Friday, September 29, 2006

Try to Remember the Kind of September...

Although the season officially shifted to autumn more than a week ago, I find it hard to really feel the transition these days. When I was a child growing up in Boston, the foliage at this time of year with its brilliant hues splashed across my visual field served to announce the arrival of fall. In today's climate in southern California, hot dry Santa Ana winds puff new life into brush fires that have burned for more than three weeks. Hurricanes have always swirled to life in the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but the devastating potential of such a weather phenmenon was starkly realized last year in the challenging arrival of Katrina and Rita to the Gulf Coast region. Weather and its impact help to mark the changing seasons.

As a child, another significant marker of the change in seasons was the return to school. School was a refuge for some of us, whose turbulent home lives were kept at bay for those hours when we were busy learning. Although the superior technology available in today's classrooms with access to the internet and its infinite well of information had not yet been created, curricula regularly contained art and music and drama classes and sports activities as vital supplements to the academic curriculum. Like nutritional vitamins and minerals that we take to enhance our daily bodily functions, those classes taught us skills that eased the process of incorporating what we had learned into our daily lives.

Now schools can no longer afford such luxuries when the budget barely sustains the salaries of teachers and adequate maintenance of the facilities. Money must also be diverted to metallic screening devices and security police to protect students from gunmen intent on making their point with lethal weapons instead of words. Already in this academic year, seventeen instances of unprovoked violent attacks have occurred on campuses in Colorado (not far from the notorious Columbine High School), Montreal, Wisconsin and an Amish community in Pennsylvania. Debates continue over the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution and "the right to bear arms." However, no one can dispute that the extinction of such young lives is tragic.

In Washington, the vulnerability of young people is also sacrificed to the needs of political power. High school students (pages) and college students (interns) have been subjected to the amoral and perverse behaviors of elected officials in the Congress while others in power looked in the other direction. Like other young people exploited by their clergymen, these individuals with aspirations of public service were betrayed rather than mentored. It is difficult to maintain faith in those who make and interpret the legal statutes when they secretly circumvent the laws precisely because they have the power to do so.

Memoirs have gotten bad press lately in the wake of the blatant distortions of James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces. However, the revelations of real personal experiences are powerful tools for exposing heinous truths and demonstrating the indomitable and resilient character of human nature. My first published piece, Now I Have to Tell This Story, exposed the horrific trauma of being kidnapped and raped but it also revealed that it was possible to survive such an ordeal. Two of the five girls killed in the one room Amish schoolhouse were sisters. I was struck by the poignant irony that their family has no photographs by which to remember them while the news of their tragic deaths were visible on newscasts around the country.

Whether you write in a private journal or letters to family members or manuscripts for publication, your words can create images as compelling and lasting as any broadcast on television, on the internet or in film. History is the accumulated stories of those who preceded us. In the future, when this time is examined, your verbal snapshots will be missing from the album if you do not create them now. Every one of us has the power and the privilege to record our beliefs and experiences in written form, whether or not we consider ourselves "writers." Write about the things that move you, the things that excite you, the things that infuriate you, but write!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Truth Can Be Stranger Than Fiction

I watched a documentary that aired on the Sundance Channel called "The Corporation." It examines corporate greed and power in many different dimensions. Michael Moore is one of the voices included in this very credible film that exposes incredible information. For example, how IBM supported Hitler's concentration camps by providing punchcard technology for accumulating data on the concentration camps (including a photo of IBM executive Thomas Watson at dinner with the Fuhrer) and how Coca Cola wants us to believe that Fanta soda (that was developed as a beverage for Nazi Germany to maintain their wartime profits) originated in Mexico. The film also reveals how psychologists are hired by big business to help them sell products to children by teaching them to nag their parents. As the cruel implications of privatization were demonstrated in a story about a Colombian town where residents were charged for water by the Bechtel Corporation and fined for collecting free rainwater in buckets, my anger swirled with volcanic fury.

At the same time, I felt an overwhelming impotence to define an action that would somehow impact this monolithic monster depicted in the film. Then I sat down and started to write. I have no idea who will read this or when, but these words have the power of permanence. Someone can read them in ten years and extract my outrage, if I communicate effectively. Freedom of speech guaranteed individuals in the Bill of Rights has not yet been silenced in the blogosphere. Even points of view that I find personally offensive still deserve to be expressed by those who believe and uphold them.

Which is why for me the most horrific example of the abuse of power from "The Corporation" is the story of how two journalists were silenced by the Monsanto Corporation. Two investigative reporters for Fox News had done a detailed report on the links between Bovine Growth Hormone and health problems, including cancer, for children who drank the milk from cows who had been given this chemical manufactured by that corporation. Other countries, including Canada, have banned the distribution of milk that contains the substance. When the story was blocked from airing, the two newspeople were first forced to rewrite the story 83 times in an effort to come up with a version that still contained the truth without offending the station's corporate owners. When a compromise could not be reached and the journalists were fired, they filed a lawsuit as whistleblowers and prevailed in court. However, on appeal the Supreme Court eventually threw out their lower court victory and monetary compensation by denying the plaintiff's status as whistleblowers, saying that Fox News did not have a legal requirement to tell the truth in their news broadcasts.

When I was a child, most people believed that information which appeared in the newspaper was virtually gospel, to be accepted without question as reliable truth. That same mantle of trust was given to early television newscasters such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. Today only the most naive person accepts the information dispensed in print and broadcast media as unquestionable fact. However, the ability to express my individual beliefs and opinions on the page is one of the most compelling reasons I have for writing and constantly working to improve my skills as a writer. If there is something you learn and want to tell others, a letter to the editor or a blog can provide access to a wide audience of readers. Your opinions can also find a voice through a sympathetic fictional character who shars your perspective. Don't be afraid to put your truth out into the world!