Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Can I Just Say Something About Ugly Girls?

I don't want to overstate things but I have to state this: I knew Lindsay Hunter was a masterful short story and flash fiction writer. Ugly Girls, her first novel, which was published by FSG last November, proves demonstrably that there might indeed be no limits to the ways in which Hunter can tell a story. No, seriously. This is seriously true.

For me, the single most important aspect of anything I read is how immediately I get swept up into it. It took maybe a single chapter before I was lost in the world of Ugly Girls' main characters, Perry and Baby Girl, two exceedingly flawed but no less fascinating young women living (and so searching for fun and purpose) in the deeply impoverished rural south.

Reading is always nice after that happens. You look for opportunities to get back to the story, the novel, whatever -- whenever you can. I hate to say it, but for me it's also a fairly rare experience, especially as I get older. It's how I know for sure the book I'm reading is going to be a favorite. It's weird to have this kind of meta-awareness of your reading tendencies and what sorts of feelings you need to feel for something to have just the right level of impact that it stays with you long after you've completed it.

It's also hard to articulate precisely why this happens in the first place. And I'd argue this is mainly due to something based in visceral emotions that hit on deeper aspects of what it means to be human. And so I read to chase such feelings, among many other reasons, Cliched and maybe stupid as it is to phrase it like this, reading is my favorite drug, right next to caffeine come primarily in the form of coffee.

So, all of this is to say, the trials of the characters in Ugly Girls were effortlessly readable. Two young women who received very little stability from the few adults in their lives seek comfort in their own friendship, a friendship riddled with all its own kinds of dysfunction. They steal cars and shoplift together, leading to their eventual arrest at a Walgreens. They play manipulative games with a dangerous stranger and ultimately, if accidentally, kill someone as a direct result. But you never think of them as entirely to blame for their actions. That's not to remove them from their responsibility, either, just to acknowledge that the world they reside in is not the kind of fertile ground that makes things accessible and leads to an obvious path to a happy future. Its the kind of world of despair and hopelessness where people will look for anything, any sort of stimulus, to feel something. And Baby Girl and Perry's experience is merely the apotheosis of this in all its extremes.

Hunter's work keeps maturing, over and over again, with each successive book. Envy her talent and read Ugly Girls.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Big Venerable Has Now Been Released, Officially!

Like the Kraken, there was never any doubt that at some point, somehow, Big Venerable would be released on a possibly expecting public, a public expecting it somewhat. But it's now available in a multitude of formats, all accessible on CCLaP Publishing's webpage, Here.

So I hope you give it a look, a try, perhaps read it sometime soon? I'd like that. I encourage it. I'm trying to think of things to add to this, for the occasion and I'm coming up empty. 

Happy Monday! 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Jillian, that person you know and hate

What I liked best about Halle Butler's debut novel, Jillian (published by Curbside Splendor in February 2015), is how completely identifiable all aspects of the novel are to my own life and circumstances, as I imagine many of the Millennial generation will agree. There's something unique to the particular time and place of the story, especially with respect to the younger of the two main characters, a situation which begs to be considered as deeply as Butler has managed.

It's something, too, that I sense other generations might not so quickly identify with, as a Gen Xer friend of mine has noted his frustration with aspects of the novel. I'll explain this idea in more detail momentarily, and moreover what I believe is primarily attributable to the possible generational divide (though I believe most sane people will love this book despite -- or perhaps because of -- its often bleak overtones).

At the heart of this story is the eponymous Jillian and the ridiculous, often very unnecessarily so, life she leads -- constantly scrutinized through the mercurial lens of her coworker and fellow receptionist, Megan. Both women work in a gastroenterologist office in a Chicago-area hospital. Each has yet to do and achieve the kinds of things they probably once longed for, Jillian because of her shortsightedness and affinity for expedient solutions and Megan for her morose worldview and compulsion to discern the root causes of her unrest as located externally and not internally.

If Jillian is the story's center then Megan exists in her orbit, arguably in the same role as a primatologist examining the life of a chimpanzee. Their relationship is built upon the artful contrivance of workplace decorum, neither caring to get to know the other in any social way beyond the requisite daily interactions put upon them by their proximity and shared responsibilities. There's something undeniably similar to one or another Marxist critique of employment in a capitalist society, neither worker able to socialize with people they'd prefer to under normal circumstances. (Interestingly, neither worker having much interest in socializing with people in general -- Jillian for her extreme sense of entitlement and self-absorption, and Megan for her misanthropy.)

Butler's prose style is to me, in a word, satisfying. Her dialogue simply rolls off the page and into my mind's eye, without a hint of anything herky-jerky. I'm always annoyed by dialogue that makes the hair on my neck stand on end and question for a minute that I'm immersed in a story. I think it's one of her great strengths as a writer and, though I confess I haven't yet seen the film Crimes Against Humanity for which she wrote the screenplay, I am sure she easily pulls off the kind of character-rich dialogue needed to make a film cohere on screen (conversely, I watched Unbreakable last night for some reason; perhaps subconsciously to see the precise opposite of good dialogue).

Another fantastic element of this novel is how carefully constructed the characters are. Each feels like someone you've known at some point in your life, and none of them more so in my mind than Jillian herself. She is, as I give away in the title, so call it a spoiler even though it's a characteristic revealed on page one anyway, that person you know and hate. She is the person constantly, perhaps due to some form of emotional stunting or immaturity (or something far deeper than that), making the most expedient decision for the most immediate gratification. And as Butler spins a world of narrative inside her head you begin to "get it," whether you want to or not. That's not to say you agree with Jillian's peculiar life choices but you come to some form of detente with the character, you see her anxieties, her human frailties and you realize, though it might be condescending, in certain ways Jillian wasn't cut out for the world humans have contrived over the centuries. She was made for a world unburdened by rules and decorum. If she had only been granted that who knows how much better she may have turned out, or maybe an uncaring state of nature would have quickly done her in. Who can know for sure?

As for the idea of the generational quality of the novel, I'll put it like this: Megan's character (the one who could be classified as a "Millennial" in terms of her age) exhibits all the bitterness that comes with the feeling that, while you may very well be talented, having a talent is not enough. In modern times they call it "networking." Whatever the case, Millennials feel acutely we've been sold a lie, inasmuch as we were brought up thinking everyone IS special (because whether you buy it or not, everyone has something unique about them, so it's true in that sense) and were thus brought up to think being special and being talented at something you love are enough to be happy in life. Call this naive (because it is) and wildly out of touch with the reality of life post-high school (because it also is), but this was the foundation on which we were raised.

I'm not calling for a return to corporal punishment in the nuclear family household (or really any draconian forms of punishment that will keep the next generation from being knocked on their ass), what I'm calling for and what I see in the subtext of Jillian is more honesty in the way we raise our children, less hiding behind the things that make us uncomfortable. Yes, honesty is brutal, honesty forces you to explain in perhaps crude-seeming detail how human beings procreate, or that no matter how much you like your job there will be days you despise it, and plenty of people always hate the work they do and possibly always will, so it's important to find other means of pleasure than being defined by your job, money typically won't fill the void.

And these are the things that prove impossible for Megan to achieve, certainly in part due to her own (often hilariously so) bad attitude. But there can be no mistaking that not everything that's "wrong" with Megan has to do with internal deficits. She seems unfulfilled for reasons for the above mentioned reasons, for being smart, for being witty, for being all sorts of things society says are good personality traits, and yet despite all of it, seeing herself mired in tedious work as a receptionist in a place she hates and spins her wheels in, day after day and week after week. She has no other outlet for herself from which to derive pleasure, and her negative attitude seems only to help perpetuate the general lack she feels in her everyday life.

She's a de facto nihilist, frustrated by the success that seems to arrive so easily for other people, people she tacitly believes are far less talented than her, even while she's never expressed any interest in the work they do -- said work seeming wholly separate (but no less obnoxious) from whatever might, if she actually considered it, bring her pleasure of her own (as a hobby, etc.). They have what Megan does not, these enemies, real and imagined both. Carrie, a party-goer who travels in similar circles as Megan and her boyfriend, Bill, is a particular target of Megan's ire. Carrie probably would have been irritating to Megan for no other reason than she claims to love her job (and appears to be mostly sincere about it). But it's not just her gratification at work, Carrie also has success in the traditional ways people tend to admire and likewise envy. She's basically considered a prodigy in the realm of professional design and made some prestigious journal's "30 under 30" list, as she reveals without subtly in an early scene in the novel. Megan sees her as a fraud and shouts at one point, behind Carrie's back, "She's got no heart!"

And Carrie might not have heart, might be a fraud, but it's Megan's own obsession with Carrie's fraudulence that causes her unnecessary stress, just as her focus on Jillian for different reasons does the same. These people Megan loathes may indeed suck, but Megan does herself no favors by obsessing about their lives, their being allowed to life them, which if we use Jillian as an example, are likely to be more complex and challenging than Megan would be inclined to believe or truly care to know. It's a kind of narcissism that keeps Megan looking outwardly (and perhaps this is another thing characteristic in particular of Millennials, despite its being a very common general human characteristic, as well). The world doesn't revolve around Megan and she'd be happier finding pursuits that get her away from debilitating narcissism and back to a happier place, an honest place, a place where she can be whoever she wants to be to whatever extent that's truly possible.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

2015, Welcome to Big Venerable

Hey all,

My newest story collection, Big Venerable, is set to hit the streets of the world in April! (April 13 20, 2015, to be precise). You can preorder it over at my publisher's website by clicking HERE. Also, if you're on Goodreads, you can connect with news about Big Venerable HERE. More news to come, so stick around.

"I love this book. The day-to-day reality of a burger joint is almost magical, while the future fantasy of a synthetic forest is so profoundly real we could hike there together tomorrow. Inside these wildly imaginative, near-cinematic stories, Rowan is asking big questions: What constitutes true change? And what part do we want to play in it? I'll go back to Big Venerable again and again. I can't get it out of my head." - Megan Stielstra, New York Times columnist and author of Once I Was Cool

"Neither fabulist not realist instead I would describe Rowan as a comic realist of the fake and a monologist of the strange." - Joseph G. Peterson, author of Twilight of the Idiots

"Big Venerable reads like a collection of modern fables, peppered with workplace anxiety, mutating families, absurd quests, and faulty sages delivering self-centered advice. A very funny book from a very funny man." - Halle Butler, author of Jillian 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Don't Forget To Be Human

Not to get all martyred about it, but damn if I don't feel a little in the minority these days when it comes to education and the treatment of students in school. I say this as a former student myself turned teacher at the same high school I graduated from way, way back in '03 (that's pronounced ought-three, for those uncertain). I mean 2003, not 1903. I'm not ludicrously old, but wouldn't it be crazy if I were this--like-- 130 year old guy hopefully laying down some real truth for you to consider? No?

Well, anyway, I'm not 130 and I don't claim to have "real truth"--a real pleonasm if ever I heard one--but I do claim to see our schools as places in which humanity is now discouraged in the face of something far more insidious than simple rote learning. Schools are run now in a way that encourages corporate-styled efficiency (all the right data points that certainly sound good but add up to little in practice, certainly little relation to students' learning. e.g. the right numbers in certain programs to justify their existence, teachers being encouraged to no longer give Fs to students, attitudes of things like there being only one way for students to demonstrate that they have learned, a clear enunciation of "learning standards" before each class so students know precisely what is to be instructed to them (this being encouraged by studies I've read and think are particularly pseudo-scientific in nature, for example this study by which among other things claims to have a way to determine what stories students have written were better than others; as a fiction writer I find it particularly flawed to claim a handle on something so entirely subjective).

But more than that I object to the notion that the one lone job of a teacher is to be a dispenser of information, of all skills necessary to "make it" in the "real world." Certainly, as my own mother has never failed to remind me, those skills are necessary. Without them, students might be lost in their lives outside of organized education. I teach a thing called executive functioning -- which refers largely to those skills that ask you to take control of your own life and the business therein. Teaching it has been enormously helpful to me organizing my own day-to-day (and considering I not only work as a teacher in this program but also teach two sections of composition and usage for night school and am finishing up my own Masters of Art in Teaching (three classes, one in-person and two online), I can say fairly certainly these skills have made all of what I'm doing right now far more manageable, if not entirely possible).

That said, I still don't see myself as only some dispenser of information. I like to imagine that my students and I work well together because I don't treat them like widgets, like little robots in need of tinkering so that they suddenly, miraculously "get it." That's not who they are and that's not how they should be treated. But I get mixed messages from superiors all the time. "We need to showcase student growth" as if by doing the things I do with them pedagogically on a daily basis, they'll suddenly, miraculously be fixed and work correctly.

A teacher friend of mine recently noted there's a big difference between exercising authority and actually helping a person become educated. The former can be very neat and tidy, though arguably effective. The latter is a messy business filled with impossible-to-measure components. Students might not always "look" like they're on task, but that doesn't mean learning isn't being done. It's those same corporate affected appearances I noticed were integral to work at the various businesses I worked at before teaching. Real honestly is to be avoided in favor of the affectation of honesty. I must go through certain hoops and I will have done things the "right way." The cognitive dissonance that's so integral to this kind of thing and so society at large is astounding.

I'm no fool, though. I'm aware for a great many reasons we can afford to be completely honest about everything we do. What I do find frustrating and incongruous to a point of irreconcilability is the idea that I too must buy in to all this affectation. It's possible people don't see through it, but I doubt that. I think most people do see through the affectation that informs so much of our daily lives, certainly students do. And I see how it shuts down their level interest and their level of curiosity. They're used to arbitrary rules dictating their existence, life being reduced to "because I said so." That doesn't mean this is Best Practice, to use a favored term of the education reform era. Couple the notion of authoritarian dispensation of only one way of doing things with the idea we do let people do things they way they want to, and what you have is that always unacknowledged mutual exclusion that drips of cognitive dissonance. It's a problem of having too many people in the room who only agree with you -- arguably a big problem in today's corporate world that's trickled down to school districts, or perhaps always a problem with people seeking to be "leaders" and not considering the fact that their certainty is as much a flaw as it is an asset.

So, what I'm saying is I'm not sure. I'm not sure whether things are being done the right way in schools. But I do know that I get the sense we're sucking the life out of students with the pedagogical points of emphasis of the day. I get the sense that students feel like they're being lied to and so actively reject what we're trying to convey as educators. There's such a deep-seated lack of empathy that needs to be addressed. I understand you administrators of the world are under pressure from forces above you, as they most likely are as well, but continuing to march in lockstep with this belief system merely because it's what we've (in various "new" iterations) always done is not helping anyone. I think if you truly believe in education and students being lifelong learners, you'll see what I mean.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

C'mon, Facebook! Images of Dog Fighting are Ok? Really?

First, many thanks to Lindsay Hunter for alerting me about this dog fighting page. Facebook, for whatever reason -- a friend of mine has speculated (and this seems likely) that their algorithm for determining what is a violation of community standards must be is off, somehow -- has allowed a graphic group page promoting dog fighting to exist on their social media platform. If you report the photos you'll get back sometime later a response indicating the pictures, many of which depict violent images of dogs attacking each other (and this is for sport, mind you), are not in violation of community standards, which is entirely untrue, based on Facebook's own definition

Here's their policy regarding violent imagery (emphasis is mine):

Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences and raise awareness about issues important to them. Sometimes, those experiences and issues involve graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism. In many instances, when people share this type of content, it is to condemn it. However, graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site. 

It would seem the textbook definition of dog fighting that in some way it celebrates or glorifies violence and usually for sadistic effect. I mean, Michael Vick didn't go to prison for nearly two years for no reason.

And some have noted this is clearly not a page run by anyone in America. It appears to be Turkish, in fact, where supposedly, and if true then also despicably, dog fighting is legal. That should have no impact on Facebook, however, a multinational corporation whose allegiance should be to general good taste and human decency, all of which no matter its legality, dog fighting is not.

It's probable this is some kind of glitch, oversight, not the earnest response of the flesh-and-blood people behind Facebook, but that still doesn't really excuse it. If you're interested in viewing the page while it's still up (and I hope soon it is not) Click Here -- but be warned, there are many graphic images. Please do tweet @Facebook about what they're condoning. And spread the word. My friend Robyn Pennacchia has written about the issue as well over at Death+Taxes.

And finally, perhaps most disturbingly of all, the group's membership has actually grown since I first noticed it, proving once again that it's never too loathsome for people to double down. I encourage no one to join the group who is actively interested in its removal.

UPDATE 9/8/2014: Happy to say I finally received this notice from Facebook:

We reviewed the photo you reported for containing graphic violence. Since it violated our Community Standards, we removed it. Thanks for your report. We let Game Dog Pitbull know that their photo has been removed, but not who reported it.

And while it's not the wholesale removal of a group that glorifies dog fighting (which might have the benefit, if allowed to remain open, of allowing people who participate on it in places it's illegal to be identified and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law), it's at least a start.

I still think the site should be removed entirely, especially because it's likely most of the people actively participating on it live in countries where this sort of animal abuse is legal for some insane reason. That means, even if it were to become illegal there (say for instance in Turkey, where it's said to be legal), ex post facto designation and all would make something that's already not likely to be prosecuted even less likely. At least Facebook could take a demonstrative stand against this activity, which should never be condoned, even implicitly.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Facebook has finally made the decision to remove the pro-dog fighting group from the website entirely. Thanks for getting the word out, everyone. Glad to see most people don't condone this sort of thing.

UPDATE 9/10/2014: Wait! Oops, no! Instead, Facebook has allowed the group to continue its existence AND even the worst photos are still on the site.

UPDATE 9/11/2014: So I presume it's possible for someone to re-upload pictures that violate community standards, but I gather that's not the case here. Everything I think about whatever is going on in the byzantine, essentially Kafkaesque corporate structure of Facebook is at this point pure speculation. Still, once again, after having reported the most violent image on the group's page and that report being at first rejected for defying "Community Standards" it is now once again been subject to further review and found to have, in fact, yes, violated "Community Standards." Figure if nothing else it's good to chronicle all the absurdity here, for some kind of record.

UPDATE 9/13/2014: Did I mention Facebook alerted me to the fact that they again removed a particularly violent photo from the offending group? No? Will it stay gone? How can anyone know?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Is Our Culture Really So Sick?

I was reading an article on Yahoo news the other day--yes, I do that, and fairly often, for some reason--and it asked the question, "What if we paid our teachers like professional athletes?" See it for yourself HERE. Yeah, what if?, indeed. And weirdly, some folks I actually respect offered their thoughts on the subject, like Dana Goldstein, whose book The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession is high on my list of reading related to education and reform for the coming fall.

In the article Goldstein is quoted saying, "Kids will want to grow up wanting to be teachers just like kids grow up wanting to be pro athletes and that would be a really positive thing." While I feel like there's some serious context missing, taking it at face value, I dislike and disagree with Goldstein's comment because it feeds into our greater cultural narrative that the only people who truly experience success in this country are those who have a lot of money -- and therefore are the only ones anyone could ever aspire to be like. It feeds into the reformers' narrative that the only reason we have students attending school in the first place is so that we might prepare them for their future careers.

One of the things you'll hear me talking about a lot on this blog with respect to my own personal pedagogical approach to the classroom is, what can we do to showcase to our students ways they might be better adjusted, healthy adults from an emotional standpoint? I know so many people who are so completely dysfunctional in their every relational endeavor, be it familial, romantic or any of the myriad other forms. It's hard enough out in the world thinking you're perhaps all alone, misunderstood, not cared for, that we'd then say school is merely prep for your life as a cog in the machine is so profoundly callous and opposed to the ideals I think any functional society should aspire to, so instead I say: let's care about the whole student. Let's be there to listen to their problems if they're having them. Let's not look at our kids as purely numbers and data and plan accordingly to "fix" their problems with learning while ignoring their problems as people (oftentimes the two are inextricably related).

In my classroom I'm there to listen to my students, show them that I'm a human being and help them to see there's nothing about being human they ought to be ashamed of. We all makes mistakes. We all hope to learn from them. Sometimes we don't for a while. Sometimes we never do. But maybe we find ways to be more conscious and considerate of those around us than we were before. I've never had a situation in which I had to teach a student (or any other person for that matter) how to be less selfless, that they were too giving, that it was becoming a detriment to them, despite how well meaning said hypothetical student intended to be. Such selflessness is extremely rare. And moreover, what I'm saying is, just become someone isn't the world's most selfless person doesn't mean there's anything wrong with that person.

You try to be a better person, maybe you misstep or fall back into old habits, and then you realize it, and you keep trying. Repeat. Be human.