Sunday, December 13, 2015

RIP, Darling

"In writing, you must kill your darlings."
--William Faulkner

             I've been working on the final revisions to That Hidden Road, which are due to my publisher by February 1st. This deadline, of course, is not the hard part. The hard part is following Faulkner's sage advice to cut those words, sentences, scenes, and chapters of our writing that we may have great affection for but that don't serve the needs of the story. Thus, I present to you one of my darlings, whose life I snuffed out yesterday. I used a pillow, so there was lots of thrashing around. Also, I wept the entire time. To ease the pain, I've also included some pictures.

"The Gospel According to John from Portland"

Somewhere in the Ozarks I met a biker heading in the opposite direction who told me that if I went through Farmington, Missouri, I had to stop at Al’s Place. The warm rain pelted us as we stood there astride our bikes, so I didn’t get many details about it other than that it was a biker’s hostel. I had forgotten about this conversation until late afternoon several days later, when—racing the rain—I ride into a little town and see painted on the ground the words “Al’s Place TA Trail Inn” along with two white arrows.

These stenciled announcements reappear every couple of blocks, turning me this way and that until I’m near the center of Farmington at the corner of Franklin and Liberty and staring at a two-story limestone and red brick building.

I peer into the windows in front, and all I see is a storeroom stacked with boxes and chairs. In back, though, there’s a black steel staircase leading up to a door. 

I lean Rusty against the stairs and walk up. The door has a keypad lock and a phone number to call, which turns out to be an office at city hall. Once I tell the woman on the other end that I’m a biker, she gives me the code.
Inside is a space that looks like a high-end urban loft. There’s a laundry room, a television area with two big couches, a table and chairs by a full kitchen, a big bathroom, a computer table in back, and several rooms filled with bunkbeds, clean sheets, and towels.

I call “Hello?” but no one responds.
Back downstairs, I detach my two rear panniers, my two front panniers, my rear bag, and my handlebar bag. This doesn’t take nearly as long as it sounds, but carrying them up is a different story. Because of the weight, I make two trips up the stairs and into the first room—the smallest, with only one set of bunk beds. Rusty comes next, hoisted over my shoulder with one hand while I grab the metal railing with the other and negotiate the rain-slick steps.
Once everything is upstairs, I take a closer look around. The bathroom has two showers and two sinks, and like the rest of the place, they’re spotless. Counting up all of the beds in the rooms, I figure that fourteen people can bed down here. More—many more—if some are willing to sleep on the couches or the floors. The computer has internet access, the television has basic cable, and the fridge and cupboards are stocked with pasta, sauce, crackers, drinks, and enough pots, pans, and utensils to cook just about anything.
I take a shower, and by the time I get out, the skies have opened up and the earlier drizzle is now a bona fide downpour. I hear thundercracks, too, and the last place I want to be in an electrical storm is out on the open road with a big hunk of steel between my legs.
On the wall opposite the kitchen is a gigantic frame containing a yellow, red, and blue biking jersey with “Long John Silver’s” emblazoned across the front. Next to this jersey is a sheet of typewritten paper explaining that the “Al” of Al’s Place is Al Dziewa, an avid biker who owned a Long John Silver’s in town. In 2003, just like me, he was diagnosed with cancer, and in 2005, the year I was cancer-free for two years, he died at the age of forty-nine. Some friends on the city council voted to turn this building, a 140-year-old decommissioned county jail, into a biker’s hostel.

             I poke around some more and find a sheet on the wall by the door labeled “Al’s Rules.” The only one that gives me pause reads “ABSOLUTELY no bikes upstairs. Please lock your bikes in the storeroom downstairs with the key provided.” To the right is a key attached to a wooden dowel. I glance into my room, where Rusty is propped up against the back wall.

I look out into the rain and tell myself that I’ll lock Rusty up when the rain lifts. I don’t think Al would mind.
After the rain stops about an hour later, I don’t move Rusty, but I do walk a few blocks to take a look around Farmington and get something to eat. By the time I get back, two more bikers are there. Alan from New Zealand and John from Portland. Both are riding the TransAmerica Trail, but in opposite directions. After the introductions, Alan goes back to checking his email at the computer down the hall and John joins me by the TV area. He looks to be about fifty, and he’s wrist-deep into a quart of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
“My son tells me I need to eat one of these every couple of days and drink a half gallon of juice every night,” he says.
Over the next hour, I get to hear much more about John’s son and his wealth of knowledge about bike touring. I hear all of his son’s tips about nutrition. I hear all about why his son believes that touring with a trailer—as John is doing—is far superior to touring with panniers. Emboldened by his son’s obvious authority in all matters bicycling, John issues some authoritative statements of his own regarding the importance of sticking exactly to the TA Trail as opposed to “cheating” by finding shortcuts. He also asks me no less than three times what my name is. Now I don’t claim to be a memorable guy, but I’ve never had problems with people forgetting my unusual name. I’m convinced that he’s trying to establish some weird kind of dominance in the conversation.
I turn on the television and find ESPN.
“You’re not going to tell me that you miss TV, are you?”
I just look at him.
“God, getting away from all that has been one of the true blessings of touring. My son told me how much I’d appreciate being out on the road, but I had no idea.”
The SportsCenter guys are sitting down with LeBron James, who plans to announce what team he’ll be playing with next year. “You like basketball, John?”
“Do I like basketball?” he says, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling. “Now that’s an interesting question…”
He doesn’t say anything else for a good fifteen seconds. I figure that as long as I keep looking at him expectantly, he’s going to keep quiet, so I turn back to the television.
“Well,” he says. “I used to do some IT work for the Blazers, and let’s just say that I had some insights into the sport.”
Or let’s not, I think. Better yet, why don’t you jam some ice cream into your ear? Or does your son not recommend that?
I gesture at the TV.
“Watch,” I say, “they’ll take what should be a five-second statement and stretch it into an hour.”
“Oh, he won’t say anything,” John announces.
“Yeah, it’s a special show for him to make his statement.”
John laughs, shaking his head. “That’s not how it works. The agents are in charge of this whole deal. The fans just eat it up, no offense.”
Before I have a chance to hit John between the eyes with the remote, Alan comes over and sits between us. The talk shifts back to biking, and Alan is more than happy to ask John all sorts of questions about the road ahead. Ten minutes later, when the wire ticker on the bottom of the screen delivers the news that LeBron James will leave Cleveland for Miami, I’m tempted to jump up and shout “Aha!” but by then I’ve resigned myself to the fact that John is a douchey little peckerwood and I hate him.

A little later the front door opens and a guy in a suit walks in. He introduces himself as Greg Beavers, a member of the Farmington City Council. He’s one of the guys who helped turn the old prison into Al’s Place, and he likes to stop by to meet the bikers and find out where they’re from. Alan, being from New Zealand, makes Greg’s eyes go wide, at which point John quickly points out that he and Alan are actually biking the same distance.
“So, the only thing we ask is that you keep the bikes downstairs,” Greg says. “I saw someone’s chained to the railing…”
“That’s mine,” Alan says.
“We have a storeroom downstairs,” Greg says, looking at us. “Did you guys find that…?”
Rusty is about twenty feet behind us, behind the closed door of my room. It’s pouring again outside.
“Yeah,” I say. “The key was right over by the front door.”
I’m smiling at Greg, but I can feel John’s eyes on me.
“Yes, I locked my bike down there,” John says. “Is there more than one storage room?” he asks Greg.
“No, why?”
“I thought my bike was the only one down there,” John says, turning to me for an explanation. Greg’s eyes follow his. He doesn’t know what this is all about; he’s just politely following the flow of the conversation.
I should just say that I didn’t see the rule until after I brought my bike up and that it was raining and that I plan to take it down as soon as there’s a break in the weather—all reasonable courses of action—but before I can get any of this out I hear myself say, “Nope, I put it down there when I got here.”
John frowns and tilts his head as if he’s analyzing some evidence that doesn’t quite add up. “Hmmm. Wonder why I didn’t see it.”
“I put in the back corner.” I’m committed now and can’t blink.
Greg’s clearly not interested and wants to get going. “Well, listen…if you guys can think of anything else you might need, let us know.”
Greg takes off, Alan heads back to the computer, and I retreat to my room to get away from John.
I leave Al’s Place early the next morning, partly to stay ahead of the rain and partly to avoid having to talk with John again. Unfortunately, he’s eating a bowl of cereal as I walk out of the bathroom. He’s still eating it or maybe another one—as per his son’s recommendation, no doubt—after I get dressed and carry my bags down the stairs. He’s still there when I return and head to my room, and when I come back out with Rusty, he’s standing on the edge of the kitchen, nodding and smiling tightly as he delivers his final judgment.
“I thought so.”

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Good News!

Just a quick update that I'm making in part because I have timely news to share and in part because it's been over a month since my last post.

So, the news. I received word just before Thanksgiving that my memoir, That Hidden Road, was accepted for publication by Apprentice House Press, and the fact of all this is still sinking in. AH is a small press that's affiliated with Loyola University in Maryland, and it's a great fit for two main reasons.

First, in the editors' wish list were "travel stories" and "memoirs of personal discovery." Check and check.

Second, AH has a story that really resonates with me. Here's an excerpt from their website:

Apprentice House is the nation’s first entirely student-managed book publisher. Students at Loyola University Maryland are responsible for every aspect of the publishing process, from acquisitions to design and publication of every book. Our mission is, first and foremost, to educate students about the book publishing process.
As a program within the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, it is driven by student work conducted in four courses: Introduction to Book Publishing, Manuscript Evaluation & Development, Book Design & Production, and Book Marketing & Promotion.
Therefore, students in these courses serve as staff in Apprentice House’s acquisitions, design, and marketing departments, respectively.  After students leave the courses, AH professors and AH student staff sustain the on-going operation of the company and market its frontlist and backlist titles.

Though I spend a fair amount of time writing and like doing it (most of the time), I consider myself a teacher first, and the teaching project of which I'm most proud is my college's literary magazine, Bravura, which is a much, much smaller version of what they do at AH.

So I'm looking forward to working with the students and teachers at this press, and I'm looking forward to seeing That Hidden Road in print, which should happen in or around next fall.

Next up is my deadline is February 1, when I need to turn in the final revised manuscript. So, if you'll excuse me, I've got work to do...

Saturday, October 3, 2015

#AmWriting, #AmReading

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.”

                                                               --Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

This is a different kind of post—one that is much more rooted in my teaching than in random occurrences from my everyday life. For that reason, it might not be for everybody. But, if you’re at all interested in reading, writing, and the connections between the two, then step right in.

Every semester, my creative writing class is packed to the rafters (well, acoustic ceiling tiles) with students eager to become better storytellers. They come for a variety of reasons. Some are there to fulfill a requirement (which it does). Some are there because they think the class sounds fun (which it is). Some are there because they love [INSERT LATEST FANTASY SERIES HERE] and are writing their own fantasy series (which, sadly, I don’t allow in workshop…yes, I know, I’m a monster). And some are there because writing creatively is a part of their lives, they want it to continue to be so, and they’d like to know how to do it better.

To all of these students, I say there’s no real secret to becoming a better writer. Really, you only need to conscientiously and regularly do three things:
  1. Write
  2. Share your work
  3. Read
Let me quickly break down the first two before I get to the third, which is the real subject of this blog post.

Number One. “Write” actually encompasses two things—drafting and revising. Of these, the first is necessary, painful, and usually not very good (“shitty first drafts,” to use Anne Lamott’s priceless phrase). The second—revising—is where it all happens. I like to remind students that “revision” means “to see again”; in other words, they shouldn’t confuse revision with proofreading. The latter is like sprucing up a room with some spackle and paint, while the former is gutting and rebuilding a functionless room with sledgehammer, reciprocating saw, and a dust mask. That spackle and paint will come much, much later.

Number Two. It’s  important for writers to get over the understandably high levels of anxiety that go along with sharing their writing. Even more important is that they share that work with the right kind of readers—readers who are smart, honest, and aware of the aforementioned difference between proofreading and revision. Such readers are more rare and valuable than a Dodo bird that shits gold, so if you’re lucky enough to find any, hang onto them with both hands, both feet, and a prehensile tail if you’ve got one.

Number Three. As the most prolific and successful writer this or any planet has ever known says (see my cold opening), reading is vital. Yet there’s a little more to it than that. Someone could be an avid reader and still not be able to write a compelling opening paragraph, let alone the rest of the story that needs to follow it. Reading is important, but more important is rereading (every bit as important as rewriting) and how we read.

Settle in, because this may take a while.

Let’s start by considering the opening paragraph of  one of my very favorite short stories—Tobias Wolff’s “The Chain”:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked. A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter. He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming. Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope. Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her. He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees. He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll. Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there” (199).*

In our first read of this, we probably READ LIKE A FAN

Well, maybe “fan” isn’t the best word. The point is that when we read in this mode, we read to be entertained, to consume. Most often, that thing we consume is the plot because a) we expect things to happen and b) we like to know what those things are. If a piece of writing is compelling, we don’t always notice or appreciate what makes it compelling; instead, we let ourselves be carried away, having gladly accepted the writer’s invitation into what John Gardner refers to as the “fictive dream.” There’s nothing wrong with this kind of reading; in fact, it’s this exact kind of reading that makes us love reading. And, perhaps, want to be writers.

In a first rereading of this paragraph (and with the benefit of having read the rest of the story), we might start to READ LIKE AN ENGLISH MAJOR

I use this term a little facetiously, but what I’m getting at is that when we read like this, we read beyond the page. We find deeper meanings and patterns and connections. Since this is a rereading, we now know that “The Chain” can be seen as a tragic tale of seemingly justifiable revenge gone awry, and as we look back at the story’s opening, we notice a few things. First, of course, is that chain. In the story’s opening paragraph, it’s a literal object, but upon further examination we can now appreciate it as metaphor (or symbol—a word I loathe but seem unable to escape). It’s not just a metal chain, it’s the chain of events that poor Gold will set in motion and watch spin out of control. It’s also a symbol (damn it!) of restraint, and its inability to restrain the dog in this opening will be echoed later by Gold’s inability to restrain himself. The wolf, too, can be seen as something larger. Our base animal aggression, maybe? Finally, there’s the business about Gold’s daughter’s coat. In the ensuing story, Gold’s pursuit of what he feels is right leads to trouble, and this drama is foreshadowed and encapsulated neatly in the detail of the coat. He does something to protect her (“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts”), but now that “protection” renders her deaf to her father’s insistent shouts and blind to the dog’s imminent attack. Later, in doing what he thinks is right, Gold will open the door to all kinds of wrong.

But it’s the third way of reading that I’m most interested in, and that way is to READ LIKE A WRITER.

I tell my students to imagine a beautiful watch. Some people might use this watch only to tell time. Some people might also admire its shape and fine lines. Still others—some few others, I would say—want to take that watch apart and see how it works. That’s reading like a writer.

Let’s take the first line of the story:

“Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked.”

It’s a sharp, concise line that's elegantly symmetrical as well--eleven one-syllable words bracketed by two two-syllable words. The line also packs a punch, to be sure, but what’s most intriguing from a writer’s perspective is how Wolff packs that punch and how much he accomplishes in such a small space. The first words establish character and point of view, the next few words establish a setting, and the final words introduce conflict.

About conflict, writer and teacher Janet Burroway says it best: “In literature, only trouble is interesting.” It’s an obvious lesson, but like most obvious lessons, it’s easy to forget. Too often, early drafts of stories wade through pages and pages before the writer even suggests that there’s trouble afoot. If there’s no trouble, nothing’s happening, and if nothing’s happening, few readers are going to stick around to watch the paint dry. Writers must promise conflict, and they must promise it early. Like first or second sentence early.

By the end of Wolff’s first sentence, we know there’s going to be trouble. Moreover, those details of character, setting, and conflict that he introduces are broad enough to give himself room to subsequently answer the questions that the reader inevitably asks—What’s the hill like? What kind of dog? Who’s being attacked? Finally, there’s the overall momentum of this first line; because Wolff drops the “weight” at the end—“the dog attacked”—the reader is compelled to read on:

“A big  black wolflike animal attached to a chain, it came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park, moving easily in spite of the deep snow, making for Gold’s daughter.”

Here we have a longer sentence that begins where the first one ends, developing “dog” into “big black wolflike animal” and “attacked” into “came flying off a back porch and tore through its yard into the park.” We get an added bit of setting—the “deep snow” tells us it’s winter—and the conflict is delivered (and intensified) again as a weighty surprise at the end of the sentence, where Wolff reveals what’s at stake: “Gold’s daughter.” More of that momentum. Now we really want to keep going.

“He waited for the chain to pull the dog up short; the dog kept coming.”

Yes, we were wondering about that “attached to a chain,” which Wolff buries in the second sentence but focuses on now in the third. He returns to a short, clipped sentence to develop a staccato rhythm. Also, as with the previous two sentences, this one ends in a familiar place. Consider the pattern:

End of sentence one: “…the dog attacked.”
End of sentence two: “…making for Gold’s daughter.”
End of sentence three: “…the dog kept coming.”

With this repetition, Wolff keeps us focused on the image of a dog charging toward a helpless little girl.

Having firmly established that, Wolff now shifts his focus, moving Gold into action with a few details that further develop the space in which the action is unfolding:

“Gold plunged down the hill, shouting as he went. Snow and wind deadened his voice. Anna’s sled was almost at the bottom of the slope.”

Three short sentences. Direct and to the point. Also, Wolff moves us away from the dog; there are, after all, two other characters in this scene. Yet he chooses his words carefully so as to continue the tone of dread and danger initiated by the (for the moment) absent dog: “plunged,” “shouting,” “deadened,” and “bottom.”

The next sentence reads,

“Gold had raised the hood of her parka against the needling gusts, and he knew she couldn’t hear him or see the dog racing toward her.”

Here, Wolff delivers a brief bit of backstory that ups the ante of the situation—his daughter can’t hear him as danger closes in. Wolff continues to intensify the initial conflict with this detail, and also by returning to the dog, who once again appears at the end of the sentence.

Then, this:

“He was conscious of the dog’s speed and of his own dreamy progress, the weight of his gum boots, the clinging trap of crust beneath the new snow. His overcoat flapped at his knees.”

There’s a fluid transition from “dog racing” at the end of the previous sentence to “dog’s speed” near the beginning of the first one here. But by and large, the focus is on Gold. Specifically, as a counterpoint to the dog. Wolff does this overtly at the beginning, where “the dog’s speed” is set against “his own dreamy progress.”

Also, he focuses on details that at once reinforce the snowy setting and concretize Gold’s slowness: “weight of his gum boots,” “clinging trap of crust,” and “overcoat flapped.” These details represent a true economy of language as they serve more than one purpose (something writers should strive for in their revisions).

Finally, by shifting the focus to Gold temporarily, Wolff leaves us worrying about how close that dog is getting to his daughter.

Creative writing teachers like myself will often draw something on the board that looks like this:

We use this image to represent the classic structure of narrative: rising tension/development of conflict (the upward slope), a climax/crisis point (the peak), and the denouement/falling action (the short dropoff). Wolff, in this opening paragraph, delivers a miniature version of this structure—a smaller story within the larger one—and his next few lines reside squarely atop the point:

“He screamed one last time as the dog made its lunge, and at that moment Anna flinched away and the dog caught her shoulder instead of her face. Gold was barely halfway down the hill, arms pumping, feet sliding in the boots. He seemed to be running in place, held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance as the dog dragged Anna backward off the sled, shaking her like a doll.”

A few things to notice here. From the beginning of this paragraph, Wolff has carefully choreographed his three characters—father, daughter, dog—and in the first sentence here all three converge in a fairly breathless fashion; it’s a long sentence (a compound-complex sentence for all you grammar nerds) that unfolds across a series of actions: Gold screams, the dog lunges, Anna flinches, and the dog catches her. Then, Wolff leaves us momentarily wondering what the dog is doing with Anna by focusing again on concrete details of slowness (“barely halfway down the hill” and “feet sliding”). In fact, Wolff stretches the scene out to an excruciating degree by continuing these kinds of details (“running in place,” “held at a fixed, unbridgeable distance”) at the beginning of the final sentence before returning to the attack and  delivering the action we’ve been dreading (shaking her like a doll”).

Finally, like Gold, we arrive at the end:

“Gold threw himself down the hill helplessly, then the distance vanished and he was there.”

Note how his arrival is anti-climactic, rendered so because Wolff uses the accursed passive voice (“he was there”). Consider the difference, for example, if he had ended the sentence with “…the distance vanished and he pounced on the animal.” This crisis isn't yet over, and just as one sentence of Wolff’s urges us to read on, so too does he design paragraphs that push us into the next one.

Action doesn’t just write itself; it needs to be carefully constructed and developed by an attentive writer with his or her finger on the pulse of the story. But something else, something even more subtle, is going on here. By starting at this particular moment, Wolff patches the reader into his main character’s perspective at a moment of crisis so that Gold’s fears and feelings of helplessness become ours as well. This identification and sympathy is absolutely crucial to the rest of the story because it prevents us from judging Gold’s later actions too harshly. The readers are, in fact, the only ones who can truly sympathize; as Wolff writes about the aftermath of the attack, “[Gold] had been alone in his anger for a week now and wanted some company. Though his wife claimed to be angry too, she hadn’t seen what he had seen” (201). But we have seen what Gold has seen. And we have felt it, too. Wolff’s skillful writing makes sure of this.

Obviously, reading like a writer can be a bit tedious if we subject a story’s every sentence to the microscope, and I offer this close reading merely as an example and model for a general principle—that there is much to be learned by looking at craft and much that we often miss. If you want to become a better writer, then you should develop the skill of reading from a writer’s perspective. If you find yourself caring for a particular character, go back and see if you can figure out how the writer made you care. If you find yourself thinking about a scene or conversation in a book, go back and examine how the writer choreographed that scene or phrased and presented the dialogue. Every good story is filled with lessons about how good stories are told, and for the writers among us, these are treasures well worth unearthing.

*All quotes taken from Wolff, Tobias. “The Chain.” Our Story Begins. New York: Vintage, 2009. 199-213.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Patience Is a Virtue or Something

            I can’t remember the exact story I was telling Shannon way back when, but I do remember that the events I was relating required me to pause and announce what I see as one of my central virtues.
            “Look,” I began, “I’m a patient gu—”
            “No you’re not,” Shannon said, and proceeded to laugh.
            A minute and a half later, when she showed no signs of stopping, I finally had to interrupt.
            “I’m not patient is what you’re saying?”
            “Sweetie,” she said, “you’re many things, but ‘patient’ isn’t one of them.”

            I had filed this little conversation away but had cause to remember it a few weeks ago, when I was running late for a meeting at school yet nevertheless stopped at a nearby Starbucks. As I reached the door, a couple of young girls no older than fourteen were coming from the other direction, so I opened the door for them and gestured them ahead. They giggled out a “thank you” and skittered toward the line. I went inside and fell in behind them.
            Which is when I realized my mistake.
            I assume that everyone orders as quickly as I do at Starbucks—a grande of whichever of the three roasts looks best, a little room for cream. My average time to complete the transaction is around 17.5 seconds, and I was counting on this rapidity if I was going to make my meeting.
            The girls, however, were operating on a different clock. The two of them stood and pointed and debated what they should get. Then they asked several questions of the cashier and then conferred with each other again.
            Oh c’mon, I thought, regretting my gesture of opening the door for them.
            Behind me in line was a mother and her two children, and I sighed loudly in attempt to get her attention so that I could throw her a “high school girls, amiright?” eye roll, but she was studying the menu on the wall herself. I shifted my feet and blew air through my lips in an effort to hurry the girls along in their deliberations. When they finally ordered, I saw one of the girls lean and say something to the cashier, who couldn’t hear what she was saying.
            Ohfershitsake…let’s GO already…
            The girl called the cashier closer, cupped her hand to the cashier’s ear, and whispered something. Then she handed the cashier her phone so that she could scan her Starbucks app, which is I guess how the kids pay for coffee these days.
            The girls moved on, and I made a somewhat douchey display of finally reaching the counter, but I suspect that I was the only one attuned to my subtle physical actions.
            I ordered my coffee and reached for my wallet, but the cashier told me that the two girls had already paid for me.

            I wish I could report that this little incident miraculously transformed my default mode from “MOVE, GodDAMmit!” to “Oh no, please, after you,” but in truth, the changeover has been gradual.
            I am trying, though.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

My Hero, Teddy N.

A few months ago, Shannon and I were watching an episode of The Mindy Project (shut up—it’s good!), and there was a scene where one of the characters was sitting in his boyhood room at his mom’s house. Just over his left shoulder, in the background, I saw a green blob.
            “Oh my God,” I said, scrambling for the remote. “Is that what I think it is?”
            “Wuzzat?” Shannon said, waking up.
            I paused the DVR, backed it up a hair, hit PLAY, paused again—and then repeated this process four or five times until I was able to freeze the half-second that the green blob was onscreen. It looked something like this:

By now, Shannon was fully awake.
            “What the hell are you doing?”
            “Nothing. Oh my God. Go back to sleep. Holy shit. Do you know what that is?”
            “What what is?”
            I got up and pointed to the green blob on the screen. “I think it’s one of those wax alligators.”
            Sadly, I lack the words to describe the look on her face.
            For the record, this is what I saw through the blur:

For many people who grew up in the Chicagoland area, there should be a flash of recognition. Especially if they, like me, were treated to any family or school field trips to the nearby Brookfield Zoo. I loved the real animals, of course, but what I looked forward to most were the wax ones. Stationed at the entrances and exits of the various animal houses were Mold-a-Rama machines—bubble-topped contraptions about the size of a hefty jukebox, where, for fifty cents, you could partake in injection-mold magic. After receiving your quarters, the machine rumbled into action. Two long pistons—each holding half of a metal block (the mold) with hoses sprouting off the top—pushed slowly together. Hums and clicks and hisses sounded as fluids and air were pumped into and out of that mold. A light on top of the machine changed colors to signal the different stages of manufacture. Then, a little over a minute later, the mold halves separated, and there stood the red giraffe or black panther or green alligator. A little blade on a long, thin arm would slide from the back of the machine and knock the animal off the sloped metal surface, sending it tumbling into the chute at the front of the machine. You then opened the little door in front, scooped it out, and—holding it by the base—waved it gently for a minute or so until it cooled completely. I learned this last step the hard way when I grabbed a rhino with too much enthusiasm and put my thumb through his chest.
            You can watch the process HERE, but it’s missing two key features of the experience: the smell of melting crayons, and the sheer joy of retrieving your prize.
            I write this description in the past tense, but that’s not completely accurate. We live in a wonderful time where the collected wisdom and knowledge of the ages exist—quite literally—at our fingertips, so for the twenty minutes following my alligator sighting, I kept Mindy on pause while I Googled away and discovered several things, but for the sake of brevity I’ll stick to the highlights:

  1. Mold-a-Rama machines are still around
  2. They now cost $2
  3. The animals aren’t wax; they’re plastic
  4. I’m not the only one obsessed with this stuff

           In fact, if you type “moldarama animals” into Google Images, you get a pretty good look at the animals that come out of the machines and those machines themselves. Really, you should do that right now. I’ll wait.

            Pretty cool, right? Just in case you impatiently charged ahead in this post, here’s some of what you missed:

            What the images don’t tell is the larger story, which also exists on the internet HERE, HERE, and HERE (to list just a few).  And because it’s very likely that you’re one of those readers who won’t pause to Google mid-read, I’ll summarize.
            Mold-a-Rama was founded in the early 1960s in Chicago (and debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair), and today it’s owned by a family business that’s run out of a house in Brookfield, Illinois. The owner—Bill Jones—and his two sons—Bill Jr. and Paul—are charged with maintaining these machines, the most-recently built of which dates back to 1964. It’s their dedication that keeps this little piece of the past alive.
            After I delivered this last news to Shannon, she paused before she spoke.
            “Can we please watch the rest of the show now?”

            My obsession might have ended there, but a couple of weeks later I happened to be visiting Chicago and I found myself killing time in the suburb of Downers Grove, where I grew up. I wandered into the library and was greeted by the sight of glass display cases where local kids had put their collections on display. There was a toy car collection, a Pez dispenser collection, a doll collection, and then this one, belonging to a “Teddy N”:

I don’t have any Mold-a-Rama animals any more, but even at its height, my collection would have paled in comparison to his. In mine, animals were always in some state of injury—the panther's tail missing, the gorilla’s hand snapped off, the elephant’s base cracked. And it wasn’t nearly as comprehensive; I’m embarrassed to say that I had no vehicles and not even a single dinosaur (somehow, I was in my twenties before I ever visited the Field Museum). And I certainly didn’t have (but would have fiercely coveted) this boss Komodo Dragon:

I don’t know anything about Teddy N. other than his name (though, based on his writing, I can ballpark his age), but I have a feeling that we would be great friends, he and I.
            Needless to say, I immediately texted pictures of Teddy N.’s collection to Shannon with the words “SEE?!!” I felt vindicated.
            Alas, the feeling was short-lived. She texted back a blunt, withering question: “Why can’t you be interested in normal things?”
            She’s referring, of course, to my obsession with “junk” (her word, not mine) from the past—comic books, record albums, sports cards, monster/superhero models. In what has become an ongoing haranguing conversation, she suggests that I just get rid of the stuff.
             At these moments, I could use a friend like Teddy N. But I have to do without him and explain that these things aren’t junk; they’re valuable artifacts of the past. My past. Because, really, so much of my past—like anyone’s—is either going or already gone. Those collections are a way to hold on to something. That’s why I’ve bought back issues of some of the comics I had as a kid (but that my mom threw out)—especially old issues of The Incredible Hulk, and why I’ve bought and builtmodels I had as a kid, and why Shannon has caught me more than once spending the better part of an afternoon watching 1970s TV themes on Youtube.
            I don’t imagine that Teddy N. is reading this, but if he is, I hope that he listens to what I have to tell him. Keep that collection safe. As you grow up, move it from place to place with you, and don’t ever rent an apartment or buy a house without making sure that there’s room for it somewhere. If it’s important enough to you now to let the good folks at the Downers Grove Public Library put it on display, then it’s going to be important to you later on. Trust me on this.
            But something tells me that Teddy N. is the kind of kid that knows this already.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Putting the Comics into Comic-Con

            Unless you’re one of the 130,000 or so people who annually attend it, San Diego’s Comic-Con has probably been packaged to you in the media (assuming that you’re even interested in such things) as a four-day bacchanal of superhero movies, television shows, and cosplayers.
            And to some extent, it is. I’ve been going to Comic-Con for the last eighteen years (a number dwarfed by many Con-goers, I assure you), and in that time I’ve seen the attendance triple and the convention center undergo a major expansion—none of which was due to a growing interest in comics, per se. It’s been due to the increasing number of movie and television stars, studios, and fans in attendance. Two of the biggest draws this year were for movies that won’t open until 2016 (and if you’re waiting for a plug for them, then this probably isn’t the blog post for you).
            While outsiders get a pretty one-dimensional view of Comic-Con, the truth is that the convention is many things to many people (if you’re interested in the range of the “Comic-Con experience”—and the Con’s shift in focus over the years—then you should check out Morgan Spurlock’s 2011 documentary, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope). To me, Comic-Con is about the comics, though I'll admit that I appreciate a good star-sighting and take copious pictures of the cosplayers. Many people—including insiders—have been sounding the death knell for comics at the Con, but I still saw plenty to command interest. So here’s a rundown of some titles that more people should be reading—titles that scored either awards or panels (or both) at this year’s Comic-Con:

Let’s get the biggies—DC and Marvel—out of the way. First up is Green Arrow. Or, more accurately, Green Arrow #41, which starts a (hopefully long) run by one of my favorite writers, Benjamin Percy.  Known primarily as a novelist (Red Moon, The Deadlands), Percy is bringing his unique sensibility (read: sophisticated horror) to one of DC’s canonical titles. Only two issues into his run, Percy and artist Patrick Zircher have already established a dark, chilling tone to the world of Oliver Queen.

On the Marvel side, I recommend one of the most exciting books out right now, Ms. Marvel. In this iteration, the titular hero’s secret identity is Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American teenager living in New Jersey (and who happens to be the first Muslim character to command her own title). Writer G. Willow Wilson and (usual) artist Adrian Alphona have created a smart and engaging character here, and they’re using the title to explore not only the complexities of being a teenager, but also the complexities of identity in all its forms, including religious. Two quick asides. First, images of Ms. Marvel were used to protestanti-Muslim ads on San Francisco buses. Second, this cutie:
She was the darling of a couple of panels I attended at Comic-Con, including the packed house at “The Women of Marvel.”

While we’re on the subject of women in comics, there’s Image Comics’ Bitch Planet. Written by Kelly SueDeConnick and drawn by Valentine DeLandro, this comic is an in-your-face feminist reclamation of the “women in prison” genre, and it gets better with each issue. As an added bonus, DeConnick and DeLandro have a lot of fun with the ads and columns at the end of each book. Definitely a title to watch.

Also from Image—which has firmly established itself as the most interesting of the mainstream publishers—is Saga, from writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Fiona Staples. I’m not a huge sci-fi/fantasy guy, but this story of on-the-run star-crossed lovers from warring planets (as narrated by their baby) succeeds at hooking both the gut and the brain. I’m sure that somewhere there are adaptation talks going on, and I’m sure that the result will be yet another example of awful CGI bombast. Saga has also won the Eisner for “Best Ongoing Series” three years running.

From Fantagraphics this year is the two-volume edition of Dan Clowes’s Eightball. While the book carries a hefty price tag, it’s worth every penny (if you can afford it). These hardbacks come packaged in a slipcase, and they reprint issues one through eighteen of the legendary comic—which, not incidentally, was one of the titles I discovered in graduate school that hooked me on the amazing possibilities of the medium. Clowes is a true master of comics, and this collection of his early work is not to be missed. Also check out David Boring, Ice Haven, and The Death-Ray, which appeared in the pages of Eightball but are not (as Clowes points out in his introductory notes) included in this set.

These last two (okay, three) graphic novels are ones that I haven’t yet read but plan to shortly. The first is Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, a coming-of-age storythat has received both critical acclaim and some undeserved notoriety. I had heard about its excellence before Comic-Con, but it wasn’t until I attended a panel on banned comics put on by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBDLF) did I find out that This One Summer has been the target of censorship.

On Saturday morning I attended one of the most stirring panels I’ve ever seen at Comic-Con. The focus was TopShelf’s March trilogy, written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. The books (volumes one and two are currently available; book three comes out next year) cover the life of Lewis and his struggles for civil and human rights. At the panel, Lewis spoke passionately about the importance of nonviolent revolution as a way to combat our society’s inequalities and injustices—a lesson he learned directly from Martin Luther King, Jr. As he spoke of his hope for the younger generation to carry this message forward, I couldn’t help but think of my two sons, both of whom are much more engaged in the issues of the day than I was at their age. At the conclusion of the panel (which was packed), Congressman Lewis asked everyone to walk with him down to the exhibition hall floor, where he and Aydin and Powell signed copies of their book. Here are a few shots:


            The last thing I want to mention is that many see Comic-Con as a haven for fanboys and fangirls, but there’s actually a thriving academic presence there as well. Aside from the many sessions aimed at (and created by) teachers and librarians, the Comic Arts Conference has been integrated with the programming at Comic-Con for over twenty years and is a place where comics scholars share their work 
with other academics and fans alike. One frequent presenter at the Comic Arts Conference (and friend of mine) is Dr. Charles Hatfield, author of Hand of Fire and professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). At Sunday morning’s annual “Tribute to Jack Kirby” panel, Charles announced that he’ll be curating “Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby,” anexhibit of 100 original pieces by Jack Kirby that will appear at the CSUN artgallery from August 24th to October 10th. If you’re anywhere in the Los Angeles area, you should check it out.

            So that’s it from this year’s Comic-Con. The city of San Diego recently completed a deal to keep the convention at least through 2018 (at the likely expense of the Chargers, no less). I don’t know what the future holds, but if the comics rewards are as rich as they were this year, I’ll continue to set aside whatever five summer days this particular circus comes to town.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Do You Have the Time?

            “Jesus Christ, why are we so early?!!”
            I can’t remember where Shannon and I were going during this particular outburst, but it hardly matters. What I am sure of is that we were in my car, because at some point in all of the trips we take in my car, I hear some version of the above.
            “It’s my clock,” I say. “Remember?”
            “Oh yeah. Why haven’t you fixed that yet?”
            What I haven’t fixed yet is the time. For the uninitiated who don’t have a personal time-telling device, traveling in my car can be disorienting. A little work is required.
But it’s really pretty simple. Currently, if you want to know what time it is in my car, you just add one hour and then subtract four to seven minutes. In the fall, when Daylight Savings Time begins (or is it when Daylight Savings Time ends? I can never keep that straight), you just subtract four to seven minutes. Actually, by then, it might be more like five to eight minutes. Or six to nine.
            Part of the problem is that my clock is on my car stereo, and there is nothing intuitive about changing the settings. So why not check the manual? you might reasonably ask. Well, I bought the car used, and the stereo was an after-market addition by the previous owner, so there’s nothing in the manual about it. I figured this out the first time Daylight Savings Time began (or ended).
But I’m nothing if not resourceful. I found my car stereo’s manual online and printed the “Setting the Clock” pages, which are now nestled securely in my glove compartment. And, for a while, I would dutifully haul them out whenever Daylight Savings Time began (or ended) or when the clock’s naturally hurried pace reached the five or six minutes-ahead-of-the-generally-accepted-time.
But then I stopped.
            My kids were the first to notice. As befitting their respective personalities, my younger son, Tony, was okay with it. For my older son, Nick, it’s been another story.
            Here’s a quick and relevant story about Nick: one morning I watched him eat breakfast. It was pretty basic—a bowl of Oat Squares in milk. Before he dug in, he went through a whole little process where he tamped down the cereal with his spoon so that everything was as level as possible and the milk-to-cereal surface tension was uniform across the bowl. He started at the edges of the bowl, worked his way to the center, and then gave an adjustment tap or two in a few stubborn spots. It took nearly a full minute.
            “What. Are. You. Doing?”
            He looked up as if I’d caught him with unmatched socks.
            “Nothing,” he said. Tap tap tap. “Prepping my cereal.”
            Needless to say, my imprecise clock is particularly vexing to him (I should also mention here, as long as I’m in full “parental embarrassment” mode, that he sleeps with his watch on). He’s offered to fix it, to bring my clock into tight and proper alignment with the scientific community’s best calculations of the earth’s rotation, but I won’t let him. It’s important to me that clock stays a little out of alignment. It’s a reminder.
My clock reminds me that I’m not in control. I can plan and organize and work to figure every angle—all skills I have in abundance—but in the end, things can still go sideways. I’m not in control, and I don’t ever want to live in the illusion that I am. There are many examples of this, but I keep coming back to the obvious: ever since the early 1990s, I have been exercising regularly and eating relatively well, and guess what? I still got cancer.
            That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped exercising or watching what I eat. Both things make me feel good, and I like feeling good. But I don’t fool myself into believing that they’re guarantees of anything. The truth is, we may know what time it is, but all of us run on a secret clock whose time is hidden, even from us.
            “But Rocco,” you might say, “isn’t your little metaphor flawed? After all, you’re the one keeping the car clock the way it is. You really are in control, but you’re choosing not to exercise your power.”

            Um, hey, here’s an idea—shut up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Some Good News

I’ve been on a brief hiatus. Last fall I took over as department chair, and I’ve been busy figuring out my new duties, at least one of which is to figure out how to sleep during meetings without calling attention to myself (hint—it’s easy; that’s what everyone is doing).

Anyway, I’ll be back with more posts soon, but I wanted to get something quick out to share the good news—my book, That Hidden Road, just won the San Diego Book Award in the “Unpublished Memoir” category. I was selected as a finalist earlier in the spring, but I didn’t want to say anything until they selected the winners (a complete list of which can be found here).

Parts of That Hidden Road have appeared on this blog, and I’ve been fortunate to publish a couple of stand-alone chapters (in slightly different form) in the journals Midwestern Gothic and the Georgetown Review. My job now is to get the whole thing published. There have been some close calls (stories in themselves), but no go. Maybe now luck is on my side…