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Witches and Beatniks

Originally a place to promote my dark humor writing. Presently, a media psychology blog

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Turn it into a game. Applying Principles of Gamification to Create Better Stories

Storytellers want their stories to be addictive so that the readers keep turning pages and viewers keep asking for more. How does one achieve that? What does engagement entail? My proposal here is to turn stories into a game for the readers—or listeners, or viewers, anyone that consumes a story—to play.

No, I’m not proposing to write interactive stories in which readers decide with a click what is going to happen next, but for storytellers to use gamification principles when crafting a story to increase engagement. Basically, to reconcile the transportation-imagery model (Green & Brock, 2002; Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, Wetzels, 2014) with self-determination theory (Ryan,& Deci, 2000) and Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow (Green & Brock, 2002). Don’t worry; I’ll try to lay my arguments in plain English.

Let us begin by defining terms. What is engagement? That which keeps you interested and willing to continue performing an activity, such as reading a book or watching a movie until interrupted by boredom. In other words, something is engaging when it is not boring. Lame definition, I know, but this is our first aha! moment: the first step to increase engagement is to avoid boredom.

We could blame boredom on the readers’ ignorance or lack of discipline, but the truth is that even the most compelling stories can become boring if told the wrong way. Likewise, the simplest adventures can be a rollercoaster of fun if spiced up. Is that what you should do, then, add more salt and pepper to your story? Yes, but, as the cliché says, one must also learn when to kill his darlings—those that are boring, that is.

Boredom is an emotion, and as every emotion, its function is to direct behavior (Bench & Lench, 2013). Boredom is related to disgust (Toohey, 2011), and as disgust, it convinces you to stop, plain and simple. Boredom signals the brain that the current goal is no longer attractive, even toxic (Willis, 2014), and that a different goal must be pursued (Bench & Lench, 2013). Therefore the feelings of discomfort one suffers when bored and still forced to continue. Not only that, boredom cuts the communication between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of your brain, impeding the formation of long-term memories (Willis, 2014).

Yes, boredom can prevent you from acquiring valuable knowledge. It is an evolutionary advantage to increase the chances of survival: Just like disgust prevents us from getting sick by not eating what we find repulsive, boredom prevents us from devoting our undivided attention to a single, unrewarding activity for too long. The world is a scary place, and if we wonder for too long why the sky is blue or how many angels can dance on a pin head, we may get eaten, killed, or left behind. The risk may not be as high in this modern world, but your brain doesn’t care. No matter how much time you have on your hands, your subconscious still decides whether a current task deserves your whole attention or not. That is, perhaps, why you keep checking your social media accounts every ten minutes, because you’re not sufficiently engaged at work.

So far this may sound like redundant advice: to be interesting one must not be boring, but the temptation to write long, insipid, unrewarding back stories or fill up pages with exposition exists. If it is boring, cut it, regardless of how beautiful the prose. Your readers’ brains will reject it anyway.

So how not to be boring? If boredom is an indication to stop and pursue a different goal, you need the opposite, to motivate your readers to continue by leading them into a state of flow, one that demands intense focus but is also meaningful, challenging, and rewarding by itself (Green & Brock, 2002) as when you read an amazing story or play an interesting game, and you simply don’t get bored. Applied to narratives, we say that an engaged reader has been transported to the world of the story to the point that they ignore their physical surroundings and instead “see the action of the story unfolding before them” (Green & Brock, 202, p. 317).

When fully transported, the decision to continue is automatic. If you get bored, the decision to proceed or not becomes conscious and will depend on an external reward rather than intrinsic enjoyment derived from the activity, as in “I better finish reading this BORING article if I want to pass the finals,” or “I better stop here, this article is BORING, and I have much better things to do.” That is the tenet of self-determination theory, which explains motivation. Concerning consuming stories, we can say that readers are intrinsically motivated to read a story when the story is rewarding by itself, and extrinsically motivated when reading depends on an external reward, like obtaining a good grade.

What this means is that to craft an interesting story, you must reward your readers because rewards keep them engaged.

Does that mean stories should be a sugary road to happiness? All the contrary. Rewards bring you joy, of course, but joy, like all emotions, fades with time and has a diminishing marginal utility (Bench & Lench, 2013). One pony is fantastic, two ponies better, why not, but the sixth pony is just meh! By pony number fourteen you are probably so sick of those tiny horses, you can’t care less if all die. Transportation is off, and you return to the real world. For stories to be rewarding they need to be painful too; otherwise, the rewards become meaningless. Conflict brings some of that pain. Pain is what makes rewards delicious. Too much pain, however, and the activity becomes harrowing. How much is too much? Conflict arouses your readers’ interest but only when there is hope this conflict will get resolved, and in the measure of the emotions it arouses. As directives of behavior emotions serve also as indicators of progress toward a goal (Bench & Lench, 2013), so what truly keeps readers engaged are the little steps toward a distant yet attainable goal. Here we get closer to what makes a story engaging: goal setting.

A reader’s goal is to be entertained as she relives how characters suffer and rejoice toward achieving their goals. To be engaged then, or transported—we should prefer this term since we are talking about being engaged in a story—means to emotionally identify with the characters’ predicament, empathize with their plight, and wish for them to achieve their goals, regardless of what these are. Goal setting is not the only determinant of transportation but an essential one because without goals there cannot be an emotional investment in the characters and we get bored!

Therefore the success of the hero’s journey, a classic map to create engaging stories. You have a hero, one with a clear goal and a journey that is but a rollercoaster of emotions as he rejects the quest first, then accepts it, then succeeds, then fails, then gets help from a supernatural power, then fails again, then succeeds. The problem I see with the Hero’s Journey is that it becomes a recipe that storytellers follow to achieve success rather than an example. Works with children, who are easy to please, but as you mature and have watched or read your fair share of stories, you gain the ability to anticipate any new development. When the rewards start coming at a predictable pace, the story becomes less engaging (Eyal, 2012).

How does this relate to gamification? Gamification refers to the application of game elements to non-gaming activities to increase motivation (Conaway & Garay, 2014; Crowley, Breslin, Corcoran, & Young, 2012; Landers & Callan, 2011). Understanding what causes a state of flow, and Self-Determination Theory explains how games keep you motivated.

Let us use a game we all know to explain it: Candy Crush Saga. Solving puzzles is basically a waste of your time, and as we said before boredom protects us from wasting time. Why then is the game so addictive? Because we derive satisfaction from solving puzzles, it makes us feel smart. What Candy Crush Saga does is to allow the player to reach a state of flow, one that demands her full attention and is rewarding by itself (Morris, Croker, Zimmerman, Gill, & Romig, 2013). Then, the game keeps the player motivated by satisfying her needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, which per Self-Determination Theory are key to motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need for autonomy by allowing you to play at your own pace and devote only as much time—or money, if one decides to buy the boosters—as you want. You can play the game anywhere, anytime, as long as you have a device with an internet connection.

Candy Crush Saga satisfies your need to feel competent, with puzzles that are easy to solve at the beginning but get increasingly challenging as you progress. Instead of boring us, the increasing challenge keeps us going, and we only quit when the game becomes too easy or too difficult—or reality calls. Additionally, the game continually rewards you for your good decisions with catchy sounds, power ups, explosions of color, and words like “divine” and “tasty.” By the time you complete level 252 with over two million points you feel nothing less than the Queen or the King of the world, especially because completing a level is yes, product of your own effort but also occurs relatively at random, which keep you even more hooked: uncertainty increases our willingness to continue, because our dopamine levels increase with anticipation (Rose, 2012; Eyal, 2012). In other words, we are happier when we are about to attain what we want than when we attain it. Lastly, if you fail, no big deal, you can try again, and then again, and again, until you complete the level. Candy Crush Saga won’t judge you. It celebrates you the same whether it took you ten minutes or a year to complete a level.

It doesn’t stop there: The game also makes you feel part of a community, satisfying your need for relatedness by allowing to brag about your success on social media, see your friends’ progress, help them or ask for their help, and gives meaning to your apparently purposeless efforts by interjecting the story of how Tiffi lends a hand to the residents of Candy Kingdom. These may be only fictional characters, but they sure are grateful.

To summarize, the elements of gamification are: 1. progress path, through the use of challenges; 2. constant feedback, on what you do right and what you do wrong, and instant gratification to keep the user motivated and make forward movement obvious; 3. social connection, with both real and fictional characters, providing competition and support, and 4. interface and user experience, which refers to the aesthetics of the game (Conaway and Garay,2014).

How can you apply this to increase transportation?

Let’s recapitulate. To increase transportation, a reader must willingly join the characters’ on an emotionally bumpy quest to achieve their goals. Bumpy, because if it isn’t challenging enough, the journey becomes boring. To remain engaged, the reader must constantly be rewarded, but these rewards must come after solving the challenges along the trip. If the trip is too easy, the reader may get bored; if it is too difficult, the reader will get frustrated, and bored and frustrated readers quit. Because seeing the characters’ attain their goals is the ultimate reward—in addition to those smaller rewards collected along the way—these goals must be set as early as possible. The reader must know what the purpose of immersing into a story is. Otherwise, boredom will signal the reader’s brains to occupy herself with something else.

In essence, transportation results from leading readers into a state of flow, but not any state of flow, but one that leads to the creation of mental imagery and developing empathy for others. Solving a simple puzzle involves no characters. Narrative transportation occurs only when the task at hand involves interpreting a story, a sequence of events with identifiable characters. Interpreting is the key word. One must differentiate then between a story, as one that is told, and a narrative, as one that is interpreted by the reader (Laer, De Ruyter, Visconti, & Wetzels, 2014). The difference is important because interpreting is what makes consuming a story an active and progressively challenging task that can lead to a state of flow. Therefore, all the writing advice clichés: Show; don’t tell. Less is more. Make the reader read between the lines, and kill your darlings. In other words, provide just enough information so that the reader is forced to solve a puzzle. Exposition should set the rules not drive the story. Too many rules and nobody will want to play. Too little rules and players will get confused. Start easy and acknowledge the reader’s abilities and familiarity with the subject, the characters or the genre. Do not waste time explaining how a submarine operates, unless the reader needs the information to solve a future puzzle. If she does, bring the information closer to that puzzle; if she doesn’t, delete it. That not only makes a story engaging but also satisfies the readers’ need for autonomy, for they become the ones building the story with you. Give them control over the little details; let them decide the make and color of the heroes’ automobiles; the clothes they wear, etc. It is not a matter of losing control but of staying in control by constantly teasing, by leading the path with crumbs, create anticipation, and not losing their attention. An increased sense of presence should result not only from the creation of mental imagery suggested by the story but also by speculative thoughts.

For instance, in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Besson, 2017), the origins of the city are suggested with a series of images of the International Space Station accompanied by a well known song, Space Oddity. The Bowie song puts you in a good mood and because we all know it (and love it) and because the International Space Station is also a concept we are all familiar with, as viewers we easily reach a state of transportation and do not question what comes next: the City of a Thousand Planets, Alpha, growing from all sorts of interplanetary species joining the station. The details of how the different technologies and politics were reconciled are irrelevant. We are too busy interpreting and enjoying the story. Had Besson chosen to explain the origin of Alpha with exposition, say by listing the circumstances under which each civilization joined the station, the result may not have been as transporting. What he did was to exploit the knowledge that most viewers already possessed: a catchy song that suggests the magic of space exploration and the existence of a real international enterprise, and then lead the viewers to connect the dots.

Is the experience rewarding? Absolutely. Not only is aesthetically beautiful, but it inspires a sense of hope in the future of humanity. Then it becomes valuable knowledge for what is coming next, the most exotic world you could ever imagine, compressed in a relatively small space, the size of a “city.” By the time we return to Alpha, we do not question its existence, or how it became such a chaotic place, but it remains an intriguing place, we want to know ans see more, and thus we continue engaged.

The Alpha sequence does not introduce us to the main characters or their goals; nonetheless, it sets a clear goal in the reader’s mind: to learn more about this world. It prepares us for wanting more.

Cinema as a medium has the advantage of being more immersive than print narratives because a film can provide in one frame much more detailed information than text could in one line and without disrupting the pace of the narrative (Biocca, 2002). Immersion, however, does not guarantee continuous engagement. All the contrary, ambiguity does, because ambiguity leads to the creation of mental imagery and speculative thoughts. Take the opening scene in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

‘My dear Mr. Bennet,’ said his lady to him one day, ‘have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?’

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

‘But it is,’ returned she; ‘for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.’

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

‘Do you not want to know who has taken it?’ cried his wife impatiently.

‘YOU want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.” (Austen, 2009, Kindle Location 21659)

Austen takes advantage of our familiarity with similar characters and circumstances to let us deduce that Mrs. Bennet talks a lot, but her husband doesn’t. From the text we also infer that the new resident of Netherfield Park is rich and single, that the Bennets have daughters of an appropriate age to be married, and that Mrs. Bennet wants to marry one of them with him. Nothing of this is stated, though, merely suggested. The reader becomes acquainted with the characters, and that without being told what they look like, how they’re dressed, where exactly the action takes place, or any other information irrelevant to the story. I imagine the Bennets in a small drawing room, one similar to the many drawing rooms I’ve seen in British movies, Mr. Bennet busy with a book, Mrs. Bennet pretending to be examining the curtains. Austen presents us with a challenge, that of interpreting the story, but she gives us the absolute liberty to recreate the scene in whichever manner we want. In a game, we have the autonomy to move and explore with liberty as long as we follow certain rules. In Austen’s novels, we have the autonomy to imagine what the Bennets look like, where they are, as we discover what they want. Our reward? Elegant yet easy to follow prose, which plays the role of hyper realistic graphics, and the comedic situation. Impossible not to smile at Mrs. Bennet’s attempt to call her husband’s attention! By the time we meet the Bennet daughters, we have already sided with their mother’s intentions whether we approve of them or not. Alas, when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy first meet, they dislike each other intensely… And how fortunate that is! It would have been a waste of our time if the story ended without any obstacles. Finally, not every reader will be enthused about the limited options for the Bennet daughters, but as the story progresses, it becomes impossible not to relate and dream about living too in that world, England’s countryside at the turn of the nineteen century, despite the lack of comfort, the threat of war, the poor hygiene, and other circumstances from which the narrative distracts us.

Laer et al. (2014) list identifiable characters, imaginable plot, and verisimilitude as antecedents dependent on the storyteller, and familiarity, attention, transportability, and demographics such as gender and age, as antecedents dependent on the story receiver that influence transportation. My proposal is not to change these ingredients, but the way they are cooked: as a series of puzzles following a progress path, providing feedback, social connection, and a pleasurable user experience. A storyteller must not limit to introduce characters and their goals but invite readers to recreate these characters and infer their goals based on the rules that the storyteller sets upon consideration of the readers’ abilities, that is by taking advantage of the readers’ experience and their willingness to confront a challenge, because this will satisfy the readers’ need for autonomy and competence. The storyteller must also reward readers with beautiful images, witty lines, and by allowing progress to be evident to keep the readers’ attention, and be careful to provide these rewards only when they are deserved, after some good tormenting, and not as often or in a pattern that makes them predictable, to satisfy the readers’ need for competence. And a storyteller must invite his readers to bond with his characters and feel part of their world, and their circumstances. Who wouldn’t change places with Harry Potter, orphaned as a baby, raised without love, surrounded by enemies, and in constant peril, for a chance of attending courses at Hogwarts and Christmas at the Weasley’s? A story needs to satisfy our need for relatedness to be complete.

References:

Austen, Jane (2009). The Complete Works of Jane Austen (Annotated with Biography and Critical Essays) (Kindle Locations 21662-21666). Douglas Editions. Kindle Edition.

Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459-472. doi:10.3390/bs3030459

Besson, L. (Director). (2017). Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets [Film]. France: Europa Corp.

Conaway, R., & Garay, M. (2014). Gamification and service marketing. SpringerPlus, 3(1), 653. doi:10.1186/2193-1801-3-653

Crowley, D., Breslin, J., Corcoran, P., & Young, K. (2012). Gamification of Citizen Sensing through Mobile Social Reporting. Paper presented at the Games Innovation Conference (IGIC), 2012 IEEE International.

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.), Narrative impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations (pp. 315-342). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Laer, T. V., De Ruyter, K. , Visconti, L. M., & Wetzels, M. (2014). The extended transportation-imagery model: A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of consumers’ narrative transportation. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(5), 797-817. doi:10.1086/673383

Landers, R., & Callan, R. (2011). Casual Social Games as Serious Games: The Psychology of Gamification in Undergraduate Education and Employee Training. In M. Ma (Ed.), Serious Games and Edutainment Applications (pp. 399-421). London: Springer-Verlag.

Morris, B., Croker, S., Zimmerman, C., Gill, D., & Romig, C. (2013). Gaming science: The “Gamification” of scientific thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1-16. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00607

Rose, F. (2012). The art of immersion: how the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories (Kindle ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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

Willis, J. (2014). Neuroscience Reveals That Boredom Hurts. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (8), 28-32. Doi: 10.1177/003172171409500807.

Forest of Fortune, by Jim Ruland

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.

fof-cover-small-194x300

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

 

Coffee, Shopping, Murder, Love

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.

#SantaMonica #LGBT #gayboys #comedy #whiteprivilege #maleprivilege #writing #comedy #LosAngeles

2. Shopping

“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 full length mirror inside the men’s locker room at the Equinox. I turn to the old man. He must be at least five-hundred years old. He looks like a fucked up version of Charlton Heston. He probably 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. Therefore, I don’t.

I never talk much at the gym. I know, this is California. No one will punch you for sounding too effeminate, au contraire, you may be asked for a campaign donation, 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 Leitchfield, Kentucky. Yep, that’s me, Charlie. I have dark bags under my eyes, I check in the mirror. Dark like the conscience of Lord Vader after he destroyed his beloved daughter’s adoptive planet.

I zip up my bag and as I hasten out of the locker room, I hear the old man brag one more time about his good constitution. That’s one of the dangers of lurking inside the locker room for too long in hopes of catching a glimpse of a hot guy’s penis. One gets to hear the weirdest conversations.

What a lovely day for a stroll in downtown Santa Monica, I see, through the front windows. The morning fog has burnt off. Too bad I have to be back at work in less than twenty minutes. Too bad I can’t really afford this stupid yuppie gym, I wave good-bye to Jackie, the receptionist, but I wouldn’t want to attend a gym for poor people. In any case, I press the walk button to cross the street, I’m on a mission. One does not show up to a first date wearing old clothes. Twenty minutes might be more than sufficient.

I love the Third Street 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, in prosperous, well-to-do Santa Monica. Nights I live in West Adams. It’s not such a bad place to live. It’s in transition. I haven’t heard a shooting since May, and no, I don’t regret having spent my nana’s meager inheritance on the downpayment for a house there five years ago. Yes, I cannot afford the mortgage, but I remain positive. The great recession is over, Obama will serve a second term—cross my fingers—and one day soon my property will go up in value. No one wanted to buy here in the 1980s, and now, just look around you. Pleasure your eyes at all those fabulous dinosaur sculptures, the bright stores, and the restaurants… One glorious day West Adams Boulevard will have a Barnes & Noble too, across from Banana Republic, across from Restoration Hardware Baby & Child, next to a Club Monaco, and I’ll be able to remove the bars from the windows.

My nimble feet take me to the Santa Monica Place mall 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. Why, with my pink and ivory skin tone? How expensive could it be? Probably a lot, but what’s a man to do when he has a need for purple?

I stick my nose to the glass. I bet it smells of freshly baked blueberry and lavender pie. Should I pop in and check the tag? I close my eyes. If I had that jacket, 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, and you will find me grinning inside, sat on a high chair in the manner of a young debutant, dressed to impress in my purple jacket.

Alas, I’m poor. Poorer than Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink. 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 paying off my student loans, twenty-five 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 and… Oy, it isn’t velvet. It’s actually wool. At least five hundred, if not a thousand dollars… Maybe they will put it on sale next week. I saw once these 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 hopes of finding them there for twelve ninety-nine. I didn’t, of course. And because I was too embarrassed to leave empty-handed, I bought a pair of Skechers instead.

I start walking. Dressing up in that purple jacket would be like wearing Cendrillon’s gold and silver dress to the ball. I’d be the handsomest man, and the prince would choose me, wouldn’t he? If only the birds flew down from the sky to make me a purple trousseau. Imagine me, singing and dancing covered in vermin—seagulls and crows, mice, and opossums, quarreling in a rush to make me the best-dressed man in all of 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. Before she knew, she got a husband. That jacket would for sure earn me a husband, wouldn’t it? Any husband, I wouldn’t be as picky as cockroach Martina. A dog or a cat would do. He wouldn’t even need to be handsome. He would only need to be alive… Oy, that’s a lovely long-sleeve denim shirt, I stop at Eton. If it’s under a hundred, I’ll buy it. Even if it means I’ll have to nourish out of grass seeds for a week.

I enter the store. “I’m only browsing,” I announce to the first employee that catches my eye. You’re welcome to offer me an employee discount, though, I add telepathically.

Smile, always smile, Charlie, and never forget to… Shoot, here she comes. I never feel more insignificant than when I shop.

“Take me straight to the sales rack,” I demand.

Not much in here… This one costs only a hundred and seventy-five. If I wanted to rock the look of the fat detective from The Wire, I’d buy it.

C’est la vie, Martina, I laugh, on my way out. Oublie le chien et le chat. Tu vas épouser le souris.

You better get used to me dropping phrases in the language of Voltaire and Diderot. I spent a whole year 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.

Oy, I’m already five minutes late. I better hurry. 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 for ten dollars an hour plus commissions, but right now I’m window-shopping in downtown Santa Monica. That’s a far ride from Leitchfield, Kentucky, n’est-ce pas? Think of the poor gays in Uganda, getting killed and not because they chose to wear white shoes after Labor Day. They probably can’t even go window shopping at all. Well, they must have shops too in Africa. Assuming they don’t is racist, but probably they don’t have many options, do they? Probably all they have is Old Navy.

I may not be able to afford Ted Baker, but at least I have options. I have Nordstrom Rack. I have Marshall’s. I have plenty of reasons to be happy and live a productive life.

Breathe in, Charlie. Fill your lungs with the manly smell coming from the Abercrombie and Fitch store. Delight yourself in the visuals: Women from the midwest wearing spiky hairdo’s as if it was 1990s all over again. College students dressed in sweatpants. Man buns. Man buns everywhere. Saudi brides… Under their abayas, they’re all wearing Dior. I need to befriend one.

Oh, crap. It’s now ten after. I’ll just go super fast to the GAP.

At the GAP, I run my fingers over the clothes from the discount section… This is a handsome jeans jacket, mighty light and classic. How much is it? A hundred and twenty-nine. Fuck me, I cannot even afford the GAP… Now, could that gentleman over there notice how good I look in it and offer to buy it for me? Perchance. How old is he? Fifty-five? Sixty? 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 yoga pants… When he crosses eyes with me, I’ll be ready to smile… There you go. He nodded back. That’s a good sign.

Oh, I know, I shouldn’t be thinking of trapping rich men when I have a date tomorrow, but how else will I get the money to buy clothes? I’m totally broke. I need to come up with $900 by the end of the month to pay my 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 order 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’d never cry. He probably burped his response to my hysterical claims that we couldn’t afford to continue paying 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 perfectly round straight ass either. The tattoos on his big, bulging arms and the 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 the Wienerschnitzel in Ladera Heights, 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 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 had 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 and open the windows” Kurt replied.

My, the vision of this racially ambiguous young man in his tighty whities 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 TV, his boxers rolled up on his strong legs well beyond decency, his hairy chest, the musky scent of his manly armpits filling up the room; the vision of Kurt swiping left and right photos of chicks on Tinder while reaching inside his basketball shorts to stretch his penis… I didn’t interview anyone else. I immediately deleted the ad from Craigslist, forgot about Kurt’s credit check application, and begged the Lord that he would have enough money to pay a deposit or at least let me see him naked from time to time.

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, 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. He’s twenty-eight 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 white girls he picked up at the clubs in Hollywood.

And the one time I brought home a trick, he dared to judge me.

“You guys are gross.”

Coming from a guy that cleaned his buggers under the sofa, I shouldn’t have paid much attention. Still, the day he gave notice, my heart bled a little.

“Where are you moving to?” I asked, brushing 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. “What’s a man going to do?”

My eyes must have widened the same way as Gary Oldman’s when he saw the blood in Keanu Reeves’ razor in Dracula, for he started laughing.

Oh, 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, a kit to grow marijuana using UV lamps, and a freezer that weighs a ton and occupies half the space in my garage which I bought online on a whim, because Kurt suggested once that if he and I were going to work out together, I would need to start eating better, and who had the time to cook? “You wake up at five thirty to be at the call center by seven,” he reminded me. “You’re always so tired by the time you come home, we always end up ordering pizza.” He proposed cooking our meals one week in advance and freezing them. I agreed, thinking that one thing would lead to having showers together.

“Kurt, bro, what d’you think we should have tonight, boeuf bourguignon or chicken piccata?” I imagined myself I’d say, drenched in sweat, wearing a band on my head and my new shorts from Lululemon as we walked home from the gym.

We worked out together just once, but Kurt ate most of the meals I prepared. Now he’s gone, the freezer is empty, and I still don’t know what I should wear 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 more than pay for the purple jacket.

Screw it, I think, putting away the garments I was about to enter with into the dressing room. I refuse to live the life of a poor person. First impressions are incredibly important, and I need to give my Indian prince my mighty best.

I leave the GAP 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… The purple jacket is not a whim. It’s an investment. Oy, my lunch hour ended thirty minutes ago, I better hurry.

“I’m doing this in the name of love,” I’ll explain to Tunisha, my supervisor. She’s black, therefore on CP time. She’ll understand.

“How romantic!” I bet 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 resume work. She’ll stop me with her exquisitely manicured hand before I could make the first call, and after I compliment the color of nail polish she chose for the day, I’ll continue: “We’ve been sexting for three days. He’s Indian. He’s thirty-four. He’s tall, muscular, and incredibly attractive. He’s an accountant and, wait for this, Tunisha, wait for this: he writes too!” Here she’ll scream, and start jumping, the same way all women do under these circumstances, then she’ll swat my shoulder with those big hands of her, 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, it was nothing but praise. In any case, I told 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 five 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 for half an hour, then browse for free porn and jack off, then stare back at the screen for a little longer.

“You need a boyfriend,” my 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 consort as I lay down on the living room couch after work—in reality, racing through the crowds at the Third Street Promenade back to Ted Baker. “I saw a fabulous jacket today. Purple. 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’ll say, offering me a second jacket. He will 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 button-tufted Chester couch, right after putting my new purple jackets away in the closet, so they wouldn’t wrinkle, and laying a large towel from Frette to cover the expensive couch 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 breakfast on Sundays. “I love you so much, William Andrew Jignesh Vanderbilt-Rockefeller,” I’d whisper in his ear as I caress the hair on his head and feel his big pectoral muscles. “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, unpronounceable, Indian last name, of course, but I don’t know any rich Indian last names.

I finally reach the mall and pop again 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. I look so handsome, I’m sure no one would care about my horrible voice anymore. I reach then for the price tag… Please, Baby Jesus, make it a dollar.

One thousand, six hundred and seventy-five, 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 employee as I exit the store. He nods politely.

Tunisha didn’t care about my date. One would think that a woman that spends as much money on her nails as she does would have a slice of empathy. She put me on overflow, meaning that I probably won’t receive any leads for the rest of the afternoon, and then gave me another warning: next time I’ll be on overflow for a whole week. Fine, I wasn’t going to reach my sales goal this month, anyway.

I spend the next hour browsing the Ted Baker site for sales.

Jignesh isn’t too handsome, I stare at his picture, but he sounds smart. He must be if he writes. There are things more important than looks in this world. For instance, 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? Oh, boy, what would I do with all that money?

Sudden cheering. Yasmeen, in the cubicle next to mine just closed a $25,000 sale. Everyone rushes to congratulate her.

The girls in this office are insufferable.

I know Jignesh’s photo is not recent. He can’t fool me. I’ll add three years to his thirty-four—and then ten pounds to his weight, to be on the safe side. The important thing is that he has money. And 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 myself or actually willing to. And I don’t fancy receiving orders. Tunisha should be receiving orders from me and not the opposite. Just because she has an MBA in Finance. What happened to male privilege?

Is brown-skinned Josie García the worst heroine ever?

silvia_derbezFirst mistake: Being brown. She’s praised for the healthy color of her skin, but as Lina wisely says in chapter 15, when Josie expresses her wish to become an actress: “A Mexican will never play anything other than a maid, or an Indian in a Western movie.”

Second mistake: Being fat… at least by 21st Century standards. She has an hourglass figure: round breasts, round legs, and a rounded bottom.

Mapy-CortésThird mistake: Being in love with a beatnik. Josie has it right when she says: “What I need is a generous man who could pay for the trouble.” Then again, isn’t it more fun to share a table with a group of misfits at the Gas House Café, than to drink champagne perched upon the legs of a banker?

Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh mistakes, and so forth: Breaking her boyfriend’s heart, stealing from work, cheating on taxi drivers, attempting to hurt someone through witchcraft, passing out at a party, visiting a cemetery after midnight, etcetera.

56f8a017bc28fd3ea99e30e91eb50706Now, one thing she gets right: She’s a true princess. For if Disney movies have taught us anything, it is that only princesses deserve an audience. Commoners are too common! Not a single drop of royal blood runs through Josie’s veins, but you can tell that she’s of noble stock, without the need of a pea and two tens of mattresses, purely and simply because she’s pretty. And a little selfish and self-centered too.

From a flight on the back of a goat to celebrate sin at a ball hosted by the Master of All Badness, to the smoky interior of the Gas House Café during a beat poetry reading; from a werewolf’s apartment in Bunker Hill, to the gaudy mansion of a closeted vampire, Love, or the Witches of Windward Circle is a wildly imaginative tale that spans five decades, connecting the otherworldly occult to the out-of-this-world bohemia of fifties Venice Beach.

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Mexican actresses Josie

 


Not gross, but historically accurate! A man losing his pride is a common occurrence on Halloween!

Why, I’ve been told that chapter 3 of Love, or the Witches of Windward Circle is a bit gross. Never had I been more insulted, not since Monday! Historically accurate, that’s more like it, you ignorant twat!

First of all, it is well known that witches “collect male organs in great numbers, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn” (Institoris & Sprenger, 1971; p. 249).

And how else can a man lose his pride —for a “man’s tool is a man’s pride”— but by chasing witches with “his trousers to his knees … promising to please them all with his teenage vitality” on the night of Halloween, when “the abundance of fumes and liquor has driven women to the edge of sanity,” and “witches engage in the sport of fornication with all sorts of aerials, as well as with other witches, male and female, and even with animals or elongated objects, like pokes or door knobs”? (Allende, 2015; p 23)

The fig tree incident happened. It is well documented in The Malleus:“a certain man tells that, when he had lost his member, he approached a known witch to ask her to restore it to him. She told the afflicted man to climb a certain tree, and that he might take which he liked out of the nest in which there were several members. And when he tried to take a big one, the witch said: You must not take that one; adding, because it belongs to a parish priest” (Institoris & Sprenger, 1971; p. 249)

Creepy, campy, and yet incredibly lyrical, Love, or the Witches of Windward Circle is a wildly imaginative tale that spans five decades, connecting the otherworldly occult to the out-of-this-world bohemia of fifties Venice Beach.

Rabbit Book CoverBuy it in Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Indiebound

Read the Kirkus Review

 

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References:

Allende, C. (2015). In which we are told how the third daughter was conceived. In Love, or the witches of windward circle: A horror farce. Los Angeles, CA: Rare Bird Books.

Institoris, H., & Sprenger, J. (1971). The Malleus maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover.

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