“Crossing the Line: A Cautionary Bullying Tale” – novel uses Shakespeare to suggest how a horrific school attack could arise as retaliation for bullying

Crossing the Line: A Cautionary Bullying Tale”, by Alan Eisenberg, is a novel portraying an apocalyptic school bombing and shooting, something worse than anything that has happened yet, and it throws in the kitchen sink as to the compounding of consequences for people’s actions.  The book starts with a screenplay-like depiction (labeled the Prologue) of the 911 call.  The author’s Foreword warns that the book is intense.

It is set at a fictitious Lincoln High School in the fictitious town of Berryville, Kansas (there is a Berryton, and there is a Berryville VA), and traces the lives of several teenagers in forty chapters named after them (by first name – each kid has multiple chapters).

The final attack comprises shrapnel bombs in backpacks, detonated by cell phone, supplemented by rifle attack, all set up by a particularly disturbed kid who calls himself Anarchy and describes what he will do in a “manifesto” and blog with few visitors. The attack is stopped (before the cops can get there) by another kid, who had brought a handgun to campus to defend himself, so the conclusion does reinforce the NRA’s idea that the “only defense to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, something we heard after Sandy Hook and Aurora.  The attack is timed to happen at an assembly after a funeral for a girl, Jessie, who had committed suicide after bullying.

At this point, it’s well to note that Anarchy had been bullied for not living up to the expectations of others as a “man”.  There is a hint that he may be transgender and even possibly less physically developed.  The character Jessie is also “behind” other girls physically (breast size gets mentioned, almost the way Donald Trump talked about it in front of Billy Bush in October 2016), and her former friend Sandi now sees her as a drag.  There are lines to the effect that she needs to be put in her place (I’ve used the word “right-sizing” for this idea).  On page 150, Jessie is characterized as “an introverted know-it-all who spent all her time studying and had no interest in school or the people there.”  The kids seem to believe that intrinsic worth is related to physical development (consistent with cis-gender) and want to see a world where everyone is put in some sort of well-ordered sequence by this norm.  The word for it is “body fascism” – this time, in the heterosexual world.  This is part of a world-view that seems to believe might is right, and survival of the fittest.  This sounds almost like what Vladimir Putin (let alone Donald Trump) believes.  It sounds like the heart of “alt-right” social values.  In the mind of Anarchy, the only way to mean anything and get noticed is to counter-attack (and that doesn’t mean with chess pieces).

The kids develop an elaborate plan to bully Jessie on social media, setting up fake profiles, even hacking a friend’s router and making it appear that the activity came from a fake ip-address.  Jessie is 15, so the end result would include statutory rape and distribution of child pornography, as well as contributing to delinquency f minors, all legal points that come up toward the end.  Other family members have lives ruined and at least one teen winds up labeled a sex offender for life.

Worse, Anarchy gets his instructions for his weaponizing from the Internet.  The book would sound like an argument for Donald Trump to shut down social media as a national security matter in addition to his travel bans.  (I discussed that grim possibility in conjunction with citizen journalism before the election, but Trump’s activities on Twitter took a twist I didn’t expect.)

The consequences are so horrible that teachers pull Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (many film versions – 1968 is the best) from circulation.  At one point, Jessie says that Juliet should become “a cutter”.  The book even speculates about what her last moment would be like, and it is not the usual NDE.

The text reads like a movie script.  The writing style is simple and straightforward.

The obvious comparisons are Gus Van Sant’s film “Elephant” (2003, set in Portland OR, which I saw at the Avalon in Washington DC; one of the assailants is a likeable pianist and utters a chilling line about “picking off kids”.   Another instructive comparison is the ABC miniseries “American Crime“, the second season, where Connor Jessup plays a bullied yet charismatic gay teen who finally retaliates and then takes his sentence.

With someone who behaves like Donald Trump now as president, how will kids learn any other values ot behave by?

The names of the three “parts” are descriptive: “Season of our Discontent” (Richard III”); “We know what we are but know not what we may be” (“Hamlet”); “Done ti Death by Slanderous Tongue” (“Much Ado About Nothing”).  Indeed, this book is like a super tragedy, but most of the characters don’t have the redeeming qualities found in Shakespeare.

In ninth grade (1958), I got caught up in a counter-bullying incident after a student had an epilepsy episode in class.  Very regrettable to this day.  I guess I could have wound up at an alternative school but it blew over.

Author: Alan Eisenberg
Title, Subtitle: “Crossing the Line: A Cautionary Bullying Tale”
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1542848152:
Publication: Bullying Recovery LLC; 343 pages, paper, 40 chapters, 3 parts (complimentary review copy sent to me)
Link: publisher

First picture: Campanile tower at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, my 2006 photo.  I earned an M.A. in math there in 1968 (just before my own getting drafted).

(Posted: Thursday, March 9, 2017 at 5:15 PM)

“Steel and Promise”: fantasy on a small, alien planet, but applicable if Donald Trump really wants to implement feudalism

Steel and Promise”, by Alexa Black, is somewhat genre fantasy science fiction, but one could say if poses a rough moral parallel to perhaps what is going on in much of the world (including the U.S. with the Trump presidency) today.

Somewhere else in our universe, the nobility have their own small planets, which they may tend to run as fiefdoms.  There is some hint that some overriding civilization has slipped back into authoritarianism and local oligarchies.  Perhaps these planets have geographies limited by tidal lock, which would mean only an annular ring of perpetual twilight would be habitable.

The story concerns a courtesan, Cailyn Derys, who serves the whims of the local ruler Lady Teran Nivrai, in all kinds of hardscrabble lesbian encounters.  On this planet, the ruling class can grow claws and weapons (even with metallic parts) as parts of their own bodies – so they’re not just fighting with their fingernails.   If you lose a limb, it will grow back, but only it you pay.  The economy must have some sort of digital currency like bitcoin.  In fact, if you think about it, a financial system encompassing multiple planets (like in Star Wars) would have to be based on digital currencies and block chains.

Cailyn will be tested by the male persons above her (I guess there is plenty of cis-gender), as she will soon have the moral limits of personal loyalty tested.  But isn’t Trump all about that?

The writing doesn’t give you a strong sense of geography.  The cover art shows towering mountains and a lake.  But it looks a bit like a gamer’s world.  There is pretty much a modern world of computers and Internet, although there’s an opportunity to grow your own Internet connections as part of your body.  Dolphins do that underwater.

Alexa presented her book at a social of the (Virginia) Arlington Lesbian and Gay Alliance, on a day I couldn’t attend;  I bought it on Amazon.

If I make a journey to this world, I want a luxury hotel room with Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress.

The title of the book reminds me of an old screed, “Men of Steel and Velvet: A Guide to Masculine Development” by Aubrey Andelin, Pacific Press, 1994, the paperback somewhere in the bedroom, and.  not very friendly to modern ideas on gender.

Author: Alexa Black
Title, Subtitle: Steel and Promise
publication date 2016/12
ISBN 978-1-62639-805-4
Publication: Bold Stroke Books, 304 pages, paper (and e-book), 43 chapters
Link: publisher’s

(Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

“Diana’s Magic”: an imagined fantasy movie inside a children’s novel

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Author: David A. Hicks
Title, Subtitle: Diana’s Magic
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-4787-6222-5
Publication: Outskirts, 457 pages, paper, 23 chapters (no TOC, no chapter titles)
Link: goodreads   Amazon link (for some reason icon below isn’t working yet)


Diana’s Magic”, by David A. Hicks, is an older children’s book authored by an owner of the Westover Market and Beer Garden in Arlington VA. It’s a bit long for the audience, but is written at an intermediate grade level without a lot of long sentences or big words.  The book was discussed in the Beer Garden Book Club in March 2016.

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The story is also a “meta-movie”: that is, the book title is the same as the envisioned movie made by upper grade school children in a suburban (Virginia) public school, as an art project.

The heroine is a new teacher, Sarah Carter.  The story is set up when her fiancé, a “blue collar” person named Eric, is put into a coma by a horrific auto accident in Chapter 1.  That beginning sets up a moral test of her character:  could she remain in love with someone “until death do us part” who has been rendered helpless by someone else’s misdeed?

Sarah’s original charge is to do a spring art show.  But she comes up with the idea of a movie, about “dragons and wizards”, which reminds me of the dichotomy “brownies and elves” in kindergarten in the 1940s.  She organizes a production team, including “writers”, who will negotiate what the story will be.  It’s interesting to see, in a self-published novel, the author setting up a real world (a copy of Tinseltowm, ironically) where “real” writers have to write for a “real living” and ultimately negotiate the world of unions.

She’s also counseled that teachers need to learn the world of school district politics and make friends.  A parent complains about her replacing the art show with a movie project, and the school district has a hissy fit.  Temporarily, the school cancels it, forcing the kids to do car washes to raise money for it.  (No Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or “GoFundMe”.) Later, her “enemies” try to use local government zoning regulations (a typical libertarian issue) to stop the movie (to be shown in the barn where it was filmed) to protect the audience for the art show.

Then there is the fantasy world of wizards, ranging from Harry Potter to Clark Kent people.  Eventually there is a crossover into the real world and a miracle for Eric,

I saw some of this political infighting when I worked as a substitute teacher in Arlington and Fairfax County from 2004-2007.

The Career Center in Arlington actually made two films with a franchise title “Slices of Life”.  The first film is “The House Party” and  “The 50-50 Club”.  I subbed in the class making the second film.

In 2005, an AP chemistry class at West Potomac High School near Alexandria, VA made a short film “Reltonium”, imagining the discovery of a new element in the Periodic Table,  The school even then had an advanced media center with professional video editing tools.

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 at 2:45 PM EST)

“Best Gay Romance”: explicit fiction, but sometimes hitting issues (like jury duty sequestration)

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Author/Editor: Felice Picano
Title, Subtitle: “Best Gay Romance”
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-1-62778-092-6
Publication: Cleis, 206 pages, paper
Link: (2008 version site)

Best Gay Romance” is an anthology of 16 short stories, edited by Felice Picano, carrying on a series originally created and run by Richart Labonte.  The editor says that he sent out a call for submissions to over sixty gay writers, and he did get a lot of submissions.  The book, from Cleis Press, was available at Outwrite DC in August and I bought a copy.

The stories tend to be explicit.  They tend to see male homosexuality in terms of quickly coming to climax with genitals.  There is not usually an ambiguous buildup of tension where you don’t know where it’s going.  That’s more what I like, and I’ll come back to that.

The first story, “Transitions of Glass”, by Simon Bleaken, does remind me of a familiar setting from my own earlier coming of age.  A closeted gay man feels attracted to a charismatic coworker, and isn’t sure whether his idol might be gay.  In this case, the story comes to an explicit climax too quickly; the air is let out of the pliable balloon too suddenly.  Maybe that’s just men.

The fourth story, “Jury Duty”, is by Tom Baker, author of the novels” and “The Sound of One Horse Dancing” and “Paperwhite Narcissus”.  I met Tom at a gay book fair in New York in March 2012.  He graduated from William and Mary, but had a major incident there in 1963, two years after my own expulsion in the fall of 1961.  His first novel reflects the life of an educated man having to develop the street smarts of life as a hustler to survive.  The short story, which might be autobiographical, sets up a situation when the protagonist is sequestered early in jury duty because of the potentially controversial nature of the trial (set in New York).  Denied television, newspapers and Internet access, there is not much else to do but, well, find intimacy with another juror.  But, seriously, jury sequestration would be a serious issue for me if it ever happened, as I would lose all contact with my own “blogger journalism” operation.  Flirting during jury duty can indeed happen in real life.  I almost go into trouble over this in Dallas one time in 1986, as  explained here.   An important concept underneath all this is that jury duty, even if it can lead to an existential professional sacrifice, is a civic obligation, the way military service used to be.

My own sense of pacing in a gay-themed erotic story is expressed more in my own short story “The Ocelot the Way He Is”, the last item of my “Do Ask, Do Tell III” book, which is a little bit parallel to the 2006 film “Old Joy” (Kelly Reichardt), less so to “Bugcrush”.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2016 at 10:45 PM EDT)

“Following Shepard”: a curious little novel about the aftermath of the Matthew Shepard tragedy

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Author: Bob Grannan
Title, Subtitle: Following Shepard
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-069255652-0
Publication: Amazon Digital Services, 106 pages, paper, 27 chapters
Link: author

Following Shepard”, by Ohio journalist Bob Grannan, is an odd-little novella (103 pages) combining many important themes:  journalistic objectivity and ethics, with gay values, and gay bashing tragedy.

The setup is that a reporter, usually writing in first person and present tense, is enlisted by a young gay man Eirinn Galagher to track another friend, Seth McCam, leading a caravan of twelve students across the country in 1999.

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It isn’t hard to guess from the title that the novel deals with the aftermath of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 near Laramie, Wyoming. In time, the group reproduces the tragedy, so to speak, among many more people before a little march on Washington.   It may be too much of a spoiler to reveal the consequences for the group.

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Grannan’s comments on journalism do get interesting. On p. 33, he discusses an incident in Sudan in 1993 involving a journalist reporting on a starving child and confronted with the dilemma of whether to intervene.  Another theme among several characters (including parents of the characters) is keeping personal diaries or journals in the days before online blogging was possible.  I have a sense that some people know who they are when they start, as children, start creating content that can be shown to others.

He also notes “gay values” in places:  being flabby is more acceptable among straight men (who may believe women don’t care about how they look – when they do) than among gay men.  All of this in a backdrop of the hypocrisy of Irish Catholic moralizing.  Remember how in 1986 the Vatican had penned a letter claiming that male homosexuality is still some kind of “objective disorder”.  It seems, in Catholic and other religious theology, to require a rite of psychological and religious passage to welcome the idea of dedication to raising kids (your family) for the next generation. At one point, the writer, in first person, characterizes himself (as a fictive person) as non-white and from Iran, but normally people in Iran are Caucasian.

The book was available at OurWrite DC in Washington DC August 6.

The book, curiously, has page numbers printed with odd numbered pages on the back side of a sheet, something I have never seen before,

I visited Laramie in August 1994, after spending the night in Cheyenne.  Earlier that Saturday, I had made the decision to write my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book.

The important film for comparison is “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine” (Michele Josue), and the well known play is “The Laramie Project” (Moises Kaufman).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of Lake Marie and Snowy Mountains near Laramie, by Photomnt, public domain.

(Published: Monday, August 15, 2016 at 7 PM EDT)

“I Must Survive”: a sailor caught behind the Vietcong in 1966 Vietnam

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Author: Harry Simpson
Title, Subtitle: I Must Survive
publication date 2014
ISBN 978-1-63268-783-8:
Publication: Tate, 40 chapters, 244 pages, paper
Link: Amazon,  author interview by Michael Slaughnessy

I Must Survive”, by Harry Simpson, arrived as a free sample.  The book tells the story of Brad Howard, a Navy sailor quasi Marine caught behind Vietcong enemy lines in late 1966, somewhere in the Mekong Delta, apparently.  I am not sure if this is really an autobiographical account or if it is fiction (but see the author interview link, it may well be fictive).

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Brad recalls his upbringing in Colorado from the late 1940s through the mid-1950s.  They moved around, and even after television became common place, they lived in an area of the High Plains (away from the Rockies) so remote they got no signal.  So the kids all had to learn real world creativity outdoors.  There was a kind of backyard baseball, of sorts (which we used to play – we even made cardboard stadiums as kids).  They dealt with telephone party lines, which could be listened in.  Brad even got polio, from which he recovered fully.  I can remember the advice for avoiding the dread disease around 1950, like not eating “too much ice cream.”

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The book is layered between “present day” (which is 1966) and the 1940s-1950s (sorry, no mention of Roswell).  In that sense, the book is structurally similar to “Silent Drums” (June 23), except that in the former book, the Vietnam battle scenes are a “past is prologue” with hospital and domestic stuff as “present day”. (The former book is more complicated in other ways, as explained there.)  The book, like “Tribe” (May 31) also shows a concern for why we put men into the military.  Brad says he enlisted in the Navy to avoid the draft, but wound up in a combat situation more dangerous.

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Indeed, the escape and evasion are quite harrowing.  He pastes his skin for camouflage, notes sores disfiguring his legs (as if that mattered), eats snakes and turtle eggs (so do foxes – at least the red fox that comes into my yard and naps after munching on stuff I didn’t know exists).  He calls to my mind the “Committee Group” unit of “Individual Tactical Training” at Fort Jackson SC at the start of Week 3 of my own Army Basic Combat Training in 1968.   (Oh, yes, on a hike-march from that session back to the company area, I said, “The Marines are tougher than the Army.”)

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Lyndon Johnson escalated the War in Vietnam in mid-1965, while I was working on my first summer job (as a computer programmer) for the Navy at David Taylor Model Basin.  I would get a graduate degree in math before having to enter the Army in early 1968.  But a friend, in the college chess club, flunked out and got drafted in the fall of 1966, and spend most of 1967 in Vietnam in the Signal Corps.  He wasn’t exposed to much combat personally, but by 1966 it had already gotten quite dangerous.  I can recall that soldiers headed for Vietnam on the East Coast would report to Fort Dix, even on New Year’s Day, fly to Oakland and then to Nam, often after eight weeks of Basic and ten or so weeks of Infantry AIT, and a month’s leave. Army infantry went on patrol every third night.  Many did not come back.  This was sacrifice.

I’m reminded of the 1995 book by Robert McNamara (with Brian Van Der Mark), “In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam” (Times Books), most of all Chapter 7. “The Decision to Escalate”.

(Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)