Friday, November 21, 2008

The Trucker Butterfly

So I was sitting here a little while ago bawling my face off over an article in the paper about a couple in upstate New York who stinted the broken wing of a monarch butterfly and sent the recovered insect to Florida with a trucker who was willing to take responsibility for its safe passage. This is the second time in about a week that I've walked around my shop a wreck--a big emotional sucking chest wound--and I don't know what's happened to me. It seems I'm becoming my mother, who will drop a tear on you before you can say Hallmark Christmas movie.
Also today, I've been helping my sister edit poems and stories from her middle school-aged students via email. They're bright kids and well-taught, but they use language in the same way gangly-legged, pimply-faced pubescents french kiss. They're so excited about their new skill, and so they practice it with great enthusiasm, in staggering quantities, but without much discretion. And boy, is it messy. Time after time, I've written comments to the effect of, "So what?" (phrased in a more tactful way) and "Give us concrete imagery and examples instead of big, abstract words." I told one young lady that I cared less about her entire first stanza than one crumpled deer on the Maury River roadside. I went on to explain why: because I see that deer, picture it bounding across the road. I see it freeze in the arc of headlights sweeping around a blind curve, and then I picture it lying in the unnatural pose in which it fell. Why does that mean something to me? Because as a human, I identify with something else alive. I identify with the concept of going about the business of my life until waylaid, maybe even run over, by some uncaring juggernaut. My point is this: there is nothing more immediate and real to me than something else alive, in need, and nothing more human than trying to help. On the surface, it's an insect, and maybe the laws of selection dictate that you should leave it alone. Dig a little deeper, though, and it's a snapshot of the connection between all life. It's the illumination of one tiny act of humanity. It's a good news story in a time when we don't get many of those. It's getting outside the mindset of, "It's not my business--probably wouldn't make a difference anyway" and making the world better by the breadth of a butterfly's wing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chester Envy

Yesterday, I drove the 20 minutes north to Chester to a friend's shop. The friend was one of the first people I met in Petersburg and helped me immensely in establishing a foothold on the slippery slope of small business ownership and in setting up my shop in Petersburg. Little did I know that, three months after my grand opening, she'd move on to the greener pastures of suburbia. I felt betrayed. WHAT?!? You're leaving? But you just opened (in the space I pined away over for my store, no less)! And the arrival of an independent bookstore surely signals the beginning of a major renaissance. Here I come to save the day!
But as I drove on non-potholed streets past eclectic shopping centers and newish, fully accredited schools, I started to understand why she moved away from a downtown that is surely, this time, like so many times before, on the verge of being something special. In fact, I may have developed the slightest case of Chester Envy. Restaurants, shops, schools, houses neatly arranged with, get this, ample parking designated for them! No psychiatric deficients manning the front doors like it's their job. I was not approached for a cigarette or bus money, I was not asked for an odd job, nor was I verbally assaulted for being married to The Doc (all regular occurrences on any given day in the 'Burg). Although I didn't know exactly where I was going, I felt safe. The growing sense of envy was not helped in the slightest when I pulled into her parking lot. Pristeen black asphalt, new building, fresh paint, workable public infrastructure and, best of all, a community dedicated to sensible development. In short, all the things Petersburg does not have.
That set me wondering why people like me make Petersburg our home. Why do we keep believing and pouring our blood, sweat and tears toward what we hope will be the town's eventual triumph? Are we hard-luck cases ourselves? Do we want to be the proverbial big fish in the small pond? Do we want to be the only game in town? Is it easier to have the safety net of being able to blame our personal failures on a city that's failing? Maybe, maybe not. It's hard not to hope for good things for this city. We see so much potential for a phoenix rising from the ashes of the past. It's hard not to root for the underdog. This city has certainly had its share of adversity. It's hard not to get caught up in a sense of the excitement of possibility, especially given our country's recent path. So we choose to live and work here and, on some level, to cast our fortunes in with those of the city. But it's also really hard to keep being positive when there seems to be no comprehensive plan to "get there from here," and seemingly no sense of urgency about developing one. Seeing a town that's already there makes it that much more obvious.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Art Of Guileless Fiction

I've been trying to understand why I love a good children's story almost above all else these days. This after I've just sat here and sobbed through Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie in preparation for my Kids Book Club meeting tomorrow morning. The conclusion I reached (after ruling out regression) is that there is nothing better to me than a good story, simply told. I'm of the school that believes that good stories want to be told. There are millions of them out there right now, sailing around on the winds like dreams, waiting for their chance to be born. Looking for the person who has enough self-confidence to see the story as bigger than themselves, someone who recognizes beauty in simplicity and can get out of the way of it.
Children's authors, perhaps because they make their living writing for an audience that hasn't learned the art of guile, seem to understand this better than other authors. I'm so tired of books that are studiously and condescendingly obtuse, as if their authors are writing for the Pulitzer Committee instead of for the sake of the story itself. I'm tired of fluently jumbled chronologies, tired of innovative techniques, bored with trickster narrators, exhausted with the lion's share of the history of a country summarized neatly in footnotes in a work of fiction! Tell me a good story well, and you don't need gimmicks. Tell me something that illuminates our shared humanity. Tell me something that surprises, enlightens, makes me laugh and cry. Tell me something true. You don't need $50 words to do it. You just need to listen and then get out of the way. And read some children's books before you start.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


One of the many interesting things about the transition from military life to that of a self-employed business person, is that it has changed the definition of, well, almost everything. Here's a less than profound for-instance. During an adult lifetime spent in the military, cruising around to some of the world's least desirable places, "Squatter" was how I thought of myself in most foreign countries. Certainly, I considered the political aspect of the term: that we were unwanted temporary residents of whatever port we'd crashed for that particular 3-6 day span. But mostly, it was even more fundamental than that. That is to say: You didn't ever SIT on a toilet in east Europe or west Africa or, say, in certain southern Georgia gas stations (even assuming there was somewhere to sit, which wasn't always the case). You squatted and worked your little excremental muscles to direct the stream in what you hoped was generally the right direction, wiped what you could with toilet paper you had stuffed in a pocket for the evening and left without looking back in the hopes that whatever vermin resided there would be so impressed by your unflappability that they'd leave you alone. This concept served me well for more than 16 years and allowed me to escape such notorious armpits as Lagos, Nigeria and Naples, Italy without incident.

Now that my most exotic destination is West Bank Street in Petersburg, I've refined the concept of squatting to serve my civilian needs. Over six months of looking through the glass bowl of small town central Virginia, "Squatter" has come to mean those members of our society who make a living out of glomming free stuff from local businesses. I should point out here that I'm not talking about folks who come in, buy a cup of coffee, set up their computer and use my wi-fi to check their email and surf the Internet for an hour or two. I'm not even implying that coming in and hanging out at the local bookstore without buying something ain't cool. The whole point of having a comfortable seating area, wi-fi and coffee is so that people feel welcome to come in and chill for a little while. I'm mostly talking about the professionally unemployed folks who make up a sizable minority of Petersburg's population, typically on some form of disability payment, who literally have nothing else to do besides hang out either in the streets or in whatever business they've selected as the day's mark. I know this probably sounds mean-spirited and petty because, without firsthand experience with Petersburg's storied partnership with Central State Psychiatric Hospital AND the city's cultivation of a Section 8 housing market cities four times its size would envy, I would have thought so too. I've read some references that estimate that over 40% of the population is disabled in some way, and it's a well-documented fact that the literacy rate here hovers around 60%. This is certainly not the fault of the people who are disabled, and I don't put it on them, but it does lead to a somewhat dysfunctional city. So here, without my trademark tendency to exaggerate, is a sampling of descriptions of my Squatters to date.

Squatter #1 skulked in a minimum four of the six days per week I was open during my first couple of months. Some days, he'd sit on the wall outside waiting for me to open, but always, he was here by the time I'd been open an hour. Ex-military himself, he apparently believed this gave us instant rapport and would set up base camp on one of my couches and proceed for the next five to seven hours to hang out with his new vet buddy. He didn't even leave to eat, he laughed and talked loudly to himself, he got up and grabbed books periodically to use as reference material for whatever project he had spread out over half the seating area. He talked to me almost constantly as I worked on the administrative tasks required to run the business during my slow times. It exhausted me to keep being nice when all I really wanted was soem quiet, but I convinced myself that even this wasn't so bad--he was a nice enough fellow, just seemed to have some social adjustment issues. Then he also developed the tiniest little annoying habit of insinuating himself into conversations with other customers. Finally, after the fourth customer commented on his unsolicited comments, we had to have the "appropriate amount of time to be spending here" talk. This was my first time kicking someone out, and I felt like an absolute ass. In spite of exercising as much tact as I could muster and reassuring him that he was a good person and it was nothing personal, it was like I'd kicked the poor guy in the face. I haven't seen him since, but I HAVE refined my squatter confrontation technique on a couple more.

Squatter #2, I can't actually pigeonhole as a squatter: we'll call him a polite and likeable gentleman with a job and slight squatter tendencies. #2 would come in about once a week and browse the fantasy and graphic novel sections, then settle down with his chosen paperback, reading sometimes the entire book before putting it back on the shelf. Alternately, he would fall asleep on the couch and I'd have to wake him up and tell him this really wasn't the appropriate place to nap. He was always extraordinarily polite and solicitous of my well-being, and he sometimes bought an item, so having "The Talk" with him was a tough call. I mean, what kind of petty jerk squabbles with a customer over a couple of paperbacks? Our Squatter/landlord relationship finally ended after his third fully read Jim Butcher novel made its way back onto the shelf unpurchased. I took him over and gently showed him the difference between the spines of all the unread books and those he had read. Soft covers that have been read are easily distinguishable because all the other spines in the bookcase are pristeen, and the ones that have been read have noticeable creases in them. Barnes and Noble may be able to afford to replace them, but no small bookstore can. Fortunately, squatter #2 got the message and has since turned into a regular customer who DOESN'T read entire books without buying them. Come to think of it, he hasn't been in to sleep on the couch in a while, either. Ah, a success story.

That success was short-lived, however, as Squatter #3 has been my most challenging case. Squatter #3, you see, is transgendered, not that there's anything wrong with that. But before I knew her as a him, I had noted that she had come in once and hung out for an extensive amount of time, reading a couple hundred pages of a couple of books and making copious notes out of them, even taking her shoes off to get a little more comfortable on her first visit. So I had already filed her under the "Potential Squatter" category. The second time she visited, she informed me (and everyone else who happened to be in the store that afternoon) that his name was Keith (not his real name) and that he was transgendered. Roger that, good on you, I went on to shelve some more books. He went on to talk fairly extensively and somewhat graphically with a friend of mine who happened to be in having a cup of coffee (see how that works?) about the procedure for transitioning. Now, although this was beyond the scope of what I feel like I ought to hear in a bookstore in the course of a business day, he seemed to need someone to talk to, and my friend seemed to not be offended. Neither of us encouraged any personal details, but what the hell? Let him talk for a few minutes. Until one of my little blue-haired Daughters of the Confederacy rolled in and I hit the panic button. Fortunately, with the help of my friend, we managed to avoid the impending train wreck. I talked loudly with the little old lady about the weather until my friend could steer Keith onto safer conversational ground. Next time I saw Keith, he was railing about how someone or other was dissing his decision to live as a man, and since he considered me an open-minded person, wanted me to help him find help. So I did some digging around and sent him off with the web address of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered group out of Richmond and off he went to research the new possibilities. Well, he came back the other day to report his progress, loudly, with two of my good conservative Civil War historians from Prince George County in close attendance. Now, don't get me wrong. I couldn't give a crap that Keith is living as a dude and don't really consider it any of my other customers' business. My problem with Keith is this: he MAKES it my other customers' business, and most of my other customers definitely would rather not be involved. In other words, it's like this has become the testing ground for various over-the-top strategies to be acknowledged as a dude. This particular day, he was standing up here at the check-out counter, looking like a badly dressed woman, talking in a woman's voice to the retired Air Force guy and the Civil War historian woman, getting into a grip contest with the man, and telling the woman he'd hold his strength back when shaking her hand because she's a lady. He introduced himself as Keith and got into a mock sword fight with retired Air Force as he was telling me he had resolved his "issues" and gotten happy with himself. I prayed he didn't elaborate and held my breath until the old folks left. And this really sticks in my craw, because I don't want to get into the habit of playing morality police based on my perceptions of what my more conservative customers consider moral. If some of my customers are offended by Keith's decisions or actions, isn't that a problem between them and not me? I don't want to get into the habit of babysitting people for appropriate behavior, especially when appropriate is such a subjective term. But where I draw the line, where I HAVE to draw the line is at the bottom line. If his behavior loses me customers, and I feel like it eventually will, then I have to have "The Talk" with Keith next time he's in.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Intellectual Dishonesty

Despite all economic indicators to the contrary, I decided it would be a good time to open the independent bookstore of my childhood dreams, in a town mildly infamous for its 40% illiteracy rate, in May. Six months later, I sit alone in my shop on a Saturday afternoon, taking an inventory of my marketable skills, and trying to decide what to do for money until the City of Readers engages with me. Fortunately, it turns out there is a wealth of opportunities for freelance writers out there in Internet-land. Without exception, these positions offer diverse assignments to choose from, the ability to work from home (or in my case, work) and the promise of riches untold. Great, I think, sign me up.
So I sign up to be writer number 24601 on Get my welcome aboard email, studiously read the guidelines (to include a very THOROUGH--and what turns out to be thoroughly ironic--briefing on plagiarism), sign off on the policies and eagerly open up the assignments tab to start my new part-time career. What awaits me there is page after page of academic possibilities: there are essays due, some apparently in three hours, that must be ghost written. There are research papers, theses, midterm projects--from high school on up through doctoral level--that the student can't be bothered to complete. Most have source requirements, some require specific documentation formats, a few even require you to make a specified number of spelling or grammatical errors so the "client" doesn't have to go in and insert them to personalize the work. The going rate for your intellectual integrity? Anywhere from $7 on up to around $90.
I have to be honest. I don't have any cause to pass myself off as holier-than-anyone. I thought seriously about it for a while. I mean, hell, what business is it of mine if little Johnny likes to party instead of write his papers? I'm not making any money selling books, and I need to make some little pittance for not only my fiscal situation, but also to feel like a self-reliant, capable human being. What difference does it make whether I do it or someone else does it? It's not like my participation or lack thereof will even change the speed of the academic paper supply juggernaut. There are hundreds of other little anonymous writer numbers who will take the assignments if I don't, and that's only on THIS particular site. I can write this stuff well, with one brain hemisphere tied behind my back. Why not? Why should I sweat what happens to these few sentences strung together after they leave my computer? I guess it really comes down to one thing: because it's just plain dishonest. On the most basic level, this moral dilemma equates to the same reason I left the military: I was making good money, but I felt in my gut that I was selling my soul for it. So I won't do it. Someone else will. The papers will still get turned in, and that's okay. I'm not responsible for making the whole world better, only my little corner of it.