Palms: Poem by Shawn StJean

It’s been a long while since the inspiration for one of these breathed through me, but here’s a humble offering. I’m open to suggestions for revision.
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By Shawn StJean

Palms

Look at your the back of your left hand.
Take a good, hard scrutiny, with the eye you seldom use.

If you’re 20 years old, you may not spot a flaw.
Or, perhaps a small scar from a childhood wart removed,
Or a ridge from the time you punched a wall to demonstrate your anger.

If you’re 40, the veins may have begun their rise,
the skin may fissure a bit from countless scrubbings in dishwater,
and a finger may pale where a wedding ring once encircled it.
The joints begin to tighten now, and one night, a shooting jolt awakens you.

When you’re 60, a lifetime of work tells tales: my index finger is grooved
Where a die grinder sliced through my glove, nor does the wrist bend all the way.
I’ve lost my thumbnail three or four times, and the knuckles all show the pure white of healing.
I once trapped the whole between a cylinder head and engine block,
And the pain of that mistake returned me the gift of greater patience.

If 80 finds you able, and your eyesight can work around the cataracts,
Your hand may now resemble the hook, the claw, the tool you treated it as.
It may pain you relentlessly, or at odd times go scarily numb.
The fingers no longer function as a family unit, drop things,
Shake when your blood sugar falls, or even when it doesn’t
And you often find it stretched out to take what’s handed you (“damn pills.”)

Now, turn it over.
The palm, at any age, retains the curious perfection of youth.
Unless you’ve lead a particularly hard life,
The callouses will soften with a few weeks off.
Even the two-inch scar I have from when a dog chased me through a swamp
Cutting across my lifeline perpendicularly
Stretches over only half the hand that was so much smaller when I was ten.

Strange, this is the side that works thanklessly
Rakes leaves, catches balls deftly, or plucks up a single grain of rice.
But, when asked, it can also trace the cells in flower petals
and the fingerprint registers stubble on an unshaven cheek.

The back of the hand keeps pace with the rest of the body’s shell,
the sagging stomach, the smile less often seen amid jowls and poor teeth,
the bending backaches. But the palm. . .
The palm indicates the interior life within.
It grows more supple and sure with use and age,
Mature, potent, like a strawberry that tastes of wine as its outer skin wrinkles up.

Now, raise your right hand next to your left.
If you’re lucky, you find inverse twins
That have toiled and wrought together, stitched and sewn,
grappled and steepled in prayer, applauded your daughter,
dug in the earth for worms, pulled an oar, and a bowstring.
These things, and the rest, tinkered your spirit into its better functioning.
Monk-like, I copy a line from another man’s pen:
The motorcycle you’ve worked on is yourself.

Put them, now, to their best uses: Stretch out your hands to whomever you meet, grasp theirs,

Firmly and Man-to-man if that’s your style, or lightly if so, but no matter.
Embrace palms, and when called upon, palm the back of another’s hand in communion.
Massage your friend’s bad shoulder, comb and braid her hair.
And grip tight again, entwine fingers for a long moment, and hold fast, whether your paths lead together or apart.
We’re, none of us, old enough yet to cross the street alone.

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They Will Not Thanks Us—Generation Y Can’t Stay in School Forever

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By Shawn Stjean

When is the last time your kid genuinely thanked you for the drive to school/a friend’s house/a social or sporting event/part-time job? Because if he or she is not thanking you now, it sure won’t happen later, when the mini-van trips are all over.

In general, millennials of the so-called “middle class” are deprived of the rituals of youth in America, which toughened previous generations.  The school bus stops these days at every house for a pickup, rather having little Dylan make the trek of a block or two to a common bus-stop, where swaggered actual (not cyber-) bullies, cranky at their own failure to get/maintain their own set of wheels, and willing to take it out on whomever looked vulnerable.  They were teachers too, in their way–they modeled bad behavior, taught who we didn’t want to be, and the price of admission was their company.

And when the bus actually arrives at school, today’s lads and lasses dismount only to board a vicious cycle dressed up as a merry-go-round, and underneath, the corroding machinery works something like this: the administrators inherit a shrinking budget less-and-less reflective of our society valuing education, which leads to “differentiated learning,” (the semi-literate bully might appear next to you in class now, rather than being tracked into a room with other low-functioning brutes.)  They’ve got bigger class sizes, less homework, shorter readings–or maybe no readings at all, because the teacher is reading the book aloud, leaving many free to stare out the window.  She’s got challenges of her own, because when the phone on the wall rings, or someone runs the old “I gotta go pee” ploy, or a girl who’s been out for eight weeks with mono needs catching up, or the e-mail light blinks constantly with parents demanding to know why Brittany–a real treat to have around–isn’t getting her “A”. . .well, then, old Teach just has to soak it up.  Nothing three glasses of a middling Chardonnay after 4 pm won’t help her repress, until she burns out on weekend grading, while never finding time on Sunday for better lesson plans, meanwhile absorbing pressure to “keep standards high” while somehow not flunking anyone.  She doesn’t even have the power to throw Christian a detention anymore, as he whips a pencil and happens to catch Peter (a boy with a diagnosed and legitimate learning disorder, who used to have an IEP, but they’re much harder to get this year) in the ear, drawing extended screams, but no blood.  So the flinger gets written up for it, twenty minutes of class time get wasted, and the administrator gets to try another case of “The Lesser of Two Evils.”  Will his parents support a suspension, or at least a series of DTs, and ground him during his tenure at home, or will they take his word that he didn’t mean it, and pressure the school to keep him on because he’s already behind? (that trip to Florida between the winter and spring breaks probably didn’t help.)  And to give them their due, they’re both working, and ultimately Christian can’t be trusted home by himself–he’s got an undiagnosed case of painkiller addiction, and chronic pain-in-the-ass.  So the Big Wheel of administrator-parent-teacher creakily slows down long enough for the lad to jump back on, and keeps on turnin’.

How did this get to be the way we all roll?  It’s easy enough for the principal to blame the economy, the parents this generation of poorly trained teachers, and the teachers a non-supportive administration.  It’s a Mexican stand-off now, not a carnival ride.  So does it really matter–or is the real issue what we’re going to do about it?  Start blasting, and hope to be the least-unlucky-hombre in this tepid triumvirate, or lower our weapons long enough to see where the real loser has skulked off to?

The kid doesn’t have the vocabulary, so he doesn’t know the operative word–complicity–but he does know the concept. He understands, deep down, that he’s not exactly doing his best, either–and why should he?  Every time he lowers the bar a notch, someone unaccountably offers him a boost to get over it, and it’s not long before he’s looking down at the floor for the standards and expectations everyone’s paying lip-service to.  Terms like Excellence, Achievement, Breadth and Depth, Pride–they mean only so much to a fella who can’t remember his girlfriend’s phone number, despite texting her 22 times a day, because it’s saved in his Contacts.  Hell, he doesn’t remember his own number.

Oh, the computers play their part, too.  Because when you cut three-and-a-half teaching positions, but acquire three hundred touchscreen terminals in the same five-year period (hoping the community won’t notice the former, as they ooh-and-ahh over the latter,) well, you better use the things.  The students will need the keyboarding practice, anyway, in an age where “all thumbs” is actually a skill, and half the jobs they’ll be qualified for involve this new form of coal-mining: checking people out as they run up their credit cards for new possessions, big and small, new services, needed and unneeded.  Unless there’s a bar-code reader at the counter.

Oh, not my Chelsea!, I can hear some of you declaring.  She’s going straight to college to become a professional!  What kind, I’m wondering?  Well, we haven’t figured that out yet.  But she’s going–this Fall.  No break.  Of course she hasn’t thought up a major to declare, because she’s had enough of school–she really has–and instead of wasting her parents’ second mortgage or retirement funds, she ought to be out there–in a crummy apartment with leaky pipes, taking public transportation to work, eating substandard food, yet still living life here in America with free speech to complain, fresh water to drink, and rights many people in the world can only dream of.  It’s those years of deprivation, out from under one’s guardians, that make young folks appreciate the rest of it.  And it shouldn’t take a war that decimates both their generation, and the population of another nation with a different skin color, religion, or economic ideology from our own, to evoke that appreciation.

Now in the old days, she could work her way through a series of jobs, eventually gain a toehold and some maturity through making her own mistakes and creating her own triumphs, meet a partner, start a family of her own.  Not anymore, and again, you can only take the “blame the economy” game so far.

See, instead, she’s persuaded to take a different path, to endure 4-6 more years of “higher education,” with ample Spring, Summer, and Winter Breaks, but no real relief.  She changes majors three times and the actual college twice, meanwhile signing over student loans–in addition to Mom and Dad’s contribution–that will keep her in payments until she’s 55.  And those payments, depending on where she went to school, will take a lot of choices out of her hands along the way.  Now she has to take work as somebody’s “administrative assistant,” (Heaven forbid we call a secretary a secretary!,) even though she’s come a long way in the Brains department, and she’s pushing 30 now.  Because the Bachelor’s degree she cobbled together in between partying is about worthless in the job market of 2020, and the Master’s she’d like to earn at night will cast 100 grand, and she’s not sure about the gamble.

Somewhere in here, in between dropping her divorce papers in the e-slot (lawyers are still doing well, but the USPS is defunct) and feedings of her three-year-old, Chelsea gets upset.  Really upset.  And by now, she’s self-aware enough to realize she’s not just sad, or lonely, or menstruating–she’s angry.  Pissed.

Why?  She’s had every advantage.  So many, in fact, that she never had to go to summer school to make up that gym class she blew off nine times in tenth grade, never had to repeat the eighth grade even though the “D”s she got in three classes were as munificent as the gifts of the Magi, never got suspended for calling her sixth grade teacher a “bitch” right to her face–Mom got her counseling instead.  Never got called on showing up in class high, never did most of what little reading and homework was asked of her, never had to walk home after school.  Never had to count cell-phone minutes or texts (or pay the bill for them,) never had her allowance withheld, never had to stay home from a prom, never picked up a check (eating out-food 2-3 times a week).

So, again, why the anger?  Because, plain and simple, everything she was supposed to learn before she was twenty, under relatively easy and supervised conditions–from how to track a bank account, to how to sew, write a business letter, read a tax rule, do a real job interview, and apologize sincerely when she’s wrong–she’s now having to learn herself, a decade late, the hard way.  It’s always the hard way, now, because if she can’t do it, someone else with more degrees, fewer recent scars, and who is still young enough to live with her parents (28 or so,) will do it instead.

She missed out on the one advantage that can’t be bought, substituted, calculated, synthesized, or replicated: she never had to choose.  Because choosing always means losing something, leaving something behind, and valuing the other thing enough to sacrifice for it.  Instead, she was fed fat on the absurd idea that every previous generation of human beings on the planet was weaned off, in childhood: that you can’t have everything.

Forgive us, kids, we felt guilty.  ‘Cuz we f—–d things up for you, and we knew it.  We knew the coming world was tough, tougher than we’d ever had to survive ourselves, and in meaning well we hoped to insulate you from the worst.  And somehow the worst just became the bad, and the bad the uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable the inconvenient.

Too bad–ol’ Chelsea could’ve done alright for herself.  A few bumps and bruises aside.  They would have saved deeper cuts, later on.

So if your youngster is thanking you for that ride now, (you’ve raised her to at least be polite,) enjoy it–it won’t last.  We knew it back when we were young (there was a T-shirt, remember?) No one rides for free.

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2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–2,000 of 10k New Books Advance to 2nd Round

Image10,000 books have been entered by their authors and publishers, in five categories.  Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, published under the Glas Daggre Imprint, is among 400 in the General Fiction category selected for the second round, and will attempt to move on to the quarter-finals of the ABNA (100 will be selected from each category, announced @ March 12, 2013.)

List of 2nd-rounders:  http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011  Congrats everyone!

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture–Vampires, Final Part–Three Mythologies

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After discussing seven classical rules of vampirism, and then how they cohere into a integral system in part I and part II of this article, I’d like to conclude by applying my theory to three different re-imaginings of the vampire mythos.  Two, I think, are not sound at the archetypal level, so I’ll treat those early, before moving on to an exemplar.

After over a century since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it was inevitable that the genre would attempt to evolve to another level.  If contemporary vampire stories have a common thread, I’d say they depend on the notion that not only are some vampires not evil, but a few are positively moral and “good.”  Dramatically, this opens up some intriguing possibilities, such as vampires fighting each other, and even working alongside humans to battle greater threats.

Archetypally, however, this is shaky ground, and will not ultimately stick.  It doesn’t make deep psychological sense, and frankly, de-powers a very compelling monster-figure that derives its strength from defying morality and the “rules” we must all live by.   In HBO’s True Blood, for example, vampires are organized into governmental/feudal units, each overseen by a sheriff, ultimately answerable to a king and queen and other sartorially-advantaged and outwardly respectable functionaries called the “Authority.”  The series premise is that, for the collective good of their species, law-abiding Vampires substitute synthetic blood—sold in bottles—for the blood of human beings.

Speaking of sheriffs, our willing suspension-of-disbelief is taxed to the limit here, for two primary reasons:

1)    If I’m right that a vamp is a manifestation of the human id, there is no ability, let alone reason, to organize for the greater good (or even for a greater bad.)  The id focuses exclusively on immediate self-gratification.  You may as well try to persuade your dog to conduct himself according to demands of the “bigger picture.”

2)    Even very liberal-minded people are prejudiced by nature—it’s part of being human to fear and hate the unknown.  Although there are undoubtedly individuals who would trust the Devil himself in his own shape, the kind of widespread cultural tolerance of uncloseted vampires True Blood relies on is, perhaps unfortunately, not tenable from a human perspective, either.  When, in the course of human history, has a minority group enjoyed freedom when a few of its members indulged in demonstrably criminal behavior?

Probably the more intriguing premise of the show, that if vampires could organize, it must be into monarchical hierarchies rather than democracies, has as yet not exploited its possibilities.

The Twilight books and films (I’ll confess I gave up on these, as the series quality seemed to suffer steady decline) avoids the pitfall of the HBO series by substituting a discreet family unit of “good” vamps for an entire societal organization (or at least individuals within one).  This smaller number supports the illusion that the premise is more plausible, and, when coupled with the plot distraction of antagonism toward werewolf clans, makes the protagonists seem more motivated by survival instinct than some do-gooder impulse.  Further, we all know that dysfunctional families exist in real life, even to the point that every member is self-involved and even solipsistic, so this shift to family does not violate the “id” theory.

Where Twilight goes horribly off the rails, I think, is in the protective instinct that Edward repeatedly shows toward Bella, and which Bella shows toward her child.  Not only is this “love” the absolute antithesis of vampiric lust, it is internally inconsistent: if Edward really loved Bella (further than his own desires, that is) he would never entertain, let alone consent, to her wish to become undead like him; similarly, Bella would not bear a child, knowing the kind of existence it is destined for.  So are they selfless, or selfish?  A human being can be both, of course, but not so a vampire—and I think this series is simply giving us people, with costume dress and super-powers.  But we already have X-Men.

To do better, we need to look back a ways, to Joss Whedon’s companion series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and spin-off Angel.  Both are populated with run-of-the-mill vamps that behave exactly as Stoker designed them to, but there are two notable exceptions: Spike and Angel.

Within the epic scope of a combined twelve complete seasons, Whedon, Espenson, and their minions were able, rather than relentlessly insist on the arbitrary existence of mutant/good vampires, to explore a much fuller understanding of the unconscious.  Specifically, why some good people commit bad acts (Faith,) while some bad people commit good acts.  The simpler of the two main vamps, Spike, is exactly as I have described an archetypal Nosferatu: a walking id.  Hard-drinking, lustful, devious, an expert fighter, emotional when not covering up with bravado, the nemesis of Sunnydale’s heroine often manages to do good, in spite of himself.  He even “saves the world” more than once (long before his acquisition of a soul, as I’ll discuss shortly.)  Why?  Isn’t this un-vampiric?  Not for Spike.  His very goodness is selfishness.  To him, good and evil are all the same—he simply does what he wants, what makes him feel better.  His personal morality is random, or a function of plot.  For a substantial run of episodes, a government-implanted chip in his skull causes him unbearable pain whenever he attempts to hurt anyone.  Later, the chip removed, he embarks on a quest to become “a real boy” (one of Whedon’s countless allusions to other literary myths,)—that is, obtain a soul of his own.  It’s finally unclear whether this is done more to impress Buffy (with whom Spike is smitten,) or to deflate Angel, whom Spike feels is too high-and-mighty because he’s “special.”  The third possibility, that Spike’s journey to become fully human again is sincere, also makes sense, since it is a desire that would merely not occur to most vampires (not even the vaunted Angel)—because it would deprive them of their power.

Angleus—Angel.  Spike’s grandsire begins the series lurking in the shadows, and passively dispensing advice to Buffy as to how to fight evil.  His motives unclear, she challenges him as to why he does not take action himself.  His terse answer—“I’m afraid”—brilliantly opens the whole Whedonverse up to new realms of character development.  As an incarnated id, a vampire is logically not only predator in the service of desire, but prey to every manner of fear.  Traditionally left completely untouched by writers, because scaredy-cat vamps would appear to make less-than-compelling antagonists, this original archetype (Angel-as-coward) is gradually reconciled into a respectable entity: his greatest fears are the atrocities of which he himself is capable.  Sired as a worse-than-average bloodsucker, scourge of Ireland and England, murderer of innocent maidens, Angelus was cursed by gypsies.  Rather than destroying him, they cleverly re-invested him with his human “soul.”  This is a constant torture, and transforms him into the being “Angel.”

The premise is an intriguing one.  Thematically, I suppose, it tells us that we as human beings can ultimately control, possibly override, our baser instincts—the soul being nearly the only thing (besides opposable thumbs) that distinguishes us from the lower animals.

I would interpret Angel’s curse this way: as Angelus (the incarnate id,) he was not made a whole human psyche by his enemies, but 2/3 of one: he was joined with a superego (call it a conscience, or a soul).  The tug-of-war between what Freud called the pleasure principle and the morality principle, unmediated by an ego, threatens moment-by-moment to tear Angel apart.   He is like a family minus a mother.  If he had an ego, he could accept his past misdeeds as part of his growth over time, or justify them, or deny them—all human self-protecting processes.  However, locked in an eternal adolescent-versus-father internal struggle, he must perennially rehearse the role of detached observer, spectator, and occasional oracle/helper when convenient—unable to do either real good, or evil, of his own volition, without human companions who accept him.  A curious condition of the curse is that a single moment of true happiness brings about forfeiture of the soul.  This seems unexepected, as it reverts him to Angelus, ending his internal conflict.  Not given to Grace, but rather revenge, the gypsy culture must have something else in mind here.  It appears that the gypsies must believe that, when enough penance is paid, Angel can eventually earn his way back to full personhood (born ‘Liam), as he was before he became a vampire—in short, acquire an ego dependent on good works, or “making up for it,” and complete his circle.

Which brings us to another evolutionary genre-possibility: Can vampirism be cured?  Not a challenge for the average writer. The humorous Spike and the one-off Angelus-Angel-Liam evolution aside, it usually makes poor storytelling sense.  The idea of redeeming a monster who has personally murdered thousands (see Darth Vader) has been tried with commercial success (if critical failure).  But even the dollars that were made on Return of the Jedi were a cash-in, not on the silly sentimentalism of Vader’s redemption, but on the original deliciousness of an unadulterated, evil character.

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Clotho’s Loom Paperback now at Barnes and Noble, and through local Booksellers

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In addition to Amazon, Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean has joined the millions of titles available from the B&N website (BONUS: as of today, at a 9% discount).  This means a couple of important channels of availability have opened up.  As it’s now listed in the Ingram catalog, the novel will begin appearing on many other online sites, for sale, soon to be optional in ebook form, too (end of January 2012).  ALSO, you can now walk into a brick-and-mortar B&N store, or about ANY local bookstore, and order the paperback through them. 

Search for ISBN 9781479271528 (this may work better than the computer-un-friendly name of “Stjean”

LINK: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/clothos-loom-shawn-stjean/1114065232?ean=9781479271528&itm=1&usri=9781479271528

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Homeland Fans Will Find Clotho’s Loom Fits the Profile

ImageAs I have come late to Showtime’s action-adventure-spy series about CIA operatives in their chess-match against Middle Eastern terrorist cells, it struck me how many similarities exist between the adventures of Carrie Mathison, Nicholas Brody, and Saul Berenson, and this big novel of mine, Clotho’s Loom, that traces its origins back to before even September 11, 2001.  Not that the series and the book would be mistaken for derivative of each other–the post 9/11 landscape of America is the subject of a great many fictional extrapolations, of course.  However, halfway through season two, I am particularly struck by the moral dilemma of Brody, a former Marine sniper trying to sort out his allegiances amid a network of lies, and struggling ultimately to salvage a life for his family against overwhelming circumstances, some awful personal choices, and random events.  All this occurs against the backdrop of the U.S. War on Terror.  William Wyrd certainly could be considered the literary cousin, if not father, of Brody, to say nothing of other countless parallels.

So if reading is part of your agenda, but you’ve moved past all the Bond and Bourne stuff already, and are now keeping material like Homeland in your sights, you won’t be far off the mark with Shawn StJean’s novel.

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Book Review of Clotho’s Loom and Shawn StJean Interviewed by Fellow Novelist Alana Woods

Check out this book review, accompanied by an interview, by Suspense/Thriller Writer Alana Woods. She’s responsible for Automaton (2001) and Imbroglio (2012), as well as a short-story collection (Tapestries) and a book on writing fiction well–so don’t expect her to take it easy on me!  This is probably the most informative–and interactive– format we’ve seen yet.  CL is a nearly epic book, requiring a heavy investment of time and attention.  If this exchange doesn’t clarify what you’re getting into, nothing will! 

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