Thursday, January 30, 2014

Little Windows into the Human Experience

I've stumbled upon a window inside the walls of my own home giving me insight into a vast landscape, the one inhabited by villains and tyrants, the one wherein my second cat resides.

Tucker came to live with us about eighteen months after we rescued Tank, a gorgeous cat similar to the Bombay breed in looks and temperament. Tank fetches, loves a boisterous romp, invents fanciful play when humans ignore him, and loves all things that walk upon two legs or four. He learned to box because a huge Airedale was patient and let him bat her whiskers. He learned to snuggle with a big old Labrador, and he learned to sit up on his haunches, lift his front paws, and let himself be picked up by me because that was the most practical posture. He also raised tiny Tucker who’d been abandoned in a field on one of the coldest nights that winter. But as kids often do, Tucker reached his adolescence and turned on dear dad. Wanting to be the only cat, the only pet, Tucker decided to eat and eat and eat and eat until he weighed more than Tank, then he began to push the boundaries of play to actual hissing, spitting and occasional biting spats. Tank granted Tucker the Alpha role, and he’s been sleeping fitfully ever since.

Tucker seethes when Tank asks for or receives unbidden affection. Waiting until Tank has found a nice napping place and has warmed it to the proper toasting temperature, Tucker sneaks up and pounces to demand the warm spot. Tank yields most often, but sometimes, sick of being tormented, Tank will pursue Tucker and bite him as he once did when the kid acted out.

Photo by Al Griffin
On rare days, Tucker even stalks Tank, swaggering behind him to intimidate and even challenge Tank at the food bowl or litter pan. We’ve set up several so Tank always has a remedy, but on Tucker’s worst days, Tank can’t find a watering hole or food source without being harassed.

The most tiresome behavior is Tucker’s desire to own me. If I sit down, he wants to be on my lap or at least at my feet. If I work in the study, he can be found in the same room, watching, guarding, waiting for interlopers. If I sleep, he wants to tuck himself against the small of my back--at least he did until we rescued a miniature American Eskimo named Jasper--a cottony ball of white with little coal black eyes that melt my heart. Perhaps that’s why I lifted him into bed with us, assuming he’d stay at our feet, but his first choice is a pillow between our heads, his back against the headboard.

Jasper--Jazz, for short--is a bit of despot himself. He rushes into nascent kitty quarrels and runs off Tucker. Jazz also believes all kitties must be kept at bay if we’re eating just in case we let something fall; apparently, he claims the right to retrieve all food and never share a morsel. Jazz furthermore believes that kitties should not invade his space at night while we all sleep.

Tucker surrendered for about a month, but then decided to claim the turf in dispute. He simply goes to bed long before we do, curling up on the pillow that will rest between us. I woke one night recently to hear the dog’s high-pitched squeak. I found him facing Tucker who rested squarely on the pillow and stared back, unrepentant, unafraid. The dog surrendered.

Now Tucker and Jazz compete for my lap whenever I sit. If one jumps down, the other claims me, owning the lap territory until night when the pillow dispute resumes. I must coax Tank to visit or simply collect him and close a door leaving Tucker and Jazz on one side while Tank gets his due.

And it is at these moments when I reflect upon those darker hearts of villains and tyrants, and I realize that sibling rivalry is probably at the root of it all. Pure covetousness motivates those wee pets, and if they were any larger, I’d need to wear armor, build a moat to separate them from me, their apparent prize, and possibly acquire an army of minions to fight them.

Reading Challenge:

Read the story of Cain and Abel, Beowulf, John Gardner‘s Grendel, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Each of these features a character motivated by pure envy, and each suggests the deadly effects of envy.

Writing Challenge:

Recount the story of a petty despot who brought chaos and misery into your life.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Heroic Language

Leaders inspire us with their deeds. Nelson Mandela’s twenty-seven years in imprison, forsaken by the world, attest to the human will to endure, the human capacity for courage, and to wisdom that triumphs over all enemies. Many of us would despair, but Mandela did not, declaring:

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death. (from Long Walk to Freedom, 1994)
With these words, Mandela proves his conviction, his contemplative nature, and his felicity with language. The short passage uses alliteration and figurative language effectively, the same tools of Martin Luther King, Jr., remembered with a national holiday earlier this week. Of his own imprisonment in the Birmingham jail, much shorter in duration but only one of many nights spent imprisoned, King said:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. …we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger,’ your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.

King also employs the same technique that Tim O’Brien uses in the opening chapters of The Things They Carried, an accumulation of specific, concrete details that make his case vividly and effectively. After such a list, how could anyone argue that waiting longer would be a wise course for King and other convicted protestors?

Leymah Gbowee adds her own courage and rhetorical prowess to this list of heroes who use language as one arrow in their quiver:
Liberia had been taken to our physical, psychological and spiritual limits. But over the last few months, we had discovered a new source of power and strength: each other. We’d been pushed to the wall and had only two options: give up or join up to fight back. Giving up wasn’t an option. Peace was the only way we could survive. We would fight to bring it.

Mrs. Gbowee’s particular contribution to this list of effective language devices is juxtaposition. She lets sharp contrasts underscore the necessity for courage, contrasts between giving up and joining up, between fighting and peace-making, between spiritual death and life.

Courage is not essential for effective language use, but language inspires courage in their hearts of others.

Reading Challenge:

Read the words of Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther, King, Jr., and Leymah Gbowee. Be inspired, but be aware of the masterful uses of language as well.

Writing Challenge:

Employ the techniques of Mandela, King, and Gbowee for your own inspirational messages.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

British Mysteries for Me!

I tried to watch The Following because I appreciate Kevin Bacon--not just the Six Degrees Of game, but also his adventurous spirit in accepting cameo roles and his apparent preference for Indie films. No measure of appreciation could keep me tuned in, however.

Mr. Bacon portrays an FBI agent, Ryan Hardy, broken by the necessity to turn over rocks in our civilized jungle because under those rocks, in the damp dark, are depraved deeds. As a consequence, he lost control over alcohol and honor among his colleagues. because of a single case against one serial killer who has since created an elaborate communication network for serial killers.

The first episode featured the rare woman survivor of a serial killer’s attack. Hardy hunted that serial killer, now in prison, and he grew fond of the victim who survived and she of him. When the serial killer appears to be at work outside the bars of his confinement after copycat acts and threats upon the survivor, the FBI calls upon Hardy, and he meets again the victim who has rebuilt a life, only to lose it when Hardy fails to see what no one else could see either.

Her death caused me to abandon the fledgling series. She was prey--stalked, hunted, trapped, and tortured, and her death represents something distasteful in our culture; her story is one of thousands wherein women fear for their lives and lose them graphically, their terror visceral, their end bloody, their last moments unimaginable. We ought not to be entertained by such. I’m certain that I am not.

For these reasons, I also abandoned The Blacklist after just one episode, and I refuse to see contemporary horror films. These films traffic in human suffering without the requisite catharsis.

My taste and judgment extends to crime fiction and psychological thrillers as well. Many American authors in these genres often prolong the death and the subsequent forensic examination leaving absolutely no doubt about what happened to the body and bodily fluids. On television, the series Bones regularly places every bodily insult and state of decay front and center for our viewing. British authors, on the other hand, deftly and economically declare that there is a victim and how that victim passed, but the gruesome details are glossed over, emerging only as they become clues.

The British preference for understatement does not deceive or mislead readers.  We are still aware of human suffering, of the sad ends to which our grand ambitions and postures come, but we readers need not wallow in the blood and slime of a bad end, and writers need not indulge the human drift to depravity.

Violence itself is not objectionable. Even Aristotle granted the necessity of representing violence and brutality, but warns against unrestrained depictions of both. He suggests that emotions stirred through tragedy temper us--make us stronger--as we temper steel with hot flame. In other words, we may grow more civilized through honest portrayals of our failings. But if a writer’s purpose is to make our sadistic, brutal, and masochistic impulses pleasurable, then the writer and his work dwells in an amoral universe, one that weakens the readers and watchers in it

Photo by Al Griffin

For much of British crime fiction and psychological thrillers, attention is upon the array of usual suspects made particular by details of dress, speech patterns, associations, work, and avocation. We travel beside the detectives to solve the case. We recognize the detectives’ frailties deriving from moving among those who deliver harm to their brothers, but the British detective seems less jaded, less seedy. They are the Hugh Grants of their world--able to curse without offending and lament their fates without becoming maudlin.

I recommend British crime to you--although, I grant, some of the BBC’s offerings are as gritty and soiled as those coming from the U. S. Idris Elba’s Luther or Ripper Street are on par with The Following and The Blacklist. In addition, some British authors describe the hunt and the slaughter vividly, but the work of G. M. Malliet will prove the difference of which I speak.

Reading Challenge:

Read Wicked Autumn or A Fatal Winter by G. M. Malliet. You’ll find interesting characters and a fine detective at work discerning the truth. You won’t find a lot of blood or serial killers preying upon young women, however.

Writing Challenge:

Read reviews of G. M. Malliet’s work on Amazon or GoodReads, then write a review of your favorite crime fiction novel or psychological thriller.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Word Choices: Heavy and Light Words

My dad once tortured Rags, his beloved Schnauzer, by leaving the radio on as comfort while Dad was away. The torturous component was the station pre-set in car and home: conservative talk radio starring the venomous Rush Limbaugh. Once when Dad shared his concern about Rags’s declining health, I answered quite seriously, “He may be suffering from Limbaugh-enza.” Dad was not amused. He believed that I leaned too far left, so far, in fact, I might well fall over one day, and to bring me back to center, he paid for a subscription to Reader’s Digest, a renewal announcement arriving well before Christmas every year.

In Dad’s memory, I continued to subscribe for several years, but lately, I’ve let it lapse. Still the Digest tries to win me back, occasionally sending a free complimentary copy just to remind me of what I’m missing, and that brings me to today’s post: a Reader’s Digest article (p. 55) in the December 2013 edition titled “Why Some Words Sound Heavy.”

A Not So Itsy Bitsy Spider, Sayulita, Mexico Casa 2010. Shapshot by Al Griffin.

According to the short article, food marketers understand language and its effects upon us very well—so well, in fact, that they choose product names to appeal to us. Cracker companies, for example, in an effort to turn our minds from calories and transfats, choose names that connote light and thin, and to accomplish this, they search for words with the short i or an e because front vowels convey small and light to us. That itsy, bitsy spider children sing about is not at all worrisome because it’s itsy and bitsy. Back vowels, on the other hand, convey big, weighty things so the name of a product that is lush, creamy and rich will contain back vowels. The article cites Triscuit, Cheez-It, and Ritz as example of front vowels. The back-vowel products have names like Rocky Road, Cookie Dough, and Jamoca Almond Fudge.

A Back-Vowel Food: Anniversary Cake. Snapshot 2010.

Advertisers are not the only ones who know this secret. Writers make use of language and its effects purposefully and beautifully.

Ralph Ellison did so in Invisible Man. Note the use of more back vowels than front in the following excerpt.

When I went in he was wiping his neck with a blue-bordered handkerchief. The shaded lamp catching the lenses of his glasses left half of his broad face in the shadow as his clenched fists stretched full forth in the light before him. I stood, hesitating in the door, aware suddenly of the old heavy furnishings, the relics from the times of the Founder, the framed portrait photographs and relief plaques of presidents and industrialists, men of power—fixed like trophies or heraldic emblems upon the walls.

The vowels suit the setting well. Furnishings are heavy, weighted with history and brushes with fame. More important, all that weight in setting and vowels support the greater weight suggested by clenched fists stretched . . . before him to create suspense, to foreshadow an ominous outcome.

So, dear Readers, be mindful of vowels and their contributions to meaning and tone. Choose words wisely.

Reading Challenge:

Read the opening paragraph of Joan Didion’s essay, “Los Angeles Notebook,” first discussed in this blog on February 11, 2011. Note the author’s vowel choices. Consider also the abundance of sibilant consonants adding tension and foreboding.

Writing Challenge:

Select any 150-300 words from your own writing. Examine it for vowel sounds. Revise to make greater use of front or back vowels.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Verisimilitude: Artistic Voyeurism

A significant characteristic of literature is its quality of truth, known as verisimilitude, a trait writers cultivate by reading widely and by observing closely people, places, and things. In fact, writers and artists in general are voyeurs who evaluate and synthesize the human experience for our edification.

A great writing challenge is to transfer your voyeurism onto the page, and I have tried to accept my own challenge with the following first draft that may or may not find its way into an essay or work of fiction.

No modern waiting room is complete without a big-screen TV, most often tuned to a home, garden, or food network as these are suitably nonpartisan and gender neutral. Real men can watch real men surprise do-it-yourself-ers with manpower, expertise, and efficient power tools in order to transform kitchens, baths, and backyards into works of art. If rooms are not being made over into man caves by and for men, then women are demonstrating their thoughtfulness by designing spaces for both genders.

But on our first visit to the waiting room of a brand new doctor, we were surprised to find ESPN on screen, a channel more common in restaurants and bars, not medical office buildings. Neither my husband nor I is a sports fanatic, and we tend to think of waiting rooms as another great opportunity to read so I brought my Kindle to life and my husband began reading a magazine. The couple near us was not at all content, however.

“I like Incognito” insinuated itself into my novel, and with those words, she had my attention. How could anyone 'like' a guy with a record of bullying, I wondered while she turned her face to her husband at an angle that let me see her disdain as she hissed, lips pursed, “I hate this show.”

Soon, she was standing, smoothing her silk jacket belted tightly around her waist to draw attention to her shape, still a good one many, many years past her youth. She crossed to the receptionist’s low desk and asked for the remote to change the channel, but on the day after Christmas, the staff on hand was skeletal, and this particular stand-in for the regular receptionist had no key to access the drawer where the remote was safely locked away from casual theft and other unimaginable abuses.

“I’m sorry,” said the substitute receptionist. “I don’t have a key to the drawer where the remote’s kept.”

“Who has the key?” she demanded, drawing herself a little more upright, the spine stiffer, regal.

“The girl who sits here most days.”

“And where is she?” Her vowels elongating as a grand inquisitor pinning the suspect to the truth.

“Well, she’s off today.”

“We can’t watch this program. It’s offensive.” With these, she cut off the interrogation, turned and cut her eyes toward me, sharing that time-tested eye roll, raised eyebrow, and pursed lips to say, “Really!” in a nonverbal huff.

The receptionist went back to her roster and files, but I stopped to study the program. Two Black American anchors talked to each other across a split screen over film footage of memorable moments in sports from 2013. Below crawled snippets of other stories and updates, all sports related. I couldn’t find anything objectionable, but I don’t follow sports so perhaps I missed the point completely.

“This is intolerable!” soon bubbled out of her unbidden, urging the receptionist to offer what the rest of us knew.

“You an still change the channel with the buttons on the side.”

“Really. Then please do,” she commanded.

The receptionist, her face a blank canvas—much to her credit—joined us in the waiting room and took up the chore of pushing the button. The woman, hands on her hips, watched the screen images flicker by.

“Can’t you find a home show? Gardening? How about cable 54?”

“This one only has channels up to 40.”

The receptionist started over at the lower numbers and soon Today appeared, recognizable by the reliable Matt Lauer of Baywatch beauty fame—certainly not hard news—and this mollified the woman. She sighed, “This will do.”

The receptionist hurried back behind her low desk; the lady returned to her seat. She patted her husband’s hand as if she had just secured his final wish and appealed to the room, “Really that morning program on ESPN is intolerable.”

I wanted to say, “Why don’t you move to a different seat away from the television” or “why don’t you read” or “who are you to demand the station serve your needs and no one else’s” or “have you considered that a TV program is trivial” but I said nothing. I just vowed to remember this gal and her self-absorption. She’s really more us than we’d like to believe.

Reading Challenge:

Read a person in a moment that surprises you.

Writing Challenge:

Record your impressions as accurately as possible. Strive for verisimilitude. The draft may never find its way into something you write, but its kernel just might.