Today in fiction writing class we participated in one tiny step in the small press book-making process. The process is fascinating. I doubt I have the correct terminology to explain the experience well, but here goes:
First we received a stack of collated prints. There are two pages of the book on each side of the thick paper (for a total of four book pages.) They are printed so that folding a stack of five in half creates one section of the book with the book pages now in the correct order. We needed to fold them down the center, carefully, and then use a plastic implement to press down this crease. The folded sections for each book are then stacked. Our class made quick work of, I think, about 30 of these.
All of these will eventually be punched and then sewn together with the hard cover to complete the process. An example of how these books will look (at least from the front) can be found on the Spork Press website. Spork Press is a small press here in Tucson that our teacher helps run. He received a grant to create a book collection of our writing this semester. We are making a total of forty books so each of us can own a copy with a few extras for the University of Arizona Poetry Center. Obviously, my classmates and I are all extremely excited about this!
My friends know that I was an early adopter of digital media and I primarily purchase digital books, movies, TV shows, music, comics, etc. now. That does not mean, however, that I don’t appreciate physical media and the history of media. I feel so thankful to participate in this small way in the making of these physical books. This experience won’t keep me from the digital realm but it will be something I treasure forever. This is the time to enjoy the way things used to be or are currently, before everything changes due to technology. I value these moments immensely.
This evening I decided to relax and watch movies instead of doing homework. A new movie that has a limited release in select theaters today is also available on VOD as a rental. I have really enjoyed over the past few years being able to watch independent movies at home on my Apple TV while they are still in theaters, an obvious benefit of digital media and the cloud. The movie was Geography Club based on the well-regarded young adult book by Brent Hartinger:
Here is the quick 3-star review I left on Rotten Tomatoes and iTunes:
Every generation has their coming-of-age LGBT story. Geography Club isn’t breaking new ground, but there are a few twists to the usual storyline and the leads are really very good in their roles. Mostly the movie is uneven and episodic, but there are moments that are much more effective and creative. I especially liked a sequence of images that focused on some inanimate object in the foreground while the main character is out of focus in the background, finally coming into focus on him at a pivotal moment. The movie did convince me to read the book, because I suspect something was lost in translation to the big screen.
Movies like these with diverse LGBT representations can really help someone coming to terms with their own identity. What, then, are my generation’s coming-of-age LGBT movies? I don’t really know many LGBT from my generation, and certainly none that covet and review movies like I do, so I will have to give you my personal favorites instead (and eventually this is going to lead back to what I want to say about physical media.)
In my mid-twenties I discovered the 1997 movie Defying Gravity. It is low budget; the acting is, generously, uneven; and it might be considered a too sentimental and obvious. Regardless, I absolutely love this movie. It speaks to me on a personal level, and despite the uneven acting, there are small character moments that still bring me to tears and joy. There is something so earnest about the film. I have watched Defying Gravity so many times over the years. Tonight I rented it on Amazon Video on Demand (it is not available elsewhere except on DVD.) Here is the trailer:
In 1999 the movie Trick was released. It is a romantic comedy about two men meeting in New York City and the chaos they run into over the next few hours while trying to find a place to hook-up. The great surprise of the film is Tori Spelling, who plays the main character’s best friend. Not only is she hysterical, but her own journey in the film is wonderful to behold. Tonight I purchased Trick on iTunes in high definition. Here is the trailer:
The problem with great independent films is that some of them are still difficult to find in digital format. They are even harder to find in high definition. My absolute favorite coming-of-age LGBT film is 2007’s Shelter. It also might be my favorite movie of all time (surprising, right, because I am so into science fiction and horror!?) It is also generally regarded by critics and viewers as one of the best LGBT movies ever made. Some have joked that it is “Brokeback Mountain for surfers” but it is so much more than that. It is truly one of those movies I can watch over and over again and still discover something new. The trailer:
Tonight I cannot watch Shelter because it is not currently available in digital format. To watch it in the past I downloaded it from HereTV’s clunky premium video website, now defunct, or rented the DVD. I did this so many times, though, that I realized I just needed to buy the DVD. Eventually I got rid of the DVD when I got rid of all of my physical media discs, fully expecting I would be able to purchase a digital version online. Years have now gone by and Shelter is still limited to DVD.
In the past I was adamant about removing all physical media from my life. Now, though, I find I have to be flexible for certain textbooks, books like poetry collections and small press, and some of my favorite movies and music. For example, I am eager to read the poetry of Joshua Marie Wilkinson (who also happens to be my craft of writing professor this semester) but his books are only available in physical form. Another example: the 1993 Toronto Revival Cast recording of Show Boat, featuring Lonette McKee’s incredible versions of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,” is only available on CD.
So, indeed, this evening I repurchased Shelter on DVD.
Why don’t I just check out my favorites from libraries, rent from the last remaining video stores, or just wait until they make their inevitable debut in digital formats? For most media, I do wait. There is something nostalgic and precious, though, about my tiny collection of my absolute favorite media in physical formats. This collection serves not only as a treasure chest but as a touchstone to the past. Despite my eager embracing of digital media, these few physical media seem somehow elevated. I will love Shelter no less when I can finally own a high definition copy in the cloud, but owning the DVD today reminds me of the years of technological development I have experienced and the physically mediated connection between this movie and my own coming out and personal history.
In addition to this collection, I also now have a collection of fond analog memories, including today’s book-making. There is no question that I am eager about the future and the changes it will fashion, but that does not preclude me fully experiencing the present and recalling the past. There is something delightful and enabling about fusing the past, present, and future in unique and personal ways. We are intelligent and creative animals existing between the biological and the technological, the analog and the digital, the real and the virtual, the literal and the figurative. Our physical artifacts are diffusing into the Metaverse, carrying their abstractions into further abstractions. There is no better time than today to revel in this strange between-space and between-time while holding on to, however briefly, our most valued analog treasures.
While tens of thousands of people might sign up for a single massive open online course (MOOC), very few of them complete the course, and very few of those demonstrate competence with and retain what they have learned.
So Udacity – founded by MOOC proponent Sebastian Thrun – has pivoted, slightly, according to this article from Fast Company. The company’s new focus is on paid tracks of classes in partnership with corporations hoping to train people in positions within emerging fields like “Data Science & Big Data.” These classes come with one-on-one coaching and certificates and will generally be cheaper than universities and technical schools. The idea is if you complete the track successfully, AT&T (or some other corporate sponsor) might very well hire you.
Udacity’s pivot suggests, perhaps, that MOOCs have reached the “Trough of Disillusionment” in Gartner’s “Hype Cycle.” Now that reality has set in, MOOC-related organizations like Udacity will struggle to uncover what actually works. It may turn out, however, that there are better technological solutions. One possibility is the Metaverse. The new medium of the Metaverse will collapse your own local space with a vast and immersive virtual reality, combining the benefits of online learning with those of real-life and hands-on classroom instruction. Another possible solution is self-paced learning led by an artificial intelligence serving as your own personal teacher. The AI teacher might read your emotions and track your progress to tailor an educational track just for you. How these technologies and others might combine into even more comprehensive solutions is already being explored.
One major obstacle remains: these technological solutions – alone or in conjunction with each other – might never become widely used, if people decide they do not want to go back to school. Aside from money, continuing education requires time and effort. For adults long after high school or college, these might be especially hard to come by. Would you be more likely to continue your education just because you could suddenly slip on a head-up display and body-tracking sensors to step into a virtual classroom, or you have your own artificial intelligence teacher? How would this technologically-mediated education compete against other enabled pastimes expected to be popular, such as virtual reality gaming? Even if the obstacles to continuing your education are removed, can you overcome your own inertia to make this lifestyle change?
What Thrun has been seeking through Udacity is not just widespread enrollment in online classes, but high completion rates and content retention. There might be fantastic emerging technological solutions that offer good education cheaply and widely to the world’s population, but there remains the very human problem of convincing people to devote their limited time and effort to the proposition of their continued education.
[I wrote this short story several years ago and then revised and self-published it in 2007. Approximately 1300 words long.]
November in Northridge is like sitting on a wet turd; it rains all month turning the ground into mush. I am standing in the backyard in mud and fallen leaves and pouring rain, inspecting a shaft of light coming from a little hole in a tree. I try to stick my finger inside the hole but only manage to block the light.
It seems important to be the first to discover this hole and this light. I look around me to be sure there is no one spying. I am far enough back to be hidden from the house by bushes, overgrowth and a chicken hutch so that my dad cannot see me out a window. Dad does not like me to be foolish. He has punished me for less.
I bend down toward the light to peak inside the hole. Instead, my lips pass over the light first and there is a taste on my tongue I’ve never known. Something so delicious it makes me want to cry and shout and feast forever. I shiver with delight.
Mom does not understand at all. I do not know how long I have been standing there, tasting that light – it has not been long enough – or how long she has been watching me. She shouts and grabs my arm. I squeal like I am in pain and she gives me a funny look. She drags me into the house. Dad’s face is quiet as she tells him about me “kissing or licking a damn tree”. Then his expression melts into anger. He is going to hit me so I tell them about the light.
I lead them to the tree, my ears dripping rain, my nose dripping snot. My shoes are soaked and squishy. Mom grabbed an umbrella on the way out for her and Dad. She keeps cursing and almost slips in the mud. I do not really want to share this gift. This is my secret and they have no right to it. I expect the hole to be gone, some crazy daydream. The thought of never tasting that light again fills me with fear.
“What the hell were you doing back here?” Dad starts again. “You were supposed to be stacking wood.” He has already hit me once across the face on the way out. My cheek burns and it feels like it is bleeding. I know from experience it is not. He rarely draws blood, just bruises.
“I was taking a break,” I say. I wish the words did not come out like a whine. Dad hates that.
He shakes his head. “In the rain? Are you trying to make yourself sick, dummy?”
Mom bends over to inspect the hole. “Well, what the hell,” she mutters. Dad sighs and turns to look at the tree. Mom’s huge ass is almost in my face. The sudden thought of her own nasty hole almost makes me giggle in disgust.
“Strangest thing, Ed. There is light coming out of this tree.”
“Let me see,” he barks.
She moves aside with a huff, calling him a bastard, then says “You don’t trust your own wife. Then tell me, smarty, why light is shining out of this goddamn tree. I’m not blind you know.”
He inspects the hole for a long time. Too long. I am hungry for that light. I should not have brought them here. There might not be enough to go around.
“Oh, Jesus,” my dad exhales after poking at the hole. He shivers.
“Go get my axe, boy.”
The slap comes so quickly that at first I think it is another clap of thunder.
“My axe. Now.”
I am scared and I start crying and then I feel angrier than I have ever felt before. He is trying to take the light away from me. I should have just taken a beating. As I run toward the garage I hear mom begin her tired lecture on the evils of hitting children. He ignores her.
The axe hangs between brackets on the wall behind the wood stack in the garage. This is not my favorite place. Every year I stack the pile and every year he beats me for not stacking the wood correctly. “I thought you would have learned by now,” he always says. He then knocks over the pile of wood to demonstrate that it is not solidly stacked to his satisfaction. Then I fly across the garage and into a wall. It will happen again this year.
I can not decide which hurts more: the bruise on my cheek or the terrible longing for another taste of that light. If my parents taste it I will never get another turn. I lift the axe quickly. Promptness is another quality Dad’s blows are meant to instill in me. I start running again as soon as the axe is in my hand.
The trees are mostly bare but I have not yet finished raking up the leaves. I was supposed to have been done a few days ago. The lawn, pitted with muddy puddles and covered in places by leaves, is slick. Sprinting around the chicken coop I slip. I drop the axe and topple backward. My parents’ faces split in shock on my way down. The rain has slowed to a drizzle and the naked autumn trees reach up to heaven for forgiveness. “Dad will be mad,” I think as my back hits the axe blade. Clumsiness is just another item on his list of my faults. The blade is splitting my flesh and ribs. Caring about my dad’s reaction is lost in the pain.
Yellow leaves, slick like pus and mottled brown; turbid water flowing everywhere, sluicing away my blood; nausea, pain and grayness around my vision. My cheek is smashed firmly into the ground. My pelvis tries to raise me away from the pain and pressure of steel.
My parents reach me. They look down as if from very high up. Their lips move but I cannot make out what they are saying. It is so quiet. I cannot hear anything. My dad looks afraid.
All at once there is sound and I scream. Water gurgles off the chicken coop roof. A crow calls out angrily. Wind rushes through bare tree limbs. My heart hammers and my parents shout.
“Tommy, Tommy.” My mom kneels beside me. She reaches out to my side, maybe toward the axe handle, but then she reaches up to stroke my exposed cheek instead.
I hate them. I scream again, feeling my strength running out, and simply hate my mom and dad. I think I am dying.
“Don’t touch that axe,” Dad tells Mom. “We have to leave it in. Lie quiet, boy.” His tone is calm and important but I think he is panicking. “Don’t move.”
He is pushing my mom’s hand away and rolling me onto my side. Now I feel pain far worse than anything yet felt, like a building pressure suddenly released. My dad gasps.
It is not my blood that is released.
I can see the bright glow on the chicken coop. It is yellow, like the sun and not like the dead leaves I have not finished raking. The light from a big hole in me must flow in a torrent, vaporizing the rain and spreading like a search light through the trees.
The light’s fragrance is earthy, tangy, fresh, and nearly as delicious as the taste had been. I desperately want another taste. Forgetting his warning to my mom, Dad rips the axe out of me. He presses his lips into my back and I scream. His grasps me firmly despite my struggle. Another pair of lips…my mom’s.
I scream with the breath I have left “No! MY LIGHT!”
Light inside of me, light outside of me. The smell is overpowering. Mom and Dad will never understand the source but they will continue feasting.
[Our first fiction writing assignment due November 07, 2013 in ENGL 215 required exploring psychic distance (how close point of view is to the narrator in the story) across five short 50-word descriptions of the same event. Mine is a little autobiographical – I did fall out of a tree in high school – but I didn’t die. Or really get hurt. Fiction!]
1. The Science Club president fell to his death last week during a field trip when the branch he was standing on broke. His parents have pressed charges against the club advisor, Mr. Chemistry Teacher, who allegedly failed to obtain a signed parental permission form from the president.
2. The branch under his feet gave way. He plummeted more than ten feet and when his stomach pressed on the forest floor, he laughed. He did not stop laughing even when he stood up and started running around trying to shake off the ridiculous pain.
3. He is falling and the wind is a vertical force pressing his face into a smile. When he lands by the saw, his body stutters. There are words to be said but they would come out the same. So he laughs instead, having carried the smile this far anyway.
4. I’m tall inside this tall tree before I am translated, a slow math student at work, his slipping rotation calculation. He picks his nose. He leaves me horizontal, flat, stacked on the earth, and my quick pain is his newly solved crush on the disgusted girl sitting next to him.
5. Surprise is the ground under my face where just moments before was bark scratching my eyes with dark texture. Down here the feeling is soft, green, cool, wet, scratching, crawling, waiting; no one has reacted yet, not even me, not this surprised. I’m alive, is my first movement.
A long time ago when I lived in Rochester, New York, I stupidly wrote a letter to a coworker and mailed it to his home. It was not really a love letter, but it might as well have been. Writing is the best way for me to explore my thoughts and emotions, but it was inappropriate to send the letter: his girlfriend saw the envelope first and opened it. The horrible aftermath eventually drove me out of Rochester and back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon where I tried to work through my shame and anger.
There is only a thin analogy between my story and the story Shane Bitney Crone shares in the devastating documentary Bridegroomabout a letter he gave to his unrequited love in high school, but it is early moments of resonance like this that helps, in my opinion, make the movie so powerful, and nearly unbearable. I remember acutely how awful my experience was, but what Shane ends up going through after his letter is so much worse, and Bridegroom still has far worse tragedies to relate before it comes to an end. I came away from the documentary feeling shattered and helpless.
I’ve turned to this writing to help me work through my emotions, but I find myself reluctant to do so. What can I possibly add to the discourse? Am I going to give a movie review? Am I going to continue relating the movie to stories from my own life? Am I going to spend my time writing about how awful it is LGBT don’t have equal rights? Am I going to take this opportunity to lash out at bigots and religion? Am I going to defend my strongly held belief that parents, when their children are grown, must earn their children’s respect, just like any other adult, and when they don’t, a valid response is to minimize contact with parents or cut them out entirely? Maybe I should just sit here quietly in my lesser pain, in respect to all who have gone through what Shane has gone through.
So here instead is the trailer:
And here is the video Shane put up on YouTube a year after Tom died, as he struggled to come to terms with his tragic loss:
And here is today’s vlog by a couple I watch on YouTube who have become friends with Shane, where he in these moments of humor and friendship comes across as wonderful and healing and poignant:
But sharing doesn’t feel like nearly enough. I would like to beg you to watch, but I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to leave this here, I’m going to think, I’m going to cry some more, and I’m going to seek through my writing the means to not just help myself but to save us all.