Archive for August, 2011

And by that I mean, did you ever read a book — at any age, but particularly when you were younger — where you thought to yourself: That’s the person I want to be!

Wait! Wait! I didn’t throw a monkey wrench into it yet!

The book can NOT be a fantasy or science-fiction title.

Did that ruin it for anyone? Everyone?

See, last week there was this article in the NYT about boys and reading and yadda yadda yadda. But out of that I found myself wondering what, if any, characters in literature really made me sit up and really wish I could be that person.

We talk so much in the craft of fiction about identifying with characters, empathizing with them, sympathizing with their plight, but how many of them represent who we would actually, willingly want to be identified with?

Did it stick? Did you change your life, your environment, your personality to be more like that character?

Now, why am I removing fantasy and sci-fi from the mix? Well, I have a theory, but it’s only that, that readers might be more prone to adopting a fantasy persona than one from a more realistic or historical setting. Who wouldn’t want to do something impossible, like cast spells or fly to other worlds? Yes, yes, I know that character traits are universal and the setting shouldn’t matter, but my curiosity and my intuition are strongly leaning toward the idea that it is harder to find realistic characters we can identify with.

Still with me?

Please, post and discuss in the comments below. And invite everyone you know to join in.

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What is a pear tree, and what does it mean for a king to have one in front of his castle that provided the most beautiful fruit? And why most beautiful, why not the sweetest or the juiciest?

And why should we concern ourselves that each year, at the moment the pears were juiciest, they would disappear before the could be harvested? How was it that no one saw the culprit or knew what happened to the fruit?

We know the king had three sons, and that three is a cardinal number for such tales, but why is there always only one son who is somehow different? Why could there not be more than one dullard in the bunch, or if it be girls, more than one beauty? Why this singling out?

How predictable is it that the older, smarter brothers who guard the tree fail in their duty, and how do they manage to both do it in exactly the same way? Could the first brother not warn the second brother to be extra cautious the night before harvesting? Would not the king bring on other guard to help the second brother after his failure? Is this are just kingly pride and arrogance?

So when the older brothers fail in their task, does anyone expect the younger brother, the simpleton, to succeed? Each time before it took a full year for the fruit to mature, you begin to wonder, is it really worth all this effort? Again we come back to that pear tree: what made it so special?  Was it rare? Were there no others like it? Did everyone imagine the most beautiful fruit possessed some special powers?

Is anyone surprised when the simpleton succeeds?

So what do we make of this dove that comes the night before the harvest and carries each pear away one by one silently in the night? Is it significant that it is white? What alarms does a white dove signal, what symbolism is at play here? Purity? Virginity? Fidelity? Beauty? Peace?

A partridge in a pear tree, perhaps?

But when the simpleton follows the dove to a mountain and finds a little gray man standing beside him, why say “God bless you?” Is this an archaic form of surprise, a sort of religious expletive designed to delight through blasphemy?

So… how exactly do these words, then, release the little gray man from his spell?  What spell? How is he changed by all this? Is he no longer middle, or gray? Does being a little gray man suggest middle age? Is this all an allegory for midlife crisis?

When the little gray man tells the simpleton that he will find his happiness in the cliffs on the mountain, where the dove has disappeared to, why does he go? Is it because he’s a simpleton or because the story demands it? Is this simpleton truly so simple that he does what he’s told without question? Was he even unhappy to begin with?

And now he finds the bird, this dove, trapped in a massive spiders web… and he does nothing? He stands there watching the bird struggle to become free? Why? And what is it that compels the bird to struggle in such a way that it breaks free of the web, as if it would not wish to survive were it not for the audience? And when she does, this bird, this dove, break free, how does this act break her particular spell? Was she not freed from the web by her own actions? Again, is the simpleton as a spectator really all it took to free here?

Honestly, were both the little gray man and the dove waiting years for someone to follow a thieving bird in the hopes of being free? What are the odds?

Is anyone surprised that the dove was really a princess, and does anyone believe the married and lived happily ever after?

Does the king’s pear tree continue to produce beautiful fruit, or was that part of the enchantment as well?

Did people tell this story to their simpleton children in order to give them hope?



“The White Dove” is freely adapted from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and edited by Jack Zipes. This story, number 246, ran into a bit of a delay due to problems surrounding my proposed vacation to an area currently getting pounded by hurricane Irene. That issue — my vacation — is still being hammered out, but the Tales from the New Grimmoire continue forward. Eventually.

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As summer comes to an end, a poem reflecting on the end of another summer and the film that did not mend a teenage relationship. To be fair, nothing would have saved it, but dragging my soon-to-be-heading-to-college girlfriend to see Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band certainly didn’t leave things on a high note. Though the poem stands nicely on its own (I think so at least) if you really want the full effect of that summer you should read this while listening to the instrumental middle of the Steely Dan song “Aja.”

Under no circumstance should you be able to locate, much less listen to, the soundtrack to the film Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. The ghost of George Burns will haunt you if you do.


MGM sold off the props
and let the backlots go to rot

surrounded by a steel fence
gone to rust like holey undies

worn by Mrs. Miniver’s house
down Andy Hardy Lane

the old gal didn’t care any more
what folks saw through her


That summer Culver City buzzed
Lot 2 would get its final shot

a musical on the same streets
Judy Garland called St. Louis

the broken window panes replaced
weeds pulled from faux sidewalks

newly whitewashed picket fences
in support of the facade town called



The movie date idea was mine
a Hail Mary of desperation

to rekindle a relationship
that ended months earlier

in the sticky late summer heat
waiting in line opening night

to see the last movie shot at Lot 2
absurdly based on songs written by the


It never occurred to me then
how selfish my choice was

how a date movie should have been
something both of us wanted to see

or that the premise was a disaster
to rival the Hindenburg

or to heed the warning that
a sold out show meant we wouldn’t sit


A late-night walk on the beach
salt air to erase the movie’s stench

one final make-out on moon cold sand
a clumsy lip-locked kiss-off

our 3 AM parents furiously waiting
for us to finally come home

grounded, single, car keys taken away
“I hope it was worth it” dad said


Right now I’m willing to bet there’s some kid out there thinking about taking his soon-to-be ex to a movie. As is the case when it comes to underage drinking or drug use, I hope the kid makes good choices. The wrong movie can be deadly.

Hey! It’s Poetry Friday! And there’s plenty of other poetry out there, this week being hosted by  non-hurricane-Irene over at Live. Love Explore!

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Sports writer (it figures) cum YA author Robert Lipsyte rattled the cages of the kidlit community this past weekend with his essay in the NYT Book Review essentially lobbing the teen boy reading problem back across the net into the “more boy books” camp. This naturally, almost assuredly, possibly deliberately, raised the hackles of those who feel that the problem isn’t books (don’t blame the books!) but in the way society raises the boys (we need to raise boys as feminists!). Here’s the one line that resonated with me out of the whole essay, the one most true, the one ring to bind them:

“We need more good works of realistic fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, on- or ­offline, that invite boys to reflect on what kinds of men they want to become.”

Forget everything else Lipsyte said for a moment (especially if it bothered you) and think about everything this statement embraces.

First and foremost it recommends we need books. Define that how you will, I would love to hear someone argue the opposite side, that we don’t need books anymore.

Second, the modifier good is in there. We don’t just need more crap, we need quality, and again there’s a spectrum there.  Suffice to say we know good when we see it, what defines good isn’t at issue here.

Third, following the rule of threes, comes the type of good books that we need: realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels. Any naysayers out there? Anyone think we couldn’t use more quality nonfiction, solid realistic fiction, or good graphic novels? No? Let’s move on.

The next part is tricky: inviting boys. This gets tossed around and argued quite a bit, and it usually has to do either with cover designs or whether a girl is involved with the story. This is the “Ew, cooties!” argument, and the division is usually between “if it’s good, it shouldn’t matter” and “we need to teach boys to get over it.”  This is the point where I would think most pro-feminists would want to weigh in with just exactly how boys get to this stage of thinking. There’s an avalanche of advertising and marketing out there that is conditioning boys from a very early age to think of pink as a girly color and that stories featuring girls will contain content of no interest to them. There’s a ginormous world out there molding and shaping the ways boys approach their entertainment and free time, and you want to draw a line in the sand at books and dare boys to cross it? If we aren’t going to invite boys into books, if the stand is going to be pandering versus political, or if there’s just no desire to even bother, then how can we possibly imagine a world where boys even begin to come close to recognizing books as valuable?

Now comes the most interesting phrase out of the Lipsyte quote, to reflect. We don’t just want them to read for the sake of reading, we want them to find meaning and purpose in what they read, we want them to think. This is where I feel a lot more harm than good is done in the schools when there is a dramatic shift from reading for fun toward reading for meaning. I do think boys can and should be able to analyze texts and glean relevent meaning from a story, any story, but I don’t think books should be used to do this. This is where I get a little radical and run my post a little off a side track, but this is the crux of it:

Apply all the lessons taught about subtext and metaphor and literary devices via movies and television shows.

Why? Because we already know they spend more time with visual media than they do books. Because we need them to see that these lessons exist in the world outside the classroom. And because they will be better able to apply those lessons to books if we don’t remove them from the category of pleasurable pursuits. You can take any contemporary television sitcom and use it to teach racial and gender-based stereotypes for example – and there’s a LOT of examples out there, many of them hit shows, a lot of them negative – then have them read any work of fiction and they’ll spot them without effort. It doesn’t work the other way around however. Kids who are whipsmart at spotting literary devices in books view their favorite TV shows as somehow being separate or above all that.

Anyway, if we want our boy readers to be able to sincerely reflect on what they read in books we might have to actually teach them how to reflect somewhere else besides books first.

The last part of Lipsyte’s quote is a loaded gun: what kinds of men they want to become. You ask any boy what character from literature they would most like to be like, and what are the odds you’ll get a character from a fantasy novel, a hero with superpowers? Not very realistic. On the spot I can only think of one good example, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of a boy wanting to be like Atticus Finch. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a guy (outside of fellow writers) who said they wanted to be like any male, author or character, connected with books. There are great men to emulate in the world, politicians and athletes and movie stars, but these are all men of action who give no appearance of having read any books.

So if we want to invite boys to reflect on the type of men they want to become, and we want them to do it through good, realistic fiction, nonfiction, and graphic novels – and there’s nothing in that restatement I find objectionable – then we need more books that allow this to take place. This isn’t an argument of pandering versus bootstrap feminism, it’s about saying, simply, let’s put out more books like this and give them time to find an audience.

Boys and reading are like a teen driver and his broke-down truck by the side of the road. You can either give them a lift to the next town and help them one step further along the road to reading, or you slow down long enough to smirk at their choice of vehicle before driving off and leaving them in the choking dust.

We can argue all we want, but there are boys all over the literary map who need lifts into town.

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Movie poem time again! This time the subject is what happens in those moments of consciousness transitioning between life and death, and the medium of education is Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation of Macbeth. After losing his wife and unborn child in one of the infamous Manson Family murders a few years earlier, I cannot fathom how he could have made this film. Was it the catharsis of work, or of working out a vicarious murder of a Macbeth who looked vaguely like Charles Manson?

There’s no need to get into the particulars of Polanski’s later foibles, the film is an artifact of time and place and the imagery a film, any film, provides is worthy if it sticks with you your entire life. It was a cold, late night in the spring of 1977 when I saw this movie, and I can remember this image as clearly as if I saw it last week.

if godard is right
and movies deliver the truth
then polanski clarified that death
isn’t always instantaneous

poor macbeth
climbing the stairs in vain
knowing fate had come to collect
on his misdeeds

but the lasting indignity
to losing one’s head by broadsword
was remaining conscious long enough
to be spat on and mocked

carried through the courtyard
on the end of a stake
held aloft, cheers softly fading
in celebration of death

that the brain could remain
conscious for those fleeting moments
was more horrifying
than what might come after

shakespeare would have approved
of these unspooling truths
while my parents would reel in horror
at what the movies taught me

had they known

What Jean-Luc Godard is famous for saying is “Film is truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” And if we wanted to drop Susan Sontag in here and talk about how photos (or in this case movies) make reality real to our memory, then I have no doubt that what I saw was the truth. Yes, I know no actor was beheaded in the making of the film, but the emotional psychology that follows the action, that I know to be real. The movies made it so.

Fridays mean Poetry Friday, and out there in the Interntiverse there are people sharing all sorts of poems where, hopefully, no one is losing their head. The roundup is at Dori Reads and it looks like quite a collection.

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Katie and Freddy were a pair of fools, or so the people of the village thought. They seemed to have fool’s luck, the kind of luck that only a fool would have. Their worthless piece of farm land became fertile when the river changed its course, never mind that Freddy dammed up and diverted the river himself. And when there was record rainfall one season all the other homes in the village sprang leaks in their roofs while the fools stayed dry, no doubt the copper lining to their shingled roof helped.

So when Freddy and Katie came into town with a sack full of gold the people of the village assumed the fools had once again found their luck. As the spent the night in a tavern, buying drinks for all, they refused to tell a soul how they came upon their money until they were good and drunk. That is, they pretended to be drunk and then chose one person in whom they felt the could confide.

“In the woods there is a tree marked with an X carved into its trunk. At the base of the tree is a hollow and inside that hollow is where a band of local robbers stash their loot. As they have just left for another round of looting it is probably safe to go and help yourself to a sack or two of coins. But tell no one else! If too many were to know of this then surely the robbers will notice and look elsewhere for a hiding place!”

The villager, usually overcome with greed or desiring to stake their claim before the fools sobered up and came to their senses, would make their haste in finding the tree almost immediately. Into the dark woods they went, in search of the marked tree, usually finding it within the course of an hour.

And they were never heard from again.

Katie and Freddy never worried when the villagers would take their leave, they never hurried themselves out of the tavern, and often they spent the night in town and returned home the next day. It was with a secret smile that Freddy and Katie would wake up the next day and go to the home of the villager before returning to their own cottage. They knew they would not be disturbed, or caught, as they ransacked the homes of those who they tempted away with the lure of easy money.

Because they knew that person was dead, at the bottom of a dead-fall trap, impaled by sharpened spikes. This was what Katie and Freddy did.

After finding a suitable spot in the woods they would carve an X in a tree and dig a large pit in front of it. The bottom of the pit with fitted with sharpened rods of steel and spikes of the hardest wood. Then over the pit would be stretched a linen cloth which was covered with a thin layer of earth from the forest so that it looked natural. As the unsuspecting villagers saw the X in the tree they would quicken their pace, tumbling with their full weight into the pit and onto the spikes. After ransacking the villager’s home of all their valuables Katie and Freddy would travel to distant towns and sell off the valuables for more gold. In the time they spent away from the trap wolves and other animals would come and clean the bones of the fallen villager. All that remained for Freddy to do when they returned home was collect whatever valuable rings or gold hadn’t been eaten by the animals and to burn the clothing before rebuilding the trap.

Month after month the fools would come into town, arousing the greed and suspicion of villagers, and month after month another citizen of the village would mysteriously disappear. Because Freddy and Katie were careful in choosing their victims – telling only those who lived alone, or sending family members a day apart after resetting the dead-fall – few in the village saw the connection between the two incidents.

Soon the remaining villagers became spooked. People were disappearing and without a word, without a sound. Families would move away in the dead of night without warning, sometimes leaving behind their possessions. And with fewer and fewer people around the artisans and craftsmen and guildsmen left to ply their trades elsewhere. The last remaining villager was the owner of the inn connected to the tavern. The fools, taking pity on him, offered him all the money they had plus what the robber had hidden in the tree in exchange for the inn and tavern. It would be money enough to start anew in another town and the innkeeper jumped at the opportunity… and fell to his death just like all the others.

But the fools, they made sure the inn that had been formally signed over to them before they told the innkeeper where to go, and with no one else around to contradict or lay claim, they assumed ownership of all the buildings in the village and the surrounding land. From their dealings with the far away villages where the sold their pillaged goods, the fools spread word that they had inherited an empty village and were looking to populate it with good people. They sold the homes and business stalls for a good price and ran the inn for themselves. Freddy and Katie often entertained their new neighbors with fables, including one about   a couple who had allegedly lured unsuspecting villagers to their death in the woods. In turn the villagers told the story to their children to keep them from going there, and when those children grew up they told a pair of brothers the tale for a collection they were compiling. The new occupants of the village were all warmly received by Freddy and Katie, thought they were two of the nicest people they’d ever met, and none ever thought them fools.

Though there was a pit in the forest waiting, just in case these new neighbors turned out to be as rude as the old ones.



“Fool’s Gold” can be found in The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm translated and edited by Jack Zipes. It’s story #247 and if you’re having a sense of deja vu the way I did, this is a varaition of the story that I reimagined as “Dumb Luck: A Rube Goldberg Grimmoire” which was story #265. Oh, and also, both of these are variants of story #59 called “Freddy and Katie” which, at the rate of one story a week, I’ll probably hit around this time in 2015.

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Last week I weighed in with a memory culled from my teenage movie-going days and was surprised at how it began to pry open a collection of similar reflections. I’d hate to announce to the universe something like “Huh, I think I’ll make August my month of movie-related poems” only to suddenly find myself battling my muse for slivers of inspiration, but I think it’s worth a try for a second week in a row at least.

Some background. It was raining and there were less than twenty people in the audience that night. Afterward when we all filed out the theatre employees handed us small stickers that featured the iconic shot of actor Jack Nane with his column of hair sticking up and the words “Eraserhead – I Saw It!” around the outer edge. I reckon it was meant as a badge of honor but none us put it on, and in fact I distinctly recall that everyone seemed to deliberately avoid eye contact.

on a midweek Halloween
after midnight
see Eraserhead

despite curiosity
at seventeen
think you’ve seen it all

attempt to explain to friends
what it all meant
and be surprised by
blank stares

see Cornish game hens
erasers the same

The title, for the uninitiated, is an actual line of dialog from the film.

And so goes Poetry Friday! Karen at The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title (no, seriously!) is hosting the round-up today. By all means, check it out. Not everyone is writing about David Lynch movies – although it would both funny and weird if they did!

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