Monday, January 26, 2009

Papier-Mache People

Paper. Sort of a thin subject, but one that is important, especially as more and more people try to become paper.

Paper has little relief. It is so nondescript that even the addition of inked lines makes the paper just a bit thicker than without. When something printed on paper is read, most people want relief--relief from the day, or a subject that is "out-of-the-ordinary." As the British say, something "Extra ordinary." But how many stories, master's theses, dissertations and government documents have no relief? The common threat for a novelist is, "I liked the story, but it took me several chapters to get into it."

In some cases, the stories may not have that necessary element called contrast. A story like that may start, "She sat at her desk and looked blankly." Other stories may have contrast, but the writer never brings it out.

As a writer, I have found the most frustrating element of writing a story is that many people don't really want contrast in the stories that are being written. Or, perhaps they don't know how important it is to the story. They may even have personal motives for keeping the story flat.
Several years ago, a man commissioned me to write a story about some wildlife that had lived on his ranch. I jumped at the story. I started interviewing people, looking for government publications and photos concerning the topic and finding those small nuggets for a great story. In the second talk about what my benefactor wanted, he said he didn't want the story to be about people. He wanted a story about the animals--in this case, wolves.

I was unable to persuade him that without people there would be no story. Without people, especially European-Americans, wolves in general would still be living in Montana with no cares or worries. Additionally, since the wolves had all been killed by government specialists, it seems that without people the wolves would still be here. I believe that his reason for not including humans was to keep his name from the story and show how "good" he was, without saying that "he" had given the wolves a chance. Without people and their efforts and failures, there was a simple master's thesis on the life cycle of some random group of wolves. I lost interest in the story. It was eventually written, but it's not much of a story. No contrast. A better writer could have pulled it off.

While researching that story, I interviewed many government experts and read reams (literally) of publications on wolf reintroduction. No surprise, the publications are written by people who have master's degrees and so they know how to write scholarly, academic tomes. Lots of headings, subheadings and footnotes. The information is there, but it is like reading applesauce--it can be tasty, but after a few buckets, not really that interesting.

Anyway, while interviewing one of the experts, I asked if he had any interesting, exciting or different stories concerning this particular pack of wolves. He came to life. No longer a scholarly, academic bureaucrat, but a living breathing being. He actually showed signs of blood in his face.

He said, "Yeah. One day we were trying to dart and capture one of the young wolves. We darted him four times, but he wouldn't go down." I asked if he wanted to tell the story and he related a great story that included helicopters and pilots, government trappers and shooters, and finally one of the team leaping from the chopper, wrestling the wolf to the ground, and hogtying him with his boot laces.

When I asked him to explain a few finer points in the story, his face lost all animation, and his reasoning mind went to work. He "hymmed and hawed," and eventually said, "I'm not sure that that really happened." I said that it must have--you know with him getting so animated. He said that it wouldn't make a good story to be told to the public and so he would deny that it ever took place.

I never used the story. I can appreciate the heat that a government official may face if dedicated wolf "lovers" heard the story. On the other hand, the story isn't a classified government secret. The story is actually worse than knowing that one wolf from that pack had been darted multiple times and was finally wrestled to the ground by some government "he-man." The entire pack was killed or removed. The ten that were removed to Yellowstone park all died within two years of release. The same lifeless story only about wolves was further flattened because a government official wished to avoid political (read: media) backlash. Since the story was never published, that government official continued to have a relief-less life.

The whole issue of people wanting to be featureless again reared it head while I was researching another wildlife story. One of the government officials had said that she practiced Tai Chi and ballroom dancing in her spare time. She continued and said, "People who I work with can't imagine me doing Tai Chi or wearing stilettos on the dance floor, and the people who know me from Tai Chi or dancing find it odd that I work with wild animals." What contrast! A great nugget for a story. When I started to put the story together I called her and asked about specifics about the type of dance, Tai Chi, etc. She replied that she was in a very sensitive position and wanted to keep everything about her in the media as professional as possible. She found the contrast a highlight in her life, yet she wished to flatten it to fit the scholarly, academic view of a scientist she, and others, wished to present. No Tai Chi! No ballroom dancing!

Three stories on two subjects. Three people--one a private rancher and two government experts. With varying reason, the people and the stories have been made flat as the paper they were written on.

Do we all wish to be paper?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Middle East Wars?

As the Israeli military bombs Palestinians in Gaza the age old mantra, "Ya, but those people have been fighting for centuries," has been heard around coffee shops, bars, and water coolers in the United States.

That is the perception. What is the reality?

Here is a list of the uses of United States federal troops, and their precusors:

  • 1637 Pequot War
  • 1675-1676 King Phillip's War
  • 1680-1692 Pueblo Revolt
  • 1689-1763 French and Indian War
  • 1763 Pontiac War
  • 1770 Boston Massacre
  • 1774 Lord Dunsmores' War
  • 1775-1783 American Revolution
  • 1775-1832 Midwestern Conflicts
  • 1794 Whiskey Rebellion
  • 1801-1805 Tripoli and Barbary States
  • 1812-1814 War of 1812
  • 1813-1842 South Indian Wars
  • 1846-1848 Mexican-American War
  • 1854-1890 Sioux Wars
  • 1860-1877 South Indian Wars (again)
  • 1861-1865 U.S. Civil War
  • 1872-1873 Modoc (Indian) Wars
  • 1877 Nez Perce War
  • 1846-1864 Navajo
  • 1861-1890 Apache
  • 1898 Spanish-American War
  • 1898-1902 Philippine Insurgency
  • 1912-1915 Nicaragua
  • 1915 Haiti
  • 1916 Pershing's Mexican Campaign
  • 1917-1918 World War I (U.S.)
  • 1941-1945 World War II (U.S.)
  • 1950-1953 Korean War (technically continues 56 years later)
  • 1962 Cuban Missle Crisis
  • 1965 Dominican Republic
  • 1965-1973 Vietnam War (U.S. involved to a limited degree before 1954 until 1965)
  • 1967 Detroit Riots
  • 1968 Pueblo Incident
  • 1975 Mayaguez Incident
  • 1980-1989 Arming and training Afghan mujahideen
  • 1983 Grenada
  • 1983-1984 Mining Nicaraguan Harbors (also Iran-Contra Affair)
  • 1986 Libya
  • 1989 Libya
  • 1989 Panama
  • 1991 Gulf War
  • 1992 Somalia
  • 1994 Haiti
  • 2001-2009 Afghanistan
  • 2003-2009 Iraq
What is the reality? From the time Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock until today, the United States has been involved in more wars than the countries of the Middle East.

The wars conducted over the same period in the Middle East could be further reduced when wars initiated, both directly and indirectly, by European nations and the U.S. are taken from the equation.

I have mentioned this point at bars before. The typical answer is, "What have we done to the Palestinians?" The answer is easy. We have armed first one side--Israel, and then several sides, Israel and Egypt for example. Today, Israel and Egypt are the number one and number two recipients of U.S. military aid.

University of Montana Arabic language professor Samir Bitar was a child in Palestine during the 1967 Six-Day War. A U.S. made howitzer shell went through the wall of his family's home during that conflict. When Bitar talks of that day, I see something in his eyes that I haven't seen in the eyes of any one else. Bitar is two years older than I am. (I am 49) I can only imagine what I would think of Israel and the United States if I had had an artillery round go through my house when I was 9 years old.

Each of us in the United States is an enabler. We are no different than a relative "helping" an alcoholic or drug addict.

Going back to one of the themes of this blog, William Graham Sumner's Person A and Person B, we (the United States--each of us) are worse than person A or B. We are an enabler for Persons A and B. While Persons A and B (in this case Israel) wish person C (Palestinians) to do something ( I won't venture there today), we assist. With our perception that "those people have been fighting for centuries," and our enabling, the Palestinians become Person D, the "forgotten man."

As this is written the death toll if 400+ Palestinians dead (mostly civilians) and less than ten dead Israelis. Five of the Israelis are soldiers that were killed by a friendly fire incident yesterday.

Those figures bring back memories of the Pequot War. When one Pequot was accused of murdering a settler in today's Rhode Island, the settlers burned alive 600-700 Pequot Indians. More were sold into slavery in Bermuda. Not only are the numbers similar, but Puritans praised the massacre in the name of God. How things stay the same.

"What experience and history teach is this--that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it."
G.W.F. Hegel