Monday, December 2, 2013

A Different Sun – A must read!

Elaine Neil Orr’s debut novel, A Different Sun: A Novel of Africa, is a grand achievement, indeed.

I first encountered Orr’s fiction in early 2009 when I reviewed the Winter 2008 issue of Shenandoah, in which her story “Tennis Lessons” appeared. I found this story to be penetrating, nuanced, and richly detailed. A few months later, I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Orr when she joined the faculty of Spalding University’s MFA in Writing program, where I was then working on earning my MFA. Let me assure you that the fact that I got to know and admire her has no influence upon my impressions of her novel.

Other readers have noted that A Different Sun is adventuresome and gripping, with life and death stakes – they are correct, this novel is one that you will find impossible to put down. The story concerns a young, Southern girl, Emma, who we first encounter in 1840, in Antebellum Georgia. Emma falls in love with marries Henry, a missionary twenty years her senior, and travels with him to Nigeria, to help him with his missionary work – introducing Christ to the Africans.

The novel brilliantly illustrates the challenges that arise from the vast differences in culture and climate between the American South and the completely different landscape of Africa and its people. And while this exploration is compelling and fascinating, the heart of the novel is as moving and trenchant an exploration of the institution of marriage I’ve encountered in modern literature. The soaring highs and the deeply painful lows that accompany many (if not all) marriages are rendered in exquisite detail and depth in Orr’s prose.

I couldn’t put this book down and I am eager to read it again, after taking a little time to linger in its glow.

Get this book. Read it. You won’t regret it.


Brian Russell  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Where is the adult leadership?

Chicagoans – and most specifically, parents and students in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system – have been shocked in recent days by the announcement that CPS intends to close 54 underperforming schools. The announced closures seem to be concentrated in some of the majority African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods of Chicago and this fact rightly has many people asking important questions about what the role of race and/or racism might have been in the compilation of this closure list. I get that. Makes sense to at least ask these difficult questions. And yet – and yet, I must clearly express my outrage at Karen Lewis, the President of the Chicago Teachers Union, for several of her childish and silly statements at a rally yesterday that will clarify the title of this blog.

As reported by WBEZ’s education reporter, Linda Lutton, Karen Lewis said the following to the assembled protesters yesterday: "So lemme tell you what you’re gonna do. On the first day of school, you show up at your real school! You show up at your real school! Don’t let these people take your schools!" This union “leader” is calling on elementary students to show up at their “real” schools? Really? These are children we are talking about. Where is the adult leadership here? Flanking Ms. Lewis was the Rev. Jesse Jackson, signaling his apparent support of her outrageously irresponsible call to action.

The closure of 54 out of roughly 600 schools is certainly a significant development and understandably one that can be expected to engender emotional responses and passionate questioning, but asking children to go to their “real schools” after they’ve been closed strikes me as deeply irresponsible and childish, at best.

These schools are going to close, Ms. Lewis.

The mayor has made that clear, as has CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.

As a leader of the Teachers Union, you should be working on solutions, not suggesting that children – children! – be relied upon for acts of civil disobedience.

Let me be clear. This is not an anti-Union screed. I am not only a big fan of unions, I am a member of more than one.

This is a call for adult leadership and adult behavior.

Chicago’s students and taxpayers deserve more from our leaders.



Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Random thoughts in early 2013

It has been a long time since I posted on this blog. Since September 12th last year, to be precise. Since then, the President has been reelected, the fiscal cliff has been avoided (in an ugly and completely incomplete way) and we have turned the page on a New Year.

The Mayans were apparently mistaken (or simply ran out of room on the tablet on which they were creating their calendar – that’s my guess).

So far this year I have drafted what I intend to be a Letter to the Editor regarding what I think our legislators should do about Social Security reforms (short form: raise the cap on wages that are subject to FICA taxes) and I’ve drafted a letter to my father that I plan to send via the good ole’ US Mail tomorrow. That letter is an attempt to explain some things that appeared in a published piece last summer that upset him and an attempt to reset our relationship. We’ll see if it works.

It seems as if things in Washington are (predictably) a mess, and so there’s not really all that much to say about that, although I do applaud President Obama for nominating former Senator Chuck Hagel for the Secretary of Defense. I think he’s a good man, and as a former soldier, someone who understands what it means to send young men and women to war.

John Kerry is a shoe-in for Secretary of State, and I think that is a good thing as well. I think he’s well prepared for the job, and if both nominees are confirmed it will be the first time that we will have Vietnam vets serving as Secretaries of State and Defense, which I think would be great!

On the home front, Gloria has returned to work at the Steve Harvey show. I spent some time today negotiating about a re-edit that we need to do for a corporate client’s video that we did late last year. And I am continuing to look for work. And continuing to write. Or, at least draft.

It is early in 2013, too early to surmise what this year might bring. Today I received a very nice, very empathetic rejection from a University to whom I had applied for a job teaching Creative Non-Fiction Writing. I’d prefer not to have been rejected, of course, but it was a nice rejection email.

Earlier this year, just a couple of days ago, I received the print copy of the inaugural edition of Penumbra Magazine, in which my essay, Ramon, appears, and if that’s not a nice happy start to a New Year, I don’t know what is. So that’s good.

Whatever it is you are pursuing, my wish for you is this: Pursue your dreams with passion, commitment, and drive. Never give up. Never say no. Never say, “I can’t do this anymore.” Yes, you can. You can.

I write those words as much (perhaps more) for myself as I do for you.



Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thoughts on the DNC convention...

NOTE: Some of you may have already seen this on facebook last week. That evening, Sept. 5, something was going wrong with my blog, so I couldn't post it here, as I had intended. It seems all is now recovered, and I'm putting it up on the blog. More to come soon... 

We have a major choice facing us in almost exactly two months. Will we reelect Barack Obama or will we elect Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan? 

We all know the economy is struggling. We understand that while we are technically no longer in recession that jobs are growing at too slow a pace and home values are being slow to increase. 

But, what do we do now? 

Do we throw the Current Occupant out because he hasn’t solved all the problems in this country or do we give him a little more time to try to do so? How quickly should we expect any president to solve a problem that was 8 years in the making? 

Here’s the thing: This president inherited the worst economy since FDR in the Great Depression and yet he’s turned around the hemorrhaging of jobs. We are growing this economy now, it is no longer shrinking. Is it fast enough? No, it’s not fast enough for anyone, but it’s going in the right direction.

He passed health care reform that Presidents – both Republican and Democrat – have fought for for 70 plus years. It’s here now. And, it’s making a difference. Millions of young people who are no longer denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions, millions more who are able to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26. Soon, NONE of us will be denied for pre-existing conditions, and lifetime caps will be a thing of the past. 

These things matter. 

These things count. 

Bill Clinton spoke forcefully and powerfully tonight at the DNC convention, attempting to make a case for why Barack Obama deserves four more years as our President. I think he hit it out of the park. When we look back at the last 50+ years, by every measure, our country has done better economically under Democrat presidents than under Republican presidents – those are the facts. And, there’s a simple reason: Democrats believe, I believe, that we grow the economy best from the middle out and the bottom up, NOT the top down. It works. It is proven. More jobs are created, Wall Street does better, Main Street does better. Our Veterans are more cared for. 

Now is the time to choose. And, it is critically important that we all cast our votes. Whomever you vote for, what’s most important is that you vote. This is what democracy is all about. 

Bill Clinton pointed out tonight that Mr. Obama appointed several Republicans to his cabinet, and several rivals, including Hilary Clinton, whom he appointed Secretary of State. This underscores and illustrates what’s great about our country. As Bill Clinton said, “Democracy is not a blood sport.” We have a healthy, vigorous competition and then we get on with the business of governing. Or at least that’s how it should be. 

The Republicans haven’t been very interested in that these past few years. Since 2010 their singular goal has been to, in the words of Mitch McConnell, “make sure that Obama is a one-term president.” That’s not leading. That’s obstructionism. And it is un-American.

I was no fan of George W. Bush, but I never rooted for his failure, because I could never root for America’s failure. That’s the difference. I didn’t like Bush. I didn’t vote for him. But, he was my President, and my hope was that he would succeed. That he didn’t (in some important respects) will be recorded in the history books. 

But, even when there was a President of the United States that I did not support, I never hoped he would fail. That’s the difference between then and now. As I see it. 


Saturday, March 24, 2012

One Significant Value of Fiction

The last several days in my immediate family have been challenging ones, characterized by a frightening accident, a call to 911, and too much time spent in a hospital. While I will not go into the details of the accident, the hospitalization, etc., in this post, I want to, rather, reflect on the value of fiction writing in our lives.

When unexpected, or surprising events occur, we are often confronted with fundamental questions about how we are living our lives, what really matters, and so on. Earlier this evening, I began reading Anne Lamott’s 2010 novel, Imperfect Birds, and although I’m only 62 pages into it at this point, it is proving to me one of the most important reasons that fiction matters in our hyper social-network driven world.

Fiction, good fiction, reminds us that we all live complicated and mixed-bag lives. We all struggle with questions of identity, of our places in the world, of whether or not we are doing what we should do, or were meant to do, and the like. Good fiction – and, Imperfect Birds is absolutely in that category – reminds us of our shared imperfections, our shared continual quest to figure out how best to navigate this gift (that sometimes feels like a curse) we’ve been given called life. By recognizing the humanity and the faults and the glories and the foibles in fictional characters, we are (if we are lucky) able to take a step back to reexamine our own lives and ask: Well, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world that I did x, y, or z? Perhaps I can forgive myself – perhaps I can forgive my mother, father, brother, sister, lover, spouse – for doing something that was hurtful, childish, annoying, or, rude?

Early in this novel a character suggests that perhaps we are living in “the sixth day,” evoking the creation story. In other words, perhaps God is not quite done. We are here already… we are living in this environment that He (or She) created, but it is not yet time for God to rest. Because the work is not yet done. I like this idea. I like it a lot. It almost provides an answer to those questions many of us so often ask: “How could a loving and caring God allow (fill-in-the-blank) to happen?” Well, maybe it’s because the job’s not quite done yet. Maybe we are all living in the sixth day.

Each of us will encounter unexpected challenges throughout our lives, and each of us will have a moment (or more) of feeling shell-shocked that whatever happened just happened. A close friend dies or is seriously injured or is diagnosed with cancer; a simple misstep leads to days in the hospital and weeks of recovery and pain; the dog you are walking lunges after a rat and pulls you down to a painful fall in the process. These things happen. They do.

Good fiction reminds us that we are not alone in this fate. We are all susceptible to the whims and fancies of… whatever one might wish to call it. Fate? God’s will? Bad luck? Good luck? The point is, stuff happens. Our job is to learn from it when it does. Our job is to recognize the humanity in one another. Our job is to empathize and listen and learn and take heed. Because tomorrow, it may well be me or you or the other person reading these scribblings who is caught by surprise and suddenly learns that stuff happens. Whenever, wherever.

We persevere. We go on, as Beckett notably observed. We adjust, learn, recalibrate.

Fiction helps remind us that we are not alone in the doing. Fiction creates a safe space in which we can face the scary realities we may well have to face in our own lives when we are least prepared for it, because, let’s face it – that’s when they come.

So, cheers and thank you to the great fiction writers of the world. And, while I’m at it, cheers and thank you to the great nonfiction writers of the world, because they often can (and do) achieve the same purpose. (I almost wrote porpoise, by the way… just a side note.)

Cheers, writers! You tell stories that remind us of our shared humanity; of our strengths, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities, and our charms. You remind us that we are all on this crazy trek together – like it or not.

This evening, as bedtime nears, I look forward to reading a few more pages of Imperfect Birds, and then climbing into bed with my lovely wife and thanking whomever for all the blessings of our lives. Hardships happen – of course – but they are not the whole of existence. They are bumps in the road. We move on, persevere, keep writing our own stories, and, embrace what is, and what’s next.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

It’s Getting Cold Out There (Here)

Those of us who live in northern climes are starting to feel it. The chill in the air, the extremely early sunset, even some flurries beginning to fall.

It’s getting cold out there.

But it’s getting cold in other ways, as well. Cities across the country are starting to crack down on the “Occupy Wall Street” protests that have sprung up all over the country – and, indeed the world. It’s also true that the Arab League has suspended the country of Syria from their ranks for their brutal, murderous response to protestors in that country. That is a “cold” that I welcome.

Here in the U.S. we are in the early phases of the 2012 presidential election. The Republicans are trying to decide whom they are going to nominate, and having a tough time doing so. First Perry was on top, then Cain, now Romney, and now Gingrich is gaining traction. The most popular Republican candidate? Anyone other than those who are running. Can’t we have Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush? Not this time around, it doesn’t seem.

The current occupant, Mr. Obama, who will be running for reelection, is not enjoying great approval numbers in the polls. The latest one I saw indicated that 46% of the electorate think he’s basically doing a good job. But, it is also instructive to look at polling that indicates that Mr. Obama would beat any of the leading Republican candidates if the election were held today. The only contest he loses is against a Republican who is not running, some dream candidate who has yet to emerge from the woodwork.

“Obamacare,” as my friends on the right like to call it, is heading to the Supreme Court, and we all knew that would happen. Fine. We’ve had two appellate court decisions that upheld it as Constitutional, and one that didn’t. It will be fascinating to see what the Supremes decide on the matter. Either way, our country is going to face a clear – and, I suspect, a stark – choice in a little less than a year.

Will we decide to elect someone who wants to cater to the 1% or the 99% (to borrow the parlance of the Occupy Movement protesters)? Certainly, the Republicans are not going to be able to argue that Mr. Obama is soft on national security – after all, he has presided over more drone attacks than Mr. Bush, found and killed Osama bin Laden (and many other Al Qaeda leaders), and helped orchestrate the removal of Gaddafi from power in Libya. Mr. Obama is also fulfilling the terms of the Iraq withdrawal, negotiated by the Bush administration, and removing our troops by the end of this year.

Here’s where we are: The economy is growing – slowly. Too slowly. Unemployment remains a problem, and a significant one, but it is VERY slowly becoming slightly less of a problem. The Obama administration is trying to enact what it can to ease the burden on the unemployed or underemployed, on those who are severely burdened by student loan debt, on those whose mortgages are underwater, and on veterans who will soon be returning, looking for both work and adequate health care. Are these programs perfect? No. Are they a good start? I think so.

Many of us are hurting in our country today. I’m among them. I am fortunate to have work, but it’s not enough to make ends meet. I am “floating rope” – borrowing money from a credit card for one month to the next – in order to try to keep up with bills. There’s only so long that this kind of behavior can go on, and yet I am convinced that the answer is not to lower the corporate tax rate or to keep the Bush tax cuts in effect. How is that going to help those of us who are struggling? I keep hearing about these so-called “job-creators.” Where are the jobs that they are creating?

It is long past time to eliminate loopholes that allow corporations to park money in tax havens (such as The Netherlands, Ireland, and the Cayman Islands) to avoid paying taxes on income. No one wants confiscatory taxes, we just want fair ones. If you, corporation X, have earnings of one hundred million dollars in a given quarter, then you should pay your fair share of taxes on one hundred million dollars. I pay taxes on every penny I earn. And, I don’t earn anywhere near that much per quarter, as I’m sure will not surprise any reader of this blog.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’ve written above. I’m not about “soaking the rich” and I’m not interested in engaging in class warfare. I’m interested in our country adopting a more fair and equitable tax system. I find it alarming that when I was a boy, the average CEO made about 40 times more than the average worker at his company. (I say only his, because, back then, there were no female CEOs) Today, the average CEO makes 350 times more than the average worker at his or her company. This is obscene. Call me kooky, but is a CEO of a company really worth 350 times more than the sales staff, the very people who are ensuring the success of the company? I don’t think so.

I’m afraid I’ve gotten a bit riled up. Must be because it’s cold outside, and I’m not quite ready for winter.

The good news: I’m working. My wife is working – although for the past couple days, she’s been working so much that I haven’t seen her at all; we’ve been like ships hoping to pass in the night, but having to settle with passing in the briefest of moments in the early morning hours when we are both resting and about to get up. We are both grateful. We both love this country. We both want this country to succeed and to live up to its fullest potential.

Election season is upon us. The cold us upon us – in more ways than one. Let us rise up and meet it with thought and foresight and compassion. Let us strive to be the best Americans we can be.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thoughts Upon Starting a New Semester of Teaching

Those who are in college trying to earn a degree in order to better their lives are working hard. They are sacrificing. Some of them might not much like their classes, or at least some of the required classes, like the classes that I am very likely to be teaching. English. Essay writing. The research paper.

It’s hard for them, sometimes, to see how it’s going to matter in the future. I get it. And yet, I also know it is going to matter to them in the future.

This term, when administering a start-of-class diagnostic essay, I asked students to write about their previous experiences with English classes, writing, and/or reading (with thanks to Bob Zacny, who suggested the prompt). The results have been fascinating. Some students have written passionately about how much they HATE English classes and being told what to read and write. In fact, the finest diagnostic essay that was written was written by a young man who passionately and persuasively argued how much he hated English classes and being told what to read and write.

It was beautifully written. Passionate, clear, concise – all you would want in a well written five-paragraph essay. Now I need to figure out how to channel this young man’s passion into the assignments that he’s going to have to write on in this course. I can’t change the curriculum, but perhaps I can help make a connection, or help him make a connection to something that interests him. He’s a very good writer and I want him to learn and succeed.

Earlier this evening I was thinking about composing a blog about the “grotesque disconnect” between the Wall Street bailouts and the lack of jobs for so many in America today, and that is likely a subject I will return to, but, it seemed to me that this subject, this thinking about, “How do we effectively teach our children?” seemed somehow more important.

We need to teach our children. We need to meet them where they are, and we need to understand that they inhabit a world that is FAR different from the world in which many of us, or at least, I, grew up. I did not have the distraction of the Internet or the pleasure of the iPod when I was growing up and first enrolling in college. Nor did I have the beneficial parts of the Internet (research, hello?) when I was first in college. But, students today need to learn how to marshal these resources effectively, and they need to learn how to judge the reliability of what they are finding on the web. There are a lot of bogus websites out there.

At any rate, I’m rambling now, so should stop. I guess the point of this blog is that I think we all can write. It’s about writing about things or issues or ideas that we care about – that’s what matters. That’s what makes our writing worthwhile.

So, write. Express yourself. Even if it’s only for you to read in some distant day.