Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Life is the Ultimate Power

Nuclear Power: The Fifth Horseman, Dennis Hayes  - click for more info
Less than a year after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in July 1946, NBC Radio broadcast a series of plays that dramatically questioned nuclear power. There are eight episodes of "The Fifth Horseman," narrated by actor Henry Fonda. You can listen to these old radio plays, and purchase them for download, by clicking here"Make your ships unsinkable," the Fonda character says. "But that will not save your people and your cities." He had witnessed Hiroshima. "The room we were in suddenly brightened by the greatest light ever seen on this earth...The shattered glass flew through the room with the velocity of bullets. Then a terrific wind roared through the room."

Actor Henry Fonda, The Fifth Horseman
The Obsessive Reader is aware that people are waiting to see how bad the nuclear crisis in Japan will become. Is there a possibility that fallout from the radiation in northern Japan will  shower Japan and be carried on wind currents and through water systems around the earth? The Obsessive Reader is aware that many people are panicking now. Bemoaning our fate. Having heart palpitations. Crowing that the chickens have come home to roost. Selling off stocks. Demanding life changes. All various reactions I've noticed in response to the nuclear crisis in Japan, following the earthquake and tsunami disasters.

A friend and poet, Margaret Randall, wrote the best response I have seen.

I grieve and rage for the Japanese people first of all, who carry Hiroshima and Nagasaki in their DNA memory and now face tens of thousands of lost lives and devastated land because of a terrible earthquake, a terrifying tsunami, and the wrongheadedness of those who believe we can "harness" nuclear power. We must ask what they need and try to give it to them.

And I grieve and rage for us all, living on a planet whose axis has shifted because of these tectonic plates unbuckling and realigning themselves after this disaster.

Here's to life, everywhere!

The Obsessive Reader remembers in the 1980s, after the 1978 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, a beautiful, clear voice emerged out of the panic and confusion.  It made so much sense that the orator was a pediatrician, a physician who cared for children, a small woman from Australia with her own children, who was outraged at our moral numbness. She was a scientist, a trained physician. What seemed to matter most as I listened to her voice on Pacifica Radio, and read some of her early books, was that Dr. Helen Caldicott was sane. She was angry, outspoken, shrill and repetitive.  But she had not lost her senses, she had found them. And nobody was going to stop her from speaking out about the dangers of nuclear power, how crazy a path humanity had carved for itself.  What struck me most of all, though, was Dr. Caldicott's love for people and the earth we live on.  Her words and spirit communicated such a passion for life.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, b. 1938
The Obsessive Reader joins Helen Caldicott in affirming that life is the ultimate power on Earth. Life, the stubborn, eternal substance that forces weeds through cracks in urban concrete, that allows cockroaches to outlast human catastrophes, that holds the galaxy in balance and spins the planets, that breathes us as we inhale and exhale. In infinite forms, Life is the source of all.

During this time, humanity is panicked, confused, and grieving for the losses of our brothers and sisters in Japan, it is easy to forget about the power of life. That power exists, even in the midst of death. It might help give perspective, even hope, to remember the words of Dr. Helen Caldicott from a 1981 Phi Beta Kappa address to the Harvard chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.  In her speech, "This Beautiful Planet," she called the nuclear age, "the greatest challenge the human race has ever had since we stood on our hind legs and developed the opposing thumb to use weapons."

Dr. Caldicott, in 1981
Unless we mature and stop behaving like children, we will not survive. 
I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said, "God Bless America," but every person on earth is the son or daughter of God. We are together on a small, fragile planet. We will either live together or we will die together.
What is our responsibility toward evolution? To continue this beautiful life process. If you take this on, life becomes very precious. Even the things you dislike most about your life become precious. Go outside and look at a rose and smell it, or look at a baby to know what I mean. 
We are curators of all life on this planet. We hold it in our hands. It is a beautiful planet, maybe the only life in the whole universe, and I refuse to believe we are silly enough to destroy it.

For obsessive readers to learn more about Helen Caldicott's books and how to purchase them, click here.  I join Margaret Randall in proclaiming, Here's to LIFE everywhere! Gracias a la Vida.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Road to Each of Us is Love

Author John Fante
Today, The Obsessive Reader's work life and literary life came together in a wonderful way. Stephen Cooper, author of  Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante,  and a professor of English at Cal State UniversityLong Beach, lectured on Italian American writer John Fante at UCLA Library Special Collections, which holds the writer's remarkable archive. I remember - it was the early 1980s - getting those Black Sparrow Press editions of Ask the Dust, and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. I lay on my stomach on the living room carpet, reading into the night, entranced. (Even then I was an Obsessive Reader, stealing time from sleep I needed to get to work in the morning). I had never encountered a voice like Fante's. "Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town." (Ask the Dusk) In 1939, Fante was writing about sexuality, racial prejudice, urban blues. He may have described the frustrations and solace of being a writer better than anybody. He wrote about the tough life, hunger, poverty, and love - ephemeral life-giving love. It's wonderful that - unlike when he was alive - all of his books are in print - available to obsessive readers everywhere.  They can read his lyrical words, ponder the beauty in his pain. "The road to each of us is love." (Ask the Dusk).
I was publishing my poetry, doing readings. In the 1980s, I was emerging as a writer, finding my way on the page, struggling toward my voice. John Fante was still alive, his spirit inhabiting my imagination, helping me believe it could be done. Today, Fante's middle-aged children, his grandchildren, a nephew attended Steve Cooper's lecture.  The nephew, also named John Fante, told me that it wasn't until the papers were acquired by UCLA that the family learned about much of his uncle's life. He looked at me sheepishly, saying that all those unsavory private details being revealed, it was embarrassing.  That's what happens when you're famous, The Obsessive Reader offered. But he wasn't famous, nephew Fante reminded me. Not when he was alive. 
After this exchange, I fell into conversation with another writer.  The audience had lifted themselves out of their chairs and were sampling refreshments, wine, chatting with each other.  People walked to peer at objects from the Fante papers on exhibition. Letters from H.L. Mencken, Steinbeck, Robert Kennedy. A recording by Charles Bukowski, signed.  Fante was his god. More correspondence between Fante and Carey McWilliams, dearest friends.  Screenplays. My fellow writer and I huddled on our seats. We bemoaned, compared, rededicated ourselves to our novels.  We make such galling progress in our writing, inch-by-inch during stolen hours. We hold such hopes to add to the world's literary worth. Today there was Fante still hectoring, inspiring, saying, "I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven." 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Libraries are Sanctuaries - Books are Journeys

Segregated, but reading anyway
North Carolina State Library, 1930s
Despite all appearances, The Obsessive Reader is holding out hopes for the world's libraries. I know they are being threatened, with cuts to funding, a reliance on book stores, online retailers, and the lazy forgetfulness of literate people everywhere.  But think about Egypt!! February 26 - 28, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina hosted a summit for young people "in recognition of their significant role in the Egyptian Revolution."  National Geographic interviewed BA Library Director Ismail Serageldin about the youth meeting.  Serageldin says, it was the people themselves, the demonstrators, who stood and held hands, and said, "This is our Library. We're not going to allow anything to happen to it."  He also says, the Library has played a role...to spread the ideas that these young people embodied so magnificently.

The new Library of Alexandria, Egypt

Egyptian National Flag at Alexandria Library
The Alexandria Library website reports The Library was protected by the people who joined hands around the building. Young students from the university designed and made a huge National Flag, and put it on the steps of the Library which elicited cheers from passing demonstrators... 

In the U.S., we have our own looters. Corporate looters who were bailed out by the federal government. Elected officials trying to solve a fiscal crisis caused by corporate greed, the inequities of our tax system, and lack of vision. The solution to problems caused by favors to corporations and the rich? Cut services to the poor and staples of community life.  Such as libraries. With such role models, would American youth protect libraries in a crisis? Would they protect them now?

For you whose libraries may be threatened, here is a wonderful article by writer, Pico Iyer from the Los Angeles Times.  Let me hear from you obsessive readers in defense of libraries.  Also, feel free to read this interview with Pico Iyer, by Rolf Potts. 

Ryszard Kapuściński 1932 - 2007, Polish journalist, poet 
I place Iyers among my favorite travel writers, although I've always thought the term travel writer, particularly in the 21st century, when so much of the world has been traversed and reported on by outsiders, is peculiar. 

To me, masters of so-called travel writing, such as Ryszard Kapuściński, Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux are not hired guns for the travel industry, nor do they provide tips for sight seeing. No longer are they simply white sojourners into unknown lands, a contingency of colonialism. The best of them know that to look at the Other is to gaze into the mirror. They know that narrative is a journey, and that being a tourist, no matter how observant, is no substitute for insight.  

Finally, speaking of travel writers and libraries.  Without going to a library (or relying on the online library of a bookseller) you will not be able to find a copy of My Great Wide Beautiful World, a great, forgotten travel book published by novice author, Juanita Harrison, in 1936.  Starting at age 16, Ms. Harrison, an African American woman, traveled solo to 80 countries by the time she was in her thirties. She published her idiosyncratic observations and heartfelt experiences kept in her diary and from letters home.  When it was issued, it received reviews in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, Time magazine and other periodicals,  and was a best-seller. The book is out of print. Because of libraries, you can still read it. 

Our culture needs to be reintroduced to libraries. On Facebook the other day, I read the response of a gentleman to a plea to support a ballot measure that would fund libraries. The gentleman wrote, "You can find a lot of texts online now." To which The Obsessive Reader replied in frustration, "Where do you think those digitized online texts come from? LIBRARIES!!!!!!!"   

If you live in Los Angeles, on Tuesday, March 8, Election Day, you have the opportunity to join other citizens in voting Yes on Measure L to keep the city's public libraries funded. If you live in another city, let me know what's going on with your libraries. The Obsessive Reader cares!

American Library Association poster

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Allensworth In Memoriam: Parnell Lovelace

Col. Allen Allensworth, founder

The Obsessive Reader, as you know, is also an obsessive writer. Take a look at my essay, "Black Utopia," on historic Allensworth, California and the little known black town movement on the Dr. Pop blog, part of an edition that explores Utopia. 

Mrs. Josephine Allensworth
I post it in memory of my dear friend and comrade-in-arms, Parnell Lovelace, the most effective advocate for Col. Allensworth State Historic Park. Parnell died on February 27. His memorial service is tomorrow, March 3, in San Diego. I am honored to be making remarks at the service. Well done, Parnell, well done. Rest in peace.

Allenworth was founded in 1908, forty miles north of Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley. The first black independent town, Brooklyn Illinois was established in 1830, the last in 1910, Dearfield, Colorado.  Some of the more famous settlements were Boley, Oklahoma, founded 1903, and Nicodemus, Kansas, now a National Park, started in 1878.