Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Help edit "Parallel and Perpendicular"

I received a great deal of high-quality help the last time I posted a short story and asked for edits, so I thought I'd try it again. I owe a short story to soon. Any suggestions about how to make this one better before publication would be greatly appreciated. 

Parallel and Perpendicular

                Gary couldn’t sleep.
                Whenever his wife and son got into one of their arguments, it stressed him out. The fights were exhausting for all the parties involved, but their son, Neil, would eventually storm off to his room and decompress with loud music. Gary’s wife, Sofia, would sit down at her computer and read the posts of her most distant acquaintances of Facebook. Occasionally she’d sigh and tell Gary about one that particularly bothered her, but mostly she’d retreat into the digital space, at once a public place and her most private space in the house. Their daughter, Stephanie, who was three years older than Neil, could now drive. When the fights began, she would ask Gary for the keys. They would share a moment of eye rolling, and then she would take off. She had a sixth sense about when it was safe to return. Gary’s sixth sense told him he would be in big trouble with his wife if he tried to escape during the fight, but even bigger trouble if he tried to intervene, so he would quickly find a book, sit down in his recliner, and only weigh in when Sofia asked for his opinion.
                Tonight’s fight started the way they generally did. They were all watching The Daily Show, a show the whole family could enjoy together. They got to a commercial break, and while Gary skipped through the commercials, Sofia looked over at her son. “Neil, will you quit doing that?”
                “Doing what?”
                “You’re doing it again.” Her voice was calm, but there was a dangerous undercurrent, like a riptide.
                “What?” Neil’s voice carried the sneer he’d almost perfected at only 13. Gary marveled at that sound. To the best of his recollection, he’d only mastered that kind of disdain by 16.
                “You’re digging in your ear again. You know that grosses me out. Get a cue tip and do that in the bathroom if you have to.”
                Neil pulled his pinky out of his ear. “I was not.”
                “Neil, I just saw you,” Sofia said.
                Gary tried to steer to safety. He smiled at Neil and said, “You were, buddy.”
                “No I wasn’t. It’s not a big deal.”
                “Well, which is it?” Sofia asked.
                “Either you weren’t doing it, or you were and you don’t think it’s a big deal.”
                “Or I wasn’t but I still don’t think it would have been a big deal if I had been.”
                Stephanie held out her hand. Gary shook his head and continued to aim the remote. If he could just get through the commercial break in time, he thought. He skipped ahead, but it was too far. He tried to go back.
                “Neil, I wish you would just admit that you were doing it, say you’re sorry, and quit it. Then it won’t be a big deal,” Sophia said.
                “I wish you’d admit I wasn’t doing it, say you’re sorry, and leave me alone,” Neil said.
                Gary hit pause and handed Stephanie the car keys. Then he got up.
                “Where are you going?” Sofia asked.
                “I’m just going to grab my novel.”
                “I’m sorry, honey. It’s not a big deal.” She looked back at Neil. “I just don’t like being lied to.”
                “And I don’t like being falsely accused,” Neil said.
                Gary headed off for his book.
                When he came back down the stairs, their voices hadn’t risen too much, and they were still on the original topic. Gary wasn’t sure what kind of omen that was.
                “Maybe I touched my earlobe or something, but I wasn’t ‘digging in my ear,’” Neil said.
                “Well, this is progress. Now you admit you were touching your ear. Neil, your pinky finger was halfway to your brain. I think you don’t even realize you’re doing it.”
                “Then why did you call me a liar?”
                “I didn’t call you a liar.”
                “Yes you did!” Now Neil’s voice didn’t just rise in volume, it cracked in a way that might have made Gary laugh under different circumstances. “You called me a liar!” he tried again, this time without cracking.
                “I didn’t call you a liar,” Sofia explained in a voice straining for patience. “I said I didn’t like being lied to.”
                “That’s calling me a liar!”
                “No, it’s not quite the same thing-”
                “That’s a lie, because if I said I didn’t like you lying to me, you’d say I was calling you a liar.”
                “I am not lying, Neil. I’m trying to explain to you that-”
                “I didn’t say you were a liar, Mom.”
                “Okay, you did, but please don’t interrupt me Neil, because-”
                “I did not! I said you wouldn’t like me to call you a-”
                “You just did, Neil!” Now Sofia was shouting. “You said, ‘That’s a lie!’”
                “Did not! This is just like the whole ear thing!”
                “Yes, it is. You say you didn’t do that, either!”
                “See? You are calling me a liar, but you also said I don’t even know I’m doing it.”
                “But you can know you’re doing it when I catch you doing it, so just admit it and quit it.”
                “But I’m not doing it!”
                Gary tried to focus on his book. The words made a gray smudge on the page but refused to separate into distinct shapes.
                Sophia leaned forward. “I’ll tell you what you aren’t doing. You aren’t doing all your homework. You aren’t doing the dishes when it’s your turn. You aren’t practicing the piano even though we keep paying for lessons.” She was counting things off on her fingers, and hesitated on the third, her mouth slightly open to let Neil know she wasn’t finished. Then the fourth came to her. “And you aren’t putting your clothes in the hamper.”
                Well, Gary thought, they got past the ear thing. Now we’re up to DEFCON 2.
                Neil leaned forward. “So that’s what this is really about? How I do everything wrong?”
                “Oh, don’t be so dramatic. I didn’t say you do everything wrong. It’s just that, when I come home from work, and I’m tired, and I’m stressed, if you haven’t done something, and I ask you if you did it, just admit it and do it. Don’t tell me you did it when you didn’t.”
                “Mom, did you ever stop to think that maybe I’m stressed and tired, too, and that’s why I can’t do all the things you want me to do?”
                “Neil, I said I understood that sometimes you won’t have done all the things you’re supposed to do. That’s not the point. The point is that you need to just admit it and do them when I ask.”
                “No, that’s not the point, Mom.”
                Sofia fell back heavily into the couch. “Fine. What is the point?”
                “The point was that you were accusing me of digging in my ear. All this other stuff is just a distraction you just brought up.”
                That is a pretty good point, Gary thought. Wisely, he said nothing.
                “There can be two points, Neil. These aren’t unrelated. You say you didn’t do something I was watching you do. Sometimes you say you did things you didn’t do. I think there’s a connection there.”
                That was also a good point, Gary noted.
                Neil fell back against the back of the loveseat. “Fine. Fine. I will try to do everything you want me to do.” He started counting on his fingers. “I’ll try to remember to do all my homework. I’ll try to make sure I do the dishes when it’s my turn. I’ll try to remember to practice the piano.” He hesistated on the third, his mouth open. “Oh, and I’ll put my clothes in the hamper.” Then he exaggerated the fifth, waggling his thumb. “And I will try to stop doing the things I don’t even know I’m doing, okay?” He stood up. “But you don’t have to be such a…” He pressed his lips together.
                Sophia’s eyes got very wide, then very wet.
                Gary sat up quickly, looked at his wife’s eyes, then turned toward his son.
                Neil knew he’d stepped in it. “…mean. You don’t have to be so mean.”
                “Neil,” Gary said softly. “Go up to your room. Right. Now.”
                Neil opened his mouth.
                Gary pointed toward the stairs. He pointed hard. Neil went.
                Gary looked at Sofia. She carefully dried her eyes with one finger, trying not to smudge her eyeliner too much, rose slowly from the couch, and went to sit in front of her computer. The sound of muffled punk music sloshed down the stairs in little rhythmic waves, just loud enough to be sullen, but not loud enough to confront.
                Gary went into the kitchen, but he could still see Sofia over the bar. “Would you like a glass of wine?”
                “Do we have anything stronger?”
                Gary turned toward the cabinet above the fridge. “Um, we might.”
                “I’m kidding. A glass of wine would be nice. Maybe some of the red from when the McCabes were over.”
                He poured it and brought her the glass. She mumbled a thank you, then disappeared into Facebook again. Gary went back to his book. The words resolved themselves, but the story eluded him.
                “What punishment should we give him?” Sofia asked.
                “For sticking his finger in his ear and lying about it?”
                “No. For… Oh, God, do you think I was being a bitch too?”
                “No, of course not.”
                “I was. I was. It wasn’t a big deal and I made it into this big thing.”
                He could hear in her voice that she was crying, and he rose to hug her, but she handed him her glass. “No, I’m fine. I’ll apologize to him tomorrow.”
                “I don’t think you need to apologize.”
                “No, I do. It was… I do.”
                Gary tried to think of something to say while he took the glass back to the sink, but when he turned around she was already heading up the stairs. Soon after, the music stopped, and he thought maybe she’d gone into Neil’s room. He listened, but the only sound he heard was the car pulling back into the driveway.
                “Are they done?” Jennifer asked when she came in.
                “Was it bad?”
                “It’ll be fine.” Gary watched Jennifer roll her eyes, then head for the stairs. He called after her in a barked whisper. “Hey!” She returned. “Hey, why didn’t we ever have big arguments with you like that when you were 13?”
                “Because I’m more like you, Dad.”
                “But you didn’t argue with your mother, either.”
                “Nope. Neither do you.”
                “Love you, Dad.”
                “Love you too, honey.”
                Gary read his book for a while, but when he was sure everyone was asleep, he made his way up the stairs. As he passed Neil’s door, he remembered checking on his son a decade earlier. He felt an overwhelming urge to do so again. Carefully, he turned the nob and poked his head in. Neil was turned toward him, his face serene and years younger. The blankets were pulled up to his neck, but one leg stuck out, almost perpendicular to his body, his foot hanging off the edge of the bed. Disturbed just enough by his father’s presence, Neil swallowed and then made a soft clicking sound in his throat twice, then fell back into a deep sleep.
                Gary continued down the hall, past his daughter’s room, and slipped into his own. Sofia had fallen asleep with her book open on her chest and her end-table light on. Gary slipped around to her side of the bed, gently picked up the book, placed the bookmark in it, and set it down as quietly as he could. Sofia heard this slight sound and swallowed once, then made a soft clicking sound in her throat twice. Gary remembered, at one point when Neil was five or six, he went through a phase of climbing into their bed after bad dreams, and because he made the exact same sleeping sounds as his mother, Gary hadn’t been able to tell if he was there or not sometimes.
                Before Gary could turn off Sofia’s light, she rolled over and pulled the covers up to her neck. Then she pushed one leg out from under them and dangled her foot over the side of the bed.
                Gary went into the bathroom. While sitting on the toilet, he contemplated the ways his wife and son were so similar. Did that explain the tension between them? It must, he decided.
                He was entirely unaware that his pinky finger was buried deep in his ear.  

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Feminists, Freudians, and Fanboys, Unite!: A Review of Prometheus

Your first question is, “Should I go see this movie?” The answer is, Yes.

Your implied question is, “Is it good?” That’s trickier.

Your third question, if you’re a fan of the Alien series to which this is a prequel, is probably something along the lines of, “Is it more like Alien or Aliens?” (If you had to reread that question because you’d forgotten than the sequel to Alien was not Alien II but Aliens, deduct five points for insufficient geekiness.) The answer, I think, is that this movie owes as much to Stanley Kubrick’s vision of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as it does to the original series. It’s certainly faster-paced than that glacial epic, and there are aliens in it (different kinds this time!), but it shares Clarke’s scope, beginning with the invention of the human race by another (dubbed “The Engineers”), and sharing Clarke’s fear that IBM… I mean HAL… I mean evil corporations (“The Weyland Corporation” in this iteration of HAL) will eschew pure science for a quest for power. Only this time the quest for power masquerades as a quest for philosophical answers rather than profit. But, just as profit is a proxy for power, these supposed philosophical questions turn out to be a base quest for immortality. Still, the corporate overlord wants to gain rather than learn, while the hero is on a purer quest for truth. The villain is as two dimensional as you would expect. The hero wants the truth, and love, and children, and to hold onto her faith, and isn't always sure which is which.

One of the advantages Prometheus has over 2001 is that it has a larger cast of characters, so we get to see a spectrum between these poles. Those provide the film with a richness that makes the reflection on the movie more valuable than its ending, which feels reductive. And why wouldn’t it? The body count in this movie is Shakespearean. And in a slightly-too-obvious way, every character’s flaw leads to his or her demise. Still, the way these Achilles heels are woven together (how’s that for a gross image? Something out of H.R. Giger, perhaps? Then it’s perfect) demands some respect. The acting is generally good. Charlize Theron, the only member of the cast to win an Oscar, actually delivers the worst line reading in the whole movie, so that tells you it’s not a Sci-Fi Channel Original. Noomi Rapace holds her own against Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, both as a badass and as an actress projecting a character with a complete internal world. Michael Fassbender’s android David is so pitch perfect you won’t be able to decide if you feel sorry for him or hate him, but you will absolutely be creeped-out by him.

If the characters don’t do it for you, there are the larger themes. The Alien series has been poured over by academics, and Prometheus will not disappoint them. Freudians get excited about all the orifice penetrating, and Prometheus has aliens injecting themselves into mouths and bursting from abdomens, but it also has some climbing in and out of eyes. (Calm down, Freudians. You’re going to make messes of yourselves.) While the original had a lot to say (and a lot to tease) about motherhood, Prometheus has both a father-son relationship and a father-daughter relationship. (And there the Freudians go.) Feminists love the gender power dynamics of the original series. Well, get this: At one point in Prometheus we have a female character demanding an emergency C-Section (an abortion?) from a female-voiced surgeon machine that has already informed her that it is only designed to work on men. (Is that a million Ph.D. theses I smell? Smells sweaty.)

As for the philosophers, the movie glosses over semiotics with the help of a robot who can read alien writing and speak their language (convenient), but it asks enough religious and philosophical questions to keep stoners and Philosophy 101 students saying, “Whoa! Dude!” long into the munchie period.

As is always the case with Ridley Scott films, the questions are better than the answers. When those answers are delivered at all, they are presented as catch phrases, and we have to parse out nuance by evaluating the character providing them because, on their faces, they are too simple to be satisfying. Still, these questions are good, interesting ones, worthy of conversation after the movie, so go see it with some good friends who are willing to talk about more than which of the beautiful cast members they most admired. And don’t be put off by the simplicity of the answers provided in the movie. For good or ill, that’s realistic; the world is full of people who can sum up their beliefs in bumper-stickers, so it stands to reason that some of those people would be included in the crew of any interplanetary space voyage. Luckily, the answers are not all the same, which is why second-guessing Prometheus will be as much fun as the movie itself.

6/26/12 Addendum: I thoroughly enjoyed this, too. It seems about right: