Monday, November 26, 2007

First Person Arts

“Substitute "damn" every time you're inclined to write "very;" your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~Mark Twain

Many new writers plunge into the world of literature with unbounded enthusiasm and blind confidence. Ignorance is bliss when you start writing, so at this point I am as ecstatic as St. Teresa. I don’t know what I am doing yet, but this provides an emotional buffer – because I don’t know when I make mistakes. However I have figured out a few things:

Don’t use the words “very” or “really” unless it is really very necessary to convey your message. Thanks, Mr. Twain, for the tip.

Don’t use any word twice or thrice in the same one or two paragraphs. It’s redundant, and makes your work less interesting. OK, I’ll cut you some slack on definite articles. Add Thesaurus.Com to your web favorites and use it often. And don’t use the word “thrice” unless Shakespeare comes to you in a dream and asks you to rewrite Hamlet.

Don’t worry about the first draft being perfect. As Larry the Cable Guy says, “Just get ‘er done.“ and complete a framework. This can later be enhanced and refined.

Writers need ideas to create their stories and then a format to present them. I can’t help you with the first one, but I’ve discovered a wonderful resource for the second – First Person Arts. Their website is First Person Arts. Their message is:

“History: First Person Arts was founded in 2000 as Blue Sky by Vicki Solot, in response to the burgeoning interest in memoir and documentary art forms. Solot appreciated the resonance of real stories and recognized their value as a means of bridging cultural ethnic divides. With the involvement of a visionary board, First Person Arts set out to support the development of new memoir and documentary work and to create opportunities for it to be seen and appreciated by many. In just four years, First Person Arts has showcased the work of more than 100 artists nationwide; We have reached across cultures and communities to attract a broad and diverse audience; and have played an important role in exploring and celebrating the richness of the mixed heritage and shared history of everyday Americans.”

“Our Mission: First Person Arts transforms the drama of real life into documentary art to foster appreciation for our unique and shared experience.”

The group’s name is well chosen, because they are looking for stories written in the first person – monologues - from real people about real events and thoughts. There may be a Second or Third Person Arts out there somewhere, but that’s a story for another day. And the Fourth Person Arts people bring time and extra dimensions into the picture, so perhaps we should leave them to the subatomic physicists.

I recently discovered O. Henry, the short story writer. His ideas came from human interaction. A woman’s face on a streetcar or a conversation overheard in a restaurant could provide enough spark for him to create an entire story. He couldn’t write by just sitting at his desk and imagining. People were an integral part of the process.

Good literature often borrows from real life. Reality gives these works believable structure. The reason that many stories fail is because the authors create worlds that don’t ring true. Readers are the touchstone and they’re hard to fool.

I believe that every person on this planet has an interesting story to tell. The key is to identify an engaging portion of it and then present it in a way that will captivate readers. First Person Arts provides an opportunity for writers and lay people to be heard, and to experience the creative process. In doing so, many “civilians” may discover their voice, and develop a desire to continue writing. I can’t think of a better gift to give another human being.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Jillian Ivey, whose job title is Communications and Marketing Coordinator. I was impressed with her knowledge, intellect, and energy. She had wisdom and insight that typically only come after spending half a century on this Earth. Any yet she is still in her twenties. Jillian has been in (and supported) theatre productions, done standup comedy, and written prose and poetry. In addition, she is an editor for Phillyist. Ms. Ivey is a modern Leonardo - or more correctly, Leonardette.

I enjoyed speaking with Jillian because there hasn’t been much opportunity for me to talk with other authors. I’ve spoken to a few Arthurs, but it’s just not the same. Writing is by nature a solitary process, like meditating or, well, playing solitaire. As a result, the human feedback loop is minimal. The exchange of ideas with Jillian was stimulating and uplifting. After talking to her, I felt more confident about pursuing a career as a wordsmith.

Whether you aspire to be a writer or not, the First Person Arts website is worth checking out. After all, writers and readers are both necessary to bring literature to life.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Monkey Prose Poetry Profile - Waxing GrassHoppeR

“There's no money in poetry, but then there's no poetry in money, either.” ~Robert Graves

Poetry has always been a cipher to me, an unknown entity - both intimidating and alluring. Reading poetry looked harder than Chinese algebra. Therefore I have little experience with this art form. However, in the spirit of self improvement, I’ve decided to dive into the deep end of the poetry pool, and see if I can swim among the sonnets, stanzas, and similes.

First, I need to define what poetry is. The Wallkill Central School District (a favorite haunt of literati) defines poetry as: “a type of literature in which ideas and feelings are expressed in compact, imaginative, and often musical language. Poets arrange words in ways designed to touch readers’ senses, emotions, and minds. Most poems are written in lines that may contain patterns of rhyme and rhythm.” OK, I can understand that.

Second, I need to determine why many people anticipate reading poetry with the same dread as a trip to the dentist. I think it’s because we were beaten over the head with poetry in school. Teachers required us to memorize poems and dissect them like medical students’ cadavers. Very few educators conveyed the message that poetry could bring wonder, excitement, and new insights about life.

The word “poetry” brings back memories of learning verses by heart, and then reading them aloud - a standard protocol for the nuns at St. Peter’s Grammar School. While there, I renamed my learning institution God’s Gulag, a phrase I only dared to voice beyond earshot of The Penguins. The nuns would punish miscreant memorizers with a ruler to the knuckles. Therefore I was conditioned to associate poetry with pain.

These facts explain why many perceive reading poetry as an unpleasant task - something to be slogged through with gritted teeth, like doing homework or taking out the garbage. No wonder so many of us shy away from it!

Third, types of poetry should be discussed. The two categories are rhymers and roamers (free verse). Rhyming poetry includes music lyrics, so we all have been exposed to and enjoyed poetry. Free verse is just that – free. There is significantly more latitude to convey thoughts without the constraints of meter and rhyme. I prefer free verse – because it costs less. Ba-dum-BUMP! No seriously folks, it’s great to Regain Paradise! (John Milton must be turning over in his grave.)

In the course of writing this article I realized that the poetic process synthesizes a concept down to a few well chosen words. This produces works that are purified and polished like 24 carat gold or cut diamonds. Thus I’ve begun to enjoy poetry’s structure as well as its message. This activity appeals to my penchant for perfection. A typical Monkey Prose blog post might go through as many as 50 revisions before I publish it. I blame this on traumatic potty training.

My first foray into poetry involves a fellow blogger and wordsmith - Waxing GrassHoppeR. I’m guessing that’s not his real name. I can envision him at a black tie party. “Oh, GrassHoppeR . . . of the Philadelphia GrassHoppeRs?” Hmmm, I don’t think so.

You can read his profile at Waxing GrassHoppeR Profile. His poetry blog can be found at A Blade of Grass. The blog’s subtitle is “Everything speaks in its own way. The earth speaks. The plants and animals and insects and birds speak. Everything has a voice. I'm trying to listen to the words of the world around me.” That is poetry in itself.

Since I’m as qualified to critique poetry as I am to pilot the Space Shuttle, I can only give you my impressions of Waxing GrassHoppeR’s work, so here goes:

Star, Star:

One night when I was young I looked up into the stars.

One seemed to fall and shot across the sky.

I wondered, Where did it go?

Went looking for it but my world was too wee.

Sat down and cried alone in the trees.

Only found home when the sun rose.

I grew and my world grew with me.

I learned and read.

I traveled and worked.

I saw the beauty of the natural world and its life.

Saw the state of my fellow, virtue and vice.

I came to know people.

To love one of them.

Madly in love so I couldn't even tell.

Could only glance sparks like the twinkle of a star who can't know how my heart leaps out of my chest and I wondered if maybe the star was still and I was dancing in the night sky.

Loved like that.

One night when I was young I saw a star shoot.

I wondered, Where did it go?

Now I'm older I see that the brightest star fell through my hands as I watched.

Last night I was reading “A Good Dog” by John Katz. He described how he became simpatico with the universe through a star called Sirius. One night, it shined down on him with blazing intensity. Then the energy flow became two way. John communicated with The Dog Star like a high speed Internet connection. The author said the experience was profound and transcendent.

GrassHoppeR’s poem echoes the same sensation. He questions “I wondered if maybe the star was still and I was dancing in the night sky.” GrassHoppeR felt a need to connect with the natural world beyond him. Stars are obvious visual tools. Humans have looked at the stars and wondered ever since primitive man first appeared.

GrassHoppeR believes that we are the only creatures out of sync with the world. In a prose commentary after his poem, his states “everything else is balanced in nature and form except us... this just isn't right... everything else but man makes sense.” Global warming and pollution reinforce his conclusion.

In the poem, GrassHoppeR expresses:

One night when I was young I looked up into the stars.

One seemed to fall and shot across the sky.

I wondered, Where did it go?

Went looking for it but my world was too wee.

Sat down and cried alone in the trees.

He presents the idea that all of us, whether we know it or not, have an intrinsic need to connect with nature. It is necessary for us to feel whole. I believe that much of the alienation and depression modern humans experience is because we have broken our umbilical cord to the world. Without it we feel cut off and alone.


We fly our flags at half mast for dead soldiers...
Let's raise them up
to where they should be
and leave the banners in the muck.

The War in Iraq was my first thought when I read this poem. The US has lost over 3,000 soldiers, with very little to show for it.

Wars rarely solve political problems. Talking works much better, and is a lot cheaper. We don’t have to agree with another country to talk with them. Dialogue is the beginning of mutual understanding, and understanding can lead to solutions. Just look at what Jimmy Carter accomplished in North Korea and George Mitchell in Northern Ireland.

GrassHoppeR raises the idea that war is not something to be glorified. It should be a last resort. I have the greatest respect for soldiers who have given their lives for their countries. But it is the responsibility of world leaders to only put their soldiers into harm’s way when no other option is available.

Reflection and reconciliation should take precedence over victory when a war is concluded. The key questions should be “How can we prevent this from happening again?” and “How can we reconcile with our former enemy?”, not “Look how we kicked their asses!” GrassHoppeR’s poem captures this sentiment very well.

Stuck in a dory on a stormy sea...

... oh my oh me... what will I do when the stormy sea falls in on me... will it make my eyes like those of the fish thawing in the sink... will I turn pink... blue... will I see you... oh my poor little beat of a heart... boo who for me... boo who for you...

Here's water's wisdom... whether rain or sea or river or tears... water keeps moving... without pity for itself... like the world under water... as it is...

So if stuck in a dory on a stormy sea remember... nothing is forever... not even water or storms... all things move to one feather... one brush... one tide...

GrassHoppeR’s imagery is compelling. When he says “will it make my eyes like those of the fish thawing in the sink... will I turn pink... blue” he appears to be contemplating drowning. He is wondering if his body will assume the visage of a dead fish. I can see the fish in the sink when I read this poem, and smell it as well.

His comments on water illustrate a primary difference between man and his environment. We sometimes put our lives into neutral to contemplate things, while the juggernaut that is nature always keeps moving forward. If we could get more in touch with that flow, then perhaps we would feel more connected, and realize more peace.

Conclusion: I very much like Waxing GrassHoppeR’s poetry. I understand his voice. He elicits powerful imagery. It has increased my enjoyment of poetry, and motivated me to read more. As Kwai Chang Caine’s master told him in the TV Program Kung Fu, “Well done, GrassHoppeR!”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Save the Chimpanzees - Save the World

Emma and Jackson at Chimps Inc.

On Monday November 26, 2007 CBS Evening News will air a story about Emma and Jackson. They are chimpanzees at Chimps Inc., a primate care facility in Bend, Oregon.

Earlier this year, the pair were rescued from a Texas animal shelter that was placed under court supervision - for alleged neglect and abuse of its inhabitants. Now the previous owners want Emma and Jackson back. Chimps Inc. is opposed to returning them. A legal battle is taking place for custody. The survival of these two creatures may hang in the balance.

The United States has 70% of the world's lawyers, but only 5% of its population. Americans like to sue as much as they like Budweiser and ice cream. But a lawsuit's impact is more serious than a beer belly or high cholesterol. Litigation is expensive. Most of us can't afford to pursue a legal battle for long (no matter how just) because the Lawyer Meter never stops running. You can rack up thousands of dollars in legal bills faster than you can say Clarence Darrow.

This conflict is eating up a lot of Chimps Inc.'s banana money - resources that would be better spent feeding and caring for their primates.

I've known Lesley Day (President) and Paula Muellner (Executive Director) for quite a while. I have the highest confidence in their integrity and their ability to provide a loving and safe environment for the animals who reside at Chimps Inc. I encourage you to support them by making a donation. You can do so at Donate to Chimps Inc. Your help is very much appreciated!

"Saving two chimpanzees will not change the world, but it will change the world for those two chimpanzees." - Chimps Inc.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Monkey Prose Report Card on Best Buy – Grade: "C"

“Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game.”
- Tony Alessandra

I won’t be going back to Best Buy any time soon. Why? Because they failed to meet a basic service requirement – resolve customer problems quickly and completely.

And so, dear readers, I'll tell you my tale of woe. I recently went to Best Buy Store No. 457, in Rockaway, NJ, and signed up for a Geek Squad home service call. My wife’s new laptop needed to have Windows Vista set up, and new software installed. But shortly after the Geek Squad representative left our house, Trudi’s computer crashed and I came face to face with the terrifying Blue Screen of Death. Aaaaaaaah!

Because my faith in the goodness of humanity was unassailed, I assumed that any store worth its salt would want to fix a service problem posthaste. I could not have been wronger! A phone call to The Geek Squad’s 800 number put me in touch with a woman who couldn’t have cared less unless she was in a coma. When a customer service rep’s tone of voice never changes, you know you’re in trouble. This girl raised the bar on passive aggressive behavior to new heights. If there was an Olympic Medal for “I Don’t Give a Damn”, this young lady would have been a slam dunk for the Gold. She informed me that a return service call might take up to two months because, well, “other people were already scheduled”. In other words, Best Buy’s policy on service was “If we don’t get it right the first time, we will fix the problem - but only when it’s convenient for us, not you ”. My response - as Ralph Cramden would say – was “Bang Zoom!”

OK, so the phone approach crashed and burned. Plan B was to visit the store and talk to someone in authority. Again my hopes were crushed - like a squirrel under the wheels of a Kenworth Truck. Shane, the Store Manager, displayed a compelling lack of desire to drive my problem to It’s All Better Street. No Christmas Card for him! After a healthy yawn to accent his disinterest, Shawn passed me off to Alan, the Geek Squad Manager. Alan “copped a tude” when I suggested that Geek Squad should send someone back to my house ASAP. He echoed the position of the Geek phone rep that “Hey, there are other people in line for service – so you’ll just have to wait.” When I informed Alan that I would not pay for an incomplete installation, he responded that I had to pay for it - whether the job was done correctly or not. And he refused to give me credit for returning the software. Grrrrrr! That’s two less Christmas Cards.

Plan C (a personal favorite) was to contact the CEO of the company. My letter to Bradbury H. Anderson was soon answered by Michael Arrighi, Geek Squad Public Defender, Executive Resolution Team. In my correspondence with Michael, he was polite, professional, and made a genuine effort to resolve my complaint. He even sent me a $50.00 gift certificate, to compensate me for my inconvenience. But Michael stopped short of promising that Best Buy would change their code of conduct. So - to this day – Best Buy’s policy remains: A customer is obligated to pay for a Geek Squad service or software installation, whether it is performed properly or not. If problems arise, Best Buy sets no time limit for when a job must be completed. And there is no mechanism for a dissatisfied customer to receive a refund (or any other compensation) for unacceptable service. Even monkeys could tell you this policy is flawed.

But in fairness to Best Buy, I also feel obligated to tell you what they do right:

Good Thing No. 1: The level of Geek Squad service is usually excellent. I’ve used them three times, and they’ve always finished the job properly (although not necessarily in one visit). Edward Donlin, the Geek Squad Rep who worked on our computer, came back three times (in the first week) until everything was functioning correctly. He made sure that I understood everything he did, and he adequately answered all my questions. But I suspect that the rapid response was because I complained to so many people in the organization. Otherwise I might still be waiting. This leads me to believe that other customers in my situation could endure long lead times to get service problems resolved.

Good Thing No. 2: Best Buy has excellent prices, which often can’t be beat - even by Internet retailers.

Good Thing No. 3: The store employees are well trained and professional. They are helpful when you need assistance, and are not too pushy about closing sales or hawking extended warranties.

The Internet has changed the dynamic of human interaction. In the past, if a customer had a negative experience with a store, they would tell (on average) 11 people. Now, because of the Web, that same person can tell 5,000 people in a short period of time. And bad news travels fast, so an e-complaint can snowball and reach even more people. It is therefore advisable for any company to establish customer service policies that keep pace with modern consumer expectations. And these expectations are rising steadily as people share more information and become better informed about the best available products and services.

Based on this information, the Monkey Prose Report Card awards a Grade of “C” to Best Buy. If you read my blog post about H&R Block, you will see another customer service scenario where a company did everything exceptionally well – and was awarded an A+.

Since the retailer being discussed here has “Best” in their name, they should be a leader in customer service for the electronics retailing market. Right now they are “Just OK” in this area, but with some enlightened changes, they could truly live up to their title and become the Best Buy in both products and services.

I welcome comments from Best Buy. I also invite readers to share their Best Buy experiences.