Goop? Riding the “All Natural” Gravy Train

100% Natural Logo for "goop"Dr. Jen Gunter is my new hero. She shines a crystalline light on the current crop of snake oil sales(wo)men like Gwyneth Paltrow and her multi-million- dollar GOOP women’s lifestyle brand.

Full transparency here. I have spent $30 on a bottle of sulfate-free shampoo with “emollient-rich Red Sea kelp.” I have been swayed to spend more on a beauty product if it contains the words “natural,” “organic,” or “botanical” on the label. And (I am ashamed to admit) I have even been persuaded to insert a vaginal egg into my “sacred female space.” Otherwise known as “love eggs,” “jade eggs,” and “yoni eggs,” these pelvic galvinizers purportedly possess the power to help you develop a more loving relationship with your “yoni” (vagina) while  powering up your kegel capacities.

Still, it was with a smirking delight that I saw the recent Stephen Colbert send-up  of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Wellness Summit, the tickets to which ranged in price between $500 and $1500.

The Goop Media Wars

And it was with an eager finger that I clicked on an op-ed piece in the New York Times over the weekend by Dr. Gunter, an OB/GYN and pain medicine specialist dedicated to  “Wielding the lasso of truth” about dangerous health fads aimed at women. Dr. Gunter has raised the ire and media backlash of Paltrow and her goopy promoters by pointing out the dangerous disinformation her brand peddles to women. Those vaginal eggs, for example, may have a connection to toxic shock syndrome because superatigens are reintroduced vaginally with air during jade egg insertion .

It would seem that women are especially vulnerable to the false promise of advertising. Not that I haven’t lived with a “metrosexual” man who spent far more that I ever did on spas and gels and oils, even hair implants. But I’m sure his excesses pale in comparison to what the average woman spends in the $20 billion dollar hair and nail industry. And this newer focus on “pure” and “natural” products only opens the door to more price gouging.

No Face Goop Can Turn Back Time

Why are we so vulnerable to the cons? Why do we suppress our common sense that tells us, no, there is no such thing as an “anti-aging” agent; no, you may be super fit and you may look great for your age but you are aging nonetheless; no, that hair color looks great but it does not take ten years off your face. The bloom of my fertile years is fading. The maiden and mother phases are behind me. I can get rather wistful about it sometimes. But what I want is not eternal youth. What I want is to be a healthy, beautiful, and even desirable crone, one whose age makes her less, not more, susceptible to advertising claims that manipulate my valid concerns about environmental toxins.

The women who attend Goop summits are no doubt younger that I am. And they must have a lot more disposable income than I do. I guess they don’t blink at spending $60 on a .17 ounce compact of “Multipurpose Balm (packed with carrot seed, Marula oil, and Jojoba seed oil.”) They must really buy the hype that it will do more “to moisturize dry lips and to smooth out the wrinkle-prone areas around the mouth and eyes” than, say, my $2 tube of Nivea kissable lip moisturizer or my extravagant purchase of $12 emu oil eye cream.

But the issue is not money. Given Paltrow’s outsized influence, her lack of expertise, and her underlying profit motive, I’m thankful that professionals like Dr. Gunter are (wo)manning the watchtowers and making us think more carefully about our healthcare and beauty consumption. And while I certainly look for alternatives to products that use toxins or test on animals, I think I’ll stick with my $10 Sprouts tub of coconut oil and vials of herbal essences, even if I do splurge on that shampoo.

Crystalline lake waves washing over rocks

 

Today’s post was inspired by  Charli Mills’s flash fiction challenge for July 27, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story using the word crystalline.

My Crystalline Complexion

The sales associate was all of 20.

“I just want some eye cream,” I said.

“I have the perfect product for you,” she enthused. “The Gone in 60 Seconds Instant Wrinkle Eraser.”

“C’mon, nothing is going to erase my wrinkles,” I said.

“This one will. With all-natural sodium silicate, it instantly erases fine lines and wrinkles. It’ll provide that little bit of a ‘lift’ you need. ”

“Hmmm” I said, my skepticism deepening the frown between my eyebrows.

“Really, I use both the eye and the face cream in the line. I’ve been told I have a crystalline complexion.”

 

 

 

 

 

The WordPress Plugins I Can’t Live Without | Jane Friedman

Plugins are one of the most wonderful and useful things about WordPress. Here are some of my favorites that I recommend for writers.

Source: The WordPress Plugins I Can’t Live Without | Jane Friedman

Just had to pass this post on. I took a webinar from Jane Friedman when I moved from a simple BlogSpot Memoir Crafter blog to my self-hosted WordPress site. I still have much to learn, but the plugins Jane mentions here are great. I highly recommend Yoast!

Would love to hear what plugins you are using!

 

American Pie-Not Enough to Go Around

Image of last piece of pie

“Make the pie higher.” So said our illustrious 41st president George Bush. The line resurfaced in my head this week when thinking of two recent exchanges: the flash fiction prompt of “pie” from Charli Mills at Carrot Ranch, and a conversation I had with my conservative sister-the-sister.

These days of course, so many of us political lefties look back fondly on “W.” Ten years ago, we thought the right could do no worse damage than it had under the Bush-Cheney regime—the phony war in Iraq; the torture memos that justified waterboarding; the no-bid contracts with Halliburton and Blackwater; the assaults against the separation of Church and State and the pandering to the detestable Tea Party; the false commitment to “family values”; and the highly dubious oil ties with Saudi Arabia, to name just a few crimes.

And though Bush may have mangled our language, his idiomatic sins were far less sinister than those committed by our current Obfuscator-in-Chief, with his accusations of “fake news,” his protestations of “witch hunts,” his propensity to defame anyone who crosses him with his crass labels (Crooked Hillary, Lying Ted, Little Marco) and his obscene pronouncements regarding women. My gorge rises as I type.

Being thus consumed by my abhorrence of the man now degrading the highest office of our land, I cannot take off my political “pussy hat,” when sitting down to write or when talking to those of my dear ones who voted for the cad.

Religion and Politics in America

I have written here before of my twin sister, the Franciscan nun, and her (to my eye) confoundingly conservative views. “Yeah, yeah, she’s a one-issue voter,” an acquaintance reminded me last week. “It’s all about abortion.” Okay, yes, I understand the social issues over the last twenty years or so that have led my sister to take as her political guide either the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh or the Catholic journals she reads. And though neither Republican nor religious, I too resonate with the bootstrapping values of individual endeavor, responsibility, and hard work that the Republicans have laid claim too. I too agree there should be limits to government control of individual lives. But such fallback justifications for the current  administration’s efforts to, for example, axe healthcare for millions and cut Medicare and Medicaid, are just scum on the surface of a very deep pond.

Certainly the GOP with its  merciless promotion of free-market capitalism, its climate-change deniers, its trickle-down economy enthusiasts and deregulation champions  (except when it comes to women’s bodies) embody as a group the very antithesis of the Christian message they so publicly embrace. So when it comes to understanding my sister, to maintaining the closeness we have always felt, I am abjectly lost. For I can’t help but feel that the actions and values my sister now defends couldn’t be farther from the teachings of the founder of her order, Saint Francis. Here was an intentionally impoverished man, a man now named the patron saint of ecology,  a man who “really believed what Jesus said: ‘Announce the kingdom! Possess no gold or silver or copper in your purses, no traveling bag, no sandals, no staff’ (Luke 9:1-3).”

A Bigger Piece of the Pie for Some

The sister and I spoke over the weekend. Though we try to stay away from the political, it is nearly impossible not to drift in that direction. She bluntly stated that she believed capitalism was good. That, although she finds our swaggering, mendacious leader detestable, he is moving our country in the right direction. After all, she pointed out, the stock markets are way up. When I objected that not all people benefited from the bull market (and that at any rate bull markets have a dismaying habit of falling), she fell back on the old sad premise that “the poor will always be with us.” By that measure, those who get a bigger piece of the pie leave just a few crumbs for the rest.

As we “speak,” my sister is settling into a three-week visit with her German counterparts for a big council meeting. I wish her well in Germany. She admitted feeling a tad anxious. Our rather virulent strain of capitalism does not apparently go down well with her German sisters. Nor has our president endeared himself to their people. One of these sisters apparently slapped a nun visiting from my sister’s convent some years back. But I do relish the idea of my sister’s exposure to a fresh, European perspective. And I wonder how she will defend her American heartland politics in the face of what may well be a passionate call to support the American left in its struggle against those very positions.

And now, the flash:

American Pie

“Nothing more American than apple pie,” she said.

“Oh, I don’t know. There’s lots of things.”

“Okay, sure, there’s baseball and Mom, too.”

“That’s not what I was thinking about.”

“What then?”

“Oh, oppression of the poor, Wall Street fat cats, imperialism, misogyny, institutionalized sexism and racism, homelessness, addiction, environmental destruction…”

“God, you’re so negative.”

“No, just realistic.”

“I still think it’s a land of opportunity for all.”

“No, you think it’s a zero-sum game. Not enough pie for everyone; some must go without.”

“I never said that.”

“No? Then what’s with ‘the poor will always be with us’?”

 

 

What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV – Helping Writers Become Authors

What’s the problem with omniscient POV? Why are so many authors confused about it? And why are so many editors delivering digital hand slaps because of it?

Source: What Every Writer Ought to Know About the Omniscient POV – Helping Writers Become Authors

Thinking about POV this morning. K.M. Weiland provides a nice short summary of a writer’s choices, and gives us the lowdown on the challenging omniscient narrator.

Beacon of Hope in Troubled Times

Image of beacon of light from the starry sky
Photo by Nate Bittinger

When will the aliens come to rescue humanity? How will the revolution start? Why don’t those few leaders with a moral compass stand up to speak truth to illegitimate power? Where is that flashing beacon of hope?

The Beacon that is Literature

I see little on the horizon to answer these questions. So, I turn to literature. And having neglected some literary landmarks over the years, I dove into Ursula Le Guin’s 1974 “ambigous utopia,” The Dispossessed. A tale of two worlds cut off from each other by centuries of distrust—the larger planet, Urras, resembling earth with its wars and extreme inequality between rich and poor; and the other, Anarres, a  bleak and impoverished moon settled by utopian anarchists—it is a timely story, indeed.

Told through the philosophical voice of Shevek, a physicist from the moon who endeavors to reunite the worlds, it is impossible not to apply its lessons to the current state of affairs in the world. The riots that took place in Hamburg during the G20 summit this last week (anarchist driven perhaps, but also the expression of ordinary people looking for their own beacon of hope) aptly illustrates the anger and frustration.

Freedom and Responsibility

I’ve only just begun the book, but a passage struck me last night, compelling me to ponder the relationship between “order” and “orders,” between freedom and responsibility. The scene involves an argument the young Shevek has with a friend (Tirin) over the reasons why no one from the moon has visited the mother planet, Urras. “We are forbidden,” Tirin, says. To which Shevek replies:

Forbidden? . . . Who forbids? . . . Order is not ‘orders.’ We don’t leave Anarres because we are Anarres. Being Tirin, you can’t leave Tirin’s skin. You might like to try being somebody else to see what it’s like, but you can’t. But are you kept from it by force? What force? What laws, government, police? None. Simply our own being, our nature as Odonians, responsible to one another. And that responsibility is our freedom. To avoid it would be to lose our freedom. Would you really like to live in a society where you have no freedom, no choice, only the false option of obedience to the law, or disobedience followed by punishment? Would you really want to go live in a prison?

Certainly the book strikes a chord with me now. I still suffer a deep distress and pervasive melancholy over the election results of last year. And the ongoing assaults to our collective sanity and well-being from the current administration only amplify those feelings. Like others, I threatened (however hollowly) to move to Canada once the “Orange Menace” took office. But echoing Shevek above, I am America. I might like to see what it is like to be Canadian, but I can’t, really. The laws of either country notwithstanding, America is the skin I wear, no matter how deplorable I find nationalism.

Our Responsibility to Others is Our Freedom

Sadly, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” My deeper distress comes not from the fact that such an unabashed scoundrel operates in the world, but that so many of my fellow Americans voted for him.  Sure, his followers saw him as the law-and-order candidate. The candidate who would protect our freedoms. But “order” in this case comes down to “orders.” And what a slew of executive orders we have seen. I don’t believe those “patriots” most given to “bullhorning” our freedom—those for example, who flaunt giant flags on their pickup trucks—take freedom to be the same thing I do…or patriotism for that matter.

Not that they don’t make a connection between freedom and responsibility. Not that we don’t have to fight for our freedom godammit. But what that brand of American seems to care about most is the infringement of their particular freedoms: to own assault weapons; to remove regulations that interfere with their own financial gain; to use the excuse of “religious freedom” to deny services to groups of “others”; to secure their own piece of the pie even if it means others get none. It’s a freedom enforced by law, not one defined by our responsibility to each other.

Freedom or the Totalitarian State?

These themes are nothing new of course. In thinking about all this, I pulled from the shelf Erich Fromm’s psychoanalytical classic Escape From Freedom. From the back cover of my husband’s 1967 Avon edition:

If man cannot live with freedom, he will probably turn fascist. . . Using the fundamentals of psychoanalysis as probing agents, Dr. Fromm reveals the illness of contemporary civilization as seen by its willingness to submit to totalitarian rule. While the rise of democracy set certain men free in a political sense, it has simultaneously given birth to a society in which the individual feels isolated, dehumanized, and alienated. This situation has frequently resulted in blind devotion to a Leader, abject submission to an all-powerful State, and barbarous politics of aggression and mass murder.

Is this where we are in the United States at this moment? On the brink of fascism? Or have I overindulged in “fake news” put out by the “false media”? Considering that de-legitimization and restraint of the press is a common tool of despots, (witness the now closed White House press conferences), I don’t think I am overreacting.

So, I look for a beacon of hope. While our would-be fuhrer tweets his messianic diatribes to the angry dispossessed, I throw my lot in with the thinkers: with the writers and artists and filmmakers and educators who keep the intellectual flame alive. At least we are not burning books…yet.

As for beacons, thanks to Charli Mills and Carrot Ranch for Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge July 6provoking these thoughts with her prompt of beacon for this week’s flash fiction challenge.

Beacon

I search the night sky. As if the answer were there. As if science fiction were true and benevolent aliens could save us. Why bother? I see nothing. The stars are snuffed out.

Here below flames rip at cars and barricades and shop fronts—bonfires of fury and pain. The undercurrent of violence deafens me, pulls me down on streets wet from water cannons. My hands bleed from the bricks I have thrown.

You pull my arm. You scream. The maelstrom snatches your words and eats them.

But I follow at last—you—a brighter beacon than the flames.

Fraying Rope? Let It Go

Image of Fraying Rope about to Break

This week’s flash fiction challenge from Carrot Ranch to write about “something frayed” inspires this post on the variant, “fraying.”

In thinking of a flash story, the well known fable The Bridge came to mind. Written by rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman, this parable illustrates Friedman’s technique in treating patients with co-dependency issues. Rather than trying to educate such people with a traditional therapeutic approach, Friedman instead began trying to free them from this “syndrome”. As Justin Hughes explains in the linked post above, co-dependency has expanded to include not only relationships with alcoholics, but with people suffering from any kind of dependency:

Today, the word is often used to describe anyone in a significant relationship (or relationships) with a person who exhibits any kind of dependency. Such dependencies could include alcohol, drug, sex, food, work, gambling, success, perfectionism or something else. Being in relationship with this type of person often results in codependency, which involves an imbalanced sense of responsibility to rescue, fix and help this person.

Co-dependency and Learned Helplessness

Perhaps most of us have had co-dependent relationships. I certainly have, with alcoholics, substance abusers, possessive lovers and friends. But I’ve also experienced a more subtle challenge with people who suffer from what psychologist Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” This condition, discussed in his book, Helplessness,  describes “individuals [that] may accept and remain passive in negative situations despite their clear ability to change them.”
 Sadly, this inability to take the initiative to improve ones situation seems to stem from earlier learned behaviors, often enabled by the concerned party. The more a partner or parent tries to “rescue, fix, and help” a loved one by doing things for them, the more that person learns to be helpless. This, in turn, can lead to a co-dependent relationship. It’s a complicated subject, not given to easy applications for people with serious mental health issues. But I’ve seen many  classic examples of enabling behaviors on the part of well-meaning friends and relatives, including myself.

The “Failure to Launch”

Seligman stumbled across his revelation back in 1967.  In the ensuing years, one particularly “helpless” demographic has claimed much attention in the popular sphere: the “failure to launch” population of young people. How many of us have suffered fraying nerves and domestic upsets in attempting to help a young adult make the difficult transition from adolescence to adulthood, with little effect at bolstering the necessary motivation to successfully span this developmental stage? And yet, how many of us really want to resort to the advice of (often childless) friends to simply “kick the bum out”?
That brings us back to “The Bridge.” The parable has been a useful resource for therapists and others in the helping professions, and has a large following on the Internet. Here is my flash take on it:

Fraying Nerves

Fuck. How did I get in this position, she thought.

Her hands burned, the rawness bleeding the rope red.

“Come on! You have to help me.”

She watched the young man through the slats of the bridge. He looked up from where he dangled, the ground a mile down. Still he did not speak.

“I can’t hold you. Climb up or swing to the supports. Are you listening?”

The rope jerked, sawing at her hands.

“There’s no more time,” she screamed. “The rope is fraying.”

She saw herself then, and let go, falling back, gazing into the cloudless blue.

 

 

Wednesday Word of the Week from Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation

Book Cover of Jeff Vandermeer's Annihilation

Word of the Week 9: Midden

Welcome to Wednesday Word of the Week, a hump-day cyber celebration of  felicitous word choice selected from my current reading. Today’s word comes from a 2014 science fiction thriller, Jeff Vandermeer‘s Annihilation.

Unlike earlier Word-of-the-Week posts here, the choice of “midden” was easy. There was no challenge of elimination from among a host of superb choices as in Lawrence Durrel’s Justine, reviewed here in 2015. Indeed, a salient feature of the novel is its unadorned and direct language and syntax. How the author produced a story of such palpable unease, psychological depth, and lingering suspense without resorting to linguistic fireworks underscores the power of clear, concise writing.

The first volume of Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Annihilation follows an expedition of four nameless female scientists: a biologist (the narrator); a psychologist (the leader of the group); a surveyor; and an anthropologist as they venture into Area X, a pristine Edenic landscape cut off from civilization for decades. Ostensibly the twelfth such group, their mission is to observe their surroundings (and each others’ responses to them); map the terrain;  take samples; and … avoid contamination. Knowing that each expedition before theirs has met with calamity, a feeling of suspicious disquiet rather than camaraderie infuses the members.

I’ve often complained to my husband (a science fiction scholar and enthusiast) that one element of the genre that leaves me cold is its detached characterization. Because the best science fiction often deals with big ideas, world-building, and extrapolations on technology,  the characters that inhabit its highly imaginative scenarios seem less developed and engaging to me than those found, for example, in literary fiction. This book, however, left me pondering my bias.

As for setting, Area X is richly drawn, replete with a mysterious “tower” buried in the ground; an abandoned village; a lighthouse that shows signs of a terrible struggle; a moaning creature in the night; and a treacherous botanic force manifested in a living script on the walls of the tower. The biologist’s flashbacks provide further metaphorical elements: a neglected swimming pool taken over by nature; a tide pool; a vacant lot flush with forms of life; the mysterious and unspecified border. Throughout, the sense of an encroaching and indifferent Nature dispels any romantic notions about wild places that readers may bring with them.

Annihilation is not simply a weird adventure story, however. As hinted at above, a real strength lies in the author’s handling of psychological states—what one reviewer called “the strangeness within us.” No one can be trusted; the characters’ motivations are unclear; and even the sense of a shared humanity unravels as the environment relentlessly pursues its own mysterious transitions. The result? A “claustrophobic dread” that builds from the very first page.

As for today’s word (definition revealed below), as I have before I must admit to resorting to the dictionary. The lines refer to the biologist’s discovery of a hidden cache of  journals in the lighthouse.

No, what had me gasping for breath, what felt like a punch in the stomach as I dropped to my knees, was the huge mound that dominated the space, a kind of insane midden. I was looking at a pile of papers with hundreds of journals on top of it—just like the ones we had been issued to record our observations of Area X.

I highly recommend this book. Quick paced and lucid, it’s one that seduces you into reading more than you’ve intended in one sitting. You can read an excerpt of the first chapter HERE.

And as for “midden,” did you know this word? Here is the definition, which  could be easily guessed from the context of the paragraph.

Midden: dunghill; refuse heap; a small pile (as of seeds, bones, or leaves) as gathered by a rodent.

What words have you come across lately that have thrilled you? I’d love to know.

Desert Dawn: Greeting an Arizona Summer Day

Dawn over Glendale AZ
Dawn Over Glendale AZ

It’s 5:30 am in the suburbs of Phoenix. Summer is days away but the heat has arrived. Next Tuesday, the first day of summer, the temp will rise to 120º F (49° C). It’s the season of the dawn for those of us desert dwellers who wish to venture outdoors before the sun cracks open the oven door. So goodbye Stephen Colbert and Noah Trevor, you late-night purveyors of the politically absurd. It’s early to bed for me. You cannot compete for my one chance of fresh air.

Of course we here in the “Valley of the Sun” pride ourselves on our stoic endurance of the 6-month summer. Like people everywhere, we comment endlessly on the weather. “Hot enough for you today?” “It’s gonna be a scorcher.” Those who were here on June 26, 1990, when the hottest day on record hit 122º F (50º C), claim their bragging rights, their merely having been here validating their membership in an exclusive club of extremes.

Nonetheless, we natives shake our heads and wonder why the hell we are still here. We vow this is our last summer. As the heat rises from the pavement to drive us back into our burrows, we dream of moving to Seattle and fantasize about the rain. Some of us head north to the relative cool of Payson and Flagstaff. Sensible snowbirds fly the hot coop by the end of May. Only those who once suffered in snowbound lands and planted themselves here for good boast of their love for the heat. “Try shoveling snow in Chicago in January,” they say. “This is heaven.”

What the Desert Dawn Brings

Still, we natives find a stark beauty in the season. Dawn brims over the encircling mountains just after 5 o’clock with the cool promise it always holds—the chance to start afresh. When the sun climbs, each shade tree offers a small oasis. The  bougainvillea and lantana spill opulently over stucco and sand. The utter stillness of the afternoon (when all sane people stay indoors) rings like a cosmic chime. Pale, flat geckos take shelter on patio walls; long lizards dart in the bushes. The dry air breezes like silk on our skin after a twilight dip in the pool. Doves sing their plaintive laments and cicadas rev the Palo Verde trees as the shadows deepen.

Bougainvillea and lantana
Bougainvillea and lantana

Maybe I’m still under the thrall of returning to the warmth after a cold and rainy stint in Connecticut. Maybe I am waxing romantic. No doubt I’ll be cursing the heat next week. But as long as I wake with the dawn this summer, I’ll be ready to embrace the day.

Thanks to guest host D. Avery at Charli Mills’s Carrot Ranch for providing the prompt of “dawn” for this week’s flash fiction challenge. And to blogger Irene Waters’s Skywatch Friday post for inspiring me to dig up my picture of the dawn. Here is a flash memoir.

A College Dawn

The night already a blur: the party at Esperanza’s house; the beer and tequila; the bilingual chatter and rock music; the cousin, Hector—hot, handsome, strong—pressing me against a wall in the yard.

I should stop the car. The road through Papago Park is dark and curved, the mountains impossible to see but for the absence of stars. I nod off. Once, twice.

I crack the window. I blink, keeping my eyes closed too long. There’s a brightening in the sky. I step on it.

I arrive home with the dawn, relieved. My father will be up soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Nazis’ Legacy of Silence

https://i0.wp.com/s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/3c/44/4b/3c444bdc5952abd475abeb6aeea1ab56.jpg?w=656&ssl=1

This week an essay by Jessica Shattuck in The New York Times caught my attention. Entitled “I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was a Nazi,” it recounts how the author tried to reconcile her grandmother’s connection to the Nazis with the sweet and gentle woman she knew. At best, her grandmother gave stock responses or evasive answers to her many questions about that time. The essay resonated especially sharply with me. Having helped a German born, naturalized American doctor write his memoir, Backbone: The Life and Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon, I recognized in it what I think of as the Nazis’ legacy of silence.

I was thinking about that silence, anyway, in preparing to respond to fellow writer and blogger Charli Mills’s flash fiction prompt this week: to write about an audience. As it happens, there is a moving scene in Backbone, wherein my author, Dr. Volker K. H. Sonntag, is to give a keynote speech in Berlin to a combined convention of German and American neurosurgeons. Like Sonntag, the German doctors had all been born during the war or immediately following the defeat of the Nazis. As Dr. Sonntag explains in the story:

After casting around for a topic I could get my teeth into, I decided to call on my own experience as a naturalized American born in East Germany in the last days of World War II, just as the Russians were massing at the border like a cresting wave. I called the presentation “A Personal Reflection of the Cold War.”

Brochure on the United States Refugee Program, 1950sWhen I first met Dr. Sonntag 4 1/2 years ago, this was the story we set out to tell in his book: how, in the last days of the war, his mother fled the East with her infant son, Volker, and his brother in tow; how, after the defeat of the Nazis, the family languished in an allied refugee camp for 4 years; how their brief postwar recovery was halted by a brain abscess in his father’s parietal lobe that destroyed his career as a dentist; and how they immigrated to the United States in 1957, where the young man overcame further adversities to realize his version of the “American Dream”—and came to grips with Germany’s Nazi past.

Backbone: The Life adn Game-Changing Career of a Spinal Neurosurgeon by Volker K. H. Sonntag, MD
Dr. Sonntag’s memoir, to be released May 2, 2017.

While that version still exists, the current book relegates that story to the background and focuses on Dr. Sonntag’s remarkable career as a pioneering spinal neurosurgeon. Certainly the story of his rise in the high-stakes world of neurosurgery is no less thrilling than his immigrant chronicle. But it was that earlier account that came to mind this week.

The questions Miss Shattuck grapples with are those that Dr. Sonntag and his contemporaries have struggled with, at even less of a distance. He was born to educated, bourgeoise parents in late 1944, in the walled city of Graudenz, which was then in East Germany and is now the Polish town of Grudziądz—”a city,” he writes, “that was fast becoming a landscape of bombed-out craters and smoking ruins.” He does not believe his parents were Nazis. But though historical hindsight has filled in many gaps for him, it has also posed questions his parents never answered, among them:

The Nazis roll into Poland in 1939.
Nazi Panzers roll into Poland in 1939.

I don’t know if my parents had already moved to Graudenz when, five years earlier, on September 3, 1939, Hitler’s Panzers rolled down its cobble-stoned streets to cheers of jubilation from the minority German population (and to the horror of the Poles), but it was in this town on the Vistula that had found itself part of Prussia, then modern Germany, then Poland, and now at my birth, Germany again, that my father decided to establish his dental practice and his family.

Like Ms. Shattuck, he wonders about his father’s and mother’s experience. What did his parents feel about the Nazis? Did they witness the persecution of the Jews? Did they know of the concentration camps? Did his father (as some anecdotal evidence suggests) defy the Nazis early on? Were they, in the end and by nature of their complacency, complicit in one of the greatest mass acts of evil history has known?

Those questions and more have not diminished in urgency, as Ms. Shattuck’s essay, and its reach, have shown. And while the children and grandchildren of the generation that brought Hitler to power have gone on with their lives and done good deeds—and, in Europe, become the cornerstone of a pan-European peace-keeping effort—they can never quite escape the stigma of Germany’s great sin.

The issue of the Nazis was a very sensitive one for my client to address in his book. But address it he did in scenes such as the one I mentioned earlier, where, in 2004, Dr. Sonntag delivers his “Personal Reflections of the Cold War” to an audience of stoic German doctors. Seeing their reaction, he concludes:

“It seemed that what had happened to my family, and to me, was a piece of a larger story that many Germans of my generation have been unable to tell, or even to explore for themselves. After all, our stories stemmed from our family histories, and who wanted to hear about the hardships German people faced after the war? Who wanted to hear how the generation of Germans who had brought the Nazis to power overcame adversity, did good work, loved and sacrificed for their children?

And it is that scene that has provided my response to Charli’s flash fiction challenge this week: March 23, 2017 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write about an audience. It can be broad or small, and gathered for any reason. How does your character react to an audience? Is the audience itself a character. Go where the prompt leads.

So imagine now that generation to which Dr. Sonntag belongs, a generation that inherited both the ignominy of the Nazi legacy and the silence to which that legacy condemned his parents’ generation—and their families. Imagine a cadre of very successful members of that first postwar generation gathered together to reflect on their experience. Here then, named after and modified from the chapter in the book in which it appears, is my flash.

Dresden

When I’d finished speaking, the air in the hall felt like a single, collective breath being held. Then clapping surged, a hard rain on a tin roof.

Several fellow Germans made their way to the podium.

“Very fitting, Doctor,” one said, his voice breaking. “I’ve not thought about those days in so long.”

“Your story is my own,” said another. “No one has talked about what happened to us after the war.”

Last was the distinguished head of a large hospital. Blinking through tears, he took my hand. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

My own throat closed.

 

 

Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay | Bookreporter.com

One hundred years ago, Bohemian author and editor of the radical Masses magazine, Floyd Dell, began a passionate affair with a newcomer to Greenwich Village–the yet-to-be-discovered “girl poet,” Edna St. Vincent Millay. In the years that followed, both Dell and Millay became symbols of early 20th-century feminism, rebellion and literary freedom. A century later, while poring over her grandfather Floyd’s papers at Chicago’s Newberry Library, Jerri Dell discovered hundreds of handwritten letters and an unpublished memoir about his love affair with Millay. Finding him as outlandish, entertaining and insightful as he was when she knew him 50 years before, she chose to bring him and his poet lover back to life within the pages of this book.

Source: Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay | Bookreporter.com