A Sinking Ship

Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “I am a rock/ I am an island.” But they were speaking figuratively, not literally. It seems, however, that we have adopted this mentality in its purest form.

This self-important, self-perpetuating idealism is evident in all places, in all facets of our daily lives. Take the morning commute, for example. How many times have you, bleary-eyed and coffee-deficient, been cut off on the freeway by someone who didn’t use a blinker (probably because driving and talking on the cell phone are not conducive to flipping the turn signal lever)? When you honk your horn, does that person acknowledge that they’ve committed a freeway faux paux? Or do they look at you as though you’re the one who’s done something wrong? Of course you were wrong. Because what you have to do could not possibly be as important as what that person has to do. Right?

It happens in grocery stores too. There was once a time when general civilities were exchanged between the shopper and the cashier (How is the weather? Have you been busy here today? I’m just ready to get home.). Now, however, we can’t be bothered to put down our cell phones to converse. When the cashier asks if we want paper or plastic, we just wave frantically and hope she or he recognizes our intended meaning. To the question, “Debit or credit?” we respond with an enthusiastic nod. There is no effective communication taking place, and by the time we leave, we have no clue whether our paper towels were, in fact, on sale, and we have successfully managed to leave an already under-appreciated cashier feeling a bit more slighted than she or he was when first we approached the conveyor belt.

But nowhere is this lack of manners and common courtesy more evident than in the shopping malls, which are really nothing more nowadays than glorified daycare centers for adolescents. The only personal space that matters belongs to them, and as far as they are concerned you are hogging it up. But they are not the only ones. Never was there a more obvious place to manifest one’s own self-importance. We bump into each other without saying “excuse me.” We violate each other’s personal space, and we mentally chastise everyone else for being in our way. We don’t say please anymore because, the way we see it, we are only obtaining that which is rightfully ours. We don’t say thank you because whatever we are receiving (whether good or service) it was someone else’s job to provide for us.

Have we all but forgotten that manners are a necessary part of communication and community? That in order to get respect we must first give it? When we cease to provide each other with small common courtesies we only foster a sense of division, a sense of self-preservation exclusive of all reliance on other people. Most of us cannot afford a liability like this. We have, whether or not we realize it, a great need for other people, for interaction, communication, and motivation. And when we disconnect ourselves, when we start to separate ourselves based on some arbitrary sense of self-importance, we cease to be a rock or an island. We have become our own sinking ship.

A Helpful Headache

Every generation has its problems, and every life has its hurdles. To circumvent these problems, or at least make them easier to deal with, we occupy ourselves with finding shortcuts, time-savers, ways to make life a little better. But what happens when the very things we create to help us clear the hurdles only serve to make them more difficult to overcome? What happens when we create more problems than we solve?

Take, for example, the iPod. Or the iPhone. Or the iPad. Or any smartphone. You get the idea. These devices were invented to make life easier, better, more user-friendly. We thought we were saving ourselves time and trouble by implementing pieces of technology that would allow us to bank remotely or communicate via email in the grocery line. We created iTunes, a one-stop shop, sample, and storage program for all our musical needs. But when these widgets and whatsits don’t perform at our level of expectation, when the downloads take too long, when the battery drains itself, do we calmly and rationally seek other avenues for obtaining what we want? Or do we lash out at the computer, phone, or mp3 player in hopes that it will respond to our baleful coercing?

The self-checkout line also serves to call into question our dependence on ourselves versus our dependence on technology. We approach the self-checkout with the utmost optimism. Finally a way to ensure that we are not overcharged for glass cleaner and that our milk is double-bagged before we leave the store. We begin the checkout process only to find a few minutes later that our enthusiasm has confused the computer. We have, in our haste to be our most efficient selves, placed too many unidentified items in the bagging area. When we attempt to remedy the problem, we only exacerbate the situation, further confusing the computer. At this point, we are forced to wait for the checkout attendant to sidle over and fix the problem. Perhaps the regular checkout line would have been faster?

These advancements, such as they are, were created to help with the headaches of life, not cause them. And for the most part, we can derive a sense of satisfaction with the ease they sometimes create. But when we take that ease for granted, we allow ourselves to become fully dependent on their capabilities. Or incapabilities, as the case may be. In the name of efficiency we create time-saving devices, and we apply ourselves to them with the utmost confidence in their productivity. But how much time are we losing? How much self-reliance are we sacrificing? And do we even notice?

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 2

Tough Defense Part 1

“Good morning, counselors,” she lied, stepping into the conference room.

Stuart Chapman, the lead prosecutor, and his co-counsel stood to greet her.

“Don’t get up gentlemen. This meeting shouldn’t take long.”

“As you know, Ms. Malloy, our offer is very generous. We have clearly allowed more leniency than is due a client of this…kind.” Lance Rivers, the co-counsel, was the very picture of a legal parasite. He was too short for his attitude, and his face was drawn and pale. The hollows of his cheeks and the dark circles under his eyes lent him more ferocity than anything his dim intellect could have conjured.

All Charlotte could do was stare pointedly at Stuart. Why was the co-counsel doing all the talking?

“I’m very well aware of what you’ve offered my client,” Charlotte said. “But we’re not interested.”

At this, Stuart’s confidence flickered. She knew he’d not been expecting this from her.

“Now wait a minute, Charlotte,” he began. As quickly as he was caught off guard, he just as easily reassumed his composure. “Lester made that man disappear. He couldn’t pay up, and Lester, well, God only knows what Lester did with him ’cause now we can’t find him. You know as well as we do that this is a sweet deal for a guy like that.”

She cut him off, “Mr. Chapman, we have studied your offer extensively, and we find it unacceptable. End of story. What you see as a generous offer my client sees as patronizing injustice. I’m sorry, fellas. There will be no deal struck here today. See you in court.”

Before they could object, Charlotte retreated to her office. Small victories proudly won, she thought. She may not have a clue how she was going to defend her client, who was obviously very guilty of the crime of which he was accused, but she had won the first of what she hoped would be many small personal victories to come.

* * * *

To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Novel Thoughts: The Secret Lives of Dresses

Erin McKean’s The Secret Lives of Dresses tells the story Dora’s evolution from unassuming, aimless college student to self-assured, motivated small-business owner. After her grandmother’s stroke, Dora finds that her sense of responsibility, along with her sense of self, lay outside her original expectations.

One of the story’s pivotal settings is on the campus of Lymond College. McKean’s description of bulletin boards filled with student jobs and her explanation of Dora’s job at the coffee shop are accurate and adeptly rendered. It becomes clear early on that the author is no stranger to today’s college campus.The conversational tone also lends itself well to this environment. Dora’s thoughts are divulged to the reader in a way makes her relatable and sympathetic.

Mimi, arguably the most important secondary character in the novel, has a unique presence in the book. Or perhaps it’s her lack of presence that makes McKean’s depiction of her so intricate in the story and necessary for the reader. McKean does an excellent job of incorporating a character, of giving a character a voice, without that character actually speaking throughout the entire novel. We know just as well as Dora what Mimi would have to say about any given topic without her actually having to say it.

While Lymond is believable enough for the reader, the town of Forsyth, where Dora lived with Mimi, is not so precisely portrayed. The interaction of the characters with one another and the details we are given about the town itself are incongruous and create confusion for the reader. At one point, we are told the mall now houses an Anthropologie, and we are told that there is more than one Target. At another junction, however, we are told that the door greeter at Costco inquires how Mimi is faring, and everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. While they may seem minor discrepancies, they are enough to remind the reader of the fictitious nature of the story. If the attempt here is to create the feeling of a small town within a larger city, we can safely say the mark has been missed.

McKean also makes numerous references to cultural icons and events of importance during the nineties. She makes reference to the glove in the OJ Simpson trial, for example, and she makes mention of Dora’s Rachel haircut, an obvious reference to the Friends character. While most readers of today will understand these incorporations, they do reduce the timelessness of the story.

The story concludes as we could only hope it would, and McKean’s overall narrative structure doesn’t disappoint. There is adequate conflict, resolution, and reason to celebrate for the reader to ultimately be kept fully engaged.

What’s Right to Write On?

The impulse to write is not one that is easily manipulated. Anyone who’s ever tried to write anything will tell you that. When something wants to, or needs to, be written there’s no stopping it. It nags and claws until it forces us to put it down for others to see. But that impulse doesn’t always include a starting point. Sure, we might have the idea itself, but how the idea gains coherence is our responsibility. And lucky us.

Add to that the impossibility of a first page, and the task at hand becomes phenomenally difficult. There is something alluring about the purchase of a new journal, a new place to put ideas, a new place to be something new. And there is always the potential that with each new journal we begin we will become better. Better writers, better readers, better versions of ourselves. More honest versions of ourselves. The possibility is there if only we will embrace it.

But what happens when we accumulate too many different vessels of possibility? Do we experience the pen-and-ink equivalent of an identity crisis? Do we become overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities we’ve allowed ourselves by virtue of each journal? Do we become less productive as the result of so much promise?

Or does each book contain different aspects of our personalities? For example, perhaps the sixty-nine cent spiral-bound notebook contains our minimalist thoughts, the ones we have when we’re put out with the world for being so materialistic. And maybe the fifty-dollar leather-bound journal embodies the thoughts we have when we’ve finished a volume of Shakespeare or Chaucer or something with equal literal weight. The small canvas-covered one positively exudes our words in praise of positivity, and the one with The Beatles on the cover, well, that one’s just for fun.

Some of them are too pretty, too delicate, too important, just too too to tarnish with our humble words, and some have been filled to their absolute last page. Regardless of the type of journal or notebook, the possibilities are never limited based on abundance of choice. The possibilities are only increased for different parts of ourselves to have expression they might now otherwise have found. In exploring different types of journals, we can discover new facets of our own personalities and maybe find that we are more capable than we ever thought we were.

Limitation vs. Reservation

Life, for most of us, is a triumph of individual self-expression. In general, we don’t like other people designing who we are or who we’re going to be. Although we may agree that there is indeed a time and a place for everything, we frown upon arbitrary limitations.

At least this is what we tell ourselves.

We pride ourselves on being able to outwardly express who we are through a variety of channels, but at what point is it no longer self-expression? At what point does it become more about the spectacle of the thing, the flouting of the sense of decorum we’re all supposed to have?

Malls and shopping centers are now teeming with walking examples of attempts to control. The social constructs that dictate what’s appropriate and what’s not are being directly challenged, and what is replacing them is the gauzy sense of entitlement to self.

There is nothing inherently wrong in desiring this self-expression. The problem doesn’t come until we forget what it is we’re trying to express, when we become more the idea of the person than the person itself.

Humans have always felt the need to create; it’s where our sense of and drive for progress come from. But I can’t help wondering: at what point have we created another set of social constructs? At what point have we ceased to self-express and served to formulate the new sense of decorum? And how long has this been happening?

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 1

Charlotte sighed out the kitchen window. These moments in the morning were the only ones she could truly call her own. She studied the mother dove on the tree branch overreaching the deck. “If only,” she thought. She chugged the dregs from the coffee mug, took one last whiff of the fresh roses she’d cut, and slipped on her heels. The day stretched out before her, and Charlotte knew exactly what it held. It was going to be a long one. On her way out the back door, her heel caught in the spool of wire by the table. Oh Kip, she thought. Not another project.

This case had come to her in what she assumed was the usual way. Before the divorce six months ago, she never had need for cases like these. But come to her it had, and she was now the lead attorney on the case. Generally she found rhetoric thrilling; proving a point in court sent shivers down her spine. When she was with Darren, she had been able to pick and choose which cases to accept and which ones to hand down to the junior partners. She chose only the meatiest ones for herself. She would indulge herself in late nights of frantic research and early morning coffee-fueled client meetings because these things were intrinsic to who she was. And she was great at them. But this case. This was positively one for the junior lawyers, and now it was just Charlotte.

Kip had moved in with her shortly after the divorce. Not as a reaction to the split, but as one of those circumstances of cosmic import over which we seem to have no control. Ever since they were kids, Charlotte had been close to her sister, so when Kip arrived on her doorstep just days after Darren moved out, Charlotte really hadn’t been that surprised. She would never admit it to Kip, who took all sentiment as an invitation to make herself permanently at home, but Charlotte was glad for the company. In some ways, Charlotte envied Kip’s bohemian lifestyle (she’d never had that artistic wandering impulse herself), but most of the time it made her appreciate her stability. At least it had when she’d had it.

“Good morning, Charlotte,” the receptionist (was her name Elizabeth? Liz?) greeted her as she walked through the door. She mumbled something under her breath and darted over to her desk. Despite the fact that she had been at the firm for a few months, the names of the people in the office still managed to elude her. She would never admit it to anyone, but Charlotte saw her employment there as temporary, a stepping stone. It was a newer firm in one of the shining glass buildings downtown. Charlotte saw herself in one of the more established firms. She liked the heft of their name anchoring hers on her business cards, the clout they allowed her both in the courtroom and out of it. But news travels fast in the legal world, and what had happened between her and Darren had spread like wildfire. Charlotte couldn’t help reminding herself every now and then that there had been a time when she could have entered any law office in the city with her head held high. She would dole out condescending looks to lawyers at other firms as if to say, “It’s nice, your position here. At least it’s something.” At the time, her status as half of a power couple lent her a sense of entitlement. They had been featured in society magazines, every picture flawless, exuding success through the ink on the page. Little did everyone know that the relationship behind the perfect haircuts and the immaculate clothes was more porous than the paper on which their accolades were printed.

There is no time for this, Charlotte coaxed herself. Today was the day she would win. She had to.

* * * *

(To be continued…)

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.

Novel Thoughts: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Anderson has an effective style that adeptly integrates historical facts, details, and nuances into her stories. In Forge, she focuses not only on the political history, but on the cultural history as well. She incorporates numerous superstitions (for example, a cow born with two heads is a bad omen. Go figure.) of the day, as well as the sense of pride and unity felt between most of the soldiers, regardless of their race or class. Notice, I said most. She is also quick to point out that unity was not necessarily the goal of everyone involved in the battles of the war. Subplots deal with disunity within the ranks because of race and disloyalty of both British and American soldiers to the cause.

This book doesn’t gloss over the atrocities of war; in fact, one of the opening scenes deals with two boys, Curzon and Ebenezer, faced with the ultimate wartime conundrum: kill or be killed. The story follows the construction of Valley Forge and serves to highlight the difficulties faced by the soldiers there, as opposed to glorifying the decisions of the officers. Through Curzon’s story she chronicles the food shortages, clothing shortages, and dire health concerns faced by those encamped in the legendary military stronghold. The story also follows Isabel, Curzon’s love interest who was also present in Chains. Isabel acts as the female voice in the story, serving to expose the different kinds of dangers faced by female slaves. While she is a strong presence in the novel, Anderson’s description of what has happened to her and what continues to happen to her is a bit vague at times. Readers get an idea of what life is truly like for Isabel, but any dangers unique to female slaves (for instance, those of rape by a white slaveowner) are merely hinted at or suggested.

Anderson’s use of dialect in this novel seems contrived at times. She does include language contemporary to the time, and she ensures the reader’s understanding of the terms by including a glossary at the end of the story. However, the narrative voice of the story seems to slip in and out of modern language, making the use of the vernacular of the time period seem forced.

As with most novels in a series (which, evidently, this one is), the end of the novel serves to leave readers wanting more via the next novel. However, Forge ends so abruptly that readers are likely to find themselves flipping through the last few pages trying to find what they missed. Cliffhangers are one thing, but when a reader is left with this much uncertainty, it seems that more information might have been helpful and, in fact, necessary.

As with her novel Fever 1793, Anderson has included a question and answer section as well as further reading in different appendices at the back of the book. The answers to the questions are thoughtful and probably intriguing to younger readers previously unfamiliar with the history related in the story. Anderson’s books never leave a reader wondering where her information came from and where they can go to discover more should they find their interest piqued. Forge serves not only to educate young readers but to entertain them as well, putting a human face on the history so often sanitized in textbook accounts.

No Vacancy

Have you ever noticed that the lodgings you see abandoned on the side of the interstate are always motels, not hotels? And they are infallibly present at the exits we don’t want to take, the ones that seem to lead to nowhere. I see these places, and I can’t help wondering what happened to them. Where did all the people go? What did it look like in its heyday (if it ever had one)? Why did it close down? Who were the first people to stay in it? Who were the last?

They sit recessed from the road only enough for nonexistent cars to park in front of the rooms, which, more often than not, are now doorless. There is a notable lack of glass in the windows, but sometimes the mini blinds that once hung there have been left hanging askew, bent and twisted. The brick is, of course, its original color, indelibly marking the decade from whence the structure sprung, but the paint is certain to be peeling away from the trim and gutters. The furniture is long since gone, probably with the last drifters to occupy the place, but the signs out front still advertise vacancies and color TVs in every room. They are the original signs with hundreds of multi-colored lightbulbs that were so popular in decades past, and it’s not hard to imagine that their blinking in the dark might have once signaled a welcome stop for those on their way to somewhere else. The signs stopped blinking a long time ago.

No road trip would be complete without spotting one of these relics. In fact, it may seem to some that the trip is not complete without them. And we never like to actually get out and examine these places. There have been far too many scary movies based on them for that. But still they sit, reminding us that we have always had the impulse to wander, to stay in unfamiliar places and sleep in beds that aren’t our own. There have always been those to cater to the need of the traveler for temporary lodging, but look at what they’ve become. Today we have Hampton Inns and Embassy Suites at nearly every exit. They are shiny and clean, and many of them are new. But what will happen to them in years to come? Will we continue to see them as bastions of repose for the weary traveler, or will we eventually relegate them to use in horror movies as we have their predecessors? Will they continue to house those of us on our way to bigger better things, or will they eventually sit vacant, functioning only in the memories of those who stayed in them?

It’s the Little Things

Pretty much everything that can be said of life has already been said. It’s a roller coaster. It’s full of ups and downs. It’s a blessing. It’s a curse. It’s too short. Most of us, I’m sure, think these things at one time or another and probably without being aware that we have. This has me wondering: are we aware of the lives we lead?

Busy is the life we live, and we’re quite proud of it usually. We get ourselves involved; we get our kids involved. And oftentimes we see our calendar as a way to measure self worth. The busier we are the better people we must be, right? Because we are devoting our time to worthy causes like pottery class or soccer practice. These pursuits are certainly worthwhile, but it seems like sometimes we get lost in them. We do the same thing with our jobs. Having a schedule full of projects must mean that we are valuable employees because why else would we be tasked with so much? The concept of luxury becomes murky, obscured by inaccurate measures of what we’re actually capable of.

Luxury, when it is defined by these terms, becomes elusive. It becomes the next best thing, as opposed to the thing we already have. It’s times like these that life seeks to remind us of the little luxuries it affords us just for having lived it. Things like:

-The sound of children laughing as they play in the fountain at the outdoor shopping center, while their parents, armed with towels and a change of clothes, wait patiently smiling to themselves

-The cool breeze that blows through just before the summer storm that clears the air and brings much needed relief from the unrelenting heat,

-Buying ice cream from a real ice cream truck (complete with creepy tinkling music-box music), and

-Being sun-tired- the kind of tired you only get when you’ve been in the sun all day and come in to be swaddled by the air conditioning

serve to remind us that life is more than a calendar of events documenting how we’ve spent our time. These things we do are great as long as we see them for what they are, ways to shape ourselves for interaction with each other and the lives we lead. In the quest to occupy our time with worthwhile things, we can’t allow the little luxuries of life to slip past. If we do, then we have missed the point entirely.