A Hundred and Eight Years Later, The Jungle Still Hits Home

A writer writes. Nothing new there. Everybody knows that.  But a writer also reads. A lot. At least, they should. I often narrow my eyes with skeptical sideways glances toward writers who confess they don’t read much. “Just don’t have the time,” they say. Hogwash. You make the time because for writers, a day without reading should feel like a day without breathing – a necessity to living.

I enjoy learning favorite books of other authors, which almost always include the classics from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Lee, Poe, and Salinger (to name only a few). And why not? That’s why they’re classics. People love them. And though I adore the stories written by these exceptionally talented writers, (if only I had an iota of their ability. sigh) my favorite all-time book is The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I need to read this book every couple of years. It is that good.

The way Sinclair describes his characters and the scenery makes me feel I know these people (they are me) and I am living inside those pages.

The Jungle is set in the early 1900’s and tells the story of a Lithuanian couple, and their extended family, who are lured to America, Chicago, for the opportunity of a better life through the promise of higher wages. Based on the advertisement the Chicago companies, the Stockyards of Chicago, use to recruit immigrant people, the family’s image of the beautiful land they will soon call home doesn’t fit the reality of what awaits them.

This becomes apparent on their train ride as the scenery of colorful green pastures and wild flowers mixed with the scent of fresh clean air gives way to the dreary and gloomy sights of the Stockyards, lined with slaughterhouses and over-whelmed with the rancid smell of death, where their ride ends.

This is home.

Upon their arrival, the family faces a huge setback when they realize the inflated cost of living will cancel out any advantage of the higher wages they may earn. This forces every single member of the family, including the children and the old, to work long hours, every day, just to stay afloat.

This book brilliantly depicts the struggles of each character as they face the harsh realities of their new life.  The Jungle incorporates social injustices such as the exploitation of immigrants, the lack of labor laws, including child labor laws, workplace safety issues, and political corruption as contributing factors in the decline of a once morally and ethically strong extended family of twelve.

For his research, Sinclair is sent to The Stockyards, by a socialist newspaper, to live among the working people in the meatpacking district for seven weeks. He becomes one of them. The Jungle is his firsthand account of the horrible living and working conditions forced upon the immigrants.

There was a huge outcry from the country after The Jungle came out, but it wasn’t the reaction Sinclair was aiming for. His intent was to get an appalling reaction from his readers through the cruel injustices that were inflicted upon human beings at the hands of corrupt individuals, politicians, and corporations.

Instead, America was sickened by the dirty and unsanitary way their food was being handled. When the public found out that rats, spoiled meat, and whatever happened to be on the filthy floor at that time, was shoveled into cans with the rest of the food and packaged to be delivered to someone’s dinner table, the outcry was loud. President Theodore Roosevelt created the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, the same year the book came out.

Upton Sinclair is famously quoted as saying, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit in the stomach.”

What resonates with me when I read this book, that was written over a hundred years ago, is how socially familiar these injustices still are. And that is sad.

When reading about the atrocities inflicted upon people in a book that was published in 1906, my first thought was, “Wow. History has a horrible way of repeating itself.”

 

Photo courtesy of Public-Domain Images.

Photo Courtesy of Public-Domain Images

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Just Another Day of Not Writing

I am a writer. I write. Unless I can think of nothing to write. Then I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m still all the same things I am while I write, when I’m not writing. I’m a daughter, an aunt, a sister, a friend…a basically good decent human being, thank you very much.

Except when I can’t write, I feel like I’m nothing. That’s a terrible feeling. I may still be all those other things, but when I’m not writing, I’m not a writer.

I know how I’m supposed to present this to myself, as well as to others when they ask, Hey Alicia, how’s the writing going?

I don’t say  – It sucks. I @#%^$#% hate writing. I slammed my hand against the wall three times yesterday. My head soon followed. 

Instead, I slouch my shoulders. Apologetic soft grin and utter the words – Writer’s block.

Encouraging smiles all around. Arm pats. Don’t worry, it’ll come back….Write through it…You did it once, you can do it again…Is there anything we can do? 

Yes, feel sorry for me. Feel sorry that I can’t do my job. I’ll remember to feel sorry for the paramedic who forgets how to perform CPR – I’m sorry he’s gone. But I was blocked……..It’s okay. We didn’t like him much anyway. 

I hate the words “writer’s block” and whenever I use it, I verbally abuse myself later. I hate it because it lets me off the hook. It excuses my failure to meet that day’s deadline – one page, two pages, five hundred words – as though it were out of my hands. Does God control writer’s block? No? I didn’t think so. So the ability still must be within me and yet…

We (me) use writer’s block as an explanation because it is prettier than images of punching and slamming walls, or throwing objects. There’s something quaint and self-suffering, very ‘Hemingway-esque,’ about the term “Writer’s block.” Wikipedia defines it as “a condition…in which an author loses the ability to produce new work.”

You see…I’m not really bad at what I do. I have a “condition.” I’m excused. I suffer from a “documented” problem that has affected all the best writers – including Hemingway.

The fact is – I need to be inspired. I am a writer who needs to be inspired to write. There are writers who wake up and write. They have a schedule and they stick to it. They don’t have to take walks. Observe Nature. Hear children’s laughter. Or listen to inspiring movie scores on YouTube.

They just write. They Sit. In silence. And write.

Something pops into their heads and they may not know it as they write (or maybe they do b/c they’re just that good) but their ideas will lead to something – a new character a reader will fall in love with, or a surprising twist the reader will never see coming until the words spill from their lips across the pages.

But I need the music. I need the feeling. I need the inspiration. Joe Pesci sits across from me, scowling at me. “I’m a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I’m here to…amuse you?”

Yes, Joe, you are. Amuse me. Inspire me. Do something. Please.

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“Inspire Someone. Smile.”

I went to Starbucks today. I sat in my usual comfy chair with my journal in my lap and a book set on a table to read when I am finished writing. I hear a woman’s voice tell someone their usual spot is taken. I look up and see a woman settling into a chair across from me. I ask her if she would rather sit here. A huge smile covers her face. She’s sixty-five years old, (I learn this later) but has the ‘full of life’ smile of a child and she really likes to sit near the window.

I stand up and collect my things. With the help of a cane, she walks toward me. I offer my hand. She takes it, kisses it, and presses it against her face. I smile. That’s not why I extended my hand. I meant to help her, but I don’t mind. It’s not awkward. She’s sweet and thanks me many times for giving up my seat. I tell her I’m happy to do it. Her husband arrives with their drinks and they sit together, side-by-side, on the cozy chairs near the window.

We talk a little. She tells me her age and the reason for the cane is because she has Multiple Sclerosis, a condition she developed when she was twenty-two. She tells me she worked with children with Autism and she is recently retired. Because I know MS is a progressive disease, I tell her how wonderful it is that she was able to work for so long doing what she loves. Again, she smiles that awesome smile.

She talks about her husband and casts a loving look his way. “He’s been taking care of me our whole marriage. We’ve been married almost forty years.” I imagine she takes care of him in ways she doesn’t even realize because being with her for the short time that I was made me feel more alive – more appreciative of life – than I’ve ever been.

I listen to this woman talk and occasional symptoms of her disease show, but she works through them. “I’m a fighter,” she tells me.

“Yes, you are.”

She smiles and waves at people. When a young mother with a small child orders the exact beverage she has, she raises her drink, and says, “Me too!”

I go to my new seat and open my journal. I try to concentrate on what I was there to write, but I can’t stop watching the couple I just met. Their legs stretched out on an ottoman, as they relax into their chairs, talking and laughing, completely enthralled with each other.

After nearly forty years of marriage, not only does this husband and wife still love one another, but they really like each other, too. Even when they’re saying nothing, I can feel contentment in their silence. It’s a touching moment because sometimes a partner’s illness can strain a relationship, but poor health hasn’t dampened this couple’s bond – -perhaps it has enriched it.

I watch them closely and know they are oblivious of the woman sitting across the room writing about them. And that she is inspired. They inspired someone – me — just by being themselves and I really needed that today.

I see them preparing to leave and I toss my journal to the side. I’m sure the woman will come to me, so I get ready to stand up. I ponder if a simple ‘good-bye’ will do or if I should extend my hand. It’s an uncomfortable predicament because so many people are anti-contact, but the woman puts my concern immediately at ease when she approaches me with her arms wide open. And that smile…Oh that smile.

She hugs me as though she’s known me for a long time. It’s not a quick embrace. She lingers close to my neck, long enough to tell me I smell good.  She kisses my hand again.

I ask her name. It’s Betsy. She says she comes here a lot. I tell her I hope to see her again. And I mean that.

We don’t need to climb a mountain to inspire – – just look adversity in the face and smile. Someone will be inspired.

 

Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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Queer Town Abbey’s “Equal Rights Blog Hop”

Thank you Queer Town Abbey for hosting this blog hop with the theme “My first experience in the LGBT community.”

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I came out when I was twenty. I told most of my family and friends I was gay before I had even held another girl’s hand. I was that sure of who I was and desperately needed to be around people like me.

One Thursday night, I drove to a lesbian bar near my house. With a nervous twist in my stomach, I pulled into the parking lot. I sat in my car – hesitant and having second thoughts. I gave myself a pep talk. “Come on Alicia, it’s just a bar!” and “These are your people!”

After a few more minutes of hemming and hawing, I yelled out, “It’s Thursday night for Christ sakes!” I opened my car door and with a confidence that screamed “I’m not afraid of Thursday nights!” I swayed toward the entrance.

It wasn’t until I reached the doors and pulled my wallet from my pocket that I remembered I was using a fake ID. I’d always get uneasy when using it at new places. My sister and I didn’t look that much alike. But I had other things to be anxious about and with a forced nonchalant smile and a heavy heartbeat, I handed over my ID.

Seconds later, I was welcomed into my first gay bar.

I stepped into the dark place that looked just like any other bar I’d been to. Small groups of women were either hovered over pool tables or chatting loudly on stools, while a scattered few danced across the near-empty dance floor.

The bar wasn’t crowded, but that was my plan. I was baby-stepping my way into the gay community. I took a seat and immediately pulled out my pack of smokes and dropped it in front of me. I have long since quit, but back then I needed my cigarettes. It gave me something to do with my hands and allowed me to concentrate on something other than myself.

The bartender came over. I had no way of knowing that she would come to make many drinks for me and had a keen way of pin-pointing when I was in the mood for a beer or for my favorite mixed drink. But she didn’t know me then, so I had to tell her.

Soon, a transvestite named Michelle sat beside me. Aside from the bartender, she was the first person to talk to me. She was very friendly and immediately put me at ease. I’ll never forget her for that.

But as she talked about her girlfriend, I realized I had a lot to learn about the community I was starting to call my own. I had assumed that men who dressed as women were attracted to other men. I hung on her every word as she told to me about her and her girlfriend’s recent fights.

I was introduced to something foreign to me and my “suburban” way of living. But there was no doubt I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

I took a chance that night and it paid off. I would come to make many memories in that bar that I still hold close to me today. Not too long ago, I’d taken another chance, but time has yet to show if it will pay off. But whether or not good memories come from what I’d done, I don’t ever want to stop taking chances.

Whatever the uncertainty in your life, are you willing to take a chance?

 

To enter the Giveaway please answer this simple question from post:

“What day of the week did I go to my first gay bar?”

Please post the answer in the Rafflecopter widget for the opportunity to win one of the grand prizes.

http://queertownabbey.com/the-equal-rights-blog-hop-july-4th-through-11th/

 

Thanks again Queer Town Abbey for hosting this blog hop! Please follow the hop at queertownabbey.com for a chance to win prizes! And please leave a comment on my blog for a chance to win an ebook copy of my lesbian romance novella, Her Name, coming out July 11.

Her Name

 

Please visit other authors participating in this blog hop!

“A Dog Loves At All Times”

Hug your dog. He/She deserves it. They give so much, but ask for so little. IMG_20140616_134429

No matter how sad, frustrated, or upset I may be, when I walk into a room and see my dog, Phil, stretched out on his back, legs bent across his chest, his front paws relaxed over his face while flashing me an upside-down smile, I can’t help but laugh because he looks so silly. And we need a little silly in life to make us smile.

 

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I’ve realized that in many ways I need to be more like him.

Phil’s a great listener. He never leaves me, even as I drench his fur with tears, he stays right by my side, and listens to my sad tales no matter how many times he’s heard it. I need to be a better listener. No more interruptions. I will listen to your side of the story, from start to finish, even as you tell it for the six-hundredth time.

He’s patient and patience is a virtue that often eludes me, especially since I started sharing my home with children. But no matter how comfortable Phil may be curled up in his favorite spot on the couch, once those kids barrel loudly into the room and trample on the cushions he was peacefully sleeping on, he jumps off.  He doesn’t bark. He doesn’t growl. He doesn’t bite. He simply leaves the room without appearing too upset about it. Maybe it’s because he knows  he’ll find some other quiet place in the house and be grateful for it, even if it’s on the floor.

The kids have tested my patience like this before, when I’m quietly reading a book or practicing yoga, only I don’t usually handle it nearly as eloquently as my dog. I argue that I was there first. I stubbornly fight for my spot and when I do finally admit defeat, I leave the room in a huff, hardly ever grateful that there’s another quiet space somewhere in my home waiting for me.

I rescued Phil from a shelter and although he’s a pitbull, there were no signs that he was involved in dog-fighting, but there were major signs of neglect. He was found as a stray roaming the streets of Chicago. He was an abandoned dog, without a home, but he was also a survivor.

Painfully, I force myself to imagine him cold and hungry, lost and alone, wandering around with no place to go. I think about all the people who saw him but did nothing. I get upset, but then I imagine those who fed him scraps of food or offered water to get him by. It wasn’t much because when I brought him home, he was all ribs, but it was enough to give me a chance to find him. I’m so grateful that I did.

But no matter how badly he’s been treated or how many times his heart’s been broken, he is so willing to love and it doesn’t take much to win him over. A pat on the head. A stroke underneath his chin. A kiss on his nose. He knows how to heal. He knows how to forgive. He knows how to let go.

He also knows how to love.

He loves with all he has, without holding back. When I open my arms, he comes to me without hesitation, undeterred by the risk of being turned away. My baby lays it all on the line and I don’t plan on letting him down…ever.

My dog gives me hope. He lights up my darkest days because I know he has suffered to end up here, in a pretty good place, with a mommy that loves him so much. He survived his battles and won. I will too, and so will you.

A picture hangs in my room with the saying “A Dog Loves At All Times.”

Can anyone disagree?

 

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Movies and Memories

As a writer, the last thing I want to hear in response to recommending a very good book to someone is, “That’s okay. I’ll just wait for the movie to come out.” …. “But there is no movie for this book.” …. “Then it must not be a very good book.”  Sigh.

Writers don’t compete with other writers. We compete with every means of entertainment that take people away from reading. Could this include the movie industry? Possibly. But maybe for every 100 people who instead of reading a book, choose to wait a long time for the book to get to the big screen, a dozen or two dozen of them will be so swept away by the brilliance of the movie that they will just HAVE to read the book, while crossing their fingers that the book will do the movie justice.

Hey, if it takes a movie to get a person to pick up a book – I’m all for it, because I love movies. Ever since I was a little girl it was my escape. I loved books, too, and had gotten lost in so many as a child (still do), but I sure loved to watch movies. And could watch them all day. Everyday. And that hasn’t changed.

I have a stack of old tickets stubs I had saved. The oldest one dates Jan-3-1998. I was 21 at the time. The movie was Good Will Hunting. The adult price was $7.50 – today’s matinee. I saw it with my best friend.

I don’t recall what made me start saving movie ticket stubs. Maybe I’m just nostalgic because I do have a fondness for the past and lamenting how the time has passed. But I no longer save my stubs. The latest ticket I have is from 06-09-2007. The movie was Shrek. I saw it with my ex.

Now that I have stopped collecting these tickets, it seems silly to save the ones I already have, but throwing them away doesn’t feel right. I’ve held onto them this long – how can I throw them out now?

As I look over all the stubs from fifteen years ago, I can remember the exact person I saw each movie with.  Maybe this doesn’t seem like an extraordinary feat, but if you knew my horrible memory, you’d be amazed. My girlfriends have an edge over me because they can convince me I’ve said or done things I didn’t do simply because I won’t remember not having said or done them. It really isn’t fair.

I wish I could remember the multiplication table, or our State Capitols, or my niece’s and nephew’s birthdays the way I remember the people who sat beside me in a darkened theater as I shoveled buttery popcorn into my mouth.

In eighth grade, I saw the movie Madhouse with my boyfriend and another couple. Date night! He was eating Twizzlers and was so anxious to kiss me that he couldn’t even wait until he had swallowed all of his delicious candy because parts of the chewed, left-over pieces ended up in my mouth. It was the grossest, wettest and sloppiest kiss I’ve ever experienced. It was twenty-five years ago but I still remember the sweet taste of his candy on the back of my tongue and the feel of drool running down my chin.

I’m pretty sure that was the moment I became a lesbian. Thanks Ryan! It’s a wonder I even kissed another boy after that. I remember my feeling of relief when he left to go to the bathroom and I was able to towel off my face.

I’m not the lesbian who likes to rag on guys. I have experienced some decent kisses from those of the opposite sex, but nothing summed it up the way my best friend described a kiss when we hooked up with some fellows while visiting a college friend. “He kissed the way Mel Gibson looks.” Mind you, this was 1995 and Mel was lookin’ real good, but my kisses with boys never left me feeling like that. My kisses with girls…well that’s a story for another blog….maybe. 🙂

This blog isn’t about kisses. It’s about movies. Or rather, what attaches us to movies.

I remember going to see Silence of the Lambs with my mother, who is the loudest person you can ever watch a movie with. I didn’t know that at the time, but  she jumps at EVERYTHING. Even the parts where you know the bad guy is going to pop out, she’ll scream as if there was absolutely no build-up and she never saw it  coming. She scared me more than Hannibal Lecter did.

I took my young nephew to see Finding Nemo. He was so excited running down the hall to the theater that he wiped out, face first, onto the floor. Arms and legs outstretched. He was laid-out flat.  I laughed. I laughed hard. (I’m laughing right now as I write this). And he was mad at me. He slowly got up and wouldn’t look at me as I walked, and he limped, to our seats.

In the middle of the movie, I replayed his tumble in my mind – slow motion –  and I busted out in laughter again. My astute little nephew turned to me in the dark theater and whispered, “I know why you’re laughing.” Yes, he knew, and that only made me laugh harder.

Memories.

Anything can be memorable – even the worst movie ever made- if it’s connected to a memory that’s unforgettable.