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Archive for the ‘the man behind the curtain’ Category

I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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Naive. Unrealistic. Fascist.

These are just some of the things I have been called for saying that the biggest problem we have with gun control in the United States is not having enough of it. The presumption is that I have some ill-formed liberal notion about the Constitution or our civil rights or that I somehow want nothing more than a parental state governing my every moment of liberty. Invariably, every person who has passed judgment on my views, most of them either conservatives or gun owners or both, does not have the experience I have had with guns.

I have been held up at gunpoint. Twice.

Many would argue the first time “didn’t count” because the circumstances were far from malicious. I was a teacher at a middle school, coming out of my classroom during the passing period, when a boy of 13 leapt out from around the corner and aimed the revolver square at me from ten feet away. “Freeze!” he shouted, like a cop in a TV show, egged on with laughter by the friends around him. By the time I realized what was happening a campus supervisor – a hall and yard monitor, the closest thing we had to security – wrestled the boy to the ground and called out for help. A group of teachers surrounded and escorted the boy to the principal’s office while a fellow teacher stayed behind to make sure I was okay. The whole thing had happened so quickly, so surreally, that only later I understood they had wanted to keep me as far away as possible from the boy, fearing I had been his intended target and that my presence would antagonize him.

He was only showing off to friends. The gun wasn’t even loaded. It was taken from his home where it was purchased and kept to protect family and property. This was the one and only time it had been ever pointed at another human being.

I was told I was lucky that day.

But that kid was just showing off. One teen with access and a case of severely bad judgment. Perhaps it shouldn’t count as having had a weapon drawn on me but some of my fellow teachers afterward said things like “Makes me wish we could carry our own weapons.”

Why? So we can turn schools into gunfights at the OK Corrall?

The second gun incident was more “traditional.” I was coming home extremely late from a nighttime job – it was after 2 AM – and I was forced to take a different bus than normal because my usual bus stopped running. As a result I had to walk a half mile from the bus stop to my house through a pretty sketchy area. I wasn’t more than a block from the bus stop when I realized I was being followed. One person passed in front of me, pulled a hood over his head, then turned, forcing me to stop. From behind there was a gun pressed into my back from a second person. I was told to lie face down on the ground and make no sound. My shoulder bag and wallet were taken, my pockets turned inside out, and my jacket yanked off my back. Just in case I was doubting their sincerity, the guy holding the gun brought the barrel to my eyes and told me to count to one hundred and not to get up until I did. I counted and listened as they ran to a truck parked nearby and sped off.

When I finished counting I stood up, got my bearings, and saw an all-night diner just a block away. There was a police cruiser in the parking lot, an officer inside on his break. When I approached to report what had happened he looked at me with a start as I pointed to the location of the incident, clearly visible from the windows of the diner. None of the nighthawks inside saw or heard a thing. When the officer asked what they had taken, and I reported my jacket, a bag with a notebook in it, and less than $5 in cash he shook his head and said “You’re lucky to be alive. When they hold someone up and get nothing for it, that pisses guys like that off.”

Lucky. As in, not dead. How lucky would I have been if I’d been carrying a concealed weapon?

This is the problem I have with the self-defense argument. Most of the times you would want or find yourself in the position of needing to defend yourself, a gun isn’t convenient. Nor is it a solution.

“If someone was breaking in you could be damn sure they’d realized they made a mistake!” This is the counter-argument I hear the most,usually said with the bravado of someone who has never actually been in an home invasion situation.

I have. Twice.

The first time, in broad daylight, a scruffy-looking bearded crack fiend started climbing in through my living room window, cursing up a storm and sounding for all the world like he was fixed to murder. My housemates ran to the back of the house, to call the police, while my instinct was to walk up and push him back out the window. It was the first floor, so it wasn’t that far to the ground, and it seemed as if the fall had sobered him up some. I went outside to confront him and on closer inspection he was merely drunk and disoriented: he sincerely thought he was climbing into his own home, having lost his keys somewhere. Many a gun advocate who have heard this story pointed out how dangerous my behavior was. “What if he’d had a gun! I tell you, if it had been me there’d have been one dead hobo on the rug! Next time you might not get so lucky.”

There it was, that word again. Lucky.

The next time there was nothing innocent about the invasion. We were living on the fourth floor of an old Victorian, our windows open in the summer, safe from outside intruders by the virtue of having no access that high up short of a ladder.

Or the old tree next door, as we discovered.

This time a young man intent on performing some sort of mischief climbed the tree, hopped onto the roof, and was attempting to lower himself into my kitchen by hanging from the rain gutters. He’d managed to get half way in, his head, a leg, and one arm trying to squeeze through ll at once. And in his had, a gun.

I hadn’t heard anything and was simply on my way into the kitchen for some water when I saw him there, looking for all the world like he was stuck. I yelled, in a voice so deeply unhuman that to this day I simply think of it as my reptile brain voice. “You get the hell out of my house!” I shouted and then proceeded to take the nearest thing I could find – a cast iron skillet – and threw it at him. I got him in the leg, and between my yelling and throwing things he must have figured I was crazier than he was so he backed out of the window… and dropped four stories to the ground. The police were called and he was eventually caught – sans gun – limping along with a broken ankle. No word on whether it was the fall or the skillet that broke his ankle.

But he’d had a gun. And that, according to some, should have been enough to convince me that even if I didn’t believe in gun ownership for protection that I should be sympathetic to others who do.

But I don’t.

This is where I get called naive, suggesting that we treat the cause and not the symptom. Because guns are the symptom of diseases called fear, ignorance, and violence. Fearing (and hating) other people provides people the opportunity to find the justification in killing other people. A teen boy who thinks its “funny” to pull an unloaded gun on a teacher at school is simply ignorant of the reality behind the imagery he emulates from TV and movies. Violence, no matter the source, is a learned behavior, one that alters the chemistry of the brain over time the same way that abuse, drugs, and fear do. And if we knew for certain that a person’s brain was impaired I’d like to think we wouldn’t knowingly give them access to weapons (or armies for that matter) because what would follow would be carnage.

We are, as a society and individuals, defined by the choices we make. If you choose to live in fear, and raise children to live in fear, that fear will consume your thinking and alter the prism of your world view. If  you believe that American liberty and freedom are inexorably linked to the ownership of a machine whose sole purpose is to kill then there will be no argument that will persuade you otherwise.

If this is how we choose to live as a society we should expect to see scores of violent gun deaths and massacres, because unless we choose to change things we have agreed to choose gun violence as a bi-product of freedom and liberty.

I long thought the phrase “Live by the sword, die by the sword” was a fair enough summary of the notion that violence begets violence but it hides a bitter truth about who suffers the most.  Sadly, those who live by the sword (or gun, as the case may be) kill and those who choose not to live by the sword are more often the victims of those who do.

I will no longer argue with those who believe that gun ownership in America is what the Second Amendment is all about. People will stand behind any excuse that allows them to continue thinking what they believe, without question. If those who shout the loudest in favor of a right to bear arms will not more actively help solve the problem of gun-related violence in this country I am forced to accept only one conclusion: they have chosen to accept the slaughter of innocent victims as an acceptable price in exchange for the false sense of freedom and liberty their belief provides.

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Those early months when i was just beginning to read independently, those were heady days. After years of decoding the meaning of language, facial expressions, cartoon narratives on television, finally the written world was made visible to me and it was magic. In fact, I sometimes wonder if the reason children believe in magic is because they are still so close to the days when their literacy revealed itself as if through a secret portal.

Among the strong memories I have about those days was the summer Weekly Reader program. For some small fee that my parents paid through another of those childhood mysteries, the mystery of money, I received the occasional (I don’t think they were actually weekly) folded sheet of stories and puzzles that not only reinforced the magic of reading but added the gift of mail. These things simply came to our house with my name on them! Magic!

Then there were the books.

Oh, the books!

Once a month during the summer the Weekly Reader program sent an actual, real book to me in the mail! I later understood these to be similar to book club editions, hardbound with printed covers like a library edition only less expensive, with the Weekly Reader logo on the back. Every once in a while I see the Weekly Reader logo on the back of a used book, but one book truly stood out among them all: The Crows of Pearblossom by Aldous Huxley. I have already discussed this book twice, and even linked scans of the entirety of it to my flickr account for all to see. The recent rerelease doesn’t do the boo justice, but I digress.

Among days of swim lessons and water fights in the neighborhood, hanging out at the local park making lanyards and collecting returnable soda bottles for enough change to buy candy, the afternoons that seem most golden were those where I was sprawled on the living room floor reading the Weekly Reader over and over. It could not have taken me more than twenty minutes to read it but it felt like hours, and I would revisit each copy several times until the next one came.

In time came bigger books, and regular trips to the library to bring home a haul of books, and the Weekly Reader faded away. I was years out of college when I remembered those summers fondly and held idle thoughts about creating an adult version of the Weekly Reader. By then I’d assumed the Weekly Reader was a thing of the past, no longer around, and how sad for kids that they couldn’t have the same experience I had.

And then I got the news this week: the Weekly Reader had been alive the whole time, only now it was being shuttered by its new owners.

I don’t care how plugged in and tech savvy kids are these days, it’s still fun to get things sent in the mail, and a magazine dedicated to fiction and word fun… how is this a bad thing? Perhaps the Weekly Reader struggled in recent years because parents assumed (as I did) that it no longer existed, or that they didn’t feel their children would be satisfied with so meager an offering as few short pages of throwaway material. And if the program no longer offered Club Editions of books sent periodically to kids, perhaps that’s part of the problem.

They say that kids who grow up with books in the home – books that are theirs, that they own – do better in school than kids who don’t, and this has long been one of the problems I’ve had with the forced march of summer reading: kids check the books out of the library, and the lack of ownership makes that reading feel throwaway, an obstacle to overcome. I didn’t have many books at home growing up because we were sorta poor, but the ones I had I treasured and reread like crazy. I wish I knew what other books I received via the Weekly Reader summer program, but the fact that The Crows of Pearblossom stuck with me for over forty years is a pretty strong testament to the power of books on impressionable young minds.

While I may have been premature with my thinking some years back, the sentiment stands: how sad for kids today that they cannot have that same experience.

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Many a moon ago when I was an aspiring writer with a self-published book, I collected some new material and decided to try to get published with a legitimate magazine. My book had been well-received by my peers and it seemed the next logical step was to broaden my horizons.

This was back in 1975. I was 13 years old and the book I’d published was a collection of illustrated puns that had been run off on an old mimeograph machine and handed out to classmates.

I’d actually co-authored the book with my best friend at the time, Marc Gartenberg, and we really thought we were all that and a bag of chips, although back then we would have said we were probably the bossest (or most boss) of anyone else. Slang has a funny way of slipping in and out of use, don’t it? Anyway, our heads were swollen with success and we decided we were going to conquer the world and gather more personal work and send it away to be published. Marc wrote a short story (illustrated by me) about his obsession of the time, Corvette’s, entitled “The Very Fast Car” while I put together a nonsensical collection of comics including one about a car tire that rolls around on an adventure called (and why I remember this I don’t know) “Zotimums.” We made a fateful decision to send our stuff together in one envelope with an SASE and mailed it off to a relatively young magazines aimed at a young audience called Kid’s magazine.

Outside of Highlights magazine, which we were too old for, Kids was the only magazine at the time we knew of that accepted contributions from kids. In fact, the entire contents of the magazine was kid-produced and it eventually had a 15-year-old managing editor. Better still, the paid their contributors $5 for each accepted piece plus the obligatory three copies of the issue they appeared in. Truly, this was the path for us budding young authors and illustrators, our chance to show the world with the kids at El Marino Elementary School already knew: that we were creative geniuses.

But did you catch the fatal flaw in all this?

Marc and I decided to send our contributions together more out of insecurity than anything else. In our crazy, kookoo, mixed-up minds we assumed the editors would be bowled over by our work and take us as a package. To our thinking, one nervous genius didn’t have the same chance as two nervous ones combined, so once we’d obtained the necessary postage for our envelope stuffed with papers we walked to the corner mailbox and together, each holding once side of the envelope, dropped it into the box together. All there was left to do was wait for inevitable SASE to return with our checks included.

We talked about it for days, for weeks, and then finally we talked about it less and less. After three months having heard nothing it might have lingered in the back of our minds in that same place where forgotten TV show episodes live, that mental basement where things that cannot be thrown out are left to be forgotten.

The one day I came home from school and found the SASE among the mail. It seemed pretty full of paper, which didn’t bode well. I was afraid to open it by myself so I hopped on my bike and rode to Marc’s place were we could open it as a team just as we’d mailed it. We gave the letter a glance, looked at the attached pages, then reread the letter again.

They’d only returned Marc’s story; they’d accepted all my cartoon randomness.

We’d never actually considered that we’d be rejected, and certainly never what to do in case only one of us was accepted. My memory is that we were bummed into silence. I think I might have said something about them being stupid for not taking Marc’s work. I don’t remember Marc saying anything at all, but I do sort of remember Marc telling me to go away. I took the envelope and his story home with me. For weeks Marc was cold and distant – as if it were somehow my fault – and one day he asked for his story back. That was the last we ever mentioned the situation. Eventually we ended the school year on friendly terms, though I was a year older and headed off to junior high where our friendships diverged further and further apart.

But what of my publishing career?

Ah, yes, well now we come to the first part of the post title. Kids magazine sent me not one but two letters begging my patience and indulgence while they were working behind the scene to put out their next issue. Already it seemed like they had gone from a quarterly to annual to sporadic publication schedule and I had read the handful of issues my library had so many times I had them memorized. Having already strained a friendship, I wasn’t really in the market to tout my pending credentials as a published author and risk the ridicule of fellow classmates until I had an issue in-hand as proof. If it thought the wait to hear back about my submissions was long, the period following my acceptance was an eternity.

Time is like that when you really want something as a kid.

Sometime in the course of the following year I’d more of less given up, and Kids confirmed they were no longer continuing as a publication. I’m pretty sure I got that notice with a return of my original comics, long since lost to history. Later, when I learned about the cosmos and its sense of humor, I chalked the whole thing up to my comics being the thing that “killed” Kids magazine, the low-quality straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was thinking about this only recently as an online magazine recently accepted one of my poems for inclusion in its “Spring” issue which was supposed to come out in the first week of June. Or so. Maybe it’ll be the Summer issue. There’s even less money involved than with Kids, and certainly no contributor’s copies in a digital space, and I’m only half wondering if, somehow, I haven’t once again brought a publication to its knees.

But if my 12-year-old self can wait in hope for over a year for publication of sub-par drawings I supposed I can give an online journal a few more months. In the meantime, I’d do anything to see those old Kids magazines again. In a pinch I suppose I could hunt down some early issues of Scholastic’s Dynamite! magazine; they were both created by the same person and were very similar in tone, though Kids was less commercial in tone, which may have been what really killed it in the end.

.

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* To be clear, the Kids magazine of yore is not to be confused with the glossy magazine of the same name on the stands these days. Totally different, in a funky 70s kid sort of way.

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First, apologies to those who might believe the title of this post has anything to do with Douglas Adams. Though I’d do anything to possess his wit and literary note, I do not and I try not to think about it very often.

For several months now I’ve been pulling back at various aspects of my online presence, from my twitter feed to my blogging to even merely zooming around and seeing what the rest of the world has been up to. The reason has been external and not entirely planned, but absolutely necessary: I was hunting down some gainful employment. And now I am, gainfully employed full-time, and for the first time since 2008.

Yeah, the economy sucks.

To be fair, I’d only been job hunting seriously for seven months, and a great number of ideal positions I was seeking were clearly inundated with applicants. I’ve worked in HR for a spell and was well aware of the “negatives” that I couldn’t hide – gaps in employment, indirect career paths, and the biggies that no one could legally ever admit to, my age and my abundance of experience – so a good deal of my hunting involved reframing my personal narrative. Add to that my willingness to start from the bottom in a career shift where “entry-level” now means “at least two years unpaid internships with prior experience and a willingness to work 80 hour weeks” and I was really up against the wall. I landed in familiar territory – retail management, bookstore variety – but I really thought I had so much more to offer in other fields. Sadly, hundreds of employers did no agree with me.

The job hunt itself pulled my internet tendencies away from blogging and took up valuable time I would normally have assigned to my creative work. Then, just before a long-planned family vacation, and I thought I’d have plenty of time to do a little catching up before the nine-to-five grind caught hold of me.

Yeah, I honestly thought I’d be chillin’ online instead of enjoying a fine week on the Outer Banks of North Carolina in late June.

And while I was on vacation, I caught a cold.

So here I am using a holiday to recoup and see if I can’t get a sense of what the future looks like.

When I was last employed full-time I had just begun the process of earning an MFA with an eye toward becoming (finally) published in the area of children’s and young adult literature. That work, that road, has been steady but bumpy. I think everyone has a hope of what they think will happen, and then adjusts as reality sets in. The hope is the goal, the distance keeps shifting, the way a place on the distant horizon always looks closer that it really is when you’re driving straight toward it. While many (or most) of my fellow MFA-ers worked parallel to their employed lives, I am just now making the adjustment back into the stream. I don’t imagine it’s going to be easy at first, but I also don’t think it’ll be impossible. Once I get the rhythms of the new job (and commuting, and home duties) in place, I’ll know how and when to establish writing time, better manage my online presence, and find that new balance between all the things I want and need and hope to get done.

I have much deck-clearing to get done on this Independence Day, with more to do in the days and weeks ahead, looking forward to the equilibrium that is the next stage in this crazy life of mine.

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Toni Morrison said this the other night on the PBS NewsHour. Here’s the context from taken from the interview.

JEFFREY BROWN: One more thing about this book, about “Home.” It is — one thing that’s striking about this new novel is, it’s a very stripped-down form of storytelling, more than I think in the past for you. Was that a conscious effort?

TONI MORRISON: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was?

TONI MORRISON: Sometimes, my editor would say, more.

JEFFREY BROWN: More?

(LAUGHTER)

TONI MORRISON: And I would say, it’s just more. It’s not better.

I can write forever about anything of a character. But I wanted this to be — it’s harder to write less to make it more. And that’s what was engaging to me when I was writing this book.

I have to say, I’ve been feeling this for some time about a lot of fiction. Adult fiction, YA fiction, Middle Grade fiction, all of it has been feeling rather bloated around the middle. I don’t know where writers pick up the literary equivalent of a spare tire (perhaps it’s MFA programs?), but whatever it is undermines a lot of good books that always leave me feeling like they could have been just that much better with a trim.

It is the middle of many books that are the problem. And from a writer’s point of view, middles generally are a problem. Starting out, you pretty much have to know where you’re beginning and where you plan to end up and then somehow connect the dots. There are various philosophies about this – the general divide is between “pantsers” who write but the seat of their pants, so to speak, and “plotters” who detail every step of the way – but no approach I know of has an advantage over the other. I have followed detailed outlines and I have winged it and it both cases revision has shown that many of my problem came from a flabby middle.

The one revelation I had about middles came when I was working on my creative thesis in grad school. I was working the story from both ends inward, a path I chose because I wanted to have the story elements “mirror” each other in a balanced way, when I got to the point that, in my mind, was one of those “cross that bridge when I get to it” moments. I had always assumed that the incidents and characters would help define what I needed to do to bridge these moments but I suddenly felt stumped. I was certain I had reached the point where I had no middle act, that the story required an additional element that seamlessly fused the two parts… and that I’d have to go back and weave these new elements into the two halves I’d already created.

Then a voice in my head asked: Do you really need to say anything more?

All it took was some slight changes to account for a leap of time and the two parts melded as if I’d planned it all along, and in my subconscious maybe I had.

Now, it goes without saying that I’m no Toni Morrison, but she’s right about the fact that it is harder to write less and make it “more.” Economy of language, or dialog, or scene and symbolism, boiling down those words into a condensed space makes it all the richer. It is easier to sit and write and throw it all out there on the page, much harder to weed and trim and make what’s already good that much greater.

Less is more. It isn’t a new thought, but perhaps it could become a renewed pledge taken to reassure readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Number 1 Rule of Creative Writing 101:

 Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

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Late at night, when the world is quiet, my Muse decides to lure me to the rocks of morbidity. The Muse creates doubt as often as it feeds me ideas. I tried to wrestle with some of these ideas in a blog post late last night, and wisdom had taught me to schedule the post rather than update it immediately.

Because I knew that this morning I would remember what I’d written and want to delete.

Most of it anyway.

What I’ve salvaged was this mini monologue from the film version of S.E. Hinton’s Rumble Fish. Benny, the soda jerk played by Tom Waits, delivers what is essentially the theme of the movie, which is about time.

Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.

I’ve thought a lot about those thirty-five summers for the last thirty or so years, and I’m getting to the point where those perpetual thirty-five summers might not be so perpetual. They’re getting to be more of an outside number. Remember that thing I said about my Muse being morbid?

Time.

Time to start thinking about how to maximize those thirty-five summers.

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