Friday, August 14, 2009


I've been working on a young adult novel for a while now. I thought I'd post an excerpt. Let me know what you think. If you're an evil-no-good-copy-paste-copyright infringer, please leave my work alone, it's mine.

Sprawled across his bed, with his arms folded behind his head, Jake stared up at the tin tiles set into the ceiling of his new room. They were part of the “old world” character his mother so loved about the new apartment. The way the light from the windows played across the ceiling made the inset designs in the tiles look like an army of alien spacecraft he decided.

With a sigh he sat up and looked around the room. It wasn’t very big, but it would work. Certainly not like his room in Texas. But it was on the 4th floor, and through the arched windows he could see some of the taller buildings of the famous Manhattan skyline to the south above the buildings across the street. His room was level with the tops of the trees that lined their street. The realtor had said it was a quiet street, and maybe it was by New York standards. They may as well be in the middle of a bus station though, when compared to the silence of the wide corn fields that had unfurled themselves in the view from the windows of his room in Texas.

No use thinking about that now though. Getting lost in memories certainly wasn’t going to make his current situation any better. Besides, he grudgingly admitted to himself, his new room was pretty cool. He got up and crossed the room to the stack of moving boxes that held his entire life. 4 large cardboard boxes. That’s all it took to encompass his life. What did that say about him?

He tried to split the packing tape with his thumbnail. There wasn’t enough nail left to cut into the tape. He inspected each of his fingernails. All of them were bitten down to the quick, a couple bloody. He really needed to stop doing that, he decided. His mom hated the habit, and as long as he could remember she had constantly been on his case to stop until… Well, until. Now that he thought about it, she had hardly griped at him about anything since the funeral. Kind of nice he supposed, but whatever.

Back to the task at hand, his eyes roved around the room, looking for something to split the tape. Scissors would be great, but they were of course taped up in one of the boxes with his other school stuff. He tried the stiff end of a shoelace, but that didn’t even dent the tape. Strongest stuff on Earth he mused. His eyes fell on his closet door. Maybe the previous owner had left a wire clothes hanger—that should do the trick.

Twisting the knob, he tried to pull it open. It didn’t budge. The old iron doorknob turned freely, but the door was stuck solidly in place. He took a better grip on the knob with both hands and pulled much harder. There—it was moving, inch by bit. He realized half a second too late that the door wasn’t moving—the knob was. He fell backward, landing hard on his backside, doorknob in hand. There was hole left in the door where the knob had previously resided. Not ready to concede defeat, Jake hooked his fingers inside the hole and pulled, hard.

The door shifted ever so slightly before he let go, fingers burning where the sharp wood edges had dug in. To wipe away the pain, he rubbed his hands briskly together. He repositioned his fingers, and this time braced his foot against the wall. Using the muscles in his back and legs, he pulled with all his might. The door sprang open, and he was treated to another quick trip to the floor on his backside, this time smacking the back of his head on the post of the footboard of the bed. Pain crashed into his brain—he saw stars and there was a roaring in his ears.

Jake closed his eyes--wow that smarted. After a minute, the roaring in his ears started subside, and as the sounds of the city crept back in, he became aware of another noise. A dish clattered in the kitchen—probably his mom unpacking the dishes or something. He sat bolt upright. His mom had gone into the office for the morning, waking him to say goodbye. She wouldn’t be back for several hours.

Less than 24 hours of city life, and their house already being broken into—he knew it was going to be like this! He jumped to his feet, scooping up his Louisville slugger on his way to the stairs, silently thanking the heavens above it hadn’t fit into any of his cardboard boxes. He took the stairs to the second floor two at a time, adrenaline surging. By the time he made it to the landing, his brain started to catch up. What if there was more than one? He paused. What if they had a gun? Another clatter from the kitchen mobilized him, but he moved cautiously now. One stair at a time, bat held up at the ready. The third stair from the bottom creaked badly when he stepped on it. He froze, holding his breath. The noise from the kitchen stopped for a moment, but soon started again. It sounded exactly like an armadillo rooting through a trash can on their back porch in Texas. Somehow he didn’t think there was an armadillo hanging out in New York City.

Jake became aware of another sensation—there was a wonderful scent emanating from the kitchen. It smelled exactly like sugar cookies baking. Just like on cookie nights when he and Mom and Dad would bake cookies to celebrate. Any time someone had good news, or a holiday, or even a really bad day—they’d roll the dough out on the counter, and cut it into perfect circles with the tops of coffee mugs. But it wasn’t just about the cookies. Anything could be said over the mixing bowl; any topic addressed while the cookies turned golden in the oven. He missed those happy nights. And the cookies.

“Snap out of it!” he whispered to himself. “A vicious intruder in the house, and you’re day dreaming about cookies!” He crept down the last two steps as quietly as he could, but he needn’t bother. The noises in the kitchen had grown to a series of small bangs and clatters. At the edge of the door frame Jake took several quick deep breaths. He spun around the corner, baseball bat raised over his head, and a kamikaze yell.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cinema de Vino

I've always been fascinated by the art of wine-making--enology--and I can't imagine a more beautiful place in the world to work than in the Californian wine country. I've wanted to grow my own vines for quite some time, and even considered tilling up half of our back yard to put them in. Alas, we don't plan to be in this house but a few more years. So impatiently I wait, alternatively surfing viticulture websites and Sonoma, CA real estate listings. In the meantime a good movie about wine making will have to do, and I've found a couple for you to find and watch.

Bottle Shock is based (somewhat loosely I'll bet) on a true story. Set in 1976, Napa Valley, and California wines in general, have yet to come of age. Chateau Montelena winery in Napa Valley is run by a father-son duo that couldn't be any further diatmetrically opposed. Dad (played predictably by Bill Pullman) is a perfectionist to fault. Son (played fantastically by Chris Pine) is a stoned surfer dude. In fact their most effective communication occurs in a makeshift boxing ring. Meanwhile in France, a bored wine shop owner (played by the talented Alan Rickman) is searching for a way to drive sales and attendance to his self proclaimed wine academy. The solution? A blind taste test by the finest French wine critics of the finest French wines and the lowly Californian offerings. Clearly the event is designed to embarrass the Americans and further cement the superiority of French wine-making. Rickman travels to California to pick his victims, and when he encounters the Chateau Montelena crew the movie takes off from there. And, as they say, the rest is history.

The movie was quirky and fun, at times nebulous, but never in a bad way. The story is classic David v. Goliath, and boy did I root for our boys. The movie of course fairly glitters with stunning California wine country scenery, which would make it worth viewing alone. This isn't a film for kids, but adults will enjoy it immensely, as I did. I have the movie a B+.

I haven't finished A Good Year yet--my copy from Netflix was badly scuffed and kept freezing. I got about halfway through the movie last night before I just couldn't stand the skipping anymore. My new copy will be here Monday, so I'll finish the film out then. I feel I've seen enough though, to write somewhat of a review. The film follows Max Skinner (played by Russel Crowe) a hotshot London investor. When an uncle dies and Max is presumably left an estate in the South of France complete with a winery and vines, Max travels to renovate the place for a quick sale, and quick profit. Once he arrives he is overtaken by his memories of his uncle, and of growing up there at the winery. What follows is not unpredictable as he encounters the long forgotten wine country lifestyle bent on living life in quality, not quantity. Add in a love interest or two, and I'm betting I know how this ends not having seen the rest of the film yet.

So far I've actually been a tad disappointed with the film. It's felt rushed and twitchy, but perhaps that's intentional. As the man's transformation from hectic to laid back continues, perhaps it will smooth out. Right now, I give the film a C+.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Bully

It may have been nearly 20 years ago, but I can still remember the way the afternoon breeze would sweep through the open windows, carrying school bus yellow sunshine and diesel smoke inside.

It was always at least a 30 minute wait after the bell rang while the buses completed their first run, and returned to pick us up for their second run. Being one of the rural kids that lived outside of town meant we were picked up an hour before school started and dropped off more than hour after school ended.

The trick was to wait around the side of one of the brick pillars of the breezeway that connected the gym to the main campus. The bus lane bordered the breezeway, and it was always a game of chance which pillar to pick, wagering on which bus would return first, and how far up the lane your bus would pull. We always mobbed the bus, pushing and jostling against the after school duty teacher standing like a warden to keep us away until it came to a complete stop. The teachers and coaches all rotated weeks of staying late to patrol our shift. We were an interesting group. There were the farm kids like me, a little socially awkward due to growing up in the stillness and solitude of a farm. And then there were the kids from the trailer park on the edges of the city limits. Mostly Hispanic or Navajo, with an occasional token white trash kid thrown in for good measure--they were the rough kids.

The rough kids were the reason it was important to be aware of which teacher was on duty after school. Some weeks I breathed easier because it was someone like Mrs. Boognl, the algebra and geometry teacher. Red haired, 6 feet tall and mean, she could cause all algebraic equations to flee from your mind with nothing but a casual glare. I withered in my chair in her class when she called on me, but I basked in the protection she provided when it was her week on the bus duty beat. Other weeks someone like Coach Mascarenas would be in charge. During the 4 weeks of PE that we played flag football, Coach was known for removing his glasses to clean them. The rule was absolutely no tackling allowed. However, he'd say with a smirk, what he didn't see, he couldn't punish us for. And he couldn't see when he was cleaning his glasses. His glasses were often dirty after school too, and I'd constantly be on my guard those weeks.

The rough kids were the reason it was important to be near the front of the line to board the bus. They sat in the back of the bus, and the really awkward kids sat in the front to suck up to the driver. The best strategy I found was to be among the first few on board, so I could select my own seat somewhere between the front and the back. Then I could hunker down as everyone else found their seats around me. Most days I could simply blend into the green vinyl and the rough kids would rattle their way past without paying me any mind.

I suppose in the grand scheme of the world, the bullying I experienced really wasn't terrible comparatively. I was never beat up. The physical attacks rarely went beyond slaps to the back of the head or slugs to the arm. The mental attacks were constant though. Incessant teasing, continual degradation, threats, belittling remarks were the course of the day. Every day.

I invited much of it I'm sure. I was above average intelligence. Not in a get-all-your-work-done, slather-on-the-good-citizenship, and ride-the-honor-roll way. I was way too lazy for that crap. In fact I was merely average when it came to rote operation activities. Times tables I hated. Learning Spanish was a nightmare. My aptitudes were much more instinctive. I just knew things. I always assumed that it was because I was a voracious reader that I accumulated knowledge, and truth be told, I'm sure it didn't hurt. But even today, sometimes I just know things without distinctly remembering when and where I learned them. Regardless, I was at the very least an easy target because it bothered me so much to be teased.

Fighting was strictly prohibited by my parents. I knew it down to the very core of me. So much so that when I was once attacked, unprovoked, on the playground by a boy saddled with an emotionally unstable label, I just stood there, doing nothing. I didn't fight back for fear of getting in trouble for fighting. After it was over, I still got in trouble. My parents couldn't fathom that I'd been pulled into the principal's office for anything other than something of which I was surely guilty. There was no chance to plead my case, only the sentencing hearing.

And so this particular afternoon, like usual, I worked hard to play all my cards correctly. I managed to avoid any confrontations during the eternal 30 minute wait after school. I managed to get on the bus near the front of the line, and sat in my usual seat midway back. There in the early spring warmth, I sat. Just in front of the wheel well, on the right side of the aisle, while the afternoon sun streamed in from the left side of the bus. My only mistake was that perhaps I sat in the middle of the seat instead of huddling against the window.

The rough crowd was boarding the bus now, with Manuel leading the way. Manuel was Hispanic, and taller than me. A junior high top dog 9th grader, he was already reaping the benefits of puberty, filling in muscle, scraggly black hair on his upper lip, and the body odor to go with it. He wasn't terribly popular as far as the in-crowd was concerned, but he was included simply based on his terror factor. He wasn't just brilliantly intelligent, and I always thought he looked a little cross-eyed like the inbred cats on our farm. As he was coming down the aisle we locked eyes. I quickly looked away, but not before he noticed my existence. As he drew close to my seat, he paused and reared back with a fist as if to hit me. I of course, ducked quickly to the side to avoid being hit.

He sneered at my reaction, and his cronies behind him laughed. Then he joined in with his raspy cough of a laugh.

And I snapped. It was too much. The injustice of a thousand different affronts roared in my ears.

I burst to my feet. My hand clenched itself into a fist, and the farm-hardened muscles in shoulder and arm coiled to strike. My eyes sought his and gripped the lapels of his return gaze, breathing harsh, acrid anger into his face. He stumbled backward in surprise, nearly falling as he tripped over someone's feet.

It was in that moment I saw it. In his eyes lapped another emotion, filling in like an incoming high tide around the scattered stones of surprise.

It was fear.

A tense moment ticked by, and he realized I had seen it.

I lowered my fist, and a smile twitched just at the corners of my mouth. He recovered his footing and reared back as before, acting as if he were going to hit me. I didn't duck this time.

Instead I calmly sat down, and slid to the window completely ignoring him. I think not really knowing what to do, he went and sat at the back of the bus like usual.

I wish the incident stopped the bullying, but it didn't. That would have been too poetic I suppose. It did change things though. While he never touched me again, or threatened to hit me, he redoubled his mental warfare for the rest of that year. It wasn't until we moved to the high school that his class schedule took him to different parts of the campus. He was old enough to drive at the beginning of the 10th grade, so he no longer rode the bus with us rural kids. I didn't turn 16 until June after 10th grade, so I got another whole year of riding the bus.

In that square, small instant on that 9th grade afternoon though, the entire universe reordered, and quantum reality peeked its auspicious face into the aisle of that bus. I stood up for myself and rendered the bully harmless for an afternoon.