Ray Bradbury: a reflection 

Yesterday was the birthday of renouned American author, Ray Bradbury. Three more years and we can celebrate his 100th birthday. But even in 2017, Bradbury’s birthday is special to me because his stories provided the kick-in-the-pants I needed to take my writing seriously. 

Before entering high school, my family and I made a trip to the bookstore. Barnes and Noble was having a sale on its classics (when is it not?) and I picked out two with ease. But when searching for a third (buy two get one), I was at a loss. 

“How about this one?” my mom asked, holding up the book I found least attractive. It was red with planets orbiting on it. Ew, Sci-fi.

“Um…” 

“It’s good!” she persisted. “When I was teaching English, I would read aloud a short story from this book every Friday!” 

Oh great, I was thinking. Science fiction and short stories. 

Poor little me. I was so fixated on reading thick Austen or Bronte novels in an effort to seem impressive that I felt I was above fanciful scribblings about space. 

The irony…now I cannot help writing such scribblings myself.

Not wanting to argue any longer and urged on my my brother, who was worried we would miss our movie, I surrendered. I purchased my selections and let the Ray Bradbury collection thud like a rocket into the bag, forcing its way between the indignant British classics. 

That night, after the movie, I lay awake. Perhaps the movie had not satisfied my desire for a good story. Perhaps I had just eaten too many candies during it. For whatever reason, though, I found myself flipping open the red tome. 

“Let’s see if you live up to your reviews,” I might have whispered into its crisp pages, which fell open with all the grace and crunch of snowflakes. 

Minutes later, I was buried in an avalanche of words that fell so beautifully from Bradbury’s mind to pen to page that I could not dig my way back out had Jane Austen herself called for me.

Hours later, I was several stories in and near tears with that delight that only true bookworms know- the inexplicable thrill of having found writing that transcends mere ink and paper, writing that is instead made of the same substance as dreams. 

I devoured The Illustrated Man and made dessert of The Golden Apples of the Sun. It was with great self-control that I rationed out The Martian Chronicles for a later year when I was in need of escape. 

And, as this diet of “words, words, words” digested, it fueled ideas. 

And soon, these ideas begged for a form. Or did they beget a form? (Alas, Plato…your philosophy is not wanted just now.) 

As my ideas grew on those of Bradbury, I sought advice on how to bring them from the abstract brainstorm into croncrete being. 

Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” 

Bradbury’s words came to me (possibly via Pinterest) and away I flew.

I definitely did not write 52 stories. 

I definitely did not write more than a couple semi-decent ones.

But I was writing and that was enough.

(Not that I hadn’t been writing before. My memory boxes are stuffed full of the “newspapers” written in crayon and “manuscripts” typed on the family computer with my mom as my editor.)

But now something clicked within me and I could not seem to stop writing. This blog testifies to that; not every post gets likes, some poems are feeble in hindsight, and only a few stories turn out to be keepers. But just like Bradbury’s short stories, it is impossible to have a year’s worth of bad posts, right? 

Don’t answer that. 😉 

Back to Bradbury. He inspired me to write (especially speculative fiction) and continues to make me fall more and more in love with literature every time I read his writing. 

For instance, just a few days ago I finished reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and then watched the 1956 movie for which Bradbury wrote the screenplay. It was quite possibly the most flawless book-to-screen transition yet. Bradbury perfectly portrayed the central themes of MD in under two hours. (Whereas the book took…well, a long time, to read.) 

He also wrote Leviathan 99, which is dedicated to Melville and is essentially Moby Dick in space. This stunning novella portrays the same themes of MD in a completely different setting, yet does so with such mastery that I believe Melville would be proud. (Also, pro-tip: if you don’t have time to read MB, just read Leviathan 99.

Reading Leviathan 99, I was filled with the same joy and wonder that I felt when first reading “The Veldt,” the first story in The Illustrated Man. Reader, do your mind a favor and listen when your English teacher mother encourages you to purchase a Ray Bradbury collection.

Although Ray Bradbury is sadly no longer with us in body, we are still able to celebrate his legacy on his birthday. He has left his readers deeper in love with literature and filled with awe at the power of writing. 

He has, also, left us a little bit lost on Mars. 

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Dystopian Reality

Dystopian novels have been “in” for several years now. The Hunger Games and Divergent were the most popular reads of my high school days. Brave New World, 1984, and Anthem were on the AP reading lists. I continue to devour Ray Bradbury’s work.

However, we forget the purpose of dystopian fiction, which is to warn and protect us from creating such futures in reality. Dystopian fiction remains fiction only so long as we read and heed these books as warnings, not merely as disturbingly entertaining tales.

While we continue to be shocked by the dystopian stories we read, we are at the same time allowing ourselves to fall into them. By labelling them as “fiction” we are separating them from our reality and from our future. We feel terror and disgust as we read them, but can easily brush them aside as “mere stories” once we close the covers.

Ray Bradbury once said,

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

As much as I’d like to say Bradbury is inerrant, I would like to alter this statement ever so slightly for the sake of clarity:

“You do not have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop believing them.”

As soon as we assure ourselves that dystopian societies are just monsters created by authors, they lose their power to prevent us from growing into such societies. The moment we begin to read these books as fiction, when we stop believing that such horrors and degeneration might be possible, is the moment we begin to descend into dystopia ourselves.

images-1.jpgIf children were to read the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel as merely a story that could not possibly have any truth to it, the preserving concept of “stranger danger” loses its impact. We cannot read this story to children without explaining its moral and begging them to heed its lesson.

In the same way, adults cannot read dystopian novels simply as futuristic fairy tales; we cannot consume them only for their shock and entertainment value. Rather, just as we would hope that children learn caution from Hansel and Gretel, it is our duty as responsible readers to learn an even greater caution from stories such as Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and even The Hunger Games. 

It is of even greater importance now in 2017 than when these stories were originally penned, even if that was not long ago. We already have turned deaf ears to the warnings of these stories and are already reaping the consequences as we slip into dystopia.

Consider the following: 

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 Remember the citizens of the Capitol in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins? We were bothered by them for their selfishness, their vanity, their degenerate morality, and their obsession with entertainment. But are we equally concerned by such lifestyles in reality? Or do we shudder at them between pages and then act as they do in our own lives without even realizing?

download-2In The Giver by Lois Lowery, another YA dystopian novel, babies who are not up to standards are “released.” I remember my friends and I crying over this chapter in elementary school. Yet now so many former young readers champion the killing of the pre-born because of detected health problems, special needs, or simply because the child is unwanted. How can we justly promote in reality the things of which we once read with sorrow?

download-3Fahrenheit 451 is fairly explicit in its message (Bradbury makes no attempt at subtlety -bless him). Yet while we read of the death of literature, we retreat without a thought into cheap entertainment as soon as we finish the book. Worse, we ignore his clear warnings and are happy to glean our information through soundbites and social media blurbs rather than through thorough reading, considerate conversations, and serious thought. Are we, too, mindlessly “watching our stories” without discernment or contemplation?

fullsizeoutput_161Perhaps the most shocking dystopian novel I’ve read is Brave New World (Aldous Huxley). At least, it was shocking when I read it four years ago. Now, it feels rather ordinary. (Has the world really fallen so far in four years? Perhaps I am simply older and sorrowfully wiser.) As I read this book, I was horrified at the unrestrained sexuality of it; most characters sought only their own pleasure, cared nothing for relationships, and procreation was a thing of the distant past. But is this so far different from today? We find ourselves living in a generation that boldly protects promiscuity and demands consequence-free pleasure while conservative approaches to relationships are scorned as old-fashioned.

download-4.jpgAyn Rand’s Anthem centers on a character called “Equality 7-2521.” Everyone is equal, but, ironically, no one is free; every member of the society is equal to the extreme that none of them may differ from others. Today, are we perhaps striving for a dangerous equality like that of Anthem? We must certainly protect and value all people equally; however, Anthem warns against forcing equality of thought. Although we read this warning, do we follow it? The minute someone expresses an idea that we consider offensive, are we quick to aggressively silence him or her rather than admit that we all have the right to think freely?

I am not saying that everything in these dystopian novels will come true, but they are not nearly as far-fetched as they once seemed. Certainly I do not expect America to be divided into factions or our teenagers to be sent into battle against each other or for us to mate according to selection by governors. However, there are undeniable dangers to reading dystopian novels as fiction, just as there are dangers to ignoring the morals of fables and fairy tales.

We ought to read dystopian books as seriously as we read history books. It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and so we diligently are set to studying history from the minute we enter school. We also are encouraged throughout our school days to read dystopian stories, but we must not be satisfied with reading them as mere fiction. Rather, we must read them with the discernment and diligence with which we study history. It is imperative that when we read dystopian books, we read with great awareness of their relation to reality so that we are not, like poor history students, doomed to live them.

 

Requiem: a short story for a conservatory 

Note: any resemblance to real places and people is probably not coincidental. 😉 Enjoy!
                              Requiem



“Are the rumors true? Are they?” Trent, by far the youngest of the ghosts that inhabited Rowell Hall, rushed through a closed door and into the conservatory’s storage attic. His eyes were translucent yet pleading as they looked about the room for answers.

“Rumors?” the phantom of a tall man in a tuxedo, coat tails and all, stepped out from behind a moth-eaten curtain. Mr. Marvin, prior to becoming the eldest of the conservatory ghosts, had first been the eldest faculty member, ruling his orchestra with a baton of iron and a kind heart. “What rumors?”

“Don’t you know?” asked his late wife, Marie, peaking her nose through a cardboard castle from in a long-forgotten production of Camelot. “They are finally giving us that new building we asked for- I don’t know- fifty years ago. Or, at least, they’re giving it to the current students and faculty.”

“Yes! And that’s not all!” Trent all but shouted. “They’re set to demolish this building-”

“Next week,” cut in a smooth voice. The reigning concert mistress of the late 1970s floated in, her slight figure moving as gracefully in death as her bow strokes had in life. “About time, too. Finally the university cares enough to build a new music conservatory. When I went here it was already out-dated. Now- well-” she made a face of disgust “well, it’s practically demolished anyway.”

“Now you stop right there!” cried Mr. Marvin. “An attitude like that never flew in my orchestra and you know that quite well, Miss Nora! And for your information, they are constructing a new building, not a new conservatory. We were and always will be the foundation stones of the conservatory. We, the daring artists who have worked and studied here, are the conservatory; we created its legacy and remain its pillars.”

“Yes,” agreed his sweet wife, flicking away a tear which evaporated into the air. “It’s not the building; it’s the people.”

Another ghost had ascended from the stage below as the orchestra conductor was speaking. She let out a soft “harrumph” of disagreement as she rose from the floorboards. Trent started at the sound, still adjusting to the haunt life of having people appear where least expected.

“What?” he asked upon seeing the disagreement written on the newcomer’s face.

“Well,” began the ghost, a girl in a dark dress that, had she not been translucent, would have been black, “all that you two were saying is nice, but in case you haven’t noticed, we are all still here. In this place. When we could have been anywhere else. If it’s really just about the people, we wouldn’t be here again.”

“But could we really be anywhere else?” countered another ghost, who had been sitting quietly beneath a shelf in the corner. He emerged and stretched to his full height. In his hand, he clung to the score of the symphony he had died composing. He floated to the center of the room and continued his speech.

“Complain as we might have about the cramped practice rooms, the rats in the forgotten attic, the creaky stage, the overbooked performance hall, the drafty doorways…were was I? Oh yes. Complain as we might, this place has a hold on all of us. It shaped us. Sure, it’s small, but it brought us together. It’s old, but it connected the generations. It’s quirky, but it matches its residents. We worked and studied and performed here, but even more than that, we lived here and- even now- still do, in a way. We met our best friends here. We had fights here. We laughed and cried and danced and napped here. We suffered heartbreak and fell in love, all in this very building! All in this old, creaky, run-down, over-crowded building. Perhaps even because of it.”

“We are the legacy of this place, but it’s bricks built us,” whispered Marie Marvin in agreement.

The harrumphing ghost stared at the floor and, after a moment, gave a little nod. “I wore black nearly every day I was a student here, but it wasn’t because I was unhappy. I was just an accompanist.” She rolled her eyes humorously.

“Come to think of it, I was happy here. Busy, but happy… Anyway, do you think the pianos will be alright when they tear down the rest of the place?”

“I wouldn’t worry about the pianos, dear,” said Marie, her hand hovering over the accompanist’s arm to console her. “They can move them without any trouble. The organ, however…”

“What about the organ?” bellowed a voice that surrounded them. It might have been coming from below on the stage or above in the forgotten attic or the too-thin walls on all sides. But only Trent was surprised, for everyone else knew where the speaker’s ghost was hidden: inside the sixteen-foot principal pipe that sat nestled behind the stage among its dusty ranks. The organ itself had not been played since its former professor (now resident) had passed away, three decades prior.

“What about my pipe organ?” demanded the spirit of Dr. Humphrey again.

“W-well, sir,” stammered Trent when nobody else had the heart to answer. “They’re getting a new building, you see…so this one’s got to go and- well- it’s hard to move a full pipe organ and nobody really plays anymore so-”

“So the organ has to go down with the building like a captain with his ship. I suppose it’s fitting.” Resignation resonated in every word that Dr. Humphrey spoke. It was as if he had seen this coming long ago and ceased fighting, instead content to surrender with dignity to the loss of his building, instrument, and the era that they represented.

“A captain with his ship,” he repeated once more. The organist was not heard from again and the gathered ghosts knew that he had retreated deeper into his instrument, loyal to the end.

A thick silence fell over the room. Trent, in the habit of a lifelong brass player and percussionist, found himself counting rests as if afraid he might miss an entrance.

“Missed your cue!” shouted a short ghost with an impressive mustache, popping out behind poor Trent.

“Snap!” Trent flitted across the room in surprise. “Mr. Keller, you can’t do that!”

“What’s the fun of being a ghost, then?” chuckled Mr. Keller. He hovered crosslegged over a crate of old, probably-rotten stage makeup.

“How can you joke at a time like this?” The accompanist was biting back tears.

“How can you not?” he retaliated. “A good laugh and a long sleep make everything better. At least, according to the old Irish Proverb they do.”

“Long sleep,” laughed the composer. “As if anyone in this building has ever had a long sleep.”

The others laughed, but the tension settled quickly once more.

“So when do we go down?” asked Mr. Keller.

The concert mistress shot him a look of annoyance, bother by his tactless question. “You mean: ‘when does the building go down?’”

“Either way works, for I imagine we and the building are rather a packaged deal,” Mr. Marvin said. “And you yourself answered when.”

“Next week,” whispered the concert mistress. “That’s not long for the living, but for us- that’s scarcely the blink of an eye!”

The accompanist looked as though she could no longer support herself, despite being weightless, and somehow, she had turned a shade paler.

The violinist was right. Before any of them could process what was soon to happen- before a lament could be sung, an ethereal violin played, or a single, sorrowful note composed- the day arrived.

Gathered once again in the storage attic, the spirits of Rowell Hall reached for each other. Their hands, all yearning for the touch of their instruments, to take comfort in keys and strings beneath their fingers, settled for the cold fingers of their fellow phantoms. Silent, they swayed to the memory of a requiem they had all performed during their various times at the conservatory. They watched as the ceiling crumbled beneath them, revealing the splintering stage below. A small gasp rose from the bending organ pipes before the building, once so full of scales and songs, was consumed by the awful, cracking, screeching noise of its own destruction. It drowned out all else. All except the silent, fading requiem of the silent, fading conservatory ghosts.

The Shop

“Okay, what quirky place inspired this story?” asked my editor upon reading the following tale. “It’s too random not to be based on reality.”

My editor (who may or may not also be my mother, but she was an English teacher/professor so it’s kosher) was right. This story sparked to life in an antique mall in Pasadena, but from there, it was out of my control. I honestly had no clue where it was going until suddenly I had been transported back in time, forward again, and to a conclusion I had not envisioned. I hope you enjoy my newest short story: “The Shop.”

 

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The Shop

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Alice paused upon reading this sign, but only for a moment. She then gave a tiny shrug (“Unladylike!” she imagined her Aunt Cordelia remarking with a sniff) and shifted her beaded handbag under her arm, allowing the fringe of her dress to fall over it.

This fringed dress also would have shocked poor Aunt Cordelia, but that was part of why Alice chose not only to wear it but to flaunt it. She had the figure for it, so why not? Her narrow, almost boyish silhouette would never have looked right in a corseted dress made for an old-fashioned matron like her aunt. No, she had decided- or rather modern couture had decided for her- it was better to stick to what society deemed the most appealing. Besides, it was 1926; even her aunt could not deny that styles were changing.

After all, just that morning hadn’t some young man complimented her? At the very least he had called out, “Hey doll! Nice gams you got there; looking swell!” as she had walked past on her way to meet Helen for coffee. She had smiled back at the time, but now upon recalling the man’s slang, she felt herself blush. Had it been indecent? She shrugged again. Who cared? She was a free and attractive woman and should be proud of such attention. At least, that’s what the magazines said.

Alice pushed open the door to the store. A bell rang and a clerk appeared looking starched and pressed behind a gleaming counter.

“Welcome, miss,” he said, a toothy smile plastered on his face like an advertisement.

Alice nodded but could not spare him more than a glance as her eyes stretched wide, trying and failing to take everything in at once. Helen had not been exaggerating when she had said that this new store was a wonder. Granted, it was not a Macy’s or Bloomingdales in size, but those were department stores for housewives. This was different. It was smaller, yet more exciting for this fact- more “nifty” as Helen had put it. It was a chain store: modern, trendy, and, according to the ads, affordable. It was the real-life version of the mail order catalogue that she and Helen had nicknamed the “Bible” and poured over ravenously while pouring java down their throats. They were convinced that the goods in the catalogue and now in this chain store were necessary to their thriving in the new era, just as they were convinced that the coffee they drank was necessary to combat the effects of a night spent dancing and testing the reality of Prohibition.

“Miss?” said the clerk, still through his poster-perfect teeth.

“Yes?” Alice blinked a few times to clear the haze of desire that had settled over her vision like cigarette smoke.

“I’m going to have to ask you to check your bag at the desk before you proceed any further.”

“Oh,” Alice started and glanced down at her partly-hidden bag as if just noticing it. She did not have anything particularly valuable in it- a comb, some loose change, and a few cigarettes she had picked up who knew where- but was reluctant to let the bag go for fear of feeling obligated to make a purchase. Not that she didn’t want anything. It was the opposite; she wanted a great deal too many things to be able to limit herself to just one and thus was hesitant to buy anything at all.

“My bag?” she said, blinking again. “It’s just a little purse…I really couldn’t take anything if I tried!” She forced a laugh and tried to toss her hair flirtatiously, but, forgetting that it had been bobbed, her fingers met only with air.

The clerk’s smile turned cold.

Alice sighed and surrendered her purse, hurrying away from the counter to explore the miniature wonderland in which she was not trapped until she bought something.

But where to begin… She stopped to consider, biting her lip.

Clothing? A mannequin beckoned, boasting of all the latest styles. Electronics? Her family had a telephone, but what she wouldn’t give for her own radio…nobody could force her to listen to broadcasted sermons or classical trash; she could listen to all the jazz and soaps she wanted. Or maybe cosmetics? She knew her aunt would have a fit if she showed up with rouge on her cheeks and, as devilishly fun as it had been to shock her with a skimpy dress and bobbed hair, Alice was not sure if she was daring enough for makeup yet. But perhaps perfume? Even women her aunt considered decent wore that. Or jewelry? Costume jewelry might be a nice addition. Or shoes? Her current pair had been worn through from nights of the Charleston. Or…or…or…the possibilities were endless and her purse sadly finite.

All of a sudden, she was nauseous. Not just the store, but her whole world seemed to be spinning around her mind in frantic swing steps. The catalogue Bible, her hair, the chill of a draught on her bare shoulders, the swish of her dress, her blistered feet, the pounding of her ears from the night’s band (not to mention the pounding in her head as the coffee wore off), her aunt’s disapproving sniffs, her own blush of shame at recalling the man’s comment…but, most of all, her desire.

The whole dizzying world was open to her- well, the catalogs and movies and radio programs claimed it was so- and she wanted it all. Then and there she knew; it was not shame or guilt that she felt, but a desperate yearning to no longer be afraid of disapproval or even of her own antiquated sense of morality. She yearned not to be left behind in the tidal wave of the changing era, to be the bold, independent woman that the world demanded she be.

And to do that, she would need everything. Absolutely everything. She would need to say yes to every item she considered. It was only reasonable. 

Yes to the clothes; hers were rags already.

Yes to the radio; how else to keep up with the times?

Yes to the makeup; to Halifax with ridiculous reservations.

Yes to the perfume, to hiding the smell of smoke and drink; to the jewelry, to faking the wealth she was losing; to the shoes, to dancing when she ought to be sleeping. Yes to it all, to being swept forward in the surge of the Roaring Twenties.

Alice could barely reach for one item before another, brighter one caught her glistening eye. At first, she was dashing to and fro from shelf to shelf, rack to rack, like a rabbit searching for the security of its hole. But, after a while- she had no way of knowing how long it actually was since the pocket watches all ticked different times in their case- Alice ceased her race against herself and froze. She was a girl in a trance, standing with a dress in one hand, shoes in the other. Samples of rouge were dabbed on her face so that she really did look like a “doll.” A necklace hung from one finger and a scarf from the crook of her elbow. In her desire, she had forgotten herself; how was she ever to pay for it all? One scarf perhaps, or maybe the rouge, but all this? She thought in terror of the few coins in her purse, insufficient funds for creating the ideal woman described in the catalogue Bible: a material masterpiece. 

What was she to do? Alice continued to stand frozen in horror at herself. Her head started to pound even harder. She let out a small moan in pain. Why had she drank more than she could handle the night before? And had she eaten since then? Maybe more coffee… Her thoughts blurred together in an indistinct cloud and then all went dark. The cloud burst and the pounding stopped as her head struck against the tile floor with a sharp crack.

“PLEASE CHECK ALL BAGS AT THE DOOR”

Jess shrugged and handed over her messenger bag to the smiling clerk, but not before slipping her iPhone into the pocket of her skinny jeans. Pulling her beanie farther down over her hair and pushing her thick-framed glasses up her nose, she pressed past the dusty counter and into the antique shop.

It was a fascinating place: a vintage wonderland where, had she not been a broke college student, she could easily have spent every penny to her name. There were old radios and typewriters, makeup compacts and faux-pearl necklaces, even faded magazines and a thick catalogue bearing the fashions of a long-gone decade. Jess paused to flip through its pages, noting that the trends it portrayed were certainly not the eclectic styles of 2016 that she was accustomed to wearing.

As Jess delved deeper into the store, she felt that she was traveling back in time. She liked it. She began to long for all things “vintage.” Despite the iPhone in her pocket, she managed to convince herself that the past was better for what she saw as its simplicity and dignity before she even reached the back wall of the shop. 

She wandered on, coming to the clothing section. In its center was a mannequin, eerily lifelike, dressed in a fringed dress and holding a beaded handbag. It even had a bobbed haircut and shoes that looked well-worn.

“That’s a swell dress,” said Jess to herself, trying out the slang of the 1920s. “I’d like to wear it, even if it is out of date.”

She lingered a few moments more by the mannequin, thinking of how she could go about bringing the past trends back with her into her too-modern era. Where to begin? Her vision blurred. She wiped her glasses, but the haze was not from grime. Rather, it was from the growing desire to live differently, boldly in a revived style. She could not move for this desire and stood rooted in place as its grip tightened on her heart. Her mind whirled as visions of her life and the present world in which she lived blended with her idealized imaginings of Roaring Twenties. Her head started to ache with this whirling. She became dizzy. Her legs were wobbly all of a sudden. And then everything- both the antique shop and the modern world outside- went dark.

That afternoon, the clerk rose to begin his daily inspection and inventory tour. Upon reaching the clothing section, he, still smiling his pasted smile, added another mannequin- this one adorned in a beanie and glasses rather than a dress and dancing shoes- to his once chain store, now antique shop.

 

The Gardener

Their forks clicked in unison against the empty plates as they set them down, finished. The utensils were not the only things that had clicked. The meal had been delicious, the girl lovely, the man courteous, the conversation interesting and free of the awkward pauses generally ended by dull commentaries on the weather or the quality of the wine. Altogether, it had been a perfectly smooth first date. Too smooth, the young woman was thinking. Surely something uncomfortable had to occur. It was a first date, after all. That thought alone- that the evening had been unnaturally comfortable- made the girl uncomfortable. She toyed with her fork as the man continued to talk about his work.

“The kids are great- I love working with them, but I hope one day to be a professor at the collegiate level, more research than teaching, you know?”

She nodded, tuning back into the conversation. What was his job again? Oh, right. According to the friend (well, more of an acquaintance) who had introduced them, he was a history teacher at the local high school. She was beginning to shake the feeling of discomfit caused by the very lack of discomfort when the man asked her a question that caused her to miss this imaginary anxiety.

“So,” he said, looking at her over his glasses, which seemed oddly hipster for an adult. But then, they had not been adults for long. “What did you say you do?”

She hadn’t. In fact, she had purposely been avoiding talk of her career and had hoped that by listening to the man- Andrew the history teacher- talk of his work, she would not be asked to describe hers.

“Sorry, what?” she blinked up at him, pretending not to have heard over the din of fellow diners. This would have been easier had there been any fellow diners, but in the odd perfection of their evening, they had dragged their meal out beyond all except a few men lingering at the bar.

“Where do you work? What do you do?”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m…a gardener…of sorts.”

“A gardener of sorts?” his eyes twinkled in amusement behind his spectacles.

“Yes.”

“Okay, so tell me more! What sort of plants do you grow? Who are your clients?”

She wished he would stop, but the genuine tone to his voice coaxed her into giving somewhat of an answer. It was the best she could come up with, anyway.

“I don’t much grow plants so much as I do tend them and, after a bit, dispose of them.”

“You’re that bad of a gardener that you dispose of plants instead of growing them?” Her eyes widened, but he chuckled and winked. “I’m kidding. I’m sure you’re wonderful.”

She blushed and her skin was so pale, she knew he could see it, but she was pleased. As much as she was reluctant to talk about it, she did think her job wonderful and she knew she was good at it.

“Thanks,” she chuckled in reply, relaxing a bit. “I meant that I dispose of the plants left by others- bouquets mostly, and sometimes miniature Christmas trees or potted shrubs. The ones I tend are thriving, I assure you.”

“People leave plants?”

“Yes,” she replied, then hastened to add, “But I do other work too- trimming hedges and trees and such. Lots of outdoor work, but I enjoy the fresh air. It makes me feel more alive.”

“Outdoors? You’re not exactly tan…” another wink so she knew he meant no offense.

“Well I mostly work at night. People don’t like the sight and sounds of grounds keeping work when they visit.”
“Fair enough. Sounds like your clients are high maintenance though- making you clean up after them and work at night. Do you at least like the people you work with?”

“Oh yes!” she clasped her hands together and instantly regretted her excited reply. Would he understand? She wondered. Best not to tell too much. She carefully arranged her hands in her lap, attempting to veil her enthusiasm.

“Well, tell me about them.”

“Oh…um…they’re pretty quiet. I don’t actually know very much about them aside from their names and dates-”

“Dates?”

“I mean birthdays and- er- ages.”

“Got it.”

“Anyway, they’re quiet, but I like to imagine things about them. I like to guess at their personalities, their backgrounds, who they loved and where they were born. It fascinates me to read their names and try to fill in the blanks with possible life stories. I mean, who knows what amazing lives these people had, what adventures and romances and tragedies. I have so many questions about them that I’ll probably never know the answers to, so I make them up.”

“Fascinating.”

“It really is.” Did she say too much? She feared she did.

“Why don’t you just ask them? Then you could have the answers.”

“I suppose I could, but I doubt it would do much good,” she said, her eyes were twinkling too now.

“Alright then…why not?”

“No reason…” she fiddled with her fork again. He watched her until she could feel her cheeks burning. Maybe she should just tell…it was nothing to be ashamed of. It was just that all of the men before him had found it a little, well, unsavory that an educated, pretty, young woman would choose her line of work and enjoy it more than the countless dull desk jobs she had been offered. Well, she could survive another man not calling back. What she could not survive was another date of evading questions and vague answers. Her work kept her occupied in the evenings anyway.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I can’t ask them because…they’re dead.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m the sole groundskeeper of a graveyard. Two, actually. Olive Grove and St. George’s.”

She let her fork click down at the end of her sentence and refused to look up at him. She’d seen the mixture of surprise and distaste on enough faces and had no interest in seeing it replayed in the brown eyes behind their glasses.

“Well then,” he said after an eternal moment. “Who is your favorite person at work? Any particularly fascinating epitaphs? What’s the oldest date on any tombstone?”

She sneaked a peek up at this odd Andrew the aspiring history professor. As his eyes met hers, she saw that the spark of genuine interest had not died. She savored this moment, for all traces of discomfort had vanished, buried in the past. As he asked and she freely answered, neither had felt more alive.

The Bookworm’s Guide to the Galaxy: Understanding Readers

Most of my best friends are
bookworms. We all have our favorite genres, authors, eras, you name it. We are an eclectic group of athletes, honors students, writers, artists, musicians, and gamers, yet we are united by books and our need for words.

However, it has come to my attention that this is not how most of the world and its people are and that it mildly terrifying to someone like me, who can hardly carry on a conversation without quoting a book or alluding to a classic. I have tried to be less bookish when talking to non-readers, but seeing as I run a blog titled “A Bookish Charm” and have been caught on numerous occasions sniffing the pages of other people’s books (which is one than a little embarrassing), I have not really had success with this approach. Therefore, I have (because this is what a I do in my spare time…yet another bookworm problem) devised a list of ten ways for readers and non-readers (I suppose some might call them “normal people”) to understand each other and even become good friends. 🙂 (I should add as a disclaimer that I know and care for many non-readers and mean no offense as they simply are gifted in other areas.)

For Readers:

1. Know that people will ask you if you have seen the movie adaption of the book you are reading. Try not to be offended, even if the book is waaaaay better. (Of course, if you want to ask them if they have read the book that inspired the movie that they watched, go for it.)

2. Don’t abstain from showing emotion over the book you are reading in public, but don’t be surprised when people laugh as you sob over the tragedies of fictional characters. It hurts, but we just have to live with it.

3. Don’t ask non-readers to smell books. Just don’t.

4. Accept the fact that non-readers probably will not care that your characters are on the brink of disaster and your book is reaching its climax. Even if your company’s conversations are boring and you’d rather read during dinner, sometimes it is best to sacrifice a bit of reading to pretend you’re listening. After all, you can always wonder about the book while you smile and nod.

5. If you happen to be with a non-reader at the mall, understand that he or she may actually want to visit stores other that Barnes and Noble. Just prepare yourself that you will have to try on clothes and probably stop for a pretzel before you can go spend your entire paycheck on books you do not have room for on your shelves.

6. Try not to cry and break out in sarcasm when a non-reader claims to be a reader because she read Twilight and Divergent.

7. Do not try to explain that, based on classic literature, love and happiness are not real, because non-readers will think that you are depressed and pessimistic. We readers know that love and happiness do exist in the real world; we just are trying to discuss themes.

8. Try not to be disappointed on holidays when family members give you gifts other than books. They really are trying to be thoughtful, I promise.

9. Talk to real people. Do more than just hold up the cover of the book you’re reading when somebody asks what it is. Believe it or not, this person is trying to have a conversation with you.

10. Appreciate the fact that not everybody reads. Despite what Jane Austen says (“…who does not take pleasure in a good novel must be intolerable stupid.”) there are incredibly brilliant and lovely people who do not choose to be avid readers and we can still be great friends and perhaps we ought be better off because of it; their connection with the real world and our love for the worlds of books could just be a good combination. (Maybe…)

For Non-Readers:

1. Do not make fun of us for walking and reading, smelling books, and quoting them in our everyday lives. We will label you a “Gaston” and our book clubs will either scorn you or pity you.

2. Be gentle with us. Sometimes we are upset because of a fictional character’s death or an author’s failure to produce a satisfying sequel. Don’t tease us too harshly for getting so emotionally invested in fiction and we won’t tease you for shouting at sports on the television or cursing the politicians on the news.

3. Be aware of how we socialize. If we text you with a book recommendation or invite you to go to the bookstore, know that we like you. Perhaps a lot. It is just our nerdy way of showing affection; we are inviting you into our world of books and, even if you do not accept, you should feel honored that we like you enough to think of you in between chapters.

4. Just smile and nod when we make comparisons between books and real life. If I start rambling about somebody acting like a Scarlett O’Hara, just agree and say that yes, she is being annoying and manipulative. 😉

5. Read something. By doing this, you are proving that you care about us enough to attempt to share our passion for reading. We don’t care if you read every classic on the AP Literature list; we just appreciate that you read Harry Potter or even a magazine because it shows that you are trying to form common ground with us.

6. Ask us for recommendations. Even if you don’t read them and the carefully-crafter list we draw up for you ends up in a wad in your backpack, we love being asked to share our favorites and, like reading, this allows for some common ground.

7. Take us to a bookstore. This is the best way to get to know a bookworm. Let us wander the aisles and listen to us admire the new covers of our old classics. Don’t tell us that we do not have enough money for all of the books; just let us have our fun and after we inhale enough paper and ink, we might put down our stack of books we cannot afford long enough to chat about other subjects.

8. Recognize that we are more than the books that hide our faces. Sure, books are at the top of our list of favorite things, but they are not our entire personalities! Like I said before, my bookworm friends are athletes, artists, and scholars. We like other subjects, probably the same ones that you do, so don’t be afraid to talk to us about other things. We want to get to know you too, so tell us about yourself. After all, books and people are the same in that both have stories unique to themselves.

9. Don’t worry if we withdraw for hours by ourselves. We are fine, off on wonderful adventures between the pages of our books. It isn’t that we don’t like you; we just need time to ourselves and our beloved characters. Many of us are introverts, so just understand that if we don’t reply to your text or hear you calling us to come down for dinner, we are not purposely ignoring you, just resting by reading.

10. If we are stressed out, tell us to go read. In about an hour, we will be back to our normal, nerdy selves. 🙂

If you are a non-reader and read this far, know that you are appreciated by this awkward blogger for struggling through the rambling. And now, I shall bid you adieu, for I am in the library and feel a book calling my name…