Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Book Two: The Islander: the Battle for the Future First draft complete: 480 pages.

In 2161, civil war has broken out between the Guild Dominions and the Islanders. American fights American. Families are torn apart. No one is safe. The free Islanders are rounded up and placed back inside the walls of Island 42, where they freeze or starve. In the Mountain West, the two armies grow increasingly brutal in their pursuit of victory.
When I first began writing The Islander in 2001, such a scenario seemed unimaginable. Today, in 2016, does anyone doubt that something like it might someday be possible? Every year we march closer and closer to the possibility of walled off Islands where dispossessed Americans struggle to survive. To me it no longer sounds like science fiction.
No matter. The story will go where it has to. The ultimate result of oppression, the stripping of rights, the hegemony of one group over another always leads to violence.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Rebirth of a Classic '70s Band

A Book Review of Eyes Wide Open
True Tales of a Wishbone Ash Warrior

By Andy Powell with Colin Harper

In the fall of 1973, when I was a freshman at St. Olaf College, I learned that my favorite band, Wishbone Ash, was playing in my hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, 300 miles away. At the time, I didn’t have a car. I didn’t even have the money for a bus or train. Moreover, the concert would take place in the middle of the week, when I had classes.

As an 18-year-old guy, I didn’t consider those major obstacles. Instead, I collected my cash, planned to skip two days of school, and walked out to highway 19 on a cold January day, where I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked to Fargo.

No backpack. No change of clothes. Not even a toothbrush.

Knowing my parents wouldn’t approve, I didn’t stop at home. I showed up on the doorstep of a high-school girlfriend and asked her if I could spend the night in her basement. Her mother reluctantly agreed, and that night I witnessed my first Wishbone Ash concert. The next day I hitchhiked back to Northfield, and my parents and teachers were none the wiser. The trip had been more than worth it.

Back at school, I felt a bit silly to learn the band was coming to Minneapolis, only forty miles away, a short time later, but it did give me the chance to see them again.

After all these years, I still remember the opening number, “The King Will Come.” A strumming guitar and snare drum came out of nowhere in the dark arena, sounding like a medieval army marching closer and closer, then a guitar singing like a clanging sword. At last there was a burst of light perfectly timed with a crescendo of power chords and the appearance on the stage of the four warriors. In my whole life, no concert moment has yet to match that spine-tingling experience.

When I tried describing it to my father, a few months later, he stared at me—with my long red hair and devil’s goatee—as if aliens had captured his son and reprogrammed his brain.

Sad to say, the following spring, one of the guitarists, Ted Turner, left the band. Without him, Wishbone Ash began to move in new musical directions. Moving on as well, I began paying less attention to music, focusing on my fiction writing and later, my family. Gradually I lost track of the band. I knew they made a few albums after Ted Turner left, but I’d quit buying music by then and eventually I got the impression they’d died a quiet death like so many other bands from the ‘70s.

Jump forward in time almost forty years. One day, a YouTube search turned up a video of a band who called themselves Wishbone Ash. Three of the four musicians were much too young to have played with the original band, and the lead singer had a shaved head and a beard like Ernest Hemingway’s. Who was this guy? Could that be Andy Powell, who along with Ted Turner was listed in Rolling Stone magazine as one of the top 20 greatest guitarists of all time? A quick bit of research confirmed my hunch, and I soon learned that Powell had kept Wishbone Ash alive, in one form or another, for the last 45 years. Incredibly, they were still around, still writing great music and performing at a level, in my view, superior to their concerts in the ‘70s—albeit now for much smaller audiences.

Musically, I had a lot to catch up on. And doing so has been a great pleasure.

Then in 2015 Andy Powell published his autobiography, Eyes Wide Open, which covers the band’s entire 45–year history. The whole story is there: the heady years in the ‘70s, when the band was packing stadiums with acts like Aerosmith, Kiss, and Bruce Springsteen opening for them; the reunion of the original members in the late ‘80s; the lean years in the ‘90s, when the band stopped touring and nearly disappeared; and its current Phoenix-like incarnation under Andy Powell’s leadership.

The book also covers a dark period in the band’s history when Martin Turner, the original bass player formed his own version of the band, Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash. To keep the Wishbone Ash name, Andy Powell ended up suing his former bandmates Martin Turner, Ted Turner, and Steve Upton, all of whom had long since left the band but were trying force a reunion. I, like most Wishbone Ash fans, found this phase disturbing, given the amazing music created by the original lineup, but Eyes Wide Open makes it clear there really isn’t anyone to blame for the breakups or the court battle. Keeping a band alive and profitable is a daunting job, especially given today’s music industry, and the personal struggles of band members can’t be glossed over and forgotten by fans. Just like the rest of us, they have to make their own choices based on their own personal needs, and regrettably, in this case, those choices carried the band members apart.

Throughout the book, Powell tells the history of Wishbone Ash with a keen, objective eye. He never pulls punches, yet he always seems fair. He’s not afraid to criticize, but he’s also willing to praise his detractors when they deserve it. His past drug use and wild years on the road haven’t clouded his thinking. Neither did his success in the ‘70s go to his head, perhaps in part because he endured so many cycles of bust and boom. In fact, the book gives you get the impression of a man much like the rest of us—someone fighting to keep his dreams alive while working hard to pay the bills and keep his family happy and safe. In that way, there’s something universal about the adventures and trials described in the book, and they make the term “warrior” in the title sound not so far-fetched.

After all, somewhere deep down in our breasts, we all have a little warrior in us.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Islander: The Battle for the Future

The Islander: The Battle for the Future
After a very long break, I've started working on a sequel to The Islander. The story takes place five years after the end of the first novel. The struggle to free the Islands, led by the Coven, moves west into the mountains. Once again, Galen and Mata are pulled into the conflict, threatening their happiness and their young family.
Once I finish the sequel, I'll start working on two prequels. The first book will focus on Galen's grandparents and the creation of the Island in 2059. The second will focus on his parents, Mallory and Penelope, and the rise and fall of the Coven.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Open Invitation to Book Clubs

If your book club would like to read Phoebe and Zoe, I'd be happy to attend and lead a discussion or answer questions. Of course, I won't be driving to California, but only places a short distance from the Twin Cities. I've done a number of these in the past, and they're always entertaining. If you're interested, send me a note at cwhittlesey@comcast.net.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Phoebe and Zoe

Life is a fire we all must pass through. Why are some made stronger by the flames, but others consumed by them? 

Phoebe and Zoe follows the lives of two fraternal twins raised in a middle-class family in Minnesota. At 24, Zoe is happy, carefree, and about to marry the man of her dreams. Her sister Phoebe is lonely, cynical, and directionless. As the years pass by, Phoebe overcomes the hurdles that life places before her, building a successful career and a happy family. At the same time, Zoe struggles to hold her family together and keep their middle-class status. Finally, when Zoe's family descends into chaos, Phoebe is forced to intervene and try desperately to save her sister's life, as well as the lives of her two troubled children.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Death of Irony

In the realm of modern fiction, irony is king.

The king must die.

It’s hard to refute that for the last 100 years irony has ruled the world of fiction. From Lolita to Rabbit, Run to White Noise, our 20th century fictional worlds have been populated by the deviant, the dysfunctional, and the lost.

Before you accuse me of being a starry-eyed romantic, take a look at literary history as described by Canadian critic Northrup Frye in his Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Frye argues that literature has gone through five distinct phases since the dawn of time, and that each phase is defined by the social gap between the main characters and readers:

  1. Storytelling begins in mythic mode, where the main characters are gods and demi-gods – as far above the average man or woman as you can get.  
  2. Next comes romantic mode, with demigods, like Hercules, or mortals with godlike powers, like Achilles. In this category Frye also includes supernatural creatures like fairies and monsters. 
  3. Early modern fiction moves into high mimetic mode, where the protagonists are kings and queens (Shakespeare) and aristocrats. 
  4. In the 19th Century, we encounter low mimetic mode, in which the common man becomes the central character, like private Henry Fleming in The Red Badgeof Courage or Hester Prynne in TheScarlet Letter
  5. By the 20th Century, we’ve arrived at ironic mode; here the protagonists occupy a lower social rung than most readers. The modern cast of characters is rife with flawed and fallen people, among them drunks, addicts, prostitutes, chronic liars, young men and women who refuse to grow up, and at the low end, mercenaries, Mafiosi, and sociopaths.  In ironic mode, the author invites us to look down on his fallen characters and shake our heads at the contrast between what their lives should be and what they really are.
So what’s wrong ironic mode?


In its defense, perhaps we have as much to learn from society’s misfits as its paragons, and just possibly, most of us have more in common with the former than the latter.

And like the other modes, irony can lay claim its own wing in the literary pantheon, boasting no small number of classics: Don Quixote, Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse Five, and many others.

Irony, after all, is immortal. It couldn’t be killed if I wanted it dead – and I don’t. I only want to end its tyranny.  And tyranny is the right word.  When we’ve come to the point where authors can no longer argue a vision of the world without sounding laughable, then irony no longer serves as a check on our vanity, but falsely makes us feel superior at the same time it hampers us from improving our lives.

Stories should offer us more. Art has to explore the dark side of life, that can’t be denied, but when irony monopolizes the world of art, it suggests there’s really no point in trying to solve our problems – because the human condition, after all, can’t be fixed.

That’s why irony needs to abdicate the throne of modern storytelling. It's no longer helping us forward, but holding us back. What we need is not more of the cynicism of the 20th century, but a revival of the other positive modes. In other words, authors need to risk putting their faith in something, whether ironists find it naïve or not, and populate their stores with characters that readers can like, admire, and, finally, imitate.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why I Became a Liberal

In this age of polarity, one has to ask the question—why has the divide between liberals and conservatives become so unbridgeable?

To answer the question, I’ve had to ask myself why my own beliefs have changed so fundamentally in the last 25 years—from those of staunch conservative to steadfast liberal.

I think my own transformation is telling.

I grew up in a Republican family. My father was a prominent businessman. He sat on numerous boards, chaired my hometown’s civic committees, and served as a Republican legislator in the North Dakota House of Representatives. Growing up, I believed that liberals failed to appreciate the need for structure and authority in society, the virtue of self-reliance, or the value of hard work, preferring to piggyback on the achievements of others than work their way to the top as self-made men.

All that began to slip when I moved to Minnesota and found the people here better educated and more sophisticated than my peers in North Dakota. The state’s liberal government had created a superb educational system, a flourishing business community, beautiful parks and cities, and a high standard of living.

I had to ask myself, “What again is so terrible about liberalism?”

At the same time, I worked with African Americans and first-generation Cambodians, Koreans, Iranians, Hispanics. I expanded my knowledge of other cultures, ideas, and values. In short, I became urbanized. I saw that a monolithic set of beliefs didn't work very well in a diverse and complex society, and the only way to maintain the supremacy of one was to ostracize or minimize the others, or to segregate oneself from anyone who was different from you. And I wasn’t willing to do any of those things.

At the same time, the Republican Party began marching sharply toward the right. Ronald Reagan’s elevation of God and money as the defining forces in American life troubled me, along with The Gipper’s swaggering foreign policy and the growing influence in the party of religious fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell.

In the last two decades, the shift accelerated, culminating in the presidency of George W. Bush, who pushed conservative ideology to extremes—abandoning the poor and middle class, fighting wars over oil, deifying the rich, and enmeshing the government in fundamentalist Christian beliefs.           

This was no longer the party of my father. It was something new and disturbing.

To explain the strange terra nova that conservatives now inhabit, I need to return to the basic logic classes that I took in college. There I learned that truth can only be derived by two methods—observation or logic. There are no other options.

Bear with me. Every argument, liberal or conservative, turns on this principle.

Observation is basically science. If I add yeast to dough, and it rises every time I do, I can infer that the yeast causes the dough to rise.

Logic, on the other hand, begins with assumptions and derives truths from mathematical rules. The assumptions are crucial—no matter how valid your reasoning, a false assumption can never lead you to a true statement; if you build your house on sandy ground, it doesn’t matter how well you construct it—sooner or later, it will collapse.

The point of this primer is not academic. It would be hard to dispute that in the last 30 years the right has veered away from science and logic and into the realm of ideology. If you don’t believe me, look at the basic assumptions on which most modern-day conservative beliefs rest:

·      Gay marriage is a sin
·      Life begins at conception
·      God has chosen America to lead the world
·      American culture is superior to every other
·      Climate change is a conspiracy of liberal scientists
·      Trickle-down economics is good for everybody
·      Financial markets are self-regulating
·      Free markets ensure the best of all economic worlds
·      Less government equals more freedom
·      Most people are poor because they’re lazy

The disturbing thing about the list is that none of these claims can be proven or disproven. You either take them at face value or you don’t. Tea Partiers won’t even try to argue them. They’re bedrock, and by nature unquestionable. That’s why a rational person will never be able to convince the faithful by any force of argument that their beliefs are false. The polar ice cap could melt, Florida sink beneath the waves, our croplands transform into desert, and climate change would still be a conspiracy of liberal scientists.

And if laissez-faire economics create terrifying gaps between rich and poor, don’t blame conservative polices—blame the liberals for watering down the ideology. If we only the courage to remove all forms of government interference, then free market competition would create economic well being for everybody.

Liberals, I have to admit, have an equally long list of assumptions, but the list has a more inclusive, humanitarian theme running through it. While not opposed to the principles of self-reliance, it holds that no man or woman is entirely self-made, and that to some degree, I am my brother’s keeper:

·      The right to marry is universal
·      Parenthood is an issue between a woman and her doctor
·      God loves all his children equally
·      Scientists are better qualified to interpret the physical world than politicians
·      A progressive tax system is good for everybody
·      Financial markets, like branches of the government, require checks and balances
·      No matter how high we climb, we all stand on the shoulders of others
·      Only the government can safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
·      Given the opportunity, most people will work hard to succeed

Liberals have also proven to be much more pragmatic about their beliefs than their conservative counterparts.  Presidents Clinton and Obama have repeatedly angered their bases to pass key legislation, while George W. Bush and contender Mitt Romney have run from compromise like children terrified of being bitten by right-wing attack dogs like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and the like.

But the really tragic thing about our current lack of compromise is that liberals and conservatives need each other. Society couldn’t function without either one. Conservatives need liberals to push for change, to fight for opportunities for all Americans, and to empower our government to tackle our most difficult problems—just as liberals need conservatives to act as a brake on reckless change, to remind us that many things in life we must accomplish by ourselves, and to keep our government from becoming too intrusive in our lives.

Extremism, on the other hand, doesn’t seek balance—it employs a scorched-earth policy that demands total victory—a victory that ironically would seal its own fate, for if either side ever succeeded in destroying the other, then our ship of state would founder as it rolled catastrophically toward either socialism or corporate fascism.

The greater threat today, however, clearly comes from the right. The 2012 Republican presidential primary should have been a wake-up call for the whole country. One front-runner after another self-destructed in a string of bizarre, extremist rants. In the end, they all felt a greater allegiance to right-wing talk-show hosts than the people they hoped to serve.

But when the dust of history settles, those same talk-show hosts will not be remembered as the great promulgators of conservative ideals they imagine themselves to be, but as demagogues whose principal effect was to make millions of Americans hate each other.

As for the rest of us, we have an obligation to keep our heads level, to ask questions and think logically, to be civil, but where appropriate, to argue, pester, inform, and most of all, to vote the extremists back toward the center.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Latest Reviews of The Islander

Latest Review of The Islander on Amazon.com:
This is the best book I have ever read. I chose it for a book club book because I wanted others to see why I enjoyed sci-fi so much and IT WORKED. Everyone (all women) said they really enjoyed the book and even liked the sci-fi parts.

The book is very well written and is hard to put down. I will read it again and again and have recommended it to all of my friends and family. The only downside is, I wish there was a sequel. :)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Summer Solstice on Amazon Kindle

Summer Solstice is a collection of twelve poems about the thoughts and feelings that dominate our inner landscape as we reach middle age: children growing up and moving away, the loss of our parents, coming to terms with our own mortality, the validity of our spiritual beliefs, and the meaning of our personal lives, now half completed, and the direction we choose to give them in the time we have remaining. The poems describe the depth and richness that life gives us with the passing of years, our more acute awareness of suffering and sorrow but also of life's enduring beauty, purpose, and joy. Although the poems are written in a rich, lyrical style with various shades of meaning, their impact is direct and emotional—a refreshing antidote to the intellectual poetry of today that often strives to hide as much as it reveals.

Monday, July 21, 2008

John Whittlesey 1918 - 2008

Old Lion

The lion is weary now.
His head sinks in the fur of his once mighty paws.
His mane is thin, his jaw is downy white.
Deep scars etch his brow
From the battles of his younger days.

In the summer of his life
The lion's back was strong,
No burden too heavy to bear.
His stride was quick and fierce
And when he charged
No one dared to stand before him.

He sat upon a hilltop in the sun,
His gaze commanding all within its sweep.
His pride gathered round him,
A shield against his enemies,
And he a stronger shield against theirs.

But now his mate of many years
Lies buried in the earth.
His pride has scattered.
And the lion sits alone on the hill.
No one bothers to challenge him now.
He has outlived all his rivals,
And the younger lions ignore him.

He sleeps away his days
And dreams away his nights,
And the little hill is all that remains of his kingdom,
Shrinking every day,
His own body become a prison
With locks and bars more unyielding
Than those of any cage.

Soon the lion will sleep his final sleep.
The African night that waits for us all
Will close around him
And all his lore and wisdom will vanish with him
And the wind will whisper through the grass on the hill
That marks his grave.

But we who stood beside the lion will not forget him.
We will miss him and mourn his passing,
For the same hot blood that ran through his veins
Runs through our own
And the same brave heart that thumped in his chest
Thumps in ours too,
As we seek our own hills glowing in the sun
And lands encompassed only by the limits of our vision.

Well done, we say, old lion. Well done.

Old Lion© Copyright 2008 by Charles Whittlesey


John Sherman Whittlesey was born on August 16, 1918, in Fargo, North Dakota. He attended Central High School and graduated from Principia College near St. Louis, Missouri, in 1940. Upon the death of his father that same year, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, with his mother and supported her by working at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. When his mother passed away in 1942, he joined the United States Army Air Corp and served in World War II as an ordnance officer. He attained the rank of captain while serving in Panama, Ecuador, and the Galapagos Islands.

Following the war, he attended law school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, on the GI bill. While living in Chicago, he met his future bride, Betty Klingberg, whom he married soon after taking his first law position in Kansas City, Missouri.

In 1951, John and Betty moved to Fargo, where he stayed for the remainder of his career. Initially he worked for the law firm of Burnett, Bergesen, Haakenstad & Conmy, which later became the firm of Whittlesey, Pancratz & Wold. During his law career, he served on and chaired numerous boards and civic committees, held a seat in the North Dakota State Legislature, served in the Air National Guard, and organized and trained a bagpipe band consisting mainly of Shriners and guardsmen. During this time, he also developed an interest in the budding health movement and took up running.

In 1966, after practicing law for 16 years, he was elected president and eventually chairman of the board of Gate City Savings & Loan. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 1981, but remained as chairman of the board for another 10 years. He retired from the Air Force Reserve at the rank of colonel.

He and Betty enjoyed 21 years of retirement together in their cottage on Big McDonald Lake near Vergas, Minnesota. There he took up woodcarving and bicycling and continued his lifelong passion of reading and listening to classical music.

John Whittlesey will be remembered by his friends and community as a man of integrity, ability, dignity, persistence, foresight, erudition, and eloquence—both in speech and in writing—a gift that he retained even during the final days of his life. No standard set for him by others exceeded the standards he set for himself.

His family will remember him for his honesty, his unflagging optimism, his constant support and guidance, his wisdom, his patience, his gentle manner, his lack of pretension, and his agile and broad mind, which he took constant joy in exercising.

John was preceded in death by his wife of 52 years, Betty K. Whittlesey, and is survived by his son Martin and daughter-in-law Suzi Whittlesey; his son Charles, daughter-in-law Nancy Whittlesey, and granddaughters Elizabeth and Claire Whittlesey; and his son Clay and daughter-in-law Judy Whittlesey.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The new opiate of the masses: ersatz food

One in four Americans is now diabetic or pre-diabetic

Greed has corrupted the noble ideal of a healthy body

The other day I walked into a Taco Bell and was nearly struck dumb by the sight of the patrons. Taking a quick visual inventory, I found only one person over the age of twenty with a healthy-looking physique. Most middle-aged customers were 30, 40, or 50 pounds overweight, and there was one morbidly obese man who cleared the aisles like a slow-moving bus without brakes. It was both a depressing and disturbing sight.

I said to myself: This is not the America I grew up in. I hardly recognize my countrymen. It was like waking up on another planet inhabited by a new and much larger species. I know I shouldn't be surprised—I've read the statistics and have seen the evidence building around me for years, but never in such a concentrated and dramatic form. Here was the corporeal (or should I say corpulent) evidence of an unavoidable and disturbing truth: that our country is eating itself to death.

I'm not writing this to judge people. Staying healthy is a daunting challenge, even for those of us who are naturally thin. A whole host of factors are stacked up against you. If fat isn't in your genes, it's certainly in the environment, and American society makes it almost impossible to avoid becoming saturated with it.

I lay much of the blame on our food companies. As I got into my thirties and forties, I felt, frankly, crappier—tired, groggy, irritable, and the way I felt seemed somehow linked to what I was eating. Consequently, over the last ten years I've undertaken the difficult task of changing my diet. It was much more difficult than I expected; I've been a vegetarian for nearly three years now, except for a little seafood, eggs, and some dairy, but it took me about 10 years to get to this point.

The biggest problems I have now are eating in restaurants and shopping at the supermarket. These days as I wander down the aisles I keep thinking of the line from the Ancient Mariner, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Nearly everything in a box or a bottle, for example, contains massive amounts of sugar, insidiously disguised as dextrose or fructose or dozens of other misleading names. And most "low fat" products typically replace the fat with sugars, or sugar substitutes, which some people feel are even worse for you than real sugar.

Why is there so much sugar in our food? Because it's low in cost and high in profit—the perfect cash cow for corporate America.

Unfortunately, it's terrible for you. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 24 million Americans now have diabetes and that 57 million have pre-diabetes—most of whom will develop the full-blown disease. (That adds up to one in four Americans!)

Sugar has become such a threat to public health that I would like to see the FDA require manufacturers to put a new warning label on all sugar-containing products:

WARNING: Contains SUGAR, an addictive substance proven to induce lethargy, impede concentration, destabilize mood, interfere with digestion, increase fat storage, compromise the immune system, and contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of heart failure, blindness, kidney failure, and death.

Wouldn't that get people's attention?

Well, maybe not, given how much similar warnings deterred smokers.

Aside from sugar, nearly all dry goods in the supermarket contain hydrogenated oils—made by superheating normal oils until they react with a nickel or platinum catalyst, forming a completely new compound (a hydrogenated oil) which the body is unable to digest (but will certainly store).

I could go on, but the list of offenders in supermarket shelves is much too long. Aisle after aisle of food tells the same sad story. Sugar, fat, dye, preservatives, fake sweeteners, MSG, and who can say what else? The more research you do, the more you get the idea they're not selling food there at all, but the product of a chemistry experiment gone bad.

Fast food I won't even talk about. If you want a full version of what fast food can do to your body, watch the movie Super Size Me.

At this point, you might respond that the answer lies in a little old-fashioned discipline and some daily exercise. But the simple fact is that most Americans are working too hard either to cook or to exercise much. Since the sixties, the average work week for Americans has risen from 38 to 47 hours, not including commuting. After time spent with family, friends, and children; housekeeping; and errands, who is actually going to spend those few precious hours remaining to research and shop for healthy foods or go to the gym? Apparently not many.

Even worse, our children are becoming just as fat as we are. At my daughter's middle school, gym has been cut down to every other day, and at my other daughter's high school, it's been limited to half the year only. TV and video games certainly don't help our children's health, but in many communities, we can't let them play outside because it's not safe to. Add this to the sugar and deep-fried dross we're constantly being pedaled and why should anyone be surprised at the results?

The sad truth is that you have to be a highly disciplined, highly informed, fitness-addicted, moderately wealthy person in order to keep from being overweight in America today. Given all the odds stacked against us, it shouldn't surprise anybody that only one in three Americans succeeds in beating the odds.

So what can we do? Well, for starters, realize that the food companies are getting rich by making you sick. They don't give a damn about your health. They put these deleterious ingredients into your food solely because they're cheap and they can make bigger profits from them. And if you get addicted to the sugars, dyes, and fats in their products, so much the better for them. Any well-informed objective person has to view any messages coming from the food industry on the subject of nutrition with the same skepticism he would from the Tobacco Council.

Sometimes it helps to get mad. Understand that you're being forced to live in a toxic environment and then being blamed for breathing in the air. Fight back. Talk to your schools and demand better choices in your children's cafeterias. Demand more gym classes. And start to turn your own life around. Get informed. Start walking, at the very least. Read the boring stuff about nutrition (start here: www.drweil.com). Always read food labels and learn how companies disguise the true contents of their "food items." Once you're better informed, I guarantee you'll be outraged, and that might be just what it takes to make a change in your life.

And change you had better, Grasshopper. You have to win this battle—the battle for your health—because if you lose this one, nothing else in your life will really matter.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Islander #1 Technothriller on Amazon Kindle

All right, it was brief--it lasted only a few hours. And we're talking a minuscule number of sales; there are so few Kindles out there it doesn't take many sales to boost your rank dramatically. Still, it's happened twice in the last four days. Auspicious or not, it was a thrill to check my Kindle page and see The Islander ranked a bestseller in the following categories:

#1 Technothrillers
#2 Occult
#4 Political

In the occult category, only Stephen King stood between The Islander and the top spot. And The Islander has higher customer ratings. (Watch your back, Stevie.)

Of course, it doesn't take long for your rank to plummet as other books sell while yours does not, but my hope is that I can stay high enough in the rankings as more Kindles sell until the rankings actually mean something. If that happens, we really will have a significant event here.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Madness of Stalingrad

Although I find war abhorrent, I have to admit it fascinates me. The decision to wage war has to rank among the most catastrophic that a civilization can make--so I think it's important to understand the reasons why we keep blundering into wars like blindfolded amnesiacs.

At the same time, I realize that pacifism is suicide. Throughout human history, any country that lacked a formidable army or an alliance with a stronger military power, soon lost its independence, along with great loss of life and property. Clearly the ability to wage war effectively is a sine qua non for the survival of any nation.

Yet I find this fact deeply depressing, especially since any realistic study of battle reveals a level and scale of suffering that most of us find hard to imagine.

Thus I approached Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942 – 1943 with both dread and fascination. Here were two evil and fanatical regimes, the world's most powerful at the time, locked in a death grip—and the victor would control the vast majority of Europe and Asia.

Beevor does a masterful job of conveying the sweep of the battle, both at a strategic level and at the level of the average soldier on both sides of the lines. The book starts out chronicling the German advance into Russia in 1941, reciting a never-ending tale of German atrocities. Before the invasion, the German high command specifically instructed every unit to ignore the Geneva Convention and to do their best to punish the enemy and its supporters. As a result, surrendering Russian soldiers were massacred; Jews were rounded up and handed over to the SS; entire families were stripped of their coats, blankets, and food and turned out in below zero weather to freeze to death; German soldiers conducted “target practice” with retreating lines of Russian prisoners; and on it goes. By the time the Germans reach Stalingrad you find yourself hoping that the Russians annihilate the entire German Army.

But you just as quickly realize that the Soviets are no better—maybe even worse. The Russian leaders seem to have viewed human life as next to worthless. The Stavka, or Russian high command, executed over 13,000 of its own soldiers during the Stalingrad campaign--labeling them deserters, cowards, and traitors. As chillingly depicted in the movie Enemy at the Gates, they sent their troops in waves over open ground, often without ammunition or weapons, and when they tried to retreat, machine-gunned them down. They took very few prisoners themselves and sent most on “death marches”; out of 55,000 prisoners force-marched to a single Russian camp after the German defeat at Stalingrad, 45,000 died en route from exhaustion, starvation, sickness, and cold. And the Russians treated their own people so badly, that nearly 200,000 Russians enlisted in the German army, including 55,000 front-line troops—most of them Ukranians who hated Stalin for having starved 1.2 million of their countrymen to death in the 1930s. Nearly all were captured when the German Sixth Army was defeated and were subsequently murdered by the NKVD.

So by the end of the book you actually begin to feel sorry for the surrounded Germans, who lost half a million soldiers in the campaign and whose suffering toward the end of the battle defies belief: thousands of German soldiers died from starvation or exhaustion; nearly all were frostbitten, sick with dysentery or typhus, and infested with lice. Desertion and suicide were commonplace. In the final month there were no medical supplies; amputations were performed without anesthesia, and the seriously wounded were left to bleed or freeze to death. If you wanted to find a place on earth that personified hell, it would have to be the city of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 – 1943.

So what did this book teach me? That the human race goes insane on a regular basis? That madness is lurking under the skull of the average person, just waiting for the right circumstances to unleash it? That ideology is the first step on the road to madness—that all-too-common distortion of the mind that sees anyone who doesn't believe what we do as a threat our existence? Perhaps I got all of all this from Stalingrad, and perhaps all of it is true.

Come Closer at Your Own Risk

is one of the most depressing movie I've ever seen--and one of the best. Strange as it sounds, it's not far off. The dialogue is brilliant, the acting is superb, the characters' lives are riveting, but it's depressing to watch these four smart, beautiful people abuse each other in almost every conceivable way--opening themselves up only to be clawed apart from the inside and then dealing the same amount of damage in return.

It reminds me of the advice given by the author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, who says that any young person's education should include learning how to recognize people who will make you utterly miserable if you get too close to them. He also states that in any relationship what counts is what people DO and not what they say. People say all kinds of things, but much of it bears little resemblance to their actions. These four characters talk about love all the time but they ACT like they hate each other. They certainly understand passion and sex, but it's clear from their actions they know absolutely nothing about love.

I suppose a person should see this movie in the spirit of watching documentaries about AIDS or movies about the Holocaust--they give you a tour through the darkest regions of the human soul without having to make the journey yourself--so you can take away the lessons without the emotional scars. Beyond that, it's hard to find a reason to view Closer. Approach it with care; like any relationship, it's wise to know what you're getting into beforehand.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Candy Girl

A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

I was seduced into reading this book after seeing the movie Juno. I thought the offbeat comedy pretty well summed up our wacky anything-goes world of 2007, yet it had an upbeat ending that buoyed your sense of hope. It seemed to say, Yes, life is a chaotic whitewater ride in which we constantly crash against boulders, but even if we fall overboard, we can usually climb back on board, shake ourselves dry, and keep on going––and later on we can laugh and tell stories about it. That, to me, is the magic of Juno, and the reason it so unexpectedly has caught the public's attention.

Anyway, afterward seeing the movie I was surprised to learn the author was an erstwhile Minnesota girl (who sometime hung out at the Tonka Lanes in Saint Louis Park, about a mile from where I live). I was further surprised to learn about her short-lived career as a stripper in Minneapolis, and I wanted to know how a person went from being a stripper to a famous Hollywood screenwriter. Still more intriguing—what made a girl with a typical Midwestern upbringing want to become a stripper in the first place?

After reading the book, I'm not entirely sure I have my answer. But I'm not really sure Cody does either. But I do have a theory.

First of all, I have to say that I've never understood the mystique of strip clubs. The first time I walked into one I could tell something was fundamentally wrong with the place. The experience was supposed to be sexy. But someone or something has sucked all the sexiness out of it, leaving just a few bored and forlorn naked girls grinding around a pole and a menagerie of creeps making rude comments. To me there's no such thing as sexiness without desire; there has to be heat, passion, and mutual lust, and it was obvious the strippers were only there for the money, and even the guys seemed to think it was a farce, at best a naughty diversion and at worst a way to hold power over the women onstage.

So Cody's romanticism of this, well––I have to say it––seedy environment struck me as odd. Giving stripping a shot, I understood. I did my fair share of outrageous things as a young man, sometimes just for the experience––but one has to be careful. Small risks can have big consequences. And just as casual drug use can lead to hard-drug use or even addiction, so does stripping often serve as an entry point for young women into the world of prostitution. And in fact, stripping today doesn't mean merely taking off your clothes—it means lap dancing: grinding your crotch against the crotch of a stranger until he comes—for money. So if there is a line between lap dancing and prostitution, it's so gray and so thin as to be nearly invisible. And that was just the beginning for Cody; she went deeper into this dangerous world than I ever thought she would, deluded into thinking it was okay because her boyfriend thought it was cool, and by the end you really got the feeling the adventure and fun were gone, and she was just another lost soul like so many of the strippers she felt sorry for at the beginning of her book.

Well, I guess we all know it had a happy ending. Cody burned out and got out before she got hurt or trapped. Fortunately she had many other talents. Such an ending has to make you glad. Because the one thing that keeps Candy Girl from being plain-old pornography (aside from the brilliant writing) is the openness and vulnerability of the author; you can't help liking her, and you really begin to worry about her and hope that she finds her way to a better life.

So back to my theory. I think that Cody got involved in stripping for the very same reasons that young men ride bulls at rodeos, play rugby, street race, or otherwise sow their wild oats. Candy Girl is a classic coming-of-age tale (excuse the pun), only told from a young woman's perspective—Cody's chance to be daring, outrageous, and seductive while she still can. After all, such opportunities fade soon enough as most of us settle into lives of middle-class respectability (or mediocrity). At least when she's 64, Cody can shock her grandkids with tales about stripping instead of boring them with the details of her graduation trip through Europe.

And now it seems she's better off than most of us. Good for her. I would like to think of Candy Girl as one of these crazy adventures one can take only when one is young, naïve, and resilient—a wild ride through the rapids of life, which for a time tossed Cody out of the raft, but by grit, creativity, and attitude, she pulled herself back in and kept on paddling. So I wish her the best of luck and a smoother ride down the river (if in fact that's what she wants), and, what's more, I look forward to hearing about it in her next book or movie.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

It's Oscar time! Grab your tux and slit your wrists!

This year's Oscars: there will be nothing but blood

To fully enjoy this year's Oscars, I went out and watched all five best-picture nominations. Now I regret it. I had plenty of warnings that this year's picks were both depressing and disturbing, but I ignored them all and naively trotted off to the theater. The experience not only soured me on the Oscars but also nearly changed me into an evangelical conservative.

Tonight I saw No Country for Old Men, by the Coen brothers, who grew up right here in St. Louis Park. In the past, the extreme violence in their films was always made tolerable by their bizarre humor and their twisted sense of irony, but without it, this movie is a black, mindless bloodfest on the order of Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It may be a long time, if ever, before I see another of their films.

Last week I saw There Will Be Blood, a gory, hopeless tale of a defective human being who destroys all the people around him. The grimness dragged on endlessly and with utter predictability. Scratch that one off your list too.

Atonement was a touch better, although just as depressing. Everybody in it ends up completely fucked. And the storyteller has deluded herself into thinking she's somehow atoned for ruining other people's lives by telling their love story that might have been. Not a ray of hope, only delusion and death to the bitter end.

Michael Clayton
, on the other hand, was a brilliantly written and acted story—my hands down, no-one-comes-close favorite, even though it too had darkness aplenty, and Juno was at least entertaining, although I'm not sure what makes it Oscar material—maybe just a lack of competition. Perhaps my enjoyment of it was heightened by my distaste for everything else I'd seen this year. I'd forgotten it was possible to go to a theater and laugh instead of come out looking for the razor blades. Maybe the ushers should just start handing them out as people leave so we can all dispatch ourselves in the parking lot. That does seem the intent of filmmakers these days.

While I'm at it, let me mention Sweeny Todd, not a best-picture contender, but Johnny Depp is up for Best Actor. When did we all decide that slitting throats was entertaining? Funny? Artistic? What amazes me is that we keep paying to get mugged at the theater. We never learn. Yes, it's well acted, beautifully filmed, blah, blah, blah, but that's like putting a turd in a fine silk jacket and oohing about the fabric.

I'm not sure where all the focus on blood, pain, and violence these days is getting us. Someone might argue that art is merely reflective of life and that film today is the canary in the coal mine telling us our air is poison, and there's more than a little truth to that, but it's equally true that life reflects art, and to immerse yourself in blood every time you go into the theater is perhaps to tolerate and expect it in your daily life. Hell—you might even come to enjoy it.


Well that leaves me. This may be a bit more difficult; it's always harder being objective about oneself. My first impression is that I'm halfway between John and Howard, but as I reflect more, I think I have more in common with John than with Howard.

My upbringing in Fargo, North Dakota, was mostly worry free and fun. My father was a successful lawyer and later an executive, and we had a big white house, a swimming pool, and an embarrassment of belongings––a regular turnstile of new games, books, records, and clothes, nice cars, a motor home, a Triumph Spitfire (for the kids), and we ate steak, it seemed, every night.

My mother was a loving, creative, and intelligent woman who knew how to enjoy life. She held court in our neighborhood; not only all the kids but also their parents ended up in our house. My mother's friends, and later my high-school friends, would sit for hours in our kitchen laughing or baring their souls to her. My father was almost always working, and my mother, although death on feminism, did exactly what she wanted, which included sleeping until noon, spending freely, and living on coffee, cigarettes, and donuts.

The down side of my upbringing was the lack of discipline in our house. My two brothers and I spent most of our childhood running through the neighborhoods, watching TV, gobbling Snickers bars and guzzling sodas, and fighting with each other—both verbally and physically.

I nevertheless managed to stay out of trouble until I got to college. Neither my high school nor my family life had prepared me for the academic rigor I encountered there, and I was flabbergasted to learn that the average student spent 40 – 50 hours a week studying. I couldn't make the switch, and even though I had good grades in high school, now it was all I could do to keep my head above water. Feeling disconnected from both the academic and the social mix at the school (there really wasn't much of the latter), I found my home in the rugby club and threw myself into it heart and soul. By my junior year, I was captain on the field and head clown off, which meant I was drinking heavily, behaving badly, and visiting the dean's office on a regular basis trying to account for our team's outrageous behavior. There was something about the conservative, religious nature of the school that brought out the hellion in me, but of course my behavior was mostly hurting myself, and before long it put me in a downward spiral.

By winter of my junior year, I had worked myself into a deep depression. The pain of that experience surpassed anything I had ever known. I spent a month wandering around campus not knowing what was wrong with me. Late at night I walked over bridges and stared down at the ice, wondering if I would crash through it or merely bounce on the surface and break my bones, or how long it would take me to drown. Eventually I left school and was put on medications. It took me about a year to work my way back to normal, although in the process I had a semester-long relapse of near-insane behavior (think of Fight Club when Bard Pitt lets go of the steering wheel). Like John, I really didn't care whether I lived or died, and to this day, I'm not sure how I got through it all without killing myself or anyone else.

The positive side of the experience was that it forced me to rethink what was most important to me and what I wanted to do with my life. And I concluded that if life held such monsters lurking around its corners, a person would be a fool not to do the one thing he wanted most in life, and in my case, that was writing and telling stories.

Back at school my senior year I met Howard, who at the time was also planning to be a writer. Howard sparked in me a desire to learn where my professors had failed. He seemed to know everything, and he made it all interesting—ironic, entertaining, and relevant rather than sterile and pointless—and he freely interwove philosophy with science, history with art, and literature with psychology. More than anyone else I've known, I owe my lifelong interest in learning to Howard. That spring we both published stories in the school's literary magazine, and over the next summer I started my first novel.

The next ten years I spent writing three novels and working as a room-service waiter at L'hotel Sofitel in Minneapolis. I read everything I could get my hands on and even went back to school to get a master's degree in fiction writing (getting As this time), but in spite of all the hard work and single-minded focus, I couldn't publish a thing. In retrospect, I think I was trying to take on big, earth-shaking themes when didn't have the maturity to pull them off. I would have been much better off writing romances or fantasies, which at the time I thought were beneath me. And then just when I was finally pulling it all together, I gave it up.

I was thirty-two, married, and a new homeowner. Nancy and I wanted children, and I had worked my tail off for ten years with nothing to show for it, not even a resume to help me get a regular job. In the meantime all my buddies had become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or successful businessmen. I came to see the last decade of my life as a waste––the folly of a spoiled young man, and one day in a fit of disgust I burned everything I'd ever written.

That was my second painful transition in life, but it too worked out fine in the end. Eventually I got a job as a marketing-communications writer for a manufacturing company. I was surprised to find the work and the people interesting; it felt good to have a regular paycheck and lose the nagging bitterness of the artist manqué. Nancy and I raised two beautiful girls, and I found I loved being a father more than anything else I had done. I became a dedicated family man, performing my job and household duties to the utmost of my abilities. There isn't much more to tell about this decade of my life; as Tolstoy says, all happy families are alike, and the same is largely true, I think, for individuals.

Then in 1999, two years after I became a middle manager in a stress-ridden corporation, I decided the dual wage-earning model was a bad one for raising a family, so I left my corporate job and started a freelance writing business.

Being a freelancer allowed me to spend more time with my family, but it also had the unintended consequence of allowing me to write fiction once again. Before long I began to play around with the novel that eventually became The Islander, and as time went by, I devoted more and more hours to it each week. Six years later when I finally published it, my freelance business was suffering, and I was tired of the isolation and the never-ending quest for new clients, so I gave it up for another corporate job. But this time I'm not giving up on my own writing. I intend to keep at it, in whatever form possible, until the day I die, and so at 52 I find myself still working toward the same goal I dreamed about at 22 and hoping for that first big break on a novel.

So after writing down this personal history, I have to place my path in life closer to John's than to Howard's, but still somewhere between the two. The shape of the waves our three lives have cast is quite distinct: John's wave is vertical, with soaring peaks and plunging valleys; Howard's is more steady or undulating; and my own has included both peaks and valleys as well as the pleasant stability of Howard's. It's been an interesting run for all three of us, and when we met in Northfield last fall, we could have just as well been 21 again, sitting around in T-shirts, drinking beer, making confessions, and telling stories. For me anyway, life doesn't get any better than that. We all agreed to do it again next year, but this time we're going to ditch the corn dogs and relax full time, either going out to Howard's in Pennsylvania or hitting the streets of New York.

I can hardly wait.

Adventures in corn-dog land