Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thoughts on 9/11

(Slightly revised speech given in 2002).

A martyr is a person who endures persecution and often death for the sake of their religious profession or position. It is a Greek word, meaning "witness." On September 11, I witnessed the instant initiation of more than 2,700 martyrs in a span of minutes.

I saw martyrs who chose to sacrifice their lives and their humanity by committing mass murder on a horrific scale.

I saw martyrs who choose to embrace humanity and sacrifice their lives trying to rescue people that could not be rescued.

And I saw martyrs that simply choose to go to work and live their lives, but who died anyway.

When I came out of the Chambers street subway station that day the first plane had already hit and the tower was on fire. There were about 70 people on the street corner watching with me. All of us trying to convince ourselves that it was a terrible accident and that most of the people would be okay.
Then the second plane hit. It must have hit the other side of the tower because I didn't see it. All I saw was the explosion and what looked like an engine turbine come flying out of the building. I later learned that the turbine landed two blocks away on Murray Street. At that point we all just ran. I fell and was stepped on by a few people but almost immediately helped me up. I walked the block to my office. My window looked out at the towers at the time.

I remember seeing people hanging out of the windows, waving sheets or curtains back and forth, and thousands of pieces of paper fluttering in the sky. At the time I couldn't process what I was seeing. I just kept thinking of a ticker tape parade. Part of me thought they were just "killing time" while waiting to be rescued; waving to the world and seeking attention the way some people always seem to do when the news cameras are on.

Then people started jumping; and the illusion was shattered for me. I was no longer capable of narrating a story in my mind to explain what was happening. What was happening defied explanation.

Hearing downtown New York gasp in disbelief as people fall from the sky defies explanation.

Watching the tower collapse in on itself, destroying in a moment the hope of thousands of spouses, children and parents, defies explanation.

Walking from City Hall to the George Washington Bridge with hundreds of people, many without shoes and covered in a shroud of gray dust, defies explanation.

Under normal circumstances our minds immediately begin making up stories to explain what we see. A constant and comforting voice in our head explains and narrates reality to us, telling us how everything that happens affects us. We witness something and our mind invents a meaning to fit what we witness. Someone doesn't call and we know it means they are forgetful, or they are angry, or we were supposed to call them. There's traffic on the bridge, so it means it is rush hour, or I'll be late. We get through our day by imposing meaning on our world -- by inventing stories to explain what we perceive.

But that day there was no rationalizing anything. There was no internal voice narrating any story for me. The city was on autopilot. We all shared an experience which left no room for internal commentaries.
Last year during the High Holy Days, I remember discussing how the sound of the Shofar calls all Jews back to Sinai, to the moment of revelation. And how we all stand at Mt. Sinai and hear the revelation of Torah for the first time, again and again. It is the greatest of spiritual good. A time when an entire people turn as one to God; and God, as One, turns to his people.

Whenever I hear someone speak of 9/11, or watch video of the towers, I hear a different Shofar. Its blast calls me back to that day, and I am again standing at the corner of Chambers and Church Street -- a witness to the instant infliction of pain, suffering, death, and mourning on a terrible scale. A time when an entire nation - a nation of martyrs - was murdered in God's name.

After 9/11 our rabbi, like many of the clergy, spoke of a new and fuller understanding of the need to eradicate all sources of hatred and evil in our world. She spoke of the preciousness of each and every life; and called on us to experience a new appreciation of every night we're able to kiss and hold our loved ones. A beautiful thought. But the reality is that after a short amount of time passes we tend to ignore the value each moment of life possesses and concentrate on just getting through the next moment, just waiting for the work day to end or for the kids to go to sleep.

And so, what does this all mean? What have we learned in the last eleven years? For all of us who were able to walk away from 9/11, how have our lives changed? There has to be meaning in so many deaths. Something other than shock over the immense waste of life, or anger with people who would do such a terrible thing. I find myself thinking about all those people who died and how the whole story of 9/11 has been laid out in great detail for us, like some great midrash, demanding that we find meaning -- some truth -- in the those terrible events.

So here is my midrash - my story. On Yom Kippur Jews give up life affirming actions - procreation, showering, eating and drinking. It is a day when we are not permitted to pretend we're immortal -- that death is someone else's problem. Instead, we come together as a community and we rehearse our deaths. And while we are not martyrs; while we are only a group of people pretending that we can prepare for death, that is no small thing. It is no small thing to stand as witnesses for each other. It is no small thing to come together as one people and acknowledge the innate value and fragility of life. It is no small thing to acknowledge that our own lives are grass in the wind - fleeting and at the same time infinitely precious.

We know that he who saves one life it is as if he saved a universe. And we know we are but no more than ashes and dust. September 11 will always call me back to these two truths. It is a Shofar blast that ingrains this paradox in my bones and blood. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

How Things Can Spin Out of Control Review-wise.

Here's a perfect example of how things spin out of control due to over-zealous reviewers.

I received this review on I've Been Deader.

From BookLover33
(4 stars)
"I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Was it the greatest book I ever read? No. But a fun read.  Highly recommend!"

Okay.  So my biggest fan.  But I didn't want her to feel ignored, so I left the following comment:

"At first I wasn't going to respond to this, but it is obvious to me that you read too much. Many people only read less than one or two books a year and if they read mine, it is very possible that "I've Been Deader" would be the greatest book they ever read. Please try to think before you post next time.  Thank you."

I figured that would be the end of it. But two hours later, the same reviewer responded:

"Excuse me??"

I was going to let it go, but it gnawed at me all day.  So after dinner I logged back on:

'I was surprised that your reply was a one word bit of snark rather than an apology. I have to question whether you actually read my book or if perhaps you have some other agenda. Either way, please take your Negative Nancy attitude somewhere else. I did not spend several hours of my long weekend writing a novel just so you could shit all over it!
Thank you."

Now, I know you're thinking: 'That's a reasonable request. I'm sure that was the end of it."  Unfortunately, you'd be wrong. Ten minutes later "another" reviewer posted a comment.

[PJ Bottoms]
You are an author, not God. You don't get to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a reviewer's comment. Your job is to shut up and write. I haven't read your book and now I never will. You are going on my "Would rather poke myself in the eye" shelf. Shame on you."

Well, this gave me pause. I certainly never intended to alienate anyone while expressing my opinion and I thought maybe I just wasn't making myself clear to the reviewer or this new person. It was probably time for some damage control.

"Fuck off. If you were a real reader, you wouldn't be trolling my book page looking for an excuse to trash my novel. Maybe you need to step back, take a breath, and ask yourself why you are behaving like such a jerk. I understand that my book, no matter how well-written, won't be for everyone. But the reviewer did not have to say it wasn't the greatest thing she had ever read. I mean, how does that help anyone? Do we know what else she's read? Or if she has trouble understanding more detailed stories like mine?  Or maybe she's just a liar.  I wonder what she tells her husband when she goes out at night!

I am not trying to insult either of you idiots. All I ask is that next time you take a minute and think before you post."

That's where we left it. I'll let you know when I get an apology.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Amazon Review Mafia. I know a guy who knows a guy.

Okay.  First things first.  I'm running low on Hormel Chili and Applebees won't let me take any more free after dinner mints.  So please, stop what you're doing and go buy "I've Been Deader."  This blog post will be here when you get back and, it isn't going to be anything special anyway.

                                          Feed my need, and watch Fred Feed.  http://tinyurl.com/zombuyme

Now that that's out of the way.

As some of you may know, there has been talk recently about Goodreads review bullies and an Amazon Review Mafia.  Allegations of a group of people who seek out authors they don't agree with and then attack them on their book's website or Amazon page. Obviously, this is happening to some extent. But should we care?

Here is what I observed on the Amazon forums. I can't really speak for Goodreads, because their Badly Behaving Author group, is private and for some reason they won't let me in. But there's serious overlap with the cast of characters and they seem to feed on each other's anger.

                                  WE KNOW YOU'RE OUT THERE!

First, a word about the victims. Authors. The authors that the target of  ARM attacks are generally not the most behaved lot. You have have read recent news stories about big time writers who pretend to be someone else by creating what is known as a "sock puppet" and leave nasty reviews on their competitor's book.   I know it sounds like fun, but people have a problem with this type of behavior.  Well, imagine that behavior multiplied by several magnitude and you get an idea of what a lot of self-published authors are up to.  There are  no innocents in this little drama. That being said, there does seem to be concerted actions by a core group of reviewers, focused on attacking these authors and doing so in a way that impacts their book without actually reviewing or apparently reading the book.

Here's what's happening:

There seems always to be a thread on the Amazon Kindle Book Forum (KBF), that deals with "Badly Behaving Authors." The thread is filled with about half a dozen posters who search out links to books where the author has done one or more of the following:

1. Left a review of his own book (Guilty, but I assure you it was all in good fun).

2. Had friends and family leave shill reviews or engaged in swap reviews with another writer.

3.  Spammed, or self-promoted their book in a place that Amazon says they can't (Guilty).

4. Responded poorly to a negative review of their book. (Joe Blow gives a two star review of my book and I comment on the review, calling Joe Blow a jerk).

I'll use example 4, since this seems to generate the most inappropriate comments from essentially the same group of people.

Here's what happens. Someone writes a book. Probably not a great book. Joe Blow buys the book, doesn't love it, and leaves a review that says "I didn't love it."
                                           "Too many POV shifts and the ending was predictable.  Two stars!"

Then the author comments on the review, saying "You didn't love it because you only read 30 pages and why is this your only 2 star review?? You're a dope."

                              "NO ONE UNDERSTANDS ME!  THAT'S WHY I WRITE!"

Then, someone on the BBA thread discovers the authors comment, posts about it, and before you know it, there are a string of comments defending the reviewer and attacking the author. Usually, the author not being the brightest bulb in the patch, continues to argue and things quickly spiral out of control.

In the end, the author is blacklisted on the Goodreads, BBA site, where everyone puts the book on their "Do Not Read" shelf, and the BBA thread posters on Amazon spend a few pages dissecting what they did and how terrible so many writers are.

Now, as you may also know, Dougie Brimson, a writer from the UK, is stirring the pot over this and causing no end trouble over at Amazon and a webpage called "STGRB" (Stop the GoodReads Bullies) is attacking the reviewers who are engaging in this type of behavior, or worse.

In the end, literary apocalypse.

                                         (Where did everybody go?)

So, my conclusion is that there certainly is an organized group of people who are committed to harming the reputations of authors they feel deserve it. I'm not saying they pay dues or anything.  But they know what they know and they support each other in their quest.

Of course, the easiest way to resolve this problem is to refrain from engaging in bad behavior.  If you have a book and someone writes a negative review, shut up.  You won't be doing yourself any favors by arguing.  If you are going to put up fake reviews, be prepared to be called out on them.  And when you get caught, don't respond.  Just delete.

Yes, there is a Review Mafia.  Yes, they seem to have a lot of time on their hands and enjoy overreacting.  Yes, they often inflame a situation that would have died down on its own.  But in the end, they don't have a book to sell.  So shut up and get writing.

Any thoughts? Comments? Haiku?