Thursday, March 26, 2009

Read Return to Sender

Julia Alvarez in Return to Sender knows how to characterize the blur in the line between right and wrong. She knows how to make it clear that reality and morality are continuums and not dichotomies of this or that, up or down, or yes or no. There are no absolutes. (Now, there's an oxymoron.) We have a long way to go. 

Alvarez begins with a young man, her protagonist, Tyler, the younger eleven-year-old son in a family who has survived and thrived by running a dairy farm in Vermont. The family's farming heritage is at risk. Tyler's older brother is away at college, mostly unavailable to help out on the farm without jeopardizing his education and eventual career, and Tyler's father has been injured and disabled, perhaps permanently, in a farming accident. Tyler's father can't do the work he normally did. It is unclear when and if he ever will be able to do the work again. Extended family also can't adequately help out. So paying the bills and keeping the farm is at risk. The family needs help or to change their dynamics: selling the farm, moving from their land, doing something entirely different than farming.

Tyler's parents eventually hire undocumented immigrants --- a couple of men --- to assist with the dairy work. One of the immigrant men is married and has three daughters. The oldest, Mari, slowly becomes Tyler's friend and ally, an unfolding as miraculous as springtime. Mari's mother has disappeared in the murky criminal element that arose to fulfill the void created by ambiguities in United States immigrant policies, underfunded policies that for years tacitly approved of undocumented immigrants coming to the United States to work in jobs that citizens in better times didn't want to do.

The analysis of various notions is tenderly at play in Alvarez's book:

  • What is a family?
  • What does it mean to be honest?
  • What good is it to have a law without compassion, or without implementing it and adequately funding its substantial enforcement?
  • What does it mean to be a good neighbor and a friend? What sacrifices are appropriate and necessary of good neighbors and friends? And does all of that that apply only to individuals and not to communities and to nations?
  • What is charity? Is it a weakness or strength?
  • What about religion and the mystical, and gazing into the heavens? Hope?


"... life is about change, change, and more change. 'When you're born as a child, you die as a baby. Just like when you're born as a teenager, you die as a child.'... 'But there are good sides even to bad or sad things happening,' my mom reminds me...."

This is a coming of age adventure where a boy and a girl have more love and compassion than the men and the women, where a couple of families have greater diplomacy toward each other than the greatest nations on earth do. So it would be good to take their advice and look into the heavens and contemplate the beauty of the night before flying apart.

Not just one star but five.


Monday, March 23, 2009


Today is March 23, 2009. On this date in 1775 Patrick Henry said his famous words: "Give me liberty or give me death."

I'm not much of a historian so when I read that tidbit, I wondered about the circumstances surrounding the situation. I wondered if Patrick was a pacifist simply saying I'd rather die or be dead than not have liberty. I doubted that was the case. However, as I read the heading of the news item in Wikipedia, I note that his speech to the Virginia House of Burgesses was a call to military action against the British Empire. So I guess he wasn't much of a pacifist.

I guess I have a similar sentiment as far as not wanting to live without liberty but without the violent strain. I would just as soon have my liberty without killing anyone. I suppose I would be willing to die if somebody wanted to kill me over it, but I don't think I want to kill anybody to have it. It seems to me it should be evident to them how important liberty is to each and every individual, no matter their circumstances.

I know, I know, that is pie-in-the-sky some will say. But if you're truthfully a believer in the hereafter and in the culture I was raised in we are taught that we already existed in some form forever and will continue to exist in some form or other into eternity, what does it matter if you die.

However, it seems to me that our society's greatest punishments and sanctions are against those who commit murder. And that makes sense to me, since I see this life as a proving ground. So I don't want to kill.

Of course, the warlords and governers of the world justify their killing in war as a necessity and don't expect to be called murderers for doing it. But that seems duplicitous to me.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Tomorrow I will be participating in a panel at spring workshop for the League of Utah Writers for the northern part of the state

I don't know which presents the greatest challenge: serving on that panel or the chore I have this morning of trimming my toenails. Both challenges present considerable obstacles.

The assignment for the League offers me a chance to talk about three subjects and to expand on one and get the audience involved.

Trimming my toenails isn't as structured as all that. The chore with my toes is ad hoc; I can do pretty much what I want to do, in any order, in any way.

My assignment with the League is more structured. My primary subject for the panel is to talk about "writing ideas" combined with "what to do while writing to keep the mood to keep writing " or at least that's the way I see it.

So I began writing this piece at the same time I began trimming my toenails.

It isn't as easy as you think. On the other hand, it isn't as difficult as I thought it would be. I've already gotten three of five toes completed on one foot. I hope I can do as well presenting the material tomorrow in that panel. For the panel, in addition to talking about writing ideas and keeping the writing mood, I have to talk for a few minutes on writer's block and what to do after you complete one writing project about moving onto another one.

Now, with that said, I need to trim a couple of more toes.

It isn't entirely impossible to do both chores at once if you know how to do it.

There, one more toe. And one more. Half done.

With respect to writing subjects or ideas, this exercise is to demonstrate that it is not impossible to write about anything and to do two things at once. Actually, when you think about it, a person at any given time is doing many things simultaneously. Our senses and our overall make up make it possible for us to do many things simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously.

Okay, on to the other foot. The big toe is the worst.

You might think that trimming toes is no big deal, not a challenging job. It depends. If you're a youngster and your body still is lithe and nimble, you would have been done trimming your toes long ago by now, perhaps even if you had to write all this in the meantime. But if you're sixty-one, or nearly so, and you have arthritis and other health problems cropping up, you'll find it isn't as easy you think.

The big toe is the worst. Did I say that already? Its nail is the thickest. The clippers almost won't fit over the thickness of the nail to be able to cut it. Because being older means that I have lost considerable dexterity and because of my arthritis, it is hard to do. I am clumsy and weak and it's a strain. Besides that, I have a paunch I have to reach over or around.

For people who are new to writing, writing can be like cutting your toenails when you're sixty-one, or nearly sixty-one. It is difficult, or it can be. Picking the subject you want to write about can be a challenge in and of itself. Getting the right "idea" is a struggle for many people. But the truth is, any subject is viable, at least for a writing exercise, and maybe for much more than just that.

That's the point of all this. You can write about anything, even trimming your toenails over against an assignment to be on a panel at a writers' workshop.

Even amidst the chaos of cutting my toenails and writing this, I have time to glance outside my window. It is a beautiful day, warm and spring is in the air (It should be, since it begins today.) And the daffodils are out. With this kind of weather, I am wondering who will show up at spring workshop tomorrow. It'd be nice to just take a walk with the dog.

Anyway, back to my right foot. Three toenails to go. Boy, they are long suckers.

Two more to go.

Just one more!


Sunday, March 8, 2009


You just have to make the best of the situation you can. That was the conclusion I made earlier today during a conversation I had at lunch time Shelley and Mike and Kiele present. But the way my mind works these days, I don't remember right off what it was we were discussing. I have to think about it for a minute.

Now I've got it. We were watching 60 Minutes. It was a segment on the individual who had spent something like fifteen years in prison after being falsely accused of rape because the rape victim erroneously identified him as the rapist. It basically told how the two victims --- the falsely incarcerated man and the rape victim --- had reconciled themselves to forgiveness and had gotten past the dilemma.

Another conversation I had briefly with Shelley today involved a statement made to a reporter and reported in the Sunday segment of the newspaper wherein Stephen King made an assessment of riders JR Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. He lauded Rowling's prowess but said Stephanie Meyer couldn't write well. All day I've been wondering if that is true or not and even if it is, what it is that Stephanie Meyer has that her readership wants. I suppose I'd like to find out. I'm not sure whether I would accept the opinion of others on the matter or whether I will have to find out for myself by reading her work.

Anyway, that's it for today for now.