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The View From the Alley

South Minneapolis Alley

As puns go, Write Up My Alley may call forth a groan or two, but I’m okay with that. The metaphor of “the alley” suggests a point-of-view as well as a physical space. It is not the front we present to the street; nor, the tree-lined boulevard.  It’s the back, where we keep the trash cans. It’s where we come and go from back doors, back yards, garages, and driveways. It’s not formal.  It’s where we cook out, play with the kids, and curse the old lawn mower within sight and hearing of our neighbors. In the inner city, you may see your alley neighbors more, and know them better than the people who live across the street.

Why do I write “from the alley”? Who wants to write from the enclosed front porch of a suburban McMansion? I don’t have access to one, anyway. I’m a city person, and when I lived in Minneapolis, the alleys of my neighborhood, Powderhorn Park, brought me many friends and stories that have informed and influenced my writing, especially my young adult novel Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things.

For me, the alley is a state-of-mind that is diverse, informal, inclusive, multicultural, edgy, family-friendly, artsy, organic and green. From here you can observe the back end of the cycle of life: trash, garbage cans, dumpsters, litter and defunct appliances. It’s where scrap metal and junk go to die in the city–out of sight and out of mind except to those who live in the neighborhood. It may be littered with abandoned cars and the viscera of cars: old tires, hubcaps, drive trains, and mufflers, but there it goes through cycles of renewal with each new generation or new wave of immigrants.  City kids navigate the alleys like river systems, and scavenge in them like archaeologists. And out of the alley comes the raw material of junk art and political expression that sometimes erupts on to front lawns and dances down the street and into the park with a neighborhood parade.

 

View from the Alley: Let’s Make Congress Part-Time & Cut Their Benefits!

Why not? They seem to have no idea what it’s like for a substantial portion of the American workforce. We do full-time, professional quality work (I’m thinking of adjunct professors because I am one, but also administrative and clerical, blue-collar and service workers –well, that covers just about all of us who are not Congressmen or Senators, doesn’t it?

We do full-time, professional quality work, but our job descriptions limit us to just under the number of hours it takes to qualify for benefits like leave, health insurance, life insurance, pensions, and overtime (because they DO expect us to put in those extra hours out of “professionalism” if a crisis arises). This is what American workers have settled for to do our duty for “the economy.” And yet, statistically, the economy is only profiting the 1% at the top.

Meanwhile, many of the tired, angry workers of this country have spent several decades  now in a systematically controlled exercise in distraction from who is really screwing whom–trying to get government to control gay people, birth control generally,women’s bodies specifically, and where people pee. This has yielded a “denial script” for Republican leaders about stopping people from doing things that they consider should not be their right to do, taking something away from people that Republicans think they don’t deserve, and cutting taxes for the rich so-called “job-makers.”

While the Democrats failed to counter this juggernaut of negativity in the last Presidential election, that is not to say that they don’t have what it takes to do so. I’d like more of them to argue (much as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have done) that these are not the best pursuits (or even the legitimate pursuits in some cases) of government. In a country as rich as ours, we ought to be thinking about how to keep the poorest, most vulnerable people among us (children, elders, and the physically and mentally disabled) from destitution–not how to judge them like we are all God at the Gate of Heaven. We should not want to cut them off.  First of all, we are paying for them anyway! Those who choose to go uninsured, for example– either because they don’t want to pay or can’t afford to pay for health insurance–still get sick and still get old and still end up getting medical care that the insured pay for. So, how is their “freedom” from health insurance so great for the economy? It’s only great for the health care providers and the prescription drug companies.

The idea that in a powerful and economically strong nation, we should all accept some “pain” to take care of each other, is not a radical notion. It is fundamental to just about every religion, and yet there is little evidence of it in our political rhetoric, especially not in the so-called religious right wing of the Republican party. So much judgment and so little humility . . . and over the past several years an astonishing evangelical promotion of Right Wing “values”that amounts to “social engineering,” a term Republicans like to reserve for Democratic programs and policies but view with a blind eye when it comes to their own.

Meanwhile, look at our jobs . . . and look at our leaders’ jobs. And while we’re at it, look at the jobs of CEOs and the super rich, and the benefits including freedom from taxation, that they enjoy. Are they ever in danger of losing income, hours, or benefits? And yet they wield the axe over the rest of us like there’s no tomorrow! This is what I’ve been thinking about as I watched the repeal of Obamacare sour and curdle like very old milk. In the end, not even Paul Ryan wanted to drink it–at least not in public. So, I suggest that Congress socially engineer itself into a part-time workforce without benefits. And, by the way, I don’t care which bathroom they use as long as they behave decently. So, no need for legislation on that.

 

What’s New in the Alley_March 2017

Looking out over the urban landscape in these days of political division and inertia, I have a literary reaction.

My book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about a boy with a knack for making something out of nothing, and the great “junk horse” he creates for the Powderhorn Parade is a metaphor for the power of a child’s love and imagination to make something beautiful out of other people’s trash. But there is more being “recycled” than the debris that accumulates in the dumpsters and alleys of Powderhorn Park.

I tried to suggest this with my original title for the book: The City of Paris. My beta readers didn’t find my play on words as clear or engaging as I did, so I gave it up. I think, however, that with the recent rise in negative public discourse around immigration and diversity, I’d like to share what that title meant to me and what I was trying to get across.

This narrative is more than a coming-of-age novel about the individual identity quest of a young boy. It has always been equally important to me that this story represents the dynamic and essential, ever-changing face(s) of a community—specifically an urban American community. The Powderhorn neighborhoods and the “Parises” who live in them are not unique to my imagination or to Minneapolis; and, that is why I wanted to feature “the city” in my title. In my opinion, “the city” suffers from a negative stereotype that I wanted to challenge. I also hoped that readers would see Paris and children like him more clearly and empathetically, and recognize that it is they who make the cities of America hopeful places, full of creativity, resourcefulness, and families created not necessarily through blood but through need and empathy.

Based on responses from my readers of all ages, the message gets through regardless of the title—so I’m not going to change it! But I think it’s important in light of today’s divisive political climate to stand up for the array of ideals embodied in America—not only individualism but also community; not only America first ahead of all others, but America first to be humane. Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things is about the challenges facing all of us, to make something out of nothing—a “coat of many colors” for Lady Liberty woven from the threads most of us should remember with humility that we have carried from someplace else to these shores.

In Response to My Middle School Readers: Why you write is as important as what you write

Recently, middle school students at a charter school in New Jersey, who also happen to be writing novels, read my book Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things and invited me to visit. It was gratifying to meet people who took the serious issues seriously, laughed at the comedy, loved the characters, and begged me to write a sequel. But before I arrived, they sent me a list of questions and comments that gave me a chance to look at my story with fresh eyes.

I realized that writing Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost things was very much influenced by a book of photographs I received as a prize for winning an essay contest in high school. It came from a famous 1955 photo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Family of Man.” They were vivid black-and-white images of people of many cultures and colors from around the world— working, playing, laughing, crying, eating, dancing, falling in love, getting married, celebrating, and sometimes mourning. It was a moving representation of the idea that in spite of our different appearances, religions, abilities, and traditions, we all share these experiences. Growing up in the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War reminding us every day that differences and fears can lead to violence, I knew I wanted to stand against that in my writing.

Respect for diversity, and love for what is good in humanity is at the heart of my writing. The dictionary says that diversity means, “being composed of differing elements or qualities,” but in America today that word suggests a lot more. It’s about people—and the racial, cultural, sexual, and ability-related “qualities” that make each of us unique and yet part of the human family. The trouble is the human family is often dysfunctional. Nevertheless, we humans have our moments of excellence. I found many in Powderhorn Park, the inner city neighborhood where my novel is set.

In Powderhorn Park “family is who shows up.” It isn’t always what we might expect—two working parents and a nice house in the suburbs. Often, it’s a mix of people coming together to help each other when the “usual” supports are missing. Maybe, there’s one parent, or no job, or no house and not enough money; or, maybe bullying, war, and prejudice, have turned the world upside down for a lot of people all at once. Those are the harsh realities that sometimes, in some places, create new families and new communities.

Powderhorn Park has always been that kind of place. Negative TV and movie images of the “city” are not the whole story of what goes on there. It is also refuge for people when they get lost in life, when they might not be welcome anyplace else because they’re poor or sick or troubled. It’s a place of hope as well as problems, where people do turn their lives around, where people do help each other.

In the book, there is a Powderhorn Parade based on a real  parade (the May Day Parade) that has been going on for forty years. It is a yearly event in which most of the costumes and floats come from recycling and repurposing things that might otherwise be thrown away, and the people bring to it all their cultural influences, colors, and rhythms like pieces of a mosaic. It’s a way to refresh and hold on to traditions and share them with new neighbors.

It is not just “stuff” that can get lost or “thrown away” but also people. It is hard to accept, for example, that anyone or anything we love can be truly lost to us, but it happens. It’s not always easy to know what we can do about the bad things that happen in the world, but the students I met let me know that they were glad to read about a fatherless “brown boy, wiry and strong, with dark eyes shaped like almonds, clear and alert, wide-set in a face the color of coffee with cream” and named Paris Thibideaux, who gave it a try.

Book Talk @ Friends Library in Kane, PA

I’ll be at the Library in Kane, PA at 7pm on Tuesday, May 19th to talk about Paris Thibideaux & the World of Lost Things. I am looking forward to sharing images from the real Powderhorn Park and discussing the book, writing, publishing, teaching, and whatever else comes up among delightfully bookish people.

Thurber Writes a Revew: A Dark Road by Amanda Lance

Amy Lance, in A Dark Road, has created an engaging teen romance that is deceptively simple on the surface, but has a dark heart. It’s a quick and satisfying read with snappy dialogue and the melodrama of young people in an imperfect world. The moral challenges that break families and friendships are exposed gradually as the bright and promising protagonists, Hadley and McKay, deal with the consequences of McKay’s meth business. Young readers will recognize the culture, language, and day-to-day business of high school. The setting is rural Pennsylvania, not very diverse racially, but the author suggests that economic disparities play a role in drug culture. A lot of chemistry is explained, and the danger inherent in “cooking” methamphetamine creates a menacing backdrop for the budding romance. The effects of McKay’s products on his “customers” are realistically portrayed, but the tone is not preachy, and that’s a good thing. The focus of the narrative is the romance and its potential for tragedy, but it also touches on broader societal issues around meth manufacture and use in rural America.

A View from the Alley: The Diversity Movement in YA & Middle-School Literature

So, I’m a writer looking at the world from my back door–not the front lawn, the shopping center, or the rarified atmosphere of intellectual movements. I’m just saying: if you are a group of bloggers or agents or social justice activists, for example, frustrated (unto outrage even) with the lack of books being published about or by people of color, why would you limit your reviews and promotional activities to books published only by commercial publishers? Aren’t you saying, as an advocate, that they are the problem? In other words, they may publish “some” but “not enough” of what we think is missing from the bookshelves.

And by refusing to review self-published books for young people, that are by or about people of color, aren’t you perpetuating the “ghettoization” and inferior stereotyping of self-published writers? Some of these self-published books are being used in classrooms already because teachers recognize their value. Thank goodness they are responding to direct marketing from self-published writers, and not waiting for commercial publishers or well-intentioned but self-limiting activists to tell them what to buy and teach. Change is coming, and there is plenty to praise in the promotion of diversity in literature movement. I just wish I could see it from my alley.