Heaven and Hell

 

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So here’s the thing about adoption and being adopted: it’s a mixed bag.

I was adopted when I was a year and a month old. I’ll elaborate on why over a year went by before I was snatched up by someone in another post, ’cause that’s a whole different arena.

Anyway, once you’re taken in by a family, if the people who adopted you clue you in early on, you basically go through most of your life with two opposing thoughts:

Boy, was I lucky that someone wanted me bad enough to bring me into their life.

Boy, was I unlucky that it had to come to that.

How does one hold “luck” in one hand and “unlucky” in the other and somehow have them coalesce into a coherent, balanced philosophy?

And is it even possible, since they’re completely opposite ideas?

It seems like life on this plane of existence consists of duality anyway, doesn’t it? Good and bad, light and dark, hot and cold and variations of the same.

I feel like I spend my days fighting to return to some kind of center between opposing elements and extreme interpretations. It’s the Goldilocks zone. And I spend my time losing, searching for, and rediscovering that space, that feeling, that moment that’s “just right.” But mostly losing, it feels like. And I spend some days, if I’m being honest. Definitely not all days and not even many days. Some days.

Some people call it being in the moment, and it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. But sometimes when I manage to get there, when I’m actually “in the moment,” nothing else seems capable of invading that space. Because in this moment, right now, this Goldilocks zone that feels just right, there is no past and no future. There’s just now.

In the just right space, it seems like all disparate philosophies and/or perceptions melt away. The edges melt away, the boundaries overlap. Unlucky becomes lucky, lucky becomes unlucky. I’m both and I’m neither, aren’t I? And they’re one in the same.

Wouldn’t dualities, strong emotions, opinions, perceptions and projections cease to exist and/or become interchangeable in this weird, magical space? Two sides of the same thing become one thing, because even in a world of duality, duality is just a word and definitions of words are a man-made construct.

So in the null space, minus the constructs, if I’m lucky and unlucky at the same time, I can’t feel sorry for myself or be happy for myself. It’s like that expression people have when they sort of give up trying to explain something that’s too complicated or maybe  isn’t worth over-thinking: It is what it is. In the Goldilocks zone, everything just is what it is.

The next goal, I guess, is attempting to stay in the just right zone longer than randomly and briefly, which is next to impossible without intense concentration and practice and, I would even say, training. Hey, I’m not ready to be a zen monk yet. I think I love chocolate too much. I think ranting about Trump is healthy, and I’m not ready to stuff it down inside and just say, “It is what it is.”

“Why don’t we leave him alone and let him do his job?!” Why? He won’t shut the hell up on Twitter. He won’t leave us alone. And do “his job”? Define “job”! Don’t get me started!

(See? I would have been kicked out of the monastery already)

In the end, back to the original thing, I’m glad I was adopted, of course. And, musings on duality aside, I would even consider myself one of the lucky ones. Luckier than many. My gratitude is deeper than anything I could ever adequately express.

But beyond the original thing, the adoption, the bigger thing looms: Is it true what the Buddhists say? That life is suffering, and suffering comes from simply existing? And the way out is being mindful of all the things we use to torture ourselves with? Which is, evidently, words, definitions, perceptions, opinions, expectations.

Well, my opinion of Trump will probably never change. Not in this life. And I will always expect chocolate to taste really, really good. But it’s good to know there’s things that can possibly be done to neutralize a sort of undefined, perpetual purgatory.

Maybe Freud would say I’ve only found a way to neutralize my anxiety. But if it’s real and not just denial or suppression or rationalization and it succeeds in a profound and meaningful way…well, I’d like to see if Freud has a better answer.

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Eating Noise

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I bet you can’t guess where I was last Saturday. And the Saturday before that. You might think: The DMV? Workshop for Beginners? (For what? Does it matter?) A carnival?

I’ll give you a hint. Here’s what always happens.

There’s a steady trickle of familiar and unfamiliar characters.

The woman with paperwork amassed around her; paperwork which can’t exist without her fingers plumbing their depths, caressing their edges, rearranging their order, thus gifting all around her with a ceaseless rustling like the wind through dry leaves. Except it’s not the wind. And there are no leaves.

The man with a notebook of indecipherable code who intermittently scans the pages between remaining glued to his laptop, drumming on the tabletop, and randomly emitting a low, throaty moan.

The elderly couple having a pleasant conversation in outside voices until they settle down nearby, she wearing slippers, he with pink headphones and a Hello Kitty logo on his computer. (They seem frail and somewhat sweetly eccentric, but if I were a cop I’d still search their apartment or house for bodies).

Someone asking a question as loudly as if they were standing in the middle of an AC/DC concert (or The Killers, say, for people who weren’t alive yet during AC/DC).

The resounding KA-KLUNK KA-KLUNK KA-KLUNK of a woman operating a three-hole punch with the dedication and abandon of one who has existed on their own planet for eons and is unaware of any other intelligent life elsewhere in their universe.

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Okay, I’m sure you probably guessed it already. Yes, it’s the library. The days of silence, the days of the schoolmarmish woman glaring and saying, “Shhhh!” are so far dead and gone, one wonders if they actually existed or it was only one’s imagination.

Why do I keep going back? Because I manage to actually get some writing done there, regardless of the zoo-like environment. Away from the demands of home, forcing myself to just sit in one spot. In hard wooden chairs that someone from 1900 designed for the orphan asylum. After a massive amount of time with severe writer’s block (I don’t care what people say; writer’s block IS REAL) I pushed—shoved, RAMMED—through and finally made some headway.

It hurt, too. It felt like strapping on my seatbelt and then deliberately driving my car full speed into a wall. But it worked. I guess the imaginary bone-jarring, artery-slicing collision jolted something back awake. I don’t know.

And anyway, I’m already used to all the sounds and interruptions. As long as I can recapture my train of thought again, I’m good. And now I look forward, sort of, to low throaty moan and Hello Kitty and rustling leaves. ‘Cause sometimes it’s not just noise. Sometimes I can touch it, hold it, eat it, make it something else, make it mine.

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“Evelyn’s Journal” by MJ Gardner

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For readers who would like to deviate slightly from the usual vampire tales out there, Evelyn’s Journal departs just enough to make it stand out from many others. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old mixed race girl who has lived at her private school almost her entire life, Evelyn enters into a physical relationship with her 50-year-old piano instructor which eventually leads her into the supernatural world of the “undead”.

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At first it was hard for me to relate to Evelyn or see her as sympathetic since her character is coldly analytical and emotionally detached from the world. Severe abandonment issues and lack of love have left her bitter and emotionally cut off. She’s even initially abandoned by her creator and consequently forced to survive as a new-born vampire on her own.

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But as she makes her way through the world and meets various people, her emotional depth and ability for compassion widen and deepen. Ironic, considering most of her growth happens after she’s undead!

Another fascinating component includes her being mixed race and what that entails. I rarely run into discussions of race in vampire fiction, except on a very shallow level, so this to me was a unique road to travel down and was integrated meaningfully into the story.

The entire tale is told in a brisk, no-nonsense voice that mirrors Evelyn’s academically trained, detached mind. The pacing is good and the end contains a satisfying resolution, although it seemed somewhat anticlimactic to me. Did I want it drawn out more? More hands-on violence from Evelyn herself? Maybe. Or possibly, I’ve seen too many movies! It was still a good catharsis and overall a fast and addictive read.

I think vampire lovers AND nonlovers will enjoy this tale of suspense, passion, violence, buckets of blood, psychological battles, and ultimate metamorphoses.

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LOST ANGELES

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I was reading a fellow blogger’s post recently about Heloise and Abelard, and I feel extremely lightweight talking about “La La Land”  compared to the fascinating mini-treatise focused on the 12th century’s version of star-crossed lovers who predate Romeo and Juliet by hundreds of years.

But what are you gonna do? “La La Land” exists. It got huge crowd reactions and was an Oscar darling. I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.

Ryan Gossling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia are sorta star-crossed, too, in their own way, like Heloise and Abelard. Just minus the nobility. And the scholarly pursuits. And the nunnery. And probably nobody will be talking about them hundreds of years later.

SPOILER ALERT, by the way, in case you haven’t seen it yet. Do not read on!

And anyone interested in taking a more in-depth gander at the famous couple from the blog I mentioned can pop in here: https://tinyurl.com/yb9e4ede, and thank you to the author!

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When I was a kid, I was a HUGE fan of musicals, but somewhere along the line I outgrew them. I can’t pinpoint when this happened. I just know that one day I looked up and if I was watching a movie where people suddenly broke into song, I couldn’t change the channel fast enough. My patience, my tolerance for the lighthearted, at least in that fashion, had died a mysterious and flinty death. My tastes had switched from the likes of ‘The Sound of Music” to “Shaun of the Dead,” and so knowing this, I did try to keep an open mind while viewing the movie.

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Immediately from the opening scene, however, I knew the brutal demise of my love of musicals, of the inconceivable which bordered on sweetness and joy, instead of that of dark humor and sarcasm, was alive and with me still.

The word “magical” seemed to be key where this movie was concerned and there were some enchanting moments like the Griffith Park “dancing among the stars” scene and a sometimes sunny, sometimes soulful soundtrack that followed the characters around, lending a whimsicality to even the most banal of activities.

But I attributed these scenarios to the universality of shared experiences rather than anything to do specifically with L.A.; the intense dopamine-enhanced sensation of new love, the incandescent view of the city at night, the ultra-brightness of the sky when dreams are still possible.

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Mia’s giant Ingrid Bergman wall painting, the ghostly mural of old Hollywood stars on a building, a pool party taking place on a bright sunny day, and Mia’s job on the movie lot were nice touches, evoking the *feel* of Los Angeles in a visually pleasing yet predictable way.

I thought maybe “out of towners” really fell for this movie, seduced by the romantic images. Maybe merely being an Angeleno prevented me from absorbing the Los Angeles + wonder connection. I don’t know. To me, it really is a lost city, having little or no solid identity, little or no loyalty, even, to itself. At least one comment rang really true when Sebastian said, “They worship everything and value nothing.”

 

In order not to come off as an inflexible curmudgeon by listing everything that didn’t sit well with me in “La La Land,” including the fact that ethnic people, apart from Ryan Gossling’s jazz buddy and Emma Stone’s mulatto roommate, were eye-poppingly missing except for intermittent scenes where they were dancing or playing jazz (in the same vein as the New York of “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” 90% white enclaves buried in a city known for–even famous for–its tremendous diversity) I’ll describe what I did like about this movie.

I liked the ending. Not being sarcastic. I liked it when, years later, Sebastian remembers the night he met Mia, and instead of rudely shouldering past her as she tries to compliment his piano playing, he sweeps her up in a one-armed embrace, setting alternative events into play involving the love and success and life they should have had together.

It reminded me of the end of Diane Lane’s movie “Unfaithful” where, after everything that possibly could go wrong has gone wrong, she imagines the windy day when she first ran into Olivier Martinez’s character. But instead of getting together and having what would eventually become a disastrous affair, they help each other up, sort out their possessions, and, laughing, each goes their separate way.

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And in “La La Land’s” case, going their separate ways was probably inevitable, doomed from the start by self-doubt and precarious hope. Their desire to “make it” ended up being much larger than any feelings they had for each other, so Sebastian’s poignant “what if” imaginings seemed fitting and appropriate for a relationship not exactly shallow but definitely not penetrating deep enough, a perfect parallel for most L.A. life in general.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against dreams and hope and aspiration and dancing in the sky. But regret is something I can relate to, as can most people, whether they want to admit it or not, and so the core of the movie seemed to me like it was baked into the very end, and there it was the most romantic, the most possible, the most real.

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Balancing on the PC Tightrope: Stay Steady or BOUNCE THE LINE?

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I can’t imagine in this universe or the next not writing about politicized/non-PC topics due to either being an unknown indie author, an unknown traditionally published author or any other iterations involving a small or nonexistent following on social media and/or in the real world.

Author Melissa Eskue Ousley recently published an article on Book Daily on this topic, though, asking some penetrating questions:  http://www.bookdaily.com/authorresource/blog/post/1929116

It’s interesting to read people’s varying points of view on the matter. Some of Ms. Ousley’s writer friends said they wouldn’t have broached certain subjects in the past, but due to recent changing events (the Trump election) they’ve become more vocal. Other friends said they were bold before the election, so they weren’t afraid of losing social media followers.

Maybe coming from me this doesn’t mean much. I don’t know. It’s like that age-old question: If a tree falls in a forest but nobody’s there to see it or hear it, does it make a sound? I may say I’ve always been bold. I may say I would never keep my mouth shut for fear of “losing social media followers.” But, some might ask, would I be this way if I did have lots of followers? If I was making a nice living through my writing?

Even though I wrote a paranormal comedy that came out last summer, one of the topics I touched on was the very serious subject of racism. The protagonist is mixed race like I am and at one point, for example, she and her sister muse about the comments they used to get in school about their “mocha” colored skin, which usually came out as a “compliment” but still was, in the end, something everybody noticed and felt the need to comment on.

Conversely, later in life when the main protagonist is trying to make it in Hollywood, she isn’t, for some reason, “black enough.” And these are obviously fairly innocuous, bland examples; the tip of the iceberg,  in the duplicitous labyrinthine casuistry of bigotry and racism.

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I like to believe that, regardless of followings or book sales that may or may not ever increase in size in the future, that I will always be strong enough and courageous enough to share my thoughts and opinions on hot-button topics. Ms. Ousley concluded that she has become more and more vocal over time, probably turning off some readers and even getting angry messages from some. However, overall, responses were positive, and she’s even seen an increase in followers.

I do have a question, though. According to the article, the angry messages Ms. Ousley received followed her sharing photos and her views from the Women’s March. Now, without having seen her posts on this subject or knowing the content therein, I still have to ask: what could have been so offensive that people felt the need to write angry messages to her?

Going by the article from Book Daily, her tone seems gentle, very sensitive and sympathetic. I can’t imagine her blog concluding with something in all caps like, “MEN SUCK. WOMEN WILL RULE THE EARTH AGAIN,” or something equally inflammatory. So who knows where the anger comes from? You can’t please everybody, obviously.

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I actually don’t think an author can be separated from their views. We are our views and our opinions and these philosophies and leitmotifs are infused into our work. There’s a way to phrase our points of view, though, that doesn’t intentionally incite anger or come off aggressively as “the only possible truth.” I think there’s a way to be passionately vocal while at the same time keeping communication and the desire for catharsis in the forefront.

Admittedly, that’s hard to do sometimes, at least for me, like when it comes to Donald Trump. For instance, I posted a picture on Facebook either right before or after the election of Arkham Asylum and likened it to Trump’s administration.

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Yeah, some Trump supporters might have taken offense to that, and no, it’s not a benign call for a far-reaching catharsis. But in retrospect…it was also very prophetic, wasn’t it? Even Trump people, the reasonable ones, would have to give me a grudging nod at this point, eight months later…

And, no, saying “the reasonable ones” isn’t very “kumbayah” of me, either. But I’m referring to the Trump base here, like the ones involved in the Charlottesville mess. Not only the ones who were marching for…I don’t know what—against other people? Certain people? All people who weren’t them? I’m also referring to the ones who even said, after it was over, that they were “glad” that Heather Heyer was killed. Calling those with such a mindset “unreasonable”, I think, is the biggest understatement in not only this dimension but all parallel dimensions unto infinity.

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In summary to Melissa Eskue Ousley’s final question, “Do you think it’s okay for authors to share their political views, or is it advisable to stick to safe topics” for me it’s not advisable to stick to safe topics. Parts of my life, my family’s life, and our experiences haven’t been safe where racism is concerned, psychologically and even physically.

And racism itself isn’t really the problem. It’s simply an unlighted doorway leading to more questionable doorways; a pervasive mindset lacking empathy and inclusiveness, glutted with ignorance, frustration, and fear. Instead of addressing the fear, frustration, or lack of knowledge, it’s always easier to simply roll with the baser extremes. And when one is pulled down into baser extremes of existence, a tendency for intolerance of any kind—for sexuality, religion, what books to read—will be, in my opinion, an easier, shorter trip the longer one is immersed unquestioningly in that kind of limited consciousness.

In this fashion, my father, a dentist, was called a derogatory slur by police officers.

In this fashion, my mother answered the door of her gated-community home to a security guard who assumed she was a maid.

In this fashion, my brother was walking home from school one day and was stopped and frisked by the police.

In this fashion, after I went out with a particular guy a few times, his mother asked him, “Why are you dating that girl? You aren’t going to marry her.”

In this fashion, Trump was able to ask Barack Obama to present his birth certificate for the entire eight years he was president while almost no one brought up the fact that McCain was born in the PNZ while he was campaigning for the same position.

(To see a fuller account of this argument, go here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/07/there-was-a-very-real-birther-debate-about-john-mccain/?utm_term=.77508c34f43b)

And in this fashion, reality TV celebrity/real estate mogul Trump was elected president after running with a litany of fanatical, xenophobic, dogmatic, one-sided, fractious, sectarian, racist, and ultraist campaign promises that would have made Darth Vader feel unambitious and forgettable.

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So, in this fashion, regardless of any potential readership, any blossoming followers, any future ultimate successes, in the memory of past injustices, large and small, in the midst of all present injustices in full swing today, and steeling myself for all probable future injustices, angers, hatreds, ignorances, fears, pain, and suffering in the future, I hope I never stick to “what’s safe.”

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Beautiful Fantasy: Spartan Justice for All

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Where do I begin? Did I love the movie “300”? Yes. Was it based in reality? Somewhat. Here and there. Just put a little Wite-out on the ugly parts and blow up the good parts by 1,000.

Well, it’s kinda like how, over time, certain people and/or events become…let’s say…changed from what actually happened or who they actually were, and all of this becomes viewed, in time, through a distorted lens that’s only telling part of the story. Yeah, yeah, history is written by the victors. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Examples? No problem. Two that stand out in my mind are the Rhodes Scholarship and Margaret Sanger. When one thinks of a Rhodes Scholar and the associated scholarship, one generally conjures up benign brainiacs, geeks and nerds of Mensa or Jeopardy! qualifications, whose brains are bigger, synapses fire faster, or maybe are simply gifted in the retention of trivia and facts.

The scholarship, however, is named after British mining magnate and South African politician Cecil John Rhodes, the founder of the De Beers diamond firm, a corporation which enjoyed a global  monopoly for many generations of exploiting/raping natural South African resources while treating its workers as much, much, much less than human. As the creator of the 1913 Natives Land Act, Rhodes’ brainchild would limit the areas of the country that black Africans were allowed (less than 10%) and this, along with altering voting laws, helped pave the road for apartheid.

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In the meantime, Planned Parenthood is still going strong today. I don’t think the average person even knows about Margaret Sanger when they think of Planned Parenthood. I know I didn’t. But when you hear about the “founder” of Planned Parenthood, you’re probably inclined to think, “Oh, what a forward-thinking lady. What a maverick!” since she was engaging in the struggle for women’s rights back in the ‘20s.

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A couple of years ago, Ms. Sanger was named one of Time magazine’s “20 Most Influential Americans of All Time.” But considering what the founder of Planned Parenthood contributed to the eugenics movement, it gives one pause, does it not?  Eugenics?! you say.

Yes. Eugenics!

In 1939 Sanger wrote in a letter to Clarence Gable: “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”Woman, Morality, and Birth Control. New York: New York Publishing Company, 1922. Page 12.

It was nice of her to lend a caveat to her ultimate goal which was, most likely, not to exterminate blacks, but to definitely keep them from having more than an acceptable amount of babies, whatever that number may have been, as was evidenced in a video recently unearthed from 1947 of the intrepid defender of all womankind—ahem—I mean defender of most of—some of—the appropriate women—of Ms. Sanger demanding no more babies for 10 years in developing countries.

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So back to “300.”  Back to Sparta.

No one more than I loves the expression on Gerard Butler’s face as he’s proclaiming, “This is Sparta!”

But what’s the low-down on Sparta behind the cinematic majesty?

Well, it’s common knowledge these days that the Spartans were slave-owners, dominating who were probably the original inhabitants of Laconia (the area surrounding the Spartan capital). Although this population, called helots, greatly outnumbered the Spartans, an iron heel was kept firmly ground on their collective neck to keep them down.

Spartans, during their early training, did not have to go out into the snow and kill giant wolves as much as they were required to perform the equivalent of today’s gang drive-by in order to gain warrior status within the ranks. So instead of the lyrical representation of the half-naked boy facing down a wild animal, a more realistic scene in “300” would have been a testosterone-crazed 13-year-old shadowing an unarmed helot on his or her way to market in a rite known as the Crypteia, jumping said clueless person, and probably slitting their throat on the spot.

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Portrayed as a freedom-loving culture in the movie and in popular media today, what they actually only valued was their own freedom. Certainly not that of the helots.

And let’s take a look at Ephialtes, who betrays the Greeks by disclosing the location of a secret goat path to the Persians. Ephialtes is changed from a local Malian of sound body into a Spartan outcast, outrageously disfigured and later outrageously vengeful toward Leonidas and the warriors. Aside from the fact that Ephialtes was the leader of radical democrats in Athens and whose reforms prepared the way for the final development of Athenian democracy, his character is demoted to monster-like proportions in both body and mind, along with the general representation of the Persians as twisted creatures, malformed and debauched, offering up an endless supply of gigantic stampeding beasts and horrific ogres to do their fighting for them.

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Oh, well. It made for good drama in the movie.

At the end, in history, the Spartans knew they were gonna die. And they stayed. Graciously, they volunteered their own slaves. I can just see the Spartan warrior going, “Yes, and Thesius will remain behind also,” while Thesius does a double-take and drops the cape he was trying to mend in the dull light of a bloody sunset.

In the end, Spartan bravery isn’t in question. It looks like they had that in spades. But the circumstances that allow such a society to live and thrive, on one level at least, contaminate everything else that happens afterwards, don’t they?

Like the questionable “honor” of being dubbed a Rhodes Scholar.

Like the much, much less than egalitarian principles of an overly esteemed Margaret Sanger.

Like the founding of the United States with a constitution stating that “all men are created equal” except…it was really only men. And really only a certain type of man. And look where we are today due to that ignoble beginning…

It’s nicer to stick with fantasy sometimes. So for now I’ll sink back into the glory of “300” with its chiseled stomachs and call for honor, swirling with empathy and altruism for all the innocents and worthy of the world. Truly a beautiful idea. Really a wonderful, captivating fantasy.

 

 

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Hidden Gem: “Positively No Dancing” by James Mason

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“Positively No Dancing”, a slim volume of stories by James Mason (no relation to the actor) lures us unceremoniously through the back doors and dark bars and understated prosaic beauty of everyday New York.

Those of you who are familiar with such writers as Denis Johnson, Charles Bukowski, and Jayne Anne Phillips are probably no strangers to a style of writing attributed to them called “Dirty Realism.”

Per Wikipedia: Dirty realism is a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine to define a North American literary movement. Writers in this sub-category of realism are said to depict the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life in spare, unadorned language.

Sometimes considered a variety of literary minimalism, dirty realism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description.

The first story, simply titled “John Flowers” starts out: “I was sitting across from my teaching gig on 13th street, waiting for my friend Stacey.”

To state that that paragraph was built with an economy of words would be an amusing understatement. And yet the reader is immediately pulled in. Yeah, John Flowers is just sitting there, waiting for his friend, but why?

One discovers he has an usual job working in an adult rehab center for the mentally disabled, a job he enjoys and feels he’s good at. A job where a woman gets on the center’s bus every morning and tells him that she saw him in her cereal, something he describes as a refreshing way to start the day.

Bars figure into most of the stories here, along with some pill popping and definitely some intended/unintended soul-searching. As the author states in the story “Dead Little Boy”…

The guys in the bar looked like the old guys in every bar, peering into their glasses, trying to locate their lives.

The sad, Sisyphean self-scrutiny continues with observations like these:

..in Ireland most of them (bars) are round so people are all kind of looking at each other and conversations start more naturally. As opposed to American bars where you sit shoulder to shoulder and spend the night staring at the reflection of the person you came to get away from in the first place.

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Originally from Ohio, Mason lived in New York for over 25 years, well qualifying him to become a spokesman for the city and his Brooklyn neighborhood (Red Hook specifically), topics ranging from the gentrification of mom and pop bars to taxi driver banter.

An interview in “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York” highlights Mason’s colorful response to gentrification:

Well, you know what? Fuck you. The slaughterhouses were here before you were. The factories were here before you, and they employ hundreds of neighborhood people … Why the fuck did you buy a condo next to a chicken slaughterhouse in the first place? When I moved to Williamsburg in ’87, I didn’t look around and try to see how I could change it. I was in Rome. I tried to figure out how the Romans do.

Layered within the darkness of emotional paralysis and self-destructive behaviors, an unselfconscious humor nevertheless lightens much of the ambiance, like how we are when we first meet, as demonstrated in the third-person story entitled: “Pretty.”

This is the part you’re not crazy about, the small talk.

“You have pretty hair,” you say.

“Thanks,” she says.

“What do you call that color?”

“Black.”

“Nice.”

In another story, “Ashes,” the protagonist’s tendency toward short-lived, somewhat doomed relationships starts out like anybody else’s with a girl he’d met showing up in a bar again:

She had on a deep blue eyeliner and some kind of white feather boa. She looked like she was playing dress-up.

Here we go, I thought.

We can relate to this character, because we’ve been there before. Maybe not with a girl or a white boa, but in a blossoming situation in which, although new, we recognize familiar colors and patterns. The indicators of what’s to come.

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A while later, waist or chest or neck-deep in the relationship, the fun is gone and the fighting has begun, the catalyst John arriving late from the bar again:

I…took a bottle of bourbon…Touching it made things louder…I reached for her. The sound was hard, like something heavy dropping.

An L.A. Times article by David Ulin summarizes the collection this way:

John goes to a funeral; he talks to a little girl and her sister on the Brooklyn Promenade about the proximity of the World Trade Center to Heaven.

“Maybe angels shed feathers from their wings,” the girl suggests, “… [a]nd then the birds come and fly up and take the feathers and makes nests with it.” That’s a perfect metaphor for Mason’s book, which gathers the detritus of city life and spins it into something spare and beautiful.

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I would agree. In fact, the spare and beautiful part actually reminds me of the end of the short story “Brokeback Mountain”:

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

In the conclusion of Mason’s “Nicotine Angel” John Flowers, remembering the small bit of compassion a nurse had shown him while he’d been detoxing in a hospital, returns there in search of something that remains, obviously, elusive in his life:

I stopped and lit a cigarette…I could just sneak back in and lie down. She’d have a bed waiting for me. I figured I’d smoke this one, then one final one, seeing as there wouldn’t be any more for a while.

That’s kind of how I feel about this collection and this author, considering nothing more, at least in book form, has been forthcoming from him. It’s almost like he dropped off the edge of the world.

I feel like I need to savor this little book, roll it around on the tongue, make it last, seeing as there hasn’t been, and probably won’t be, any more for a while.

A PDF of the collection can be downloaded here: http://www.lulu.com/shop/james-mason/positively-no-dancing/ebook/product-17550456.html?ppn=1

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Book Review: ‘Day for Night’ by Stacey E. Bryan

I normally don’t post reviews, but I kinda had to reblog this one, not only for its content, but especially for the hilarious drawing, which no one has done before: a provocative representation of the main protagonist of Day for Night and…a mystery being who’s only trying to help!

Thanks, Henry!

Comics Grinder

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Damien Hirst, the bad boy of art famous for displaying sharks in art galleries, once asked his 6-year-old son which he would prefer in his bed, a girl or a zombie. The boy instantly replied, “Zombie!” That is a crude and random example, I know. But perhaps it makes a bigger point about our collective fascination with the macabre, the unknown…and sometimes that is made most clear from a child’s point of view. That brings me to “Day For Night,” a new novel by Stacey E. Bryan. It has zombies of a sort. And it even has a shark! Like my example, there’s a fine-tuned crude and random vibe to this book.

This is very much a Los Angeles tale. Bryan indicates any pause as a “beat,” reminding us we’re in Tinseltown, full of daily theatrics and scripts coming out of everyone’s ears. We also get…

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Michael Faber tunnels “Under the Skin”

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“Even in the nacreous hush of a winter dawn, when the mists were still dossed down in the fields on either side, the A9 could not be trusted to stay empty for long.”

And the journey begins.

Pulled in by the lilting, almost soothing language, one might expect a benign story concerning suburban life: the good daughter’s dating a biker, or the grandfather’s hiding a secret from his long ago boyhood.

But Michael Faber’s 2000 novel “Under the Skin” leads us down a dark and disturbing road which, while weaving in and out of the lives of ordinary people, ultimately reveals the last thing on anybody’s mind: an unthinkable and malevolent and alien agenda.

“Isserley always drove straight past a hitchhiker when she first saw him, to give herself time to size him up. She was looking for big muscles: a hunk on legs.”

Okay, so now we’re thinking along the lines of “Looking For Mr. Goodbar,” right? This Isserley has done this before, and she’ll probably do it again. She wants men. Maybe she’s a sex addict. Obviously she wants a good time…right?

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Yes, she does. If a good time involves randomly offering men a ride, casually asking seemingly innocent questions about their lives and then, once she’s determined no one will be looking for them anytime soon,  injecting them with a drug and delivering their unconscious body to the secret slaughterhouse that’s hidden below a farm.

Because she’s an alien, physically altered to look more or less human, and human beings are a delicious delicacy and in great demand on her home planet.

In the movie based on the novel, one of the most bizarre and riveting and sinister and ghoulish moments came when Scarlett Johansson, who plays Isserley, is walking through a strangely lightless space over a mirror-like surface while she peels off her clothing, luring an entranced male who follows, fugue-like, after her, pulling his clothes off, too, until he is nude.

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But while Isserley stands, still clad in her bra and jeans, firmly atop the mirror-shiny surface, still clad in her bra and jeans, the man slowly begins to sink down into it as he walks, and yet he keeps walking forward, determined to reach Isserley who remains above, out of reach, watching. And he continues moving forward, calmly, still silently staring at Isserley, as if what’s happening to him isn’t even registering, until he disappears beneath the black surface.

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I won’t describe what happens to this and other fellows in a later scene; you’ll have to see it for yourselves. But suffice it to say that I don’t have the adjectives available to relate the utter horror of what transpires.

So an alien race has come to Earth and is secretly kidnapping, fattening up, then slaughtering men whom, presumably, no one will notice are missing. There’s a lot more to this story, though, in the novel, compared to the movie. In the novel we discover that the population on Isserley’s home world is as stratified and unevenly divided when it comes to resources and who receives them as is Earth’s.

In fact, Isserley was forced into this job on our far away world because she couldn’t do any better on her home planet, and she resents the constant physical pain the surgery left her in and is constantly revisiting and bemoaning her social status in general. She sounds like someone who wants to “move on up” just like anyone else.

But as time goes on and several incidents occur, Isserley finds herself transforming again—this time emotionally—as she slowly develops empathy for the humans she heretofore had simply thought of as meat.

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There’s an interesting parallel, of course, with our own “meat” industry, how we view animals, how we round them up for our consumption. The author has stated that he does question our methods and entire perspective on the slaughter of animals, but the book was not written as a treatise on that or any one subject. And he also is not a vegetarian.

The endings of the book and the movie differ greatly, but I thought both of them worked in their own mediums. The movie’s conclusion was more karma-heavy due to the fact that the very thing that Isserley had been hunting the entire time was now stalking her in some deep, dark woods.

But this was a rare occasion where, in my opinion, the movie was as effective as the book, and both are worth pursuing. An interesting take on “alien life” in the universe that’s a far cry from E.T., “Starman,” or even Superman. It’s a nightmarish scenario, like if Superman went bad, having a powerful, single-minded alien presence inhabiting our world with no positive intentions toward us.

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Imagine standing in “the prehistoric stillness” of an early morning. With the “mists still dossed down in the fields.” You are alone. Everything calm and quiet. Ordinary. Maybe almost beautiful. Then you see that one car.

Coming down the road toward you…

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Black Lives Matter: A Study in Loss

Laughter Over Tears

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My mouth was agape as I read an article from Paste Magazine talking about the new TV time travel show “Timeless” :

 “In one of the episode’s best lines, he tells the guard that he hopes he lives a long life so he can see Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson (“or just anybody named Michael”) and other notable African American figures because, ‘Time is not on your side.’”

Yeah, it’s a light article talking about a sci-fi TV show. We can’t expect an in-depth thesis about anything of real substance because in the end, it’s just…entertainment, right?

The black male character has traveled back in time and a racist guard in a jail cell is spewing the usual disrespectful and derogatory rhetoric at him.

But it’s the comeback that irks me.

And it’s the perspective of the article’s author that amazes me, that this person actually considered this one…

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