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Ethics: Covering Tragedy

I had brunch with a well-known literary critic shortly after the Boston tragedy. He’s a retired academic who also writes fiction, but he is not a journalist, and I have to remember that as I tell this story. Fiction writers are different; they make things up. It’s no wonder that journalists often turn to fiction writing—Hemingway, Cather, Twain, so many others—as it is a great relief not to stick to the facts. I have turned to fiction myself. Nothing has to be corroborated and the only disclaimer that has to be written is one about “no resemblance” to people either living or dead.

“Are journalists honoring or exploiting the lives of victims by writing about them? Do survivors want to tell their stories or be left alone? Where, exactly, is the line between being a chronicler and being a vulture?” These are the profound questions that are being asked by ATAVIST, an online media platform, in an invitation to a seminar for nonfiction writers taking place this evening. Even Reddit is engaged in self-reflection after President Obama and others criticized the crowd source witch hunt perpetrated on their site after the Boston bombings. “Suspects” were mistakenly identified. Who is to blame? Who is responsible? The proprietors did take responsibility and are making some more changes on their threads. But we have to remain vigilant as internet users—so fast and ready it’s scary sometimes.

What about fiction writers? What if a retired academic and literary critic, who is also a writer of fictions, creates a website to promote his book? What if this website lures readers to a service similar to a “bucket list” for the terminally ill, but it is entirely false; it’s a hoax? What if the disclaimer is nearly invisible at the bottom of the site and all the photographs on the site are of real people—including this critic’s beautiful wife—with false names? And what is the difference between a “fiction” and a “hoax”? What if? That's the prompt fiction writers use to generate their stories.

“What a sweet idea this is to take terminally ill patients on tours,” I said, just minutes into our brunch.

"It's a fiction," the well known literary critic said.

"I am shocked, " I said. "Terminally ill patients are desperate. They will try anything.”

“My publisher wanted me to take it down.”

“I’m not surprised,” I said.

“Well, I suppose if anyone contacted me and really wanted to go on the tour, I’d take them.”

“That’s good,” I said, “but it doesn’t take care of the problem. Your site is a fiction, but people who go there are not told it is fiction. They read it as true.”

Silence. This pleased me, of course. Like all bloggers, I wanted to have the last true word.  Read More 
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Last Sunday was the first anniversary of my mother’s death. I met a friend of hers and relatives at the grave and read two of her favorite poems—“Invictus” and “Daffodils.” We told funny stories, we embraced, we laid stones on the stone, we went on our way. My plan was to spend the rest of the day meditating on my mother and I’d brought a sandwich, an apple, some water, my journal—life passes quickly into pages these days—and good walking shoes. I drove to her house to pay last respects there. I hadn’t been told that it would be torn down. It was a shock, I have to admit, all her plantings bull-dozed into the woods, the dogwood tree my step-father planted still standing, but damaged. The site looks clean, well excavated, a fresh start.

Every settlement is a palimpsest with its layered history and buried memories. We are usually not aware of what came before as we live fruitfully in the present. Refugee families are somewhat different as their history has been broken, the reason, perhaps, that the leveled house hit me hard. We had remade some history there and an illusion of permanence. When our daughter was small, we visited almost weekly, swam in the pool, had barbecues. Our dog’s ashes are scattered in the woods. I’ve written to the new owner to tell her some of these things and to wish her well. I know that her neighbors, warm and caring, will welcome her with all their hearts.

My mother lived until April 21, 2012. She was 99 when she died, alert and interesting to the end, listening to the news, eager to vote, eager to hear me recite newly memorized poems.  Read More 
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If we learned anything during this hard week in the U.S. it was this: we have a post 9/11 rapid response police/military/intelligence “community” that can be mobilized rapidly, lockdown an entire city, and track “perpetrators” with high tech military weaponry. It didn’t take long for the war jargon to surface—after all we’ve been at war for the past decade—and to quickly lose any real sense of the unfolding tragedy both for the victims and, less so, the young perpetrators. It was the face of the younger brother that captivated, just 19 years old, radicalized perhaps by his older brother, or the legacy of the Russian genocide in Chechnya, or, simply, struggles with life in the United States. (That bitterness came out in the tweets.) Still, many questions remain unanswered. Empathic language about the victims, those who had been injured and died, permeated the discussion at the news conference. And the word “accountability” surfaced. It was a reminder that fanaticism is always challenged in this country—even in Congress—and that jihad may be a word that flies off the tongue, but does not fly in our Republic. I am even more appreciative of our freedoms—physical, emotional, spiritual—as I revise this blog than I was before the bombings. How dare these fanatics interrupt and disrupt our lives? However imperfect, we are free to live them.

There is a saying—and I don’t know where I read it—“Beware of the person who carries only one book.” In my iteration of this sentiment today, I would say: Beware of the person who is not honest/ transparent about his opinions, who maintains a furtive rather than an open life, who has hidden agendas, and makes bombs. Read More 
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Laundry Room Conversations

I went to the basement in my white-brick 1914 landmarked building with its old rusty pipes and three elevators that was once upon a time luxurious. Now it is run down and in need of repair—workers on the roof, workers repointing bricks—which I have already written about here. But it’s been quiet this week and I have been able to get back to the revision of my novel without needing to escape to other writing spaces (I have two) and this has been bliss. Thus, a moment to answer emails from students and to write a blog entry about a laundry room conversation.

I rarely meet anyone in the laundry room as I go there in off hours for my own convenience and also as an act of altruism. Those with 9-5 jobs fill the machines over the weekend. And I take my time, chat to Cleopatra, the old gray in-house cat with yellow eyes, browse the shelves of books people have donated, most of which are old and dusty and not to be touched or brought back into the apartment for fear of cockroaches and flying water bugs, most delicious as they are squished. (My husband saved me from one last night.)

I wasn’t alone yesterday, Bill was there, and I noticed—as he was putting his wet clothes into a dryer—that there was a book at the bottom of his cart and that it was a Kingsolver. So I asked, “Do you like her work?” And he said, “Yes, very much.” So we began to chat about her and her work, which led to other things, of course, about doing the laundry, for example, and the warm weather, and the elevator culture in the building, which is odd—people don’t talk much to each other. In fact, Bill and I had talked a bit in the elevator (I have 14 floors to descend, he has 13), but not all that much in the two years I have been here. And I thought to myself, how wonderful books are—in and of themselves—but also as entrée to shared experience and deep conversation.  Read More 
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