Monday, July 28, 2008

Creative Writing 101

Perhaps you have heard of floating dinner parties where a group of friends each prepare a part of the meal, and the group moves from home to home for each course. It's a lot of fun and works particularly well during the winter holidays when everyone has decorated their homes and wants to show off those decorations. (Oh come on, none of us goes to all that trouble just so we can look at our own decorations!)

Anyway, Marc has created a floating story. He began it in his journal, I'm picking it up here, and I hope that one of you creative spirits out there will pick it up and contribute yet another chapter.

I know that there are quite a few creative writers out there. Just leave your first paragraph in a comment and a link to your site. Copy my entry which includes Marc's part one (The Introduction) as well as my part two (The First Skirmish), paste it in your journal and add your part. Please don't neglect to give your chapter a title. I intentionally used two different fonts to distinguish between Marc's part and my own. Have fun and should you accept this little challenge, please don't forget to leave your link in the comments!

The inspiration for this mini-story comes from Hy-Art created by Marc, combining the works of Allston and Boldini.
This mini-story brought to you by the art of Washington Allston and Giovanni Boldini.

The Introduction--by Marc
All eyes were on the Contesse de Vermeil when her former lover, le Baron de Genolhac, arrived at the ball with Mrs. Owen Marston, the widow from the United States known simply as "l'Americaine" ever since she'd taken rooms at the Georges V less than a month ago and rapidly insinuated her way into every lesser salon and drawing room in the 16th arrondissement. Emma Marston's late husband's fortune had been made supplying the Union Army with uniforms during the American Civil War 20 years earlier, which he made with Southern cotton smuggled through the blockade and repurchased from the warehouses of the Baron. It was an exquisite arrangement that meant the Baron had been hosted numerous times over the years in Marston's townhouse on lower Fifth Avenue. When a taste for rich food and a surfeit of cigars eventually felled Owen Marston with an attack of apoplexy as he walked up the stairs of his favorite Chambers Street bordello, what could the Baron do but introduce his dear and now considerably wealthy widowed friend to the lights of Paris?

Mrs. Marston continued to technically acknowledge the convention of mourning by wearing black, even as its positively festive style indicated the true spirit of its wearer. She had married at 19, when her husband was 47, having been governess to his children after the death of his first wife. She was now past 30--how far was a matter of some debate--but they had rather less of an idea in Paris than in New York. Only the Baron knew that her origins were rather more humble than the vaguely Bostonian Brahmin biography floated when necessary at dinner parties. In America, money could buy anything, including a past.

Emma timed her entrance into French society well, as the advent of the Second Empire was creating all sorts of opportunity for reinvention. Money talked rather fluently in France as well as it did transatlantically, but while it could get you in the door, it would not necessarily grant you a second invitation. Unlike their British counterparts, the doyennes of French society considered less the social class to which you were born than the breeding which you exhibited. Style, wit, the ability to make interesting observations about the events of the day--this is what mattered most. At least to the Contesse.

She had no idea that she was about to meet her match in Emma Marston.

The First Skirmish--by Sheria
Two months of preparations had preceded the Contesse's ball, "la danse des étoiles printanières." For nearly ten years, it had provided the start of the spring season of endless balls, intended to introduce the young women of society to young men, if they were lucky, and to gentlemen old enough to be their grandfathers, if they were not. No one used the cumbersome long title any more, and simply referred to it as "les étoiles," or the stars. It was the Contesse's jewel, her shining achievement that secured her place in the bosom of French Society, and as she stared at the woman swathed in black silk whose hand so delicately rested on the Baron's arm, she was not at all pleased.

As the pair crossed the room, moving towards her, the Contesse raised her delicate lace fan, a gift from an admirer, and languidly waved it across her slightly flushed cheeks.

"Good evening, Contesse. You look lovely, as always."

"Thank you, Baron. It's a pleasure to see you here."

The Contesse's words hung in the air, polite but yet somehow suggesting that the pleasure did not extend to the Baron's companion.

"May I present Mrs. Emma Marston, from America. Mrs. Marston, this is our hostess for the evening, the Contesse de Vermeil."

As the Baron made the introductions, both women acknowledged the other with a slight nod of their well coiffed heads.

The Contesse spoke first, "Welcome, Mrs. Emma Marston, I hope that you will enjoy our little party."

"I'm already having a delightful time, Contesse. The Baron is proving to be a most thoughtful host."


"Ah yes, I had planned to return home after my month at the Georges, but the Baron graciously invited me to continue to recuperate from my sorrow as his house guest for the summer. Do you know his summer place? It's just outside of the city and it is, how do you say it, magnifique? Your language is so beautiful."

Adjusting his ascot, the Baron coughed delicately and took Mrs. Marston by her arm. She lifted her heart shaped face to meet his gaze and for a moment he was lost in the dark pools of her eyes. She dropped her lashes and turned back to the Contesse.

"I feel a bit warm. You must tell me where you purchased such a lovely fan, Contesse. While in Paris, I must do as the Parisians do. Baron, could we go out on the veranda and walk in the cool night air? It was a pleasure , Contesse."

To all the watching eyes, the Contesse appeared unperturbed and her guests' disappointment was almost palpable. There had been no fireworks between the Contesse and the American widow, leaving the pursuit of sixteen-year-old Mademoiselle Adele St. Coeur by the Marquis de Tuilleries, 40 years her senior, the only entertainment of the evening.

Bidding her guests a momentary adieu, the Contesse retired to her private salon, closing the door behind her. From a darkened corner, a young man moved into her line of sight. He was tall and handsome, in a coltish sort of way, as if he might break into a canter at a moment's notice. The Contesse spoke quietly.

"How was your journey?"

"It was an excellent passage, Contesse, calm seas all the way from America."

"Good, now tell me all about your stepmother, the widow Marston."

Monday, July 21, 2008

Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda???

The North Carolina 2008 Legislative Session officially ended on Friday, July 18 at 4:40 pm. I cleaned off my desk, tied up a few loose ends and left work at 6:30 pm. I had a meeting this morning that began at 10:00 and was over by 11:30. I'm off until Thursday. If you hear a sound, it's me sighing contentedly. The other sound is me loudly singing along with Jennifer Hudson's new single. It takes me back to the R&B songs of my youth, where there was a melody that you could sing along with and lyrics that you could understand. I've posted a YouTube video that some enterprising soul put together of images of young Ms. Hudson with her new single, Spotlight playing in the background. Her album has not yet been released.

I've been working on catching up on the journals that I haven't read for the past two weeks. If I've missed you, I'll be by tomorrow.

I stopped by Marc's place and he has posted a meme that I found interesting. The entry is the Roads Not Travelled, echoing Robert Frost's poem (at least to these former English teacher ears). By the way, if you don't know the poem, please check it out. It's one of my favorites.

Back to the meme, Marc writes about alternative paths, the untraveled roads that we might have taken. He provides some of his "might have been scenarios" and ask of the reader, "what are your top five alternate untraveled roads?" This is a really difficult question for me. Perhaps its because I've travelled at least part way down a variety of paths, at least career wise. I've worked as a cook in a Jamaican restaurant where I learned to make Jamaican beef patties and Bouillabaisse. I worked in a factory that made motors for hair dryers. My job involved shoving a little round thingamajig into a hole and then pressing a foot pedal that shot out enough heat to solder the wires to the tip of the little round thingamajig. It was highly technical work. I also worked at a book store in Chapel Hill known as the Intimate Book Shop (no, it wasn't that kind of a book store, just a family owned business that tried to create a cozy alternative to the big chain stores, although we did sell all of the Anne Rice, writing under the pseudonym A. N. Roquelaure, Sleeping Beauty trilogy). I took a rather roundabout route to becoming a teacher, and finally a lawyer.

I've rambled enough, so here are my five might have been scenarios.
1. I left home at 18, moved to New York and became a back up singer for James Brown. While performing at the Apollo, I was discovered and became a solo act as a blues singing diva.
2. I opened a soul food restaurant in Atlanta that became a hangout for the best blues artists around.
3. I fell madly in love with a biker, married him and started wearing leather and a cute diamond stud in my nose. He dies in a motorcycle crash and I sing Leader of the Pack at the funeral.
4. While performing in a musical version of Cinderella in a summer drama program in my home town (I really did play the wicked stepmother and performed a version of an Anthony Newley song from Stop the World, I want to Get Off entitled "I Want to be Rich"), I'm discovered by a Broadway producer who invites me to New York where I become the sensation of Broadway.
5. I skip teaching altogether and go straight to law school after undergraduate graduation. I become an accomplished litigator in tort law, and successfully represent client in lawsuits against companies with deep pockets. I make lots of money, retire at age 42, move to Jamaica and engage in a string of affairs with the boy toy of the moment.
There is a bit of true desire in each of these scenarios, but I'm not telling you which bits. Ultimately, I suspect that I've taken the right road and it has made all the difference.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Satire, the Obamas, and the New Yorker

I've been reading comments again. I mention them because what I've read in comments on blogs, AOL journals, and news stories on the Internet, influences my take on the cover of the upcoming issue of New Yorker magazine, due to be released on July 21, 2008.

People whom I like, with whom I exchange comments and e-mails, continue to write things like, "I'm frightened by Barack Obama," "Isn't he a Muslim?," "Michelle Obama is a racist," "She hates white people," "His middle name is Hussein," (true, but I think that the comment is meant to suggest something more sinister), etc.

I try to understand what motivates these comments. Don't worry, I haven't labeled anyone a racist; I don't toss that label about lightly. I've personally experienced enough racism in my lifetime to recognize it clearly, and I don't believe in crying wolf. Besides, a true racist doesn't need anyone to tell him or her that he/ she is a racist.

I really mean it when I say that these comments or variations thereof are written by people with whom I enjoy exchanging ideas and who I think come from a place of sincerity in expressing their concerns. Please don't misunderstand. I don't share their concerns and I don't understand them. They don't have any basis in fact, but nonetheless, I do get that they weigh heavily on people's minds. I've even sent private emails to a few, asking them to explain to me, in detail, the basis of their fears and beliefs. So far, no one has done so.

By the way, I don't question anyone's right to select the candidate of their choice, I'm just dismayed by the persistence in clinging to beliefs that are grounded in misinformation and blatant lies. Dislike any candidate because you don't support his/her politics or beliefs but for heaven's sakes, don't base your decision on some emotional belief that a candidate represents some dark, evil force. Hell, I'm not even afraid of GWB, and he's done some pretty scary stuff in the last eight years.

Just for the record: Barack Obama is not now, nor has he ever been a Muslim; you may not like his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, but he was the pastor of the Christian Church to which the Obama family belonged for 20 years. Michelle Obama did not make a racist comment about hating white people or white America, what she said was "...for the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback." I've said the same thing and I meant it from the bottom of my 53-year-old heart. I'm proud of how far this country has come in my lifetime. Having grown up with legal restrictions on where I could sit, eat, go to the bathroom and get a drink of water in a public place, I am awed that a man with African heritage may possibly become president of these United States, and that he has gotten where he is by appealing to a diverse cross section of the American people. I don't even know what to say about Barack Hussein Obama's given name. I confess that I find it hard to believe that anyone could seriously fear anyone based on the person's name. My first name, Sheria, is an alternative spelling for the Sharia, which is the name of the body of Islamic religious law. Anyone trembling in their shoes yet?

Which brings me to the New Yorker cover, (bet you thought that I would never get there). The magazine has released a statement about the controversial cover,

'In a statement Monday, the magazine said the cover "combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are....The burning flag, the nationalist-radical and Islamic outfits, the fist-bump, the portrait on the wall? All of them echo one attack or another. Satire is part of what we do, and it is meant to bring things out into the open, to hold up a mirror to prejudice, the hateful, and the absurd. And that's the spirit of this cover," the New Yorker statement said.'
I believe the statement; the New Yorker is known for its use of satire and for its liberal leanings, two of the things that I like about the magazine (surely, by now you know that I am a flaming liberal and proud of it). However, I wish that they had thought about it a bit more. As a former English teacher, I'm pretty certain that satire is not a form of literary expression that most people get. When Jonathan Swift's satirical essay, "A Modest Proposal," was first published in 1729, it was met with great outrage by many who didn't perceive the satirical tone of the piece in which Swift proposes that the Irish poor ease their economic woes by selling their young children to the wealthy to be eaten as a great delicacy. Swift writes: "A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout."

Before you get all excited, he didn't mean it; he was using his writing to comment on the hypocrisy of the government in blaming the poor for their own plight. He wanted to point out the inhumanity of allowing families to starve while the wealthy had an excess of food, goods, and luxuries. Swift wanted the reader to find his position appalling enough to act, to call for reform, to do something about the problem. This tradition of satire dates back to the great tradition of Roman satire, and echoes the writings of Horace and Juvenal.

However, I digress. The problem that I have with the New Yorker cover is quite simple, far too many people will miss the magazine's stated intent entirely. They won't read the accompanying stories. The cover will merely reinforce the misinformation that they already believe. Most people's familiarity with satire is limited; the unit that I did on satire was always the most confusing for my students. In particular, visual satire often leaves many people totally confused.

I also find the cover insulting to Michelle Obama. I really can't recall any presidential candidate's wife being subjected to this type of depiction in the past. Maybe I'm just a touchy black woman, but in every hierarchical ranking in this country, whether it is regarding wages earned or marriage potential, black women always come in dead last. If you're a black woman who speaks your mind, you are labeled difficult or the really big one--intimidating. Early in my teaching career, I had the following exchange with a colleague.

"Sheria, I just find you intimidating."

Me: "Have I ever threatened to slap you?"

"No, I didn't say that, just that I find you intimidating."

Me: "Tell you what, when I threatened to slap you, that's when I'm trying to intimidate you, otherwise, you have nothing to worry about."

Sometimes a woman gets tired of being called intimidating.

Alas, the cat is already out of the bag and and the cover cannot be undone. I have to decide if I want to read the comments that are already being generated by the news coverage about the cover. I should know better but I can't resist. Intimidating? No. Inquisitive? Yes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Do Unto Others...

I am behind on reading and commenting on journals; I've tried to catch up a bit today. Just because I didn't leave a comment, doesn't mean that I didn't stop by for a visit. I owe you a comment on the next trip.

I didn't plan to write an entry of my own today; I've been reading a really good book that my sister recommended, and my plan was to read a few journals, and get back to my book, 19 Minutes by Jodi Picoult. However, as I read journal entries and the comments that some engendered, I was struck by a recurrent theme, a willingness to give in to our pettier impulses, a rush to judgment of others, to assume that laziness, dishonesty, and lack of a willingness to work are what leave people impoverished or homeless or just without the basic necessities of life.

Don't get me wrong, I read much goodness and kindness in these journals too, but it's the judgmental observations that chill me. Far too many of us toss them off so casually, without even thinking about what our views do to others or what they do to and say about us.
Several comments that I read eagerly affirmed that people on public assistance spend their food stamps on cigarettes,T-bone steaks, and nonessential food items. I'm not certain what the nonessentials are.

There is also the Greek chorus chanting how people drive SUVs while collecting public assistance and live in public housing while driving Escalades. Then there are those who attest to witnessing the food stamp users who leave the grocery store with their beer and wearing Adidas and sagging pants, and then climb into their SUV. Clearly, the rest of us are missing out on a good thing. We should quit our jobs, sign up for public assistance, and live the high life.

When I first began my legal career, I worked for Legal Aid, which provides free legal assistance in certain areas of law to low-income persons. Some of my clients were facing things like eviction from housing or repossession of a vehicle. Others had been denied Medicaid, SSI, or some other federal or state assistance. Some had been fired and then the former employer tried to block them from receiving unemployment insurance benefits. Some owed money to hospitals for medical treatment and the hospitals creditors were threatening them with collection agencies. Legal Aid doesn't handle criminal cases, but I did represent women seeking 50B (civil protective orders in NC's courts) in domestic violence cases and I also did child custody cases. Most of my clients received public assistance of some sort and I learned a lot about the welfare system while I worked at Legal Aid.

I have no doubt that somewhere there is someone, maybe a few someones, who have figured out how to milk the welfare system for all that it's worth. Much like the top executives at Enron and other corporate businesses figured out how to rob people of their life savings. Criminal behavior doesn't always wear sagging pants, sometimes it wears business suits and white collars. However, the majority of people receiving public assistance of some sort are not living the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

You cannot use your food stamps to buy alcohol, tobacco products, pet food, or laundry, household and paper supplies. By the way, they are no longer food stamp coupons, it's an Electronic Benefit Card (EBT), which may be used to purchase food meant for human consumption, and plants and seeds for food production that are sold in a grocery store. The SUV dealership does not accept food stamps. If you are interested in how much your monthly food stamp allotment would be, click here.

If you detect anger in my post, then you are not imagining it. I'm not angry because some people think that those who are receiving public assistance are a bunch of miscreants who abuse the system, I'm angry because those misbegotten points of view actually impact the lives of the very real people whose survival depend on that public welfare system. Every person who believes the half truths of the Chicken Little clones who are constantly espousing myths and lies about the welfare benefits system makes very real decisions in voting for public officials at the federal, state, and local level. Those elected officials are the ones who decide what monies are allocated to what some call social benefits program; I prefer the term "survival programs."

During his administration, Ronald Reagan liked to tell of the Chicago Welfare Queen. According to Reagan, she had ripped off $150,000 from the government, using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen social security cards, and four fictional dead husbands. The country was outraged and the "Welfare Queen" driving her "Welfare Cadillac" became permanently lodged in American political folklore. What didn't get nearly as much attention was that the press attempted to track this "Welfare Queen" down only to discover that she didn't exist. The closest that they could come to a real, live welfare queen was a woman who had used two aliases and managed to collect $8,000 in benefits to which she wasn't entitled. (Interestingly, there was a wealthy couple living in Pasadena, California in the 1980s who engaged in welfare fraud to the tune of $377,000, filing claims for public assistance for 38 nonexistent children but they were not poor and clearly should have never qualified for welfare assistance.)

In addition to the EBT (formerly, food stamp) program, the major other funding for public assistance goes to TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly known as AFDC. TANF payment amounts vary somewhat from state to state. Under TANF, states receive a fixed amount from the federal government based on what they spent on welfare programs in 1994 without regard to subsequent changes in need. TANF frees the states from many federal constraints on how they manage the funds. The program reduced the federal welfare Based on a cursory check of the Internet, it appears that TANF monthly payments average less than $300. Sort of hard to imagine making payments on an Escalade on that income.

The bottom line is simple. Those of us who know better have got to start making as much noise as the town criers who shout half-truths, misrepresentations, and down right lies about the individuals and families that find themselves in need of a helping hand in order to have life's basic necessities. A society that doesn't take care of its least fortunate is devoid of values. Shouting about the greatness of America means nothing if we take no steps to ensure that everyone partakes of that greatness. For every person who is convinced that people who depend on public assistance are living the good life, eating steak daily and drinking imported beers, tell you what, quit your job, apply for TANF and get your piece of the pie. Don't forget to pick out your SUV.

The music is an orginal composition by Jeff Majors (on the harp) setting the 23rd Psalm to music. The vocalist is James Murphy. Majors has an album, Sacred, with equally beautiful songs on it.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil:
For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and

I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.