Literature as Future history and the Power of Fiction.

In 1999 I began work on my very first novel. It took me four years to complete; a 93,000 word epic about 6 friends coming of age in a small French town I’d fallen in love with many years before. I edited the book now and again, but overall it seemed far too intimate to do anything with. I printed a copy and put it on a shelf. “A Perfect Place,” takes place years from now, the world at war with America. a virulent nationalist fervor, led by a particular demagogue and championed by a criminal sweeps through town, observed by a dying university professor who believes all human history can be described and predicted using the template of the French Revolution. Dusting off the novel late last night I was stunned at how closely I described what is happening to our nation, and what may lay ahead. In this excerpt two of the characters are faced with going off to war:

He was waiting for Antonio and David. Rather he was waiting for Antonio and having doubts whether David would actually show after the other day. The note they left at his door went unanswered, but David had always been a little flighty in Bastien’s opinion, so anything was likely to happen. Bastien, however, was not placing too many hopes on David showing.

Antonio arrived first, climbing up through the skylight, waving when he saw Bastien. He scooted onto the ledge beside Bastien, and asked where David was. Bastien only shrugged, watching the curious characters in the alley below. Antonio looked as well, the bottoms of his feet tingling as they dangled so high above the ground.

“What’s the show today?”

“Josephine Baker.”

“Oo-la-la. Even I would tune out for her.”

“Why, like to borrow one her dresses?” Bastien grinned. Antonio was suddenly flustered, searching for something to say. Bastien patted his leg before Antonio could get the words out. “Good comeback. I’m only just kidding.”

“Are you always going to torture me with that?”

“You kissed me, Goddamnit.”

“Once.”

“And you said you loved me!”

“I, uh…” Antonio stammered.

Bastien could see that his friend was hurt and embarrassed. He threw an arm around Antonio’s shoulders. “I love you too, man.”

“You do?”

“Sure, for all the years we’ve been friends. You’re my best friend in the whole world, man. Even if you are a queer bird.”

“I didn’t say I was queer.”

“Well, someone who kisses other boys might want to start asking some questions, don’t you think?”

“Just confused.”

“Well, you’ll figure it out, right. Not important though, right now we have bigger things to worry about.”

Of course he was talking about the war. They were quiet for a moment, that new worry creeping into their thoughts. Antonio sighed, looked out across the hazy jumble of rooftops and power lines, catching only a glimpse of the greenish-brown river beyond.

“Ever wonder about dying?” he asked.

“Only about dying here.”

“Here or anywhere?”

“Anywhere but here.”

“Hmm.”

“Don’t think about it. It will just make you sick.”

“How is that possible? Maybe we will be killed or crippled, come back as hopeless as these others.” Antonio motioned to a table of veterans throwing catcalls at Bastien’s blushing Sister.

“Maybe you’ll get cancer tomorrow.”

“Maybe.”

“You could get hit by lightening, or drown in the river. Do you worry about those things too?”

“I worry about things you cannot even imagine, my friend.”

“Do you worry that I will throw you from this roof, if you don’t shut up?”

“I am now,” he grinned.

“Look there’s a rat,” Bastien pointed out the furry creature scurrying through the tables. An elderly man and wife saw it and smiled at one another. Both boys could see the holo-tech modules in their ears.

“I bet the holo-tech program will make that old couple there think that it’s an adorable poodle.”

“Disgusting. I’d rather have a rat.”

“A rat?”

“They know how to fight, how to survive. With a rat you know he is out for himself. Nobody will mess with him unless he wants a real fight. That’s who you get behind, protect his ass. In the war, I intend to be a rat.”

“I’ll be behind you, Little rat,” Antonio nudged with his shoulder.

Bastien looked at him for a long moment, judging him in a way that almost made him want to retreat for it. Instead, he rose to meet it, felt himself becoming a man.

“I know you will. And yes, I do think about dying.”

Antonio thought to say something, to ask him, but the effort just seemed too small. It was enough that Bastien was thinking about death that made Antonio not feel so alone any longer.

“And David?” Antonio asked.

Bastien could only shake his head.

“I went by his flat earlier,” he said. “The note was gone.”

“Maybe he saw it?”

“I spoke with his crazy mother. Well, spoke at her while she stared at me like I was speaking English or something.”

“Will we be the three Musketeers?”

“He will not come with us,” Bastien said recalling their last time at the chateau.

“I had that impression, too.”

“David is on another road, perhaps more deadly than ours, and certainly more dangerous for the soul.”

Antonio nodded in reluctant agreement, looked admiringly at his friend. Bastien pretended not to notice, looked off across the town. He tried to imagine the two of them at war, wondered what it would be like for each of them, but could not quite form proper thoughts. The war was too real now to ponder, to imagine themselves in the news images from the frontlines, or to think that they could soon end up like those wretched souls in the Hotel des Invalides, or upon that hill at St-Cirq Lapopie. It came to them as this undefined monolithic thing, something which could neither be understood or reckoned with, only faced as confidently as their untested hearts could manage.

Miss Nikki: Cancer Queen of Comedy

What’s that old line? Don’t be and example, set an example. That’s really true for a very special woman, who some are theorizing simply had enough of Donald Trump and fled the planet. I know, that’s an odd way to remember someone, but you might not have known anyone like Miss Nikki.

This amazing lady took her final bow over the weekend. Miss Nikki, comedian extraordinaire won her battle against cancer. I say won, because, while cancer invaded her body it never broke her spirit. In fact, she laughed in the face of her disease until the very end. Night after night she took the fight to the stage, both for her and as an example of strength and defiance in the face of a disease that touches us all. The mortality rate for concern averages at 171 per 100,ooo men and women. That rate is much higher for women than it is for men, at about 145 per 100,000. A third of the estimated 1,7 million people diagnosed each year will succumb to one form or another of the disease.

We will all face cancer at many points in our lives, whether for ourselves or a loved one. How we come to that long and uncertain war is individual to us all. It is akin to pondering how we might  come to combat in a war between nations. Miss Nikki picked up the banner and led the way as an example of pride and power and endurance. And while the body may fail us, the spirit fights on.

Most of I had the sublime pleasure on a number of occasions to laugh and joke along with her. Night after night Miss Nikki would climb on stage and give a giant finger to cancer in her legendary stand up performances. There are a lot of comics who strive to be something else on stage, but with Nikki you knew it was real, which is what makes stand up such a unique form or art. So long, friend. The laughs, the tears, the spirit echoes for eternity…

Incidentally, don’t Google Image search “Miss Nikki.” That IS NOT the Miss Nikki that comes up! Here is a bit of the real Miss Nikki…

 

SORRY. Must Rant on Transgenders in the Military. Caution: Adult Language

A pal says this is another distraction, which is true to an extent. I would argue that the blatant and gleeful rollback of human rights regardless of the size or uncomfortable nature of that minority is dangerous to us all. Next, and mark my words, Trump will return the military to forcing homosexuals from the military. Once we get on that slippery slope, we’re on it, baby, and we are on it!

Regarding the transgender issue in the military. I’m hearing two arguments from the right against having transgender personnel in the military. The first is that keeping them out of the military is important for our national security. Number 2 is that the transgender personnel in the military are a tiny, tiny minority less than two-tenths of a percent. So which is it? If there’s such a tiny minority then it really doesn’t affect National Security which would seem to entirely in the gate the administration’s excuses.

Today the administration announced it would remove Transgender personnel from the military. I am confused, because I thought the Right was all about logic and a patriotism which extolls our soldiers-ALL of our soldiers?

I thought that everyone who serves in the military is a hero and we owe them an unending expression of gratitude, and yet not one person is saying the transgender people in the military ALREADY haven’t done their jobs. Like they all lay around all day dreaming of their new taxpayer-paid vaginas and penis’. So they aren’t being discriminated against based on merit.

As for the figure of 250 current taxpayer funded transgender surgeries to military personnel…I’ve known a lot of fat Type II diabetic motherfuckers in the military or spawning one too many army brats, getting hospitalized for drunken brawls, raping women overseas-and here- ALL ON THE TAXPAYERS DIME-I could go on and on about a whole fucking universe of “LIFESTYLE” issues costing me as a taxpayer money so spare me the bullshit propaganda about the cost of a surgery or two, or a couple hundred. Seems some schmuck dragged us into an unnecessary war costing taxpayers about 4000 funerals, better that 25000 injuries and lifetimes worth of rehab and medical costs.

And the final argument regards this fiction of unit cohesion, that in battle LGBTQ soldiers and service members will run away like dainty children or spend their energies checking out fellow service members rather than watching for the enemy. That would come to a great surprise to men like Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated airman who flew combat missions over the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, or 10 year veteran and Army Captain, who sought a Texas congressional seat in 2012, or Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben who fled persecution in Europe when his homosexuality was revealed. Von Steuben was instrumental in helping America win its independence. More than 200 homosexual soldiers died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Maj. Alan Rogers who was killed in January 2008 in Iraq by a roadside bomb while on patrol.

Rush Limbaugh, Denis Prager and Kate Daly all expressed alarm that soldiers might see a vagina or a penis in a shower and lapse into a stupor from which they might not survive. having been to war, in the middle of battles, if those snowflakes are more upset by a non-lethal genital that seeing bodies ripped apart, not to mention the overall misery and trauma of the war experience, then I say, get rid of them all and give me a 100% LGBTQ military!

Mitch and I don’t see eye to eye…

…on much in the way of politics. We grew up in vastly different eras. Mitch cut his teeth on Chicago’s tough near West side in the 1940s and 50s. I am a child of the 1960’s and 70s. Mitch and I are neighbors, and at a glance one might think that’s about all we have in common. Maybe to wave, share a couple of neighborly non-descript words or tip a beer from time to time, but beyond that…

last week Mitch pulled out a Chicago History book, part of a series on Chicago neighborhoods and heritage. He pointed out the house he was born in during the Depression. Much of the rest of his childhood he skips, opting instead for stories from a long career as a Bell Captain and some of Chicago’s most iconic and well-known hotels. that is where he met his wife Helen. That was back when being a Bell Captain at a fine hotel was more than another service job catering to the “I’m the celebrity in my own reality TV” everybody’s Listening to stories about running elevators for President Kennedy, or giving Sinatra that extra little bit of service one begins to understand that it was, with caveats, and thick rose-colored glasses, a time of honor.

I know that world, at least a little bit. Having known city cops, shady politicians, and Made Guys from that era, I understand. My dad knows a bit of that world. He’d grown up in the Depression in a little Iowa farm town, but arrived in Chicago at a young age after the army, around 1960. But the common denominator here is the Depression, which didn’t simply congeal a nation, but underscored the bonds that held communities together. That was evident the other day when Mitch called me over.

For the last several years the Wife and I have been actively working with what seems like an ever increasing tide of homelessness. We don’t have much, so compared to the need or large organizations, it’s a literal drop in the bucket. Several years back we began working to organize HelpHouseChicagoHomeless, a neighborhood non-profit in Englewood and Woodlawn on Chicago’s troubled Southside. In truth, at least for me, it was an effort to help a man I had met amid the Occupy Chicago protests, named Tom Turner.

Tom and I have had these conversations. I tease him about being shot and stabbed so many times that I’m considering nicknaming him “Swiss Cheese.” Tom has a temper and makes bad decisions a bit too often for his own good. Not criminal or dangerous, mind you, but the sort of decisions that keep sliding him back from the progress he so sorely wants and needs. Some of it is his doing. Some of it is living a life in which one solves crisis-Thomas doesn’t have problems- on the fly. That, the hardscrabble life on the Southside, education, a criminal record all have a weight in everything he does, and that hurts him. That could easily engender negativity and frustration, but with so many folks, like Thomas, for a world of reasons struggling at the margins, true friends understand how fine a line that is to tread, and that slipping from time to time is inevitable.

The thing is, I’ve known Thomas for going on 7 years now. I have seen him in damn near every possible mood and state of mind. I would trust Thomas with my life. he is family to me. I don’t babysit the man. We are about the same age. I help when I can, Sometimes that’s a bit of cash. Sometimes it’s advice, mostly it’s just being a friend. That same sense of honor in a seemingly unending crisis that I’ve seen in Mitch or my dad is what I catch in glimpses of Thomas when he struggles. I met Thomas when he was homeless, and though he may not see it, there has been progress. He has a job. It doesn’t pay much, but it does keep a roof over his head. Still there is that margin, and slipping or tumbling from it is all too easy this close.

Mitch came across the yard and said, “Helen and I want to help for all the work you do to help the homeless.” He reached out to shake my hand, a $20 Dollar bill tucked in his palm. He wasn’t interested in making a big deal, though to me it was. Thomas had called just the day before, worried because he was a short on rent a few dollars because he needed food and a bus pass to get to work. It felt like a loop had been closed, that something else wanted to see Thomas catch a little break, if only for a moment…

Giving back: The debut of “Playtime with Sid and Bill”

The debut of “Playtime with Sid and Bill” with me and Sid Yiddish on the 10,000 watt WCGO, AM1590 is slated for Sunday, September 3rd from 11-1pm, following The Mike Nowak Show with Peggy Malecki. Tune in for the deepest green environment and gardening show, then stick around with us. Your radio Sunday magazine! I guess I am speaking a little bit for both of us in saying that the show is our gift to our friends in the Theatre, Music, Comic, Poetry, Entertainment, Food and Arts communities. This is your space. Sid and I will work to bring a vibrant, sometimes unusual and always entertaining look at the arts and performing arts and what is happening in and around Chicago and beyond. We will need you to help support the show as listeners and participants. You are the marketing and outreach wing of the show, helping keep us informed on what you and other artists are up to so that we can get the word out. No one else is doing this in Chicago commercial radio. WCGO’s signal currently reaches Northern Indiana and South to Kankakee, West to Elgin and Aurora, and North to the southern suburbs of Milwaukee. The station will move to a 50,000 watt signal, meaning your work will be heard nationwide. More to come… 

A Mystery of Languages Solved?

After more than two decades studying and travelling in the Balkans there was one recurring question. I can honestly say that I had the same vexing conversation with dozens of people throughout the former Yugoslavia over the years, from acquaintances at cafes to various professors, intellectuals, artists, historians and a philosopher or two. Is it possible that the answer lay right under our noses, or more specifically, under our tongues?

For all of my Slavic friends, family and acquaintances: I have long wondered where the Serbo-Croatian and overall Slavic languages designation for German and Germany come from, Nemački, Nemačka, respectively in Serbo-Croatian. travel back in time to the 3rd through the 6th Centuries AD when Slavic tribes migrating into Europe came into fuller contact and competition with Germanic tribes whose language they could not understand. The S-C word for mute is Nem or Nemy. Possibly the term was a bit of a perjorative by Slavic nations as they came into contact with Germanic tribes. It is the best theory to the origin of the word whose derivations extend to the Hungarian német, who arrived in Europe around the time of the Slavs, the Turkish, Nemçe and Almanca, who borrowed from the Bosnian/Serbian in the 12th and 13th centuries as the Ottoman Empire occupied souther Europe to the gates of Vienna.