The Opportunist

An opportunistic pathogen takes advantage of your body’s weakened state to launch its attack. This type of disease only affects a host with a compromised immune system. If you’re healthy, you’ll be left alone.

Opportunistic infections are egged on by things like fatigue, malnutrition, skin damage and recurrent infections. They spring up at the worst moments to kick us while we’re down. In other words, they’re much like journalists.

Journalists–and writers in general–are opportunists. Or, the good ones are. They know a good story when they hear one, whether it’s a snatch of conversation in a shadowy cocktail bar or a loud altercation on the subway or a bit of gossip passed on by a friend. They’re not opportunistic to the point that they damage the host, but they recognize moments of weakness or novelty and use them to their advantage.

Here’s the trouble: My opportunistic instincts are crap.

When Clay Felker launched New York magazine in 1968, he did it with almost zero support. The main reason he succeeded was because he was his own best reporter. He got himself invited to important high-society events, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to spend every evening out. At those events and during those evening excursions he found his inspiration; he carried a notepad around with him and scribbled down, even mid-conversation, anything that sounded promising.

He got the hot gossip, the weird scoops, and commissioned people like Tom Wolfe to write madcap things like “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” about Leonard Bernstein hosting a party for the Black Panthers in his home. Seriously, no one else thought to cover these things before Felker rolled around.

Other writers tout the benefits to keeping a notebook all the time. Joan Didion wrote a whole, beautiful essay on the merits of keeping a notebook. It’s called, fittingly, “On Keeping a Notebook.

“See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.”

I do keep a notebook, but it isn’t passage to anywhere. I carry it around and fill it up, sure, with little snatches of limericks that bore into my brain during class or grocery lists or doodles of Onion Girl. “You’re so wrapped up in layers, Onion Girl, you’re afraid of your own feelings,” reads the Shrek-inspired caption, but Onion Girl won’t give me my next pitch. My notebook is a garbage dump for my mental overflow, not a genius-level idea goldmine.

In my longform essay class (because yes I am still in school, much as it doesn’t feel that way sometimes), we are charged with writing a single, 3,500-word essay by the end of term. The subtext of this prompt, at least for me, is that the essay should be the single most glorious and life-affirming thing I have ever written, should be picked up eagerly by the New Yorker, should put my name on the map as a writer, and should perhaps win me a pulitzer, but maybe that’s a stretch we’ll see.

Giving birth to that essay topic was akin to giving birth to a human child. I paced and agonized. I sweated and moaned and strained. I couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t settle to anything, couldn’t feel at ease until the idea had popped fully-formed out of my head. In other words, for a few days I was very unpleasant to be around.

The Idea came eventually, though were I to write it here it would seem anticlimactic. But the whole ordeal was a jarring reminder of Onion Girl, of my pretty, useless notebook full of brain garbage.

This is the part where I tell you about how I’ll improve–how I’ll get a new notebook and record brilliant scenes and tidbits and tips to use later in the production of brilliant work for brilliant magazines. But the truth is, it’ll probably take time. Sure, I can treat myself to my first molskine from the store down the street, but becoming an opportunist is about practice. It’s about honing in on things and remembering them. It’s about knowing, Clay Felker style, what makes a good story.

It’s about recognizing in the moment that something is intriguing, that you want to know more, and that others will, too.

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The Opportunist

Eve Tells All

Today is Friday the 13th, and it’s also Eve’s first birthday. When I adopted her in November the vet estimated her age at seven months, meaning she was born mid February. I chose the 13th as her birthday, partly as a distraction from the following day, and partly on the off chance it was ever a Friday. And no, I hadn’t checked this year’s calendar.

Because Eve’s birthday, Friday the 13th, and #FreeWriteFriday coincide this year, I thought I’d give you a day in the life of my cat. Yeah I’m obsessed, but she also dictates my daily operations in a way I didn’t anticipate.

7:15 a.m. – I leap onto human’s stomach. When this fails to illicit a reaction, I meow loudly into her left ear, then her right. I rub my face against hers. Purrr.

7:17 a.m. – I leap away to avoid a right-handed swat.

7:20 a.m. – I redouble my efforts. I lick her nose, bat her chin, and continue to yowl in a manner that suggests the apocalypse. If I don’t get food soon, someone will die.

7:30 a.m. – Human moves. I mew appreciatively and nip at her heels as she plods into the kitchen, mechanically scoops breakfast into my bowl, and starts the coffee maker. I know it is a coffee maker because it makes coffee.

8:00 a.m. – Human turns on warm steam especially for me. I perch on the edge of the smooth white basin and watch her work white foam through her sad tiny hair patch. I stare at her in judgement. Why not use her tongue?

8:15 a.m. – Human steps out of the basin, and I leap in. I lick as many water droplets from the floor of the basin as possible. Delicious.

8:17 a.m. – Human opens the sweater drawer, so I jump in. I nest there until she pulls me out. So rude.

8:30 a.m. – A sizzling sounds comes from too high up for me to see. I leap onto the counter to look. Human looks dumb when she screams and flails her arms like that. It is very warm up here. I poke my nose toward the heat, curious…

8:31 a.m. – On the bed where human has dumped me unceremoniously. I have found a patch of warm yellow light. I close my eyes and soak it in.

8:55 a.m. – What? Huh? Of course I’m awake.

9:05 a.m. – Human is paying attention to something that is not me. I meow very loud until loud she turns her head. That’s better.

9:07 a.m. – The thing that isn’t me is a silver hinge with lots of small squares and a large screen. The screen flashes different colors. I leap at it. Human does the dumb arm-flapping thing again.

9:30 a.m. – Human is in the tile-floor room. I hear water running. Second breakfast. I race into the room and leap up onto the sink just in time to butt human’s head out of the way. I lap up the water stream with my tongue. She spits onto her sweater instead.

9:31 a.m. – Back on the bed. She seems displeased.

9:45 a.m. – Human dons puffy black layer and heads for the door. Nooooooooooo don’t leeeeeeaaavvvvveeeeeeeeeee…

10:00 a.m. – She left. Back to the warm patch of light.

***

3:00 p.m. – The light is gone, and I am cold. I stretch, then spring onto the windowsill. I observe my kingdom with the calm demeanor of a true ruler.

3:15 p.m. – I leap down and run across to the kitchen window. Two friends wait in the window across the way. We twitch tails at each other and meow through the glass. Our daily discussion on the world economy, politics, and global domination has commenced.

4:00 p.m. – Friends retreat from the window, so I follow suit. Time for lunch. Ug, leftovers.

4:05 p.m. – Eating makes me tired.

***

6:10 p.m. – Human is back; woke me up with loud stomping and shuffling. So rude. But maybe she will feed me dinner. I meow at her ankles until she notices, then fills my bowl.

6:15 p.m. – Human is playing with the glowing screen again. I jump onto her lap and shove my head into her armpit. Purrr

6:17 p.m. – Back on the bed.

6:18 p.m. – She will not pay attention to me, so I claw the couch until she does.

6:19 p.m. – I dodge a fountain of water from that awful spray bottle. I take a flying leap and peer down at the human from atop her bookshelf. Her arms are flapping again.

7:00 p.m. – Bored. I discover a small black furry object that escapes my paw as soon as I lunge for it.

7:02 p.m. – Black furry object seems to be attached to my body.

7:03 p.m. – Tail. It is my tail.

***

9:15 p.m. – Human sits on the couch with a book. I climb into her lap. I’m feeling tired again, so I curl onto her thighs and rest my chin on her knee. She scratches me behind the ear.

10:15 p.m. – Human shifts an inch to the left, so I leap down in protest. I run into the tile-floor room then all the way back to the couch as fast as I can. I jump up two shelves, then down to the floor, then up four shelves, then back down, then onto the bed, under the bed, wrestle with suitcase straps, rush out again, scratch my scratching post, then the couch, dodge the water, claw the rug, dodge the water, run to the kitchen, leap into the sink, lick at the faucet, dodge the water, back to the bathroom, tackle the bath mat, sprint through the shower curtains, race back under the bed and wait, holding still.

10:20 p.m. – Human’s foot approaches. Wait for it…

10:21 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:24 p.m. – Wait for it…

10:25 p.m.POUNCE!

10:26 p.m. – Human wails. I run and hide behind the sink.

***

11:10 p.m. – Human is a lump under blankets. It is dark. I jump lightly onto the bed and curl up in the crook of her left knee.

Eve Tells All

Book Review: The Magicians

Take Harry Potter, uproot him from Hogwarts, and drop him in Brooklyn. Add six additional years to his 11, resurrect his parents but make them indifferent, and give him a serious case of teenage angst and depression.

That just about gives you Quentin Coldwater, the sometimes-hero-sometimes-antihero of Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians.” Quentin’s world is the dark, seedy underbelly of J.K. Rowling’s fantasy–Hogwarts with sex, drugs, and a much thinner line between good and evil. The first in Grossman’s trilogy, “The Magicians” complicates magic with startlingly realistic characters who don’t always know what they want and don’t always do the right thing.

The novel’s dark nature is evidenced by its opening scene: Quentin, as yet unaware of the magical world that’s about to consume his life, is on his way to a Princeton interview with his friend James. When they arrive at the interviewer’s house, they find him dead on the floor.

His death serves as a mechanism to transport Quentin to Brakebills, a prestigious magic academy somewhere in upstate New York. He takes a grueling wizard test, passes, and winds up studying magic there for three years. Magic at Brakebills doesn’t involve wands, and its study is intense, all-consuming hard work. Quentin and his classmates memorize foreign languages, incantations, and hand motions. Each spell is cast according to “conditions:” which moon is foremost in the sky that day, which direction they’re facing, which wind is blowing from the south.

In this academic setting, Quentin makes friends, develops an enormous crush on Alice, a gifted spellcaster, and altogether escapes his old life in Brooklyn. At first he’s relieved to be at Brakebills. He’s spent his whole life waiting for something remarkable to happen, and this is finally it. Brakebills is the cure to his longing, his depression, and his disappointment in the world.

At least, until it isn’t. Eventually Quentin becomes disenchanted and begins to crave whatever comes “next.” He’s destined to be a hero, he’s sure of it. But Alice warns him about post-grad life for wizards. There’s no enormous evil to conquer. There’s no grand adventure. They’ll have to devote their lives to some beneficent cause, something like global diplomacy or the hunger crisis. Otherwise, all that awaits them is nothingness.

Grossman weaves in a thread of darkness that persists throughout the novel. At Brakebills students die, disappear, and go insane. Professors aren’t infallible or all-knowing–Some display a cool indifference toward the students that’s alarming. Grossman’s magical world is as cold and cruel as the real one, but its stakes are higher.

The book is divided into three parts; the first is spent at Brakebills, and the second is after graduation. Post-grad life is cruel to Quentin, Alice, and the rest. They move to New York City where, with nothing better to do, they party all night and sleep all day. Alcohol and drugs, the hallmarks of boredom, tie the young wizards inextricably to non-magical life.

But everything changes (again) in the third part, which takes place in a magical land called Fillory. A fellow Brakebills alum seeks out the group to reveal that the “Fillory and Further” books, which they all read as children (a Chronicles-of-Narnia-esque series in which a group of kids travels to Fillory, goes on magical adventures, and then returns to reality), are real. Fillory exists. By way of magic button, off they all go to Fillory in the name of grand adventure.

It turns out that wizardhood doesn’t qualify them for heroics. Fillory is unexpectedly brutal, and its characters are violent and strange. The young wizards are hopelessly outmatched, and flinch at the sight of gore to the point that they seem pathetic. They aren’t heroes, and they bumble their way through an adventure that’s too big for them.

As for Quentin, his longing wasn’t satisfied by Brakebills, wasn’t cured post graduation, and isn’t even squelched by Fillory–the place he’s waited his whole life to see. His disenchantment haunts him, and Alice finally calls him out for being “the asshole who can’t even be happy in Fillory.” Happiness is a choice, she says, not a magical spontaneous occurrence.

Although Quentin’s sense of under appreciation  permeates “The Magicians,” the world Grossman creates is nothing short of awesome. He brings new, complicated layers to a tried-and-tested scenario, and manages to add a healthy dose of personal drama to the mix. Common threads run through greater conflicts, making the magical world believable: Neglectful parents, unrequited love, relationship drama, mental health. Each character has their own demon to deal with, and each wrestles with it in ways that show their flaws.

They’re not perfect, and neither is the magical world they inhabit. Each is real enough to be tangible, to capture the reader’s attention, and to keep it.

Book Review: The Magicians

2015: High Resolution

“That’s the most cliché blog post, like, ever,” was my sister’s response when she heard me say I wanted to write about New Year’s resolutions. Yes, it’s cliché; thousands of people do the same thing every year. But A) this is also a space for me to organize my own thoughts, and B) maybe, just maybe, someone will stumble upon this post, be inspired, and decide to implement some of my resolutions into their own life. It’s 2015; anything can happen.

Here are some ways I’ll attempt to get my life together this year. May you find them entertaining and informative.

Things to do more of:

1. Blogging. Yeah.

2. Reviewing books. Because that’s supposed to be good for my career aspirations or something.

4. Reading great writers. Because you emulate what you absorb.

5. Getting rid of things I don’t use. Does anyone else get a strange high from doing this? As I move to smaller and smaller spaces, I’m increasingly obsessed with reducing my possessions. Hello, Goodwill.

6. Writing letters. I do this now, but not enough. Dead serious: If you want letters, send me your address. And if you haven’t responded to one of mine, I have a great suggestion for your 2015 resolution list…

7. Emoting. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to communicate to the great people in my life how much they mean to me. I love all of you, always. Along with this, I’d like to do a better job staying in touch with people.

Things to do less of:

1. Over-scheduling. I can go a bit iCal crazy, and it’s bad for my sanity. If you see me running harried through the streets, remind me to space out social engagements and interviews, and that managing my time is equivalent to managing my stress.

2. Staring at glowing screens. I do this on the daily for my internship(s). When I’m off, I want to do it less.

3. Mincing words. I’d rather be blunt, bold, and go after exactly what I want.

4. Being body conscious. It’s unproductive and depressing and there’s not much I can do to change who’s in the mirror.

Things to start:

1. A personal newsletter. It’s called “Keynotes,” and in it I gather great writing from the corners of the Internet and deliver it to your inbox every month. You should totally resolve to subscribe.

2. Yoga. City living is stressful, and every once in a while it’s nice to concentrate on nothing but your breath for an hour. Failing this, dance classes will do.

3. Meal planning. As it is, the grab-n-go lifestyle isn’t really working for me. If anyone has any healthy meal planning tips, please share!

4. Responding to emails within 24 hours. This almost never happens. I am the worst.

Full disclosure: This title was inspired by Ann Friedman’s New Year newsletter because she is the greatest at titles. 

2015: High Resolution

Playground Games

When the shout came from behind, it was deafening: “GET HER!”

It was an order, and it was not to be questioned. Spurred on by the taller boy’s screamed encouragement, the shorter came pelting after me. I turned and ran onto the playground.

My kindergarten class got an hour of recess every day which, when it comes to kindergarteners, is pretty inspired. Tire them out so they can’t misbehave in the classroom. Make a mess of the playground instead of the teacher’s desk. Throw soft, spongy dodge balls at each other instead of wooden blocks or dollhouse furniture.

I hated recess. I hated the sweat and the running around and how there was always a line for the swings. I’d race the others to the swing set (just because I hated to run didn’t mean I was slow) and, if someone got there before me, would find a quiet patch in the shade and build fairy houses in the dirt instead.

That day, Preston Sherer and Ben Jones sent me running for a different reason. Preston was the leader; he was tall, popular, and charismatic. The other boys thought he was cool because he made loud, rude farting noises in class and brought in the best toys from home. Ben was shorter, slighter, and needed a belt to cinch his hand-me-down shorts around his waist. He was quieter than Preston, but unquestionably his minion. Both boys had bowl haircuts. After all, this was the 90’s.

Both boys were also fast. Preston was faster, but he wasn’t running. Instead, he watched Ben’s progress and sauntered lazily some yards behind, still shouting. Ben tore after me as I ran like a hunted animal across the woodchips, through the swings, around the tires, up the stairs, and onto the bridge of the jungle gym. I thought I was safe there because if he came up one side, I’d go down the other.

He watched me up there for a minute, catching his breath. I smiled and waved, my courage restored from my vantage point. Then Preston caught up and manned the second set of stairs. I was trapped.

I made a snap decision. Quick as a lynx I bounded down from the bridge and leapt to the ground only inches in front of Ben’s surprised face. The chase was on again. I ran around a soccer field, over a small creek, through a wooded area that was technically off-limits, and across the basketball court before he caught me.

In the dirt yard just in front of the silver double doors that spit us screaming and squealing outside each day, Ben made a grab for my red skirt. I refused to wear pants in those days—only skirts and dresses—and this was my undoing. He caught the hem and brought me tumbling down into the dust. He fell across my extended legs. We were both panting. I’d scraped a knee and could feel the tears behind my eyes welling up, about to spill over.

Preston came ambling up behind us completely at ease. He looked down at our pile of tangled, dusty, bloodied limbs and laughed. At his approach Ben sat up. I struggled away from him but ended up on my back, pinned down by Ben’s knees on my skirt and his hands on my wrists. I looked up, terrified. They’d caught their prey. What would they do with it?

Preston looked at us there in the dirt. Maybe our pose recalled some illicit movie scene he’d watched with his older brother Trevor (another sandbox bully), or maybe he just wanted, childishly, to test forbidden waters for the thrill. Whatever the reason, he gave Ben a simple instruction.

“Kiss her.”

My fate was sealed. My eyes widened. I struggled, but it was no use. For a moment Ben looked uncertain. Kiss me? Here on my back in the dust in broad daylight? Maybe it seemed an odd climax to the chase. But he was six years old, so he did what he was told.

His lips came toward me and I struggled harder, like a washed-up fish flopping on land. I turned my head a fraction of a second too late—his lips found mine. They were hard, puckered, and chapped. He smelled like goldfish and tasted like dust.

In half a second it was over. Ben got up, blushing, and wiped the playground dirt off his too-big shorts. I scampered to my feet, too upset to cry, and fled for the safety of trees. There I crouched, back to a fence, waving a stick in case they should come after me again.

They didn’t. They left me alone, a scared animal in hiding.

The kiss part didn’t seem as threatening to me then as it does now. Sure, it was gross—every six-year-old girl knows about cooties. And anything is unpleasant when it’s done against your will. But Ben was nice enough, and I liked his blonde hair and watery blue eyes. Preston was a pig, but Ben was all right.

But at age six I didn’t understand their motivation. Why had the chase ended in a coerced kiss? Why had Preston chosen that as his ultimate punishment? Even at that age, the two boys felt a surge of confidence from overpowering me. I had no choice, and it thrilled them. They didn’t know why it thrilled them any more than I did—maybe it was imitation, or maybe it was instinct.

Maybe these two little boys were mimicking scenes from their own lives—Dad dominating Mom, older brothers pressuring girlfriends, images from TV, movies, or video games. It’s no secret that women are hyper sexualized in mass media, and that youth culture absorbs the concept almost without realizing it.

Whatever motivated those two boys on that playground on that particularly hot and dusty day, they couldn’t have known the consequences of their actions. They couldn’t have known that, years later, I’d still be that animal with her back against the wall, walking home with my finger on the trigger of my pepper spray, carrying a torch for them all this time.

Playground Games

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

4:58 a.m.

I wake to the sound of something falling.

In my apartment, this is not unusual. I have a cat–a kitten, really. She knocks things over all the time. She isn’t at the foot of my bed, so I grope for my glasses, get up, and go into the bathroom to see what it is this time.

I flip on the light and look around, confused. There’s nothing on the floor. Then comes another noise like the first. It’s coming from behind me in the kitchen. It’s coming from my front door. It’s coming from a key inserted in the lock and turned.

I live alone, and the key is not mine.

For a minute, I doubt my instincts. Surely, I think, the noise is from across the hall. it’s the neighbor getting in. But the neighbors moved out a week ago. A construction crew descended upon their apartment, blasted out every tile in the kitchen floor, and kept me awake for a night and a half. Now I have no neighbors.

I flip the bathroom switch again and ease my way to the front door. I do not turn on the light. Shaking, I stand on the other side–so close to a person I do not know–and, with my index finger, open the catch to the peep hole. I look through.

There is a man on the other side of the door. I can hear his coughs and grunts, animal noises, so close that the door feels porous. He’s pale, an inch or so taller than the peep hole, with greying hair cropped short on the sides. Maybe it’s the fish-eye effect, but his nose is beakish and his eyes squinted. His key doesn’t turn, so he removes it from the lock. His forehead wrinkles in concentration as he peers down at an entire ring of keys–many more than average. He chooses a new one. He will try again.

The next key enters the lock. My breath catches. My hands sweat. Because it’s the only thing I can think to do, I grab the bolt with my left hand to keep it from turning if the key fits.

It doesn’t. Through the peep hole, his frown deepens. Back to the ring. Next key.

My hand starts to sweat. If the key fits, will I be able to keep the bolt from turning? Will my fingers slip? Will my small, desperate force win out against cold, mechanical steel? No.

The door, which has always seemed solid, turns to cheesecloth–an inch of wood between me and the stranger. I can see him–can almost touch him–from the other side. Surely he can hear me breathe. Surely he can hear my heart pound like a caged animal’s. Surely he knows that I am trapped, frozen, inches away.

My ferocity is gone. The fury I feel when I confront cat-callers on the street, the savagery that bubbles to the surface when I’m faced with an assailant, has deserted me. I am not fierce. I am small. I am terrified. I am vulnerable. I am in tears.

He tries another key.

Adrenaline courses through me. I unstick my thumb and forefinger from the bolt. I close the peep hole. I retreat into my bedroom, close the door, and call the police.

It’s the first time I’ve ever dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”

I do not have an emergency. If the key fits, it will be an emergency. But he’s still outside trying key after key. He’s been there for 15 minutes.

“A man I don’t know is trying to get into my apartment.”

“Can you describe him? Where are you located? What phone number are you calling from?”

I give her the information. She assures me that officers are on their way. I thank her and hang up.

From the kitchen, the scratching continues. Next key. Immobilized, I crouch by the fire escape (a quick exit if he gets inside) and call my dad. I’m a five-year-old child afraid of the monster under the bed. This is more than I can handle. Every minute that passes is torture. The man is patient. He has a ring of keys and all the time he needs.

By the time the police arrive, the man is gone. I buzz them into the building and they do a search but cannot find him.

“He was definitely drunk,” one of the officers says. I’m standing in the doorway talking to them. In one hand I clutch my phone, and with the other clutch an enormous cardigan around me. It’s long enough to disguise the fact that I have forgotten to put on pants.

Maybe he was drunk. Maybe, as the officers leave, they chuckle at the petty fears of a terrified girl. I don’t mind. I would rather have them present and laughing than absent.

Because, if the key fits, the lock means nothing.

9:08 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Intruder

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Books are an escape. Pick one up and it whisks you away into its time and its place, its people and its action. Yours fade into the grey distance and you absorb only what’s on the printed pages, at least for a little while.

That’s why books like Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea exist. They make fantastical worlds and wizardly deeds accessible to us lowly muggles (to borrow a term from a different fantasy world). They’re pure, delightful, fulfilling distraction. Le Guin’s novel, a slim volume filled with straightforward prose, is also a classic bildungsroman with deceptively simple themes.

In this novel, the first of Le Guin’s larger Earthsea series, Ged, a budding wizard, is the narrator. The story follows him from his early teachings at the hearthside of an aunt to his apprenticeship with a wise and powerful sorcerer to his time at a famous wizard academy to a battle for his life with a deadly foe. Throughout the novel Ged grows equally in his wizardly powers and as a character.

He starts out as a curious little boy, but his curiosity quickly turns to smugness when he realizes the extent of his inborn talent. Before long he’s casting circles around his aunt, and even saves his village from a murderous invasion. This catches the attention of Ogion, a powerful wizard from northern lands. He takes Ged under his wing and attempts to round out his teachings.

This doesn’t go so well. Ogion’s epithet is “the silent,” and at this point in the story Ged can muster nothing but scorn for Ogion’s humble manner. Ged wants to rush, to learn, to absorb, and to reach the extent of his power as quickly as he can. Swayed by ambition, Ged instead travels to Roke Island to attend the wizard academy there.

Roke isn’t good for Ged. He excels in classes but is jealous of other wizards-to-be, and his jealousy draws him into a dangerous challenge. He attempts to call a spirit from the underworld and instead unleashes a horror: a shadow that will hunt him for the rest of his life, intent on sucking away his being and possessing his body for evil.

Ged’s mistake is his turning point–he folds to temptation and pride. Afterward, as he recovers from the blow, he realizes that what he has released will haunt him wherever he goes. He matures because he must. He’s now wise enough to know that there’s no escaping the evil he has unleashed. It must destroy him or he it–there’s no alternative.

Surprisingly, this realization occurs only halfway into the novel–the rest is spent on a harrowing journey across land and sea to confront that which would destroy him. At first he’s on the run, but gradually Ged learns that his fear gives the shadow strength. To defeat the shadow, he must master himself and become the fearless hunter.

Ged’s series of realizations throughout the novel are what mark his maturation as a character. His mindset evolves from a need to prove himself to devastating uncertainty in his own abilities to gradual, mature confidence and acceptance of his limitations. His story is one of taking destiny into one’s own hands, and of refusing to be conquered by fear of the unknown.

Countless other characters enter the narrative and contribute bits of wisdom to Ged’s growing collection. Ogion reappears to guide him; Serret, an enchantress, tempts him with limitless power; and his friend Vetch instills in him a sense of duty. The novel reads like a miniature Hobbit, with each location offering a new cast of characters and a new set of challenges. The chronicle stretches like a single thread, then loops back on itself to connect certain characters at crucial points.

Refreshingly, those characters are as ethnically diverse as the inhabitants of the modern world. The people of Earthsea primarily have “red-brown” skin, although those from the south and east are much darker. Characters from the northern island look mediterranean. Only those from the north-east have light skin and hair. In an article for Slate, Le Guin stated that this choice was “conscious and deliberate from the start.” She was tired of fantasy tales that only resembled medieval Europe. The diversity of her characters makes the novel not only more inclusive, but also more representational.

If you read through A Wizard of Earthsea, subtleties such as these become apparent. Each new reading brings to light a different detail. So many subplots and layers of theme run through the novel that, although it’s an easy read, its simplicity seems like a cover-up. Much larger messages are at work in this simple coming-of-age tale, but they don’t detract from the pleasure of disappearing into Earthsea for a while.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea

Midnight in the Court System of New York City

Another assignment for Writing & Reporting: Sit for a while in civil arraignment court and see what there is to be seen. What struck me most was the contrast between the court’s employees and the defendants who took the stand.

There’s no one in night court.

My bag runs through the scanner alone. I’m the only one in line for the metal detector. I walk through unscathed, and my steps clatter down the empty hallway to stop in front of double metal doors. The guard gives me a quizzical look. What is she doing here, it says. He shrugs me through.

When I enter the courtroom, no one sees. I tiptoe to a seat near the back on one of the hard wooden benches. They’re scratched beyond repair, and a smattering of graffiti is carved into mine. “SHARP ONE,” it reads. “CHEESE,” “heLp,” and “FTP. Fuck your courts!”

The room is an echo chamber filled with ugly fluorescent light. The wood panels along the walls are almost as scratched as the benches, and the floor has been worn away by eons of shuffling feet. A single metal chain divides the rows of wooden pews from the front of the courthouse, which is buzzing with activity. Police officers, stenographers and legal assistants sit at computers, lean back in chairs or lounge against the far wall. As for the spectators, I’m one of three.

Behind me is a man in a dark jacket. He’s slumped back in his seat, staring eyes glazed over with exhaustion. In front of me sits a small woman with a thick pouf of curls and a paisley scarf. When she moves, I get a strong whiff of shampoo.

We sit tense and expectant. Up front on the other side of the chain is relaxed—cozy, even. Everyone knows each other. They’re completely at east. This is their routine and the court is their cubicle. They’re in it for the long run; arraignment court runs until 1 a.m. every day.

Police officers amble by clutching sheaves of papers in manila folders. The lawyers are either very old or very young—two tall, wizened, white-haired men and a handful of fresh-faced men and women in their 20s and 30s. They wave and smile and joke. Occasionally one glances my way, mystified. I’m the outsider.

The defendants who approach the stand one by one are outsiders, too. They share none of the ease that permeates caseworker headquarters. Every one of them stands with their hands behind their backs, crossed at the wrists, as if already cuffed. They stand, straight-backed, hats off, shoulders up, feet wide. Defensive stance.

A thick green coat dangles from the nervous fingers of the first defendant. He faces assault charges. But he’s held a job for 15 years, his lawyer argues. He’s gone 25 years with nothing but a DWI on his record. The victim told the DA’s office she didn’t want to press charges, but it was too late. The defendant hangs his head in silence.

“Alright,” says the judge. He’s tired. The square fluorescent lights reflect a shiny patch onto his bald forehead. His dark eyes narrow, brows going up, stubble-coated jowls curving downward in a frown as he looks at the man who clutches the green coat.

“I’m filing an order of protection until this sorts itself out,” he says. “You can have no contact with her in any form. If she tries to contact you, you may not respond. If you don’t stay away from her, you are going to jail. Understood?”

He’s the no-nonsense sort. The defendant nods and is led away.

The judge stifles a yawn with his hand, turns and cracks a joke to the female officer closest to him. She’s the one who reads the cases as defendants take the stand. The air around them relaxes as she smiles. They’ll be here all night—they need some way to keep up morale.

Then the next woman is lead in, and it’s back to business. She’s straight-backed, wide-eyed and silent. Pink socks peep out between grey sweatpants and slip-on shoes. The people’s lawyer reads out her case in emotionless monotone:

“A neighbor was quoted as saying, ‘Keep the kids away from her. She’s trying to hurt them. She’s a crack head.’” The woman bows her head, and the restraining order against her goes into effect.

The man behind me leans forward, almost touching my elbow, suddenly petrified by what’s happening on the stand. His breath is in my ear as he edges closer, closer… then the woman in pink socks comes for him and they leave.

More jokes: The judge stands up to stretch. He’s telling a story to the people’s lawyer, waving his right hand for emphasis. His voice echoes off the empty chamber walls, but the other man nods vigorously and smiles. The officer who reads out cases catches a word here and there. She turns to join in, and she and the judge razz each other for a minute or two until the next defendant takes the stand.

Ronald Gibson is a tall, gangly man with a disproportionately thick mustache dressed in ill-fitting green cargo pants and a navy jacket. He takes the stand and the stance: hands clasped behind the back, one holding the opposite wrist. At 10 a.m. he had a scuffle with his significant other. He says he said something to incite her and she went crazy, hitting him and breaking his computer. “She called the cops out of spite,” the people’s lawyer quotes, looking bored. “I want to see our daughter.”

Gibson, like the rest, looks down. The judge is firm. “Listen up, Mr. Gibson.” He reads again the regulations of a restraining order. “Do you understand?” Gibson nods, and is led away. His eyes, when they fall on me, look defeated.

It’s getting late. The court stenographer rests her chin on her palm. Her head lolls to one side as she waits for the next defendant. Near the stand, a young blonde lawyer paces back and forth leafing through papers. His blue basset hound eyes scan back and forth, and a fresh, pink neck shoots out of his crisp white collar like new grass. He’s tired. He takes a swig of soda, trying to keep his energy up. He might as well be standing in his own kitchen.

A new defendant takes the stand. He’s tall with a purple Mohawk, black jacket and red sneakers. He has an astute, pointed face, but his shoulders are tense with nervous stress. He’s been charged with stealing from his employer to pay for community college. He’s only 20.

The police officer who showed me in enters the courtroom. He walks past me down the aisle, humming something from The Nutcracker Suite. He’s waiting for his shift to end. He doesn’t have a care in the world.

Midnight in the Court System of New York City

Book Review: Broken Monsters

Reading and reviewing books is a passion of mine, so this will be the first review of many posted to my site. Feel free to comment with your own opinions on the book!

On a normal basis, a distinct line is drawn between fantasy and reality. One exists, and the other does not. Simple.

In Lauren Beukes’ newest thriller, Broken Monsters, fantasy and reality blur until the line is rubbed out. Beukes interweaves the world of rigid police investigation with eerie supernatural elements, resulting in a creepy crime thriller that invites readers to suspend disbelief. Beukes’ strong style and compelling characters make the invitation impossible to deny.

Set in modern rundown Detroit, the novel chronicles a police investigation that follows a serial killer’s trail. Beukes begins the action with a jolt: The body of a young boy is discovered under one of Detroit’s many seedy, graffiti-covered bridges. Instead of legs, the boy has hooves. The killer has attached the bottom half of a fawn to the boy’s torso.

Detective Gabriella Versado leads the police investigation with gusto. As more maimed bodies turn up and Versado falls further down the police work rabbit hole, she unwittingly puts her relationship with her daughter, Layla, on the line. Versado is a gritty and outspoken character who’s fascinating to follow because she’s so flawed–so real. You could telephone Detroit’s precinct and Gabi would answer the phone with a mix of exhaustion and steely determination.

Layla, too, is lovable for her unquestionable teenager-ish-ness. She and her friend Cass, who has a secret past of her own, spend their time hanging out, talking boys, and bating child predators on underage chat sites. Of course this leads to a conflict of its own, and drives Layla near to the breaking point. Her intentions are perpetually good, but her antics put her perpetually in harm’s way.

Beukes narrates through the eyes of mother and daughter, as well as an odd assemblage of other characters: Jonno, an aging ex-hipster with commitment issues; TK, a homeless man with a harrowing past trying to get his life together; and Clayton Broome, a decrepit visual artist still trying to make it big. Each character is complex and relatable, and each adds a unique point of view to the tapestry of Beukes’ story.

These multiple perspectives lend themselves to Beukes’ message that no one is the same in public as they are in private. As she puts it, “everyone lives three versions of themselves, a public life, a private life, and a secret life.” There are multiple facets to every personality, and the aspects Beukes’ characters choose to conceal are often their undoing. She gradually reveals pieces of each character, lending to the novel’s suspense by saving the juiciest tidbits for last. Then, as everything unravels, they come clean.

Or, as clean as they can. The taint of the surreal is never absent from the novel–there are certain aspects the reader can never completely untangle. Like the characters in the story, readers must suspend disbelief if they’re looking for any semblance of a clean takeaway. Some concepts, like mother-daughter relationships and the power and deception of social media, are sussed out and analyzed, while others, like the killer’s motivations and fantasy vs. reality, are left intentionally vague.

Detroit, deserted and gutted and left for desolate, is the perfect creepy playground for Beukes’ scenes, both tangible and intangible. In a story where the villain is driven to madness by the ghost of his past, Detroit becomes a character in its own right. The city is both the ghost of its own past and the wrecked hopes of its future.

Each character, like the city in which they reside, is hopelessly damaged. Each is worth reading about, and each plot line plunges the reader deeper into a mystery with an ambiguous, yet satisfying, resolution.

Book Review: Broken Monsters

Q&A with an Irish immigrant

Fun fact of the day: Very few people who live in New York are actually from New York. Some residents, like me, have gravitated here from other states. Some are here on a travel or student visa, and some are here illegally. For my Writing & Reporting class, we each interviewed someone who’s immigrated to New York. I chose Peter Doherty, a bartender and bar owner from Tyrone, Ireland. This is the finished product.

In a dark, dingy, crowded bar on a rowdy Thursday night, owner Pete Doherty isn’t slurping his usual whisky. Tonight his drink of choice is a strawberry milkshake from McDonalds. One of his employees slapped it onto the low table in front of him a few minutes ago, and he hasn’t put it down. Since arriving here from Ireland 14 years ago, Pete has developed an affinity for the distinctly American treat—his employees know him well. And, more important, they like him enough to spoil him.

It’s easy to like Pete. He’s the tireless owner. The bartender who never gets it wrong. Your best friend, even if he’s meeting you for the first time that night. His short, stocky figure motors around the floor of the Grisly Pear on MacDougal Street, which he owns with two of his friends. His hair is starting to grey, but his good-natured basset-hound eyes sparkle. Like a lucky few Irishmen, he’s a little bit immortal.

Pete doesn’t really think of himself as an immigrant anymore. He met his wife at a bar he owned on Sullivan Street, and they have two American children. He takes trips to visit his family, but his life and his business are here now. New to the city myself, I ask how long someone has to live here before they can call themselves a New Yorker. Ten years is a good guideline, he says. Or, in his case, after he spent his first night on a park bench off 5th Avenue. He’s come a long way since then.

Why did you first come to the U.S.?

I came here just for the summer to work the Jersey shore, Seaside Heights, on the boardwalk. A lot of my friends had done it before and there were a lot of us; like ten of us had come over that summer and we all shared a house. I only stayed there for like two weeks because it sucked. I was like, ‘New York City is 90 minutes away. Why am I still here?’ I had a friend who was in New York City, so for the first couple weeks I stayed with him. But he was actually staying with a friend, so his friend let me move in as well. But then he and his friend fell out, so [the friend] kicked both of us out. That’s how I ended up on the park bench.

Which park was it?

On 5th Avenue there’s a little park on the corner of 27th. There’s an office tower and there’s a little park with a couple of benches. Me and my buddy both slept there. It wasn’t that we didn’t have money or didn’t live anywhere; we just couldn’t find anywhere [to stay]. We had no references.

After you left the Jersey Shore, where did you work in the city?

I got a bartending job. It was uptown. I bartended my way through college, so it was just an easy next step.

Where did you go to college?

The University of Ulster. I got a degree in sociology. It’s a dosser’s degree, we called it. It means it’s not hard. It’s studying pop culture, so it’s not very difficult. I never really thought it through. I just thought, ‘I’ll go to college.’ You’re guaranteed to get in if you pick an easy subject. It’s state-run so I didn’t have to pay much for my tuition at all, but I got student loans for living expenses. I’ve got thousands of dollars of student loans back in Ireland.

Are you working toward paying them off?

(Laughs, shakes his head) No!

Have you been back to Ireland since coming here that summer?

Oh yeah, I went home after that summer. I was here with a J1 visa, I went home just before Christmas at the end of November, and then I was home for six months. I’d just finished college and I was like, ‘What am I going to do with myself?’ And I thought you know what, I’ll go back to America. So I moved back here.

Was it difficult to get another visa?

No, it was pretty simple. You see this is pre-September 11, so it was way easier then. Now I don’t even know how you would go about it. Before September 11 they loved Irish people! Everyone in America did, so they were handing them out like candy. There were a lot of different programs back in Ireland that you could apply to and you were guaranteed a visa. That was back then. Now it doesn’t exist anymore. They’ve stopped all that and tightened up the borders.

Tell me how you went from working in bars to owning them.

It’s’ a natural progression, right? I just fell into it. I went out on a limb for myself. Every place is different, but you save money and once you have enough money saved you buy someplace, or you find an empty space and you build in it. I’ve built a bar before, but the guys who had this place before me went out of business. It was vacant, so I took it over. I just had to paint it and fix it up a little. It was nothing too crazy.

You didn’t have to knock any walls down?

No. Although I can knock walls down, I’m not very good at picking them back up (laughs).

What do you like about bartending?

It’s just fun. It’s a lot of fun.

Do you have any feelings about the recent vote for Scottish independence?

Oh, yeah! I’m really disappointed. I think they should’ve taken the vote and become an independent country. It has a huge amount of implications for Ireland; they would have to then give the Irish people the same vote because we’re a British colony. It would’ve made a huge difference. I might’ve even seen a united Ireland in my lifetime. When someone’s country is stolen from them by another, that’s something people are passionate about. So I like the idea of it, but I’m not really that proactive.

Where in Ireland are you from originally?

I’m from the north—Tyrone. I also lived in Belfast for like six years. But I’m from a really small place of about 3,000 people.

What makes Ireland, or Tyrone in particular, different from New York?

Everything’s different. Back home we have [a sense of] community, and you don’t really have that here. The food tastes better, the meat tastes better, everything tastes better in Ireland. Animals are fed what they’re meant to be fed. Everything is different. You should visit.

Would you ever move back?

Not to live, if that’s what you mean. I don’t think I could ever live there again. I think New York gets a hold of people and there’s an energy and a pulse about New York. It’s hard to leave.

Q&A with an Irish immigrant