Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Why Do You Think That is Such a Good Idea?

A story exactly 6,000 words in length, "Why Do You Think That is Such a Good Idea?" is the third story to be posted on Flying Houses, boasts perhaps the greatest potential in its first few pages, and quickly devolves into a rushed, ineffectual denouement. Another unsuccessful story, due to my own impatience, the gravity of the situation foisted upon me--I now know I must be moved out of my apartment by next Thursday--and frustration at giving all of the characters their proper due, which is obviously insufficient. Mrs. Bryerson could have been one of the best characters and is not even given a first name! You will see at which point the story stops being minutely-detailed and begins getting extraordinarily broad and stupid. It might be possible to revise it to a more publishable form, but it is a rather enormous theme and difficult to portray seriously. There has been a great deal of discussion on (the way I desperately attempt to appear busy while at work) about whether or not there are too many writers, and certain people talk about how there are writers who, like painters, feel as if they have created a masterpiece after their final brush stroke and will not change a thing about it, and are huge idiots for giving their work such import. That is the way I felt upon reaching word number six-thousand. The next time I post a story, I promise it will be much more evenly-paced.

Why Do You Think That is Such a Good Idea?

By Christopher J. Knorps

Mrs. Wollman dropped off her only son at the public school parking lot at 8:50 AM and turned around to go home. What an exciting day. The same exciting day it had been for the past three years since little Jamie had started first grade, and the same exciting day it would be for the next three until he would start junior high, when finally, the destination would change. It was Mrs. Wollman’s duty to take care of her son, to make sure he had a suitable breakfast and to make sure he arrived at school on time and to make sure he did not panic after school were the familiar family car not to be there on time. She had recently given him his own cell phone on the off chance this might occur, but it never did. The only thing little Jamie used his cell phone for was to make prank calls to his parents while they would all be in the same room at the same time.
Thus her weekday mornings passed. Angela Wollman (nee Bryerson) was 38 years old. She considered herself a very fit parent—the best mother a child could ask for—but she remained anxious about the question of her occupation in life. Before she had met her husband Martin (on a weekend trip to Lake Geneva between mutual friends when they were in their late 20’s) she had made her way through life on minimal wages and skills. She had worked as a receptionist for the annuities department of an investment securities company, never quite gaining a grasp on the daily functions of her superiors. She had worked there through her wedding, and after returning from her honeymoon, for several more months, until she was persuaded to claim disability and take her maternity leave.
Mrs. Wollman thought she would go back to work soon after the little baby Jamie had been born, but she did not count on the nurturing of the child to be such a strain on her energies. When he began pre-school at age three, she thought finally she could get back into the workforce. She was embarrassed to be unemployed. She did not want to turn into the stereotype of the overburdened mother who had enough to do as it was around the house. But she could not find a job that she thought was fair. She had tried temping at a few different companies but the positions never became more permanent. For the last year, she had been trying her hand at writing. This gave her something to do that she could at least trick herself into believing was useful. After she would finish a story, she would give it to Martin, and he would tell her how talented she was, and how soon she would be a famous writer, and how soon she would be leaving him because of all the other single literary men who would want to take her away from him.
She had sent out a few short stories to various journals and magazines—The New Yorker, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s—but she had only been met with rejection. Kind rejection, but no acceptance. Polite rejection, but no glory. While she felt the need to improve her craft in the short story genre in order to be accepted for first-time publication, she grew tired of limiting herself to little stories that she had never grown up admiring very much anyhow. Oh, there were a few short stories she had enjoyed—the works of Raymond Carver in particular—but she had always envisioned herself as a great novelist. And so, without any publications to her credits, she had begun working on a novel for the last six months.
On this particular exciting day after dropping Jamie off at school, she had stopped for a bagel on the way home, and had taken it into her study with her. After she took her first bite, the phone rang.
“Angie, did you see the news?”
“No, what is it?”
“Turn on the TV, any channel. I’m coming home immediately.”
Mrs. Wollman walked over to the television and flipped it on. There were typical news anchors on the air, but with different special guests, scientists. On the bottom of the screen it said: Breaking News: Black Hole to approach Earth.
At first Mrs. Wollman thought it was a joke, or a hoax played on the cable television community by some anarchist group. As the scientist continued to describe in full detail the effects this would have on the whole of humanity however, she began to accept it as fact. Her heart felt heavy, as if she had just been stopped by the cops for a minor traffic infraction, and she knew she had to cooperate even though she knew she didn’t deserve to be stopped. She didn’t know how to react, she didn’t know what she was supposed to say. She waited for Martin. She called Jamie’s school. The secretary didn’t know anything was going on yet. She told the secretary to turn on the TV, and the secretary asked if she could put her on hold. She came back a few seconds later and said they were getting flooded with phone calls and parents would be allowed to pick their children up. Mrs. Wollman called Jamie on his cell phone.
“Jamie, mommy’s going to come pick you up.”
“Why? Why are we getting out of school early today?” he asked, confused.
“It’s very complicated. I’ll explain in the car.”
“Everybody’s acting different. It’s weird.”
“I know. I think it’s weird too. Don’t worry—everything will be fine. Daddy’s coming home too. We can all go out to dinner tonight.”
“Oh yay! I love going out!” Jamie exclaimed.
Mrs. Wollman picked him up fifteen minutes later and he asked again, what was going on.
“A few kids said there was a black hole. What’s a black hole, mommy?”
Mrs. Wollman didn’t know whether he would understand it or not, but she decided to explain it as gently as possible.
“A black hole is a dead star. Like, if the sun were to go out, it would become a black hole. Only it doesn’t just disappear. Nothing in the world ever truly disappears. It just goes away, turns into something else. Well a star turns into a black hole, and it keeps moving, and it sucks things into it.”
“Are we getting sucked into one?” he asked.
“I think so,” she said.
“Are we going to die?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet, but probably. You don’t need to go to school anymore, Daddy doesn’t need to go to work anymore, and I don’t need to worry about my career anymore.”
“But how can we just die like that?” Jamie asked.
“It happens to everyone sooner or later. Look at it this way—we all get to die together—so we don’t have to be alone.”
“But that’s not fun. I thought we were going to Disneyworld soon. I don’t want to die; I want to go to do Disneyworld.”
“Well even if we were at Disneyworld, we would die just the same way. It doesn’t matter where you are.”
“Well how long until it happens?” he asked.
“They said we have about a week.”
“A week! It’s going to happen in a week!” Jamie started crying. Then Mrs. Wollman did too.
They stopped at the train station and waited for Martin’s train to arrive. They had a few more minutes.
“Do you want to go into Sweets and get some candy?” she asked her son.
“Yes, that would be the best thing ever!” Jamie said, tears subsiding.
She shut the doors to the car and locked it and walked the two blocks with her son’s hand in hers. They arrived at the store front and found it empty. No one was working there, but the door had been left unlocked.
“Where did they go, Mommy?” Jamie asked.
“I am afraid we might not be able to go out to dinner tonight. I think everybody is going to leave their jobs,” she said, immediately deducing the situation.
“Well what are we supposed to do if there’s no one to pay?”
“Just take whatever you want. Paying doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Isn’t that stealing?” Jamie asked, “Won’t we get in trouble?”
“It’s not stealing. There’s no more rules,” Mrs. Wollman said.
Jamie hesitated for a second.
“Go on, take whatever you want. We have to go to the grocery store next and stockpile our food for a week. I am sure that is where everyone is right now.”
“But I want to go out to dinner tonight! I don’t want to eat at home!” Jamie complained as he took packs of Nerds, candy lipstick, Bottlecaps, Sour Patch Kids, Warheads, and candy cigarettes.
“Honey, I just think everyone is going to leave their jobs.”
“But don’t they care about making people feel comfortable? They make the best food at restaurants!”
It was seriously distressing to Mrs. Wollman that her son would not be getting what he most wanted in this situation where it appeared all wishes must be granted rapidly, for there was nothing else that mattered. She and Martin had lived nearly forty years, had had the majority of experiences a human being should by all rights experience in that time, and poor little Jamie was only 9, and had such simple desires, and to think that she wouldn’t be able to grant them…
“We will try to go out to dinner tonight. When we get home we will call around and try to make reservations wherever you want, okay?”
“Oh thank you Mommy! You’re the best!”
“But we still have to go to the grocery store. We can’t eat every meal out. Is that okay?”
“That’s okay.”
They walked back to their car as the train pulled into the station. Swarms of professionally-attired men and women rushed out from the trains to find their loved ones, who were waiting in the parking lot along with Mrs. Wollman and Jamie. Mr. Wollman saw them, walked up to them with a concerned face, not so much rushing, and said, “So, looks like the curtain is going to drop a little earlier than we expected, eh?”
“We have to go to the grocery store, Martin.”
“No problem, how you doing little buddy?” he said to his son, ruffling his hair. “You got some candy there? Can I have one of those candy cigarettes?”
“I need to save them, Dad, sorry.” Jamie said seriously.
“We can always go get more,” Martin said.
“We have to go to the grocery store first,” Jamie said.
“Oh right, nobody is working anymore.”
“But I promised Jamie we would try to find a restaurant that was still open tonight,” Mrs. Wollman said to her husband.
“Well that’s going to be a laugh, but okay. Hey, do you think they’ll have any filet mignon left? Or lobster?”
“My guess is not. But we have to hurry. We can still beat most of the crowds.” Mrs. Wollman said determinedly.
“It’s going to be just like that old TV show—supermarket sweep! I always wanted to be on that show!” Martin laughed nostalgically.
“What’s supermarket sweep?” Jamie asked.
“It was this great show,” Martin said, “Where you got a shopping cart, and you got five minutes, and you were supposed to go around and find all the most expensive things in the grocery store, and pile them into your cart, and whoever had the biggest bill would win. People always bought diapers. You wouldn’t think diapers are that expensive but they are! Do you know how much money we spent on diapers for you, Jamie, when you were a baby?”
“How much?”
“At least a thousand dollars!”
“That doesn’t sound like that much, if I wore them for two years.”
“Yes, you were very good about being potty-trained. I have to say, you figured that out right away.”
They went into the grocery store and there were dozens of other families flitting about the aisles as if they were on that formerly popular game show that Martin had referenced. The Wollmans were able to grab a few packs of filet mignon and a few lobsters. People had wanted to take them, but they were not so rude as to take all of them—they had taken a little bit and left some for others to be fair. Apparently they still wanted variety in their diets.
“Oh, please go to the liquor aisle!” Martin said, you know that’s going to get cleared out real quick!”
They grabbed bottles of wine and a couple bottles of alcohol and a few 24 packs of beer. Then they got soda. They had to get a second cart. They stopped in the produce section and liberally took a sample of every single fruit and vegetable on display. They stopped in the aisles with marinara sauces and pastas and Mrs. Wollman planned out an extravagant Italian dinner, besides the filet mignons and the lobsters. They stopped and picked up hamburgers and hot dogs and decided to cook out one night. They rushed out of the store, threw their stuff in the car, and went home.
Mrs. Wollman went to the phone book and start calling restaurants. At almost every number, no one picked up. Finally, she got through to their local pizzeria, which was Jamie’s favorite place to go.
“Oh my God, you’re still there?” Mrs. Wollman said, amazed.
“We are staying open,” the man on the line said, “We have been getting an incredible amount of requests for our pizzas.”
“Oh my God, you are a life-saver! My son will be so happy!”
“I think other restaurants will come around eventually, when they realize people still need to eat, and they want to eat something good, but there is the problem of working, while no one else is working.”
“You are saints!” Mrs. Wollman exclaimed.
“That is what keeps us going. People say they appreciate it, and it makes us feel what we are doing is worthwhile. But we are not staying open past Friday.”
The day was Monday.
“Well, can we make a reservation for tonight then, 7:30?”
“7:30 it is, Ms?”
“We will see you at 7:30.”
“Thank you, you kind saint!” Mrs. Wollman hung up the phone and called Jamie and told him and Martin that they would be going out to dinner tonight.
“Man, I really wish I knew where I could get some weed,” Martin said.
“What do you mean, weed? I can go pull some dandelions from the yard for you,” Jamie said.
“Oh, that’s so sweet, Jamie,” Martin said, “But no, I mean weed as in marijuana, which is a drug, which you should never do.”
“Then why do you wish you had it?” Jamie asked.
“Because nothing matters anymore—and it would take the edge off the concept of total annihilation,” Martin declared.
Several hours later, the Wollmans made the five minute drive over to the pizzeria. In the meantime they had played a game of wiffleball in their backyard and called their parents to decide whether or not they should try to be together. Angela’s father had died several years earlier, and so she had urged her mother to join them at her house. She lived in the southeast corner of the country but agreed to drive the two-days journey to the metropolitan section of the Midwest to be there at the right time. Mrs. Bryerson said it would be nice to get to see the country on a grand scale one last time before such a monumental event. Both of Martin’s parents were still alive, and lived roughly an hour away. He urged them to stay at their house with them, and they agreed to arrive the next day. There was also the matter of their siblings. For Martin had two sisters, both of whom lived near the northeastern sea-board, and Angela had one brother in the same region. They felt it appropriate to be together, but they said it was too much trouble to pack up and leave their own families, but they would stay in close touch over the phone over the coming days. Thus, at dinner that night, it was the three lone Wollmans together for the last time.
“I don’t know what there is to say anymore,” Martin said, as they opened up their menus after sitting, “We’ve had our lives—what else are we going to do for the next week? We are so limited in terms of our options. Nothing else matters anymore. Are we supposed to watch movies and play games and tell stories? I can’t think of anything else.”
“Well tomorrow we’ll have grandma and grandpa Wollman and the next day we’ll have grandma Bryerson,” Mrs. Wollman said, including Jamie in the conversation, “And maybe they’ll have some ideas of how to spend our time. They’re older and wiser—they probably have a better concept of how to deal with this situation.”
“You deal with the situation by letting it happen to you,” Martin said, “You fill in the final hours with whatever’s going to give you the most pleasure.”
“Why can’t we go to Disneyworld then?” Jamie pleaded, “We could see grandma down in Florida and go to Disneyworld with her!”
“Jamie, nobody is going to be working at Disneyland.”
“I don’t know Martin, a lot of people might want to go there,” Mrs. Wollman countered.
“Look you can’t be sure that anything’s possible to do except what you yourself are capable of while you are still alive and mobile and able to think and talk and use the rest of your senses. Imagine if we went all the way to Florida and found the place to be deserted with no rides working—that would be positively dangerous! You’d try to operate the rides yourself, and you could very well die! Now imagine that kind of gyp. It’s bad enough we know it’s all going to be over soon, but imagine if you died before that—that would be ironic!”
“I’m sure plenty of people will be dying in the next few days before it happens,” Mrs. Wollman argued, “People want to have control over the way they go out. Maybe there will be a lot of people who want to go skydiving, but then forget to open their parachutes.”
“No, you see, there is still a glimmer of hope that nothing will happen, and that this is all an elaborate hoax meant to bring planetary society to its knees,” Martin considered, “I mean, how are we even sure that this is really happening? Because a bunch of people on TV told us it was? Because a bunch of news bureaus are reporting that it’s the truth? No, we have to stick around and see what actually happens. I’m not going to be played for a fool.”
“So we might not die after all?” Jamie asked.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Wollman said, “I have a hard time believing everybody could be played for a fool like that, I have a hard time believing they want to incite mass panic. I think probably, they knew it was going to happen for a very long time, and they just waited until the week before to tell us, because they didn’t want us to let society fall apart too early.”
They ordered their pizza, and the two elder Wollmans ordered drinks.
“Time to get drunk!” Martin said as he took the first sip from his Manhattan cocktail, “Always remember Jamie, liquor before beer, never queer!”
“There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don’t even know where to begin,” Mrs. Wollman said.
“What’s queer?” Jamie asked.
“Well in the olden days it meant ‘strange’ or ‘weird,’ and nowadays it means ‘gay,’ but in this context it means ‘puking,’—I suppose I should have said, ‘never fear’ or ‘you’re in the clear’ but that seems like kind of a moot point now, huh? I’m very afraid! And there’s no way we’re in the clear! I don’t care if I’m ‘the man of the house,’ I’m scared to death right now! I mean, do you have any idea what it is going to feel like as we get sucked into that hole? It’s unimaginable!”
“I prefer to think it’s exciting,” Mrs. Wollman said, “There’s nothing we can do about it, we should just feel privileged that we’re going to be there for the end. It will be a sensation unlike anyone has ever felt before.”
“A sensation of unimaginable pain!” Martin emphasized.
“Dad, can I try a sip of your drink?” Jamie asked.
“Oh of course, I don’t think the drinking age is going to be enforced by anyone anymore.”
Jamie sipped from the glass and his mouth puckered inward as if he had just tasted the sourest of the sour candies he enjoyed.
“That’s the grossest thing I’ve ever tasted in my life!” he said, “How can you drink that, Dad?”
“It’s not the way it tastes, it’s the effect it gives. You see, now I’m going to be all loose.”
“Why would you need to get loose?” Jamie asked.
“Because this is a really stressful situation. I mean, I am supposed to be a good companion to your mother, and I am supposed to show you the appropriate way to face death with dignity, and I am absolutely unqualified for that! I always tried to eat healthy and exercise so that I could live to be really old, and I figured I’d have plenty of time to figure out the right way to die, but this really came up on me unexpectedly, okay, and to be honest Jamie, I think you probably have just as good an idea of what to be doing in this situation as I do.”
Their pizza arrived shortly thereafter and Jamie was much pleased. After they had finished he told his mother that she was the best for getting them to go out to dinner that night. They returned home and Martin began drinking beers, as did Mrs. Wollman. Jamie asked if he could have a beer to see if it might taste better than the cocktail and after a sip decided to have a Coke instead. They turned on the TV briefly and after a few minutes, Martin insisted that watching TV was no way to spend their time.
“Well, what do you recommend?” Mrs. Wollman challenged.
“I don’t know, we should be reading a Bible or something,” Martin said.
“That’s boring!” Jamie said.
“We don’t even go to church—you suddenly want to start acting all holy so you can get into heaven?” Mrs. Wollman questioned.
“There’s a Bible here somewhere. From my college years, an Oxford Study Bible, in paperback form. If we read something from Revelations we might gain a better grasp on what to be doing these days. It’s the best advice we could find, and I know it’s somewhere in that library.”
Martin took a swig of beer and rushed into the library.
“Why don’t we go to church, Mommy? A lot of my friends do.”
“Well your father and I, we were raised Catholic, but we stopped believing in it, because we wanted to be realistic about it, and we don’t like having to apply a moral code to everything we say—religious people are judgmental, and I had awful experiences growing up in that environment—but you could say, in a situation like this, it doesn’t hurt to have faith that this might not be the end.”
“Here!” Martin screamed from the library, bringing his Bible with him, “This is what I’m talking about—and I quote, Book of Revelation, Chapter 10: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire, and he had in his hand a little book open, and he set his right foot upon the sea and his left foot upon the earth, and cried with a loud voice, as when a lion roareth, and when he had cried, seven thunders uttered their voices.” --“See, it’s all pre-recorded—this angel is the black hole coming for us! Now what to do, to make peace with this angel, I wonder!”
Martin skimmed a while through the rest of the chapters while his wife and son looked on expectantly.
“Okay well it just says we’re supposed to go worship God. Do you want to go to the church? I think it would be kind of fun to go when it’s late like this and off-limits.”
“Can’t we do it tomorrow, Martin? We do have six more days,” Mrs. Wollman pleaded
“Better safe than sorry!” Martin emphasized
“Better late than never how about!” Mrs. Wollman corrected.
“I’d go to church and pray,” Jamie said.
“Fine, your mother can stay here and watch TV and be dumb, and we will go to church and pray before God and we are going to know how to deal with this situation.”
“You know, there is lots of coverage on TV about this black hole—it’s probably the best preparation to watch it.”
“Well, you watch it, take notes, and summarize it for us when we get back. We are going to pray, and you just know there’s going to be hundreds of people in that church. We can be in two places at the same time.”
“Fine, go have your little religious ceremony. I’ll see you when you get back.”
They hugged and kissed goodbye and Martin took Jamie over to the nearby Catholic Church. There were dozens of cars in the parking lot. When they arrived, there was a sermon being delivered by a priest, and they took a seat in the back of the church.
“We must find strength in each other,” the priest said, “We must have faith in God that we will now be delivered unto the kingdom of heaven, but until that day comes, we must find strength in each other. You are all familiar with the Ten Commandments, I am sure, but you must also realize that we don’t exactly have the time to be worrying about them anymore. That is, we should not take the lord’s name in vain, we should not kill, we should not steal, we should not covet another man’s wife—but we do not have the time to be thinking about these things—we only have time to be thinking about the two most important rules Jesus set forward, beyond the ten commandments, which of course, is to love your neighbor as yourself, and to love the lord your God with all of your mind, body and soul. That is all you must do until this Day of Judgment reigns upon us. That is all you have to keep in mind. Help your neighbors, help your friends, recognize that now we truly have nothing separating us from one another and it is the time to show that the spirit of love can save everyone in their darkest hour. Believe that God will be there at the end to save us—that this day which has been predicted from the beginning of history has finally arrived, and that God will be there to take care of us at the end of history.”
They were in the middle of a regular service, it seemed, despite the odd hour, and when the Eucharist was offered up, both father and son went down the aisle and received it, despite Jamie’s never having been taught how to receive the sacrament. He chewed on the white tablet and said to his father, “It tastes like nothing,” and his father whispered back, “I know, but the wine is good, next time you should get the wine, it flavors it, and speaking of that, let’s get out of here, I think we’ve learned enough for now.”
They returned home and Mrs. Wollman was watching the cable news channels.
“Well, is there any way we can escape the planet?” Martin asked.
“It’s not looking particularly good. Even the moon is going to be sucked into this hole.”
“Well, just have faith, and we’ll be in heaven, and it will be okay. Oh, and we are supposed to love our neighbors. We should go have a block party or something this week. That could be kind of fun.”
They went to bed around midnight. Mr. and Mrs. Wollman performed the motions of intercourse twice, and Jamie dreamed of a class-wide field trip to Disneyworld.
The next day, they had breakfast and went to the local park afterwards for a few hours. Jamie played on the playground and Mr. and Mrs. Wollman threw a Frisbee back and forth. Martin’s father called him on his cell phone and told them they would arrive around 4:00. They decided that night to make their elaborate Italian dinner, and left the park shortly thereafter in order to have plenty of time for cooking. Mrs. Wollman prepared a plate of antipasto upon the arrival of the elder Mr. and Mrs. Wollman.
Ned, better known as Grandpa Wollman to Jamie and Angela, said, “We’ve thought about this a bit and don’t think we will be able to spend the night. The accommodations are not comfortable enough for us.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Dad,” Martin said, “Won’t you stay though, over the weekend?”
“Yes, I do think we should all be together on the eve of destruction,” the elder Mrs. Wollman, better known as Patsy, offered.
“Fine, though I do believe the best way to spend these days would be in the utmost comfort. A nice, soft, properly-sized bed is what I have in mind,” Ned conceded.
They took pieces of cheese, roasted red pepper, and prosciutto from the antipasto plate, and had glasses of wine.
“Your mother will be coming in soon, I understand?” Patsy said to the junior Mrs. Wollman.
“Yes, she should be here tomorrow.”
“Crowded house!” Ned reiterated.
“Well what do you want Dad, would you rather we all be alone in our separate little enclaves? It makes the most sense for us to be together. We have some extra mattresses. I promise to make it as comfortable for you as I can.”
“I always made it comfortable for you,” Ned said, “All of the sacrifices I made for you, I barely had a life so you could have all the advantages I never had. What was it I always sad Patsy? ‘Only the best for Martin?’”
“Honey, don’t get angry at a time like this. We should be reflecting upon all the good times we had together. You know what this reminds me of Martin? When we had that tornado back in ’84 and we all had to go in the basement, and you were so scared!”
“Yes, but it’s a little different this time. I was Jamie’s age. Boy, you wish this was just a tornado, huh Jamie?”
“This is boring. Can I go play video games?”
“Oh he is so precocious!” Patsy laughed.
“Go play your dumb XBOX and communicate with all the other losers who would rather spend their last minutes in front of a screen than before the splendor of nature,” Martin gave as approval.
“Nature is a cruel thing though,” Angela said, “It has no thought to our proclivities or entertainment.”
They had their elaborate Italian dinner, and then the elder Wollmans returned to their home an hour away. The night passed similarly to the one before, and the next day Mrs. Bryerson arrived. She was more than happy to be offered a mattress on the floor of their library. She felt most at peace in a room surrounded by books.
Meanwhile, preparations for the block party had begun, with Martin and Jamie going from door to door around their street, asking if their neighbors would be interested in joining them. Roughly half of them were not home, roughly a quarter of them said they were sorry but they had other plans for Friday night, and the other quarter said they would attend, which came to a total of about 15 other guests.
“Not a very big block party!” Martin asserted. “But we’ll show them. We’ll play our music extra loud and your mother will write a poem for the occasion. You should write a poem too, Jamie, and we can organize an actual baseball game since we should have close to 18 people.”
The next few days included boredom, fear, lovemaking, story-telling, video-game playing, telephone-talking, movie-watching, and mall shopping. Mrs. Wollman said she wanted to get an excellent outfit for the block party, so she went to their local mall, and was able to find an elegant yet revealing dress from Macy’s which would best be suited for nightclubbing. She came home and began working on her poem, and she called Jamie into her room and made him write a poem as well.
On Friday, around 3:00, the guests began arriving in the backyard, where Martin would be cooking out. He offered everyone beers and suggested they move over to the local school’s baseball field to play a game. Everyone participated and the team the Wollmans were on lost badly. They returned and began cooking out and continued drinking, and then Martin announced that they would celebrate the occasion with a poetry reading, first with Jamie, and then with Angela. Martin had set up a microphone connected to an amplifier.
“This poem is called ‘When I Die,’” Jamie said.
“When I die, I won’t be able to eat any more pie
There won’t be any more days to cry
I think God is a cruel person
For letting me be born to die in transit
I’ll never grow up or know how it feels
To be the type of person who kneels
Before the altar because the Eucharist is bland
Time is running out, all the grains of sand.”
Everyone erupted into applause, amazed at Jamie’s ability to perform slam poetry. Angela clapped and then stepped up to the microphone.
“This poem is called ‘My Whole Life,’” she announced.
“My whole life I’ve been under pressure
To perform nothing more than an empty gesture
So many hours I’ve wasted typing
To find myself tightening
A legacy beyond death
Immortality on the page
An empty echo in the forest
Not to be anymore.”
More applause resounded, and then Martin stepped up and took out a guitar and plugged it into the amp.
“I’ve written a special song for the occasion—I would like to title it ‘The Hole from Hell’”
He broke into a death-metal riff and sang in an impossibly high voice.
“Oh Satan! What did you do this time? You grabbed it all out from under us
You made our time so short
You threw me in your river of death!
I don’t care!
I don’t care!
I don’t care!
Suck me in, spit me out, send me back to the place I came
You’re not gonna last any longer than me
Because once there is no prey the predator has had his day!”
Their neighbors clapped politely, as they were all getting more and more drunk, and suddenly, Mrs. Bryerson pointed into the sky.
“Look! The sky is turning green!”
They all looked up in fear.
“They were wrong about the time,” Angela said.
Ned Wollman bickered, “The government never stops lying, even at the end.”
Patsy embraced her husband and buried her face into his chest, “It’ll be just like a shot, or a band-aid, quick and painless, dear.”
Jamie hugged his mother and Martin hugged the two of them. The neighbors embraced each other. They looked up.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Brave One - Dir. Neil Jordan

Last night I watched The Brave One on my Cinemax ONDEMAND, with my burgeoning exit from L.A. and personal Time Warner Cable subscription soon to end. I had vaguely wanted to see this movie in theaters but decided to perhaps rent it, and it is best that I waited until I could watch it on TV with little effort required.

Neil Jordan is perhaps best known for directing Interview with the Vampire, The Crying Game, and Breakfast on Pluto. With those three androgyne thriller-dramedies, you might expect some subversive element in this decidedly mainstream affair. Well, the closest it comes to that is when Jodie Foster asks Terrence Howard if he can't sleep as well since he and his wife have been divorced and he has to sleep alone. He says he doesn't, and she says, "Me neither," which then should be followed by a vague cover-up like, "But I mean my boyfriend, not my wife," though nothing is said and one is just meant to fill in the appropriate blank themselves. But that is getting nitpicky and silly.

Jodie Foster plays a woman who is engaged to be married to a young Indian doctor, living in New York City and working as a radio host of a show about "walking the streets." She carries a microphone around with her and records various subway train noises and traffic. Her opening monologue is a description of how New York has changed and is no longer the magical place it is commonly referred to in works of art by famous writers. She leaves, and Mary Steenburgen, her boss, tells her great job. She goes to an art show--which I have to say is the coolest visual part of the movie, because I honestly thought they were outside on the streets when they were in fact inside a gallery in front of giant paintings of New York City storefronts.

Her boyfriend hates going to the art openings her friend Jane Adams invites them to, but he shows up this time, and they leave. They pick up their dog Curtis to talk a walk through Central Park. They stroll romantically for a while, and their dog gets loose and runs off. They find him just past a tunnel, and two n'er-do-wells start talking to them about a "leash rule" and asking for a reward for finding their missing dog and it quickly turns violent. One of the two men films them beating the crap out of the young doctor and the radio host. They go to the hospital and Jodie slips into a 3 week coma. She wakes up and is told that her husband-to-be is dead.

She has absolutely no idea how to go on, so she takes up smoking cigarettes. She has one caring neighbor from the Carribean who sees her and says, "You shouldn't smoke. It'll kill you." and Jodie Foster says, "I don't care." She takes a long time to go back to work, and the first day back on the air she freezes up and lets a minute of dead-air go by. Mary Steenburgen is upset with her about this, but her new status as victim has given her the need to talk about how cruel and terrible a place New York is, and people respond to her newfound sense of rage.

She tries to talk to cops about her case, to find the men who attacked and killed her boyfriend, but they treat her as if she has just taken a number from the deli line at the supermarket, and she goes out to buy a gun. She tries to buy one legally, but the proprietor says she has to wait a month for her license, and she says she doesn't have a month. Conveniently, there is a man in the store who knows where to get an illegal gun for $1,000 and will show her how to use it.

Then, later that night she goes to a deli to get a can of Coke and maybe some beer, and a crazy man comes in and kills his wife who is working behind the counter. Someone calls Jodie in the instant and her cell phone goes off and the guy needs to kill her too to erase witnesses, and instead, Jodie kills him. Note: I find this scene unrealistic because there is a sign on the counter that says "Restrooms for customers only"--I have never seen an admission of a deli having a restroom for customers period. Secondly, she should have stolen beer after she killed the guy, but instead she just takes the security tape to erase the evidence.

Terrence Howard comes on the scene and investigates. Later, Jodie is on a subway train, and two young thugs ask a kid what he is listening to and he says, "Radiohead" and they steal his iPod and start threatening an elderly man with his son or grandson. They all get off the train because they're scared, but Jodie stays on, and the guys come up to her, and there is absolutely the worst pun ever on the name Radiohead that could possibly exist--"Do you want to give me some radiohead too?" Jodie kills them. Two murders, same bullets, matching gun, Terrence Howard says they have a vigilante.

Later a pimp is killed, and a prostitute is saved, and Jodie has doled out justice yet again. I think I've explained enough about the movie.

The Brave One is not so much unlike the Showtime series "Dexter" or even The Dark Knight, except that it is lacking in humor or real menace. There are barely any jokes to speak of in this movie. It is the most serious movie I have watched since Deep Impact. She is something of a superhero, except there is no comic-book aesthetic to make the whole thing seamless. It just seems like Jodie is really good at being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are few surprises in the film, and the ending is the only somewhat unpredictable moment, and is relatively unsatisfying. However, there is chemistry between Howard and Foster, their performances make you want to see how it all ends, and how they are going to reconcile their opposing and yet similar aims. He has to be on the right side of the law, while getting the bad guys, but she is the one that actually takes care of business.

Honestly, I don't know whether to recommend this film or not. Perhaps if one has been a victim of a violent crime whose perpetrator has not been brought to justice, they might glean some satisfaction from such acts of revenge, and plan some similar manuever. It might prove personally cathartic, but I find this film too far outside the scope of reality, more suited to a comic book aesthetic than a realist aesthetic, for it to be properly satisfying for the viewer. It is a very dark movie that is mostly very predictable and should not leave anyone with greatly changed opinions about the nature of violence and justice.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fire on 8/9/08 in Silverlake

Yesterday I held an open house from 12 - 6 PM in an attempt to find a new tenant to sign a lease with the management company for my unit. It's the only way I can leave. After 6, greatly relieved, I closed my door and turned on Cinemax and watched Live Free or Die Hard. Wondering whether I could "go out" on a Saturday night or not with my little funding available, I saw a film called Light Sleeper was going to be on IFC at 10 and I decided to watch it. I resolved to get Taco Bell for dinner around 9:30 to be back in time for the beginning of the movie.

I went to the bathroom before I stepped outside and I heard my neighbors talking more audibly than I usually heard them talk. That is, the neighbors who live in the next yard over, in a different apartment complex. It sounded a bit like they were having an argument. I always enjoy overhearing drama but I couldn't make out much of what they were saying.

I walked outside with my keys and saw all of these strange ashes flying in the air. It was almost as if it were 4th of July, or as if there had been a sudden explosion of fireflies in the area. They were literally right above my head, but they would evaporate as they fell to the earth. I stepped off my staircase and saw a huge ball of smoke and fire apparently attacking a tree in a spot that was apparently just behind my apartment complex's parking lot. It was so close. I got scared, and was happy I was on my way to my car, but I briefly considered whether or not I should pick up my computer in case my building were to catch on fire.

A slew of fire engines and emergency vehicles and police cars flooded the area directly in front of my apartment window. As I walked to my car, firefighters jumped off their truck, unloaded and uncoiled their hose, and ran through the back of our apartment complex's driveway towards the cloud of fire. An asian girl was running around frantically. She asked me if I lived here and I said yes and she asked if everybody else in the building knew what was going on and I said I didn't know and she said, "It's huge!" And that really scared me.

So then I got in my car, went to Taco Bell, and tried to return home. Well, the police car had parked so it was blocking both lanes of traffic onto Benton Way. Feeling like it was my right to do it because I lived there, I actually turned and manuevered myself around the parked police car. I thought it was empty. But the policeman was on the sidewalk and said, "Excuse me! Did you see my car parked there?! Turn around!" I thought he was going to bust me and give me a ticket or something, but I did turn around to turn back onto Sunset and I apologized to him and he was less offended, thank God.

I turned up Marathon Dr. and circled around to the back end of LaFayette Park Place. Cones had been placed in front of and in back of the fire zone, so I parked further away than I normally did. When I did a three-point-turn to turn around when I got to the cones, there was this gay (I presume) man talking to two friends or neighbors and I guess it was his white car I was doing the middle of my three-point-turn during and he was like, "Hey! Watch out!" and I put up my hand as if to say, I have it under control, relax. I parked a couple car lengths down and walked back towards my apartment and as I passed this aforementioned gay (I presume) man I heard him say something like, "...And then I was walking up the hill and I just heard someone say 'arson.'"

I went inside and turned on IFC and watched a featurette about their new documentary "Larry Flynt: the Right to be Left Alone" and ate my Taco Bell and kept my windows open while the flashing lights of the fire engines went on for another hour.

The movie Light Sleeper was okay, but by the end I was so ready to pass out I couldn't even brush my teeth or do my dermatological regimen. I just passed out.

Yeah, that was my Saturday, basically, that and reading some more of What is the What which I hadn't picked up in over a year, and watching some of Hollywoodland.

I would like to personally thank the LAFD for protecting all of us from certain annihilation last night. I do not know how I would have responded towards losing all of my stuff at this juncture, but I do not think it would have necessarily simplified matters, though perhaps it would have made my moving easier.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Personal Statement #1

This statement is far too short, far too unfocused, and far too flippant. Further, it relies on exploitation, which I have always despised in application essays.

On August 27, 2007, on his first day of college classes, my younger brother Michael was stabbed in the neck by an ex-employee of the University of Colorado-Boulder. This posed a major problem for everyone, as I was just starting my road trip to leave home, had made it to New York to pick up my cohorts, and was on my way to Los Angeles with them. I was informed that the stabbing had happened on the day before we were to leave. I talked to my brother later that night and told him I would see him in Boulder and he told me to take my time.
The next night we stayed in Harrisburg, PA in a motel and my sister called me from Chicago and told me I had to immediately stop my trip and return there, because she had to move to Boston immediately, and I had to be there in the name of family support. The rest of the family was in Boulder. While I do wish I had taken her advice now, I did not want to abandon my plan then.
Two days later my cohorts had a motorcycle accident just outside of Roanoke, VA, and I continued the rest of the way to Boulder alone. I saw my brother there, he was fine, but my family was in mediation with the university. They then put out the carrot to me that I should apply to a graduate English program, with suggestions of easy admittance and TA-ships. Only I couldn’t apply to both an MA and an MFA program. I chose the MFA program, despite its higher selectivity, and like the year previous, when I applied to 7 such similar programs, was met with rejection.
Now, it’s August 4, 2008. I left Chicago on August 21, 2007 of last year with $20,000 in my bank account, and now I’m down to almost nothing. There are a variety of explanations for the loss of this money over the last year, and none of them are very noble. I am greatly upset by my position in society at the moment and I have decided to take one last desperate push for a serious career in law. I have always tried my best in school, but I never pursued a serious enough degree to find work after college. As a creative writer, I may boast a plentiful collection of short stories backed up on my computer, along with two novels that have been the fruit of my labors since college, but I have not seriously attempted to establish myself by publication. Though I have sent out queries to agents about my first novel, I have not been met with any interest, and I find the publishing industry far too difficult to establish myself within at an age when I am going broke, and can’t quite figure out a way to make it work economically. A dual career as a lawyer and writer is my aspiration. Whether that means I want to practice law as it relates to the arts, I am not sure. But I don’t intend to give up my goal of being published.

Personal Statement #2

Anyone seriously thinking about applying to law school and wondering what to write their personal statement about would be best advised not to take this as a sucessful model. At least five of the sentences, and perhaps the entire conceit of the essay, is inappropriate for a law school admissions committee to believe I had the right attitude to succeed in law school.

You do not know how far I have traveled to get nowhere. You do not know how close I have been to the bottom. I can assure you, it’s been a harrowing journey. This life, so cruel, so pressurized, leaves me with little energy left to fit within its walls. I make one final effort to do something progressive, positive for my social development. When I was a young child and my parents wanted me to be a doctor they told me I would have to go to school until I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, roughly twenty further years of education from that point. I could not accept it. I hated school. I wanted to drop out when I was 16.

Then I went to boarding school, a rather monumental change which succeeded in making me feel inadequate in comparison to my peers. However, there I learned the love of free expression—creating works of art from words. One of the greatest achievements in my life—the original production of a one-act play my senior year in high school, with assistance and collaboration from some ten other students—ended in a stalemate. It played for one night, to unanimous student praise, and was cancelled for its remaining two nights. It was inappropriate, according to director of the theater. He claimed one of the actors had given a mocking portrayal of a dean of students too closely approaching a real life figure. The same real life figure whom I had to meet with to discuss the appropriateness of the play for a student audience told me he had no problems with it, but felt it could be stronger as a work of art.

In college I designed my own major—the study of writing as it relates to politics. A vague definition, I know, but not only did my colloquium analyze the depiction of political rebellion in the history of literature, it attempted to demarcate the boundaries that writers must heed in order not to risk ostracism from the herd. That is, the deportment of agreeable political concepts. Earlier totalitarian leaders may have been able to manipulate the minds of their masses, but after totalitarianism, starting in the 1950’s and 60’s, logic and reason began to play a larger role. As commerce has exploded, confusion has reigned, and disasters at the national and natural level continue unabated.

After college I worked for my father’s homebuilding company to make ends meet while I worked on my first novel. I finished it in August 2007, after nearly two years of composition. It is impossible to sell. I send it to literary agents and they all reply, “Sorry, that’s not for me.” I grew frustrated and dived headlong into my second novel, which is still a work in progress, though significant in its own right at this point. I doubt I will be able to sell this book as well due to the unsavory nature of a few of its scenes.

What kind of writing does the publishing industry want? I’m not prepared to answer that question. I will say, however, that Oprah Winfrey has a better idea of the answer than I do. I have grown tired with trying to fit into an industry that has no place for me. I look elsewhere. I see the LSAT. I like the way the questions look. I decide if that’s what it takes to get into law school, doing well on this test, which relies heavily on common sense, then I could do that. I couldn’t work as part of an IT Department, but I could go back to school for something that wasn’t totally unrelated to the initial reason I went to school.

So here I am. A writer, an unpublished writer with dreams of literary fame, seeking a legal education in order to support that previous goal. There is no other reason for me to live, at this point, and my parents have shown that they are fed up with my own professed feelings of inadequacy. I have made terrible decisions, and I am paying for them now. Being published on a commercial scale is the only thing that could make me happy anymore. I do not think practicing law is going to make me happy, but I feel the need to put myself into a different world, because this one I’m in now is just so harsh, so cold, so overfilled to capacity with more qualified individuals, that I do not know where to turn. I used to think I was smart. Well, smart is a highly relative term, I suppose. I wish I had invented something, or spoke French more fluently, or had taken Spanish in high school so I could have a “bi-lingual required” job here in Los Angeles, or done something of great magnitude to impress upon you. The one act was probably my most impressive public display—the other handful of readings I have done by myself do not compare to the vision that was delivered onto that stage, and into the minds of the 250 students regarding it. Oh, for a chance to begin afresh. Oh, for a chance to establish myself once again, rather than slide down this slippery, dirty, clotted tube to destitution. In this world (maybe it’s in this town) all that seems to matter is who you know and where you can get in, and I don’t know anyone and I can’t get in anywhere. I wanted a job with Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, and Disney, but there was no way to get through to them, no way to convince them to take on another writer. I wasn’t qualified enough for a more specialized career. I’m seeking that qualification. I want to be a writer and a lawyer. Other people have done it. So can I. I hope that you’ll help me to realize this dream.

State of the Union Address

My fellow citizens of the world,
We have had a very difficult year in 2008. Our GNP has dropped precipitously. Debt is not yet an issue, but it may become one in the coming months, and this is the reason for this speech. As the proprietor of Flying Houses, I am seeking your advice in order to provide you with the best possible blog-reading experience. You may read that and say, "Well, what do you want my advice for? You're in control of your own life. You know what's best for you. I don't need to comment." Yes, and in a way, the outward motive of this speech is to clarify my position on these issues, and I will not be offended if you fail to leave a comment.
The first issue to be discussed is the Kaplan LSAT prep course. This is the element upon which all other elements depend. That is, the course goes from 8/09 - 9/27. One week after it ends is my registered test date. A little bit of background information is necessary:
The LSAT is hard. True, when one looks at each question individually, and considers the similar guiding principles to each answer, it does not appear quite so hard. However, when one is expected to read and answer 100 questions in a roughly three hour time span, anxiety and pressure enters into the equation. I bought an LSAT Test Prep book in March, back when I was seemingly "on the ball." My unemployment began, (and to update the previous posting on the topic, my appeal for my declared-to-be-ineligible benefits did not go well--another serious factor in this speech) I was not concerned, I was focused on performing well, and I scored a 148 on my first practice test. I scored a 150 on my second practice test, not too long after. Last night, I tried to take the third practice test, because I was going to be starting the course on Saturday, and had a whole new slew of practice tests to attend to, and I didn't want to waste one.
Now, for those of you familiar with the LSAT, the first section on this particular practice test taken last night was Analytical Reasoning. This threw me off terribly and I had an awful time with the clarity of the conditions for the different logic games. Logical reasoning was section two, generally my favorite section, but I found it this time to be unbearably difficult--forgetting to read the question stem first, and then the passage itself. The pressure and anxiety filled me to the brim and I had to stop--I could not complete the practice test. I decided just to use the questions for practice without trying to do them all at once.
I woke up this morning and felt an unbelievable amount of anxiety over the fact that I needed to buy more ziplock bags and Q-tips. Also, I was nearly out of food in the house, and I was going to need to replenish the supply. I reflected upon the fact that I made $1700 a month, had roughly $1000 in monthly expenses, had to pay for gas which was at least $100 a month, which left $600 a month for all other expenses. With a budget of roughly $20 a day to include food and whatever other necessities presented themselves (note: when I first realized $1700 was all I could make in a month, I decided I could no longer afford to buy that illicit flower which is probably responsible for my precipitous financial ruination), this morning I decided that it was no way to live.
It is simply too difficult to live with those kinds of restrictions on one's head 100% of the time. Too difficult to be constantly worried about how much one is able to spend. Since I had a friend visit a couple weeks ago, I have been as big a penny-pincher as ever. No social events are allowed. I could not have brunch twice (despite actually being invited somewhere) because I couldn't afford it. The $1300 for the course is on my credit card, and if I pay it off, I have to take the course, go through with it, and take the LSAT in October, despite little hope that I will be able to score somewhere in the range of 165-170 and have a chance at the schools I most want to attend. They are: NYU, University of Chicago, UCLA, UC-Berkeley (Boalt Hall), Harvard, University of Texas at Austin, Loyola Marymount University, and DePaul University.
To make matters more complicated, I have been told to ask for a raise. I am going to do that tomorrow, and while a raise of several dollars an hour might put me in a more affordable situation, I am extremely doubtful it will happen. Furthermore, a job may be opening up for me at a law firm in the coming months, that would pay slightly more than I make now, probably making it affordable as well. However, I do not know what the timetable is on that position, and it would be downtown, whereas my LSAT course is in Westwood--though there was an option to take one downtown, I preferred to have a class on a Saturday. I was thinking this was all going to be okay, I could work at my current job in Beverly Hills and go to courses on Tuesday and Saturday in Westwood, improve my score drastically, submit applications by Thanksgiving, go home for the holiday feeling somewhat accomplished and proud that I pulled it off.
I didn't even mention what happened on Sunday. But to get a more intriguing picture, I must say what happened on Friday. My neighbor knocked on my door. She told me that her car had been broken into. It was parked in the apartment parking lot, which I never used. There is no security gate, and street parking is always available just as close by. Well, she told me as a "heads up" and I felt so horrible for her. Imagine my surprise when, on Sunday, I glanced out my window and saw an abnormality on the front end of my car. I went outside to inspect closer and found a giant dent in my left front bumper. This was understandably traumatic and I put in the claim with State Farm Insurance (another issue of approaching debt in this speech) today and they told me it would have to be part of the $500 deductible plan to repair it. Now, I am going to stand up for myself in this situation, but it is truly the final straw. Not only was my car keyed by some horrible person in Culver City, but now it has been dented by an extremely rude, either uninsured or irresponsible driver in Silverlake. The price, the idea of being without my car and having to rely on the bus, all the while being near-broke, is just about enough to induce a nervous breakdown.
But I have been able to keep my head about things. This morning at work I told my closest co-worker (who trained me) at the Flavia coffee machine and I told him I might be leaving L.A. He was rather taken aback, but he said he had been in a similar situation before and knew how hard it could get.
The hardest part about leaving will be finding a sublettor. I believe at this point it is prudent to cancel my LSAT course, to cancel my LSAT registration, and hopefully begin anew a year from now with the process, either for law school or potentially a graduate english program, again. While I hate the idea of putting things off another year (as I begin to wonder about how much longer I can live with the shocks to which this body is subject) I feel I am too financially and personally unstable to make my best application effort. It is not impossible to think about still taking the LSATs in December in Chicago, and potentially even taking a Kaplan course there, but I cannot continue to pay rent at this rate. As much as it pains me to say so, my time in Los Angeles must soon come to an end. I regarded the hills of the San Fernando Valley today as I drove home from work and I instantly became sad that my scenery was soon to become so much more mundane and lacking in natural beauty.
There will be a few positives to returning to Chicago, but in general I am not going back because I am unhappy here, but because I have made a series of truly terrible decisions that have landed me in a position of encroaching debt. It is my own fault that I must go. I wish I knew a way I could make it work. I could get a second job, but with LSAT preparation, it would prove unbearably exhausting.
I am ashamed of myself for allowing my life to come to this. The last several nights I have done my usual business of praying to God to let me die in my sleep. I have not been granted my wish, however the first night I did have a roughly two-hour dream that seemed to last an entire weekend in dream-time, and that was a welcome respite from the harsh restrictions and requirements of the waking world. It bears mentioning that it was a beautiful dream, and I would gladly never wake up if I could be assured of living in a world utterly without stress, pain, anxiety, paranoia, and fear of others judgmental attitudes.
I am also scared of focusing so intensely on the LSAT and Law School applications that it would cripple my fiction writing. I would like to finish S/M in October and do the NaNoWriMo or whatever the fuck it's called where you compete with thousands of others (who knows how many) to write a novel in the month of November. Though writing has given me zero monetary gain whatsoever, I am still convinced that it is my duty to fulfill on this Earth. Whether I make my living off of it is another thing entirely. Perhaps I will post the two personal statements I wrote for Law School applications on Flying Houses just for fun. I didn't intend them seriously, but I wrote them as a way to get ideas about what to write about.
My message has been conveyed, and I hope you are satisfied with the wealth of information provided. Citizens, if you believe I should leave, please vote 1. If you believe I should stay please vote 2. If have any commentary to provide on the LSAT/Law School side, please provide as well. The decisions must be made in very short time. I thank you for your patience, and wish you a pleasant day.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann

While I learned last night that typing a blog post up while on my own dodgy internet connection can truly end up being a waste of an hour of your life, I am doing it again. I tried to cut and paste all the text into my "Flying Houses Off-line Work" document, but it was too late. The internet page had moved forward and informed me that the connection had gone down. I let out a little rant about the disadvantages that computers have brought on us. They've leveled the playing field. They've increased efficiency. They've given us access to all the knowledge and information that we could possibly desire. And everyone's become obsessed with it and now all of our personal information is controlled from variegated online databases, and yes, it would be nice to avoid all those tree-destroying bank statements, it would be nice to not have to worry about whether to throw them away or not, but in general there is too heavy a reliance on this mechanism, and I do truly believe that it has changed the arts ineffably. Novels like Buddenbrooks don't get written anymore because of its ubiquity.

Thomas Mann, born 1875, died 1955, wrote this novel at the turn of the century, not far from the age I am now, but younger most definitely, and it's just a different literary industry now--few 25 year-olds will ever have the patience, the deep well of knowledge, or the opportunity to attempt as ambitious a work. That said, there are just as many crazy writers as there ever were, people who consider 700 page novels a drop in the bucket, people who are ambitious in every sense of the word. Few, however, will reach the heights of Thomas.

Oeuvre rule: Thomas Mann has one of the strongest (if numerically stream-lined) careers of any fiction writer, having authored Buddenbrooks to make him an "overnight success," in 1901, having boldly offered up "Tonio Kroger" and "Death in Venice" in the next ten years, having spent another near-decade to complete the Magic Mountain, finally nearing the end on the reimagining of the Doctor Faustus legend, and finishing up at the end of his life with the short-story expansion into the novel The Confessions of Felix Krull. Not to mention anything about Royal Highness, the Holy Sinner, or, perhaps more impressive than anything, the Joseph tetralogy. You could get a plot summary of any of his works and get a sense of his subject matter, but more than any other writer I have been exposed to, it is the quality of the language that sets him apart and makes him more real and seemingly connected to our present-state-of-being which makes him special for me. There are few better masters to mimic.

Buddenbrooks opens up in the year 1835. Part I is a 37 page description of a dinner with the Buddenbrook family--old Johann, grandfather, Madame Antoinette, grandmother, Jean, son, Frau Consul Elizabeth Kroger, daughter-in-law, and Antonie (a.k.a. Tony), Thomas, and Christian, the three grandchildren who will grow up and make the majority of the drama in the novel.

Part II begins describing Tony, the only daughter in the Buddenbrook family, and how much she enjoys the niceties of her position in life. The family is rather well-to-do, a line of merchants that Thomas will continue. Antonie is immediately mistreated by her peers as a little girl, who think they're better than her while she continues to think very highly of herself and her family, and eventually when she turns 18, she is offered a marriage proposal. She goes away to the shore to mull it over, and there meets someone who could be considered the love of her life (indeed she will use his expression about "sitting on the rocks"--waiting for someone to come back after they had gone off to have their own fun--many years after the fact, to very moving effect, if the reader is able to remember such pinpointed details) and then has to return home and enter into a marriage of social convenience. Many reviews of this novel have absolutely no problem ruining every surprise the novel contains by paraphrasing the events in a few sentences. Yes, it would be easy to say quickly what happens to Antonie, but it would be more accurate and mysterious to say that she just has terrible luck, for whatever reason.

Thomas is the most industrious and responsible of the children and justifiably takes over the firm at a surprisingly young age when his father passes. He marries Gerda, who is something of an exotic woman from Amsterdam, who plays the violin and is musically-inclined, and many of the townspeople look down on her. Everything lands on Thomas. There are an indescribable number of stresses that affect his constitution, and this is one of the few times I've read a novel that appropriately captures the feeling of anxiety that comes with all of the overwhelming responsibilities life asks of one. Thomas is a pitch-perfect personification of that side of life, and his metaphysical awakening near the end of the novel is one of the best philosophical revelations I have read, though perhaps only because of its result. I don't want to reveal what happens to Thomas, because it is also, sort of perfect in a way, if terribly depressing. That is, it is funny in its own way.

Christian is the least-developed of the three principal Buddenbrook children, but he is the most familiar literary character. He does not consider himself fit for work, as he is constantly beseiged by pains in his left sides, has nerves that are "too short" and would rather travel and do occasional work in random businesses abroad and go to the theater then actually devote himself to the family trade. As far as the other characters go, Christian is the greatest "failure" --at dinners he likes to talk about the depravity of a woman he once knew named Maria, an English bar-buddy named Johnny Thunderstorm, and to do impressions of other friends and authority figures in town that the family knows. Eventually, his weaknesses begin to get the better of him, and his conversations turn darker, more absurd, and some of the most highly dramatic scenes in the novel come out of Thomas's dismissal of Christian. He begins to mention some kind of bottle he was filling with a gas, and how he nearly exploded himself along with all of his neighbors, and how whenever he sees an open window he has the sudden urge to jump out of it, and how sometimes he will awake in the middle of the night in bed and see a man on his couch, nodding at him. Everyone writes Christian off, but he is one of the great characters in Buddenbrooks.

Finally, besides the other dozen or so minor characters, Hanno, Thomas's only child, is the last great character. He is an artistic soul, given to music, with only one somewhat unusually close friend Kai, Count Molln, who loves Edgar Allen Poe and wants to be a writer. His mother supports his love for music by getting him a harmonium, and Thomas worries that the boy will never want to take over the family firm, as he is the last possible person to be able to do it. The climax of Buddenbrooks occurs in the almost totally obvious and mundane but in a way unthinkable recitation of a day of studies in Hanno's life, and how greatly he had come to despise them. During recess, he offers his complaints on social anxiety:

"Sometimes in class we look at each other, the way we did when Petersen got marked because he read out of a crib, when all of the rest of us did the same. The same thought is in both our minds--but you know how to make a face and let it pass. I can't. I get so tired of things. I'd like to sleep and never wake up. I'd like to die, Kai! No, I am no good. I can't want anything. I don't even want to be famous. I'm afraid of it, just as much as if it were a wrong thing to do. Nothing can come of me, that is perfectly sure."

Finally, that night Hanno plays at his harmonium, and the endlessly-ongoing paragraph that charts the improvisation of his piece, the development of a simple motif which recurs to heartbreaking effect, supposedly meant to mirror the aesthetic principles of the novel, is truly one of the most memorable passages I have seen in recent memory, not unlike the meta-reflections of music in Doctor Faustus relating to literature. The chapter that follows is similarly memorable, but is also hollow and cold in a way. The novel ends on a rather sad note and a quirky, positive image.

It's very difficult to adequately sum up this novel, but it is a great work from a forgotten era, and though these circumstances don't still exist in such the exact same form, these characters are eternal and their qualities are just as real as anyone currently living today.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann (original review)

While I have already posted a review of Buddenbrooks, I mentioned in that post that I had wasted an hour of my life writing this earlier review. Well, I found that a draft had been saved on the online server, so I am providing it as an example of what happens when you have to write the same thing twice, and how different it can come out, and why this is my serious issue with revision.

When I started off Flying Houses with a review of Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, I stated that I hadn't yet read Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain, but I was going to read them as soon as I could. Now, this afternoon I have finished Buddenbrooks, and it is equally as affecting as Doctor Faustus, though without the slow build-up that I complained of in that novel. As I mentioned in that first review, the first two hundred pages of Dr. Faustus were rather dense and difficult to get through, but once they had sunk in, the rest of the novel was a total pleasure.

In my opinion there are no weak spots in Buddenbrooks. Though Mann is a literary master for succeeding on every level categorically, perhaps his ability to create characters truly drawn from real life stands out as his greatest artistic gift. The plot of this novel can be explained very vaguely--it's about the decline of a family over four generations. They are a German family with a patriarch named Johann, born around 1770, a son named Jean, and grandchildren Antonie, Thomas, and Christian. While the novel moves slowly at first, taking time to establish old Johann and his wife, their own marriage slightly complicated, with one other son named Gotthold who has been shut out of the family for not working for the family firm and marrying appropriately to his class. It's in the characters that the plot of the novel is contained.

Antonie, also called Tony, is first the most deeply developed character. She really enjoys all of the niceties that come with being a Buddenbrook. It's easy to spoil a lot of the plot elements by writing a review. A lot of people, when they write reviews of this book, just completely go off and talk about stuff that happens all the way through the book, without any sense of not spoiling the fun for the reader. If you can call reading this book "fun" that is--though that is a joke. It is an excellent novel on every level, but it is of very depressing subject matter. However, if you yourself are not the most successful person on the planet, if you want to see someone else struggle, if you think you can gain something from reading about their troubles, well you may have found quite the book. I am always amazed by the fact that of all the different facets and hobbies in my life, it is always the book I am reading which seems to reflect my present state of being. Well, I will just say about Antonie that she falls in love, and for whatever reason she can't marry him, and so she embarks upon a life of quite bad luck, so that it seems if her first initial question of love had been better answered, so many unfortunate fates may have been spared her.

But she is not the only one. Thomas, generally known as the most respectable character in the novel, obsessed with his appearance, a town official, a Senator, the head of the family firm at its most delicate period yet, maintains a rigid, empirical approach to life. However, it is not long before he begins to suffer from depression, and the way Mann describes his personality and his exterior--the "mask" he adorns for business affairs--is truly heart-rending. Thomas is a tragic character mostly because he is the one for whom all the pressure of the firm rests upon--everyone relies on him, and the strain is brought to such a degree that it would nauseate anyone, though in truth it appears that those are the sort of feelings one inevitably does have in life. It is overwhelming in what it asks of you, and Thomas is the best character I have ever read to personify that concept. The only character really concerned about the numbers, true accountability.

Christian is a more typical literary character, and of course one I enjoy immensely and find great comfort in. He is a dabbler in the arts, who likes to go to the theater, and likes to do impressions of people that everyone in his family knows. And he has travels all over and he spends holiday gatherings telling stories about the depravity of a woman he met named Maria (with the family always not knowing how to respond), some English guy he knew named Johnny Thunderstorm, and other stories from the club where he always hangs out. In the very first scene, as a boy Christian has a digestive issue after dinner, and throughout the novel he has little medical issues that keep cropping up that he continues to exagerrate. The pain in his left side, for example, and the trouble with his nerves. Eventually he uses it as an excuse to not be able to work, and finally he starts talking about how he had been doing some experiment with a bottle and some kind of gas which nearly exploded and exploded all of his neighbors with him, or how whenever he saw an open window he had the great sudden urge to jump out of it, or how lately he had been sleeping in bed to look up and see man sitting on his couch, nodding at him. Of course, Christian is the greatest "failure" in the novel. He earns practically nothing and gets by on his inheritance parititioned out to him by his brother. I won't say what happens to him at the end though that is also commonly pointed out as if its no big deal. But I will say that he and Tony are the characters with the greatest longevity in the novel--they're there from beginning to end.

The book reaches its climax in the character of little Johann, or Hanno as he is called, the only child of Thomas Buddenbrook, whose wife Gerda is an accomplished violinist from Amsterdam, and who instills a deep love of music in the boy. She gets him a harmonium, and he increasingly spends time improvising on it, which is upsetting to Thomas, who expects him to take over the family firm and keep their name alive. He has one close friend named Kai who wants to be a writer and is really the only to lend him emotional support, besides his mother. The way the novel ends was rather crazy, in my opinion, and I have to call it a movement of genius, (like Leverkuhn's final symphony ending to Doctor Faustus), which has a chapter with a surprisingly detailed day of studies at school, which then spells out all of Hanno's fears about the impending struggle before him, and especially, most beautifully, more beautifully than any other passage in the book, I noticed the next two pages were of one massive paragraph, describing in detail how Hanno played on the harmonium that night, the "simple motif" he had developed longer, and longer to heartbreaking effect at its end. The passage is one of the most lyrical I have ever laid eyes on, and if what I have read is true, it is supposedly a summary of the aesthetic principles that went into the work of the writing of the novel itself. It is not so different from Faustus in the way it uses music as a meta-reflection of literature, at least in the character of the artistic soul of Hanno.

Buddenbrooks is a novel that I had never heard anyone talk about, or remembered hearing anyone talk about, in my entire life. Thus it is probably "out of fashion" and for some specific reason--maybe it is just too long? Regardless it is a work of great emotional depth that....