Stine: Goosebumps: Books 1-4 (1992)

Welcometodeadhouse-reprintWhen I first began reading Goosebumps, they were still relatively new.

My mom was a teacher, and in the summers she’d take us to the Scholastic book warehouse where I’d load up on as many discounted copies as I could get my hands on.

Since reading was the only thing I could do well, I read a lot — pretty much only for entertainment. I was always hoping I’d make some friends like in the books I read. You know, maybe an athletic girl would kick a soccer ball that knocked off my glasses, and so would begin a great friendship filled with misunderstandings. We’d solve crimes with someone’s younger sibling.

None of those hopes came to pass, at least not as a child. When I got older, I made friends through my reading in bars, with other people reading in bars. Generally, this resulted in horrific flings.

Anyway, back in childhood: one summer afternoon, a mountain resort in Vermont, by the pool, under a gazebo, with my Goosebumps book. I measured my success via two metrics:  how fast I could race through the pages, and how frightened I felt.

At this point, I recall a distinct feeling of success on both counts. I could read a full Goosebumps book in around three hours. And I was increasingly fearless. Ironically, I was developing a full-fledged phobia around this same time.

I knew I could continue the series…but something in me cried out “what’s the point?” And really, what was the point? It was simply entertainment. I wasn’t sure what was next.

I soon gave up Goosebumps in favor of Fear Street. Goosebumps focused more on the supernatural. Any human deaths generally occurred outside the narrative. Fear Street, as I recall, killed off its characters regularly, and the evil was more human.

I began having nightmares every night, and a sense of dread throughout the days. I recall sitting in the back of the band classroom, hiding behind the marimba or timpani, powering through these books while the sound of class was a million miles away.

My parents forbade me from reading them so my nightmares would stop. Without scary books, I had to find other subjects to capture my imagination.

And so, I’m revisiting books, and Nettie suggested we read one of these weekly through the year. Why not?

The first thing I noticed is how much slower I read now. I took care with each sentence, noticing the attention to detail, and how the paragraphs flow between subjects. The brother, Josh, reacts to something, which leads to a description of him. Maybe simple, maybe predictable, but I enjoyed looking at the words rather than simply consuming them.

Until the ghost appears. And then I felt that deep injection of adrenaline in my gut. So I pulled out, now with the benefit of years of therapy, and observed the sense of fear. And how strange that Stine knows how to really stick it to you using only words. Simple words. And also that it’s a sense I apparently share with the young audience the book is intended for!

Once I began feeling fear, I had to occupy my mind with something else before going to sleep. And eventually began feeling a need to race through the pages to reach the conclusion. I found myself paying less attention to the details.

Book #2 begins not in the first person, but the third. This surprisingly little shift makes me think about the care Stine needs to put into the Goosebumps factory. He can give himself permission to experiment. I’m curious about his formula — but not curious enough to examine.

By Books #3, “Monster Blood”, and #4 “Say Cheese And Die” we’re firmly into something I find fascinating: the world of children, as distinct from the world of adults. Kids go outside and play. I don’t quite remember what this means. There was no real planning involved. You just leave your house, and go out into the neighborhood. And you interact with whoever else is outside also. While your time doing this is limited, it’s still a hell of a lot of time. And it’s daily. Virtually no responsibilities. Virtually no goals. You’re pretty much just a dog—you eat, you sleep, and when you become too much of a nuisance, you go outside and interact with others just like you.

Stine, so far, restricts his characters to this world almost entirely. So far, it’s always summer or vacation of some sort. Parents are often absent. In “Dead House” they’re busy with a house move. In “Basement” the mother is out of town while the father is occupied with work. In “Monster Blood” the parents are out of town. In “Say Cheese” the parents are preoccupied with their own lives.

Another similarity exists between the kids—as I mentioned above, they’re like dogs. They have virtually no distinguishing features. They’re all about 12. None of them are particularly committed to any interests — they’re just trying to avoid boredom. Boredom leads to getting into trouble. Gender doesn’t really make any difference either. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember if the narrator or main character is a boy or girl. They’re all easily distracted. Repeatedly, they’ll be discussing something crucial — life or death situations — and someone will make a joke or comment that ends all serious thought. Or suggests that the subject is “stupid” or boring.

And it’s not only the influence of others that leads them to lose interest in conversation—it’s also themselves. They’re quick to pull themselves out of any line of thought by simply dismissing it. The most obvious and infuriating example of this is when the kids in “Say Cheese” keep taking photos — essentially, every time you take a photo of someone or something, it spits out a photo of the future when something bad has happened to it. So when they take a photo of a new car, it shows the car badly mangled in an accident. The characters repeatedly dismiss the camera as “broken” regardless of how many times this happens—and comes true!

A final trait they all share is a poor ability to communicate.

I’ve read about how in the 1960s a movement, exemplified by Mad Magazine, grew around dividing children from parents. This is particularly fascinating since childhood is a relatively recent phenomenon. Young people were pulled out of the world of adults to become “children” — and become, for lack of a better term, little shits. Demanding to be cared for, but resenting their caretakers. By the time I was a kid, media for children would often repeat the same things about adults: “they don’t understand you.” Don’t they? Well, I keep hearing it so they must not. Teachers don’t understand you. Parents don’t. Other adults don’t. What don’t they understand? I’m not quite sure — but I felt misunderstood, so I focused on the media made by adults who apparently DID understand me.

These books perfectly illustrate the feeling of being a misunderstood kid. You want the help of adults because the problems you’re facing are too big and scary to deal with on your own. But when you tell them what’s up — they just don’t listen. They dismiss you. They ignore you. So you have to deal with problems on your own, and fix things on your own.

Yet time and again the problem isn’t merely that parents don’t understand. It’s that kids don’t know how to explain things in a way that doesn’t sound ridiculous. When the main character in “Monster Blood” finally decides to tell an adult his problem — he says something along the lines of “my Monster Blood has grown out of control.” What the fuck are you talking about? Go outside and play. The correct thing to say is “hey…look at this. Remember when I bought it, how it fit in this can? Well, now it doesn’t fit into this bathtub, and it’s eating stuff — watch — and I don’t know what to do.” Same in “Say Cheese” — the cop is like “hey, what’s up? Is there something you can add to this investigation?” And the kid’s like “my camera is evil. It made her disappear.” Yeah, okay. Stop wasting my time, kid.

But as a child, I thought the kids were saying things that totally made sense!

Now, of course, I see the adults as making complete sense. It’s picture after picture of parents who are struggling. At the mercy of poor health, of responsibility to family, of jobs that leach all sense of control out of your life. And the relationships between parents — they’re exhausted, they get on each others’ nerves, they have difficulty communicating, they’re plainly unhappy. They reflect people I know. While as a child I saw the adults in these books as too serious, uncaring, willfully misunderstanding the kids — now I relate to them.

Notes on Composing

  1. If I go to sleep thinking “what a load of shit, what a wasted evening,” I can usually count on waking up the next morning loving last night’s work. (The opposite is also true).
  2. If I’m doing it as a work-for-hire, and thereby giving up the copyright, there’s a good chance it’ll be my finest work ever. (The opposite is also true).
  3. If I’m writing symphonies over breakfast and conducting them with my spoon–there’s a good chance that I’m cluelessly stealing from something I heard too many times as a reference track two years ago. (i.e., that time I stole an entire guitar solo from Duran Duran and didn’t know it until years later).

Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.


Seneca – Letters from a Stoic (1-10)

divine retributionLetter 1 – On Saving Time

Recently we were in a bar, and he was telling me about this girl who seemed like she liked him, but wouldn’t let him ask her out, and puts him through all sorts of confusing games—they’re both PhDs working for maybe the best known company in the world and in their early 30s. My response was—doesn’t she know she’s dying? 

Why piss away your time on amusements unless you’re examining the hell out of them. Again, that’s the purpose of this blog in the first place, because too often I enjoy reading, and since I don’t think I should be spending time doing things just for the sake of relaxation, I began trying to examine them so at least I could look back and say ‘oh, right, I got something from that.’


“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years be behind us are in death’s hands.”

One of the messages of this chapter is: stop procrastinating. You’re going to die.

Reminiscent of Franklin:

“I cannot boast that I waste nothing, but I can tell you what I am wasting, and the cause and manner of the loss; I can give you the reasons why I am a poor man.”

Letter 2 – On Discursiveness in Reading

In short, a painful lesson for someone who keeps this blog, Seneca suggests—don’t read lots of different authors and works…just focus on a few, revisit them, and digest them fully.

Of course, returning to Letter 1, I procrastinate now that I’m married, and I haven’t finished a real book in many years, so perhaps it’s not really an issue for me.

Letter 4 – On the Terrors of Death


“It is not boyhood that still stays with us, but something worse,–boyishness. And this condition is all the more serious because we possess the authority of old age, together with the follies of boyhood, yea, even the follies of infancy. Boys fear trifles, children fear shadows, we fear both.”

Letter 5 – On the Philosopher’s Mean


“Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.”


“We do not adapt ourselves to the present, but send our thoughts a long way ahead. And so foresight, the noblest blessing of the human race, becomes perverted. Beasts avoid the dangers which they see, and when they have escaped them are free from care; but we men torment ourselves over that which is to come as well as over that which is past. Many of our blessings bring bane to us; for memory recalls the tortures of fear, while foresight anticipates them. The present alone can make no man wretched.”

IX – On Philosophy and Friendship

“The Supreme Good calls for no practical aids from outside; it is developed at home, and arises entirely within itself.”

This is the concept that I’ve tried to follow more than any other I’ve learned, but likely not to the extent that I ought—because I try following it to a single end, and not as a continual end within itself.

X – On Living to Oneself

“’Know that thou art freed from all desires when thou hast reached such a point that thou prayest to God for nothing except what thou canst pray for openly.’ . . . ‘Live among men as if God beheld you; speak with God as if men were listening.’”

This calls to mind our thoughts on Yom Kippur—that we find repentance for our sins easier when we’re asking God for forgiveness than when we’re asking people for forgiveness. I don’t believe divine forgiveness is easily bestowed, which I can only assume means that I rarely deserve it because I don’t know how to repent, and also because I’m not sure which things I do are good and which are bad. One year I called an old roommate and apologized on his voicemail for letting the air out of all his tires and drawing a penis and writing DICK on his car with shaving cream to discolor the paint. Even now, I feel kinda proud that I went and did that, right? I mean, there was injustice to me, and I took it upon myself to exact retribution in some unequal fashion—which I couldn’t even convince him I did—but, bottom line is, I don’t feel badly enough. And why don’t I feel badly enough? Well, perhaps because somewhere inside me I don’t believe that God punishes the wicked. But I do believe this—don’t I? That in one’s own lifetime, you’ll be punished or rewarded as you deserve. I must not truly believe this if I take it upon myself though, right?

Well, for instance, let’s say the girl who lives downstairs is making the entire stairwell stink of her child’s feces. My retaliation is that I don’t mention ‘by the way—if your daughter grabs the bathroom sink, it’s going to tip, fall and crush her.’ The truth is that perhaps it’s better to just leave retribution to the divine, and then, in this situation, to paint the stairwell with ammonia on a daily basis until our eyeballs all melt.

It is so difficult to even try to be a good person. I need to try better.

Durant: Our Oriental Heritage (notes on religion)

Notes on Religion:

Why is there existence? Not the meaning of life, or why is there life—I could even accept that as an accident, and not why is there earth, but why is there space or time or matter or energy? How can it possibly be that out of nothing there is something? Why isn’t it all just nothing?

Primitive man never saw the existence of old age—death was always unnatural, and thus it was feared because it was horrible, and the gods must be responsible for causing it. That’s the flaw in our ideas—that if we could avert all those horrible unnatural deaths that we could possibly live forever. When the truth is that the horrible deaths prevent us from lasting too long, assist in the rapid turnover the species needs. Confidence is in lasting forever, somehow.

moon —> Latin ‘mensis’ and Greek ‘men’
menstruate —> Latin ‘menses’

Totem worship. In early Judaism, pigs. In early Christianity, doves, lambs, fish. Totems tabu, and eating of them, if allowed at all, only in ritual contexts. The Gallas of Abyssinia worshiped fish, and ate them ritually, saying they could feel the spirit moving inside them when they did—and Christian missionaries were thereby shocked at the similarity to Mass, in which one worships the god and then eats him.

The worship of the dead, as we see them in our dreams, thus the worship of powerful men particularly, once they are dead. As the worship of saints in Catholicism.

film: Dan in Real Life (2007)

One of the rules I try to keep is that if I wake up, I should get up. In the middle of the night it’s easy to convince oneself that if only it was possible to get out of bed at this moment ownership of the whole world is within grasp, every notion of genius in all history with every heartbeat, every car slipping past, every sleepless bird singing because the streetlights never go out—get out of bed and the world can be mine. But before making that move you begin to question it all. Sure, you can get up and do something great, but you’ll just get sleepy within a couple hours tops. You could drink coffee. Yeah, but that’s not healthy, four hours of sleep and some coffee, in fact, you really need to stop drinking coffee past five anyway, what were you thinking? But the ideas! They’ll be there in the morning. Write them down now. Well, nothing to write with, okay you’ll remember them. Yeah, but, you rationalize, maybe I feel sick. Maybe I feel hungry. I should eat. Maybe I have to piss. So you get up. There. The supreme impetus to greatness: the refusal to piss in one’s own bed.

So, I’m up! Checking vitals. Hungry. Eating snack. Head aches, teeth ache, therefore I’m stressed. See lava lamp and get tears in eyes, therefore I’m getting older. We find words to express degrees of being alive. I wake up thinking about my grandfather, I wake up thinking about how he’s got medications making him piss out whatever’s made his legs swell up. You don’t have a chance to run a few tests on the stability of your soul before giving it a good pat and sending it up to heaven. You’d think that one by one you could piss out your organs if they weren’t doing right, being that regardless everything finds its way out of your body whether you’re alive or not. So your legs swell up. Piss it out. We’re teaching robots and computers to fix themselves, but when your heart goes bad, you can’t just piss it out, you don’t wait until your last organ is passed before heading up to heaven. You take a look around, see where the neighborhood is heading, lock up and head out, you can always come back for the plumbing later if you find the need.

We watched Dan in Real Life last night.

A few days ago she made a comment on how something or other “that’s why I’m not really interested in history, I just don’t see how it applies.” I explain that I wasn’t interested until I began seeing how it applied—that at the end of the day I often don’t see the past as present. And not in a metaphorical sense. I listen to the news and they discuss the Ukraine, civil war, the loss of the Crimea to the Russians, I think “well, I don’t give a fuck, that’s not my family’s land.” By which I mean the land we never owned outside of Kiev that we left more than a century ago. And that’s when it strikes me: I will never, ever get another story out of my grandfather. All this time, and I still don’t know what makes him happy. Well, I try to console myself, I got a lot of stories out of him. I took all his slides. But what of it? My father’s known him for 60 or so years. I have a handful of great stories from this past week alone. Who asked me?

So then you resign yourself to all the things you aren’t, all the things you define yourself by and yet aren’t. Well, let’s face it. I’m not a poet. I’m not a songwriter. I’m not much of a musician. No, I’m just another schmo trying to make a buck so I can tack another room onto the condo. In WWI when most of the French didn’t speak French they handed you a language. That’s what they used to do. Give you a language. A team. An economics you tie yourself to with credit and can’t never get away from. I have allergies and poor digestion and keep thinking, yeah yeah, if I could just get this idea to get me all rich I could be happy because then I’d have a doctor and could buy all the starbucks I want! I got my insurance card in the mail today. Seems like just yesterday that I was advised to try to stay healthy for the next four years or so and then Obamacare will kick in and at least they can’t reject me anymore. Now that they can’t reject me, I’m bitter because they want me to pay for what I lied and begged for before. What is it that I want? To read. To attend synagogue and feel closer to God. To be French. To practice piano. I dreamed last night that I was walking up and down an aisle of books of classical music. I was determined to buy one.

It isn’t that our parents are getting older. It’s that they’ve always been older. It isn’t that I missed out being friends with them when I was young. It’s that we play certain roles. I couldn’t drink beers with my dad when he was in his 30s because I was busy being his child. I would joke with my grandfather, on my birthday tell him I’m catching up to his age. We feel time standing still, but we see it moving around us. It’s everyone else who’s getting older. What about them isn’t habit? What about them can we extract while it’s still real energy, what can we listen to that isn’t an echo of words they said decades ago? I see this look on her face, and she says “right!” in a way that indicates she’s annoyed with me—it happens when she remembers that I lived for 30 years before we met. It’s how I know that when you find love, you can’t expect from it to replace the people who have died. There are holes that must never be filled. You have just to expect it to pick up where the people who’ve died left off. Left you. With holes. You can’t expect your wife to be your grandparents too. She has to just take you and love you despite your grandparents-shaped holes. Most of those holes I guess you just cover up, put them on paper, and just keep building out your life, looking back when nobody’s watching.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1793)

franklinI’m feeling a bit sad because I’d nearly finished writing about this book, and somehow the file’s been lost. My computer dies very easily and frequently, and the result is that I’ve learned to make the mistake of not saving files more often because I enjoy suffering.

Right. Ben Franklin’s Autobiography is, potentially, my favorite book ever by default. I’ve read it more times than I’ve read any other book. You might compare this to how the film I’ve seen more than any other is The Jacksons: An American Dream, the made-for-TV movie from 1992 that always seemed to be on television when I was younger, away from which I could never tear myself (phew—the awkwardness of ending sentences properly. But, when one only knows a single rule of grammar, one must apply it mercilessly). The fact of the matter is that it’s the first book in the first volume of the Harvard Classics, which all of a million times I’ve tried reading from start to finish, and never succeeded. But I always begin at the beginning, and, fortunately, I always receive a new bit of wisdom applicable to my life at the moment.

I’m struggling to remember the point of the last essay, which was ultimately based on a conversation Cindy and I had some weeks ago. Forgiveness. That was part of it. Let’s see how far I can get in retracing thoughts. But I don’t see how they apply.

I’ve been keeping my car’s radio on scanning the stations lately, and during the day there’s mostly Christian preaching, and I skip over it. But I heard the words “ten boom” as a station zipped past. I just had to get that on the table before I forgot. Oh, wait…the forgiveness, etc. essay I lost was about Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. Apparently I never wrote anything on Franklin.

Anyway, I always pick up little things to apply to my life. When I read this in 2004, as I remember where I was sitting, hiding in a corner of the dry cleaner’s trying to avoid customers since I was supposed to be working,

  1.      Fundraising: I recall Franklin’s advice to someone who’s asking him to help with fundraising: make a list of everyone. Then, ask the people whom you know will give you money. Then, show the list of people who’ve given you money to the people who might give you money. And after that, go to the people who won’t give you money and show them the larger list.
  2.      Learning Languages: Don’t bother learning Latin first. Learn Spanish, Italian, and French, and then you’ll have an easier time with Latin, and if you never get to it, at least you have some living languages under your belt.
  3.      Strong drink makes strong men—is a false argument for drinking beer for breakfast. Franklin suggests that they should eat the quantity of grain used to make the beer, I guess in the form of oatmeal with some pepper ground on it, and some water, and they’ll end up with more energy.

This time, I came across passages on business:

  1.      If you’re working with someone else, no matter whom, draw up an agreement stating what each party expects of the other.
  2.      Deal honestly with everyone in business, and things should turn out okay.
  3.      Negotiate by finding ways for everyone to win. He wanted to eat vegetarian when he was working for his brother, and his brother didn’t want to have to pay for separate meals for him when nobody else was vegetarian. So he asked his brother to give him, I think, less than the amount of his meal cost, so his brother saved the money, and half of that money he used to buy his ingredients and cook for himself, and then he also got to spend his eating time reading rather than hanging out with the other workers. So everyone won.
  4.      It’s proper to work your fucking ass off. And you need to convince your loved ones of this.

Around the time I was reading this, these two passages stirred something inside me of what was occurring in my life at the present. The fourth is most difficult for me. Although it ought to be simple, I think I have very little to give right now.

Well, what? All I got out of the book was practical advice.

Updike: A&P (1961)

After the Lord of the Flies epiphany, I went straight to Borders Books and Music and asked at the info desk for more books about “human nature” or “the human condition” or something like that. I remember they chuckled at me, handed me Catcher in the Rye, and suggested I continue down the path of post-war New Yorker writers, including John Updike. I remember sleeping on a sofa in Vermont, perhaps I had a fever, I’m not sure why else I’d be there, but in any case, my grandmother would wake me up every morning insisting I watch infomercials about calcium supplements, which I’m running out of time to take so I’d best start soon, she’d tell me. And I’d read Updike’s The Centaur. I wasn’t sure whether or not I appreciated it, but I finished it. It wasn’t until many years later that I decided I absolutely don’t like anything written by anyone born after 1910. And that’s final. Particularly John Updike, and Cheever, and Heller, and Vonnegut, and the whole lot of anyone born in the past hundred or so years. And that’s final! Mostly because it’s all the same: middle class kids and their middle class dreams and middle class lives. And what am I supposed to learn from that if I haven’t learned it already?

The funny thing about A&P is that you never quite get a grip on who the narrator is. The narrator sometimes speaks like a kid as written from someone who writes for the New Yorker, and sometimes speaks like a writer for the New Yorker.

But there were some lines I liked, and which made it all worthwhile for me, because I feel that same “Ah hah! Somebody gets it! I’m not the only one!” that I got from Catcher. 

…and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of these sunburns right across under the eyes, and a chin that was too long–you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much.

All this time, I wondered what girls were up to when they say stuff like that. You never hear guys say “oh, he’s handsome, what do you think of him?” to the girl next to him. Putting you on the spot, as a test, always looking for an excuse to feel badly about themselves or feel badly about your intentions. Human interaction is hard enough, and then there’s that shit too.

So, in conclusion:

You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar?)

1. Notice how artfully Updike arranges details to set the story in a perfectly ordinary supermarket. What details stand out for you as particularly true to life? What does this close attention to detail contribute to the story? 

The details that stood out particularly to me were the ones that reminded me of how things have not changed. It was 1961, and yet the whole system of the American supermarket was entirely in place–you walk in, push your cart, select items on your own, bring them to a register lane at the front of the store, pay, depart. This isn’t how it was in the USSR in 1961. There are still “Special” bins. The line driving this home for me included a list of things we still buy, still need: cat and dog food, breakfast cereal, macaroni, rice, raisins, seasonings, spreads, spaghetti, soft drinks, crackers, and cookies. Except that I don’t know what spreads are. You’re reminded of the decade when he mentions the cheap albums, including “Tony Martin Sings” — reminding you of Tony Bennett and Dean Martin, Updike himself being too young to fight in World War II, just over the age that would have purchased these albums, so young enough to laugh at them. Anyway, the point is that all these details draw a portrait of a place that seems realistic to me, and, in its realism, leads me to accept the rest of the episode as real.

2. How fully does Updike draw the character of Sammy? What traits (admirable or otherwise) does Sammy show? Is he any less a hero for wanting the girls to notice his heroism? To what extent is he more thoroughly and fully portrayed than the doctor in “Godfather Death“?

Sammy is drawn real enough that we can guess the rest of his life. His parents are friends with the store’s owner, he writes like someone who writes for the New Yorker, the girls are going to the beach, I’ll assume this is Long Island or New Jersey or something, right down to Queenie buying herring snacks for her mother, which I take as more of an second-generation immigrant than WASPy sort of treat.

3. What part of the story seems like the exposition? Of what value to the story is the carefully detailed portrait of Queenie, the leader of the three girls?

4. As the story develops, do you detect any change in Sammy’s feelings toward the girls?

5. Where in “A&P” does the dramatic conflict become apparent? What moment in the story brings the crisis? What is the climax of the story?

I suppose the obvious answer is the paragraph that begins “Now here comes the sad part of the story.” And then the dramatic conflict becomes apparent at the line, “then everybody’s luck begins to run out,” at which point the owner begins scolding the girls for wearing bathing suits in the store. The climax is likely the point where the girls begin hurrying out and Sammy says he quits.

6. Why, exactly, does Sammy quit his job?

7. Does anything lead you to expect Sammy to make some gesture of sympathy for the three girls? What incident earlier in the story (before Sammy quits) seems a foreshadowing?

“Poor kids, I began to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it.”

8. What do you understand from the conclusion of the story? What does Sammy mean when he acknowledges “how hard the world was going to be…hereafter”?

9. What comment does Updike–through Sammy–make on supermarket society?

Chuang Tzu – “Independence” (4th cen. BCE)

Ah, the beauty of textbooks, which tell you what questions to ask.

1. What part of this story is the exposition? How many sentences does Chuang Tzu use to set up the dramatic situation?

Here’s the deal. There’s this guy who sits outside on the back fire escape coughing all day and all night. Literally. 5am? Yes. 3am? Yes. All daytime long? Yes. I checked city records to see who owned the place and it’s a woman. He caught me sneaking around trying to look inside his window and I told him I was looking for a three-legged cat. I’m convinced he works for the CIA pretending to be a deadbeat and that there’s someone more dangerous I should actually be afraid of.

The first line is the exposition: “Chuang Tzu was one day fishing, when the Prince of Ch’u sent two high officials to interview him…” That’s about all we need to know to understand what’s going on. Chinese man fishing, prince begs him to work in high government post. We can pretty much guess the rest. See: Wordsworth being asked to be poet laureate. As for the dramatic situation, I don’t have an answer for that, because it takes the whole rest of the one-paragraph story to set up what seems to me a dramatic situation. It ends with “ah hah! That jackass,” but the real drama is in wondering what happens when the servants go back to the prince and tell him that the old fisherman turned down the job by comparing himself to a turtle. Then, there’s some negotiation, and that’s real drama.

2. Why does the protagonist change the subject and mention the sacred tortoise? Why doesn’t he answer the request directly and immediately? Does it serve any purpose that Chuang Tzu makes the officials answer a question to which he knows the answer?

I assume he mentions the tortoise because it’s a contrived example–the tortoise belongs in the pond that Chuang Tzu is currently in, but now in an official post similar to that which Chuang Tzu has been asked to fill. Any other tortoise wouldn’t be as effective to discuss–“would a turtle rather be cooped up in an office, or in a pond? duh, me too.” The sacred tortoise, in the meantime, is already dead, and would surely prefer to be anywhere, doing anything, so long as he were alive–the point perhaps being that the tortoise’s role is as a dead tortoise, and that Chuang Tzu, being in a government position, would find it as death. But…let’s be honest…it’s a ridiculous sort of argument he’s making anyway. He should just say no. Why doesn’t he? Because he’s convinced the officials to reject the offer for him through their own logic. This is the question he knows the answer to, and now he doesn’t have to answer it, and if he’s lucky he won’t get his head chopped off.

3. What does this story tell us about the protagonist Chuang Tzu’s personality?

He’s a dick. He’s insufferable. An insufferable dick. A number of people I’ve looked to as wise have also fallen into this category, in which I begin to feel as if I cannot say anything at all without being condemned on some account. Eventually I just keep my mouth shut and I stop learning anything new. So, perhaps the lesson here is that if you’d like to learn something, you must become accustomed to suffering incessant humiliation.

Grimm (Segal) – Godfather Death (1812)

I don’t know upon what tales children are raised anymore, and I know that I had a my fair share of contemporary children’s stories and picture books to make me feel okay about life. The ones that I recall most clearly are the classics, the ones that are a little spooky. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always gravitated toward such folk tales, always torn between wanting to be on a beach, or wanting to be in the Black Forest in some little watchmaking village.

Anyway, by line three, you’re already caught up in the drama. The guy’s in a conversation with God. And then Satan. And then Death. At the end of the day, you know what’s going to happen: the man is going to defy Death because he’s too prideful. And then he’ll die. The moral: don’t be prideful? The other moral: Death truly is the one you can’t hold anything against–it’s the others you have to worry about.