Welcome to the Promise Zone: Secretary Julian Castro Visits Minneapolis

On October 30, 2015, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro participated in a Minneapolis forum on affordable housing. With nothing better to do on a Friday morning, I picked up a notebook and decided to play journalist. Enjoy.

Secretary Castro at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis. From the Star Tribune.

I first saw Julian Castro as the nation did, the keynote speaker of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Young and charismatic, the San Antonio mayor shared the story of his childhood, the influence of his Chicana activist mother, and all the that carried him to that stage that night. Watching live on the small-screen of my iPad, eating leftovers in a Houston apartment I couldn’t afford, like many around the country I wondered if this was his “Audacity of Hope” moment. Like that state senator of Illinois, he stressed the importance of the one thing that makes all the difference for those who find all the world pointed at them: Opportunity. It’s this that allows us the chance to rise above our circumstances—and the more we have, the freer we are to live the life we seek.

I was so enamored with Castro’s message that, afterward, I texted a friend of mine who was a delegate to the convention and asked she bring back one of the placards with the word on it. Hanging on the wall right above my desk, I’d often rest my eyes on it, reminding myself that you can’t fault a man for not trying if he’s never had the chance to. That’s something we forget about—because it’s so much easier to judge a man for staying on the ground than offering a hand.

The next year I saw Castro in person at the 2013 Young Democrats of America convention in San Antonio, though truthfully I can’t recall a word of what was said—either of his speech or at the convention as a whole. All I’ll say of those nights is that the rumors are untrue, I’ve already apologized to the state of Delaware, and yes, I’m also surprised I could fit a whole bottle of wine in my coat pocket. (See you in 2017, young liberals).

In the years since, Julian Castro’s proved to be the rising star the pundits said he was, with President Obama appointing him in 2014 to serve as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Given his successes in San Antonio, the hope is that they will be replicated in cities like Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Sacramento, each designated “promise zones” in reducing poverty and crime and improving economic opportunities. The HUD designation is meant to be as encouraging as it is aware of who often gets left behind when a city’s loudest boosters are its hip, young professionals—that is to say everyone who’s still chasing after what Castro spoke of three years ago.

* * *

On Friday, Secretary Castro joined Congressman Keith Ellison at Mayflower Church in Minneapolis for a forum on affordable housing (a topic I’ll admit I’m only aware of because I’ve yet to find it). When I arrived that morning, taking a seat in one of the pews near the front, it was only minutes before the crowd of 100-or-so community leaders, activists, and others entered, turning the chapel from a room of whispers and quiet rustling to one of chatter and laughter and hugs from those who’ve crossed paths surely a hundred times. A glance around the room found a majority of the attendees were white, with about half of all attendees being in their 50s and 60s.

keith ellison julian castro

Congressman Keith Ellison and Secretary Julian Castro. From Finance & Commerce.

When the forum started, Ellison mentioned his working experience with Castro as a member of the House Committee on Financial Services, which oversees public and assisted housing. The Secretary, he said, represented “responsive, listening government, there to plug people into the issues they care about.” And as for the importance of affordable housing, it is “not just about finding houses where [people] want to live but where they aspire to live” and “our community, as much as we’re proud of it, has some of the biggest disparities.” Whether it’s housing, employment, or education, he said, “if we can create prosperity for white people, we can do it for everybody.” The forum was to continue the conversation on how best to do that.

When it was Castro’s turn to speak, he engaged in the typical back-slapping, calling Ellison a “fierce advocate of greater opportunity.” Describing his own role as the Secretary of HUD and some of the initiatives he is working on (such as expanding broadband access to kids in public housing), Castro said his department was really the “Department of Opportunity” and that “housing is about opportunity and achieving the American Dream.” Minneapolis may have its problems, he added, but the reason why it was selected a promise zone was because of the opportunity it presented given its “willingness to do something about it. There are many places I go where people don’t even want to talk about it. The fact this city does is a precious gift.”

The Secretary and congressman were only two of the seven-member panel of suburban mayors and community leaders, each of whom introduced themselves and left no doubt what their views on “communities of choice” were (all in support, it turns out). They ran down the list of problems and placed the issue of affordable housing in its proper context—that it is inseparable from racial equality and equal access to employment, quality education, and so on. But to see the issue in this way, they said, requires a level of collaboration that for decades did not exist and which the designation of promise zone seeks to address.

The panel also agreed that in addition to investing more into these communities, local stakeholders must be included in the conversation on how best to focus that investment. And they need to be brought in from the beginning, not at the end when they’re just expected to sell it back to their communities. For example, when it came to the construction of the new light rail line, it’s preposterous that advocacy groups had to sue the federal government and Met Council just to ensure it included stops in neighborhoods with low-income families and people of color. As Gary Cunningham of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association said, “People fought and died for our right to live where we want to live” and “at the end of the day it’s about power—and if we don’t have it, we can’t push our agenda.” Participation is a way to seize that power.

* * *

When at last the forum opened up to the audience, at least half of the thirty comments and questions came from people of color. Most offered ideas of how best to improve housing access, sharing their own negative experiences in a minute or less. One brought up the trouble of expunging unlawful detainers from one’s record. Another noted the discrepancy in eviction rights for people in public housing (stricter) than those in homes backed by an FHA-insured loan, at least as it pertains to the criminal records of tenants. To the extent there was any combativeness, one woman said she was turned off by the “ill power” in the room—“I haven’t seen people take notes up there” (to which several panelists held theirs up).

As for any reference to Castro’s vice presidential ambitions (based on Hillary Clinton saying she’d consider him for “anything, because that’s how good he is”), it was alluded to just once, as an aside. Immediately all eyes turned to the Secretary’s demeanor, which remained calm, hands neatly folded on the table—blinkblinkblink—but otherwise unfazed. This is his life now, and I can only speculate about what such speculation will do to a man. I expect he gets more invitations now, more friends appearing out of the woodwork. But until the secret service shows up to his door (or doesn’t), he won’t be able to walk into a room without someone bringing it up.

There was not much time for the panel to respond to all the questions and comments, and Castro answered only briefly and vaguely, denouncing past attempts at criminal justice reform, which “went too far a few decades ago in locking too many people up.” As for what he can do, he said “HUD has a role to play in giving people a second chance.” Many of the comments he agreed with but the biggest problem facing the Department of Opportunity is the lack of available resources to meet the demand for public housing. The reason for his visit to Minneapolis (which included a stop at Best Buy’s headquarters) was to find creative ways to stretch what’s on hand. Though he did not outright say it, the forum was, I expect, an afterthought—and for as short on words as he was, he wasn’t short on reassurance, concluding, “We will be your partner to make progress.”

Now that Minneapolis is a promise zone, I suppose we’ll find out what that means.

“Where there is a constituency driving an issue, you will get change,” Ellison said, closing the forum a few minutes after noon. “It’s a law of political science.” Part of his work—and for everyone in the room—was to ensure housing remains a priority for the government. Because, frankly, he noted, there are some in Congress who believe fewer dollars ought to be invested in these neighborhoods, HUD’s budget slashed completely. It is up to activists, then, to put pressure on elected officials to “enlarge the pie,” even if there are differences in opinion over how best to cut it.

And with that, it was over.

I didn’t even have a chance to put my pen down when, around me, half the audience rushed forward, a mob of suits and ties and outstretched hands grasping for the table. Suddenly, it was one great, excited wave that moved toward the stage, like the wave that carried Castro himself from being a Texas mayor to U.S. Secretary—and perhaps in a year’s time the first Chicano vice president of the United States. Watching the scramble (including the scramble out the backdoor to a waiting vehicle), I found myself giving into the nagging doubt that perhaps nothing ever quite changes. That all of these problems will be here five, ten, fifteen years from now.

* * *

Throughout the forum, as I tried to keep track of how many times Castro used the word “Opportunity” (more than 15, less than 25), it started to seem cheap. I’d heard this sloganeering before, and like all the things one emblazons on a t-shirt or a button, it soon ceases to be an aspiration and becomes just another progressive, bureaucratic buzzword. Watching the energy in the room shift, the audience leaving, I fought these doubts and scribbled in my notebook, “But things do Change. Opportunity does matter.”

So much of the panel was about seizing power and participating in the process, and it occurred to me then that this includes taking control of the very the language we use. It’s up to us to ensure that words like Hope and Change and Opportunity maintain their meaning, because we’re the ones who decide their meaning. If we want them to be merely beads we string together at pub crawls to say, “I’m on your team,” then fine. If we want more, then it’s up to us. What we make of the language is what we’ll make of the world.

I’m skeptical of what emerged from the forum, but I also know that change is gradual and issues like affordable housing, which is so intimately tied to racial equality, probably won’t be solved in the next five, ten, fifteen years. But that’s because change is gradual, not because we aren’t trying. Like the transition from summer to fall, social change goes unnoticed until at last one realizes they’ve worn their wool cap for weeks.

Truthfully, I’m just proud that for an issue that so disproportionately affects women and people of color, never in my life have I seen a seven-member panel that did not include even one white male. One can read into that what they will, but it’s a detail that can get lost when one returns home to find rent’s due the next day. But the leaves have turned. There on the stage was the progress of the Civil Rights movement, a testament to the value of grassroots organizing and electoral politics. How could one say these things don’t matter when listening to the first Muslim-American congressman talking policy with a Chicano Secretary appointed by a black president?

It doesn’t always feel like fall, and even if I think this forum will be forgotten, perhaps it’s enough just to notice the weather’s changing.

Joining Sinclair Lewis on the Trip from Main Street to Stockholm

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930

“From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930” edited by Harrison Smith, 1952.

BOOK REVIEW: From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 edited by Harrison Smith, 1952 (full text on the Internet Archive).

“[D]on’t be such a damn fool as ever again to go to work for someone else. Start your own business,” the 34-year-old Sinclair Lewis advised his friend Alfred Harcourt. “I’m going to write important books. You can publish them. Now let’s go out to your house and start making plans” (p.xi). That business became the publishing house Harcourt, Brace, and Company, and the next year, in 1920, it published the book that made Lewis famous: Main Street. Thus began the decade-long trip from the prairies of Minnesota to Stockholm, when Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

As the only volume of Lewis’ letters, From Main Street to Stockholm was published in 1952, the year after he died, and collects together his correspondence with Harcourt’s publishing house. Given their relationship the letters just as often pertain to business as they do Lewis’ European travels and the politics of the literary world. While the reader may not close the book with a richer understanding of Lewis’ psychology, they will have witnessed an iconoclast at work. Through these letters one follows Lewis through the “Big Five” and the public’s response, from Main Street (1920) being declared the most monumental book of the century to Boston’s District Attorney banning Elmer Gantry (1927) from the city. (As a response to the latter, we find out, Lewis and Harcourt forewent a lawsuit and instead bought billboards capitalizing on the controversy …  at a Methodist convention in Kansas City).

What stands out the most in his letters is his self-confidence and keen sense of what will stick in the public mind. One sees firsthand, for example, the amount of care he took in naming his character. Writing about a middle-class businessman and booster, he considers Pumphrey and later Fitch but at last settles on a name he predicts will enter the lexicon (and it did)!

The name now for my man is George F. Babbitt, which, I think, sounds commonplace yet will be remembered, and two years from now we’ll have them talking of Babbittry (12/17/1920; p.57). 

Here and elsewhere his confidence is prescient. Even while still working on the manuscript for Main Street he doesn’t hide his ambition. Anticipating the book’s success he asks,

Would it be perfectly insane and egotistic to suggest that you .. send a copy of the book to the [Pulitzer] prize committee, suggesting that the dern thing is a study in “the wholesome atmosphere of American life” etc. (11/12/1919; p.18)?

And he’s writing that before the book’s even finished.

“You mustn’t suppose … 70,000 [words of Main Street] means it’s almost done though. I’m afraid I shall be doing well … if I keep it down to 180,000 words, even after cutting first draft” (12/15/1919; p.19).

One shares in Lewis’ joy when at last the book is published and, as he snoops around book stores to eavesdrop on what people are saying, Harcourt is rushing to get more off the press. None of this confidence wanes over the years and by 1925, with the publication of Arrowsmith, Lewis wonders if it will be the book that finally gets him the Nobel Prize. Someday–but he’s still got a few years to go.

Interestingly, for as much as Lewis dreamed of these major prizes almost nothing is said of the two he almost received. As the events unfolded, nothing was said of the fact that both Main Street and Babbitt were chosen by the Pulitzer Prize committee and both were vetoed by the Columbia Board of Trustees that oversee it. It’s only when there are rumors of Arrowsmith winning the prize that he acknowledges these “matters”:

I hope they do award me the Pulitzer Prize on Arrowsmith — but you know, don’t you, that ever since the Main Street burglary, I have planned that if they ever did award it to me, I would refuse it, with a polite but firm letter which I shall let the press have, and which ought to make it impossible for any one ever to accept the novel prize (not the play or history prize) thereafter without acknowledging themselves as willing to sell out. There are three chief reasons — the Main Street and possibly the Babbitt matters, the fact that a number of publishers advertise Pulitzer Prize novels not, as the award states, as “best portraying the highest standard of American morals and manners” or whatever it is but as the in every-way “best novel of the year,” and third the whole general matter of any body arrogating to itself the right to choose a best novel (4/4/1926; p.203).

The next month when it was announced he’d in fact won the prize, that’s exactly what he did. Over the next five years, two more novels followed, their successes culminating in his being awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature. But upon achieving the success he predicted, it wasn’t enough and he was letdown by how Harcourt handled the news. In one of his last letters to the publisher, he writes as both a disappointed author–and a hurt friend.

To put it brutally, I feel that the firm let me down, let my books down, in regard to the prize award. It seems to me that you failed to revive the sale of my books as you might have and that … you let me down as an author by not getting over to the people of the United States the way in which the rest of the world greeted the award. It would have meant the expenditure of considerable money on your part to have done this, but never in history has an American publisher had such a chance.

… If you haven’t used this opportunity to push my books energetically and to support my prestige intelligently, you never will do so, because I can never give you again such a moment (1/21/1931; p.300-1).

Harcourt’s final words are moving:

I know you have some idea of how sorry I am that events have taken this turn. You and we have been so closely associated in our youth and growth that I wish we might have gone the rest of the way together. If I’ve lost an author, you haven’t lost either a friend or a devoted reader (2/3/1931; p.302).

In the end, the book’s a wonderful case study of the relationship a writer has with their publisher. These letters show us firsthand everything that goes into the writing process, from hard work and support to, yes, an insatiable ego. Turning the last page, one finds they’ve walked with Lewis and Harcourt the long road from Main Street to Stockholm, and even if it ends with a sigh, along the way neither needed to stop to catch their breath.

From Main Street to Stockholm: Letters of Sinclair Lewis 1919-1930 is available for free on the Internet Archive here.

“Made while under fire”: Elijah E. Edwards’ Civil War sketches

Elijah Evan EdwardsBefore there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865).

The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards’ journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from “hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure.” “This is especially true of the battle scenes,” he added, “since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches.” (p.1). It’s these that distinguish Edwards’ written account from others.

In describing how he made his sketches, he noted that at least a few “were made while under fire, but none to the neglect of any of the duties devolving upon me as Chaplain.” Describing a few such cases,  he reflected upon “the difficulties in the way of an ‘artist on the spot’ who attempts to depict war scenes.” (p.1).

His art is a dangerous pastime. It will also suggest a reason for the differences between his sketches and those of the professional artist, who immured in his studio paints battle scenes from the descriptions of others aided by the suggestions of his own fervid imagination. (p.2).

The consequence of this, Edwards continued, is that

Conventional ideas of both the artist and the public require battle scenes in which human agents are conspicuous and active. There must be heroes in the fight. There must be martial music, the roar of artillery, the waving of banners, soldiers marching in serried gaily uniformed and keeping exact time as they march. There must be romantic accessories to the scene, or it is no true picture. This ideal is undoubtedly a survival of the old Ossianic and Homeric conceptions of war, and has but little foundations in the conduct of modern warfare. (p.2).

Thus, in his writing as well as his sketches, he aspired “to report only what I saw or learned from observers of what I saw myself, and in no case to create or vary from its realism for the sake of effect.” (p.2).

Elijah Evan Edwards - On the Road to PontotocElijah Evan Edwards - On the Way to TupeloElijah Evan Edwards - Imago Mortis

Elijah Evan Edwards - Body of Lewis Hardy

“Body of Lieut. Hardy carried from the Battle-Field of Tupelo, July 15th, 1864” and “General A.J. Smith, The Last to Leave the Field of Tupelo.”

While reading through the typescript, I was drawn to Edwards’ account of the Battle of Tupelo (July 14-15, 1864), a Union victory. After a vivid description of his experience (working primarily with the wounded) he writes of surveying the field and coming upon a Lt. Col. Lewis Hardy. Inspecting him, it was clear the young man was “was mortally wounded and could not be moved.” (p.27-28). So as ambulances and medics passed Edwards asked for their help, being told there was either no room or no hope.

Staying with Hardy, as the artillery came up followed closely by Union General Andrew J. Smith, the general looked over Hardy and “answered by a great oath that sounded like an evidence of Grace in heart, saying as he did […] that no brave soldier of his, man or officer, should be left living or dead on the field.” General Smith then halted a nearby artillery wagon and ordered Hardy be fastened to the box–but “by the time we had fastened the Lieutenant to the caisson, he had breathed his last.” (p.28).

Elijah Evan Edwards - Burial of Lewis Hardy

“Burial of 1st Lieu. Lewis Hardy, of Co. 7t Minn. July 15, 1864.”

Riding beside the corpse, when Edwards arrived at camp the unit came together and buried Hardy “near midnight and by torchlight.” As they did so, Edwards made a few sketches in his notebook of the scene as the Confederate artillery “continued shelling our deserted battlefield […] But he was too badly beaten to pursue us any great distance.” (p.28). The next morning the unit rose early and marched on toward Memphis.

When Sunday morning passed without service, the chaplain gloomily recorded:

My sole religious duties thus far have to speak a word of cheer to some soldier on the march, to commend the dying to the infinite mercies of God and lastly

“to carry off the wounded-
to cover up the dead.” (p.30)

Although I’ve read several history books about the Civil War, I’ve always been more interested in personal accounts like Edwards’ (i.e. letters, diaries, and journals). While (good) historical writing offers context and analysis and from many particulars draws designs of an era and its influences, it is just one of many ways to engage with history. The reason why I love personal accounts so much is precisely because it lacks these grand schemes and doesn’t hide its quirks, biases, and urgency. It’s this last trait that revives the dead and, for me, humanizes history–that very real, very human obsession to pick up a pen or, in Edwards’ case, sit down at a typewriter and say: I need to tell this story.

Read my review of E.O. Wilson’s “The Meaning of Human Existence” (2014) in The Humanist magazine

Recently I was given the opportunity to review Edward O. Wilson‘s The Meaning of Human Existence (2014) for the July/August 2015 issue of The Humanist, the official magazine of the American Humanist Association. Though I think the book serves more as an addendum to On Human Nature (1978) and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998) than a single, independent work, it’s undoubtedly worth the read. Though he tries to cover a lot in this book, its best chapters are those when, rather than approaching the humanities with a fist, he opens his hand.

As I write in my review:

Where other scientists may be harsh in what they have to say about the humanities, Wilson seems to privilege it; as the discoveries of science converge in all parts of the world, he writes, “What will continue to evolve and diversify almost infinitely are the humanities.” Every culture that ever flourished and faded did so with nuance, and it is possible that if given enough time, each could have discovered gravity or natural selection. But it is only the English who could have produced Shakespeare—in the same way only the Persians could produce Rumi and the Japanese Bashō. Thus the humanities ought to hold a special place in our lives, for they represent, in Wilson’s words, “the natural history of culture, and our most private and precious heritage.”

Read the full review here.

The Wilderness of Big Bend National Park


Big Bend National Park

Covering more than 801,000 acres, Big Bend National Park is Texas’ largest park and one of its last untouched wildernesses. On the southern part of the state’s mountain and basin region, 118 miles of the Rio Grande River forms a natural border with Mexico. Of the fourteen national parks with mountains, Big Bend is distinguished for being the only one to have within its confines an entire range – the Chisos Mountains. Driving the winding roads, one never loses sight of the Chisos, and in the distance, in late-afternoon against the otherwise flat landscape, the strip of faded purple ribbon can be mistaken for distant clouds. The sight can be breathtaking when at last they break into the foreground to encompass all views.

Centered within the Chihuahuan Desert, it is worth stating for the armchair traveler that the desert looks nothing as one expects (images of dunes surely just mirages of the Saraha). Instead, the whole landscape is full of flora and fauna, its own delicate ecosystem. Everywhere prickly pear cacti mix with blossoming yucca, seven-foot-tall sotols, and Texas madrones. Along the roads bluebonnets poke out of the grasses. At night one can hear the high-pitched yelps of coyotes and in the cool hours of morning follow in the dust the prints of jackrabbits and lizards.


A pair of wild javelinas.

Visiting, as I hiked the trails I thought of how much has been invested to turn deserts into productive grasslands. The thought of land being “wasted” because it is not in use is a mindset I will never sympathize with. After all, the javelinas and mountain lions seem to be making excellent use of it already. No need to ruin a good thing. It is only within the last 150 years, really, that the west has recognized the need to set land aside for nonuse. It is only within half that time we’ve gone further to accept this land not as a resource but an entity not requiring but deserving preservation. The land has a right to free existence, untouched not only by the mechanical hands of industry but the flesh and bone of man’s. Wilderness has its own value beyond its “productivity.”


Naturalist John Muir (1838-1914)

Though not legally-recognized as wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Big Bend National Park is functionally so (due to a very particular loophole). It is my hope that it and other lands achieve this designation because as the naturalist John Muir observed: So much of the national identity is engaged with wilderness and it is something to be experienced rather than read about. To stand at the base of a mountain and watch the shadows ascend, chasing the light so the contrast of every stone becomes sharper, each cave deeper and darker. To hear one’s voice echo within the 1,500 foot walls of the Santa Elena Canyon. To, in those moments, be a vessel of the old dream that knew there were unknown lands to be explored and witnessed and reported on. Each of these things are now words on the page but live in parts of me words cannot reach.

After experiencing the wilderness, when one returns to the city, it is apparent how we are primed to regard the land as built within the city, another structure as manmade as a skyscraper, as though each park and river were carefully layered onto city blueprints. The land, it feels, exists on pavement and not vice-versa. But to witness the less than 5% of wilderness that is unsettled by the United States supplants this delusion. Everywhere man inhabits exists within the landscape; beneath it will never be a city but beneath all cities will be it. Returning home from a visit to Big Bend National Park, the world feels a little larger, unknown.

Once again we are reminded that not every brain develops the same

In the fall 2012, I briefly left the University of Minnesota Morris to do a series of directed studies in Houston, TX. One of these included attending Dr. David Eagleman’s “Neuroscience and Law” course at Rice University, which required that we write for the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law’s blog. This was originally published September 26, 2012.

In an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the Columbian College of Arts are giving further insight into the evolutionary history of our cognitive development. In studying the brains of both chimpanzees and humans, they discovered that myelin, which is “fatty insulation surrounding axon connections of the brain”, ceases developing in our distant cousins long before it does for us. In fact, in humans it fully develops only once we have entered early adulthood.

The developmental timing of myelination is important because it establishes connectivity among parts of the growing brain, which is essential to higher-order cognitive functions, such as decision-making and emotional regulation. These cognitive functions are known to mature relatively late in humans, after the time of adolescence. Also, this period of persistent myelin development during early adulthood in humans is a time of particular vulnerability to neuropsychiatric diseases, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

This research is important for several reasons but I find it particularly interesting since it affirms, once again, that our legal system must accommodate the full diversity of brains that find their way before the bench. Right now, the legal system does differentiate between “youth” and “adulthood” but does so on purely artificial lines – if you commit a crime the day before your 18th birthday, you will be held to a different level culpability than if you had committed said crime a day after. Such distinctions are necessary since a line must be drawn somewhere but such lines are arbitrary and assumes that at this level of adulthood one has a full understanding of the consequences of their actions. Research like this reminds us that that is not true. Instead of having a bright line, we should be more flexible in how we distribute punishment – and once we do this, it will only follow that a fair and equitable legal system will be one that scales punishment according to the brain on trial whether we regard the individual as an “adolescent” or not.

Reading “Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner” by Mik Everett

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a

Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (Unknown Press, 2013)

As part of a project I’m doing on the state of contemporary writing, author Mik Everett mailed me a copy of her book Self Published Kindling: Memoirs of a Homeless Bookstore Owner (2013). After reading it, I’m excited for what our generation has to offer the literary world. As Everett so clearly illustrates: we’re one of dreamers and as we set out, so much of what we have to say will be about how we maintained this spirit while navigating the world given to us by our parents. (And if you’ve paid any attention to the news at all, it’s not a great one).

Written while living out of a broken-down RV in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Self Published Kindling is about Everett’s experience running a Longmont, Colorado, bookstore that stocked exclusively self-published and regional books. Though the first store of its kind in the nation, Everett quickly discovers that few writers read and even fewer readers want books you can’t find in a Barnes and Noble. She tries to mitigate this through author readings and art crawls, but everyone who comes in leaves empty-handed. Soon she and her partner, John, conclude, “Everybody’s just here to pretend they support art” (48). If you’re an artist who’s ever tried to sell their work, you know exactly what that means.

Besides providing a small glimpse into the world of self-published writers, the fact that all this happens within the context of homelessness lends this book a kind of Steinbeck-esque quality. Raising two children with her partner, the pair struggle to keep up with the apartment rent and once evicted suffer through the hoops of getting public assistance. Applying to every homeless shelter in the region, they discover most are at full capacity and won’t have openings for years. Still, she applies anyway, finding little encouragement and grinding her teeth through the process. Eventually, the pair settle on living in a Wal-Mart parking lot, relying on soup kitchens and whatever they can steal from the megastore.

As the story flutters between these two worlds–literary and homeless–Everett describes the different people she meets, doing so with a humanity and compassion others may instinctively spare. In these pages we meet young, touring writers who she calls the modern Beats and others who, sleeping out of the backseat of their car, struggle simply to survive. It’s an interesting juxtaposition and one that kept me second-guessing the author and asking, “Who’s actually Beat?” (A part of me suspects that the real Beats are the ones who’ll never pick up a pen).

As someone who’s read and reviewed his share of self-published/small press booksSelf Published Kindling is one of the few that I can, in good faith, recommend to others. In fact, for anyone interested in this new generation of writers still finding their voice, it’s a hint of what’s to come. Though Everett’s prose is at times weak, it’s the story and what this story means for the rest of us that redeems it. It’s a story of how we twenty-something creatives managed to survive in this changing world, one disdainful of both art and poverty, and the perseverance we retained even when the worst happened.

You can purchase Mik Everett’s Self Published Kindling here.