Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Fiend

A Short Story by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Unlike most of Fitzgerald's short stories, this one is not about high society, the roller coaster ride of money gained and lost or love and relationships among wealthy (or stuggling upper class) Americans in Paris or Prague. Instead, this six-page story opens with a newpaper-article like report of the murder of Mrs. Crenshaw Engels and her seven year old son while they were taking a walk on a sunny afternoon in Stillwater, Minnesota. The particulars of the murder are not mentioned and the author tells the readers that the circumstances were "so atrocious that, fortunately, it is not necessary to set them here." The murderer is also never named anything other than "the fiend."

This story succinctly deals with the unique relationship that develops between Crenshaw Engels and the murderer. Crenshaw loses everything as a result of the events of that afternoon- his wife and child, all happiness in life, his photography shop business, his home and even a measure of his sanity. The fiend is caught and sentenced to life imprisonment and after several unsucessful attemps to kill the murderer- ranging from desperate attempts to strangle him in court and to sneak into the prison to shoot him to more planned attempts to make capital punishment legal in the state- Crenshaw settles into his life of work as a department store clerk. His life is society is like a biluous dream while what really keeps him going are his regular visits to the two graves and to the fiend, where he uses all the tactics of mental torture at his disposal. It is only decades later, after the fiend dies suddenly of a ruptured appendix that Crenshaw realizes that somehow, over time, the fiend had transformed into his "only friend." This story poignantly captures the utter solitude of a man who lost everything, including the hatred that had been his last refuge in life.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

How I Got so Black and Blue

I see you wondering, when you look at my knee
for the sight is certainly quite plain to see
there are bumps, there are lumps, a scratch or two
How did I get so black and blue?

It's winter you know
the street's full of snow
there's even some ice here and there
While talking a walk
I was crossing a park
When I most definitely got a scare

I was returning home
and chatting on the phone
while munching on a tasty snack
I was taking a shortcut
through a small park, but
suddenly, there was a crack

I was climbing a fence -it was small
I would save me some time, I was wrong
well I slipped and I fell
and the marks here can tell
the impact was certainly strong

I swear I've ammended my ways,
I still take the shortcut these days
But now when I walk, I don't also talk
and my hands are ready, I'm as stable as rock
I step over carefully, I focus, not laze
and attempt to avoid further shock.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back

What is a lion to do, if a hunter insists on shooting him? Lafcadio tried to be civil:
"Hi hunter," he said.
"Good heavens," cried the hunter, "a ferocious lion, a dangerous lion, a roaring, bloodthirsty man-eating lion."

Lafcadio tried to reason with him but the hunter was simply not going to sway. The hunter exclaimed, "Lions eat hunters! So I must shoot you now and make you into a nice rug and put you in front of my fireplace and on cold winter evenings I will sit on you and toast marshmalows."
"Well, my goodness, you dont have to shoot me. I will be your rug and I will lie in front of your fireplace and I won't move a muscle and you can sit on me and toast all the marshmallows you want." The young lion was a polite as can be, if only perhaps a bit too curious about the ways of the hunters and the taste of marshmallows. When reasoning failed and the hunter attempted to load his gun to shoot the lion, Lafcadio had no option but to eat him up. Circumstances made out of Lafcadio exactly what the hunter had expected him to be, even though that was not what Lafcadio had started out as at all.

Well, time passed and Lafcadio became a great shot with the hunter's gun. After wave upon wave of hunters and other humans were shot by him, a man from the circus found Lafcadio and convinced him to become part of his business. Lafcadio accepted the offer, had his fill of marshmallows and was overall extremely successful in assimilating into the human world. However, at one point he seemed to have a mid-life crisis of sorts and his friends suggested going on a hunting trip to get his mind off of things. While at the hunt, he was recognized by one of the lions, and things came to a head when the hunters and lions forced him to choose a side.

"Poor, poor Lafcadio- what do you do when you don't want to be a hunter- and you don't want to be a lion?
"Look," he said, " I don't want to shoot any lions and I certainly don't want to eat up any of you hunters. I don't want to stay here in the jungle and eat raw rabbits and I certainly don't want to go back to the city and drink buttermilk. I don't want to chase my tail, but I don't want to play bridge either. I guess I don't belong in the hunter's world, and I guess I don't belong in the lion's world. I guess I don't belong anywhere.""

This feeling of having each foot in a different boat (or to stretch the metaphor, being an octupus with each tentacle anchored in a different culture, which are as differnt from each other as the worlds of lions and hunters) definitely resonated. "Is he a lion at all?" asks the voice in the blurb- and so perhaps the mixing of species in my metaphor is also strangely apt. Shel Silverstein's Lafcadio: The Lion Who Shot Back is a children's story in the form of a modern fable that is enjoyable and thought-provoking reading for adults too. From the creator of beloved childhood poems in "Where the Sidewalk Ends," this is a must-read. The illustrations are an added bonus.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A poem a la Silverstein

In one of my ESL lessons we read a couple of poems by Shel Silverstein and my 12 year old student tried her hand at poetry inspired by his work. The results simply tickled me, here's a sample for you to see ;)

I know I'm being a fool,
But I just can't go to school.
Although my friends are there,
My teacher's impossible to bear.
Oh, my darling mom,
Please stay calm;
For when you're mad,
It makes me so sad.
Fine, oh fine, I'll go.
But I will go slow.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nijhny Novgorod, Russia

Tania and I wanted to go to South America and we wanted to go to the Caucasus. Given the time frame we had to plan a trip, Nijhny Novgorod was far more feasible. And so early this January, to Nijhny it was! We wanted to buy tickets for the train for late night on the 7th, bought them for the 8th by mistake, and realized, just a few hours before the train, that since the train was at 00:15, it was actually the same night as the 7th. Stupid, I know, but well, it happens. Anyway, we made it to the train on time and our CouchSurfer host in Nijhny also forgave us the last minute change in plans, so although there was a little bit of a bump, it wasn't even a rocky start.

Katya, our absolutely fantastic host, met us at the train station at 6am the next morning. After breakfast at her place, we went for a walk around the Nijhny Novgorod Kremlin.

Katya also took us to an ice-sculpture exhibition, replete with reindeer, a castle and even a tiny maze.

It was very cold, and I was bundled up enough to earn the nickname "Tistka Terroristka" (Tista the Terrorist). Well, it was -20C and there was frost in my eyelashes- who can blame me?!

The company was excellent, but the streets really were much too cold, so we alternated sightseeing outdoors with museums and cafes. Let's just say that copious amounts of glintwein and medovukha passed between us :D We saw a photography museum (with an exhibition of contemporary work too), an exhibition of landscapes made entirely out of pieces of leaves but that looked like paintings from a few feet away (amazing stuff), the museum in the Kremlin and a beautiful cathedral whose name I didn't even try remember (I was really cold by this time :P). The next day, we made the several hour trip to the town of Gorodetz where we saw a Samovar museum (I was apparently the first Indian visitor there, judging by the excitement of the guide), a pryanik museum (they have a museum for baking bread!) and a beautiful sunset on a land-locked 'sea'. The town itself was also worth seeing- most of the little houses were made of wood and each was brightly painted a different color and had intricate woodwork designs.

Well, we romped around for a couple of days and while Tania made fun of my Russian and I complained about the cold the entire time, it was an excellent trip!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

An evening on a train

She was bored. She felt a little tired, a little lonely, but most of all, she felt bored. She was on vacation in a foreign country that she had long longed to visit. She liked traveling alone, but she had just spent three weeks with strangers who had quickly become friends, and while the tired part of her welcomed the empty train coupe, silence had so completely taken the place of sounds that she missed it all, just a little. The place wasn't exactly silent- in addition to the usual sounds of the grind of wheels against tracks and the swaying squeaks of the train, there were sounds coming from nearby coupes- small groups of friends and families and even the slow but shrill whine of a baby at a distance. But after weeks of chatter with people who wanted to talk to her, who were almost laughably enamored by her foreign appearance and origin, who kept asking her how to say X in Y language, after weeks of barely threaded conversations in broken languages, she was alone again. She would miss some of the people she had met, particularly her roommate, with whom she had shared many hours of silly giggles, walks to the beach, hikes, evenings of gazing at stars and deliciously illicit afternoons of cooking in the room on a small camping stove. She knew that although they had shared addresses and may write an e-mail or two, they would never again have the same familiarity. They might even meet again in some different part of the world, but such a meeting would be nice at best and awkward at worst.

Any attempts at conversation with her neighbors, had she had the energy for it, would have probably been more of an intrusion than anything else. So she remained in her empty coupe, now sitting and now lying down, absently-mindedly reading a book, munching on some snacks, looking out the window at scenery that had been fascinating three weeks ago but had now become monotonous, closing the coupe door or opening it again and watching the children playing in the little hallway that ran lengthwise along the wagon. These children also stopped to stare at her from time to time, a brave few even venturing a step or two into her coupe, but as soon as a parent noticed it, the child was promptly reprimanded and pulled back to the hallway.

It was a warm evening and she languidly lay on one of the upper berths. From this vantage point she peeked out at people walking across the hallway on their way to the toilet, the smokers' corner or the samovar that was on one end of the wagon for passengers to make hot tea. This is when she saw a man in a large straw hat pass by, but she doesn't know if they made eye contact or not- her lazy, half-sleepy mind barely registered his presence. A few long minutes passed and, finding that the children were somewhat boring and the novel she had brought with her possibly worse, she tried to doze off for lack of anything better to pass the time with.

Although drowsy, she wasn't sleepy enough to be able to doze for more than half an hour. She tossed and turned and even put the pillow over her head to try to block out all the sounds and the electric lights. Finally, giving up, she decided to open her eyes and give up on sleep for the time being. Maybe she could try reading again. Thinking this, she was climbing down to the lower berth when she noticed that she was not alone in the coupe anymore. The man with the straw hat was sitting in a dimly lit corner, staring fixedly at her. She felt a little unnerved by the stare, but decided to welcome the opportunity to alleviate her boredom, reasoning that there were plenty of people around in case something did happen.

"Are you scared?" This was a strange way to start a conversation, but since he had asked, she decided to respond with the bravest face she could muster.
"No, why should I be," she asked, as if the thought had never entered her mind.
He didn't waste much time in preliminaries.
"I drank too much," he said. She didn't respond, trying to indicate that she had no interest in his level of inebriation, without saying it out loud, which would have come out rude. Needing little encouragement, he continued:
"My name is X. What is yours? Where are you from? What are you doing here?"
Although direct, the questions were more keen than rude. On her guard, she gave short replies and didn't encourage him by asking too much about his background. He didn't seem to mind.
"How do I look in this hat?" She wasn't expecting him to be fishing for compliments so quickly, but she replied with a non-committal "fine." This was not really something she was interested in developing, so she started gazing out of the window (though there was not much to see).

He quickly shifted gears.

"My brother died. He worked in construction in Rostov and yesterday, he had an accident. I came from Tula to pick up the body, but at the train station in Rostov, my pocket was picked. I needed money to transport the body but had not a single penny left. I sold my phone to get enough money to buy a ticket back to Tula, so I can come back again with the necessary amount of money. Then, with the remaining money, I drank. Now I am on my way back to Tula. I want to die. I feel like I can do anything. Are you scared?"

All this was very sudden and strange but he didn't seem to be making the story up to try and swindle her out of some cash. He never actually asked for money. But the repetition of "are you scared" and his assertions of being drunk unnerved her. She noted that the children were no longer playing in the hallway and were either eating their evening meals or even perhaps asleep. While the wagon had many people in it, the coupe also had a door with a lock, and she wondered how long it would take for someone to force the door open from the outside if it was locked. And if she were trapped in here with this strange man, and screamed for help, would people come to her aid? Realizing that her thoughts were wandering too far from what the present situation necessitated, she tried to reel them back in.

She tried to offer a word of sympathy to the man, failed miserably in actually helping the situation, wondered if it would be a good idea to sit and talk to this man for a while, decided against it, and pretended that she needed to go back to sleep. She lay on the berth, immobile as if she were asleep for what seemed like a long time (although it was barely fifteen minutes). To her relief, the ticket collector came by, saw that the man was not in his seat but in a different coupe, one with a single female half-asleep in it. The collector firmly insisted that the man return to his seat, and in another hour, a couple joined her in the coupe. They were quiet and boring, but she was not quite in the mood for anything more interesting anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Success and Happiness

"Success is getting what you want.
Happiness is wanting what you get."
~Dale Carnegie

Cut out the influence of external factors like what your family and others around you wish you were doing, and he has hit the nail on the head!