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Give Us Healthcare Or Give Us Death

Give Us Healthcare Or Give Us Death



The American healthcare system is barbaric. Period. End of story.

I’ve written often about this. I’ve spoken about this. We believe this to be true. The American healthcare system is barbaric. And that’s a fact.

But now it’s personal.

This fall Seth Rubenstein, my first cousin, the eldest child of my mother’s older brother, suffered a massive stroke, then died a few days later. He was only 60 years old.

Seth did not have health insurance. Mere days before the stroke, Seth complained about headaches, but what could he do? He didn’t have health insurance. He didn’t have the money to go see a doctor, nor had he engaged in any kind of routine health maintenance program.

I’m not sure if Seth was ever covered by any kind of health insurance policy. For most of his adult life, Seth did not work at a full-time, permanent job. Like many workers in this contemporary economy, Seth was a contractor, working for companies who preferred to “outsource” rather than take responsibility for the people they hire to do the work essential to their success.

Benefits? Getting paid. Vacation time? That’s the time between contracts. Healthcare? Don’t get sick, but if you do get sick, die quickly.

And besides, how could Seth work? For the past couple years, he was working full-time caring for his ailing father, Herb, who was slowly dying from respiratory ailments.

In fact, the day Seth died was the day Herb was supposed to be released from the nursing home where he was receiving intensive treatment. Seth had worked hard to allow Herb to return home. He had been trained on how to monitor the ventilator that allowed Herb to breathe. He assembled a team of home health workers and made sure they received the proper training. The team was ready to provide Herb with round-the-clock care so Herb could spend his last days at home.

Except Seth died the day Herb was supposed to leave the nursing home. Herb never was able to return home.

There was a great deal of urgency to bring Herb home because the Medicare coverage that paid for Herb’s stay in the nursing home had run out. Herb exhausted his Medicare coverage. How is that even possible?

Herb was forced to pay out-of-pocket to remain in the nursing home, and suddenly he had no choice but watch helplessly as his hard-earned savings dwindled.

Herb was the son of immigrants. Bubby and Zeyda didn’t have much, but somehow Herb managed to go to college, eventually earning a doctorate. He taught linguistics at Lehigh for quite a number of years. He didn’t make a ton of money, but saved and invested well—at least, well enough to retire comfortably and provide for his children after his death.

Until he got sick. Until he ran head first into the harsh realities of the American healthcare system.

This is what should have happened:

Herb should’ve received the care he needed until he was ready to go home. Sufficient home health care should’ve been available for him to use for as long as necessary. The burden of Herb’s healthcare should not have fallen so squarely on Seth’s shoulders. Herb should’ve died peacefully at home. Seth should’ve outlived his father, and Seth should’ve been able to live in health and comfort thanks to the modest inheritance he should’ve received.

Instead, Seth is dead before his time. That never should’ve happened. And that’s a fact.

Herb’s heart stopped last week. He was transferred to a hospital where he died a few days later. Herb was 90 years old. It was probably his time to go. By all accounts he died peacefully, at least from a physical point of view. Mentally is another story. Herb went to the grave knowing his son was dead. Herb went to the grave blaming himself for his son’s death.

That never should’ve happened. And that’s a fact.

I cannot say it enough. Our healthcare system is barbaric. And why? Why does our healthcare system have to be so barbaric? Why did Seth have to die in a way that leaves us all scratching our heads? Why did Herb have to die with a broken heart?

Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement, we have a new language. It’s the language of class warfare, but let’s be clear. It’s not the class warfare we are waging. It’s the class warfare that is being waged against us. We are the 99 percent ducking and covering from the attacks of the one percent who want to take more and more from us while we have less and less.

Seth was a member of the 99 percent, and now he’s dead. Herb was a member of the 99 percent, and now he’s dead, and he died with a heavy heart. All because the one percent has to maximize profits, maximize profits, maximize profits, maximize profits, maximize profits.

Maximize profits into infinity.

But the 99 percent is waking up to the reality of what the one percent is doing to us. It began in Madison, Wisconsin as tens of thousands of citizens hit the streets to fight the attack on human rights by Governor Scott Walker. This continues with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

A day of reckoning is coming. And that’s a fact.
The revolution WAS televised. We just changed the channel.

This was my post on Facebook on Wednesday, August 9, the day after the recall elections for six Wisconsin Republican senators.

Obviously, I was not in the best of moods.

As a byproduct of the Wisconsin Protests, six Republican senators faced recall elections. The fateful day finally arrived. In the end, four of the six Republicans survived the recall. Republicans protected their majority, though the margin had dropped from 19-14 to 17-16.

I’d worked hard on the recalls, though certainly not as hard as a lot of people. Frankly, the dedicated people in the actual districts performed heroically, busting ass every day from the first day signatures were collected to the moment when the polls closed.

I spent hours making phone calls. I took roadies to Whitefish Bay and Baraboo. I even dragged myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 7:30 a.m. so I could canvass Baraboo on Election Day and get back in town in time to work a ten-hour cab shift.

I’d also worked hard making phone calls for Joanne Kloppenburg in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race in April.

And again, all that work seemed to go for naught. I felt angry, frustrated and a bit used. More importantly, I could not help thinking about what we had lost in the process of the hard work done toward the recalls. Other than the daily Solidarity Sing-Alongs, the Capitol has been like a morgue. Even while I worked enthusiastically on the recalls, I felt like there was this giant sucking sound coming from the Capitol Square.

And I knew what it was. It was the recalls sucking the life out of the tremendous presence of protesters at the Capitol. Now, yes, I know that it would have been impossible to sustain the protests much longer than we did. In fact, it was pretty amazing that we were attracting pretty large numbers for a good month and a half. But the fact remains that the siren call for people to work on the recalls did a great job of dissipating the energy that we saw on a weekly, even a daily basis at the Capitol.

I cannot help but feel that something precious was lost in the process. During the height of the protests, it seemed like there was revolution in the air. It certainly occurred to me that this might be the time to act in a more revolutionary manner because, to borrow a line from Lando Calrissian, “we may never get a better shot at this.”

It is not that I felt that we were on the verge of overthrowing the government, but it seemed like with the numbers and the motivation, we could be in a position to demand a fairly radical change.

Of course, a big part of the problem was that I had no idea what that radical change could or should be, and that did not seem to be a big part of the discussion.

However, there certainly was talk about pushing the envelope toward a more radical form of direct action. There were serious, or at least semi-serious discussions about a general strike. There was even a little bit of planning, but it never got any further than that. In the end, direct action continued, but on a much smaller scale in a much more diffuse manner.

In the end, it all became about the recalls. In the end, the Democratic Party and some of the union leadership succeeded in co-opting the movement at the expense of large-scale direct action.

And in the end, I cannot help but wonder what we could have accomplished if we had put all our energy and resources into a different sort of endeavor that was not of the same all-or-nothing nature as the recall elections.

In July I was out east visiting family and seeing old friends. I looked up an old friend who I had not seen in 20 to 30 years. We were not particularly close, but I wanted to see her because she is active in the Maryland Democratic Party, and I wanted to talk to her about the Wisconsin Protests so perhaps she could get the word out to get Maryland Democrats to support the recalls.

She asked me about my most and least favorite parts of the protests. I said my favorite part was the fellowship with the other protesters. She didn’t care for my reply to the second half of the question. I replied that my least favorite part was working on electoral politics and losing.

But I keep working on these campaigns, even if I feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football that Lucy keeps jerking away at the last moment. I will work on the Recall Walker campaign. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the nation to chop off the serpent’s head.

There is a bizarre and cruel irony at work here in Wisconsin. We have become an inspiration to oppressed people all over the world. When they rise up, they invoke Wisconsin. And yet here in Wisconsin, we find ourselves abandoning this kind of direct action in favor of electoral politics because we find ourselves backed into a corner. We live in a democracy, so we are coerced into using the democratic process to make change. The only problem is that our so-called democracy is extremely dysfunctional; yet, if we abandon the process, we do so at our peril.

I’ve written about this before. With electoral politics, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The game is rigged. If your side can overcome the absurd amount of soft money funneled into the race, some obscure county clerk might magically find 14,000 votes to transform victory into defeat. If your candidate does manage to win, the system does not generally allow for genuinely transformative change. And let’s face it, Democrats often don’t have the inclination to act in a truly progressive manner because the party is almost as beholden to corporations and big business as the Republicans. The only difference is that Democrats don’t seem to understand that the big money will go to the other side in a heartbeat if they think the Republicans will win, while the big money only stays loyal to the Democrats if it is sure that they will win.

And again, it’s an all-or-nothing business. You lose, that’s it. You’ve put in a ton of energy and resources that could’ve been deployed elsewhere, and you have nothing to show for it. You win, great, but that is only a means to an end. It is not an end unto itself.

All that said, I will state for the record that I would do it all over again if given another chance.

Joanne Kloppenburg was not a viable candidate for State Supreme Court, but almost won (or did, in fact, win). Her victory would have been an instant game changer, especially given that several lawsuits have been filed against the Walker regime.

As for the senate recalls, I agree with the argument that they were successful. Granted, we did not succeed in the Holy Grail of taking back the senate. However, the bottom line is that the Democrats are in a stronger position than before. And fairly progressive women have replaced two white men of questionable ethics. Nothing wrong with that.

Most importantly, the impenetrable Republican majority that allowed Walker and the Fitzgerald Brothers to ram through their extremist agenda is gone. The dynamic at the Capitol has been changed dramatically. There are swing votes that didn’t exist before. It is likely that Republicans will be forced to compromise and moderate their positions, something they are loath to do.

Unofficial Wisconsin Protest mouthpiece, John Nichols first presented this theory to Ed Schultz on Election Day. Some have dismissed it as spin. I don’t totally disagree with that notion, but I think there is a great deal of validity to the idea. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Walker/Fitzgerald reign of terror is over though we are going to have to wait and see what happens when some of the more pernicious legislation that is still out there hits the senate floor.

The primary swing vote belongs to Republican Senator Dale Schultz. Schultz attempted to introduce an amendment to sunset the collective bargaining legislation so that it would expire at the end of this fiscal year. The amendment never drew any traction, and Schultz claims that he was duped into missing his opportunity to introduce the amendment when he was called into Walker’s office. While Schultz met with Walker, the senate held a preliminary vote on the budget repair bill that prevented Schultz from ever being able to introduce his amendment.

In the end Schultz voted against Act 10. In addition, he has made overtures calling for more bipartisan cooperation. He and a Democratic Senator Tim Cullen toured each other’s districts. Last month, a group of Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of Health Services Dennis Smith (a Heritage Foundation hired gun) calling for Smith to reconsider turning down a grant from the federal government to pay for certain health services. Schultz was the only Republican to sign the letter.

However, it would be unwise to put a lot of faith in Schultz. I checked his voting record. He received high marks from both Wisconsin Right to Life and the obnoxious pro-business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

Still, Schultz is alienated from his own caucus and has demonstrated an ability and a willingness to listen to reasonable arguments, regardless of the source. As I posted on Facebook, Dale Schultz is my new BFF. Translation, I plan on writing to him about certain pieces of legislation that I would hope he would vote against. Yeah, maybe it’s a bit of a crapshoot, but we were not having this conversation prior to the recalls.

Also, it is worth mentioning that the new dynamic in the senate may actually make it easier for senate Democrats to pass bills that will become law. Had the Democrats taken back the senate, the result would’ve been gridlock. That’s not a bad thing. It would have spelled the sure end to Walker’s reign of terror. However, I think we can be pretty certain that the assembly would have refused to pass any bills passed by the senate because that’s how the Republicans roll. Now, if the senate Democrats pass a bill, it will be with bipartisan support, which certainly would make it more likely to pass in the assembly and be signed by Walker.

Wonkishness aside, perhaps the most important victory we can claim from the recalls is that it was a strong demonstration that we are the people with the real people power. We forced six Republican senators to face recall. The Republicans could only challenge half that number of Democrats. We won two elections. Republican candidates lost all their races by double-digits. Walker showed declining support in almost all districts. He’s in trouble, and he knows it.

So-called conservative movements have been exposed as nothing but smoke and mirrors. The poor showing in the recall elections lends strong credence to allegations of fraud perpetrated during the recall petition canvassing campaigns. Tea Party candidate Kim Simac, who was supposed to seriously challenge Jim Holperin, lost by ten percentage points. And let’s not forget the big deal made over Sarah Palin coming to the Capitol. Despite the fancy setup bankrolled by Koch Brothers front group Americans for Prosperity, the crowd to see Palin was quite sparse and was well drowned out by Capitol Protesters who outnumbered the conservatives by a wide margin.

All this fuss about the supposed grass-roots nature of the Tea Party. The reality that we saw in the recalls is that it’s really about a small, noisy group that’s allied with some serious big money interests.

Or in other words, the Silent Majority is neither.

Lefties, progressives, liberals and Democrats. They’re the ones with the real people power.

And that brings us back to my original point. We’ve accomplished great things, and I believe we will continue to do so, but we cannot forget about direct action. We cannot afford to ignore the electoral arena, but we must not let it be the be-all and end-all.

We can work with the Democratic Party, but we need to lead it. We cannot let it lead us.

Most importantly, we need to think in a genuinely strategic manner. And let’s remember, strategy is not tactics strung together. I don’t know exactly what our strategy should be, but I would say we need long-term goals above and beyond electing Democrats.

Maybe I do have an idea. I’ve said all along that the struggle in Wisconsin is about preserving human rights. Perhaps what we need is an American Declaration of Human Rights. That’s just my idea. I think it’s a good one, but I know it’s not the only one.

What’s most important is that we continue to act, that we don’t go back into hibernation, that we do something—anything.
I had a totally messed up dream last night. There was some kind of mass insurrection going on. And, of course, martial law had been declared. The level of repression was incredibly high. So high, in fact, that they were rounding up cab drivers and cutting off their right forearms, though the soldiers claimed that cabbies would be able to easily drive with just one arm, because our right arms are always draped across the passenger seat.

The soldiers came for me, but I was able to escape, along with another driver. With the soldiers hot on our heels, we managed to find the insurgents. It was only then that I realized the reason why they wanted to cut off our right forearms was so we wouldn't be able to operate an AK-47.

Dreams come from a primitive part of our brain. Sometimes interpretation is difficult. Sometimes it's pretty damn easy. In this case, the meaning is quite obvious. As history has shown us, time and time again, mass armed insurrections happen when people feel like they have no choice but to pick up a weapon and fight back, when it's a clear case of fight or die.

I believe we are seeing something similar with the protests at our Capitol here in Madison, Wisconsin. People are pushed to the brink. People feel like they have been given one of two choices: fight or die.

When I look at the crowds of people at the Capitol, I see a cross-section of, well, everybody: young, old, professionals, blue collar workers, students, life-long activists. Again, everybody. But we have one major commonality; we all realize that there is not much left to take from us. We have watched for the past thirty years, since Reagan took office, the steady decline in our standard of living. We have watched our rights being taken away one by one. And now we watch as the Republican leadership in Wisconsin wants to take away our last vestige of dignity and our few remaining vehicles for our own advocacy.

But now we fight back. We fight because we know it's either fight or die.

And make no mistake, we are arming ourselves. We arms ourselves with our protest signs and our digital cameras. We arm ourselves with independent media. We arm ourselves with the Internet and social media. More importantly, we arm ourselves with our thoughts and our ideas. We arm ourselves with our passion and our energy. And we arm ourselves with our fellowship and our love for fellow citizens and fellow human beings.

Open Letter to Wisconsin Legislators

I sent this e-mail to each and every member of the Wisconsin legislature. I sent this to Republicans as well as Democrats. That includes the Fitzgerald brothers and Glenn Grothman. I even sent this to Steve Nass.

Let's keep in mind, this isn't a done deal. Scott Walker can govern by fiat. The Wisconsin Legislature has to approve this bill. Interestingly, I haven't heard much talk from Republicans in the legislature about Walker's proposal, but again, they will have to vote for it for it to come to fruition. Let's also keep in mind that many of these Republicans will have to run for reelection next year.



I am writing to urge you to consider voting against Gov. Walker’s proposal to outlaw collective bargaining for public employees. I do understand that the state is in an extremely difficult financial position. However, I feel that the Governor’s proposal puts an undo hardship on state workers in the short term and puts a significant hardship on public employees in the long term.

State workers face a considerable paycut in this proposal. In today’s newspaper, I saw how this breaks down for a state employee pulling down an annual salary of $40,000. Their gross wage would drop by nearly $300 a month. Annual take-home pay would decline by nearly $2000. And pay raises for state workers along with county and municipal employees would realistically be limited to inflation. For the long term, this proposal tells public employees that they will never see their real (adjusted for inflation) wages increase.

As I see it, this is a tax hike. I find myself wondering, in these dire economic times, can we afford to do this to a significant portion of our state’s middle class?

This concerns me greatly. I work for Union Cab here in Madison. I get paid commission plus tips, so any decline in our business affects me personally. Madison is a strong public sector town. I worry that the state workers immediately, along with teachers, city workers and county workers down the road will find themselves with less disposable income. This means fewer people going to restaurants, fewer people going to concerts, fewer people going to bars and clubs and fewer people going to the airport as they leave for vacation. This means fewer people taking cabs, which means I make less money. Overall, this means fewer people spending money on goods and services, which means fewer jobs.

The Governor’s proposal means more than taking money out of the hands of the middle class. Outlawing collective bargaining has dire implications for workers in their workplaces because they will not be able to bargain around issues of working conditions. Workers will no longer have any say over workplace safety. Grievance procedures will go out the window. Workers will be able to be fired for no good reason and will have no recourse. Workers will be at the mercy of the arbitrary and capricious whims of their supervisors.

My wife used to work for the state and was a member of a collective bargaining unit. Sometimes, as part of her job, she was required to travel. That resulted in some very long days. Her supervisor didn’t seem to understand that the union contract stipulated that flex and comp time could be used to make up for long hours. They butted heads about this many times. Frequently, after coming back to town, my wife’s supervisor would expect her to come into work the next day. The union contract protected my wife from being forced to work unpaid overtime.

Given the events this week in Egypt, I’m also thinking of what the Governor’s proposal says about democracy in our state and in our country. A fundamental concept in democracy is the right to assemble. This means many things including the right to form a union and bargain collectively. If one looks at all the democracies around the world, one sees nations with vibrant labor movements. One also tends to see prosperity in those democracies as well. When one looks at dictatorships around the world, one sees nations where labor movements are repressed by the state.

This proposal is more than just about putting the state’s fiscal house in order. In the long term, it’s about democracy. Please forgive the overcharged rhetoric, but be aware that when you vote on this proposal, history will judge you. It is my most profound hope that history will judge you favorably for acting wisely.

Thank you for your consideration.
It appears that worker cooperatives may become an issue in this spring's mayoral election in Madison, Wisconsin. Incumbent David Cieslewicz is blogging about a community-wide effort to facilitate the forming of worker cooperatives. Challenger and two-time former mayor Paul Soglin (the so-called Red Mayor) is blogging about it as well.

As a longtime worker/owner at Union Cab Cooperative here in Madison, I applaud both candidates for bringing up this issue. I've written about this before, that worker cooperatives could be a way to save our economy both by putting people back to work and getting back in the business of manufacturing things that people would want to buy. And of course, these would be safe, humane and sustainable workplaces more interested in serving the community than maximizing profit.

But let's not be naive. This discussion comes in the context of a political campaign. It could be a lot of bloviating, just a lot of hot air that has no meaning once the last ballot is counted. Still, it could make for great discourse that could have real, concrete results but it is up to us. We need to get involved in this discussion to ensure that it has real focus to it. And once the election is over, we need to maintain pressure on whoever is elected to turn words to action.

On the treadmill at the East YMCA, it suddenly occurred to me that the best way to achieve this goal would be to propose something concrete, so we can have a real topic to discuss.

Here it is: I propose that the City of Madison establish the Madtown Worker Cooperative Incubation Center. And I know the perfect place: Union Corners on the east side of Madison. For those not familiar with Madison, Union Corners was where Rayovac had a manufacturing plant before corporate flew down south. A local developer had big plans for the site, but the financing fell through. Now it's the most infamous blight in town. There have been various alternatives plans for the site, but none have come to fruition. Most recently, the city has proposed buying the land in order to be able to make sure that there's at least a little rhyme and reason when it is eventually parceled off.

Union Corners is a good sized piece of property, and it's certainly big enough for several small business. I propose that those businesses all be worker cooperatives, and that the city use its resources to help facilitate the formation of these new worker cooperatives.

First, the city should purchase and then develop the property in a simple but functional manner by erecting versatile structures and providing surface parking (along with ample green space as well).

Second, the city can establish a fund to provide seed money for these new business. The city would contribute to the fund, but would also solicit grants from the state and the feds, as well as the private sector.

Third, the city should participate in a community-wide effort to create a super-structure for MWCIC. This entity would oversee the creation of new worker cooperatives by approving viable proposals, facilitating funding and providing assistance in the formation of these new businesses. More importantly, however, this entity would do outreach in the community to let people know about the opportunities presented by MWCIC. Eventually, this entity would become an overall governing body for all MWCIC members. Down the road, MWCIC would buy the Union Corners property, but only if the city declares it as a Tax Incremental Finance district thus making it exempt from property taxes until its strong enough to contribute to the city's tax base.

But MWCIC cannot merely be a collection of businesses that are housed on the same tract of land. There would need to be space for people to meet, confer and socialize. Also, within MWCIC there needs to be something I would call the Worker Cooperative Training Institute, which would do exactly what its name indicates. Obviously, MWCIC would attract people with previous cooperative experience. That's all fine and good, but it's probably even more important that member cooperatives include people with little or no previous experience with cooperatives so they would have an opportunity to learn how cooperatives can enhance and improve their lives.

The training institute would serve an important function and would give worker/owners the tools to be able to run their own cooperatives. In addition, the WCTI could eventually branch out and train worker cooperative members from all over the country and perhaps all over the world.

Another important institution for MWCIC would be the Workers Cooperative Credit Union. This credit union could be formed as a collaborative effort among the various local credit unions. The WCCU itself would be a worker cooperative. It could handle the financing of the various worker cooperatives at MWCIC, as well as the banking needs of member cooperatives and their worker-owners.

But what kind of worker cooperatives should there be at MWCIC? The answer is obvious: whatever kinds of worker cooperatives people can imagine, producing any and every kind of good and service. Get interested people together and talking, and they can come up with some of the most amazing and creative ideas. The only restriction is our collective imagination.

What are some of the great American products that are no longer made in America? We could make those at MWCIC. We could certainly create the Madtown Worker Cooperative brand, which could be recognizable from coast to coast.

Or another idea: one great resource in the Madison area is organic produce. A worker cooperative could perhaps make use of this produce to create various food products. MWC pickled vegetables. MWC liver pate. Again, the only limit is our imagination.

MWCIC is a win-win for everyone. It would create jobs where people would feel empowered. It would improve the city's tax base and make use of Madison's worst blighted area. In addition, it would represent a major step forward in the American worker cooperative movement. With Madison's great progressive tradition, it seems logical for Madison to lead the way.
When I was considering what to write for this issue’s editorial, I originally planned to wait until after the midterm elections before deciding what my topic would be. Then two days before the elections, I had a profoundly mind-blowing experience and decided the elections didn’t matter in terms of what I would write about.

On a pleasant Halloween night, at the stunningly beautiful Capitol Theater in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw Gogol Bordello. To say the show was amazing is an absolute understatement. The crowd was as loud and rowdy as I’ve ever seen at a show. Hell, they were so rowdy that people literally were jumping from the balcony to get to the main floor.

Aside from putting on a damned entertaining show, Gogol Bordello taught me a crucial lesson: the people’s passion and spirit can never be defeated. Simple as that.

The people’s passion and spirit can never be defeated.

For the uninitiated, Gogol Bordello is usually referred to as a Gypsy Punk band because they incorporate gypsy music into a high-energy, somewhat politically charged sound. I would also consider them to be ethnic folk punk. Or I might simply call them the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band.

What’s most important is that this is a band of the people, by the people and for the people. Their slogan, “Familia Undestructable,” says it all. At the back of the stage, those words appeared on a huge banner that depicted a hand holding a slingshot. A red star blazed at the top of the banner.

The band is run in a collective, communal manner. The band members themselves are a band of gypsies. About half the band comes from Eastern Europe though other members hail from Northern and Southern Europe, Asia and Africa.

Some of the songs are funny, if not silly, like “American Wedding”—Where is the vodka, where's marinated herring? Certainly some of the songs are political. One thing I noticed was that all the songs featured fairly simple lyrics with choruses that were repeated many times. This made it easy for everyone to sing along, even if one didn’t know the song. By using this format, the whole audience was able to join the undestructable family.

A certain realization made me chuckle during the show. There’s a good reason why there aren’t folk songs about tax cuts for the rich and supply-side economics. And obviously, there’s good reason why there’s bands like Gogol Bordello or Los de Abajo, the radical Mexican band, or the countless other international folk bands we’re able to discover through the Internet. What these bands all have in common is that when you see them, you feel so much more alive.

Ordinary people have always found the need to express themselves through music in an extraordinary way. I remember the scene in Braveheart when pipers play banned music following the murder of young William Wallace’s father. The old saying about the Spanish Civil War is that Franco had the tanks, but the Loyalists had the songs. That may be true, but even though Federico Lorca is dead and gone, the songs sung by those brave freedom fighters live on. And Franco is still critically dead.

I think back to the social history classes I took at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from the great Harvey Goldberg. He could so stir my pulse with his Fall of the Bastille lecture, but invariably, Harvey’s stories all had tragic endings. That pretty much holds true in terms of the people’s history of the world. The strong rise, and the weak fall. Darkness defeats light. Greed squashes generosity.

Yet the people’s passion and spirit can never be defeated.

People prod on. People never stop striving for a better life for not just themselves, but for their families, friends, comrades and fellow workers.

Over the long, long haul, there are triumphs. There are victories. I believe that things are getting better, though it is often two steps forward and one step back. Still, there is progress.

The French Revolution degenerated into the horrible excess of the Terror, before things got much worse during the counter-revolutionary Thermidorean Reaction. Yet today, France is one of the most humane countries in the world.

South Africa dismantled Apartheid and managed a relatively peaceful transfer of power through a process that made the nation stronger and much more enlightened.

Over the last several years, many left-wing leaders have been democratically elected all over Latin America, in some cases in places where it seemed impossible. Hell, just last year in El Salvador, the FMLN won the presidential election, ending 20 years of rule by ARENA, basically the political arm of the right-wing death squads.

Even here in the Repressive States of Puritanikal Amerika, I see signs that we are evolving (these last elections notwithstanding). Gay marriage will be legal in my lifetime. Not long ago, that was unthinkable. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell could possibly be overturned in the relatively near future.

Alternatives to Capitalism (which I like to call Neo-Syndicalism) are growing, thriving and becoming increasingly widespread, be they worker cooperatives, fair trade, sustainability or community supported agriculture.

We are slowly but surely becoming better stewards of our environment. Being Green is significant and important, and efforts to transform into a Green society and economy are conducted in both a vertical and a horizontal manner.

But don’t get me wrong. Our economic and political circumstances are bad right now, and they could get worse, much worse. Yet, I can take solace in the fact that we will never stop striving to make things better, but as a reminder, we have a chant, a slogan we must not forget.

Remember the chant, “The people, united, can never be defeated?”

Here’s a new version:

Our passion, and spirit, can never be defeated.

Chant it loud and proud.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTFufbcx8DI

Guitar God excerpt

A Facebook friend sort of suggested this, so I figured, why not? "Guitar God" is my next novel. I just finished the fourth draft. Hopefully, the final draft will be done by the end of the year so I can move onto the next book. And I can't wait. It's been a long but rewarding road that began a little over four years ago. A big part of the reason why the book has taken so long is because it's so long. The first draft was 235,000 words. I've pared it down to 195,000. The word count is still very high, but I don't think it would be a tough book to slog through. It takes place over a 15 year period, but the story is pretty strongly plot driven with what I think is reasonably strong character development.

I like to describe the book as a Jewish, suburban, rock and roll fantasy with a 1970s soundtrack. It's urban fantasy—in the suburbs. It's "War for the Oaks" meets "Portnoy's Complaint." It's about the faerie folk living among us, and we never notice. It's about those magikal places from where we grew up.

So, here's a little sample. This chapter is important in the book, but I don't think I'm giving anything away. This is one of my favorite chapters for reasons that will become obvious to people who read it. By the way, some of what's portrayed is based on real events. I wasn't there, but I heard various legendary stories.















Guitar God

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Taking Hits of Buggy Bitz







Tom sat cross-legged next to the firepit at The Shire, waiting for Eric and Kit to show up. He glanced upward, over the treetops, at the pale blue sky. It would be a clear, cool night or at least relatively cool; summer was finally starting to give way to fall, thankfully, and this was a rare Saturday night where none of the three had a gig. A miraculous occurance, actually, considering that they each played in different bands. Tom thought it sucked that they weren’t in a band together, but that’s just how things worked out. Eric had been playing drums with MD20-20 since the previous winter. Last Fall, Tom joined Kickers, and Kit took over keys for Player Piano. Not long after that, goddammit, the keyboardist for Kickers left, but Kit didn’t want to leave Player Piano high and dry—the honorable fucking asshole—so Tom didn’t get to be able to play in a band with one of his two best friends. And the keyboardist they hired wasn’t fit to carry Kit’s stool, goddammit!

Tom reached into the front pocket of his jean jacket and fished out the ounce he’d bought from Jim Peters that afternoon. He unrolled the baggie and took a deep sniff of the sweet smelling dope. Jim always had the most kick ass lumbo, and this stuff was exceptional, not gold, but almost orange. The two bong hits he’d taken in Jim’s basement when he sampled the stuff threw him for a major loop. He still had a silly grin on his face as he holed up in his bedroom and cleaned the whole ounce while listening to Close to the Edge, picking out the buds and using the fold-out portion of the album cover to clean the shake, being very careful to not lose any seeds. One stray seed could get him grounded for a month.

Tom thought about taking a hit from the small U.S. Bong he’d brought with him, but instead rerolled the baggie, licking the top edge to reseal it. Tom’s mind wandered, picturing a fuzzy future of life after graduation.

Sure, the three of them smoked a lot of dope, and they dropped acid every so often, but they weren’t like the dust-smoking freaks who’d be lucky to get into Montgomery College, AKA, Harvard on the Pike. He, Eric and Kit were going to a real college, no doubt about it, but what would they study? They all talked about studying music, maybe even places like Berklee or Julliard. But was that practical? Kit was a total kick ass keyboardist. He could whip out a Rick Wakeman solo in nothing flat, but maybe he should become an engineer. He could fix anything, build anything. And Eric, shit, the guy lived in a world of numbers; he only visited the physical world. Shit, the guy should become like some kind of physicist and crack all the mysteries of the universe.

Tom admired their special talents, though deep down he couldn’t help but be envious. He loved to read, and he loved to write. Maybe he could major in English, but where the hell would that lead? It didn’t strike him as much more practical than studying music. Did he want to get a bachelor’s degree in English and roll the dice on whatever kind of job a liberal arts degree might get him? Or did he want to study music and play another kind of craps game where maybe he might make a living playing music or maybe he would have to teach music lessons and get a job in a record store while bouncing from struggling band to struggling band? Tom knew he’d be lucky to get into a Berklee or Juliard. Maybe he had the chops, and his SATs were pretty decent, but three years of barely passing math totally dragged down his GPA.

MC had a pretty decent music department. Maybe he could get an associate degree, and then he could get into a good music school. Maybe.

But what then? What if he got into Berklee and was able to venture forth into the music industry with rock solid chops and credentials to beat the band? Tom already figured out that the music industry was one giant shit sandwich, and every day you take one more bite. He was getting pretty damn tired of the high school band bullshit music his band had to play to keep getting gigs. At whatever level he might play at, it’d be the same shit.

Tom snatched his acoustic guitar from its case and strummed aimlessly. He picked a few notes then realized he was playing “Wish You Were Here.” He pressed a hand against his chest feeling the chill of metal against his flesh. After all this time, he still wore the metal ring, one of the four he, Kit, Eric and Isaac had fashioned so many years ago.

They had come close to melting down their rings, so they could refashion three rings to represent their Fellowship of the Rings, but they just couldn’t bring themselves to do that. Was Isaac their Golem, one who someday would play a role, for good or for evil? He laughed at the utter silliness of the thought, but still, they couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow Isaac would end up being a part of their lives again.

Tom caught Isaac’s gig the previous night and was totally blown away. The dude could flat out play, and man, could he sing! Tom didn’t even know Isaac could play guitar, let alone have the balls to front a band. Shit, he’d always been so shy, in a shellshocked kind of way, like a kid who keeps getting the crap beaten out of him. When the four of them had formed their Fellowship of the Rings, it seemed like Isaac had come home. Then he and Eric had their falling out. Tom was never really sure what the hell happened between the two, but that was that.

Tom knew Isaac had his Jewish friends. He also knew something terrible happened, and Isaac was no longer friends with any of those people, though he couldn’t understand how he could’ve been friends with them in the first place. Tom thought maybe Isaac might’ve returned to The Shire after all that shit went down, but instead, he just seemed to disappear like he almost didn’t want to exist anymore.

Tom played the rest of the song then rested his head on top of the guitar’s body, glancing upward toward the treetops, watching bats fluttering against a darkening sky. He put the guitar back in its case and hastily gathered some leaves, twigs and pine needles then carefully arranged them in the hearth, along with a few logs he stacked in a sloppy pyramid. He’d been slacking and was in serious danger of violating Hobbit Rule Number One: First person at The Shire gets the hearth ready. If the first person doesn’t get the fire going before the others arrive, he has to pay for the beer.

Tom lit the fire and had just finished stacking up some back-up logs when he heard a rustling in the woods and the loud cracking of twigs. A moment later, Kit and Eric appeared in the clearing, each holding a six pack of Molson Golden. Tom turned toward them, feeling a guilty expression cross his face. Kit grinned broadly at him. Tom knew he was busted. They’d come tantalizingly close to catching him in violation of Hobbit Rule Number One.

“Goddammit, Eric,” Kit said. “If you could’ve gotten out of work just five fucking minutes earlier, Tom would’ve had to pay for all the beer.”

“Well, good thing we didn’t buy that third sixer,” Eric said, plopping down next to the fire pit. He grabbed a Kiss lunchbox that sat alongside the firepit and popped open the lid. Gene Simmons, his forked tongue hanging down almost to his knees started menacingly at Tom. The lunchbox was rusted, dented and faded. Kit lifted a churchkey from the lunchbox, part of their Shire survival kit. The lunchbox also contained rolling papers, a small pipe and several tiny round screens. Kit popped the caps off three beers and passed them around.

Tom patted the front pocket of his jean jacket. “Went to see Jim today. Got some good stuff.” He started to reach into his pocket, but Eric waved him off.

“I got something even better.” Eric stretched his legs and dug into his pants pocket. After a bit of struggling and squirming, he held a small glass ampule containing an odd yellowish liquid.

“What the hell is that?” Tom asked.

Kit chuckled, like he was in on a secret joke.

“Morphine,” Eric said, smiling sheepishly.

“Morphine?” Tom was incredulous. “Where the fuck did you get that?”

Eric’s fist closed around the ampule. “That Brit from Subhuman—you’ve heard me talk about him. Cool dude. Wears his hair kinda funny, almost like a crew cut. Graham Jones. I was in the locker room, and he walks by and just smiles and tosses it to me. ‘Oye,’ he says. ‘Happy birthday. Cheers.’ Then he just walks away. Gotta figure he ripped it off. Probably stole a few. Just spreading it around, I guess.”

Tom shook his head slowly. He poked at the fire with a long stick. The logs snapped, crackled and popped, as if to say thank you. “So what the hell are we supposed to do with it?”

Eric shook his head.

“Gimme the gear,” Kit said, rising to his knees, reaching across the firepit. Eric handed him the ampule and a sealed cellophane package containing a syringe. Kit ripped open the package and pulled the orange plastic cover off one end of the syringe, revealing a long, thick no-nonsense needle. He drove the needle into the top of the ampule, turned the works upside-down, pulled hard on the plunger, then pulled the needle out of the ampule and pushed up on the plunger. A thin stream of liquid flew out from the tip of the needle, arcing into the air before splattering on the dirt beside him. Kit tapped the syringe with his index finger several time.

Kit flashed an evil grin. “Who wants to go first?”

“You go first,” Tom said.

“No, you go first,” Kit said.

Tom shook his head vigorously. He stared dubiously at the syringe. It looked angry. He did a quick mental inventory of all the drugs he’d done. Pot, hash, angel dust, acid, coke, speed, ludes. It was all okay, except angel dust. Shooting opiates? He knew he had to draw the line somewhere, and that was probably a good place.

“Eric,” Kit said, looking disappointed, “how ‘bout you? Why don’t you go first? The shit was given as a gift to you. You should go first.”

Eric shook his head. “Man, I don’t know about shooting junk into my veins.”

“You could skin-pop it,” Kit said.

“Don’t know if I’m into that either.”

Kit pulled his knees close to his chest and rested his chin against the top of his thighs, the syringe pointing at Eric, like he had just lost a round of spin the bottle, and it was his turn to do something he’d rather not do.

“How ‘bout we smoke it?” Tom said finally.

Kit’s expression brightened. “There’s an idea.” He glanced across the fire at Eric. Eric nodded. He then stuck out his hand toward Tom. “Gimme the stuff. I’ll load us up some bong hits.”

Tom handed Kit the baggie. Kit grabbed the bong and unscrewed the bowl, which he replaced with a large party bowl he’d taken from the Kiss lunch box. He opened the baggie and selected a nice fat bud, which he pulled apart on the top of the lunchbox, tossing seeds into the fire. The seeds exploded on contact with the flames. Once he’d packed the bowl, he injected a small amount of the morphine onto the dope. He took a long swig of beer, letting the pot absorb the morphine, then handed the bong to Eric.

“Think you should do the honors,” Kit said.

Without a word, Eric put his mouth to the bong, held his Bic to the bowl and started sucking, slow and steady. The bong gurgled happily. Eric finished the hit, coughing a bit, but holding it in. He handed the smoking bong to Tom. Tom’s heart beat rapidly. He took a hit, wondering what was going to happen. The smoke burned. Behind the sweetness of the lumbo, he detected something vaguely bitter.

Tom finished the hit, making sure not to take too much, then handed the bong to Kit, careful to not cough up the smoke. Holding his breath, he watched as Kit inhaled slowly, appearing more than a bit reticent. Usually Kit hit it hard and long—they didn’t call him Iron Lungs for nothing—but clearly, he was being careful.

They passed the bong around until the bowl was cashed.

Tom stared intently into the fire, his vision swirling. He leaned back until he rested on his elbows. He looked up at the black sky and glanced around at the treetops, which seemed to glow vaguely golden.

“Whoooah,” Tom said, his voice somewhere between a sigh and a whisper. “Man, I’m really high.” He glanced at Kit and Eric, his eyes slowly focusing on his friends. They both rested on their sides. Kit had knocked over his beer, which dribbled onto the dirt.

“Yeah, man,” Eric said, not moving. “Man, I’m really high.”

Kit stared into the fire, not saying a word.

Tom’s gaze returned to the treetops, the gold winking and blinking at him. He was very, very high, but not just high; he felt like mind and body were melded together into something greater than the sum of the parts, one with the fire in front of him, one with the black sky and the few stars that were visible, one with the mighty trees that guarded this special place. And he knew why people shot this stuff. And he knew it would be best if he never, ever, ever injected this stuff into his veins. But smoking it was probably okay, at least this one time. It felt way beyond okay.

Kit abruptly sprung upright. His hand thrust outward. Tom’s vision slowly focused. Kit held a large, black beetle, about the size of his thumbnail. He picked up the syringe, poked it into the beetle, pushed hard on the plunger then released the beetle. The beetle stumbled around, unsteady on its feet. Tom sat up and watched the beetle as it moved in tight little circles. It lifted up on its back legs then fell over onto its back, its tiny legs doing the dog paddle.

Tom sat up. He glanced at Eric. Eric lay back, staring up toward the sky. He glanced at Kit. Kit watched the beetle intently, giggling. Tom reached over and put the beetle on its feet. The beetle scrabbled in tiny, concentric circles and again raised up on its back legs. It wobbled and again fell onto its back.

“Man, that beetle is really fuckin’ high,” Tom said.

“Sure as fuck is,” Kit said. “Man….” His voiced trailed off. His eyes darted back and forth, like he was calculating some massive algebra problem. “Yeah, he’s really, really high.”

“Course he is,” Tom said. “You just gave him morphine, like enough to make you or me pretty damn high, and that’s just some beetle. How much you give him?”

Kit held his thumb and forefinger about a half inch apart.

“Well, fuck,” Tom said. “Think of it this way.” He held his thumb and index finger a half inch apart. “You gave that tiny, little beetle that much. What would be the equivalent amount for a human?”

Kit thought about it for a moment then spread his arms to full extension, like some fisherman bragging about catching one thiiiiiis big. “Dunno. Maybe this much?”

“Probably that much. Easily that much.”

“Whoah! Then Mister Beetle is really, really fuckin’ high.”

“Really, man. Like, fer sure.”

Kit grabbed the beetle, holding it gently between his thumb and forefinger, the expression on his face painfully intent. “Okay, so let’s say Mister Beetle is, like, a thousand times more high than I am right now. Okay?” Kit scratched his head. “Okay, Mister Beetle is a thousand times higher than I am right now.”

Tom giggled. “Yeah, that’s what you said.”

Kit shushed him loudly. “Hey, man, I’m trying to concentrate. Okay, so if Mister Beetle were to get me high, would I get that high?”

“That’s fuckin’ ridiculous.”

Kit ignored him and faced the beetle. “Listen to me, Mister Beetle. I know you’re holding. It’s polite to share, right? Remember, we learned that in kindergarten.”

Kit reached into Tom’s stash and pinched out some shake, which he packed into the bowl. Then he crushed the beetle with his fingers and stuffed the gooey remains into the bowl.

“Sorry, Mister Beetle. Thanks for sharing with us.” Kit flicked the Bic and lit the bowl. He sucked hard, the contents of the bowl crackling loudly.

Kit finished the hit and handed the bong to Tom. Tom shook his head. Kit coughed harshly, but gave Tom a stern look. Tom finally took a hit, the smoke burning his throat. Kit hacked out the rest of his hit. Tom cut short his hit and handed the bong to Eric.

“Whaaa?” Eric sat up and took the bong from Tom. An odd, acrid stench hung in the air. Eric took the hit, promptly coughing out most of it.

“Fuck!” he said. “What the fuck was that?”

Kit giggled. “Buggy bitz!”

Eric looked down at the bowl. “Buggy bitz? What the fuck?”

“Yeah, man, buggy bitz,” Kit said. “It’s a metaphysical high.”

And it’s working, Tom thought, as his vision swirled. He reached over and took the bong from Eric, just before Eric was about to throw the bong at Kit. Tom took a shallow hit and passed the bong to Kit. They passed the bong around and around until the bowl was cashed.

“Whoooah!” Tom said. “I’m really high.” He lay on his back. He could see the Big Dipper. He could see the North Star. He could see bits of gold dancing on the tips of the treetops, like Tinkerbell partying with a whole bunch of her sisters. Here in The Shire. Here in this special place that somehow managed to be spared the wrath of the bulldozers—Killdozers, like that made-for-TV movie. A wave of anger washed over him—that’s not supposed to happen. Motherfucking Killdozers. They don’t understand!

Tom sat bolt upright. “We gotta form our own band. Our own fuckin’ band!”

Eric stirred then sat upright. “Whaaa?”

Kit sat upright. “What you talkin’ about?”

Tom cracked open a few beers and passed them around. He took a long swig. The cold beer felt good going down his parched throat. “I said, we gotta form our own band.”

“Just quit the bands we’re in?” Eric said.

“Yeah, just fuckin’ quit, then form our own band. Hell, we got drums, keys and guitar. All we need is a bass player.”

“Why the hell would we wanna do that?” Kit said.

Tom faced Kit. It looked like his eyes were having trouble focusing. “Look, we’ve always wanted to be in a band together, but it just never worked out. We’re seniors, so time’s running out. If we don’t do this now, we’ll never do it. So let’s form our own band, and let’s play the music we wanna play.”

“It’s a bitch starting a band,” Eric said.

“Yeah, man,” Kit said. “I mean, it’d be great and all, but we all got good things going in our own bands. Quit and start from scratch this late in the game? I dunno.”

“Tell me, Kit. Why do you play in a band?”

Kit grinned broadly. “To meet girls. Why else?”

“Wrong answer, Kit.”

“It’s the right answer to me.”

“Bullshit! We all play in bands because we love playing music. So why not play the music we really love, together, the three of us?”

Kit and Eric sat silently, considering.

“I mean, Kit, you’re a monster keyboardist, and what, you get stuck playing the keyboard part for ‘Freebird?’ You’ve told me you can literally play that in your sleep. And Eric, you’re a goddamn Carl Palmer clone. Does your band do any ELP songs? No.”

“We could play ELP?” Eric said, a crooked smile washing across his face.

“If we wanted to, sure, we could play ELP. We could play anything. Jeff Beck. Steely Dan. How ‘bout Sea Level? Maybe some Zep. Whatever we wanted.”

Kit rubbed his chin. “Maybe I am getting a little tired of the usual high school band bullshit. Play a few semi-cool songs and fill in the set with a bunch of bullshit these idiots wanna hear. I think we could find a bass player easily enough. But what about a second guitarist?”

Tom shook his head. “Two guitarists? That’s just your typical high school band bullshit. We don’t need a second guitarist. Fuck, there’d probably be some songs where there’s not even any guitar parts.” Tom glanced at Eric and Kit. They looked dubious. “Okay, I can think of one guitarist who I’d want in the band.”

“Who?”

“The only guitarist who belongs with us. Isaac.”

Kit gathered up some twigs and flung them at Tom.

“Whoah!” Eric said. “I think that bus left the station a long, long time ago.”

Tom pulled his medallion out from under his shirt. “Yeah, but he’s still a member of the Fellowship. He’s still one of us, officially that is.”

“Officially,” Eric repeated, “but, I don’t think he gives us a second thought.”

“Besides,” Kit said, “did you see his gig last night? He’s the hottest thing at Churchill. I don’t think he’d wanna give that up. Would you?”

Tom ignored the question. “I’ll ask him. If he says no, he says no, but I’m going to ask him. I think I’m duty-bound to ask him, duty-bound to us and duty-bound to him. And yeah, I caught his gig last night. He’s a fuckin’ guitar god, and man, can he fuckin’ sing or what? Christ, he can sing anything. Anything! With him in our band, we’d be able to play anything we wanted.”

Tom glanced at Kit and Eric. “It’s settled?” He knew the answer.

“Yeah,” Eric said. “I’m in, but we can’t leave our bands high and dry. We really oughtta give them at least some time to find replacements.”

Tom nodded, sadly. “Yeah, I ‘spose. But not too long. So, Kit, what about you? You in?”

Kit nodded. “Yeah, but I think we outta wait ‘til later to talk specifics.”

A beetle ran along the dirt between Tom’s feet and the firepit. Tom snatched the beetle and held it aloft. Kit chuckled and handed Tom the syringe. “Yeah, we can talk about this tomorrow.”
It was early on the last morning of our vacation. I was awoken by a loud thwap, the unmistakable sound of a doorstop masquerading as a novel being slammed shut.

“Stupid book!” my wife exclaimed.

I couldn’t help but smile. Georgia had finally finished The Passage, the mega-hyped vampire novel by “literary” writer Justin Cronin. And for Georgia, finishing the book could not have come a moment too soon. Georgia’s a very discriminating reader. She’s been a bookseller and a book buyer at a few different bookstores. She has an English degree from University of Iowa. If a book fails to interest her, she’s more than willing to put it aside and move onto the next.

But despite reaching a point where she wanted to fling the 766-page tome into the Atlantic Ocean, she had to keep reading to the end most likely because she’d already invested so much time in the book. Also, she did shell out for the hardback.

At first, she really liked the book. The story was engaging, and there were characters that she liked and found quite intriguing. Then those characters get killed off. The book jumps decades into the future and then reaches a point where it feels more like a screen treatment than an actual novel. For a fiction lover like Georgia, this is the absolute kiss of death.

I am not ashamed to admit this, but I was quite gratified by Georgia’s reaction to the book because it proved what I suspected when I heard the news about the publication of The Passage, which included a huge advance for the author and a movie deal: The Passage represents everything that is wrong with the publishing industry.

Aside from publishing and editing Mobius, I write fiction. A couple years ago, my first novel, Vampire Cabbie, was published, which means that I am known and identified as a vampire writer.

A Facebook friend posted an article (nytimes.com/2010/06/02/books/02cronin.html) about The Passage on my wall. He figured it would make me feel happy and encouraged to see somebody making a bundle for writing a vampire novel.

It didn’t.

Cronin’s story is about being in the right place at the right time. He’d been working on a vampire novel. At a time when vampires are one majorly hot commodity, Cronin’s agent shopped the book and started a major bidding war between the biggest players in the industry. Ballantine ended up paying Cronin a $3.75 million advance for The Passage, along with two additional books to complete the trilogy. And then, on top of all of that, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions paid $1.75 million for the film rights. A script is currently in the process of being written.

Cronin’s story disturbs me for several reasons. First, I wasn’t the writer getting the multi-million dollar book deal.

More importantly, this deal is an excellent demonstration of how the publishing industry is misguided in terms of priorities and how it misuses its resources. Yes, vampires are hot right now, so it’s a good time to push a vampire book and in the process create a franchise that can rake in huge bucks over the next few years.

This type of thinking places a low priority on quality and originality. Cronin has his millions. He doesn’t have to produce quality work. He just has to produce. On time! As Georgia pointed out, the latter part of the book felt like a screen treatment. Probably what happened was the better parts of the book had already been written when he made the deal. The latter part of the book was probably just an outline at that time. Under the gun and with little incentive to make it sing, Cronin cranked it out.

A particularly obnoxious aspect of this deal is how the hype machine (including gushing reviews from hack critics) makes a big fuss out of how original The Passage is.

“It’s a macabre pleasure to see what a really talented novelist can do with these old Transylvania tropes,” Ron Charles wrote in a review for the Washington Post.

You see, Cronin’s vampires are not supernatural beings of unknown or fuzzy origin. Cronin’s vampirism is a form of a virus, created through misguided government experiments in an effort to invent a super solider. The vampires are more horrifying than ever because they form these mass, mindless hordes.

Like zombies.

Hmmm, a zombie vampire. Wow. Zombies are like really hot too, so how hot would that be, having a vampire that’s also a zombie? I bet nobody’s ever thought of that.

It’s Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later with fangs. It’s basically I Am Legend. It’s I Am Legend meets Stephen King’s The Stand. This is what happens when mainstream editors try to go genre, and they think they can do it better because they are literary, as opposed to their knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing genre counterparts. Of course, they made the same mistake with The Historian, so why should I be surprised. Call me crazy, but if they wanted to pay millions of dollars for a vampire novel, there’s plenty of really good writers in the genre they could have anointed.

I am amazed how Cronin’s approach is somehow considered fresh and original. Yes, it breaks the mold of the traditional vampire, but people writing vampire fiction have been reinventing the wheel for quite some time now. I recently moderated a panel concerning this very topic where a group of committed vampire writers discussed these new vampire tropes, which included the created-by-science vampire zombie. Sorry, this has been done to death. So the question regarding The Passage, does Cronin do anything new or different with a trope that’s supposed to be new and different?

As I listened to Georgia describe the latter part of the book, I started to realize that it was laughably derivative. In fact, it sounded like a total rip-off of The Stand. I remember repeatedly asking Georgia to let me know if there was an evil compound in Las Vegas.

There was, sort of.

But I’m straying off the point by bashing The Passage. Cronin is not the enemy. His situation is merely a symptom of the actual virus that turns us into mindless, bloodsucking monsters.

The big boys want that big, big novel. Okay, fine. They’re in the business of making money, but the only way they see to do that is by attempting to duplicate previous success. The idea of a good, original book does not compute to these people. And they do not understand that the people who actually go out and spend money on books are looking for that exact thing.

And what about allocation of resources? With the money they paid up front to Cronin, Ballantine could have given $100,000 advances to 37 different authors. That’s a decent year’s wage. That means 37 authors would have a year subsidized where they could write without worrying about having to work. And, of course, that would mean that Ballantine would be publishing 37 different novels that are already complete and polished.

But that won’t happen. And those poor midlist writers who have books published by Ballantine over the next few years will get the shaft in terms of marketing because so much of the marketing resources are going toward making sure The Passage doesn’t flop.

And, let’s not forget that Ballantine will put tons of pressure on bookstores to dedicate lots and lots of space to Cronin’s work. That means less physical space for everyone else.

Let me be clear about one thing. Sure, it’s fun bashing Cronin, but my problem with The Passage would be the same regardless of the book’s quality or lack thereof. My beef is with the industry and how it does business. Yes, I understand that the big publishing houses are in the business of making money. I understand that the cost of the quarter-million print run of The Passage will cost considerably less than 25,000 runs for 10 books or 10,000 runs for 25 books. I get it.

But I also get that because of The Passage, many books will not see the light of day, and these are quality books that deserve an audience. Because of The Passage, good writers who deserve financial support will be left out in the cold.

I also get that such decisions are based on the need to maximize profits. The big houses all exist within huge media conglomerates. Having a little bit left over after expenses is not good enough. The board of directors demands tribute. The beast must be fed, which means it’s the marketing department, not the editors, who often decide what books get published and which books don’t.

A New York editor who I respect greatly has commented about how she often needs to fight for books she believes in. She is a very brave person, but I can’t help but wonder how many editors actually have anywhere near her courage, especially when they know they can be so easily replaced.

In this issue of Mobius, we are introducing a new columnist. Elisabeth Willmott, who will write about sustainability, hopefully for many years to come. In terms of sustainability, I can’t help but think of how it applies to a publishing industry that values maximizing of profits above all else.

The way I see it, sustainability, at least to a certain extent, stands in opposition to capitalism because it states that maximizing profits is not the be-all and end-all. There are other goals that can and should be achieved. Generally, when people think of sustainability, they think of environmental issues. To put it simply, if maximizing profits means treating our planet like a disposable diaper, then we need to reassess our priorities.

I would argue the same is true in the publishing industry. On the one hand, The Passage probably will make a ton of money for Ballantine. But at what price? And how much will the publishing environment be harmed? With enough disrespect, readers will take their business elsewhere. Without financial support, writers won’t have the luxury to produce to the degree that they are capable. Some will give up altogether.

The desire to maximize profits at the expense of all other concerns kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. The result is that the air we breathe is poisoned. Our oceans are slowly dying. And the words that sustain our souls are being destroyed.

We can’t let that happen. Remember, there is great power in the choices we make. We can choose to buy wild Alaskan salmon rather than Chilean seabass. We can buy Fair Trade coffee instead of the corporate stuff. We can buy local, organic produce. And we can make the conscious choice to support publishers who operate in a sustainable model where they put quality above profit.
The Last Sheaf Standing

Elisabeth Willmott


While discussing the bleak prospect of achieving ecological stability in our lifetime, my friend recently suggested I write a column about sustainability. I consider myself reasonably conversant on the topic. I sell produce, actively sourcing and promoting organics. I compost both in the workplace and at home. I can spin fiber into yarn, grow my own cooking herbs and greens, bake bread, darn socks, even put up herbal medicines. I live in a house built partially with salvaged materials. Should give me plenty to talk about, right?

In fact, too much to talk about. Like the blind men with the elephant, there are many notions in the scientific community, pop culture, blogosphere and within government agencies about what sustainability constitutes. The best definition I could find was at Sustainability Wiki, which defined it as a “means of configuring civilization and human activity so that society, its members and its economies are able to meet their needs and express their greatest potential in the present, while preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems, planning and acting for the ability to maintain these ideals in the very long term.” Yet this definition is vague about social aspects of sustainability; in order for this to work, it must also be just.

We must be clear about the distinction between sustainability as a buzzword and the real cyclical durability I'm hoping we can introduce and nurture in what must, by necessity, include local and global systems. I worry about corporate-fostered notions that we can somehow buy and consume our way there when clearly a key step in achieving this goal is to drastically reduce consumption, more than we can imagine at present, much less embrace.

How vital it is to build an activist community—to push for public policy supporting swift efforts to stabilize our use of resources while demanding social justice! Yet in reaching out to friends involved in this movement I found we were often focusing on developing our “mad skills.” Not trusting government to change course mid-stream, too alienated to tackle the political discourse necessary to initiate change, many of us were planning, in a dreamy and abstract way, how to cope in some theoretical collapse. I know as a plantswoman with academic experience in the climate field this subject is urgent. We need to keep honing even the language around it, all the while reaching out to build allies in environmental fields, agriculture, alternative energy and local governments as well as lobbying for effective policy and planning.

Before we can even begin to address what a sustainable world will look like in terms of cars we might drive, fuel they should run on or food we should eat, where and how it is grown, what we should do with our cities that have emptied out and the exurbs that are so far from the places we work, we need to think about that work itself and its meaning or lack thereof. I have read where our workers are now dismissed as producers since so much factory production has moved overseas. I don't believe this is a permanent situation. As fuel costs increase, I believe the trades will necessarily undergo a renaissance that we should plan for now.

Much of the language about sustainability is exclusively scientific and so has been co-opted by corporations and governments alike to describe some unholy trade-offs in population dynamics and resource exploitation. How much environmental destruction are we willing to live with until a threshold is reached that pushes things past “sustainable?” Not unlike the frightening analysis that goes on in wars: how much starvation is allowable under sanctions, how much collateral damage can be endured before a populace turns against an occupier.

Two images in recent weeks have haunted me while I pondered our challenge in growing this movement. One is the face of Afghani Bibi Aisha, her nose cut off in retaliation for trying to flee an abusive husband. Bibi's nation is being exploited for mineral and energy potential even while the torturers she called family are coddled by the Karzai government we support. When I think about the harrowing concessions that Afghani women are expected to make just to get unlikely parties together at a table, I can't help equate this to environmental agreements and concessions we are all expected to make, sacrificing watersheds for jobs or greenspace for polluted overcrowded roadways, real change for profiteering in carbon credits.

The other jolting image is a picture from the New York Times business page of a mountaintop, graded and leveled, exploited for extraction. This hole in the Earth is as bony and exposed as Bibi Aisha's empty nasal socket. Yet on the business page it seems much less viscerally shocking. It would be quite so if you were to encounter it amongst the wooded summits of the Appalachians. These noble peaks team with some of the greatest species diversity in the world, having once been refugia for countless trees, plants and wildlife while the North American ice sheets retreated. In Appalachia more than 500 mountain tops have been removed to get to the coal below, the tailings left strewn in valleys leaching toxic compounds into the drinking water of a people already challenged in so many ways for jobs, health care, and education.

A key ingredient in the struggle for a sustainable paradigm is our ability to sustain “hope.” My attorney told me the other day that he mistrusts all invocations of hope, calling it a “Disney” concept. When hope is discussed he feels that someone is most likely trying to pull something over on someone. Bruised by the betrayals of the Obama Administration, I can see how “hope” can become suspect. Yet without recruiting young people to build this movement, how are we to influence the future in a sane way. And why should we?

After 30 years of Reaganesque budget cuts in education, who even conceives of a hopeful future for our disenfranchised, chronically underemployed youth, let alone urges them to reach for it? If sustainability means meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations, can we bring those generations on board if we reject their own belief in the promise of their stake? For inspiration, I think, how does a young woman held captive by her own family sustain hope? How do you sustain a willingness to be an instrument of change when you need to work for the coal company that is literally blowing the lid off pristine mountains that have been your family's home for generations?

The Internet is rife with some kind of ignorant libertarian awakening and a backlash against communitarian solutions to problems that seem by their very nature to require collective and organized responses. If these movements have their way, we are headed down a path toward a sad, narcissistic clannism that denies climate change, resists taxation at the expense of programs that help foster sustainability and could lead, under dire circumstances, not unthinkable at this point, to our own future warlordism and thug violence as the rule of law becomes too challenged to maintain.

If there is to be a collapse or, as I hope, a reshuffling of our industrial capitalist priorities, there will have to be a massive shift in paradigm. If “community” or “teacher” are now dirty words, then one of the first steps towards stability has to be a resistance against a paradigm where greed is good, capitalism is freedom, and civics is dead. We cannot infinitely befoul our own nests without eventually leading to the threatened the health and livelihood of all. This seems simple but the enclosure movement of the late 18th century that saw commonly farmed lands fenced off and deeded to the rich continues to this day with our highways sold off to private road contractors, wild land leased to mining corporations, even our schools de-funded and the sick or imprisoned turned into ways for companies to make a buck. A single man can own a mountaintop and alone decide to change the shared skyline for hundreds of miles around for the sake of personal enrichment or to achieve liquidity.

Prior to both the medieval and modern periods of enclosure in England and Wales open fields were considered arable farmland and harvested in common. Communities toiled together to “bring in the sheaves.” At the end of the grain harvest the final sheaf would be left to stand. No one individual wanted to be the one to cut it down since it was believed to contain all the spirit and regenerative power of the grain, the responsibility too much for one person to bear. That final sheaf contained the genetic promise of the grain and a promise of stability in future harvests to come, the opposite of a world where our seeds contain terminator codes to switch them off. The last sheaf standing was instead harvested in common by throwing sharp scythes until it fell on its own, no one person having laid waste to it.

The modern challenge of the sustainability movement shows that ownership and enclosure are myths. Our resistance starts this way by reasserting our stewardship of the commons, and the commons includes our shared hope. If we all cast our scythes together, who will know who felled the grain?
Well, maybe I did, maybe I didn't. It's hard to say, but over the weekend, we did the annual harvest from our ever expanding cherry tree in the front yard. In the heat, while battling mosquitoes, I picked cherries then washed them and pitted them—the new spring-loaded cherry pitter from Farm & Fleet was a huge help.

As a reward for my hard work, I decided to treat myself and Georgia to a round of CherryTinis, except there was one problem. I could not find a recipe for a martini made from fresh cherry juice, which I had a nice quantity of after the cherries were pitted. I found various recipes for cherry martinis with cherry syrup. The best idea I found was a cherry Cosmo where cherry juice is substituted for lime juice. That was promising, but I wanted a CherryTini, dammit! Necessity is the mother of invention. If I wanted a CherryTini, I was going to have to invent it.

And I did, or so I believe.

It's pretty simple, actually, though the first round wasn't quite right. The second round was perfect. I thought of it sort of like a Lemon Drop Cocktail, so I knew I had to add sugar, but not as much because obviously even sour cherries aren't as tart as lemons.

So here it is, elegant in its simplicity, a cocktail I can only have once a year, following the cherry harvest, unless I buy pure, fresh cherry juice.

It's one part vodka, one part cherry juice, a dash of Triple Sec and a teaspoon of sugar for each cocktail. Actual quantities of booze and juice vary depending on the size of your martini glass and how drunk you want to get. To be conservative, try this:

Load your shaker about halfway with ice. Pour in:

2 oz. vodka
2 oz. cherry juice
a dash Triple Sec
1 t. white sugar

Shake well. Pour into martini glass. I didn't figure out a garnish, so let me know what you come up with.