Prose Fridays: A Tragedy and A Farce, by John Winn

Struggling to balance himself on the large oil drum, Seagull Number One shakes his head at the stretch of tar-colored sea around him. Boats come and go as men and women watch from a safe distance. Yet Seagull Number One doesn’t spy a trace of fowl in the sky, not even his own kind. Beasts with strange wings hover cautiously over the muck, every one oblivious to the pair teetering perilously below.

“Humans.” He mutters as he glances away. “Can’t leave well enough alone.”

Seagull Number Two looks on, a dense look evident in her eyes.

“I don’t see what the problem is. It’s probably just a bunch of whales.”

Seagull Number One glares at her.

“Those aren’t whales, honey.”

“They look like them to me.”

“Since when did whales gather around some like that?” Seagull Number One gestures toward the black slick miles away from shore.

“I don’t know. First time for everything, I guess.”

“I don’t know if your mama dropped you as an egg,” Seagull Number One nods toward the flotilla of boats bobbing on the water, “but those shiny things out in the water aren’t whales.”

A look of confusion lingers in Seagull Number Two’s eyes.

“What do you call those things, then?”

“I think the humans use them to get their food or something. But this is the largest gathering of them I’ve seen in a while. Something’s not right, is all I have to say.”

The wind picks up, ruffling their feathers. A mix of salt and chemicals invade their nostrils, causing them to blanch. Seagull Number Two glances around nervously.

“I don’t like it here. Let’s go back home.”

“There’s no home to go back to.” Seagull Number One counsels her. “Everybody’s either dead or gone. Mom. Dad. Your uncle.”

He’s all too aware of the death toll.  It’s been hard not to notice since the tar balls invaded inland. The sad warbling as seagulls lay covered in muck, struggling desperately to survive as they die a slow, painful death is hard for any of them to ignore. Rumors circulate of balls of black goo further inland, birds helpless in the face of the awful slick.  Seagull Number One can already count on his webbed feet the number of friends who have perished and fled, and now his children are at risk as well.

The thought is horrifying.

“What about the kids?” Seagull Number Two asks. “Are they safe?”

“The nest is too far away.” Her partner puts on a brave face. “They’ll be fine.”

A plastic six ring floats toward them, bobbing on the ocean waves, dirty and dark. The pair looks on in horror.

“No escape, is there?” Seagull Number One injects a bit of levity into an already traumatic day.

Seagull Number Two teeters perilously on the drum, inches from going overboard. She struggles to maintain control, balancing herself on a single leg. She gazes into the murky depths below, wondering if she’ll be the slick’s latest victim, too. Her thoughts race anxiously. But mostly she thinks about the kids back in the marsh, waiting anxiously for their parents to come back and feed them.

The feeling is bittersweet.

“Do you think they’ll think about us when we’re gone?” Her voice wavers.

“You mean the kids?”

Seagull Number Two nods.

“We can only hope.”

Yet even as she holds on for her life, there is only so much one bird can do. Her leg is growing tired under the strain. Seagull Number Two tries not to think about her impending doom. She thinks of the partner she loves, and the children she’ll never see survive to adulthood.

“You know I love you, right?” She asks.

“Always and forever.”  Seagull Number One looks out into the horizon. “Always and forever.”

A splash of water catches him off guard as a piercing squawk shakes him back into reality. He glances at his beloved, bobbing in the water, slick covering her all over. He dives for her in a bid of rescue, but already it is too late. She coughs violently before going limp, her lifeless body bobbing in the water. Seagull Number One’s last thoughts before blacking out are of their first meeting, several moons before.

###

 A harsh light blinds his eyes as Seagull Number One comes too on a cold slab. He squawks in an angry tone at the gloved hands scrubbing him down, but he’s in no position to resist. Fatigue washes over him as his rescuers douse him with detergent, working anxiously to clean him of the black tar covering his small body.

“It’s okay.” The handler coos. “You’re safe now, alright? Nothing’s going to hurt you.”

“There was another one nearby on the surf.” Her assistant replies. “A female”

There are sighs all around.

“There’s hundreds more like him out there, you know.” The handler murmurs.

“Yeah, we can barely keep up as it is.”

“It’s a real shame what happened, if you ask me.  There’s not enough money that can be paid to make up for what was done. ”

“A tragedy and a farce…” The assistant shakes her head ruefully.

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The Interview: Natasha Phillips

A lovelorn Natasha Phillips blows a kiss to her reptilian paramour.

Quirky with a ironic, almost nonsensical sense of humor, Natasha Phillips (@SobukiRa on Twitter) defies labels.  One minute she’s blogging about international custody disputes, satirizing pop culture with her imaginary friends InkyBuki and Cranial Gerbil the next.  But the aspiring writer is no scatter brain.  With an impressive career as a researcher for a UK advocacy firm and a barrister in her own right, Natasha can hold forth as eloquently as any peer–male or female.  Future critics, take note.

Hennen’s John Winn caught up with Ms. Phillips via email and chatted about life in Europe, the origin of InkyBuki–and her forbidden love for a certain star crossed rodent.

JB:  You hail from London.  What’s different about writing there versus the States or Continental Europe?  Is it less dreary or are people there just numb?

NP: To my mind being in different places offers opportunities to observe the human condition in its many different forms; it’s a real privilege to be able to write and reflect in different environments. Londoners are generally bloody miserable so there’s definitely plenty of scope to explore the stagnation of our species there.

I was lucky enough to visit the States growing up as I have lots of relatives there and really enjoy travelling to San Francisco when I can. I have a romantic view of it though; in reality, it’s changed a lot since I was little and like London it’s become less unpredictable.

The Continent though, despite or perhaps because of its economic troubles holds a great deal of immediate colour in relation to the human condition which is readily visible still in day to day life. There is still warmth that you can tap into in most places; a humanity that still prevails.

But perhaps it’s really a question of degree; I think if you look hard enough in London or Las Vegas, you can still see pain and pleasure in all its complexity beating beneath the surface: it just depends how deep you’re willing to go. And whether or not you can source a really big monocle.

JW:  Who is InkyBuki, and why is she so mysterious?

NP: InkyBuki is the inky version of Sobuki Ra, who is a crocodile living in a bayou (the coordinates of which are top secret) and can be found most days swimming in the Twitter and Google + streams, terrorising other social media users and hatching mischievous plans with her best friends Ludvig, the Goblin Shark and Cranial Gerbil, a gerbil. I believe she is the only crocodile to date with opposable thumbs, which goes some way to explaining why she has taken up the art of writing and why she is perhaps a little mysterious about it.

JW: What’s with the gerbil obsession?  Is there something you need to share with the rest of the class?

NB: Cranial Gerbil is no ordinary rodent. The little pink plastic ball he lives in is all that stands between him and world domination. We are star crossed lovers. It’s very sad.

JW:  You’re also an advocate of family law reform in the UK.  Do you ever get weird emails or photos of people dressed like Batman?

Frequently, but I rather like Superheroes and action figures, so I tend to invite them all to the work meetings I help organise. Sometimes, if I’m very well behaved, they share their Trebor XXX mints with me.

JW:  Final Question: Dickens or Tolstoy–who is the most depressing writer?

NP: If one is more depressing than the other, it must be only be by a whisky.

 

Photo Essay: In the Birdhouse

EDEN, N.C.–Tweet.  Tweet.

One could be forgiven for mistaking that sound for the thousands of celebrities updating their Twitter streams to dish on the latest Lindsay Lohan scandal.

Alas, the high pitched warble heard outside the backyard of one prominent Eden, North Carolina resident isn’t an audio cue on Tweet Deck or a thousand other social media sites.  Rather, it is the sound of sparrows, jaybirds, cardinals, and a dozen other avians nesting in these colorful bird condos.   Flitting in and out as they gather food to feed their hungry little ones, they are the snapshot of avian suburbia.  While it is unknown exactly how many have taken up residence in these avant-garde homes, the impact on the ambiance of the neighborhood is keenly felt.  At least three or four (human) homes on the stretch of road where this photo was taken play host to one form of birdhouse or another; several more have birdseed at the ready to feed the eccentric beasts.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the avian neighbors, the impact on the local economy is unmistakable.  A handful of bird seed and pet stores in Rockingham County, N.C generate an untold number of dollars.  The town of Eden is but the latest beneficiary of the bird watchers–at least one store is known to be thriving in the bedroom community, and many more are slated to arrive soon.

 John Winn 

Photo Essay: They’re Loving It

 EDEN, N.C.–The main drag of Fieldcrest Drive in Draper in Eden, North Carolina is the last place one would expect to find the gleaming red and yellow colors of McDonald’s.  Yet it is hard not to notice the similarity in this municipal fire hydrant, pictured in a resident’s yard.  Nestled near a thicket of hardscrabble shrubs not far from the street, it advertises it’s hidden wares to pedestrians and motorists alike.  How it managed to escape being snapped by photographers up to this point is uncertain.

For the record there are several hydrants of similar hues dotting the street–from blues and greens to plain old black and whites.  According to one anonymous local, the multicolored structures are part of an initiative by the city government.  Why the town felt the need to replace the familiar red hydrants remains a mystery, but residents appear to be indifferent in the meantime–with a median income of $27,000 and 17% of the population under the poverty line, they got enough issues to deal with.

John Winn

Interview: Jen Knox

Jen Knox posing with a license plate.Jen Knox,starring as herself.

If life is a school of hard knocks, Jen Knox is a PhD. From a humble background in rural Ohio to a the grandeur and eccentricity of the Lone Star State, the author (and adjunct professor) has made a career out of telling stories both true and fantastical.  The road hasn’t been easy–filled with challenges and struggles that at times left her with doubt and loneliness, fear and pain. But fate has been kind to her–a promising writing career, honorable mentions from Glimmer Train, awards unbidden.

Recovering from a hand injury, the author took time to discuss books, blogging–and her favorite tenses.

JW: You recently won the Next Generation Indie Book Award.  How does it feel to be recognized by the literary community?

JK: It’s a wonderful thing to be recognized, especially as an indie author. I think that those writers who are working from the grassroots level, either through self-publication or with the support of a small independent press, have to work incredibly hard to be taken seriously by readers, so the credibility that goes with the award means a lot.

JW: Where did the idea for “To Begin Again” come from?

JK: The collection came together over the last three years. Actually, I wasn’t planning on releasing a collection at all, but as I went over the various stories I noticed that they were connected by a theme—each of the pieces focuses on a small life decision that grows exponentially leading to life-altering circumstance. I’m forever baffled by how easily a person’s life or perspective on life can change in an instant. This bafflement, I suppose, brought the collection together.

JW: In addition to being a writer, you also run a blog on the side.  How has that changed the way you write?

JK: I began blogging when my memoir, Musical Chairs, was released in 2009. To be honest, releasing my memoir was as traumatic as it was exciting. I began to record my thoughts (and emotions) concerning the process of publication and all that goes with the transition of entering my personal work into the public domain. My blog was a place to vent and tease out why I was so affected by the process. After a few months of this, however, I simply kept up the blog because it was a place to record general thoughts on the writing life; it’s a difficult but rewarding life, and there’s much to say. Blogging has been rewarding for me because it demands a regular writing schedule, which gives me some structure. Also, it offers community—connections and conversations with other writers that I might not have otherwise met.

JW: Are there any stories you aren’t willing to write?

JK: I haven’t come across one yet. I’ve been known to say I’d never write a story with a vampire in it, but who knows… The beauty about writing is that I never know what I’ll end up with until I reach the end of a story.

JW: Final Q: First, second or third person?  Which is better and why

Because memoir and personal essays are my favorite genre to read, I have to go with first person narration. I’ve read remarkable work from every perspective (though I find it rare in second person), so I don’t automatically like or dislike a story that is written from any perspective. But there’s something I love about the inclusiveness of a first person delivery. The sense that a writer (or narrator) is confiding in the reader can be especially powerful.

Chai and Conversation

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

A shot of Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington

Nestled in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Pike Street Market is the birthplace of America’s coffee revolution. One doesn’t have to travel very far to find the old farmer’s market where Starbuck’s began in the 1970s. Not far from that is Pier 70, where Seattle’s Best blossomed a decade later.

It goes without saying that the Emerald City loves it coffee.

But tea?

Yes, according to Julie Rosanoff, co-owner of the Perennial Tea Room in—where else?—Pike Street.

“We have been here for over twenty years and counting.” She said in an email interview.

Being a tea shop in the country’s coffee capital is a tall order for anyone, not least a couple of idealistic entrepreneurs with tastes for oolong and green tea. But Rosanoff and her business partner never wavered. In fact they thrived, and it’s all due to a simple business decision early on.

“We decided early on not to be a restaurant. We don’t bother with big chains, and we have no plans to expand beyond where we are. I find that there is a reaction against large coffee companies and people choose tea as an alternative.”

Rosanoff is not alone. According to a 2000 survey by Luzianne Iced Tea, Americans consumed over 7.8 billion gallons of tea in the last decade alone, 90 percent of it black—mostly bagged. Hot tea is the second most popular, usually of the green variety.

Another revolution—the health revolution—has a lot to do with the rise in popularity of green and oolong teas. Yet just as many people drink tea as a status item or to confer on themselves a degree of nonconformist cool.

A number of companies have caught on, marketing products for a wide variety of ‘with it’ consumers, ranging from the eco-conscious ‘green’ twentysomething to the hurried mom on the go. Gourmet teas are available in every restaurant and bistro from Los Angeles to Manhattan and everywhere in between, and in an ironic twist that only a tea drinker could love, Chai is one of the most popular drinks at Starbuck’s.

Despite the emerging popularity of teas both gourmet and not, the United States remains firmly in the coffee column, consuming only 0.2 kilograms of the stuff per year. Only Belgium and Italy rank lower. Even in a city as diverse as Seattle, businesses such as Perennial are still outnumbered by a legion of independent coffee houses and chains.

Yet the ranks of tea shops, rooms, and businesses are swelling. Over 1,500 tea shops have sprouted since 1993—the biggest boom since the 19th Century.

Many of them, in the South.

Ask around, and many local residents will say that the Secret Tea Room is Greensboro’s best kept secret. Located on the 400 block of State Street in the heart of downtown, the modest restaurant and catering business is a blend of Southern charm and modern efficiency.

For over a year and a half, Gayle Smith and husband Bo have been at the helm, working in the kitchen, managing the books, greeting every customer with a smile.

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in Greensboro, NC

A coupon for The Secret Tea Room in downtown Greensboro, NC

“All our food is homemade daily.” Gayle said.

They don’t just serve tea. They have club and finger sandwiches, and their famous white chili has been known to attract customers from across the state—and elsewhere. Yet the star attraction remains the strong leafy brown and green brews.

“We have some 25 international teas offered in the tea room. They are imported from all over the world, with many blends, mostly loose leaf. We also serve a rich quality of chai tea, hot and cold.”

Originally built in 2004, the enterprise almost disappeared from the local landscape, until Smith purchased it following the death of its previous owner. Despite its precarious existence, the business has survived, even thrived.

Mom and pop’s such as Smith’s make up the majority of tea rooms and shops in the U.S., and it’s no secret that the life of a tea owner is not a financially stable one. Of the thousands that stay afloat each year, just as many are forced to call it quits.

The number one reason is lack of business experience.

While Smith and her husband are on firmer ground, it is little wonder most entrepreneurs shy away from the business.

But once upon a time, they didn’t.

According to Jan Whitaker, social historian and author of Tea at the Blue Lantern Inn: A Social History of the Tea Room Craze in America, throughout the late 1880s and into early 1900s, tea rooms weren’t just a fad, they were almost the norm for the middle and upper class.

“Having tea in the home was ‘coded’ as upper class.” She said.

For a young man or a young woman aspiring to climb through the ranks of the patrician class, drinking tea was one way of setting themselves apart from their perceived inferiors, no more than, say, drinking civit coffee is today.

Yet even the strongest endorsement of tea by the manner born wasn’t enough to curb American’s coffee addiction. Even during the fin de siècle era, of the two, coffee remained the dominant import by far.

Yet something funny happens on the way to tea becoming a rival to coffee. As respectable women sought in vain for a public place that would allow them to sip their coffee without having to endure the stench of cigar smoke and the typically ribald jokes that go along with men associating with each other in the public square, they begin to entertain thoughts of opening tea shops by themselves.

As a result, an array of women-owned eateries pop up which cater exclusively to other women. Just as coffee shops in the 17th century gave rise to the Enlightenment, these shops give rise to another revolution: feminism, or rather, the suffrage movement.

“They [the tea shops] were integral in the sense that they gave women new business opportunities, and more importantly, signaled women’s full entry into public spaces that had been dominated by men in the 19th Century, when there were relatively few places a ‘respectable’ woman could go for lunch.”

The tea craze peaked in the 1950s, as more and more homeowners were able to brew it without the assistance of a ‘tea lady’. But hope springs eternal, and after decades of being in the shadows, young men and women alike are flocking to tea shops. Everything from bachelorette parties to book signings are taking place being held in them, a sharp rebuke to pricey catering services.

“The younger set is growing as they adventure into the world of tea.” Smith said.

However, according to Whitaker, this is a trend with limits.

“Few people have time to kill.”  She says. “We don’t have a leisure culture. If a place really wants to serve afternoon tea, it would have to be a full scale restaurant serving dinner also, or else have a strong catering business on the side.”–John Winn

Brave New World!

Hello, World! Mahalo, Hennen’s contributors, fans, and writer types from around the world.

No, what you’re seeing isn’t a mistake, a typo or a figment of your imagination.  The email newsletter may be dead and gone, but as Hennen’s enters the blogging age, The Week in Review will evolve along with it.  Communication is more instantaneous than when Hennen’s Observer was first founded in 2009–entertainers Twitter on their Android phones, teenagers lob questions on their Formsprings, and there are more mayors on FourSquare than the entire Council of Cities combined.

As the Internet evolves, it is only right that The Week in Review evolves with it.  We may be joining the ranks of Charlie Sheen, goth girls and the mayor of your local pub, but our mission hasn’t changed.  We still intend to deliver the same literary news, excerpts, interviews and features that enhances the main website as much as it enhances it. The updates will be a bit more frequent than in the past–but that’s only a good thing.  In time there will also be room for photos, contests and miscellaneous projects unique to TWIR.

In keeping with our new format news, features and poetry will be updated Monday, Wednesday and Friday.  At the right hand of your screen you’ll find a list of calandar, word cloud, blogroll along with the real-time Facebook and Twitter feeds.  There is also an option to subscribe to TWIR via email, if that’s your thing.  You can also comment on our stories as well–in fact, we encourage you to do so.

We hope you join us in welcoming The Week in Review to this brave new world of instantaneous technology.  Till then, aloha,  and wish you and yours the best.

Sincerely,

John Winn

Social Media Coordinator, hennensobserver.com