Slade, Cade and Devin

It’s readily apparent to me that the use of cool new names in modern literature is evidence of ground-breaking creativity. Every Young Adult book that you pick up (and I don’t pick them up as I must save my energy for more vital tasks, such as building lego starfighters with my small, warlike offspring) features a hard-abbed hero with an impressively non-traditional moniker such as Slade, Cade or Devin.

Somehow, a story acquires much more gravitas when it features someone named Slade. For instance…

Slade Devereaux paused in the middle of his morning ritual of five hundred crunches in order to take a long, cooling drink of organic fair-trade water. He knew it was vital to stay hydrated. It was almost as important as raising the minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour, plus benefits. As the water slipped down his muscled throat, his mind drifted to last night and the time he had spent with Esme Swavay.

Was she thinking of him now? Was he thinking of her thinking of him now. Yes, he could answer that, being self-aware; he was. But was she now thinking of him thinking of her thinking of him? That was the question.

Any-hoot, I think the real killer app to make it big in modern publishing is the names. It’s all about the names. You’ll thank me later if you’re an aspiring writer, but, if you can come up with awesome names that evoke intense coolness, you’ve made it. Don’t worry about your story. That’ll take care of itself. Concentrate on the names.

Currently, I’m probably writing a story about an exclusive prep school where all the students are actually were-muskrats in secret. Every night they change into muskrats and go out and ravage the city’s trees. The entire population is on edge. Editorials are written in the papers. Commentators pontificate on the nightly news about the ravagement. Everyone is wondering if their avocado tree or kumquat tree will be next.

The only problem is, I don’t have any cool names, so this is gonna be a failure of a story. Unless I come up with the right names.

Melvin?

Agnes?

Leroy?

The flittering nitwits of Twitter

Well, I’m not sure how many nitwits are on Twitter (ten, ten million?), but I appreciate the sound of those three words together. They were meant to be together, like Sonny and Cher, peanut butter and bananas, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.

But, seriously, am I just too old for Twitter or am I merely dumber than a nitwit and simply cannot grapple with the beauty and utility of tweeted communication?

Everyone (practically) in the self-published world says that authors should have a twitter presence. Obediently (once upon a time) I trotted over to Twitter and twigned up. I acquired followers (like a mad prophet) and became a follower (like a sheep…baaa). As my followee list grew, I began to see a stream of tweets (whenever I cared to sign on, which was and is infrequent).

“Buy revolutionary face-cream now! NOW!”

“Steamiest erotica ever! Forbidden love between hard-abbed pilates aficionados! Read NOW!”

“Lolz! R U up wit dat?”

“Best grumpy cat compilation ever.”

“Wassup?”

“Yo.”

“Buy organic yo-yos NOW!”

Needless to say, my eyes glazed over. And still do, whenever I visit Twitter. I assume that whoever invented it has quite a taste for Ritalin.

What’s my point in all this? I can’t remember, to be honest. Spending too much time (any amount of time, in fact) on Twitter has wrecked my concentration. My short term memory has been reduced to 140 characters (or whatever the Twitter limit is–I can’t remember).

Atilla the Hun and the Modern Hotel Experience

So we whisked up through Southern California at the end of our vacation, running the gauntlet of the Los Angeles area freeways and highways and byways, which are way too congested. Worse than a pneumonia patient on his last legs. Though, one really shouldn’t be walking on freeways such as the 405. Stay in your car. Better yet, take a different route.

As the drive was too long for one day (and for three small rascals in the back seat), we paused for the night in the Ventura area. Checked into a hotel, slept, checked out. As we were packing that morning, I took the soap bar and tiny shampoo bottle that we hadn’t used. Put them in my suitcase, well-conditioned by my parents who have always done this for the past fifty-plus years (which has resulted in a bathroom cupboard full of tiny bottles and tiny wrapped soaps that nobody uses or will ever use–I imagine they’ll be parceled out in their will).

A sort of melancholy reverie fell over me as I appropriated the diminutive soap and shampoo. I realized that I was looting the hotel room. Looting within the legal structures of our hotel stay, of course, but a sort of looting, nevertheless. I became aware, then, of a long tradition within human civilization (and near-civilization), stretching back from me to the Vikings pillaging England and other parts, the Ottoman Turks despoiling the Mediterranean, and Atilla the Hun and his hordes looting their way west across the Russian steppes.

True, looting (the non-Ferguson style) has become rather civilized. I looted a small bar of soap that I had already paid for, not several farm animals, a sack of coin, assorted females, etc., from the burning wreckage of a Slavic village. Perhaps in such diminution, we, as humans have diminished in certain ways as well.

Still, there’s a small bit of Atilla in all of us. Even the business-attired, bespectacled, pasty-faced travelers hurriedly checking out of the Marriott each morning in order to drive their rental cars off to whatever meeting or airport or next cup of Starbucks coffee awaits them in their future.

Brilliant Marketing Mumbo-Jumbo

I tend to be a sucker for articles on ebook marketing. Hope springs eternal that I’ll stumble across a fresh insight, some new angle on the industry that I can use. Who knows what that might look like? Perhaps an untapped market on Mars that loves epic fantasy?

Anyway, I just read a piece by a well-respected guiding light in the indie movement. Boiled down in a nutshell as I mix my metaphors like a bartender shaking up a cocktail for James Bond, the article advised the following: increase your customer base, charge more, have more to sell.

Uh, well…hmm…

Kind of reminds me of the article I once saw about a poll of doctors that said the number one way to live longer was to not die.

Anyway, the article plunged me into a deep, moss-encrusted well of nostalgia, complete with small frogs chirping (yes, like birds) Rule Britannia, bringing back the sunlit days of yesteryear when I bravely braved the cubicle land that was Big Idea Productions (makers of Veggie Tales, excellent company-paid lunches, and looming bankruptcy).

We frequently hired consultants in that business. They flew in (usually from either New York or Los Angeles) and spent several days onsite, dressed in impressive clothing and using words like “synergy” and “paradigm” and “dynamic.” They would end up telling us what we already knew (such as: zip up your pants after going to bathroom, never accept large wooden statues of horses from Greeks, and don’t eat oysters in months beginning with the letter Z). We would then pay them lots of money in order to get them to go away and leave us alone.

Of course, we never learned, which is why we would start thinking about hiring more consultants. Usually in the spring, when hope springs afresh and eternal, kind of like how Old Faithful in Yellowstone Park always leaps up again every now and then, jetting up into the air and causing tourists to scurry and click-click-click with their cameras and Mabel Thorkelson of San Jose, California to screech at her husband, “Bob! Get Junior away from that moose! I tell you, we should just put that kid in reform school and be done with it!”

This, in turn, forms Junior’s character, giving him a deep-seated antipathy of authority (such as moose and his mother). Later in life he will end up being a successful bank robber and will fall in love with a beautiful Spanish girl named Esmerelda.

I digress.

All that to say, yes, hope does spring eternal, which means I will probably continue reading articles that advise on ebook marketing, even though none of ’em ever have anything new to say.

Waiting on Iron and Life

Recently, I underwent a series of iron infusions in order to, well, wake up. The procedure was done at a center mostly devoted to cancer. Sunlight slanted in through the windows of a long, narrow room lined with chairs, each with its own set of instruments and devices. I was pretty much always the youngest person in there. The rest of them were mostly elderly, nodding off as the lines dripped whatever chemotherapies they were receiving trickled into their veins.

Drip-drop, numbers ticking down on those IV thingamabobs, the clock minute hand advancing, the shadows inching across the floor. All very restful in an odd way. Almost makes you want to go to sleep and never wake up.

To be honest, most of the patients seemed to be waiting for things to end. Gray, haggard, reduced. I suppose we’ll all get to that place one day. Sooner or later. I hope, though, that more of us are reduced in a different way. Less of ourselves and more of God. It’s only then that exits and death and even more extreme reductions can be met hopefully and with a certain amount of sturdy cheer.

At any rate, I’m waiting for iron and things to wake up. It’s timely that it’s spring, no? Timely and time to hunt for whatever crocuses or whatnot are about to emerge from each of our particular soil.

A Book List for Young Readers

Several friends recently asked me for book recommendations for their children. Not picture books, but chapter books for reasonably precocious readers. Making book recommendations is a chancy thing, as everyone has their tastes and variations of morality. However, the following are, in my opinion, excellent books with nothing objectionable. These are all books that I either own in physical copy or need to purchase for my family’s library. Good books, after all, bear up under repeated reading and are well worth owning.

If you’re a parent, you’re probably painfully aware that navigating through modern books for young readers is a minefield these days. There’s a lot of garbage out there. Some of it is just poorly written. A lot of it, however, is dreary, nihilistic, violent and sexualized. Lacking in hope, really. Every parent has to make their own choice, but I feel that children need to be children while they’re still children.

Anyway, feel free to pass this along if you have young readers in your family or acquaintances. Some of these books might be more suitable for girls, some for boys. Or maybe not. That all depends on the individual child. If you have any books you think should be included, please let me know. Good luck and happy reading!

Joan Aiken: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket (she wrote a lot more, but these are a good start to see if they click)

Lloyd Alexander: the Prydain Chronicles–The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King. Also: The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian, The Cat Who Wished to be a Man.

Marguerite de Angeli: The Black Fox of Lorne, The Door in the Wall

Richard & Florence Atwater: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Lynne Reid Banks: The Indian in the Cupboard

L. Frank Baum: the Oz books

John and Patricia Beatty: (historical fiction from the Elizabethan England era) Holdfast, Pirate Royal, The Queen’s Wizard

Walter R. Brooks: Freddy the Detective (and all the other Freddy the Pig books…there are tons)

Eleanor Cameron: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, etc (and subsequent books in the series)

Beverly Cleary: The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Runaway Ralph

Susan Cooper: (the Dark is Rising series–rather suspenseful but excellent weaving of Arthurian legend with modern times) Over Sea Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, Silver on a Tree. By the way, I think Fox Pictures tried a movie adaptation of The Dark is Rising several years back. Don’t waste your time; it’s dreadful.

Helen Cresswell: (the Bagthorpe Saga) starting with Ordinary Jack, Absolute Zero, Bagthorpes Unlimited, etc.

Roald Dahl: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, George’s Marvelous Medicine…all his children’s books (but not his adult books!)

Mary Mapes Dodge: The Silver Skates

Eleanor Estes: Ginger Pye, The Hundred Dresses, The Moffats (and other books)

John D. Fitzgerald
: The Great Brain, More Adventures of the Great Brain, Me and My Little Brain, The Great Brain at the Academy, The Great Brain is Back, The Return of the Great Brain, The Great Brain Reforms (these are marvelous, fabulous books, illustrated by Mercer Mayer; they should be in every family’s library).

Louise Fitzhugh: Harriet the Spy, Sport

Sid Fleischman: Chancy and the Grand Rascal, By the Great Horn Spoon, Jingo Django, The Ghost in the Noonday Sun, etc.

John Gordon: The Giant Under the Snow (genuine urban fantasy, minus the vampires and zombies and werewolves, before the genre even existed–this is a wonderful book)

Elizabeth Janet Gray: Adam of the Road

Rosemary Harris: The Moon in the Cloud, The Shadow on the Sun. These books seem to be out of print. Odd, as they are superbly written. There’s a Rosemary Harris who writes crime novels, but she’s not the same Harris as this one.

Marguerite Henry: Justin Morgan Had a Horse, King of the Wind, Brighty of the Grand Canyon, etc.

Norton Juster: The Phantom Tollbooth

Carol Kendall: The Gammage Cup, The Whisper of Glocken

E. L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Robert Lawson: Ben and Me, Smeller Martin, Captain Kidd’s Cat, I Discover Columbus, Rabbit Hill (and other books)

Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time. While Wrinkle is an excellent book, as are the next few ones in the series, be careful with her later books, as not all of them are appropriate for children.

Ursula K. Le Guin (fairly serious fantasy, but well written and engrossing) A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore

Lois Lenski: Strawberry Girl (and other books)

C. Day Lewis: The Otterbury Incident

C. S. Lewis: The Narnia Chronicles

Astrid Lindgren: the Pippi books, Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, Karlson on the Roof

Hugh Lofting: the Doctor Doolittle books

Robert McClosky: Homer Price, Centerburg Tales

Betty MacDonald
: the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books

George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, The Light Princess, At the Back of the North Wind (very sad but brilliant)

L. M. Montgomery: the Anne of Green Gables books, Emily of New Moon, Jane of Lantern Hill

Andre Norton: Steel Magic (Norton was a prolific writer, penning mostly books for older readers; be careful with her other titles, as most of them are not suitable for children)

Mary Norton: The Borrowers, The Borrowers Aloft, The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat.

Robert C. O’Brien: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

William Pene Du Bois: The Twenty-One Balloons, Call Me Bandicoot, The Three Policemen, The Great Geppy, Peter Graves

Andrew Petersen: On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, North or Be Eaten, The Monster in the Hallows, The Warden and the Wolf King.

Daniel Pinkwater: (very unusual writer, some kids find him hilarious, some not) try Fatmen from Space (as an experiment).

Ellen Raskin: The Westing Game

Keith Robertson: the Henry Reed books

George Selden: The Cricket in Times Square, Tucker’s Countryside, Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy

Kate Seredy: The Singing Tree, The White Stag, and other books

Donald J. Sobol: the Encylopedia Brown series

Elizabeth George Speare: The Bronze Bow, The Witch of Blackbird Pond (many of her books are good)

Rosemary Sutcliff (historical fiction): The Eagle of the Ninth, the Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Sword at Sunset, etc. Also: Knight’s Fee, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Witch’s Brat (and many other excellent books).

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (and then, if suitably hooked, The Lord of the Rings)

Gertrude Chandler Warner: the Boxcar Children books

E. B. White: Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little

Laura Ingalls Wilder: the Little House on the Prairie books

Geoffrey Willans & Ronald Searle: Down With Skool! (this is a rather subversive and hilarious look at the British school system, out of print but well-worth hunting down; I do not recommend any of their other books without careful investigation)

Jay Williams: the Danny Dunn books

Valentine’s Day and Fifty Shades of Goop

As a writer, I have to admit that E. L. James’ success with Fifty Shades of Grey intrigued me. Intrigued me enough to read the sample on Amazon to see if she could tell a story. The quick verdict is that she’s a dreadful writer, so I’m assuming it’s the sex that sells the book. Thankfully, the sample is sex-free, as I’m uninterested in BDSM and her take on intimacy.

Among other issues, there’s one in particular that’s profoundly depressing about Fifty Shades. It’s the idea that the modern American Girl is a complete idiot and unable to make wise choices when it comes to love and the opposite sex. Let’s face it. The main characteress, Anastasia Steele, is a moron.

Troubled by this portrayal of America, I wrote a parody of the Amazon sample, carefully preserving the plot points, the mental discourse of Steele (Swannk in my version) lame tense choice, a great deal of the dialogue, the word “enigmatic,” and many other Jamesian excesses. I took a few liberties, of course, adding such things as monkeys (always an improvement to a story, regardless of genre), as well as a wrap-up that paints a picture of the American Girl who is more sensible than that simpering twit Steele.

So, let me wish you a Happy Valentine’s Day (celebrated in honor of a brutally martyred Christian saint–how does that evolve to chocolate?) and, without further ado, here’s my version…

FIFTY SHADES OF GOOP

I pout at myself in the mirror. Being a humble person, I reproach my hair for looking so perfect. I also mentally reproach my roommate, Lisa Lysergick, for being sick and forcing me to step in so selflessly to help her in her hour of need. My final exams in Women’s Justice Studies are next week. I should be studying, yet here I am, examining my flawless self in the mirror. Having a fault or two is good for the soul, but I guess my fault is that I have none. I roll my eyes like a metaphorical pair of lovely, blue dice and heave a sigh. I stare at the gorgeous girl in the mirror, at her perfect skin and her blonde hair as lustrous and as yellow as a field of buttercup flowers drenched with melted butter. But then I give up trying to find a flaw. It’s hopeless.

Lisa is my roomie, and she has a hangnail. Hangnails can be pretty intense, particularly when you have lovely fingernails like Lisa has. They’re her best quality. She can’t go outside until they’re healed. That means she can’t go do the interview she set up with some super-duper business tycoon billionaire for our college newspaper. That means I have to go instead. If I was a character in a story, instead of a real person, I would consider this a convenient plot device.

I volunteered to go in her place because I’m an extremely generous and kind person. Plus, this will help satisfy my random acts of kindness requirements for my Neighborhood Activism class. Also, Lisa says I can drive her Prius to the interview. I don’t know about you, but I feel cleaner and better when I drive a Prius. At least, I think that’s how I’m supposed to feel.

I do have final exams to study for, but I’m so intelligent that I’ll probably ace all the tests anyway. No, today I have to drive 166 miles to Seattle where I shall meet Mr. Edward Guptra, the mysterious president of Guptra International Industries Incorporated. I don’t know anything about the man, but Lisa informs me that he is a philanthropists, a genius, and as elusive as an Australian wombat addicted to espresso. Apparently, experts say he has the most enigmatic smile in the world. I guess Lisa was very lucky to get an interview with him.

When I emerge from my bedroom, ready to go, Lisa is sprawled on the couch with a bowl of Cheetos and watching Real Housewives of Topeka.

“Hey, girlfriend,” I say.

When Lisa sees me, she begins to weep and reaches for a box of chocolate fudge to console herself.

“Mary Sue,” she wails, “I’m so sorry to put you through this! You’re such a dear friend. Can you get me another ice-cold orange soda from the fridge while you’re up? Be sure to bring my Prius back with a full tank of gas. Seeing that needle on full makes me feel more smug, because I know a full tank will last so long, due to how the Prius switches between its battery and that horrible fossil fuel in order to achieve amazing mileage. I’d give you some of this tasty fudge, but it might mess up your lipstick. You need to look your best for the interview.”

“How’s your hangnail doing?” I ask. I am a sympathetic person and I am always keenly aware of other people’s pain.

“My what?”

“Your hangnail.”

“Oh, right! It hurts so bad,” she moans, clutching her hand to her breast. “Hangnails are the worst! Dr. Hennepin brought a Sudanese refugee to class yesterday to talk about her experiences being bombed and shot at and starved and genocided and all that other stuff, and I asked her if she had ever had a hangnail. She hadn’t! I was so shocked. I told her they really hurt. And it does! Oww!”

“Oh, my,” I say, not wanting to see her in such agony. “You just take it easy, Lisa. Get some rest. Before you know it, you’ll be back on your feet. Would you like some Demerol or Oxycodone or Vicodin or Percocet or Methadone for the pain?”

“Just more Cheetos, please. Here are my questions for the interview.” She hands me a piece of paper. “Take good notes.”

“Jeez, you know, I know nothing about this mysterious billionaire with the enigmatic smile,” I say.

“Don’t worry, Mary Sue. You have my questions,” says Lisa. “Now, go. It’s one hundred and sixty-six miles. The commercial break is almost over–I mean, I want you to get there on time.”

“Get some rest,” I say fondly. “I made you several pans of lobster ravioli with my own home-made pasta for later.”

“I’ll eat it all right now,” says Lisa. “All of it. I won’t even use a fork, as that would result in more dirty dishes for you. Thanks, Mary Sue. You’re just like one of those inflatable buoy things that sailors throw down into the water for drowning people.”

I pick up my purse and smile wryly at her as I head out the door, even though I’m not exactly sure what wryly means. But that’s okay, because I’m pretty sure that the majority of the English-speaking world can’t articulate what wryly means either. I bet that most of them think it’s some kind of bread that gets eaten with corned beef and sauerkraut.

The weather is perfect as I drive down the road in Lisa’s Prius. I’m heading south from Vancouver toward Seattle. I’m not sure what the highway is called that I’m on, because details like that aren’t important. The Prius is a lot of fun to drive and I think about all the trees and cute squirrels and innocent chipmunks with large, expressive eyes I’m saving as I press my shapely foot to the pedal. A squirrel runs out into the road in front of me and I hit it square on with the bumper, just like my dad always says. It makes a soft splatting sound.

According to Lisa’s directions, I’m driving to the headquarters of Mr. Edward Guptra’s international mega-conglomerate business company, Guptra International Industries Incorporated. After some more time driving down various roads and then through Seattle (which is a large city somewhere in the state of Washington), I arrive at my destination. The place is more than huge. It’s the definition of enormous (which means really big). It’s forty stories tall, with windows that made from bulletproof crystal, girded with solid gold pillars and walls. The sides of the building are crawling with trained monkey window-washers.

I’ve arrived right on time. I touch up my perfect lipstick in the mirror of the Prius, frown wistfully at my perfectly groomed hair and then, with a playful smile playing across my lips, I clamber out of the car and stride toward the front door.

The lobby is so enormous that the entire Chinese army could stand inside at attention if, for some reasons (such as invading the United States) they happened to be in Seattle. I walk across the floor for some time and finally reach the polished granite desk in front of the elevators. An impossible gorgeous young lady smiles at me from behind the desk. She looks very clean and her dental hygiene is perfect.

“I’m here to see Mr. Guptra. I’m Mary Sue Swannk, here on behalf of Lisa Lysergick.”

“Let me check the appointments, Miss Swannk,” she says.

I stand elegantly before her, serenely beautiful and stylish in my stylish and beautiful clothing. I’m glad I didn’t borrow one of Lisa’s shapeless blazers. They’re so stretched out of shape that they could double as tents for elephants. They also smell like elephants due to Lisa’s perfume, Eau du Elephante. She is an Environmental Studies major.

“You’re expected, Miss Swannk,” says the attendant. “Please sign here. Take the elevator on the far right, the one encrusted with diamonds.”

“Thank you,” I murmur.

I walk over to the elevator. There are two brawny looking men standing on either side of the elevator. They are dressed in impeccable dark suits and sunglasses. I assume they are security men, but they also look like they could be cabana boys in some elderly lady’s dream. If they were cabana boys in that dream, their names would probably be Ernesto and Rudolfo. There is also a monkey, but he isn’t in the dream (at least, not in the elderly lady’s dream; he might be included in some other weirder person’s dream, but my idle speculation does not extend that far). The monkey is merely polishing the diamond-encrusted front of the elevator.

One of the security men pushes the button that opens the elevator doors. The monkey jabbers something angry sounding in monkey language and steps back. I enter the elevator. The doors slide shut and the compartment zooms silently up toward the fortieth floor. The elevator stops and the doors chime open. I step out into another huge lobby. Another impossibly gorgeous lady smiles at me from behind a desk.

“Miss Swannk, please take a seat,” she says, pointing to a leather chair.

I sit down. The cushions are soft and the leather is both luscious and sumptuous.

“Oh, my,” I say. “This leather feels both luscious and sumptuous.”

“Yes,” says the young lady, “but it is actually an incredibly expensive faux-leather, handmade by happy vacationers in special holiday vacation camps in China. It is even better than the real thing. May I offer you some cooling refreshment, such as organic soy milk, reverse-osmosis purified Fijian monsoon water, or fermented Tibetan yak’s milk?”

I decline, as I stopped on the drive to enjoy a venti mocha latte with a triple-pump ristretto shot, skinny, half-foam top, infused with free trade Kenyan chai berries. I’m feeling alert.

One entire wall of the lobby is pure crystal, a gigantic window that offers a panoramic view of the city of Seattle. It is a beautiful sight, only slightly marred by the presence of several window-washing monkeys clinging to the exterior and busily plying their squeegees. I enjoy the enjoyable sight for a moment and then turn my attention to Lisa’s list of questions. While I know nothing about Mr. Edward Guptra, other than the fact that he’s a billionaire, is mysteriously elusive, and possesses the most enigmatic smile in the world, I am not concerned. Despite the uncertainty of my situation, I am not galled, neither am I nervous. Furthermore, I do not fidget.

I idly wonder how old Mr. Edward Guptra is. People who are ninety-seven years old can certainly smile in an enigmatic fashion. Perhaps he is ninety-seven years old? That is fine with me. In fact, I hope he is very old. I still need to engage in seven hours of social interaction with members of the senior citizen population in order to fulfill a credit requirement for my Meaningful Interactions with Disadvantaged and Near-Terminal People Groups class.

The young lady approaches my faux-leather chair.

“Miss Swannk?”

“Yes?”

“Mr. Guptra will see you now. Please follow me.”

She walks across the lobby to a tall set of double-doors. I follow her. As we approach, the doors swing open and a young Amish man with a long beard walks through. He is fashionably dressed in Amish fashion in overalls and a nice black hat. He calls over his should as he exits, “Barn-raising next Thursday, Goopy?”

The Amish man turns and sees me. He shies away, jumping like a startled deer that is about to be hit by a horse and buggy. Doubtlessly, he is struck dumb by my innocent beauty, for he tips his hat, frowns somewhere behind his beard, and says nothing.

“Please enter.”

The young lady ushers me through the doors and then closes them behind me.

I walk through and find myself standing in a huge office room. It is tastefully decorated with expensive building materials such as mahogany, gold, crystal, rubies as large as coconuts, and exotic artifacts, such as an Egyptian pyramid. At that moment, I discover that I have a small pebble or perhaps an uncooked piece of macaroni inside my left shoe. I bend down to remedy the problem.

Immediately, two hands seize my own hands and pull me upright. The hands are gentle, well-manicured and soft, so I assume that the owner of the hands regularly moisturizes with a moisturizer of excellent quality.

“Miss Swannk, I’m so sorry that you tripped as you entered my office, thus allowing me, a complete stranger, to come into intimate physical proximity with you. My name is Edward Guptra. You are not injured to due to tripping, are you? Shall I examine your limbs more closely in order to ascertain the extent of your injuries?”

“I am fine, thank you,” I say. “I think I merely had a piece of uncooked hard macaroni inside my left shoe. I was bending down to check.”

Mr. Edward Guptra is definitely not ninety-three. He is you and enigmatic–very enigmatic. He’s tall and lean and evenly tanned. He’s perfectly and impeccably dressed in clothes. His ears are a deep, rich blue hue, so warm and melting in appearance that they look like they’ve been dipped in a vat of very hot, semi-sweet Swiss chocolate, that is somehow blue in color, and then surgically reinserted into his eye sockets. His hair is copper in color, but not the color of copper that has been resting at the bottom of the ocean for several centuries, such as a copper kettle from a sunken pirate ship that has turned green due to the depredations of salt water, slowly encrusting over with slime and waving tendrils of sea plants. Rather, it is the bright copper color you find if you strip the rubber coating from an electric cable at your local electrical power station as you prepare to steal the copper inside and sell it to a shady recycling company in order to support your methamphetamine habit.

We shake hands and, as our fingers touch, our fingers touch. I feel a strange, exhilarating quiver run through my body. It’s almost like someone is stroking the back of my bare legs. Someone with very hairy fingers.

“My apologies about the monkey,” murmurs Edward Guptra.

“The monkey?” I say.

“Yes, the monkey.”

I look down and realize that a monkey is stroking the back of my leg. The creature has a thoughtful, meditative look on his face.

“He is mistaking your leg for the tender, edible branch of a young banyan tree,” says my host. “When a monkey gets that thoughtful, meditative look on his face it means he is about to take a nibble.”

“Jeez,” I say. “Oh my.”

Edward Guptra makes an enigmatic shooing motion while uttering a stream of clicks with his mouth. The monkey does not look convinced. Edward then does a series of complicated dance steps with his feet. This seems to impress the monkey and it scampers away.

“That showed him who was the leader of the pack,” says Edward Guptra. “Monkeys often like to test authority, so you must show him who is number one. Impressing them with dance steps or reciting all the periodic elements tend to work well. Monkeys make very good workers. They do not belong to any unions and they do not demand much pay other than a tree to sleep in and plenty of bananas.”

“Miss Lysergick is very ill,” I say, “so she has sent me in her place. I hope you don’t mind, Mr. Guptra.”

“Who exactly are you, Miss Swannk?” His voice seems enigmatic, but it’s difficult to tell due to the enigmatic smile on his face. “And how did you get roped into doing this interview?”

“My name is Mary Sue Swannk. I’m twenty years old and I’m studying Women’s Studies with Miss Lysergick at university.”

“Fascinating,” he says. “Truly fascinating. Shall we sit down on this soft, white couch?”

He ushers me over to a white leather couch situated in front of a huge crystal window. On the wall beside the window hang a large number of small paintings. All the paintings are of trout. The paintings are exquisite and heartbreakingly beautiful.

“A local painter,” says Guptra. “His name is Slunk. He only paints trout. His skill with paintbrushes of various sizes is legendary.”

“Delicious,” I murmur enchantingly.

“The paintbrushes?”

“No, the trout.”

“Ah, yes,” he says, nodding enigmatically. “Shall we begin the interview, Miss Swannk? We might as well start. While my schedule today is flexible, I certainly don’t want to tie you up for too long.”

He gestures at the couch. I gracefully sit down and take out my notebook. He sits down beside me. When I look up, he’s tapping his fingers on his lips while smiling enigmatically.

“Take all the time you want to prepare, Miss Swannk,” he says.

“Actually, I’m ready to begin, Mr. Guptra,” I say.

“Please, call me Goopy. All my friends do. All my close friends.” He inches a little closer to me on the couch.

“Very well, Goopy.” I look down at Lisa’s page of questions and read the first one. “What does it feel like to be a billionaire?”

Edward Guptra laughs. It is a low, pleasant, full-throated laugh. I laugh with him. We spend some time laughing and then we subside into chuckling.

“Actually, I’m not a billionaire,” he says.

“You’re not?”

“No, I’m not. To be honest, I’m a zillionaire. I have zillions of dollars. I have to tell you, Mary Sue–may I call you Mary Sue?–it feels incredible to have zillions of dollars. People will tell you, people with a lot less money than I have, that being rich does not make you happy. People will tell you that if someone is rich they are in bondage to their wealth. They only say that because they are jealous. I will tell you, Mary Sue, having zillions of dollars is a lot of fun. Why, just yesterday I bought a country in Africa and passed a law requiring all the citizens–men, women and children–to only wear tight lederhosen Even the babies must wear lederhosen.”

“Oh my,” I say. “Why did you do that?”

He laughs. I laugh with him. I’ve heard that it is best to humor crazy people, and I’m becoming suspicious that this guy is crazier than a bedbug.

“Because I can,” he says.

I look down at my paper again and read the next question. “What sort of name is Guptra?”

“Ah, that is an excellent question,” he says, inching a little closer on the soft couch. “Guptra is an Eastern name, a name of silken veils and incense and mysterious gods with elephants heads and many arms. I changed my name to Guptra when I decided to become an Indian swami. I am a real, genuine, one hundred percent swami, and I am legally able to conduct official swami ceremonies, wear an orange colored robe and have people scatter flower petals in front of me as I walk down paths. Before, my name was Svenson. My parents were Swedish, from Minneapolis, but I had them forcibly converted to Hinduism. Now, my whole family is one hundred percent Indian.”

“Wait,” I say, feeling somewhat confused, even though I am incredibly intelligent. “You’re saying you’re Indian, but your parents are Swedish? Jeez, how is that possible?”

“I am a zillionaire,” he says, smiling enigmatically and inching closer on the couch. “Money can buy you anything.”

“I see,” I say, wondering if now is the time to take out my mace and give him a spritz. “Let me proceed to my next question. You are very young to be a zillionaire. To what do you owe your incredible success?”

He nods in a mysterious fashion at my question. “Most people do not realize it, but business is all about making money, Mary Sue, and I know how to make money. There is an old swami saying. I will tell it to you. If you climb up to meet the monkey with bananas, do not squeeze the bananas. That is my business philosophy and it has never led me wrong. I have more than forty million employees around the world. The entire population of Finland works for me. I have cornered the nylon sock market, the world supply of soy sauce, and, as of last month, I now own every sauerkraut factory in Germany. I legally own thirty-seven of the senators in the United States Senate. If you pull down their pants, you will find a tattoo of my company’s name and our toll-free 1-800 number on their left buttock. I bought Mount Rushmore last year and my international team of sculptors and monkeys will soon carve the presidents’ faces into my enigmatic and handsome likeness.”

“At the end of the day,” he continues, inching closer, “it is down to instinct, my brain, and many well-trained monkeys. Also, a large supply of delicious bananas is vital.”

I stifle a yawn behind one hand and try to look interested in the crazy stuff he’s saying.

“You are weary, perhaps, Mary Sue?” he says, inching closer on the couch. “You had a long, tiring drive to reach my office. I think you should lie down on this couch. You may interview me horizontally. I will instruct you in certain swami ways. If you have knots anywhere in your muscles, I will rub them like this. The rubbing motion will untie the knots. Like so.”

He reaches for my shoulders and manages to briefly knead them before I can squirm away. I am running out of couch.

“Uh, no thanks,” I say, glancing down at the next question. ‘Moving on. Can you discuss the philanthropic goals of the Guptra Foundation? What do you aim to achieve with your charitable giving?”

“The Guptra Foundation is the real heart of my global empire,” says Goopy, looking somewhat enigmatic. “The Foundation is dedicated to promoting peace, solving world hunger by reducing the population so that fewer people are hungry, and the advancement of personal sanitation minimization everywhere.”

“What does personal sanitation minimization mean?”

“It means using only one square of toilet paper a day.” says Goopy. “This minimization saves trees. We are having excellent results in certain countries where we pay citizens to reduce toilet paper use. Inexplicably, newspaper subscriptions are sky-rocketing in those same countries, but we will deal with that later.”

“What about the monkeys?” I murmur.

“Ah, yes, the monkeys. They are proving are resistant. They lack discipline, but I am excellent at teaching discipline.” He inches a little closer to me.

I decide to move onto the next question before I back myself right off the couch. “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

“Ah, what an inspiring question,” he murmurs. He stretches his arms above his head, mimicking a tree’s branches, and then lets one arm fall down along the back of the couch behind my shoulders. I scoot away from him, but he scoots closer. “I think I would be a banyan tree with tender, lissome branches that you, if you were a monkey, but not as hairy as these monkeys that work for me, would delight to nibble on.”

“That’s freakishly weird,” I say. “And not in a good way. It’s weird in a very unsettling and somewhat nauseating way.”

“I find your honesty extremely magnetic,” he murmurs, scooting a little closer. “Dishonesty binds up the soul with shackles of iron that only the keys of honesty can open. May I be your little swami?”

“I’m not really into swamis,” I say. “The color orange, you know, and all those robes. They look like window drapes.”

“Not even zillionaire swamis with enigmatic smiles?” he says.

“I guess I’ve gotten more than enough for the interview,” I say, standing up.

“Oh, but Mary Sue,” he says, “I have not yet show you my private collection of South Sea Island totem poles. You will find them thrilling. They are very vigorous.”

“That’s a tempting offer, Goopy,” I say, “but, no. You better keep ‘em private.”

He escorts me to the door of his office. I turn and offer him my hand, but instead he sweeps me into an embrace before I have time to dodge. The guy has more hands than an octopus. I knee him in the groin and then karate chop his neck several times for good measures. He groans enigmatically on the floor. It’s a pity there’s no rope hand. Otherwise, I would tie the creepy pervert up and leave him for the monkeys.

On the ride down the in the elevator I have a few second thoughts, but they’re more about whether or not I should’ve kicked him in the ribs while he was down. The elevator door dings open and I head across the lobby to the front door. It’ll be good to get out of this place. I don’t know about you, but I’m not into metrosexual guys with enigmatic smiles, not matter how good-looking and rich they are.

I hop into the Prius, gun the motor in order to use up as much gasoline as possible, and lay rubber as the car roars out of the parking lot. I roll down the window and the wind blow through my hair.

About twenty miles down the road, I pass an Amish guy driving a horse and buggy. It’s the guy who came out of Goopy’s office when I entered. He glares at my Prius when I pull alongside.

“Priuses are piles of sanctimonious junk!” he yells.

“Shove it, Amish boy!” I yell back. Spending half an hour with that creepy idiot Goopy has put me in a bad mood. True, I’m an extremely kind and wonderful person, but that stuff will only get you so far these days.

“Hey, you’re that girl from Goopy’s place,” he says.

“Yeah, so what?”

He starts laughing like a loon. “Did he get all enigmatic on you?”

“I decked him,” I say.

He laughs even harder. “Lemme buy you a beer.”

“Sure,” I say.

“I don’t need to point out that I’m a real man,” he says.

“You don’t so shut up,” I say. “Just lead me to that beer.”

“Did you know you’ve got a dead squirrel stuck in your grille?”

“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I’m saving it for dinner.”

He laughs some more, and off we drive at a very slow speed.

Odd Thomas and Jack Reacher

I’ve been reading Dean Koontz and Lee Child over the last two years. Both of them were a discovery for me. I’d heard the names, but had never bothered to investigate. I find both of them enjoyable, though I have some reservations about Lee Child’s writings and would not recommend him wholeheartedly; I would recommend Koontz, however, without reservations, if you don’t mind a few shudders.

There are a great many similarities between Koontz and Child. Both are mega blockbuster sellers. They’re both novelists you’ll find for sale in airports, which, given the evolution of modern literature, is the pinnacle of place and power. Both write thrillers.

And, interestingly enough, both Koontz and Child write thrillers that feature an avenging angel. Of sorts. Koontz’s Odd Thomas character floats and dreams his way through horrifying plots of murderous psychopaths and focused evil. Odd Thomas responds accordingly and always wreaks justice upon the evil-doers. An avenging angel? Yes, even though he’s a gentle fry cook.

Child’s Jack Reacher character is also an avenging angel, but one of violent practicality who lives by the law of the jungle, stalking silently through the land and always ready to break skulls and put bullets where they need to go (inside skulls, namely).

There’s a drastic difference, though, between the two angels. Odd Thomas conducts himself according to the eternal code of good and evil, working out his salvation with care and dedication, even when that means he must kill. Jack Reacher, on the other hand, has little regard for the eternal consequences of good and evil. His vengeance is merely a response to the everyday sorrows of life.

The difference has been on my mind a great deal lately. Both authors are toweringly successful. Both write engrossing stories. But one, Lee Child, ultimately falls flat, once the book is closed: so Reacher defeated the bad guys yet again, so what? Koontz, however, leaves me musing on life and the things beyond life. Odd Thomas defeated the bad guys yet again, and that gives me hope, even though the struggle and defeat and victory happened in a work of fiction. Odd Thomas gives me hope because he travels down the same recognizable paths of shadow and light that I walk on.

And that…that makes all the difference. I’ll continue reading both authors, but Koontz will certainly mean more.

The Dreariness of Fantasy…Mostly

I find myself closing most fantasy these days. Closing it before finishing the book. And this is something that is anathema to me. I can’t abide starting something and not finishing it. If you do that too many times in life, it starts to numb your soul. Eventually, it will leave you with little life left.

But I cannot finish most fantasies these days. They leave me in despair, just as most broadcast news, entertainment, politics, the things that pass for popular culture, they usually do the same. Darkness is winning the battle against hope.

There are no more Tolkiens left. He was a unique man, granted, born and educated during unique times. He correctly saw the fall of the West, despite two dreadful wars that were won against the evil of totalitarianism. There are other ways for countries to fall in battle than on mere and literal battlefields. The West, despite defeating Hitler, was losing its war to the Visigoths of culture within the gate.

And Tolkien saw that. He also saw that heroes were not to be found among the might of men, but amidst the humility of the weak waiting upon the divine rights of providence. Aragorn could not save the West. Even Frodo himself could not, but the inexorable and quite hand of providence could, leading the little hobbits along their unlikely path to a fixed appointment with doom and destiny.

If Tolkien’s perspective was not clear, then consider, in The Return of the King, his juxtaposition of Aragorn leading the might of the free West to the gates of Mordor and subsequent despair as the armies of Sauron are revealed, versus Sam and Frodo wearily making their way to the fires of Mount Doom. The message is painfully evident: the heroism of Man can only go so far (and not that far at all). The real cog of history is the tiny wheel that labors away in obscurity and, at the end of the day, must rely on much deeper strengths than itself: the crooked, providentially cursed life of Gollum, the Eagles, sacrifice.

Light in the darkness. As opposed to most stories these days, which are dreary variations of meaningless in the darkness, sex in the darkness, violence in the darkness, navel-gazing in the darkness, darkness in the darkness. When you’ve read one or watched one, you’ve read and watched them all.

Mind you, before you accuse me of complete despair and sweeping statements, I said “mostly.”

And what is my pompous recommendation? Read more of older books. Dip cautiously into newer books with a critical eye and ear. Be careful. Young trees do not have much to speak of in the roots department. But old ones do. And the old trees that had rotten roots dipped down into diseased waters, why, they’ve already fallen down and crumbled away.