The one rule of Kurt Vonnegut.

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

In some ways, Kurt Vonnegut was a lovely, grumpy old man, but he was also as insightful in a way that most of us will never even hope to accomplish. Vonnegut was (and is, let’s be honest) one of my favorite authors, but this quote has always lingered in my mind. I love the juxtaposition of “God damn it” with “you’ve got to be kind.” His frustration and urgency cannot be neglected. We live in a frustrating, frantic world, and greed is the name of the game in the Western world. It’s all too easy to get caught up in our own feelings and curse those who stand in our way, particularly when they are powerless or faceless, someone you’ll never encounter again. It ems easier to vent those frustrations (and hopes) at infants who can’t understand rather than confront the adults who simply refuse to follow some damn good advice.

Part of my job involves answering phones. Most of the time people are polite, if a little confused. Occasionally, they’ll get condescending when they hear a woman answer the phone, because all we’re paid to do is file our nails and stand between the public and what they want, am I right, ladies? I happen to bite my nails, in no short part due to the stress caused by people like this, so I don’t even need a nail file, thank you very much. But there is one injustice so egregious, so deplorably uncalled for that I couldn’t resist ranting. That, my friends, is the indignant telemarketer.

I would estimate that my place of employment receives at least five sales calls a day. Of those, almost all involve someone saying, “Can I speak to the person who handles your phones?” No, no you cannot. Firstly, we are under contract for our phone services for years. Secondly, if your phone number comes up as “PRIVATE” on my caller ID, chances are that you are not contacting me from a reputable company. Third, unless you’re brand new, you generally don’t have to call people to solicit business. People don’t like that. They’re generally busy at work, or they’re worried that you could be pulling a scam. (At least three times a day, we get automated “THIS IS NOT A SALES CALL” messages that are, yes, fraudulent sales calls about cruises or Google listings.) I usually say sorry, we are not interested/are under contract, and I hang up. There is no need to prolong the conversation.

Only three have I had someone call me back. The first time, a telemarketer called me back just to hang up on me. Touche, brother, touche. The second time, a man was screaming that I didn’t know what I was fucking talking about because I’m not the fucking boss and he’ll fucking report me to the fucking Better Business Bureau, profanity profanity profanity, so I transferred him to my boss, who promptly put him in his place. And then there was today.

INT. OFFICE BUILDING

Casey settles in to sort out some issues after arriving to work twenty minutes late due to train delays. She is frazzled but preparing to make a cup of tea. The phone rings. Casey greets the caller with the firm’s name.

CALLER
Hi, how are you?

CASEY
I’m doing well. How can I help you?

CALLER
Could I speak to the person who handles your phones?

CASEY
I’m sorry, we’re not interested.

Casey hangs up the phone. A moment later, the phone rings again. She notes that the caller ID says “PRIVATE” and braces herself as she says the firm’s name.

CALLER
Can I speak to the person who handles your phones?

CASEY
I’m sorry, we’re not interested. We’re under a contract.

CALLER
You’re going to save money!

CASEY
Sorry.

Casey hangs up the phone again. When it rings, she dutifully repeats the firm’s name in her mind that it is the same person on the other end.

CALLER
You. Little. Bitch!

CASEY
Excuse me?

The caller does not respond. Casey hangs up. End scene.

The rational part of me says not to be offended. That woman probably has people hang up on her all day long, and some of them probably say particularly caustic things to her, just because of her job. On the other hand, what happened to self control? What happened to kindness? It’s easy to spew profanities at someone over the internet or on the phone. There’s no accountability when your only tag is “PRIVATE.” The fact is, we could all consider others more. We could all do better. God damn it, you’ve got to be kind!

I’m an emotional person, and I cannot always make myself feel less just because I know it’s silly to respond to senseless cruelty. I can’t undo the weight in my chest or that dread of what might be looming around the corner today. But I can be kind. I can make sure that the asshole behavior directed at me does not make being an asshole contagious. I will be a better person, not better than that woman on the phone, but better than who I was this morning. I challenge everyone to do the same.

Unless you weren’t a little bitch before, in which case carry on.

Short Story: Guessing Games

First, a little background. I decided to enter a short story contest that my friend discovered. It consisted of three rounds in which you receive a three-part prompt: a genre, a subject, and a character. After each round, the word length and time to complete the story shrink as only the top five entries in each heat progress.

Well, the results are in for the first round, and I’ve moved on! I managed to nab third place in my heat, which asked me to write a romantic comedy involving anger and a limo driver. Those who know me know how funny this is since I am not a romcom fan. My writing M.O. tends to be “if I’m stuck, just kill someone off.” That’s not very romantic or comedic, unless your humor is black, which mine does tend to be. Anyway, since I have to write my ass off this weekend for the second round, I thought I’d share this shocking feat of romantic comedy I’ve supposedly accomplished. Read on if you fancy.

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Pauline.

She didn’t know she had grown up poor. How could she? In her neighborhood, everyone was the same. Sometimes the land was generous and allowed you to make a little extra money, which was meant to be hidden in the house, not trusted to the banks that had harmed so many so recently. She worked her husband’s farm, and when land and animal were generous, they were able to sell what little excess they had to buy what they could not grow. She had not been married long before she came across the plight of two young boys. They were in grade school. One was her cousin. Neither child’s family had the means to care for yet another child, so she and her husband decided to take the boys in for a short while. They stayed for more than a half a year.

I won’t pretend to know her full story or even more than a small fraction of it. She’s just a few years away from making it to a century on this earth, and though her body is slowing, subject to a thousand tiny mutinies, she still lives in her own house, though years have passed since she has become a widow. To me, she is the woman who hosted nearly every holiday, including the Thanksgiving I passed out behind a sofa and no one could find me. She is the woman who once irritated my grandfather when he discovered that she was still hiding money around her house, stashed in books and other clever spaces. She is the woman who refuses to let a conversation pass without offering to feed you, even though you’ve just arrived from lunch and no, please, chicken isn’t vegetarian, yes, it is meat. Today is my great-grandmother Pauline’s birthday, and she is 96.

I find it significant that today is International Women’s Day because we so often get caught up in the big stories, the headlines, the impersonal. Sometimes we forget that women can do extraordinary things by just surviving in this world. Heroism can be waving a flag, working toward a cure, refusing to be denied services for your gender, but it can also be taking care of two little boys because they don’t have a home. I interviewed my great-grandmother when I worked for The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register. It was the beginning of our economic downturn, so the idea was for me to speak with people who lived through The Great Depression to get their views on what was happening. She was reticent to talk, not because her life was immune to the impacts of the Depression but because you made the sacrifices necessary for survival. People helped one another. “Everyone was the same,” she said. A simple sentence, but it stuck with me.

So on this day when we honor the struggle of women around the world, think about the women in your own life and the sacrifices they will never boast. And give someone a hug, because you have no idea how long they’ll be in your life.

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I Have Opinions: Oscars Edition.

Let us acknowledge one universal truth rarely cast into the light: awards shows are boring. Unless you have company and/or alcohol (preferably both), making it to the end of the telecast is the equivalent of walking barefoot over hot coals just to receive a vial of your own tears to wash your heels. It’s basically torture. One of the few ways to get through the needless musical numbers, the bad jokes, and the endless cutoff music is by having an opinion. A tenacious, dogmatic, self-righteous stake in the game.

Do I, personally, care that much? Not really. But I’ve seen a lot of the nominees, and I have feelings. Therefore here are my predictions (and my wishful thinkings) in the major categories.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Look, I love Jennifer Lawrence. She’s my imaginary best friend too, okay? She’s probably going to get the Oscar, and that is quite frankly bullshit. Was she fun in American Hustle? Absolutely. Her weirdo hair dance to “Live and Let Die” actually inspired me to go home and listen to Wings. But she didn’t really have to do much. Plus her accent fluctuated between “I don’t give a fuck” and Howard’s reviled mother (“mutha”) on “The Big Bang Theory.” Lupita Nyong’o? She brought it. Her grief, her despair was palpable. She made me feel. I’ve seen people argue that she shouldn’t win because her character Patsey was always going to garner sympathy, to which I say bullshit. This was her first film role, and she was incredible. To go with the safe choice of the white girl with the smelly nails over a woman throwing herself into the horrors of slavery…well, you get where I’m going with this.

Actor in a Supporting Role

I’ll confess that I haven’t seen Captain Phillips or Wolf of Wall Street, so Barkhad Abdi may be a revelation. I’m not entertained by stories of greed that make a corrupt man richer in the end, so sorry to Jonah Hill’s fake teeth. Michael Fassbender was downright terrifying in 12 Years a Slave, and I believe he hasn’t gotten nearly enough recognition for his efforts, probably because people are too afraid to watch a movie that’s a downer. Still, we all know Jared Leto has this in the bag. I haven’t been a fan of his except in Urban Legend (yeah whatever, haters) and Fight Club, but I saw Dallas Buyers Club twice and cried at different points each time. His portrayal of the doomed Rayon brings light and darkness, and I think this will be the Academy’s token “we acknowledged a trans character, so we don’t have to deal with that slavery thing!” vote.

Actress in a Leading Role

This is tough. I’ve only seen two of these films. Some people have told me that Blue Jasmine is incredible, and others have told me that it’s the most boring thing they’ve gone through in ages. I am not a fan of Sandra Bullock (I’m convinced that she looks like one incarnation of Michael Jackson’s face), but I enjoyed Gravity and could suspend my disbelief. She went through a lot to make that movie, and kudos to her. Bless Amy Adams and her dodgy British accent in American Hustle. I feel like Cate Blanchett will probably win, but if anyone upsets her, it’ll probably be Amy Adams. American Hustle is the safe bet that just keeps on winning.

Actor in a Leading Role

I wish there were an award for Best Accent in a Leading Role, because I would hand that to Christian Bale in a heartbeat for his sleazy New York stylings. He pulled it off better than everyone else in that movie. If there were any justice in this world, Chiwetel Ejiofor would take this home for 12 Years a Slave. I read the book before I saw the movie so I could be emotionally prepared for the violence, which I assure you is not as present as the shitty, white guilt reviews make it out to be. It’s isolated, shocking, and effective. Still, I wept through the last ten minutes of this movie. Not cried, wept. And I’m tearing up a little just typing this. Having said that, if Ejiofor loses, I’m pretty sure it will be to Matthew McConaughey. I have a theory that for the last decade, he was deeply method as a stoner so everyone would underestimate him. That’s how good he is in Dallas Buyers Club. Everyone who saw A Time to Kill knew he was capable of this pedigree of acting, and for the past few years, he’s been playing such diverse, nuanced roles that you can’t deny his talent. I am a believer in the McConaissance, “True Detective” is the best thing on TV right now, and if Leonardo DiCaprio finally gets an Osar for flopping around on drugs over the perils of slavery and AIDS, I will punch a hole through my face.

Directing

I always find it funny that the best director didn’t necessarily direct the best picture, which is why I’m including this category. I feel like this is going to be the token award to a film that doesn’t get much love elsewhere. It’ll probably go to Alfonso Cuarón because in spite of all of its flaws, Gravity is a directorial achievement. That long take at the beginning? Breathtaking. The visuals are far better than the script, which can get a bit hokey. Still, Steve McQueen is an auteur of devastation, and if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t get best picture, they may just give him this as the consolation prize.

Best Picture

Let’s get out of the way what it’s not since ten nominees is too much, okay? Captain Phillips, Her, Nebraska, and Philomena can all start drinking the free champagne already. It’s nothing personal. The Wolf of Wall Street will not win this because the Academy doesn’t want to look it’s made of assholes, plus comedies never do well here. American Hustle has won far more awards than I ever thought possible, but again, comedy. This award should go to 12 Years a Slave, but I don’t know if voters will be brave enough to go that route. (Remember when Crash won over Brokeback Mountain and then we didn’t need movies about racism anymore because everyone stopped being racist?) Dallas Buyers Club is also worthy, but with two torturous true stories going up for this, the votes might split in such a way that Gravity could take it.

So, those are my picks. Stay strong, friends, and everyone remember to DVR “True Detective” for some actual entertainment after the ceremony.

Writer’s block.

It’s easy to retreat into a crab shell existence. Work is eight hours a day of sitting in front of a computer, answering a phone, enduring the berating of the entitled and the sob stories of the hopeless. Halfway through the day, I have my “lunch” break, when I invariably restore myself with a cup of coffee and some reading if I have no pressing errands to run. My commute is roughly forty minutes each way on a good day, but when anything from a one to ten minute gap between trains during rush hour is considered “good service,” there are rarely good days. I’m away from home roughly eleven hours a day if I go straight back to my apartment, and combined with the onslaught of polar vortexes, Netflix looks pretty damn tempting to fill the three or so hours before I try to sleep.

Lately I’ve noticed that I’ve suffered a fit of writer’s block. I’ve put off writing reviews until they pile up (perhaps the fault of Netflix and binge mentality, or my desperate attempts to finally get through tv shows like “Breaking Bad”). I’ve left stories in the brainstorming phase and told myself that I just had to wait for the right inspiration, the right mood music, the right shower that would bestow upon me all of the ideas lacking.

Mostly, though, I’ve found myself abandoning writing here, because I have had that obnoxious voice in my head insisting You have nothing interesting to say. The logical part of me knows this is silly on multiple levels, because the people likely to read this are friends who would read just about anything (thank you for being supportive), and if people abandon reading something, it’s not like I will know. But the longer you go without sharing a word, the harder it gets. The more you want to be perfect.

Winter’s probably the most stressful time for that sensation. We’re cooped up in our homes, sick of the cold and snow and ice and bullshit, but it’s still early enough in the year to feel the pressure of new year, new you, new regrets! Some stores already have bikinis out. The 14 Street-Union Square subway station is plastered in advertisements for Macy’s right now, with each inelegant, hideous, monochrome outfit draped over the slender, bored models with care. The only common theme seems to be that the poor girls are swamped in cloth, which doesn’t seem to matter since the crop tops show off their perfectly toned abs. (I accidentally wrote “ads” at first. Freudian slip.)

The other day I thought it would be an interesting experiment to write down every ad I saw out in the world. New York probably bombards more eyes than most, Internet aside. What did I discover? Well, that I forgot to look. I am so used to seeing naked people running on the beach (Equinox), women posing in lingerie (Chicago), and insistence upon change in order to love oneself (YMCA) that I no longer take it in consciously, intelligently. I absorb these messages, and many of them intrinsically make me feel like shit about myself. I spent more time looking at ads in a day than I do at my own face or words, and that is an alarming setup for self-sabotage, a need to retreat into the fiction that’s already been provided for me.

So this is my attempt to find the words again. To spend more time with my voice and build it up, to push back against the negativity of winter. I joined a gym for $10 a month, and even though I only go a couple of times a week, I am sure I will have stories to share, like how all the women who change directly in the locker room seem to wear thongs and nothing else for underwear. My friend Allison and I are trying to co-write a crime novel of sorts, and I will spend more time actually working on that rather than obsessing over who/what The Yellow King is in “True Detective” (aka the best show on television right now, making me a firm believer in the McConaissance). I entered a writing contest and had to write a romantic comedy about a limousine driver and “anger,” so I may share that when I inevitably fail to make it to the next round (not because I think I suck since I’m so rusty, but because I’m kind of a dude and have no idea how to rom com).

But most importantly, I’ll cut myself some slack. After all, the Oscars are Sunday, and that requires wine-infused hate-watching.

Short Story: Blood.

I’m sorry I haven’t posted any fiction in a while. NaNoWriMo was a very, very rough draft this year, so you were all spared those words. This is the first story I’ve finished since November. I was driven to write this after the atrocity that was the Bonnie and Clyde “television event” that consisted of lies that only made their story more boring. Stephen King has a fascinating novella called “1922” that has a brief but memorable depiction of a couple on the run, and I wanted to know more about them. Also, as I said in my recommendation of Tired Pony’s latest album, most of the songs, particularly “The Ghost of the Mountain,” stirred some plot in my mind. The influences meshed together in my mind to get me writing again, so there’s that little exercise for you. Enjoy!

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Top Ten of 2013: Tired Pony.

1. Tired Pony – The Ghost of the Mountain

This is a surprise to absolutely nobody who knows me, I’m sure. I have a lot of friends who are fellow Snow Patrol fans, and their feelings on Tired Pony’s album vary. For me though, it hits all the right notes to be my album of the year.

As far as the music itself goes, I like that it’s a bit more experimental than The Place We Ran From. A track like “I’m Begging You Not To Go” can be delicate and acoustic, while “The Creak in the Floorboards” can have that ’80s-infused synth sound. Everything is rooted in melody, and all of the players on the album are talented enough that they can build an album full of ideas that are complementary enough to hold together.

On top of sounding good, the lyrics bring me back again and again. I suppose I am a writer, in the sense that I write things (like this blog), and I’m also an avid reader. I love the central conceit of these songs being about a couple whose past is steeped in blood and controversy. The title track reminds me of part of the Stephen King novella “1922,” in which a man becomes cursed after murdering his wife. His young son, who was his accomplice in the crime, impregnates his girlfriend and runs away with her, leading the pair to an ill-fated life of crime.

Of course, the plot isn’t laid out clearly, but I think that is to the music’s benefit. The story is as much in what is said as what’s between the lines, as questions are raised about love, madness, and longing. Being unapologetic fiction, the tale could go anywhere, and I look forward to any future chapters.

Top Ten of 2013: Editors.

2. Editors – The Weight of Your Love

I’ve been into Editors for roughly eight years, which surprises me as I just now did the math. Back in those experimental days of college, I’d snatched my heart back from Interpol and given it over to Bloc Party, and I was expanding my post-punk revival horizons. “Munich” and “Blood” were my jams. The Back Room was perfect, and then An End Has a Start stood on the shoulders of that record to become even better. And then In This Light and on This Evening came along, and I didn’t care for it as much. I wavered.

And now here they are with The Weight of Your Love, shrugging off the synths and sounding like themselves again. This isn’t about going back to their roots or rejecting their previous album so much as expanding to make some really fucking good rock tunes. “A Ton of Love” has such strong R.E.M. vibes that I was surprised from the first note. Tom Smith has an incredible, deep voice, but to hear him go falsetto on songs like “What Is This Thing Called Love” is a delight, especially when he shifts his pitch back down, going from vulnerable to strong as ever. Goosebumps. I find everything about this album compelling, from the music to the lyrics to the gorgeous artwork that pairs with the record and each single.

Sometimes you just need a band to sound like a group of guys playing instruments to remember the magic of how simple the essence of music is. To me, Editors are transcendent.

Top Ten of 2013: Foy Vance.

3. Foy Vance – Joy of Nothing

I’ve been a big fan of Foy Vance for years. I dragged friends to New York’s annual Craic Fest to see him, and when they were a little frightened by the first act, LaFaro (who rocked my face off, personally), I insisted they stay. Foy didn’t make it on the stage until about midnight, but wow. Worth the wait and then some. At this point, it had been years since his debut album had been released. It would be years until Joy of Nothing. He had nothing new to promote, no connections to shake down, and still he packed that room and sent people singing out into the streets in the middle of the night.

Joy of Nothing has a bit less of the overt soul and blues that Hope contained, but the tragedy and triumph have made their way into the lyrics instead. It’s almost strange to listen to this album because I’ve now seen the guy live a few times and have gotten used to the fantastic singalongs that mark his shows. (“Church without the boring shit,” as he once remarked.) “Guiding Light” in particular is a staple of his performances, lasting for minutes after he has left the stage and bid the audience goodnight. How could that possibly translate? Well, Ed Sheeran’s presence on the song gives it an air of audience participation, but his voice is also notably delicate. It’s clear he treats these words with respect. As should we all.

If you need further convincing, then here you go: Foy had the balls to ask Bonnie Raitt to be on his album. Singing backing vocals. Nicely done, sir.

Top Ten of 2013: Manic Street Preachers.

4. Manic Street Preachers – Rewind the Film

As a lady with a particularly liberal mindset, I went through a phase of really loving the hell out of Manic Street Preachers. These Welsh rockers were just the right amount of shouty, loud, glamorous rock with abrasive lyrics. Then I got a little mellower, Nicky Wire was a bit too much, and I just stopped paying attention.

Enter Rewind the Film. My God, what a beautiful album! The guest appearances of Lucy Rose, Cate Le Bon, and Richard Hawley accomplish that rare feat of enhancing a record rather than stealing the spotlight. Here these fearless rockers have allowed themselves moments of quiet, nostalgia, and even fear as they assess themselves in their middle age. There’s little aggression to hide behind, and that proves that the Manics have managed to build a legacy that will go beyond their politics. I signed up to review this album, and I am so glad I did. Each listen gives me a new insight and appreciation for my position in life.

This is an album for age. Allow yourself to feel older and wiser. Or less wise. To miss, to love, to lose. To know that there is much more ahead.