The last word he pronounced was…

Many individuals reduce books or movies to quotes that over time have become cliches. Publishers do this too. Penguin Classics starts its back cover of “The Heart of Darkness” with Kurtz’s last words of horror.

Quote repetition or scene reminiscing can lead some individuals to think they’re familiar with a book or movie–even if they haven’t read or seen it.

Mention, for example, “Deliverance” to someone who was a young adult in the 1970s. They’ll likely mimic the tune of “Dueling Banjos,” though they never saw the film.

To read “The Heart of Darkness” (1899) is to let Conrad’s character, Marlow, take you slowly up the Congo to the dim, muddy place that seems “of the first ages.” Taking the trip, you experience the full story’s richness and humor in addition to its culmination of darkness and horror.

The final words that Kurtz “cried in a whisper,” can be recited by many. Fewer can quote the only person with Kurtz when he spoke his last. What Marlow says at the story’s end is also remarkable.

After he blows out the candle and leaves the cabin (a whole year after), Marlow chooses to visit Kurtz’s mourning fiance. She knows that Marlow was the last one to see the man she loved. She pleads with him to tell her Kurtz’s last word.

When a character has to make a big choice–one they can’t go back on–that’s key to a good story. Marlow either needs to tell the fiance the truth, or he needs to make something up.

“It seemed to me that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.”

That’s what Marlow feels…when he says to the fiance,

” ‘The last word he pronounced was–your name.’ “

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Sailing the Icy Passage below South America’s Cape Horn

“Our sails spread beyond the ship, rising in a pyramid and burying the hull in canvas, like what the whalemen call a Cape Horn-er under a cloud of sail.”

That 1835 passage was written by Richard Henry Dana, who at nineteen quit Harvard to serve on a merchant ship and record his seafaring experience. At the time, books about sailing were written by officers. Dana’s goal: Write the view that was missing–the sailor’s.

From Boston Harbor he set out on the Pilgrim, and like other sailors Dana took orders and climbed the masts, furling and unfurling the sails. When not on deck he was below, eating or sleeping in the forecastle. The quarters were dark, cramped behind the bow, and “before the mast.” The phrase came to describe being a sailor versus being an officer.

Aren’t sailors idle at sea? That misconception Dana clears up. “You’ll never see a man on board standing idle on deck, sitting down, or leaning over the side. The discipline of the ship requires every man to be at work, except at night and on Sundays.”

Dana describes the constant work, “steering, reefing, furling, bracing, making and setting sail, and pulling, hauling, and climbing in every direction.” He starts by detailing the four months sailing from Boston to California.

Getting there took so long because a ship couldn’t cut between the Americas (no canal through Panama). The only way to the Pacific: sail south over the equator, continue toward the Antarctic, then turn west into the icy passage below South America’s Cape Horn. There, sleet stiffened the sails and rigging, it glazed the masts and deck, and it froze the sailors’ faces and hands.

Despite the labor of sailing, Dana was awed by many sights. “There, floating in the ocean, was an iceberg of the largest size, an immense mountain-island, three miles in circumference and several hundred feet in height. The base rising and sinking in slow motion, the dashing of waves upon it, the thundering of the cracking mass, the breaking and tumbling of huge pieces, all this combined into true sublimity.”

Navigating the hazards paid off when the Pilgrim reached California’s coast. The ship floated into the Mexican bays of San Diego, San Pedro, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, where the agent sold the cargo of “everything from Chinese fireworks to English cart-wheels.”

Selling so much cargo at so many ports took more than a year. For sixteen months the sailors worked not only on the ship, but also on shore and in between. Upon entering each bay they dropped anchor, dropped boats, and rowed buyers back and forth. 

Separately, the sailors hauled what was received in exchange–animal hides that were large, heavy, and stiff as boards. From shore, each sailor carried one at a time on his head as he trudged through the surf to waiting boats. The sailors then rowed the filled boats back to the ship. By the time the entire cargo was sold, the sailors had carried and stowed fifteen thousand hides.

Two Years Before the Mast achieves Dana’s goal of giving the sailor’s view, highlighting the hard labor, strict discipline, dangerous work, and countering the romance. Dana writes of a fellow sailor who from high on a yard, fell into the sea and wasn’t recovered.

“At sea the man is near you, you hear his voice, and in an instant he’s gone, nothing but a vacancy shows his loss. There’s an empty berth in the forecastle, and a man wanting when the small night-watch is mustered. There’s one less to take the wheel, and one less to lay out with you upon the yard.”

That’s an example of the feeling Dana puts into his journalism. The sections with nautical terms were sometimes difficult to get through, but the passages with images and emotions kept me reading.

The return to Boston required the sailors to work just as hard, and Dana’s spirits rose as he neared the end of his merchant service.

“We were now to the northward of the line, and every day added to our latitude. The Magellan Clouds, the last sign of south latitude, had long been sunk, and the North Star, the Great Bear, and the familiar signs of northern latitudes, were rising in the heavens. Next to seeing land, there is no sight which makes one realize more that he is drawing near home, than to see the same heavens, under which he was born, shining at night over his head.”

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You Stand on Dead Men’s Legs

“You stand on dead men’s legs.”

So says Captain Larsen to his human find, the once drowning stranger now plucked from San Francisco Bay by the crew of The Ghost, a schooner starting for the coast of Japan to hunt seals.

The captain ordered his crew to lift the chance man from the freezing water only because they were short one. (The captain’s mate died onboard from a “debauch” the night before.)

The rescued man is Humphrey Van Weyden, who responds to Larsen’s questions of occupation by identifying himself as a “gentleman” who has an “income.”

The angered captain responds, “Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs.”

Humphrey dismisses the abuse and asks to be put ashore.

It’s then that Wolf Larsen, as the captain’s known, refuses Humphrey’s request and commits to make him stand on his own legs.

“My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you…”

Thus Humphrey Van Weyden, gentleman, is impressed into service as “Hump,” cabin boy of The Ghost.

This is the setup for Jack London’s 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London pits Wolf and Hump against each other for an engaging tale on the sea and to explore whether humans have immortal souls.

It’s Van Weyden who tells the story. He shows Larsen both as a fierce captain of super-human strength who abuses his crew, and as a self-educated man (his state-room full of literary classics and scientific works) who’s curious but skeptical about the value of life.

During breaks in the terror and the hard work of sailing, Wolf seeks Hump to debate whether life is anything more than “particles of yeast…striving to devour each other.” Hump’s impressed by Wolf’s ability to reason and argue, but is unable to change him from “a man of whom to always be afraid.”

Wolf does have a weakness–he gets migraines. This enables two things: opportunity for Hump to save himself, and a gradual physical deterioration that presents an idea about life being more than the desire to devour.

Reading The Sea-Wolf I felt like I too was captive on The Ghost.

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Don Quixote’s Cartoonlike Humor

Ever see Fractured Fairy Tales? As a kid I loved watching the cartoon from the sixties. The five-minute episodes featured knights and damsels, kings and commoners in humorous parodies of stories for children. The shorts aired during morning programming for kids, but parents were the target of the writers. The show entertained with wit, often including touches of social and political commentary.

With similar humor and wit Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I recognized immediately its cartoonlike genre and short chapters, so I chose breakfast time for reading it. Like a kid who used to watch a cartoon before going to school, I smiled through an episode of Quixote before going to work. One hundred and twenty-five chapters gave as many escapes from adulthood.

The book’s characters fart, puke, cross-dress, get drunk, strike each other, flog themselves, and play adult practical jokes. It’s hilarious and juvenile but written for adults. Published in Spain in 1605, the book was so enjoyed that Cervantes wrote a sequel. Both are included in the 1885 English translation. Today it’s still funny and its social and political commentary still applies.

What’s funny is that fifty-year-old villager Quixote has read so many stories of chivalry he gets the notion he’s a knight. The age of chivalry has passed for a century, but Quixote dons heirloom armor, mounts a tired horse, and sets out for adventure.

Deluded by his obsession he takes innocent individuals for enemies, challenges them, then in cartoonlike violence delivers blows and receives them back. Sidekick Sancho Panza is unable to get his master to see what things really are. The lazy, simple, farm laborer accompanies Quixote on an ass, shares the consequences, and stays faithful for one reason: Quixote promises to win him an island to govern.

Quixote is mad, of course, and those who don’t yet know find out fast. In one scene a traveling entertainer makes Quixote special guest at his puppet show. During the performance, Quixote watches as a puppet knight and his puppet lover are chased by puppet horsemen. At this Quixote draws his sword and showers blows on the miniature mounted Moors.

In another scene, some who know Quixote’s madness have fun with it. A duke and duchess invite Quixote and Panza to their court for their own entertainment. The noble pair, as part of a long-running practical joke, convince knight and squire to mount a wooden horse with a peg in its head, and make them believe it’s flying them to a remote kingdom.

Cervantes strings a hundred such scenes together, moving character Quixote from beginning to end in a way that makes sense, holds attention, and entertains. There’s social and political commentary to think about or to let go. If you just want reading that brings back the feeling of juvenile cartoon-like fun, give Quixote a try.

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The Men in the City

The men in the city
Made a deal with the women in the city
The men would work every Tuesday and Thursday
The women would work every Monday and Wednesday
They’d alternate Fridays
The deal fell apart, though, by week three
That’s when they realized the old way was better

(I’ve posted this for the fun of it. It’s the result of a warm-up exercise during Creative Writing Essentials at StoryStudio Chicago. The exercise was to select one of three titles (picked randomly from an anthology of poetry) and write a unique story of exactly 50 words. I excluded “Long May” and “In the Dark I Enter,” and chose “Men in the City.”)

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Storytelling: Babcox Justice Center – Official Video

2015-06-11 Jim

Click here to watch the official video from Kenosha Fusion, of Jim’s performance at the June 11th event, telling his true story, Babcox Justice Center.

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Just Middle-age and Gratefulness

2015-07-20 Sunset

Every evening after dinner
I walk the tree-lined side street
That leads from my house

I don’t begin the walk at a specific time
Tonight first,
I washed the dishes

Then I started out
With nothing in mind
Just middle-age and gratefulness
And what to do next

Trees and worries and birds and plans
Until the houses ended
And the ball-field began

And like the other evenings
The sky grew big
No houses or trees to block it

The giant sky
One great, low cloud
And below…the sharp, round sun
Burning orange
Then setting behind distant trees

The persons driving cars
East on Ninth
–They missed it

Instead they looked at me
The guy standing at the end of West Broadway
Facing the sun and smiling

In khaki pants and a white undershirt
Like he hadn’t bothered to change
From work

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Lichtenstein’s Starbursts

Illustration

Rewrite of a non-fiction piece I wrote for the 2012 fall edition of Left of the Lake magazine

Roy Lichtenstein is known for using primary and secondary colors to paint organized dots which turn familiar objects into pop art.

Lichtenstein. He’s only dots. Filled circles of uniform size and repetition. That’s what I thought before I visited Chicago’s Art Institute and viewed Haystack 1969. Lichtenstein’s impression of Monet’s impression of a haystack.

As I approached the painting I recognized Monet’s image. But Lichtenstein’s work is not a copy. It’s another masterpiece.

I looked up-close and the haystack vanished. Genius appeared. A yellow background behind red circles evenly spaced and sized. And repeating white shapes that are not dots, but six-pointed starbursts.

Something other than dots? In a Lichtenstein?

Further in the exhibit I discovered a sketch titled Haystack and Haystacks (Studies). It’s Lichtenstein’s 1968 plan for the 1969 painting. I saw the plan! A pencil drawing and margin notes regarding arrangement of dots and colors. It revealed that each starburst is background showing through the center of overlapping dots. Maybe you knew, but I needed the notes.

After my visit I went home to experiment with this technique. I used a laptop to arrange solid circles into a ring, leaving room in the center for a starburst to appear. I then copied the dot cluster and pasted it several times, creating a pattern of foreground starbursts against what became a background of overlapping solid circles. (See the image at the top of this blog entry.)

Placing dots in a circle is easy. But how to configure the dots to create a desired shape? And how to construct the pattern? There are many possibilities. As I thought through the arrangement problems, I wondered if Lichtenstein had similar thoughts.

Studying Haystack 1969 and its plan reveals Lichtenstein’s genius. It’s work to turn an idea into a masterpiece. Even for an accomplished artist.

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Babcox Justice Center – A Story by Jim Janus

Fusion June 11 2015

This past June 11, Jim performed at Kenosha Fusion’s “Stories for a Summer’s Night.”

He told his story, “Babcox Justice Center.

You can watch the 13 minute performance by clicking this link, or the photo above.

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Retro Rocket – My Short Story Submission to the WPL 2015 Ray Bradbury Creative Contest

Space Fantasy Stamps

Against the black infinity of space, a rocket-ship floated like a blimp above a long and gradual curve of the Red Planet. The ship’s bulging hull, like a mirror, gathered what could be seen–the field of stars, the distant sun, the rust colored horizon–and reflected it all back.

Inside the rocket’s nose-cone, two figures in bulky spacesuits sat side by side, their white helmets facing the fore of the ship, their dark visors reflecting indicator lamps, and their thick-gloved fingers floating before an array of knobs and switches.

The silver ship slowed, nosed up, then began its descent to Mars. The rocket descended vertically, a reverse of its liftoff from Earth. Fire-columns thundered from nozzles at the ship’s bottom. The blaze of orange and yellow pushed against the Martian ground, stirring red sand into a billowing cloud through which the ship set down on the planet.

The engines quieted, and silence filled the ship. As the astronauts awaited their signal a speaker crackled with a voice, “This is Mission Control calling Vegas Station. Sandship One has landed.”

Beyond the upright rocket’s porthole the night sky glimmered with pinpoints of bright white, but one shone a brilliant blue. The captain didn’t notice, but Lieutenant Ellison did. He used a scope to magnify the object, and discovered that the brilliance came not from a star but from a faraway planet with oceans of blue brightened by a more distant sun. Ellison gazed in awe of Earth.

On Earth a small town slept as streetlamps shined orange onto tree-lined lanes. In the dark, dewy lawns lay in squares formed by sidewalks, and the walks leading to concrete stoops. Above each stoop, a single porch-light lit the front door of a brick home.

Atop a shingled roof towered an aluminum antenna. It gathered radio waves and routed them down to a cool basement, dim and unfinished. There an aging man in a thick sweater sat at a wooden table before a shortwave radio. From the metal console a cable curled up to a pair of large headphones cupped over his ears. Through the headset a voice crackled, “Mission Control to Vegas Station. We’ve delivered your astronauts. Captain Borges, you and the lieutenant get some sleep. At dawn we’ll commence the Mars walk.”

This transmission stirred the old man from his daydream, in which he saw the landing like those in the sci-fi movies of the nineteen thirties. Hearing the radio transmission assured him that now, men really would walk on Mars. He’d been waiting for it since he was a boy and wanted to be part of it. So he clicked a radio button and pulled forward a tall, chrome microphone and spoke, “This is Waukegan-One calling Sandship One.” Then he listened through the hiss and hum and squeal for a response, but the voice that came next came from behind him.

“Dad?” His middle-aged son in jeans and a t-shirt called from the bottom of the stairs. “Dad!”

The old man pulled off the headphones and swiveled around, his face feeling warm as he realized his son might have heard him. “You startled me. You’re back from the library already?”

“I’ve been back for a while. What are you doing?” The son rubbed his own arms. “It’s cold down here.”

The old man’s embarrassment went away. “Using this radio is my nighttime routine. Do you know it works as good now as when I built it fifty years ago?” The old man’s blue eyes became blank for a moment, then the spark returned. “How was the presentation?”

“It was fantastic! The author discussed his book about the Mars mission. Tomorrow he’s touring the control room in Nevada. It’s from there that Borges and Ellison operate the mechanical astronauts.”

Though the newspaper reported for months that the mission would be unmanned, the father rejected the idea. “Mechanical astronauts?” That’s no way to explore Mars! Man himself must take the ride, step off the ladder, feel his boot sink into the red dust. When life on Mars is discovered, Man must be there to look it in the eye!”

The son smiled, familiar with his father’s retro temperament. “Like in that vintage sci-fi poster over your desk?” The son continued, trying to be kind. “Dad, you know rockets don’t land backwards. And ladders don’t slide down from under their fins.” Then he shook his head, “And as for looking a Martian in the eye…there’s no life there. The probes and rovers confirmed that.”

The old man mocked, “The probes and rovers confirmed that.” Then he protested, “Technology has ruined it! The remote missions, the imaging, the Internet and its interactive globe of Mars. All this destroys our imagination, destroys the possibilities, destroys the wonder!”

The son appreciated his father’s sentimentality. “Dad, come upstairs. We can watch the mission together. This one is different. The mechanical astronauts let us see through their eyes.”

“Nah.” The old man dismissed the offer. “I won’t watch. But I’ll be up in a few minutes. First I need to write some notes about what the radio picked up tonight.”

The son’s steps on the wooden stairs echoed off the basement walls, and the old man turned to the console. He put the headphones on, reached for the dial, pulled forward the chrome microphone and whispered, “Sandship One, this is Waukegan Station. Confirm Martian sunrise.” Then he continued a little louder, “Captain Borges. Lieutenant Ellison. Time to commence the Mars walk!”

The old man’s mind resumed the movie. He imagined his message being converted into radio waves, sent up through the antenna into the still night sky, up into space where a planet shined red. On that world, rising above its rust colored horizon, the white sun silhouetted the standing rocket-ship. From it, a ladder slid down. Then an astronaut in a bulky spacesuit descended, and stepped back from the last rung onto the Martian powder. The figure turned from the ship and began to walk. It paused, knelt down, pulled off its glove, and plunged its hand into the soil. The astronaut brought up its cupped palm and let the red sand sift through its fingers.

“Dad!” The son called down from the living room. “It’s started. Ellison’s astronaut has stepped out of the lander.”

But the movie continued in the old man’s mind. The astronaut stood and removed his helmet, then his mouth shaped into a scream and his eyes grew wide, as he came face to face with a Martian.

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