Bettendorf Public Library › Call for entries for NaNoWriMo flash fiction contest

Source: Bettendorf Public Library › Call for entries for NaNoWriMo flash fiction contest

Judge Ethan Canin presiding. He currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

I haven’t kept up with the workshop since 2009, when I applied to two graduate programs in writing. IWW turned me down. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago accepted me. Glean from that what you will.

Whether or not Canin opts for the minimalist style the workshop’s championed for the past seventy-odd years (which is roughly sixty-odd years too long), it’s nice to have some crossover between that literary community and the one in the Quad Cities – which, while special in its own way, is not nearly as centralized as Iowa City’s own writerly population.

The more participants we have, the more similar opportunities will crop up in our region. So everyone write a 300-word short story. Everyone. Even if you don’t feel like it. The average Facebook post is half that length. You can do it. You got this.

Do it for Uncle Sam.

Do it for Uncle Sam.

Deteriorations in Domestic Peace

We’re going to look back on this as a profoundly dark time in American history. The Institute for Economics and Peace just published its 2016 Global Peace Index report. The United States is charted alongside Saudi Arabia and Peru. (As the world’s largest producer of cocaine, Peru actually sees more homicides related to environmental activism than to its drug trade.)

These numbers are from data collected in 2015, so they don’t include the most recent surge of civil discord and public executions/assassinations.

People in my own hometown, who have never marched for anything, are holding a March for Solidarity tonight in response to the rash of shootings across the country. I’m actually afraid to go.

I was afraid at the G8 summit in 2012, when Chicago police stood alongside the protest route with their batons at the ready, held out in front of them so, together, they formed a human barricade. I made it through that, anxiety disorder and all, but then I got to the portion where the state police forced the route to narrow significantly so that protesters were all squished in together like sardines with nowhere to go. Nope, nope, nope. Staties are huge and reek of sadism. I walked over a mile out of the way to get to the end of the march rather than go through that.

Photos of officers beating protestors ran on every front page the next day. Press especially liked one of a local officer raising his baton amid a brawl, just about to bring it down, with an expression that appeared to be one of maniacal glee.

nina_nato_51

This one is my favorite. Look at this officer going to his happy place. Photo by Nina Berman 

My fear of police is relatively benign. I fear them as I feared playground bullies. I’m aware that they could kill me but am almost positive they’ll restrain themselves before it gets to that point.

But maybe they won’t. There’s no recess monitor. There’s no one to be the voice of reason and pull the kids apart. There’s no reason for restraint and no consequence for indulgence.

The smallest misunderstanding could be the first sign of violence, and in a society so filled with misunderstanding – and misinformation and misguidance and misplaced rage – I fear entering a large crowd like the one that will be at the March for Solidarity.

Why? Because a childhood friend’s teenage sister was shot to death recently. A few days later, police arrested a couple of suspects, one of whom was 14 years old. A 14-year-old had a handgun. It’s alarming, but no one seems to be truly and deeply shocked by this. I’m not even that shocked, if I’m honest with myself.

In a society where a 14-year-old owns and uses a handgun, killing an innocent child, and no one is astonished, it is reasonable to fear one’s fellow humans regardless of who they appear to be.

A March of Solidarity should be a peaceful affair. But I have every reason to believe that it won’t be. I have every reason to believe that it could turn into a deadly event.

The Global Peace Index report is 127 pages long. It gives the impression that while homicides and crime rates in the United States remain relatively stable, militarization increases are some of the greatest in the world. The Institute for Economics and Peace points out that this leads to decreased internal and external peace, as well as an increase in perceived criminality and domestic terror organizations. In short, we’re fueling a deep-seated cultural mistrust of our government (both local and federal) and of each other.

The Institute’s projections for future global violence are not encouraging. Deaths caused by terrorism have more than doubled in the past eight years. If you look at the Institute’s map, it looks just like one tracking an epidemic. We’re wandering right into the middle of that epidemic and we’re not protecting ourselves at all.

Into the Wild

I’ve spent the last semester encouraging non-readers to enjoy and engage with literature. I find it difficult to explain why reading is important. It’s something to which I’ve always applied inherent value.

How does one inspire an interest in reading? It doesn’t necessarily have to be Chaucer or Austen or Eugenides. In fact, most people spend more time reading than they realize. Jackson Bliss makes a relevant observation in an article he wrote for the Daily Dot: due to the increasing availability of digital information, “we have become both reading junkies and also professional text skimmers.”

chaucerbar

*skims skims skims* tavern *skims skims*

To be fair, skimming can be useful, especially when searching for a specific piece of data or trying to get through 60 pages of an anatomy textbook between work and daycare pick-up. But how to adequately communicate the importance of deep reading?

It’s more than just that immersive sweet spot where the text becomes all and the rest of the world drops away – that feeling of heightened senses and lowered blood pressure. Deep reading does more than offer the reader an experience. Fiction builds empathy. A biography brings history to life, which itself gives the reader a clearer understanding of society and his place in it. Science writing shows us the astounding in the everyday phenomena that we take for granted.

Deep reading enhances comprehension, which allows a reader to get the most out of the material. I felt this intuitively years and years before I could articulate it.

I don’t feel qualified to teach reading classes. I know how to explain the importance of reading. I know how to explain context and show students how to break complex selections down to their smallest parts to improve understanding. But how does one teach others to recognize that immersive sweet spot? How does one motivate others to find it?

Into the WildInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what made me read this book. I, like many others, did not have a very charitable view of Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless prior to digesting Krakauer’s sketch of him. McCandless seemed like a spoiled trust fund kid who arrogantly tripped up to Alaska to live out his half-baked ideals built on a post-adolescent misunderstanding of philosophy 101.
Now I have a bit more admiration for the guy. He still sounds like a pain in the ass with an inflated ego and a penchant for melodrama, but he was intelligent and fairly brave (though it’s difficult to tell how much of his behavior is based in bravery or in a failure to comprehend his own mortality). In short, I like the guy, but I wouldn’t want to have a lengthy conversation with him.
What the book really gave me was a deeper understanding of the nature of the wanderer and how far a person is willing to go in search of something they themselves can’t define. That’s what makes McCandless a sympathetic character, ultimately. We can see ourselves in him, in how he can’t go long without scanning the horizon. You even get the sense that he was on the right track in his search; his journals give you the impression that he was starting to understand the virtue of roots. While he always would have had the travel bug (or “itchy feet”, as he called it), if he’d made it out of his predicament in Alaska, he’d probably be another family man with a steady job and we might never know his name or story. Instead of being known for his wandering, he’d be the one interesting guy in someone’s office who everyone hopes will come to the company Christmas party but who probably won’t because he’ll be on a plane to Japan.
Interestingly, all of the wanderers Krakauer mentions are men. Are men more prone to wandering? Or maybe it’s just that no one pays any attention to the women. That seems more likely, actually.

View all my reviews

Let Mark Twain Love You

This morning, one of the first things that happened when I got out of bed was this: I discovered that Alan Rickman died. From cancer. At age 69.

It reminded me of a day earlier this week, when one of the first things that happened when I got out of bed was this: I discovered that David Bowie died. From cancer. At age 69.

The universe is stuck in a rut. That’s typical of this time of year. The holidays are over, and we all have to go back to work. There’s ice all over the goddamn ground, the sun rarely shines, and everyone’s hot, sexy bodies are covered in layers of bulky cloth.

Don’t let yourself get bummed out. Get a Happy Light and a good book. The light bouncing off the pages and directly into your eye holes will make your brain feel awesome. For optimum awesome, I recommend Mark Twain’s descriptions of California and Hawaii. Yes, it’s old-timey escapism, but consider this: So far, 2016 has killed some of our favorite people. Perhaps it’s time to cut our losses and abandon this present reality.

Roughing ItRoughing It by Mark Twain

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Twain’s semi-autobiographical account of his time on the Western frontier of the United States around the time of the gold rush. He tells of his work in mines, in processing mills, and on newspapers, as well as buying into a few get-rich-quick schemes. These schemes never work out as he hopes (of course; few plans of this type ever do), but they make for brilliant fodder: Humorous accounts of youthful hubris and naiveté. Character sketches that are a goddamn scream.
The book ends with a trip to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands). Though this section seems to have been tacked on as a sort of bonus track, it’s an exceptional piece of work in and of itself. Prepare yourself for some good old fashioned racism, but take mild comfort in the fact that Twain’s perspective seems progressive for a white guy in mid-to-late-1800s; he takes the piss out of the Christian missionaries who demand that the native Hawaiians abandon the hedonistic ways that Twain says perfectly suit life in such a Paradise.

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New Amsterdam

One of the great things about abandoning your blog for over a year is the feeling of renewal when you get that email telling you your domain name is about to expire and you decide, what the hell, this is my piece of the Internet pie.

I’m an American. And a Viking. I’ll take this already occupied land and call it something new; we’ll chop down some forests, reroute a few rivers, and voilà! It’s The New World.

awholenewworld

Remember the ’90s?! REMEMBER?!?!

In this New World, it won’t matter that we can’t commit to a theme. It won’t matter that we cherry pick the rules of grammar and punctuation. It won’t matter that we can’t stop listing examples in groups of three.

Because, in this New World, we make the rules. That’s the New Deal. And we’ll mix metaphors all we want because FREEDOM.

Online Exile and the World Wide Wilderness

My body is currently covered in a giant rash. It’s pretty embarrassing, but apparently I have no problem posting about it on the internet, where strangers can read about it forever and ever.
The thing is, I can’t really leave the house – anything but jammies exacerbates the itching, plus I look like a leper – and am getting stir crazy. Like, bored enough to dig deep into the darkest depths of the internet.

come play with us...

come play with us…

I’m not talking about adventures into the Deep Web, which are a gamble. You run the risk of seeing things you can’t unsee. These are sites that are not indexed on your standard search engine. They’re not meant to be found by the general population for reasons that are… nefarious. For example, according to The Daily Dot, the Deep Web drug market is more robust than it was prior to the big Silk Road bust of 2013.

Snuff films, weaponry that defies the Geneva Conventions, human trafficking, hitman services, the most reprehensible pornography imaginable – these are all fodder for the Deep Web. I’ve never surfed any of the types of sites listed above (thankfully, many of the worst Deep Web pages require downloading a special browser to view them), but I’m probably now on one or more government watch lists just for blogging about them. If you’re curious, do yourself a solid and just read this article from The Next Web. Your IT guy/gal will thank you.

The “depths of the internet” of which I speak are more like “deep web” – note the lowercase and quote marks. These are sites that do appear on Google, but they serve such a niche audience that they are buried, virtually invisible to the casual surfer.

Stuff like this! It’s a forum populated entirely by people who believe that Digimon are actual, living beings that exist in an alternate dimension and “…there could be a top secret government agency trying to stop monsters (digimon) from bioemerging.” Users of this site refer to themselves as Digimon Existence Theorists.

Ah, theorist sites. There are a million of them, and they’re all great. Everyone’s favorite, however, has got to be Time Cube 4ce. Here’s a direct quote: There is no human entity, just human Cubics – as in 4 different people in a 4 corner stage metamorphic rotation – never more than 1 corner at same time.” If that well of text intimidates you, The Men in the High Castle has snack-size examples of conspiracy theories that’ll help you procrastinate for days.

My favorite “deep web” sites, however, are the ones that are essentially interactive avant-garde pieces. Like Neave.tv: Television without Context. Or StaggeringBeauty (click with caution, epileptics). I spent a good fifteen minutes exploring Alcyone oo, which is impressive considering years of internet abuse has left me with the attention span of an eggplant.

If you clicked the above links and are hungry for more, check out the subreddit /r/InternetIsBeautiful.

For now, I will leave you with this, another oldie that may have been missed by those of you who have real lives:

He did indeed.

Manic Zines and Murder Ballads

There’s something about zines that I find irresistible. Maybe it’s because they’re so democratic – accessible and relatively sustainable.

Cary Grant Died Here is a newly-launched comedy/music zine out of Davenport, Iowa that relates to one of my favorite stories about the city. Like all good hometown legends, it’s full of speculation and misremembered facts, such as the common assertion that Cary Grant died at the downtown Blackhawk Hotel, whereas he actually died at a hospital a few miles away.

And again, in accordance with tradition, the local media response was as pitiable as it was hilarious.

Image

Your grandmother wrote this headline… and everything else on the page.

The zine is not a medium that invokes reverence. That said, Cary Grant Died Here actually has very little to do with the man himself. That’s all I’ll say, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. You can pick up your own copy of Issue #1 for free at Rozz Tox, Ragged Records, and The Artery, as well as the trunk of Jeff Tady’s car.

Meanwhile! – To tide you over until you can get your hands on your very own copy, here’s my contribution to Issue #1;  it’s an article about a fascinating/disturbing musical phenomenon known as the murder ballad, which sort of makes me want to launch straight into Emily Dickinson mode re: my social life. I’ll have to learn to bake.


He did indeed.

I don’t know why the Fort Armstrong blockhouse is above his head. He did not die at the Fort Armstrong blockhouse, either… or did he?

If you were born after 1995 and have a pulse, it’s safe to say you’ve seen Raising Arizona and remember that beautiful, chilling melody that accompanies H.I.’s dream sequences. Late in the film, we hear part of the actual song, as sung by Holly Hunter to the baby: “… the scaffold waits for me, for I did murder that dear little girl…”

It seems like a weird song to sing to an infant, especially when you hear the rest of the lyrics. In this particular song, titled “Down In the Willow Garden,” a young man takes the girl he loves on a picnic. He then poisons her, stabs her, and throws her body in a river. When performed by the Everly Brothers, the song gains an extra layer of creepy as the horrific events are related to the listener in ethereal harmony.

This is a murder ballad, a song about a brutal (usually sexually-motivated) murder, and a genre has been popular throughout modern history, spanning generations and crossing continents, from 17th Century Scottish bards to the shrieking banshees of modern country-western music.

The best murder ballads, however, come from the Appalachia region of the United States in the first half of the 20th Century, when writings about that area were commonly sensationalistic, portraying its people as impoverished, desperate moonshine drunks prone to impulsive violence and spectacular revenge. So you know a murderous narrative set in that time and place is going to be way more thrilling and dramatic than anything on TLC.

One of my favorites is “Knoxville Girl,” which tells the story of a man on an evening walk with the “girl [he] loved so well,” whom he decides, apparently on the spur of the moment, to beat to death with a large stick. After the first blow, his girlfriend falls to her knees and begs for her life, but he kills her anyway, beating her until her blood runs all over the road. Then, he grabs her by her beautiful, golden curls, drags her body around for a while, and finally chucks her in a river (a common method of disposal in this genre – I guess there are a lot of rivers in Appalachia).

The narrator implies that he kills her simply because he loves her so much, which doesn’t make sense until you remember that this is the bible belt. They aren’t married, so they can’t get down, and masturbation is, of course, a sin. Basically, the subtext is that this fellow was driven mad by lust, and, in a fit of sexual frustration, killed the shit out of the object of his desire.

That’s what makes Appalachian murder ballads the best – while jealousy and revenge are typical motivations, the songs in which the only motivation is love (read: sex) are the most provocative. Imagine how exciting it must be to go on a date in this environment, knowing that if you refuse to give your boyfriend a blowjob, he might get blue balls and strangle you.

For more songs about sexy, sexy murder, look up the works of Lead Belly, the Kingston Trio, Gillian Welch, Kristin Hersh, and check out “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen.