An issue of The Sun without the word I in it would be refreshing.
Like Hector Aristizábal [“The Blessing Is Next to the Wound,” interview by Diane Lefer, October 2005] I have worked with troubled teens, as a therapist and as a diagnostic social worker for the juvenile-court system. I’ve learned that poor kids — whether African American, Hispanic, Appalachian, or other — are no different than any other kids. They need and deserve the same things: safe neighborhoods, excellent schools, opportunities to try their hand at various activities, and, above all, at least one adult who cares deeply about them.
What they do not need is to become the pawns of adults who have agendas. These kids are vulnerable, hurt, and angry. There will come a time when they will decide what political actions they may want to take. In the meantime they should have their basic needs met. Traditional therapy does not try to make people complacent; it tries to make them functional members of a complex society. I wish we provided more therapy for poor kids.
I agree with Hector Aristizábal that our schools are “like prisons, and kids who get bad grades end up stigmatized as troublemakers, as rebels. . . . Their parents are humiliated and blamed or just disrespected and ignored.” I also agree that the schools belong to the parents and children — not to the principals and teachers.
As a teacher, I can say that we educators spend too much time villainizing children and parents and too little time examining how we are failing our students. Only when teachers start working with parents and stop blaming them for their children’s problems will the school system change for the better.
I hesitated to read Diane Lefer’s interview with Hector Aristizábal. I was afraid to connect with the pain and fear, the senseless violence of the world in which we live. I have tried many methods of blocking out this world: reading science fiction and fantasy, watching TV, playing video games, using drugs and alcohol. I’ve even refused to watch the news or read a newspaper.
But, knowing that The Sun always helps me out of my personal misery, I forced myself to read Aristizábal’s words. His comparison of imagination and fantasy put my feelings into perspective: “Imagination connects to the deep self. . . . Fantasy connects to the ego.”
The Sun does not cater to my fantasies. Rather, it always inspires my imagination. When I finish an issue I want to write, comment, connect — not to run away. I want to live and be a part of the world, not be apart from it.
What exactly was the point of Sy Safransky’s Notebook this month [October 2005]? His journal is usually a pity party of one sort or another, but to devote an entire page to woe-is-me navel-gazing and hand-wringing over the devastation from Hurricane Katrina and the unequal state of affairs in this country does nothing to remedy any of the horrors or wrongs he laments. Is he surprised at the level of poverty in the U.S.? Does he subscribe to the notion that self-castigation somehow relieves the pain of a harsh reality? If he is so aggrieved by the inequity and hardship, let him go out and do something about it. Stepping outside of his socially conscious, progressive, majority-white community might be a start.
It’s easy to be an armchair überliberal. Out in the confusion and hubbub of the world, people of different races are living flush up against one another, doing what they can to build bridges of understanding and create small spaces of kindness in their daily lives. Black people don’t need Safransky’s tears. They are people like any other, good and bad. Safransky should live among them, treat them the way he does his privileged, progressive friends, and tamp up his bleeding heart.
I recently picked up the October issue, and I appreciated Sy Safransky’s frank and fresh discussion of race and class in his Notebook. I am a black Haitian immigrant and the principal of an urban charter school in Boston with a predominantly white staff. I photocopied Safransky’s piece and showed it around. It sparked some great conversations among the staff about race, poverty, and our work.
It was a line from a Sun brochure that inspired me to subscribe. In his story of how he started The Sun, Sy Safransky writes, “Better to be a pilgrim without a destination . . . than to cross the wrong threshold every day.”
After reading that, I decided to quit my job and travel to Sri Lanka to help rebuild areas destroyed by the tsunami. While I was preparing for the trip, however, Katrina struck, and I chose to help in New Orleans instead. Using the last of my vacation time before I quit, I spent a week and a half in St. Bernard Parish, one of the hardest-hit areas.
In his Notebook, Safransky writes that he hopes not to forget Katrina, yet as a human being, he says, he inevitably will. What would change this? What would help us all to remember the misfortune of others? All the pictures and news reports in the world won’t do it. I could show you the photographs I took of the piles of sticks that used to be homes, the cars propped up against houses, the spray-painted x’s that indicated a building had been searched and dead bodies had been found within. But a picture doesn’t show the miles of other homes just like the one in the photograph. It doesn’t put the smell in your nostrils, or let you experience the eerie silence.
The way not to forget these events is to take a week, or a day, and make them a part of your own memories.
After reading Poe Ballantine’s essay “The Irving” in the October 2005 issue, I have fallen in love with him. That’s really all I have to say. I’m now reading all of his books.
What’s up with Poe Ballantine? In his essay “The Irving” he obviously wants to convince the reader (over and over again) that he is a wild-and-crazy guy, a friendly, self-dramatizing writer-clown from Nebraska. This pose, he believes, permits him to hurl ugly insults at great writers and remain charming. But to pull this off one has to be a more accomplished stylist than Ballantine, who simply falls into a frenzy.
Norman Mailer, according to Ballantine, has been braying his “bloated opinions for fifty years.” He “has the soul of a Korean alarm clock.” He’s also an “old fossil,” a “millionaire dust bag,” and a “harmless old mastodon.” “What beauty has he wrought?” Ballantine asks, with all the earnestness of a ninth-grader in search of stardust. And then, even more poignantly: “How many times has he made me laugh or filled me with the wonder of being human?” Mailer is so irrelevant that several of Ballantine’s friends are surprised to find out he is still alive. Ballantine points out in an aside that Mailer is a “monumental intellect who writes well about murder and war.” (Oh, lovely. Those who have actually read Mailer might add: sex, love, politics, religion, rocketry, other writers, and Lee Harvey Oswald.) Mailer’s lifework, recently sold to the University of Texas for $2.5 million, consists, in Ballantine’s opinion, of “nine hundred boxes of crap.”
When did The Sun start publishing such shallow rants? Ballantine’s essay inadvertently offers us the image of a young, ambitious writer — surrounded by a small fan club of like-minded souls — who is full of fuzzy resentments. Name-calling, even in a semicomedic vein, is just not enough. There must be a trace of nuance. One’s knives must be sharper. Mailer is, after all, a brilliant, provocative, raging, and enraging literary warrior who has fought with courage and wit in all the great intellectual battles of the last half of the twentieth century. If one is going to insult Mailer repeatedly, then one must do it bravely, with great precision and illuminating metaphors. Otherwise one is a punk, a shrill voice in the crowd yelling at the aging heavyweight, “You’re going down, you lousy bum! You’re washed up! You’re through!” Taking on Mailer, who at eighty-two walks with two canes, still means going into the ring with him. Anything else is mere flailing.
Poe Ballantine responds:
What’s up with John Rosenthal? In his letter “I Kiss Norman’s Feet” he obviously wants to convince the reader (over and over again) that I have not “actually read Mailer” and do not possess a lofty enough prose style to criticize celebrities. This pose, Rosenthal believes, permits him to hurl ugly insults at me and remain convincing.
According to Rosenthal, I am a “self-dramatizing writer-clown from Nebraska,” a “shrill voice in the crowd,” and a “punk.” “When did The Sun start publishing such shallow rants?” Rosenthal asks, with all the earnestness of a pedant supplicating a god made of dust.
Rosenthal’s impotent fuming inadvertently reveals the quivering shadow of an outraged idealist defending the holy bastions against anyone who isn’t famous. Name-calling, even in a semivitriolic letter to the editor, is just not enough. I am, after all, a brilliant, provocative, funny guy with a big nose. If one is going to insult me repeatedly, then one must do it without being such a flaming hypocrite.
Amy Lemon’s letter [Correspondence, October 2005] ends, “Now, if only someone could write an essay that reminds me why I am still an American.”
Who needs an essay? I can do it in a sentence: You’re still an American because you can write that letter without even considering the possibility that you could wind up in prison for it.