Thursday, October 30, 2014

English Class in Halloween

Do Laurie's smarts put her on a "course of action" 
for surviving Micheal Meyers? 
Is her survival an alternation or fulfillment of her destiny?
A classroom of restless, bored teens. Slouched and sprawled in their chairs, counting the moments until release. A girl in the back row - smart, serious, reliable - drifts into her own world. Distracted by recent, stranger-than-normal events.

In Halloween, Laurie Strode's English class provides the viewer insight into the movie's themes and hints at future events.

The classroom lecture focuses on a piece of work by Samuels. (Internet searches for a specific title or the author came up empty. It appears that both are fictional.) The teacher drones from the front of the room:

"You see, fate caught up with several lives here. No matter what course of action Rollins took, he was destined to his own fate, his own day of reckoning with himself. The idea is that destiny is a very real, concrete thing that every person has to deal with."

The film is built around the premise that, on this Halloween night, fate catches up with several lives:
  • Haddonfield. While not a person, the film's Haddonfield, Illinois setting has a fate of its own. A young Micheal Meyers murdered his sister in their Haddonfield home. The ensuing 15 years seemingly erased the bad taste from the town's collective mouth. Aside from kids taunting and teasing each other with the possibility that the now-abandoned Meyers house is haunted, the adults are largely absent. On Halloween, the adults seem to be out partying, trusting their children to the sleepy, unassuming town and teenage babysitters. Sheriff Brackett thinks that Dr. Loomis is off-base with his Meyers manhunt, since Haddonfield is a family town with "children all lined up in rows, up and down these streets." But thanks to Micheal - a product of this self-identified idyllic town - Haddonfield is fated to be a doomed town. A setting for his horrific acts.
  • Micheal Meyers. His fate is intertwined with the fate of Haddonfield. Halloween provides no outright motive for Micheal's actions. Perhaps the most telling detail is that Micheal kills his sister when he's six. If he could do such a thing, at such a young age, perhaps it is part of his DNA - his destiny? Dr. Loomis speaks of the pure and simple evil living behind Micheal's eyes - suggesting that evil has always been a part of Micheal, that he is fated to be a killer. Dr. Loomis also tells Sheriff Brackett that Micheal has been waiting for this night since being committed. Regardless of his doctors' actions and attempts to permanently remove Micheal from society, his return to Haddonfield was imminent.
  • Laurie Strode. Her character is the most closely aligned with the Rollins character discussed in her English class. Laurie is a brain, the "good girl." She accepts this as her fate, while still yearning for something more. She tells her friends that guys think she's too smart, calls herself "the old girl scout." But after she reveals her interest in Ben Tramer - and finds out the feeling is mutual - Laurie quickly back pedals, refusing to go on a date with him. You could argue that since she's not distracted by sex (unlike the friends who fall victim to Micheal), she's more alert. More sensitive to sensing that something is amiss.
The jack-o'-lantern in the movie's
opening credits suggests innocence -
the childhood delights of trick-or-treating.

The vacant eyes and face also mirror
Micheal's mask, and the idea that
he is empty of human emotions.
That there is only evil within.

The jack-o'lantern's face is marred by
a scar running from nose to mouth.
Perhaps signifying Laurie's loss of innocence
at the hands of Micheal.
Micheal Meyers is the "real, concrete" embodiment of evil. As Laurie physically fights Micheal - trying
to defeat him and save her life - she is reckoning with evil. The struggle could also be viewed as a "day of reckoning" with herself. She taps into hidden instincts. She uses violence to ward off violence.

Though Laurie claims that guys aren't interested in her because of her brain, her dating life seems to be equally stunted by her own reluctance. Perhaps her ability to fight off Micheal stems from repressed desires and energies hurdling to the surface in a life or death, fight or flight moment. Her reservations about the opposite sex are directly confronted with a man who justifies her fear. You could argue that she turns threatening phallic symbols (knitting needle, Micheal's own knife, clothes hanger) back on this dangerous man. Though ultimately saved by a man (Dr. Loomis), her fate is to use her brains - and perhaps bottled up emotions - to fight, to save the kids she's babysitting, and survive.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Attempting to Create Nature's Impression

While reading an issue of Old Port magazine, I came across a quote from artist Rick Dickinson:

"The joy and frustration that comes from attempting to create [the impression] that nature provides; the smash of light, the atmosphere of the season, all modified by the time of day and weather."

Now that we have a dog, I go on multiple walks every day. No matter the weather or time of year, the dog and I are out and about in the neighborhood. These 15-20 minute jaunts unfold at an easy pace, with lots of stops and starts to accommodate dog sniffing and marking. The walks provide a chance for noticing, a way of looking that's not possible when running or driving by.

Since we walk the loop of our street so often, I notice many small occurances in our neighboorhood scenery. The tangle of wild white roses, thickening the air with heady perfume. A tree in a corner of our yard, heavy with blossoms and countless buzzing bees, flowering after the other trees bloomed. The neighbor yard with three perfectly formed roses, cream-colored petals edged in hot pink. Snakes and frogs tempted by warmth and rain. Unable to return to safety, dead in the road.

air thick with rose perfume
drunk in my head
like bees digging into
a swollen petal
Here in the summer months - walking in flip flops, bare arms hot in the sun - the winter walks in
gloves, bulky jackets, and boots seem like an impossible memory. Nature has a funny way of falsely suspending us in time. Stretching single days out with leisure, while simultaneously rushing us into the future. The wild white roses have transformed into unassuming layers of leaves. Bees no longer flock to our corner tree. The neighbor roses dropped their petals.

The mind wanders on these walks, and one day it happened upon the idea of a chronological poem. It might be fun to write a poem over the course of a year, to chronicle the subtle details and shifts as nature morphs from one season to the next. I got a few lines down before my enthusiasm faded. Writing about nature can be frustrating on multiple levels. It's hard to find the words to accurately describe the way nature looks, smells, sounds.
Moving beyond face value, it's even harder to infuse the chosen words with deeper meaning.

How to describe when a certain tree or slant of light reminds you of the view from your childhood bedroom? The person you were at various stages, looking out. The world seeping through the open window on a subtle breeze.

Nature is a gateway description. Awe-inspiring in its own right, with the power to lead us below the surface. Nature is not only beautiful, but also useful for allegories, metaphor, symbolism, etc. The transcendentalists were on to something.

I think writers and other artistic folk are born observers, prone to noticing specific details. They are also compelled to honor what they notice - with a phrase, the click of a shutter, a brush stroke, a musical note. Does the artist ever feel that they successfully capture that which prompted them to create? As the saying goes, the journey is more important than the end result. It seems that Rick Dickinson agrees. His quote from above continues on as follows:

"The appeal is that the results may not fully meet the objective. The truth is that I hope the two never meet because then the learning may stop and the game may be over."

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writing About Food

I recently shared this link on my Facebook page. It's an NPR article about Dinah Fried's book Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature's Most Memorable Meals. Drawing on literary scenes that invovle food and meals, Fried cooked, staged, and photographed corresponding dishes. As is so often the case with online articles, the reader comments were just as interesting as the article itself. Maybe Fried's photos were sterile and overly arranged. Regardless, my main take away (in addition to the fact that she had a cool idea and saw it through to fruition) is that her work helped me remember how much I love food descriptions in literature.
Dinah Fried cooked, staged, and photographed literary food scenes.

I was inspired to re-read passages from the first works that sprung to mind as containing notable food writing. Luckily, I own copies of each of the below, and quickly took the excuse to comb my bookshelves and flip pages.

"Wilbur stood in the trough, drooling with hunger. Lurvy poured. The slops ran creamily down around the pig's eyes and ears. Wilbur grunted. He gulped and sucked, and sucked and gulped, making swishing and swooshing noises, anxious to get everything at once. It was a delicious meal - skim milk, wheat middlings, leftover pancakes, half a doughnut, the rind of a summer squash, two pieces of stale toast, a third of a gingersnap, a fish tail, one orange peel, several noodles from a noodle soup, the scum off a cup of cocoa, an ancient jelly roll, a strip of paper from the lining of the garbage pail, and a spoonful of raspberry jello."
- E.B. White, Charlotte's Web

"He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth. He looked at the fat roast goose, the drumsticks sticking up, and the edges of the dressing curling out. The sound of Father's knife sharpening on the whetstone made him even hungrier.

   He looked at the big bowl of cranberry jelly, and at the fluffy mountain of mashed potatoes with melting butter trickling down it. He looked at the heap of mashed turnips, and the golden baked squash, and the pale fried parsnips.
   He swallowed hard and tried not to look any more. He couldn't help seeing the fried apples'n'onions, and the candied carrots. He couldn't help gazing at the triangles of pie, waiting by his plate; the spicy pumpkin pie, the melting cream pie, the rich, dark mince oozing from between the mince pie's flaky crusts...
   The tender pork fell away in slices under Father's carving-knife. The white breast of the goose went piece by piece from the bare breast-bone. Spoons ate up the clear cranberry jelly, and gouged deep into the mashed potatoes, and ladled away the brown gravies."
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy

"Arrayed on the Ladies' Day banquet table were yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise, and platters of rare roast beef and cold chicken, and every so often a cut-glass bowl heaped with black caviar. I hadn't had time to eat any breakfast at the hotel cafeteria that morning, except for a cup of overstewed coffee so bitter it made my nose curl, and I was starving...

   Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn't ooze off and ate them."
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

What does all this lovely food writing provide the reader (besides an appetite)?

It makes the characters feel human.
These characters experience hunger, as well as enjoyment and satiation from food. This rounds them out, elevates them from existing as author creations written into a page. In Charlotte's Web, the food description gives recognizable human attributes to an animal. Humanizing Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider are significant aspects of the story.

"Almanzo went on eating. He was listening, but he was
tasting the good taste of roast pork and apple sauce in
every corner of his mouth. He took a long, cold drink of
milk, and then he sighed and tucked his napkin further
in, and he reached for his pumpkin pie.

He cut off the quivering point of golden-brown pumpkin,
dark with spices and sugar. It melted on his tongue, and
all his mouth and nose were spicy."

- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Farmer Boy
Illustration by Garth Williams
It clues us into the world the characters come from/live in/encounter. In Farmer Boy, Almanzo and his family work chores and their land from dawn to dusk. The passage above describes their Christmas meal - the best dinner of the year. A rare chance for leisure, a bit of indulgence. A much-earned break from the hard labor of farming. It also speaks to a time when children were to be seen, not heard. Almanzo had to patiently wait for his turn at the end of the serving order.

The Bell Jar selection above also hints at an expectation for following societal rules. What fork to use, what interests young women were supposed to pursue. Sneaking in under the fancy glasses and silverware - the sounds of her peers acting "normal" - Esther eagerly dives into a bowl of caviar. Esther equates the action to spreading peanut butter (perhaps a nod to her working-class background), which stands in contrast to New York high society and the preppy world of her college.

In the NPR article, Dinah Fried talks about the special way imagination ignites when we read as children. As a child, I gleefully ingested the food passages in Charlotte's Web and Farmer Boy. When I think of those books, I always remember my enjoyment of the food descriptions.

Food descriptions often carry an air of unguardedness and innocence. There may be darkness and sadness in the literature, but the food descriptions can brim with pure enjoyment. A homage to the primal, simple things in life. Sometimes you have to make cheese toast, or brew tea with lemon and honey. Enjoy a small moment fully, take a break. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Appreciating the Short Story via George Saunders

The last book I finished was Tenth of December by George Saunders. As I read and enjoyed this collection, I remembered how deceptively simple writing a short story seems. A delicate balance needs to be maintained within a compressed amount of space. Drop the reader off in the depths of the story's world. Don't waste time (or underestimate the reader's ability to comprehend) by loading up on backstory or over-the-top explanations. Give just enough to orient the reader in the new world, to help them absorb the environment - an experience similar to riding a bike after years of not pedaling. Give details at the right speed, so the reader is engaged and wants to delve deeper. An overwhelmed reader may throw the bike down and run home.

A reminder of how deceptively simple writing a short story seems.
Reading George Saunders, it's easy to forget how much nuance and thoughtfulness goes into a short story. His writing seems effortless, seamless. His characters are fully human, with all the flaws and quirks that entails. His writing doesn't feel like writing at all. More like we've suddenly been given access to each character's unique inner monologue. In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," we read a character's journal entries. They are written in the fragmented, missing verb/noun/article style we so often use in our texts and emails. Unstructured grammar can be annoying to read, but the technique adds authenticy to the character's humanity and corresponds with the character's frazzled mindset.

All of the stories in Tenth of December are compelling. I'll just focus on one to try and grasp at how Saunders does it. The story "Home" is told from the point of view of a young man named Mike.
  • In just the third paragraph, we get some vivid insight into the state of Mike's mother's house, and the kind of life Mike is used to witnessing/living: "Inside were piles of newspaper on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head above the fridge and the old orange rug rulled up halfway."
  • It soon becomes evident that Mike has returned home from war. On the 2nd page, his mother's boyfriend (Harris) asks Mike, "What's your worst thing you ever did over there?" A man comes to the house to evict Mike's mother (Ma), who tries to get out of it by saying, "This is my son! Who served. Who just came home. And this is how you do us?" Harris chimes in with, "This is how you treat the family of a hero? He's over there fighting and you're over here abusing his mother?" The story slowly feeds the reader with appropriate details regarding Mike's service and the family dynamics. We settle into Mike's world via an organic receipt of information. Saunders lets us learn via natural sounding character conversations and situations. There is no need for the narrator or the author to directly talk to the reader in a whispered aside in order to fill us in. We are never removed from the story in order to receive factual details.
  • Mike's sister Renee has somewhat escaped, and now lives in a nicer part of town with her husband and baby. Mike goes to see Renee in her fancy new house, and there is this great image: "I looked at her and for a minute she was eight and I was ten and we were hiding in the doghouse while Ma and Dad and Aunt Toni, on mushrooms, trashed the patio." I love this flash of a memory. Saunders uses a fleeting recollection to say everything about Mike and Renee's childhood - the environment they grew up in, the bond between them. Each word is telling - from the mention of Dad, who gets no other recognition in the rest of the story, right down to the way Aunt Toni spells her name with an "i." 
  • There's another flash later on. Simple words tinged with innocence, youth, abandoned optimism. Simple words touching on our complicated relationships with nostalgia and the people who raised us."Oh Ma, I remember when you were young and wore your hair in braids..."
  • Something dark is hinted at. Renee continually asks Mike if he "did it" and Mike continually side-steps the question by changing the subject. What is "it"? An atrocity comitted while fighting in the war? There's some talk of a court martial. Maybe it's the unknown reason why he no longer lives with his wife and kids?
  • The intrigue of this dark secret increases as we observe Mike acting impulsively and violently. He body slams the guy who evicts Ma from her house. He makes Ma and Harris watch as he sets the house carpet on fire. "Something had been happening to me lately where a plan would start flowing directly down to my hands and feet. When that happened, I knew to trust it. My face would get hot and I'd feel sort of like, Go, go, go. It had served me well, mostly. Maybe he wrestled with a temper before his service, and the seedling of anger was exacerbated by war. Perhaps in the present tense of the story, he struggles with an act he shouldn't have committed and/or PTSD. 
  • An interesting scene occurs between Mike, Renee, and her husband Ryan. Mike wants to hold their baby, but they won't let him. Is this refusal tied to the "it" that Renee has been questioning Mike about? Mike did something - or was at least accused of something - that makes Renee and Ryan doubt him. They don't trust Mike with their child. 
  • "Having all these people think I was going to hurt the baby made me imagine hurting the baby. Did imagining hurting the baby mean that I would hurt the baby? Did I want to hurt the baby? No, Jesus." Mike's inner monologue piques the reader's curiousity and suspicions. It walks a line between indignation and self-doubt. He tries to convince himself that he can actually handle holding the baby. He pushes deeper, recalling recent experiences of having no intention of doing something, then suddenly finding himself in the middle of doing it anyway. He tries to diffuse the situation by picking up a pitcher of lemonade and holding "like a baby." The lemonade spills everywhere, he spikes the pitcher to the floor, and runs outside. We feel bad that Renee and Ryan hurt Mike's feelings. At the same time - judging by how he handled the lemonade pitcher - maybe they were right to keep him away from the baby and what the hell did Mike DO before we enter the story?
  • We hear snippets about Mike's experience in the war from Ma. She says he has a Silver Star, that he was cleared of the court martial. It's hard to tell how much truth her words carry - as she has proved to be an unreliable character, and Mike neither confirms or denies her assertions. She also seems to mention Mike's veteran status for self-serving reasons. To get others to treat her better.
It's hard to articulate exactly why the Tenth of December stories work. In many ways, the stories are perfectly ordinary. Ordinary in the sense that they feel like the words and worlds of real people, desires and struggles we recognize in ourselves and in those around us. Yet they are extraordinary because they capture the ordinary so completely. Everything is familar - with a subtle splash of science fiction and absurdity, borne on an undercurrent of humor. These stories resonate because at their core, they explore the multitudes of existence that many of us encounter everyday. Family tensions. Conversations that say everything and nothing at once. Heartache. The awkwardness of growing up, of trying to exist beneath strange rules. Uncontrollable thoughts and emotions. Chance encounters with strangers. Trying to identify and do the right thing. Material tokens of success, petty jealousies. Just trying to make it from one day to the next.
Reading Tenth of December is like eavesdropping
on the words and worlds of real people.

And like my favorite flavor of short story, the endings in each Tenth of December story are not endings at all. It's not THE END, not exactly. It is a shift, an understanding that this character we've been drawn into is making a noticable change. The reader must say goodbye at a pivotal crossroad. This stirring change may take hold and push the character to a new place (positive or negative). Maybe the change will drift away and the character settles back into old habits. We don't know. But as the story ends, there is still satisfaction in knowing that a shift occured. The uncertainity of whether or not the shift will stick - and even the uncertainty of whether or not the shift itself can be identified as positive or negative - makes these characters real. As we turn the page or close the book, the characters seem to go on living in a paralell universe. We just can't eavesdrop on them anymore. We must leave them on the cusp of something pivotal.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year, New Writing

With a new year upon us, talk swirls furiously - and often briefly - around resolutions. It seems that writers are fond of making writing-related resolutions; maybe in part because writers are often predisposed to procrastination? Goals to write more, write every day, write a specific number of words each day, etc.

2014 Daily Planner
Year of the Snoopy
Within the past few years, we've had a tradition of going to NYC around Christmas. This trip has also evolved into the time when I buy my daily planner for the coming year. Similar to selecting a new notebook, choosing a new planner is serious business. Specific criteria have to be met. This year, I stood in the NYU Bookstore trying to decide if it was a good idea to spend $24 on a planner. In addition to having monthly overview calendar-type pages (very important planner criteria!), it had a lined page for each individual day. It was like a combination planner/journal.

The need-to-write-more bug plagues me too (I am also perpetually tormented by the procrastination bug); so I justified my purchase by hoping that those individual day pages would help me write daily. Just make it to the end of the page each day. The pages are much smaller than an 8x11, so it seems less daunting. There is no set word count to reach. My handwriting can scrawl into the margins. I can skip a line, draw arrows, make notes. Just get to the end of the page.

I have been noticing - and thinking about - the idea that new year's resolutions are actually pretty silly. There is no reason to believe that the best time for change is January 1. Every day is a fresh beginning, we can change at any moment. As I move through my 2014 planner, a blank page will greet me every step of the way. New day, new blank page. New blank page, new writing.
Every day starts with a new blank page                                   A chance to start over, change, create