Friday, January 29, 2010

Voices of Your Generation

I'm still reeling from the death of J.D. Salinger, and have wondered if 2010 is going to be for writers what 2009 was for actors (it's still January and we have already lost Robert Parker, Louis Auchincloss, Howard Zinn, and J.D.). The term "literary lions" has been popping up in various articles, as it had when Mailer and Updike died last year. It got me thinking about what this phrase even means, and if there are modern-day, or future, lions out there. 

I had a conversation with my sister yesterday and she told me with sad resignation there were no more Salingers writing today, as in, there are no more "voices of a generation" whose work has the same cultural impact. I disagreed by saying it's impossible to name of voice of the current generation because it's not over yet. We need time to determine what's been said and how it reflects that time. Our judgment of our own generation is automatically, and involuntarily, biased. 

I'm not really sure which generation I'm in. I know I'm the "one after Generation X," but whether that's Gen Y, Millennial, or The Twitter Generation (which I read once and cringed), I don't know. I guess it doesn't matter. I was born on one of those weird "on the cusp of either generation" years anyway, so I'll just go where they tell me. But, for the purposes of finding someone who speaks for me, I'll make "me" be anyone between the ages twenty-four and thirty-four.

I suggested to my same-generation sister that Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, could have been the-post Salinger novel of that time (again, that one "right before" our own), but as for our generation, I wasn't sure. I think Cormac McCarthy is #1 on the current "literary lion" list, and Michael Chabon will probably win "Most Likely to be Studied in High School English" among his generation (sorry, Franzen). But, do either authors speak for me, child of the Clinton-era, pre-Internet 1990s and adult of the post-911, iTech new millennium? Not really.

Despite having declared finding a voice to my own generation a futile attempt, I'm still curious about your thoughts. Who do you think has the best appeal right now to the young, modern-day experience? There are several characters to whom we can relate our personal triumphs or tragedies, but what about those who represent our place in the world? If other generations can claim them for their collective lives, then there must be at least one out there for "me."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Glass Cases

One of the great writers of his - of any - time has died today...

J.D. Salinger was one of my favorites, as evidenced by the name of this blog and my never-ending affection for Holden Caulfield. I am truly saddened by his death, but am somewhat comforted to know that the world's most famous recluse is finally at peace.

I hope those phonies who battle for his estate treat his works with the respect they so deserve.

We will miss you, J.D.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Part of Him

I know, I know, you're all probably too excited about the Apple iHype to even concentrate on today's story. But, rest assured, you will have time to read the below piece AND witness the long-awaited (possible) revelation of the Chinese Democracy of publishing (maybe).

Today's story is from Patrick Trotti, a creative writing student who recently finished his first novel. The below piece is one of his short stories, A Part of Him. Try to see what you can make of Pritchard. I felt there was definitely more under the surface of his character. Let me know what you think!

A Part of Him
By Patrick Trotti

Pritchard stumbled into Grand Central Station at one thirty in the morning. After a long night out he was drunk and wanted nothing more than to lay in the comfort of his own bed. But before he began imagining his upcoming slumber, he had gotten in the habit recently where he only slept through the night with the help of alcohol; he had to worry about catching his train. The final outbound train left at one fifty giving him just enough time to go to the bathroom. He hated having to use the toilet on the train because the constant motion always threw his aim off.

The line, as usual, was long and the wait soon grew tedious for the now swaying young man. At this stage of the night he usually became bored quite easily and had a difficult time standing still. Taking the next available stall, Pritchard unzipped his jeans when all of a sudden his phone went off. The vibrations sent shockwaves up and down his already tingling leg. Fearful that it was his father calling him he rushed to pick it up before it went to voicemail. More than anything else his father could not, and made it abundantly clear that he would not; stand for his son not answering his phone calls. He always said that if he wanted play phone tag than he could do so without getting Pritchard a three hundred dollar phone.

His hands were unsure of his minds commands due to the frigid December air outside along with a special for two dollar beers back at the bar. He could barely register the name pops flashing across the screen before it slipped from his hands and into the bowl below. After looking around, almost instinctively so, to make sure that no one had witnessed his blunder, he wrapped his hand in toilet paper and stuck his hand into the neon green liquid. The screen, dark and wet, was blank and Pritchard immediately knew that it was broken. He took a seat and began to weep. Looking down at the broken Blackberry, seeing all of the pertinent data from his seemingly perfect little life washed away shattered his already fragile psyche. He took out the sim card and tried to dry it as well as he could but it was soaked.

In the distance he could hear the faint sounds coming from the intercom announcing track changes and upcoming schedules. His watch read one forty five. He finished going to the bathroom and quickly stuffed the phone into his coat pocket and ran out of the bathroom. Weaving his way through the crowd, Pritchard even knocked down a few unsuspecting tourists who were absentmindedly standing in the middle of the main concourse snapping postcard like photos, he ran like one of those baby cheetahs, in a hurry but weak and wobbly in the knees, that he’d seen when his father took him on an African safari tour last summer.

“Hey does this train stop at Scarsdale?”

The conductor, a big barrel bellied wild haired man in his fifties, squinted as if he couldn’t understand what he had just been asked. Pritchard stood on the platform waiting for the man to respond. The guy just stood there looking him up and down wondering how he came to look so disheveled. His forehead was glistening with a thin layer of sweat and his cheeks were a bright, rosy red.

“Yeah.” That was all the man said to the anxious looking, bloodshot eyed kid who was still trying to catch his breath.

“Hey kid, you dropped something.”

Pritchard looked down and picked up his phone. Not sure if he still had the sim card, he searched his pockets. Nothing but a rolled up piece of napkin with the waitress’ number, the only one not in his broken phone, scrawled across it lined his jacket pocket.

“Come on man, you getting on or ain’t you? I gotta get this thing moving.”

“What? Look, I need to find that chip man! Can you just give me a few minutes?”

He nodded his head no without even making eye contact with Pritchard. It was as if this guy somehow thought he was better than him just because he had authority of some kind; the thought would’ve normally been laughable to Pritchard but he was actually counting on this guy for a favor so he let it go. His father always warned him not to ask of anything from a middle class person because it gave them the fictitious idea that they held some fraction of power over you. He could sense that pleading like this was going to get him nowhere so he turned to what always got him what he wanted: money.

“What would it take for you to let me run back and get part of my phone? It’s only a few minutes time, it’s in the bathroom.”

“You got some balls kid.” He responded with a slight chuckle.

“How much do you want? Just name a price. Please, this is important.”

By this time passengers had begun to leave their seats and were watching the conversation from the aisles.

“No, I got a train full of people who can’t wait. You’re just gonna have to catch the next one.”

“Why do you have to be such a prick? You know damn well that this is the last train for hours.”

Before the conductor could respond, Pritchard hunched over and let out an animal like growl followed by a stream of warm beer and half digested food. It splashed against the conductor’s shoes and pants.

“That’s it you little shit head! You want me to call the cops? You’re not getting on my train tonight, so why don’t you get lost.”

“Go fuck yourself!” Pritchard yelped, wiping the corner of his mouth.

“Have a lovely evening.” The man said this with a sarcastic grin and tip of his hat.

The doors closed and a moment later all Pritchard could make out were the back lights of the train quickly fading into the tunnel ahead.

“I’ve probably spent more going out on weekends and partying this year than that slob has made!” He thought to himself as he got to his feet and dusted off his pants.

It was now almost two; if he could sit on a barstool for six hours than surely he could wait a few more hours.

With only fifty dollars on him, his father had recently revoked all of his credit cards for totaling his Lexus, he had no other choice but to just sit tight and wait for morning to come. The lower concourse was beginning to thin out and within thirty minutes only a handful of hobos and the occasional cop were lurking throughout the vast halls.

He hurried back to the bathroom and, to his amazement, found his sim card on the ground right in front of a row of sinks. A toilet flushed in the far corner of the empty room and a large man dressed in mismatched, tattered clothing appeared. As he stopped to wash his hands he almost stepped on it leading Pritchard to yell out. The man, shocked that he wasn’t alone, whipped his head in the direction of the sound, took a good look at Pritchard and then looked down. In one fowl swoop he scooped up the card and held it up towards the ceiling lights. It was as if he had never seen anything like it before.

“Excuse me, sir. I believe that’s mine.”

The man, still examining the mysterious object, turned his attention towards Pritchard. He remained silent.

“What are you fucking deaf?” He paused a moment and a loud hiccup echoed throughout the room; a close call, he thought to himself, at least he didn’t throw up again. He continued, “I said that’s mine!”

“No.” The man’s voice was just above a whisper.

“What did you say?” Pritchard took a step closer to the man.

“Finders, keepers.” He replied, this time a bit louder.

Pritchard took another step forward, this time resulting in the homeless man retreating towards the back wall. Even though the man was much bigger than Pritchard the look in his eye gave Pritchard the indication that he didn’t want a physical confrontation. His movements were timid while Pritchard’s hand clenched into a tight fist. “No matter what, I’m leaving this room with that sim card,” he said to himself before lunging towards the man.

Filled with unresolved anger from missing his train and breaking the phone, Pritchard unleashed his rage in the form of a flurry of wild right hooks and quick but powerful left jabs. He connected on many of these punches despite being drunk. The hobo was simply no match for the younger Pritchard and within a few minutes he had the bum on the ground grabbing at his ribs and nose. Pritchard couldn’t tell the exact damage but he saw blood. The dark red pool began spreading across the tiled floor.

Pritchard picked up his sim card from the ground; the man had dropped it after taking a potent punch to his stomach. He looked down at the moaning pile of bones and simply smiled, regaling in the work he had done. Stepping over the lifeless body Pritchard pulled his jacket collar up so as to cover his face; he didn’t want anyone to be able to identify him. The clock in the middle of the concourse struck three. He knew that he couldn’t just wait inside; with the recent stabbings the mayor had thrown down the gauntlet and made it impossible to sleep through the night in the station without being harassed by a cop. He walked briskly towards one of the side exits and figured that he could just take a walk in order to kill some time.

He let out a deep exhale and then took in a lungful of the city air before he decided which way to continue. It quickly became too cold for him to handle and the thought of a few hours overwhelmed him. He ducked into the nearest bar and took a booth by the jukebox. Everyone was drinking in pairs and it seemed as though the bar didn’t receive a usual crowd, rather they just housed whoever had time to kill before their next engagement. Slipping in largely unnoticed, Pritchard ordered a pitcher of beer.

As he drank the imported lager he couldn’t help but think about the homeless guy in the bathroom. Was it possible that he killed him? Certainly not, he tried to assure himself. After all, he could hear the man moaning as he left. He did know, however, that he had barely injured him and as good as he felt about getting his card back he couldn’t help but feel an overpowering sense of guilt over what had happened. “What’s done is done”, he said to himself as he drained the remainder of the pitcher. His train would be arriving within an hour.

He took his time walking back to the station and when he entered he noticed people beginning to move about. Signs of life were all around him and lucky for him there was no sign of the bum. Workers were cleaning out garbage bins and cops were making their daily rounds as he went to the little deli and ordered a coffee and a bagel. The man behind the register gave him a look of pity as if he knew, somehow by just looking at him, that he was miserable and his life was one that would constantly be empty of anything substantive. Pritchard tried to shake the look off but as the early morning sun came through the giant windows he felt as though God above was shinning a light on him and exposing him for the despondent young man he was.

He was the first man on the train, practically stepping onto the train as the doors opened. Thankfully he didn’t have the same conductor as the night before and after giving the guy his ticket he laid back and tried to get some rest. The train car quickly filled up and Pritchard found sleep hard to come by. His phone had been turned off for several hours now; he had gone most of the morning without being linked in, as he liked to call it, to the outside world. He wondered just how many emails and missed calls he had received and began to worry about what his father was thinking.

As the train pulled out of the station he reached into his pocket and took out his phone and sim card. He inserted it and tried turning it on one final time but to no avail. The sun shone through the car and quickly engulfed everything inside as the train exited the tunnel and soared through Harlem. Holding the sim card in the palm of his hand he still couldn’t believe all the horrific things that he’d done in the name of it. Had he really become so dependent on it? He knew that something had to change but he didn’t want to let it go, let that part of his life just slip away.

The train pulled into the 125th Street station. Pritchard took a deep breath and swallowed the sim card, taking a gulp of coffee to help it go down. If he was going to part ways with it than he was at least going to have it with him, inside of him for the time being.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Things to Avoid

In the late '90s and early '00s, I noticed that the use of the rhyme "faded" and "jaded" appeared all-too-frequently in song lyrics and it made me want to scream. While (I hope) you don't resort to rhyming in your prose works-in-progress, there are several words, phrases, and devices that show up in literature that I beg you to steer clear of. (Ending a sentence with a preposition is NOT one of them.)

1) Doing anything "with a start." This phrase is most commonly used when a character wakes up. Has anyone ever used this phrase in real life? If it's not said in life, it should not be said on the page.

2) "Ravenous." In general, I'm a fan of this word. It always implies intense hunger, lust, or both (!). But, I see it so often in all genres of literature that it's beginning to lose its impact. The thesaurus is your friend, which is how I assume the use of this word came about in the first place, and now it's time to find a new "original" and amplified way to say hungry.

3) Describing silence as "deafening." It's not.

4) Wearing Cutoffs. Part of the reason why Tobias' cutoffs on Arrested Development were so funny is because cutoffs in general are ridiculous and haven't been worn since the days of Wham. Yet, more authors than you would think often describe their characters wearing cutoffs.  No gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc. are spared. Sorry, but unless your M.C. is attending a Village People reunion concert, painting a house in 90 degree heat, or is a never-nude, cutoffs are just not acceptable.

5) Prologues. This might be a personal preference, but I think using this device to tell your story should be abolished from literature. 99% of prologues can be turned into the first chapter and the other 1% can be revealed throughout the work in flashbacks, background info, character building, etc.

6) Pillow-fight fantasies. This is for the men out there who are attempting to write in the voices of women. Very rarely do I find a male author writing from a female POV who doesn't make their M.C. get her period, masturbate, or look at herself naked somehow. Fellas, really? Do you think we all sit around drinking cosmos while talking about shoes and multiple orgasms too?

7) "Needless to say..." I attribute my dislike of this phrase to a former journalism professor who simply said, "If you don't need to say something, then just don't say it." I completely agree.

Feel free to add to this list. I'm sure there are many more cliches and pet peeves to know and avoid.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Words of a Peach

Before we get into today's story, here are some links to know and share: 
1) Moonrat posted a Meyers-Briggs poll yesterday and I learned that being an INFJ may be the least common personality type in the "real world," but in the publishing and literary world, I fit right in :)
2) Tracy Marchini is hosting an Awesomely Bad Cover Contest on her blog, My VerboCity, so you should definitely check that out and enter to win a free critique by one of the brightest mind's in children's/YA literature (i.e. Tracy's).
3) Janet Reid continues to rock the world of how to send a proper query.

OK, onto some writing! Today's author is Abby Spector, a student at Wesleyan University studying Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies. Giving me a few options of some really great short pieces to choose from, she caught my eye with this one in particular. As always, enjoy!

The Words of a Peach
By Abby Spector

I walked into a stationary bike today. The gym can be a dangerous place. So many bodies eager to move, to sweat, to mold themselves into the figure of perfection. I was staring at one of those bodies. He was staring back. It was then that I collided with the bike. I have a bruise to remind me of this humiliation. It will stick with me for a week. By that time, I will have a new bruise from an encounter with a new figure. Welcome to the life cycle of a clumsy peach.

Do I dare eat a peach?” asks T.S. Eliot. We read hundreds of poems in my Junior English class. Now, three years later, all I remember is this line from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. My memory decided that the poem as a whole was not worth precious storage space. Peaches were all that mattered so peaches are all that remain.

I blame my English teacher for the significance of the peach. Mr. Patrick was young and muscular, with blonde hair that swooped across his forehead in a tsunami of silk and styling gel. Unlike other high school teachers, he wore jeans and v-neck tees. Every class began the same. Mr. Patrick would enter the room, place his beat-up side-bag on the desk and pull out items his items one at a time—I-pod, moleskin notebook, Raybans. He was like the Mary Poppins of hip teachers. Eventually, he would reach the book we were studying. This day it was an AP study guide that chronicled 19th century poetry.

Thirty-two copies of the same text thumped against thirty-two desks. “Who wants to read out loud?” asked Mr. Patrick. The theater kids raised their hands. I usually loathed this clique. Their energy and suppressing aura of self-importance made my head spin. Nevertheless, I was thankful to have them in a class where teachers wanted volunteers. If they weren’t there, Mr. Patrick would have called on us randomly. The thought alone made my palms sweat and cheeks redden.

Sigrid Von Wendel was the chosen one that day.  She spoke with ease and poise, enunciating every syllable as if it were more important then the last. When the poem ended she looked up from the page and smiled.  It was a toothless grin that emanated slyness rather then joy. Her perfection made me nauseous.

What do you think Eliot is using the peach to symbolize?” Mr. Patrick winked flirtatiously. I squirmed in my chair, overwhelmed by embarrassment and attraction. “It’s about fruit,” boomed a jock from the back of the room. The next twenty-minutes was spent discussing peoples favorite fruits. This misinterpretation and the tangential conversation it sparked made me chuckle.

I knew the answer to Mr. Patrick’s question. T.S. Eliot was talking about women, men and sex. However, saying these things out loud was social suicide. It wasn’t worth the gratification of getting the right answer. I sat on my hands, the weight of my body preventing me from making impulsive decisions. My silence signified my struggle to attain personal peach-hood. Peaches don’t say dirty words like “sex”. They are dainty, idly waiting until the day they are plucked from their tree and belong to someone else.

The conversation evolved from favorite fruits to favorite vegetables. “I’d take a cucumber over a pepper any day!” I was bored. My mind began to wander with images of peaches. I drew one in my spiral notebook. Then another. And another. My white-lined paper became an orchard. In the center I drew a man with a nametag—“T.S.”.

If the Virgin Mary were a fruit she would be a peach. Peaches are delicate. They have a sweet, sexy and subtle approach to the world, an enigmatic trifectah unattainable to mere mortals. Girls are expected to act like peaches. They are supposed to be soft, their rounded figures perfectly suited for an open palm and their cheeks shaded the color of a premature rose. Peaches hang. They wait to be plucked. Any wrong moves and they are forever tainted. Nobody likes a bruised peach.

The peach metaphor has moved beyond the classical literature of AP textbooks. Type “Peaches and Cream” into any Internet search engine. The first ten pages that appear are related to a rap song, the eleventh is for a kids clothing company and the twelve is for porn. No recipes. No drool-worthy pictures of desserts. All you get is a bizarre juxtaposition of overly sexualized lyrics, kid-sized rompers and breasts.

These thoughts were just blooming during Mr. Patrick’s class. I distinctly remember wanting to be someone’s peach, yet knowing that it wasn’t in my nature. I fail at being a peach. I am crass, spontaneous, and incapable of sitting still long enough to get plucked. I was meant to be a complex fruit, like a pomegranate or a stalk of rhubarb, something twisted and bizarre. People don’t know what to do with these plants. People rarely know what to do with me. It’s a perfect fit.

Some days I put on the peach costume in hopes that I have changed. I walk around the gym, smiling sweetly at the attractive man lifting weights. I think about how attractive man could be the great-great grandson of Mr. Eliot himself. It is then that I walk into the stationary bike. I bruise. Costumes make me awkward. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Breaking Up Isn't Hard to Do

Remember when the biggest media story ever was the Tiger Woods sex scandal? I know, who can even remember back that far, right? It feels like weeks ago.

More recently, our (well, my) attention has been focused on NBC. Unlike the Tiger thing, I actually care about this one. I know I'm usually book gal, but truth be told, I can be just as passionate about television. I get invested in characters and plots the same way I would about those in a novel (hello, Lost anyone?) I'm also an avid follower of all things pop culture, oftentimes regardless of whether I even care (e.g. winners of American Idol and losers of Jersey Shore, despite never watching either show). So, I've been staying up until the A.M. fanatically changing the channel from one monologue to the next, seeing who can rip NBC apart in the most clever and biting way. As with most things, Letterman wins.

Now, NBC has always been my favorite network, which contributes to my particular interest in this saga. Growing up, we watched Days of our Lives, not All My Children. Tom Brokaw rather than Rather. Today instead of GMA. You get the picture. NBC also had the best shows, invented Must-See TV, and has that catchy little three-tone jingle.

But, things have taken a turn for NBC. Aside from this current debacle, they recently canceled Southland, which will no doubt gain even more critical acclaim and viewers now that it's on cable, and has relied on The Office and 30 Rock to provide all of their comedy needs, even though both shows garner the same exact audience. (Where is NBC's equivalent to Modern Family or Glee?) Perhaps they are trying to relive their glory days by returning Jay Leno to The Tonight Show, but what worked in the past clearly is not working for them anymore.

I agree with Conan that moving the time slot would be a disgrace to the historic show's legacy, but mostly I just want to see it (and Conan) stay put because it's the right thing to do. Conan put in his time while Jay Leno (who's never been funny and has probably always been a dick) made The Tonight Show a bland, horribly unfunny mess. NBC rightfully broke up with Jay for someone younger and all-around better, but they got scared. Yes, Jay didn't ignite the same passion he used to (well, did he ever?), but Conan is a fiery redhead who unleashed Triumph and the Masturbating Bear onto America... surely the over-50 crowd (that oh-so-coveted demographic) will be much more comfortable with Jay.

So much like the way Conan is getting dumped by NBC, I think it’s time for me to sever ties with the network. Despite our history, this is just not the same network I fell in love with. But, I do wonder why NBC won’t cut the cord with Leno. Does he secretly own the network? Does he have their children locked in the basement? None of it makes any sense.

While Conan is clearly being treated unfairly, he is still coming out the winner of this mess. Jay, through his actions, has most likely alienated the majority of any audience who'd follow him back to 11:30 and has made himself the most hated man in late night. I'd love to see Conan and Jimmy Kimmel (who is inexplicably on at midnight) work out an 11:30-1:30 deal on ABC. After all, there is no greater victory in a breakup than knowing you kept your cool under the pressure, moved on with some grace, and ended up with a better partner (and better network) than your ex.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lunar Rainbows

Story time is back at its regularly scheduled, weekly programming! (Insert NBC joke here)

Today's publication is from Roni, who is an aspiring actor living in Manhattan with plans finish pre-med requirements at City College. Here is an excerpt from his novel, Lunar Rainbows.

Lunar Rainbows
By Roni

 There are few places in the world where you can see a lunar rainbow.  For one thing, the climate requires certain conditions. The moon is key and it must be near to or at its peak of ripeness. The sky must be quite dark, and the moon must be less than forty-two degrees high. As moonlight shines down, there must be adequate water from rain or other sources that will refract and reflect its beam back into the abyss of sky. Once these conditions align, prepare yourself for amazement. Like a photo that slowly develops in a tiny bin of liquid, glowing shades of reds, blues, greens, and yellows creep up and float into your imagination. In the quiet stillness of night, colors throb and hum to life, pulsing in midair.
We had come to Victoria Falls that night as witnesses to this wonder. We sat in a circle overlooking the commanding waterfalls and treated ourselves to a picnic. In the middle of the circle lay half eaten packages of crisp potato chips, a bag of square tea biscuits, nine green bottles of cold Zambian beer, an assortment of candies, and six different kinds of Cadbury chocolate. Ruth sat across from me looking like a movie star with a thin scarf wrapped four times around her neck and sunglasses positioned just so, resting high in her short, highlighted hair. She nibbled on a small square of milk chocolate with a layer of white chocolate that rested on top of it. Top Deck, it was called, and I was in the midst of a most deliciously proper British education. “I can’t believe you don’t have proper Cadbury in America!” she exclaimed. “ I don’t know how you live off of that Hersheys stuff. You poor thing. Though the foil wrappers are quite nice.”
Ruth, seven other people around my age, and I had been living in Livingstone, Zambia for three weeks by this point. We were part of an organization called Travellers Worldwide and we spent our days volunteering at local schools and/or orphanages in the area. I was the third grade teacher at a school in the Linda compound (or suburb) and had begun my time there most unceremoniously.
The blue taxi’s tires roughed up the dry earth below and sent chickens screaming in all directions as it stopped in front of the school. Tiny bodies with big white eyes that seemed disproportionate to their small heads ran towards my taxi window and peered inside, watching me. I opened the door and stepped outside, careful not to hit any of the children that surrounded the car. They continued to stare. A few started to smile and wave. “Muzungo! Muzungo!” (white man! white man!), one of them said. I smiled wide with ignorance of what the word meant, and breathed hard and quietly as a reassurance that I would soon become comfortable here. I walked under a rusty awning along the side of the old building, and suddenly, like an arcade game of Whack-a-Mole, small black heads popped up in ordered rhythm as I passed by open classroom windows – looking, staring, watching. I found an open door and walked inside a small gymnasium that had been converted into a classroom. The room felt cold, and dust particles lingered in spots of light cast through holes at the top where walls failed to meet the ceiling. Twenty to thirty children were clustered around long wooden tables on the right, left, and in back of the room. A woman with a stately stance and a few black, coiled whiskers that popped out from her chin approached me from the back. Smiling, she introduced herself as the third grade teacher, welcomed me, and handed me two pieces of chalk and some lesson books approved by the Zambian Ministry of Education. She mentioned something about needing to tend to her brother’s paralyzed leg and with that she was gone, leaving me dumbfounded and uncertain, carrying two pieces of chalk. I was supposed to be her assistant. I was supposed to watch and learn. Now I was It. I walked slowly towards her students, feeling the weight of the chalk grow with every step, and thirty-two Zambian third graders shot to their feet like a band of brothers, steadfast and ready for their commands.
Over the next several weeks all of my emotions were put to task. Florina was shy and timid, a result of sexual abuse at age nine. She began to understand her times tables in my last week of teaching. Gift’s enormous grin masked the existence of an STD that cowardly hid its face. He was a troublemaker in the beginning, but by the end he sat and listened to Cinderella like it was God’s gift to mankind, violently shushing the others to be quiet. Monday, the 16th was frustrating and disheartening, Tuesday, the 17th was pure joy. On Wednesday, the 25th I laughed until it hurt and on Thursday, the 26th my only reaction was to cry. Such was my life as a third grade teacher during the months of June and July. I lost my voice and learned not to scream, they marveled at Snow White and I taught them to sing “High Ho.” Every day I gave a lesson and every day a lesson was gained.
By now the sun had set and more and more tourists stationed themselves near the edge of the lookout, their cameras locked, loaded, and ready to go. My “torch” lit up the circle that was once replete with food and, sucking on hard-boiled sweets, we braced ourselves for what was to come. Silently, we stood holding our breaths as if any sound might disrupt the event and end it for all time. The stars came out. The moon beamed brighter. And, suddenly, in the vapor in front of us was the faint outline of a rainbow, slowly awakening to mystify us all. As it became harder and harder to see the people around me, the rainbow grew brighter and brighter, unfathomably clear in the harsh darkness, yet unmistakably true. Soon, it formed an enormous half-circle that began where the waters broke over the cliff and continued for eternity into the gorge, hundreds of feet below.
At Victoria Falls, certain conditions are required. The moon is key and it must be near to or at its peak of ripeness. I flew to Zambia with no assumptions. I did not plan for a brother’s paralyzed leg, which led me to man a classroom. I did not plan to teach my students to sing “High Ho.” However, two pieces of chalk are not simply placed into one’s hands. Conditions coincide, colors appear, and, without realizing it, a rainbow materializes, living and breathing in the thunderous roar of a waterfall.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Jane Austen Has Destroyed Us All

Since it comes free with my new nook, I've been re-reading Pride and Prejudice (pay no attention to that print version on my shelf). Now, before I explain the title of this post, let me just say that this book is easily one of the best written of all time. Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to be different. It proves its timelessness in its prose and plot. Its characters remain complex and familiar and, let's face it, perfectly constructed. Along with The Great Gatsby and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Pride and Prejudice would be put on my imaginary syllabus to my imaginary class called "This Is Everything a Novel Should Be!"

OK, now let's trash it.

I first fell in love with Ms. Austen in college. I had never read her before, but through some turn of events, I ended up in a seminar devoted entirely to her. We read all six novels, some of her letters, and (get ready to swoon, ladies!) watched the Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Colin Firth. Before taking this class, I assumed that Jane Austen wrote the fluffy chick lit of her time. In fact, one might even say I had a prejudice against her for this reason.

But, even before her actual writing proved me wrong, I learned that Jane was a huge cynic when it came to love and hated being around children. Surprised and sympathetic, I respected her even more. In knowing her real-life feelings on marriage and children and "what's expected," I could see her winking at me from behind the pages when her characters inevitably got their "happy" ending.

Again, I say all of this about her with love and admiration. However, it wasn't until reading Pride and Prejudice again that I realized the true extent of her cynicism. She is downright cruel in a way that I bet she didn't even anticipate.

While I'm sure this has been pointed out before in the thesis papers of English and Film majors alike, Pride and Prejudice has been arguably the template for almost every piece of women's fiction/chick lit novel and romantic comedy ever produced. Not all, but a lot of them. Man meets woman; woman hates man; man hates woman; both find each other attractive; both resist; they keep running into each other; sexual tension builds; man and woman get married.

By creating this formula, Jane Austen was inadvertently responsible for today's stereotype (reality?) that women fall for jerks. In essence, she's been ruining the lives of women for 200 years. Sure, it's paid off in some ways. She is, after all, responsible for Sam and Diane's banter on Cheers and the careers of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. But she's also responsible for Bridget Jones' diary, for all of our diaries that lament over the man who just won't change his ways. She's why Carrie ends up with Big!

Even in my favorite Austen novel, Emma, Emma plays the role of the jerk who needs changing, while Mr. Knightly, oh perfect, love-of-my-life that he is, plays the role of the wise outsider, disdaining Emma's superficiality while falling in love with her. Perhaps Jane was trying to explore the question, "Why do the hot, kinda bitchy girls always win?" But that's a topic for the men to analyze. I'll stick with women and our Darcy-complex.

As I've said before, sometimes people just suck. In reality, unless something particularly profound happens to them, these people rarely change, so why should we expect anything more in our books or films? I know, I know. Now, I'm sounding like the cynic. So I'll clarify by admitting that I do see the value of the hope Jane's formula provides and I believe that love sometimes can be that profound thing that happens to the aforementioned "jerks." However, these constant, poorly executed remakes are making women appear dumb. I think this needs to stop. If reality reflects entertainment which reflects reality, then one of these things needs to change.

I'm left with two questions:

1) Why has this notion - that is, the notion that we will be the one to change him because deep down, he's really just Mr. Darcy - been perpetuated for as long as it has?
2) Which came first - literature influencing our relationships, or our relationships influencing literature?

Maybe it's both, but one thing is for sure - We can drop all the zombies we want into Jane's work. We can even allow Anne Hathaway to make Jane fall in love on screen and let the malnourished Keira Knightley destroy everything holy about Lizzie Bennett. And no matter how many times we roll her over in her grave, she is clearly getting the last laugh.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Langata Rules

Today I bring you the first story on Glass Cases published in 2010. Be excited. It comes from Ken Miller, whose nonfiction work has been published in the Washington Post and who has appeared at conferences throughout Europe and North America regarding corporate reputation and social responsibility. His background in corporate America and politics helped to inspire his first novel, Langata Rules, which is conveniently what I'll be showing you a part of today.

A bit more on the project. in the author's paraphrased words - it is the first novel in a projected series built around the main character. It is about contemporary piracy off the Horn of Africa. In it, a rebel army fights a corrupt government, pirates seize a ship full of their weapons, and the interest of the U.S. is duly piqued.

Ken will be sharing his royalties for this novel with the Fabric of Life Foundation.

Langata Rules
By Ken Miller

inland East Africa, Tuesday morning

In patches the pipeline barely cleared the rocky ground. Scrub brush grew around the line, using the scarce shadows to nurse new sprouts until the shoots found ways to get upright and gorge on sun. The scrub was more gray than green, tough enough to win the fight for turf with chunks of basalt littering the ground like popcorn spilled under bleachers.

This was camel territory, no roads to speak of, just worn paths connecting the wadis. Even a four-wheel drive could have trouble making much speed, and a horse, fine in the sandy desert, would come up lame in hours after picking its way over rocks. Besides, only a camel could quickly cover much distance without needing water. And outside of rainy season - when there could be too much - there was little water anywhere.

Bilal hated camels.

He hated their stench, which he couldn’t describe or compare to anything else in his experience. Wrapping the hood of his caftan over his nose and mouth helped and after awhile his nose clogged with sand and grit and he could lower his guard. But he still despised the smell.

Bilal also hated the sounds camels made, like a badly tuned horn in a town’s brass band. Each town back home had such a band, he thought, even though he’d only seen one in his life. The ubiquitous bands existed only in his mind, one bit of detail in his idealized picture of home. Bilal had no one to share the picture with but he returned to it on rides, in his tent at night or sitting through wasted hours of endless yelling by the leadership, part motivational seminar, part prayer service.

Once Bilal was so deep in his picture of home he floated off completely. When the leadership’s harangue was punctuated by gunfire - a common rhetorical flourish - Bilal covered his head and dove into the lap of the young man squatting next to him. This required a thorough explanation.

More than the smell or the sounds, Bilal hated how against his will he became excited grabbing hold of the beast’s hump to haul himself into the saddle and then to get the reins. The hump was different from the rest of the camel, he felt; it was bristling and rigid. Bilal kept himself chaste, and the strange stimulus of the camel’s hump be-deviled him. Sometimes bouncing over the desert it would take half an hour for his excitement to ease, and all that time he was torn by his compulsion to pray, the need to guide his men, and that insistent urge.

In Gorazde a camel would be a sight for wonder. If a camel came to town the brass band would have struck up for certain. A wagon bursting with Romany would have led the procession and there might be a juggler. The women of the village would bake sweet treats so the fragrance of cinnamon and honey would mask the animal’s stench.

Children would run from all corners of the town to see the beast, fathers jogging with sons and daughters on their shoulders. His own little boy would roar with laughter to hear the camel trumpet as if part of the band, and Bilal would have laughed at the boy’s delight and thought well of the camel for the pleasure it brought.

In the picture in Bilal’s mind the boy was always six, with blousy pants and a solemn little vest over his white shirt, his jet black eyes gleaming. Happy, eager, curious, the perfect little boy. Even a camel was welcome if it brought joy to a boy like that.

But now there was no more little boy and Bilal was not in Gorazde any more. In fact there was hardly any Gorazde in which to be. Piles of rubble and piles of dead and the raped who wished to die. In his mind Bilal often left the town with brass band and cheery shops and entered the one with fires in the streets and dogs fighting for whatever scraps they found, a picture of hell only he could see.

So now he was in a land of dirt where camels were not a source of wonder but like giant dogs themselves, filthy, licking, snapping at each other and at him as he led his band among the rocks. Allah made this land for camels, Bilal thought. This was obvious. Rocks, scarce water, nothing to eat. But why? Lost in a meditation of why Allah would bother to create such a world Bilal was startled when a tribesman called out.

Bilal shielded his eyes from the glare of the sunrise but could only see waves of heat undulating across the rocks. He pulled his Steiner binoculars from the pack and put them to his eyes. Praise be to God, he thought. A kilometer in front of them was the pumping station they were sent to find. Somehow from the vaguest possible directions, the apparent absence of landmarks and the instincts of his surly scout they had found it.

Over his shoulder he called to the boy who rode just behind him. “Tell them one jeep,” Bilal said to the boy. “No camels. No men outside. No mounted guns.” The boy turned his camel and faced the group of men arrayed in a vague semi-circle. Against the backdrop of braying the boy relayed the information to the tribesmen in their dialect.

While the boy talked Bilal scanned the distance beyond the station. At first he had been troubled by his affection for the Steiners, the way they auto-focused instantly so he could see practically forever. Then the weapons man explained how the superior optics were a gift from God and now Bilal relished every chance to use the gift.

“No jeeps approaching,” he reported to the boy. “No camels approaching.” Again the boy translated, yelling over a couple of camels snarling at each other and a few men grumbling about back pay. Several other men leaned in with interest and started to add their views on the pay issue.

Now Bilal turned his camel to face the men. He knew they watched him handle the beast and made judgments on his skill. To hell with them, Bilal thought. These beasts are their mothers. They lick themselves and each other, the sons of whores.

He tried to keep this opinion from coloring his tone of voice. Bilal painstakingly reviewed the plan of attack even though it had been explained to the men during their rough breakfast around a fire earlier that morning, and previously at the base camp with diagrams on a blackboard.

Bilal reminded the men of the two teams they would form as soon as they got within rifle range. Using one of the management tools on which he prided himself, Bilal asked the men to raise their hands when he described the team they would join.

A couple of the men raised their hands for both teams and another hesitated both times. Bilal glanced at the boy, hoping to discern whether the men were being obstinate or really didn’t understand. The boy was intently studying the ground under his camel’s head so Bilal assumed obstinate.

“You,” he said, pointing at one of the men who had signaled twice. “Stay with me.” Bilal’s tone was flat, his voice quiet. He might have been reading road signs aloud. The boy translated.

“You and you, go with him.” Now he pointed at the leader of the second squad. Again the boy.

Then Bilal stunned them by standing in his stirrups - legs shaking but upright - and shouting, “Our plan will succeed. It is God’s will.”

Bilal dropped into the saddle, jerked the bit to turn the camel and jammed his heels in the camel’s ribs. The beast took off at speed. The boy hurried to finish the translation before he was overrun by tribesmen rushing to stay up with Bilal.

The camels raced over the rocks, sending up puffs of sand and pebbles that cut at the men’s arms and faces. Near the pipeline the band split in two, Bilal, the boy, and a half-dozen others speeding straight at the station house, yelling at the tops of their lungs and shooting in the air. Their job was to draw defensive fire from the men inside. The rest of the raiders fanned out along the pipeline, pulling gear from their saddle packs as they rode.

In moments rifle fire snapped from slits in the rock wall of the station house. Bilal raised his hand and his team drew up, spreading their camels apart and lowering them to the ground to create tougher targets. Bilal turned to a rider and nodded urgently and jabbed his finger toward the station house. Shots kicked rock at the men and the camels and the beasts snorted and jerked. The rider pulled a rocket launcher from a saddle bag, then with the help of a second man mounted the launcher on his shoulder, loaded a rocket and fired at the station house.

Some of the camels stood up and whinnied at the burst of noise and the smoke trailing from the rocket. Bilal struggled to hold the reins as his camel, more agitated than the others, jumped up and whirled in a circle.

Then the beast practically turned a somersault at the boom of the exploding station house. Bilal was yanked forward and landed face down on the rocks. Pushing himself up he felt for the treasured binoculars still intact around his neck, blinked away the grit in his eyes and peered through the dust. The excitement of the blast had already replaced his hatred of the camel, and now Bilal was near to making joyous noise as he saw the jagged remnants of the station house emerge through the cloud. He stood and raised his hands in the air and grinned at his squad. They fired their weapons overhead and laughed and cheered. As the other part of the raider band set off a series of smaller explosions and crude gushed over the rocky ground and puddled around the rocks and scrub, Bilal’s team rode cautiously toward the rubble in the unlikely event they had work left undone.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Things I Learned Over Christmas Vacation

Happy New Year, everyone!

I hope you all enjoyed your holidays. Due to New Year's/life plans falling through, I ended up spending a whole extra week at my parent's house in upstate New York. It was the longest amount of time I've spent there since the days of college breaks. Intensity. But now I'm back (!) and here are some bits of knowledge I've gained about myself and life in general:

When I'm away from New York for too long, I get twitchy: After the excitement and overall family craziness of Christmas wore off, it took me all of a day to begin pining for NYC. Parental home is all well and good; I just feel better when I'm in New York is all.

When I leave city limits of any kind, I get twitchy: My hometown is technically a city, albeit a very small one. However, compared to its surrounding towns, it might as well be Paris. I crossed the border exactly twice, once with me driving and once a friend drove, and both times I stared out the window with equal parts confusion, awe, and terror as the streetlights became fewer and farther between and bars that look like houses appeared more and more alongside the road. Call me a city wuss, but that much darkness and open space scares me.

More Human than Human by White Zombie is the greatest song of all time: The single best moment of my week, and possibly life, was driving by myself on the NYS Thruway blasting this song and singing along when I could. Now I know what Tom Cruise felt like when he did that 'Free Fallin" scene in Jerry Maguire.

Craig Ferguson is funny: Has this always been the case? Was I blinded by Conan that whole time?

I don't read when I'm away from home: I know; it's a travesty, but apparently I need the ever-relaxing quiet of the New York City subway system to enjoy a good book.

Coffeehouses make everything better: On a lazy day off, I usually head to my local cafe, sit down with a book, and hang out for a few hours. Having to ask permission to use the car made this luxury a little harder to satisfy, but I managed to support my favorite local business and get some much-needed coffee breaks at the same time. For me, going to a coffeehouse isn't so much about drinking a cup of coffee as it is a lifestyle choice essential to my mental survival. I'm not exactly sure how I became this way, but I will guess that the "favorite local business" I speak of was directly responsible.

The gift that keeps on giving is definitely a nook: Seriously.

Well, folks. I guess that's about it. It's good to be back. I'm excited for sharing some new stories, seeing more of YOUR work (that's right, I'm talking to you, people who haven't submitted yet!), and starting a new decade!