Ringing True Excerpt: Expanding the Circle

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Justin and Shelby have by now created The Numbers, the text that contains the beliefs of the new religion (as yet unnamed). After discussing possible methods for getting the word out, they settle on the idea of focus groups but have no idea how to secure a place where these focus groups can meet. They agree that Justin should approach Theo (one of his roommates), because Theo has connections with the Seattle music scene and one of them might know of a suitable venue. Justin accompanies Theo and his girlfriend Emmy (both of whom would qualify as “somewhat nerdy”) to a gig featuring their favorite local band, Acoustic Disturbance. After discussing Emmy’s sick cat on the way to the event, they arrive at Pioneer Square in Seattle.

At the time, Pioneer Square was in one of its frequent periods of slight cultural decline due to a combination of a city clampdown after the 2001 Mardi Gras riots, well-publicized incidents of street crime and the persistent appearance of new sports bars creeping out from the recently constructed stadiums. The music scene, centered in Pioneer Square during the heyday of grunge, had dispersed throughout the city, but there were still a few credible venues in the neighborhood. Justin always felt a combination of comfort and anxiety being there. He felt comfort because Pioneer Square was one of the few places in Seattle dominated by brick; anxiety because he knew that brick was not the architectural material of choice in an earthquake zone. Still, he liked the preservation of the old State Hotel sign advertising rooms for seventy-five cents and the faded paint advertising business establishments that hadn’t done business in decades. The dim lighting from the triple-globed street lamps may have contributed to street crime, but had the virtue of providing the scene with a sense of romance and mystery. As he walked with Theo and Emmy through the tree-lined streets and dark alleys to the Colourbox, kicking up leaves and cigarette butts with his shoes, taking in the shouts and smells of the already-inebriated, Justin felt that old Vancouver feeling coming back. He loved the diversity of a city.

Acoustic Disturbance was second on the bill, which meant that Justin had to endure a lame two-person retro-grunge band with very little in the way of talent. Theo and Emmy, on the other hand, cheered loudly after every number and sang along to the cover songs, gazing into each other’s eyes as if they were a husband-and-wife duet on a 1960’s variety show. The impromptu duets allowed Justin to marvel at their physical differences. While Theo was loose and gangly like a toy soldier with broken springs, Emmy was tight and very well-contained. Theo dressed in baggy t-shirts, baggy pants and floppy shoes; Emmy dressed like the stereotypical librarian, with a sweater buttoned at the top serving as a makeshift shawl to cover her thoroughly buttoned blouse. While Theo’s hair refused to form a recognizable shape, Emmy’s brown hair was pulled back tight into a bun that refused to allow a single strand to escape from its clutches. Justin smiled as they stared wholesomely into each other’s glasses, singing away, oblivious to their dissimilarities.

As the bands swapped equipment, Justin and Theo engaged in raised-voice conversation while Emmy twitched to the filler music.

“So, man, this is terrible, Mega Software and all. If you need any help, you just let me know,” offered Theo.

“Well, I need some help finding a stage,” said Justin offhandedly.

“A stage? Do you—you don’t play—I’ve never seen you play—what do you play?”

“Nothing,” Justin responded.

“Then why do you need a stage?” Theo asked, now quite puzzled.

Justin wasn’t ready to disclose to the world that he was a religious icon in the making, so he just said, “It’s a long story.”

“What kind of stage?”

“Something simple—cheap—something with a curtain—a place that could seat maybe thirty or so.”

Theo thought for a minute and said, “Let me talk to Tommy.”

“Who’s Tommy?”

“Tommy’s the bass player for Acoustic Disturbance. He’s sort of the leader? But don’t let the other guys hear you say that.”

“Why talk to Tommy?”

“Oh, man, they rented this space? Kind of over near First Hill? And they signed a lease and everything, thinking they were going to use it as their practice space? But they played so loud that they got complaints and the landlord told ‘em they couldn’t play with amps anymore. And get this—the landlord still wants them to pay for the place and they can’t even use it. This one’s going to court, man.”

“So how do you know about it?”

“Oh, I work with Tommy—he does the coolest graphics—and sometimes they let me hear them practice.”

“Ah,” said Justin. “So, what’s the place like?”

“Well, that’s why I thought of it. It used to be a space for this theater company that went under? So it’s got a stage and some curtains and they even left some of the lights. That’s what they liked about the space—the stage.”

“Sounds promising.”

“You’re not going to have any drums or amps or anything like that?”

Justin shook his head, “No, no—it’s just—like talking.”

“Okay—let me talk to Tommy. He’s really cool. I bet they’d even let you use their practice sound system if it’s still there.”

“Cool,” said Justin, terminating the conversation. He felt uncomfortable because Theo was being so nice while he was keeping a secret. He looked around the club and pretended to notice people for a while, like he was on the make but rather shy about it. Finally he broke down and leaned over to Theo.

“After the set I’ll tell you what it’s all about.”

Theo broke out into a huge happy smile. “Cool!” he said.

*****

It was easy to forget about inconspicuous little Emmy and Justin had done just that. After Acoustic Disturbance had finished (leaving Justin seriously wondering about Theo’s taste in music), the three of them walked outside and looked for a relatively quiet place between the streams of people moving between clubs and away from the homeless who sometimes wandered into the middle of the throng. It wasn’t until they found a small cranny in the entrance of an old building that Justin remembered that Emmy was with them, and with no graceful way out, Justin resigned himself to doubling the size of the inner circle.

Justin didn’t know where to start. After several false starts, he finally said, “This is going to sound crazy.”

Theo showed a look of patient concern and Emmy followed his cue and did the same. “It’s cool, man—it’s your thing—if you don’t want to tell us, we’ll understand.”

Because Theo meant it, Justin lurched forward.

“Shelby and I have started to—have created what we think is going to be a new—new—new . . .” Justin got hung up on the word “religion” for it sounded so pompous.

“A new world movement . . . we need to kind of test it out with some people,” Justin finally choked out.

Theo’s face was a blank, so Emmy went blank, too.

“You mean like a political movement—against the war or something?”

“No, no, more like a, like a—oh, the hell with it—a religious movement.”

Theo now looked thunderstruck. Emmy did not mimic this, but squeezed his arm in a gesture of concern.

“Religion? Wow, man, I never pegged you as that kind of person,” Theo said quietly.

“Well, it’s not your typical religion—we invented sort of a non-religious religion,” said Justin, groping to explain. “We need a space to try out the message and I figured you might know someone who knows someone.”

“So, you want like some kind of space for like a church?” Theo said, still trying to get his fuzzy head around the fuzzy idea.

“No, man—there’s no church. There’s just a message. No rules, no rituals, no priests. Nothing but a message: to try to stop people from doing mean things to each other.”

“I like that!” came Emmy out of nowhere.

Theo looked at Emmy, who nodded, which in turn removed any lingering doubt Theo had. Suddenly, Justin felt Theo hugging him.

“That is so cool! Yeah! Stop all that bullshit!” he shouted into the night, releasing Justin from his grasp.

“Well, now that the cat is out . . .” started Justin.

“Poor Myrtle,” Emmy interrupted.

Justin paused in memory of Myrtle, then took Theo by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Now, don’t tell anyone about this—especially, and I mean especially, Matthias.”

Theo looked horrified. “Oh, no, man, I don’t tell that dude anything.”

Justin seemed relieved.

“So you’ll talk to Tommy.”

“Yeah, yeah—I’ll go find him right now.” He ran across the street and disappeared into the throngs of clubbers, shouting, “This is so cool!”

Justin turned and looked at Emmy, who was just standing there smiling.

“Theo’s a great guy,” said Justin.

Emmy’s smile brightened up the night. “I know—a great guy.” Justin thought he heard her giggle.

“And I have to tell you—I—” Justin paused in mid-sentence as a little “uh-oh” went off in his mind when he realized he was talking to Emmy.

“What do you want to tell me?”

“Ah, it’s nothing—”

“Oh! Well, I just thought, you know, well, you know.”

Justin looked at Emmy and considered the possibility that she wasn’t an airhead, but simply someone who had a hard time communicating. He decided to throw her a lifeline.

“Would you like to help us?” Justin asked.

Emmy gave Justin another bright smile and said, “Ah! Well! Thank you! I’ll do—I’d love to—well, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll send you guys our little ‘bible.’”

Emmy stood there gushing, speechless, flabbergasted and then said, “Send the ‘bible.’”

“But like I said to Theo—keep it under your hat. We’re still working things out—and I just think, you know, well, you know.”

Emmy brightened up so much Justin thought the heat would burst her skin. “I know!” she said, with great excitement.

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Perfect Bodies

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I first saw Susie walking up the stairs in between classes when we were undergrads. I’m always attracted to a woman’s eyes, especially when they express a combination of playfulness and a hint of uncertainty.

A day or two later I saw her sitting in the cafeteria, passionately munching on an apple. I sat down nearby. Our eyes met and she continued to stare at me while chomping away. I let her finish the apple then struck up some kind of conversation. I found out that the uncertainty in her eyes had to do with relocating from Chicago to California and trying to find her bearings in an alien culture. She was very bright, still unsure about a major and smoked menthols.

As there was a very strong mutual attraction, I asked her out to dinner. One thing led to another and we wound up in my bedroom. I think I stripped first and sat on the edge of the bed waiting for her to follow my lead.

What I saw next was the most beautiful body this heterosexual male had ever seen in his life. Perfect. A classic 36-24-36 with c-cup plus breasts, flawless skin and a bush that could have been applied by an airbrush, just like in Playboy. I thought I had found sexual Nirvana.

What I did find once we started fucking is that she was without a doubt the worst sexual partner I’d ever had. As a psychic friend of mind would have described it, “Her soul is floating about twenty feet above her body.” After getting over the “I must be losing my touch” jag, I kept trying to create magic over the next few months, refusing to give up my paradigm that a body made for sex should be fabulous in bed.

It never happened. Susie was a woman with a perfect body who felt terribly uncomfortable in that perfect body. She was an asexual being confined to a body that our culture has defined as beautiful and desirable. Neither adjective fit the reality of Susie. I finally confronted her with the contradiction and she finally opened up to me about her discomfort. She simply didn’t feel sex was that important to her and found it impossible to live up to the expectations attached to her appearance.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had sex with many different kinds of women before and since and can categorically state that sexual bliss is not something dependent on body type. We are all attracted to different body types. I have been intimate with all sorts of body types and I have learned that body types themselves are neither desirable or undesirable. Sexual attraction depends far more on the connection than the appearance, far more on the person inside than the outside. When that connection is there, you learn than all body types have a certain appeal and can generate excitement if the person inside that body feels the sexual drive inside and trusts you enough to share it with you.

So, if you’re beating yourself up about not having a perfect body, screw it. You might be much worse off if you had one, if there really is such a thing.

Who Wants to Live to Be 100?

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While surfing the web the other day I ran across an article where some brilliant mind argued that we need to change the health care system from one that gets paid for disease to one that gets paid for keeping people healthy. Not a bad concept on the surface.

He revealed himself to be a one-track thinker with a comment to the effect that if we had such a system, all of us could live to be one hundred. With that statement, he joined the ranks of thousands of figures throughout history who failed to see the bad consequences of a good idea.

Who the hell would want to live to be 100 in this country? Personally, I don’t want to live past 70, for the following reasons:

  • Social Security doesn’t pay much (if anything by then) and “taking control of my future”  left me with a 401(k) that didn’t quite live up to projections due to the three recessions and a financial collapse. I figure if I retire at 65, I have five financially decent years left.
  • After that, I will be poor. Because I will be poor, I will have to work. Age discrimination is rampant in every sector of our society, so odds are that I would have to settle for an embarrassing position at Hot Dog on a Stick where the young people will make fun of the old fart in the silly hat. To get that job I would have to compete with millions of other old farts in search of a humiliating experience. A long shot at best.
  • Although I am quite healthy, statistics say that the older you get, the more medical care you need. Medicare isn’t free and its costs will rise significantly thanks to the federal deficit. In America, old people are seen as burdens to most younger people. That’s because they are burdens. Young people want to travel, dance, sing, go to the ball game, have a nice evening out. They would stay home to take care of grandpa out of obligation, not choice. Family tensions would rise, making for a very uncomfortable living arrangement. It would also be horribly embarrassing to have a family member clean up a mess I made.
  • They might try to shove me in one of those senior communities to regain some freedom, but who will pay the bill? I’ll be broke. The generation to which my children belong have huge student loans and can’t find jobs.  They will certainly have less than I had at the same age, so it wouldn’t be very fair for me to ask them to piss their money away on grandpa. And who will be my neighbors? Even when I become an old fart, I don’t want to live next door to a bunch of old farts whining about their maladies.
  • We may be able to live to 100, but in what condition? Will I still be able to get it up? Will there be a woman who would actually want to do it with me? Will I be able to play alternative rock on my Fender Strat or will my hands become unusable? Even if my hands work, will I remember the chords, the lyrics? Will I have the mobility to go to the places I love? When I look in the mirror, will I want to crawl under a rock so I can hide myself from a society that values superficial beauty?

Solve all of these problems and I’d be more than happy to live to be 100. I love life and I like the people on this planet. But if what I’ve described is all post-70 life has to offer, I will opt for an earlier exit.

 

Book Review: Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula

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(Republished from Goodreads)

I’ll begin with a disclaimer: I rarely read books in this genre and, outside of Harry Potter, I don’t think I’ve read any series. According to the author’s website, her motivation was “to create a series that will motivate girls to value individualism, courage, integrity and intelligence,” so I will also have to disclose that I am not a teenage girl.

This is why when I say I can’t wait for the next installment, you should be impressed.

The focus of the book is obviously Cassidy Jones. Cassidy is a vivid, complex character who has fantastic, bizarre things happen to her but always remains an authentic human being. The plot and the other characters serve more as a background to the more important journey as Cassidy’s growth as a young woman. I’m sure the other characters will gain dimension as the series progresses, but in creating Cassidy, Elise Stokes has created a much more interesting hero for her series than Mr. Potter and Cassidy’s journey is more relevant to our lives and times. Cassidy moves through mood swings, back-and-forth, one step forward, two steps back, crashes and falls, makes sudden turns, changes her mind, makes decisions and regrets decisions . . . in other words, she is a genuine non-linear human being like many teenagers (and like many adults, who are better at building facades to hide their human inconsistencies). Cassidy also makes mistakes, says dumb things and exhibits numerous flaws. She’s human, and the reader can’t help but develop a strong connection with her.

The contrast with the Potter books is just that. Harry Potter is more about the world Ms. Rowling created and a struggle of ideologies; Cassidy Jones is more about what it means to be a real human being at a time of life when possibilities are endless and endlessly confusing. While there are hints of that theme in the Potter novels, Ms. Stokes is more successful with it.

The book is definitely a page-turner (I finished it in three days while sneaking in some reading sessions at work) and features frequent bursts of ironic humor to keep the reader’s perspective in check. The five-star rating I’m giving this book takes into account the fact that this is the first in a series and should be judged on that basis. The book does have flaws here and there, primarily having to do with Cassidy as narrator. Being narrator and hero of the book is quite a heavy load to carry and sometimes Cassidy-the-narrator speaks with too much sophistication and too rich a vocabulary for a 14-year old girl. It might be interesting to relieve her of the narration duty in future installments, or perhaps use the dual-narrator approach that Dickens used in Bleak House.

These are minor distractions that even the great novels contain. Ms. Stokes is off to a fabulous start in her journey “to create a series that will motivate girls to value individualism, courage, integrity and intelligence,” but I think Cassidy Jones has the potential to transcend that limitation and appeal to all people, regardless of age or gender.

Cassidy Jones and the Secret Formula by Elise Stokes is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The next book in the Cassidy Jones Adventures series, Vulcan’s Gift, is scheduled for release in November 2011.