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Forest of Fortune isn’t an ordinary novel. More than a narrative, it is a trip to the lives of others, three tortured souls whose paths never really cross but have in common one place, the Thunderclap Casino.
This is a very manly book. Ruland doesn’t care about adorning his characters with any likable features; the stench of vice, poverty, self-centeredness and low self-esteem is present on every page, yet you come to love that same stench because Ruland draws his characters in a way that it is impossible not to feel for them. My personal favorite was Pemberton—maybe a gender bias. At the beginning of the book, we follow him through a binge of alcohol and cocaine, visiting characters who, for those living in Los Angeles, will sound a little too familiar. There’s always a Kiki around. After such a night, you cannot stop reading. Pemberton is ending his own life yet you can’t help but enjoy with the same desperation as he does every shot and every line the author invites you to have with him. Others will empathize more with Alice, drowned in sadness, and Lupita, having a good time but guilted by what she sees as selfishness. All and all, you may think you have nothing in common with these three people, still, you will connect with them as if they were your best friends.
I couldn’t decide at first whether I liked the ending or not so I had to read it a second time. I decided I loved it. It was appropriate, if too soon—I wanted more. I definitely loved the trip all throughout precisely because it takes you nowhere. Now, to be one hundred percent honest, Ramona could have been edited out, you can’t reach the same level of empathy with her, still, I’m looking forward to Ruland’s next work of fiction.
After reading this book, the four words he uses to describe himself on his website, “writer, sailor, punk, rat,” make you nod and say: “yeah!” with a big smile.
You can read more about the Jim Ruland’s book here
This is what I’m currently working on. It needs no introduction but just in case you don’t get satire, a kind warning: it’s satire. The photo is me at the Third Street Promenade, where the action takes place.
#SantaMonica #LGBT #gayboys #comedy #whiteprivilege #maleprivilege #writing #comedy #LosAngeles
“Never felt better,” the old man says. Then he laughs, and so does the young man he’s talking to.
Never better? I think, studying my shocked reflection in front of a large mirror. I’m almost ready to leave the gym. He looks like a fucked up Charlton Heston. I imagine he’s had better days before. How old are you, sweetie? I feel compelled to ask, yet, I’m afraid of how out of place my high-pitched and utterly nasal voice with a thick Southern drawl will sound inside the men’s locker room at the Equinox. Hence, I don’t.
Even I am annoyed by my voice. I never talk much at the gym. I know, this is California, no one will punch you for sounding a little too effeminate, au contraire, you may be asked for a campaign donation instead, but one has dark memories from his early childhood, and my voice is, in any case, truly annoying. You would find it funny if I were a middle-aged Jewish woman from Brooklyn, but I’m a rather short, thirty-seven-year-old white homosexual from Litchfield, Kentucky. Yep, that’s me, Charlie, I check one last time in the mirror… I have dark bags under my eyes. Dark like the conscience of Darth Vader after he destroyed his beloved daughter’s adoptive planet.
I zip up my bag and hasten out of the locker room. I hear the old man brag again more about his constitution. That’s one of the dangers of lurking inside the men’s locker room for too long in hopes of catching a glimpse of a hot guy’s penis. You get to hear the weirdest conversations.
What a lovely day for a stroll down the Third Street Promenade! The morning fog has burnt off. Too bad I have to be back at work less in twenty minutes. Too bad I can’t really afford this stupid yuppie gym, I wave good-bye to the receptionist. I wouldn’t want to attend a gym for poor people, though, and I’m on a mission: I have to shop. One does not show up to a first date wearing old clothes. Twenty minutes will be enough.
And I love the Promenade. I hardly find the hordes of European tourists ignoring the non-smoking signs obnoxious. I embrace them. They’re a reminder of the wonderful world I live in during the daytime, West of Lincoln, in prosperous, well-to-do Santa Monica. Nights I live in West Adams… It’s not too bad. It’s in transition. I haven’t heard a shooting since May. I don’t regret having bought a house there. I am positive one day my property will go up in value. No one wanted to buy here in the eighties and now look at those fabulous dinosaur sculptures, the bright stores, and the restaurants. Sense the smell of Abercrombie and Fitch men’s cologne, of new clothes, and old pizza… One glorious day West Adams Boulevard will have a Barnes & Noble too, across from Banana Republic, across from Restoration Hardware Baby & Child, next to Club Monaco. Until then, I’ll pretend this is my home.
My nimble feet take me to the Santa Monica Place in no time. Why? I cannot tell. These stores are off-limits. Ted Baker especially, and yet… Sweet Southern Baby Jesus, my heart stops. That jacket in the front window is downright absolutely and utterly fantastic. Purple velvet. That’s a dare! With my skin tone? It can’t go wrong. It would for sure find me a good husband. How expensive could it be? Probably a lot, but what’s a man to do when he has a need for purple? Would I be pulling the seasons? Officially it’s already autumn… I bet it smells of violets or freshly baked blueberry and lavender pie. Should I pop in and check the tag? I can’t decide.
If I had that jacket—I close my eyes—I’d be the envy of the entire planet. Short, blond, fit homosexual changes the rules of what it means to dress well in Southern California, would read the cover of Details, then you will find me grinning inside, sat on a high chair like a young debutant, dressed to impress in my purple jacket.
Alas, I’m poor. Poorer than Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. And regardless of what the movie writers wanted you to believe, fashion wasn’t made for poor people. I’m twenty-two thousand dollars in credit card debt, still five years away from finishing paying my student loans, twenty-eight years away from paying off my underwater mortgage, and in a dead-end job working as a sales representative at a call center. I don’t need to see the price of that jacket. What I need is to go back to work… Oy, it isn’t velvet, I stick my nose to the glass. It’s wool. At least five hundred, if not a thousand dollars… Maybe they will put it on sale next week. I saw once this shoes at Cole Haan at the Westfield in Century City for two-hundred and twenty-eight dollars, from five hundred and seventy-two… Did I buy them? No, I drove all the way to Off-Broadway in Hollywood in hopes of finding them for twelve ninety-nine. I didn’t. And because I was too embarrassed to leave empty-handed, I bought a pair of Skechers instead.
I start walking. Dressing up in that jacket would be like wearing Cendrillon’s gold and silver dress. I’d be the most handsome man at the ball, and the prince would choose me, wouldn’t he? If only the birds flew down from the sky to make me a purple trousseau. I can imagine myself singing and dancing covered in vermin: seagulls and crows, mice, and opossums, quarreling in a rush to make me the best-dressed man in Los Angeles. I’d be like the little cockroach Martina, from the Cuban tale, who put on some makeup and stepped out to sweep the front of her house. I would for sure find myself a good spouse, wouldn’t I? Any husband. A mouse would do. He doesn’t even need to be handsome. He just needs to be alive… That gorgeous black man that just passed me, wearing red basketball shorts, tube socks, and slide sandals might be a little too straight, judging by the swanky skinny girl wearing fake Louboutins by his side, but otherwise, he would make a perfectly good husband.
Before reaching the Promenade, I get distracted by a long-sleeve denim shirt from Eton. If it’s under a hundred, I’ll get it. A hundred and fifty is still possible, even if it means I’d have to nourish out of grass seeds for an entire week.
I enter the store. Rich person smile. “I’m only browsing,” I announce to the first employee that catches my eye. You’re welcome to offer me an employee discount, if you feel sorry for me, I add telepathically. Always smile, Charlie. Smile, and never forget to… Oh, fuck here comes one. She’s going to make me feel bad because I probably cannot afford anything in the store. I never feel shorter or more insignificant than when I shop.
“Can I help you?” she asks.
I’ll try being sassy. “Yes. Take me straight to the sales rack.”
Not much here… This one is only a hundred and seventy-five. It’s an extra large. If I wanted to look like the fat detective from The Wire, I’d buy it.
C’est la vie, Martine, I laugh, on my way out. Oublie le chien ou le chat. Tu vas épouser le souris.
You better get used to me dropping phrases in the language of Voltaire, Balzac, and Diderot. I spent a whole ten months in France in my early twenties, and I do my Duolingo religiously every morning, après mon café-au-lait, assis sur la cuvette. It is not vulgar if you say it in French.
I’m already ten minutes late. My life isn’t too bad, is it? I may be broke, and I may be wasting my English major working at a call center full of losers and recent graduates for ten dollars an hour plus commissions, but right now I’m window-shopping in downtown Santa Monica. That’s a far ride from Litchfield, Kentucky. Think of the poor gays in Moscow, with all that snow, living their lives in the closet. Or the ones in Uganda, getting killed and not because they chose to wear white shoes after Labor Day. Those probably can’t even go window shopping at all. Well, I reckon they must have some shops in Africa. Assuming they don’t is racist, but probably they don’t have many options, probably is all American Eagle or something just as bad.
I may not be able to afford Ted Baker, but at least I have options. I have Nordstrom Rack, Ross, and Marshall’s. I need to remind myself to be happy.
As I walk, I delight on the visuals: Women from the midwest wearing spiky hairdo’s as if it was 1988 all over again. College students dressed like a million dollars in sweatpants. Man buns. Saudi brides. Under their abayas, they’re all wearing Dior. I should befriend one…
Shoot. It’s twenty after. I’ll just go super fast to the GAP.
I fiddle the clothes from the discount section… This is a nice jeans jacket; I’ll try it on… A hundred and twenty-nine? I can’t afford even the GAP… Maybe that gentleman over there will notice how good I look on it and buy it for me? How old is he? Sixty-five? He has the shabby surfer look of a west-sider with a two-to-three-hundred-thousand-a-year income. His wife looks amazing in those tights… When he crosses eyes with me, I’ll be ready smile… There you go. He nodded back. That’s a good sign.
I shouldn’t be thinking of trapping rich men when I have a date tomorrow, but I can’t afford to spend any money today. Maybe I should cancel. I need to come up with $900 extra by the end of the month to pay the mortgage because my stupid roommate left without paying his share of the rent.
And If I don’t find a new roommate soon, I’ll have to come up with the entire amount for the next month too.
That jackass. He left three months of unpaid cable bills too.
“But Charlie,” he cried. “I need Showtime!”
“Kurt,” I remember I said in my calmer voice, the one I reserve for rational conversations with highly emotional people, “we can get the Nurse Jackie DVDs through Netflix.”
“But the mail takes too long! And they don’t have the latest season!”
Well, probably the one who cried for Nurse Jackie DVDs was me. Kurt is quite manly. He probably burped his response to my hysterical claims that we couldn’t afford to pay for cable, then blew out some air forcing me to smell what he had eaten for breakfast.
I shouldn’t have given him back his deposit. I shouldn’t have fallen in love with his straight ass either. The tattoos on his big, bulging arms and the waxed mustache were a clear sign that he wasn’t honest. When I asked him what he did for a living, and Kurt said that he worked the register at a Subway in Koreatown, I also shouldn’t have replied, “You do? How intriguing!”
No, I shouldn’t have opened the doors of my fabulous two-bedroom, 950 square feet craftsman in West Adams to that half-black, half-Japanese, one-eighth Armenian, and one hundred percent stud jughead.
“I don’t have AC,” I remember I said during the interview, six months ago. “Will that be a problem?”
I wanted, to be honest about that. You cannot begin what promises to be a long and steady relationship with a man you’re dying to give a blowjob with lies, can you?
“When it gets too hot, I just strip to my underwear,” Kurt replied.
My, the vision of this racially ambiguous young man in his tidy withies opening the fridge on a hot summer day, then inserting his hand to scratch his left butt cheek, turn around and say, “we’re out of beer, Charlie,” crossed my mind like the vision of a flying saucer saving humanity must have crossed Ron Hubbard’s. The vision of Kurt lying on the couch watching television, his boxers rolled up on his strong legs well beyond decency, his hairy chest, the smell if his manly armpits filling up the room; the vision of Kurt swiping left and right photos of girls on Tinder while reaching inside his basketball shorts to stretch his penis… I didn’t interview anyone else. I destroyed his credit check application, deleted the ad from Craigslist and begged the Lord that Kurt would pay rent on time or at least let me see him naked.
It took him two months to pay his half-month deposit, and in half a year, not even once I had the chance to see that jerk in his underwear, and barely a couple of times shirtless. He never washed a dish. He never cleaned the bathroom. He ate my food, drank my booze, and used all my beauty products. Kurt is twenty-six and straight, for God’s sake. Why in the world would he want to use my La Mer rejuvenating crème?
Many a night I spent pressing a pillow against my ears while he had sex with those stiletto-wearing girls he picked up at the clubs in Hollywood.
The one time I brought home a trick, he dared to judge me.
“You left a condom wrap in the bathroom. You guys are gross.”
Coming from the guy that picked his nose and cleaned his buggers under my sofa, I shouldn’t have paid much attention. It hurt my feelings, though. The day he gave notice, I felt relieved. Still, my heart bled a little.
“Where are you moving to?” I asked, brushing off a tear before he could see it.
“Hermosa. This girl I met has a pad half a block from the beach. She wants the meat, bro,” he said, grabbing his crotch.
My eyes must have widened like Gary Oldman’s when he sees the blood in Keanu Reeves’ razor in Dracula, for he started laughing. “What’s a man to do?” Kurt continued. “I’m moving in. Let’s see what happens.”
I wanted the meat too. I wanted the whole pig, not just the sausage. Kurt left me with over five hundred dollars in unpaid bills, an old mattress, empty beer bottles, a kit to grow marijuana using UV lamps, and a freezer that weighs a ton and occupies half the space in my garage and which I bought online on a whim, because Kurt suggested once that if he and I were going to start working out together, I would need to start eating better, “fewer carbs and more lean protein.” But who had the time to cook? “You wake up at five thirty to be at the call center by seven,” Kurt reminded me. “You’re always so tired by the time you come home, we always end up ordering pizza.” He proposed that we should cook our meals in advance and freeze them, and I agreed, thinking that one thing would lead to having showers together. I spent two weeks pay in a large freezer and got a membership at Costco, planning to buy food in bulk.
“Kurt, bro, what d’you think we should have tonight, boeuf bourguignon or chicken piccata?” I imagined myself I’d be saying, drenched in sweat, wearing a band on my head and my new super-expensive shorts from Lululemon while we walked home from the gym.
We didn’t work out together not even once, yet Kurt ate most of the meals I prepared. Now he’s gone, the freezer is empty, and I still don’t know what I’d be wearing tomorrow for my date with Jignesh.
I paid over a thousand dollars for that stupid freezer. I should be able to sell it for at least nine hundred.
That could pay for the purple jacket.
Screw it, I think, putting away the garments I was about to enter with into the dressing room. Screw the GAP, I refuse to live like a poor person. First impressions are important, and I need to give Jignesh my very best. The purple jacket is not a whim. It’s an investment.
I leave the store and walk back to the mall, as determined as Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman when he gets to the factory to confess his love to Debra Winger. Oy, my lunch hour ended forty minutes ago, I better hurry.
“I’m doing this in the name of love,” I will explain to Tunisha, my supervisor. She’s black, therefore on CP time. She’ll understand.
“How romantic!” She’ll exclaim when I explain her about my date tomorrow.
“We met online,” I’ll say, pulling my headset out of my drawer, as if ready to get back to work, but she’ll stop me before I could take any call, and I’ll be forced to continue: “We’ve been sexting for three days. He’s Indian. He’s thirty-four. He’s tall, muscular, and very cute. He’s an accountant and, wait for this, Tunisha: he writes too!” Here she’ll scream, like all black women do under these circumstances, then she’ll swat my shoulder, hopefully hard enough so I can sue the company for harassment.
It is true, my Indian prince writes. He sent me one of his novels. I couldn’t read more than two pages—not my style, I suppose—but I checked the plot in Wikipedia. I’m sure he wrote the entry, himself. Nothing but praise. He’s a bit cocky. I sent him a message this morning, in any case, telling him that I’m looking forward to reading the rest of his work and that I admire his discipline. I certainly didn’t lie when I said that. Each brick is apparently over four hundred pages. I have been working on my screenplay for the last six years, and I haven’t been able to type more than twenty pages. I normally stare at the screen, then browse for free porn and jack off, then stare back at the screen for a little longer.
“You need a boyfriend,” my best friend Lucille said, during her last intervention. “That will boost your imagination.”
“What I need is a husband,” I replied, lifting my cup of coffee with my pinkie upwards, trying to outwit her.
She forcibly agreed.
“Oh, honey,” I imagine I’ll say to my millionaire husband as I plummet on the living room couch after work, in reality, racing through the crowds at the Promenade back to the mall. “I saw a fabulous purple jacket today at Ted Baker, but it was too expensive and I—How did you know?” I’ll gasp when he offers me the jacket.
“I bought an extra-small too, in case the small is too big,” he would say, offering me a second jacket, and then he would get a thousand kisses as a reward… Kisses? Ha! I would rip off his clothes and mount him right there, right on our Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams Chester couch, right after putting my new purple jackets away in the closet, so they wouldn’t get wrinkled, and getting a large towel from Frette to cover the expensive button-tufted coach so we wouldn’t have to clean it afterwards. We would fuck so much, my billionaire husband and I. Once every four hours, twice before breakfasts on Sundays. “I love you so much, William Andrew Jignesh Vanderbilt-Rockefeller,” I’d whisper in his ear as I strike the hair on his head and feel the firm muscles under his shirt. “You and your black American Express. Go on, slide it down my ass crack and I’ll make those ca-ching, ca-ching sounds that make you so horny!”
Jignesh must have some weird Indian last name, so probably he’s not a Vanderbilt, but I don’t know any rich Indian last names.
Enfin, enough fantasy. I reach the mall and pop into Ted Baker. I fetch the jacket without checking the price then walk straight to the fitting rooms to try it on. Even for me, small is too small. Stupid English people—don’t they have cows to feed off in Britain? What do they eat? Polluted London air? I try on the medium. It fits perfectly. I look myself in the mirror. My skin has this healthy glow after the race, I look so handsome, no one would care about my ugly voice. I reach then for the price tag… Please, please, Baby Jesus, make it a dollar.
One thousand, six hundred and seventy-five dollars, plus tax.
It would be a terrific investment, yes, I put the jacket back on the rack, and I totally deserve it, I start walking towards the door, but I better wait until I marry.
“I just wanted to know what it felt like,” I say to the sales person as I exit the store. He nods politely.
No point on lying, he knows well I won’t be coming back.
Tunisha didn’t care about my date. She put me on overflow, meaning that I probably won’t be getting any calls for the rest of the afternoon and gave me another warning. Next time I’ll be on overflow for a whole week. Fine, I wasn’t going to reach my goal this month, anyway.
I spend the next hour browsing the Ted Baker site for sales.
Jignesh isn’t too handsome, but he sounds very smart. He must be if he writes. There are things more important than looks in this world. Like money. As an accountant, he must be making eighty thousand a year as a bare minimum. I’m hoping for a hundred and fifty. Two hundred? What would I do with all that money?
Sudden cheering. Yasmeen, in the cubicle next to mine just closed a sale.
I do hope that Jignesh has money. I know his photo is not recent. He can’t fool me. I’ll add three years to his thirty-four, and ten pounds to his weight, to be on the safe side. The important thing is that he has money. I need a boyfriend with lots of money. I’m like a Jane Austen heroine, raised by loving parents, with a handsome countenance, good, old-fashioned manners, and a kind heart, but in every respect unable to provide for herself or actually willing to. I don’t like to receive orders. Tunisha should be receiving orders from me and not the opposite. What happened to white privilege?
I started reading Martin Pousson’s novel expecting a hilarious black comedy and a light read. It is neither. Black Sheep Boy is a harrowing story of survival and, as the best pieces of fiction often are, not an easy read.
Pousson’s elegant prose must be read slowly to be fully enjoyed. I wouldn’t recommend taking this book to the beach (as I did) but saving it for a gloomy day when you have nothing else on your agenda. It is dark. And sad. Prepare to be heartbroken. Painful events are never sweetened or padded with campy humor; merely told with gracious style that makes the unspeakable bearable. There’s some veiled humor, but nothing that will make you laugh out loud. Au contraire, with every page you will feel that your heart shrinks a little. One character’s statement that he had been voted “Most Likely to Suck Seed” in his senior year of high-school, will make you curl a lip, but probably shed a tear too, because of the pitiful circumstances in which he makes this comment.
For the most of the book, the main character has no name and neither do his parents or grandparents. Physical descriptions are scarce. I must say that I craved more concrete imagery, especially at the beginning, but overall, the use of metaphor throughout this book works superbly. Pousson’s intention was not to entertain his readers with colorful gay boy adventures, but to make them experience the tragedy of being an outcast, to make them inhabit the main character’s body as if it were a vessel navigating through the dark worlds of the Bayou and homosexual life, rather than an actual person. The protagonist does and sees, but until the very end, he hardly ever expresses how he feels or what he truly wants. We know that he wants to be “normal,” but we never really get to meet him. We simply accompany him, feeling partially numbed, partially frightened, and always inadequate.
An excellent read that reminds us that gay life is not always “gay” and that for many, it may never get better.
I know, voting for Trump sounds like a very crazy idea. Trump is racist, misogynist, has no political experience, and is a total fraud. He will be a terrible president if not the very last, but bear with me as I expose my arguments. There is a strong and powerful reason why you want Trump to be president: Your ego.
First, what is the alternative? Eight more years of Obama-like progress with a Democrat as president? Let’s say that Hillary chooses Bernie to be her running mate and that they flip-flop on their second term, to keep everyone happy; no disgruntled people here, we’re talking about eight more years of democrats, whoever the candidate. Assuming that Clinton and Sanders are as good presidents as Obama has been, that would mean lowering unemployment, ending the gender income gap, and yada yadda yada, which is totally fine, don’t take me wrong, I do want good things to happen, and I’m assuming you do too, but… do you want to change the world or do you want the world to change? There’s a difference. That difference is you.
How old would you be after Hillary and Bernie step down? You will be eight years older. Chances are you may be settled by then, maybe have a child or two already and a full-time job, that Gosh, will be sucking most of your energy. A little pouch of a belly will have replaced your six-pack, if you had one. Then you’ll run into your best friend from college, that half-Jewish, half-Asian, sometimes bisexual girl from Political Science and she’ll say: “Remember when we wanted to change the world? LOL.” You’ll look at her from the side of your eye, with your chin resting on your left hand, and you’ll chuckle. Now she works for a health insurance provider. “The world changed us,” you’ll finally mumble. You’ll have some drinks, lots of laughs, then each will call their driverless car on their phones, go home to have dinner prepared by a replicator machine based on a Charlie Trotter’s menu and binge-watch a series on the 360 video… Is that really the life you want? To find out one day that your spouse is having an affair with the operating system and just roll your eyes about it? Needless to say, if Trump wins, your life would be totally different.
Remember how you felt the first time you watched the Hunger Games? Whether you’re a fan of the series or not, you must agree that Jennifer Lawrence looked absolutely and utterly fabulous in that red armor shooting arrows. Remember how happy you were when Harry Potter finally defeated Voldemort in the Deathly Hallows part II? You knew well that Harry would win, you knew that since book 1, there’s no way in the world Voldemort would be victorious; you read the Deathly Hallows twice, if not three times, still, if felt so good when you saw them fight and, despite all the deaths and all the destruction in Hogwarts, you saw Harry come out victorious. What about Captain America? Isn’t he swell?
Do this: close your eyes, put your right hand on your heart and ask yourself whether you too would like to be a hero. Do you want to? You do! Now you feel like grabbing a broom and pretending it’s a light saber. Well, If Hillary wins, that’s all your life will be, a (sad) pretension.
It all depends on what you understand for revolution, of course. If your definition of “revolution” is sharing political memes on your Facebook wall and signing online petitions until a new bill that will expand the rights of the oppressed is signed, well, good for you, stay with boring Hillary and grandpa Sanders. That to me is a revolution for sissies. Why? Because real revolutionaries fight. They fight tooth and nail. They drag themselves through mud, they live in the shadows, they run through debris, they fight murderous robots and bloodthirsty hounds and cling to helicopters to prevent the bad guys from escaping. Real heroes hack computers, steal the plans for interstellar weapons of mass destruction and sacrifice their lives, if necessary. Yes, heroes are willing to pay the ultimate price for liberty and justice.
For the real revolution to occur we need heroes. You have what it takes to be a hero, you know you do, you feel it on the hairs of your arms every time you hear the drums from the 20th Century Fox fanfare at the beginning of the Star Wars soundtrack. It’s in your bones. YOU ARE A HERO, you learned that from playing the Legend of Zelda and watching The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies, you don’t need a stupid college degree that will be useless when the machines take all of our jobs in the near future—FUCK YOU GOOGLE—if only you could get your hands on one of those floating balls shooting lasers, you know you’d be a Jedi by now!
Sadly, for the revolution to occur we also need oppression. If the Berners are right and Hillary is a corrupt monster, as their memes claim, we may get some oppression with her as president. Maybe Wall Street will lead us to another recession; maybe some will lose their jobs and will end up living in their cars; maybe you’ll have to go back to your parent’s home, but, let’s be honest, even if she’s bad—and most probably she will be amazing—you know that not even in your wildest masturbatory dreams Hillary will cause a nuclear holocaust. She’s too nice, too smart, too diplomatic. Now, Trump? The hell he will. I saw a meme the other day saying that he’s planning to invade Scotland. It’s not an exaggeration, it could very well happen. Queen Elizabeth may say something silly about Melania and, next thing you know, boom, the Queen is fired. Trump meets with Madam Secretary of Defense, Sarah Palin, and after a few margaritas, they decide to press the red button and nuke those British wankers. The entire island, fuck the Welsh and the English too. Wouldn’t that be totally rad? Terrifying at first, because a lot of people will die, and I’ve never been to London, but a nuclear war will be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for all of your life to become a hero. You’ll watch the whole world fooled by Fox News stating that the Scottish had been hiding terrorists; even your parents and siblings will believe Trump’s lies, but you won’t. You won’t be able to stay calm and accept Trump dictatorship after you learn about the extermination camps for the Muslims and Mexicans.
What will you do? You’ll do what is fair, you’ll do what heroes do: you’ll join the underground resistance led by Lupita Gutierrez, a transgender born in Chihuahua that used to be a host in a cantina in Echo Park before Trump’s regime and now is the leader of the rebellion. You’ll bump heads at first, because you believe in absolute freedom for all, regardless of their creed, gender or color, and Lupita is a little racist; she doesn’t trust white people after having escaped a concentration camp set in a former Target where they cut off her chichis. You’ll have to prove yourself, maybe show her that you could add lots of Cholula to your food or sing Cielito Lindo without an accent, and eventually you’ll become one of her most trusted Generals. And when she dies, betrayed by a Salvadorian mole sick of being confused with a Mexican, you’ll take the lead of the revolutionary army and keep fighting the good war, the war for freedom and justice, so one day we can rebuild this great American nation.
Well, Lupita may end up getting her own series in Netflix and World War III postponed for God knows how many years if Hillary wins—probably until the next time we elect a Republican president. Believe me, you don’t want to fight a war on your thirties or forties. When you pass forty, all you want to do is to take off your pants and play candy Crush Saga on your phone until the Thai food you ordered over the phone arrives. You want to fight now, when you are still young, when you still believe in justice and change, and you still can bend down and tie your shoes without puffing. You need Trump.
Will it be horrible? Absolutely. War, starvation, displacement, and famine. But you’ll look AWESOME wearing your homemade armor, shooting arrows from your laser bow and kicking butt like in the Matrix, without getting bad hair or losing your sunglasses. Will many people die? Billions, probably, but don’t worry much, it’s the corrupt, the old and the fatties the ones who die first. And Parisians. LOL, haven’t you watched any movies? Paris always goes first, and last time I checked France is like FAR. Now, if you’re a member of a minority, to be totally honest, your chances of becoming the ultimate hero that defeats Trumpdemort are somewhat slim, because heroes are normally white, and not necessarily male, but having a penis helps to be invincible. If you’re Muslim you’re pretty much out of luck. If you’re Mexican, it’s a game of numbers, because we’re so many: you have fifty to ninety percent chances of dying in a Trump concentration camp, but if you escape, you’ll be wholeheartedly accepted in the rebellion and earn an officer rank just because you eat tamales. If you’re black or Asian I would recommend becoming the love interest of someone white with the potential to be a hero in order to guarantee survival.
I know all of this sounds kind of difficult and there’s a lot of work and pain involved, not to say ridiculously small chances of survival, but to win the lottery you have to buy a ticket. If you really, really, really believe in yourself like Katniss and Luke and the guy from the Maze Runner did, and refuse to accept any evidence that contradicts what you know deep in your heart is true, like Captain America did in his latest movie, you may end up with a huge monument in DC. That is, if Trump wins. If the Democrats win, well, your family and your friends will still love you. Maybe.
Think about it. What do you want your life to be? Do you want to be like your parents who fart in front of each other and the last time they went to a club was in 1999, or do you want to be like Luke Skywalker and live in a post apocalyptic world fighting for freedom? Change is up to you. Don’t waste your vote.
Sometimes I’m a little bit embarrassed about the amount of nonsense I post in this blog. Maybe Michelle Obama will feel tempted to follow me in Twitter, land here and oh, dear, be so utterly disappointed by the lack of intelligent life! I clutch my pearls at the mere thought…
One day I’ll clean this blog. Not today. It’s 6:22 PM and I haven’t gotten off my pajamas. Meanwhile, please read the following review and share it with all your loved ones.
(Click the link below)
Wondering what the publishing industry would think about my crazy idea: instead of asking an intern for coverage on a manuscript, scan her brain while she reads it and measure for boredom. The least boring manuscripts should get a pass.
Use of Engagement as an Approximation of Merit
Never before has it been easier to publish a book. Advances in technology and the affordances of the internet allow us to print on demand and reach readers in the remotest parts of the planet. For the same reasons, never before has it been more difficult to be a successful author. With so many books published every year, both in paper and electronically, and easy and immediate access to other media competing for potential readers’ attention, reaching the right audience—or any at all—has become increasingly difficult.
Authors published by traditional publishers have the best chance of achieving success. Yet, publishers and literary agents are drowned with so many queries that, oftentimes, the decision on whether to accept or reject a manuscript from the “slush pile” lies on an intern, who must ask herself not whether she enjoyed the reading of the manuscript in hand but whether it could sell. Many times, the answer depends more so on what this intern believes her boss and other people believe makes a book worth reading, that is, on injunctive and descriptive norms (see O’Keefe, 2015), than on her actual judgment of the manuscript. What could become a literary success is, thus, rejected for lacking any apparent commercial value; what lacks entertaining value is accepted because it is perceived as what others think it is what people want to read now.
Inspired by the Berns and Moore’s study that suggests that analyzing neural activity in the reward-related regions can predict the popularity of music among the general population better that self-reports of likability (Berns & Moore, 2012), we propose to give a heavier weight to the perceived level of engagement of a manuscript, as measured through neuromarketing tools such as fMRI, or other forms of neuroimaging, EEG or eye-tracking, than to self-reports alone when evaluating such manuscript’s merit and worthiness of publication. We believe that the measurement of subconscious processes while performing an activity can prove to be a better predictor of enjoyment than self-reports because the former are driven mainly by emotion, while the latter include subjective valuations of injunctive and descriptive norms and are subject to the framing effects of memory and self-censure (Berns & Moore, 2011).
Berns and Moore’s study used perceived likability as indicated by the activation of the orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral striatum as a predictor of whether a song would become a commercial success (Berns & Moore, 2012). However, reading a good manuscript could arouse not only positive but also negative affective responses, such as sadness, anger, fear, and even disgust, especially when identification with the characters occur (Oatley, 2002), and still be a good manuscript. Therefore, we prefer engagement as an approximation of merit over likability measured through indications of positive affect. Simply put, we will call a manuscript worth of being published if it’s highly engaging, regardless of the valence of the emotions aroused.
Ryan and Deci’s self-determination theory predicts that task engagement results from satisfying the needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Measuring whether these needs are satisfied while reading a text would require conscious and probably subjective judgment, however. Miller defines engagement as the “quantity and quality of mental resources directed at an object of thought” (Miller, 2015; p. 33) which makes the level of engagement a function of neural activity, easy to measure with EGG or neuroimaging. His definition does not consider motivation, however, making it incompatible with transportation, the phenomenon in which a reader loses herself into a story (Green & Brock, 2002). Thus, for our purposes, we’ll define engagement as the intrinsic desire to continue performing an activity until halted by boredom, and use increased brain activity and a negative valence of boredom as indicators of the level of engagement.
Boredom is an “aversive state that occurs when it is not possible to achieve an optimal level of arousal through engagement with the environment.” (Mathiak, Klasen, Zvyagintsev, Weber, & Mathiak, 2013). Bench and Lench define boredom as the internal urge to pursuit an alternative goal when the current situation is no longer emotionally stimulating (Bench & Lench, 2013). For Toohey (2011), boredom is an emotion related to the primary emotion of disgust, and just like disgust prevents us from getting too close to what could result in sickness, boredom prevents us from engaging in activities that bring no apparent benefit or could be toxic—such as reading an uninteresting book.
As humans, we have an innate thirst for acquiring knowledge, thirst that is heightened by the reward mechanisms of the brain. After satisfactorily reaching a goal, the release of high amounts of dopamine that subsequently occurs makes us want to repeat the actions that resulted in this extra release of the neurotransmitter (Willis, 2014). We’re hooked on pleasure, and when this comes at variable rather than predictable rates, our desire to be pleased only grows (Eyal, 2012). Thus, we waste hours swapping channels, hoping to find something worth watching on TV, or clicking links on Reddit, hoping to get a short fix of happiness. At the same time, we avoid complex cognitive tasks when the perceived reward to be attained, compared to the effort required, is none or little (Jabr, 2012). That is, we avoid not what will exhaust us, but what bores us. Since choice is driven by emotions, it is the deterioration of affect what leads to boredom, and boredom what makes us “disengage from current goal pursuits” (Willis, 2014; p. 461) and switch to more meaningful and rewarding activities. Valuation of what is rewarding and meaningful is, of course, an unconscious process ultimately vetted by conscious thinking (Ramsøy, 2015). Both processes rely on memory: Boredom tempts us to stop working and spend time on social media instead, but risk assessment, fear of punishment, or the promise of a delayed reward, makes us force ourselves to continue working. Thus, boredom is itself a function of one’s own memories, preferences, and skills, as well as our current mood and our inherent tendency to be bored (Toohey, 2011). Our suggestion to use boredom as an approximation to measure engagement is, therefore, under the assumption that readers’ competences and preferences will match the complexity of the texts to be evaluated, and that only readers that are neither prone to be bored nor too easily contented should be considered, conditions which can be revealed by having them take the Boredom Proneness Scale developed by Norman Sundberg (Toohey, 2011).
Boredom has a physiological effect that can be measured by studying brain activity and behavior. As a stressor, boredom prevents the amygdala to allow information perceived through the senses to reach the prefrontal cortex, because this information is subconsciously recognized as irrelevant or toxic, effectively preventing any understanding to be constructed into long-term memory. In a bored state, the prefrontal cortex loses communication with the rest of the brain, resulting in involuntary behavioral responses: from deep sighs, rolling eyes, droopy eyes, and mind wandering, to even self-mutilating (Willis, 2014).
Neuroimaging reveals that bored individuals show less activity in the prefrontal cortex and more in the lower brain, that controls behavior (Willis, 2014). Likewise, greater activation of the insula, related to disgust and avoidance responses, and lesser of the orbitofrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, related to approach behavior, can indicate boredom. On the other hand, increased hippocampal activity and a higher index of prefrontal asymmetry would indicate a higher level engagement (Mathiak et al., 2013; Ramsøy, 2015).
In the absence of neuroimaging, whose costs could be prohibitive because of the expensive equipment and high level of expertise required to make a proper analysis of the data, an EEG showing higher changes in signal amplitude can be an indication of increased mental activity and thus of a higher level of engagement. Self-pace reading, by measuring overall reading speed, and eye-tracking, by measuring fixation and reading patterns, can also indicate engagement. Engaged readers will slow down their reading to better comprehend a text, especially complicated texts, while disengaged readers will read at a higher speed due to lack of interest (Miller, 2015). Fixation too can reveal whether every word in a text lay within the reader’s foveal view for at least a minimum period of time, sufficient to interpret its meaning, and whether some re-reading occurred, for difficult or ambiguous words, or interesting sentences, both activities an indication of higher engagement, or whether entire words or paragraphs were skipped, an indication of boredom (Miller, 2015).
Other observed behavioral changes, such as changes in posture can reveal boredom: the deep sighs and rolling eyes mentioned above, hands on cheeks, elbows on a desk, or slouching, whereas a closer distance to the screen or the printed material combined with pupil dilation, and face gestures that reveal inner emotions, can indicate engagement. Changes in respiration and pulse, too, can indicate whether the text arouses an emotional response.
Whether extrapolating the results of neural analyses from individuals to the general population could in fact predict popularity hasn’t been fully demonstrated, but studies like the one from Berns and Moore (2012) suggest a significant correlation of brain activity with likability, which, expanded to engagement, could be a better form to judge a manuscript than beliefs based on injunctive and descriptive norms and with no actual data to support them. More experiments are required, but it is not far fetched to recommend listening to instinct, especially when it is other’s instincts what one tries to predict. Rather than discounting neural analyses that do not always match, we should study under which conditions they do and bet on cultural universals rather than potentially ephemeral trends. In the long run, investing in neuroscience could be the most cost effective decision a publisher, or any music or film producer, for that matter, could do.
Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013) On the function of Boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459-472. Doi: 10.3390/bs3030459
Berns, G. S., & Moore, S. E. (2012). A neural predictor of cultural popularity. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(1), 154-160. Doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.05.001
Eyal, N. (2012). Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire. Retrieved March 26, 2016, from http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/03/how-to-manufacture-desire.html
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2002). In the Mind’s Eye: Transportation-Imagery Model of Narrative Persuasion, in M. C. Green, J. J. Strange & T. C. Brock (Eds.), in Narrative Impact: social and cognitive foundations (pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Jabr, F. (2012). Does Thinking Really Hard Burn More Calories? Retrieved January 28, 2016, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thinking-hard-calories/
Mathiak, K. A., Klasen, M., Zvyagintsev, M., Weber, R., & Mathiak, K. (2013). Neural networks underlying affective states in a multimodal virtual environment: Contributions to boredom. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Front. Hum. Neurosci., 7. Doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00820
Miller, B. W. (2015). Using Reading Times and Eye-Movements to Measure Cognitive Engagement. Educational Psychologist, 50(1), 31-42. Doi: 10.1080/00461520.2015.1004068
Oatley, K. (2002). Emotions and the story worlds of fiction. In Green, M. C., Strange, J. J., & Brock, T. C. (Eds.) Narrative impact: social and cognitive foundations (pp. 39-69). Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
O’Keefe, Daniel J. (2015-02-18). Persuasion: theory and research. SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.
Ramsøy, T. (2014). Introduction to Neuromarketing & consumer neuroscience. Neurons Inc ApS. Kindle Edition.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions. In Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000) doi:10.1006/ceps.1999.1020, available online at http://www.idealibrary.com
Toohey, P. (2011). Boredom: A lively history. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Willis, J. (2014). Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (8), 28-32. Doi: 10.1177/003172171409500807.
I just got this excellent review from Pantalea Mazzitello, an academic from the University of Parma, author of Il Bacio Spudorato a brief history of the osculum infame, and an expert in literature from the middle ages. If you read it with an Italian accent you’ll enjoy it best!
Love, or the witches of Windward Circle,
an American evil and humor tale
The confessions of a witch on her deathbed slowly trigger a whirlwind of events, whose acceleration will overwhelm the characters dwelling in the Windward Circle. The witch’s two eldest daughters are beautiful yet monstrous and will make the third youngest daughter’s life, the horrid but human protagonist of the novel, a true living hell. However, the protagonist has no name and no voice and not even Hell wants to host her before Satan. After being thrown out of Netherworld, the apprentice will try to conquer youth and beauty while striving for redemption through spells, potions, demoniac familiars, kidnappings and brutal murders. Nobody is really what it seems and every character may conceal centennial vampires, penitent werewolves or disguised duck paws.
The story abounds with precise details, which collect elements from the great history of witches’ persecutions, and sometimes plays itself the role of a handbook for wannabe witches. No detail is left out while describing the gathering ritual of witches, i.e. the Sabbath, including the Osculum infame, a symbol of homage and loyalty to the Lord of Darkness, and the revolution of the traditional Mass rites. The reader will unexpectedly brush up on the history of witchcraft and will discover its most characteristic features, obscene details and the foundations of apostasy.
Allende’s work is both a novel and a theatre play: the characters seem to enter and exit the pages while performing the role they were given, against the background of a narration belonging to the twentieth century only for its setting, but which reveals itself as a representation of the most contemporary social facets, thus winking at today’s readers.
It’s horror, it’s grotesque, it’s tragicomic: the early twentieth century in Venice, California, has never been so dark.
(University of Parma)
I made a short video.
Only 9 minutes.
I say redding instead of reading.
Haven’t bought Love, or the Witches of Windward Circle yet? Are you gonna miss all the hot and steamy descriptions of hairy and sexy characters inspired by Terry McFadden throughout the book? Now you have no excuse! My publisher dropped the price of the Kindle to only $3.99 for the next two weeks to celebrate that I will be at the LA Times Festival of Books!
SUNDAY, APRIL 10, 2016
SEELEY G. MUDD (SGM 124)
Fiction: A Touch of Modern Horror
That’s right, you get to read ALL about hot and sexy Harris, the werewolf (he looks like Terry). Hot and tragic Russell, the beatnik (he looks like Terry but with a beard and lighter hair), and hot and steamy Detective Parson (salt and pepper Terry, angeleno edition). Only $3.99 for a limited time!
Prefer paper? Then come and see me at USC, April 10 and get a signed copy. Terry will be there too!