Month: October 2014

Book Review – “The Whisperer in the Darkness” by H. P. Lovecraft

If you read one terrifying tale of demoniacal creatures terrorizing the hills of Vermont, let it be this one. I’d call this story the masterpiece of the tyrant of terror, H. P. Lovecraft. Stephen King referred to Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan” the best horror story ever written. With the greatest of respect to the “Master of Horror”, “The Whisperer in the Darkness” actually made me afraid to sleep with the lights off. It frightened me so much; I even get chills every time someone mentions Vermont to me.

Lovecraft put a lot of thought into his monsters. As he wrote this piece in 1931, classic creatures like Frankenstein and Dracula had been around for decades. He needed to come up with something creative to horrify his readers. He sure did in this one. Here’s his description of the beasts.

They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would ordinarily be. (Location 10753)

After reading this, mummies, zombies and witches don’t seem so scary; they’re also much better looking.

The narrator of the story cited a written account of the creatures. I liked how the author managed to work in some setting.

Briefly summarized, it hinted at a hidden race of monstrous beings which lurked somewhere among the remoter hills—in the deep woods of the highest peaks, and the dark valleys where streams trickle from unknown sources. (Location 10760)

This sure isn’t the Vermont I remember from the Newhart show.

Lovecraft came up with an exceptional plot for this story. Albert N. Wilmarth, a professor at Miskatonic University received a series of letters from Henry Wentworth Akeley, a resident of the hills the creatures inhabit. In each missive, Akeley described with accelerating intensity how he feared for his life. Here’s an excerpt from one of his last.

I think I am going crazy. It may be that all I have ever written you is a dream or madness. It was bad enough before, but this time it is too much. They talked to me last night—talked in the cursed buzzing voice and told me things that I dare not repeat to you. I heard them plainly over the barking of the dogs, and once where they were drowned out a human voice helped them. Keep out of this, Wilmarth—it is worse than either you or I ever suspected. They don’t mean to let me get to California now—they want to take me off alive, or what theoretically and mentally amounts to alive—not only to Yuggoth, but beyond that—away outside the galaxy and possibly beyond the last curved rim of space. I told them I wouldn’t go where they wish, or in the terrible way they propose to take me, but I’m afraid it will be no use. My place is so far out that they may come by day as well as by night before long. Six more dogs killed, and I felt presences all along the wooded parts of the road when I drove to Brattleboro today. (Location 11180)

Now here’s where the story really got scary. What follows is a section of a letter Akeley sent to Wilmarth a few days later.

It gives me great pleasure to be able to set you at rest regarding all the silly things I’ve been writing to you. I say “silly”, although by that I mean my frightened attitude rather than my descriptions of certain phenomena….In the past I have warned you not to come to see me. Now that all is safe, I take pleasure in rescinding that warning and inviting you…Bring along that phonograph record and all my letters to you as consultative data—we shall need them in piecing together the whole tremendous story. You might bring the Kodak prints, too, since I seem to have mislaid the negatives and my own prints in all this recent excitement. (Location 1294)

The professor accepted the invitation. Apparently, instructors at Miskatonic don’t share the acumen of their Harvard counterparts. As Wilmarth narrated the story, I knew he survived to tell it. Lovecraft’s ability to keep me engaged and trembling as I continued reading served as a true testament to his genius.

My only issue with “The Whisperer in the Darkness” involved the lack of dialog. The choice of an erudite narrator made the language a bit stilted. A little interaction between characters may have helped make the story easier to read. I admit though, that Lovecraft’s dialog came across as overformal as his narration in his other stories.

As Halloween is coming up, now would be a great time to explore “The Whisperer in the Darkness.” To get the full effect, try reading it in the dark on an e-reader. It will help to enhance the terrifying mood of the story. Just be prepared to sleep with the lights on afterwards.

Book Review – The Invitation by Claude Simon

French Nobel Laureate Claude Simon earned the reputation as one of the more challenging authors of the “New Novel” movement. In 1987’s The Invitation he addressed the new direction of Russian government following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I enjoy both challenging reads and political stories, I found this story inviting and couldn’t resist the bidding to read it.

Mr. Simon approached the novel in such an original way that to call it unique wouldn’t describe it adequately. I would label his prose as a hybrid of stream of consciousness with bizarre syntax and punctuation. For those reasons, his work doesn’t appeal to all readers. Here’s an example. I should add that I threw open the book and located this passage at random.

And finally (the plane had already been flying three hours—the plane specially chartered for the fifteen guests, their interpreters, and the five or six attendants whose true purpose, be it to take care of them, to watch them, or to watch each other while among them, no one knew for sure—the airplane, whose departure they had awaited for almost two hours (after having already waited about an hour (which makes three altogether: as though the waiting (because of mysterious orders, annulled by counter orders no less mysterious, themselves annulled in their turn) (Page 18)

I’m not sure how many more pages until a period appeared, so I’ll stop there.

While Simon delivered his prose in a befuddling way, his unorthodox means of expression made this novel worth reading. He presented some marvelous lyrical flourishes. He delivered an outstanding view from an airplane. “…Enigmatic pool of gold that continued to drift on the sea of darkness.” (Page 21) The line about nightfall from the Rush song “Presto” has stuck with me since I first heard the track in 1989:

The evening plane rises up from the runway
Over constellations of light

With the greatest of respect to Neil Peart, I think Simon’s portrayal much better.

Simon’s writing reminded me of the acerbic cynicism of former Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham. Here’s a description of the secretary-general addressing the group of dignitaries sent to meet him. Simon’s unusual syntax worked very well in this section.

…and now he (the secretary-general—or rather the interpreters seated in the little cubicles along the wall parallel to the long table: it was now no longer women that they heard, their unhappy voices tired, stumbling: but men now, whom each of the guests, headphones over his ears, could hear in his own language, the sure tones following the assured speech of the secretary-general speaking without looking at any one of them in particular (none of the fifteen seated guests, seven on one side, eight on the other, here and there at the table where the only element of luxury was the bottles of mineral water: the fifteen guests whom his counselors had said (or whom his counselors had been told) were, each in his own country, important men (or brought out already—or complacent—or sensitive to flattery) and whom he (the secretary-general) took for nothing more than that, though he judged it wise (which his counselors had judged wise) to spend (to have him spend) two hours of his time…with people whose only capacity was to write books, to act in movies, to paint portraits in the English style, or to draft economic treaties (and probably his own experience of economic problems made him see these as less important than the others—except to take into account their influence not on the laws of the markets but proportionally to their renown) (Pages 46 -47)

At times while exploring this passage, I thought I was reading one of Lewis Lapham’s Notebook pieces about a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations.

My main criticism of The Invitation centered on the plot, or rather, the lack of one. The dignitaries attended numerous events in Russia, but still, nothing related to an actual story or moving the narrative forward occurred. I understand the secretary-general sent “the invitation” for a good will tour. Simon described it at his sardonic best, but he made his point very well in the section I cited above. While the novel came in at a brief 65 pages, it did still drag in parts.

Mr. Simon was to literature what Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz was to that genre. The Invitation isn’t for everybody; no doubt it will frustrate casual readers. The passages I cited above give a good sampling of the author’s prose. For those willing to challenge themselves, I’d invite readers to check out this novel.

Profiting from ‘The Profit’

This past Monday (10/20) Marcus Lemonis paid a visit to Camden, NJ. He addressed the graduates from the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Entrepreneurial Development Program. The event took place at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Croc Community Center.

In the interest of full disclosure: both my father and I both serve as LAEDA instructors. The EDP program is for actual entrepreneurs who are either starting or operating real small businesses in the South Jersey area. Many readers no doubt know Mr. Lemonis as the guy with the big check book on the CNBC program The Profit; he’s invested close to $7M of his own money over the course of two seasons. Interestingly, little of the advice he gave to the entrepreneurs had to do with economics.

Mr. Lemonis delivered inspirational comments without notes, but with a host of sage advice. He explained that he lost 55 lbs during one summer while in high school. A need to “re-invent himself” inspired him to do so. At the time he figured other people wanted him to slim down. “How many times do we re-invent ourselves to please others”? he asked. He used this vignette to segue into how important it is for people to re-invent themselves for the right reasons.

The most moving part of Mr. Lemonis’ speech centered on vulnerability. It’s critical for leaders to be cognizant of his/her weaknesses. He admitted to a room of strangers his issues with his weight, how he’s struggled in his personal relationships and that he’s had one failed marriage. In spite of his myriad successes as a businessman and television personality he acknowledged even he suffers from a lack of confidence on occasion. That’s an extraordinary admission. As a CEO he leads many people. In addition he invests large sums of money in failing businesses in front of a world-wide audience. One wonders how prosperous he’d be without any confidence issues.

Based on the topics already cited, it’s not surprising that the core of his speech dealt with the topic of character. A relentless commitment to self-improvement plays a key role here. “Your employees put tremendous faith in your decision making.” The most surprising bit of advice he delivered to the group involved human resources. “If you haven’t worked for someone else, you’re not an entrepreneur. You need to know what it’s like to be fired.” He challenged those with difficult employees. “When people come to work for you and they fail, it’s no one’s fault but yours.” Leaders must do everything possible to ensure the success of his/her employees. “Before firing someone you need to look yourself in the eye and say you’ve done everything to make them successful.”

During the question and answer period one of the business owners asked Mr. Lemonis about fear. “Welcome to the club,” he replied. While everyone knows it takes money to run a business, it also takes a lot of character. The fact Mr. Lemonis’ comments focused on the later over the former shows its criticality. As he eloquently pointed out, “When you’re down and out you need to pick yourself up.” While money certainly helps, it’s impossible to do so without character.

In Memoriam – Jack Bruce

I felt an immense sense of personal loss today. I received the news that Jack Bruce passed away. It shows the monumental power of music that I could experience such feelings of sadness over the loss of someone I never met personally. From decades of listening to his music and attempting to play it (not nearly as well as he did) I get a sense of having spent a lot of time with the man.

Like many fans, the music of Cream introduced me to Jack Bruce. When I started playing bass guitar, my fingers would spend more time scratching my head than plucking the strings. Even “easy” songs such as “Sunshine of Your Love” and “White Room” turned out to be deceptively complicated. The more I studied his playing the more he opened my mind and ears to a whole new world of musical experiences.

It’s difficult to find enough words to convey Jack Bruce’s talent. He learned how to play the cello as a child. Before reaching adolescence he wrote a string quartet. As his love of music expanded, he took an interest in the string bass and the music of Jazz legend Charles Mingus. While difficult to emulate Mingus’ assault on the instrument, Bruce came close. When I listened to live Cream recordings, I wondered if he really needed an amplifier with the forceful way he’d pound on his bass strings. When he switched to bass guitar Motown bassist James Jamerson became his primary influence. Bach, Mingus and Jamerson: no bass player could select better sources of inspiration. This fusion of Classical, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues gave Bruce’s music its original sound.

While his years with Cream overshadowed his later work, Bruce consistently released quality material. Listeners could experience the full spectrum of Bruce’s abilities on his 1989 best of entitled Willpower. It contained heavier rocking tracks such as “Keep it Down” along with somber pieces like “Theme for an Imaginary Western”. He also treated fans to more Jazz influence cuts such as “Jet Set Jewel” and “The Best is Still to Come.” I really enjoyed “Can You Follow”. The sole instrumentation was Bruce singing and playing the piano.

While many people think of Bruce as the bass player for Cream, he also possessed tremendous skill as a vocalist. He could sing bluesy tracks like “Spoonful” and “Third Degree” (from the Bruce, West, Laing era), pop tunes such as “I’m So Glad” and sad ballads equally well. “Ships in the Night” (from his solo career) being the epitome of the latter, although “We’re Going Wrong” deserves honorable mention. I’d have to include the outstanding Jazz ballad “The Wrong Side of Town” (from the Bruce, Baker, Moore line-up) in that category, also.

Many have called Jack Bruce a “legendary bassist”. I don’t agree. That’s too glib a way to describe Bruce’s abilities. Based on the superlative quality of his singing, songwriting and proficiency with multiple instruments, I would call him a musician of the highest order who also played bass guitar extremely well.

May he Rest in Peace. I extend my deepest condolences to Mr. Bruce’s friends and family.

My Life with Cinnamon

Since I added some photos, I’m re-blogging this piece.

Kevin Stephany's Critique Compendium

Kevin and Cinnamon 110-12 Cinnamon and KevinKevin and Cinnamon 4

Most dogs beg for attention. I’ve got a pooch that begs to give attention.

A little over a month ago, my Dad and Step-Mom decided it was time for a new addition to the family. They went out and purchased a “Shorkie” puppy whom they named Cinnamon. For dog aficionados, Shorkies are a “designer breed.” If you’re a commoner like me, Cinnamon is just a plain old mutt. She’s a combination of Yorkshire Terrier and Shih-Tsu. That dual heritage would explain why she’s always at my feet when I’m drinking tea and barks whenever I read an issue of The Economist critical of Chinese trade policies.

At first I felt jealous of her arrival. I could no longer boast about having the best hair in the house. My envy quickly went away. As she doesn’t shed, she’s a good breed for allergy sufferers like me. I like that, but I’m…

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Book Review – Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

While reading this book I wondered if Taiichi Ohno, the Father of Lean Manufacturing, adopted Yasunari Kawabata as a pen-name and wrote Thousand Cranes. It contained one of the more interesting approaches to novel writing that I’ve read. Kawabata wasted no words in presenting his narrative. Every syllable counted in such a way that the book at times read more like a poem than a novel. In addition it came in at a mere 147 pages. Based on all that I expected to rush through, but, like the intricacies of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, it turned out much more complex than I thought.

Kawabata’s overall premise made the book very appealing. He presented a tale rife with passion, death and regret. Interspersed with this he included the tradition of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. While one of the female characters wore a kimono with the figures of cranes, the title also had a symbolic reference outside of that. Since I’m not familiar with Japanese culture much of this escaped me. Still, I applaud the author for his skill weaving so much material into a novel that turned out this brief.

The theme of guilt emanated from almost every byte in this book. I’ll present a few examples here. I’ll limit myself to the ones that won’t give away spoilers.

He was apologizing. But love flowed into the apology, to coddle and mollify the guilt…Was it love or guilt that had killed her? (Location 758)

Kikuji started up, afraid that in the motion she would fall over. “What are you saying? It is I who must ask to be forgiven. It is I who must ask to be forgiven. I’ve been trying to think of the right words. But there’s no way to apologize, and I’m ashamed to be here with you.” (Location 803)

“If it was guilt,” she continued, “it may never go away. But sorrow will.” (Location 1404)

Now I feel guilty, but it’s because I can’t give Thousand Cranes the review it deserves. In spite of its brevity, I found it a very challenging read. Out of my own cultural ignorance, I didn’t understand the references Kawabata made to Japanese society, although he fit them in very well. The writing style threw me, too. While I’m familiar with Ernest Hemmingway and Cormac McCarthy, this author presented his economical use of words in a very unusual way. It’s hard for me to describe or find adequate passages to cite; although the ones above provide a good representation. Readers familiar with the Tea Ceremony would enjoy this book much more than I did.

Novel Excerpt – The Tyrant

The Tyrant: A Novel

To our greatest drive, the tyrant within us, not only our reason, but also our conscience submits. Friedrich Nietzche

By: Kevin Stephany
© 2014 Kevin Stephany

DISLAIMER: THIS PIECE INCLUDES GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF MEN AND WOMEN IN THEIR EARLY TWENTIES BEHAVING LIKE MEN AND WOMEN IN THEIR EARLY TWENTIES. THIS MAY OFFEND SENSITIVE READERS.

“Paradise awaits. Let’s go, hermano.” Randy pronounced the h as he always did.

Chance rolled his eyes and cringed. For years he’d told Randy, “The h is silent! The freaking h is silent!” Tonight he let it go. Something much more pressing weighed on his mind. Chance brushed the sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. With his free hand he grabbed Randy’s arm.

“Let’s be clear about this,” Chance said. “I’ve never been on a blind date in my life. I’m doing this as a favor to you.”

Randy stared at his cell phone. He ran his hand through his thick, dirty blonde hair.

“Listen to me!” Chance’s voice trembled.

Randy turned to Chance. “What’s that, hermano?” He asked again pronouncing the h.

Chance paused to find the words. He’d known Randy since high school. They’d graduated college together and now shared a condo. Still, even after all these years, Chance could never find the right way to talk to him.

“Understand that I kinda have a girlfriend.” The words escaped through Chance’s chattering teeth. He cringed. This statement sort of stretched the truth a bit, but without the “sort of” or “stretched” part. His dad had been badgering him for months about “spending some time with” the “daughter of a business associate” from “the club. Chance had even less interest in meeting this “swell gal” than he was of meeting the “tail” Randy hooked him up with tonight.

“I do have a girlfriend,” Randy replied without taking his eyes off the phone. A loud cackle burst from his lips. “I’m waiting to see if she calls me before I go incognito, bro.”

Chance didn’t care for the “bro” form of address, either. The way Randy pronounced the o made it sound like an h.

“Then maybe we shouldn’t do this,” Chance said in such a low volume that even he had trouble hearing himself.

Randy turned to face him. “Stop being such a nice guy. Let’s go see these girls. Wait until you see my date.” Randy smiled and nodded. “You’re going to be real impressed. I mean your tongue will be on the floor when you see her.”

“Okay.” Chance cracked his knuckles. The sensation of small pins pricking his skin throbbed up and down his arms.

“Man, you will be so amazed when you get a look at this muffin!”

“Uh, huh.” Chance had heard this one before, too. He’d never shared Randy’s high opinion of his girlfriends.

Randy prattled on and on. Chance tuned him out. He had the opposite take on the evening. The situation made him uncomfortable: very uncomfortable. He gazed around the room to take his mind off of Randy’s braggadocio. It didn’t help. Chance gasped. He couldn’t believe that so many things could have a golden color.

The room looked more like a lavish ball room from a big budget movie than the dining room of a restaurant. The chandelier hanging from the ceiling high above gave off a gilded glow through the reflection of the clear crystals and golden hardware. A flat golden carpet covered the floor. Gold wallpaper with elaborate geometrical designs hung on the walls. In the center of the floor a long staircase led upstairs. The steps took on a golden glow under the light of the chandelier. The sparkling white marble absorbed the gilt reflection of the other items in the room. Two solid oak bannisters that that resembled a musical F-Clef notation arced at the bottom and flanked the staircase. A sign at the top of the steps read, “Teatro del Arte.” Chance snickered. The real show would be watching Randy attempt to impress his date.

Chance tucked in his shirt. He felt more out of place than a monk at the Playboy Mansion. The opulent surroundings and the nervousness of meeting his mystery date caused his insecurity to boil over into temper. “Listen!” He grabbed Randy by his lapels. “I’m doing this to help you out. All I’m asking is that you understand I’m just going along as a friend: nothing romantic is going to happen.”

“Get your hands off my suit!” Randy pulled Chance’s hands away from him. He brushed his jacket. “I had this thing custom made.”

Chance found this claim as unbelievable as what Randy said about his date. The suit appeared a puke green color under the golden lights. He took a deep breath and settled down. “Sorry.”
Randy returned to staring at his cell phone.

Chance sighed. “The big thing that I’m worried about here is that…” He swallowed hard. “I’m worried that you’re going to leave with this girl and I’m going to be stranded with my…date.”

Randy put his phone down. He flashed a crooked smile. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
Chance caught a whiff of fresh steamed lobster, the appetizing flavor of scallops wrapped in bacon, and the succulent scent of steak. With all of these aromas in the air, Chance could still detect the irresistible fragrance of a vodka martini. Randy always told him that it wasn’t possible to smell vodka, but Chance could. Of all the tantalizing smells, the scent of this one overwhelmed the others: maybe because it came from his own mouth. He’d had one at the local bar before heading over to the country club.

The pricking feeling on the surface of Chance’s arms became a numbness coursing through his veins. His chest constricted. Beads of sweat stroked his brow. But even more than the nervousness, an overwhelming curiosity gnawed at him. His hands shook. He needed another martini. Before that he had another pressing issue on his mind.

“What does this girl you set me up with look like, anyway?”

“She’s…hot.”

“Really?” The noticeable lack of the expression “you’ll be impressed” raised suspicions in Chance’s mind.

“Nice!” Randy drew out the word to three syllables. “The muffin texted me. She’s in the dining room. Let’s go.”

Chance hesitated. Something didn’t seem right to him. He detected something missing.
“I’m shutting my phone off so that muffin leaves me the hell alone.” Randy said thrusting it into the inside pocket of his jacket.

There it is, Chance thought. The evening just couldn’t begin until Randy referred to his girlfriend as “the muffin.” Chance had learned to accept Randy’s little quirk. He even tolerated it when he referred to his “impressive” date that way. At least Randy never spoke about his mother.

As they walked through the room Chance felt more comfortable. The numbness started to subside. His muscles relaxed. Walking became easier for him. He didn’t feel as tense or stiff. He reassured himself. He’d reached a point this early in his career where he could afford to dine at a place like this. His mystery date might not be impressed with him, but at least she’d have to respect this accomplishment. Wouldn’t she?

Chance tried to make small talk to ease his nerves. “This is some place.”

Randy didn’t answer. He may not have heard over the din of the crowd or just didn’t care. The man on a mission strode forward scanning the room. Chance struggled to keep up. From the way Randy slalomed around the various tables Chance gained the impression that Randy didn’t need to see the woman he desired: he could sense her.

Randy turned his head. “Hey, Chastity,” his shrill voice hollered.

Chance winced as he jumped back. It wasn’t because of the volume of Randy’s voice from inches away. A sense of dread enveloped him. He recognized Randy’s date.

A voluptuous bleach blonde babe sat alone at a table next to the staircase. A low-cut black blouse tightly hugged her ample frame. A red blazer lighter in hue than her blood red lips fit snug around her shoulders. Chastity served as his dad’s secretary at Paraggon, Inc., the same company where he’d started working. Socializing with co-workers made him uneasy. He crossed his arms to conceal his shaking hands. He needed that vodka martini bad.

Chastity flashed an ivory white smile and waved. Randy, as he always seemed to do when he met with a woman, bit his lip, squinted, and nodded. He went into a mating ritual that Chance called the “Randy Shuffle.” Randy danced over to the table in his usual bob and weave fashion, putting all his weight on one leg while dipping his corresponding shoulder and repeating with the other one. Sometimes he dipped so low that he seemed to shrink a foot in height. Chance found this show somewhat amusing, but what came after always struck him as painful.

Randy sat down and continued his dance maneuvers in his chair. Chance rolled his eyes. Afterwards they became drawn to Chastity. She had high cheekbones and tanned skin that was almost the same hue as her brown eyes. While she looked at Randy his eyes were drawn to the miracles of plastic surgery that protruded out of her dress. Her neck line hung so low that her perfect round breasts curved into cleavage that stretched from just below her neck to the table. As he stared at her a strange realization came over him: he wasn’t so much consumed with lust for Chastity as envy towards Randy.
When he finished ogling Chastity, he couldn’t help but wonder what happened to his date. Had she decided against coming? Even worse, did she somehow find out she’d be dating him and decided not to show? But the most important question that weighed on his mind happened to be: where was the waiter so he could order a martini?

“You look hot,” Randy said arching his eyebrows.

Chastity gasped and placed her fingertips against her chest. “Really?” She tilted her head to the right with her chin pointing to the ground.

“You’re so hot,” Randy continued. “If you went to Hell, you wouldn’t need a jacket.”
Chance spit out a laugh. Randy flashed him a dirty look. “I’m sorry something went down the wrong pipe,” Chance said. He put his hand in front of his mouth and cleared his throat. Chance remembered their mutual acquaintance Rod Slick delivering the right line in front of them. It went, “You’re so hot if you went to Hell it would melt.” It wasn’t that hard to remember. He couldn’t believe Randy could butcher it so badly.

Chastity knitted her brow, but smiled.

“You know it baby,” Randy said continuing the shuffle.

“Why thank you.” Chastity leaned forward and placed her hand on Randy’s shoulder. Chance noticed her fingers clench and squeeze it. He watched as she leered at Randy from his head to his crotch and back again. The two locked gazes seeming to become lost in one another’s eyes. Chance felt an intense sensation of loneliness envelope his whole body as his jealousy boiled over.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Chance heard a soft voice behind him say.

He turned around. His eyes widened and his jaw opened. Hope, the chestnut haired woman from the Accounting Department, stood in front of him. He never would have thought she was available, let alone would feel it necessary to go on a blind date. The numbness surged back into his veins. His chest muscles constricted making his breathing difficult. He had that thing about socializing with co-workers. He had an even bigger thing about talking with ones he found attractive.
Hope’s delicate voice intoxicated Chance’s ears. “I got tied up at work.”

Staring at Hope put Chance into a trance. A white blouse hung loose on her petite frame. She had on a black skirt that came to just above her knee. Around her shoulders she wore a hot pink sweater with the arms tied in a knot just below her chest. She tied her hair back in a ponytail with streams of it hanging down past her ears to her shoulders. Her dainty hands were folded in front of her and held a small black pocketbook. Light traces of freckles were scattered around her face like the stars on some ethereal galaxy. Her eyes came to rest on Chance. Her thin lips moved, but Chance couldn’t hear what she said. The sparkle emanating from her emerald eyes hypnotized him.

After a few seconds, Chance stood up and went to pull out a chair for Hope. His feet moved so fast that they tangled causing him to trip. He fell back into his seat. Blood rushed to his cheeks in embarrassment. He didn’t want to look at Hope, but he just couldn’t help himself. His gaze met hers. Her pink lips parted in a smile.

“I didn’t expect to see you here.” Hope’s voice trembled. She drummed her fingers against her purse.

“Nor you neither.” Chance winced. He always used awkward phrasing when he felt nervous…and excited.

“Is it okay if I sit down?”

“Okay.” Chance started to get up. His spirit willed him to take another shot at pulling out the chair.

Hope beat him to it. She sat down.

Chance’s muscles tensed up again. He had never been tortured with such anxiety; a unique combination of terror and eager anticipation. He felt as though sweat gushed out of his pores. A numbing pulsation raced through his veins.

Chance smiled at Hope. He tried to act as calm as he could. In spite of feeling so tense, he picked up the napkin in front of him. Without much effort he untied the silk bow that surrounded it. He removed the silverware and arranged it in the proper order. After wiping his forehead he looked down at the napkin. There wasn’t a trace of moisture on it.

Hope rubbed her lips together as if blotting lip stick. Her fingers drummed on the table. “So,” she said.

“So,” Chance replied.

“I’d ask what’s new, but I just saw you a couple hours ago.” Hope laughed and stopped. A rosy hue colored her cheeks.

Chance couldn’t take it anymore. He wished Randy and Chastity would say something to break the tension.

“You look real sexy tonight.” Randy licked his lips.

Okay, he wished Randy would say anything but that.

“Oh, you,” Chastity drew the words out into several syllables. She extended her hand again. This time it came to rest on Randy’s chest. “What am I going to do to you?” Following a momentary pause she added, “I mean with you?”

Randy’s eyes widened to the point Chance worried they’d pop out of his head. Chance could hear the loud “gulp” sound coming from Randy’s throat over the din of the room.

“Oh, dear.” Chastity placed her hand over her mouth. “I seem to have dropped my napkin.” She kneeled down on the floor in front of Randy to pick it up.

Chance didn’t think it possible, but Randy’s eyes seemed to get even bigger. He watched Randy’s mouth open and the tip of his tongue stuck out.

After another well timed pause Chastity got up from underneath the table. “Found it,” she said.
Chance noticed Hope frowning and shaking her head. Her face was as red as Chastity’s jacket. He wondered if she felt angry or embarrassed.

Just then the waiter showed up. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. My name is Barry and I’ll be your server.” With perfect diction he rattled off a list of the evening’s specials. Most were foods Chance had neither heard of nor could pronounce. It made him think that he should’ve clarified with Randy how they were going to split the bill. He dismissed this thought from his mind. What could possibly go wrong?

Barry made eye contact with everyone around the table. “Now could I start you all off with some drinks?”

This time Chastity’s eyes looked like they were about to burst out of her head. “Hey, let’s do shots!”

Local History/ Ancestry – Still History

Vainly, I’ve thought I had the best family history of anyone I’ve ever met. In the course of my studies I’ve discovered I’m related to both Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. (We Stephanys have a long tradition of hedging our bets.) Thanks to the outstanding program hosted by the Historical Society of Moorestown this past October 9th, I had the pleasure of meeting someone with an even more profound lineage. Local resident Samuel Still III regaled the group with tales of his extraordinary ancestors.

Did I mention these individuals were extraordinary? His 4X Great Grandmother Charity (Sidney) Still had 18 children. That’s a pretty impressive feat during any era. It’s even more phenomenal that she did this during the 19th century and survived. She also spent the early part of her life as a slave in Maryland. On two separate occasions she managed to escape. The lady lived a full life.

Samuel then detailed the life of Dr. James Still. At the age of either three or four he witnessed a doctor giving inoculations. The young James resolved to become a physician. During the course of his life he received only three months of formal education. This short coming would’ve deterred a less driven person from pursuing a career in medicine. James didn’t let it prevent him from achieving his dream.

James apprenticed with another doctor and studied herbal medicine from the Lenape tribe of Native Americans. Following years of hard work, he realized his goal of becoming Dr. Still. While this feat served as a monumental achievement in itself, he went on to discover a remedy that cured skin cancer. In addition, the doctor became very successful at treating dyspepsia and scrofula. (The latter is an inflammation of the lymph nodes on the neck.)

Before readers assume that his three months of formal education the greatest schooling anyone ever received, much of Dr. Still’s success emanated from his work ethic. He labored seven days a week and even delivered his prescriptions directly to patients. In his autobiography he preached the virtues of forbearance and debt avoidance. At the age of 70, Dr. Still was the third largest landowner in Medford, New Jersey. He lived most of his life debt free. These would be tremendous accomplishments for any resident of the Garden State today. It’s even more extraordinary for the son of former slaves to do so in the 19th century.

Samuel could’ve stopped his presentation there and still delivered an outstanding tale. Instead he impressed his audience even further. Another of charity’s sons, William Still, became known as “The Father of the Undergound Railroad.” Among his myriad accomplishments he laid out the organization’s overall network. Samuel said, “Harriet Tubman didn’t make a move without telling him.” William debriefed, if you will, escaped and slaves who passed through Philadelphia. He compiled their stories into the seminal chronicle on the subject. He published it in 1872 as The Undergound Railroad. For those interested, the book is still available today.

Samuel went still further in his lecture. He related the story of a slave who stopped by William’s office after purchasing his own freedom. William wrote down the man’s story of how his mother escaped from slavery in Maryland. Before she left she told him to meet her in the New Jersey Pine Barrens when he became free. At this point William recognized the gentleman as his long-lost brother Peter.

Peter made the other two Still brothers seem like under achievers by comparison. For forty years of his life he endured slavery. After purchasing his own freedom for $500, his former owner made him a proposition. He would sell Peter the wife and children he left behind in Alabama for the princely sum of $5,000. In 2014 dollars this would equate to roughly $143,000. It took Peter several years, but he managed to raise the necessary funds and liberated his family.

Samuel certainly has a rich family heritage of which to be proud. While I enjoyed hearing his story the number of younger people who attended this meeting impressed me even more. In fact, Samuel brought along his son to help carry on the tradition of sharing the Still story. At the conclusion of his lecture, Samuel told the students in the audience that he wasn’t simply speaking about his genealogy; his talk described our history. The more all of us get to know about one another the more we can understand our similarities and common bonds.

I studied history in high school, college and grad school. Following that I did a wealth of genealogical research for my family. In all that time, I could never come up with a solid answer when people asked me what purpose history really served. After listening to Samuel Still’s comments to the next generation of historians, I finally have one.

Book Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje took the concept of creativity to unheard of levels with The English Patient. He presented a narrative about four totally unique characters’ lives intertwining. While that would be a superlative achievement in itself for many authors, he then set his main story in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War. The characters then experienced flashbacks. This took the narrative into the deserts of North Africa during the 1930s. What a creative use of setting! In addition, he expressed himself so eloquently, that at times I thought the book a work of poetry.

Mr. Ondaatje wove a complex narrative about the coming together of four unique characters. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading about a cast this original. All of them added to the organic whole of the piece; none seemed contrived. Hana the nurse refused to leave the villa following the evacuation of all the patients save the title character. The author added a thief named Caravaggio to the mix. He then included Kip, a soldier from India, who defused bombs. Of course, the enigmatic character of the English Patient served as the center of the story.

The author sedulously researched this tale. On page 303 the author cited a number of sources he consulted regarding the desert and exploration of the North African region in the 1930s. It showed. Overall, the writing came across as very credible.

The author also made numerous references to Herodotus’ The Histories. The English Patient possessed that book when he turned up at the villa. He referred to the book repeated times throughout the narrative. The way Mr. Ondaatje wove it into the story I wondered if he knew its contents better than the original author.

The author utilized a very intriguing structure. He varied the points-of-view while including a series of flash backs. In spite of this intricacy, he kept the reader engaged. The main reason I read so intently centered on the use of language. For me, it defined the core essence of this book. At times the narrative read more like verse than prose. The elegant way the author described an affair affected me the most. It read:

She picks up a cushion and places it on her lap as a shield against him. “If you make love to me I won’t lie about it. If I make love to you I won’t lie about it.”
She moves the cushion against her heart, as if she would suffocate that part of herself which has broken free.
“What do you hate most?” he asks.
“A lie. And you?”
“Ownership,” he says. “When you leave me, forget me.”
Her fist swings towards him and hits hard into the bone just below his eye. She dresses and leaves. (Page 152)

I liked the passage’s eloquence. At the same time, I could visualize this happening. The author made the scene believable.

Another line from this book that grabbed my attention read:

But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others. (Page 117)

When I picked up The English Patient and read the blurb about it winning the Man-Booker Prize, I cringed. Many award winning books have left me feeling, well, frustrated. I struggle to understand them. Then I lose sleep trying to figure out why they got published let alone won anything. This book was a delightful exception. While the story interested me I found the fantastic language alone justified taking the time to read it. Since I now have a background and understand the overall premise, I look forward to reading this book again to see what else I discover in it. It’s not often I finish reading a book and get excited about doing so once more. For once, I can put in writing that I read a book that truly lived up to its reputation.