Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Jordan Scavone

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On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

Today I’m delighted to feature Jordan Scavone. After receiving his undergraduate degree in Children’s Literature and Theater for the Young from Eastern Michigan University, Jordan began working on his first picture book. In April of 2016, Jordan received his M.A. in Children’s Literature from Eastern Michigan University. Currently, he lives with his wife Chelsea, their cat Lizbeth, and soon-to-arrive baby boy (June 2020!).

Jordan is the author of five books. Four are books for children: Might-E (2017, illustrated by Caitlyn Knepka), The Mud Princess (2018, illustrated by Monica Guignard), A Girl Named Adam (2019, illustrated by C.N.J. Zing), and Turtle Day (2019, illustrated by Monica Guignard). His latest publication is a young adult novel, Night Warrior, newly released last month and already getting rave reviews.

Recently I posed some questions to Jordan. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Welcome, Jordan. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JS: I am an author with four children’s books out and one brand-new young adult novel! I am a infant/toddler teacher and strive to bring as many new books into my classroom as possible. I like video games, movies, unicorns, and playing Dungeons and Dragons!

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JS: My latest book is called Night Warrior and it follows a high-school-age girl who is a wannabe fantasy author. However, after some magical shenanigans the characters in her book start to enter her world. Sword and magic adventure in an urban setting! It’s a bit of a contrast from writing children’s picture books, but it was a blast to do and people have been receiving it really well. This book pulls inspiration from playing Dungeons and Dragons, and I even used a campaign to help build the lore of the book.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JS: I write because I get too much creative energy and I need to get it out. My brain generates stories and I write them down. I used to just do it for myself so I could experience the stories in a better medium, and then I found out people liked them, so, books! I hope to do my best to allow everyone to find themselves in a character I one of my works. I want to be inclusive and welcoming to as many people as I can.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JS: My writing process is strange, at least I think it is. My favorite part also happens to be my least favorite part. I’ll sit down and write for hours on end and get a lot done, but then find issues with being able to write regularly. So, I love that I can sit and write for hours on end, but I also kind of hate it as it really takes up a whole day! My writing process is very unorganized…

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JS: Deep down I always wanted to write for others and I think I knew that when I was a kid. I remember we had a program called “Storybook Weaver: DELUX” when I was in elementary school and I would write bad fantasy books with the stock images and characters they had in the program and then show them to everyone in my class. As I got more self-conscious, I stopped showing people my writing as much. I’m still self-conscious about my writing but am more willing to let people see it…clearly. At the end of the day writing has brought me new friends, new experiences, and so much fun. I think the thing that brings me the most joy is when people get happy when they read something I write. When I go to a school and do a reading for 400+ kids and they are silent during it then want me to read more books, it means a lot.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JS: Between these links, all the links to my books and contacts can be easily found:
Website: www.jordanjscavone.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/MightEBook

Email Contact@JordanJScavone.com

Twitter @RealJScavone

“The plague full swift goes by”

Like most other people in the world today, I’ve been thinking a lot about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been taking me back to the time in the 1980s when I worked as speechwriter for the commissioner of the Department of Health in New York City. At that time, the prevention of AIDS/HIV was the main public health concern in the city, followed closely by tuberculosis.

There were, of course, many other problems, some particular to NYC (window falls by children, for example) and some more common everywhere (dog bites, drug abuse, the diseases associated with poverty, and so on).

The commissioner at the time, Dr. Stephen C. Joseph, was very active across the five boroughs, speaking on public health problems. He strongly believed that public health was a political process, and he spent a good deal of time out of the office, explaining and garnering support for the department’s policies across the city and in Washington.

(One policy was the necessity for widespread testing for infection by HIV, which exactly parallels the discussions over testingor lack of testing, I should saythat we are hearing today.)

It was a wonderful job for me . . . I felt I was contributing to the most important health issues of the day in the best way that I could, though my words.

Sometimes I wrote up to eight speeches a week, along with op-ed pieces and articles for medical journals signed by the commissioner and other physicians in the department. And whenever the Mayor’s Office needed something for Koch to say or write about public health, I was often tapped to write that, too.

Afterwards I calculated that I wrote roughly four hundred speeches about AIDS/HIV in my five years there.

And yet, the job had its consequences.

When I started, they found desk space for me in a cubicle in the Office of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Every day when I came in to work, I passed full-color posters of chancres, rashes, warts, and all the other lesions that STIs can cause.

I certainly don’t mean to make light of any of thisbut in the beginning, writing speeches every day about the effects of AIDS/HIV and tuberculosis, and spending my days among public health workers who spent their days tracing contacts of people who might have been infected with STIs without knowing it . . . all had an impact on me.

Riding on the subway to and from work each morning, I began to imagine the city as a vast sea of infection and all the people I passed as unknowing vectors of disease.

Not a healthy outlook.

I got over it, of course, but I’ve been reminded of that time a lot lately. The same issues that the city faced thenthe critical need for testing to stem the spread of HIV despite (at that time) there being no treatment for itare issues now.

When I began to write poetry seriously, infection as a metaphor was one I came back to time and again, due in large part to my time at the Department of Health.

Today’s blog entry includes two poems about infection. The first one, “Serial Killer,” is based on a story an office mate of mine years ago once told me about a job he had infecting mice in a vaccine development lab. It seemed a particularly gruesome occupation when he told me about it, and it stuck with me until I tried to exorcize it in the poem.

As you think about labs trying madly to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, give some thought to the little creatures who give their lives to the effort.

The second poem, “Influenza,” uses the idea of infection as a metaphor for how we respond to other things in our lives.

As always, please enjoy. And stay healthy!

Serial Killer

So the god swooped down, descending like the night.
                                    ─Homer

They weighed next to nothing, their bones
more fragile even than a bird’s
when I reached into the cage and
cupped one in my palm, tenderly.

Tenderly, too, the needle, filled
with what poison, what rare
killing toxin tested on these
small creatures, deftly slipped between

their brittle shoulder blades, the fur
bunched in my thumb and forefinger,
a move I learned the first week, saving
time and wasted motions.

They all died. Before injecting
my day’s subjects, I harvested
stiff tiny corpses from the
night before. Or else collected

those I had to sacrifice with
another kind of shot. How like
a god I was, reaching in and
randomly selecting this for

Vaccine Beta, that for Toxin
Alpha, this for a quiet end
in its sleep, that to be rudely
snatched away from the life it knew.

How they feared me, feared the shadow
of my hand as it moved into
position, nudged the cage door open,
and plunged down with unconcerned

speed to snap up the unlucky
and slip in my fatal point,
forcing them to yield up, squealing,
all of their terrible knowledge.

© Donald Levin, 2002. A version of this poem first appeared in Delirium, November 2002.

Influenza

All language is vehicular and transitive.
                           ─Emerson

The vehicle of
a moving tenor

catches us unaware.
When it first appears

we try our best to
ignore its urging

but when it makes its
presence felt, we take

some certain pleasure
in surrendering

to it. At the end
it makes us feel so

awful we wish we
had never been born

though after, we are
better protected

against its striking
again. People the

vehicle with the
rider of your choice:

love, death, sadness, joy,
or even the flu.

© Donald Levin, 2005

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

This is one of my older poems. I wrote the draft of it on a plane on the way to Boston in 2002 to visit cousins and an elderly uncle whom I hadn’t seen in years. It was the first time I had flown since 9/11.

I wasn’t scared, exactly, but I was plenty uneasy.

Flying is not my favorite activity under the best of circumstances. But I was flying in the near-aftermath of the terror attacks, when everybody was on edge, and lots of other things down on the planet Earth below me made it seem as though order was collapsing.

This was the time when a sniper in a blue Caprice was shooting people randomly on Washington DC highways. Chechen rebels held 700 people hostage in a Moscow theatre, and the attempt to rescue them went horribly wrong. Bombs were routinely going off on Israeli busses.

The world seemed a tad nuts.

As it happened, I had assigned Jane Austen’s Emma to my Intro to Graduate Studies students that semester. I brought the book along to reread—and as we always say literature does, it took me out of myself and my worries and transported me into Austen’s world.

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If you’ve read Austen, you know it’s very different from our own. Though her world was also in transition, her characters negotiated the changes with civility and grace

I tried to capture the differences—along with my yearning for a more orderly world—in the poem.

At the time, it seemed as if things couldn’t get any crazier.

Except today, 2020 says, “Hold my beer.”

There’s a new movie of Emma out, and I saw it last night. It was a decent translation of the book to film, with the exception of some casting choices I took issue with. (Note to producers: next time switch the actors who play Knightley and Robert Martin; if you’re going to use the great Bill Nighy, give him more to do).

It reminded me again why great novels like Emma hardly ever make great movies: novels are all about language, and no film can do justice to the sparkling wit of Austen.

But shifting into Austen’s world is still a serene experience as disease, financial catastrophe, corruption, and stupidity rage outside the darkened theatre.

It helps us realize that once there were people who were civil and agreeable to each other. And maybe there will be again.

Hope you enjoy “Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet.”

 

Reading Jane Austen at 37,000 Feet

A voice from the flight deck mumbles—something

about the weather in Boston—as the plane lumbers

into the dawning day above it all,

the sniper’s nest in the blue Caprice, endless

wars, dead hostages, suicide bombers

blowing nailed starbursts through sunblind busses.

 

Jane, how I welcome your astringent lines, sly

as a measured throw of cards on green felt tables,

the ordered games of Hartfield after dinner

while poor cold Woodhouse worries over the dangers

of rich cakes, and pretty Emma schemes.

Sealed in steel dread six miles up, I enter

your safe art gladly, shaking the dust

of crumbling civilizations off my boot-soles.

[© 2005 Donald Levin. A version of this poem appeared in my poetry book, In Praise of Old Photographs (Little Poem Press, 2005; reprinted in Detroit Metro Times, November 23, 2005).]

The Poddification of Everyday Life

[I don’t often subject you to leftovers from my former life in academia, but earlier today I was having a GIF interchange with two friends, writers Andrew Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson, and the movies The Invasion of the Body Snatchers came up (the 1956 and 1978 versions). I was reminded that at one point in early 2000s I was quite taken with the films, and had written a book chapter and several conference papers on both movies, along with the 1994 re-remake. Here’s one of the papers. Unlike many academic critics, I tried to keep it mostly in English. Enjoy!]

“The Poddification Of Everyday Life”

All three of the filmed versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—Don Siegel’s 1956 original, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of the same name, and Abel Ferrara’s 1994 Body Snatchers—posit as their central horror the systematic replacement of the real with the simulated that French theorist Jean Baudrillard suggests is characteristic of postmodern life. In all three films, mothers, fathers, wives, uncles, lovers, and friends are replaced with simulacra that look and sound “real,” but have no connection to the human reality they resemble. This paper will examine the original and two remakes to suggest that these films offer a progressively grimmer critique of American culture.

Each of the three begins by posing the central question of personal identity—“Who’s there?” as Bernardo demands at the beginning of Hamlet. Relatively uncomplicated readings of these films have interpreted them through the lenses of broad (or global) social concerns current at their times of production. Thus the first has often been associated with what James Monaco called the “political paranoia” of its era (232), in particular with the discourses of communism and McCarthyism, connecting the dehumanization of being replaced by pod people with the “soullessness” of the former and the mass hysteria of the latter. The second has been variously associated with Vietnam and the death of the hippie movement, and critic Roger Ebert suggested the third film might be driven by the spread of AIDS.

And in fact, in each version, the main characters meet the proliferation of people who suddenly believe their loved ones have changed with a search for reasonable explanations that reference elements exterior to the film. In the 1956 version, the main character, Dr. Miles Bennell, first suggests his small town is seeing an epidemic of mass hysteria brought on by worry about world events, and later wonders if the pods result from atomic radiation, foregrounding the prevailing cultural fears of atomic warfare at the height of the cold war.

In the 1978 version, the scientist hero is Matthew Bennell, not a physician but a civil servant who works for the Department of Public Health in San Francisco. He approaches the problem as a public health epidemic, viewing pods as a kind of disease vector; considering its setting, we might see the second film rather than the third as driven by HIV. Later in the film, Nancy Bellicec, who runs a bathhouse in San Francisco, initially thinks the pods are part of a pattern of global environmental damage.

And finally, in the last filmed version, a tentative explanation is first offered within the context of psychotropic effects of the chemicals used in biowarfare.

As the three films offer these early explanations of the invasions, it is tempting to locate these as the heart of each film’s cultural critique. However, an analysis of each film reveals that in each “poddification” becomes a trope for a different, what I might call “local,” cultural discourse supplied by the film itself. While these are related to cultural trends and concerns of the films’ moments, they are more complex and darker in their views of the culture than traditional interpretations have suggested.

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Thus poddification in the 1956 film becomes a metaphor not of the communist or anti-communist menaces, or of concern about larger world issues, as Miles opined, but rather of what the film suggests are the pernicious effects of creeping mass culture represented within the film itself. The events take place within a carefully constructed nostalgic representation of a “typical” American small town, Santa Mira, which appears at first glance to be a kind of Anytown USA, with its city center of small businesses surrounded by quiet neighborhoods and rich farmland, where everyone knows everyone else, children are named Jimmy and one’s childhood sweetheart is named Becky, and when things seem out of joint everyone looks for answers to the kindly, dedicated Dr. Bennell in his small office that overlooks the town square.

As events unfold, we begin to realize that this artificially nostalgic view of Santa Mira also supports a social reality based upon a rigidly hierarchical system of class and gender that the film offers as normal (racial difference having already been erased in the film before it even starts, as all the characters are white). On their way home from the train station where his nurse has come to pick him up, they almost run over a youngster who has noticed his mother has changed; Miles stops to speak briefly with his grandmother, a farmer’s wife whose rough housedress clashes noticeably with Miles’s suit, and even with the nurse’s crisp uniform, marking the class difference immediately. Though his image plays into the nostalgic vision of the dedicated doc who makes house calls, Kevin McCarthy, who plays Dr. Bennell, is anything but the rumpled and overworked country doc. His classic aristocratic good looks, with pinched nostrils, tailored suits, and ever-present cigarette, are all markers of a higher socioeconomic class. He cares for working class residents in his practice but in his private life hobnobs with others on his level at the town’s tony restaurant, and his former girlfriend, Becky, has a pseudo-British accent and elegant bare shoulders in the revealing dress she wears when she first meets him after her return from living in England, where her marriage has broken up. Both Miles and Becky are divorced, which lends to them both the frisson of modern scandal in the staid 1950s small town.

Jack Bellicec, a writer in the film and friend of Miles, is also surrounded by signifiers of upper-crust sophistication. He lives in a house with a wet bar from which he serves up the martinis and bourbon that he and Miles knock back constantly, a pool table in his rec room, foreign-language posters, pottery, and expensive knick-knacks scattered throughout. The film is full of these markers of 1950s caste privilege, as the upper-class characters drink martinis, tool around in new cars, wear impeccably styled clothing, and comport themselves (at least before the pods take over) with an impeccable urban sangfroid.

When the pods do arrive, the first to change are not these members of the higher socioeconomic class, but ordinary working people; the pods enter this community through farmers. As more people change, we realize the class distinctions marked by what the characters wear, do, and value are all being leveled under the relentless onslaught of the pods. Suddenly the pod people come from every class in this microcosm of American society, and the higher-class now mingle with shopkeepers, police, housewives, meter-readers, and gas station attendants in common cause in ways that were not previously sanctioned.

As Santa Mira’s social distinctions are leveled, so, too, do the characteristics that the film supports as essentially human disappear once the pod people begin taking over. These, the film asserts, are foundational to the nostalgic, rigidly stratified social reality the pods replace. The film makes clear that the lovers Miles and Becky resist poddification so staunchly in large part because their transformation will mean the end of the intense emotion they feel for each other. Yet the film also suggests this emotion is only one characteristic pod people will lose. Poddification also means the end of desire, ambition, and faith, arguably the three cultural elements most responsible for the power and status enjoyed by Miles and the rest of his class in the film’s mythic meritocracy of America. When these pillars that prop up their class-stratified society disappear, the discourse of “normality” changes and Miles and Becky lose their privileged status, worth, and material advantages, and literally take to the hills, on the run for their lives.

Only at the end of the film are these distinctions restored, as another man in a suit takes charge at the out-of-town hospital where Miles makes his way. At first believed to be insane, not only because of his story but his dirty, disheveled, sweaty (that is, working class) look, he finally convinces the physicians at the hospital when a truck driver is brought in after dumping his load of pods across the highway. The original ending had Miles wandering through the highway traffic shouting, “You’re next!” as the pod-bearing trucks spread the invasion. The final ending, the outer parenthesis of the frame added on by the studio that felt the original ending would have been too depressing, restores the social distinctions the pods undermined.

Thus this view of the discourse of the 1956 original offers poddification as a trope for the leveling of well-entrenched social distinctions brought about by the mass culture of the modern world then taking shape in post-World War II America. A casualty of this leveling, the film asserts, is the elimination of emotion, desire, ambition, and faith. The “happy ending” halts this, at least temporarily, and the status quo is upheld.

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With no such happy ending, the multi-layered 1978 version asserts a considerably grimmer vision of poddification. Within the local discourse of this remake, the invasion becomes a metaphor for the spread of the antihuman culture of commodification and religious fundamentalism represented in the discourse of the film, and, in a broader frame, the cosmic inevitability of the erasure of disenfranchised groups. The scene switches from small Santa Mira to San Francisco, an urban milieu that has already devolved into the mass culture for which poddification was the first film’s metaphor. Where everyone knew everyone else in the small town America of Santa Mira, the characters in the San Francisco of the 1978 film careen through the anonymous teeming crowds of a modern neon metropolis. In such an atmosphere, human contact becomes all the more important, and the sense that “something’s missing” in the ones we love becomes all the more disturbing (as well as inevitable). The images of starbursts and webs scattered throughout the second version also suggest the extent to which the society has become interconnected, as the visual tendrils of the growing space plants are mirrored in the crack in Bennell’s windshield, and, structurally, in the reappearance in different settings of characters involved in the pod conspiracy as they pass their secret between them. As in the first film, “Who’s there?” becomes the key question, and in the mass culture of the 1978 film that question achieves enormous existential importance. A knock on the door can mean help or destruction.

In such a milieu, the 1978 film targets a number of local discourses, particularly the relentless commodification of daily life. The cost of everything is always among the first considerations in this version, as for example when Elizabeth Driscoll, Matthew’s coworker and friend (and Becky’s counterpart from the first film) early on has trouble getting a pod flower analyzed at her lab because it will cost too much. The smug well-to-do psychiatrist David Kibbner represents the commodification of emotional life as a hustler promoting his newest book on relationships at a book party that is one of the set pieces of the early part of the movie. Time, and everything else, is money in the film’s social reality, which is driven by what Cornell West called the market morality of American capitalist society. Indeed, West’s description of market forces could stand as a description of poddification in general in this remake, noting that “Postmodern culture is more and more a market culture dominated by gangster mentalities”; it is a voracious culture that, like the pod people, “engulfs all of us”.

Kibbner is also responsible for much of the localized cultural discourses for which poddification is a metaphor. His language is a mélange of psychobabble about the dangers of “shutting down feelings” (with massive irony, of course, since emotions are the first to go when one is replaced by one’s pod replica, and Kibbner becomes a malevolent agent for the pod transformation), relationships, 1970s therapies, and, most importantly, once he is revealed to be a pod person, fundamentalist religion. If Matthew and Elizabeth would only give themselves up to poddification, Kibbner tells, them they will be “born again into an untroubled world, free of anxiety, fear, and hate”; he cautions them, “don’t be trapped by old concepts . . . you’re evolving into a new life form.” Kibbner’s use of the religious discourse of being “born again” explicitly connects poddification with religious transformation in addition to the market culture noted earlier; both religion and capitalism appear to result in the loss of what makes us most human.

The religious association gains resonance near the end of the film, when Matthew hears bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” by the docks when he is looking for an escape. He discovers the song is only on a radio playing as pods by the hundreds are being loaded onto a ship for distribution to far ports. The transformational salvation the song describes becomes an ironic false salvation that is no longer possible in the new, poddified world.

The metaphor of birth assumes additional importance in this film as the remake uses birth imagery to mark how women’s insights, ways of knowing, concerns, and especially bodies are replaced with a crushingly brutal cultural and cosmic imperialism that is clearly associated with power and patriarchy. The film begins on another planet, with a series of striking images of the original space seeds. The seeds are shown as gelatinous and sperm-like, and gradually break away from their seedbed on the alien world to enter the solar winds exactly as microphotographs show sperm being ejaculated and rushing on their way to fertilize an egg. After they reach this planet (round as a human egg, contributing to the visual metaphor of cosmic fertilization), they fall to the ground in rain, an obvious image of fertility, and are shown clinging in seminal lumps to vegetation on the ground.

Later in the film, the large pods are seen in great detail as they break open and expel the replicants in visual images that exactly duplicate birth. The heads of the pod replacements gradually protrude through the cervix-like opening of the pods, and the plant creatures being expelled into the world reproduce, ontogenetically, the development of a human from wet squirming newborn to adolescent to full grown pod person in a matter of minutes.

The meaning is clear: pods replace women’s bodies as the source of the race’s regeneration. The need for the replacement of women is clear considering that, since women are the first to notice the changes in their loved ones in all three films, women seem to be more attuned to emotional nuances than men, and in a new world without emotion, they must go. Furthermore, in this film women are the repository of not only emotional intuition but also the important impulses for caretaking; a woman, Nancy Bellicec, speaks one of the film’s most emotionally resonant lines: “We’ll watch over each other when we sleep,” she says, voicing the key human impulse to care for each other. While the original conflated emotion with ambition and faith as American values, in the first remake these have been commodified and poddified and what is at most stake, what makes us most human, are what Cornell West calls the “nonmarket values—love, care, service to others—handed down by preceding generations” (27). These are precisely the communitarian values that West says the market culture (like the pods) overwhelms.

What is left at the end of the 1978 film is a social reality dominated by men. Not only do men change first, but men who occupy positions of social control: health providers (Elizabeth’s boyfriend Jeffrey, a dentist, and psychiatrist Kibbner both become agents of poddification); police, who, as in the first film, are among the first to become complicit in the pods’ work; even the ubiquitous garbage collectors who haul away the desiccated husks of the replaced humans, are all male. From the first images to the last, the film suggests this dominance is a matter of cosmic, not simply cultural, imperative.

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The third film, Ferrara’s 1994 Body Snatchers, takes this cultural erasure of women further. Set in the aftermath of Gulf War I, it strips down the setting, characters, plot, and title to focus the film’s purpose more clearly. Gone in the third version is the playful postmodern intertexuality that enlivened the second film. Body Snatchersinstead zeroes in on the cultural characteristic that predominates in its world: the violent male imperialist culture of the military.

The film establishes the rhetoric of replacement immediately as the narrator and main character, the teen-aged girl Marti Malone, talks about her stepmother as the woman who replaced her mother. The third film establishes a binary between the vulnerable anti-authoritarianism of the young, displaced Marti and the brutal world of affectless military automatons. This is seen most clearly on two occasions, once when she falls asleep in the bathtub and is almost replaced by a pod and a second time when she is taken to the base infirmary and again is almost replaced; in both scenes she is nude, and the frailty of her slender body is in stark contrast to the fully clothed soldiers whose presence is everywhere. The representation of poddification as a sexual crime of aggression is also most evident in these scenes, where the tendrils snaking out from the pods to envelope, overwhelm, and replace the sleeping girl is a kind of rape that quite literally sucks the life from the victim.

The general setting is one of violence simmering below the surface of daily life as the screen alternates scenes of Marti’s family life with images from the discourse of war: helicopters, jeeps, guns, looming soldiers in camouflage, all relentlessly controlled by military protocol. While admitting women into the ranks as desexed soldiers, this is a world of men at war. In this case, the literal war is for the perpetuation of a race of creatures from a dying world; the credo of the warrior is the soldier’s credo: the race, not the individual, is important. Ultimately, the conformity of life on a military base filled with the looming silhouettes of impassive soldiers becomes indistinguishable from the conformity of the pod people who replace the humans.

The third film offers the harshest vision yet of a poddified America “purified” of dissent and difference. In the first two films, the systematic distribution of pods moves out from the towns to other cities (working through families and friends), yet in the third film the pods are distributed through military bases. This not only literalizes the metaphor of poddification as a war against humanity, but also suggests that a ubiquitous military culture is what will survive, a notion with particularly disturbing implications for post-9/11 America. The film sees the proliferation of pods as a trope for the relentless militarism and endless state of war of post-Gulf War I America. Concerns over what is lost in poddification—whether emotion, ambition, faith, or simple human kindness—disappear as the fight becomes one against an implacable imperialist force bent on domination.

At the end of the 1994 remake, Marti and her pilot escape to an army base in a big city, where, in the film’s final chilling image, they are met by an anonymous and ominous figure of a soldier looming over the camera. The implication is that, as in the second version, resistance to poddification is futile; there is no place to run. This remake is a far more straightforward, bleaker, and devastating vision of what local discourse poddification becomes a metaphor for. Though the society of the end of the 1978 film is purged of communitarian values, the outward appearances of the culture remain essentially as they were before the pod invasion. People go to work, children go to school, government functionaries still go about their business clipping newspaper articles, and except for a regimentation evidenced in the penultimate sequence where the public health employees all march off to some common destination, things will go on as they have been.

In the 1994 version, however, the vision we are left with is of the world as armed camp. Thus from the “happy” ending of the 1956 version, to the black hole of poddified hero Matthew Bennell’s shrieking mouth caught in freeze-frame at the end of the 1978 film, to the figure of the soldier blocking the sun in the final image of the 1994 version, each view of the culture that remains following the Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes progressively more desolate. The pernicious effects of mass culture that the first film resists become embedded in the second film, and by the time the final version of this important cinematic artifact ends, the outward appearances of “normal” daily life have been totally eclipsed by the strict militaristic control of poddified life during a time of endless war.

The latter is all the more terrifying, of course, for its remarkable resemblance to the conditions of life in the early years of the twenty-first century, when the uncertainties facing Miles and Matthew Bennell and Marti Malone—determining what is real, what we value, and who really is there —have become our most urgent questions.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Joe Spraga

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On occasional Mondays, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

I’m delighted that today’s featured guest is Joe Spraga. Joe is the author/illustrator of two books for children, The Snitch, the Witch, and the One Who Was Rich (2015), and Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures (coming soon).

Recently I posed some questions to Joe. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Welcome, Joe. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JS: I was raised in the Detroit Metropolitan area. I’ve always been artsy and I’m a graduate of Western Michigan University, with a Bachelor’s of Arts in English (Creative Writing) and a Minor in Philosophy. I’m a former musician who had to reluctantly retire and became legally disabled in 2015 due to health problems. I enjoy spending time with dogs, as should all right-thinking people.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

JS: I wrote my first book, The Snitch, the Witch, and The One Who Was Rich, because the chorus of the book popped into my head one day while in a painting class in college. It had been an ear worm for me for many years. I knew then that I had to make a story out of it.  My writing style for my children’s literature is verse. However, I make sure to be as didactic as I can be with overtones of social commentary while still keeping it entertaining.

My new book, Phrebbel The Phrongol’s Vacation Pictures, will be out in a couple of weeks. It is a “brain game” style book that promotes critical thinking in a fun and interactive way for children. STAY TUNED FOR THIS ONE!!!

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

JS: I knew I was a writer in college, but I did not start taking it seriously until many years later. I have always observed life, and read books. Seeing the connection between the two is a very natural and important thing for me. I write because I want to make the world a nicer place with quality ideas that can be fun and entertaining for children and adults. I also write because it comes naturally to me and it’s fun!

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JS: Well, let’s see here . . . I honestly don’t know if I can explain this clearly, but I’ll give it my best shot. I feel my books are more “written through me” than writing them myself. I have a very “sing-songy” type mind, and things just pop into my head. I feel the universe is using me as an antennae to receive these ideas. Once I have the ideas, my process is very structured. I lay everything out ahead of time, visually, like a story board. Then, I make the words and pictures as entertaining as possible for the reader while being didactic and stimulating at the same time. That’s easy to understand, right? HA!

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

JS: Being a writer has given me a purpose. With all of my health problems, being disabled is a constant struggle. Being a writer gives me a reason to get excited about something and get out of bed in the morning. It is also cathartic for me. I understand my place in the universe better, and it helps me work through my own personal issues. I hope my writing helps my readers do the same.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

JS: My website is https://joespraga.com/ All of my social media links are on my website. I can also be reached via email at the bottom of my website. My email is joe@joespraga.com.

The First Chapter of THE EXILE

 

Exile finalI’m releasing a new book this week . . . a novella, The Exile (Poison Toe Press).

I’m calling it Book 2 in the Dry Earth Series. It’s a self-contained, stand-alone companion to Book 1, The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, which appears in an anthology of three dystopian novellas, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Whistlebox Press and Quitt and Quinn Publishers, 2019).

Also included in Postcards are excellent, gripping, and thought-provoking works of dystopian fiction by Andrew Charles Lark and Wendy Sura Thomson.

The Exile describes eight days in the life of one of the characters from Book 1, an elder named Mae. She’s a secondary character in the first book, but I found her story compelling enough to want to continue it.

The Exile follows her banishment from the underground settlement where she lives with her tribe in a bleak post-apocalyptic future. It’s not a pleasant world (post-apocalyptic realities usually aren’t). I like to think of it using the term that Margaret Atwood uses, speculative fiction. Like her Handmaid’s Tale, Books 1 and 2 of my Dry Earth Series take current events and circumstances and speculate on what they might evolve into.

The Exile takes place in the same world as The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth, and contains a few references to events in that first book, but nothing that will spoil your enjoyment of it. If you’re a fan of dystopian fiction, I hope you enjoy The Exile, and if you do then I guarantee you’ll find Postcards from the Future impossible to put down (as many reviewers have noted).

Like Postcards, The Exile is available for purchase in print and Kindle versions from Amazon; you may also order the paperback version where ever books are sold. It’s literally brand new, so if you can’t find it on Amazon then give it another day or so.

 

The Exile, Chapter 1

And she’s awake.

A muffled noise, a whisper of rag-wrapped feet on the dirt floor, some words of murmured instruction: these pull her from sleep. In a sweat, heart pounding. The sounds are not loud, but she has always been a light sleeper; even with only one good ear, she could be awakened by the echoes of distant noises in their underground settlement back when she was a child, imagining monsters.

Now Mae is an old woman and she doesn’t have to imagine the monsters. They are real, and already here. Wandering in the Upground.

And sometimes down below, in her underground settlement, too.

Sitting up, she is surprised that she has even fallen asleep. After the meeting of the Council of Elders, of which she is part, she had lain awake for most of the night, worrying over whether to tell Odile about what had happened.

Odile is the chief elder of the Council, as well as her companion. The other members of the Council did not let Odile know about the meeting, and made Mae swear she would say nothing to Odile until the Council as a body could speak with her.

It was a brutal, unfair request to make of Mae, and what the Council decided was equally unfair. After agonizing about it for most of the night, Mae had decided she needed to let her companion know about it, regardless what she had promised.

Mae looks over at Odile’s mat. Her friend is still asleep, a small bundle with a grey head protruding from her tattered cover. It is cool and airless in their underground settlement, but Odile is old—older than Mae—and gets chilled easily.

Mae watches the rise and fall from her companion’s breathing. The sound that woke her did not come from Odile.

Mae looks around the room where they sleep. In the dim light from the lantern out in the tunnel, all seems quiet.

She lies back, adjusts her aching bones on her sleeping mat, and closes her eyes.

She tries to calm herself. Whatever dream she had been having (now dissipated entirely) and the tense Council meeting of the night before have left her with a deep feeling of unease.

She opens her eyes and stares at the support beams crisscrossing the rock overhead.

Now fully awake, she begins to feel the familiar pressure in her bladder, and decides she must find her way to the sanitation chamber to relieve herself before she can try to get back to sleep.

She makes her way down the tunnel outside her room to the foul-smelling chamber, where she squats over the trench in the dark. She rinses her hands in the water standing in a bowl carved into the rock walls, and goes back out into the tunnel. It is lit, as all the corridors are at night, by the flickering light of a small lantern.

That’s where they take her.

Someone comes up from behind and pins her arms in a bear hug. She struggles, but she is held fast.

Someone else—she can’t say who because they approach her from behind—ties a rag over her mouth and throws a hood over her head. The material of the hood is threadbare, like most of what they own in the settlement, and it lets in some of tunnel dim light but not enough for her to make out who her attackers are.

One of them strikes her over the head with a heavy object, not hard enough to knock her out but with enough force to make her old legs wobble and let go from under her. The arms that pin her release her and she is allowed to fall to the ground, heavily and clumsily.

The fight goes out of her, along with her breath.

Dazed and winded, she feels hands grasping her roughly and half-carrying, half-dragging her down the tunnel away from the sanitation chamber and her own sleep chamber. She is too confused to figure out which direction they take her.

At last, she feels her attackers pushing her up an incline. She panics. It must be the passageway to the Upground.

Why are they taking her there?

She tries to shout, but with the rag across her mouth she can only emit a high screech. She tries to shake herself free but the hands that hold her are too strong.

Can anyone hear her?

Can anyone help her?

Her shins bang and scrape against the rocks on the ground as they pull her up the passageway. She is still barefoot and wearing only the nightshirt she sleeps in.

She can feel the air warming as they drag her up from the underground and rise to what was once the entrance of the nickel mine where they have made their settlement.

Finally, they bring her to the opening. She can feel the full heat of the above-ground world through her thin clothes and the flimsy hood on her head.

She hears her attackers exchanging words with the entrance guards. Their voices are low and urgent, but she can’t make out what they are saying.

She is pulled over the rubble that surrounds the entrance. The jagged old concrete blocks, bricks, bent and burnt wood slats join with the remnants of old weeds and branches from the dead trees to cut and scrape her bare feet and legs as they pull her away from the settlement.

Disoriented, she has no idea how far they drag her. At one point, her attackers pick her up off the ground—she is old and malnourished and does not weigh much—and she feels them begin to trot with her.

They go on like that for what feels like hours.

When they finally stop, they let her fall to the ground and pull the hood from her head. It is still night, but the sun never sets in the far north where they live, so the sky is a dim golden color. The sun of early morning makes her squint so she still can’t tell who has taken her, but she hears them panting from the exertion of carrying her.

She lies on her back. Someone unties the rag from around her face. Her mouth is dry, cottony, bitter with the oily taste of the cloth. She tries to scream, protest, call for help, but her tongue doesn’t work and all that comes out is a hoarse croak.

A face looms close to her own. She sees it is Cyn, one of the security squad. Cyn cradles her head and holds a container of water to her mouth. Thankful, Mae drinks. It loosens her tongue enough for her to rasp, “Cyn, why do you do this?”

“Sorry, elder,” Cyn replies. She lets Mae’s head down and sets the water container on the ground beside her.

“Come,” another woman barks. “Leave her!”

Cyn gets up but Mae grabs at her cloak. “Wait!”

Cyn gently pries Mae’s hands free. The other woman now looms over Mae. Mae recognizes her as Meela, the leader of the security work group. In the light of early morning, Meela’s eyes are black, the color of pitch darkness underground.

Glowering down at Mae, Meela says, “Know this, elder Mae. You suffer banishment from the settlement by order of the Council of Elders.”

“No,” Mae protests, her voice still rough from the rag that was wound around her mouth. “That would never happen. Odile is the chief elder. She would never—”

Meela holds a hand up to cut Mae off. “Nay appeal,” she says, “nay protest. If you return, you will be dragged up.”

Killed.

“How can this be?” Mae asks. She is an elder herself, as well as Odile’s companion—when did the Council take this vote? She was present at the last secret meeting, and this never came up. How would Odile ever agree with it?

Mae tries to sit up, but Meela puts a foot on Mae’s shoulder and kicks her down flat onto the red dust of the ground.

“Come,” Meela orders Cyn.

“Cyn,” Mae cries, “nay go!”

The two women ignore Mae’s pleading. They jog away without looking back.

 

The Mysteries of Time Passing

I’m reading a book now called The Order of Time by an Italian theoretical physicist named Carlo Rovelli. Its subject is time (duh), and more specifically what contemporary physics has to say about our received notions about time.

Rovelli asks questions like, why do we remember the past and not the future, do we exist in time or does time exist in us, and what does it really mean to say “time passes?”

He talks about the ways in which modern physics has basically upended everything we thought we knew about time. Our beliefs that it flows uniformly, runs in a measurable course from a fixed past to an open future, and so on . . . all our assumptions about time are provably false, Rovelli claims.

The book examines how our ideas about time have crumbled, and what we are left with.

Fascinating stuff.

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that most of us still abide by those old verities of time. In this season particularly—when we count down the final days and hours of one year and look toward the beginning of a new year and the promises we hope it holds—we seem to be called to reflect on time. Not as an abstract concept of contemporary theoretical quantum physics, but in its more human aspect . . . we are drawn to think about how we used the time we had, what it meant for us, what we might do differently when we have the chances that (again, we hope) the coming year will allow us.

I’m especially fascinated by what I can only call the mysteries of time passing. I regret I don’t have a more nuanced vocabulary to describe what I mean here. This past year I turned 70, which has been more of an “uh-oh” milestone for me than I thought it would be. This year I’ve also been in touch with some friends whom I haven’t seen in decades, and even though I know intellectually that people age, it’s still a surprise to see how thirty or forty or fifty years turn dark hair white, expand thin waistlines, corrugate smooth skin . . . and seem to turn people I knew in their teens and twenties into their own grandparents.

One of my favorite photographers is a man named Milton Rogovin, who was an optometrist in Buffalo until he lost his profession when he was discredited by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ‘50s. Then he became a social documentary photographer of people whom he called (as the title of one of his books says) “the forgotten ones” . . . working people whose lives were overlooked, as well as the poor and marginalized and immigrant communities who lived on the lower west side of Buffalo.

His genius was not only to focus his camera on those groups and reflect back to them the meaning of their own lives, but to return several years later to photograph them again, and then return years after that to photograph them once more.

His photos therefore take on an added temporal dimension. They become enormously moving documents that invite us to reflect on, among so many other things, what time does to people.

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One of the photos of his that I find most intriguing is the photo used for the cover of the book, The Forgotten Ones.

I love this photo. It’s  endlessly fascinating for me. I love the people and actions and setting it portrays; it continually invites me, as a writer, to enter into it imaginatively. It’s a partner to another photo of the same two men that Rogovin took years later, and the difference between the two is striking: youth and age, hope and despair, promise and failure.

I don’t have permission to post either the early or the late photo, but the one on the cover of the book is the early photo, so I feel pretty secure in posting that. My continued engagement with the photo resulted in the following poem, “Time Lapse.”

As I said, I don’t feel like I have the vocabulary to do justice to my thoughts and feelings about the mysteries of time passing, but in this poem I try to use language to catch something.

 

Time Lapse

(after a photograph by Milton Rogovin)

How is it possible to capture
a moment in a life—
and not just any moment, but
the instant before everything changes,
youth goes to age, future goes to past,
might do goes to have done?—
because here are Johnny Lee Wines
and his friend Ezekiel Johnson
paused on the cusp of their lived lives
caught in a black-and-white photograph
in a lower west side Buffalo bar
in their hats and cut-rate disco clothes
after working all day at the ice factory
doing the Kung Fu Fighting
in nineteen-seventy-three, at
eleven twenty-six p.m. exactly
(how do we know that, you ask?
so says the Genesee Beer clock
cocked between two crooked Genesee signs
on the painted particleboard wall
preserving this moment forever)
with Johnny the hopping happy one
the one with personality
saucy untroubled face looking off
cigarette in hand pointing out to
the future where they both head
and Zeke, he’s the quiet one
behind his square shades, grooving
in his own cool way but without
Johnny’s sassy pop in the reek
of cigarette smoke and old beer
though in the next jolting second
time will change them both forever
when Johnny shifts his willowy weight
from right foot to left, right-angled ankle unbends
and the dancer turns away, all put-on cheek still,
and Zeke (he’s still the cool one)
shifts his hips on the tawdry
checkered linoleum bar floor
where they dance in nineteen-seventy-three
(Everybody was kung fu fighting
Them cats was fast as lightning
)
and their short-lived convexity
will alter and propel them forward
into what future awaits them,
where two tired and portly men
will stand in the bleak Buffalo snow
years from now in another photo,
after all the fights, reunions,
exiles, returns, mistakes,
regrets, chances lost, found, and lost again,
Johnny’s face sad and bloated with woe,
Zeke’s youthful cool now equally absent
in his worn-out and broken body
two casualties of the mysteries of time passing
that release their power in the instant
after Johnny and Ezekiel
jumped into the upcoming.

© 2019 Donald Levin