Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Experiment

Testing, testing, 1 2 3.

Brooklyn Arden Reviews: Two Modern National Epics

This weekend I took in two epics of national creation and definition, spaced a hundred and sixty years apart in time and a good distance farther than that in the mentalities that created them; but each demonstrating a genius of sorts for its particular genre and style, and each recommended for the right frame of mind. I am writing these reviews late at night, and I'm going to do them rather stream-of-consciousness, with very long sentences; so please forgive any errors in style or fact, as I'm writing them for the mere pleasure of making them exist at all. And spoilers ahoy!

So, first, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Part I: The Pox Party, by M. T. Anderson. This volume wae the National Book Award winner for 2006, but I had -- not avoided it exactly, but never made time to read it, until the recent CCBC discussion and Times review of Volume II prompted me to pick it up. More out of a sense of duty than anticipated pleasure: for while I very much admired M. T. Anderson's Feed (the only previous novel of his I'd read), and I knew from that and from reviews of Octavian that he could accomplish extraordinary feats of voice, emotion, imagination, and historical recreation, his temperament and view of humanity seemed rather darker and harsher than mine, almost on the verge of nihilism. And it is always hard for me as a quasi-optimist to read pessimistic works -- not only are the events described unpleasant, and realer than I daily care to look at, I feel like something of a fool as I read, for this, the pessimists are telling me, is reality, and why don't I just face that fact and get on with it? Additionally, I'd read so much about Octavian at this point that I felt it was approaching the category of books that the first chapter of If on a winter's night a traveler would call The Books One Never Needs to Read Because So Many People Talk about Them That It Seems Like You've Read Them Already.

So I took up Octavian knowing most of its big surprises -- the nature of the experiment, that he would at some point lapse into inkblots, the eventual escape. And at first I read with attention mostly for the undeniable genius of the thing -- the deep knowledge of history and science, the construction of the voice, the fascination of the situation. (Not to mention the incredible feat of copyediting this book must have been, to get the ampersands and the spellings and the historical references right and consistent.) And that awareness of genius was so strong, and the events described so deeply inhumane (to Octavian; all too humanlike in other ways) and yet true, that I found myself reading more with aesthetic pleasure than emotional pleasure -- that is, I took pleasure in the excellent aesthetics of the book, but I had no pleasure being with Octavian inside the world created by those aesthetics. About halfway through, I would have liked to stop reading.

And yet I could not, Mr. Anderson's aesthetic genius having caught me up in caring about Octavian and made his world sufficiently real that I had to see how the experiment played itself out. If readers usually identify with main characters and have the pleasure of sharing in their experience, the experience and pleasure here felt like that of martyrdom: intense pain and also nobility, the one increasing the other. But once I gave myself over to that and accepted it, about the time of the Pox Party, I found some pleasure in sharing Octavian's burden, like we had to go through these awful things together. And more than that, I realized that I had misjudged Mr. Anderson, because anyone who feels such sympathy for the suffering (as I think he must to portray suffering so accurately and acutely) cannot be a nihilist: because in nihilism nothing matters, and he clearly feels that human suffering does, and should be alleviated. That does not mean it WILL be in the course of the book, of course, but it's nice to have something to believe in as a reader, and not feel like the author is simply leading you toward fictional misery and pointlessness (the better to underline the misery and pointlessness of actual existence).

So, oddly cheered, I flew through the last third of the novel, marveling still at the brilliance of the historical writing and the turnabout of the usual patriotic story; and hoping now, hard, for Octavian to escape and all to be -- if not well, or even peaceful (which would be foolish in a novel chronicling the beginning of the Revolutionary War), more resolute still in favor of this sense of the possible goodness of humanity. And while I understand Volume II will test this hope even further, I look forward to getting and reading it after I return to New York. All of the best novels I've read this year have been YA: Paper Towns, Graceling, Suite Scarlett, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Hunger Games, the Attolia trilogy; and now I will set Octavian Nothing among that company, as, if not the most pleasurable, certainly the most distinguished in imaginative and historical accomplishment.

(It strikes me that this is less a review than an account of my reading experience with random, very possibly pretentious-sounding philosophical bits thrown in. Ah well, I'm enjoying writing the bloviation, and I hope you don't mind reading it.)

Australia. Baz Luhrmann pulls various pieces of his country's mythology and history -- the colonization by the English, the incredible beauty of the Outback, the romantic independence of the stockmen, the shame of the Aborigines' treatment by the whites -- into an ungainly film that, despite the history and the setting, is still much more a Baz Luhrmann movie than it is an Australian one. By which I mean: Baz Luhrmann loves drama and the dramatic arts, loves good production design, and loves Love above all, and all of these things are in their usual massive profusion here -- Australia just happens to be the latest backdrop for his inquiries. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) travels from England to her late husband's cattle station in the Outback, where she meets "the Drover," a cattleman played by Hugh Jackman, and a half-white, half-Aborigine boy named Nullah (Brandon Walters), who might at any time be taken away for reeducation as a white at the hands of the Australian authorities. Lady Sarah's husband was killed by the overseer of a rival cattle station, a man named Neil Fletcher (Bryan Brown), who tries to blame it on Nullah's wholly Aboriginal grandfather. In the first half of the movie, Lady Sarah bonds variously with Nullah, with Australia, and with the Drover as they drive the cattle from the station to Darwin in 1939. In the second half, set in 1941, she wrestles with the implications of Nullah's race -- his desire to go walkabout, the authorities' capturing him -- as the Japanese approach and eventually attack Darwin.

That all sounds much too serious, though. Luhrmann gives the film a frantic opening much like those of Moulin Rouge! or Romeo + Juliet -- he's so eager to get to the meat of the romance that he rushes us through the introductions to his characters, making them look ridiculous, to early unfortunate effect. But as in those previous films, once those lovers are onstage and working together, he calms down -- overindulging his fondness for the closeup, perhaps, but developing the story at a more logical pace, and unfolding several glorious romantic set pieces. Here he also displays a strong hand for action sequences (which, I guess, aren't so different from dance numbers), particularly in a cattle stampede about a third of the way in.

Still, the most prominent feature of the film is his unabashed sentimentality -- and more than that, his reveling in it, in the long shots of Lady Sarah and the Drover embracing against a gorgeous Australian sunset. The Aborigines are all magical, moral beings in touch with the earth (though, to be fair, this is probably true, certainly compared with the white colonizers). Someone says something like, "As long as we have love, everything will be all right." We never learn the Drover's real name; indeed, the film never even acknowledges the idea he has a real name, or the silliness of his being always "the Drover," as that might taint his mythic stature. And here is a one-line summary of the climax: a noble Englishwoman hears her adopted half-Aborigine son playing "Somewhere over the Rainbow" on a dead man's harmonica as her horseman-lover pilots a boat full of other half-Aborigine children through a bay filled with burning debris after an attack by the Japanese.

So Australia is melodramatic and ridiculous. But it is also, if you're willing to wait through the opening and shut up the realistic side of your brain, quite, quite delicious -- gorgeous production design, gorgeous scenes of the Outback, gorgeous Hugh Jackman (though I kept hoping he would break out in song). If any Australians read this, I would be curious to know what the reaction has been Down Under to the film. And for Americans, I recommend it as a highly enjoyable evening at the movie theatre, especially as it's an epic not our own.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

For the Fruit of All Creation

For the fruit of all creation,
thanks be to God.
Gifts bestowed on every nation,
thanks be to God.
For the plowing, sowing, reaping,
silent growth while we are sleeping,
future needs in earth's safekeeping,
thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,
God's will is done.
In the help we give our neighbor,
God's will is done.
In our worldwide task of caring
for the hungry and despairing,
in the harvests we are sharing,
God's will is done.

For the harvests of the Spirit,
thanks be to God.
For the good we all inherit,
thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us,
for the truths that still confound us,
most of all that love has found us,
thanks be to God.

-- Fred Pratt Green

To hear the music, click here.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Flap Copy: Three Takes on OPERATION YES

One of my most important tasks as an editor is to write flap copy for my books. This is the copy that goes on the inside front and back flaps of the jacket, describing the book in the front and providing a brief biography of the author in the back (usually; with sequels we might put review quotes for the previous book in the back). In the book-buying process, flap copy serves as a useful adjunct to the hand-seller, or sometimes as the salesperson's stand-in altogether: After the potential buyer has been attracted by the book jacket, tempted into picking the book up, the flap copy has to justify and deepen that interest -- convince the buyer to flip to the first page or better still, take the book to the sales counter.

So we spend a lot of time thinking about and writing and rewriting flaps. Good flap copy has a voice the reader can trust, ideally a voice similar to that of the book itself. It doesn't give away too much, but it shows enough leg in both the Action and Emotional Plots that the reader is intrigued by both the characters and the story. And it should end on a positive or suspenseful note to leave the reader wanting to know more, wanting to say yes to the book. It can be hard to write, especially for a book you love, because you know so much about the book and you have to remember the reader knows nothing; and because you love so much about the book that it's difficult to pick out only those things that are most likely to appeal to the reader -- that mythical person in the bookstore holding the book. And that means in turn that you have to try to construct that reader in your head: Adult or child? Male or female? How old? What elements will interest them? What will turn them off? And because you want more than just that one reader: How can you incorporate as many of the interesting elements and as few of the unattractive ones as possible for the whole probable range of your audience, AND still make the whole thing sound good?

(All of the previous paragraph also applies to query letters, by the way, with the exception that you should know enough about the literary tastes of the specific editor/agent to whom you're appealing that you have a decent idea of what would attract him or her, and you write that accordingly.)

I just completed this process for most of my Fall 2009 books, as we're readying their covers right now, and I did three different drafts for one of the novels: Sara Lewis Holmes's Operation YES (formerly known as The New Recruit). While it is clearly impossible for me to analyze these objectively (and, for the record, I'm posting this for informational purposes, not for your criticism), I thought you all might be interested to see my drafts, with a little explanation of the choices that formed them. So here we go:

“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.”

It’s just a rectangle of tape on a plain linoleum floor. Ten feet long, four feet deep, at the front of a sixth-grade classroom on an Air Force base in North Carolina. But when Miss Loupe steps into the space, it becomes a putting green. A prison cell. A stage. And she teaches her students how to make that magic—theatre—happen as well.

Bo loves the improvisation exercises: They focus his restless energies and distract him from his father’s impending deployment overseas. But Gari has more important things to worry about—like getting her mom home safe from Iraq. When Miss Loupe’s brother goes missing in Afghanistan and Miss Loupe herself breaks down, Gari, Bo, and the rest of the class have to improvise their way through their own “great battles” . . . and find a way to help their teacher fight hers.

The first middle-grade novel about the home front during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Operation YES is a poignant, funny, and generous book about an amazing teacher and the students she inspires.
I actually really like this copy: The beginning gets at the magic of the Taped Space, it describes the plot of the book and the characters well, and the last paragraph is true. And it incorporates the "Be kind" line, which is one of the key thoughts of the book and a good key thought for life, so its use in the flap tells the reader that this book says true things (which it does). Altogether, this draft pretty much follows the formula I laid forth in this blog post: intriguing opening situation + main characters' concerns + plot twists leading to cliffhanger, with adjective-filled summary paragraph for extra credit. It's classic talking-to-the-adults style of copy -- in fact, I originally wrote this draft as the catalog copy, which is read solely by librarians and booksellers. And there's nothing wrong with that style of copy for some books. . . . I've written many, many flaps like that over the years.

But in this case, I wanted something with a little more energy and less formality, something to signal the unpredictability of the book and the interesting things it does structurally and stylistically. That desire led to the next draft:
Hey you! New Recruit!
Yeah, Person Holding This Book. I’m talking to YOU.

Here is where you are: Reform, North Carolina—home of an Air Force base, an old school, and one Ugly, Ugly Couch.

Here are three people you need to know:

Bo—the son of an Air Force colonel, he’s moved so much that he doesn’t know where he belongs.
Gari—her mom just went overseas with the Army, but she has a great big PLAN to get her back to the States.
Miss Loupe—the teacher who can turn that Ugly Couch into a boat, a hammock, a dinosaur, a stage.

Here is what happens when they come together with the rest of Miss Loupe’s class: Making stuff up. Writing it down. Finding the cracks. Saying “Yes.”

A theater troupe. A food fight. Art with little green Army men.

A loss, unimaginable. Friends, unforgettable.

And a new plan called Operation YES.
This does the fun talking-to-the-reader thing, which happens a little in the book as well, and I've always wanted to write a flap like that. (This flap may yet still happen.) But I pretty much drop that conceit after those opening lines. And this starts out all military and matter-of-fact, then turns lyrical by the end, losing sight of the characters in the process. It's still fun, and I probably could have corrected the errors. But I happened to be developing this approach at the same time:

Bo is going to behave for his new teacher.
(His father, an Air Force colonel, says so.)
Gari is going to live peacefully with her cousin.
(Her mother, an Army nurse, says so.)
Miss Loupe is going to teach her class language arts, social studies, math, and science.
(What’s supposed to stay secret: the improvisational theatre—and her tattoo.)


Bo stages a food fight.
(His father isn’t pleased.)
Gari stages a protest.
(The Army isn’t pleased.)
And when something happens that none of them could plan for . . . Miss Loupe goes missing too.

And what comes out of that is . . .


It involves misbehaving—and working together.
Protests, fighting—and making something amazing.
Not for themselves. For everyone they know.

It’s a plan so big, so daring, so life-changing, that it can only be called

And I liked this one best of all. The book is structured in three Plans, which are as intriguing in the text as I hope they are here, so it gets points for reflecting the book. The differing styles of the bold and (parenthetical) statements created automatic tension between the two, just as tension is created by the mere existence of Plans B and C, so it hints at conflict and also some humor. I got to work in the tattoo, which was one of the details that caught my eye and heart the very first time I read the manuscript. And the way Miss Loupe's statements disrupt the pattern set by Bo and Gari's statements reflects the way she shakes up their lives in the book.

(Digression: People interested in voice might note that the big central space in this draft steals a trick I've used before, in this post back in January. The irregular spacing serves to signal an emotional shift: in the January post, that I stopped writing to daydream about George Clooney; in the flap draft, that Miss Loupe's disappearance causes a rift in the steady forward motion of the characters' lives, as signaled by the rift in the flap text itself. This is not a device original or unique to me, certainly, but the fact that I've used it multiple times means it's become part of my writing voice, one of the techniques you might watch for if you were trying to identify something written by me. Not that I expect any of you to be doing that! But if you read a writer long enough, it's a fun game to play. . . . I bet I could identify a good eighty percent of the current New Yorker staff writers based on two paragraphs from their articles.)

Back to the flap: The line in blue was originally "And when Miss Loupe's soldier brother goes missing in Afghanistan . . ." In talking the copy over, Sara pointed out that that gave away one of the big surprises of Act II, and that was probably something we ought to try to preserve for the reader. I remembered how shocked I was when I hit that point in the ms. for the first time -- I think I said "Oh no" right out loud. (I expect all of you to scrub this blog post from your minds as soon as you finish reading it, so you can preserve the surprise for yourselves when you read the book.) So I changed the line, with Sara's approval. (Authors always get to approve their flap copy, by the way, at least in our office. It's the one time they get to edit me! And I strongly suspect many of them enjoy it.)

Finally, the Plan C section brings together a number of the threads set up earlier in the flap in very much the way the actual Operation YES brings together the motifs of the novel. And it will round the flap off visually with one last centered word -- the title. So this last option was the clear winner, and what will appear on bookstore shelves when the book is published next September.

The end.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


At lunch today with some friends, I asked a character question that never fails to fascinate me: "If you were going to die precisely a year from today, and it was possible for you to know that fact beforehand -- would you want to know?"

Defining the terms here: You would die instantly -- a piano falling on your head or something -- with no suffering. It is not possible to avoid that death once you know about it (that is, you couldn't hide inside your apartment to avoid pianos), but at the same time, it will come to you whether you know about it or not. And you could still die earlier than that if you're stupid -- for instance, walking across the floor at a piano-throwing competition.

I would want to know, so I could travel around the world, take care of the Tasks I Must Complete Before I Die, have plenty of time to spend with my family and friends, and generally make that last year a great one, without all the constraints that come from having to plan for the long-term future. I would actually be really grateful to know it was my last year so I could enjoy it properly -- not that my life now is unsatisfactory; just that I can't take off to spend a month in the South Pacific, say, as I would if I had so little time or reason to save money left (relatively speaking).

But one of my friends said she would rather not know -- at least not a whole year in advance; maybe the last two months. She would prefer to live her life without the shade of imminent death hanging over her, and she likes living now as if everything already were the last time -- enjoying each moment for what it is, rather than worrying so much about the future. Which also seems like a wise way to live.

So I'm putting this up in the poll: To know the date of your death and its imminence? Or not to know? What think you?

Pumpkin Pie Crumble Cake

I posted a link to this recipe two years ago now, but it was so easy and good (and it's currently so timely) that I thought I'd post the recipe itself here too. It combines the sweet, firm base of a yellow cake with the spicy smoothness of pumpkin pie, plus the pecans for crunch, and makes a great alternative to the traditional pie.

1 package (18.25 ounces) plain yellow cake mix
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter or margarine, at room temperature
4 large eggs
2 cans (15 ounces each) pumpkin
1 can (5 ounces) evaporated milk
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or margarine, chilled
1 cup chopped pecans
Whipped cream for garnish

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 13- by 9-inch baking pan with solid vegetable shortening, then dust with flour. Shake out the excess flour. Set the pan aside.

Measure out 1 cup of the cake mix and reserve for the topping. Place the remaining cake mix, the butter, and 1 egg in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed until well combined, 1 minute. Using your fingertips, press the batter over the bottom of the prepared pan so that it reaches the sides of the pan. Set the pan aside.

For the filling, place the pumpkin, evaporated milk, 1 cup sugar, remaining 3 eggs, and cinnamon in the same large mixing bowl used to prepare the batter and with the same beaters (no need to clean either). Blend on low speed until combined, 30 seconds. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the mixture lightens in color and texture, 1 to 2 minutes more. Pour the filling over the crust in the pan, spreading to the sides of the pan with a rubber spatula. Set the pan aside.

For the topping, place the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the chilled butter, and the reserved cake mix in a clean medium-size mixing bowl. Rinse and dry the beaters. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until just combined and crumbly, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stop the machine and stir in the pecans. Use your fingers to thoroughly knead the pecans into the topping mixture. Distribute the topping evenly over the filling mixture. Place the pan in the oven.

Bake the cake until the center no longer jiggles when you shake the pan and the pecans on top have browned, 70 to 75 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool slightly on a wire rack, 20 minutes. Cut the cake into squares and serve with whipped cream on top. Store covered in aluminum foil or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Yield: 18 - 20 servings.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reason #14873 to Love New York City: the Masstransiscope

Last week I was sitting on the B train on my way into work, looking out into the blackness of the tunnels as we left the DeKalb station for Manhattan, when I saw odd flashes of light on the northern side of the train. This in itself was not unusual -- there are lots of strange lights in the tunnels -- but the lights came at regular intervals, and more than that, they seemed to reveal abstract shapes: geometric figures forming, germinating, blossoming against a white background, like an animated film. I stared openmouthed, but nobody else on the train seemed to notice this amazing display. The next day, I watched carefully after we left the DeKalb station, and it happened again: black pillars, white background, with brightly hued boxes opening and unfolding, blue jellyfish shooting away to the horizon. And again nobody else on the train seemed to notice -- it seemed to be my own private artwork, or hallucination.

So it was a pleasure to discover this website and video explaining the phenomenon: the Masstransiscope.

It is an artwork, installed by the artist Bill Brand in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue subway station in 1980 -- a series of paintings that work on the zoetrope principle to give the appearance of movement. The video above shows three contemporary news reports; you can also click here for a modern (if fuzzier) view, complete with a brief pause in the tunnel for an anti-terrorism message. This is by far the coolest New York thing I've learned about in some time, and I'm grateful to Mr. Brand for creating such a wonderful installation and brightening my morning commute.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Two Excellent Upcoming Events

This Saturday, the Park Slope United Methodist Church at 6th Ave. & 8th St. in Brooklyn will hold its annual Hollyberry Craft Fair, featuring more than twenty-five vendors of gorgeous arts and crafts. I speak from experience when I say this is a terrific place to start your holiday shopping, or just to walk around and look longingly at beautiful things. There will also be a bake sale, a soup lunch, a quilt raffle, some used books for sale, and a silent auction; among the goods and services up for auction is an hour of my professional time, where I provide whatever form of editorial consultation would be most useful to the winner. (In years past I've written copy for a documentary, edited query letters, copyedited manuscript chapters, and discussed submissions strategies.) The opening bid is $40. The Hollyberry Fair is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, November 16.

And on Monday, Betsy and I will host the next Kidlit Drink Night, starting at 6:30 p.m. -- most likely at Faces & Names, at 159 W. 54th, but we have to confirm that tomorrow. Hope to see you there!

Update: Faces & Names was booked, so we will now be at Bar Nine, 807 9th Ave. between 53rd and 54th, still starting at 6:30. Happy Hour ends at 7, so come early!

Friday, November 07, 2008

"He Attempts to Love His Neighbours," by Alden Nowlan

(In the midst of writing my post in praise of community service below, this poem popped into my mind as an answer to why it is harder to give an hour to someone else than, say, write a blog post. I stand by the idealism of the other post, but I add this as truth and ironic corrective. Via The Writer's Almanac.)

My neighbours do not wish to be loved.
They have made it clear that they prefer to go peacefully
about their business and want me to do the same.
This ought not to surprise me as it does;
I ought to know by now that most people have a hundred things
they would rather do than have me love them.

There is a television, for instance; the truth is that almost everybody,
given the choice between being loved and watching TV,
would choose the latter. Love interrupts dinner,
interferes with mowing the lawn, washing the car,
or walking the dog. Love is a telephone ringing or a doorbell
waking you moments after you've finally succeeded in getting to sleep.

So we must be careful, those of us who were born with
the wrong number of fingers or the gift
of loving; we must do our best to behave
like normal members of society and not make nuisances
of ourselves; otherwise it could go hard with us.
It is better to bite back your tears, swallow your laughter,
and learn to fake the mildly self-deprecating titter
favored by the bourgeoisie
than to be left entirely alone, as you will be,
if your disconformity embarrasses
your neighbours; I wish I didn't keep forgetting that.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Full Circle

All good stories have beginning, middles, and ends. This blog first mentioned Barack Obama on July 6, 2007, when I suggested the candidate hire Keith Olbermann as a speechwriter. The discussion heated up in the primaries (the post I made after Hillary's win in Texas and Ohio received the most comments of any non-HP-related post here ever), and returned in these last two months before the general election, culminating in my attempt at a St. Crispin's Day speech* below.

The climax, of course, happened off-blog on Tuesday night, and for me and for most New Yorkers, it was pretty fantastic. I spent the evening in Rockefeller Center with James, Melissa, and several other good HP people; you can read Melissa's account of the countdown here. That night and the release of Deathly Hallows will stand as my two most magical all-New York nights ever -- the biggest excitement, the biggest relief, the happiest.

Quickly followed by sobriety, because even before Barack's speech was over, he had called for service and sacrifice, and you could see in his face the weight of the last two years and the worry of the next four. But there was a kind of relief in that too -- for we, the people at least: the relief of leaving behind old, unbound, selfish ways and taking up a common purpose, which might not be easy, but which will have the honor of work and discipline if we can do it. One blogger I read somewhere pointed out that the natural place to channel the energy of both Obama's and McCain's legion of volunteers was into a national service program: If we could all give an hour a week to make calls for or blog about a political campaign, why couldn't we spend that same hour now at a local soup kitchen? If I could take a weekend to go to Pennsylvania for Barack, why couldn't I take another weekend for Habitat for Humanity? I don't have a good answer for why not, and so I hope to try to keep that energy going in my own life, if at a rather lower degree of insanity than this campaign caused in me.

So this is my last Barack Obama election post until 2012 -- a happy end for now, and a hopeful resolve going forward, into our new beginning in January 2009 and beyond.

* Man, what's happened to Kenneth Branagh in the last decade? It's like God said, "You divorced Emma Thompson? You fool! You shall be punished! Here's a role in Wild Wild West."

Saturday, November 01, 2008

An Exhortation: 72 Hours

That's all the time left in this crazy election of ours. Certainly less than that by the time you're reading this. I'm writing from the home of an Obama supporter in Easton, Pennsylvania, who's kindly putting me up for the night so I can get started first thing tomorrow. Other Obama supporters brought fruit, baked goods, doughnuts, pizza, bottled water, and granola bars to our staging area today. Others made phone calls. Others tallied up the numbers from the walk lists. Thanks to two busloads of volunteers, I'm told that people from the Easton Obama office made 14,000 voter contacts today. The energy is amazing.

And underscored with desperation, because my goodness, November 5 will be depressing if McCain wins. The continuation of the Bush tax cuts, deepening our already horrendous fiscal hole; his erratic temperament; the militarism of his foreign policy; the lack of any decent policy on health care or education or energy; the likelihood of his being able to appoint more Supreme Court judges like Scalia and Thomas, vastly altering the scope of our liberties and even lives . . . Ye gods, people. The polls look good and we Obama volunteers are fired up, but we can't take anything for granted.

That is the negative argument for Obama. And the positive one is not just the man himself, his thoughtfulness and appreciation of nuance, his steadiness and lack of drama, or even his forward-looking policies, but this: We are the change we've been waiting for. Obama won in the primaries on the strength of the people who came out to caucus for him. The campaign has built the largest field and Get Out the Vote operation in the history of U.S. politics, on the base of funds from an enormous number of small-money donors. It's a campaign rooted in Obama's personal history as a community organizer, his belief that real change comes from people working together from the bottom up; and that belief has been lived out in the fact that an African-American man with the middle name "Hussein" has come this far and may actually be our next president of the United States . . . the best rebuke to the autocracy of George W. Bush I can imagine. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

So if you support Obama, if you don't want to see John McCain as president, you have to do something about it. Knock on doors. Make phone calls -- the tool at is a piece of cake to use, and most cell-phone services offer free weekend minutes. If you live in a swing state and don't want to make calls, find a local Obama office and take them food or drink or offer to give neck massages or answer phones there. Volunteer to drive voters to the polls on Tuesday. Donate money. Challenge any idiot who still believes he's a Muslim. Make undecided friends watch the Sarah Palin-Katie Couric interview and whisper, "A heartbeat away." At minimum, every expectation is that the lines on Election Day will be ginormous; resolve within yourself that you will be patient and good-natured and cast a ballot no matter what, and find ways to encourage this attitude in other people in line.

Today I told a woman on 7th St. where to find her polling location and helped a guy on Lehigh Ave. determine whether he's registered. We know from Florida in 2000 that every vote can make a real difference. For your own local voting information, check in here.

And then my friends and family members: This blog post is for you. Writers and Harry Potter fans: This means you as well. Random people on the Internet: Yep, you too. Less than 72 hours.

Yes We Can.