Lexicon Review

February 19, 2014

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A sci-fi thriller steeped in the history of language.

Words possess an unimaginable amount of power. Advertising, storytelling, teaching, debating; words don’t just allow us to communicate with each other, they open the possibility of putting a thought into someone else’s head. A means to inject some foreign piece of information or way of thinking that didn’t originate there. Max Barry extrapolates this concept in his sci-fi thriller Lexicon, released last summer, and builds a world where those who truly harness word’s power are able to effortlessly control the minds of their victims.

In Lexicon, a secret organization has discovered that every person on the planet belongs to a particular segment, a group of like-minded individuals who think and process information in the same way. Each segment of people is vulnerable to a unique set of what seem to be nonsense words–contrex helo siq rattrak for instance. Upon hearing the words specific to his segment, a person becomes servant to the speaker, following commands in a hypnotic state, unaware and unable to stop. These commands can range from happily handing over a car to unflinchingly committing suicide on the spot.

The organization has instituted a program to seek out and train children who may possess the ability to effectively command words, preparing them to eventually work for the organization. It’s Harry-Potter-meets-the-Matrix, with kids sharpening their skills in a private institute before participating in some grander conspiratorial scheme.

Lexicon follows the interweaving stories of Emily Ruff, a 16-year-old grifter making her way through the organization’s academy, and Wil Parke, a man who unknowingly possesses the unique ability to resist the influence of words. Emily’s story takes place years before the novel’s central event–the unleashing of an all-powerful “bareword” that is able to control any person who sees or hears it regardless of segment–while Wil’s story follows the events directly after, dealing specifically with the fact that he is the only person to have avoided the influence of the bareword, which left the population of an entire town decimated.

Barry uses the time-difference between his characters’ stories to effectively tell two mysteries at once. The character in focus alternates each chapter, from Wil’s survival of the bareword that left thousands dead and his run from the now-fractured organization that is hell-bent on discovering how he did it, to Emily’s rise to power as well as her discovery of that all-powerful bareword. The slow reveal of each character’s role is made doubly sweet as the mystery surrounding what happened when the word was unleashed and how it is eventually resolved play out near-simultaneously in the novel’s closing moments.

Still, the format isn’t without its flaws. Wil’s chapters are typically more action-driven; the first chapter alone features brain-probing, gunfights, car chases, and several murderous encounters. However, a sharp contrast follows immediately, with the slow and calculated origin story of Emily.  For the first two-thirds of the novel, there is a jerking staccato rhythm between the breakneck pace of Wil’s story and the reserved, expositional role of Emily’s. I’d often finish a chapter of Wil’s late at night,ready for more, but would ultimately go to bed because I knew Emily’s chapter would likely lull me to sleep. I wouldn’t describe her sections as boring, just slower and predictably so. The contrast can be jarring.

While I generally applaud the decision to tell a tight, focused story over the recent trend to turn every novel into a drawn out trilogy, I couldn’t help feeling a little underwhelmed with what is revealed about the world around the characters of Emily and Wil. Sure, the mystery concerning the barewood and its events is engrossing, but what of the daily activities of the organization? They monitor people and pinpoint the segments they belong to, now made much easier through the willing surrender of information via sites like Facebook as well as data which is taken from cell phone and Internet use (somewhat prescient of Barry given the recent NSA scandal), but to what end? Newspaper articles and blog posts appear between chapters, hinting at conspiracy theories and cover-ups, but it isn’t ever really clear what they do. Bend governments to their own corrupted will? Stop people who would commit atrocious, large-scale crimes? Barry has created a vastly interesting premise but leaves so much hidden. This is a world I would have happily spent more time in.

What is present in Lexicon, though, is a secret love letter to English majors everywhere. The premise, of course, appeals to those who practice the written word–what writer doesn’t want to get into the heads of his readers?–but there are little nods to literature enthusiasts throughout. The agents of the organization, called Poets, each adopt a nickname based on the name of a famous author. Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, Margaret Atwood, W.B. Yeats; I made a fun little game of racking my brain to figure out who each nickname alluded to as I read. There is also plenty of discussion about the origin of words and languages, specifically focusing on the destruction that tends to follow each time a universal language is found, most notably tied to the story of the Tower of Babel. The copious references are there to be devoured by literary fetishists.

Lexicon is gripping, creatively illustrating the power of words, both supernaturally and otherwise. Barry has delivered a bombardment of science fiction action laced with just enough language history and real-world conspiracy theory to suspend disbelief. While a natural fit for fans of thrillers, students of classical literature and writers in general may be won over by the endearing nods to the history of words.

Thinking about Gone Home

August 17, 2013

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It’s hard to really talk about Gone Home without spoiling its crux: the story. So, I’m not going to try. If you haven’t played it yet, I’ll leave you with this before I shew you out of here. Gone Home is remarkable in that it not only conjures up a physical space that feels absolutely real and unique in time, but it also tells a story that is so universally urgent and heart wrenching that it can be appreciated by most anyone, even if Street Fighter combos, stacks of VHS cassettes with taped-from-TV episodes of shows, and punk and riot grrrl music fail to resonate at all. If you’re old enough to remember living in 1995, you’ll feel an unavoidable swell of nostalgia, but the impact of the Greenbriar’s family story, a story that is a fallow of tragedy dashed with unexpected, blossoming hope, isn’t lessened without it.

OK, spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

Gone Home opens with you arriving at your family’s new and mysteriously empty home in the middle of a stormy night after a year spent in Europe. Discovering the fate of your younger sister, Sam, is the main narrative crux. As you search the house for clues as to the whereabouts of your family, Sam will narrate journal entries to you, revealing a heartbreaking tale of young love and that inexplicable loneliness we all feel wandering through our teenage years. Perhaps playing with expectation, Gone Home does a brilliant job of dropping red herrings that imply some more sinister fate for Sam, including crashing thunder, flickering house lights, and the ominous attic, locked and beckoning from the very beginning. I especially enjoyed happening upon a bathtub swathed in red; I felt a quick tightening in my chest as I thought “a-ha! Finally!” before observing a harmless bottle of red hair dye lying next to the tub. Sam then narrated an emotional journal entry about the night she dyed her friend Lonnie’s hair and how personal that felt.

I found I resonated with Sam on two levels. First, she reminded me of myself. My mom moved us to a new town halfway through my freshman year of high school; if you think starting all over at a new school is hard, try it halfway through the year, when relationships are either carried over from middle school or already established by that point. Much like Sam, I found myself drawn to the kids on the fringe; the punks and the outcasts. While the riot grrrl scene never called for me, I drowned myself in its punk cousin. Each day I walked to and from school and each night I walked around the dark town bombarding myself with songs full of angst and steeped in that teenage loneliness. Learning about Sam’s transformation reminded me of my own.

But Sam also reminded me of my younger brother. Though I may not have literally left the family, I can’t help feeling like my brother shared Sam’s bewilderment with how to follow in the footsteps of an older sibling. Sam wanted guidance from Kaitlin as she began high school; my brother became a freshman the year after I graduated, and while I still lived at home, I spent most nights out enjoying my new found freedom. My brother struggled in school, and I didn’t do anything to help him. Not that I couldn’t, but I just didn’t make myself available to. He eventually dropped out, and has meandered about since. Listening to Sam describe her nighttime flight from home at the end, I imagined my brother, making what he thought was the best choice available to him. I cried for him.

While Sam’s story is the focus, Gone Home does an immaculate job of building the backstory of the girls’ parents and even extended family. Details are slowly revealed through found letters, invoices, memos, and more. I can’t speak highly enough of how, much like Sam’s story, the family’s fate seems to be headed for tragedy before eventually showing signs of hope. You learn that your father is an author of a failed science fiction series and now writing reviews for home electronics (laserdisc players!). However, his editor is unhappy with the creative writing angle he is trying to inject into his otherwise banal reviews. Your grandfather, a noted academic, also wrote in a note that while the books seemed true to who your father is, they are otherwise forgettable genre pieces without much merit.

Juxtaposed to that, your mother is actually successful in her work as a national park ranger, being promoted and showered with accolades. While her husband flounders, she flourishes. There is another ranger she has feelings for, and an old friend from college encourages her to pursue those feelings. Eventually, you happen upon a note from the ranger asking her to an Earth, Wind, and Fire concert.

But, as Sam’s story is reaching its apex, things suddenly take a turn for the parents. Your father’s series has been picked up by a niche publisher that adores the campy, sci-fi setting. He is even beginning a new, final entry in the series. Meanwhile, slapped to the fridge is an invite to adulterous ranger’s wedding, and a pamphlet for a couple’s retreat is found tucked away in a drawer, set for the very weekend you arrive home. Much like Sam, the parents are not only surviving their hardships, they are thriving.

That’s what I adore about Gone Home. While the flickering lights, hastily pulled out empty drawers, and ever present storm imply something frightening, I was filled with a bittersweet hope when the credits rolled, thinking about the struggles of my own family and the way we all overcome. That’s Gone Home’s greatest strength and what makes it such a hallmark game; it is able to tell a story about the human condition that reminds us of our own stories.

The Day the Library Shook

April 25, 2012

Three boys sit together in the middle school library, stifling laughter as they draw breasts on pictures of women in an old encyclopedia. Pubescent boys, who sign their work by etching “slut” and “whore” above the newly undressed models. These words, steeped in venom, have no traceable introduction to their vernacular, yet there they are, as if programmed long ago, waiting to be activated; an inherited vocabulary with limitless power. Mrs. Jenkins looks up from her desk when she notices the breach of silence.

She is an old woman, Mrs. Jenkins, and as such, her faded features and wrinkly, patchy skin are of no interest to the boys. They don’t despise her or purposefully mistreat her; to them, she is just someone else’s grandmother. Still, they force her hand, laughing and disrupting the serenity of the school library. Mrs. Jenkins gets up from her desk at the front entrance and walks, confidently and with purpose, toward the boys sitting at the table furthest in the back. They slam the encyclopedia shut and look up at her with a feigned innocence.

“Boys, you need to go to different tables. I can’t have you distracting the other students with your noise.”

“But we need to work together on a group project, Mrs. Jenkins. We can’t do it alone,” insists one of the boys.

“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to divide the work and do it separately. If you boys are good for the next fifteen minutes, I’ll let you sit together again.”

“Aww, come on Mrs. Jenkins,” pleads another.

“Don’t ‘come on’ me.”

The boys freeze, mouth agape in disbelief. They relish double entendre, and this, what Mrs. Jenkins has just said, is the Holy Grail of double entendre; the Fountain of Youth, the lost city of Atlantis. No twelve year old boy could ever hope to find a better perversion of just a few simple words. The laughter begins, thunderous and without reservation. A small swath of snow becoming an avalanche, as their young minds continue to process what Mrs. Jenkins has said.

Outnumbered and flustered, Mrs. Jenkins can feel her authority over the situation recede. “Just… please try to keep it down,” she spats before hurrying back to the safety of her desk. Her cheeks are red, and she attempts to busy herself with a list of missing books and who has last checked them out.

Meanwhile, the boys return to the encyclopedia, laughing louder than before as they write “dont cum on me” above their reinvention of the Mona Lisa, who smiles slyly with giant exposed breasts resting comfortably on her folded arms.

 

Remembering Dad

November 14, 2011

1

It’s winter. Or, at least, it’s wintery. I’m wearing my pajamas, just out of bed. I’m also wearing jeans and a sweater with a green Christmas tree on it. It’s Saturday morning. It’s Christmas morning. It’s any day of any week and I am 5 years old. The constant is the house. Well, not so much a house. In reality, it’s one of three apartments that make up the small building on May Street. The building is constructed of graying brick, and a collective stoop stretches across the front of it giving way to three equally spaced doors. The door on the farthest right is ours.

I’m lying on my stomach across the hardwood floor of the kitchen. He is sitting on a chair pulled out and away from the table. Between is a slot car track, each of its wired controllers in our possession. It isn’t one of the expensive tracks with jumps and falling boulders and hazardous pits and sound effects. This track is a simple figure-8, and the mild humming of the electrical current is the only sound as the cars make their way around it.

He has a human form, but no face. A flat blank pallet sits atop his shoulders, which continue to grow outward and broad before shrinking inward and twisted. As I stare at the empty canvas, a wild assortment of hair shoots out of the top of it, rapidly shifting colors and styles. Kind eyes appear, then tired, then concerned, then distracted. A nose begins to protrude, growing long and short in rhythm, like the playing of an accordion. The mouth finally manifests, and it never fluctuates. A straight line cut across his warping face, displaying no discernible amount of pleasure or dismay.

We race our cars for as long as I choose to remember.

2

I’m fifteen. My mom has asked me and my younger brother out of our separate bedrooms and into the kitchen. As a rule, the three of us generally talk in passing and in short bursts. This may be our first town hall assembly. A State of the Thompson Family address. We join her at the round, wooden table tucked neatly into the small dining room of our house on 44th Street. The two dogs, one small, rotund and white and the other, large, black, and timid, circle the table, assuming we are using it for its intended purpose.

We sit cautiously, and wait for her to begin.

“I just wanted to let you guys know,” she starts slowly, our uncertainty clearly hereditary, “that I’ve been talking to your dad. He said he’d like to come visit you sometime, if you wanted him to. Would you want him to do that?”

I search inward to all the empty places in my mind that that word – dad – is supposed to fill. I find nothing substantial: ambivalence, a small bubbling pond of disdain, a mild electrical hum, a fragmented family portrait. No reservoir of yearning can be found, no thimble’s worth of wonder. Not even a droplet of desire stains the white carpet.

As I await some kind of response from the deepest recesses of my mind, my brother speaks up.

“I want to meet him.” My brother is twelve years old. Ten years later, he would say the same thing again. I would feel nothing once more.

I again look inward. That’s one vote for yes. As I pull and look behind bits of gray, I find something, a small red ember, clinging to life. As I observe it, it begins to swell. The flames burn ferociously, and their heat impresses upon me. Then they speak to me. “Think of all the birthdays, all the Christmases, all the good report cards he’s missed. Think of what he owes you.” The s sound takes shape, serpentine and hissing.

“I guess I’d be fine with it.”

3

I’m younger now, sitting in the back seat of the two door Toyota Tercel. My brother is next to me, both of our mouths numb with Novocaine. As is custom during this time, I’ve escaped the dentist’s excavation with no scheduling of a second appointment necessary. The same can’t be said for my brother, whose teeth are never free from the oppressive might of the cavity.

“Eric, you have to start brushing your teeth more. I can’t afford to keep paying for all these fillings. It’s too much.”

“But doesn’t dad pay for that kind of stuff for us?” I ask.

“He’s supposed to pay for your medical and dental bills,” she replies, curtly.

“He doesn’t do it?”

“No.”

“Can’t he get arrested for that or something?” my brother inquires, both of us still young enough to believe in the absolute moral right and the punishable moral wrong.

“I’ve taken him to court twice to get him to pay for your bills, but he never does it. It’s too expensive to keep taking him to court just for him to not do it again.”

After leaving the dentist’s office, Mom stops at McDonald’s without us even asking. Once home, we devour our meals and race into our shared bedroom to watch wrestling. Mom sits alone in the living room watching TV until her eyes grow weary. She retires to her bedroom.

4

It’s the first week of June and the last week of third grade. Teachers, smart as they are, recognize the class’ collective longing gaze out towards the playground and lessen the workload during the waning moments of the school year. On this day, the craft supplies have been pulled out and spilled across the five tables in the classroom. Old, crusty bottles of Elmer’s glue stand statuesque in the centers of tables while weathered crayons, most missing their paper encasing entirely, and worn colored pencils take residence in small baskets.

Piles of pristine construction paper are found at each table, a cavalcade of blues, oranges, reds, and yellows. Glitter is available, but not without the teacher’s guidance, as it always ends up littered across the floor when trusted to our little hands. A request from the janitorial staff, no doubt.

“Today, kids,” starts Mrs. Jennings, “we are going to be making Father’s Day cards. It’s not for a few weeks though, so you’ll have to ask your mothers to hide it until the right time. Feel free to use all the items in front of you to make the best card you can. I’ll be walking around and observing, so raise your hands if you have any questions.”

As my classmates eagerly begin work on their cards, I stare blankly at the red construction paper in front of me. I don’t know what to do. I sit there, hoping to go unnoticed. I hear a faint, mechanical hum and turn to look as a boy uses the electric pencil sharpner on the teacher’s desk. It isn’t long before Mrs. Jennings notices me and waddles over.

“Why haven’t you started, Scott?”

“I don’t have a dad.”

“Everyone has a dad,” she so forthrightly announces before taking a moment and suggesting “Why don’t you make one for your grandpa?”

I agree and begin work on the card for my grandpa. For no particular reason, I make a turkey on it by drawing the outline of my hand.

5

It’s a Saturday night in August, and I am eleven years old. My mom is baby sitting my two younger cousins while my uncle and aunt have something called “date night.” It is late, and my cousins, along with my brother, are already asleep. I’m playing my Game Boy while mom watches TV. I’m not paying much mind to it, but it sounds like something important has happened. In brief moments of reprieve, I’ll glance up towards the screen, my mom entranced by it, to see reporters and news anchors talking about someone dying. Something about a princess and paparazzi.

Mom continues to watch as I continue to play, both of us whittling deep into the nighttime hours. It’s after midnight when, finally, there is a knock at the front door. My uncle Gerald has returned to pick up his slumbering children. They awake begrudgingly and stumble out into the cool air, ready to resume their sleeping as soon as they buckle in to the backseat.

As Gerald walks in, he says hi to me, his breath sour, and stares at the TV.

“Have they announced if she’s dead yet?”

“No, not for sure. But everyone seems to think she is.”

“Well, that’s what she gets. She should have never gotten divorced.”

Noticeable even to me, that sentence hangs heavily in the air, acrid and spiteful. It is gaseous, filling our living room in place of oxygen. Silence seems to hold as my mom looks at her brother, completely exposed. I pause my game and look in their direction, stifled.

“Well, you know what I mean,” he offers. “Thanks again for watching them. I’ll see you later.”

My mom shuts the door and pauses there for a moment. The briefest of moments, a rare moment in which she appears vulnerable to me. Uncertain. It passes in an instant, and she reaches for the remote and turns off the TV.

“Time for bed, Scott.”

6

My cell phone buzzes. I’m 25 and living in the house that I own. The buzz signals a text message, and I look down to see that it is from my brother. It reads:

I found dad on Facebook. It doesn’t look like he’s updated his page in a while, but he has us listed under his family category. I guess he lives in Maryland now. I sent him a message and he sent one back to me. I could copy it and email it to you if you want. Do you want me to?

Again, that empty feeling returns. Just as was the case ten years ago, thinking about him returns no identifiable emotion, no extreme one way or the other. This man is a stranger to me. You may as well pull a name from the phone book and ask me if I’d like to call it and invite it to dinner.

Still, curiosity can’t be denied, so I text him back “sure.” I load Gmail and wait for the email to manifest. Within minutes, it appears. I watch it sitting innocuously for a while, the subject and sender bold and highlighted signifying that it is unread. But should it stay unread? Once read, the words can never be unread again.

I open the email and read the following:

Hey Eric, this is Wayne. How you doing? Not really sure what to say, for obvious reasons, lol. Sorry you got my nose and not ur mom’s, her’s was always cuter. From the pic’s I saw of you on ur page I can see you have grown into a handsome young man. So tell me, what are ur plans for the future?… career, starting a family of ur own, etc. I would really do want to get to know you and scott as well, but was scared to, thank you ! I always had you guys n my heart an on my mind. I live in Stoney Beach,MD,with my wife Kristie and her son chase, chase is 8yrs old. My number is [REDACTED] if you ever just want to talk, DO MISS MY SONS !! AND HAS ALWAYS WISHED THE BEST FOR YOU BOTH!

7

My cell phone buzzes. I’m still 25. This time it’s a call from my mom.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Scott. Whatcha doin’?” She asks flippantly.

“Not much, just about to cut the grass. What’s up?”

“Well, do you remember how your dad messaged Eric a few weeks ago?”

No, mom, I forgot about the first time Dad had talked to us since he left 20 years ago. “Yeah, did he message him again or something?”

“No, his new wife messaged him.”

“Wait, what? Why?”

“She told Eric that he should never come visit his dad. That he is a liar and that he hits her. She said that I was smart to get out when I did.”

“Are you serious? Holy shit. Is that stuff true? Was dad like that?”

“He never hit me, but he did lie. All the time. He told me he grew up in a completely different town than he really did. He would tell me about cars that he never owned. He never wanted me to meet his family or friends, I think because he knew that the truth would come out. I never understood it. He would lie about the dumbest things, anything. He was such a weirdo.”

After she hangs up, I sit and think about the “weirdo” for some time. I think about him sitting in that kitchen chair, faceless and shape-shifting, holding down the trigger on the controller for his slot car. The humming returns and I lay across the hardwood floor, racing him. This fractured and incomplete memory is all I have.

A Solicitor’s Lessons

April 14, 2011

I normally introduce my essays and articles here, but I don’t feel that’s necessary this time around. The title speaks for itself while the purpose of the piece is almost immediately evident in the writing. I’m real proud of this one, though, so I hope you (whoever you are, internet-stranger) will take the time to read it. Today’s song comes from A Wilhelm Scream. It has nothing to do with the essay, I just think it’s a rad song. Check it out here.

A Solicitor’s Lessons

I am a door-to-door solicitor.

That sentence carries a lot of weight. People… well we don’t tend to like solicitors. Maybe it’s this sense that we as individuals have made up our minds concerning every possible topic and some guy with a pamphlet or ad is only a waste of time. Perhaps we don’t want to get into some debate about what we believe or what we do. Maybe we just want to be left alone. I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for our solici-phobia, but I definitely know it’s there. How, you might ask? Well…

I am a door-to-door solicitor.

I’ve been walking up to people’s doors and leaving advertising for about two years now. It’s not the only part of my job; I’m a route manager who also handles advertising and business building. Even though I could and should have someone under me who can do the menial task of soliciting, I’m kind of glad I don’t. I find the whole thing rather pleasing. Listen to some music, enjoy the weather, get some exercise; it’s not exactly a bad break from working in the office.

There is one downside though, and that’s people. People are sort of dicks sometimes.

Well, I should elaborate on that. I’m not your regular, leave a flier or postcard attached to the door handle kind of solicitor. No, what I do is a little more complicated than that. You see, the company I work for provides a home pick-up and delivery service (I can’t say exactly what we do because a) I don’t want to leak our business model and b) I don’t want this tracked back to my employer). What we pick-up and deliver back to customers can fit inside something about the size of a garbage bag. Having tried various methods of advertising in the past, we decided the best approach was to take our service straight to potential customers.

So, we take our delivery bags, attach information about our service and an application to them, and leave them hanging on people’s doorknobs. Worse yet, we ask that if people have no interest in our service could they please hang the bag on the door for us to pick up the next day. I know, nefarious, right? Well, it gets better. If the bag isn’t out the next day, we leave a little note on the door asking if they can please put the bag out the next day. Sometimes I don’t know where we get the gall.

You can probably already imagine how that goes over with some people, and I would wager that what you are thinking probably doesn’t come close to some of the experiences I’ve had. However, this piece isn’t just a collection of me-getting-yelled-at-stories (though there are some good ones), it’s also a place for me to share some of the things I’ve observed walking up to thousands of front doors over the past two years. I hope that I can provide a little insight into the life of a solicitor, and that maybe in the end you might hate us just a little bit less (I won’t cross my fingers, though).

No Clothes and Open Windows

OK, this is very important, and I want you to take note: under no circumstance should you ever walk around your house or backyard naked. I know that under the deceptive calm of late, quiet weekday mornings it’s easy to let the guard down and clean the house nude while blaring Lady Gaga, but please, it has to stop. Your inner diva might object, but I swear it is for the better good. I have seen breasts, asses, and a whole mess of genitalia that I can’t un-see with all my might. And before your mind begins to conjure up stories of the sexy housewife inviting you in for a drink to cool off, let me tell you there is none of that. There are no erotic encounters, just awful, awful nudity.

In all honesty, it’s not even the nakedness that’s the problem; it’s the moment where I lock eyes with some poor unsuspecting man or woman through their living room window as they are meandering about. You’ve never seen someone run so fast until you’ve peeped them in the buff. It’s just embarrassing. I try to keep my head down walking up to these houses, I even sometimes skip them altogether just to avoid any chance of my work getting a call about me creeping on some retired woman, but it never fails that I spot someone naked.

Solicitor Lesson #1 – Always wear something.

Dogs. It Had to be Dogs.

I love dogs, I really do. I always had dogs growing up, and I have two sleeping on either side of this computer chair right now. But, I have the commonsense not to leave them loose out in the front yard. Apparently, I’m in the minority there.

The cliched “mailman running from a dog” scenario is frighteningly accurate. I have had dogs push open screen doors as I approach, I’ve had dogs run from a yard across the street towards me, I even had a dog break a window once while pounding on it in an attempt to get to me. There is a cold and slow dread that fills a man as he watches an unknown dog sprint towards him. Is it friendly? Is it going to rip my throat out?

It’s awful. It really is. I know I’m a lowly solicitor whom some people would rather chase away with their dogs, but what about the mailman? The UPS delivery guy? Even just some person walking down the street? These dogs could attack anyone. I’ve been bit by a dog three times, with one encounter drawing blood and leaving me incredibly bruised.

The worst invention of all time has to be the “invisible fence,” where sensors are put around the perimeter of the yard and the dog is shocked if it walks beyond them. Again, it’s all due to the unknown. I’m walking down the block, and I see a dog laying on the front steps of a house. It gets up, hair stands up on its back, and now I pause wondering what to do. Obviously, I’m not going to walk up to the house, but is it even safe to walk past it on my way to the next one? How do I know that this home has an invisible fence or that it will even stop the dog if it’s determined? I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and now writing this section, I think I have found the world’s next great innovation: visible fences. Imagine that! Fencing you can see and which you know will protect you from crazy ass dogs! I’m going to call my boss right now and put in my two weeks.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to misrepresent some of the lovely dogs (and cats) I’ve met doing my job, but I think I’d rather play it safe and be void of dogs altogether.

Solicitor Lesson #2 – Please don’t let the dogs out.

New Year’s Destruction

New Year’s Day fell on a Saturday this year, meaning that our store was closed all weekend, as we are always closed on Sunday. It was a cold Monday that was made worse by the realization that the holiday season I looked forward to for the past month was over. When is the next holiday that will close the store? Memorial Day? That’s… pretty far away.

When I walked into the office, I was greeted by my boss, who had a plastic grocery in his hand.

“Look what I found on the door outside when I opened this morning,” he said, tossing the bag on the desk with a smile.

I opened the bag and began to rummage through the scraps. “Holy crap!” was all that I could offer as I played with the shredded remains of one of our bags. We laughed together and passed the bag around the store to all the other employees. Monday got a little better that day.

Can you believe that? Someone taking the time and energy to shred the bag and come deliver it back to our store over New Year’s weekend? What would drive someone to do something like that? Is our effort to market really that much of an inconvenience?

Typically, we get wonderfully angry voicemails left in our delivery voicemail box. People will yell and curse, going on and on about how they hate the bag and are throwing it away and if we ever come back they’ll call the police. Then, they hang up without giving us their address. Sure, we could probably look the phone number up in the white pages and find the address, but why bother? Going back to these houses after being berated like that is so thoroughly pleasing.

Another great thing we see people do is attach notes on the bag expressing their displeasure with us. It’s one thing if you ask us not to return because you aren’t interested, but if you leave a note that reads (true story), “Leave this bag again and it’s mine!” you are just asking for ridicule. I mean, is that supposed to be frightening? What was this guy’s next step, send us a picture with him pointing a gun at the bag demanding a ransom? I can’t take anyone seriously who thinks it’s a good idea to write something like that. Notes like that get posted up in the office. They are always good for a laugh.

I guess it’s sort of vindictive of us, but we feel justified. We are a small local business trying to advertise in a creative way to foster business growth during hard economic times (and it’s working, trust me). How some people can get so angry with us is beyond me. Even if someone doesn’t want to give the bag back or throws it away, we don’t care. We expect not to get all the bags back. But when someone starts to ridicule or threaten us… well it only encourages us.

Solicitor Lesson #3 – Don’t try to intimidate a solicitor.

The Inspiring Few

I realize that I’ve spent the majority of this piece complaining or making fun of naked people and, not to break the cycle or anything, I’d like to move away from that and talk about some of the wonderful people I’ve come across in my my two years soliciting. If you have been reading this strictly for cynical snark, you might just want to jump to the end. I’ll try to come up with something sarcastic sprinkled with a little mean-spiritedness for you there.

It was the summer of 2009 and, being new and young and stupid, I decided I was a manly-man who could spend three and half hours walking around in 90+ degree weather without sunblock or water. After an hour, I was beat. The company-issued polo shirt’s collar was rough on my moist neck, and the entire shirt was like an incubator only amplifying the effects of the sun.

As I shuffled down the street, I came upon a house with its garage open, the sounds of a baseball game emanating hoarsely from an old mono-speaker radio. I started up the driveway when the homeowner, an older woman who was straightening a tool bench spotted me.

“Hi, I’m with __________ and I’m just picking up the bag,” I said with a wave that turned into a gesture towards the bag on her front door in one smooth motion. She smiled towards me and continued her organizing while I placed the bag inside of my large pouch hung across my body from my shoulder.

I began down the driveway when she spoke “You look pretty exhausted. Do you want a bottle of water?” I turned towards her and thought about that a moment. Under normal circumstances, my first instinct is to turn down an offer such as this, but I really was incredibly thirsty.

“Sure, if you don’t mind,” I offered with a whole-hearted, non-salesman smile. I stood in her garage with her for a few minutes. We talked about the Cubs and the weather. After I finished about half my bottle, I thanked her and continued on and into the heat.

Even two years later, I can remember exactly where that house was. It is a place etched into my mind, much like the wrinkles etched into the woman’s skin whom I still remember as well. It’s moments like that which remind me that there are really great people out there, and it is through their positivity that I find the true will to keep doing what I do.

For every mean or angry message we’ve received scrawled quickly with a marker on a piece of paper, we’ve received letters in which people thank us for our offer and our creative way of advertising. And these letters don’t just come from customers, many come from people who go on to say that they “wish they needed our service” because they want to help us and reward us for our ingenuity. Those letters go right up in the office next to the negative ones. I guess it’s sort of our yin and yang. Whichever motivates us that day, the ridiculous or the genuine, it’s there to behold.

Solicitor Lesson #4 – We are human.

In the end, I think Lesson #4 may be the most important. I know what we do might be annoying and that, after a long day of work, the last thing you want to do is be pestered, but know that what we do is, in the end, usually just a job (not speaking for religious solicitors of course, I don’t like those ones either). More often than not, we have little say in the protocol or procedure of what we do. If you really feel compelled to yell at someone, find the business owner and go for it, though I assure you that won’t do much; door-to-door soliciting is incredibly beneficial and still remains one of the best methods of advertising today.

So here’s what I ask: just put up with us. If you see us, be polite. Hell, you don’t even have to listen to our spiel our take our advertising, just be polite about it. I’ve always floated this theory that how people act towards solicitors is a window into how that person is in general. If someone freaks out and yells at me or writes a vindictive letter, I assume that they must be an asshole all around. I don’t want that to be my next Lesson, I want to be wrong about that one. Please, prove me wrong.

The Cycle

April 7, 2011

Whew, it’s been a while. With school winding down for the summer, I should have a lot more time to dedicate to the blog. For now, here is a short story I wrote for a creative writing class. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. I don’t have a song to post with this one. Instead, I’ll link to a video that relates to the story and still gives me goosebumps. That can be found here.


The Cycle

The sounds of far away pleading and crying buzzed in Mark Knueppel’s head. What had he just been thinking of? He was certain he could remember, certain that it was there to be found, yet all that met his searches were muffled sounds. When he pressed himself further into his own mind, a dull pain was all that he encountered. It made him shudder. Mark exhaled calmly as he decided to pick up with that task another time. Instead, he opened his eyes and focused on what needed his attention now.

As was usually the case, the members of Dead Zone found themselves down a goal going into the third period of a hockey game. While most of the other teams that played in the recreation league at The Chiller were comprised of friends who had been playing together for years, Dead Zone had the misfortune of being the house team, the usual first stop for those new to the game. Though most everyone on the team was used to losing at this point, it didn’t mean they couldn’t talk as if they had a chance to win.

“Someone has to crash the net. It’s all been one and done shooting, someone has to get in front of the net for the rebounds.” Josh liked to talk like he was a combination of coach and captain. Unfortunately, he couldn’t skate like either. He spent more time climbing back to his feet than he did skating, but he was still right on this occasion.

“If we had someone who could skate with the puck, maybe we could do that. But we just keep getting pinned in our zone. Once we get the puck, we are too tired to do anything but just fire it down the ice and take the icing.” Justin, Josh’s older brother, was also correct, though Mark thought he said this more to spite his brother than to make an actual point. Mark smiled to himself. How many times had they had this exact conversation before?

Mike, who was the oldest on the team at 43, decided to jump in before the J’s could continue their bickering. “You are both right. We have to keep it simple. When one of us defensemen get the puck in our zone, you forwards need to skate out and look for a pass. We get caught standing still too much. Just skate through the middle or along the boards and get ready for the puck.”

As always, Mike said what they needed to hear. A loud buzzer rang through the rink, alerting teams that the third period was about to begin. Mike looked at Mark and asked, “Are you ready to get out there?”

Mark’s head was abuzz again. “Give me another few minutes to rest.” Mike nodded and stepped out on to the ice. He and Justin lined up on defense. Josh lined up at center with Eric and Max on each wing. Eric was relatively new to the team, playing in only his third game. He was a quick little guy who shied away from any and all physical contact with the other team. When he could get the puck to himself, though, he was actually a pretty decent skater with a surprisingly quick shot. If he just learned to be a little more physical, to push himself a little harder…

Max, on the other hand, played with an almost exclusive intent to run into guys on the other team. Though the rec league had a no checking rule, some contact was still allowed, and Max relished the opportunity of clumsily walking the line between legal and extraneous contact. If he managed to play all 60 minutes in the lineup, he considered it to be an off night.

Mark was lost in his thoughts when the ref blew his whistle and dropped the puck into play. The shrill sound seemed to ebb through the air slowly, as if it were struggling to escape a swath of quicksand. Mark could feel it moving around him until it slowly dwindled down into silence. Had it escaped or died?

Mark again pushed these odd thoughts aside and focused on the game. Much like what was discussed, the team was already spending more time in their defensive zone, failing to clear the puck at all. Fortunately, the one member of Dead Zone who played with any real confidence or talent was Greg, the goalie. He never said much, though Mark thought he must certainly hate playing on a team where he is left out to dry more often than not.

One time, Greg had taken a puck directly to the throat. He had to leave the game, and later he discovered he had bruised his thyroid gland. He couldn’t eat solid foods for almost a week. No one expected to see him again, yet there he was at the following week’s game, ready to go. Mark didn’t find this too surprising, though. Hockey players, even at this level of play, were a different breed in his mind. There was something about being on the ice that just couldn’t be replicated in any other sport. The intensity and the speed were part of it, but there was a beauty there as well. The way the puck slides around the ice carelessly, the way it moves and bounces from stick to stick. The way ice shavings would appear to float and fall in slow motion after a hard stop, typically landing in the face of the opposing goalie. There was a charm that non-players just couldn’t appreciate, and Mark was certain he would continue to play this game for the rest of his life.

Interestingly enough, it wasn’t as if Mark was born into hockey, either. He hadn’t had parents that strapped skates to his feet as a young child. He didn’t play during his high school years. Mark, who generally loathed sports, would instead spend his time with video games or playing music. Josh, who was more a casual acquaintance in the pre-hockey days, always tried to get Mark to come out and play. Mark eventually complied, though more to shut Josh up than for any other reason. After a day of playing, Mark returned home with sore feet and a welt on his chin from falling on the surprisingly hard, unforgiving ice surface. He came out the following weekend for more.

Mark bit the inside of his cheek and looked out at the stands. There he could see two silhouettes, belonging to his wife, Tabatha and their daughter, Abigail. He was surprised to see them there. He attempted a wave, but it didn’t seem as if they could see him. Chris, another defenseman, leaned towards Mark and asked, “That your wife and kid?”

“Yeah. They don’t usually come to the games. The wife is always worried I’m going to get hurt.”

“Have you ever been hurt?” Chris spoke the words oddly, almost with a deliberation. He spoke as if he wasn’t asking for himself, but asking on the behalf of someone else. As if the answer meant nothing to him. Again, Mark’s head throbbed.

“No, not really. A few scrapes here and there, a scar abovee my eye. Nothing all that serious.” Again Mark waived, but no response. “When did they even get here?” he wondered to himself. Before Mark had any time to dive back into his thoughts, Josh skated toward the bench yelling “Center! Center!”

Mark grabbed his stick and hopped over the boards and on to the ice. The play was happening down in the defensive zone (where else?), and he headed there to join in. The opposition, whose names Mark couldn’t remember, were working a pretty good cycle, where their three forwards would skate in a circular fashion along the boards to right of the goal. One would skate down into the corner, and then throw the puck behind himself. Meanwhile, another skater would be following closely behind him to pick up the puck. Then he would skate down to the corner, and throw the puck either back where he came from or to his left, where the previous handler now found himself. Theoretically, the forwards should be able to do this long enough to tire the defensemen of the Dead Zone, working them out of position enough that the opposition should be able to skate in towards the goal for a shot. The cycle was a classic play, and it was hard to break, especially for the helpless Dead Zone.

At center, Mark was in charge of defending the front of the net as well as the corners where the cycle was being worked. He skated towards the right corner and engaged the forward there. Mark took his stick and swung it side to side in front of him, almost as if sweeping the ice. The opposing forward attempted to pass the puck back up the boards to his trailer, but Mark’s stick glanced the puck, slowing it enough that he was able to get it and pass it behind his own net to Mike, who was waiting there alone. Mark nodded to Mike and then skated at an angle away from the boards and out towards the other team’s net.

The quickness of the play caught the opposition’s defensemen standing still, and Mark skated out to the middle of the ice alone. “This is it,” he thought, “we can do this. We can break the cycle.” Mike came around the other side of the net and fired the puck towards Mark, swimming out alone in uncharted seas. The puck was coming across wider than it should have, so Mark hustled to meet up with it. He stretched his stick out… but only slowed the puck a little. It continued to skitter out and towards the net.

This was it. The puck moved slowly into the zone, calling out to her suitors. Mark noticed that the opposition’s goalie began to skate outward, hoping to fire the puck back down the ice before Mark could arrive there and have a chance to shoot one on one. It would be a foot race. Mark lowered his head and began to push with all his might, digging the blades of his skates deep into the ice with each kick. He turned his head and glanced behind himself; no one was skating after him. In fact, they seemed to be watching him. The rink appeared to darken behind him as he moved forward.

Mark could also hear the cheers of his wife and daughter, who sounded as if they were right next to him, not 50 feet away behind glass and safety netting. He looked up towards them, but their faces still appeared blurry to him, as if certain details were somehow missing.. or perhaps they were never there to begin with. The buzzing in Mark’s head grew loud at this thought, becoming a single point of blinding pain somewhere in the back of his mind. He pushed it all aside, but the noise wouldn’t leave him this time. He looked straight ahead and winced as all the missing light from the rink appeared before him, nearly blinding him as he pushed towards the puck. Wisps of color streamed past him in shades of red and blue, green and yellow. They danced brilliantly around him, always in his peripheral but never in focus.

Mark felt his body ache and his legs burn in protest of his pushing of them, but he couldn’t stop. He was certain he was going to beat the goalie to the puck. He was going to make it. Mark reached out with his stick and pulled the puck within his reach. He glanced towards the net and fired a quick shot in its direction. As he watched the puck float calmly towards the net, he felt his legs taken out from under him as he collided with the incoming goalie, who dove onto his stomach with arms outstretched, trying to poke the puck away before Mark could fire away. He fell over the goalie, his arms trapped underneath his body as momentum continued to carry him forward against his will.

The puck wobbled in mid air before ringing loudly against the post of the net. The metal rod, who can be both friend and foe, opted for the latter as it bounced the puck out safely into the center of the ice. Mark watched this with a crushing feeling before going headfirst into the boards. He could feel pain throughout his body, as if the contact had forced a shock to fire down through all his nerves and veins. The bright light was all around him, and he could hear the sound of the buzzer announcing the period’s end, though it rang out in controlled beeps instead of as one continuous blast.

Mark struggled to use his eyes, but the light would not allow it. He could manage no more than the slimmest opening of them. Even with such limited vision, he knew something was wrong. He wasn’t in the rink any longer. He was lying on his back somewhere. Worse yet, his body felt foreign and strange to him. He was certain it was his – who else could it belong to? – yet it felt different than he remembered. Even his ears betrayed him, as he could still hear the cheering from the rink.

“Keep pushing, Mark. Please, keep pushing!” It was Mark’s wife, Tabatha. But how could he push? Here he was, unable to move and outside of the rink. The game was over. He had hit the post. There was nothing to push. He had failed.

“He’s slipping again. Keep talking to him. Don’t let him go.” Why wouldn’t he want to go? He loved playing hockey. It was Tabatha who was always worried about injuries and always asking him not to go. But he wanted to play. There was nothing like it. He knew he was getting better, he knew he could win the team a game. He knew that he could break the cycle.

“Dad… please Dad…”

The sounds of far away pleading and crying buzzed in Mark Knueppel’s head. What had he just been thinking of? He was certain he could remember, certain that it was there to be found, yet all that met his searches were muffled sounds. When he pressed himself further into his own mind, a dull pain was all that he encountered. It made him shudder. Mark exhaled calmly as he decided to pick up with that task another time. Instead, he opened his eyes and focused on what needed his attention now.

As was usually the case, the members of Dead Zone found themselves down a goal going into the third period of a hockey game. While most of the other teams that played in the recreation league at The Chiller were comprised of friends who had been playing together for years, Dead Zone had the misfortune of being the house team, the usual first stop for those new to the game. Though most everyone on the team was used to losing at this point, it didn’t mean they couldn’t talk as if they had a chance to win.

Butterscotch

December 22, 2010

For your additional required listening pleasure, I present the Weakerthans’ “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure.” The song somberly details a house cat’s journey from her home as she is lost out in the world, eventually forgetting her own name as she recollects on the life she left behind. The song is eerily fitting today. (Song, Lyrics)

As has been the case since he got a flat tire well over a month ago, I was asked by my brother to give him a ride home from work today. It is of no inconvenience to me; my brother and I work together, and he still lives with my mother, a mere 5 minutes away from work. As we drove, we discussed my recent trip to Cancun and the outcome of the two games our hockey team had played while I was gone. As he walked away from my car, he off-handily asked if my mom had told me about our dog, Butterscotch, a 13 year old beagle we had gotten when I was around 12 years old. I informed him that, no, she had not told me anything.  Butterscotch had lost her hearing over the past few years, and also had several tumors in her neck. I had prepared for a conversation starting just this way months ago.

Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get the response I was expecting.

It turned out that Butterscotch had gotten out of the yard four days ago, while I was still away on vacation. Try as they might, my mom and brother simply could not find her once they discovered her missing. They followed her paw prints through the snow from the yard out into the street, but lost track of them a few houses down. They called animal control, but no one had reported finding a missing dog, and they hadn’t picked any up. She was gone.

Butterscotch, named so after the vivid tan spots that surround her eyes and snout, wasn’t exactly a good dog. When we were absent from home, she spent her time knocking over the kitchen garbage can to enjoy its contents or relieving herself on the carpet throughout the house. It never made much sense to us; she would cower and hide the minute we discovered a crime she had committed, knowing damn well that what she did was wrong. Yet, it never once curbed her behavior.

When we were home, though, she was a great companion. Energetic and curious, she loved going on walks and exploring both inside and outside the house. Once exhausted, she would lay beside you on the couch as you watched TV and ate a snack, gladly accepting any scrap you may not want or may not have been watching. Again, she wasn’t exactly a good dog.

I have fond memories of Butterscotch. I remember me and my brother, at the time we had brought her home, devising a game we liked to call Raptor Attack. To play, we would grab a sheet or blanket, and throw it over Butterscotch. From there we would poke and prod at her as she barked and ran around trying to escape the confines of her cotton keeper. After a few seconds, we would get up and run to our bedroom, where we would jump into our beds and hide under the blankets. Butterscotch, once free, would chase after us with all her might. The goal was to hide before Butterscotch caught up to you; she was still too small to jump on to the bed. After a few rounds, we would feed her cheese and pickles while our mom wasn’t looking.

I also remember the time she got out of the backyard and darted towards the street as a car came speeding down it. That was the first time I can remember feeling absolute dread. Butterscotch made a bee line for the street, and would no doubt be struck by the car. As luck would have it, she happened to make it into the street as the car sped by, slamming her nose into its hubcap. She howled and ran back into the yard, snorting and sneezing along the way. She forever had a spot on her nose where she had made contact with the car. For the next few weeks, Butterscotch made no effort whatsoever to escape.  For anyone wondering, the car did not stop.

In my late teens/early twenties, Butterscotch suddenly grew fond of sleeping with me at night. I had graduated high school at this point, and spent most every night out with friends until after midnight. I would return to a dark and quiet house, with Butterscotch meeting me at the back door. She would accompany me to my bedroom door and hurriedly run in once I opened it. There, she would hop up on her two hind legs with her front paws on the foot of the bed, waiting for me to pick her up and place her into bed. (I never thought about the irony of her needing help into the bed both during Raptor Attack and now during the later years of her life. It is almost poetic.) She would watch me as I changed and climbed into bed, then she would approach the head of the bed, climb under my blankets and sheets, and curl up tightly between my stomach and legs. We slept that way for many years, and on the occasion that I happened to bring someone home to join me in bed that night, I would hear her softly scratch at my bedroom door, asking for admittance to join us. I would open the door and shoo her away. Reluctantly, she would go lay in her own bed, out in the living room. I always felt a slight pang of guilt on nights like those.

I’ve spent today crying from time to time as I imagine Butterscotch out somewhere in the cold and snow (which by now measures taller than she), alone and possibly dying. I try to push those thoughts away; surely her tired and stubby legs couldn’t have taken her far from my mother’s home. Perhaps an unknown neighbor as close as a block away has found her and taken her in. I sometimes smile when I think of how this person, real or imaginary, must not be too thrilled with Butterscotch’s choice of places to urinate. I recognize that I may be kidding myself with these thoughts, but when I fathom the other outcome, I shudder with sadness. I just want to hear her scratch at my bedroom door one last time.

I think tomorrow I will post fliers around the neighborhood.

Already Spoken For

November 16, 2010

Here is a paper I recently wrote for an English class discussing the views of certain gay individuals who are against the legalization of gay marriage. The reasoning behind this stance is different and varied for each person discussed, and I found their dissent from the mainstream gay rights movement fascinating.

For your additional listening pleasure, check out “Order Form” by the Shook Ones, which inspired the topic selection. (Song, Lyrics).

Let’s perform a simple test. I will say a small phrase, and I want you to make note of how reading that phrase causes you to react. Are we ready? Good.

The phrase is: gay marriage.

Now, what did you feel upon reading “gay marriage?” Perhaps you felt anger, a reaction to the implication of the phrase. Maybe sadness flickered for a brief second? Or was it joy? Bewilderment? Apathy? No doubt, any number of emotions could have been exhibited in that moment, best reflecting our country’s own inequity of feeling on the matter. Gay marriage has been the focal point of the gay rights movement for the better part of the 21st Century, and it seems as if every day more states either grant or officially rescind the right of marriage for homosexual couples.

The players in this game of legal love are typically well characterized. As is custom for our political landscape, there appears to be two distinct parties here. The first is the Right Wing, Bible-thumping Christian who just can’t stand the notion of members of the same sex spending their lives together with the same rights as straight couples (wait, what is bias again?). This character was most recently personified by New York Governor hopeful Carl Paladino, who commented that not only did he think that heterosexual couples were more successful in life, he didn’t “want them [children] to be brainwashed into thinking that homosexuality is an equally valid and successful option” (Hartman). Regardless of the actuality of gay marriage affecting their lives, those opposing gay marriage seem poised and ready to fight any legislation allowing gay couples to don the term “married.” Even adjusting the nomenclature and allowing gay men and women the opportunity to enter “civil unions” does not sit well with many (“Most Still Oppose Gay Marriage”).

The second group features both gay and non-gay advocates for gay marriage, who together are striving to push legislation that will allow same sex couples the opportunity to marry. Though civil unions did seem to be a common middle ground between these two parties at first, gay marriage advocates are no longer content with the term. While the civil unions were meant to enable gay couples with the same rights as married couples (hospital visitation rights, tax regulations, etc.), they fail to offer the noted prestige and respect that marriage carries (Cowan). This argument seems fairly rational to me, as playing the game at the beginning of the article with “civil union” instead of “gay marriage” leaves me pretty much emotionless.

These two sides are pretty well-documented, and more than likely, you probably find yourself residing in one camp or the other. While the struggle between the two groups (tradition vs. evolution, old values vs. new) is plenty interesting, there does in fact exist a third group that is vying for some representation in the fight against gay marriage. And believe it or not, this group is comprised of homosexuals.

Indeed, though it may sound unfathomable in our Americanized “good guy vs. bad guy” approach to politics, there are gay men and women who not only have no interest in marriage for themselves, they are actually hoping that gay marriage remains illegal. While it’s easy to conjure analogies to betting against oneself in a race, these people have very diverse and very interesting reasons for fighting against the “good fight.”

Eve Tushnet, published author and member of the Catholic Church, just so happens to also be a gay woman who rallies against gay marriage. Eve argues that civil unions which grant the same legal benefits as marriage (more on that in a bit) should suffice for gay couples, but that gay activists will not stop until they can adopt the marital terminology. As discussed previously, she notes that gay couples will seek the societal acceptance and prestige that being married carries, or as she puts it, the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” (Tushnet).

Eve, however, does not think the psychological benefits outweigh the harm gay marriage will inflict on the role of marriage in our lives. She argues that marriage receives the noted prestige because of how it changes and shapes people’s lives. She writes:

Marriage developed over centuries to meet several specific, fundamental needs: children’s need for a father, a couple’s need for a promise of fidelity (and consequences for breaking that promise), young people’s need for a transition to manhood or womanhood and men’s (and women’s, but mostly men’s) need for a fruitful rather than destructive channel for sexual desire – a way of uniting eros and responsibility. In other words, marriage developed to meet the needs of opposite sex couples.

Eve believes that because of this, same sex couples do not warrant the ability to marry. Furthermore, she believes that gay marriage would alter the landscape of marriage by making it an option rather than the ultimate goal in life, by virtue of the fact that not every gay couple will want to marry (Tushnet).

It is quite interesting to read Eve’s comments and beliefs on the subject matter. While they carry some of the same rhetoric found in most religion-based arguments, the tone and weight just feel different coming from someone in her position; a person residing in several, seemingly conflicting camps at once. Her stance places the sanctity of marriage above the rights and privileges of gay Americans. Taking that stance must have been very difficult for her to do.

Of course, not every gay man or woman falls in line with Eve’s thinking. In fact, to the near-complete contrary, gay rights activist Bill Dobbs believes that same sex marriage actually jeopardizes gay culture and history, not the other way around. He believes that fighting for same sex marriage “feeds into the… drive for a homogeneous, orthodox American culture” (Hartocollis). Rather than living their lives as freely as they did during the 1960’s and the initial gay rights movement, these couples are seeking to ascribe to traditional notions of love and relationships. The main point being that unless you are married and settled-down, there must be something wrong with you.

Bill says he feels that pressure presently from his homosexual friends, one who even remarked that “if he had never wanted to marry, there must be something wrong with him” (Hartocollis). Though Bill supports civil unions between gay men or women, he thinks that the fight for gay marriage distracts from other, more important gay rights issues (“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” says hi). Interestingly, a common thought exists between both Bill and Eve’s arguments, which is that the push for marriage legislation is simply an attempt to make into law the acceptance of gay rights. As if the “prestige” (real in Eve’s mind, nonsensical in Bill’s) will simply transfer over to gay couples should they win their fight. On the contrary, a perhaps strong and violent backlash towards gay men and women could ensue should legislation move too quickly, which is precisely why 42% of same sex marriage advocates think that a strong push may be the wrong strategy (“Most Still Oppose Gay Marriage”).

Though both Bill and Eve support civil unions in lieu of marriage, both would have to agree that legislation is still necessary in order for the rights bestowed in a civil union to match those in a marriage. As it stands, civil unions are only recognized in states which allow them, and not on a federal level. This means that gay couples will miss out on federal benefits such as joint filing of taxes, taking leave from work to care for a sick relative, and Social Security survivor benefits. Furthermore, these civil unions may not even be honored in states that do not already allow for civil unions to be granted, so gay couples are almost forced to stay in certain states if they want to retain any of their rights as a couple at all (Civil Marriage v. Civil Unions). Without a doubt, this inequity and “second class” status cannot stand.

The most important question here, though, is how does this dissent among members of the gay community affect the success of the gay rights movement? Clearly, both Bill and Eve believe that marriage isn’t necessary in the acquisition of equal rights and treatment from America at large, even though that seems to fly in the face of the message currently being advertised by the movement. It’s very reminiscent of the chicken and the egg, except here we are wondering what should come first, not what has already come first. Where do gay right activists put their efforts? One could argue that, in relation to the black rights movement, legislation is the key in the fight for equality. Then again, the Reconstruction Era showed that even the granting of freedom does not guarantee acceptance, and even today a rift still exists between black and white Americans.

Furthermore, if Bill, Eve, and others like them were able to swing the focus of the gay rights movement away from marriage, how would this affect public perception of the movement as a whole? Is the movement so entrenched in this battle over marriage that a failure to win outright might seem like defeat in general? If that is the case, then are gay opponents to gay marriage expected to silence themselves for the betterment of the cause? Unfortunately, that may be just the reason we don’t often hear from this side of the argument. How sad that people who more than likely had to hide their true feelings at some point in their lives are seemingly asked to do so again.

Exposure of these opposing views, though possibly harmful to the cause in the short-term, is very important in the natural growth of the movement and to people’s understanding of it. Where once I associated opponents of gay marriage with uninformed bigots or stubborn traditionalists, I see now the very layered complexity of the issue. Though I don’t agree with Eve’s religious views, her uncomfortableness with gay marriage, even while being gay herself, warrants some consideration. While prohibiting gays from marrying seems to violate a right we all deserve, does the violation of her trust and respect for the institution represent a breach of her rights? Can the term “civil union” ever be respected in the same way as marriage?

Or what of Bill, is his worry over the future of gay culture well-founded? As a new generation of gay men and women are entering adulthood, is it not conceivable that their wants and needs would differ from those before them? Bob worries that the spirit of the 60′s is fading, and that the cultural and social statement made by homosexuality in that time is threatened. However, this could be said about nearly any major movement from that time period. In this regard, Bob’s ideology is similar to the more documented opponents of gay marriage, the traditionalists who don’t want to see the definition of marriage altered or expanded.

Before a ruling ultimately puts the legal debate over gay marriage to rest, it is important that we recognize the many varying opinions and beliefs surrounding the issue. People like Eve and Bill don’t fit nicely into the binary approach of American politics, where there is good and bad, A and B, or on and off. Maybe it will require a complete restructuring of our thought processes, but these tertiary, quaternary, and even quinary positions need to exposed and considered. Otherwise, people like Bill and Eve will not be heard; they will be erroneously spoken for.

(For fun, feel free to play the game again in the beginning of the article. Hopefully your results are just a little different now!)

Works Cited

“Civil Marriage v. Civil Unions.” GLAD.org. Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, August 2009. Web. 1 November 2010.

Cowan, Alison Leigh. “Gay Couples Say Civil Unions Aren’t Enough.” New York Times. New York Times, 17 March 2008. Web. 9 October 2010.

Hartman, Rachel Rose. “New York Candidate Carl Paladino Defends Remarks About Gays.” Yahoo News. Yahoo, 11 October 2010. Web. 11 October 2010.

Hartocollis, Anemona. “For Some Gays, a Right They Can Forsake.” New York Times. New York Times, 30 July 2006. Web. 10 October 2010.

“Most Still Oppose Gay Marriage, but Support for Civil Unions Continues to Rise.” Pew Research Center Publications. Pew Research Center, 9 October 2009. Web. 11 October 2010.

Tushnet, Eve. “What Homosexuals Want.” StayCatholic.com. Circle Media, 2003. Web. 10 October 2010.


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