Archive for January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger: Beacon of Light

Living in New York for almost the entirety of my life — first Long Island, then Brooklyn, then upstate (Albany, then Delmar, near the Hudson River) — I’ve seen Pete Seeger on many occasions.  I’ve even stepped on his boat, the famous Clearwater. Stood and applauded the man. Taken some money out of my pocket to contribute to his latest good cause.

It’s funny, I thought he was an old guy the first time I saw him, at a folk festival 30 years ago. And after that, all he did was persist. He kept keeping on, believing in good things, fighting the fight. Pete Seeger had great integrity of purpose. And soulfulness.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes when you meet a person, you feel it: “Wow, this is a great man.” An awareness that you are in the presence of a truly evolved individual. He (or she) is elevated somehow. I can name a few dozen folks over the years, men and women, celebrities and neighbors, authors and near-strangers. You recognize something deep and good in that person. A spirit, a kindness, a wisdom. For me, Pete Seeger had that. And each time I’ve experienced the contradictory sensation of feeling both small and strangely ennobled. Small, because I was not there yet, probably never would get there. Too petty, too selfish, too unkind, too Jimmy. And yet lifted up somehow just by the proximity, because here I could see it, sense the possibility: What it means to be a really good person in this world.

We need those beacons, shining that good pure light.

And that’s all I’ve got to say.

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JUST FOR LAUGHS: Mad Men Without Smoking

Both of my parents smoked. I grew up in a cloud of cigarette smoke. We’d go on long drives for our summer vacations in Vermont, seven children and my parents packed in a station wagon, and they’d smoke for seven hours, windows closed. Mom made dozens of sandwiches for the road, wrapped in wax paper. We chewed and gagged, swallowed and coughed. Things were different back then. Not complaining, it’s just the way it was, especially growing up in the 60s and 70s (born in 1961). So I guess I’ve always had an affection for smokers, or at least sympathy.

When I watch Mad Men on TV, I see my parents’ world re-imagined, an era that speaks to my soul.

Anyway, this is funny . . . Hat tip to the “Ellen” show.

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Fan Mail Wednesday #173: Sally from South Korea Asks About “BYSTANDER”

Here we go, folks. Since this letter essentially consisted of questions, I broke format and inserted my answers directly beneath each question. For your reading pleasure!

This is South Korean student reading your book, Bystander. I really enjoyed reading your book. Your book is even used in debate topic in S.K’s book debate. I am little confused with some parts. And I hope you answer my questions. Thanks.

1. Why did Hallenback hate Eric so much? Eric wanted to help Hallenback.

I don’t have all the answers on this, and by that I mean that your insights are just as valid as mine. For me, I think you need to go back to the opening scene of the book. Hallenback has just been terrorized. He is covered with ketchup, scared and humiliated. Who does he run into but Eric Hayes.  At that first meeting, Eric witnesses David in his time of shame. Utterly degraded. In Eric’s eyes, David Hallenback would always be that bullied kid, covered in ketchup, and Hallenback instinctively knew it.

Later on we learn that David desperately wanted to belong to Griffin’s group. He would have been a lot better off if that was not the case. David resented how the new kid in school, Eric, could quickly be accepted in Griffin’s group of friends. I think when Eric tried to show sympathy to David in the hallway, David perceived it as pity, that Eric was “feeling sorry” for him. So that angered David, too. Remember, when David is hurt or rejected or humiliated, he feels anger — but he doesn’t want to direct it at Griffin. That anger needs a different outlet. Later when Griffin whispers into David ear, asks a favor, David is only too glad to accept. Finally he’ll have a seat at the table.

2. Why did Hallenback try to be friends with Griff?

Oops, I sort of answered that above. For a variety of reasons, Griffin held a certain appeal for David. Griffin was smart, handsome, popular, all the things David wished he could be.

3. What did Eric help directly to Hallenback? He just advised him that don’t let Griff to treat himself with sneer. He just said he understand Hallenback. What help did Eric give to Hallenback?

Foremost, I think Eric was basically decent to Hallenback. Not friends, but civil, respectful, tolerant, compassionate. One time (chapter 19), Eric even tried to reach out to Hallenback a little bit, advise him against Griffin. It only made David angry. In the end, Eric tries to show David another small kindness by offering him a seat at the lunch table, a show of acceptance, but David rejects the offer. Oh well.

4. When Cody got angry with ‘Weasel’ and fought, why did Eric smile in the end? He even thinks ‘Hallenback found out the way to be in Griff’s group’ Is this mean Eric understand Hallenback betraying him, and kicking him? Is he that kind?

No, he’s not that kind. Though maybe he has a twisted sense of humor. The smile and laugh came when Eric was on the ground, bleeding and beaten, and he understood at that moment why Hallenback had betrayed him in the cemetery. David had gotten his unfortunate wish. The smile also signaled to the reader that Eric would be okay.

5. Is Hallenback changed in the end? If he does, how??

I don’t think he’s changed at all, actually. He’s still the same guy. But we’ve seen changes in the people around him. Eric has gained in understanding. Mary changed a lot; so did Cody. We also saw that the police had their eye on Griffin, who had been stealing from parked cars. The future does not look bright for Griffin Connelly. I think in some ways that is what is different about the book. Usually we see how the “bully” is transformed in some positive way. He turns into a nice guy, realizes the error of his ways, everybody becomes friends, etc. I didn’t want to write that kind of book. My focus was on the bystanders, the vast majority, the place where I thought the most meaningful change could occur. I’ll leave you with a quote by Martin Luther King: The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.

I have so many questions on this. I am so curious about these to know. I hope you would answer these. Thanks~

You are very welcome!


The Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy

This video is a surprisingly effective means of demonstrating the power of empathy: what it looks like, what it feels like, what it means to connect.

After writing Bystander, visiting schools and speaking with students and educators, trying to think about and understand this whole “bullying thing,” I’ve come to believe that empathy is one of the central keys. It requires the ability to think outside of one’s self, a diffcult task for some middle schoolers.

Literature helps build empathy, for reading is nothing if not standing in someone else’s shoes. I hope that for all the emphasis placed on anti-bullying programs today, that school leaders never underestimate the power and importance of literature to open hearts, to open minds, and make a difference.

Anyway, please check out the video:

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The Story Behind This Illustration: Art Inspiring Art

When I first saw this illustration, I thought to myself, “Yes! That’s exactly what I hoped for — but better.”

Drawn by Iacopo Bruno, the image will appear in SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND (June, 2014).

For years, on school visits, I heard the same request from students — always boys. “Write a story about a kid who gets sucked into the television while playing video games.”

I’d always reply, “Yeah, nice idea, but, no. I write realistic fiction. So, um, I just don’t see that happening.”

Then I started writing the SCARY TALES books, inspired by South American magic realism and “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” and Stephen King and Ray Bradbury, etc. And in doing so, I began to say “yes” to impossible things.

I accepted, rather than rejected, the notion of ghosts, zombies, androids, witches, aliens . . . and a video game-playing boy getting sucked into a television set.

But how would that work, exactly?

He’s playing a game. On the tv screen, a hooded figure moves in the woods. The boy, Aaron Wheeler, safe and warm in his living room, begins to identify strongly with this character in the video game.

Would his entire body get sucked into the game?

I decided, no. The husk of his body would remain — to be discovered by his sister.

What should he look like? How would his image transform, now that his “spirit” or mental energy was inside the game?

I thought of “The Shining,” the final image of Jack Torrance out in the snow, frozen in the maze. I even studied a still of the movie image when I described the boy.

A section from the manuscript, upon the discovery of Aaron:

His eyes were rolled up, showing mostly white. He did not blink. He did not stir. His lips were parted and his mouth was frozen into an awful frown. Only his bottom row of teeth showed through. Bizarrely, there was a dusting of snow on the boy’s shoulders.

I sent along a jpeg to my editor, not knowing if the suggestion would reach Iacopo Bruno in Italy, or how he’d respond if it did. I believed then, as I do now, that even if it did, that it would be within Iacopo’s right to reject my idea and go with a vision of his own.

Anyway, I’m not sure how it all worked out. But you might notice a resemblance, especially in the mouth. Our sly tribute to a great author, a fantastic book, and a terrific movie. Thank you, Stephen King.