CURRENT AFFAIRS: Bullying

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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CURRENT AFFAIRS: Stereotyping

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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LITERATURE: Running With Scissors – Truth in Memoir

It’s very rare that I check reviews on a book as I’m reading it, preferring to establish my own take on it and not be influenced by others. I’ve done it before, usually when I’m reading something that’s been hailed as the greatest thing since Shakespeare and I’m just not getting that from it. I can’t see slogging through the whole book or worse, tossing it aside unfinished, simply because I missed the point and would have enjoyed it had I understood what I was overlooking.

That said, I was at that point with Burrough’s story and doubted the truth of it. Googling it brought up a lawsuit by the family thinly disguised as the Finches protesting the reality as presented by Augusten Burroughs in this book.

Oddly enough, the item I found hard to believe was in fact true, that being Dr. Finch allowing his young daughter to go live with one of his older male patients. I found much about Dr. Finch to be sort of at the edge and in fact, he was subjected to loss of his license to practice for this very thing.

However, according to the family, Burroughs took creative license into the realm of hurtfulness and harm to the family by his accounting of his time spent with them. Some things are embellished, some are called outright lies.

I don’t like being taken for a fool; it’s one of the things I hate the most that people do to each other. That said, and some quick research into the acceptable boundaries of the definition in publishing terms of “memoir,” and I have decided to continue reading the book and take Burrough’s story with a grain of salt. He may be, in my opinion, an “unreliable narrator,” though this is not a term normally used in non-fiction. I’ll grant him his perception–which I’ve already been open-minded about, and label him mean at the worst if he’s colored his facts and characters unflatteringly simply for sensationalism.

Or toss the book if it goes too far.

(Note: The lawsuit was settled thusly: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2007/08/running-with-sc.html

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LITERATURE: Running With Scissors – More on Veracity

I question little in fiction. I have a hard time, however, accepting as fact in a memoir or non-fiction narrative, even allowing for perception, something like this:

At first I thought it was weird that Natalie had a legal guardian, considering she already had a father. But Dr. Finch believed a person his or her own parents. So at thirteen, Natalie had chosen one of her father’s patients, Terrance Maxwell, who was forty-two and rich. So now she lived with him and attended a private prep school that he paid for. Just like Vickie lived with a pack of hippies that traveled from barn to barn all across America. Every six months or so, Vickie would make a pit stop back home in Northampton. (pg. 86)

Sure, it could be true, but come on? A psychiatrist–even one as whacky as Finch–allowing a 13 year-old to go live with one of his patients, a 42 year-old rich guy?

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LITERATURE: Running With Scissors – Voice and Reliable Narrator

Not reading this as quickly as I’d expected–now that I’ve semi-gotten over my inability to concentrate on anything longer than flash fiction. I suspect that while it’s an easy, enjoyable read, it’s also presenting two problems for me.

First, the voice is great. Well-crafted and consistent. It’s a touch of sarcasm and very revealing of the first person narrator, Augusten–this is, after all, a memoir. For me, that meant I was going to be reading a true account, regardless of the content. But I find that “memoir” may allow some flexibility rather than that allowed by autobiography. Memoir would indicate perception of the truth rather than truth itself as others may see it. Therefore, it comes to voice to help me discern what is reliable.

The problem of credibility–I’m finding it difficult to accept not the narrator’s peccadilloes nor the aggression and characters of his mother and his father, but rather the actions and character of his mother’s psychiatrist, Dr. Finch. It would seem to me that many of his actions–and here is where the narrator’s story must be most accurate–such as coming over to the family’s house, his “masturbatorium” and his open acknowledgement of it to his patients and the narrator, who at this point is maybe a 12 year-old boy, the hours Finch allows his patient to take up daily, and now, his bringing Augusten and his mother into his own home (more on that) would likely be considered so completely unprofessional as to jeopardize his license to practice.

So while I can accept seeing the story of his life through the eyes of a child who’s grown up (and a bit whacky himself) and relates in a sarcastic nature, I find some of the story incredible. I have found myself reading in a Woody Allen frame of mind in order to accept the recounting of the scenes involving Dr. Finch in particular.

The other problem I was having is that I tend to read closely and the deeper meaning in this story so far escaped me unless I finally take it as “this is why I’m fucked-up today.” His dark humor seems then as a cover for deep hurts and confusion–and one can hardly blame him. I recall when I was reading more mystery and horror novels and then to go into something different I’d still find myself reading for clues, looking for the body.

The writing is very good; the style, the structure, and choice of anecdotes, all are simply detailed and give an excellent image of what is going on. Here, for example, Augusten is with his mother in the filthy kitchen of the doctor’s home, where his sense of order and meticulous personal ways (to the point of obsession) are shocked by the doctor’s children, Natalie and Vickie and the toddler Poo Bear who runs around naked and poops in the living room. Augusten is being told that he must stay at the house a bit longer because his mother desperately needs the doctor’s help.

Her eyes looked different. Wider somehow. Not her own. They scared me. So did the roaches scrambling across the table, over the dishes, up the arm of a spatula.

“Have you been playing with the doctor’s daughters? With Natalie and Vickie?”

“I guess.”

“And have you been having a good time?”

“No, I wanna leave.” The doctor’s house was not at all what I had expected. It was weird and awful and fascinating and confusing and I wanted to go home to the country and play with a tree.  (pg. 53)

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REALITY?: Donations

Sadly, I will no longer be supporting any local school fund-raising functions as my property tax dollars are allocated at 75% to education. Redistribution of wealth would dictate that I should instead donate to “Welfare and Assistance” which is allotted less than one-half of one percent of the budget.

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LITERATURE: Up Next – Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

Something a bit lighter than the last few books I’ve read, and I chose it also because it’s running just over 300 pages with medium-larger typeface. This was a serious consideration as I’ve spent the last two or three years reading and writing flash fiction, giving myself a serious case of quasi-ADD.

The strongest thing I’ve noticed in the little reading I’ve done in this book so far is the voice. While it is non-fiction (“A Memoir”) there is a reality in the voice of a child describing his mother getting dressed to go out. Augusten Burroughs has caught the tendency of a child’s thinking to go off in different directions mid-stream, the fears of abandonment, of the dark, of all the notice of details that a child will see and form his world out of the vision.

We’re also getting a feel of the family situation, the status, the interaction of the characters in this first chapter.

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LITERATURE: Lord Of The Flies – Finale

Truly a fascinating book and while written in 1954, certainly to be considered a classic.

I approached this book from my own standpoint of theory on the tendency of human nature to begin with an instinct for survival and self-preservation. Sharing, awareness and empathy for others, and simple kindness is something I feel is a learned response. Therefore, I followed along easily with William Golding’s premise that even at a young age, influenced by parental guidance and society’s restrictions and norms, people will resort to the basics.

Here, the group easily decides that it needs a leader, and that certain priorities must be set for the community to benefit and survive. Food is a basic need and while their is plentiful fruit available, there is an outspoken member of the group who insists that what they need is meat. I don’t know why fishing hasn’t been considered–this is an island, after all, and there is a fresh water pool and lagoon–but this is the driving force that splits the group; the established focus previously being fire for smoke and signals to passing ships for rescue. But Jack, the boy in favor of meat as the primary need, is also driven by his regression into a savagery for the hunt itself. The hunt fulfills his needs for aggression–having been squashed by the choice of Ralph as leader–as well as a need for fun, focus, and a following.

Ralph is a leader though based more on his physical appearance, his willingness to take a position, and more importantly, on his acknowledgement of Piggy’s superior intelligence. He is challenged by the struggle for survival, yet he does not have the dominant spirit necessary to persist against Frank.

I’ve no doubt that Golding’s story is a comment on humanity as a whole. How far we each will go to preserve a certain civility and creative instinct to advance individually as well as as a community in order to survive. While Ralph’s faction is intent on hope and rescue, Jack and others are convinced they must grow strong and depend on their own cunning to overcome. It is interesting too to note that the youngest boys, the littluns, while loosely watched, are pretty much left on their own.

Golding brings in much symbolism in this story: the conch as a sign of order and rights, Piggy’s glasses as the power of fire; the paint that Jack uses to hide his old self from the new ways he has adopted, the pig head on the pole. All of these become turning points of conflict and change.

As I’d mentioned in a previous post, there is something lost–even with the fine writing of Golding–in the action scenes. Perhaps because there are so many characters and so many different spots on the island that represent different things, that a high action scene would be better aided by visuals and sound that film offers so that the reader is not distracted by sorting things out and thus slowing the pace. But that could be just my own reading style.

The ending is a bit contrived for my tastes and yet its simplicity and suddenness do tend to verify all that has gone on in the time spent on the island. That was another thing I’d noticed, that Golding does not in any way lay out the exact number of days, weeks, or years by reference and that may be a point that adds to the inevitability of man’s nature.

All told, a phenomenal book that can be easily read as an adventure, but is open to a much deeper statement on the basic nature of mankind.

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