Thursday, April 24, 2008

I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony

Once, in a small idyllic town in the Rocky Mountains, I built a mini-mountain of Coca-Cola cans in the office where I worked. The Co’ Cola mountain, three cans high, filled a book shelf. Once the mountain grew too large, I’d collapse the cans, then bag them for recycling. You like Coke? students often asked, ironically, and the answer, of course, was that I did. I drank two or more cans a day. Sucked in those high-fructose-corn-syrup calories as if without them the sky would go gray, the hems of my pants would unravel, my spine would curve under every one of life’s burdens.

Hyperbolic, sure, but as a child I learned to love Coca-Cola. Via marketing, I was weaned on the idea that to give the world a Coke was to give the world peace. That famous ad campaign inspired an impressionable altar boy with a tendency toward sentimental utopian ideals. And even if as an adult I no longer believed in or even yearned for utopias, or thought much about the relationship between Coca-Cola and world peace, I was already hooked on the good feelings I got from inside that little twelve ounce can.

Sparkles. Taste. Caffeine. Harmony. Sugar. Peace.

Meanwhile, a few students on campus at the University of Montana were arguing – with gusto – that the university’s administration ought to abandon an exclusive contract that made Coca-Cola UM’s go-to soft-drink provider. The reason? Intimations that Coca-Cola had something to do with the violent repression (possibly including murder) of union organizers in Colombia. At the time, I was teaching a course in which we explored Colombia’s recent and doleful history, and I could find nothing that showed a direct link between my drinking Coke and the deaths of Colombian union workers. In fact, much of what the students had to say seemed fuzzy, loose with facts. Moreover, Colombia is a complicated country; there is blood-guilt to be shared among all who tote guns, be they leftist guerillas or rightwing paramilitaries or government forces funded in part by the United States under Clinton or Bush. In truth, my responsibility for Colombian violence has more to do with my taxes than my Coca-Cola habit.

But I gave up Coke eventually, for health reasons. High fructose corn syrup, the primary sweetener in Coke, is like long-term poison for diabetics, and given that diabetes runs in my family, and that I have blood-sugar problems already, it seemed wise to abandon Coca-Cola. So I did. About that same time, Coca-Cola came out with a new product, Coke Zero, which has no sugar, no high fructose corn syrup, no nothing. I think, basically, that it tastes like watered down Coke. My red castle of cans became a black castle of cans.

But now I’ve been reading about the Chinese government’s response to protests in and about occupied Tibet, how the Chinese recently tried to trade weapons with Robert Mugabe’s violent and illegitimate government in Zimbabwe. And I know how China has generally worked to support the government in Sudan, which continues to allow the genocide of people in Darfur. And the Chinese government is about to stage the Olympic games. And Coca-Cola is the top sponsor of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

I’m troubled by these connections. At the same time, I’m impressed by the protest of a Japanese manufacturer of iron shots, who will not allow his work to be used in the shot put event at these Olympics. It is a small protest, really, his, but a worthwhile one.

Coca-Cola argues in an op-ed piece published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that its role in sponsoring the Olympics is legitimate, that the Olympics ought to be immune from politics, that we all ought to take a chill pill and stop worrying about people dying or being unjustly imprisoned until after the games. Coca-Cola argues that we ought to stop worrying about its role as a sponsor for these Olympics and concentrate on the company’s good works intended to make the world a better place, to bring that perfect harmony a bunch of baby boomers on a hilltop sang about in 1971, and which a six-year-old boy listened to, believing.

But if I still believe in the hope of perfect harmony, of friendship, my course is clear. I’m not buying Coca-Cola’s arguments, and I’m not buying Coke Zero. Mine is a small protest, one that means far less than that of the Japanese manufacturer of shot puts. I’ve no illusions that one person’s boycott of Coca-Cola products changes anything. But I’m going ahead with it anyway.

I think, as the song says, it’s what the world wants today.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Today is for Ryan

Today is the birthday of my nephew, Ryan. Ryan is nine-years old. He's a good guy. His dog, Dylan, thinks so, and so does his Aunt Sheri. Aunt Sheri is taller than Ryan. So is the dog Dylan. Dylan is a Great Dane like Scooby Doo. He is also as brave as Scooby Doo, which is to say he is not very brave. Ryan's other dog is Jordan, who is smaller and older and mostly deaf, though sometimes Jordan seems to be faking being deaf to get out of having to do things around the house. Like, when Ryan's mom tells Jordan to help her out by vacuuming the living room, Jordan pretends to be deaf so he can keep watching Jimmy Neutron. When you get old, you get smart in these ways.

Ryan is getting smarter every day. He reads a lot, and he likes reading. He spells very well and nose that correkt speling madders. He studies Tae Kwan Do and is becoming a super hero. You can tell from the picture that he is a super hero, a force for good. In the picture, he is the one without the skull face. Ryan is better looking than the skull-faced man, but so is Dylan the Great Dane. Ryan is a super hero and also a guitar hero, but not as much a guitar hero as his Dad who can beat Slash. Rock on, Dad!

Because Ryan is my favorite nephew, I thought the world should know about him, so I put this up on the Internet. Now, Ryan is no longer a secret. Everyone knows.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Heart behind "The Heartless Stone": April 16, 6:30 p.m.

A few months back I received an e-mail with the subject line "hello michael" that began "There is no way in hell you would ever remember this ..."

You might expect an e-mail beginning that way to contain a blackmail threat. This one didn't. Instead, it took me back to a winter evening in Tucson, Arizona twenty-something years ago and a high school basketball game (I imagine Bubba Martin was playing; a helluva guard). At the time I was an aspiring sports reporter, a little older than Tom Zoellner who was also an aspiring sports reporter. The newspaper where I worked had assigned us to the same game so I could show Tom the basics.

All this time later, Tom had found me via an entry on the books page of and thought he'd give me a hello.

Turns out we'd both gone on to newspaper reporting careers and then took up writing. We'd even both lived a while in Missoula, Montana, Now he was in New York City; I'm in Baltimore.

Moreover, he's done great work. His 2006 book ""The Heartless Stone: A Journey Through the World of Diamonds, Deceit and Desire", won plaudits from reviewers around the country. I'm in the midst of it, stunned by the reporting and writing. It's a compelling book that Zoellner reported from ten countries including three in Africa. That same year "An Ordinary Man," was released, which is the autobiography of Paul Rusesabagina, the heroic hotel manager depicted in Hotel Rwanda, a book co-authored by Zoellner.

Wednesday, April 16, Tom will read from "The Heartless Stone" here in Baltimore at Towson University as part of our English Department Reading Series. The first page turns around 6:30 p.m., in the Towson Room of the Cook Library. I'm thrilled to see Tom again and eager to hear him read. We have no plans to cover any high school sports.

Bookish Baltimore: April 19, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Such a Saturday! April 19 in this, the Cruelest Month, there's a little kindness -- and it's free!

The fun begins early at the dowtown branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library with City Lit Festival V. I'm sure to be there at 1 p.m. for the panel featuring Dan Fesperman, Laura Lippman and Manil Suri.

The last time I attended a 510 reading at the Minas Gallery, I feared the second-story floorboards would give way, there was such a crowd. Maybe we'll get lucky and bring down the building on April 19, when I'll be reading alongside novelists Maud Casey and Michael Kimball (think of them as the heavyweights; I'm the undercard).

The 510 Readings start at 5 p.m., 815 W. 36th Street in Baltimore. I'll read a short story that first appeared in the Missouri Review's summer 2006 issue, featured to the right.