Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Official J. Wiltz Christmas Story Countdown

...and it's only two months late! Yes, after spending January and the bulk of February getting strange looks from people on the bus and subway, I have finally made time to sit down and finish the Everyman Library's collection of Christmas stories. Like the ghost and love story collections, this one was mostly great with only two or three blah stories tossed into the mix for good measure. Here are some quick thoughts about each one, along with links where some of them can be found online. Enjoy. Merry belated Christmas.

 The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton by Charles Dickens. If you've read anything by Dickens, you've probably read that other Christmas story he's so famous for. This one is a little shorter, but the idea is basically the same: an unpleasant man is visited by spirits (goblins) on Christmas Eve; they scare the crap out of him until he pledges to be a nicer person. Dickens's sense of horror is very strong here. If you like nightmarish scenes (think Neil Gaiman), you'll love it. Note: this story is taken from a longer work called The Pickwick Papers.

The Night Before Christmas (may also be called Christmas Eve) by Nikolai Gogol. Not to be confused with "'Twas the Night Before Christmas", this story is, stylistically speaking, the most interesting one in the entire collection. It begins with the devil stealing the moon from the sky and placing it in his pocket and then goes on to invoke everything from Jacob's struggle with God (Genesis 32) to "Cinderella" to Catherine the Great. Along the way, Gogol does some interesting things with his timeline and makes a number of funny observations about human nature and relationships. Best of all, the whole thing is written like a folk/fairy tale. This is one of the longer stories in the Everyman collection, but I personally plan to make a Christmas tradition out of reading it. It's strange and wonderful in the best sense of those words. Make sure you find and read it.

The Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle. If you've seen either of the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., you owe it to yourself to go back and read the original stories. Everyone knows how the formula works, of course: (1) Holmes finds some innocent-looking item and says that it gives him great insight into a mystery that has baffled the police; (2) Watson asks what Holmes means; (3) Holmes meticulously outlines the tiny details of the item and uses them as clues; (4) Watson and Holmes use the clues to set out on an adventure. There's a reason these stories have stood the test of time and entered the popular imagination. It's because they're fun to read, and this one is no exception. Check it out.

Christmas at Thompson Hall by Anthony Trollope. If you ever go to Barnes & Noble and look through their display of classic books, there are certain authors you are guaranteed to encounter: Ovid, Twain, Poe, Hawthorne, Austen, the Bronte sisters, etc. Look a little closer and you'll also see a few by Anthony Trollope, a great Victorian novelist who's always there but whom no one has ever heard of. It's kind of a shame, because the man wrote very well. Like all Victorians, he can be a little long-winded and overly obsessed with proper manners, but I assure you this is the best Christmas story you will ever read about mustard. Enjoy.

Where Love Is, God Is by Leo Tolstoy. If you went to elementary school with me, you probably remember watching "Martin the Cobbler" in the library every Christmas. This is the story it was based on - a simple, beautiful tale that demonstrates how the Christian life should be lived. Good stuff.

Vanka by Anton Chekhov. I hate to admit this, but "Vanka" is the first Chekhov story I've ever read. That's pretty sad, given that I know what a strong influence he was on a lot of other great literary figures (especially Tennessee Williams). This story, I believe, is a metaphor for prayer. It's somewhat tragic until...well, you just have to read it. Let me know what you think.

The Burglar's Christmas by Willa Cather. A modern version of the parable of the prodigal son. If you have a strong relationship with your parents or children - or if there's someone in your life that you need to forgive - it will probably move you to tears. Just one choice line: "Have you wandered so far and paid such a bitter price for knowledge and not yet learned that love has nothing to do with pardon or forgiveness, that it only loves, and loves - and loves?"

A Chapparal Christmas Gift by O. Henry. The word most often associated with O. Henry is irony, and you'll find lots of it in this fast-paced campfire story about the Frio Kid, a heartbroken outlaw in South Texas. As in most of Henry's fiction, there's a surprise at the end -- the kind that sits there for a minute, then makes you go "Oooooooh," read the last three pages again, and say to yourself, "Oh yeah!" Don't miss this one, amigos.

Reginald's Christmas Revel by H. H. Munro (Saki). A lot of stories about Christmas are centered around thoughts of charity, love, sadness, etc. All of those things are artistically legitimate, but let's not forget: Christmas is for smartasses too. Check out this quick-witted little story about the difficulty of pretending to like your family during the holidays. (Note: the last incident the narrator describes sounds like something I would have done a few years ago.) :)

Christmas by Vladimir Nabokov. I don't know how he does it, but in this story Vladimir Nabokov morphs a father's bitter grief into a beautiful expression of hope and rebirth. Depending on what mood you're in, you'll either find it very inspiring or very cheesy. It caught me in an inspirational mood. Hope it does the same for you. (Note: listen to "Lightning Crashes" after you finish reading this. The chorus of that song perfectly sums up the theme of the story.)

Dancing Dan's Christmas by Damon Runyon. It's hard to put into words what a pleasant surprise this story turned out to be. When I first started reading this collection, I expected to be most taken by one of the better known authors (Updike, Nabokov, maybe Capote). As it turns out, this is probably my favorite story in the entire book. Written in an exaggerated New Yorker dialect, it tells the story of Christmas during Prohibition and includes everything from a love triangle to a jewel heist. It also includes a drunken Santa Claus, which makes me smile and say, "Yeah. I've definitely been there a time or two." :) Do yourself a favor and read this. Then come to over to my place so we can talk about it over some hot Tom and Jerry

Bella Fleace Gave a Party by Evelyn Waugh. I've always noticed a similarity between the social structure of the Old South and British/Irish high society. (Scarlett's last name was O'Hara, was it not?) This story just proves my point. Bella Fleace is an old woman from a fading Irish family. She lives in a grand old home, and one Christmas, in her late 80s, she decides to spruce the place up and throw an elegant Christmas party. What happens at this party? Track the story down and find out. Waugh is very skilled at mixing joy and sorrow in equal doses.

Green Holly by Elizabeth Bowen. I've read a couple of Elizabeth Bowen's stories now, and already I'm starting to notice a pattern. She really likes heavy atmosphere, crossing the line between consciousness and unconsciousness, and ghosts. This story didn't do very much for me, but I give it credit for being well-written. Give it a chance and make up your own mind.

Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor by John Cheever. This classic New Yorker piece left me with mixed emotions. Even after thinking it over, I still can't tell if it's meant to poke fun at high society or at low-income working people who take advantage of other people's kindness. I'll have to read it again. In the meantime, though, I do have to say that I like its central theme: human goodness is contagious. Read it over and see what you think. (Note: I've linked to the New Yorker site, so the layout is really cool and arty.)

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. Whenever I think of Truman Capote, the first thing I think of is his famous criticism of Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation: "It isn't writing. It's typing." I love this quote, not only because I largely share Capote's sentiment, but because he himself had the writing chops to back it up. "A Christmas Memory" is a classic example. Here, Capote takes simple things like fruitcake and Christmas decorations and uses them to tell one of the best stories about friendship this side of Jim and Huck. Bring Kleenex. I shed tears on the subway reading this.

The Carol Sing by John Updike. There are two stories about Christmas concerts in this story collection, a sad one and a joyful one. This is the sad one. Updike's story isn't simply about loss, it's about absence. And it's a reminder that we never really know what someone might be going through. Take care of your loved ones, especially at Christmas. And check out this story.

Christmas Fugue by Muriel Spark. I wish I could think of something nice to say about this story, dear readers, but quite honestly, it's the runt of the litter: a predictable "woman starting over" story that you might read in a college creative writing course. As always, I encourage you to find it, read it, and see what you think. As for me, I'll soon be writing a letter to Random House that begins: "Dear Random House - no, seriously what is this story doing in here?"

The Loudest Voice by Grace Paley. Damn, I wish I could find this story online so everyone could just click and read it. It's a story about a little Jewish girl in 1930s New York who gets a big part in her school's Christmas play because her voice is so loud and clear. Naturally, this causes a bit of scandal in her home and neighborhood, as the people around her begin to debate whether it is proper for a Jewish girl to give voice to a Christian holiday. It's a very cute story, and I'm using "cute" in the way that isn't condescending. Honestly, try to find it.

The Turkey Season by Alice Munro. Anyone who says that women can't write (and yes, there are people who say that) has clearly never read anything by Alice Munro. "The Turkey Season" is a slice-of-life story about a girl who works in a turkey processing plant during the Christmas season. It reminds me of something David Sedaris might write in one of his more serious moods, and I recommend it to anyone who's ever had a memorable job or one of those moments in life where "something happened" that no one can quite put their finger on. Great stuff.

Creche by Richard Ford. I only know this because I work with a bunch of Canadians who speak French: a "creche" is a Nativity or manger scene. I still can't figure out why Ford picked this particular title for his story about a lonely businessswoman on vacation with her mom, brother-in-law, and nieces, but I'm sure he had his reasons. Give it a try and let me know what you come up with.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best Early Birthday Present EVER.

"...all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword."
                                                                   Matthew 26:52

Anyang, South Korea. May 2, 2011. 1:00 PM. It's one of those moments I know I'll never forget. My students had just finished lunch and were preparing for an afternoon unit lesson (the title of this lesson, appropriately enough, was "The Difference Between Living and Non-Living Objects"). The presentation I had planned to show them was saved in my e-mail account, so I opened it up, fully prepared to begin explaining words like breathe, reproduce, and waste. Instead, I noticed a message from Facebook informing me that Cathy Wiltz (my mom) had posted something on my Wall.

My mom of course is not the kind of person who would log into Facebook just to say hello. So, making sure it was nothing important or family-related, I went ahead and opened the message. Inside were 13 lucky words written in all-caps: J, IN CASE YOU HAVEN'T HEARD..BIN LADEN IS DEAD!! WE KILLED HIM :))

Needless to say, I hit the roof and let out a triumphant "OOOHHHHHH!!!!", causing my poor teaching partner and students to panic, wondering what had happened. I couldn't explain it to them, obviously -- as a general rule, it's probably best not to let children know that you're glad someone is dead -- so I simply told them that I was very very happy and that they could have the rest of the afternoon for free time. Then I passed out the Cracker Jack my parents had sent the previous Friday.

I'm sure there's no need to elaborate on why the news of bin Laden's death was so well-received. Like so many other Americans, I was profoundly affected by the atrocities of 9-11 and could never rest easy with the knowledge that he might somehow get away with it. Ten years later, it's nice to know that he didn't.

Whatever you call it -- karma, reaping what you sow, a spectacular display of American military intelligence -- the message is the same:

What goes around comes around.

No need to get me a birthday present this year, dear readers. I don't think anything could top this one. :) 


Monday, March 28, 2011

The Official J. Wiltz Valentine's Day Love Story Countdown

Well, dear readers, we've been here before. We've seen this room and we've walked this floor... In other words, we all know how this works. As with my Halloween short story countdown back in October, I'll be reading selections from the Everyman Library's collection of love stories throughout the month of February and then posting my thoughts about them here on my blog. Whenever possible, I'll also provide links to websites where you can find and read these stories for yourselves. You shouldn't be surprised that I'm reading a book of love stories, by the way. I admitted a long time ago that I'm a born romantic. Enjoy.

The Valentine's Day Love Story Countdown

(1) "Clair de Lune" by Guy de Maupassant. In just 5 short pages, Maupassant treats his readers to a developing character, a thoughtful challenge to religious tradition, and a whole bunch of moonlight. A little flowery at times, but it raises a beautiful question: if the Earth is God's work of art, what is the artist trying to say? [Suggested background music: "Hallelujah"; "Because the Night"; "Music of the Night"]

(2) "Here We Are" by Dorothy Parker. Like just about everything Dorothy Parker wrote, this story is absolutely perfect: realistic, yet grandiose; funny, yet thoughtful; comic, yet somehow tragic. Written almost entirely in dialogue (and believe me, no one does dialogue like Dorothy), it tells the story of a newlywed couple whose marriage doesn't exactly start off on the right foot. Great stuff. Seriously, invest in a Dorothy Parker short story collection and read it. I can't find this story online, but here's a full version of the Dorothy Parker biopic, Mrs.Parker and the Vicious Circle - easily one of the best movies ever made about a writer. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: "D-I-V-O-R-C-E"; "Fell in Love With a Girl"; "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?"; "Better Off Without a Wife"]

(3) "Lady's Dream" by Tobias Wolff. It's often said that opposites attract. Of course, it's also said that birds of a feather flock together. So which is it? That's the question that lingers at the heart of "Lady's Dream," a bittersweet story about two very different people who have somehow ended up together. Wolff has managed a difficult task in this story, exploring the differences in his characters' families, psychologies, personalities, geographies, etc. without making the reader dislike either of them. Along the way he makes several good jokes and acknowledges the lingering tension between Yankees and Southerners. If I'm not mistaken, this is the first Tobias Wolff story I've ever read. It definitely won't be the last. Check it out. [Suggested background music: "Water Runs Dry"]

(4) “That in Aleppo Once…” by Vladimir Nabokov. The more I read Nabokov, the more I become convinced that there was absolutely nothing he couldn’t accomplish in fiction. Set against the backdrop of WWII, “That in Aleppo Once” traces the story of a married couple who are forced to flee Paris after the “gentle Germans” come roaring in. (Keep an eye out for the narrator’s keen assessment of Hitler.) They become separated in the process, and when they are finally reunited the man realizes that his wife is not the person he thought she was. A brilliant exploration of dishonesty in relationships and politics: so tragic and absurd. [Suggested background music: “Liar”; “Easy Lover”; “I Love the Way You Lie”; “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”]

(5) "Blood, Sea" by Italo Calvino. A sonnet for science geeks. Lots of people have said things like "I love with you with every fiber of my being" and "I have feelings for you that come from deep inside," but Calvino is the only person I know of who actually took the time to examine what those sorts of statements really mean. "Blood, Sea" describes romance at the level of cells and molecules, a perpetual cycle of attraction, absorption, and destruction with deep roots in the origins of humanity. Leave it to an Italian to take a topic like Evolution and make it sexy. (Technically, Italo Calvino was from Cuba, but he grew up in Italy.) Test it out and see what conclusions you reach. [Suggested background music: "Bleeding Love"; "She Blinded Me With Science"; "Part of Me" ; "A Case of You"]

(6) "Immortality" by Yasunari Kawabata. The writers of Japan have always been amazingly skilled at presenting profound truths in simple, uncluttered language. (Lest we forget, Japan is the country that gave us the haiku.) Kawabata is no exception. This story is very short and very obvious, but few can argue with its central message - Love is eternal. Check it out if you can find it somewhere. [Suggested background music: "Endless Love"; "My Immortal"; "Together Forever"]

(7) "A Temporary Matter" by Jhumpa Lahiri. As a writer, I actually felt jealous while reading this story. Honestly, it's that good. Lahiri tells the story of a married couple, Shoba and Shukumar, who are experiencing difficulty in their relationship after the death of their child. The writing is very simple, but you can really feel the weight of their heartache as things fall in and out of place. There are multiple layers of meaning, but nothing pretentious or sentimental. A really really great story. Don't pass let it pass you by. [Suggested background music: "Stinkfist"; "I Can't Make You Love Me"; "Sometimes Love Just Ain't Enough"; "I Will Always Love You"; "Love Will Tear Us Apart"]

(8) "The Woman Who Came at Six O'Clock" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This one's a sweet piece of strangeness about two lonely people sharing a moment of each other's company. If you ask me, they would probably be happy together if it weren't for the secret that will ultimately keep them apart. If you want to find out what that secret is, track this story down and read it. Time with Gabo is always time well spent. [Suggested background music: "We've Got Tonight"; "Roxanne"; "Twinkle"; "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia"; "Cell Block Tango"]

(9) "Dead Mabelle" by Elizabeth Bowen. You really have to give Elizabeth Bowen credit for her foresight here. In 1929, long before the advent of television, celebrity magazines, and Studio 54, she recognized and wrote about the phenomenon now commonly referred to as the celebrity crush. "Dead Mabelle" is the story of an alienated man who falls in love with a silent movie star. When she dies unexpectedly, he struggles with the reality that she is dead (in real life) and yet still alive (in her movies). So, here's a point to ponder: are celebrities ever really alive to us? We know so much about them, yet most of us never actually meet them. It's an interesting question, even though this story is a little slow and obvious at times. [Suggested background music: "You're Beautiful"; "Mister Superstar"; "Take, Take, Take"; "Candle in the Wind (Goodbye Norma Jean)"]

(10) "Swept Away" by T. Coraghessan ("T.C.") Boyle. This story is quite literally about a whirlwind romance. More specifically, it's about an Irish whirlwind romance. The narrator's tone seems a little contrived at times (I know the Irish take great pride in their drinking skills, but the phrase "meditating over a pint of bitter at the rattling window of Magnuson's Pub" feels a little forced, a little too Irish), but it's easy to follow and tells a nice story. Also, Boyle's depiction of the wind has a hint of magical realism that adds a nice fairy tale quality to the whole thing. A good quick afternoon read. Be sure to read it if you get the chance. [Suggested background music: "Crush"; "My Bonnie"; "A Summer Song"]   

(11) "The Horse Dealer's Daughter" by D.H. Lawrence. This is the perfect love story for anyone who’s in a dark kind of mood. As her family and fortune fall into decline, Mabel Pervins begins suffering through a severe bout of depression. Enter Dr. Jack Fergusson, who comes to love her in her darkest hours. Lawrence’s writing frequently dips into melodrama (example: “It was horrible to have her there embracing his knees. It was horrible.”), but the story covers a lot of important ground: the nature and symptoms of deep sadness; the difficulty of surrendering to Love (even Love you truly want to experience); the security of money; and the special intimacy that exists between doctors and their patients. It also conveys a very important message that some of you will recognize from Titanic: if you save a woman from killing herself, she’ll let you have sex with her. Take a look at it sometime. [Suggested background music: “Wild Horses“;   “Bring Me to Life“; “Drown“; “Theme from The Hours“; “Theme from The Piano“]

(12) “Mr. Botibol” by Roald Dahl. In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably mention that I have a long history of love for Roald Dahl. When I was growing up, I read all of his children’s books and watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at least two or three million times. Then, in 2003, I entered (and won) a Roald Dahl Sequel Writing Contest. So maybe I’m a little biased here, but this is my favorite story in the collection so far. Mr.Botibol is an awkward, odd-looking man who, in his own words, “cannot remember having had a single success of any sort during my whole life.” But then one day he has a sudden brush with greatness and everything changes. What follows is a very sweet story about giving in to crazy impulses, the inspiration of good art, the healing power of music, the development of fetishes, and the special kind of love that forms between unusual people. My favorite line: “Don’t worry about me, Mason…I’m not mad. I’m just enjoying myself.” Download the PDF and read this one. [Suggested background music: “Allegria“; “Music of My Heart“; “My Funny Valentine“; “Morning Has Broken“; "Ode to Joy" ]

(13) “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. If you know Fitzgerald, you probably know what to expect from this one. Golf courses. Dinner parties. Middle-class young men who fall in love with flighty rich girls they can’t have. Heartache caused by class warfare. The pain of impermanence, etc., etc. It’s not that he’s predictable; his style and subject matter are just very recognizable. And he’s really at his best in this story. Check it out and spend a little time with this quintessentially American author. Note: watch for the comment about the young men who welcomed the coming of World War I – now there’s a conversation starter if you know what to do with it. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: “She Talks to Angels“; “Cry, Cry, Cry“; "Friends in Low Places"; “Uptown Girl“]

(14) “The Room” by William Trevor. This story, put simply, is a well-written tale of infidelity. The main character, Katherine, is not in love with the man she’s having an affair with. She’s just trying to sort through some difficulties with her husband (difficulties, by the way, that may or may not include a murder). Personally, I’ve never understood this way of thinking. “I made love to her because I couldn’t stand to be there alone without you.” “I kissed him to see if I was still in love with you.” HUH? It seems to me that if you need to find out whether you still have feelings for someone, the answer is probably no. Trust me, you’ll know Love when it’s there. Not exactly my cup of tea, but like I said it’s well-written. If you get a chance, read through it and see what you think. [Suggested background music: “Married, But Not to Each Other“; “Famous Blue Raincoat“; “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)“; “Boom! I Got Your Boyfriend"; "All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You”]

(15) “May” by Ali Smith. From its opening lines - I tell you. I fell in love with a tree. I couldn’t not. It was in blossom. – this story promises to be a very different sort of love story. Reading over it, I believe there are several ways it can be interpreted. (1) It’s a longer version of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem, "Trees." (2) It’s a story about the deep connection we all have with Nature. (3) It’s a story about left-wing environmental politics and the love involved in adamantly supporting a cause. (4) It’s a story about mental illness and the challenge of loving someone who’s gone batshit crazy. Or (5) It’s a combination of the four. I’m of the opinion that the answer is 5. (Lord knows environmentalists and the mentally ill are not exactly mutually exclusive.) Structurally, this story is very interesting. Note, for instance, the way neither narrator is ever really identified as a man or a woman, and the way they both speak as if they’re addressing the other (multiple personality disorder?). Also, there are little hints of Salinger and Poe hiding here and there for the discerning reader to pick up on. I’m not much on the ending, but it’s definitely worth checking out if you can track it down. [Suggested background music: “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy“; “Nearly Lost You“; “The Nurse Who Loved Me“; “Walkin' After Midnight“; “Boys in the Trees“]

(16) “The Stranger” by Katherine Mansfield. I'm sure everyone knows the old saying about how “it takes years to build up trust, and it only takes suspicion, not proof, to destroy it.” But just in case you need a visual aid, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Stranger” is here to illustrate the point. Mr. Hammond absolutely adores his wife Janey, who’s been away in Europe for several months. But when she returns, he immediately gets the sense that something is out of order. Janey isn't telling him the whole truth about her travels...or is she? Like Mr. Hammond, the reader is left with a lot of unanswered questions that have any number of plausible answers. If you liked that movie Doubt, you’ll really enjoy this. And if you’ve ever had your trust in someone shaken, you’ll stand up and applaud at Mansfield’s final sentence. Nicely done. [Suggested background music: “Who is He (And What Is He to You)?“; “Suspicious Minds“; “Leave My Girl Alone“;   “I Heard It Through the Grapevine“; “Would I Lie to You?“]

(17) "Armande" by Colette. Here's something you don't see very often in our cynical century: a simple love story with a happy ending. The two main characters have secretly been in love with each other for a very long time, but neither of them has done anything about it...until now. Colette does a nice job of describing the shyness, nervousness, and push-and-pull that comes with finally taking a chance with Love. There are also a few fun parts describing the relationships between brothers and sisters. Fans of When Harry Met Sally will probably find something to like about this one. [Suggested background music: "Give Me a Happy Ending"; "Head Over Feet"; "Realize"; "Save the Best for Last"]

(18) " Bluebeard's Egg " by Margaret Atwood. One of the stereotypes about women in relationships is that they tend to overthink things and read significance into things that men aren't paying any attention to. After reading this story, I'm fairly certain that stereotype is true. The whole thing is one long mental process - a woman trying to calculate her husband's thoughts and behavior. A very interesting look into the female psyche. The ending is a bit of a let-down (feels like a cop-out), but if you're a writer you should definitely check this one out for the parts where Atwood's character (Sally) offers insights into the writing process. The link above will take you to a PDF. Enjoy. [Suggested background music: "She Drives Me Crazy"]

(19) " Terrific Mother " by Lorrie Moore. I'll say this for what it's worth. Despite the fact that "Terrific Mother" is the longest story in the Everyman collection by a good 10 or 12 pages, I managed to get through it in about half the time it took me to read some of the others. In spite of a few flaws (some of the dialogue is written in an artificial style similar to a movie or sitcom), it's definitely a page-turner. Moore opens the show by describing a brutal event that haunts her main character Adrienne throughout the story. Surprisingly, though, this is not a dark and morbid tale. It's actually very funny, especially in the scenes where Adrienne makes fun of the academics she meets at a conference she attends with her husband. There's a lot going on here, everything from a search for forgiveness to a discussion of Keynesian economics. Effortless complexity. Read it if you get the chance. [Suggested background viewing: "You have to forgive me..."]

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Introducing A Day With J. (South Korean Edition)

Greetings dear readers. Well, I've been in South Korea for two weeks now and so far I've had an amazing time. To celebrate this exciting new chapter in my life, I've started a new blog: A Day With J. (South Korean Edition) where I'll be posting a lot of pics, videos, and commentaries during the coming year. You won't want to miss it, so be sure to bookmark that shit.

I'm having too much fun to miss home, but I do hope everyone is doing well and I wish you were all here to see this amazing country.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

I'm a Seoul Man

Big news today, dear readers. After a year spent languishing here in Oxford, trying to figure out just what, exactly, I'm supposed to be doing with my post-graduate life, I have unexpectedly happened upon a great adventure. For the next year, I will be teaching at an English language school just south of Seoul, South Korea.

As always, there's a story attached to this odd little turn of events.


A few weeks back, my mom was working in the gift shop at Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos Catholic Church when in walks Mrs. Belinda Corley. Mrs.Corley - or "Miss Belinda" as I've always called her - is of course the mother of Brent Corley, my childhood best friend. (Brent and I buddied up after my previous childhood best friend, Emmett Lawrence, sold me out and left Nativity for Fatima - an offense I've never truly forgiven him for, along with that whole nasty "you can't have dessert unless you finish your lunch" episode. But I digress.)

Anyway, my mom and Miss Belinda got to talking and had a conversation that probably went a little something like this:

Miss Belinda: Hey Cathy!

Mom: Well hey, Belinda! How are y'all doing?

Miss Belinda: Just fine, fine. How's Jason? [Note: that's me, for those of you who've never called me anything besides "J"]

Mom: Oh, you know, he's up in Oxford, just sucking at life, being a constant source of disappointment to me and Tommy. How's Brent?

Miss Belinda: Well, Brent was doing pretty much the same thing until just recently. You'll never believe what he's up to now, though.

Mom: What?...Don't tell me he's back to peddling crack at the old folks home again.

Miss Belinda: Oh lord no! He hasn't done that since he and Jason were kids! Actually, he's going over to Korea to teach English.

Mom: Really? Korea?

Miss Belinda: Yup. We're shipping him to the other side of the world for a whole year. Let's see him try to borrow money from that far away! (diabolical laugh)

Mom: (beginning to laugh diabolically herself) That's the most scathingly brilliant idea I've ever heard! Maybe we could ship Jason over there too!

Miss Belinda: It's worth a shot!

[The two break down in evil laughter together. Scene fades to black. Cut.]


And so it happened that my mom sat me down and explained what Brent was doing. "I know it sounds crazy," she said, "but does that sound like something you might be interested in?" Naturally, I jumped at the chance.

You see, dear readers, there are some people in this world who hesitate at Life's big moments. They sweat during important job interviews. They get cold feet before their weddings. They worry about whether they're capable of doing the things they most want to do. They get nervous at the thought of living on the other side of the world for a year...

I am the exact opposite. I don't get nervous and frustrated when Life presents me with a big chance; I get nervous and frustrated when there are no big chances to take. For better or worse, I'm a free spirit. Part pirate. Part Kerouac. Part carnie. Part salesman. When Keith calls me and says, "We're hopping the train to Chicago tomorrow," you better believe I'm going to Chicago. Or, as my uncle said just recently, "J will never own a house. He'll never need to. You could give him a pillow and a blanket and he'd sleep right here on the floor."

I don't expect it to be easy, all this touring the world, putting my degree to use, eating lots of Asian food (my fave), having my rent paid, living in a country entirely populated by beautiful black-haired women, not being able to commit to anything because "I'm only here for a year," etc., etc. But, I suppose I'll make due as best I can. :)

Off I go, kids. Here's hoping adventure is finding all of you too. Life won't wait.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Claudia Boutwell: Genie of the Metaphors

A Bit of Video

I can't make these videos coherent for anyone who wasn't in them. And it's been so long since they were made that most of the people who were in them probably won't understand them very well either. But, if you just have to watch (or already have), here's what I can tell you:

(1) There are two scenes here. The first is called "3 Losers". Basically, it's an infomercial for an album featuring terrible cover versions of popular songs. After all, "Why pay money for the expensive originals when you can hear losers sing them for free?" You can tell this was filmed in the '90s, because we sing "Lightning Crashes," the "I Love You" song from Barney, and an incredibly embarrassing version of "I Just Can't Wait to be King" from The Lion King (which, by the way, prompted one of several "are you sure you're not gay?" conversations from my dad back in high school).

(2) The second scene is called "Marriage Counselors, Inc." Filmed in the darkness of my parents' pre-Katrina home - seen here in all its wooden-paneled glory - it tells the story of a family with a dark secret. As the scene begins, a mother, Joy, is reading the Bible with her two daughters, Faith and Hope. They are soon joined by their husband/father, Clarence. Everything goes along smoothly until “later that day!” when Faith, Hope, and Clarence get back from work and school. That's when the dysfunction starts to show. Several shouting fits occur (the best one comes at 5:48 when Joy screams, "You WHAT?! MY GOD!!"). This continues for a couple of minutes and then comes to a sudden stop. The family is then seen, happy again, explaining that something called Marriage Counselors, Incorporated, helped them...Don't ask. I don't get it either.

(3) If you went to college with me, you undoubtedly heard me sing my intentionally terrible/annoying/loser version of Michael Bolton's "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" on at least one karaoke night or another. The performance you see here is where the idea first came from. (Remember, we were "3 Losers" - the performances were supposed to be terrible.)

(4) These videos were filmed as part of a class project (explained below). I don't remember much about it, except that we lost points for our casual mention of S&M. Teachers are such prudes sometimes.

A Bit of Philosophy

Tell me if this makes sense, dear readers. Some people come into your life as friends, family members, acquaintances, romances, or co-workers. Other people come into your life as symbols.

Your high school, for example, probably had at least one student whom everyone knew was incredibly intelligent. You may not have been a close friend of this person - in fact, you may never have spoken to them at all - but you knew who they were, and you knew that they were intelligent. You have an idea of them, as opposed to an actual bond. Thus, for you that person exists as a symbol of intelligence. And you probably have "symbol people" for just about everything. If you don't believe me, just take a few seconds to fill in the following blanks.

(A) Tonight is Trivia Night at Two Stick? Dude, call _________ and see if he/she wants to be on our team. That dude/chick is crazy smart!

(B) I'm doing this to better myself. Lord knows I'd hate to screw up my life and be a total failure like ______.

(C) Do I think your new boy/girlfriend is hot? Absolutely. I mean, he/she is no _________, but he/she is definitely hot.

You had a name for every blank, didn't you? Yes you did. And those names are your symbols for intelligence, failure, and attractiveness. The same is true in literature. You don't need to read Peter Pan to know that he is a symbol of eternal youth and mischief. You don't need to read A Christmas Carol to know that "Scrooge" means "old, mean, and nasty." And on and on...People as symbols. You get the point. And now that I've laid the groundwork I can finally tell you a little bit about Claudia Boutwell.

A Bit of Autobiography

Claudia and I met sometime in 1994 or '95, near the middle of what I call "my theater days." We had both been cast in a Center Stage production of Aladdin, but we weren't in any of the same scenes and had therefore never rehearsed together. So, when I first ran into her backstage, all dolled up in black eyeliner and a midriff-exposing genie costume, I was kind of at a loss for words.

Where had this girl come from?

As you can probably guess, I've never been the kind of guy who gets shy and nervous around women. Even in my worst moments, I can usually find something to talk about; and more often than not, I can make people laugh. But I'm not gonna lie - those first few minutes with Claudia were absolutely pitiful on my part. We're talking clumsy adolescence at its very finest. I tried to pull it together, but my god, that outfit! And that voice! Even her name was hot: Claudia. Like a character in a James Bond movie or something. A friend of mine witnessed the whole thing and told me later that he'd never seen me like that. It became kind of a running joke: the one time J was flustered by something. (Go ahead and laugh if you must, dear reader, but you can rest assured that no straight man ever watched I Dream of Jeannie for the plotline or dialogue.)

After that, Claudia and I bumped into each other here and there at various Center Stage functions, where she was famous for improvising a line of dialogue about becoming a "genie of the nose ring". A couple of years later she was briefly enrolled at Biloxi High and we recorded a couple of odd little scenes for some class project (the video up top). That was the full extent of our face-to-face time. But the idea of Claudia (here's where it all comes together) has lingered long and found its way into any number of my creative endeavors.

During my garage rock days, she was the subject of the Brass Tacks song "B.Enigma." When I was writing Pink, I needed a perfect name for one of my stronger female characters: so, naturally, I named her Claudia. She even loaned her name to a practical joke I pulled once (long, terrible story). Yes, one awkward little moment of backstage chatter and her name was forever synonomous with femme fatale. And now, after all these years as a metaphor in my personal mythology, she has officially joined my Facebook friends list. It's kind of funny in its own way.

Welcome aboard, genie. Here's hoping I can keep it together this time around.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Party Like It's 1993

17 years ago tonight -- December 3, 1993 -- I was sitting at the UNO Lakefront Arena watching Nirvana in concert. Though of course they were never my favorite band, Nirvana were no doubt the top rock dogs of the early '90s - the only band my younger friends are jealous of me for having seen in concert. (In some cases, they're the only band I grew up listening to that my younger friends have actually heard of.) So, to mark the occasion here's an embarrassing little medley from the garage rock vaults.

I give you "Heart Shaped Box" and "Rape Me" as performed by me, David Foster (vocals), Mike Lujan (guitar), and Daniel Leavengood (drums) in Mitchell Gruich's garage back in 1996.

Before you say anything, yes, I know how terrible we sounded...but it's not like we were trying to win on American Idol or anything. Sometimes it just feels good to scream. :) If it really left a bad taste in your mouth, try washing it out with the original.

Oh, to be this young and angst-ridden again.