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Matthew Baldwin MATTHEW BALDWIN is a writer, martial artist and all-around misanthrope living in San Diego, California. He's published fiction and poetry in several small literary journals, most of which went out of business soon after. Make of that what you will. He currently holds a fourth-degree black belt in karate, a B.A. from the University of California and an M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans. In his free time he serves as a professional martial arts instructor, working mostly with teenagers. He's currently at work on both a first and second novel, and can be followed/harrassed on Twitter. And please, call him Matt.

Recent Work By Matthew Baldwin

The 21st century kicked off with as auspicious a beginning as one might hope for, in the form of a first love inviting herself into my life with a pleasantly unexpected phone call. She was a fellow student of my creative writing program whom I’d been acquainted with since freshman year, wickedly smart and suddenly into me with an intensity I was helpless to resist. Despite this, though, we were still just a pair of dumb kids, straddling that margin of post-adolescence where our hormones organized themselves into ranks and assailed the ramparts of common sense. Inevitably, I fell for her hard, and when she broke up with me after an old boyfriend reentered the picture I hit bottom with a thud so loud it echoed for a long while afterward.

As a boy I was something of a wanderer. Our family home, broken and then repaired into a chimera of middle-class normalcy, existed in a state of perpetually coiling tension wound ever tighter by dysfunction and abuse. To escape it I often fled outright in long excursions around the neighborhood; at first on foot, and later through the greater range afforded by a bicycle. When I was about nine years old we moved into a house directly abutting a dry stretch of the San Diego River. I spent hours walking the arroyo with a wooden sword in hand and the family dog at my side, looking for ogres to slay.

I’m a movie lover who has gotten bored with the movies.

I should specify: I’ve become bored with Hollywood movies.

I should specify even further: I’ve gotten bored with Hollywood action movies.

In 1997 I began my matriculation as an aspiring fiction writer at the University of California, Riverside, at the time one of the few universities to offer an undergrad degree in Creative Writing rather than as a sub-discipline of the English Lit major. This began a nonstop series of writing workshops that finally concluded when I earned my M.F.A. from the University of New Orleans in 2004. While first love was and is fiction, I was interested in being as multi-disciplinary a writer as possible, and took as many other courses in poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, and nonfiction as my schedule would allow.

Somewhere during those seven years’ worth of workshops myself and several friends began to notice that certain extreme personality types recurred with astonishing frequency among the student writers in attendance, especially in the upper-division courses. Over beers one weekend we devised a pseudo-Linnean system of taxonomy to catalogue them all, which we would tinker with whenever the mood suited us, emailing new updates back and forth after we moved on to our respective graduate programs. Most of that system and the accompanying terminology has since been lost, but using some of my recently rediscovered student notebooks, I’ve managed to reconstruct the more frequently recognized major categories.

Keep in mind that while tongue is firmly planted in cheek here, beneath the rib cage of all satire beats the heart of bitter truth. You may feel a certain uncomfortable twinge upon reading some of these. I know I do.

All he/she gender pronouns are arbitrarily assigned for the sake of expediency.

The Sniper

Snipers are relentless headhunters who enjoy nothing more than taking cheap yet often devastating shots at another writer’s work. They will mercilessly stalk through a submitted manuscript line-by-line, never failing to seek and mark the easiest of targets. When discussion time comes they open fire as frequently as the workshop leader will allow, reveling in the schadenfreude they cause. And just when the subject of their attack begins to think they’re in the clear, the Sniper will move in with the metaphorical coup-de-gras headshot.

From a Darwinian perspective they can be helpful to have around, as no one is better at identifying the weak points in a story, but the recipient must have thick skin, something most often ill-developed in undergrads and new writers. And bear in mind that the Sniper is ultimately just a garden-variety bully, who of course cannot turn those finally-tuned crosshairs on his own work.

If you ever find yourself in a workshop where the professor is the Sniper in question – as happened to me once – transfer out of there immediately. Trust me, the experience isn’t worth subjecting yourself to.

The Mute

These writers would probably make excellent poker players. They take seats in the back corner of the classroom, furthest from the center of the Socratic workshop circle and as far outside the instructor’s line of sight as possible. Throughout the course of the discussion the Mute will sit with a carte blanche expression, eyes downcast, the occasional scratching of a pen across paper or the slightest of nods being the only indication he’s intellectually engaged in the proceedings. A Mute will never, ever speak until directly addressed by the instructor, and will then offer as concise a reply as possible.

Despite this verbal reticence, a good Mute will often return a manuscript coated in useful annotations. A bad Mute is merely lazy and hasn’t bothered to do the work.

The Fangirl

In terms of physical sex the Fangirl does not of course have to be an actual female. This category is so named because writers of its type behave like gushing preteen girls obsessing over members of a pop boy-band (or, in the parlance of my post-grad years, the latest Twilight/Justin Bieber/Glee etc.). When it comes to her favorite writers the Fangirl is a smarmy, insufferable compulsive who constantly tosses out quotes, totes around spare copies of their books, and conspicuously references either their content or style in works of pure pastiche.

Should that beloved writer ever actually hold a reading on or near campus, the Fangirl dissolves into a sappy puddle of unrestrained glee, often seeming on the verge of wetting herself as the object of her adulation takes the podium and begins to read. Should you ever make the mistake of showing even the remotest interest in one of her idols, expect to be vociferously pressured into borrowing one of those spare copies, which will purportedly change your life.

Usefulness in a workshop environment: varies from individual to individual, but expect frequent comparisons or references to their idol(s).

The Poser

In my personal, subjective experience, these are most frequently found in poetry workshops. While this is a category that actually has an enormous amount of subheadings (frequently self-applied), a Poser can be identified by one simple trait: he cares more about Being a Writer than actually writing. This person has a particular idea about the writer’s lifestyle cemented in his head and has set about living it to the fullest, frequently affecting a particular style of dress and flinging about polysyllabic rhetoric about the state of the arts, culture, humanity etc. “Because I am a Writer” is frequently cited as a legitimate reason for the copious consumption of drugs & alcohol, promiscuity, excessive moping, or anything else commonly associated with the “tortured artist” stereotype.

Ask a Poser about the actual meaning of anything he says or writes and you’ll likely receive a look of disdainful contempt, roughly translated as This ain’t about meaning it’s about feeling, so just go with it, pleb. They’re next to useless in workshop, as their inherently superficial nature negates any capacity for legitimate insight, yet they often refuse to shut up and cede the floor to someone else.

The Zealot

An appellation that sounds harsher than it means to. These are the religious writers, who are frequently but not exclusively Christian. It’s not the choice of religion or the severity of it that matters, it’s that the Zealot simply filters everything through the polarized lens of her faith. When she’s writing happy fluffy bunny stories about noble righteous people living an idyllic sin-free lifestyle, the rest of the workshop can simply critique her submission and move on. When she’s giving the work of her classmates the hellfire-and-brimstone routine (and I’ve seen it go both ways, sometimes in the same person) workshop can become a hostile, uncomfortable place.

The Bootlick

Within the first week of workshop this person will affix themselves to the instructor as firmly as a remora on a shark. From then on everything the instructor says is revered as gospel truth. The Bootlick will purchase and consume books by any writer the instructor reveres, quote the instructor outside of workshop, make copious use of the instructor’s office hours, and engage in numerous other acts of nauseating sycophancy.

Every piece the Bootlick writes is tailor-made to fit the instructor’s aesthetic, and his critiques of your pieces will be in much the same vein.

The Oppressed Genius

Somewhere down the line, this writer developed an acute self-determined awareness of the limitless nature of his skills. The Oppressed Genius actually considers workshop highly detrimental to his creativity, and is only deigning to attend because the university requires it before handing him his degree. After all, how can his work flourish when moronic regulations force him to waste his time in the company of incompetent hacks shepherded by a teacher that encourages and rewards their mediocrity?

The Oppressed Genius is a delicate creature, possessing a massive yet fragile ego, craving adulation while simultaneously scorning those who give it. Arrogant and demeaning when critiquing someone else’s work, any criticism of his own provokes a level of silent fury equivalent to a dormant but active volcano.

The Drama Queen

The Drama Queen is a steadfast practitioner of the notion of art-as-catharsis and treats workshop like a twelve-step program. Each and every piece this person turns in is an attempt to “connect and understand” with some snippet of past trauma, death of the family dog, daddy didn’t love them enough, et cetera et cetera ad nauseam. Worse still, the Drama Queen is perpetually guilty of reading imaginary subjects (frequently her own) into another writer’s work regardless of their actual content, and defends them with a level of passion that would do the most ardent Zealot proud.

For the Drama Queen the workshop submission is that venerable eye into the writer’s soul, and she will continually extol each and every other member to embrace their inner pain and let it free; written critiques feature the phrase “Thank you for sharing this.” Expect tears and assorted other histrionics should the majority of peer feedback on her work be negative.

Deep down, each Drama Queen wants workshop to conclude with a teary group hug.

The Momma Bear

Helpful and friendly to the point of manic cheerfulness, this person wants everyone in workshop to get along. The Momma Bear is brimming with platitudes, and never has a harsh word to say about anyone’s work. She will reach as far as she must for a compliment on even the most turgid manuscripts, up to and including doling out niceties on things like syntax or punctuation.

While this agreeable nature makes the Momma Bear relatively useless in workshop (she’s simply too nice to be truly objective) her presence can be crucial. The ego-stroking she hands out can be a necessary boost to fledgling writers, but more importantly, when one or more Sniper is bearing down on an undeserving victim, the Momma Bear will throw herself in the line of fire, intercepting and countering shots aimed at the writer in question.

The Tourist

If there’s one workshop member that immediately draws out my inner Sniper, this is it. I have a special level of wrath reserved just for these people. The Tourist is everything the name implies: a noncommittal visitor, poking around to get the taste of things but not particularly interested in settling down. They’re not Creative Writing majors, or even writers of any stripe. If you’re very lucky, the Tourist in your workshop might be a refugee from English Lit, but even that’s rare. In most cases he comes from a field completely unrelated to the language arts, and through some act of chicanery managed to smuggle himself onto the class register. He will without exception write the biggest pieces of crap you’ve ever seen, riddled with grammar, punctuation, and tense errors. His feedback on your manuscripts is by turns shallow, superficial, and ignorant, and when he’s not causing outright harm by being in the workshop in the first place is at the very least wasting the time and energy of people better off dedicating it elsewhere.

While I wholeheartedly encourage anyone who wants to try their hand at writing, there’s a time and place for dilettantism, and a dedicated workshop, especially an upper division one, just isn’t it. The rough equivalent would be my crashing an advanced Law colloquium without having completed the prerequisites, an act that both leaves me grotesquely unprepared and forces the others to carry my dead weight.

*****

Other categories exist, but those are the principle ones. This list is not intended to be all-inclusive, by any means, and readers are encouraged to add any contributions they like.

And if it seems I’ve been at all unfair or unjustly mean-spirited, allow me to forestall any recriminations by confessing to the following: I am not exempt from any of this behavior. During my time in the trenches of higher learning I was at various times a Sniper, a Mute, a Momma Bear, and on one occasion I won’t delve into further, a serious Fangirl. College is that time when your identity as a young adult begins to take shape, and for me that process was determined by the act of writing, the crafting of each sentence on the paper an act of discovery.

In all the best ways, it still is.

This past Christmas I found myself with some time to kill between the morning festivities and the evening hijinks, so I decided to treat myself to a matinee showing of Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s newest film. I thought it was a safe choice, as the film had been in general release for a couple of weeks, and theaters were full of new, fluffy holiday fare like Little Fockers and the Jack Black vehicle Gulliver’s Travels (or period pieces like True Grit and The King’s Speech for those without kids). It seemed unlikely there’d be much turnout for a psychosexual drama set in a professional ballet company.

One morning in early September I developed a small pain in my left foot while walking in to work. It felt like nothing more than one of the brief aches a habitual ambulator like myself occasionally experiences, and I figured it would subside after I’d sat at my desk for a bit. I was wrong. By mid-afternoon the pain was so intense I couldn’t keep a shoe on without wanting to scream. Aside from some very slight swelling above the arch there was nothing visibly wrong, but what felt alarmingly like a protrusion of bone had formed just under the skin. The slightest touch on the area sent fresh lancets of pain up my leg.

A friend drove me to an urgent care clinic after work, where the doctor on duty gently poked and prodded at my foot while I flinched and yelped. After x-rays and a blood test he concluded that the bones were fine, and diagnosed my ailment as a sprain of the joint between the metatarsals, exacerbated by a slight excess in body fat. He gave me a prescription for anti-inflammatories and some information on joint pain and sent me hobbling on my way.

Though I was relieved not be to suffering from something more severe, the treatment was hardly the cure I was hoping for. The medication (2400 milligrams of high-grade ibuprofen daily) did little for my immediate pain and, as an initial side effect, gave me indigestion and some deeply strange dreams. The only shoes I could wear with any degree of comfort were my Converse Chuck Taylors, but walking anywhere, for any length of time, continued to hurt. Despite this I started hitting the gym with regularity, as losing weight was an imperative part of my recovery; with some disciplined exercise and calorie-cutting I dropped about eighteen pounds between my initial diagnosis and the end of October. Until I became acclimated to the pain, that first week on the elliptical was a study in agony.

It worked, to a degree. The swelling subsided some, as did the pain. But not enough, and after seven weeks I went to my primary care physician for a follow-up exam. She concurred with the urgent care doc’s diagnosis, though she had me leave another blood sample with the lab for comparative analysis.

She contacted me less than a day later with the test results and a new diagnosis. My foot pain hadn’t been due to an injury, but rather was a symptom of a larger issue: hyperuricemia, elevated levels of uric acid in my bloodstream due to my kidney’s failure to excrete it out properly. These elevated levels can – and in my case, did – cause an attack of gout.

Uric acid is a waste product created by the digestion of purine; uric acid levels in the body are raised by the consumption of high-purine foods: meat, certain types of seafood, fructose, and alcohol. No problem for a normal renal system, which then filters it out, but with an under-performing one like mine, the leftover uric acid crystallizes in the joints and tendons. In the majority of cases hyperuricemia is genetic, so while the symptoms are preventable, there is no cure.

This diagnosis meant that I had to make some lifestyle changes, and quickly. Unless I want to suffer another one of these attacks, I have to switch to low-purine diet, meaning that I am now, for all intents and purposes, a vegetarian, and quite possibly a sober one at that.

This, to use the vernacular of our times, really fucking sucks the big one.

It’s been about a month now since I received this diagnosis, and my emotional response has alternately been one of depression and one of resentment, both due to my body having made such a determination without my input. At the risk of sounding petulant, the entire matter struck me as simply unfair; I was already exercising regularly, had been cutting back my meat consumption, and have never been a particularly heavy drinker. For fuck’s sake, I didn’t even start drinking until a few weeks shy of my twenty-first birthday.

I was in too much of a funk to even write for a while, and turned my attention instead to researching my affliction. There’s a maddening amount of conflicting information on gout nutrition out there, and parsing through it just increased my depression even more; the websites of major medical institutions like Kaiser-Permanente, Johns-Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic all contradict each other. Plus, there’s no way to determine what specifically triggered my attack, as unlike an allergy, there’s no clinical test for susceptibility. Tolerances vary from person to person, so avoiding an attack is pretty much an all-or-nothing deal.

It could be worse, I know; as annoying as it is, hyperuricemia isn’t fatal, and once my foot heals won’t impair my day-to-day activities. And technically speaking, I do have a choice in the matter: I can keep eating what I want, as long as I’m willing to live with the pain. But that doesn’t really amount to much of a choice, does it?

Understand that I have nothing against the vegetarian lifestyle, save for a small measure of scorn reserved for those who embrace it solely because it’s currently trendy to do so (this is exponentially increased in the case of trendy vegans). Several near and dear friends – not to mention a couple of past girlfriends – are vegetarian, and out of respect I’ve generally abided by their diet when around them. But I’ve never wanted to be one, cheerfully preferring the options available to me as a dedicated omnivore. Hell, I’ll admit it: I really, really enjoy eating meat. I can’t look at a pig without craving bacon.

Ultimately though, I’m too much of a Darwinist at heart; adapt, or die.

It’s been an uphill battle so far, mostly because the learning curve is pretty steep, and I’m proving to be a genuinely terrible vegetarian. I’ve never really cared much for vegetables, and know almost nothing about creating a balanced meal out of them. I make salads so dull even rabbits find them uninteresting, and a couple of weekends ago I managed to create an inedible mess out of a very straightforward recipe for butternut squash soup. My digestive system, long accustomed to extracting nutrition from bits of dead animal, is only begrudgingly adjusting to the increased amounts of plant matter I’m now consuming.

I’d be in even more dire straits if I weren’t graced with some very cool, very generous vegetarian friends both locally and abroad, all of whom went above and beyond in response to my clarion call for aid, providing me with advice, recipes, cookbooks, and some much-needed moral support. Thanks to them I now have a small (but expanding) repertoire of dishes that I enjoy eating, and have so far managed to avoid malnutrition.

I do have some flexibility in my diet: eggs are fine, and low-fat dairy is encouraged, as lactose helps neutralize the presence of uric acid. It also looks as if white fish such as mahi mahi and cod might be safe, though the ever-present threat of mercury poisoning that comes with eating too much seafood still remains. Recent research suggests that white meat poultry might be all right, if servings are kept small and infrequent – say, five ounces or less twice a week, though again this varies from person to person.

I’m not going to chance it, however, as I hope that by going the full vegetarian route I can continue to enjoy the occasional drink. I genuinely enjoy the taste of beer, and I live in a city that has seen a massive rise in excellent microbreweries in the last decade; to cut myself off from enjoying their wares just seems masochistically cruel.

And, more importantly, I’m not going to push the threshold of my diet because I’m still in pain. Three months have passed and my foot is not healing correctly. The initial teeth-clenching hurt has diminished but never completely dissipated, and the mysterious bony protrusion remains. The recent seasonal drop in temperature has caused the joint to ache in a myriad of new and unpredictable ways, and on the worst days, I limp. My doctor has effectively shrugged her shoulders and referred me to a specialist, who is not available to see me until two days before Christmas.

I’ve become acclimated to this ever-present pain, but I’m weary of it, and I’m beyond ready to wear shoes other than my Converse. If giving up meat – and if necessary, even alcohol – is what it takes, then so be it. I’ll take my place among the herbivorous, begrudgingly though it may be.

I really am going to miss bacon.

I struggle with beginning paragraphs whenever I write, most especially the opening line. It’s a compulsion. I gnaw away at it like a beaver with a freshly-felled log, hoping to turn the raw material into the foundation of something solid and enduring. Days can pass while I write, revise, edit, and annotate, drafting and redrafting until the opener is shipshape, but once it is the rest of the story tends to come easily.

Of course, nine times out of ten I finish the manuscript only to realize that the opening paragraph doesn’t work at all with the rest of the story, and wind up cutting it entirely.

It didn’t used to be like this; time was I would simply dump whatever effluvium happened to be percolating in my forebrain out onto the page, only going back to clean up and correct after the rough draft was completed. This changed after I served a stint as a fiction editor for my university’s literary magazine. I quickly found that the opening paragraph of a submission was a great litmus test for the rest of the story; if it wasn’t up to snuff, odds were good the remaining pages weren’t either. It was humbling to realize this applied just as much to my own stories as the anonymous ones regularly deluging our tiny little office.

Any seasoned traveler will tell you that how you begin a journey is crucial, even if you’ve no idea where you’ll end up. So it is with writing. And that first sentence is the lynchpin of the opening paragraph, the coy seductress who coils her finger at the reader and whispers hints of the pleasures that might lie in wait, if only the covers were parted just a little further. There’s an indefinable alchemy to it; you know the moment you read it whether or not the opening line works, even if you cannot quite say why.

All of which is the long way of saying I’ve decided to offer ten of my favorite opening lines, and to discuss, as best I can, why they work for me. These aren’t necessarily from my favorite books, or by my favorite authors, or my Top Ten All-Time Favorite Opening Lines; these are simply lines that happen to stroke my particular literary erogenous zones in just the right ways, both as a reader and a writer, each culled from a novel in my personal library.

In the spirit of fun, I’ve listed them initially sans author or publication information, as something of a challenge to you, the reader. Audience participation, if you like. How many do you recognize, and how well – or badly – do they engage you when you read them free of context?

One quick caveat: All books by TNB contributors, as well as those of my professors and former classmates who’ve gone on to publish, are disqualified for consideration in this essay due to favoritism on my part. I’ve yet to read a book by a TNB contributor that didn’t hook me from the get-go, because you’re all so damn awesome, and this essay is already biased enough as it is.

Here they are then, in (mostly) no particular order. The identity of each and a brief description of why I favor it follows.

1.) “For a man his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”

2.) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

3.) “In eighteenth-century France there lived a man who was one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.”

4.) “Squire Trelawny, Dr. Livesay, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17— and go back to a time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.”

5.) “Imagine that you have to break someone’s arm.”

6.) “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

7.) “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

8.) “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

9.) “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped onto its side, and lined the collection box in red crépe paper – was written by her in a two day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.”

10.) “Call me Ishmael.”

BONUS LINE: “I was crossing the Belltower’s shadow away from the commons when I ran into Hannah Marshall, her rust-colored Doc Martens crushing the unraked dead leaves underfoot as she stomped across the grass towards me.”


*****


1.) J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace. This novel of post-Apartheid South Africa remains one of the most emotionally devastating books I have ever read, a sparse, trim volume that barely clocks in at 220 pages. The phrase “the problem of sex” leapt out at me right away; the notion of sex as a problem with a quantified solution is a backdoor into the mind of the protagonist, a Capetown professor of modern languages who in the course of those 220 pages discovers just how wrong his presumption is.

2.)  William Gibson, Neuromancer. Possibly my first conscious encounter with cognitive dissonance. It was a dated reference when I first discovered it in 1994, a dead channel during the age of ubiquitous cable TV looking like either static or those damned colored bars, so I had no idea what this might in fact look like, but my imagination was immediately engaged in trying to conjure it.

3.) Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The pairing of “gifted and abominable” here is like a dollop of warm caramel wrapped in dark chocolate for my brain, but I also love the rhythm of this as it uncoils, making the boldfaced claim that the protagonist is a person beyond redemption. I was dubious about the book going in, unsure as to how interesting a story about the world’s greatest sense of smell might be, but after spotting this line, I wound up reading much of it in a single sitting. Loved the film, too.

4.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island. A bit longish and unwieldy, but if you’re a nine year-old boy when you first read the book (as I was), you recognize it for what it is: Stevenson’s promise the story contains everything a good pirate yarn should. A perilous sea voyage to an exotic, treasure laden-locale? Check! Grog-soaked, leathery sea dogs? Check! A mention of a sabre wound, and thus the potential for more swashbuckling action and derring-do? Check! Nary a girl in sight? Check!

5.) Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller. Yes, THAT Hugh Laurie, the one currently starring as the titular protagonist of the TV series House. He published it in 1996, and it’s actually pretty good, a satire of the spy genre that also happens to be a pretty entertaining action/adventure story in its own right. There’s nothing particularly outstanding about that line, but an invitation to contemplate the best manner of inflicting a specific form of grievous bodily harm certainly gets my immediate attention.

6.) Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. This was as a curiosity when I first encountered it. I was already familiar with the story, having taken a date to the Ralph Fiennes/Julianne Moore adaptation, and expected the novel to open with the same line the film does: “This is a diary of hate.” It comes in somewhat perpendicular to the narrative, but I like the existential, musing quality of it, and it sets up nicely the free will vs. divine intervention subtext that runs though the rest of the novel.

7.) John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck is well-remembered for his stories and characters, but I sometimes think his facility with the English language goes overlooked, as readers seem more keen to discuss the underlying social commentaries in his work than anything else. He’s one of the few writers I’ve encountered able to deploy the third-person omniscient POV subtly, often to great affect. This line – the entire first chapter, really – reads almost as the poetry of desolation.

8.) Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. This is the first line ever narrated by Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s quintessential hard-boiled private eye. Like Steinbeck, I’ve always enjoyed Chandler’s skills as a linguistic stylist. Though he’d previously published several detective stories in the pulp magazines that were later rewritten as Marlowe tales (collected in Trouble is My Business) these are Marlowe’s first true words, and they immediately betray his cynical perspective to the reader.

9.) Ian McEwan, Atonement. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the novel that I understood just how much work this line is doing, and just how clever McEwan is about hiding it. Inside this sentence is everything the reader needs to know about Briony, about her priorities and the choices she as a character will later make; in this one line McEwan lays a foundation that pays off several times throughout the novel, all while describing a child’s creative enthusiasm. That’s skill.

10.) Herman Melville, Moby Dick. This is a small thing, but one that I’ve always enjoyed, and only rarely seen referred to in criticism: through three very selective words Melville establishes his narrator as potentially unreliable, which has colored my perspective of the book both times I read it. This isn’t a declarative statement (“My name is Ishmael”) by any means; it’s the phrasing used by a person with something to hide. I use this line whenever I teach I writing workshop as a lesson in how, with the proper word choice, a writer can say a great deal with minimal effort.

BONUS LINE: Trick question! This is one of mine, from my unpublished first novel. Though I’m not happy with the book overall, I’m rather fond of this bit.

…although, now that I look at it, I can see a few places where it could use a little tinkering. Excuse me, would you?


*****


All right then. These are some of my favorite first lines – now how about yours? Feel free to go with fiction, poetry, film, or even song lyrics – whatever it is that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you whenever you encounter it.

Note to the reader: Last year I published my firsthand account of enduring Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the storm’s four-year anniversary. I wanted to write something for the fifth anniversary this year, but as I have not been back to the Gulf area since, I cannot comment on the current state of the area or the lasting effects this disaster has had. There are other, better qualified writers already doing so. So instead, I present to you this tale from the road during my time as a post-Katrina refugee.

You can read my previous piece here.

The town of Bucksnort in Hickman County, Tennessee is absolutely no place to find yourself stranded. Avoid doing so at all costs. If you never believe anything else I say, trust me at least on this.


It has no post office. It’s so small the United States Census Bureau has no statistics on it, so I cannot tell you the population density, other than: ain’t much. Near as we could tell the town was little more than a glorified truck stop, with nothing other than a motel, a diner, a bar/auto mechanic (they shared building space) and a gas station. The beds at the motel were hard as a wooden bench, and the food at the diner, though filling, was an unremarkable selection of standard Southern fare.


While the area is thick with deer, local legend (meaning: printed on the back of a T-shirt sold in the diner) claims that the name actually comes from a pre-Civil War local who sold “snorts” of moonshine for a dollar apiece.

My girlfriend and I wound up there when Lovecraftian noises erupted from our car as we crossed through the state on our way to California from our post-Katrina refuge in Roanoke, Virginia. This was followed very quickly by a shaky, unresponsive steering wheel. With zero chance of making it to Memphis for the night as originally planned, we limped off the freeway into the first town we came to.

If it had just been the two of us, we might have attempted to coax it along to someplace more substantial, but we also had our dog and two uncooperative cats, not to mention what personal effects I’d been able to salvage from our flooded apartment. What remained of our lives was packed into the back of that little two-door Honda Civic, and becoming stranded on a dark road in a strange state was a risk neither of us was willing to take.

The mechanic–a chain-smoking, stringy kid all of maybe nineteen years old, who lived in a room above the bar–had some bad news for us: he did not have all the parts he needed for the repairs, would in fact have to order then from Kentucky, which would take about four days. He was quite likely lying to us (I know for a fact he grotesquely overcharged us), but what choice did we have?

The boredom that followed over those next few days was the worst I’ve ever encountered. My experiences in the hurricane, hellish as they were, were at least not dull, and you knew that sooner or later they would end. This, though, was interminable. There was nothing to do other than eat at the diner and watch Law & Order reruns and crap movies on the one TV station that came in clearly. The motel room was more of a prison cell than a place of rest, the bed a deeply uncomfortable place for sleeping and an even worse one for sex.

We tried the bar one evening after dinner, if for no other reason than to ameliorate the boredom with a bit of alcohol. It was exact kind of dive you expect in a town named “Bucksnort”: the smoke-stained wooden interior, the ubiquitous large belt buckles on the men and peroxide hair and push-up bras on the women, twangy accents and a deficit of complete sets of teeth all around. The largest Confederate flag I’ve ever seen hung behind a stage at the far end of the venue. Though the proprietors were nice folks who bought us the first rounds when they learned we were Katrina refugees, ultimately the booze and conversation couldn’t distract us from the knowledge that we were trapped there.

All of this might have been bearable if we’d been in a good place emotionally, but we were not. Our separate experiences with the hurricane had wounded us both deeply, and the longer we stayed in Bucksnort the faster the small measure of peace we’d found in Roanoke unraveled. My dreams were filled with galvanized corpses of flood victims grasping at me, desperately seeking succor I was helpless to give, and waking every morning was to wash ashore from a sea of guilt and sadness. My girlfriend fared no better with hers.

On our third day there, unable to bear the tedium any longer, one of us—I genuinely forget whom—suggested we hike the trail running up the hill behind the motel. Just to have something, anything to do. It was either that, or endure the cinematic colonoscopy that is Stuck on You once again. So up the hill we went.

It became evident very quickly that no other human had made that ascent in some time; after less than twenty feet the worn footpath gave way to the bramble and detritus of a woodland area well into the act of reclaiming lost territory. There were places where the trees bent together overhead to knit a sort of tunnel, huge primordial spider webs stretched across the expanse. More than once we had to stop to pluck the sticky threads from our faces while the dog romped and frolicked through the underbrush, dashing off after some unseen critter or another, tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.

It took us about an hour to make the climb. The trail banked at one point, curving like a fishhook around the hill’s far side; from the small overlook there all we could see was the rolling auburn-dappled forest of the Tennessee back country in early fall. And when we finally reached the top we found, nestled by itself in the middle of a tiny quiet meadow, a grave: twin obelisks of thick polished granite surrounded by iron fencing.

No one had tended the tiny cemetery in a very long time. One stone had lost the battle with entropy and toppled over onto its side, and both were stained and weathered from long exposure to the elements. The fencing likewise had long since become rusted and warped, parts of it nearly consumed by the surrounding earth.

It was as unsettling a tableau as one could expect to come across in the woods. My girlfriend instantly loved it. “It’s so creepy,” she said, in the exact voice another might say “That’s really cool.”

Creepy, yes, but fascinating, and oddly peaceful. The idea of these two stones, alone in the forest at the end of a long-forgotten path, was something out of a fairy tale. They were very old, too: while much of the writing was worn away, we could still identify them as the markers of J.H. Rains (1845 – 1911) and Margaret Rains (1852 – 1909). They’d been buried at the top of that hill for almost a hundred years, and from the look of things, we were their first visitors in several decades.

The sun was rapidly heading down into the western foothills, so we lingered only long enough to take these few pictures. Neither of us spoke much. We went to the diner and bar that night to ask around, but none of the townspeople we spoke to knew anything about the graves or a family named Rains, or much cared. Their attitude is best summed up by the sweet-natured, wall-eyed waitress who served us dinner: “Well, ain’t that a thing! Now, would ya’ll like to try the chicken-fried pork chops tonight? Gotta nice home-style applesauce and buttered green beans on the side.”

The mechanic, mercifully, had our car fixed the next morning, and $1200 later we were able to leave Bucksnort. We made it without further incident to California, where we began the process of rebuilding our lives; first as a couple, then later as individuals.

I did some cursory investigative work while preparing this essay, but could turn up nothing on J.H. and Margaret Rains in Hickman County or anywhere else in the state, or any trace of a genealogy. I expected this. Given that a Google search for Bucksnort unveils sweet fuck-all, I doubt either their births or deaths were ever recorded on paper.

I wonder about their lives sometimes. Perhaps J.H. had been a Confederate bushwhacker in his youth and a moonshiner later on, Margaret the proper wife 19th century Southern tradition demanded. Had their families owned slaves? How did they make a living during Reconstruction? They must have been persons of some means, as someone put a great deal of time and care into fashioning their burial place.

Likely as I’ll never know. Whoever the Rains once were, all they remain now is a forgotten piece of history tucked away in the Tennessee hills.

 

The cage hangs suspended just under the water’s surface by a series of pontoons and rigging tethering it to the boat above. Inside it the dive master and I float like the nearby bait lines of tuna drifting lightly in the current.

We are miles out to sea, well beyond where the Pacific endlessly smashes itself upon the broken teeth of the California coast. From the deck a person can still see the thick sleek sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks in the distance, but under here everything is an unending gray-blue expanse, as the light only penetrates in translucent fingers that grasp at the darkness without finding purchase.

Occasionally schooling fish flicker silver at the very edge of vision, but otherwise the ocean appears empty. The only sounds are the hiss of our respirators and the bubbling escape of our breath.

When I make eye contact with the dive master he taps his wrist as though indicating a watch and draws a clockwise circle in front of my mask, a gesture I interpret as It takes a little time.

We wait.

Despite being a veteran snorkeler I am unused to the neoprene casing of the wetsuit and the weight of the breathing apparatus on my back. I don’t like the restraint of the cage much, either; I would prefer to be swimming unencumbered, the water on my skin, even though I know a thousand bad deaths might be waiting so far from shore. Inside the cage it is too easy to compare myself to a morsel in a bait box.

With nothing other to do than float and breathe, I study the depths below, hoping for some fish, or a sea lion, or even some red devils, but nothing emerges. The continental shelf is down there somewhere, hidden under layers of blue so deep as to be black.

A good friend once confessed to a deep-seated, almost instinctual fear of the open ocean; doubtless he would find this experience to be absolute hell.

Just as I’m starting to think we’re just going to deplete our oxygen reserves watching oily tuna bait dangle, the dive master taps my arm and points out into the gloom. At first, it’s difficult to see, but before too long what looks like a smooth gray blur casually reveals itself as the approaching robust snout and unclosed grin of a Great White shark.

Swimming straight for us.

This is what I’ve come here for. I’ve consumed hundreds of hours of documentary footage of sharks. I’ve gone skin diving with leopard sharks, sand tigers, hammerheads and moray eels. Once during a trip to the Sea of Cortez a curious manta came close enough for me to touch it.

None of those experiences are adequate preparation for seeing the business end of a Great White casually, implacably bearing down on you.

I am suddenly very, very grateful for the presence of the cage.

It passes around us slowly at first, cruising a wide perimeter around the boat. It’s a big animal. As it passes out of sight beyond the stern I hold my hands out to the dive master like I’m grasping a box. How big? He responds by holding up a series of fingers, 5-5-2, then rocking his flattened palm back and forth. 12 ft, more or less.

The shark circles us twice more, tightening the gyre with each pass. For such a big fish it passes through the water with little effort from the broad-bladed tail. I think of that tail, strong enough to propel the shark clear out of the water in pursuit of prey, and shiver despite my wetsuit. The last turn is close enough that I can see the absence of the male claspers; “it” is a “she,” terrifying and magnificent.

I could kick myself for failing to bring one of those disposable underwater cameras, even though I know the cheap lense would be unlikely to pick up anything in these visibility conditions.

She breaks her pattern and swims beneath the boat, passing close enough that I can the feel wake as she cuts through the water. Her senses are keen enough to have smelled the bait fish, but now she’s close enough to detect the electrical impulses given off by my quickening heart.

Holy fuck, she can feel my fucking heartbeat.

We watch her and she watches us, unblinking, one eye always fixed on the cage even as she inspects the baits. Others have described the immense black of shark’s eye as something dead, or lifeless, but what I see instead is curiosity, an eye straining to take in everything it can. Seeing her so close fills me with a sensation that is not quite fear or excitement, some kind of galvanizing adrenal fascination I have no word for. Awe is perhaps the closest.

I’m fascinated by her, by the elegant design millions of years of evolution have given her. Despite how at home I feel in the water, seeing that torpedo form in motion demonstrates how feeble my own meatsack body is for handling these elements.

I want to touch her. I want to reach out beyond the bars of the cage and let my hand run over the smooth-sharp denticle surface of her skin. But the baits are all—in retrospect, very wisely—strung at points too far away from the cage, and she remains safely out of contact range.

Finally, after one last pass, the shark turns away from us, eyes rolling back and jaws slipping forwards as she snaps at one of the baits. With a flash of serrated teeth and the audible crunch of fishbone it is gone, leaving just a blunted metal weight at the end of the thick white rope.

When she tries for the next one the crew above yank on the bait rope, causing her to chase, to seize and thrash about in the nature documentary theatrics of an attack. For one instant she rolls, and I get the clear sight of the gapping jaws and fresh pink mouth before she bites down on the chunk of tuna. Even without the teeth, the bite pressure alone could crush my bones.

A few minutes thrashing and it is done, the sea gone as calm as it was before her feed began; a few scraps of tuna hanging in the water offer the only evidence it ever happened. She cruises around us a bit more, as though expecting us to provide her with more food. Eventually she turns away, and with a few strokes of her tail vanishes back into the gloom just as casually as she emerged from it, disappearing like a gray ghost in a long endless night.

Today is my birthday.

I was born thirty-one years ago at the Scripps Memorial Hospital here in San Diego at about 12:50 in the afternoon. A Cesarean birth, I came into the world buck naked, soaked in blood, and screaming my fool head off. I have every intention of leaving it the exact same way.


I spent the first part of the cross-town ride enjoying the legs of the pretty girl in the denim skirt down at the far end of the car. I’m a leg man and they were a fabulous pair, nicely toned and tanned. A guy could rest his hand on one those legs and feel everything was right with the world.

She was completely engrossed in a book and didn’t notice me at all. I figured her for a student, twenty-two or twenty-three, tops, which meant if I was going to strike up a conversation with her, I had to do so before we rolled into the SDSU station and she disembarked.

The truth is, though, that while my body might have been into making a move, my heart and mind weren’t. I was freshly single after a relationship that had chewed up and spat out most of my twenties, and still in that phase of rebound where I fall madly in love for ten minutes with any attractive female who crosses my path. This is an emotional bear trap, one I’ve gotten snared in before, and I knew by now to avoid it.

Still, I probably should have gone to talk to her. Having been out of the singles game for so long my flirtation skills had likely atrophied sharply, and a little practice wouldn’t have hurt. But it was enough to see that something like that existed in the world, and to be able to enjoy it from a distance.

A rush hour crowd waited at the next stop, the glut of bodies filling the car obscuring my view of the girl and her nice legs. With a bit of reluctance I turned back to my own book.

After a few minutes I began to notice the woman who’d taken the seat opposite the aisle from me. There was nothing particularly remarkable about her, just your average American housewife type, but somehow she reminded me of a terrified woodland animal desperately trying to avoid being noticed. Where other passengers flipped the pages in their books or poked at their electronic gizmos she sat as still as possible, her gaze lowered to the floor. When she raised her face enough to give me a good look at it, I saw why.

Her face was a quilt of multi-colored bruises, the worst of them concentrated around the left side. The white of her right eye was stained red in places where the blood vessels had ruptured, and her lips were too unevenly swollen to close completely; through the space between them I glimpsed the surgical wiring holding her jaw together.

I’ve been a student of violence long enough to recognize the effects when I see them, and what I could see was that someone had given her one horrific beating, and very recently. Someone—a husband, maybe, or a boyfriend—who’d felt enough hate towards her to take away her ability to speak.

Her eyes flicked up for a second and met mine, a thin meniscus of tears coating them. I wish I knew what she saw—or thought she saw–in my face in the few seconds before she looked away again. Did she feel self-conscious or ashamed, knowing I’d recognized her injuries for what they were?

I tried to allow her what measure of privacy I could, but it was difficult not to look. I couldn’t escape the fact that everyone else in our immediate vicinity seemed to be concentrating as hard on not noticing her as she was on not being seen.  A minor injustice compared to what she had been through, but nevertheless one she shouldn’t have to bear.

I wanted to reach across the aisle, squeeze her hand, and say something nice, to offer some response other than the surrounding apathy, but the words died stillborn on my tongue. Finally I just offered her the handkerchief I keep for cleaning my glasses, feeling like a half-assed caricature of chivalry as I did so. She glanced at it as though I were trying to hand her a live rattlesnake, and shuffled sideways in her seat, away from me.

“It’s clean,” I said. For a moment it looked as though she might take it, but then the train rumbled in to the SDSU stop and she was out the doors before they’d even finished opening. Gone like she’d never even been there.

The train rolled on towards the last few stops before the end of the line, and as it did I felt unsettled by what I’d seen and done. She hadn’t asked for me to draw public attention to whatever private pain she endured; I’d created a narrative around a stranger’s life and written myself in as a character, and in doing so failed to help at all. I might’ve even made it worse.

I tried to read a few pages in my book but quit when I realized I had no idea what they said. I looked towards the far end of the car, hoping the girl with the nice legs might still be there. I wanted the sight of some pretty young skin to distract me from my own sense of futility. To my surprise, she still was.

There was a boy with her now, a skinny kid with a sandy blonde buzz cut who must’ve gotten on at the university stop. They held each other with absolute joy, like those couples you see at airports who’ve been apart for months, even though it’d probably only been hours since they’d walked the campus hand-in-hand. They shared kisses and whispered to each other, unconcerned with any eyes that might be watching.

By herself, she’d been pretty; together they were radiant. It was a celebration to see them. And really, what else could one do but admire them from afar, and hope the tiny sphere of their love kept the bad things of the world at bay, if just for a little while?

I love natural history museums—especially dinosaur exhibits. The one in my hometown played such an integral role in my educational development as a child it’s a genuine curiosity I didn’t grow up to be a paleontologist. Dinosaur names like Parasaurolophus and Deinonychus rolled off my tongue before I had any idea what a multiplication table was. I’ve maintained a membership since moving back to California, and visit frequently; it’s one of those few places that both stimulates my imagination and grants me a measure of peace. I feel at most myself among the bones of the ancient dead.

It’s where I recently met famed paleontologist Jack Horner, one of my childhood heroes, who was giving a lecture as promotion for his new book. Inside my copy he wrote, “The bones tell us stories. We just have to how learn to read them.”

The museum has expanded and grown magnificently in the last decade, but if I close my eyes I can follow my boyhood steps through the facility of my youth, wandering from the whale skeleton mounted over the front entrance through the displays of southwestern mammals and marine life downstairs, before finally reaching the main dinosaur display, where a complete Allosaurus skeleton towers over me from the centerpiece. I can see every vertebra in the tail, every chasm in the skull, every curving tooth and claw.

These “thunder lizards” should terrify me, but they don’t. Terror is nothing but wonder without the awe. And there is awe aplenty for me inside this building.

A few years ago I participated in a neurological study and learned that I possess what the researchers defined as a “low-grade eidetic memory,” or what is commonly referred to as a photographic memory. Eidetic individuals are known for their extremely accurate recall when it comes to visual images, memories summoned up like still images or filmstrips.

This explains why I was able to describe the geographic orientation of the furniture in my best friend’s new house after five minutes spent walking through it for the first time; why I never got lost exploring town on my bike as teenager, even though I’m terrible at memorizing street placement; why I can remember, in uncomfortable detail, what every girl I’ve gone out with wore on our first date—and what they looked like in later, less-dressed states.

Why I can’t seem to forget dozens of sights from my experiences in Hurricane Katrina that would best be left unremembered.

The term photographic memory is a flawed one though, I think. The word “photograph” implies someone making a conscious decision to capture and preserve those images, and that’s not how the human mind—or at least not mine—works. I’m not speaking of the basic mnemonic devices of memorization, but rather the active choice that this image, this particular set of visual information will be stored. While there’s a fair amount of coherence among things from, say, my preteen years forward, anything beyond that is really just a meaningless shuffle of disordered images, odd fragments of things remembered but not necessarily known.

These memories are not photographs; they are fossils, their bones extruding from the sedimentary rock of the mind. And like true fossils, some of them have to be studied closely before their stories reveal themselves.

One in particular has surfaced recently, provoked in part by recent tour I took through the museum’s off-exhibit areas during Horner’s presentation. It’s an old one; Triassic period, if we wanted to stretch the metaphor a bit further. In it I’m very young, five or six at the oldest, attending one of the museum’s weeklong parent/child classes, where we’re learning about paleontology by building paper-mache models of prehistoric creatures. A half-formed Pteranodon, one of the largest of the non-dinosaur flying pterosaurs, sits on the plastic painter’s tarp in front of my mother and me, a wet coat of chalky gray paint just applied to its newspaper skin.

Sharing the workspace and craft supplies with us are G., my mother’s partner in adultery and the man who would become my stepfather, and his daughter, my eventual stepsister. They’re building a generic long-necked sauropod dinosaur. This is the first time I’ve met them.

This isn’t some sort of revelation or epiphany; the extraction of this memory doesn’t send cathartic earthquakes rumbling through my psyche or sully my love of the museum. This class was one of a dozen or so I attended at the various scientific institutes around town over the years, and the memory of it has always been there to some degree of clarity or another. But it’s only now, when I look at it in the light of adulthood, that I understand it.

And what I understand is that those two cheaters were on an extended date. Enrolling us children in this class allowed them the opportunity to spend the week together, hiding in plain sight under the noses of their spouses. While my would-be stepsister and I were learning how to reconstruct prehistoric life, our parents were in engaging in behavior that would destroy our present ones.

It isn’t a happy memory, for certain, but neither is it a sad one. Ultimately it’s more of a curiosity, another roll-your-eyes tale of how some parents will use their children to leverage their own happiness. But out of this I got a nifty model and a lifelong fascination with the natural sciences; all they got was a couple of divorces and a legacy of pain given and received. Fair to say I came out on the winning end of that deal.

My Pteranodon was an ungainly thing, ready to take wing but far, far too heavy in the torso for any creature hoping to take flight. I loved it. It occupied a place on honor on my bedside shelf for years. I’ve no idea what’s become of it. It’s possible, I suppose, that it’s in a box somewhere, locked up in storage with my few remaining childhood things. More likely it’s succumbed to the ravages of time, the paint and paper of its body crumbled to dust, existing now only as another fossilized fragment of memory.

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.


As I child I loved visiting the SeaWorld park here in my hometown. Along with the San Diego Zoo and the Natural History Museum, it was the impetus of my development into the dilettante naturalist I’ve become. That luster had largely faded by the time I visited as an adult and saw the park for the overpriced tourist trap it is, but I still maintained my appreciation for the animals. Corky, the resident female lead orca (or “killer whale,” as they’re more commonly known), was still there, performing the same astonishingly graceful leaps and flips that had stolen my breath back when I hadn’t yet learned to read.

On February 24th 2010 a large bull orca named Tilikum violently attacked and killed a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando in full view of a crowd of witnesses. Seizing her by the hair, he dragged her into a deeper section of the pool, where she died of drowning and euphemistically-labeled “traumatic injuries.”

Tilikum is named for a Cree word that alternately means “friend” or “kin/tribe.” This is the third fatal encounter with humans he’s been associated with–though the first openly hostile one–during his time in captivity, and the fourth incident of orca aggression at a SeaWorld park in the last ten years. There have been two dozen attacks at various marine parks in the U.S., Europe and Asia since the 1960s.

Within moments of the first reportage of the attack internet news and social media sites were abuzz with comments, a large majority of them summed up by this sentiment graphic novelist Warren Ellis posted on Twitter: “KILLER whales. Not Cuddle Whales. Not Soft Whales. They’re called KILLER whales. How does this point escape people?”

There was even an outcry among some that, given his anti-human rap sheet, Tilikum should just be euthanized.

My response, once I managed to wade through all the rhetoric and find some actual details on the event, could be said in only three words:

Fuck you, SeaWorld.

Neither orca nor trainer should ever have been there.

****

The term “killer whale” is a misleading, inaccurate and redundant misnomer. First off, they aren’t whales at all, but rather the largest species of dolphin. Further, every cetacean, from the gigantic Blue Whale to the tiny Commerson’s Dolphin, is a predator. They might filter krill by the mouthful, battle giant squid in the deep dark abyss, or just shuck mollusks from the muddy silt, but each of them hunts and consumes other organisms to survive. There is no such thing as a vegetarian whale.

Lastly, and most importantly, there have never been any documented cases of a so-called “killer whale” ever attacking a human being in the wild.*

Take a moment to think about that. Twenty-four cases of orcas attacking humans in captivity, zero cases in the wild.

This is not true of several other species of dolphin, including the generally-beloved Bottlenose.

There are two major different kinds of wild orcas: transients and residents—and the differences between them are so substantial that debate is ongoing as to whether they should be classified as two distinct sub-species. Transients fit the bill of “wolves of the sea,” loose free-roaming pelagic packs of four to twelve individuals, who feed exclusively on other marine mammals. Several transient orcas, refusing to eat the fish they were offered, starved to death in captivity before this distinction was understood.

Residents, on the other hand, feed only on fish, and spend their lives as members of close-knit, matriarch-dominated family pods within a specific home range. Each pod uses different hunting strategies for catching the fish in their range, and develops a unique “language” of sonar clicks and whistles. This behavior is not instinctual; it is taught to the calves by the older members of the pod from generation to generation, and fits the general anthropological definition of culture.

Every orca currently in captivity was either removed from a resident pod or is the descendent of one that was. So what SeaWorld and its ilk present is a collection of strangers, stolen from their families and forced to live in a pod full of other orcas who cannot communicate with each other, and who then have their natural tendencies and behaviors exploited to perform tricks for the amusement of a crowd.

While it’s true that some orcas, like Corky, seem to enjoy human interaction–she’s known as having a very sweet disposition, and for performing underwater tricks for visitors in her holding tank during off-hours—for most of them it’s the only real socialization they get. Between performances they are split into smaller groups between the holding pools. Tilikum spends almost all of his non-performance time alone, a social animal with a complex intelligence confined in an isolated holding tank for long periods.

Worse, captive orcas frequently develop behavioral and physiological pathologies, most stemming from the stress of confinement. Bullying and intra-orca violence are relatively common. Their life span, roughly equivalent to that of a human being, is effectively halved, with many not living into their mid-20s; at 40, Corky is the second longest-lived captive orca in the world, and has adopted several calves whose birth parents abruptly died—including one that caused fatal injury to itself while attacking her. The calf mortality rate alone is staggeringly high. About 90% of the males in captivity suffer from collapsed dorsal fins, something that occurs in less that 10% of wild orcas worldwide, usually due to injury or poor diet. SeaWorld has repeatedly claimed that a collapsed fin is not indicative of an orca’s well-being.

Tilikum suffers from it:

The exact provocation behind Tilikum’s attack is not yet known, but it appears as though he finally succumbed to a fit of pique and lashed out, with sadly fatal consequences. And I can’t say I blame him for that. Any kidnapped human being subjected to those living conditions and exploited for public amusement who fought back against his captors would be lauded as a hero, not vilified.

Tilikum’s fate is secure. He’s the park’s principle stud muffin, the most successful sire in captivity, with ten surviving offspring, and as such represents a profound investment in future profits. Which cuts right to the heart of everything that’s wrong with SeaWorld.

SeaWorld markets itself as a family-oriented educational adventure, as well as a safe haven for the conservation and study of marine life. But it’s not. SeaWorld is an aquatic circus, a zoology-for-profit private enterprise—one that, until recently, was owned by a massive beer conglomerate. After parking, tickets, food, and a souvenir or two, a family of four will spend close to $400 for a single day’s visit.

The orca shows are the park’s biggest draw, so keeping those orcas flipping and leaping means big money for SeaWorld; after all, popular plush toys of the “Shamu”** mascot start at around $20. You can barely walk ten feet without running into a gift shop or vendor cart selling them.

A visit to the local, nonprofit Birch Aquarium costs about $10 per person. They have one gift shop, and it’s mostly full of books.

I’m not an anti-zoo person, by any means. My appreciation and support of the San Diego Zoological Society remains constant, in part because they are everything SeaWorld pretends to be: a non-profit, scientific society dedicated to research and conservation, one which maintains remarkable transparency in the use of the funds it generates and has been instrumental in the preservation of several critically endangered species, including the local California Condor. And unlike SeaWorld, it’s also been a world leader in providing progressive, naturalized habitats for the animals on display.

I don’t mean to disparage SeaWorld’s cadre of scientists and researchers, since doubtless most of them are decent human beings dedicated to fostering scientific discoveries and educating the public however they can. And the institute has done good; it’s an inescapable irony that much of what we know about orca intelligence initially came from their captivity programs, and they’ve played a key role in rescue efforts for beached or injured marine animals. But when the Yangtze River Dolphin slipped into extinction in 2006, SeaWorld was nowhere to be seen. There was no financial gain in doing so.

I’m also aware of the irony of criticizing the very institute that inspired me to learn about marine biology, but that’s just it; most of what I know has come from my private studies or resources like National Geographic or Nature, not SeaWorld. Education and conservation are byproducts of SeaWorld’s business, not the goal.

And any last lingering affection I felt for it died the moment Tilikum dragged his trainer under water. It seems an inescapable part of the human condition that many of the wonders of our childhood turn to sadness as we slip into adulthood, but this is not one I regret. I’ll save my mourning for the trainer, and for the orca who killed her.

****

My last visit to SeaWorld was on a weekday in February, 2007. It was a cold, drizzly day, with sparse attendance at the park. Because of the weather, most of the shows were canceled, which was fine with me. Towards the end of my visit I wandered over to the Shamu Stadium, where Corky was entertaining herself in the large display tank. No one else was around. When she caught sight of me she corkscrewed onto her back and began swimming a series of rapid laps upside down, always cruising right next to the glass when she came near my station. Thanks to an underwater microphone I could hear some of her clicks and whistles. I stood there for a while, watching her as she played and chattered for both of us, and wondered if the surviving members of her family pod missed hearing her voice.

****

In case I haven’t bored you witless on orcas by this point, you can go read this fantastic article originally published in National Geographic‘s April 2005 issue.



*There is one anecdotal report of a surfer who was grabbed by a wild orca by mistake and promptly released, but it has never been substantiated, and is most likely hearsay.

**The original Shamu died in 1971 and was one of the first perpetrators of orca aggression against humans. She was permanently removed from public view after being caught on tape biting and refusing to release the leg of a trainer during a performance.


When your opponent is going to strike, and you are also going to strike, your body is on the offensive, and your mind is also on the offensive; your hands come spontaneously from space, striking with added speed and force. This is called Striking without Thought or Form, and it is the most important stroke. Learn it well.

-Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings

 

I don’t go to Las Vegas looking for a fight but I end up with three of them anyhow. I win the first two, but the final one, the most important one, is giving me trouble.

My opponent is older than me by at least fifteen years and built like a bear, thick in the torso with stout, strong limbs, but surprisingly fast. Twice now I’ve underestimated his quickness and paid the price for it. He’s good, cautious, refusing to commit to an attack that won’t succeed and maintaining a solid defense. Trying to go toe-to-toe with him is foolish, so I keep my feet moving, waiting for an opening to present itself. The score stands 2-1, his favor.

This is final match of the Black Belt Men’s Heavyweight division. Championship bout. My first competition in twelve years.

As a teenager I did well enough on the tournament circuit to be ranked 5th nationally in my weight class, but I “retired” after my first year of college, unable to maintain the rigorous training schedule necessary for regular competition. I came out to Vegas because the promoters are friends who offered to comp my hotel room if I served as a judge. Competition anywhere other than the gaming tables was not in my plans. But that was before I turned five bucks into two hundred playing blackjack, and on a whim I signed up in the morning, galvanized by a sense of good fortune. I expected to lose in the first round, and I’m surprised–and more than a little proud–to have made it this far, and I know that I’ve already scored a victory regardless of how the match turns out.

But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to let this guy roll over me. Oh, hell no.

If he wants that trophy, he’s damn well going to have to fight for it.

He is, however, giving as good as he’s getting, and maybe a little more on top of that. Though I’m the more flexible of the two of us, faster with my feet, I have to keep surrendering ground to maintain kicking distance, and every time I do he presses the attack. I block a flurry of punches but I’m trapped up against the edge of the ring, and he scores with a lunging thrust kick to my belt. 3-1.

Despite what may be shown in movies and in the UFC, sparring in a karate tournament is less about brute force and more about skill, finesse, and technique, and even open tournaments like this one have lately been cracking down on excessive contact violations. Lower division competitors win by being the first to reach three points, but for black belts it’s either the first to five or a three-point spread: 3-0, 4-1, 5-2. It’s one point for a shot to the body, torso or groin, two points for a more difficult headshot. There are five judges in the ring, and at least three of them must confirm a point for it to be valid.

My opponent retreats a bit, trying to lure me in the appearance of an easy point, but I hold back, controlling my breathing and waiting for a real opening. Most of his previous attacks have come over the top, taking advantage of his greater size and longer reach, but this time when he lunges in I switch-step into a right stance and pivot on my right leg, launching a spinning back kick with my left. It’s a risky move, one that leaves me largely defenseless, and if I’ve fudged the timing I’m going to get clobbered. But my foot slips right on up under his elbow to land solidly in against his rib cage, and the judges give me the point. 3-2.

One way or another, we’re going for five.

I’ve never felt more physically sure that I’m out of my twenties than I do now. The previous matches have taken their toll on me and I’m bone weary. My limbs ache in a way they never did when I was a regular competitor, and I’m sharply aware of the heaviness of my arms and the dull ache in my left thigh that will most certainly turn into a cramp tomorrow, of the nasty silicone taste of the mouthpiece enrobing my teeth and the way the sweat gathering on the bottom of my feet is costing me traction on the ring floor.

We both attack when the center judge gives the command to start, clashing together in a flurry of mish-mashed punches and chops, close enough to taste each other’s sweat, to hear each other gasping for breath and grunting with effort. It’s a clumsy, awkward hit, and neither of us scores any points.

When the judges start us again, I get too aggressive, too cocky, very nearly giving him a free headshot and ending the match. I get my block up just in time, but he still manages to land couple of shots to my solar plexus as I do. 4-2.

My opponent thinks he’s found a weakness. He throws a roundhouse kick to my groin, but it’s just an easily-blocked feint, a cover as he tries to come in with a backfist-punch combination to my head. Instead of raising my block again I sidestep forward and under his attack, landing a couple of quick jabs to his ribs while he strikes the air where my head used to be. 4-3.

I’m starting to feel like I might actually have a chance of winning this thing, but I clamp that feeling down. Fights are lost by indulging it.

We circle each other warily, throwing a couple of feints, trying to feel each other out, but not committing to an attack. My opponent doesn’t need to score anymore to win; he just needs that two-minute clock to run down and the match is his. I know there are only a handful of seconds left, and my energy reserves are reaching a critical low.

Heck with it, I think. You had your fun. Give ‘em a good show on the way out.

My opponent’s strategy has been solidly based on linear backwards/forwards progression, so I for my last attack I play the angles, feinting sideways into hard right stance, intending to transition to the left oblique across his line of attack and deliver a roundhouse kick to his undefended head as he takes the feint and tries to counter attack.

But as I make the switch my sweat-soaked right foot slips forward as though it’s just come down on a stray skateboard, hard enough to make the muscles attached to my hip groan and throwing my weight forward instead of at the angle. I stumble, completely open and undefended, and my opponent moves to take advantage.

I’m screwed. My balance is shot and there’s no way to regain it in time to get my defenses up. And with out any traction available on the ring floor there’s no way to resist as my own center of gravity carries me forwards.

So I go with it. With all my weight balanced precariously on my right, I kick up and out with my left, aiming for the one target zone available.

It’s beautiful. Practically a moment of Zen.

My foot curves up and around like an inverted smile, whipping back into a perfect hook kick to my opponent’s unguarded head. It’s the kind of shot that gets the slow motion treatment in a movie, the physical equivalent of tossing my last five dollars down on a blackjack table and walking away with two hundred. It stops him in his tracks.

The judges’ decision is unanimous: two points to me for the win. 4-5

My left shoulder hurts, my ribs ache, I’ve pulled a calf muscle and wrenched both my right foot and right knee when I scored that final kick.

Damn it feels good.