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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Author Commentary on Every Day Fiction Publication: Fluffy Robes and Slippers

This piece was the result of one of the very rare occasions in which I’ve been inspired to write a story by random brainstorming. It was winter, and I was standing in front of the kitchen sink washing dishes and trying to come up with an idea for an ultra-short, and not having very much success, I’m afraid. Then I looked down and saw that I was wearing… Well, I suppose you can guess what I was wearing :)

I’ll admit I was surprised when I saw Every Day Fiction’s Table of Contents and learned that they had me scheduled for the 28th, which is Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S. (Normally EDF posts holiday-themed stories on appropriate occasions.) They included this explanation in their announcement:

“We did not receive any specifically Thanksgiving-themed submissions, but Lori Schafer‘s story “Fluffy Robes and Slippers” is about relationships and having company, and delivers the right sort of message for a holiday that brings families together, so we’ll be sharing it with you on November 28th in honour of the holiday.”

However, most readers will probably never see that explanation, and I wonder how reading the story on Thanksgiving will affect people’s interpretation of it. I don’t know – the scene of the final gathering; it could be a bit depressing for what’s supposed to be a day of celebration.

But maybe it isn’t such a stretch, at that. Perhaps there is an element of gratitude, of appreciation for one’s loved ones; for the warmth and ceaseless devotion of one’s family and friends. How often do people who are on the verge of extinction long for just one more Christmas, one more birthday, yes, even one more Thanksgiving with those they love best? How often, too, are they most sorely missed and most fondly remembered on those very occasions, those special times in which our attention is particularly drawn to the people whose lives we have shared?

Maybe my story is about Thanksgiving after all…   

Friday, November 22, 2013

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: A Critical Analysis

Well, the holiday season is rapidly approaching and, as it is every year, my mind is inevitably drawn into contemplation of the true spirit of Christmas – 1970s Christmas specials!

Yes, it’s true – Christmas was never more meaningful than it was during that wondrous era in which we celebrated the most important holiday of a child’s year not by going to church, not by caroling, not by hitting the mall at midnight on the day after Thanksgiving, but by plopping our butts down in front of a nineteen-inch black-and-white at 8 pm on Saturday nights in December and losing ourselves in these classic tales of childish wonder. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story of an outcast who saves Christmas. Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the story of an outcast who invents Christmas as we know it today. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the story of an outcast who… Wait, I’m starting to sense a pattern here.

Now, I am not going to confess that I still watch these specials every year, and sometimes more than once, even with no children in sight. I will decline to admit that I have all of my favorites on both video and DVD, or that the one day of the year in which even I will almost certainly tear up is when I witness The Grinch having his big change of heart. I will, however, be happy to share my thoughts on that most thought-provoking of Claymation creations – the story of Rudolph.

Yes, because there’s more to the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than the patently obvious lesson about the worth and value of misfits. This 1964 Rankin and Bass drama is chock full of enough subtext to satisfy the most diehard of film enthusiasts, and it is still, nearly fifty years later, remarkably evocative of the socially progressive era in which it was born. Let’s look at how.

1. The authority figures are jerks. There’s the nasty coach, who, after Rudolph’s secret is revealed, informs the other children snidely: “From now on, we won’t let Rudolph play in any more reindeer games, right? Right.” Look at Rudolph’s dad, Donner, who forces him to wear a fake nose, which is not only uncomfortable, but wholly undermines Rudolph’s budding self-esteem. “You’ll like it and wear it!” he commands. “There are more important things than comfort. Self-respect!” Consider Clarice’s father, who reaffirms Rudolph’s worthlessness by rejecting Rudolph on sight: “No doe of mine is going to be seen with a… with a red-nosed reindeer!” And how about the mean elf-boss, who yells at Hermey and then (illegally) refuses to give him his break until he finishes his work?

And then there’s the big man himself, Santa Claus. Not content with merely trashing the new elf song his pint-sized slaves have spent so much time writing and rehearsing, he quickly turns his temper to the subject of Rudolph. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” he tells Donner. For what, we wonder? For siring a red-nosed son? “What a pity – he had a nice take-off, too.” In other words, Santa is so closed-minded that he can’t even consider the possibility of putting someone who’s a little different on his team, no matter how good he is or how much potential he has. It’s the attitude of guys like him that gave rise to the idea of Equal Opportunity Employment.

The message is as clear as a bright red bulb on a foggy winter night. Don’t trust anyone over 30!

2. The one authority figure who isn’t a jerk is King Moonracer, that good-looking magical lion. Although he speaks smoothly and with conviction, he is, unfortunately, an idiot. Every evening he circles the entire earth, collecting toys that no little girl or boy loves, and bringing them to his Island of Misfit Toys. Yet practically the first thing he says to Rudolph on meeting him is, “When one day you return to Christmastown, would you tell Santa about our misfit toys? I’m sure he could find children who would be happy with them.”

Okay, Your Highness, you may seem majestic with your wings and your crown and your cool castle and all, but you need better advisers. You’re telling me that you circle the entire earth every night seeking abandoned toys, but you never once thought to stop off at the North Pole and talk to Santa yourself? Heck, I mean, it’s not even that far – no farther than one can travel by ice floe, at any rate. The misfits may be all right, but the ruler of the misfits… Well, he obviously isn’t roaring with a full mane.

I’m not quite certain about the intended lesson here, though. Is it merely a dig at autocratic rule, or are we being taught that monarchy consists largely of exercises in futility? In either case, it’s none too flattering to the man in charge – and in the end, it’s the brash young upstart who actually solves the problem of the misfit toys.

3. There’s a hint of underlying feminism. When Rudolph goes missing, Donner naturally decides to go out looking for him. “Mrs. Donner wanted to go along, too,” narrator Burl Ives assures us. “No! This is man’s work!” Donner blusters in response. But the days of mindless obedience to one’s husband are passing. “No sooner did the man of the house leave than Mrs. Donner and Clarice decided to strike out on their own…” It’s also interesting that all of them – male and females alike - wind up in the cave of the Abominable Snow Monster. The buck, it seems, really was no better equipped to take care of himself than the ladies.

Notice, too, that the women aren’t jerks like the men are, perhaps because they have no actual authority. Why, that Clarice is downright sweet. She doesn’t laugh along with the others; rather, she forces Rudolph to keep his promise to walk her home. She sings to the unfortunate misfit to make him feel better. She even defends his “deformity,” declaring, “I think it’s a handsome nose! Much better than that silly false one you were wearing.” She’s kind of a forward gal, too. The way she whispers “I think you’re cute!” into Rudolph’s ear just before takeoff practice, the way she nuzzles noses with him on their first date – this is not a doe who’s suffering from sexual repression.

Strong, independent, free-thinking females - you can practically see women’s lib being born right in front of your eyes.

4. It’s about coming-of-age. Because there’s no need for Rudolph to actually get rid of his red nose. He just needs to learn to control it. Am I right? The young Rudolph’s “blinkin’ beak” goes off at random, shocking nearby observers with both the shining light and the horrible high-pitched whine that accompanies it. Indeed, his secret is discovered during one such unexpected episode – and worse, he and his friends are almost caught by The Abominable during another. But by the end, Rudolph is flicking that thing on and off on command, and that’s the point at which it becomes useful – even desirable – to Santa and the others.

“Control! Control! You must learn control!” Yoda scolds Luke Skywalker, another youngster with special powers. And what about Harry Potter? There’s a story that’s all about learning self-control. Misfit or no, Rudolph, too, must gain mastery over his body and over his emotions before he can become a productive member of society.

And that, of course, is the quintessence of growing up.

5. It’s about the increasing acceptance of babies born out of wedlock. Surprising, but quite possibly true. Have you ever noticed that Hermey has rounded ears? Strange, isn’t it? Not only is he the only elf who doesn’t like to make toys, he’s also the only one with round ears. Indeed, except for his stature and classy powder-blue attire, he might not be an elf at all. He might even be – gasp – a human!

Of course, among elves, the outcast would naturally be human; the anti-Vulcan, if you will. But why did Rankin and Bass decide not to give Hermey pointy ears? Why did they decide to make him a misfit not just by personality, but also by physical characteristic?

The answer seems obvious. Hermey is – as such children used to be called – illegitimate. Because if Santa and the Missus are the only humans in Christmastown, then where did Hermey get those rounded ears? Hmm, maybe Santa’s a jerk in more ways than we thought; taking advantage of an employee... No, wait. There’s also Yukon Cornelius. Maybe he popped into town one day and decided to pop in on some cute girl-elf’s cottage. Oh, wow. What if Hermey was in fact Yukon Cornelius’ son? Think about it – they reunite, escape death, hang out, solve problems together… I may have to compose my very first piece of fan fiction.

There’s no question that the ranks of single mothers grew in the sixties – the idea of free love was bound to have consequences, after all – and perhaps, in a time in which the term “bastard” still prevailed, Rudolph gently reminded us not to judge the child by the actions of its parents. It’s a lesson that we’ve apparently learned, because look at us today – even our most respected celebrities are having babies without ever getting married, and without having to apologize for it, either. And their children, too, are no longer scorned or held down by society because of their birth; they are quite as likely to succeed in life, perhaps to become celebrities in their own right, or even, if they’re very lucky and study hard, dentists.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Book Review: Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914

Morton, Frederic, Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913/1914, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1989.

Thunder at Twilight offers a detailed history – really almost an exposé – of the conditions of Viennese life that preceded the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which, as we all know, indirectly led to the First World War. The book is extraordinarily well-researched; the author even goes so far as to relay to us the weather on days of particular importance, and to describe which writers and operas were popular at the time. In other words, it creates a very large picture of Viennese society – a society on the verge of cataclysm – by revealing the minutest details of everyday life in a city in turmoil, and, by extension, a Europe in turmoil.   

What’s particularly interesting and most unique about this book is the way it examines its chosen moment in history by tracing the thoughts and interactions of a variety of important figures of its time. Thus not only are we offered insight into the life of Emperor Franz Joseph, and of the Archduke’s eventual assassins, but also of Adolf Hitler, who was then residing in Vienna as an unknown painter, and Leon Trotsky, who had made of Vienna a temporary home, and even Josef Stalin, who visited the city during these crucial years. Even the story of Sigmund Freud is deftly interwoven into this fascinating mix of individual histories, thus providing a perspective on the psychoanalytical as well as the political thought of the that era.

It is perhaps because of this unusual presentation that Morton manages to strike us with particularly fresh observations on the very essence of Viennese life. He remarks, for example, that Freud’s theory of the id-ego-superego parallels the structure of the old Viennese government. By focusing on slights on the Archduke’s wife, a mere Duchess who is not permitted royal privileges in accord with the aristocratic distinctions of the time, he effectively illustrates the rigidity of the turn-of-the-century Viennese class system. He notes the power and prevalence of “thunderbolt” imagery in contemporary politics, and imagines the storm that follows as a means of clearing away the stifling air of industrialization. And, ultimately, he concludes that the Great War was a reaction, not to the political assassination alone, but to the changes effected by modernization; to “progress unmoored from God.” Thus he departs somewhat from the oft-heard presumption that World War I was a result of rabid European nationalism; rather he claims that this nationalism was engendered by a vague and even continent-wide dissatisfaction of the people of Europe with their economic and social lives.

All in all, it’s a fascinating book, and well worth the read. I did find the style of writing a bit cheesy at times, and the characterizations of Vienna (of which Morton is a native) occasionally a little harsh. But it also lends a wonderful reality to one’s perception of the situation in Europe a hundred years ago, a climate that resulted in the worst war the world had then known. By looking at the years 1913/1914 through Viennese eyes, the reader can clearly see, can even possibly hope to analyze, the events, both direct and indirect, that led to that war. And this is perhaps the first step towards an understanding of the genesis of all wars.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Moving In, Moving Out, Moving On: A Memoir

My short memoir "Moving In, Moving Out, Moving On" has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

Although this piece now forms a part of my memoir On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened, I was originally prompted to write it for the 2012 Ladies Home Journal personal essay contest. The theme was “The Day that Changed My Life.” Boy, was that tough. Very few of my life’s big changes can be traced to one day. The day I nearly drowned a few years ago was a contender, but I don’t think I was ready to write about that yet. The day I ran away from home would have been an obvious choice, but it didn’t make for much of a story. But then there was this day, the day I became aware that my mother was mentally ill, and that, I thought, had possibilities. Still, I suppose it would be a stretch to say that that particular day changed my life; rather, it was more that it marked a turning point in my theretofore comparatively carefree teenage existence.

It’s an interesting idea, though, isn’t it? Every day, people are faced with calamitous events that, in a flash, change their lives forever: accidents, natural disasters, illnesses, deaths in the family. You can’t even prepare for those kinds of changes because, unlike the string of fairly predictable events that make up the majority of modern life – going off to college, finding a job, getting married, having children, retiring – you don’t know they’re coming. Perhaps that’s why these kinds of stories fascinate us; there’s something wonderful in the way people respond to unexpected challenges, sometimes even something heroic. And while none of us wants to suffer a sudden catastrophe, maybe deep down we all hope that we would have the strength and courage to handle one if it came our way.

Monday, November 4, 2013

My Short-Short "Poisoned" in The Journal of Microliterature - Thanks to an Editor's Wonderful Feedback

My flash fiction story Poisoned has been published in The Journal of Microliterature:

This was a very tricky piece to put together. It was actually inspired by an incident that occurred in the course of my mother’s psychosis. One day she took me to the hospital, complaining of chest and abdominal pains. I was naturally concerned, but I also recall being hopeful that having a doctor examine her would lead to the (I thought) inevitable revelation that she’d lost her marbles. No such luck. But anyway, they took her complaints seriously, because although she was in fairly good health, at forty-one she wasn’t exactly young anymore, and was a smoker besides, so there was legitimate reason to believe there could be a problem with her heart. They gave her the requisite battery of tests, but couldn’t find anything wrong. Now, as an adult, I can pretty easily guess what they must have told her – that she’d had an anxiety attack, which she probably had – but at the time I had no idea such a thing even existed. In fact, I wondered more if perhaps it was all in her head; she was imagining a lot of strange things in those days. Then the doctor left the room and the interrogation began. And that’s when I began to be afraid that she’d somehow manage to pin the blame for her mysterious illness on me.

The first version I wrote of this piece was mostly reflective of that – my terror over being falsely accused and probably convicted of poisoning my own mother with some substance of which no one could prove or disprove the existence. I sent my story off to Microliterature, and a few weeks later I received a response from the editor that basically said (politely) that I had ruined an otherwise good piece by changing the tone halfway through. He was absolutely right. The story ended in hysterics, with the husband being dragged away by the police, which, while it carried the plot in an interesting direction, utterly wrecked the dreadful calm of the first half of the story. He did, however, say that if I ever did a rewrite, I should feel free to resubmit.

So I rewrote it. I changed the second half of the piece entirely, including the ending, making it more about the relationship between the husband and wife than about the consequences of the wife’s accusation. And I was careful to maintain the tone of the first half of the piece throughout, which worked worlds better than the original version. And here you see the results. How grateful I am to that editor! With one brief sentence he nailed what was wrong with that piece and clued me in as to how to change it from a so-so story into a well-done one. I realize, of course, that few editors have the time to address the defects in the submissions they receive. But I hope that those who do make the effort are aware of how much we writers truly appreciate their feedback, and of what an impact a few choice words can make on the quality of a writer’s work.

Addendum: After this story was published, I also composed an alternate version, a nonfiction piece also entitled Poisoned, which is written in the first person and is featured in my memoir On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened. It received an Honorable Mention in The Avalon Literary Review's Spring 2014 Quarterly Contest and may be downloaded as a FREE eBook at your favorite eBook retailer; I have also posted it here for those who are curious to compare the two versions. Needless to say, I was very careful to maintain a consistent tone throughout!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Guest Blog Post: Selling the Dollhouse up at Wow! Women on Writing

I have a guest blog post up today at "The Muffin," the blog of Wow! Women on Writing. This is the first time I've done a guest post, but I definitely like the idea of doing more.