She works hard for the money.

The Oglala Sioux Reservation in South Dakota is windswept and beautiful. I had arrived at the homeland of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Black Elk to research background for The Backward Time Traveler. A car park overlooked the fields at Wounded Knee where, in 1890, the US Army slaughtered up to 300 Lakota men, women and children with cannon and rifle fire.

The government awarded twenty soldiers the Medal of Honor. The dead and wounded Indians were left lying in the snow. In 1990, both houses of the U.S. Congress passed a resolution formally expressing “deep regret” for the massacre.

Well, that balances things up. No matter that the Rez now sits in the second poorest county in the USA. A place where three in ten adults have a job. Homes where over a dozen people will share three bedrooms. The future looks dark, and the good old days aren’t coming back; they weren’t that cushy anyway.

An Oglala girl, about 20 years old, approached me hesitantly and held up a dream catcher to sell. It was simple: beads in Lakota colors of red, white black and yellow encased in a hoop of wood.

‘It’s real,’ she said. ‘Not made in China. The wood comes from the cherry trees along the creek over there. $20?’ Her partner, holding a three-month-old baby, sat in a car watching.

I automatically haggled, beat her down to $15. I was a hundred miles away when I realized she needed every buck she could get. That extra $5 would have helped her little family a lot. I’ve cursed that unthinking piece of insensitivity ever since. My head was stuck in the past when it should have been rooted in the present.

Never tear us apart

I was talking to an Iranian refugee friend, and he told me his story:

“When I was young university student I fell in love with a girl who went to high school near me. We were not allowed to speak because my country is a Muslim country and we can’t speak with girls before marriage. But every time I saw her on the street, she smiled at me.

“One day I approached her and asked her about her family. She told me and asked about mine. We were both very nervous and kept looking around to see if anybody had seen us talking together.

“Later I asked my mother if she knew the family, and she wanted to know if I loved this girl. I was very shy, but I confessed that I did. I was 18 years old. My mother then spoke to the girl’s family of my interest in marriage, and they told her they wanted to think about it. Her name was Mahnaz.

“I kept seeing her shopping in the street and desperately wanted to speak to her more, but it was too dangerous for us.

“A few weeks later, my mother told me that the family had promised Mahnaz to another. A rich man. Her father had insisted on it. I locked myself in my room for a week and cried.

“My mother said I would find another girl, but I knew I wouldn’t.

“A few months after Mahnaz’s marriage we heard that she had been beaten by her husband and was in a coma in hospital. I was crushed.

“That was 18 years ago, and Mahnaz now lies in bed all day, tended by her mother. Her husband divorced her. She is in my mind always, and I will love her forever.”

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right

The Swedish Academy doesn’t go for a big buildup. Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, comes through a cream paneled door with a big black envelope and addresses an assembled media throng. She crisply reads out a bunch of Swedish words, but only the last two are important: Bob Dylan.

The room erupts in cheering–and laughs of astonishment. Dylan still polarizes people.

The New Yorker magazine salutes its home-grown talent
The New Yorker magazine salutes its home-grown talent

She reads the news out again in several more languages. Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Note the choice of words. It’s not for his songs; it’s for creating a new form of poetry. It’s not for selling truckloads of audible landfill; it’s for doing something new with poetry.

Judging by the immediate reaction in the room, and later in the media, Dylan hasn’t won a popularity contest. That’s okay. The Swedes are uncomfortable with popularity. See ABBA, Greta Garbo, and Bjorn Borg.

This ain’t the Grammys. This is a decision made behind closed doors where distinguished souls discuss the merits of artists in their field. The motto of the Academy is “Talent and Taste” (“Snille och Smak” in Swedish). This is no marketing exercise, no phony popularity quest.

This isn’t a bunch of industry heavies figuring whose turn it is to cash in the publicity. They are discussing the works of artists who have changed the way we see the world.

Dylan is one of the most quotable poets ever; up there with The Bible and Shakespeare. (Anybody who quotes aphorisms from Hallmark cards deserves to die in the most horrible way.)

Sara Danius told a news conference there was “great unity” in the panel’s decision to give Dylan the prize.

It sounds like there wasn’t any such thing. That’s how it oughta be. Greatness is always divisive.

No Room of One’s Own

I don’t have a permanent place where I sit and write stuff. I’ve tried libraries but they all have beige interiors, noisy readers, and the dreary ambiance of an impoverished resource center. So I drift around town and look for other cozy, undisturbed nooks.

I had planned to work in the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library while staying in that city. Nice, eh?

23-1 Rose Main Reading Room New York City Public Library Main Branch

Two city blocks long, it said on the webpage. Fifty-two feet high ceilings with murals. Majestic was the chosen word. Plenty of room for me and a handful of big ideas, it seemed.

Wrong.

After a piece or two of the ceiling dropped to the ground, the staff decided to renovate the whole room. And closed it. I never made it inside.

I found a few spacious bars (lucky me) that worked fine for an hour or two, but a combination of increasingly raucous customers, and the effects of the beer and wine I was forced (yes, forced) to buy, eventually made my output worthless.

I returned to the NYPL and discovered this little beauty.

17-2 Park Row, Old Post Office, The Harper and Brothers Building Murals In Dewitt Wallace Periodical Room New York City Public Library Main Branch
The New York Public Library De Witt Wallace Room.

Named after the founder of Reader’s Digest, who sat in here for years, editing the original stories to fit his genius of condensation. Let’s ignore, for the moment, the cheesy choice of stories and the rabid anti-socialist tendencies on display.

It quickly became the biggest selling magazine in the USA and even now, as the print media sag from competition on the internet, it remains the world’s best seller with a circulation around the ten million mark (down from a peak of 23 million).

Maybe some of that work ethic would rub off on me, I thought as I quietly slid into my ample seat and gazed at the artworks depicting buildings of various publishers. (Who chose that as a fascinating theme?)

But soon, the blindingly obvious drawback to working inside a work of art grew obvious. Streams of tourists filed silently through the door and stared. At the paneled walls, at the paintings and worst of all, at us—the readers and writers. I tried staring back, but there were too many of them to deter.

I gave up. Walked across the road to the Mid-Manhattan branch of the NYPL, and back into the beige and under-budgeted. Some dreams just refuse to come true.

Behold the Toast Master

Toaster 1For some reason, this underrated Disney animation often pushes in front of other, more deserving memories of mine. The Brave Little Toaster, written by the great sci-fi writer Thomas Disch, starts out as a simple road movie about a bunch of appliances that miss their owners, and go searching for them. Familiar territory, predictable plot. Sure it is. Until it gets darker than a dungeon.

The animation is old-time clunky, but the dialogue is great. The Radio gets great lines, and the Air Conditioner has the best Jack Nicholson voice. Some say there were future Pixar people involved in the making. I’m not surprised; the sharp wit raises it above a child audience.

Despite the cheerful, cheesy cover on the DVD, it’s more than a little freaky for little ones. One movie site had parents rating this as age 6+, while real living kids rated it as 9+. You hear what they’re are saying? The kids are not alright; they are begging to grow for three more years before they can survive this little gem. Myself, I’d add a decade, so I could watch the movie and not leave the room with permanent soul-searing.

Check it out next time you have to babysit somebody who might grow up to be the car mechanic you hate.