Monday, March 11, 2013

My Pen is Like...

This week in my creative writing class one of our prompts to write about for homework was "My Pen is Like..." I wrote the following very short horror story and I am posting it here because, what the hell. why not?

My pen is like a jackhammer it’s shaking so much as I write this.

I’ll try to leave this in a conspicuous location and I hope you’ll read it before you go further into the house.

What I’ve done is obvious, call this a confession if you want but please heed my warning.


It’s locked in there now, for some reason it doesn’t seem to be able to get through any closed door, when you lay eyes on it though it makes you do the most terrible things as you can see all around you.

              I don’t know how to deal with it, whether you need a SWAT team, a scientist or a priest but I know that I can’t help. I know you’d take me away if you could and I just can’t bear that.

              If you do get into the basement, you’ll find some books with very strange titles and a very large hole in the ground. I beg you, throw the books in and fill the hole. This lot should be condemned, certainly no one should live here again.

              As for me, you’ll find me in the upstairs bathroom. I’ll try not to make as much of a mess as I did on the main floor.

Monday, March 4, 2013

March 4, 2010

This was something I wrote for the creative writing class I am in right now. It's kind of rough but we are told not to do any editing in the class. We were given a writing prompt which was "I remember..." and obviously I was thinking about Nils since it was close to his birthday at the time. I thought I'd post it because it was fun for me to write.

              I remember when my wife’s water broke. She was 28 weeks pregnant. Kari was at work and I was on my way to work. I hadn’t made it far yet, I was at the bus stop just outside our house. Kari sent me a text message saying that something wasn’t right and I called her right back, we decided she should go immediately to the hospital. We only have one car so I would call a taxi and meet her there as soon as possible.

              When I arrived at the hospital, Kari was already in an examination room and had finished up her initial examination. We learned that her water had broken but that she didn’t seem to be having any contractions at the moment. Regardless, the baby could come at any time and Kari would be staying in the hospital until he arrived.

              Fifty years ago, a baby born at twenty-eight weeks gestation would have had pretty slim odds of making it. Even twenty years ago it would have been far from a sure thing. Today, the odds are much better and, assuming you have access to a good hospital and staff, there are very good odds that that same baby will live. It’s far from risk-free though, at that point in the womb the fetus is still hard at work finishing up his brain, eyes and lungs among other things.

              What we wanted to do, explained one of the many friendly nurses who we would grow to rely upon, was keep the baby from being born for as long as we could in order to allow for as much development as was possible. In order to delay labor, Kari would have to stay in bed at the hospital with various machines constantly attached to her to detect the earliest signs of contractions and to monitor the vital signs of our son. This was the rare hospital stay that you wanted to last as long as possible. Ideally, we were told, Kari would be in bed for eight weeks and then they would induce labor if it hadn’t begun by that point, thirty-six weeks is generally considered full term. We were told repeatedly in our time there, that the most important goal and the one we really had to hope for was thirty weeks. At that point generally, the brain and eyes are done forming and the lungs are at a stage where they are near finished.

              Kari was checked in and moved to her longer term room and what had been an exciting and terror-filled entrance into the hospital slowly turned into an intensely boring grind with occasional moments of adrenaline-spiked fear. The first few days in particular were full of moments where Nils’ heartbeat would drop to a very low rate and, when this would happen, our room would quickly fill up with nurses and the occasional doctor. There really wasn’t much they could do about it to make the heart rate go back up, sometimes they would ask Kari to roll over onto her stomach or back to her back or sit up or lay on her side but the overall feeling in the room was one of helplessness. The only reason they were there was to see if the heart rate would come back up or, if it stayed low, at some point they would pull the trigger and induce labor if it became more dangerous for Nils in the womb than out of it. I have no idea how many times this happened, a few times a day at least and I vaguely remember slowly waking up in the middle of the night a few times to see a gathering of nurses standing over my sleeping wife quietly but urgently discussing the readings on one of the several monitors next to her bed.

              We made it through all of these moments however and when it wasn’t scary, our time in the hospital was hopeful. We wanted a baby after all, we hadn’t been expecting all the surrounding drama of course and we felt woefully unprepared but we knew this would all be worth it in the long-run. I spent every night in the hospital and during the day went to work most days, I also took a few days off and spent a few of those running around town buying all of the things that we had, thus far, put off purchasing.

              As anyone who has spent any extended time in a hospital knows, boredom was also a major factor. Kari was constrained to her bed and so most of our time was spent watching TV, the Winter Olympics were on then and I spent more time watching them than I had ever before or ever will in the future. I don’t remember anything about it however as we were just filling the time until the next event or visitor. There’s a lot of simply filling time in the hospital.

              We had many visitors as well which was truly appreciated during our stay, brothers and sisters and friends all came to spend time with us and bring us some cheer and that really helped to make the time more bearable.

              After about a week into our stay, Nils’ heart rate spells had mostly stopped. We were told that the doctor had decided that it was now safe to inject Kari with a steroid that would help to speed up the development of the lungs. The steroid would take about forty-eight hours and as long as we made it through that time period, it has been shown to be very successful in helping to create healthy lungs. We had the steroid injected and, happily, made it through the two days.

              We were there for another week as a matter of fact. The second week was a little less stressful than the first. Nils continued to have his spells but not nearly as often and by the end of the week Kari started having some smaller contractions relatively frequently. At first, she couldn’t feel them at all, we only knew she was having them because of the sensors hooked up to her but as the week wore on they became more pronounced.

              Nils was born on March 4, 2010. The contractions started late in the evening and before long it became obvious that he would arrive that night, we were then moved to a different floor to be closer to the delivery room. From there it went very quickly, I was given some hospital scrubs to wear and when it was close to time we were moved in to the delivery room. Once there, we waited just a moment for the doctor and when he arrived it took Kari basically one big push and Nils was born.

              He was still very small though, in fact he was so small that he almost literally was shot into this world. Kari probably never saw this but he came out so fast that just for a moment it looked like the doctor wasn’t ready, Nils shot right over the doctor’s waiting hands and for just a brief, horrifying moment it looked like he might fall to the floor. In retrospect, it’s a funny scene but at that moment it was anything but.

              Nils weighed just a tiny bit over two pounds when he was born. We weren’t able to hold him immediately, he was put directly into an isolette with oxygen and other life support mechanisms. I was able to stay by him but Kari wasn’t even able to really get a good look at him until a little bit later. They wheeled him out of the delivery room and into his waiting Neonatal Intensive Care Unit room right away. He stayed in that room for the next few weeks.

              Eventually, they moved him from the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis to the one in St. Paul so he could be closer to our home and from there, after several more weeks, he came home.

              After he was born Nils has been nothing short of amazing, despite his tiny size he thrived basically from day one. He was breathing on his own within a day and he passed nearly all of the seemingly hundreds of tests they performed on him during his stay with flying colors. He gained weight and got bigger and bigger and after we got him home he continued to thrive. The care he received in the hospital both in the womb and out and after the hospital was truly fantastic and I will never be able to express fully the depth of my appreciation for all the nurses and doctors who were constantly there with us during his stay. Even more than that though I am thankful for my wonderful wife who went through so much to bring our son into this world.

              Nils is three years old today and is the most wonderful kid in the world as anyone who knows him can clearly see. Amazingly, he has not had one serious health problem as a result of his premature birth. He’s had colds and all of the normal stuff of course but it’s truly a testament to the doctors and nurses who helped him that he has only had to worry about the “normal stuff.” We have been assured that Nils will certainly need glasses at some point sooner rather than later but at his last eye appointment we were told that his eyes were actually better than at the appointment before that, so who knows? I certainly am ready to believe he is capable of anything at this point.

              Happy Birthday Nils!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Quick Review: Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Due to an unusual amount of time spent sitting in hospital rooms recently I've been getting a lot of reading done.  Thankfully the St. Paul library is only blocks away from the where I've been spending the majority of my time so I've been burning through a few books per week.  Here is the first of, hopefully, a few reviews.

Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell

Tomato RedThis is the third book I've read by Woodrell and he has quickly become one of my favorite writers.  I've heard various terms to describe his style but the one I think I like the best is "country noir".  He comes across as a mix between William Faulkner and Elmore Leonard which is nowhere near as odd as it might seem.  His writing is amazingly atmospheric and his dialogue is among the best in fiction today.  Here is the first sentence of the book to give you an idea of what the style is like:

"You're no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it's been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you're fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin' down with a miserable bluesy beat and there's two girls millin' about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines, and the next time you notice the time it's three or four Sunday mornin' and you ain't slept since Thursday night and one of the girl voices, the one you want most and ain't had yet though her teeth are the size of shoe-peg corn and look like maybe they'd taste sort of sour, suggests something to do, cause with crank you want something, anything, to do, and this cajoling voice suggests we all rob this certain house on this certain street in that rich area where folks can afford to wallow in their vices and likely have a bunch of recreational dope stashed around the mansion and goin' to waste since an article in The Scroll said the rich people whisked off to France or some such on a noteworthy vacation."

Tomato Red is one of Woodrell's earlier books but the one I read most recently.  It tells the story of Sammy Barlach, a young man in Missouri who meets up with a brother and sister while in the process of robbing a mansion.  The three find a certain affinity for a each other and become accomplices in a plot of the sister's to escape their desolate lifestyle. Nothing goes the way it was planned of course, the story has all the typical noir twists and turns which in the end are entirely satisfying but plot is never what makes Woodrell special.  What sets Woodrell apart from just about any other author is the setting and characters.  I've never read stories with casts of characters like you find in his books.  The main character here is a crank user and alcoholic who is prone to violence and the rest of the cast is made up of a "country queer", a prostitute and a pill popping teen-ager.  There is absolutely no judgement from the author, Woodrell doesn't seem to look down on his (very) lower-class cast, instead he brings to their lives an almost epic arc.  For them, to escape the lives they were born into is nearly impossible and they know it and will do almost anything to make it happen.  They aren't "anti-heroes" either the characters are easy to empathize with even if their life is as far removed from my own as is possible while living in the same country.

I really can't recommend Woodrell highly enough.  Tomato Red is fantastic as are the other two books I've read by him "Give Us a Kiss" and "The Death of Sweet Mister".  The reason I started writing this blog was to, hopefully, make myself start thinking more about why I enjoy the art that I do and to hopefully share some of those things with others so give him a try if you like this sort of thing he is the best thing going in noir fiction today.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Twins!! Predictions!!

I'm looking forward to the beginning of the Twins' season this weekend and I thought now would be the perfect time to make some predictions. Because what's the point of having a blog if you don't make wild guesses about things with very little evidence to back you up?

The team seems to have put together the best club in recent memory this year and I think the Central is theirs for the taking. Perhaps I'm too optimistic but I think this is going to be a great year! These are my predictions for the coming year, feel free to list yours in the comments, I'd like to see if others are as positive about their chances as I am.

Twins MVP: Joe Mauer

This is easy. We all know he's the best catcher in baseball and it's not even close. He's one of the best all around hitters as well. He's worth every penny in that new contract

Rookie of the Year: Ben Revere

I just can't see the Twins playing this whole season without getting a second true centerfielder on the roster. Right now their outfield defense is looking pretty terrible and that's with Span (a pretty good fielder) on the field. On Span's days off they want to put Cuddyer in center? That has to be easily the worst defensive outfield in baseball with three far below average defensive players.

Revere looks to be a good player and I expect him to be on the team sooner rather than later.

3 Keys for the Twins:

1. Denard Span

As I said above, the biggest weak spot for the team this year is the outfield defense which is painful. An injury to Span would be catastrophic to the team. He's not their best player but he is playing an important position and one that the Twins are remarkably thin at. Span had a very good year last year and I think he is due for a breakout year, fresh off signing a new contract and at 26 years old he should be entering his prime right about now.

2. The New Guys

We need Hardy and Hudson to perform up to the levels that are expected. A second bad season in a row (which I don't expect) from Hardy or a big dropoff from Hudson would be tough to work through.

3. Francisco Liriano

He needs to be at least an average MLB pitcher and I think the Twins will be in good shape. If he gets anywhere near where he was his rookie season the could easily be one of the best teams in the AL.

Twins Record/Standings: I'm going with 91-71 for first place in the division. I think (hope?) they will have a solid, if not prohibitive, grip on the Central for most of the season and leave the White Sox and Tigers fighting it out for second.

That's all I've got. What do you think?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Just finished reading The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe over lunch today. What a relentlessly sad story. Very good though, I need to watch the movie again now.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Artists I Like: Michael Haneke (pretentiousness warning!)

"My films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus."

Funny Games (2008 film)Image via Wikipedia

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 24:  Director Michael Han...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Michael Haneke is an Austrian director who has grown famous as a director of films which often are aimed at pointing out what he perceives to be problems and failures in modern society. He often shows the banality and tediousness of suburban life and intersperses that with extreme violence. This blend of boredom with terror sometimes leads to very conflicting critiques of his work. I have read often on the internet observations from "real people" who watched his films and felt they were terribly boring, "nothing happens" is a phrase you see over and over when reading user reviews on Netflix for example. On the other hand, professional critics, those who don't like his films anyway, often describe his films as overly violent, The New York Times described Funny Games as "a sophisticated act of cinema sadism." It's these exact same extremes that have made me a huge admirer of his work.

My introduction to his work was the U.S. version of Funny Games. This version of the film is a shot for shot remake of an earlier, Austrian one. The movie is the story of a well-to-do family visiting their lake house who are accosted by a couple of seemingly upper class young men who throughout the movie terrorize the family. The plot is similar to a number of "home invasion" films such as The Strangers or Them but Haneke's goal and style are much different. There is no onscreen violence in Funny Games at all, aside from one very important scene late in the movie but the effect of the violence when it does happen (offscreen) is chilling. The focus is on the people being hurt, their faces as they watch family members being terrorized or their reactions after the violence occurs. There are no action sequences, violence happens in short bursts but the impact lasts for several minutes after. The violence is never explained either, the antagonists throughout the story offer stories a few times but always immediately contradict themselves just moments later with an alternate reason for their terrible acts. In the end viewers have more questions than answers and are not offered a nice wrap-up that is normally given at the end of a thriller or horror movie.

Initially after seeing the movie I wasn't sure what to think and really didn't think I liked it at all. It took me several days to realize that I couldn't stop thinking about it and the effect it had on me. Funny Games is a film that is aiming to inspire a different sort of emotion in the viewer than your typical film. Generally speaking, movies are looking to amuse or thrill or possibly shock, Funny Games inspires a feeling of dread and, oddly, guilt. It's this difference that makes Haneke one of the most artistically successful filmmakers in the world. After having my interest piqued by Funny Games my wife and I decided to seek out a few other Haneke films. We started with the original version which had been made 10 years earlier in Austria. The original version is shot for shot the same movie as the American one and because this movie was always intended to be a critique of American cinema I prefer the U.S. version but both are great and even after the seeing the movie a second time I had almost the same reaction as the first time.

Cover of Cover of Cache (Hidden)

Next up we watched Cache (Hidden) which was, at the time, his most recent Austrian film. Like Funny Games, Cache is, on the surface, a straight forward thriller and really shows off Haneke's skills in cinematagrophy and building tension masterfully. The plot of Cache involves another terrorized family of three who discover one day, via a videotape left on their doorstep, that someone is watching them. Not long after the video tape the family begins receiving drawings that take the husband back to some events during his childhood.

Here again, Haneke is taking what could have been a relatively typical movie and inverting our expectations. The idea of who is the protagonist and antagonist in this film is a tough one as it flip flops a couple times during the movie. The last scene in particular is mysterious and casts doubts on nearly everything that had happened up to that point. Cache is easily Haneke's most critically acclaimed movie and it's easy to see why, everything about it executed to perfection. It's his best "looking" film with a great cast and, in a rarity for Haneke, it actually has a plot and a story to tell. Cache is presently being remade for American audiences and we'll see how that turns out.

We watched Le Temps Du Loup next which really reminded me more than anything of The Road, the novel by Cormac McCarthy. (Just to be clear though Le Temps came out years before The Road, it just so happens I had read The Road first). It's a dark, depressing story (that part could probably go without saying for Haneke) set in a post-apocalyptic future. A mother and father are attempting to navigate this new world with their two children and the story deals with their everyday life just trying to survive. This film is a good example of what a lot of people

Cover of Cover of Le Temps du loup [Region 2]

dislike about Haneke which is that he is, some would say, boring. I can see this point of view, for example in Les Temps there is a point in the film where he focuses his camera on a group of people at a funeral from the waist down and just leaves it there for three or four minutes. Nothing happens at all here, no talking, no music (there is almost never any music in a Haneke film) and no action, just standing. For me, by the time he starts pulling stuff like this in his films I have generally already bought into it completely. These scenes, and he does stuff like this frequently, add to the general sense of doom and dread that his movies inspire, others disagree and they say it's just boring and I guess I really don't have much argument for that but I do think there is a point to it which I believe he made very clear in his first film The Seventh Continent.

The Seventh Continent is Haneke's first movie but the last I watched and here again he is dealing with another relatively well-to-do family who are terrorized. The difference here is that they are not being terrorized by any outside forces, rather they are being gradually beat down over the course of three years by the sheer mundanity of their own lives. There are endless shots of members of the family eating breakfast or shopping or going through the car wash with little or no dialogue. Eventually small cracks start to appear, the mother begins crying for seemingly no reason for example. The family falls deeper and deeper into depression or "emotional glaciation" as I've read Haneke say in interviews about his early films. The movie builds to a climax which is in no way surprising but is still one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen in a movie. Haneke states in his description of The Seventh Continent that it is "a story of mental short-sightedness" which makes sense. His characters don't see any way out of their emotional rut aside from the extreme route they choose.

There are other Haneke films I've yet to see. I will work my way through them slowly, I would never subject anyone to a Haneke marathon. Just in the past couple weeks a new Haneke film was shown at Cannes, The White Ribbon, which won the Palme d'Or. If you've seen any Haneke let me know what you thought and if you haven't give it a shot some afternoon when you feel like something a little different, I can guarantee you won't have fun but you will definitely have an interesting experience.

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Books of 2009 so far...continued

With only one exception so far this year (Rock, Paper, Scissors) every book I've read has been very good. These are the best four I've read so far and I would say all of them are excellent.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's books always have a dreamlike tone, it seems half the action takes place while the main characters are sleeping. Kafka, of the books I've read, makes the best use of this type of writing. Kafka on the Shore is the story of Kafka Tomura a 16 year old boy who has run away from home in order to escape an incestuous and murderous prophecy foretold by his father. Kafka runs to a small town in Japan where he meets a colorful cast of characters including a hemophiliac transvestite and a ghost of a young girl who may or may not be his mother. The book is intentionally vague with the story and messages but to me it is about destiny and our ability to choose our own way in life. There are parts of the book that, to me, were inexplicable but that did nothing to take away from the fact that the writing is great and even when I don't completely understand a characters actions I am still able to enjoy the ride.

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

I've already reviewed this book on this blog so I will just leave what I've already written. Denis Johnson is one of my favorites.

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

I just finished this book very recently and I absolutely loved it. Galchen's book is often compared to Murakami and like in Kafka above it's not always perfectly clear what exactly is happening in this book. There is a good reason for this however as it is written in the first person from the point of view of a man who is possibly insane. I have my own ideas about what is happening here but, regardless of that, what made this book work so much for me were the characters. I don't know what it says about me that I was able to empathize with the main character, Leo Liebenstein, more than just about any character in any book I've ever read. He is going crazy but in a way that seems perfectly logical to me, it was riveting and slightly scary to read about him falling further and further into his obsessions and into his own head. You really should read this book, it's a quick read and is highly entertaining.

2666 by Roberto Bolano

2666 is easily the best book I've read this year. It's quite a time investment, the version I received as a gift came as three separate paperback books. It took me a few months to read as I read one of the books then a couple other books and then the next which was a great way to read this book in my opinion. The book tells the stories of a large cast of characters who all either have or develop ties to the fictional city of Santa Teresa in Mexico. Santa Teresa in the novel is a stand-in for the real city of Juarez where, in the last twenty years, over a thousand women have been murdered in unsolved crimes. The book explores the madness that could lead to such a situation. Bolano writes about a group of critics who are obsessed with a reclusive writer, Achimboldi, who they believe is in Santa Teresa. They travel to the city to find him and all have different reactions to the atmosphere of degradation in the city and the cheapness of life there. Also in the book are stories of a professor in the city, an american reporter who visits to cover a boxing match and the police in the city who work in a dysfunctional system that really, for many reasons, has no interest in ever solving the crimes. Lastly, there is a section about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer mentioned above that (sort of) serves to tie the whole thing together.

I loved every section of this book, it's absolutely full of amazing characters and great writing. The Part About the Crimes in particular is fantastic and unlike anything I've ever read. This section is written in a police blotter type style with cold hard facts about each of the murders laid out in shocking detail interspersed with scenes of the personal lives of the police who are working the crimes and the suspects in the crimes.

2666 is a great novel that, I believe, will stand the test of time as a classic and I can't recommend it highly enough.