Off Duty

LoyolaAs a student, it always amused me to stumble upon my teachers outside the classroom: at the mall, in the movie theater, or even on the school parking lot.  Somehow it seemed strange to discover that our educators had lives and families outside the school property, as if they had apartments in the teacher lounge or — more abstractly — ceased to exist entirely without their class.  I would imagine Mrs. Willis and Mr. Phebus melting from the walls at the ringing of the bells, reforming flesh from discarded glitter glue and construction paper like a Terminator villain armed with copious lesson plans and graded algebra tests.

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A Tale of Two Stores

It is zero hour, and I’m trapped in Hell.  Not the fiery demon-haunted domain that the nuns would invoke when I pocketed a quarter from the sidewalk or considered the latest swimsuit calender, but the kind that involves screaming children and Christmas shoppers.  The Saturday before Christmas, Mom requires a few additional presents for her nieces and nephews.  Dad is rearranging furniture from one corner of the living room to another corner; Mom reconsiders the lighting and astrological signs and then asks said husband to slide said sofa or hope-chest fifty centimeters or five feet to the left.  I chose the better of two evils and depart for Toys ‘R Us.

One of the mysteries of the holidays that I’ve never fathomed is the proclivity of parents to tote their tots to the toy store days before Christmas.  To. Buy. Christmas.  Presents.  Just pull back the bloody curtain on Santa’s workshop, why don’t you?  While your at it, why not read the original ending of Anderson’s Little Mermaid: you know the one where Ariel turns into a murderous sociopath.

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Packing for Success

Stack of BooksOur yearly sojourn to Florida launches in about two weeks.  Mom and the girls are already mapping out new summer wardrobes with the fervor of gold-greedy conquistadors: new shoes, dresses, skirts, blouses, jeans, sandals and even the accursed swimsuits.  The flotsam of many a shopping excursion litter their rooms, beds, and dressers like giant jigsaw pieces, waiting to be folded, twisted and rolled into a small leather case.   After two weeks, they scamper through the halls, racing from room to room, to stuff the last tube of toothpaste, or hair gel, or razor, or shampoo. Once that’s finished, I’ll hear the screams and shouts for headphones, magazines, iPods, iPads, phones, computers, pillows, chargers, gum, water, snacks, and DVDs to ease the long drive, most of which will be spent sleeping.  Somehow during this final stage, the men of the household are inevitably blamed for moving too slow, not helping, or not panicking enough for the girls’ taste.  Yet for the boys, an hour before departure proves more than enough time to stuff underwear, socks, and the untouched dregs of the dresser drawers into a duffel, download plane tickets, and depart.  Done. Continue reading

Luddites in Love

Lately I’ve been immersing myself in the works of O. Henry so much so that I decided to write my own for geeks like me.  Imitating another author’s writing style is not as easy as it first sounds — mostly because the gauge for success is rather ambiguous — but anything that helps me become a better writer . . . well, I’m not going to ignore.  

Regrettably, the sibling response was decidedly mixed.   Katie really enjoyed it, while my dearest brother after some consideration responded with a ‘meh.’   Needless to say, I’m anticipating proofreading his next law brief. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the story — more than Sean, at least.

Luddites in Love

With the exception of honeybees, ants, and reality TV starlets, the modern American citizen communicates more than any other species on earth.  Since the dawn of the iPod, it is said that the human species has stumbled upon the evolutionary fast-track to cyborg-ification.   Cell phones strapped to our ears; fingers typing out ten texts per picosecond; cat videos by the billions streaming on YouTube.  From dawn to dark, we expose our life’s tapestry of photos, quotes, and gossip before an expectant public like specimens in a digital zoo, to be ogled, examined, and meme-ed at the first opportunity.    The sum total of pheromones exuded by the world’s ant population palls to a day’s worth of status updates from an average college sorority. Continue reading

Certainly, I can!

Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it. — Theodore Roosevelt

As a long-time patron of bookstores, I possess a passion for books, authors, and reading in general, and thus the ideal qualifications for this position and any other at your stores . . .

Crap.  Another hour wasted writing cover letters to local bookstores.  My recent attempts at schools and libraries have failed; desperation has driven me to scan ads for sales clerks or coffee barristas.  Yet even these opportunities are not without their challenges in today’s economy.  For example, Borders and Barnes & Nobel both require resume and cover letters, not to mention forms and questionnaires.  Most employers require your life story before even considering hiring.  And mine at the moment is not exactly a contender for the Pulitzer. Continue reading

Judge, Jury, and Executioner . . . Please!

The god of pain descended mid November to distribute summons throughout the state of Maryland.   Letters for jury duty passed from door to door, a dark guardian of civic duty, binding citizens throughout the entire month of December to hours sitting, waiting.  Last Monday I spent my morning at the courthouse, squeezed close to strangers, many of whom appeared irritable, sick, and in need of a Febreeze-ing.    After an hour in traffic, I arrived at the courthouse 8:30 that morning,  ready to serve my country in exchange for my life, liberty, and that pleasant painless feeling in the niche of my back, which sadly abandoned me an hour and a half past lunchtime: “See you later fool!  I’m off to get some enchiladas.”   I had hoped to find myself unfit for trial, donning a racially charged  ‘Han shot first’ t-shirt and scuffed black shoes.  Either the clerk or the lawyers did not notice, or failed to read the warning signs.  Thus, trapped in a jury panel, I shuddered an hour past lunch, my stomach growling and my neighbor’s Old Spice, having expired over two hours ago, began entering the second-stage of rigor mortis.

Normally I don’t mind waiting.  Though the body is trapped, the mind is free to drift through walls, across seas, and into the unknown.  You merely need to uncover the right vehicle.  A good book, a soft quiet place, and some iced tea or coffee and you can easily transcend any uncomfortable situation.  Soar to Mars, hop a train to Sheboygan, or review old episodes of Duck Tales.  Anything’s possible.  Certainly, this philosophy proved the key to surviving long shopping excursions with Mom when I was a kid.   While my mother tripled-checked sales prices, mulling over whether this sweater or the green one at Macy’s would ultimately save her an extra 45 cents, I burrowed through stacks of men’s slacks for private reading time.  There in my nest, I’d wile away the hours until Mom finally gave into her wallet or the store closed.

In the jury room, waiting to be called for the court panel and voir dire (a legal process which aims to weed bias from the jury box), jurors can stretch out, sleep, read, eat, drink, relax.  Yet if chosen, all such amenities are stripped away, separated from sight as they herd us into enclosed cells without windows, water or ample female presence.  It was like high school all over again.  There in the courtroom, we were interrogated.  The judge and the lawyers ask a series of questions regarding the case.  Mostly these matters are cleared in seconds (‘Do you know Lawyer A with oiled scalp?  How about balding Lawyer B who reeks of garlic? No?  Good.’); however,  with more sensitive matters, jurors one by one will approach the bench, discuss issues and concerns for several minutes before returning to their seats.

It’s much like trading players in a game of fantasy football.  The judge attempts to eliminate bias, while the consuls try to exclude unfavorable sympathies.  In a murder trial, those jurors recently suffering from the loss of a loved one may favor the prosecution, allowing their grief to influence their verdict.  Thus, the judge covered all possible ground: previous drug use, past exposure to crime, guns, time spent on previous trials, pedophilia, family eating habits, favorite Christmas carols, NRA membership, Bogart movies, Thursday’s CSI, red herrings, and who’s hotter Edward or Jacob.  It took nearly three hours to sort through it all.

And in the meantime, we could not read, eat, drink, talk . . . simply sit there and stare at the room.  After counting the blue squares on the checkerboard carpet for the third time, I was suddenly struck by the inclination to name them.  “There’s Rob and Betty, their neighbor Carl who had a crush on Betty ever since high school but never got a chance to confess his feelings and so married a blond girl who resembled Betty slightly but only when the lights were dimmed.  Carl’s cousin, Earl, who lives across the street eats roadkill . . . ”  And so on, and so forth.

An older lady in blue sneezed loudly next to me as the court clerk began reading the names.  My stomach growled loudly.  I tried laughing it off but no one said anything, their attention focused on the clerk.  Like a reverse lottery, groans issued from the chosen, sighs from those left behind.  They had dodged the bullet.  Another number, another mutter of disappointment.  My heart beat fast, sounding in my throat and my legs.  I tried to be stoic about my situation.  Serving on a jury wouldn’t be so bad, an interesting experience.  Great to talk about afterward, and escape the duty for another three to five years.  Right?  Then as if in answer, claustrophobia overwhelmed me.  I needed to move, to breathe, to escape these four walls.  I considered holding hostages with book in hand, threatening paper cuts and poetry recitals.

“Juror #154, come and sit in jury position #12.” A lady rose from the front row, wearing a plaid shirt and a purse the size of a small child.  She did not seem pleased, and appeared in need of a smoke.

I had did it!  I wasn’t chosen!  Wahooo . . .

“Alternative juror #1 . . .”

Ah, crap!  The alternates!  How could I forget the basics of jury selection so quickly, culminated from years of reading John Grisham novels and Perry Mason reruns.   The culling had only just begun!   Moreover, by my estimation my number was next or at least approaching quickly.  Nervously I stared at my shoes, all other sights having been excused already (#46 you know who you are . . .).    The read off the first number. And then the second . . .

Outside the courthouse, I nearly sprinted through traffic to the parking garage, my stomach sounding louder than Baltimore traffic.  Edmond Dantes himself could not have extricated himself  faster from his prison.  Though after twelve the day felt cold, bleak, yet cheery, the kind that pulls men close to fireplaces, warm stoves, and piping hot chocolate.  God, was I hungry then.  My throat felt sore and unused, a headache loomed to ruin the rest of my day (As well as the next two days.  A parting gift from handkerchief-less juror #305).

My sentence in jury pool had not ended either.  I had been slated to return any Monday this month for selection until chosen for a trial.  My parole proved bittersweet and unless the state took pity on me during the holiday season — indeed if it took pity on anyone, at anytime — I could expect to suffer another trial in a week’s time.  Still as I jumped into my Explorer, it felt good to move about again.

Hooking up my iPod, I deposited my book on the seat next to me and turned the dial to Transsiberian Orchestra.  For the moment, a little Christmas cheer,  guitar wails alternating between ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Carol of the Bells,’ was just what the doctor ordered.  My car squealed from the parking lot and began weaving through the city traffic, flying back into the counties and the nearest Barnes and Nobel en route.

And Awaaaay We Go . . .

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.  — Lemony Snicket

packingPacking for trips always proves a stressful time for me.  Though others might become bogged by shirts, socks, and appropriate footwear, we bibliophiles must decide on the number and type of books we can possibly stuff into our carry-on’s before we’re considered a threat to airline security.

This Saturday Dasad and I are traveling to the other side of the continent for what will prove our second major ‘roadtrip’ in the last four years.  California.  A week and a half.  One insured rent-a-car.  Dear God . . .  Other more road-weary travelers may shrug at such hyperbole, but considering my spring breaks never involved Cancun or Rio, devolving into enjoyable but group-centered family excursions, spending a week anywhere alone is quite exciting.  Needless to say, I hope I don’t drive Dasad murder-crazy.

Yet for the moment all is good.  Though preparing to pack this morning, I now face a crisis: deciding which tomes of my extensive collection to tote one-eighth the way around the globe.  Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.  Mark Twain.  Sherlock Holmes.  Count of Monte Cristo.  Or Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Dagger Award winner.  I heard it was quite good.).  And then there’s my Naruto manga . . .   All I know is that I must bring something or stranded by earthquake or fire, I might find myself a little put out.

A library is like an island in the middle of a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded — Lemony Snicket

Ah hell . . . I’ll probably just end up bringing them all.  Worst case, I’ll try to slip a few tomes in Dasad’s bags before we leave.  He probably won’t mind if displace a few socks or jeans in the process.  The airline will simply lose it en route anyway, and then we’ll have an excellent excuse to replenish our supply (and perhaps a few new additions) at some California bookstores.  If I manage to make it back in one piece, safe travels and good perspectives to you all on your own summer vacations this year!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. — Mark Twain

Of Fiends and Fountain Drinks

conquer3In these times of financial difficulties (i.e. “Hey! Where’d all my money go?”), lifestyle changes are expected.  Many of my cousins upon graduating high school have shied away from out-of-state education, investing in used cars, gas stations and morning commutes from home; others have ignored the traditional college altogether, seeking apprenticeships in trade schools, community colleges, or donning their suits or aprons in the work force.  In the Murphey house, with several of the siblings already in college, expenses have been tight: fewer meals outside the house, more carpooling, and no unauthorized visits to the bookstore . . . unless somehow linked to another far-more-necessary errand such as picking up the kids from practice or restocking our dwindling supply of breath mints.  You know . . . essential stuff.

Yet even my weekly rations of manga and short-story anthologies must be curbed.  Barnes and Nobel employees find me staring longingly at the latest Bestsellers like a twelve-year old at a pet store.  No one seems to mind me petting the spines, but when I start chatting up the authors many of whom have been dead for centuries, someone typically comes and asks me to leave.  This never halts my conversations but out in the parking lot, people seem to mind less.

As with most problems, money is the issue.  Therefore, in order to satisfy my bibliomania I’ve curtailed other less-necessary addictions like eating (half-portions), gaming (goodbye WoW), and education (graduated . . . finally).  One final expense remains: raspberry iced tea.

No force on earth, save its total destruction (thus rendering this whole argument moot), can sate my hourly need for half-way decent tea.  Other men have their Starbucks and Bud Light; I have my Lipton.  I cannot change this.  What I can do is try to cut down on the cost of my caffeine, thus saving capital for more pressing addictions: books and comics.

Thus I put my college math to work for me.  Borders like many cafés offers refills on a few of their beverages for a discounted price (50 cents or so, not including tax). Therefore my $2.40 iced tea with a refill actually decreases to about a buck and half.  As the number of refills gradually increases – assuming of course the serendipitous occasion of finding myself at the bookstore all day – the average cost per cup will decrease to about fifty cents.  My costly obsession with caffeinated beverages might actually provide a useful everyday application to my high school calculus and save me money in the process.  A rare treat indeed!

After all, apart from simple arithmetic and remembering how to spell ‘cat,’ how often can we honestly admit using those high school factoids oh so necessary for our mid-terms and pre-lunch pop quizzes?  Without the aid of Wikipedia, the name of the 30th president, conversion of meters to inches, and forty or so state capitals are long forgotten, buried under years of academic trivia, for use only during reruns of Jeopardy or boring parties.  Thus, it’s a real pleasure when I can apply these archaic mental-nuggets for use in my daily life.

Back to the calculus.  Stopping at a red light I formulated the following equation:

(2.40 + x(.50)) / (1+x)                                      x = being the # of refills consumed

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Cost of Iced Tea per Refill at Borders

Naturally the more I drink, the less spent per cup, offering more capital to invest in novels, Japanese comics, and the like.

Last Tuesday gave me the chance to test my theory.  The boys’ graduation practice ran a little longer and so I found myself with another hour at Borders to snoop through the shelves and tempt myself to some new fiction.  I managed to refill my cup three times, and as you can see from the graph, decreased the cost of my drink to nearly a buck.  With each delicious sip, I managed to steal the wealth of corporate America through some legal loophole.  I felt empowered, heroic like that weary young man, who upon returning from war and torture abroad built his keep among the trees, thieving spoils from the wealthy and distributing it to the destitute.  The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Yet all great ideas have their flaws.  Mine revealed itself half-way through my third cup while gazing at a polar bear peeking from the cover of a travel anthology.  My body twitched.  My breathing faltered.  I tried desperately not to think of flowing water, but row after row displayed rushing rapids, majestic waterfalls, and winding Amazonian rivers.  Instinctively my feet rushed me to the bathroom until my brain kicked in, reminding me of my half-filled cup, my sole source for more tea and economic superiority.

Alone without a Wingman, my options were limited.  Cutting my losses did not seem feasible; I had at least two more cups of tea left in me and another half-hour before I needed to don my chauffeur’s cap again. Carrying the cup inside the restroom likewise proved unsavory.  Most bathrooms – public or otherwise – possess an unsanitary aura, a gastronomic No Man’s Land, at least for items which you might like to stick into your mouth minutes afterwards.  Crossing the lavatory threshold drink in hand to me is akin to washing the cup with toilet water.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

The Robin Hood of book buyers.

Few other choices remained.  Relinquishing my plastic chalice on the small table set aside for unpaid merchandise, I went about my business quickly, aware that some conscientious employee might toss my cup. Or worse, defilement.  Literary souls inevitably breed oddity; it’s what makes us so interesting . . .  and dangerous. Immediately I checked the remaining dredges of iced tea for tampering: any unnoticed fingerprint marks, lipstick, or powdery residue – I imagine passing out among the audiobooks only to wake hours later in tub of ice with only one kidney.  Finding no traces, I returned to my browsing and another refill.

An hour and a half later, my cup full once again with tea, three books in hand, I strode to the counter for check out, confident that I had saved myself ten dollars at least of valuable income.  In celebration I added another ten-dollar manga volume to my arm.

Arriving at the counter, I smiled at the cashier, dropping my pile before her, half-wondering if she would be interested in the results of my little science project.

“Hey Miss, did you know that I reduced the cost of six iced teas to nearly fifty-cents per glass.  Whatcha think about that?”  Her eyes glisten.  Her cheeks blush.  Her hands grab hold of my shirt.  As our bodies disappear beneath the counter, the remaining customers shout in unison, “Get a room!”

Or not.

I set the books too close to the sub-counter magnet, which triggered several loud beeps somewhere near the register; the cashier stepped on something near the floor silencing the alarm. Several armed guards and German shepherds shuffle away, disappointed.  Meanwhile she stared at my pile and counted.

“You know,” she said, “if you pick up one more book you can get one of these free.”

“Huh?  What?”

“Buy four get the fifth free,” she said pointing to the various cardboard signs stapled to the shelves around the store.

“Really?!”

I affected some surprise at this, having spent nearly two hours at the bookstore without noticing the words ‘free’ and ‘books’ together.  Then with a quick look at the clock, I took off again towards the children’s lit.  Ten minutes.  If I grab another eight dollar book (the price of my less-expensive purchase), I’ll have essentially just robbed the store.  When people think of me, the word ‘badass’ rarely comes to mind.  Nonetheless, I felt like buying a belt-chain and not recycling my old Snapple bottles.  That’s right, tossing ‘em in with the plastic bags and used iTunes gift cards.  Hardcore . . .   Desperate times, they can bring out the worst in all of us.

Diluted Sins

img_2377“What did you give up for Lent?”  An honest response to this question typically requires a fair bit of chagrin, a prolonged sigh, and an explanatory tale that often begins with “Well, it’s like this . . . ”  Regardless of their beginnings, no two stories are the same even though — more often than not — we all wind up innocent in the end.

Once again, this year Dasad and I have not managed to free ourselves from this fate.  However, unlike everyone else, it’s not our fault this time.   Truly.  Seriously.  Look, if you can spare me a moment or two, I can explain . . .

Lent for us Catholics is typically a time of sacrifice, fasting, and forgiveness, a decidedly textbook definition for what amounts to using God to enforce those pesky New Years’ resolutions we’ve long forgotten over the last two months.  As a kid, this usually meant giving up candy, video games, or the internet for forty days and forty nights, the same time period Noah suffered storm-tossed seas and a boat-load of the world’s fauna without the aid of Dramamine, sails, or steel cages.  After mounting a particularly towering wave, the world’s last pair of unicorns slide into the lion paddock, promptly removing magic (and many a childhood dream) forever from the gene pool.   By all rights, getting by with one less bag of Twizzlers doesn’t seem so bad.

iced-teaThis year in addition to striving to run two miles each day, I decided to halt my weekly purchase of novels and considered diving into some of the older tomes I have left to gather dust  over the years.  Thus, no new novels for forty days.  In hindsight a more effective sacrifice would have constituted banishment from the bookstore entirely, but my on-going addiction to Borders iced tea prevented such a bold stroke.  Instead while shifting through shelves of manga one afternoon — keeping a wide berth between the rest of the stacks (Mr. Bradbury, you know why) — my eyes tantalized by several new titles,  I considered what exactly constitutes a ‘novel’ per se.  My thoughts traveled back to EN212, Birth of the English Novel, and some vaguely remembered definition concerning plot and character, an eight-page paper citing specific examples in 12pt font, Times Roman.  At any rate no mention of ‘Japanese’ or ‘comics’ appeared in the slurry of words so I grabbed a handful of books and raced to the check-out counter before any divine arbitrator could consult the fine print.   Afterward outside the store, amid the blustery spring breeze and cloud-streaked skies, I walked bag in hand, swelling with my new purchases,  confident in my adherence to the letter-of-the-law even while gut-punching the much ignored spirit-of-the law with two rights and an uppercut to the chin.

To my credit, over the last fifty days or so, I ignored the graphic novel section (collected anthologies of Superman, Spiderman, and other comics) entirely.  Here my half-hearted arguments that graphic novels did not strictly constitute novels failed; in the end I could not escape the nomenclature.   Besides, nothing good (i.e. Batman’s ‘Heart of Hush’ book) arrived in the stores until at least the end of April at least . . .  and in the absence of temptation one finds strength.

Still despite my own innocence in this affair, I still felt the twinge of guilt, a smidgen of complacency in my actions; thus I sought out Dasad, prompting his confession and shared guilt with the similar question:

“Wait, so you’re only giving up videogames on Saturdays?”  I wrote to him on IM one morning, a week and a half after Ash Wednesday.

“Well, it’s like this, man,” he typed with a speed reserved for computer programmers and courtroom stenographers.  “It used to be everyday, but once Resident Evil 5 came out, I decided to alter it a little.”

“A single day sacrifice though?”

“Well, when the game came out, I thought of just abandoning the whole no-gaming sacrifice altogether, but considering a potential wrath-of-God-slash-karma blacklash, I just decided to tweak it a bit:  ‘No games that I already own, will I play.’  There.  Now we have a loophole . . . and my console is RE5 ready.”  For most individuals Lenten appeals do not need to be stated aloud, resting solely on the honor system.  In our case, we require written contracts for the sake of bragging rights.

“What about Gears?  Don’t you already own that?” I wrote with a smile.

viva_pinata“Uh yeah, I thought of that too,” he typed after a pause.  “That would put a serious dent in our Friday nights so then I considered ‘No games released before 2006,’ but that only really eliminated that pinata game and Madden 2005 . . .”

“Both of which you haven’t opened yet, if I recall correctly.”  Dasad collects games almost habitually, like a schizophrenic stockpiling voices, or old Mrs. Martin and her cats.

“Yeah, not much of a sacrifice, right?  So then I reconsidered and decided that I would only play games on Friday and Sundays.”

“Ok, so what went wrong with that?”

“There was nothing on TV last Wednesday.” I picture my friend flipping frantically through his 1 million channels, his mounting anger that nothing NOTHING was on except another abysmal season of American Idol.  Then finally after dousing the lights and shutting the blinds, he switches on his Xbox for a quick Horde match.  No one will ever know . . .

“Dude, that’s sad.”  Sincerity aside, I am laughing when I write this.

“Hey look, the whole Lenten season is rife with loopholes.  No meat on Fridays except seafood and if St. Patrick’s Day falls on Friday, then the Irish are given special dispensation to eat corned beef.  Moreover, on Sundays you are free from your Lenten sacrifices anyway.”

“Yeah . . .” I consider, trying in vain to differentiate the rule from the habit, “. . . but I think that’s only for elementary school kids.  As adults we’re expected to keep the sacrifice every day no exceptions.”

“Ha, another bias!  Damn it all, I’m having pastrami tonight.”

In the end, I think Dasad faithfully maintained his original pledge and abstained himself from gaming throughout the last forty days.  Every now and then I saw his avatar logged onto Xbox Live but he swears that was merely to watch a movie — which he reminds me does not constitute a game at all.  Frankly I believe him, though for the sake of my own heathen soul I like to pretend otherwise.  Hell, I hear, is a quite a lonely place with a very poor library — the constant humidity is murder on the pages.  In the absence of reading materials, amid the screams of the damned, a sympathetic ear means the world to us sinners.

Economic Value

The man approached us while we stood in line, our arms plump with books like old-time school children – bibliophiles that we are. I had come to the bookstore early that afternoon to stock up on several new manga volumes. A story sickness had overtaken me over the last few weeks, and my visits to the neighboring Borders and Barnes & Nobles could not arrive soon enough. After copious cups of iced tea and several hours wandering the stacks – limited funds led me to gather twice my current wares and replace half – I found my way to the check-out counter.

. . . whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea.

. . . whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea.

Our visitor held aloft a $25 gift card and offered to give it freely in exchange for a twenty.

“You earn five bucks,” he explained, while my fellow bibliophiles gazed nervously at each other.

“How do we know that anything’s left on that card?” the woman behind me asked.

“I’ll stay in line and pay for whatever you have there,” he said. “It’s all there. Does anyone want it?” I kept quiet and stared at a woman on the cover of National Geographic, her face glimmering in gold paint.

“I have a twenty,” a man in the back spoke up. “I’m not much of a reader, but I suppose that my girlfriend could use it.”

The man filed in beside his newfound patron.

“I lost my job last week,” the man confided. “Right now, I could use the money. Books are less important to me.”

My turn at the register had come. I walked away, paid for my purchases and left the store. Getting into my car, I regretted not talking to the man. I had no hard cash in my pocket, merely credit, but I felt ashamed at my silence.

Throughout my life, fear has always been my bane – ice cream too, but let’s not get into that. Of course this is true of anyone (of fear, not of ice cream unless you’re lactose-intolerant). I fear speaking up, speaking out, making myself known to the world. Thus, often it is turmoil merely to announce myself to others. Especially when I feel that my voice will do nothing.

People often wonder why I read fantasy and manga. Most individuals assume – wrongly – that I have a penchant for dragons, unicorns, and cat-eared forest girls. This is not so . . . . well, I do like my cat girls. For the most part, these are mere decorations, trappings that give a story color or excitement. The true whimsy lies in the characters, those few chosen individuals full of courage, strength, and fidelity that they risk all for the sake of others. Therein lies the true fantasy; those noble souls, these heroes are akin to manticores and chimaras, the stuff of legends and myths.  Yet despite the impossibility for such creatures in the ‘real’ world, I continue to hope and prowl the bookstores. Perhaps one day a bit of their nobility will rub off on me in the reading.

I tend to get distracted.

Honestly though, in these tight times, I cannot say which is more important to me food or books. With my small paunch, I could probably last a week or so without meals, provided ample coffee or iced tea was available. Without caffeine, valuable reading time might diminish. There’s also a good chance of death too, which could really ruin that novel I’m reading.

I worry sometimes about a lot of things: the economy, my life, the arrival date for the next volume of One Piece, and whether I should try peach syrup with my iced tea. I mean, Border’s raspberry tea tastes quite good – unlike Nestea, which is actually lemon extract, excessive amounts of sugar, and toilet water – but I wonder if I should reach a little outside my comfort zone. No one becomes happy without being brave. Next time I visit a bookstore perhaps I should ask for something new, a mint-peach syrup combination maybe. It may confound the barista a bit, but the dissolution of weakness deserves the extra tip. Especially in these hard times, we need all the virtue that we can lay our hands on.