Sunday, September 30, 2007


The Miami Herald Tropic Magazine did a lot to promote literary culture in south Florida. Its editorial staff actively attempted to discover new talent, and provided an outlet for fresh voices that might otherwise have gone unheard. In 1985 then-editor Gene Weingarten put out a call for guest editorials, and received a submission from one Terrence Michael Shine. He was not a professional writer. He was, as Weingarten described him, "a guy who worked in a drugstore." According to Shine himself, he had little formal education and had read fewer than a dozen books in his life. Nevertheless, his writing was remarkable. Weingarten published that first essay and then a few other short pieces. Then he commissioned Shine to write about "Why I Work at the Drugstore", and that story really broke through. It has remained one of the most-remembered stories ever published in Tropic, and it won awards for Shine and the Herald.

Eventually Shine stopped fighting his destiny and quit his job at the drugstore. He wrote an account of that momentous decision, as well, which was also published in Tropic. The magazine didn't put him on staff, but he wrote occasional feature stories for them. When he wrote a feature based on his experiences delivering pizzas, Tom Shroder, who had taken over as editor by that time, attempted to describe what was special about Shine's writing. "...whatever Shine is writing about," Shroder writes, "the subject is always intimacy -- that personal space where we live, hidden behind all the faces we present to the world. We pretend that what is important in our lives are the great issues of war and peace and politics, the intensely fought battles of the work place, the courtroom and the market. But Shine has the gift of seeing through all the suits, all the armor of status and convention, to the naked human truth that underlies it all."

Tropic magazine is no more. Shroder and Weingarten left for the Washington Post long ago, along with a lot of other talented Miami Herald writers. Terry Shine remains in south Florida. For many years he has been on the staff of a local weekly paper, the City Link. He writes features for them and also a column called "Timeline," which gives a minute-by-minute account of life as seen through his eyes and filtered through his brain. It's always interesting, often hilarious. Shine has recently begun a blog called ShineTime, where you can read the unedited version of "Timeline" every week.

Also recommended, Fathers Aren't Supposed to Die, an account of how Shine's family came together when his father was dying. This book made me laugh out loud and made me cry in public. It's devoid of any excess sentimentality and full of humanity and insight.

So who is this guy? He does a good job of staying private at the same time as he is writing about his innermost thoughts. All I know is, he's a very talented writer, and I'm not going to pass up any opportunity to read his work.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ramadan celebrations

Tonight we went to the Coral Springs masjid with our Bosnian friends--a family of seven, with children ranging from age 2 to 12. It was enjoyable and educational. I got all dressed for the occasion: long sleeves, long, loose fitting jumper, and a traditional hijab. I don't really like the way I look in hijab, but in the past when I wore a headscarf I had trouble keeping it from slipping out of place, and especially if I am joining in the prayers I'm already self-conscious enough without worrying about that.

We arrived at our friends' house at 7:00, chatted a bit and then went with two vans to the mosque. Everyone was breaking fast with a light snack of chick peas and figs and water before the sunset prayers. We separated by gender when we arrived, which meant the oldest child, a boy, went with the two men, leaving us two women with the four girls, age 2 - 11. All the women and girls went upstairs for prayers and then came back down for dinner. I don't know what the men did; they were behind a curtain.

The food was good: chicken curry and rice, some vegetables, and a kind of fruit pudding for dessert. Conversation was enlightening. Our friends are very strict Muslims and are always glad to share their beliefs and practices and the rationale behind them. They feel alienated in American culture but think their way of life is better. I'm sure they are right, as far as they are concerned. But I was ready to ditch the head covering as soon as we were in the car coming home.

Earlier in the day I had felt out of sorts and really not in the mood to attend someone else's worship service. But in the actual event, it was very nice to spend time with our friends and see their beautiful children. It was also fun to surprise a couple of other Muslims whom I know from my interfaith group--they were impressed by the hijab and got a good laugh because they have never seen me wear it before.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rambling on About Classic Literature and Modern Life

I've been working my way through Middlemarch for the last three weeks. I love the way George Eliot writes and this book is considered to be her masterpiece. I personally have a preference for Silas Marner, as being a focused, perfection of a short novel, as opposed to the sprawling, cover-the-waterfront type of novel that Middlemarch is. Still, there's a lot to be said for a big novel that you can kind of climb inside and inhabit, and I have to admire Eliot's ability to create a world between the covers of a book.

This is the kind of book I used to read all the time, but in the past five years or so I have drifted away from books that require so many hours of reading. I blame the internet for this, and I'm not especially happy about it.

I'm sure that reading Eliot lowers my blood pressure and creates new connections in my brain; in short, it makes me a better person. The sentences and paragraphs are individual works of art, not just for choice of words, but for their stunning combination of entertainment value and moral content.

Look at this:

"...other points in Mr. Farebrother...were exceptionally fine, and made his character resemble those southern landscapes which seem divided between natural grandeur and social slovenliness. Very few men would have been as filial and chivalrous as he was to the mother, aunt, and sister, whose dependence on him had in many ways shaped his life rather uneasily for himself; few men who feel the pressure of small needs are so nobly resolute not to dress up their inevitably self-interested desires in a pretext of better motives. In these matters he was conscious that his life would bear the closest scrutiny; and perhaps the consciousness encouraged a little defiance towards the critical strictness of persons whose celestial intimacies seemed not to improve their domestic manners, and whose lofty aims were not needed to account for their actions." (p.177)

That's not a passage to "skim"--sentences like that demand that I slow down and read them, and then they reward me with a special kind of happiness. I miss the days when I had the time to read long, complicated novels, but I can't say I would trade the fast pace and endless possibilities of the internet for the quiet enjoyment, the totally private enjoyment I have always associated with reading books.

I'm afraid that as rare as Eliot's readers were twenty years ago, there must be even fewer people reading her now. Of course I mean for her to represent a whole class of authors, that would include Dickens and Hugo and even Thomas Hardy and Henry James--people who wrote for readers who had lots of time to read. I'm afraid that our minds, collectively, will become less able to contain complex concepts, less willing to grapple with issues that take more than a few minutes to describe. That will not bode well for us. Issues are more complex than ever, not less.

I refuse to put the pleasures of reading books behind me.

I will find time to finish Middlemarch.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Haves vs. Have-Nots

I was on my way to the downtown library, just geting off I-95 on Broward Boulevard. A woman was standing on the side of the road, holding a sign. I couldn't read the sign, but I know what it said, something like, I'm homeless, need food, or please help--that is a popular corner for that sort of thing, although I have never seen more than one person at a time there. I often see people selling the Homeless Voice newspaper at that location. The woman was middle-aged, and pretty healthy-looking, but had the unmistakable appearance of someone who has spent a lot of time outside. In Florida, in the summer, you get a special kind of burned and sweated-out look; I know it well. She didn't look like any kind of a hopeless case, though, and I wanted to help her. I didn't have any change, all I had was three twenty-dollar bills. There wasn't much time to think about it because the light was about to change, so I called her over and gave her one of the twenties. Well, you know what the Bible says, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." And I learned the truth of that because ever since I gave her that money, I've been thinking about that woman.

Why do we have beggars in America, the richest country in the world? I don't know it for a fact, but I have a feeling that there are no beggars in Switzerland, or in New Zealand. Other wealthy countries have unemployment and drug addiction and mental illness but manage to take care of their most vulnerable citizens much better than we do in the United States. I think what bothers me the most is not that the homeless people exist but that the more fortunate among us seem to hate and resent them, to blame them for their misfortunes. At church, where I would expect people to remember what Jesus said about "the least of these my brethren" instead I find a lot of people who are adamant in their righteousness vis-a-vis the less fortunate. "If you give them money," these people say, "they will only use it to buy drugs or alcohol, so you're not helping them. Besides," they always continue, "some of those homeless people have more money than we do--they don't work but they make hundreds of dollars every day." I'm not making this up. I've heard it over and over. As I type it now I can't believe people can actually say it with a straight face. But they have convinced themselves and it is convenient to believe it because it keeps them from having to confront their conscience on the subject of haves and have-nots.

One more thing cemented that Saturday library trip in my memory. When the light turned green and I drove on to Broward Boulevard, I immediately came up behind an SUV. The owner apparently had a message for the world and had bought a license plate frame to broadcast it. "Prosperity," it said on the back of the vehicle, "is my birthright."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Gardening Philosophy

I've been working on the garden this weekend--preparing the bed for planting in a few weeks. This whole process of preparation has been putting me in touch with my ancestors. As my fingers grub in the sandy dirt for the roots, and sift out the rocks, and haul out the boulders, as I shovel the compost into the wheelbarrow and transport it to the garden plot, my whole body responds: this feels like what it was made to do. This is what my people do. We dig out the rocks and the stumps. (We use the big rocks to make walls between the fields.) We haul in compost and manure, and then rake it smooth, create the rows and hills and plant the seeds. Then comes the hoeing and the weeding, the daily attention. And then, our crops fail. Locusts, drought, tornados, hurricanes, bad seed, blight. That just seems like the logical next event.

When I first read Garrison Keillor*, I was struck by how much those Minnesotans he describes were like My People. I looked for common roots, but there's no Scandinavian ancestry in my family. Then I realized that what we had in common was the farming culture. If you're a farmer, you're probably not going to be an optimist. You may be a true pessimist, but it will be a pessimism that can turn inside out and become happiness, because when you always expect the worst, you are often pleasantly surprised, and you never experience disappointment. You may be a fatalist, but fatalism is the purest path to happiness, because if you are prepared to accept whatever comes, you have lost the attachment that Buddha teaches is the source of all unhappiness.

Farmers show how a person can be happy without necessarily being cheerful.

Another view of this is that if the world is bleak, your best chance at happiness is to create it inside your own mind. And that is valid because even if the world is wonderful and your life is great, that's where your happiness is anyway, inside your mind. T.M. Shine illustrates this concept extremely well in this week's Timeline. (Warning: Shine uses gratuitous vulgar language to appeal to the demographics of the weekly paper he writes for--I think he has an f-word quota, to make up for the fact that he is over 35.)


*Garrison Keillor has a new book coming out this fall; I recommend it sight unseen and will probably review it here sometime in October. Here is a passage that illustrates pretty well the philosophy I attribute to him:
"Being Lutheran, Mother believed that self-pity is a deadly sin and so is nostalgia, and she had no time for either. She had sat at the bedside of her beloved sister, Dotty, dying of scarlet fever in the summer of 1934; she held Dotty's hand as the sky turned dark from their father's fields blowing away in the drought, she cleaned Dotty, wiped her, told her stories, changed the sheets, and out of that nightmare summer she emerged stronger, confident that life would be wondrous, or at least bearable."--Lake Wobegon Boy, p. 2