I was invited to be part of the new Jim Johnson commercial to be filmed in his house. Jim is running for governor in New Jersey and is building up a head of steam against Phil Murphy who is papering the state with his Goldman Sachs money in an effort to buy the governorship. But I digress…… I knew I had arrived when I turned the corner onto Jim’s street and saw several large vans and about 25 cars parked along the street. Jees! Who were all these people? There was a young man in Jim’s front yard who directed me to the back of the house. I went up the stairs into the house. Countertops and chairs were covered, with five foot tall baffles of corrugated cardboard in every corner, and a cardboard walkway on the floor. People everywhere. I joined the other “actors” in the basement, where we whiled away the time eating snacks from Trader Joe’s and checking our cellphones, occasionally chatting. It was impossible to know, without spending time finding out, who all the people were – campaign operatives? Other actors? Sound men? The director? Visitors? Jim's relatives? Campaign employees were on their computers and cellphones around one of the tables. Groups of people retreated to a back room for a private discussion. (By the way, Jim’s basement is tidy, which I took as a physical manifestation of his orderly mind.) We were down there for an hour as a soft mumble of activity went on over our heads, then we were called upstairs. Before sitting at the dining room table I went in search of a Kleenex and ran into Jim in the hall. He greeted me with his usual smile, “Hi Ann! Thanks so much for coming.” A makeup artist or hairdresser or something was snipping away at his already short hair. The level of detail is astonishing. Who would ever notice an errant strand of hair? The scene was to take place at a round dining room table. I assume it was his own table, though they might have brought one in. There was a theatrical light outside the window, providing daylight. The windows were partially blocked, partially veiled, with strips of tape across them, all in service of getting just the right light, without glare. There were no microphones because our words would not be part of the commercial. “Maybe there will be a low hum of conversation, but people won’t be able to distinguish your words,” said a person in charge. (At one point a hand-held microphone on an extension appeared over our heads, but only for a while. To get the “hum,” probably.) People placed half-full cups of coffee, popcorn, and potato chips on the table. Then somebody placed a paper plate with a half eaten pastry (sandwich?) in front of me, and Jim laughed. “Hey! In my house people don’t eat off paper plates. I don't want to look like a skinflint.” They got real plates. The director, I guess, gave us the instructions. “I know Jim is a gregarious and charming guy, but he’s not supposed to be the one talking. We want you to have different kinds of conversations, serious, lighthearted, involving Jim, but not just you guys listening to him.” Then we started filming. One woman was intent on pressing Jim for political reforms, but most of the time we just got to know one another. “Eyes on her,” the camerawoman said. “Look over there!” "Now change the subject to a lighter one.” I hope our genuine interest in each other came across. Jim did as he was told. In real life, he's equally comfortable speaking and listening -- he didn't feel deprived giving away the spotlight for most of the commercial. Late in the filming, they focused on Jim, who was asked to formulate questions for each person around the table. The questions were pointed and probing. Nothing he does is done lightly, though it is always done in good humor – at least everything I’ve ever seen.The camerawoman, or director, or whoever she was, asked me to move closer to Jim, who was sitting to my right, because the camera caught an empty space between us. I moved closer. “More,” she said. Jees! How close could I get! Our feet were tangling under the table, bumping against the table foot, our arms were only inches from each other. I didn’t want to look like I was tackling him, but the woman kept saying there was a space there and I needed to move closer. So Jim and I were snuggled up and the rest of the table was evenly spaced. The magic tricks were numerous – fake light, no background sound, engineered spacing, invented conversation. That’s how it’s done. If you see the commercial, look for me. I’m the one beside our next governor – you won’t see our toes touching under the table. Frank, a former teacher and avid tennis player, asked how long our part of the commercial would be. “Two and a half seconds” she replied.
So happy that my website is back and I can post again. I have a few ideas backed up after being away from my own little publishing machine for a few weeks. Several years ago I submitted a long article to a top-flight magazine –start at the top and work your way downward. A publicist friend warned me, “Don’t send it to them. They’ll take the information and assign the article to someone better known than you are. I’ve seen it happen a dozen times.” Hubris overtook me, though. I was sure that the information uncovered in a year of research would be unfamiliar and useful. The subject was the history of abortion, and I wrote the article after a student in one of my classes wrote, “I wish we could go back to the days before Roe v. Wade when there were no abortions.” Being of an age to remember the days before Roe, I knew her assumption was wrong, but it was surprising how small a part of the general conversation dealt with the millennia, or even the decades, preceding Roe. I got a note acknowledging the submission and then heard nothing. Two months later a long article about abortion appeared in that magazine (the first such article I can remember) using swaths of my research and some of my analysis. It was written by a Harvard professor who had an agenda which differed from mine, but my research served her well. Railing against this practice would have been a futile waste of energy. A professional author has to know how to protect herself against this kind of plagiarism, which cannot be proven. There’s a minuscule chance that the Harvard professor never saw my submission, but the pattern of presentation, the nature of the analysis, and the sources perfectly matched it, and it had been sent only two months earlier, about the right amount of time for a busy professor to pull together an article, especially since she just had to rejigger it and add her own ideas. The principle motivation for writing it was to inform others on a subject which affects everyone, not only the one-third of American women who have had an abortion. Ignorance on this subject is skewing the debate. I was glad the information got out there, and I gained confidence. If I could write one article of interest to a major outlet, I could write another, and I learned a business lesson that I won’t soon forget. This is an unethical practice, but the business world is full of unethical practices. It is up to me to figure out a way to circumvent them. I am so grateful to have income from Social Security so I can fail without fear of poverty. Finances aside, it’s hard to swallow a lesson like this one, especially since I had been warned. But it’s never too late to learn a little humility. What should I do with my next good article?
Surely the prison capital of the U.S. would be Florence, Arizona. (Not to be confused with supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, where people like Ted Kazynski and Zacharias Massaoui are stored.) Maybe there's a town with more, or better hidden prisons than here. Florence is one of the oldest towns in Arizona, and proclaims its “historic downtown” at every turn. It has a population of 25,000+. Given that there are at least three large prisons there, it puzzles me that they should have an 8.1% unemployment rate. If prisons are the successful commercial enterprise that they claim to be, there should at least be a low unemployment rate in the town where the prisons are. Mind you, this mysterious, evil-feeling place is in the middle of the Sonoran desert, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We were cruising along Route 79, getting ready to turn right at Florence for the last leg of a trip from Phoenix to Tucson, when I saw this enormous complex in the distance. Out in the middle of the desert – what was that? We drove closer and saw it was a prison. Wow. That’s a lot of prisoners. Building after long white building. This complex is run by the Corrections Corporation of America. It looks all spanky white and clean on the outside, like an outpost on Mars which contains its whole life inside its bubble. Then we passed another complex on the other side of the road. I had heard about the holding pens for illegals, and here was one, a sun baked jerry-rigged patch of misery. This is where the immigrants (and their children?) live, I guess. I say “I guess” because I didn’t interview anyone or do any research. I just see the sign and then the fence and then the buildings and make assumptions. At this point, I’m getting depressed. Thousands of people were housed out in the desert, but I couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear any children playing, nothing moved. But we had yet to get to this third prison. Yet another huge complex of prison buildings. This complex was the only one where we saw human beings. Maybe I’ve read too many articles recently about the incarceration rate in the U.S. Maybe I read too many articles and books about the desperation of immigrants. Maybe I’ve seen too much Orange is the New Black. But the sight was suffocating, even just looking at it from the outside. As we were driving, we found ourselves following an open backed truck with orange-suited prisoners seated on each side. “There’s your money picture,” Terry said. “No,” I disagreed. The point is the monotony, the punitive blankness, the size of these places. The pillow of blasé ignorance over every face hidden away in these prisons. Surely there could not be this many people so dangerous that we have to build a place like this. We’ve heard that incarceration is a business, and here it is right in front of us. Build it and they will come. We then had lunch in the Old Pueblo restaurant in downtown Florence where we got a decent chili relleno and some carne asado. As we approached the door, I was thinking that the customers would be prison guards or other prison employees who were either on their day off or on their lunch break. I was wrong. It was filled with snow birds. If there is such a thing as vibrations which emanate from humans, even from a distance, then dark things were emanating from the prisons in Florence. I have had my own days of alienation and isolation. They came back to me there. I believe that poverty, illness, or bad luck is the reason why many of the inmates are in these places. Some, maybe a lot of, people have to be locked away and removed from our sight because they are unredeemably destructive, but not this many of them. To believe that so many people need to be removed in order for us to live good life is to believe that the human race is raked with evil intentions and ill will; to lose faith in ourselves. It would be natural to believe that the governors of the town of Florence viewed the prisons as a great boon (notwithstanding the fact that as of December, 2014 they still had an unemployment rate of over 8%), but you will have to search a while before you even find a mention of the prisons on the town website. The draw there is all about the history of the town, its distinctive architecture, its country music festival, its model airplane field, and so on. If you dig around long enough, you'll discover that the town’s four major employers are the school system, the county, the town itself, and the Corrections Corporation of America, yet CCA doesn’t get any props on the website. Living in Florence would be worse than living surrounded by cemeteries, because there are beating hearts in those blank prisons. Even people who believe in incarceration as the solution to our ills must feel the grey pall. Surely we lack imagination if the only way we can figure out to live a civilized, secure life is to bury so many people alive out in the desert, and the only way we can figure out to find work is to employ another cohort of thousands keeping them there. It was like looking from the outside at a war zone. I don't know the details. I don't know the true cost, or the people who made the decisions, or how much harm those prisoners did, or what the destroyed lives used to look like. I do know that there must be a better way.
When you are writing own your story remind yourself that it is …. a story. It has to stand on its own. Everyone has a story. Belief that yours is somehow more interesting than somebody else’s is demeaning to them. When you put your adventures out there, other people will learn about them and tell you about their own; then you’ll wonder why you thought you were so special. The difference between you and other people is not the events in your life or your family's life, but the fact that you have written them down and shared them with others. Most architects, dentists, plumbers, and airline pilots do not write down what they have seen and heard, but you do. In some respects, the popularity of your writing depends on your audience. If you are writing for family members who are interested in the fact that Great-Grandpa Moskowitz was a Jewish cowboy in Minnesota, or that Great-Uncle Boogaloo Mandrake gave a series of sold-out concerts in Carnegie Hall playing the harmonica, they will be entranced, because those stories enhance their own. If your audience is more general, you have to apply the principles of good writing. A newspaper editor whose name escapes me said, “The easiest thing to do is to stop reading.” Pace the revelations, express yourself in sentences appropriate to the subject matter, create an arc to the story (a beginning, a middle, and an end), and, if possible, find some humor in it. When asked why his books were such a good read, Elmore Leonard said, “I just cut out the boring stuff.” One thing that most people will find boring is that you have relatives that are waaaaay more interesting than their own. Humbling yourself before the audacity and richness of other people’s live takes the pressure off you. When the game is on the line, the best coaches say, “Go out there and have fun.” Read Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, then get started.