Pandemic Diary: Just a Box of Rain

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry.
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
—T. S. Eliot, “East Coker,”
Four Quartets

* * * *
One day, he decided to read the pages that I’d left next to my typewriter. I was a literature major in graduate school, and I had just pounded out some pages about “The Waste Land” for a summer T. S. Eliot seminar. “I don’t understand anything you wrote, but it sounds like you know what you’re taking about,” my dad said with a chuckle.

My dad had a pretty good chuckle, just so you know. Chuckles are difficult to rank because they receive little attention in the universe of laughs, but they are worth a note. My dad’s chuckle was never one that claimed he knew more than the person with whom he was speaking, or more than anyone else, for that matter. It was an honest assessment of how amused he was at the moment, which I realize now was one way that told us his full-bodied laughter was true and truly felt.

I did not appreciate my dad’s chuckle that summer day so long ago, though. “The poetry of T. S. Eliot is more important than a laugh,” I am certain I thought. (I was insufferable, I assure you. My insufferable self, so convinced of his own importance, still is around here somewhere, but does not show up often.) Well, Eliot’s poems have plenty of laughs and chuckles available, as I now know, and I also know now that my dad’s message to me was a sort of baffled pride in a son so different from and yet so similar to him.

As I have grown older, I have come to appreciate Eliot’s volume Four Quartets and its deeply considered meditations on time, man’s role in the cosmos, eternity, and the permanent immanence of eternity in any possible moment, never at any individual’s bidding. With my father’s death from COVID-19 on Sunday, May 10, those themes become that much more important to me, and since he chuckled at my Eliot paper (“your report” he called it), perhaps a start with Eliot (“East Coker” opens with “In my beginning is my end”) today would have earned a chuckle from him.
Read More

An Angry Man

The greatest newspaper—ever!—is and was the Weekly World News. Its presence next to every grocery store checkout lane is thoroughly missed by every non-Bat Boy walking among us.

Most American boys who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, and by most, I mean me, made this progression in our reading: from Cracked magazine, which quickly revealed itself to be a pale imitation of Mad magazine, to Mad magazine, which was brilliant but I (we) stopped looking at it around age 14, through a wasteland of our teen years and the New York Times and homework—heck, the Times and all newspapers everywhere just feel like permanent homework, don’t they? AmIRight?—to, finally, the discovery that the Weekly World News existed.

It is a three-word title and only one of those three words is true: Weekly.
Read More

Hating Hate

I detest Pamela Geller and I expect that she spent her Monday morning traveling from news appearance to news appearance chortling over her seemingly successful baiting last night of a couple of insane gun-toters who apparently were going to use a particular religion as justification to shoot up an event she had created for just the purpose of baiting any and all insane gun-toters who might want to use that particular religion as justification for violence. I detest her and all she claims to stand for.
Read More

1000 Days

For the sixth week in a row, Saudi writer, blogger, and activist Raif Badawi was not publicly flogged today for insulting his home country’s state religion. Amnesty International broke the news as soon as the organization could confirm it:

No one is breathing a sigh of relief that this counts as sparing him, or that he is about to be freed. The 31-year-old husband and father has now spent 1000 days in jail with little to no contact with the outside world. According to news reports, there was no reason given by Saudi officials for the delay.
Read More

For Raif Badawi

A young journalist and activist has been in jail since 2012 for the crime of insulting his country’s official religion. Sadly, that sentence can be written about dozens, perhaps hundreds, of writers worldwide, but only one writer—one writer that we know about—was publicly flogged this weekend.

This was the very same weekend that government leaders from around the world joined a million-person anti-terrorism march in Paris. The march was the emotional punctuation mark that concluded a sad stretch of days in that city. Days earlier, a group of mass murderers who were deluded into thinking that murder is a religious act massacred the staff of an irreverent humor magazine and killed two police officers, one of whom nominally shared the religion of the killers. The killers and the police officer only shared a religion in name, as the killers believed in murder as an act of faith and the police officer did not.

Raif Badawi is the name of the journalist, and he has been living in a Kafka-esque dreamscape of religion-as-part-of-state-bureaucracy since 2008. In May of last year, he was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes, which are to be meted out in sets of 50 lashes each Friday for 20 weeks. For over a year, his sentence has been publicly changed multiple times between six years and 600 lashes and ten years/1000 lashes while his case bounced between a higher court and a lower court in his country’s legal system.

His country is Saudi Arabia, and as a citizen of the United States, I am aware that I have no say in the legal system or traditions of another country’s bureaucracy; I can only write this column to implore my government to at least say something to one of its allies in the name of a fellow writer and the freedom of ideas. I have written in the past about things I do not like about my country, its use of capital punishment, for instance, and I vote my conscience on these issues, In another country, I might have been arrested for expressing my views, but it has not happened here.

Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, PEN International, and many other organizations have taken up Badawi’s cause, possibly in part because of its clear-cut blatancy: A man is being publicly flogged because he is a writer and has expressed ideas his government would rather he not.

A brief sketch of his journey so far: In 2008, he set up a website, a blog named “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” and he was arrested, questioned, and released. He was then charged with insulting Islam, left the country, was told the charges were being dropped, returned home, and then was blocked from leaving the country again, which is never an indication of good things to come. The web site continued, and he was arrested again in 2012 when a religious leader said that his website “infringes on religious values” and proved that he is an apostate, or one who renounces his religion. Apostasy carries with it a sentence of death, and that legal question—is Raif Badawi an apostate or not?—is what has kept his case bouncing between courts in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. A lower court declared that it did not have the authority to decide and referred the case to a higher court which decided that the lower court could indeed decide if Badawi is an apostate.

He was cleared of the apostasy charge, which freed the courts to sentence him for the charges he was found guilty of from pretty much the moment he was arrested in 2012: insulting the faith and “going beyond the realm of obedience.” Ten years in prison, 1000 lashes, and a one million riyal fine. And his lawyer, Waleed Abu al-Khair , was arrested and found guilty of setting up a human rights monitor organization, which landed him a 15-year jail sentence.

On Friday, Amnesty International published an in-person account of that day’s flogging:

When the worshipers saw the police van outside the mosque, they knew someone would be flogged today.

They gathered in a circle. Passers-by joined them and the crowd grew. But no one knew why the man brought forward was about to be punished. Is he a killer, they asked? A criminal? Does he not pray?

Raif Badawi had been brought to the square in front of al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah just after midday. There was a huge security presence–not just accompanying Raif but also in the streets and around the mosque. Some roads had also been closed.

Raif was escorted from a bus and placed in the middle of the crowd, guarded by eight or nine officers. He was handcuffed and shackled but his face was not covered – everyone could see his face.

Still shackled, Raif stood up in the middle of the crowd. He was dressed in a pair of trousers and a shirt.

A security officer approached him from behind with a huge cane and started beating him.

Raif raised his head towards the sky, closing his eyes and arching his back. He was silent, but you could tell from his face and his body that he was in real pain.

The officer beat Raif on his back and legs, counting the lashes until they reached 50.

The punishment took about 5 minutes. It was very quick, with no break in between lashes.

When it was over, the crowd shouted, “Allah-hu Akbar! Allah-hu Akbar!”–as if Raif had been purified.

Raif was taken away in the bus, back to prison. The whole scene had lasted less than half an hour.

A brief cellphone video was made public, and it shows that the punishment is almost as much “a ritualized public humiliation as a specifically physical punishment (though it is certainly that),” as Nick Gillespie of Reason put it. The video is brief, and I hesitated to include it because it is disturbing and because if you go to YouTube to view it, people who comment on YouTube videos can be astonishingly disgusting.

The juxtaposition of a nation publicly flogging a prisoner of conscience and that country sending an envoy to Sunday’s anti-terror march was not lost on one journalist, who Tweeted almost two dozen similar examples of irony:

The Washington Post’s editorial page on Saturday pointed out that those who are outraged have limits on what we can do, since:

The Obama administration briefly on Thursday called on Saudi Arabia to cancel the flogging of Mr. Badawi. On Friday the kingdom ignored the plea and carried out the first of the 50 whippings. So much for strong language from the State Department. It had no impact because it came with no consequences.

The editorial suggested an international investigation into Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which sounds as toothless as anything that will never happen would sound.

But that is the reality: The U.S. government raised its voice to slightly above a whisper on behalf of one man (not a U.S. citizen) in a different country’s bureaucracy and … crickets. Which is the same non-response our government would give (and gives) if that country formally and diplomatically complained about anything in our system of jurisprudence here.

All I can do as one person, one writer is this: Share the story and some web sites with readers in the hope that someone else will also use their writing voice, their platform. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that last year some 200 reporters were jailed around the world. Many of these reporters are electronic media writers, also known as bloggers, like you and me.

Amnesty International’s Raif Badawi page.

PEN International’s Press Release about Raif Badawi.

My only hope is that someday Raif Badawi will be able to read the many columns out there like this one and, true to his calling, point out that there are a lot of other reporters around the world who need columns like this one written, marches organized, and petitions circulated about their stories.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 12 asks, “Picture the one person in the world you really wish were reading your blog. Write her or him a letter.”

* * * *
Please subscribe to The Gad About Town on Facebook:

Guilty of White

The lottery that I won at 6:37 p.m. on November 18, 1968, was not the product of any hard work on my part. It was not a reward for playing fairly or for especially clean living, nor was it awarded to me for playing by the rules and earning my way.

It was a scratch-off ticket, generated at random, and someone else could have gotten it just as easily as I did. Like the service at a lottery counter in a gas station, life is a first-come, first-served proposition. It was a scratch-off, and, my gosh, did I win a nice jackpot.

If reincarnation existed, one could say that someone else may have deserved this life more than I did or do, and one could certainly argue that someone else might have done a better job with it than I have so far, but it is mine. It is the golden ticket.

The lottery that I won paid off immediately: I am white in a country that treats this minor genetic condition like it is something one diligently worked for and earned. And I am male. I am heterosexual. This world and this country rewards the bearers of those accidental tickets pretty generously, too. When I was a child, my family was middle class in income if not status in a country and at a time when being in the middle of middle-class life in America meant one was living more comfortably than three-fifths of the residents of the rest of the world. And citizens in this country treat that privilege like a victory over immediate enemies rather than the several-generation accumulation of incidents that it is.

Education? Paid for through high school by virtue of being born where I was. By which I do not mean the Spackenkill school district. Nor Poughkeepsie. Not even New York State. Being born in America in 1968 meant an education. (The states were not yet privatizing education or dictating their own local test-versions of education, so I benefited from learning when the dinosaurs existed and the one main reason for the Civil War.) Thanks to my parents, my mom especially, I do not remember the experience of learning how to read or count, because I was taught before my earliest memory (age two and a half) is time-stamped.

Perhaps it is a bit of speculative science fiction to offer the idea that none of these matters are in and of themselves good, righteous, holy, or even earned things. I could have been born in a country that does not privilege the pink pigment of white skin. Or I could have been born in this country but not white. We could have lived in a country where money did not provide some piece of status and “our type” might have been punished at random moments. My mother was born and raised in America, but she had cousins in “the old country” (near Minsk) who were exterminated. They had money.

So I know that I am racist, sexist, whatever-ist. By virtue of being born white, male, and middle class in America in the late 1960s, how could I not be? The day that I walk through (every damn day) is a different day than any woman, black person, gay person—any member of a minority group randomly pre-selected according to these criteria by society—walks through. And the sad, simple fact is that it is a luxury for me to even type that sentence or play with that thought. I do not need to consider what life is like for me, what my day is like, because no power group makes me aware of it.

Oh, sure, it’s society’s rules and some people seem to know how to play by them. “If you don’t commit any crimes, what do you have to worry about?” And that is the thing: I don’t. Simply because I am guilty of white, guilty as charged of male. I am a born member of the power elite, me with my $11,000 annual disability income.

Why does anyone march? Or protest? Or agitate? Or riot, finally? Because if you told me that I had “earned” the genetic anomaly that is taking my legs away, which I did not, not any more than I earned being white or heterosexual, I would attack you with my cane, with every fiber of my being.

* * * *
The Gad About Town is on Facebook! Subscribe today. Daily facts (well, trivia) about literature and history plus links to other writers.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 7 asks us to reflect on the word “Protest.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for March 2, 2016, asks us to reflect on the word “divide.”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 4, 2015, asks, “Link to an item in the news you’ve been thinking about lately, and write the op-ed you’d like to see published on the topic.” Today is the 47th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 2, 2014, asks, “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. When was the last time that sentence accurately described your life?”

Visit “Occupy Daily Prompt,” the DP Alternative.

News v. ‘News’

The president signed a bill into law today, which is news in and of itself since not much new legislation has made it to his desk in these last two Congresses, but it was the VA bill, a pretty important piece of “gotta fix this now” business. Most news outlets covered the event live, and a live stream even showed up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds (no, not from the White House or the Democrats. From a news organization) so I was aware it was taking place at the moment it was taking place.

It was not so for viewers of one national news channel; that operation had an nearly elderly rock star (Gene Simmons is 64 and is still leading KISS) speaking about global politics, war zones, and the controversial name of an NFL team. I believe “general interest” is what news producers call such a chat, rather than “specific news,” which is what was happening at Fort Belvoir while the president was signing the VA bill there. Simmons was probably on Fox News to plug some book, TV show, or thing, because a Gene Simmons without something to sell is a Gene Simmons we do not see on TV.

And now I have gone and further publicized this by including it in my little blog.

Most news shows tonight will not air the boring footage of a president signing a piece of paper but will instead feature Gene Simmons because he made his points about the name of the Washington Professional Football Team by using some colorful terms, giving us all a “Ha Ha!” moment or a “Shame on Gene Simmons! How old is he nowadays? What color is his hair?” moment. Perhaps someone should get a quote from President Obama about it, in order to keep him in the news.

The Life Cycle of a Retail Idea

The annual corporate image overhaul was usually followed by a frenzy of inaction, no changes outlined or implemented at all. One year, “corporate” decided that its most valuable property was the company’s image as a solution center, the place customers visited to get answers, like spiritual seekers traveling to commune with a lama on a mountaintop. The decades-old reputation of sales associates possessing a broad and deep knowledge base was the asset that was advertised, but the advertising was backed up with no internal education initiatives or local emphasis on, well, anything.

To be a bit nicer about it, I did get a pretty reliable t-shirt that I still wear sometimes, as seen in the photo above.

The latest news from RadioShack—that it is closing about 20% of its stores, that declining sales resulted in a net loss of $400 million in 2013—resulted in a statement that I overheard more than once last week: “Yeah, RadioShack went out of business. They closed yesterday.” It isn’t going out of business, not yet, and not yesterday, but how often do you hear RadioShack’s name come up in water cooler conversation anymore? And if and when you do, for the last several years, the next part of the sentence usually has been “… is going out of business.”

It is difficult to manage news properly when you have spent the last decade attempting to manage expectations.

Like many people, the first personal computer I ever used was a TRS-80 (Tandy Radio Shack-80), on which I learned the BASIC programming language and which we used in some now forgotten way to produce the very first newspaper I wrote, for my junior high school. (We also used a hand-cranked “ditto” machine.) From 1980 till 2005, I did not set foot in a Radio Shack, or give a thought to its stores or its brand. My association with the company was that it was for hobbyists and that I am not one. I bought my first computer from an Apple retailer, my phone from a department store, batteries from the local convenience store. The first and last time that I soldered something, it was not fun and I was a Cub Scout.

Running parallel to my various professional career employments has been my back-up: retail sales associate. In the 1980s, I partly paid for college by working at a Montgomery Ward (now out of business). Through the 1990s, I worked for an independent family-owned bookseller (now out of business). Starting in 2005, I worked at two RadioShacks in two locations, for two very talented managers. I became very fond of RadioShack and its long retail history, and I left the company in 2010. So yes, the only thing these various stores have in common is my employment with them and … well, at least RadioShack is still in business. As of today.

But for how long? In 1986, the Montgomery Ward in which I worked not only sold a lot of everything, but it also had its own cafeteria, so that shoppers, weary of their morning spent spending and ordering and redecorating, did not even have to leave the premises to eat. They could continue shopping after chowing down on a burger. Department store visits were destination shopping experiences, and customers could brand their entire home as Sears or Wards residences; a century ago, one could even buy a house, design plans and material and tools, from those companies’ catalogs. But one could also dash in and pick something up in an emergency—a roll of film or a pack of batteries or light bulbs or a necktie to replace the one with a fresh coffee stain. (I’m just spit-balling ideas here; that never happened to me.)

The malls replaced the department stores as destinations in themselves, plus they threw in a movie theater. Most of the major department stores have closed, except Sears and Kmart, and Sears is considered troubled by analysts and Kmart is continuously restructuring.

For a while, bookstores grew into destination experiences in the way they combined music sections with huge periodical collections and more than a few books. But by the mid-1990s, online retailers were beginning to attract attention—well, Amazon was—as well as a piece of the retail dollar. Many online retailers retain one’s entire purchase history; Amazon shows that my first purchase with it was made in 1998. At around that time, I first heard a customer reply to the information that a book was not in stock with this sentence: “I’ll drive over to Amazon and get it there.” When my colleagues and I would politely offer the information that no such thing as “an Amazon store” existed, they would correct us in return and say that they had been there the night before.

“Amazon” had come to mean “the big Barnes & Noble in the next town” for our customers, and Barnes & Noble was in trouble because of this association, too. Amazon has never had a physical store, and each retail operation that earns all 100 cents of its sales dollar from sales completed in real stores on real streets with real employees and real customers has been flummoxed for 15 years by this fact. Almost every bookstore tried to establish a enterprise only to discover—shortly after their customers discovered this first—that fulfillment meant getting the book that had been ordered into the store for the customer to pick up. And if the customers were going to visit the store for the privilege of paying shipping for a book that, if only you had stocked it there would have been no shipping charge, well, customers were going to find an alternative, like paying for shipping to their doorstep and not visiting your store.

The speed with which the book selling sector collapsed—Waldenbooks, Borders, hundreds if not thousands of independent booksellers—has only recently been rivaled. By the electronics sector.

And again, it is a combination of what was revolutionary about Amazon (and Walmart) combined with some baffling decisions and perplexing identity crises by electronics stores. The numbers are staggering, as pointed out in this Atlantic Monthly article:

RadioShack’s long slide coincides [with] the steep ascendance of Amazon as America’s great brick-and-mortar destroyer. In 2003, Amazon and RadioShack each had about $5 billion in sales, as WSJ business editor Dennis Berman pointed out. Last year, Amazon had $75 billion to RadioShack’s $3.5 billion.

Some further comparison is illuminating: At the end of 2013, RadioShack had 5,000 brick-and-mortar stores with 27,500 employees and $3.5 billion in sales, which is $127,000 in sales per employee. Its website is the 1,066th most popular in the world. At the end of 2013, Amazon had zero brick-and-mortar stores with 117,300 employees (full- and part-time) and $75 billion in sales, which is $640,000 in sales per employee.

Once upon a time, a decade ago, RadioShack and Amazon were the same size. But RadioShack has had six logos and changed its name twice since the late 1990s. Its annual Christmas advertising blitz has included gimmicks like casting Shaquille O’Neal as a spokesman, promoting itself as the public’s wireless destination, installing “fulfillment lockers” in stores (so Amazon customers who did not want things shipped to their homes could have them shipped to their local RadioShack (!) just to bring customers into the stores), and, it is worth repeating, decisively changing its name to “The Shack” and then decisively back. More than one writer has pointed out that “” is an oxymoron and is also the history of technology in one mouthful. This year, during the most-watched Super Bowl in history, viewers saw the company make fun of itself in a way that won the company a lot of affection but probably not one single new customer.

In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal’s online publication, MarketWatch, “On March 4, RadioShack’s ‘consumer perception’ among American adults who made a purchase in the store within the previous 90 days was just 8%, according to an analysis carried out for MarketWatch by YouGov BrandIndex.” In English, of those people who recently spent real money in a real RadioShack, only 8% were aware of RadioShack as an anything. For comparison, Best Buy gets a 22% customer perception rating. So the amusing ad did nothing except declare that, yes, we know you know we think we are out-of-touch, but, um, we won’t be like that anymore. “Come see what’s possible when we do things together,” is the new slogan. Are you asking me or telling me? Um, “things?”

What do all the recent headlines generated by the news of RadioShack’s imminent imminence mean, really? What are we telling ourselves about what we think we are (maybe) going to miss, if 92% of RadioShack’s actual money-spending customers were not even aware they spent that money in a RadioShack? Most of the business analyst articles are not about the changing face of retail in the face of a hundred-year-old company’s demise but head-shaking premature obituaries, neither musings about ways forward for the company nor attempts to explain how RadioShack has managed to stay alive after so many previous obits.

RadioShack is the company whose image for more than a decade has been “the store that thinks you need to be reminded of its image.” Sometimes the R is sans serif and sometimes it is serif, sometimes we are “The Shack” and sometimes … when a company does not know why it is in business, just that it wants to remain in business, it closes, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.

It will always de-materialize if you don’t work for it.