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.