The Media Center, a.k.a. The Library


Decatur has opened a new high school: Austin High.

The new high school had an “open house” for the public a few months back, and my wife and I decided it would be interesting to go see how it looks. How is it different from schools of ancient times, that is to say, when we were teens? I was also curious from a writer’s standpoint. I was, at the time, rewriting the chapter where my biology teacher protagonist is wrapping up her school year and cleaning up her science lab; hence, I definitely wanted to check out the science lab. We found it quite easily.

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Sadako’s first comment was: “It looks like the science lab I went to.” I could only agree. It looked exactly like every high school science lab I had ever seen. There were maybe six or seven stations with black tops. (We had those in 1966.) Each station included a sink, water spout and a gas line. There was a line of storage cabinets along the wall. Cabinets no one could reach.

We moved on. The gymnasium was nice—but again, no surprises. Classrooms were…classrooms. The seating for students was interesting. The two-seater desks seem to suggest collaborative effort, which is a good thing. I thought the plant and the lamp on the teacher’s desk gave the room a nice homey touch. What I felt was a bit odd was  that in every classroom, as seen in the Math classroom below, hung a rather large American flag. Is the jingoism necessary? Do our millennial students need to be told every second of the day that this is America? It just seems a bit much.

After peering into several classrooms, (They were all the same.) we decided to visit the school library. It was not easy to find. We had to ask several students who were stationed at strategic points. “Where’s the library?”

“Oh, you mean the Media Center.”

“Ah.” We were pointed in a general direction. And after a few wrong turns…we found it.

Dear friends, dear blogger friends, let us join hands and bow our heads and grieve together. How sad it was. How disappointing. How utterly pathetic. Words fail me….

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As you can see, books are NOT the emphasis here. In fact just to look at the titles you have practically crawl on your hands and knees.  The tables that seat five students have computer hook ups. I’m not sure if that means that students bring their own laptops or if the school provides such, I don’t know.

The wall of windows is interesting. I think its purpose is for students to hand signal each other—that it’s time to go!

I took a “closer look” at the books themselves. A general subject section revealed a very cozy set of books. For instance, one can see the engaging title: Thanksgiving by Appelbaum. Now whether or not a millennial student is hot to check that one out, I can’t say, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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But let’s move on to the literary section.

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This was a hoot. I was happy to see Joseph Conrad’s collection of stories, but why is it sitting next to Toni Morrison’s two novels: Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye? And why are Toni Morrison’s works next to Heller’s Catch 22? And then, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, which was published in 1980. Authored by Margaret Craven, it’s a novel that chronicles life of Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest. Okay. The fact is the books are a hodgepodge, hit or miss collection, all out of order, as if they were simply shoved onto the shelf straight out of the moving boxes, revealing the obvious fact: nobody gives a damn.

Sadako called my attention to a Japanese novel. I rushed over to see if they had my favorite author, Yasunari Kawabata. No, they didn’t. They had a manga.

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High School Debut. As you see it addresses the question: Who doesn’t need a love “coach” in high school? It looked as if it had been checked out quite often!

The sad fact is, in this particular high school, grades ten through twelve, the library, whoops, Media Center, is not a place that even remotely encourages the reading of books. If I were a student would I choose to read High School Debut over, say, Toni Morrison or Joseph Conrad? Of course I would. That’s my point. I had teachers who could and did direct my reading because I didn’t know what was out there. I don’t have a problem with a student reading High School Debut but I also want them to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings or Native Son by Richard Wright. Is it too much to ask?

What are your thoughts on the purpose or need for a school library? Should it be there or abolished altogether?

 

Troubled Times

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But then, when were we ever NOT in “troubled times”? The thirties and forties? Depression and World War. The fifties? Racism and McCarthyism. The sixties? Assassinations and Vietnam. The seventies? Drugs and serial killers. The eighties? I don’t even remember the eighties. The nineties? Techie Takeover. The millennium? Okay, okay. It’s a hard life.

So here we are: September 2018, with our Democracy standing on the razor’s edge. Will we survive this insanity? Or will we slowly? quickly? descend into a fascist state? I agree with Michael Moore, I don’t think it’s impossible. We all get up, make ready for the day, drink our coffee, watch the depressing news, get into our cars, and for one reason or the other, sally forth into the world. Can this typical day come to an end? Yes, it can.

The idea—imagined or otherwise—of a normal life style coming to an end is what we writers write about. It’s the only thing we write about. We know this intuitively. Someone dies or doesn’t! Someone travels or not; answers a call or hangs up; falls in love or gets dumped; gets married or divorced; or as recently in my case, receives a notification.

I got a letter from my pharmacy. Here’s the situation. I take two pills every morning: one for high blood pressure, Valsartan, and another for some mysterious pain in my back. For all I know that pill is a placebo. At any rate, the letter stated that my current high blood pressure medicine, Valsartan, “may be linked to risks of developing cancer.” It went on to say that “short term use is low” for developing any health issues. I’ve been taking the damned thing for ten years…Jesus. So, I responded as you might expect. I FREAKED OUT! Especially when the letter stated, “patients taking the recalled Valsartan medicine should continue taking their medicine until they have a replacement.

Oh, right, just keep taking the killer pill “that’s linked to risks” until they figure out what to do. Great idea. Thank you for that winsome advice. So, I staggered like a doomed duck from one room to the other.  What to do? What to do? I finally settled down and re-read the letter. There was a website I could go to and check whether or not the big pharma lab that made MY med was one that had produced the “compromised” Valsartan. I did just that.

The company listed on the bottle is Alembic. I’ve never heard of them. It turns out that Alembic’s Valsartan is okay. It doesn’t contain the carcinogenic element. Well, that was good news. I still have about two weeks left of the current pills, so I keep taking them. I do feel better. I feel much better.

I finish the pills. I get a notification from my drugstore. The other prescription is ready, but the Valsartan isn’t ready. I ask about that. The druggist says my “care giver didn’t call it in.” I felt like being sarcastic, but I meekly tell him thank you. I’ll go to the doctor’s office and see what’s going on. I do that—post-haste.

The receptionist behind the window in the crowded waiting room tells me that Valsartan isn’t listed on my chart or whatever she’s looking at. I respond (nicely, politely) informing her that I’ve been taking it for years. “It’s not there,” she says. Then she tells me that I was supposed to have come in for a check-up back in June.

WTF is she talking about? I tell her that I didn’t remember such an appointment. I wasn’t given an appointment reminder. She repeats. “You were supposed to come in June. That’s what it says. It’s now September.” She stares at me with her mouth hanging open. It’s all my fault—obviously. “You want to make an appointment? The doctor does want to see you,” she smirks. She could win an award for MOST CONDESCENDING.

“Yes, please,” I say. I’m fighting off reptilian urges.

The next day I show up at the doc’s office. A student assistant comes in. She’s a very pretty young lady from India. She’s so nice. Asks me how I’m doing. I tell her I’m okay, but I mumble about the pain in my legs. Neuropathy, I suggest. At her suggestion, I remove shoes and socks. She checks the pulse at the top of my foot. It’s good. She gives me a quick response test by pricking my feet with a prong. I pass the test.

My doctor, who is also from India, comes in. He gruffly tells the assistant to call my pharmacy. She does so and hands him the phone. She sits at a chair behind him. He sits at the computer and talks on the phone, staring at my online info. I feel rather odd sitting there with my shoes and socks off. I’m sitting on the hard-cushioned patient’s bed. It’s quite high, and I’m gazing down at the two of them. It’s not too unlike an out-of-body experience. My doctor’s professionally tough on the phone. “Are you a pharmacist? I need to talk to a pharmacist, immediately. This is Dr. Reddy!”

I like that. Give ‘em hell, Doc.

My drug is okay they tell him.

“Thank you,” he says. He hands the smart phone back to the assistant.

He lets me know that I’m okay. “You can pick up your prescription,” he says. He pats me on the shoulder. The student assistant tells him that I complained a bit about my legs hurting. I feel almost guilty. He ignores the student who is still talking. He checks my foot pulse. “He’s okay,” he smiles. “Paul’s okay. Yeah, Yeah.” He pats me on the shoulder. “You have low potassium. Eat bananas,” he tells me. “Eat more bananas.”

“Yes sir,” I say. He tells the pretty assistant to go check on another patient. I thank her for her concern.

I go to pick up my Valsartan. It’s not ready. I go back later. It’s still not ready. I go back a third time, and they are all smiles and hand me my newly filled prescription. All is well. I get to my truck where my black lab, Cody, sits. He leans against the door on the rider’s side. He’s a great dog. I sit there in my truck. Cody’s panting, ready to go home.

I watch an incredibly heavy man with long gray hair struggling to get out of his car. It’s very difficult for him to turn in his seat. At one point with one foot in and one foot out, he stops to catch his breath. Finally, he emerges and starts shuffling toward the store. Cars stop for him. Everybody stops for him. We all feel for him.

Ah, what a day.  I’m fortunate. I know I am. I think about the patients who had been taking the “compromised” Valsartan. I hope those people are okay. Hope, it’s all we have sometimes. Hope for ourselves, hope for each other.

Thank you for reading. I hope to get back to blogging now that summer is nearly done. Ah, autumn. I love autumn.

Last Day at the Conference

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View outside my window here in Madison. Oh, it is spring…right?

 

It’s my last day at the UW-Madison Writers’ Conference. It’s been a wonderful experience. One particular event I’d like to mention was the Advanced Manuscript Critique. I sent in the first ten pages of my just completed novel. A chosen author/editor critiqued the ten pages. In my case it was Lucy Sanna, author of  Cherry Harvest, (I highly recommend it.) and at an appointed time, I sat with Lucy, and we went over the critique of the ten pages. Let me say right off the bat: Lucy Sanna is tough~! I consider myself extremely fortunate. She gave me great feedback, which will make my novel better and stronger. At one point during our talk, she asked, “What’s the word-count of your novel?” I responded firmly and proudly, “One hundred twenty-three thousand.” “That’s too long.” was the immediate response.

“oh.”

She did come back later and tell me that 123,000 is acceptable for a debut novel…a million words is acceptable for a debut novel if it’s “GREAT.” But the magic number it seems for the reading public is 90,000 words. ( the range being 80,000 –110,000) I had no idea. So, it’s stuff like that, along with the great sessions on the craft and business of writing that make a conference worth a writer’s time. Regarding my word count, the good news for me is, that it’s a lot easier to delete than it is to add.

The great debate through out this conference has been between Traditional and Self-publishing avenues. As we all know the self-publishing world has “taken off” in the past five or so years and many authors have taken that route and quite wisely so. I’m still not sure whether or no I want to go the rather torturous agent route: Your query letter has to be perfect. They may never get back to you…probably won’t. If they reject you, consider yourself rejected forever. If there is one error, you’re doomed. You need to know exactly what it is they want…maybe even their favorite wine. It gets strange. And I haven’t even gotten to the part about their 15% cut of whatever you earn…if you earn anything. In fact getting an agent doesn’t necessarily mean publication…and even if you do get published, you still have to be your own publicist. So, the argument goes…why not simply skip all the anxiety and go self-publishing and take control of your own game. It’s a fascinating world out there.

So, it’s the final morning of the conference. I’m staying one more night to get past the bad weather. When I left Alabama it was big time Spring–roses budding out, day lilies starting to bloom, lovely white dogwoods in full bloom and seventy-six degrees. Here it’s cold, very windy, and snowing. Wha?

Nevertheless, it’s been a great time. And thanks to all of you for the really nice words.

At the Writers’ Institute

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I’m here in Madison, Wisconsin about to begin a four day Writers’ Institute Conference. It goes from today to Sunday. I haven’t done this sort of thing for a long time. And, needless to say, I’m happy to be here. The fact is, I heard about this conference here on WordPress, but I can’t remember who sent the notice or if was one of those “You may be interested in” inserts we receive from time to time.

So, if any of my writer/blogger friends are here, please shout out my name…but don’t be embarrassing!  🙂 Just kidding.

As you see above, the theme for this year’s conference is “Pathway to Publication.” It’s exactly what I need. I FINALLY finished the first draft of my first novel, about three weeks ago, so I’m here to see what I need to do next!

I’m on my way to my first session: How to Pitch Your Novel. I definitely need to know more about that.

I’ll post pics and stuff in a few days, and let you guys know how everything is moving along.

IRONY: A Writer’s Best Friend

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“Here’s some deep irony, Lieutenant.”

“Eh, how’s that?”

“The murder weapon was purchased by the victim—for his wife’s protection from bad guys. He took business trips. He worked late. He…”

“Met his mistress, as he was doing the night of his demise.”

“Yep, the mistress sang like the proverbial canary.”

“So, lover boy gets out of bed, goes to work, meets girlfriend for drinks and late-night business, leaves his cell phone at the office, comes home a little drunk—his shirt tail stuck in his zipper, drops his keys, can’t find them in the dark, tries a back window and—bam!”

“His innocent wife, thinking he’s a bad guy, shoots him.”

“Exactly! His wife shoots him—the bad guy—with the very gun he provided.”

“Ironic indeed.”

Dear blogger friends, forgive my simple example of irony. The above is known as “situational” irony, where one’s actions work in opposition to one’s intentions. Another well-known use of irony is “verbal” irony which occurs when one’s words convey a meaning in opposition to a literal meaning.

Verbal irony can occur consciously, as in an insult, which is often sarcastic in nature. Or unconsciously, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, when Juliet’s mother says in anger over her daughter’s refusal to marry Paris. “I would the fool were married to her grave!”

And of course, the Grandfather of all ironic speeches would be almost everything Oedipus says in the first half of Socrates’ great play, Oedipus Rex.

I remember reading some dense tome where the author stated that the Modern Age could or should be called the Age of Irony. The author posited that the driving trope for literature between say 1918 and 1960 was irony. Unfortunately, a great deal of that ironic literature is also incredibly depressing—most ironic situations tend to lean heavily toward misery. Why is that? I think, and I’m also interested in your thoughts on this, that irony reveals the “tricky-ness” of human existence, as well as that “dark” side: the meaninglessness of life. My students response to that: “Awww, man.”

For instance, after overcoming great odds, the hero gets the girl, only to find out that she’s dying of some rare disease…or vice versa! I remember reading a short story by Sartre, the French existentialist. The hero is suspected of being a spy for the French Resistance in Paris. He is interrogated by a ruthless Nazi officer who wants to know where the French Resistance leader is hiding.  The hero has no idea. He knows of the leader but doesn’t have a clue as to his whereabouts. He says as much, over and over. Pushed to an extreme, he finally names a meaningless place. He gives the Nazi an address, off the top of his head. It’s all absurd. He has no idea where the leader is. They search. The French resistance is there! He is captured and taken away to be shot. Irony!

Irony screams in laughter at our efforts to be good or moral or even just happy. Life is a bitch!

“But wait,” you say. “Does it have to be so? Does irony always have to be so demoralizing?” The answer is no. It doesn’t.  And no, I’m not being ironic—really. I’m not. Honestly!

There’s two other possibilities. One, use irony as a powerful tool in your narrative, i.e., as the absurd error the antagonist makes that brings about his own doom instead of the hero’s. Hence, at the end of the work, the hero is happy. His love is happy, and the reader is happy. Is that such a bad thing?

For the next possibility, let’s return to the dialogue at the beginning of this post. (The man who gave his wife a gun to kill bad guys.) If I drew that scene out into a novel, then I could insert into the dialogue of the philandering husband, the wife, the mistress, a few lines of verbal irony. BUT, and this is very important, the reader will not know that what the husband says early on is ironic.

Irony is understood only after the fact, and therein lies its power. I remember when I read Oedipus Rex for the first time, I was absolutely speechless. I didn’t know the plot. I had zero background in Greek myth. I was stunned when I finished that play. I really was. I had to read it a second time, to experience the work fully.

When a novel is well-conceived, beautifully written, and full of meaning, many readers will read it a second time and third, on and on. I also believe, when it’s done well and with sensitivity, irony can bring a reader “back” to your novel. And isn’t that our dream goal?

It’s quite possible—that your work is so well done and possesses a depth of meaning that a reader returns to it after a span of time to read it again. I think many readers do so. I do. Even though I read it years ago, I’m re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma, right now. I love it. It’s chock full of mild irony, revealing folly and misunderstanding, but it does so with a subtle smile.

What are your thoughts on irony as a writer’s tool? Have you utilized it? Resented it? Let’s talk.

Ambivalence

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A white heron on the bank of Uji River in Uji City, Japan

 

My last blog, sometime ago, was a short discussion of ambiguity as a literary device that brings depth to a work be it poem, story, or novel. With this post, I’d like to turn our attention to a related concept: ambivalence—contrasting attitudes or feelings occurring simultaneously. What are some examples? The housewife who loves her family but feels trapped. The student who loves school but hates to study. The young girl who desires a wedding but loathes her fiancé.

This contradictory and very human trait serves us writers well. Ambivalence is dramatic. This phenomenon can go a long way in one’s creation of character. We receive the advice, and good advice it is, to give our protagonist a flaw. Miss Goody Two-Shoes needs to have a dark side or at least a doubtful side, therein lies the heart of a story. We all get tired of the “she-never-makes-a-mistake” character. Perfection is boring.

But what about the flip side? The antagonist? Should that character be thoroughly evil, totally cruel, stunningly bad? Well, sure, why not? There’s plenty of role models in fiction and real life. We have Rome’s Caligula; Shakespeare’s Iago; Russia’s Rasputin; Milton’s Satan; Germany’s Hitler; C.S. Lewis’ The White Witch of Narnia; J.K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort. The list goes on and on. All of the above are bad folk—what good there might have been is erased by their wicked ways.

Isn’t it interesting? We writers are warned against creating “pure” good characters, but urged to create “pure” evil ones. Well, that’s something we can discuss later!

So, what about a villain whose villainy is mitigated via ambivalence. The non-pure villain is, for me at least, much more interesting than the villain shot through with hatred. I would argue that to invest your villain with a deeper presence, then show him or her in a moment of doubt, a moment of uncertainty, a moment of tenderness. The problem is that you can’t go over the line of evil. If you make your villain too endearing then he’s no longer a villain. But give that bad boy or mean girl a moment of hesitation, a qualm, and you may deepen the reader’s experience. The human condition is seldom easy to define. We’re messy. We make wrong decisions. We make right decisions then do the wrong thing. We’re a bundle of wonderful errors. Reality is a tangle of emotions that refuses to be trapped in a good/bad construct.

So what are your thoughts? Have you used ambivalence as a character-building trait? Do you shy away from it? What are the problems?

Japan, 2017

Here’s a few moments from our trip to the land of the rising sun, Japan.

IMG_6521Having just boarded in Dallas, Sadako and I, do a “selfie toast” on the plane to Narita International.  We look happy, even though we have 14 long hours to go. Must be the champagne!

fullsizeoutput_b33Some twenty hours after take-off, we enjoy a steak dinner at Hotel Gajoen where we’ll stay for a few days. Here’s the chef getting our steak ready to cook.

IMG_6538We end the meal with a birthday plate for Masako-san, Sadako’s mother, who is eighty-three years young. Doesn’t she look great?

IMG_6574Later the next day in the hotel lobby, we all posed for a picture. Super nice! Totally decadent–I really need that every now and then.

DSC_1747That afternoon Sadako and her mother went shopping. I headed for the bookstores!

DSC_1748And of course here’s a sign I love to see.

IMG_0795Back at Gajoen, we attended an Ikebana show– Ikebana is the art of flower arrangement. Here’s a lovely sample.

DSC_1671An outdoor performance at Yasukuni Shrine where performers wore traditional Edo period costume.  Drummers.

DSC_1724And dancers.

DSC_1842Of course what would a trip to Japan be if you couldn’t see Mt. Fuji. I got this shot when we visited Lake Ashinoko, a short bus ride out of Hakone. The day before was rainy with hard wind gusts. I was afraid we might not be able to see Fuji-san which has a well-deserved reputation for being shy. But next day, the sun came out and …ah!

DSC_1611 (1)We then train traveled to Osaka. Of course train travel means crowds and

IMG_0916salary men at the ticket machines, and

IMG_0879on the train, folks reading, meditating, and sleeping while traveling.

IMG_0884Finally we got to Osaka and met up with friends where talk and laughter rules!

DSC_1759Not every body is happy though. This young lady on her way to school gave me a look I’ll not soon forget.

IMG_7097Here’s some of the dishes I enjoyed: Sushi! And yes, that’s my sweater, getting tight about the waist.

IMG_6939Pork cutlet and curry-rice.

IMG_7098Steamed eel on rice

fullsizeoutput_b2bTraditional Japanese breakfast…excuse my fingers at the top left.

photo-2 Dinner with fried oysters in the shell.

photo-4Topped off with a bottle of chilled Sake!

And finally here’s a mixed bag of favorite moments.

IMG_6789Early morning at our hotel in Hakone: a lovely mix of western and Japanese style architecture.

DSC_2087A shrine to The Tale of Genji author, Murasaki Shikibu, in Uji, Kyoto.

IMG_0902A scene in the lovely Kenrokuen park in Kanazawa. It was raining which added to the quiet beauty.

IMG_0887In Osaka, a lady folding a silk Kimono. It was at this Kimono store, we bought some silk for my sister in Tennessee.

DSC_2094Meeting with some terrific students in Kyoto. The young man in the center asked me to say something so that he could hear the English language. I rolled off a few sentences extolling him and his friends. He stood back and said “Wow.” Again, it was one of “those” moments.

photo-3Here I am in one of the malls in Osaka. I love these malls. There’s no doors. You simply walk in from the street and here you can find everything from bicycle repair to vegetables. That’s my new hat–I think I look more like a writer now!

IMG_7243We met up with some more friends–Ichida-San and his family. Allow me to introduce everyone. Moving around clockwise: Ichida-san in the check shirt, his sister, Akiko, holding a peace sign, then Akiko’s daughter, Ai, then Ichida-san’s son, Koki who sits next to his mom, Yoshiko, then Sadako, next, yours truly, then older son, Yuto,  Ishida-San with his wife, Yoshiko, and his two sons have lived here in Decatur, Alabama for the past three years. They have just moved back to their home in Osaka, Japan. We had lunch at a pork cutlet restaurant, which turned out to be super-great!

IMG_7232Sadako and I one evening had a fun time at a Yakitori-ya where we drank hot sake and ate tons of yakitori. Here’s a few patrons and the owner/cook.

DSC_2098We had a great time, but you know, how it is, sometimes folks just get tired, and they need to talk things out…       Sadako and I had just gotten off the train when we came across this rather tender scene. It was perfect. And thus, our trip came to an end.

It all goes so fast, but the memories last forever.

I hope you enjoyed.