8.31.2010

Agent-de-change by Stanley Rowen: In Remembrance of Terri Brint Joseph



I met Terri in Paris in 1987, probably at a book or poetry reading at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore there. After the reading, most of us, French and Americans, went to a cafe. Terri and I became instant friends, in the easy way of two expatriate Americans in a non-English speaking country. I was the head of the new stock options trading & sales operation at the second largest French broker, directing a team of a dozen French nationals. I think that until then, Terri had been used to a somewhat American milieu, and she gradually became more and more immersed in Parisian life, helped by her French language skills. She spent a fair amount of time with me, and also together with my French girlfriend, with whom I would eventually marry.

Terri was always charming, brilliant, interesting, coherent, and insightful. I remember that we took a day trip together out to Versailles, and we had with us a scholarly write-up on the statuary there, which we read as we examined the statues outdoors. I didn't know much at the time about her published works; she was very modest about her accomplishments. She was very stressed about her divorce proceedings and I tried to reassure her; in turn, she urged me to "think abundance," instead of getting anxious about my job situation. Mostly we both just tried to enjoy Paris despite our problems. We used to meet regularly at my brokerage house to exchange her dollars for my francs, at a rate midway between the interbank bid and offer, doing us both a favor since I needed the dollars for U.S. expenses and she needed the francs for rent and living expenses. She'd joke that I was an "agent of change" since I worked for an "Agent-de-change" (French for stockbroker). Terri had a notion that I would humanize the profession, and that the problems I was having there were a small price to pay to be an agent of change.

I wish I had stayed in touch with her after Paris. It is now too late, as I only looked her up this Summer after discovering two poems that she wrote in Paris that year, wonderful poems, amongst my papers. Her death is most unfortunate, as she was a lovely, unforgettable person.

Stanley Rowen, August 2010

--------------------------

For more of Terri, see my page: Tribute: Terri Brint Joseph

8.26.2010

"Walking: Beirut and Paris, 1974 - 1987" by Terri Brint Joseph



1974

I had taken this walk so often
I knew every paving stone by heart:
Straight down rue Mahatma Gandi,
Past the Grand Mosque where
Shy students chanted the Koran,
And then Mustafa at Sidani suk
Who'd smile and say, "Good morning
Marhaba."

I was always glad to reach
The little Turkish palace
Amid the new apartment buildings
And loved for being different
The palace's three arched windows
And orange tree in the garden.

I would pause at the corner
of Bliss Street,
Turning away from the university
For my first glimpse of the sea,
And to the east: Blue mountains
ridged with snow.

It was so familiar
I had almost become inured
To the sight of the lighthouse
Rising sharply from cliffs
And the sea spread suddenly
Around me on three sides.

But this time,
Beside you,
Crossing the Corniche,
I saw it as if for the first time,
Startled by its beauty.

A few yards into the sea,
We discovered a curious grotto,
half-filled with restless water.
As you watched, silent,
I sat on its mossy ledge
And seemed to breathe the sea itself
As it crashed about us.

You spoke at last,
But your words were caught by the wind
And I by a fresh vision of your face.

Your skin seemed textured as the cliffs
Which rose above you:
Your eyes took on a greenish cast
Straight from the sea.

I was mostly silent
(10,000 words between us;
And what had they accomplished?
We love — or we persisted —
In spite of what we'd said).

But I did say as we rose to go
That though I'd taken this walk before,
in many weathers,
in many moods,
Until today, I had lacked a companion.
You smiled, but as usual,
Did not address my loneliness.

And — how sad for both of us
That I must write this line —
You never again
Accompanied me on this walk,
And I did not know how to ask.

1987

Now, more than a decade later,
Beirut lies in shambles,
The Corniche one of her worst battle zones,
And we?

After our own civil war,
We are expensively divorced,
And following separate paths.
Each of us end up sojourning
In Paris, where we bumped into
each other
On your forty-ninth birthday,
In the eglise St. Germain-de-Prés.
Although I declined to give you
my address,
I trust we will heal
More quickly than torn Beirut.

..............................

For more of Terri, see my page: Tribute: Terri Brint Joseph

Rock-Climbing by Terri Brint Joseph



Newly separated, my divorce pending,
I finished class at Ballet Elganova,
Entered Adventures Unlimited,
And signed up for a course
in rock climbing.

Still not quite sure what it was
When I went on my first climb
on Mount Rubosa,
I almost died of fright when I saw
What I'd agreed to do:
"I'm not a human fly,"
I objected;
"You must be crazy!
Do you think I'm Spider Woman?"



But Dan McCook,
My young teacher/guide,
Assured me
That ballarinas were "natural climbers,"
As he eyed my thigh muscles and pink shorts.

I left a lot of blood
On my first mountain,
But only because Dan forgot to tell me
To kick off the mountain face
When I slipped and had to hang by the ropes.

Later, as I learned to find finger and toe holds
On a surface slick as glass,
I panicked when I looked through
A crevice I had to leap
And saw how high I'd inched my way
up the smooth face.
"Imagine you're in a ballet class,"
Dan whispered.
"Don't look down;
Look within:
Find the mirror
across from the barre,
pretend you're en point,
and remember a dancer's balance
even in the dark."

That's all it took--
Forgetting my bleeding knees,
I scaled the face as easily
As I would do a pirouette,
Lept the crevice with a grande jeté,
And frightened my guide
by almost flying
to the peak.

"Be careful," Dan grumbled,
But his eyes were proud
Because when I'd panicked,
He'd known what to say,
What image to give me for strength,
Yes, by reminding me of who I was
And what I'd learned to do
in ballet studios
as hard to face as
this mountain of glass,
He'd cut through my mindless fear
To give me back myself
So I could climb
Like the sure-footed Amazon
he saw in me
With the beauty, grace, uncanny balance
Of a prima ballerina assoluta;

And we both forgot in
The heat and peril of Rubosa
That, although I was a beginner,
I was forty-five years old
And had retrained myself to dance
Only when I hit forty,
And that my divorce still wasn't final
And never would be
For the two of us.

But Daniel's poem is yet to come;
This is instead a poem
For a woman with strong thighs
below pink shorts
Who clung to a glass mountain
by her fingernails
And forgot her bloody knees
When she reached the summit
And stood in a shaft of golden light,
Free of habitual fears.

.....................................

For more of Terri, see my page: Tribute: Terri Brint Joseph

Some Opening Words on the Late Great Terri Brint Joseph

Earlier this month I posted My Own Stab at Less Than Zero Many Moons Ago, and in the preface, mentioned Terri Brint Joseph, who was an internationally known poet, academic, and expert on The Cantos of Ezra Pound. She was also (lucky me!) my adviser at what was then Chapman College (now it's Chapman University).

A few weeks after my post, Stan Rowen, stranger to me (but not to Terri Brint Joseph) was kind enough to leave a comment (see the comments to "My Own Stab at Less Than Zero..."). Since leaving his first comment, we've corresponded several times, relaying our memories of Terri. He knew her when she was in Paris, circa '87-'88, just after her divorce, while I didn't become acquainted with her until the Spring semester at Chapman, 1989.

Stan had found a couple of Terri's poems while going through some papers of his, and then went online to look his old dear friend up, and found my blog. I'm sorry that he learned of her death reading my post, but I'm thrilled that he found it, and that together we could share our fond memories with each other regarding this brilliant and always buoyant adviser, scholar, poet, writer, friend.

Stan scanned and sent me the two poems of Terri that he'd found. I'm very grateful, and will be posting them here momentarily. Unfortunately, while I read several of her published poems she'd pass out to us on occasion in one of her fabulous creative writing classes, in my youthful folly -- my ignorance that greatness was staring me in the face, Terri Brint Joseph -- I failed to keep her poetry in a safe spot. Thanks be to you, Mr. Stan Rowen, for taking better care of Terri's poetry than me, and taking the trouble to scan and send it.

But enough said. Terri Brint Joseph can speak for herself. Her poems, the two I have, are up next. My tribute page to Terri is right here ... a work in progress ...

8.22.2010

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien



Tim O'Brien, the young man, prior to becoming Tim O'Brien, the most searingly honest writer this reader has ever read, was in an intense crisis having just received his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

June 17, 1968.
book cover by DUSTIN COHEN
His inner conflict is documented (a story he'd told no one, not even his wife, until publishing it) in "On the Rainy River," one of the interconnected tales of The Things They Carried. A month later (July, 1968) as his date of departure for Vietnam neared, he thought seriously about Canada. In too much turmoil to talk about it with his family or friends, he fled toward the border. To northern Minnesota, where he landed at the Tip Top Lodge on the edge of a lake, the opposite shore of which, lie Canada, freedom from Vietnam. He spent six days and seven nights there with the inn keeper, a wise, quiet, compassionate man named Elroy Berdahl, eighty-one, who intuitively knew it seems like, without being told explicitly, what was going on with Tim --the war raging inside him over whether or not to heed the draft notice and participate in a war he considered "unjust".

What Tim's decision to go or not boiled down to, and what made Tim O'Brien call himself a coward for the decision he ultimately made, is that he feared the opinion of people --his family and friends-- what they'd think of him running away to Canada, more than obeying the dictates of his own principles and conscience urging, pleading with him not to go. For going to Vietnam, O'Brien essentially self-embroidered the yellow letter "C" upon his character, and called himself a "Coward".

But Tim 'O Brien was no coward.

In 1989, I was assigned to interview, for my news writing class, some Vietnam veterans who were acting as docents for the Vietnam War Memorial that had recently arrived for a brief stay on our campus. My conception of Vietnam (and Vietnam veterans) at the time, was Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket. Napalm. Something about napalm smelling good in the morning. "Me so horny". Drugged out, sex-starved, surf-obsessed soldiers more counter-cultured than bona fide army, navy, marines. Boy was I in for a surprise as I approached a veteran with my first stupid question:

"So, do you think Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick nailed the Vietnam War experience?"

He just stared at me, sans expression (perhaps fed up with so much inanity emanating from the mouths of America's so-called "future"), so I stupidly specified the question (being the enlightened liberal arts collegiate I was), "You know, did Platoon and Full Metal Jacket exemplify the war experience for the average soldier serving in Vietnam?"

He subtly rolled his eyes and said those were just movies made to romanticize and vilify the experience by clueless people who had absolutely no experience or first hand knowledge of what really went down over there.

"Let me write that down," I said, and took out pencil and notepad.

"And be sure to write this down too," he replied, after I'd asked him what it was like for him coming home from Vietnam.



"When I walked into the airport, just off the plane, I was greeted by what I guess were hippie war-protesters with buckets in their hands. Buckets full of yellow paint...that they then flung on me as I walked past them in my uniform. That was my welcome home." He was matter-of-fact about it. I don't recollect perceiving this particular Vietnam veteran fishing for sympathy, like so many Vietnam veterans were accused of doing (and maybe many did), of which Tim 'O Brien alludes to in "Speaking of Courage".

That Tim O'Brien struggled for over a week (though "struggle" is too mild a term describing what he went through; "excruciated" is more precise) with his decision to go to Vietnam or not (and mind you, doing so within walking distance of the Canadian border), and then wrote about it for the whole world to witness --weaknesses, failings and all-- proves to me he was no coward. He was stuck (forget that rock and hard place, this was harder), between a draft notice and Canada, a lose-lose situation, like so many before and after him.

Cowards aren't capable of composing the kind of morally harrowing and complex stories of a soldier who suffers both psychologically and physically when he obeys the call of his country and does (and does it well) what he'd rather not do. Hump through the jungle. Go headfirst underground into Viet Cong tunnels. Cowards aren't capable of that. And they're certainly not capable of admitting their own mind numbing horror at having to kill a sunken-chested Vietnamese man with a grenade, watching that man launch with a "poof of cloud" instantly into the sky, and then land, seemingly hours later, missing half his head, in the intensely raw, "The Man I Killed".

Cowards couldn't cop to being so overcome by the stench of shit in a literal "shit field latrine" of the nearby "villes" during a firefight in which his squad found themselves cornered in, that he couldn't complete the rescue of a soldier named Kiowa who'd just been shot. Tim had him by the feet, but the smell, the taste of it in his mouth, the excrement of (and that was) the Vietnam War, so drained the strength or will or both out of him, that he lost his grip on his wounded buddy and couldn't pull him to safety, out from the pungent clutches of the bullet-roiling shit swamp.

"War is Hell" is a trite cliche. And it's an inaccurate trite cliche as well. Because Hell's got nothing on War. War is worse than what those with no experience of it can ever hope to imagine. Tim 'O Brien helps us better imagine it immeasurably, even though we, the civilian, can never hope to comprehend it.

And it's cowards who throw yellow paint on soldiers at the airport returning home from Vietnam. That's just the sort of thing a coward would do. A coward could never have authored The Things They Carried, the best damn book I've read this year.

8.19.2010

Freddie Mercury, Highlander and Lost Horizon by James Hilton



                           



Freddie Mercury 
once operatically crooned,
"Who wants to live forever?"
as if the obvious answer 
to his existential 
lyrical inquiry -- 
featured prominently in the film, Highlander -- 
was a resounding 
"No one". 
Yeah, 
maybe so, 
but I'll bet Freddie Mercury never read 
Lost Horizon.




8.18.2010

Snapping the String by Robert Paul Blumenstein



There’s literary fiction and there's genre fiction, and then there’s Robert Paul Blumenstein’s novel, Snapping the String, which draws from nearly every fiction niche out there. The publishers blurb, “a chilling psycho-thriller,” will definitely draw the attention of psycho-thriller fans, but what about fans of outright horror, Southern gothic, magical realism, romance, religious fiction, bildungsroman (albeit a uniquely belated bildungsroman), mystery, hard boiled detective story, adventure, or social commentary a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl, Interrupted?

Snapping The String definitely deserves an audience beyond that of "psycho-thriller" fans (and who exactly are "psycho-thriller" fans anyway; I mean, are these fans "psycho" for "thrillers" or are they "psychos" who like thrillers? Important distinction.

I like Blumenstein’s concise, uncomplicated descriptions. Detailing Peyton Costello’s hallucination from an acid trip (which is how we’re introduced to our, at first impression, dubious hero), Blumenstein writes, “the walls inflated, then deflated,” which gave me a perfect visual, like something surreal out of Alice In Wonderland. When Peyton releases his distraught embrace from his dead father propped up in bed, we get a macabre snippet any vintage Stephen King would enjoy, “Then his dad’s head rolled forward and fell from his neck….His father’s head tumbled to the floor, bounced once, twice, and then rolled to a rest.” So maybe a decapitated head with its tongue hanging out and spurting blood every which way and bouncing off a bed is a bit of a horror cliche ... so what? I still like it, and it still works.

As bad as witnessing the gruesome aftermath of your father's decapitation must be, imagine how bad it would be being falsely accused of murdering your parents and spending the next twenty-two years of your life unjustly jailed at the Mid-Virginia Mental Hospital, undergoing regular electro-convulsive “therapy” and taking so many unnecessary drug cocktails that your average junky's habit might look like so much aspirin-therapy instead. Welcome to Peyton Costello’s wasted world. And never mind that Peyton does not have a diagnosable mental disorder (that’s beside the point to the vindictive psychiaquacks at Mid-Virginia); Peyton just better be sure he doesn’t tick off the wrong mental health "professional" or she’s bound to recommend, besides a frontal lobotomy, a “Second Surgical Procedure," --a castration!-- because, "I don’t see what further use Mr. Costello has for his gonads.” Makes Nurse Ratchet seem ebullient by comparison.

Does Blumenstein grind his social commentator's axe too sharply in his skewering of the evils perpetrated inside psych-hospitals against mental health patients as late as the mid 1980s? Does he go a tad over the top? I’d say yes at first glance, but since I’ve read so many non-fictional accounts documenting the abuses, how could I justifiably say no? Perhaps I could say yes to, at times, the narrative feeling mildly didactic, preachy, but it’s mostly preaching to the choir. So, amen!

Peyton’s surprising release from Mid-Virginia portrayed enough drama that it could have served a viable climax to Snapping the String, but then we’d always wonder who killed Peyton’s parents. Blumenstein compellingly keeps us in suspense, whizzing us first into the jungles of Belize, beloved by his father (and where Peyton grabs a native wife, Oriana), and on to Egypt and inside the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, where Peyton and his long-lost friend, Ishmael, discover the first real clues – mysterious apparitions – directing them to a holy man (or is he an unholy man?) and to the terrible secret he's harbored behind a bookshelf for years.

Some secrets might be better left unknown.

8.14.2010

Astronomer's Son (a fragment)

Slim silhouette on the downstairs deck
His skins dim border, a black hole
Stands arched in observation
One eye closed

What'cha still doin out there Dad?
Aren't'cha gettin cold?

He coughed out no, no
Just go on back to bed Son
I'll tuck you in soon

I climbed the ladder to the top bunk
Waited for one small step into my bedroom

Except he's seeing stars
He's light years away
Pondering perhaps
The usual comet or eclipse
The latest telescope of his
So prized I couldn't touch it
But I did

Or maybe the vast void of space
It's sheer size he studied, I don't know
The way space s e p a r a t e s
One body from the next
With darkness, distance, emptiness
I do know
Left him speechless, restless, spouseless

--

Greatest Space Images of All Time
(I recommend enabling full screen for the slide show)

8.12.2010

The Hierophant of 100th Street by Cullen Dorn



Hierophants are persons who interpret sacred or esoteric mysteries. The psuedo-Christian, clairvoyant gnostic-likes of Madame Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce, Deepak Chopra; or, in today's Oprah-endorsed parlance, Eckhart Tolle, perhaps, could rightly be called hierophants. New Age avatars. Mediums. Mystics with a message (and usually a new book) for sale.

Cullen Dorn is one such mystic. The title of his debut novel refers to our ever-increasingly enlightened (as the novel progresses) protagonist, Adam Kadman, introduced to us as being, at the age of seventeen, living in the most dangerous of New York neighborhoods --100th Street-- during the mid-sixties, "quite the savant for his age ... nostalgic for something he could not grasp."

We can conclude after finishing the novel, if we make it that far (and keeping the prologue in mind too) that what Adam was nostalgic for was his latest pre-birth state in a bright-lit world of peace and happiness (if you've been through the visitor's center at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, you'll understand Dorn's pre-existent sentiment), where he's educated and healed from all his former lives.

Another, more iffy interpretation could be made that Adam was nostalgic for the relationship with his son Chance/Dion (who technically, in a linear time sense, hadn't been born yet into "the expression of carnal life,") and who despite having been born into Adam's lifetime twice under the names "Chance" and "Dion," was really the same son reincarnated, the same son progressing and evolving along his higher spiritual path. Huh? Did you follow all that? Me neither. As far as I know, Cullen Dorn is not affiliated nor related to (at least in this present "carnal life") to Shirley MacLaine. Though this didactic novel makes one wonder for sure.

When Dorn's not pontificating his mish-mash of weird religious philosophy through his preachy protagonist, Adam, which unfortunately, covers most of the latter half of the novel, he sure can write. Repeat: Cullen Dorn can write! Had he merely written his novel, rather than preached his spiritual thesis through his character, Adam, what a wonderful book this would be. Listen to Dorn describe a 100th Street tenement hallway, "the odor of urine against the walls packed a wallop similar to ammonia." Note the rhythm and alliteration -- the "r" sound and "w" and "l" and "m" in sweet succession -- in this succinct line and be reminded of the twentieth century's master linguist and master at alliteration, William H. Gass. But that's not all. Regarding the seemingly omnipresent nefariousness of 100th Street in the sixties, Dorn writes: "it was believed that one could spit in any direction and hit the Grim Reaper." Funny and dark. Or, "...when you see death for the first time out in the street, something inside you indelibly diminishes..." In fact, the first fifty pages of The Hierophant of 100th Street reads like an anthology of famous quotes:

"From one window came an explosion of unbridled opinion,"

"ugly shadows of urban existence,"

"atrium of anguished lives,"

and, diagnosing the character of Adam's mother's latest boyfriend, Dorn masterfully composes:

"Always quick to superfluous invectives, he became, in time, extremely abusive, generating negativities nonstop -- a hateaholic, always damning someone, something or other." Powerful stuff!

When Dorn remains down and dirty with the thugs and street hustlers and prison inmates, he shines. He's got the dialects, racial tensions, and inner city nightmarescapes down pat, a visual moral wasteland acrid with evil deeds, reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange and Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.

But can the excellent quality writing of the novel's first half overcome the disappointing fizzle of the didactic second half? I posit, regrettably, no.

Dorn, when it comes to didactic, cannot pull of what, say, an Umberto Eco or Flannery O'Connor accomplished in their didactic fictions; he cannot do so because Dorn manipulates his characters behavior and beliefs in a manner akin to how the writers of Touched By An Angel predictably manipulated theirs. To the degree that coincidence frequently occurs in Dorn's novel, is the degree to which incredulity frequently occurs in his readers (at least in this reader). And that's a shame, because Dorn has got potential. Worse, Adam Kadman begins sounding a lot like Dorn's own personal mouthpiece for New Age advertisement and advancement. Adam (not to mention the plot, which I won't mention except to say, he heard an inner voice, saw a sign, and entered his higher consciousness) loses credibility, believability, and the promising artistry witnessed repeatedly in the first half of the novel, becomes in the second half the tacky artifice of a political campaign designed to proselytize the reader. Remember Chick Publications? And as an optimistic reader usually willing to suspend disbelief, I'm not sold at all on what Cullen Dorn or, at best, Adam Kadman, seems to be selling.

Does Adam Kadman remain a real life character to the novel's starry-eyed conclusion, as he appears so early on in the mean streets of Spanish Harlem, or does he metastasize into some well-meaning, though nonetheless propagandish metaphysical messiah, an unrelenting (and annoying) John Galt of Cullen Dorn's creation, more ideology than human intellect, more arcane crackpot evangelist than true flesh-and-blood personality? I would argue the latter, of course, though I'm not so down on this book, primarily because of it's incredible linguistic beginnings, that I'd make the claim future readers should not read it and come to their own conclusions, especially if they don't mind being preached at by a tough guy guru who makes his home ... somewhere in the Twilight Zone.

8.10.2010

Disabilityland by Dr. Alan Brightman



I'm amazed thinking back to that seeming lifetime ago before I had a chromosomally challenged child of my own to love and care for how largely ignorant I was of special needs populations (who they were and what made them tick), be they physically and/or mentally challenged. I'm still sort of confused, actually, even having lived twelve years in the special needs community, if it's even appropriate anymore for me to say "mentally challenged". I do know what was mostly used as a pejorative term, anyway, the "R" word (duh!), is definitely out, as is (or at least it's on the way out) "handicapped," so do forgive if I unwittingly step in it and communicate some archaic, politically incorrect language in briefly describing this book, Disabilityland, by Dr. Alan Brightman.

And what a beautiful book, "DisabilityLand," is! From the inviting colorful cover -- featuring the artwork created by a "disabled" person courtesy of NIAD (National Institute of Art & Disabilities) -- to the very last page, this non-fiction work features anecdotes collected over the years and edited by longtime "disabled persons" advocate and expert, Dr. Alan Brightman. Brightman included inspirational, heart warming vignettes of everyday "disabled" life, demonstrating how bright and radically non-bleak -- how "abled" -- the "disabled" experience can be; but where the book seriously shines, for me, are the politically pointed sections. Dr. Brightman does, after all, have a social commentator's axe to grind, and it's an axe I'm happy to grind along with him and that would make even John Bunyan proud.

I'll gladly grind along with Dr. Brightman, because when it comes to illuminating our culture's climate of current and historical indifference and devaluation toward the "disabled" at large, Dr. Brightman's a vitally important mouthpiece who also validates my own personal experiences and outrage in dealing with a culture that likes to stare and gawk a lot at my daughter. The kids we encounter are mostly curious, which is completely understandable, but the so-called adults who act like my daughter is a leper? C'mon, People! Down syndrome and autism are not contagious. This is the same culture, if I heard it right, that was convinced when my daughter was born that she "wouldn't amount to much of anything" and probably (might have? maybe?) been better off being aborted. Hear that axe grinding? How'm I doing?

Here's one shocking example of Dr. Brightman brilliantly sharpening his own axe, sparks flying (I'll paraphrase).

The Setting of the Shocking Scenario: a "mental institution rec room".

Time: As Late as the 1980s.

Who's Involved?: A special needs population.

So What's The Problem?: The special needs population, gathered inside the "mental institution rec room" won't stop chewing up all the carpet. Seems the special needs patients get down on their hands and knees and chew on the carpet to entertain themselves.

What's the stupid mental institution's solution to this problem?: They decide to surgically extract all the teeth from the special needs population so that they will no longer chew up the precious carpet.

Problem solved!

Never mind, as Dr. Brightman points out, that the supposed "rec room" consisted of nothing but, well, carpet! No games or puzzles. No T.V. No books. No magazines. No ping pong table. No air hockey. No chairs. Nothing. Except carpet. Is it possible these "special folks" might have actually been bored out of their minds? Assuming, that is, they even had minds, ahem, to begin with; the staff at this facility cited by Dr. Brightman obviously didn't believe they had minds and could become bored -- or didn't care. Otherwise, maybe the room would have been supplied with appropriate recreational devices so that this poor neglected population wouldn't have to resort to chewing on the carpet. Chewing carpet beats staring blankly at the four walls.

Granted, the "extracting the teeth" anecdote is perhaps the most extreme example presented in DisabilityLand, but it sure grabs your attention right off the bat, rankles some feathers rather furiously, and makes you flip the pages faster whether or not ("or not" I can only presume) you have any personal connection to the unique and joyful (yes, joyful) worlds of special needs.

Brightman's book ultimately inspires as much as it infuriates. It's a book that offers hope and displays the perhaps heretofore unknown range of creative gifts the special needs population possesses.

And my kid has more chromosomes than your kid (assuming your kids are "normal") too.

8.07.2010

Match Made in Hell



Two years ago this weekend, I told my adopted son, "Nick," that I wish we'd never adopted him.

He had just backed me, even weighing nearly 100 pounds more than him, into a wall so hard that my backside left a crater there. Family portraits hung on the wall fell and shattered on the floor.

Nick was enraged. He'd disrespected his mother a few minutes prior to this incident. When I informed him matter-of-factly the consequences of his chronic disrespect -- no more video games for the rest of the weekend -- his transformation from quiet seventeen year-old kid into unrecognizable Hulk-like attacker, was instantaneous. It had happened many times before (way too many times before), but with "fuck you's" instead of fists.

My wife dialed 911.

He went after me digging at my eyes. Grabbing my balls. Trying to yank my hair out. Biting. Kicking. Spitting. Screaming. Scratching and clawing at me like a furious lion. Et cetera.

I wasn't trying to fight back per se. Merely contain him as best I could. Keep him inside our house so he couldn't leave and fulfill promises of hurting himself. Keep him away from the windows which he threatened to hurl himself through if I didn't let him go. Keep him away from my wife and his three younger siblings (one of them developmentally disabled), who'd thankfully, by then, locked themselves in the bathroom. Keep him contained, essentially, until the police arrived. But trying to do so was like trying to hold on to and restrain a 140 pound porcupine with my bare hands. I was exhausted after just a few minutes. Sweating buckets. Asthmatic. Cut badly. Bleeding. And I'm a big strong man.

I never threw a punch in retaliation. I can at least claim that. But I did throw a punch of a more violent nature, an unforgivable punch, a low (but bigger)-blow, much worse ... that finally knocked the air out of him, that finally squelched his frantic fight. In reply to his unending litany of "fuck-you-let-me-go-motherfucker's," I let loose a secret regret of mine, a knife aimed at his emotional jugular: "I wish we'd never adopted you." And it was the truth.

My rejection didn't outright calm him down initially, but quieted him some, stopped his flailing for a second, enough time for me to get his arms down and a knee in his gut, securing him to the floor. He sobbed through vulgar threats, while my sweat and blood, but not my tears, never my tears, dripped off me and onto him.

"I wish you'd never adopted me either, Asshole," he choked out, panting. At least we felt the same toward one another. One of the few times we ever agreed on anything.

It was, simply put, a match made in Hell: "Nick," and our family.

We'd had such high (and I guess, in retrospect, naive) hopes for him, adopting him into our family officially just before he turned thirteen, falsely believing, turned out, that we could love all the accumulative years of pain and wounding and neglect and abuse and maladaptive effects his being birthed by an alcoholic woman who binged while he was in utero, out of him, over time.  But we couldn't, no matter how hard we tried, no matter what we tried, no matter how much time and money and patience we spent on specialists, therapists, experimental treatments, and weekend seminars.  We learned the hard way, that despite the good intended truisms foisted upon unsuspecting parents by adoptive agencies, sometimes love is not enough.  Sometimes love does no good at all.  Sometimes love is no match for a kid who's grown up and can't emotionally attach.

The unanswerable question I still sometimes ask myself is: How could events in our family have deteriorated so drastically over the next five years from the day we adopted "Nick"; culminating in what became such a nasty and sad confrontation, that last day he lived in our home, when the police came and had to tie him by the ankles and wrists (four police officers it took to restrain him), and then carry him from our house horizontally, like pallbearers carrying a coffin, out to their squad car, as stunned neighbors gawked, and on to the hospital, then psych ward, then group home, and then, ultimately, if not completely out of our lives, out into the limbo fringes of our lives, forever?

8.06.2010

Facsimile Dust Jackets L.L.C.

Suppose you've got a great old book but your great old book does not have a dust jacket.

Facsimile Dust Jackets has over 4,000 dust jackets ready to ship to the book collector not happy with their bare, unjacketed book. No book should sit on the shelf naked, its wear and tear visible to all. Maybe your book has an unsightly water stain on the spine, or dried what looks like blood beneath the title on the front cover. Or crusty impacted boogers on the back! Yuck. Who wants to hold or display or show off books looking like that?

For $22.00, the good folks at Facsimile Dust Jackets will send you a killer looking copy of the original dust jacket replete with retro artwork so beloved by bibliophiles everywhere.

I am neither related to the makers and distributors of Facsimile Dust Jackets, nor being paid by them for this free advertisement. I just think this idea of providing exact replicate dust jackets, while pricey at $22 a pop, is a fantastic idea nonetheless. I wish I'd thought of it first.

8.05.2010

Ten Days to Self-Esteem ... Not Nine Days, Not Eleven or Twelve Days ... Ten Days to Self-Esteem by David D. Burns



It would be all too easy at first glance to mercilessly mock this book based solely on the improbable promise of it's title (reminds me of homemade signs I see alongside freeway off ramps everyday promising $50,000/week, or some such ridiculous figure, no selling or experience needed!) and the all-too-happily grinning mug shot of its pastel-turtlenecked author, Dr. Burns, so I won't, other than to say I can see where Saturday Night Live alum, Al Franken, may have gotten his "Stuart Smalley" inspiration.


The inside of the book? Believe it or not, there's actually some good psychological exercises/question-and-answers throughout this introductory workbook designed to foster intellectual/inter-relational insight and emotional growth, particularly for individuals who've struggled with feelings of low self-esteem and its bothersome brother, depression, for years.

Ten Days to Self-Esteem can be particularly helpful in a group therapy setting as a means of providing a framework for therapeutic discussions and interaction. I would recommend it for its hands-on practical value, though I think its title is a trifle disingenuous. Self-esteem, for those who've chronically lacked it, takes years (ten years maybe, if not an entire lifetime), to develop and see fruition. Not ten days.

You think we have low-intellects as well as low self-esteem, Dr. Burns?! Is that it, you Mister Rogers looking happy camper! I'm sorry, but I wasn't born yesterday, as my "grampa" would say, and I'm rather suspicious that you chose that title, Ten Days to Self-Esteem just to sell more books and to get rich quicker than it having any basis whatsoever in reality. Maybe I'm paranoid or just too damn cynical and need some quality treatment for that "disorder". Have you written a book called Ten Days to Less Cynicism, Dr. Burns? Ten Days to Less Paranoia? I may need to read those quick after considering the false, unrealistic hope you've offered the hurting, self-loathing world with Ten Days to Self-Esteem.

Dr. Burns, are you related to "Dr". Laura by any chance? She thinks her "treatments" can work in ... forget days ... mere minutes. You got nothing on that psycho (babbling) bitch!

8.04.2010

I'm Still Obsessed with Infinite Jest



If Infinite Jest were a bowling score, it would be 300. Perfect! It's literature's equivalent of facing the minimum twenty-seven batters in a nine inning game of baseball and retiring everybody who steps into the batter's box.

Of the four editions pictured above, I own three.
Which edition do you think I don't own?
When the Ten Year, $10 anniversary edition of IJ came out in 2006 with the rambling (nearly incoherent) introduction by David Eggers, I had to buy it even though the copy I possessed (note I don't own Infinite Jest or have a copy of Infinite Jest, I possess Infinite Jest like I'm Legion) was in great shape, good for another half dozen reads. A couple years back, just six months prior to Wallace's suicide, I possessed a hardcover first edition of Infinite Jest, even though I had only read the Ten Year, $10 anniversary edition of Infinite Jest with the introduction by David Eggers, twice. I saw Infinite Jest sitting in a pile on the floor in the literary fiction aisle of The Bookman in Orange, CA, where a gangly, geeky looking Gin Blossom t-shirt wearing-no doubt-writer-intellectual-type was about to grab it. About to grab, the geek, snatch away from me, what would become my first first edition (but it's a second printing, sigh!) of Infinite Jest away from me.

"Get away from her! Yes! The book you're about to hold! Infinite Jest!" I boomed, "the sow is mine!" And then my head spun round in sinister circles and I spewed split pea soup like a gushing fire hydrant in the general direction of the geek; and the geek, with his poor taste in music with the Gin Blossoms (good riddance!) fled for his life from the literary fiction aisle of The Bookman in Orange, CA.

Infinite Jest, to make an understatement, was a revelatory, revolutionary reading experience for me. Think "the British are coming!" as I turned each page; think the Bolsheviks. What a liberating read it was, opening new wormholes in fiction. Once I'd read Infinite Jest, the landscape of contemporary literature was irrevocably transformed for me, and I could never be content again for several years thereafter, with what I perceived henceforth as constant mediocrity in serious fiction. And that's the unfortunate downside of reading Infinite Jest: David Foster Wallace so raised for me in contemporary literature an Everest expectation of any new work, that I couldn't help having the nagging, always anti-climactic sense when thereafter approaching other author's works (and Wallace's other works too) that what I was reading was somehow "less than" or "could've been better" or "just wasn't rich and deep enough". In other words, once I'd conquered Everest, Mounts Kilimanjaro or Fuji --world class summits in their own rights with fantastic views-- didn't satisfy me like Mt. Everest. How could they --I'd been to the highest summit (mighty Infinite Jest) too many times to give a rip about lesser mountain peaks. But then I realized over time that most writers don't aspire for Mt. Everest, as Wallace did, with every creative effort and, more importantly, if they do not aim for Everest, they should not be read nor critiqued as if they were aiming for Everest. Maybe they were on an expedition with their book to the summits of Kilimanjaro or The Matterhorn. Or maybe they were happy with hills (and their readers happy with hills too). Could it not, in fact, be argued, that creating interesting, readable "hills" might demonstrate a nuanced talent surpassing the over-the-top talent and skills that DFW put on full display in Infinite Jest? ...

Nah, not really; Wallace is still the best by far! But hey, there's nothing innately wrong with literary hills in the first place, right? I've come to appreciate the lesser mountain ranges in literature. And wildflowers, after all, bloom brilliantly in the hills here in Southern California every spring, don't they? So hills can be beautiful and breathtaking too.

True, wildflowers bloom, they do, but Wallace, premiere mountaineer, almost ruined me for fiction; even with an appreciation for less imposing peaks, I just can't shake his overarching influence and legacy. He put me, anonymous reader, on his genius back and lugged me to the top of Mount Everest. And I just can't see the point in bowling again.

8.03.2010

Italo Calvino on Books and Bibliophiles

Quoted (at length) from his metafictional masterpiece If on a winter's night a traveler (1979).

"So, then, you noticed in a newspaper that If on a winter's night a traveler had appeared, the new book by Italo Calvino, who hadn't published for several years. You went to the bookshop and bought the volume. Good for you.

If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (Everyman's Library (Cloth))

"In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

"the Books You've Been Planning To Read For Ages,

"the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,

"the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,

"the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,

"the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,

"the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,

"the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified.

"Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Time Now To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

"With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), ...

"All this simply means that, having rapidly glanced over the titles of the volumes displayed in the bookshop, you have turned toward a stack of If on a winter's night a traveler fresh off the press, you have grasped a copy, and you have carried it to the cashier so that your right to own it can be established."

Show me another writer who understood bibliophiles as well as Italo Calvino, and I'll sell you some beach front property in Iowa. Won't happen.

My Own Stab at Less Than Zero Many Moons Ago

As an undergrad at what was then Chapman College (today it's Chapman University) I wrote a short story heavily influenced by both the style and content of Bret Easton Ellis. I imagine student "literary" journals of the late '80s are redundantly replete with such Ellis mimicry.

I thought I'd lost my stab at Less Than Zero, a story titled "Me and Dad," until finding a beat up copy of Chapman's literary journal, Calliope II, buried in a box buried deep in our garage, that had published my story. It was the first piece I ever had published. I was twenty. Fall, 1989. Written over one long weekend (in two takes that March) but where oh where was the internal editor! (or Chapman's editor, good Lord!)

And while the story embarrasses me a bit now, I'm obviously not so embarrassed by it as to not scan it in here, now. Terri Brint Joseph, whose creative writing class inspired the story, compared it favorably to Willa Cather's short story, "Paul's Case." I think she was being way WAY too complimentary and generous, but I've obviously never forgotten her encouraging words. R.I.P., Terri.

I'm still haunted by "Me and Dad," actually. Haunted because I've attempted several times these past twenty-one years since writing it, to turn it into a novel. Without success. But I've kept trying. It's a stormy on-again-off-again relationship, "Me and Dad" and me.



Here's an excerpt of an attempt of turning "Me & Dad" into a novel"