Thursday, June 11, 2015

Dear Jonathan Franzen

I interrupt these regularly scheduled Governor Ducey letters to bring you a letter to Jonathan Franzen. This letter has the same or possibly even less of a chance being responded to, but I am not Franzen's constituent, just his reader so he is not implied-obligated to respond. But still! I wouldn't look a response horse in the mouth.

Dear Jonathan Franzen,

I just finished your book "Freedom" which I read only because of your smart article in the New Yorker about how the seeming-impossible-to-stop-global-warming-environmental issue occludes the small, possibly fixable environmental issue. I loved that essay because it was smart and I hated it because you did in a shorter time what I tried to do in a whole book of tiny essays interrupting longer essays to show how the small thing is probably the only way to do the big thing but you said it smart and fast which is an excellent way to make a point--something I will perhaps look into at the end of this sentence.

So I liked Freedom. It was fine. Not fast but smart and to the point. A little silly, which is good. But I have a few questions.

1. I had just recently gotten off my overpopulation kick and you plunged me right back into it. It has been easier, not seething at the number of children per family since I had a number of children of my own. Hypocrisy is a great opiate and opium makes some people quiet and I stopped complaining out loud or even in my head about the number of children people had. I also live in a place other than Utah, which helps by not being the main place where families of eight kids or more are not only acceptable but desirable. But then I read Freedom and now I'm all back in my overpopulation angst and I ask you if whispering under my breath, "Bye planet" when the family of 8 or 10 or even just 4 kids walks by is a) passive aggressive, b) plain aggressive, c) pointless, or d) subtly making a difference? (I'm guessing a, b, and c but not d. I do wish "passive aggressive" was a viable political action. It's the small things! I would win.)

2. Why is only one of the points of view from a woman and none of them from a person of color? I very much like the different points of view novel and think that's the way to make a novel that hopes to show multiple points of view is the better political solution than passive aggression. But although I know there are 2 men to every 1 woman in the world and only four people of color, in your book, there are 3 main female characters and 3 main male characters and one of the women is a woman of color but only 1 woman gets a point of view at all. I guess that is how the world works but part the smart and fast point of Freedom is to show how the world should be. Or maybe not? Maybe that was the slow point.

3. And, finally, oh the cat guilt. I shouldn't let my two new cats outside. I only do for a minute. Maybe an hour. A couple hours at most, unless I can't corral them in. I didn't know house cats killed 350,000,000 song birds a year! I put bells on them! They haven't killed even a lizard or a moth yet. I'm making them stay inside now--for their sake and the birds. But the cat named Zane is meowing and he really wants to go out and if he stays inside, he attacks the girl cat (point of Freedom?) and eats my plants. Can you really buy a bird-no-eat bib for a cat to wear when he goes outside? Where can I get one? If you get this letter, will you send me one?

4. If you have a minute, can you send a note to Governor Ducey? Your essays are fast and smart. Maybe it will only take one letter from you to explain how an educated public can maybe save the world from global warming, overpopulation, and the extinction of the song bird. I think one letter from you, sans the passive aggressive tone I sometimes take, might be the ticket. We just need 130,000,000 dollars back. Fewer dollars than the number of song birds killed a year! A reachable goal. A small step toward a world that should be.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Med School--Letter #55

Dear Governor Ducey,

When I was driving down to Tucson, I couldn’t listen to the SiriusXM anymore. 4 hours is not such a long drive but not such a short drive either. I wanted to talk to someone and my mom had company in town, so she was busy. (I usually call her on my long drives). If I couldn’t talk to someone, perhaps someone could talk to me. I had to scan the radio for fifteen minutes before I found NPR. Public radio transmits the quietest signal. It’s easy to figure out which station is NPR thanks to NPR voice, which I finally did find and heard an excellent story on All Things Considered called “A Top Medical School Revamps Requirements to Lure English Majors.”

Mount Sinai medical school wants to diversify the kinds of people who become doctors. The pre-med student tends to be cookie-cutter. They wanted students with diverse backgrounds who read books because they were empathetic, who wrote papers because they wanted to diagnose the patterns behind an author’s strategy, who communicated well because they wrote and wrote and wrote in their creative writing classes. This story made me cry. I always wanted to be a doctor and a writer, like William Carlos Williams. But I tend to follow the path of least resistance and there was a lot of resistance by my young college-self to making it to Intro to Biology at 8 a.m. But Mount Sinai says that O-chem is really not that useful for most kinds of medicine. That the science you need for medical school can be trained in a first few years. It’s the quality of your study habits that can make or break you in med school.

With the new tenure plan in Wisconsin, humanities professors are freaking out. If programs can be deleted, and tenured faculty fired, due to “program needs,” the current zeitgeist about Humanities programs is, “who needs them?” Well, it turns out Mount Sinai needs them. English majors in particular.

That the “business world,” if you count the health care industry to be a business, needs humanities major, might be a reason to rethink gutting humanities programs—but that’s why they usually let the board of regents and the provosts, not the legislature decide what programs are necessary—because rethinking isn’t usually the purview of those with an ideological mindset to break the system that threatens to defy them.


Still, I guess if Arizona follows Wisconsin (which I think it hopes to. The Koch Brothers have an office even in relatively liberal Flagstaff!), I can always call Mount Sinai to see if my English PhD will count as a prerequisite for med school.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Crazy--Letter #54

Dear Governor Ducey,

I haven’t given up on writing you about the budget cuts to eduction! It’s just been crazy the past couple of weeks. I’ve driven up and down the state. I chaperoned a group of fourth graders for an overnight camping trip in the Grand Canyon. I drove through Monument Valley to pitch a tent in Bluff, Utah. I drove to Tucson to speak and consult and lead writing exercises at Pima Community College. It’s been busy and set-backy. My air-conditioner broke on the way home from Tucson. I had made it up and down Black Canyon, down the Mingus mountains (I may be making the names of these place up), and halfway up to Munds Park when it conked out. Air-conditioner-conking-out-in-Arizona is a good metaphor for these letters. It’s a good metaphor for writing. It’s a good metaphor for politics. There’s some good parts. You use whatever you have to mitigate the natural conditions. And then you make due. I got a little worn out, writing, and driving, and trying to cool myself off with the windows down.

I admit, too, I got a little freaked out after the article in the Capital Times. One thinks one wants an audience until one gets one. And, a few people freaked me out, too, saying don’t you think it’s a little cheeky, writing from a publicly funded position? Don’t you worry that your program will get singled out for reductions? Don’t you think it’s ironic that you’re writing from a humanities program, the area under the most scrutiny to proving usefulness? I am a little afraid of unintended consequences, of the university asking me to cease and desist, cutting off funding to our area, or, more likely, not letting us hire new faculty that we desperately need. We have 36 MFA students. We are down to 3.5 tenure track faculty. Fortunately, we have some amazing new hires that have given me hope, even though it is a crazy time and it seems particularly crazy to hope for good forward motion. And this is a kind of usefulness. A productivity. A lesson on How To Do Things With Words, crazy though that usefulness may be.

Crazy has its own reward, though. Yesterday, the democrats called for a donation. The woman on the line told me that if they were going to succeed in the next election, they needed my help. I said, “I donate as much as I can, but only online.” And she said, “May I ask why?” and something about that question made me indignant and indignant, as you know, makes me crazy. So I went off, saying, “You want to know why? You really want to know why? Maybe because Obama OK’d Shell Oil drilling in the Arctic and maybe this Transcontinental Trade Pact or maybe the fact that you have no unifying message, you’re letting the Koch brothers rule the world, and in fact, what really is the difference between corporate sponsored democrats and corporate sponsored republicans. At least when I give money online, I have the delusion of feel like this is “our” party, not “your” party.” To which she said, quietly, “OK. I will take your name off the call list.” And I said, “Sorry.” And “thank you.” And “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

I felt a little overheated. A little adrenaline filled. A little sorry for going nuts on her. But then, the mechanic who was working on my air conditioner that had broken as I was driving through the whole of Arizona called to tell me it would cost $1500 to fix my air conditioner. Still primed from nut-going-on-poor-democratic fundraiser, I said, “What?” I said, “I don’t have that kind of money.” I said, “Oh my god, this can’t be.” I said, “I can’t talk right now. I’ll have to call you back.” I might have sobbed a little. I might have seemed a little crazy on the phone.

I called back a half hour later, left a slightly less crazy but still indignant message with the manager, saying that the car was just out of warranty. That I had read online this is a common problem with Honda Air-conditioners. That I really didn’t know what to do but I was investigating some credit sources to pay for the repair.

They called me back a little later to say that Honda had extended its warranty on air conditioners. They would cover mine. I just had to pay for the oil change.


Not everyone can afford to go a little crazy. It does help if you have tenure. It also helps if you can do most of the crazy from the privacy of your own home. But, as these letters attest, sometimes the crazy is effective which is why I keep writing to say, “Restore our funding. Save our students” even if writing letter after letter saying the same thing in different ways might seem a little crazy to you.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Of Mini-Wheats, IT, and Talcum Powder--Letter #53

Dear Governor Ducey,

I like that song, “Mama said there’d be days like this.” I sing it a lot. It makes me think of my mom who sang it happy and who sang it sad and sometimes it feels all days are like this. I woke up to trouble. Max was trying to undo a Lego construct while his Mini-Wheats sogged in milk. He won’t eat soggy Mini-Wheats. I had to pick him up and take him to the table where my own Mini-Wheats sat, sogging. As we ate our now soggy Mini-Wheats, and he cried about his distant Lego, I tried to answer a bunch of emails about that conference I told you I am hosting in October. Panel acceptances went out, as did rejections, and a lot of people were disappointed in the latter. I got a lot of emails about why their panels weren’t accepted and I had to say how sorry I was because I was sorry. I want everyone to come. The people who were happy about the former were excited to register for the conference but then the registration system was only working periodically and I emailed IT in a huge panic and they were busy with other problems and didn’t really know what the deal was anyway. As I emailed IT, I tried to set up the summer class I start to teach on June 1 which involved a lot of internet linking and date calculating which, as this bad-tech day was starting to go, I’m pretty sure ended up wrong. In the meantime, the contracts for the grant project had a math problem all over them which I went back and forth with the grants’ office to fix and finally someone said, it’s fine, this email will suffice as a corrective, to which I sent the most effusive letter ever about how grateful I was to her.

I had to pick Zoe up at 10:30 from school to take her to her AZ State Piano test so I took a shower and tried to print but I had no paper. I printed on my old dissertation paper—making the paper on the contract I’m signing worth more than the money forthcoming stipulated to be paid by the contract. When I came downstairs, Max had gotten the sandwich I made him out of the container and had somehow exploded it all over the living room rug, which is why I had to add “vacuum” to the list of things to do today (and, sadly, yell at Max, which I did, not too long, at least, and not for loud). We picked up Zoe, Max and I, and found the room with her test without too much trouble although I had to park without a permit, which made me jumpy.  Then we went to Bookman’s to find Max a new rock book and all the rock books were too big or too small until we found “Rocks and Minerals” which was just the right size for a book but by then I’d found two new books for myself which I don’t have time to read or the money to buy but buy them I did and then Max wanted to go to Target to get a notebook so he could transcribe his new book (and where I got some cheaper, regular printer paper) which is fine except by the time I got home, I had to call IT, IM IT, email IT and answer forty-seven Facebook queries. While IT IM’d me, I tried to marinate the chicken for dinner but then the chicken leaked all over the fridge so I had to clean out the fridge which I just cleaned out yesterday. We had a few panelist queries too in the other other other inbox to figure out and prepare to send and then the budget office called to see if the invoices were correct, which they were but then we realized we hadn’t received the other pledged support and had to try to invoice for that before the budget lady left town for the next two weeks. IT IM’d back and said they thought they had a couple of thoughts on how to fix the problem so I tried again to register from my house for the conference of which I will be hosting and success! Register for my own conference I did. But then Max wanted the playdoh toys which are as old as I am, almost, since they were mine, and I got them out by the mechanics were gummed up with old Playdoh. I tried to scrape out the stuck-on playdoh with a skewer but the skewer was stronger than the plastic and now the toy is broken but I’m still washing out the old playdoh because water fixes everything.
I had big plans to send out a lot of writing today because May 15th a deadline kind of day but instead I’m on hold with IT, sending a message to a potential panelist on Facebook, and helping Zoe pack for her Grand Canyon camp while Max writes out the Moh’s Scale of Hardness in his new notebook. I got the baby powder to show him talc. Now at least we all smell good but now our clothes are covered in white.

And then, I had the third sign of the week of the apocalypse, after the 100 strikes of lightning in 30 minutes Wednesday night and snow last night (in May!), a duck walking through my back yard. I don’t have a pond in my backyard. Lost ducks. Perhaps I can offer them some baby powder to dry their wings as they mistake the falling sky for a lake they can swim in.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Scarcity and Abundance, a continuation--Letter #52

Abundance—a continuation

Dear Governor Ducey,
The flipside of scarcity is abundance. That’s the point behind these letters. Abundance. More is better. Maybe there’s some nuanced argument one of the letters makes that no one letter could achieve. One thing, at a time, seeded in stuff like garbage and carrots, might hit the right note, at the right time. It’s like poems. The way a poem says, leaf curl, leaves curl, or hunger is an apple, or a blade of grass is a book, or see the elephant’s trunk pull the leg of her dead baby, feel the slice of a broken wine glass in the webbing between thumb and index, hear the tire’s screech, or the squeak of a swing on swingset, or the sound of a man, breathing, breathing, and then not, a sneaker rubbing against a basketball court, cringe a broken fingernail, down to the quick, squint at one hundred lightning strikes, count four hundred thousand cicadas every seventeen years, carry the strange weight of pumice, the strange weight of petrified wood, pretend the log in the river that barely crests his head is a crocodile in Oregon, bury a dog, plant a seed, spy the single grain of sand.


If every day is accounting, you can compress and squeeze, subtract and reduce. If every day is accounting, you can add, list, expand, burgeon, runneth over. To do the latter, you just have to look around. There are seven billion humans. There are a trillion ants. There are elephants. There are grasses. There are tires. It all adds up and if you keep adding, you never have to do more with less because more was already there.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Scarcity and carrots--Letter #51

Dear Governor Ducey,
            Something that both businesses and universities and lives have in common is their capacity to survive with scarce resources. Humans are a plucky group. They can handle teaching more, making less money, eating less food, working longer hours, living in smaller spaces. Heck, some people live outside. Doing more with less is, of course, possible. One adapts. Survival of the fittest, etc. etc. Animals do it.  Plants do it. Carrots. You can even grow them in Flagstaff. You can stick a seed in the volcanic dirt and hope it rains. Hope the wind doesn’t blow it away. Hope that, if it does rain at all or enough, that if the carrot grows, it doesn’t run into a bunch of rocks. A regular Flagstaff-dirt grown carrot looks kind of like a mess—more a gingerroot than a bug’s bunny, a crooked, bent thing. Woody, possibly edible. Not so easy to chop and add to soup.

            When there’s never enough, it’s hard to be expansive. You just grow a tiny bit, if at all.  It’s easy to hoard soil nutrients. To worry about your own carroty future. You don’t want your neighbor carrot to do well. There’s barely enough soil, rain, sun for you. You don’t want to take on new projects, like making really tall carrot tops and digging further, toward more nutrient rich soil. You’re nervous. You’ve got a little. What if there is less down there? What if it’s even harder than this? So you grow, twisty, tiny carrot, a little bit. You’re still a carrot, sure. But you’re short, stubby, and not as nutritious as a carrot grown in soft, twice-tilled soil, raked for rocks, seeded in organic soil, mulched with compost, soaked daily with water. Those carrots are so gigantic. They fill a salad bowl. They are abundance defined.