the human species, along with millions of other species, will become extinct.

What we are losing with Trump, and all the medieval Republicans, is time. We are out of time.

 

My friend and I did not articulate how we might fit. It’s an ongoing struggle, to be discussed sometime in the future.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger


[1] While Trump said he would eliminate the national debt in eight years, the Trump budget leads elsewhere:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), a nonpartisan government agency, projects that annual deficits will breach the $1 trillion mark again by 2020 and continue indefinitely under the current tax and spending regime. On this steep trajectory, the publicly held U.S. debt will nearly double to $29 trillion over the next decade. This would bring the number close to 100 percent of GDP, a level not reached since 1946.

Someday there will be a reckoning. Someone will have to pay. Hint: if the aftermath of the 2008 crash is anything to go by, the oligarchy will not suffer greatly. We must not forget the Princeton Report that came as close as one could of identifying the United States as an oligarchy and not a democracy. (See also US Democracy Versus Voter Suppression and the Rise of the Oligarchy.)

Tuesday
May152018

Apple Tea with Musti

Istanbul, Turkey, May 1992

My hotel room has two windows. From one I can just see the Blue Mosque. From the other I look down on the poverty of Istanbul. A shanty town, or the gecekondus,  of wood and brick and stone and metal with a tram running through the centre of it all. From my view above the houses I can see people on balconies that look as if they are falling down. I can see into yards and windows and doors. I can see clothes hanging on lines and over railings. I can see children playing. The hotel is, obviously, for tourists and one can only wonder what they see through our windows.

At breakfast in the hotel on my first morning there were two British couples dressed in summer colours. One man had a pullover shirt with the words "Globetrotter" written in big letters across his chest. He obviously had no aptitude for embarrassment. Actually none of them did or they would never have let him step into the streets of Istanbul looking like such an ass.

I saw these same two couples later in the day between the Blue Mosque and the St. Sophia Mosque. There was a woman with her young son selling vests and slippers and the two couples were haggling over the price, which is what you do when you are on holiday. The item they bought cost them less than a pound sterling. I figure each of them spent around £500 to get from London to Istanbul in the first place. I learned later that the woman worked for a man who gave her stock and the place between the two mosques. For each item she sold she kept 10% of the sale. It was at that moment, with the memory of two British couples haggling with a poor woman for holiday fun, that I decided when buying something from a person on the street I would never barter. Instead I would simply give them what they asked for. Since then I've had a lot of people selling in the streets look at me like I'm some kind of fool. A lot of my colleagues criticise me for my lack of cultural awareness. People expect to barter. Well, there are places where that is absolutely true, like in the Grand Bazaar. But haggling with poor women selling crafts and trinkets in the streets, giving 90% back to some man who is no doubt not so poor, well, that's just crap. I'll keep being a fool.

I found a small café at one of the entrances to the Grand Bazaar (the Kapali Carsi was first built in 1461 as a covered market and now consists of four thousand shops, cafés and restaurants  in a huge covered rabbit warren of a place). Directly in front me is the entrance to the Bazaar. To my right is the "Exchange," a crossroads where mostly young men on large cordless telephones buy and sell stocks. Just behind me and around the corner  is the local mosque where the call to prayer is loud and fascinating. Five times a day the mosques of Istanbul speak to each other, back and forth, calling the men to prayer. It is both beautiful and eerie to western sensibilities. Sitting at an outside table, my back against the stone wall of the café, I hear the call to prayer and watch shops close and men walk around the corner.

The Bazaar area is fascinating. Old narrow streets and alleyways creating a web of activity and life. The buildings are of ancient worn stone, some jutting out over the street. Many are homes with people sitting in their windows looking down on the people leaving and entering the Grand Bazaar, walking along the street, selling stocks on big phones and sitting in cafés. There are plants growing out of mortar and hanging down from the roof tops. People are sitting at small tables with typewriters ready to write you a letter or fill in your form, for a price of course. Men and boys carrying shoe shining paraphernalia. Women selling crafts. Children, everywhere selling postcards.

I return to this café each day. I am, I think, an odd sight for three reasons. First, I return to the same café and table day after day. Second, I have no camera. And third, I write in a journal. I'm often asked what I've done with my camera and more often what I am writing in the book. And inevitably, eventually, someone will come up and start talking. Here, in this place just outside this entrance to the Grand Bazaar, it was Musti. At our first meeting this is what he told me about himself. He had lived in Germany for 20 years. When six months old he fell into a fire pit and severly damaged his right leg. He now walks with a limp. He is a Muslim, married with one daughter. That is all. He was not interested in talking more about himself. He wanted to know why I sat there each day writing in a small book. He also wanted to know where I had left my camera.

Musti works for an up-market shop called Eren  - the sellers of carpet, teppich, tapis and kilim - near the corner of Caģaloģlu and Nuruosmaniye Streets. His job is to greet people on the street, walk along with them, begin a friendly conversation and eventually lead them to the shop. If they buy a carpet, Musti gets a commission. If they do not, he gets nothing. He does not make a lot of money.

He mostly targets tourists, of course. I did explain to him that western tourist are suspicious and perhaps even a little frightened by this sales technique. As I watched this social drama unfold over my time in Istanbul, it became easy to identify tourist responses to the approach. Some were clearly scared and thus responded angry. Others, a few brave souls, actually engaged in conversation and even walked off with Musti to the shop. While others just tried to ignore him, in a clear act of self-defence, continuing walking along without acknowledging him. They had that same damn silly smile on their face, a smile that says two things at once: I'm making a fool of myself and I'm having a brave adventure. Bless them and why not. We're all walking along looking either stupid or tough.

Musti told me that tourists sometimes complain to the police "about him doing his job," which inevitably gets him into trouble for. This angers him. As he said: "This is Turkey! It's the way we do it here!" Ah, Musti, but it's not the way we do it at home and we've got the money. 

For the rest of my stay in Istanbul he sat with me and drank coffee. On the fourth day, however, he said that apple tea was better and he was going to take me to another café inside the Grand Bazaar that was not frequented by tourists, where we could get good apple tea and talk more freely. I went with him. He led me through the old bazaar on a route I was not confident I could retrace. We walked through archways and narrow alleyways until we came to a café as old as Istanbul itself. There were no tourists or white faces to be seen. Men, old and young, sat drinking apple tea, talking and smoking their hookahs. The walls were yellow from the smoke, as were the pictures painted on the walls. The walls themselves curved upward to a rounded ceiling. A couple of the men looked at me with, what? Suspicion? Curiosity? Not sure and it didn't bother me because I was with Musti. The rest just ignored me.

So there we sat and talked. One from Turkey and one from the United States. One with dark skin and one with light skin. One liking tea and one liking coffee (though I did drink apple tea that day). One a Muslim and one a Christian. We were both married, but he could not understand why I had no children. Nothing new there I told him; in my culture people spend more time deciding which refrigerator to buy then having children. He just laughed.

Musti dreamt of a better life. He dreamt of having a nice car and a comfortable home. He wanted his little girl to be safe, healthy and educated. He wanted to earn enough money so that his wife did not have to work and struggle to clothe their daughter and to put food on the table. He became angry about the "self-righteousness and hypocrisy of many Muslims," the "don't do this and don't do that brigade," as he put it. He wanted what I wanted. He wanted a just and good life and to worship his God without hassle. That's all, he said, though we both know that was actually asking quiet a lot in this world. I told him it all sounded very familiar, that there were Christians who wanted me to be like them, just like them, and when I did not comply, confrontation was followed by rejection, and sometimes hatred. I told him I could not remember the number of times I had been called the anti-christ by my brothers and sisters in faith. And that he found funny!

In apparent contradiction Musti bemoaned the fact that Istanbul was becoming more "secularised" and "liberated." It is a sad irony, he thought,  that so often religion does not bring liberation but restriction, while liberation brings the loss of religious commitment and passion. When we had finished our apple tea he said: "I just want to worship and make money and be left alone. I just want my little girl to be OK." I never saw him again.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

Saturday
May052018

Justice in a Berlin Park

In 2010 I published a book entitled Notes From 39,000 Feet. In the introduction, “An American Breakfast In Taiwan,” I wrote:

"Each 'Note' begins with a title, location and date. I don’t mean to imply that each piece was written in that place and at that time, but rather it was there and then that thoughts were sparked into being and that some writing did begin. 

The 'Notes' are presented in chronological order, beginning in Reykjavik in 1986, passing through places such as Harare, Varanasi, Gaza City, Seoul, Istanbul, Prague and ending in London in 2010. Some 'Notes' are inscriptions of presentations and lectures given at international gatherings and events, and are thus textualisations of the spoken word…Some 'Notes' are journalistic-like reflections and others are more meditations…

While there is no central theme, there is a background hum that is, I think, hard to miss, a hum that hints at ethical, philosophical, theological points of view that in some way make up a system of meaning—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, observations, understandings, all of which combine to reveal a way of seeing the world and how we choose to live within it…

All these reflections, meditations, and essays are simply what I chose to write about. Others in the same place and time no doubt would have seen the world differently and would have had other things to say. As Clifford Geertz would say, they are 'but reflections, diffuse and refracted, in my own mind of the way of the world...'”

For the next several weeks I will be posting some of the shorter reflections in Café Talk. I hope you enjoy them.

Last week I posted Death in a Newcastle Alley. This week I am offering “Justice in a Berlin Park.


Berlin, Germany, June 1990

I awoke late on Sunday morning, showered, and left my hotel at about 11:30 a.m., wound my way to the news agent for the International Herald Tribune. The sun was shining and I found a small café in Tiergarten by the Neuer See not far from the Siegessaule. It was warm and green and the water of the small lake looked inviting,  just like in the tourist books. The café itself wasn't much to speak about, but served coffee, tea, orange juice sodas, donuts, cakes, and sandwiches. It was just one of those small white caravans with a small white yawning, several small white plastic tables and chairs, all overlooking the lake. The plastic tables and chairs you could find anywhere in the world. I imagined that someone somewhere were making them in massive quantities and shipping them around the planet.

I sat purposefully at a table in the sun. Directly in front of me was the lake and slightly to my left a park bench. Inbetween the bench and the lake was a footpath. The park was full of people enjoying the summer. Tourists and locals were intertwined in the new Berlin, a city without visible walls. As I watched the world enjoy this new summer, two couples approached and sat on the bench to my left. They had a picnic basket and the pleasant gleam of sweat on their bodies. They were young, healthy, strong, and beautiful. In the basket was bottled water, bread, cheese, and fruit. It was a delight to watch them set about their picnic, laughing and sharing.

As the couples ate, a number of pigeons attracted by the bread gathered before them on the footpath. First one picnicher, then the others, began feeding the pigeons with bread and good humour. Among the pigeons was an old slow moving pigeon, without the shine of youth on its feathers. Each time this old pigeon went for a bit of broken bread, its younger companions devoured it first. The picnickers noticed this too and began to go out of their way to feed the old pigeon. It was fascinating to watch, these young humans laughing and showing considerable concern for an old pigeon who only wanted a bit of bread. Finally, their efforts and sensitivity were rewarded and the old pigeon was fed. I smiled, they laughed and applauded.

Then, from up the path came an apparently old woman dressed in layers of rags. Over her shoulders and in her hands she carried paper and cloth bags of various sizes, all worn and filthy. She shuffled rather than walked, old black shoes sliding along the black paved path. Her body was slightly bent forward, as if to give some momentum to her movement. She wore a scarf over her head even though it was a warm sunny day. She looked weary, dirty, and hot, but I supposed that sleeping on the surface of the park in the cool of the night, she needed the layers and the scarf to keep warm. I wanted to know what she carried in her bags. Presumably, all that she possessed. But what did she possess?

As she so very slowly approached the two couples picnicking on the bench, she stopped and watched them feed the pigeons bits of bread. She no doubt saw their efforts and obvious compassion. She heard their laughter and pure joy when their compassion was rewarded.

She shuffled forward and the pigeons scattered into the air. As she moved slowly between the bench and the lake, she turned slightly toward the couples and began to extend her right hand toward them. What was this a gesture of? Hope? Further invitation to practise the virtue of compassion? The continued possibility of reward and laughter? It was, after all, simply a movement of her hand? Before she completed this motion, or even stopped her shuffle, one of the men yelled at her with an angry tone and face, and dismissively, almost violently, shooed her on with the back of his hand. The three others looked at her with disgust and anger. Without stopping, without any visible sign of hurt or humiliation, the old woman dropped her hand, turned back toward the path and continued her journey.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

Monday
Apr162018

Death in a Newcastle Alley

In 2010 I published a book entitled Notes From 39,000 Feet. In the introduction, “An American Breakfast In Taiwan,” I wrote:

"Each 'Note' begins with a title, location and date. I don’t mean to imply that each piece was written in that place and at that time, but rather it was there and then that thoughts were sparked into being and that some writing did begin. 

The 'Notes' are presented in chronological order, beginning in Reykjavik in 1986, passing through places such as Harare, Varanasi, Gaza City, Seoul, Istanbul, Prague and ending in London in 2010. Some 'Notes' are inscriptions of presentations and lectures given at international gatherings and events, and are thus textualisations of the spoken word…Some 'Notes' are journalistic-like reflections and others are more meditations…

While there is no central theme, there is a background hum that is, I think, hard to miss, a hum that hints at ethical, philosophical, theological points of view that in some way make up a system of meaning—thoughts, feelings, beliefs, observations, understandings, all of which combine to reveal a way of seeing the world and how we choose to live within it…

All these reflections, meditations, and essays are simply what I chose to write about. Others in the same place and time no doubt would have seen the world differently and would have had other things to say. As Clifford Geertz would say, they are 'but reflections, diffuse and refracted, in my own mind of the way of the world...'”[1]

For the next several weeks I will be posting some of the shorter reflections in Café Talk. I hope you enjoy them.

Last week I posted “The Taverna on the Water’s Edge,” a short selection from the chapter “In the Absence of our Desired Hope.”

This week I am offering “Death in a Newcastle Alley,” orginially called “Holy Week Meditations.”

Newcastle upon Tyne, England, April, 2003

It was Holy Week and Newcastle was preparing itself, not so much for the Christian Easter celebrations, but the pagan festivals rejoicing in the coming of spring and renewed fertility. As I sat looking through a café window, I knew the days were lighter and longer and the air was getting warmer, though slowly and reluctantly. By their body language and the clothes, the young people walking by the café window were, it was easy to see, flirting with life and each other.

I left the café, and down an alley between a cinema and a bank I saw a man sitting on the ground holding someone in his arms. As I got closer I saw he was wearing a blue uniform with his name sewn below his left shoulder. He was cradling an old woman; his right arm around her shoulder, his left under her left arm. He was holding her hand. The woman, wearing an old heavy coat, lay with her back against his chest, legs stretched out in front of her.

She was simply staring forward, as if seeing nothing. I stood alongside them and asked the man if he needed help. He said an ambulance had been called. The woman did nothing to indicate she had heard our exchange. I turned toward the cinema and noticed another woman standing inside the glass doors watching. Despite the two of us, there was a solitary intimacy in the alley shared only by the old woman and the man holding her.

I had approached the cinema to visit its small bookshop. Since I could do nothing to help the man and old woman, I decided to browse, but within a few minutes I had to leave. They were still there in the alley. I imagined the man drove a delivery truck and happened to enter the alley at just the right moment. Whether she knew that he had come and found some comfort, or even hope, in his presence, I did not know. But at that moment, cradled in a stranger’s arms, the woman was near death or, as I really thought, dead already. The man, with some tenderness, accompanied her in death as far as he was able.

I walked back up the alley exiting into the open space of a large plaza. I stopped, turned and looked back. They were there, as still as peace, strangers holding and being held, at the very right moment of death. It was an attractive sight.

The sky was blue and filled with white clouds. The sun and the city were warm and alive. The people, all the people, went about their business, which at the heart of things was living. I could see it all at once, as if framed for my benefit: the sun and sky, the brown stone buildings curving down Gray Street, the homeless sitting on benches hoping for a drink before the cold night set in, post-modern yuppies moving quickly through the crowds with mobile phones to their ears, the young feeling the stirrings of sex in their bodies flirting, flashing, and side stepping each other as the age old ritual continued, people working and people buying, cars and trucks annoying each other, theatres and newsstands, cafés and restaurants, trash blowing across the streets, birds flying overhead, a dead old woman cradled in a man's arms inbetween a cinema and a bank. And in the midst of it all, there I was, wanting and able to go about my living. I walked away from her, the dead one, without reluctance, regret, or guilt.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger


[1] Geertz, Clifford. Life Among the Anthros and Other Essays. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Universitsy Press, 2010, p. 187.

Tuesday
Apr102018

The Taverna on the Water’s Edge

I’m a big fan of the joint British and French TV show Death in Paradise. It’s filmed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. The show is character based and features a murder each week. Of course one of the things I like about it is the seemingly idyllic setting and in particular the scenes that take place at the local café near the water’s edge. The characters sit outside drinking beer and laughing. I love it.

I had an experience not unlike the Guadeloupe café. It was not in the Caribbean, however, but in Greece. I made several visits to Areopolis on the Mani Peninsula. The town sits high above the Mediterranean, but down a switch-baking road you find the village of Limeni were I have spent many hours sitting in a café, well actually a taverna, on the water’s edge.

I first wrote about Limeni in my book Notes from 39,000 Feet in a chapter called In the Absence of our Desired Hope. Here’s the part about my café experiences:

Limeni is located on a small inlet within a larger bay about two miles from Areopolis. Along the bay, and especially at Limeni, the water moves onto the shore with relative peace. The mountains rise above the tiny village, and atop the mountains, on a flat plateau, is the larger town of. Further down the road about a mile along the shoreline is Neon Itilan. At the time of my visit, the land was dry and barren, but a villager told me that in the spring it comes alive with wild flowers, life and colour, Eden-like.

Small villages dotted the mountainsides and plateau lands. They seemed as old as the mountains themselves, and all had Mani towers, family fortresses, reminders of past vendettas and violence. Many villages were abandoned, warred to death. Still others seemed so, but people would appear from time to time, as old as the buildings. Old women dressed in black. Old men sitting in tiny tavernas sipping dark coffee or drinking retsina. Priests oppressed in black robes and hats.

Limeni Limeni is beautiful; with old stone buildings which have been worked and reworked through the generations. Some buildings were in ruins, but, interestingly, did not detract from the beauty of the village. Sitting in the taverna I could see the small bay and beyond it the open Mediterranean. To the right I could see a low ridge of mountains, baked in the sun. Beyond that a higher ridge, beyond it a still higher ridge, and beyond that open sky and large white clouds. The clouds would spill over the furthest and highest ridge, evaporating, disappearing.

The taverna was built on a slope leading from the road down to the water's edge. Rooms were at road level and above. The taverna’s patio was below at the water level. There were stone steps leading from the road to the café and kitchen, and a few more from the kitchen to the patio where people ate and drank. Most of the tables were situated under a wrought iron veranda, which led from the taverna to the edge of the patio. The tables themselves were covered with blue and white chequered tablecloths, typical for Greece, bright and pleasant. Clothes pegs held the cloths to the table legs. The metal frame of the veranda was covered with bamboo, tied in place, old and worn. The weather-worn bamboo was comforting, the sun filtering through bamboo causing patterns of light and shadow that soothed the tables and customers. The rough concrete patio was built to the water's edge, into the rugged rocks that lined the shore. Rocks and patio became one. The metal framing was imbedded into the concrete becoming part of the one. Anchored off shore were small fishing boats, some touchable, others some forty metres out. Their lines ran toward the shore, towards me, ropes fastened to short chains, which were fastened to iron rings which were fastened to iron spikes driven into the rocks.

I was sitting at a table on the water's edge under bamboo on the fifth day since my arrival. Five days previously, I had been struck by the beauty of the village and the bay. Beauty was a good enough reason to stop. On this day I was sensing the presence of peace as different, distinct from a feeling of peacefulness. As I sat drinking Greek black muddy coffee and retsina, eating bread, tzatziki, meatballs, and salad, I wondered what it was, this peace.

How much of peace is physical? The rough concrete pouring into the rocks. The water lapping, its peaceful sound, gently filling every crevice in the rocks, and just as gently running out again, as if in Buddhist meditation. The boats rocking rhythmically on the surface of the water. Gently. A small bird flying low across the water. The water shades of blue, light, almost transparent, merging to deep dark blue, almost black. Clean. A large bee humming in the bamboo over my head.

Limeni TavernaI was surrounded by quiet life, or a gentle living. The birds chirping, the bees humming. The buildings alive with time and being, and years of human living. The water alive, slowing filling and touching every space before moving on. The water contained life, surrounded life, created life. The rusty chains and water soaked ropes that joined boats to shore were alive. The ropes covered in green. The chains and rings and spikes rusting. Oxidation as life.

How much of peace is the community? At the end of the patio, to my right, two people sat at a table eating in silence. To my left, on a section of the patio without a bamboo covering, sat a young woman and a middle aged man. Her left foot was on the edge of the chair in which she sat and her right leg rested on another chair. Her hair was full and long and light in colour. Her body was slender, desirable. She wore dark glasses, a white blouse, tight blue jeans, and boots. She was posing for, indeed inviting, the man who sat  opposite her at the small table. He too was stylish. Gold chain on a bare chest, open white shirt, off-white loose trousers. From time to time they both made sure we were noticing them.

An old woman walked between us. She carried a bucket filled with frozen squid. She walked down four steps which were cut into the patio between the rocks and which led to the water, the bottom two steps submerged. The old woman took off her shoes and stood on the last step filling her bucket with water. She placed the frozen squid in the bucket of water to begin thawing, took them out of the bucket and hit them against the concrete steps. Then she filled the bucket again and put the squid back in the bucket to renew the cycle.

As I watched, I noticed still further to my left around the curve of the small bay, two people sitting on their balcony, looking back across the water, the boats, the taverna, at me. And behind us all, near the entrance to the taverna, sat an old man. Fisherman by the looks of him, weathered and unshaven. He sat by himself drinking Greek coffee, saying nothing. He hardly moved at all.

How much of peace is spiritual? The physical reaching into my body, mind, and soul. The sounds easing the mind. Beauty moving the spirit. The company of animals, people, water, and rust becoming a communion of sorts.

Even in that deep place of my being, within peace itself, there was slight disturbance in the form of an even deeper longing. Even as I experienced peace, I longed for it to go deeper, to flow in gently and fill every crack and crevice of my sometimes battered being. Even as I acknowledged with gratitude that peace existed in that moment, I longed for it to exist always.

Impossible.

Perhaps.

Peace for most of us is only a temporary experience. The most we can expect, because it is the most we have experienced. It is a repeating of the momentary. But we can long for, hope for, is for such peace to be permanent.

It is a glimpse, like a silent whisper. The deeper the peace, the deeper we pursue it. And that was it. That was what it was, this deep running longing. To reach something deep within me and without me, to touch it, so that I could be reconciled with the universe. Peace, not as temporary relationship, but as constant. Not as an exceptional experience, but as commonplace experience.

Even as I searched around me for the meaning of what was happening, things began to change. A breeze came up. The water was finding new energy. Gentle lapping became a crashing. The boats began to rock more violently, move towards me and the water splashed at my feet. The bamboo began to sing. The two people at the end of the terrace began to speak. The man and woman of glamour got up and began to leave, walking up the steps toward the road. As they left, the woman took off her sunglasses and smiled at me. She was inviting us all to watch. The old fisherman lit his pipe and coughed, clearing his throat unpleasantly, without the hesitation of self-consciousness. And two policemen walked down the steps joining us under the bamboo.

The moment had passed.

Copyright © 2010 Dale Rominger

Wednesday
Apr042018

Life, Death, and Me

It’s sobering to know that a plastic straw will inhabit the earth much longer than I will. Having said that, it’s really not my problem.

The other night sitting in a Thai restaurant a short walk from my home, I told my wife that my coming death is changing my perspective on things small and large. No, I have not been told by my doctor that I have only months to live. In fact, I’m in relatively good health, putting aside that my blood sugar is a bit high and I can’t eat donuts anymore. My comment was based on nothing more than my age and the actuary tables that tell me I don’t have all that many years left on this blue-green planet. Of course, I’m hoping to beat the odds as everyone does, but I definitely am in my third act with no encore anticipated.

So, I read about the alarming rate of ice melting into the seas at both the earth’s polls and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that the ocean is filled with plastic, that animals are eating our shit and dying, that plastic is my drinking water, that plastic is overwhelming us, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I ponder the possibility that the United States is moving towards fascism through the will of the people, election by election, and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I read that human civilization may collapse in fifty years followed by the possible extinction of the species (along with millions of other species!), and I say to myself, it’s really not my problem. I worry about another financial crisis and how it will impact my long term prospects, and I remind myself, it really won’t be my problem because I don’t have long term prospects. I find myself hoping that the great Pacific Northwest earthquake holds off until I catch up with the actuary tables. I stood looking at our new all electric car and realized that the odds are I will never have to buy another car. Well, I could go on, but my point…

First, the “it’s really not my problem” phrase is not as individualistic, selfish, insensitive, indifferent, hardened, callous, unsympathetic, thick-skinned as it sounds. In fact, I find reading the news a depressing and disheartening exercise each morning. To read the news is to acknowledge your one complicity and guilt and to, in at least a psychological, spiritual sense carry the burdens of children dying in war to whales dying at sea. I have for the first time in my adult life contemplating stopping—no more news at all. I’m aware that every day, though I take small steps like electric cars, avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible, recycling, paying extra for cleaner energy, voting, writing, supporting, etc., that much of what I do contributes to the seemingly inevitable collapse, the death of individual animals and the extinction of species, the polluting of this blue-green planet, the oppression of peoples. I’m aware that every morning when I take my first conscious breath I have compromised myself, that I live in a world from which there is no ethical, practical escape. What I mean by “it’s really not my problem” is simply that I will be dead and therefore will cease to be part of the problem and the solution. My death means irrefutably that life, the universe and everything will not be my problem. This stone cold obvious fact does not, however, move me to withdraw from the world.

Second, knowing that I will not be around for the future casts a different light on that future. Sadly, the future does not belong to me. It is not something I anticipate. It is not something that will impact me adversely. It is not something that will harm me. I will not suffer because of it. Also, I will not benefit, be lifted, be moved, be encouraged, by it. I will not be in the future to love, to take heart, to do the right thing, to support others, to build, to create, to sleep peacefully. The future is a land I will never visit and thus it is something very different from the immediacy of tomorrow.

The fact that the future, with all its nightmares and beauties, will never be my home is both a sorrow and a relief. It saddens me that I will leave my wife and friends. It saddens me that I will not be here when we discover life on another planet or moon. It saddens me that I will never hear music, laugh, be brought to tears by beauty, become excited by medical, technological, scientific, breakthroughs again. It saddens me that I will never read a good book again or watch a great film. It saddens me that I will not be here for moments of great justice, political victories, and fundamental positive changes.

I am relieved that I will not have to read about the extinction of another species at the hands of my own. I am relieved that I will not have to watch the continued oppression of people, another devastating war, the rising sea levels, the death of my friends and wife, the disregard of the homeless in wealthy nations. I am relieved that I will not have to sigh every time I buy a food item surrounded by plastic, ache when reading about a murdered child, become angry as white supremacist soil the oval office carpet.

I’m not losing sleep over my coming death. Because I don’t (perhaps can’t) really embrace it’s reality, I don’t fear it. Death awaited is a delicate and unconvincing certitude because I don’t actually know when I will die. My death is, after all, just an idea. My death is make-believe, at least until the moment it actually occurs. Until that moment exuberance should be my act of impertinence and it should drive me not just cheerfulness, but also goodness. If I am finite I might as well love. I might as well be of good cheer. I might as well be good, or at least try to be better than I am. But as cheerful and good as I can be, the awaited death redefines the limited life before me and how I see, interpret, imagine, embrace the immediate and distant future.

To be honest, I doubt I am capable of exuberance given the state of things and the forecasts for the future. Occasional happiness, of course. Maintaining ethical integrity, to the best of my abilities given the compromises needed to live. Remaining engaged, I should think so. Why not? Act three has begun.

Copyright © Dale Rominger

Tuesday
Mar272018

Self-Publishing, Vanity Press and Me

Would you be so vain as to pay someone to publish your book. Well, I hope not.

Would you pay someone to help publish your book? Well, yes!

The term vanity press appeared in the US around 1941. It’s a pejorative term implying that an author is vain and so untalented that they would never be accepted by a traditional publisher, and even if they were, their book would be commercially unsuccessful. Another words, vanity press is for losers.

I have close to 60,000 followers on Twitter and the vast majority are writers, artists, photographers, and actors. I also belong to a couple social media groups where writers ask questions, seek advice, and share experiences. I often hear complaints about vanity press and pity for, even condemnation of, the fools that turn to such presses. The cry is that any publisher that asks any author for any amount of money is a vanity press!

In my experience, a lot of authors published by established publishers are damning of any publisher that asks for money. Also, I’ve been surprised the passion by which many independent authors (self-published authors) declare that it’s wrong to pay anyone to publish your book—Vanity Press!—and that authors should, almost as a moral imperative, not pay to have their books published. I can understand indie authors being sensitive to the charge that they are nothing more than vanity authors who cannot publish traditionally, but the bottom line is, if you self-publish you will probably be spending money, and furthermore, you probably should be spending money. (Also, many traditional publishers now offer limited or no professional editing and instruct authors that they have to market their own books. Both professional editing and marketing more than likely will have to be paid for.)

Self-publishing has rendered the concept of vanity publishing mute.

Here’s what I mean by that. To be a good, dare I say respectable, indie author there are certain things that should be done, and some I’d say that have to done, after your write your book: editing; cover design; cover copy; copyright registration (in the US sent to Library of Congress); obtaining ISBN and/or ASIN numbers; internal design; formatting for eBooks; distribution (Ingram, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.); and marketing.

Some of those things are going to cost you money. Yes, Amazon offers a free publishing service, particularly if you are happy with just an eBook edition sold only on Amazon. But I doubt Amazon offers free professional editing and cover design. You will have to pay something to have your book published. For example, ISBN numbers cost money and someone has to pay—either you pay directly or you pay someone else to obtain the number. It is a rare beast (virtually nonexistent in my opinion) who can professionally edit their own book. Can you get the distance to thoroughly evaluate: Title and Cover Copy; Opening; Basic Premise and Tone; Point of View; Structure, Plot, and Pace; Setting; Characterization; Dialogue; Punctuation and Grammar? Can you undertake adequately the final proofreading? One of the reasons self-published books are still tarred with the damning vanity charge is that many are poorly edited, if edited at all. Every book should be professionally edited and for that you have to pay. Are you an expert in marketing strategies, including social media? Yes, Amazon will put you on their site if you sign up, but you drop into a pool of millions of books. Does your book have returnability? Is it on Ingram? Baker & Taylor? Do you know what they are?

My point is that you can try and do all the above yourself, though I wouldn’t advise it, but even if you do, you will probably have to put some money down for something. And if you decide not to attempt to do it all yourself, you will turn to others for their expertise and they will expect to be paid for their service.

A standing distinction between vanity publishing and self-publishing is that the self-published author keeps control of: money; rights; copyright; editorial process; publishing process; distribution; and marketing. But while indie authors do have control, they often farm out some of that work to people more capable. So the options: One, do it all yourself. Two, pay an individual to do some or all or it for you. Three, pay two or several individuals to do some or all or it for you. Four, and most controversially, pay a self-publishing publisher to do some or all or it for you. It is number four that gets traditionally published authors and many indie authors screaming Vanity Press! Why? Because, while it is okay to pay individual for services, it is heretical to pay a publisher for services.

I started writing fiction after I retired. I have no idea if my books would have been, first, worthy of an agent and, second, picked up by an established publisher. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to spend the time finding out. According to the actuary tables, I’m not going to be around that much longer (really hoping they’re wrong!).

As it turns out, I began my writing at the same time self-publishing was shaking the old vanity dust off books. Self-publishing started with the invention of the printing press in 1440. Impatient and getting older, I decided to joined the hundreds of years of self-published authors: Beatrix Potter; Edgar Allan Poe; Walt Whiteman; John Locke; Jane Austen; Emily Dickenson; Nathaniel Hawthorne; Marcel Proust;  Martin Luther; Mark Twain; Virginia Wolf; E.E. Cummings; L. Frank Baum; Zane Grey; Rudyard Kipling; Edgar Rice Burroughs; Gertrude Stein; Ezra Pound; Alexandre Dumas; George Bernard Shaw; Henry David Thoreau; Thomas Paine; Carl Sandburg; James Joyce…Well, I could go on and on and I didn’t even get to contemporary authors.

The thing is, I can’t be bothered to do a lot of the work that is required of a self-publishing author. I want my books to be available beyond Amazon. I really don’t want to spend time registering my copyright, getting ISBN numbers, formatting, etc. More importantly, I am not skilled at designing a good cover. I’m certainly not capable of professionally editing my books! I tried my hand at finding individuals to do various tasks and got burned more than once. And so, I became a heretic. I paid a publisher to do it all for me—everything from registering my books, to formatting for all eReaders, to distributing on numerous outlets and book distributers (Ingram, etc.), to arranging print on demand, to providing post cards and book marks, to marketing strategies. (I did one book all by myself and the result was not good.)

Self-publishing and technology (computers, emails, the internet, eReaders, print on demand, etc.) have rendered the toxic accusation of vanity publishing nearly meaningless. What is important is not the vanity, but the competency of the individuals and publishers. I’ve had good and bad experiences with individuals and publishers. You have to do your homework. And you have to be careful. The self-publishing industry is worth billions of dollars and a lot of people want to cash in.

The questions we should be asking is not, is this vanity press, but is this individual or publisher good at their jobs? Is this individual or publisher trustworthy?

True confession. Has the stigma of vanity publishing been eliminated? No, not yet, but it won’t be long. Do I inwardly blush, just a little bit, when I say I’m self-published? Well, okay, yes—but only sometimes. Do I tell fellow writers on my social groups that I have paid publishers for their service? No, never! I really don’t have the time or energy to deal with the outrage.

Time to catch up with the times. Vanity be damned. Self-publishing is here and it needs to be done right. You need to decide what is right for you. In the end, if it feels like a book, smells like a book, looks like a book (on an eReader too!), is distributed like a book, it is a book.

Copyright © 2018 Dale Rominger