Archive for September, 2010

Attic, part 74

Friday, September 10th, 2010

“You know who I am?” Jenny asked, surprised.

“Yes,” Amelia said, “I know who you are.” She looked into Jenny’s face. “You have my eyes.”

“It’s true,” Josh said.

“Quiet, Josh,” Jenny said. “Girl time now.”

“Come here,” Amelia said, sitting up in the bed. “Let me look at you. You are so like me.” Jenny could feel the intensity of her grandmother’s gaze upon her face.

“Mom would never talk about you,” Jenny said, wishing she could think of something better to say. “I … I tried to get her to, but she wouldn’t.”

“No, of course she wouldn’t. What could she say? She doesn’t have the power — it visits only every other generation. And always different.”

“Your power is about time, isn’t it?” Jenny said, “That’s why he took you away.”

“Oh Jenny, there is so much you don’t understand. I was very angry at you, you know. At first we … I … thought you wouldn’t get this far.” She looked over at Mr. Symarian. “But once you brought the … once you brought him …”

“Hello, Amelia,” the teacher said quietly. “It has been a very long time, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, ages,” Amelia said, and suddenly she laughed.

Metaphor as a prophylactic for the id

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

The title of this post comes from my friend Andy. It was his wonderful response to a question I raised with him about the story I wrote the other day, I miss you. Why do you have to be such a nightmare?

I had told Andy that I’d decided, after some wavering, to tell that story as a science fiction story, rather than as an unexplained mystery of human behavior. It was a way for me to make the story’s intimations of cannibalism more, er, palatable.

Yet after posting the story, I felt that this choice had, in some important way, let my readers down. Yes, I was providing an easier way in. People could read the story, think about its ideas, and not stress out over them too much. After all, a reader could say, it’s just, you know, aliens, SciFi, X Files and Dr. Who, that sort of thing.

And that’s where it becomes a two edged sword. Yes, fantasy and SciFi give you a way to talk about things that would otherwise be out of bounds. Famously in this country, the TV show “Star Trek” was able to show an interracial kiss in 1968 — a time when such a thing was considered unsuitable for family viewing. But it got a pass because it was “just” science fiction.

Arguably that scene did a lot of good. Within a few years the taboo against interracial displays of affection on TV disappeared.

And yet, something was missing. The science fiction was serving as an excuse — a way of getting audiences off the hook.

And I think I may have done something similar with my story. As Andy so nicely put it, I was using metaphor as a prophylactic for the id. Yes, such a strategy is a way to take people to places they otherwise might not go. But in another way, it doesn’t end up taking them anywhere at all.

A story about people being devoured by sympathetic aliens who look like people may be intellectually interesting, but a story about people being devoured by sympathetic people — well, that forces you to engage much more deeply with what’s going on, and what’s at stake, and what it means to be human.

And isn’t that what literature is for?

Attic, part 73

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

It was time. Jenny walked up to the wall clock and began to move the minute hand forward. Slowly at first, and then faster and faster.

“Look,” said Josh, gesturing toward the window.

Jenny turned to look at the window, without taking her finger away from the minute hand of the clock. She could see the first faint gleams of light coming in through the window. She continued turning, now with renewed purpose. The light outside gradually became brighter. She had an eerie feeling that she was moving time itself. And in a way, she thought to herself, that’s exactly what was happening.

She glanced over at the bed, only to see her strangely young grandmother starting to shift, to toss and turn. It was like watching somebody having a bad dream. Or at least a very interesting dream.

“The sun is about to rise,” Josh said, staring intently out the window.

Jenny realized that she had been continually turning the minute hand of the clock, without really thinking about it. She was surprised to see that the time on the clock was now nearly six in the morning. She had moved time forward by six hours!

As she moved the time past the six oclock mark, she looked over at the bed, to see her grandmother Amelia suddenly open her eyes. Jenny took her hand away from the clock. Somehow she knew that advancing time would no longer be necessary.

For a long time Jenny’s grandmother just lay their, her eyes open, staring up at the ceiling. Then suddenly her head turned and she looked straight at Jenny. Jenny didn’t know what would happen next, but she felt a shiver run through her, as though her blood was about to freeze.

And then her grandmother Amelia spoke. “So, it’s you.”

Pogo was right

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

I didn’t seriously think it would happen in my lifetime. Of course you always have those doomsday scenarios in the back of your mind, but it’s different when it starts to become real.

I have lots of friends who are German, all of whom are far too young to remember when that country let itself be killed from the inside. But they are all acutely aware of that death, and the terrible pain of rebirth after such a horror. They will likely understand what I’m talking about more than will folks living in the U.S.

Because now it’s coming here, the death. I didn’t pay much attention when it was just the professional jackasses — the Glenn Becks and Sarah Palins, and other cynical jokers making money hand over fist by stoking hate. You always get that kind of thing in a democracy. The more outrageously the fools on the fringe are pulling down their pants, the more you can be sure your free society is functioning. A free society can tolerate hate, and we don’t feel a need to suppress it because we know we won’t succumb to it.

But then good, decent people, educated people, people in my own family, started turning off their brains and muttering darkly about a “Ground Zero Mosque” where terrorists could gather to plot another attack.

The fact that there is nothing further in this world from a radical Islamicist than an American Sufi seems to be off the radar. I’m not even sure that people realize what a Sufi is. Sufis are to Islam what Quakers are to Christianity. They’re the pacifists, the conscientious objectors, the ones who believe in tending to the poor and sick, who believe in humility and universal tolerance, in reaching out in friendship to people who are different.

That the American people could be tricked en masse into believing that a community center built by Sufis — of all people! — is somehow an infiltration by a radical militant Islamic force, tells me that our nation’s brain cells have started to die. It happened in Germany, and now it is starting to happen to us.

We are on our way to becoming a nation of drooling, blithering idiots, stumbling in the dark and babbling nonsense like “it’s disrespectful to build a Mosque at Ground Zero.” Except it’s not a Mosque, and it’s not at Ground Zero. And that’s not even the most important thing.

The most important thing is to consider the following: Which group of Americans was most brutally harmed by the destruction of the World Trade Center? Was it the Italians, the Jews? Maybe the Irish?

Nope. Which group of Americans essentially got their eyes gouged out, their hearts ripped to pieces, their deepest dreams spat upon and crushed underfoot? Which Americans had to watch helplessly while someone effectively held their own children in front of them, their pride and joy, put a gun to those kids’ futures and pulled the trigger?

If you’re like most Americans, you probably harbor a silly fantasy that you have more reason to hate the bastards who took down the twin towers than anyone else does. But of course you’re wrong. In fact, you have no idea.

Reason to hate is watching somebody destroy everything you’ve spent your life building. Reason to hate is watching your beautiful young sons and daughters, U.S. citizens born in this country, who always believed in its promise of liberty and equality, suddenly finding their friends and community turning on them with suspicion.

Can you imagine anybody with more reason to hate than the American Sufis? And yet, their response is to build a community center open to all, a gesture of peace and interfaith community in the middle of all the hatred.

The fact that we are not even paying attention to who these people actually are, the fact that the majority of Americans — even New Yorkers, I am deeply ashamed to say — are mouthing off hateful idiocies easily refuted by a simple Google search, tells me that it may already be too late.

We’re already half way to wearing the swastikas, and darkly muttering “kill the Jews”, except this time it’s not Jews. We are idiotically demonizing our own peace loving friends and neighbors who are the enemy of the Taliban, and all it stands for, to an extent we cannot even imagine.

I see this beautiful nation melting down, its brain cells failing, becoming necrotic. Much as I would like to blame it on the rancid self-serving poison of the Sarah Palins and bastards like pastor Jones who wants to publicly burn the Koran, I know that would be dishonest. For it is not them, it is us.

John F. Kennedy once said: “The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.” Yes, I know we are a wounded nation, I appreciate that. But rather than rise to the occasion, rather than face the hard and complicated truth of our circumstance, we are letting ourselves be anaesthetized by convenient myth, and that way leads to the sleep of the waking dead.

Unless we wake up in time. I sincerely hope we wake up in time.

Attic, part 72

Monday, September 6th, 2010

Josh strode over to the little clock hanging on the wall. “Doesn’t look like much, does it?” he said. “But I’m pretty sure it’s been set to midnight for a long time now.” With a decisive gesture, he reached out to move the minute hand.

“Well?” Jenny said.

“Darned thing’s stuck,” he answered. He glanced over at Mr. Symarian, who merely shrugged. It was clear the teacher was being very careful not to interfere.

“I wonder,” Jenny said. “Maybe it’s just stuck for you.”

“I don’t get it,” Josh said.

“Well, after all, she’s my grandmother, not yours.” Jenny walked over to the clock and gave the second hand a little nudge with one finger. It moved easily.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” Josh said. “You totally called it.”

“Well you know,” Jenny said, feeling quite pleased with herself, “everybody does something. You’re the path finder, and I, it seems, am the path changer.”

“Totally,” Josh said enthusiastically. “I tag ’em and you bag ’em.”

“Yep,” Jenny said, “you see ’em and I tree ’em.”

“I pick ’em and you sic ’em.”

Jenny laughed. “You spot ’em then I got ’em.”

“I name them and you tame them.”

“You smell ’em and I fell ’em.”

“I bring ’em and you sting ’em…”

Stop! I beg you, for God’s sake, please stop!!”

Josh and Jenny both turned to look at the source of the interruption. “Why Mr. Symarian, you’re shouting,” Jenny said. “Are you ok?”

“Does it look like I’m bloody ok? If you keep this up any longer my head will explode.”

“Sorry,” Jenny said, “we were just, you know, having fun.” Then she had a worrisome thought. “You don’t mean that, um, literally, do you?”

“No Jenny, not literally. I was employing a metaphor.” The teacher managed to get hold of himself. “Well, at least one thing is quite obvious.”

“What’s that,” Josh asked.

Mr. Symarian looked from Josh to Jenny and then back again. “You two are perfect for each other.”

I miss you. Why do you have to be such a nightmare?

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

The other day Heather issued the following challenge:

“Write a story using your [It’s in the Blood] theory around this line: `I miss you. Why do you have to be such a nightmare?'”

Herewith is my humble attempt to rise to the occasion.


***

“I miss you. Why do you have to be such a nightmare?”

“Maybe because I’m hungry. You’re the one munching on tasty treats.”

“I’m sorry,” she laughed, “were you talking? Because I’m eating here.”

“Look, I’m sorry about the work thing, but I’m scheduled to get there in a few days. It’s the best I could do. Until then, guess you’re having all the fun.”

OK lover,” Heather put her food down. “The Robinsons can wait. They were ok I suppose, but now they’re just meat.”

His eyes crinkled on the screen as he laughed, in that way that always made her heart melt. “The little ones,” he said, “they’re the crunchiest. You just can’t fake that.”

“I like when we talk about food,” she said, “when we’re apart. It helps — gets us in touch with our animal nature.”

“If we were in the same room,” he smiled, “think of how many more ways we’d have of getting in touch with our animal nature.”

“Yum,” she said, “Something to look forward to. Did you ever wonder,” she asked, licking her fingers, “whether there’s a connection? I mean, you and I have this thing together. You know I love you, but also, it’s, well, it’s hot — I know it’s hot for you too. Do you think that’s why we like the same sort of people?”

“Well,” he said, giving it some thought, “I don’t think we like exactly the same sort of people. Same families, yes, but you like the older ones. I’ve noticed you pick out the parents, and when you’re done there’s nothing left but bone and gristle. So we don’t really have the same tastes.”

Heather idly picked up a thigh bone and started pulling at it with her fingers. “OK, maybe I’m just a romantic. For me it’s about family. You know how important family is to me. I know some couples, they don’t have any tastes in common. Like, she’ll want to eat Italian, and after the hunt he’ll end up munching on some Brits. You and me, we’re not like that.”

“We’re only human,” he smiled.

“You say that like it’s true.” She looked at her hand closely, flexing the fingers. “The science is good, I’ll give you that. The natives can’t tell the difference, which I guess is good. If they figured out someone was picking off their young for snack food, this world wouldn’t be such a popular vacation spot.”

“That’s why we choose these primitive worlds,” he said. “Makes it easier to win their trust.”

“That’s the name of the game, baby,” she said, picking a piece of gristle delicately out of her teeth. “Gotta be nice to the food. I mean, that was the whole point of the Ethical Vacation Act, right? Only eat people who invite you over. Keeps the hunt fair.”

“I love when you talk ethics,” he smiled. “Gotta go though, this call’s costing us a fortune. See you in a few days.”

“Hurry, I miss you,” she said, “Remember, next Thursday we’re having the Goldfarbs for dinner.”

Attic, part 71

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

“OK, let’s take inventory,” Josh said. “There are some things we know for sure, or at least for pretty sure. We know the riddle exists, and we know — from that storybook — that the solution probably has something to do with turning the darkness outside into light.”

“Yes,” Jenny added, “and we’re also pretty sure that we’ll find the clue we need somewhere here in this room.”

“Right.” Josh was looking around the room carefully. “It’s a pretty boring room, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Jenny said. “But Mr. Symarian said — before he stopped talking — that we were staring the answer right in the face.”

“Wait, say that again.” Josh said.

“I just said that he told us we were staring the answer in the face.” Jenny frowned. “I know, it seemed weird to me too. Rooms don’t have faces, only people have faces. And there are no pictures here.”

“People,” said Josh with a smile, “are not the only things with faces, are they?”

Jenny looked at him, feeling a bit lost. Then all at once she got it.

They both shouted the answer at the same time. “The clock!”

Obvious

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

There are some decisions that seem obvious once they occur to you.

And rarely has there been such an obvious way for me to be patriotic and support my country.

I am going to make a substantial financial contribution to the building of the new Community Center at Park51 in downtown Manhattan.

Attic, part 70

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

“Are we on the right track, Mr. Symarian?” Josh asked.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “But I really cannot comment. I’m afraid that any advice from me at this point would simply negate your fine efforts.”

“Well,” Josh replied with a grin, “at least now we know that our efforts are fine.”

“Perhaps I have said too much already.” Mr. Symarian said. “These things must be handled delicately, or you hurt the spell.”

“Margaret Hamilton!” Jenny said.

“Pardon me?” the teacher said, “Why did you just say ‘Margaret Hamilton’?”

“She played the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. You were quoting her.” Jenny explained. “You mean to tell me, after all your talk about the ‘classics’, that you don’t know who Margaret Hamilton was?”

“I am afraid my knowledge of Hamiltons runs more to Edith than to Margaret.”

“I would’ve bet ten bucks you were going to say Alexander,” Josh said.

“Sorry to disappoint,” the teacher sniffed. “In any case, I cannot see how this is relevant to our current situation. I believe that it would be best for me to remain silent until you have solved the riddle.”

“He didn’t get that one either,” Jenny said to Josh, grinning. “Maybe we really are better off doing this on our own.”

It’s in the blood

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

When you look past the hearts and flowers, the sappy songs and silly greeting cards, dating is actually a deadly serious business. It’s the process of Darwinian selection itself at work — the one sphere of our lives in which we are most clearly operating not merely for the sake of our own individual now, but as an agent of future generations yet unborn.

The reason a novel by Jane Austen can be so gripping is that readers understand that the game afoot is far more serious than it appears. Behind the witty drawing room banter and well wrought bon mots lies a fight to the death — not necessarily of the self, but certainly of the bloodline.

When we are in the grip of romantic passion we are operating partway outside of the sphere of rational thought, for we are treading into the land of the uncontrollable id. Perhaps that is why there is such euphemism around romance and sexual passion. Society instinctively understands that it is not dealing with anything as malleable as individual difference, consumer preference, or interest groups, but rather with the unforgiving, inexorable, and often savage drive of DNA to survive. And so we build innocuous walls around the process — romantic comedies, dinners by candlelight, midnight walks along the beach.

But it is no accident that the genre of teenage romance has become entangled with the genre of bloodthirsty vampires who hunt and kill and feast by night. Young people everywhere flock to these tales because they understand the subtext.

You could say it’s in the blood.