REALITY: New Year’s Eve, 2014

Tonight I shall go out and howl into the blackness of the last of the year. I will summon up outrage and hatred, intolerance and annoyance, all that may threaten the peace of a new year. I shall get it all out into the wind, away from my mind, away from my life.

I will make room for the appropriate human emotions in response to that which I have a say. Empathy, understanding, gratitude, grief and sorrow that is honest and real. And allow tolerance, comprehension, learning and ultimate knowledge of that of which I have no experience or control, to flow through me and out into the world.

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John Timmons – December 12th, 2014

For a man is a moment
like rain on a mid-summer day
a white blinding Nor’easter
the paintbrush of autumn
and burst buds of
the spring lilac tree

Or a man is a moment
like the flash of volcano
washing waves of flood waters
shaping hands of a dust storm
the tornado sweeping
the land

Some few moments endure
some few men live forever
known by their art on film
and on paper and
the touch of their hand
on your heart

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I thought “Utopia”, TV’s latest reality show, would be different. No prize, no winner, a time span of a year. But once again, the media knows us better than we will admit about ourselves. Reality shows have the potential of presenting a more realistic version of human nature than dramas, movies, sitcoms. Fiction versus non-fiction. Yet as every writer knows, a story must have conflict.

As a writer, a person, I learn much about human nature by watching human interaction. Beneath the manipulation for ratings of both character selection, encouragement of drama, and serious editing to skip the dull parts, there is a more troubling aspect that worries me. Understanding human nature by watching the contestants is just a small part of it. What I’m seeing more deeply with “Utopia” is a revelation of its audience. We have always sought to expand our experiences, have lived vicariously through the characters of literature, plays, movies, television, video games. But this return to reality? Just as we must look at an accident we pass safely by on the highway, we have a need to watch others at each other’s throats guessing by the producers’ choice of characters and plots.

Funny, how we claim to love everyone and insist that everyone should do the same, yet we entertain ourselves with the conflicts and drama of human nature. Funny, how we deride the bulging pockets of corporations, yet are adding to them by our dictating of what they are presenting to us, the worst sides of being human. And sad, that we choose in our own lives to hide our feelings, to avoid confrontation and honest dislikes and rage, yet insist on feeding on the emotions of others in the flickering lights of our darkened homes.

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WRITING: At Its Heart

Writers, artists, take in what others miss. The subtleties, the hints, the constancy of human nature, both the softness of the soul and the obvious and objectionable to the conscience.

Then digest and regurgitate it into words, strokes of the brush. Because to keep it all inside would be too much.

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REVIEWS: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism

I of course understand that this book is coming from the viewpoint of a likely advocate of capitalism, but then all books are written mostly from an influenced and established point of view and therefore opinionated rather than presented as absolute truth. Still, I like Robert P. Murphy’s presentation.

Here are two passages that struck me:

The free market’s effects are far from arbitrary. Every time you spend tree dollars on tomatoes, you are ultimately “voting” for some of the nation’s scarce farmland to be reserved for tomato production. Smokers similarly “vote” for some of the land to be reserved for tobacco production. When a business has to shut down because it is no longer profitable, what that really means is that its customers valued its products less than they valued other products that other businesses could make with the same materials. If a business is enjoying high profits, that’s the market’s indication that it is using its resources more effectively than other firms.

While fairly obvious, Murphy’s statement brings it home that the market is driven by the consumer–not the producer–and follows the long established theory of supply and demand. If no one buys your plastic pickle, you’re not going to stay in business much less become a millionaire. This “vote” by the public puts the ball squarely in their own court.

While we may say that marketing is a huge factor in what the public buys, it still, to me, would come down to a rational purchasing decision by the public and if some individuals fall for idiotic advertising claims, it’s still in their control to make or break the company.

This to me was also interesting and noticeable in much thinking today:

Even though the bankruptcy of socialism is manifest to everyone, the intellectual elite continue to despise capitalism. For these people, virtually every social ill can be blamed on the free market, and the solution always involves more money and power for government.

While this seems to be a bit overboard in the “is manifest to everyone” portion and the grouping of the “intellectual elite” into a single mindset, the rest of this statement has been voiced a lot lately. Activist groups are ready to jump on anyone and anything to claim offense of some sort against their own beliefs whenever they do not agree with a product or process and seem to forget that “free market” means not only that people are free to attempt to market their own ideas, the public is just as free to accept or reject them.

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LITERATURE: Some Reviews Coming Up

Happy to be reading again. I have two books finished and am over half-way through a third so I’ll be reviewing these three shortly. Though not in my usual span of several posts as something snags on my brain, I will attempt to do at the very least a very thorough single post on each.

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With the country all abuzz about the most recent and high profile case of bullying by Incognito of Martin, two players for the Miami Dolphins NFL team, it seems to me that we trend our outrage in cycles.

To me, when we (meaning, the fans who buy the tickets and trinkets) are paying millions of dollars to these grown men to get body-slammed (and often permanently physically injured) by another player the size of a refrigerator, to get all up in arms over name-calling is a bit ridiculous.

No, verbal bullying is wrong at any level and I certainly don’t condone it–and I have been bullied in my youth–but whatever happened to “sticks and stones may break my bones, etc.” Whatever happened to the 70s’ take on personal responsibility for response to hateful words? Why are we so wrapped up in the moment that we overlook the fact that people are people and there are mean people in the world that won’t conform to our ideal of perfect manners and respect for others that we have to make a national issue out of every interpersonal communication between two guys who are prepping every day to go out and beat the shit out of another guy on Sunday’s game?

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Ironic, how the same people who are so outraged by the Trayvon Martin killing as being solely racially motivated are somehow unaware of their own equally unfounded labeling of Zimmerman, the jury, and anyone who doesn’t agree with them as racist.

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CURRENT AFFAIRS: Student Loans and Mortgages

I seriously cannot stomach this “they gave me all this money to go be a doctor and now they expect me to pay it back” attitude. Who applied for the loan? Would you be happier if they’d turned you down? Who missed their math courses to figure out if it was feasible? Who didn’t consider the more realistic options of working to help cover the costs? Or going to a cheaper university? This is not something you needed to survive or were entitled to but rather wanted. I want a Lamborghini. Who thinks it’s okay to default because jeepers, they shouldn’t have been granted the loans? Who considers it everyone else’s fault but their own?

Maybe costs are too high but then the number of students who do not graduate and those who end up defaulting on their loans only serves to up the tuition costs for future students. And it’d be nice if the universities concentrated on scholarships based on academic merit and financial need rather than athletics. Let the NBA, the NFL and such offer more scholarships based on sports ability.

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CURRENT AFFAIRS: Thoughts on Law

I believe that the crux of law–and political controversy–is that in an evenly divided society, we must understand that a “can” law is very different than a “cannot” law, and that regardless of personal belief, one half cannot impose restrictions on those who hold an opposite opinion. A “can” law does not imply “must” and therefore grants individual freedom of choice whereas a “cannot” law implies “must not.” This reasoning should be applied when considering issues such as abortion, gun control, marijuana use, and similar rulings where personal beliefs are the deciding factor.


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NEW MEDIA: Breaking Through The Fourth Wall

Technology has given us social networking and social networking has given the audience (of any medium: newspapers, internet, television, telephone, etc.) a voice. That voice of the reader/viewer has just broken through the literary fourth wall.

Normally the fourth wall is breached when an actor turns to an audience and addresses them directly. In its most subtle form, it would be the actors gathered around only three sides of a table, thereby silently acknowledging the existence of an audience by granting them the fourth side of the table, not having an actor sit with his back to the viewer. In literature, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, not merely from first or second person point of view but rather by stating that he is speaking from the page as you, the reader, read his words. In our age of technology, the voices of the reader/viewer are now able to join the act so to speak via twitter.

Watching The Bachelor, a so-called “reality” based television drama, I noticed a strip along the bottom edge of the screen (usually reserved for news alerts or weather warnings) and realized they were real-time tweets from viewers. The irony is that the tweets were real-time but the show was not, being shot several weeks to months previously.

It’s no big deal and we’ve come to accept these intrusions without question. Yet the thought of the fourth wall being breached from the outside is a big step in the process of presentation. Think about it.

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CURRENT AFFAIRS: Blame and Benefits

As a retail shop owner in a small town, and as a resident of Connecticut, I can sympathize with the storekeepers in Sandy Hook who lost some good holiday business because of the horrendous tragedy that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th, 2012.

However, I’ve read articles that have put forth that some of these store owners feel “left out” because they too, have been victims of the tragedy. That’s what this “Cash Mob” movement is all about–to bring some money into the local stores to make up for the losses they have incurred because of media and public interest who came, parked, but didn’t buy. And, by that inundation of non-purchasing bodies and their cars in the town, keeping away the possible shoppers. Here’s the group behind it in their own words: I Love Sandy Hook.

What bothers me first of all, is that they would use the tragic event to elicit financial help. Yes, they’ve suffered some loss, but nothing, absolutely nothing compared to losing a child or a loved one. While I understand the relative loss to the event, I couldn’t in good conscience use it to make up for that loss. Hold an after-Christmas sale. A Welcome Spring! blitz. Whatever. But to cry victim is repugnant to me. There is business insurance that covers loss of income though not likely for something other than a natural event such as fire, tornado, flood. Still, when you’re in business there is always a risk. A farmer cannot depend on the public’s tastes anymore than the weather. A fisherman cannot depend upon the sea. Retailers cannot depend upon nor sue the public for a poor economic period of time. You can’t sue the town for fixing the road in front of your store inhibiting traffic flow. It’s called the cost of doing business; it’s built into the price.

Secondly, how much did they really lose versus the economic influence of the times. And, while some lost business, I somehow doubt that the local eateries–which lead the list of businesses taking part in this “help us” day–likely made out better than they normally would. Diners, gas stations, and horrid to say, but florists and funeral homes gained from the tragedy. Shall they be asked to reimburse those who didn’t make out so well? Calling oneself a victim implies a perpetrator. Should the town have kept out the press, the curious, the have-to-be-a-part-of-it public? How will these businesses feel when a few years ahead someone wants to use the town for a movie on the tragedy? Will they feel the same way?

Third, the businesses ARE being helped to overcome their loss; by special grant from the Governor of the State of Connecticut: Economic Assistance Grant  To the tune of a half million dollars for a small handful of businesses.

As a retailer, if this happened in my town, I’d be closed for “Cash Mob” Day. I’d leave a closed box outside my doorstep with a request that if anyone were generous enough to come and plan on spending $20 in my shop, I’d prefer they instead drop it in the box. The funds to be distributed to bills incurred by the families of the victims who on top of the loss of their loved one, had the indignity of maybe having trouble paying for funeral expenses as well.

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CURRENT AFFAIRS: Social Networking

The devastation and pain caused by Hurricane Sandy in October was not about you and your activism on the cause of global warming. The horror of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was also not about you and your opinions on gun control. These tragedies are about victims and how we can help THEM. It is obnoxiously pompous and cruel to turn their pain into your podium.

Personally I have supported my first activist group this week. It is one which will hopefully keep the Westboro Baptist activists from their planned demonstrations at the funeral and memorial services of the Newtown victims. The Westboro “church’s” cause and platform is something I find despicable and their completely tasteless and thoughtless disruption at a family’s time of grieving is something I cannot avoid helping to stop.

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LITERATURE: Running With Scissors – Finale

This book is a memoir, written by Augusten Burroughs, of a period of time in his youth (age 9 through 17) where a rough home situation of a mother and father constantly yelling at each and giving little attention to their two boys (one of which is the author) goes from bad to worse.

After a divorce, Augusten’s life with his mother is no picnic. She is emotionally unstable, dreaming of being a famous writer, chain-smoking, wanting more than she is mentally able to gain from her existence. She is seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Finch almost every day and Augusten is often left sitting in the waiting room for hours. The doctor makes house calls when Mrs. Burroughs is extremely agitated. Eventually, still unable to cope, she arranges for Augusten to go live with Dr. Finch and his household on a part time basis to enable her to clear her head.

This is more than a dysfunctional family situation over at the Finches. It is a home where the doctor’s patients are often brought in to live with the already large family of daughters. Augusten is shocked at the disarray as he is meticulous in his own person and environment.

There is much for the reader to be shocked about as well. The way the author presents this household is that everyone does as they please and takes responsibility for themselves, which of course, they do not do. The doctor and his long-suffering wife, Agnes, appear to waltz around each other through their days, and Agnes appears to be constantly treated as a maid by all.

There are some points in the narrative where I–and this is perhaps because of my own relatively normal, middle-class, loving-parent, style of upbringing–began to doubt the veracity of the narrator’s expositions of life with the Finches. I checked and sure enough, the family upon which he was basing his story had sued him for slander after the book came out. There was some sort of settlement, Burroughs clinging to his position that very little was hyperbole or sensationalized for publications, and yet it changed the way I read the story.

Memoir is of course based on personal point of view and thus, perspective. Some allowance of course would be given to recollection of events–and I suspected that memory would change events as well, but Burroughs insists that he kept journals at the time and stuck closely to actual events. Time also would influence the story as an adult looking back at a very strange and unsettling childhood.

The problem I had, even taking all this into account, and allowing that humor is often a manner of coping, was that I still did not empathize with any of the characters, even the narrator. I think that while we can often laugh at the strangest and most traumatic events in retrospect (think of Mary Tyler Moore’s “Chuckles the Clown” episode), this wasn’t a series of laughable events, or wasn’t presented as such. Though the timeline is linear, we seem to hop from strange event to strange event, almost like a stand-up comedian telling a string of bad jokes.

If this book had been presented as fiction, maybe some of the scenarios would be approachable as humorous. But there was an underlying disassociation by the author from his story that brought out different emotions in me. He does not seem hurt by all that has happened to him, yet his attempt at humor comes off more as a shocking story at the expense of others. No one seems real so it is harder to accept them as such.

Meanwhile, had it been fiction, I would have been fine with it, even with the voice. After all, having read Octavio Paz’s story “My Life With The Wave,” I never thought of metaphor but accepted that the guy met and loved a wave.

The ending is wrapped up rather quickly and it seems that another book was planned to continue the story as Augusten reaches maturity. There is a quick rundown (as at the end of a true-story TV program) of what happened to each of the characters that doesn’t really satisfy even if I had cared enough about any of them. Of all the cast, Natalie would have my concern, yet she too seemed to cope with the conditions and circumstances of her life by developing a tough attitude and evidently did extremely well scholastically and in her career.

I wasn’t really drawn into the story by Burroughs, nor truly grossed out in the parts that were detailed with oddness or flagrant misconduct and abuse. I don’t think I really was the one holding the story at arm’s length; I believe Burroughs did that for the reader.

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LITERATURE: Running With Scissors – Handling Sex Scenes

The chapter is named, “The Joy of Sex (Preteen Edition).” It presents Augusten’s telling of his first sexual experience which involves his giving oral sex to Neil Bookman, a Finch in his thirties who is gay.

It’s a very graphic and blow by blow (no pun intended) description of the act, as Neil forces Augusten, spreadeagled on the bed, his arms held out and helpless, his head banging the headboard. Yet Burroughs handles this scene, which is almost a rape of young Augusten, in a realistic manner that shows the confusion without fear, the physicality and discomfort, the rawness without full understanding of an adolescent who knows, and yet doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

I feel like I’ve walked through some door, into some room, and I’ll never be able to leave. I feel like nothing is the same. Just like thaat. Nothing will ever be the same again.

I also feel like I can’t ever tell anybody about this. I can’t tell Natalie, although I really, really want to.

What happened has to be all mine.

I feel crowded by this. Like I need to go home and think about it for a week or maybe the rest of my life. How can I go to school in the morning? It’s already after midnight and I have to be up at seven-thirty to make it there by eight-fifteen.  (pg. 118)

As much as Augusten has been through, we hurt for him that this is what his first sexual encounter is like. It is rough, it is not pleasurable, but it is not frightening except for his worry about being unable to breath. It is visual, he is aware of the sounds his mouth makes, he is aware of Neil’s body and his own head cracking against the headboard. He is also aware of a crack in the ceiling visible partly behind (above) Neil and wonders if it crosses the whole ceiling. He wonders if he could peel the paint off in a sheet. In other words, he is not completely in the moment, whether from conscious choice or from the reality of his discomfort.

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