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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LITERATURE: Lord Of The Flies – Action

As the reader would come to expect, the division of the boys into two “tribes,” one an obedient group of savage hunters under Frank, who rules by fear and promise of celebration, and the other, down to four members led by Ralph, still attempting to logic things out and focused on fire, eventually will build to a major clash. This is brought about by the stealing by Frank’s tribe of Piggy’s glasses. Glasses which take away the other group’s vital focus of making fire, as well as leaving Piggy nearly blind.

This is a turning point for Ralph, where he acknowledges Piggy’s importance in his ability to think things out. With Piggy’s insistence, they make for the other’s encampment, intent on getting back the glasses. Naturally outnumbered and outweaponed by not only physical abilities, but by strength of intent, a fight ensues.

Now Jack was yelling too and Ralph could no longer make himself heard. Jack had backed right against the tribe and they were a solid mass of menace that bristled with spears. The intention of a charge was forming among them; they were working up to it and the neck would be swept clear. Ralph stood facing them, a little to one side, his spear ready. By him stood Piggy, still holding out the talisman, the fragile shining beauty of the shell. The storm of sound beat at them, an incantation of hatred. High overhead, Roger, with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever.

Ralph heard the great rock before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee, the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. (pg. 180)

It takes superior skill as a writer to create an action scene like this, particularly when it is a conflict that has been so carefully built up to. While Golding does a good job with it, I can’t help but recognize the obvious superiority of film over text in this case.

As a reader, I can see Ralph in his scared but determined position to regain his position as chief. Piggy’s natural fear compounded by his inability to see clearly what’s going on. Jack’s anger at being challenged. The rock coming down on the group and the threat it poses to all. But I must admit that words in this case could never achieve what can be done with audio and action video. For example, the nuances of the two boys as they face off. Just a lingering on their posturing, a moment spent on their facial expressions. Then the sudden trembling of the huge rock as it is let loose. I can imagine a scene where they all look up, perhaps even the rock rolling in slow motion for dramatic effect. The noise, the silence, the aftermath. The symbolic conch shell exploding into flying bits of sparkling confetti.

Too, with a large cast of characters here that we’ve come to know as individuals, it’s not easy to remember who was standing where, who is speaking, shouting, lunging, running. A visual of this scene would be more effective as the mind would have no need to remember structure and places. It would be like digging into your pocket and bringing out a handful of coins and without having to count, pick out the two quarters, a nickle, a penny, and know it was fifty-six cents.

 

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LITERATURE: Lord Of The Flies – Variations of Forming Society

Very interesting: A boy has been killed. The tribe, now split into two groups, still resorts to avoidance of responsibility in the face of the horror.

Ralph’s small group, each boy tries to convince himself and the others that they didn’t take part in it, in the final frenzy that resulted in the death of one of their own.

Frank’s group denies responsibility as well, but not of the act, but of the intent. They convince themselves that what was destroyed was the beast in a different form. They choose to justify their actions even as it keeps the fear alive. Is this a plan on Frank’s part to maintain control? As we see at their gathering, there is a new form and respect for order. There is punishment, there are gates, there are responsibilities. Almost as if this new sense of justice they’ve created has been built on fear and maintains that fear through superstition. I don’t like comparing it to religion, and yet there are similarities in holding onto belief despite reality, ritual over practicality.

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LITERATURE: Lord Of The Flies – Conflict

It is especially interesting to be reading this book in this political atmosphere of an election year, where people are divided in their views, in their choices, and particularly, in their priorities of what is most valuable to them in a society.

A small band of boys survives a plane crash on an isolated island and must learn to survive. Organization and leadership becomes the first priority and all go along with the choices made–for a while. Then they become divided by their values. For Ralph, rescue is uppermost and so the keeping up of a fire to attract help from passing ships is his focus. For Frank, hunting becomes primary. But since both keeping up the fire and the hunting of the wild pigs requires a good majority of the older boys, one or the other task may suffer from lack of cooperation. This, fueled by two strong personalities and different driving forces, creates the first signs of a division within the group.

While one may think that the difference in the two boys is that one is reaching for intelligent solutions while the other is relying on basic instincts, there may be more to it. There is the basic adolescent need to establish one’s self-identity. To fulfill their natural instinct to prove themselves. While Piggy is a prime example of a willing follower, Ralph and Frank are more intent on their inner battle to preserve dominance and order. Even Frank’s descent into a savage hunter is a strong bid for leadership.

In this story, there is the condensed version of the human race. I’m not sure how the book ends, but I know the story goes on still, every day.

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LITERATURE: Lord of The Flies – Some Nice Anthropomorphism

William Golding’s use of language is eloquent yet precise. This, as Ralph and the others are on a hunt to find a “beast” that two of the older boys claim to have seen, confirming the nightmares and fears of the younger boys, is a superb example of anthropomorphism as he describes Ralph’s view of the ocean.

Down here, almost on a level with the sea, you could follow with your eyes the ceaseless, bulging passage of the deep sea waves. They were miles wide, apparently not breakers or the banked ridges of shallow water. They traveled the length of the island with an air of disregarding it and being set on other business; they were less a progress than a momentous rise and fall of the whole ocean. Now the sea would suck down, making cascades and waterfalls of retreating water, would sink past the rocks and plaster down the seaweed like shining hair; then, pausing, gather and rise with a roar, irresistibly swelling over point and outcrop, climbing the little cliff, sending at last and arm of surf up a gully to end a yard or so from him in fingers of spray. (pg. 110)

Now that’s nice.

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LITERATURE: Lord of The Flies – Timeline

Even as this is a linear narrative–and it works best as the plotting is critically based on linearity and the change in the characters the longer they are on their own on the island–there is no real base set of how much time is passing.This may be a conscious effort on Golding’s part in order to eliminate any speculation about time influencing the patterns developing. But in Chapter Five, we see a definitive moment in Ralph’s manner of thinking, brought about by specific actions on the part of some of the characters. Here is how the third person omniscient narrator gives us this change:

Suddenly, pacing by the water, he (Ralph) was  overcome with astonishment. He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of his life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet. He stopped, facing the strip, and remembering that first enthusiastic exploration as though it were part of a brighter childhood, he smiled jeeringly.

(…) This meeting must not be fun, but business. (pg. 76)

Ralph has come to be challenged as a leader. Briefly, he spots smoke on the horizon and guesses that it might be a ship. When he turns to look (as pointed out by Piggy) he realizes that Jack and his hunters have allowed the fire on the top of the mountain to burn out. Just at this point, Jack comes back thrilled with himself and his followers at the victory of having killed a pig.

This brings up a conflict and the obvious: different people have different priorities. To Ralph and Piggy, rescue is of prime importance, and the fire was their only chance of attracting help. To Jack, the need to dominate and succeed was the goal that he achieved by providing meat.

It is clear that the community must have agree on their primary focus, and that organization and regulations must be put in place to assure their goals. Ralph’s leadership has been challenged because he himself was lax in maintaining it. He briefly understands that Piggy is the thinker and the value of thinking is what will be their survival, and while he may let up on Piggy a bit, he understands just as well that Piggy would be an ineffective leader and so must instead allow it to influence and change his own behavior to maintain control of the group.

 

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LITERATURE: Lord of The Flies – Symbolism in a Simile

Sometimes you read something that just strikes you to the heart with meaning, and likely, the writer’s skill.

Piggy wore the remainders of a pair of shorts, his fat body was golden brown, and the glasses still flashed when he looked at anything. He was the only boy on the island whose hair never seemed to grow. The rest were shock-headed but Piggy’s hair still lay in wisps over his head as though baldness were his natural state and this imperfect covering would soon go, like the velvet on a young stag’s antlers. (pg. 64)

The simile of Piggy’s scarce hair to the velvet of antlers that sheds to reveal a sign of transitioning into a signal of male strength is a hint at Piggy’s own mental capabilities and dormant dominance. Something he himself is not even aware of, though he knows he is intelligent, he, typical of the teased and tormented, is more anxious to be liked by the others than to be a force in their lives. Even as he suggests to Ralph that he can build a sundial with a stick, he is unaware of Ralph’s teasing response, “And an airplane, and a TV set.” He remarks instead that for those, they would need metal. It is clear that he is so in need of acceptance, that he doesn’t identify immediately with sarcasm directed his way.

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