The Indubitable Dweeb
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July 24, 2012

Of Guns and Children’s Books

The old refrain: we’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again.

Some disturbed individual buys a bunch of guns and murders a bunch of people. The media falls in love with the story. We endure some rounds of punditry. A few folks change their minds on the issues of gun control and mental healthcare, but most of us stand firm in our opinions. Then, after a few days, we move on, until another wayward soul takes some shots at another awful legacy and we all say, “we’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again.”

I rarely address current events on this blog. I almost never mention my politics. But I feel the need to address the issue of guns and gun violence. Don’t worry, I’m not here with boatloads of links and statistics and I don’t think I’m qualified to offer viable solutions. I’m only going to talk about how this issue relates to my life and my writing.

I’ve never owned a real gun, or even fired one. Although I lived a free-range childhood that involved plenty of squirt, rubber dart, and cap guns, my parents didn’t allow firearms in the house. Even BB guns were off limits. If I wanted to shoot an air rifle, I had to arrange a clandestine meeting in the woods with a friend who owned a pump-action Daisy. During one such meeting, I ended up with a welt on my cheek, the result of poor safety precautions and an opportunistic ricochet. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” indeed.

Six or seven years later, when I was studying in London, a lone Englishman at a party full of Americans approached me and asked me how many of us were carrying guns. I laughed at the absurdity of his question, but he wasn’t joking. Not only did he believe that all Americans owned and carried guns, he also assumed that we did so when we traveled.

A year after that, on New Year’s Eve, I was in a nearly empty pizza parlor on Bleecker Street when a group of teens in puffy coats entered. They didn’t attempt to order. They just stood amid the tables, eyeing up the cashier. When one teen unzipped his coat, I saw a pistol tucked in his waistband. The cashier knew what was about to happen; he placed his hands flat on the counter and didn’t budge. After a tense minute or two, one of the teens finally said, “not worth it,” and they walked out.

A few years later, in rural upstate New York, I attended a 4th of July party. In lieu of fireworks, the host pulled an Uzi from his impressive gun cabinet and proceeded to shoot a few dozen rounds into the air. I don’t know if he was the legal owner of that Uzi, but I doubt it. I left the party shortly after the entertainment.

Guns haven’t played much of a role in my life of late, except when it comes to my writing. These days, I write books about kids. Because my books are about kids, they’re sold to kids. In my books, some of the characters wield and shoot guns. Those characters are all kids.

During the editorial stages, I have been asked to remove plenty of swearing and kissing from my books. It’s a business decision more than an artistic one. Certain libraries and book-buyers refuse to buy anything in the middle-grade market (i.e. fare for ages 9–12) that features a few hells and a little frenching. And yet, I have never been asked to edit out a gun or an incident of gun violence, even when a 12-year-old character is the perpetrator of that violence. The powers-that-be are okay with all that stuff.

Should they be okay with all that stuff, though? I don’t know. I hope they should be, as long as I’m doing my job as an author, which I believe is to provide an engrossing story with compelling characters whose motivations are relatable and whose actions have consequences. Guns in my stories represent the same thing they represent in life: instant power. Instant power is an appealing and terrifying enticement for many of us, and definitely for those of us in the confusing throes of puberty. To leave those enticements out of a story is fine, but to claim such things have no place in books for kids is to deny a very real part of our world. And our world is their world.

I would rather not live in a world where we are constantly saying, “we’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again.” I would rather not live in a world where instant power comes cheap and easy and at the expense of other people’s lives. But right now, we do live in that world. And in that world, I have chosen to write books for kids. I owe those kids the same thing I owe everyone: honesty and compassion, and the diligence to recognize when I’ve neglected the payments on that debt.

November 4, 2010

How to Survive a Shark Attack

A lot of people come to this blog with the same question.

“Aaron,” they ask, “what should I do if I get attacked by a shark?”

Now I’ve seen most of the TV edit of Deep Blue Sea on TBS, and while I’ve only caught the beginning of Jaws: The Revenge, I’m generally a fan of Mario Van Peebles, so I think I know how that one turns out (Peebles: 1, Shark: 0). In short, I’m just as qualified as anyone in teaching the art of shark survival. Yes, I am aware that National Geographic claims they’ve got a corner on this market, but these are also the bums who haven’t sent you a wicked cool holographic skull cover in more than 20 years. With cinema like Saw 3-D out there, a National Geographic might as well be an issue of Highlights, without all those gnarly hidden picture games. It’s certainly not the periodical to pull out when a hammerhead is getting all gory on your metatarsal. For that, you come to me. But first we have to establish a couple things.

Is the shark biting you right now? If you answered yes, then my suggestion is that you move your smart phone or laptop to your weak hand, freeing the dominant one up for some Three Stooge moves. While doing this, you might be able to distract the shark by asking it if it would like to check its email. Chances are the shark doesn’t have an email account, and even if it does, it’s probably a compuserve one that it hasn’t checked in forever, but you’ll catch the old gill-breather off guard for a second while it considers the fact that banking online really does free up more minutes in your day.

How long have you known the shark? I ask you this because they often pose a similar question on Cops and it’s a good way to determine the nature of domestic relationships. If you answered “my whole life,” then I know there are gonna be a few emotional issues here, especially if things get to the point where I have to suggest that you stab the shark in its reproductive organs. Then again, if you answer “we just met at a coral reef a few minutes ago,” then I’m going be wondering if I’m getting the whole story. I mean, what type of coral reef are we talking about? Are there any jelly fish at this reef I should be aware of? Do I have to tip the guy that drives the boat for the snorkeling trip? What about the kid that hands out the masks? I mean, he’s just a kid and he’s not really doing anything. Questions can be like dominoes.

Now that we’ve assessed the situation, I’m going to run through the steps of surviving a shark attack:

  1. Don’t play dead. Besides drowning, you’ll run the risk of having some hillbilly shark putting you on stick and then chasing his friends around and saying stupid things like, “I’ma smear some Roger on ya!” This is especially true for people named Roger.
  2. If you usually tell neighborhood bullies that you know martial arts, now would be a good time to admit that you don’t. Bruce Lee yowls and board chopping will only serve to embolden a shark. And sharks have devised an effective strategy to combat roundhouse kicks. It’s called biting your leg off.
  3. However, fans of roundhouse kicks shouldn’t be shy about working Road House into the conversation. Sharks loooove Road House and while they’re amusing themselves with lines like “Pain don’t hurt!” and “I want you to be nice until it’s time to not be nice,” you can focus on your escape.
  4. Well planned, poetic escapes are unquestionably awesome, but you probably don’t have the time to work some Shawshank or Count of Monte Crisco-style revenge into yours. Just start swimming. Years down the line you can toss some plastic soda rings and motor oil into the ocean if that makes you feel any better.
  5. Don’t swim the butterfly. It’s too hard. And it’s pretentious.
  6. During the initial scuffle, you might have lost your bathing suit. Now this goes against traditional wisdom, but I recommend that you go back for it. Assuming you’ve got a shot with one of the cute lifeguards ashore, you definitely don’t want to walk out of the water giving a full body advertisement of the goods. There’s desperation and then there’s desperation. Emily Post would agree with me on this one.
  7. Swimsuit back on, now is the time to start making a bunch of noise. Yes, this will pull the shark out of its Swayze-induced hypnosis, but you’ll want all the camcorders on the beach pointing your way. Youtube was made for stuff like this, and who doesn’t aspire to become the next “keyboard cat.”
  8. A one liner would help at this point. Especially if you want this video to be auto-tuned. Try: “It’s eating all my limbs up in here.”
  9. If Danny Boyle happens to be on the beach now might be the ideal moment to throw him your business card. That limey loves to direct human interest stories filled with blood and guts and he might even convince Ewan McGregor to play you and Cillian Murphy to play the shark. Speaking of guts, it’s bad form to give anyone a business card with guts on it. So dip that bad boy in the surf before flicking it Danny’s way.
  10. Live. That’s the final step. Just live. When they cart you to the local hospital, don’t go dying on us. Cause you know who lives? Heroes. And you know who dies? Cowards. Well, Abraham Lincoln wasn’t a coward, but he’s the exception to the rule. And, besides, Abraham Lincoln was never stupid enough to go swimming off the coast of South Africa. Smooth move Ex-Lax.

That’s it. Hope you were taking notes, or at least staving off the bleeding long enough to get this far. Next week, I’ll teach you how to survive being shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth. Until then…

October 22, 2010

The Last Party

Rarely does a photograph inspire me as much as the jaw-dropper above does. I found it at the Huffington Post, which in turn snatched it from what I assume is Trent Reznor’s Polaroid collection. Actually, I don’t have a clue where it ultimately originated, nor do I want to know. Because the primary source can’t possibly live up to my imagination.

I like to think that the photo was found some years ago in a dented metal lunch box, on the backseat of an ivy-hugged T-Bird, which was parked alongside an abandoned hunting cabin in the north woods of Quebec. I like to think that there was a journal enclosed in that lunch box as well. I like to think that the journal starts out innocently enough, with tales of teenage optimism and lumberjacking aspirations. I like to think that a man named Pierre Beaumont enters the story at a certain point and he has the laugh of a magpie and he carries a jack-in-the-box that he’s always cranking, though the thing never opens, and when the young author asks him if it’s broken, Pierre simply puts a finger to his lips and says “the trees will drink our secrets.” And I like to think that on a night of sleet and whiskey, the author boards a canoe with Pierre and the two go in search “The Norwegian,” a notorious hermit who is said to possess a radio which is perpetually tuned to the sounds of woman washing their feet, but they lose their way when they flip the canoe, then decide to follow an albino fox through a dark hollow, at which point they come upon the fore-mentioned hunting cabin. Then I like to think that the journal changes, and mutates into a series of sketches and scrawls, of riddles and limericks, which appear to make no sense at first, until paired with the photograph above, and then a foggy portrait of an endless evening emerges, of a burlap sack full of masks, of a victrola, of a boy sewing his own eyelids shut and clapping on one and three, of a meal of mutton and Tang, of a game of William Tell, of a moonlit tango which makes the men blush with jealousy, of a hissing teapot, of third-degree burns, of a monkey with a shaved head and  lobotomy scar, of a old man who speaks through a hole in his throat and says, “when I was just a boy my father took me to the fish market and we bought the largest fish they had, a five hundred pound marlin, and when we returned home, my father burned my bed and all my linens, then he sliced the marlin lengthwise with a letter opener  and he told me that I was to sleep inside of its belly, and so I did, for fifteen years, just me and the marlin and the moonlight, and I was okay with this because I was boy and boys don’t know what life is supposed to give them next, and what life gave me next was a bear, a snarling, drooling, furry beast who stole the marlin and me and took us to a cave and in the cave there was a bucket and in the bucket there were marshmallows, and as the bear ate the marlin, I ate the marsmallows, until my stomach expanded and rounded me out, causing my body to roll down into the caverns and onto dark underground river, in which I floated for a while, both afraid and delighted, until I reached an opening and poured out into the Rainforest Cafe, where they were serving Rumble in the Jungle Turkey Wraps, and I ordered one of those and a nice cold sarsaparilla, and I waited for the judgement, but the judgement didn’t come, no, the judgement never comes, and I learned that the hard way, just as we’re all learning that now, deep in the gut of the world, and it’s times like these that I wish, I pray, my friends, with every bit of bone and bile in my body, that one of you kind souls remembered to bring a camera, cause we really should capture this moment…

September 17, 2010

The Noses from Nuremberg

Let’s talk about Germans, why don’t we? We haven’t in a while. It’s time.

Fun fact about Germans: They have an uncanny ability to find dead bodies in hotel room mattresses!

Check out the provided Snopes link. It’s a fascinating, if macabre, discussion of an urban legend. As the story goes, a couple checks into a hotel room, settles in for the night, only to find the room has a funky smell to it. They pay it no mind, and hit the hay. The next morning, the smell is worse. A call to the front desk, and up comes an amply nostrilled bellhop. He sniffs around for a bit and decides the bed is the culprit. Flips the mattress. Viola! Corpse.

Thing is, this isn’t an urban legend. It’s happened a number of times in the U.S. of A. What’s curious, however, is that in three of the incidents, it was German tourists who discovered the bodies. Marathon Man fans are bound to raise an inquisitive finger and clench their molars, but I don’t think there’s a conspiracy afoot here. I just think Germans have a natural ability for sniffing this stuff out. I mean these are the people who brought us Scorpions, after all. They can always find something that stinks. Zing!

All kidding aside, I beleive we need to test the theory out. I’ll send the idea to Mythbusters post-haste. It should be simple enough. The mustachioed Mythbuster can murder the red-headed one, stuff his body under a Serta Perfect Sleeper, then send someone as American-as-Isalmaphobia into the room. Ron Howard should do. Start the stopwatch and see how long it takes Howard to find the body. Then repeat the experiment, swapping in Werner Herzog for Howard. If Howard finds it quicker, then the myth is officially busted. If Herzog wins, well, then I’m dispatching someone pasty and lederhosened into every Comfort Inn before I let them swipe my MasterCard. Compare me to the Princess and the Pea if you like, but a fellow expects certain things from a hotel mattress:

  1. Cleanliness
  2. Firmness
  3. Clearly marked headstones
June 26, 2010

The Emasculation of Aaron Starmer, Part I

It’s true. I took some time off from the blogging and I hid in the Grand Canyon for a spell. Seven days rafting on the Colorado with the fine folks at Wilderness River Adventures. If you don’t believe me, check out this video of what it looks like to hit a rapid from the perspective of a life-jacket. Absolutely stirring stuff:

It was a fantastic time, and I consider myself blessed to have seen 100 miles of stunning wilderness that the majority of the world will never lay eyes upon. The National Park service only allows 150 people on the river each day, and for good reason. We don’t want to turn the place into Pigeon Forge after all. I have but one misgiving about the trip. I only wish it didn’t make me feel like less of a man.

Yes, yes, yes, I know. I’m a hairy-backed burly fellow who can throw a football and pound a beer and sing along with the chorus to not only one, but two, RATT songs. How on Earth could my masculinity be in question? Well, it’s all a matter of survival.

I’m no Les Stroud, but my fire building skills are more than adequate, I can purify water, and I know not to rub poison ivy on my special bits and roll around in a pile of fire ants. I could make do in the wilderness for a couple days if things got all Cormac McCarthy out there. What I can’t do is pilot a boat through Class V rapids. This never bothered me when I went on rafting day trips in West Virginia. Yet, in the Grand Canyon, as I faded off to sleep with the woosh of the mighty Colorado as my lullaby, I couldn’t help but amend my nightly prayers.

“God Bless Mama, and Dadda, and all the people who have never eaten a banh mi sandwich, because damn those are some really good sandwiches and everyone should try one, and God, especially bless these river guides, without whom I’d probably end up looking like Ronny Cox in Deliverance, which is to say nothing bad of Deliverance, because for all the hillbilly jokes it’s spawned, it’s still a great American movie, adapted from perhaps one of the greatest books of the last fifty years, but in it Ronny Cox gets his bicep all wrapped around his neck and his body gets crushed up against some rocks and that sure would be a crappy way to go, so God bless these river guides who haven’t let that happen to me, and God, make sure they don’t let that happen tomorrow either.”

That’s what it all comes down to. For seven days and six nights some fit young men and women took turns rowing me and my floral swimming trunks down 100 miles of river while I bounced on my rubber seat and got splashed with freezing water and giggled like the Snuggle Bear. Sure, I hiked down to the river on an exceedingly hot day (in the 110 F range), and I know I could have hiked back out (on a trail, of course) in an emergency, but if called upon to guide a boat to Lake Mead, well, I might as well have dispatched a homing pigeon to the Daily Sun with the four word message: “There were no survivors.” Heck, for the short moment during the trip when I was handed the oars on a piece of flat-water, I was all wonky and out of rhythm, hardly ready for a Class I, let alone the fabled Lava Falls.

I realize that rafting the Grand Canyon isn’t akin to climbing K2 or running the Badwater Ultramarathon or some such insanity, but it takes a good bit of skill, a fair amount of endurance and a healthy set of…(what’s the English word for cojones?). It also takes tolerance and good spirits. You have to deal with folks like me, who ask a lot of strange questions, who eat more than their share of pickles and potato chips at lunch, and who act all Louisa May Alcott when danger lurks: “Please ma’am, would you see to it that I am not volleyed from this vessel resulting in spinal fracture, as my spine is what I use for bipedalism. And bipedalism is ever so nice.”

So hats off to those river guides, who effortlessly jump from boat to shore in flip-flops and buttoned poplin shirts, while the rest of us stumble around all Teva’ed and dry-wicked. You’re a good combination of smart and talented and friendly ski-bums and adrenhelin junkies and nature lovers and slightly grizzled hermits, and you have accomplished something that my ex-girlfriends have not. You have made me feel needy and weak. It’s about time.