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Friday, July 18, 2014

I Own the Moon

Many years ago I got a telescope as a Christmas present. It's what's known as a "department store scope", a silver-gray refractor with a small aperture and a variety of overpowered eyepiece lenses. Serious amateurs bemoan the popularity of these scopes as gifts: they are difficult to use, difficult to aim, and produce poor-quality or overly-sensitive images. The frustration that results from trying to use one of these telescopes to see anything tends to convince many aspiring amateur astronomers to take up another hobby.

I made mine work.

I remember the first time I saw Saturn through it. I had followed the advice in my astronomy magazines and used the lowest-power eyepiece. I aimed the tube carefully, peered in the eyepiece...and there it was. Tiny, very tiny, but pin-sharp. I could see rings. I think I could even see bands, if I squinted just right. But it was there. This wasn't Saturn in a photograph. This was Saturn, live, real. In my telescope. In my lens. In my eye.

Mine, I thought.

This was my Saturn. Maybe at that moment I was the only person looking at Saturn through a telescope. Probably not, but even if other people were watching, no one else had these photons. These photons had come from the sun, bounced off Saturn, traveled back across space, penetrated the atmosphere, found their way into my telescope and onto my retina, and no one else's. This Saturn was mine.

One of the great frustrations of my early efforts with digital photography was my inability to get a good photo of the Moon. My zoom wasn't strong enough, my image didn't have enough pixels, my camera couldn't adjust for the brightness. At best I could get fuzzy pictures that had some Moon-like features on them.



Earlier this year,courtesy of my job, I became the owner of a new digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix P520. It is my third Coolpix camera, but it has capabilities far beyond the previous two. It has a 42x zoom. This is interesting, not just because of the Douglas Adams connection, but because 42x is a sufficient zoom to result in an image of the Moon that nearly fills the frame. It also has very sophisticated image stabilization and the ability to adapt to different levels of image brightness. It turns out that it is ideally suited to take pictures of the Moon.

May 5, 2014

May 11, 2014

June 7, 2014

July 11, 2014
 
The level of detail is astonishing. And take note: the first three of these photos were taken freehand. At 42x, in Sports (high shutter speed) mode. (The last one was taken using a tripod and 60 frames per second imaging, with brightness and contrast enhanced.)

And these are my images. Mine. My photons, my camera, my lens, my imager. No one else saw exactly these same images. This is my Moon.

So how about you? Wherever you are, unless you live underground, the Moon is visible some time during the month. It is bright enough to penetrate even the most light-polluted urban environments. You almost certainly have a camera, very likely a camera better than mine. What's keeping you from aiming it at the Moon and snapping some photos?

This is what I think of as the Shoot the Moon Challenge: everybody should go out and get some photos of the Moon. Post them online, on your blog or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or wherever. Share them with the world. Check out other people's images. Hone your skill, improve your photos. Take better images and post them. Whatever you get will be your Moon. Other people will have images of the Moon, but none of them will be the same as yours. None of them will be the same as mine.

So get some photos of the Moon. Share them online. Realize how amazing what you've just done is. Realize that in a sense you now have possession of the Moon - or at least, of the particular set of photons you captured to make your image. You own that set of photons. You own that Moon.

But not these. These are mine. I own these.

I own the Moon.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Advice to a young poet

I've been involved with the local poetry scene for about two years now, and all that while I've been making some observations, especially of the young poets just doing their first readings. Now, as someone who has possibly been involved in poetry for less time than some of these young poets, it seems preposterous that I should be offering advice. But I have watched some other people providing advice to some of these kids, and some of it seems awful. (The worst seems to be "Say 'fuck' more. Every third line at least. It will make your poetry hip, edgy, and confrontational.") So I thought maybe I would string together my thoughts in one place. But this is very much a work on progress.

The first line has become my personal motto. It also describes what I've been doing for the last two years.


Crash the party. Dance with the prettiest girl in the room. Act like you belong.

You have a voice. Use it.

You have many voices. Find them. Use them, too.

Be brave. Be strong. Be unapologetic. Make damned sure you're heard.

Be unafraid to show vulnerability.

Filling your poem with "Fuck" doesn't make you sound cool. At all.

Be just a poet and you will be broke. (Unless you're writing poems by cats, then you'll be a bestselling author.) There's no shame in being something else AND a poet. Becoming a welder doesn't mean you've given up your dreams. Being a welder who is also a poet is incredibly awesome. Being a poet who is also a welder will strike fear into the hearts of your fellow poets.

Poetry is a lot of things. It has a history. Being your own person doesn't mean you have to reject everything that has come before. There are many styles. Study them. Reject the ones you don't like, embrace the ones you do. Create your own.

It's not all about you. But sometimes it is.

Lots of people will give you advice. Some of it is good. Most of it is crap. The trick is to learn how to discern one from the other.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A decade of blogging

As of yesterday, May 14, 2014, I have been blogging, off and on, for ten years.

I've seen a lot of changes. I've seen a lot of bloggers come and most of them go again. I've followed the lives of my favorite bloggers for years after they stopped blogging.  I've watched ephemeral applications like Twitter and Facebook largely supplant blogging as a means of people expressing themselves. I've watched those tweets and Facebook posts get buried like pebbles in a landslide.

Another Monkey is still around!



Sunday, May 04, 2014

Broken Windows and Bent Rims: the Pothole theory of economic stimulus

When I was in high school I had to take a social studies elective. I chose Problems of Democracy, a course taught by one of my favorite teachers. It was rumored to be a very easy class, but the subject matter sounded interesting, so I took it.

Among the many topics covered was the decaying infrastructure of the nation. Many of the bridges, roads, and even highways that we use every day were quite old, and most had not received regular maintenance since their construction. Such things were expensive budget items, and the likelihood of catastrophic failure during any given two-year time span was fairly low, so it was easier to do the minimum maintenance necessary to keep traffic and interstate commerce flowing and leave the problems for the future to deal with.

That was thirty years ago. Things haven't changed much since then. We're still kicking the costs down the road - not just for transportation infrastructure, but also for energy infrastructure, gas mains and electrical grids and nuclear power plants which continue to run well beyond their originally intended lifespans.

In economics there's the "Parable of the Broken Window." In summary: from one point of view, a broken window can stimulate economic activity, at least for the people who repair and replace windows. But from another point of view, the money that is used to repair or replace a broken window s not available to be spent on other things. The broken window may result in a small localized benefit, but it results in a net economic loss to the system.

Pennsylvania has huge infrastructure problems. Heavy truck and commuter traffic along the northeastern corridor which cuts through the state coupled with winters which (except for the few years prior to this one) are typically brutal and full of freeze-thaw cycles results in numerous potholes on local streets, parking lots, around train tracks, on bridges, and interstate highways. This winter has been particularly rough for potholes, possibly because of pent-up pothole precursor conditions that never expressed themselves in the past few years, possibly because of the viciousness of this winter's cold, possibly because of past use of inadequate repair materials. And while some "cold patching" has taken place, a concerted repair effort is not planned, according to some reports, until July.

Is there some massive government-industrial conspiracy to keep the roads full of potholes?

It's not as ridiculous as it sounds. State and local government can see near-term economic savings by postponing repairs - kicking the problem down the road, or even not dealing with it at all in some situations. State and local governments have absolved themselves of responsibility for damage caused to vehicles by potholes: it is, they argue, the responsibility of the driver to be in control of their vehicle at all times. If you hit a pothole, the argument goes, it is either a deliberate act by the driver, or a failure to maintain control of the vehicle by the driver.

So you've hit a pothole.  Bent rims, blown tires, sidewall bubbles, broken shocks, bent arms - numerous things can happen when you hit a pothole. Now you need to get your vehicle repaired. After you get those repairs, you should also get an alignment done to avoid uneven wear to your tires. Of course, that alignment will only hold until you hit your next pothole - probably on the way home from getting the repairs done. As long as there are potholes (and you insist on not being in control of your vehicle, you irresponsible driver!) there will be the potential for more damage and more repairs.

Where does the conspiracy come in? Well, consider: the state government saves money not doing pothole repairs. Repair shops and tire stores see an increase in business. And the state sees an increase in tax revenues from the money being spent on repairs and replacements! Everyone benefits. Except, of course, for the people shelling out the money for the repairs and replacement parts.

A friend once cautioned me that you should never ascribe malicious intent to a situation where basic incompetence explains matters just as well. That may very well be the case. But consider: we live in a state where the governor trumpets the fact that he has saved money by cutting thousands of jobs from the state payroll - that is, he has put thousands of former state employees out of work. A state where the governor pledged not to increase taxes, and kept that promise by increasing and in some cases doubling fees for basic state services like car registration and driver's license renewal. It is not inconceivable that a plan that saves money and increases tax revenue by essentially doing nothing would get a green light.

Is this basic incompetence or malicious intent? Are potholes the "broken windows" of the Pennsylvania economy?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Upcoming...

I've been neglecting this blog a lot lately, which is sad, especially with my...TENTH?!...blogiversary coming up in a few weeks. Of late this has become mostly a poetry blog, and that's not likely to change soon. My current situation is giving me time for the occasional poem, some photography, and not much else, and poetry is something I can handle financially - mostly. At least for the free poetry readings.

I have a few poems slated to post here. I may put up two versions of each, as they were originally read and as they were revised. The second one is something of a work in progress and may continue to be revised for a while.

I also have a photography challenge to put out there. I don't know if anyone will hear it, but it might be worth putting out. Here's a preview of what it involves.


(Did I mention I have a new camera?)

We just had another Blog Fest this past Friday. While these have become primarily political events rather than primarily blogging events (confusing and misleading any new non-political bloggers looking to socialize with other bloggers in the area), it was good to see the bloggers who were there. (I was only able to be there before the crowd filled in, and after most of it had cleared out because of a previously scheduled poetry commitment.)

More soon, I promise. Other demands on my time at the moment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Poem: blossom


blossom

I saw a black blossom floating in a bird bath once
it had red and pink petals spreading out in the water
and a long pink stem behind
and, on closer inspection, little feet attached to little legs
and I realized it wasn't a blossom at all
but the back half of a rodent
a mouse, or rat, or (as I would later determine)
a vole, a cute chubby little creature with a fondness for the cocoa hulls
I was using to mulch my blueberries.

It had been going about its vole-ish business one day
when some keen-eyed bird spotted it
a hawk, most likely
and snatched it up to have it for lunch
But the rodent struggled mightily, fighting for its life,
forcing the bird to expend energy just to hold onto this bit of food
and in the end it decided that half a vole was better than none
and it bit the vole in two, flying off with the still-struggling front
and leaving the back to fall into a birdbath
where its guts spread out like red and pink petals in the water
and its tail stretched out like a stem
and it floated there, waiting for me to find it


This poem was first presented at the Kick Out the Bottom Open Voice reading at Embassy Vinyl in Scranton on February 28, 2014. I got the idea to write it at the previous month's event - though, as you'll see, most of it already existed years ago.

I prefaced this by saying "I think I'm starting to get a reputation of something of a love poet. So I've decided to do something different - a poem about nature." Most people laughed, possibly expecting an ode to nature, not something about nature red in tooth and claw and beak and expanding guts.

I knew I had written about this incident previously. It's described in one of my most-commented posts, "The Strange Case of the Headless Rabbit":

...A few years ago I saw my first vole, sort of, in a birdbath. Actually it was half a vole, the back half. I thought it was some sort of strange blossom that had landed in my birdbath, with a short stem and a black bud and a red blossoming flower. The "stem" turned out to be the vole's tail, the black "bud" was its back half, and the red "blossom" was just its guts spreading through the water. Ah, isn't nature lovely?
I figured some bird of prey had swept down and snatched a hapless vole as it scurried across my lawn towards the safety of my garden shed. The vole, a fat mouselike critter, put up a valiant struggle as the bird perched on the birdbath and gathered its strength to carry the rodent off in its beak. Maybe the vole scored some points with its sharp little teeth. (I had a vole bite me once, when I caught one just outside my garden shed and picked it up to study it. Dumb.) The bird, growing annoyed, realizing that it was in danger of losing its meal, and instinctively understanding the rapidly diminishing net energy gain from this food source as it subtracted out the increasing amount of effort being expended to secure the food source, made a snap decision and bit down hard with its powerful beak, cutting the vole in half and ending its struggles. Pleased with its decision, it let the part of the vole that had been outside its beak drop into the birdbath and flew off to consume its meal, or perhaps share it with a mate or its chicks...

That was written on April 22, 2006, and described an incident from several years earlier - possibly as far back as 1998 or so. Sometimes it takes me a long time to work something into a poem!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Poem: Love anyway


Love anyway

You stand there like a clown in a spotlight without a broom
because you love her
more than you can say,
more than you have ever loved anyone else,
more than anyone has ever loved anyone else,
and she does not love you

She loves him
and he has no poetry in his soul

But love her anyway
even if she will never love you

Because the opposite of love is not hate
the opposite of love is not indifference
the opposite of love is resentment
bitterness and anger for being denied that which you know you deserve
that which is given freely to one so undeserving

Love becomes you in a way resentment does not
love is not the answer
love isn't even the question
love simply is

Love her anyway
because you love her
and whether she loves you or not
or continues to love him
him, the one with no poetry in his soul.
you will have loved greatly and grandly and without hope of reward
and the universe will have become a better place for it

So take off the greasepaint
and the shabby hat
forget the broom
step out of the spotlight
put aside the resentment
and love her anyway


This is the fifth version (at least) of this poem. I first read it on January 31, 2014 at the Kick Out the Bottom poetry reading at Embassy Vinyl in Scranton (just a few hours after a major rewrite at work over lunch) and then presented it again on February 20, 2014 at the Third Thursday Open Mic Poetry Night at the Vintage in Scranton, with the line "the opposite of love is not apathy" changed to "the opposite of love is not indifference."

As with most of my poems, this came from several sources. I originally came up with the line "I love you and you love him and he has no poetry in his soul" back in November of 2013, but didn't take it anywhere. In early January I tried to come up with the saddest image I could think of that could be used as the basis of a poem, and I thought of the old Emmett Kelly Jr. "sweeping up the spotlight" routine. For those who don't know, Emmett Kelly Jr. was a very famous hobo clown back in the 1970's who would end his performances with a bit in which he used a broom to sweep up the spotlight. Sometimes this was played for laughs, as he would chase multiple spotlights across the stage as they grew and shrank, appeared and disappeared. But sometimes this was played for pure pathos: he would sweep at the edges of the spotlight, making it smaller and smaller, until it finally disappeared and the show was over. This made me cry when I was a kid. How much sadder, I thought, if he went out to do this routine and realized he had forgotten his broom?

So I pictured a pathetic, lovelorn sap, standing there broken-hearted, hoping to garner some sympathy for his plight, realizing he had screwed up his opportunity to do this and just looked like even more of a fool.

Good, good. But where was this going? What did I want to say?

Poems in the "Waaah, my heart is broken, life sucks" genre are a dime a dozen. Less than that: go to most poetry open mics and you won't even have to pay a dime to hear numerous poems with this same message. If every person who ever had their heart broken gave in to misery and despair and just curled up and died, the human race would be in immediate danger of extinction. But most people get over it. The pain dulls, they move on, maybe they find some sort of happiness with someone else. Well, hooray for that, but was that really what I wanted to say? "Ehhh, you'll get over it?"

No. I realized I had something else to say. If you really love somebody - love them on a level beyond just wanting to get laid, beyond infatuation or lust, but really love them - then it almost doesn't matter if they love you in return. Your feelings for them aren't conditioned on reciprocation. Your love exists on a level the best word for which would be Platonic - if that word were not already being used to refer to another type of relationship entirely. And this is dangerous territory, because it sounds like its delusional, or steeped in denial, or simply stalker-ish. But it isn't intended as any of these things. The message is simply: if you truly love someone and they don't love you in return, you love them anyway - and go on with your life. Don't wallow in darkness and misery and despair, writing bad poetry about how your suffering is beyond anything anyone else can understand. Love them anyway, and get on with it. 

And so I wrote this.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"If I had the time to write about every little thing that happened in my life..."

"If I had the time to write about every little thing that happened in my life, I wouldn't." That was the opinion of blogging expressed by a friend of a friend about ten years ago. That was before Twitter and Facebook came along end encouraged people to engage in a degraded sort of blogging, a running commentary and series of "lookit this!" presentations.  (Ultimately the person who made this statement had a nervous breakdown. I'm not saying the two things are related, but...)

So I guess this is going to be another one of those "Where I've been / What I've been doing" posts that have taken the place of a lot of the blogging I used to do. Only it won't be like them, because I'm going to be leaving out most of the details. One of the reasons I haven't been blogging is because much of the stuff I've been doing has had me intimately involved in someone else's personal life, in a way that neither of us is really comfortable talking about yet. Facebook has a relationship status of "It's Complicated," and the two of us would be the prime example of that status - if she weren't already seeing someone else. To give you an example: Yesterday was Valentine's Day, and I spent several hours after work with her - helping her shop for Valentine's Day stuff for her boyfriend. She saved a bundle on chocolates thanks to a coupon I had for Barnes and Noble, and his homemade Valentine's Day feast was made in cookware provided by me. So, yeah, it's complicated.

And it's not just that. That's just the part I can talk about. There was other stuff going on, stuff that made me glad she has a boyfriend to help her and watch over her when I'm not around. We've decided that when everything is over and the dust has settled, we'll write out an account of some sort. I'm thinking that opera would be the best format: huge, preposterous themes, heroes, villains, a young, plucky, tragic heroine, her handsome but arrogant suitor, the well-intended but buffoonish older fellow, reversals of fortune, death... What else could possibly contain all that? Even the driest and most objective version of the story could easily be dismissed, to poach a phrase from Shakespeare, as an improbable fiction.

Her life has settled into a new normal in recent weeks, in part because of a horrible and vile event I can't talk about. This has taken some of the pressure off of me. For a long while I was seeing her two or three times a week, sometimes more, usually from immediately after work until after midnight - meaning that I would be getting home and into bed at best by 1:00 in the morning, to wake up at my scheduled time of 5:15 or so. (Did I mention she was living very close to where I used to work, back when I had a high-paying job in the DVD industry that made it possible to afford the gas for such a commute?) But because of what happened a few weeks ago, it's not absolutely necessary that I be there two or three times a week, and because of a reduction in the obligations she has, obligations which pass on to me as her personal driver, my visit time is considerably shorter - as is my commute. Plus she's now in a new living situation which presents her with the opportunity to take advantage of living within a supporting community - but also poses a new set of hazards to her well-being. A guardian demon's work is never done.

Poetry reading at the Vintage, January 16, 2014. Photo by Carlton Farnbaugh.

I'm still writing poetry. I presented one of my best works so far (in my opinion) at an event in Scranton on January 31, and plan to present it (with minor revisions) at the Third Thursday Poetry Night at the Vintage in Scranton this Thursday, February 28. The Vintage is located at 326 Spruce Street in Scranton; doors open/signups begin at 8:00 PM, poetry begins at 8:30 PM. All are welcome to read or listen, and admission is free, though donations to the Vintage are encouraged.

Reading at the fourth edition of the Kick Out the Bottom open voice poetry reading at
Embassy Vinyl in Scranton, January 31, 2014. Photo by Charwonica Dziwozony.
Usually my blogging takes a dip in the Winter months as the usual hibernation reaction / seasonal affective disorder kicks in. This year I can't really blame that. All the other stuff I've been doing has actually helped keep me going through these months, even as it has reduced my time and freedom to post. Still, I can't promise that I will be resuming anything close to my old blog-a-day schedule anytime soon. You will occasionally see new posts from me at the other blogs listed on the sidebar, so you can know I'm still around, even if you don't follow me on Facebook or anything like that. I do hope to come back to blogging. I just don't know when.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Poem: Ex nihilo

This is a poem written especially for the second edition of the Kick Out the Bottom Open Voice Poetry Reading, held the last Friday of every month at Embassy Vinyl, 352 Adams Avenue, Scranton. Sign-ups begin at 6:45 and readings begin at 7:00. Standing room only, bring your own chair. Limited to thirteen slots, which fill up fast, so show up early if you'd like to read! 

Writing is the perfect art for people without much in the way of resources. Pen and paper are desirable, and having a word processor and printer are ideal, but you can compose an epic tale or a great poem entirely in your head and carry it in your memory. You can write words in dirt with your finger - heck, Jesus did that (in an apocryphal tale which does not appear in any copies of scripture until a certain point in history, and then appears consistently, in what may have been an early bit of fanfiction; see Bart Ehrman's books for more information.) 

Writers have the unique ability to weave realities from nothing. In hearing a poem or story you may be deeply touched by the meaning, or caught up in events. You may become upset at the fate of a character, a character who never existed except in words strung together by the author, and in the image those words created in your mind. This is an amazing thing. It has always seemed to me that creators partake in some aspect of the divine in their creation, whether it is in building a material object, creating a work of art, or conceiving a child. But it is writers and poets who truly create these things from nothing, nothing more than words and sounds, immaterial things which we have had to invent a means to represent. This creation from nothing most closely mirrors the divine act of creation.

Ex nihilo

We are liars and thieves
weaving realities truer than truth
from lines pilfered from ancient epics
and last week's comic books

We steal from the gods themselves
Not, like Prometheus, something as small and simple as fire
We steal their power, claim for ourselves
their divine purview to create from nothing

We fuck with our fingers
on keyboards, or gripping pens
that inseminate paper with ink
throbbing words that penetrate brains

the smell of good cognac, served slightly warm
sharkskin suits and cigarettes rolling down trolley aisles
droplets of water that drip down thighs and cause listeners to nearly break their own arms
windshields with the stories of our lives written on them in dents and spiderwebs of cracks

These are our creations
these are our children, born of furtive trysts
and well-planned couplings
and we show them off, proud parents
knowing that ours are the cutest and the smartest and the strongest
and everyone else's are just a little bit funny-looking

Tasteless

I have a cold. This shouldn't be a big deal, but it is.

I've had colds before. If you seek medical treatment for a cold, the saying goes, it will be gone in about seven days, but if you leave it untreated, it will clear itself up in a week or so. I've been self-medicating with Robitussin, chicken soup, and the occasional tea/lemon juice/honey/alcohol concoction. The first hint of a symptom was last Friday, when I stepped out of a mall and into my car and had a coughing fit. I found myself in an extremely stressful situation Monday evening, which knocked me for a loop. By Tuesday I was starting to feel more obviously sickly, but I had the day off from work and paid little heed. Wednesday was another day off and I treated it as a sick day. By Thanksgiving I was really getting there, and spent most of the day at work sucking cough drops and trying not to frighten the few people who called in. The most blatant symptom came as I left work and headed out to pick up a friend to go out for Thanksgiving dinner, a friend who would otherwise be alone. I knew I wouldn't have time to stop home and freshen up after work, so I had packed some after shave in the car. I sprayed it on my wrists and rubbed it on my neck, just below the bend in the jaw under the ears, and I noticed that it had no smell. I sniffed my wrists directly and - nothing. Dammit. the cold temperatures in the car must have somehow...I dunno, deactivated the molecules of scent, or bound them to the alcohol that was refusing to evaporate, or....something?

I picked up my friend a half-hour later than planned, thanks to a last-minute call at work. We ran off to make a visit to a hospital, our umpteenth in the past few weeks. But this was the first time I stayed completely out of the room, since now there was no denying that I was sick, and the person we were visiting would not respond well to getting what I had.  We then sped off to the restaurant where we had planned our Thanksgiving feast. It was less crowded than I expected, with a few other couples, a few happy families, and one woman who sat alone and stared into the middle distance. I ordered the Thanksgiving special and my friend, who informed me that she hates turkey, ordered a steak. My friend excused herself from the table after we ordered, and while she was away the server brought out my coffee. I sniffed at it after I added creamer and sugar and smelled nothing. Drinking it, I tasted nothing at all, as though I were drinking slightly thickened hot water.

When my friend returned to the table I asked her to smell the coffee to confirm that it had no aroma. She sniffed at it and said it smelled like coffee.

Uh-oh.

Our dinners came out. Mine tasted fine: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes with walnuts, green beans, cranberry relish. But the coffee continued to taste like hot water.

The next night I was with this same friend after a poetry reading. I had trimmed my planned three-shorts-and-a-long to a single long piece, which I shouted out as best I could with a voice that had mostly vanished overnight. She made us tea, a special cookies and cream team to which she added some little gingerbread cookies. I smelled - something, though I couldn't place it. I drank the tea and ate the cookies, and neither had much taste to me. I found one more bit floating at the bottom of the mug, and happily scooped it out with the spoon. I put it in my mouth and bit down. It tasted like the cookies, but had a weird texture - almost like canvas.

I realized I was eating the tea bag, and removed it from my mouth as nonchalantly as possible.

I know I still had a sense of smell late Wednesday evening. It disappeared sometime Thursday, and hasn't been back since. I tasted some key lime pie yesterday - sour tastes seem to be fine, but any of the many "tastes" that rely primarily on smell are still absent. I smelled the coffee I made this morning, and the fresh jar as I opened it, but the coffee had little taste to it.

I think I'm on the tail end of this.

I should have been isolating myself this past week, but I've been a selfish bastard about my precious traces of a social life, and have probably exposed dozens of people to what I've got. I've been keeping out of the house as much as possible, but even so may have managed to infect one or more family members. I'm hoping not. But that's cold season for you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Holiday Reruns: The Littlest Turkey!

The return of a beloved classic, touching the hearts of dozens since 2005! Gather around the children and leave them with emotional trauma that will take years of expensive therapy to overcome! IT'S TIME FOR THE LITTLEST TURKEY!

(First published in one post on November 24, 2005.)


THE LITTLEST TURKEY
by
D.B. Echo

Once upon a time there was a farm where turkeys lived. All of them were young and plump, big and strong and proud. All of them except one. He was smaller than all the other turkeys. He was called the Littlest Turkey.
The Littlest Turkey wanted to run and play with the other turkeys, but they didn't want to play with him. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," they would say. "Come back when you've gotten bigger."

But the Littlest Turkey was sure he was as big as he was going to get. He tried to eat as much as he could, but he never seemed to get as big and plump as the other turkeys. And he knew that unless he got big and plump like the other turkeys, he would never get to go to the Laughter House.

The Laughter House was a wonderful place. The Littlest Turkey had never been in there. He knew that only the big and plump turkeys would get to go inside the Laughter House. He had seen them go in once, and had heard their squawks and gobbles of laughter for a little while. It must be wonderful in there, the Littlest Turkey thought. All those turkeys go in to laugh, and none of them had ever come out again. How much fun they must be having!

The Littlest Turkey decided that, big and plump or not, he would get into the Laughter House the next time they let the turkeys in.

*********

THE LITTLEST TURKEY

Part 2
by
D.B. Echo

The weather started getting cooler, and the leaves on the trees started to change colors. All the turkeys knew that soon it would be time for the biggest holiday of the year, Turkey Day.
"Just before Turkey Day is when they take the big and plump turkeys into the Laughter House," thought the Littlest Turkey. "But this time I'm going to get in there, too!"

It wasn't long before the big day came. All of the big and plump turkeys lined up to go into the Laughter House. The Littlest Turkey waited near the entrance of the Laughter House, then squeezed in between two very big and plump turkeys. No one noticed him because he was so little.

The Laughter House was dark inside, and there was a sort of moving sidewalk there that was taking turkeys into another room, where he could hear gobbles and squawks of laughter. One by one the turkeys hopped up to ride the sidewalk. The Littlest Turkey hopped up, too.
The turkey in front of him, whose name was Tom, turned around. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Yes, go away," said the turkey behind him, whose name was also Tom. "They do not want little turkeys at the Market. Only big and plump ones."

"No," said the Littlest Turkey. "I want to go to the Market with you." He had never heard of the Market, but he realized that it must be even better than the Laughter House.

A Man spotted the Littlest Turkey. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Oh, please, Mr. Man," said the Littlest Turkey. "I do so want to go to the Market with the other turkeys."

"Very well," said the Man. "We've got a quota to meet, anyway."

The Littlest Turkey rode the sidewalk into the other room. He wondered what things would be like at the Market.

*********

THE LITTLEST TURKEY
Conclusion
by
D.B. Echo

The Littlest Turkey was cold. He was colder than he ever remembered being before. But then again, it was hard to remember much since they had chopped his head off.

He was in a case with the other turkeys, the big and plump turkeys. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were coming to the Market to pick turkeys to take home.

They always seemed to want the big and plump turkeys. One time a little girl had seen him in the case. "Mommy, mommy, look at the little turkey," she said. "I want to take home the littlest turkey."

"No, dear," her mother said. "We are having many people over for Thanksgiving. We need a big, plump turkey."

One by one the other turkeys left the Market to go home with people. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were taking away more and more of the big and plump turkeys. But no one wanted the Littlest Turkey.
Finally, the day before Turkey Day came, and the Littlest Turkey found himself all alone in the case.

"How sad," he thought. "No one wants to take me home."

It was late in the day, and the Manager was about to close down the Market for the night. Suddenly a Man came into the store.

"I have a coupon," he said, "for a free turkey. Do you have any left?"

"You're in luck," said the Manager. "I have one left." He showed the Man the Littlest Turkey, all alone in the case.

"It's a little small," the Man said. "But I guess beggars can't be choosers. Besides, it's just me and my wife this year. A little turkey might be just what we need."

The Manager took the Littlest Turkey out of the case and traded him to the Man for the coupon he was holding. "Happy Thanksgiving!", he said to the Man.

"I'm not going to be left behind for Turkey Day," thought the Littlest Turkey happily as the Man put him in the trunk of his car. "I'm so happy. But I'm so cold." He rolled around a little as the car pulled out of the parking lot. "I sure hope I'm going someplace warm."

THE END

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The faceless, nameless stranger

It's time for another one of those "where I've been" posts. (It's also time for the reposting of "The Littlest Turkey", which I'll get around to soon.)

I've been busy, delightfully so. I've been spending a lot of time with my writing group, and writing, and going to poetry and prose open mics, and trying and failing to list and publicize all of those events, because there are just so damned many, and what kind of area is Northeastern Pennsylvania where you can run yourself to the point of collapse just going to open mics and poetry readings? Plus I've been allowing myself to develop a personal life beyond the personal life I already had. It may all end in tears someday, but for now I'm having the time of my life. And getting healthier as a consequence; I need to go out and buy some new clothes soon, but in the meantime I guess I'll have to rely more and more on suspenders to keep my too-large pants from falling off.

On Saturday morning I met with my writing group in Scranton. We were all still basking in the afterglow of Thursday's open mic night, the biggest and best and most successful open mic we've had in a long time, or ever, in my brief experience. The group was small but most of us had stuff to read. I read a poem, the new one I had read on Thursday, since KK missed the open mic and I wanted him to hear it. One of our newer members, a published author of hard-boiled crime stories, read the first chapter of his current work. Chaz, the founder of our group, pulled out a bronze bull, wrapped in newspaper, and presented it to me. I was deeply honored to receive this gift. The meeting ended just after three, so I called my mom to tell her I was on my way, but maybe she should get alternate transportation to church so she wouldn't be late. I tossed my phone and my coat and my little blue notebook into the car, carefully secured the bronze bull in the back, and drove off.

I stopped at the first traffic light, the one on Adams and Lackawanna. It seemed to take forever, but eventually turned green. Lucky thing I told her to get a ride to church. I hit another traffic light, this one on Lackawanna, just before the turnoff to 81. In a little bit I would be zooming along at highway speeds, but for now I was stuck at an endless red light, a line of cars behind me. I fiddled with the radio as I waited.

Finally the light turned green, and I immediately heard a banging on my car. Did someone just hit me? But no, it sounded like someone slamming on my car with their hand, and as I turned to my left I realized that that hand probably belonged to the torso that was filling my window.

I rolled down the window a few inches, not wanting to take chances with a random Scranton crazy person, and said "Yes?" Without a word the figure outside of my car removed my black binder from the roof of my car and passed it through the opening in the window. He didn't bend down; I never saw his face. He just handed me the binder and walked away.

I thanked him profusely before I sped off through the green light and around the curve that would lead me to the highway.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Fiction: The Writer's Imp

This story started off as an alternative to punching someone in the face. But it grew to incorporate all the fears, misgivings, and doubts that plague any writer - or anyone. Note some NSFW language toward the end.

The Writer's Imp
copyright 2013, Harold Jenkins

Doug rolled out of bed, hung over and headachey. He trudged to the kitchen, stepped over his beagle Towser, and squeezed past the small folding table and its two chairs. He ignored the assorted monster-branded cereals on the counter,  put a small pot of water on the stove to boil, and started the coffee maker. He pulled the milk and a container of yogurt out of the refrigerator, grabbed a grapefruit out of the fruit bowl, and added a scoop of oats to the boiling water. Leaving the food on the counter next to the stove, he stepped out to get the morning paper.

A few minutes later he poured the coffee, gathered together the bits and pieces of his breakfast, and carried them back to the breakfast table.

The Imp was perched on the back of one of the chairs, eating out of a box of Frankenberry.

"What the hell are you making all that crap for?" he demanded. "This shit's delish. Why'd you buy it if you're not gonna eat it?"

Doug had always wondered if the Imp was average-sized as far as imps go. It would be small as a human, barely four feet tall, though its bald, leering head seemed far too big for its body. Its feet and hands seemed disproportionately large, too, while the little bat wings that poked from its shoulder blades seemed too small to be good for anything. And the less said about the stubby, prehensile worm that lurked on its crotch, the better.

"Oh, I get it," the Imp said, his lips pulling back to show a mouth filled with overlapping, yellowed teeth. "You're trying to eat right. Lose weight. Impress her. Pathetic." He grabbed another fistful of pink cereal. "It won't work. You're old and fat and ugly, and you're not gonna change that. Now, how about getting to work? You haven't written anything in ages."

Doug ignored the Imp, unfolded the paper, and read it as he ate breakfast. Towser stood up, looked at the Imp warily, then lay down at Doug's feet.

+++++++++++++++++++

"Oh, what the hell is this crap now?" the Imp demanded as the bus headed downtown.  "You're supposed to be meeting your group, didja forget? Or are you just too embarrassed 'cause you haven't written shit in weeks?"

Doug continued to ignore him, swaying slightly as the bus bumped along the road. The other passengers had no difficulty ignoring the Imp, even the one whose head he was sitting on.

"Your group is on the other side of town. What are you doing, going to the farmers' market?"

Doug got off the bus at the farmers' market.  He paused at a few stalls to look at their wares, then slipped into a small shop that sold herbs.

"Sage? Rosemary? Thyme? You forgot parsley, you dope," the Imp said from atop a refrigerated display case. "And how stupid are you? Yarrow's a flower, not an herb, everybody knows that. What are you gonna do, get a reading from the I Ching? The way moves, I could tell ya that much. There. Saved you the trouble."

Doug stepped into a flower shop and told the tiny Korean woman behind the counter what he was looking for. She nodded and brought out a bundle of flowers. After he paid her, she directed him to another shop.

"What the frick are you doing?" the Imp demanded. "Anything but writing, that's what. I been hanging out here 'cause you showed promise, you putz. But you're not gonna get anywhere as a writer if you don't write! You just keep mooning over what's-her-name, half your age and ten times the writer you'll ever be if you keep this up. Now, if you're not going to the group, howabout heading home and getting down to writing?"

The last shop on Doug's list was a junk store of sorts, with a hodgepodge of  stuff from all over Asia. It didn't take long to find a Tibetan brass bowl of the right size. The clerk showed him how to brush it gently with a padded mallet to produce a deep, pleasant tone.

"What is this crap?" the Imp yelled from inside a garbage can. "You better be working on a story, I'll tell you that. Wasting a whole Saturday here! Now, if you're done with your little shopping adventure, how about heading back to the bus so...are you even listening to me? Where are you going?"

Doug walked across the street to a parked Mini Cooper. The driver's window rolled down and a beautiful woman smiled at him broadly.

"What's she doing here?" The Imp was outraged. "I thought she was gonna be in...what, Lancaster or Hershey or something? Wait, you had a conversation with her last night when you were drunk! You know I don't like when you get drunk! What the hell did you two little sneaks talk about last night?"

She passed a small parcel to Doug through the car window. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Doug took it, leaned down, and kissed her.

"You sick bastard! She's, what, twelve? OK, twenty, whatever, doesn't matter, same thing. You're more than twice her age! What are you, a pedo perv? Sheeut, you're gonna be doing your writing from inside a Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison! Get away from her before somebody sees the two of you together!"

Doug squeezed her hand, turned around, and headed for the bus stop.

"Better," the Imp said, sitting on the peak of the Bus Stop sign. "Well get home, put all this nonsense behind us, and you can get down to writing again. We'll make you the writer I know you can be!"

++++++++++++++++

Towser barked and wagged his tail as Doug came home. Doug pulled some newly-purchased treats out of his pocket and gave them to him. The dog growled briefly at the Imp, then went back to his treats.

Doug set the packages on the table. He pulled out the bowl, gave it an experimental ping, and produced a rich, deep tone.

He headed into his bedroom and came out with a stack of paper.  Sheets, some loose, some stapled together, some worn with age and heavy use, others fresh as the day they were printed.

He put the paper into the bowl.

He pulled a chair away from the table and set it in the middle of the floor. Tentatively, he stepped onto it.

"What the hell are you doing?" the Imp asked. "You're gonna break your damn fool neck."

Doug pulled the cover off the smoke detector and removed the battery.

"Smooth move, Holmes," the Imp said. "Now you're in violation of the fire code. What would you do if the fire inspector came in here right now? Look like an idiot, that's what, and you'd have some 'splainin to do."

One at a time, Doug removed the batteries from every smoke detector in his house.

"So now what, boy? This ain't gettin' you any closer to writing. Just sit your fat ass down and start writing."

Doug poured a glass of wine and set it on the kitchen table.

"Better. But clear all this crap off the table, and...hey, are those your stories in that bowl?"

Doug took the parcel he had been given and removed the string. He unwrapped the paper to reveal an old book, possibly hand-bound. He set the book aside and began laying the yarrow, rosemary, sage, and thyme out on the wrapping paper. He rolled the whole thing up into a sort of fat cigar and tied the bundle up with the string. He got up from the table, went to a cabinet, and pulled out some matches.

"Wait. What the hell are you doing?" The Imp looked confused. Worried.

Doug sat back down at the table. He opened up the book to a place indicated by a ribbon, read silently for a minute, and set the book aside. He lit the herbal bundle, passed it over the paper-filled bowl three times, and dropped it in.

"WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING?!"

Doug picked up the book again, opened it to the same spot as before, and began mumbling quietly.

"WHAT THE HELL DID THAT LITTLE BITCH GIVE YOU?"

Doug smiled. "It's a hex book, over a century old. Homegrown magic for all sorts of occasions. Including banishing malicious spirits." He continued to read aloud from the book.

The imp's skin had begun to turn gray. "I'M NOT MALICIOUS! I'M HELPFUL!"

Doug looked up again. "You are annoying as hell."

Smoke curled from the bowl but didn't spread through the house. It formed a cloud over and around the Imp.

"STOP IT! STOP THIS RIGHT NOW AND WE'LL PRETEND IT NEVER HAPPENED!" The Imp's skin was charcoal and ash, flaking like the charred paper in the bowl. His eyes were beady and red.

Doug set down the book, smiled at the Imp, then looked into the bowl.

"YOUR WRITING SUCKS!" The Imp shouted. "YOUR CHARACTERS ARE STEREOTYPES, YOUR STORIES ARE TRITE, YOUR POETRY IS HIGH SCHOOL, AND YOU CAN'T WRITE AN ENDING TO SAVE YOUR LIFE!"

"I dispel you," Doug announced, and blew into the bowl.

The ashes stirred slightly and flew into the air. The Imp, shriveled and defeated, let out a final croak.

"I knew I shoulda been a gargoyle."

There was a long, deep sigh. Then Doug was alone in the kitchen with Towser.

Doug sat there for a while, then looked down at the book Kim had brought back from Lancaster. He noticed that he had been reading from a recipe for shoo-fly pie.

He pulled out his phone and dialed Kim.

"It's done. He's gone. Your plan worked." A pause. "You are. That's why I love you." Another pause, then a laugh. "That too. But, hey, I gotta clean up and take a shower. See you for dinner? OK, see you then."

He looked at the mess. Charred flakes of everything he had written while under the direction of the Imp were scattered everywhere.

"Damn, that guy was annoying," Towser said.

"He sure was," Doug agreed.




Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Shadow of the Earth, and Venus in the Girders

Last Sunday, October 20, I made plans to go out to the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge and get pictures of the sunset. Something came up and I missed the sunset itself, but I was there in time for the afterparty: the shadow of the Earth rising in the east.


The shadow of the Earth is not a rare thing to see. On most clear or partly cloudy days it's visible twice, setting in the west at sunrise in the and rising in the east at sunset. But most people barely take notice of sunrises or sunsets, let alone things happening on the other side of the sky. And for those who do notice it, many may write it off as a particularly dark cloud on the horizon.


The shadow of the Earth underlines another beautiful phenomenon, the pinkish-purple glow known as the Belt of Venus. This is actually the reflected glow of all of the sunsets (or sunrises) taking place beyond the horizon. It is hard to believe that people routinely miss both of these things, but it's true!


This bridge presents a uniquely beautiful perspective for watching sunrises and sunsets. The Susquehanna flows from east to west from West Pittston to Shickshinny, so from Nanticoke we can see the sun rise or set over the river. The Susquehanna, which is famously muddy and shallow, presents an almost perfect mirror surface in these photos.


After I got as many nearly-identical photos of the phenomenon as I needed to ensure a few decent ones, I turned my attention to the bridge itself.  Last overhauled in 1987, the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge appears to be in pretty good shape, though rust and dirt and graffiti coat some of the white-painted girders and struts.  And while these pictures present a serene view, keep in mind that cars were passing within two feet of me - I had to be careful not to take off somebody's mirror with an elbow.


After a while I remembered that there was something else visible here: Venus! I realized I had an opportunity for some unusual Venus images, but I would have to line them up carefully.


Venus is barely visible in this first picture. To see it, go to the fourth rivet from the bottom on the girder in front, then move to the right. It's the white dot above the cloud and below the point where a crossbeam and a strut  meet the vertical girder in the middle. (Keep in mind that these girders are white; they appear orange because of sodium vapor lights.)


Here's the same view taken in "Sports" mode - faster shutter and higher sensitivity. Venus should be much easier to spot here.This is my typical mode for night images of the Moon and indoor images where a flash would be undesirable.


And here is a close-up. I love the soft color of the girders and the twilight, and the contrasting darkness of the girder in shadow on the right.

So there you have it: the shadow of the Earth, and a special guest appearance by Venus at play amongst the girders of a bridge!

Poem: Because You Asked

I took part in a poetry reading at a new venue on Friday, October 25. Kick Out the Bottom open voice poetry reading will be held at Embassy Vinyl in downtown Scranton every fourth Friday - see here for more information. I decided to present two new pieces there, one written especially for the event, both performed without notes - the first time I've ever done that. This one was one I've been kicking around for weeks, maybe months. A friend in Norway once told me that I can intimidate people by being too intense, and I responded that some people find me unintense to the point of being comatose. I decided to run with that and create a very intense love poem, a sort of companion piece to my romance story that reads like it's about to become a murder story

Because You Asked

You ask me what I want to do
So I tell you:
I want to make love to you until the last stars burn out
I want to dance with you in the snow under flickering auroras
I want to sing Leonard Cohen with you while we stand on a bridge and watch the sun set
I want to eat you up, body and soul,
make every part of you a part of me.
And I want to go bowling
and play miniature golf
Love, honor, obey
protect and serve
happily ever after
from this day forward
'til death do us part
and then for a few eternities more

And maybe you're just asking me where I think we should go for lunch
but you asked me what I want to do
So I'm telling you.



copyright 2013 Harold Jenkins

Monday, October 21, 2013

Excerpt from Midnight, October 19, 2013

On a cold October night
under a full moon
a devil sat next to a porcelain doll
and told her lies that were the truth
and truths that were also the truth

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Cemetery walk, October 13, 2013

Northeastern Pennsylvania was on track to have vivid leaf colors this Fall: lots of daytime sunshine and cold nights. Then another heat wave hit, or at least unseasonably warm daytime and nighttime temperatures for a period of two weeks or so (and counting.) Now the colors of the leaves that changed color are fading, lots of trees are still green, and lots of leaves are falling. I'm hoping this won't be my only Cemetery Walk this Fall.

While setting up to take pictures of the "yellow brick road" (the bricks are actually pink) between the two halves of the cemetery complex (which contains at least four cemeteries), I noticed a group of people emerging from the cemetery gate at the top of the hill - two women pushing strollers, and some children. Idyllic as heck, but it spoiled my shot. So I turned my camera on the ruins of the Duplin / Skatarama. As the women approached, I bid them good day, and one stopped and asked me about the building I was photographing. I told her about its history as a silk throwing mill, its later life as a skating rink and bowling alley, the fire that destroyed it over twenty years ago, and its later use as a marijuana growing operation.

My grandfather used to be a supervisor at the Duplin Throwing Mill. I used to go skating here. It burned down about twenty years ago.

All of the roads of Nanticoke that were paved were paved with this brick, once upon a time not too long ago. Within my living memory, for some of them, anyway.

The brick is actually pink, and chamfered on the edges, and a few years ago someone thought it would be fun to do a burnout here.

Some parts of the cemetery have become distressingly unkempt in the years since my last Cemetery Walk.


A fallen branch or secondary trunk, left where it fell. Groundskeeping has simply mowed around it.


Fortunately it did not crush either of these monuments.


Possibly a home-built monument, made of concrete with an iron plaque. The name and information have weathered off.

Another likely home-made monument. This one is only a few inches tall.

Trying to recreate a photo from the last Cemetery Walk.

A gorgeous filigreed iron cross. I've never seen a monument like this before.

Another iron cross, almost certainly a home-built.

Yet another iron cross of a different design than the other two. All three are within fifteen feet of each other.




Red Clover amongst the leaves. 
I'd like to do this again after the leaves have changed a bit more, but nothing in this life is guaranteed. So I figured I'd do this today, and do it again in a week or two if possible.


Related posts:
Cemetery Walk, October 18, 2008
Cincinnatus at the plow, October 19, 2008
The Ruins, February 22, 2005
PiƱatas from Hell, March 14, 2005
Cemetery and the Duplin, March 3, 2009
The South Mountains, March 6, 2009

Sunday, October 06, 2013

REVIEW: The Merchant of Venice by the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble


One-word, spoiler-free review: Brutal.

A longer review follows, with some spoilers if, like me, you don't actually know anything about this play other than the name "Shylock" and the phrase "a pound of flesh."

Synopsis (full of SPOILERS): 

Young Bassanio (Aaron White) has a problem. He wishes to travel from Venice to distant Belmont to pursue the hand of Portia (Cassandra Pisieczko), a young heiress whose late father decreed shall have her future husband determined through a test: suitors must choose from one of three boxes, gold, silver, or lead, each with its own warning. One of them contains an image of Portia, and the man who chooses that box will win her hand in marriage along with her great inheritance, but selecting either of the other two condemns its chooser to be forever alone. But Bassanio lacks the funds to finance such a venture, so he seeks a loan from his friend Antonio (James Goode), the titular Merchant of Venice. Unfortunately Antonio finds himself lacking liquidity, with all of his wealth tied up in three trading vessels off in three distant ports. But, seeing Bassanio's need, he agrees to seek a loan from Shylock (Tom Byrn), a despised Jewish moneylender (who, unlike Antonio, demands interest on the money he lends - a source of conflict between the two.) Bassanio pleads the situation to Shylock, who agrees to a three-month loan to Antonio, who expects to have his trading profits in hand in just two months, allowing him to pay off the loan well before its due date. But Shylock, generally scorned by Venetian society and particularly put upon by Antonio, stipulates a unique penalty clause: should Antonio default on the loan, he shall be bound to pay a penalty of a pound of his own flesh. After some trepidation, Antonio agrees freely.

Meanwhile, Bassanio's friend Lorenzo is scheming to run off with Shylock's lovely daughter Jessica (Sophie Schulman) after she renounces her religion and converts to Christianity, all while Shylock is in negotiations with Antonio. Bassanio and his sidekick Gratiano (Daniel Roth) travel to Belmont, where most of Portia's suitors have either failed or given up the game. A Moorish prince only recently arrived (Daniel Roth again) is the last holdout, but he chooses poorly and is sent back to his own land empty-handed and with an oath to forevermore remain single. Portia celebrates his failure with these lines:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

Shylock is enraged and heartbroken at his daughter's betrayal, and even more so with the wanton thefts of his cash and jewels that she used to finance her flight with Lorenzo. Shylock's friend (and fellow Jew) Tubal (still yet again Daniel Roth) brings more bad news: Antonio's ships have all met separate disasters, and he is now unable to repay the loan. While Shylock at first laments the loss, his rage rallies him when he realizes that he will be able to seek his revenge against society in general and his longtime abuser Antonio in particular by keeping to the letter of his agreement and extracting his pound of flesh.

Meanwhile, back in Belmont, Bassanio has wooed Portia but now faces the test of the three boxes. Carefully considering the symbolism of each box's materials as well as the meanings of the attached messages, he successfully chooses the right box and wins Portia's hand and all that comes with it - including a ring presented by Portia that symbolizes Bassanio's commitment to her, given on the condition that he will never remove, sell, or lose it. Gratiano reveals that they shall have a double marriage, as he has successfully wooed Portia's friend Nerissa. But their joy is short-lived as the fugitives Lorenzo and Jessica arrive in Belmont with word of the loss of Antonio's trading fleet and his ability to repay his loan, and Shylock's determination to have his pound of flesh. Bassanio is distraught, as he is unable to repay the loan himself, but Portia points out that she is the heir to immense fortune, and upon their marriage he will be able to repay Shylock many times over.

Bassanio and Gratiano return to Venice to seek Shylock's mercy and repay his loan, while Lorenzo and Jessica stay behind at Portia's. But Shylock, wounded and angry, will have none of it, and demands that the letter of the deal be observed - or Venice itself will lose its reputation among the traders who use the city as a hub. The Duke of Venice (Samantha Norton) concedes the validity of Shylock's position, but seeks his mercy - telling him that all the world is anticipating a last-second change of heart. A lawyer (or judge, he is referred to as both) and his assistant arrive to work Antonio's defense, but Antonio has resigned himself to keeping his grisly deal, and to the death that will inevitably result from it. Shylock, after several aborted attempts, steels his determination to remove the pound of flesh - or at the very least, to kill his debtor and longtime abuser. But the lawyer - actually Portia in disguise, secretly come to Venice with Nerissa - has one last ploy: while Shylock is owed his pound of flesh, nowhere is the deal is it stipulated that he may draw one drop of "Christian" blood, and he will be sternly punished if he does. Stymied by the impossibility of collecting that which he is due without drawing blood, Shylock regretfully concedes that he has lost, and agrees to the payment from Bassanio as promised, or at the very least to the repayment of his principal. But the false lawyer has one more card to play: as an "alien" who has threatened the life of a citizen, Shylock is subject to the loss of his property: half to the injured citizen, half to the state. Shylock pleads that the loss of his property will render him penniless and unable to conduct business. Antonio calls on the Duke's mercy, allowing Shylock to keep his property on the condition that he convert immediately to Christianity, and pledge his fortune to his "son" Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica. In agony, Shylock agrees.

The false lawyer and her partner are not done yet, as "he" demands one thing only from Antonio as payment for winning his case and his life: the ring worn by Bassanio, the one he had pledged to never remove, sell, or lose. Bassanio refuses, to Portia's delight, but after Portia and Nerissa leave, Antonio convinces Bassanio to relinquish the ring. Gratiano is tasked with delivering the ring to the lawyer, and he catches up to Portia and Nerissa (still in disguise) as they plan their return to Belmont. Portia is devastated at Bassanio's betrayal of his oath, and Nerissa decides to try to separate her own husband from his ring.

Portia and Nerissa hurry home to Belmont, where they are reunited with Lorenzo and Jessica. Bassanio and Gratiano follow soon after, whereupon they are taken to task for the removal of their rings. Portia supplies a "new" ring to Bassanio, who is mystified to see that it is the same ring he had before. Portia reveals that she got it from a lawyer, with whom she had slept the night before. Nerissa joins in the fun by revealing that she has been sleeping with the lawyer's assistant. Gradually Bassiano realizes that the lawyer and his assistant were Portia and Nerissa in disguise. Portia then supplies good news for all: to Antonio, the fact that his trading ships have returned successfully, and were never sunk at all, while to Lorenzo she reveals his good fortune in becoming Shylock's heir - and Shylock's conversion to Christianity. The play ends, and everybody's happy.

Only that's not what happened. At all.

REVIEW:

The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to approach, as director Andrew Hubatsek admits. Racism and anti-semitism fill the work, even in this pared-down version. As his director's note points out, early versions of the play presented Shylock as a pure villain, while more modern versions emphasized the wrongs done to him, and even the villainy of those around him, the other characters in the play. This is a "Comedy" in the strict sense that none of the main characters wind up dead (which is what distinguishes Shakespeare's "Tragedies.") But Shylock's arc is in no way a happy one. In Shakespeare's day his ending would be seen as worthy of rejoicing; having accepted Christ, even under duress, he is now no longer subject to the just punishment seen as coming to all Jews. A similar happy fate awaits his daughter Jessica, even though she is still referred to as an "infidel" after her conversion. Tom Byrn imbues his Shylock with rage, righteous rage - rising and bubbling over in the public places of Venice as he confronts Salanio (the ever-flexible Richard Cannaday, in one of three distinct roles) with the classic soliloquy:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge?

In the courtroom, demanding what he is owed from Antonio, he pastes a veneer of calmness over his rage, coolly relying on legalities to make his case. When those same legal niceties are turned against him he collapses like a man with his legs cut off. But Portia, cruel Portia, is not content with defeating Shylock. She must destroy him as well. In short order he has lost his daughter, his debt, and his case. Now he faces a choice: lose his property and his livelihood, or lose his religion and his self. Broken, defeated, and destroyed, he chooses the latter, With trembling hands Antonio removes a crucifix on a chain that had hung around his own neck (and had been thrown aside by Shylock as he prepared to take his pound of flesh) and places it around the neck of Shylock, who has removed his skullcap as a sign of renouncing his religion.

In the final scene the characters all react with growing joy at the news of their good fortunes - all except Jessica, whose face and attitude reflect a dawning horror. She has betrayed her father and her religion. She has abandoned them both, has stolen his money and prodigally squandered it, has fueled his rage and helped bring about his misfortune and his fate. As the other characters exit the stage, she stands alone in the gathering darkness and sings a mournful Jewish song; her father, bare-headed, appears in the shadows and slouches despondently. The lights go down as she finishes the song, leaving the stage in darkness.

Pretty brutal for a comedy.

I've never seen The Merchant of Venice before, nor was I familiar with the particulars other than the character of Shylock the moneylender and the details of the "pound of flesh" contract (which I picked up either from "Se7en" or the absolutely brilliant 1973 satire "Theatre of Blood" which, if you haven't seen, you must see!), so I didn't know what to expect, nor did I know how various bits would turn out. I even forgot whether this was a Comedy or Tragedy, so I was expecting the body count to begin at any moment.The acting and staging is superb, and Andrew Hubatsek (whom I have seen play Macbeth, Touchstone the Fool in As You Like It, and several other parts) directed beautifully, and was also responsible for the adaptation. The play runs through October 20. Details are available at the Bloomsburg Theater Ensemble site.

(The full, unedited text of the play is available here.)

Friday, October 04, 2013

Happy endings?

Do you have to be happy to write happy endings? Robert Smith of The Cure once said he writes his best stuff when he's depressed, but plenty of people have still enjoyed lightweight happy poppy songs like "Mint Car" and "Friday I'm in Love" as well as such darkly beautiful songs as "Just Like Heaven," "Lovesong," and "A Letter to Elise."

I've worked more on "Sunset and Shadow" than on any other story I've ever written. It's been through eight official revisions, plus a ninth on paper (consisting of some quick changes to a printed copy) and a tenth that I've made to my performance copy.

I've presented it three times now - at The Vintage in Scranton during the "24 Hours of Art" weekend immediately after I had made the "present tense" revision, at the Third Friday Open Mic at Arts Seen in Wilkes-Barre on September 20, and at The Living Room Open Mic in Stroudsburg on September 22. The crowd in Wilkes-Barre was slightly smaller (about twenty people), somewhat older (evenly distributed from early twenties to late sixties, with a possible outlier on each end), and mostly made up of people active in the local literary scene (poets, writers, actors, and a few painters and at least one sculptor thrown in.) The Stroudsburg open mic (which is held every Sunday) attracted about thirty people, also with a wide range of ages but definitely skewed to the younger end, mostly musicians - including one who had been driving through Pennsylvania from Ohio to Massachusetts, noticed on the site openmikes.org that there was an open mic up ahead, and decided to stop in.

Stroudsburg tends to be a, shall we say, energetic group. I had presented some poems to them on August 18, so some of them might have remembered me, but I wasn't sure how they'd respond to my prose. I read "One Friday Evening in a Supermarket Parking Lot" (the "psychic cat" story) and "Sunset and Shadow." I have some beats in two points in "Sunset and Shadow" where you don't know if the story is about to take a left turn into horror, or at least murder (it is, after all, a love story). When I paused at one of these points I noticed - nothing. No sounds in the room around me. I looked up, over the top of my glasses, and saw the room filled with people - all looking at me, and listening to me. It was...unnerving. And in a moment I felt transformed into a tribal storyteller, holding the tribe together through my tales. Afterwards, when I took my seat, someone paid me the biggest compliment: "I was there, on the bridge."

"Sunset and Shadow" ends on a down beat. I won't ruin the ending if you haven't read it yet. But today...today I thought of a way of giving it a happy ending. Yes, maybe it's a Hollywood ending, or at least a happy indie production ending, but it's happy. It doesn't require much in the way of a change, and it doesn't require me to twist the characters out of line from where they are now - not by much, anyway.

Am I happy? I think I might be. I don't have much reason to be, not yet. But I think I'm getting there. Maybe, maybe, maybe, things will swing the way I'm working to make them swing. And maybe the happy ending will be justified.

Maybe I'm writing my own happy ending. We can all allow ourselves those once in a while, right?