The Art of the Shower Orange

*Disclaimer: This piece may contain what some consider to be TMI, as evident from the unorthodox title, which identifies the content within to contain both a “shower” and an “orange”*

Yes, I might be crazy. But “crazy” is a relative description, and I certainly enjoy investigating life’s seemingly odder notions. Consequently, when I heard an NPR story regarding a reddit craze loosely known as “the shower orange”, I had to do some hands on peels off research myself.

To peel or not to peel…that is “a” question. #investigativeface

Having been born in America’s largest orange producing state, I grew up loving the delicious fruit in all its incarnations, be they slices, juices, or flavored sweets. As such, when I heard about the shower orange phenomenon, it was orange game on.

Basically the story goes that noming on the delicious sun orbs while basking in humid mist is the best thing since…well, that actually sounds better than any sliced bread I’ve ever had. The NPR piece explains the trend in much more adult detail – even analyzing the science behind the seeming magic.

Unfortunately, I’m as much of a scientist as I am an orangeoisseur, but I am a detailed observer, and as such, am happy to share my own insights on this juicy experiment.

First thing’s first. You probably have to at least already like oranges to get anything useful out of this experience. If not, then I wouldn’t bother. Maybe try another fruit? I’m particularly looking forward to testing grapes or some other low-latitude tropical wonder berries. But I’m getting ahead of my produce.

The next step – and I can’t stress this enough – is to choose a GOOD orange. I was fortunate enough to find that mine contained quite quality material inside. Some fruits and subsequent fruit eaters, are not always so lucky. I could see mealy innards utterly destroying one’s already uneasy expedition into the fruit-hygiene realm. I happened to use a Florida Navel. I have no idea how a Blood Orange or, say, Tangelo might fare, but I can state without reservation that you’ll just want to make sure that you’ve got a fresh, tasty batch of sweet treats, whichever fruit family you so pick from.

Lighting is important. I typically shower with dimmer illumination to simulate the aura of a sauna. Not that I’ve ever been in a sauna, but it’s along the lines of what I imagine the mood of one to resemble. Anyway, there’s an unnerving itch when one steps into a laxly lit shower ready to devour a bright hand fruit. The elements just seem askew.

Time for things to change.

As such, I sacrifice my sweat lodge vibe for the sake of science, or oranges, or…whatever, and crank up the overhead glow. Ahh, that’s more like it. Standing with steamy streams trickling down my back, I look at the miracle of nature in my hand, and for the first time think, So what the hell do I do now?

Open it, duh. Yet for me this isn’t so simple. I practice a very stringent and strange yet consistent and effective orange slicing process. Basically I cut the damn thing into eight equal pieces and then trim off the inner pith. This system quickly results in slightly smaller but more devourable slices of juicy goodness.

No knife here now though. However good this might turn out, I am suddenly reminding myself of my just-now created no-shower-knife policy. Instead I dig my thumb into the tiny polar circle apparently known as the “pedicel” according to Google.

The casualties of shower orange.

Right away the fresh scent blooms within my humid cubicle – a foreign yet strangely welcome fruity fragrance. Though as soon as I become fully immersed within this luxurious aroma, a new challenge arises: what the f do I do with the rinds??

Fortunately my shower has a flat-bottom rack that apparently doubles just fine for orange waste storage. But I could see this being quite an issue if one doesn’t have a convenient surface placed out of water’s reach upon which to store their discarded produce. The last thing you’d want are rinds in your drain. Perhaps a plastic bag will suffice as well, but like most great battles, do take notes of what terrain you have to work with here, kids.

And so the bits of peel pile up until I have about half the mantle exposed. Mind you, this is quite unlike my normal utilitarian process of equal slicing. I am on new grounds, in more figurative ways than one. Still, I’ve come too far, and this orange looks too damn tasty. I bite into my first ever shower fruit.

And another bite…and another…

Yes, I think. Yes, this works.

Try not to get carried away kids… With great shower oranges come great shower orange responsibilities…

*Side note: I also enjoy a good shower beer, and or coffee from time to time, but that’s a whole other thing for another rant*

Interestingly, this turns out to be the most I’ve ever gotten out of an orange. Figuratively and literally. Maybe it’s the enjoyment of such contrastingly cold nourishment within my balmy, micro-steamworld. Or maybe the fact that I am left with no wasted collateral inner pith – the most efficient orange I’ve ever consumed. Just peels stacked and ready to be discarded. Any wayward extra juice? No muss no fuss!

Maybe it’s an amalgamation of all these factors. But whatever the case, I find the whole experience to be – and apologies in advance – quite “appeeling”.

Important lessons learned:

  1. Make sure you pick a GOOD quality orange;
  2. Atmosphere is important; turn up the lights to make it an orange party;
  3. Disposal is key – figure this out before ye enter;

Have suggestions/experiences with other shower fruits? I’m (sorta) (kinda?) interested in maybe (probably not really) what you have to say in the comments below!

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Traveling (to class) Tales

RhetComp @ Stony Brook

Join our Writing and Rhetoric Program’s faculty in our flash non-fiction narratives about the most daunting challenges we’ve overcome to make it to class – a creative collaboration featuring Carolyn Sofia, MaryAnn Duffy, and Joseph Labriola.

“Commitment” – by Carolyn Sofia

Tmanwithpaperrunningwenty-five years ago I was sitting in the gardens at the Gran Hotel del Paraguay, a colonial, 19th-century hotel on the outskirts of Asuncion. Holding my soon-to-be, infant daughter, her dark curls resting on my shoulder, I whispered over and over, “Mbaé’chepa?” – Hello, how are you? – the only Guarani phrase I knew. A doctoral student at Stony Brook and a freeway flyer teaching composition at three different colleges on Long Island, I couldn’t afford to stay four months in Paraguay like other adoptive parents did. Instead, I visited for a week a few times to deal with court paperwork and to acquaint myself with the little doll who…

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Pokémon No?

“Braaaiiiinnnsssss…er, I mean: Buuuulbaaaasaurrrr…”

They’re among us: listing through the park, bursting into restaurants and stores in search of virtual sustenance. Yes, the zombie apocalypse is finally here – and although it’s not exactly the scene that AMC’s the Walking Dead might’ve pumped us up to anticipate, there are still some stark similarities (and differences) between the undead we know and love from T.V., and whatever-in-the-heck is happening throughout cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the world.

The pandemic I speak of is, of course, the Pokénomenon known as Pokémon Go. For those who either must’ve literally had their heads buried in the sand the past week, or who still aren’t entirely sure what a Pokémon is, cnn.com has a really great breakdown on the whole matter, covering everything from the technical aspects to the actual game-play.

Pokémon characters can pop up almost anywhere!

Pokémon characters can pop up almost anywhere! At least while staring through your phone….

Essentially, Pokémon Go is an app/game. Your phone uses GPS to paint a cartoony grid of the land around you: streets, shops, terrain, etcetera – pretty normal stuff that you might see via any other app as you try to navigate your way around the real world. The magic comes in when you track down and find Pokémon at any given location. A Pokémon (short for ‘pocket monster’) is a make believe creature with its own skills, attributes, etcetera that you can catch in the wild and then trade or battle with other players.

They’re not actually there, of course. They simply appear as a picture on your phone screen – though this is where the line between reality and imaginary begins to get both interesting and murky.

Gods, this an old person thing to say, but I remember when I was a boy, playing the original Game Boy Pokémon games in the late 1990s. Times were simpler then. There were two versions: red and blue, each containing slight variations in game-play and available Pokémon in order to get parents to buy their children the same game twice over. Pretty brilliant. The type of marketing savvy that has helped sustain Nintendo for the past 50 years as a titan of the video game industry despite their mammoth corporate rivals: SONY and Microsoft.

Pokémon Go is merely the next step in the continuing timeline of innovative gaming. But here we enter new, obscure territory where interactive gaming is being projected onto the real world, actually motivating people to get up and move around. And so what does this all mean? What’s the next step after this?

I like to think that the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would’ve had an essay or several to say something about the fact that I can now be minding my own business in a bar or a restaurant and somebody might at any moment rush up to me, their phone raised to capture a creature perched on my shoulder that seems so very real to its hunter, even if I might be oblivious to the entirety of the event.

The truth of the matter is that I’m not sure what to make of the most quickly successful app in tech history. I’m not sure where this is all headed or why.

What I do know is what I see, walking through the park on a balmy July evening. There’s hundreds of them. Phones raised, heads drooped. Mostly kids. 13-20somethings. The park’s usually empty after dark, certainly by midnight, but not tonight. Maybe not ever again.

Maybe that’s good?

What I see is people. Some alone. Some in pairs. Groups of four, or five, or six, or seven. People sitting in lawn chairs and on towels. Walking with backpacks. People holding hands. Black people, white people, Latino people. Not fighting. Not drinking or smoking or defacing public property.

I hear people laughing.

I seem out of place. Taking my seat on an empty chair. Neither judging nor asking. Just observing.

They hardly seem to notice me as they drift around, the occasional glance more a curious wonder of a Pokéless anomaly among them, before turning back to their own world.

They don’t seem to notice the moon, clear and cornbread crisp through the humid air. They don’t seem to notice the dots of light surrounding it, like Mars. I can tell this is Mars because I have an app. The ‘Sky Map’ app. It’s free, just like Pokémon Go. It’s a miracle of modern science: a chart of the sky and heavens that our ancestors – from cavemen to our own parents – could have only dreamt, if they’d been crazy enough to. A delusion in the mind of dreamers, here now in my hand.

Hmm...looks almost Pokéballish from a celestial point of view. What wonders are awaiting inside...

Hmm…looks almost Pokéballish from a celestial point of view. What wonders are awaiting inside…

They don’t seem to notice Mars. A whole other planet. A whole other planet ranging above our heads. The great rust giant. The God of war. Perhaps there’s no Pokémon up there – yet.

They don’t seem to be talking about the troubles of our own planet. Of jihads and droughts and chaos and coups. They talk about teams. Team Valor. Team Mystic. They meet others who talk about the same. They high-five and cheer, or boo and jeer. Perhaps training them for their future. Team red. Team blue. The lines are drawn in the sand as the tide burps and belches ever nearer.

Yet their thoughts are still turned downward, onto their screens. Onto Poliwhirls rather than poly-Gods in the skies above. Who knows what the future will bring. Inside their game. Inside our game. Who knows what good can come of their play.

Who knows what we can accomplish with the power in our hands. When we talk. When we play and work together.

Let’s hope we find out.

Advanced(A) Placement(P) City

*A narrative account and reflection upon my trip to Kansas City, MO as a 2016 Advanced Placement Exam Reader. Interested educators and creative non-fiction fans alike enjoy!*

I’m not bothering with coffee because I’m not sure that coffee will bother with me. The rising bloom of blinding gold and simmering red over the woodsy hills outside the windows of Kansas City International Airport is more than enough rousing illumination to keep me chugging along. That is, after all, what myself and thousands of others have been doing for the past seven days at the 2016 AP Exam Reading – and via much caffeine.

When I first heard about this opportunity, my interest was roused, along with my caution. A week long, nearly all expense paid trip to Kansas City? The plausibility of reading over a thousand AP English Language and Composition exams day after day after day etcetera?

I’m not a particularly prolific reader, despite all the reading I have to do as a college instructor. I like to take my time, to absorb, to appreciate, and to reflect upon what someone – for better or worse – spent time and energy to get in front of me. I knew going in that this would not be the case – that these readings would be long, grueling, and fast-paced. This certainly sounded like a unique experience though – and hopefully, adventure too.

With all these factors in mind (and the contractual promise of a sizable stipend for my week’s work) I applied, and was accepted, to join the yearly mass migration of educators to assess the college-level skills of America’s high schoolers.

The plane was a narrow, cramped affair: one aisle, a pair of seats on each side. The wide man in front of me might have shaken on the tubular craft’s fasten seatbelts symbol if he had sneezed with too much commitment. Trying to calm my queasy nerves as the craft bobbed higher and higher I wondered, glancing around, who else might be headed to the AP reading? Like Lost the teacher’s spin-off edition, I imagined that some of the passengers were secretly teachers or professors – myself among them, waiting to reveal my true identity when we landed in a city of academics, drawn there by the common yet mysterious cause of advanced placement judgement.

It turned out that a spattering of passengers were in fact flying to KC for the great grading. But they were soon lost – mixed among the mire of others from all over the country who gathered around a handful of AP reading greeters near the baggage claim. Luggage in hand, I finally squeezed my way up to a lady with a folder who asked for my name, which I gave. In turn, another greeter gave me a green sticker, which was, as he told me, “Color-coded for your hotel,” adding, “You’ll be staying at the Westin.”

I followed the confused throng of now bag-stickered newcomers outside into the flat middle-country heat, pretty much sweating the second my skin met the dry light of the unobscured sun above. There seemed to be little order despite the well-intentioned efforts of the clipboard-waving and literally blue-collared young man trying to organize lines and coordinate the great shuttle buses that would turn out to be our mode of transport for the next week to and from our hotels and the Convention Center.

Part of the problem was that these buses just happened to have red, blue, and yellow logos painted on their otherwise black bodies, prompting many of the readers to assume that their colored luggage sticker dictated which logo-colored bus they should board. As the panting blue-collared fellow finally declared, however, all of the buses were going to all of the hotels, and so with that small yet relevant revelation, I jumped on-board the nearest one, plopped my backpack in my lap, and began to read in order to pass the ride from the airport to the city.

We were only on the road for about a minute when some small, subconscious awareness within me piped up, asking, What in the hell am I doing? Travel reading was for New York City subways and long landscapes that changed little after the first hour or so of hopeful observation. But this would merely be a twenty or so minute ride into downtown Kansas City – and a ride that I very likely might not ever make again. As such, I packed my book away and turned to gaze at the passing of America’s proverbial heartland.

I’m glad I did. The Missouri countryside and suburbs seemed familiar yet foreign and beautiful at the same time. Strip-malls, billboards, rolling hills and woodsy ranges were about what I had expected to find. Strangely, it was the sky that captured my attention. This somehow seemed broader, grander than what I was used to back home. The clouds rose white and crispy gold from their shadowy bottoms, almost as if baked into bloom by the swollen sun above. We quickly came parallel to the Missouri River, which flowed bright and dark brown all at the same time – like Oregon Trail, the game, brought to life. The city now dominated the skyline ahead, across a white bridge spanning the wide waters.

We rolled right into the city. There was little traffic and even fewer people, which seemed odd given the surprising abundance of tall, near-skyscrapers. Many of the older, stouter buildings were stacked from rusty red bricks of the late 19th century – a gold rush looking metropolis now a century or so beyond its original glory. We continued south from the Crossroads District, over a railway bridge, and down to Crown Center to an idle stop in front of the Westin.

The check-in line snaked through the otherwise comfortably large hotel lobby, bending around a hallway corner and continuing down the crimson-carpeted corridor almost to the emergency exit at the end. Apparently this was not typical protocol, as a pair of graders waiting on line mentioned that last year hadn’t been anything like this.

After about forty minutes of stop and go, I reached the glorious help desk and gave my information.

“It looks like you’re already checked in,” the concierge said, much to my surprise.

“That’s funny,” I said, confused as to what in the hell the man behind the counter meant, or what explanation he expected me to give him. “I don’t remember checking in until just now.”

“Oh, I think it’s actually your roommate, Robert.”

“Ah, I see. That makes more sense.”

I had no idea that I even had a roommate until this moment, though I had assumed that the algorithms behind the scenes were likely to pair me with someone. Apparently this someone was Robert.

With my room cards in hand, I headed up to meet my chamber companion for the next week. Robert wasn’t there, but evidence of him was: a navy blue baseball hat on the desk, some worn white sneakers under the chair, and so on. I unpacked and then took a moment to slide back the blackout curtains shielding the windowed wall of our room from the nearly 100 degree heat outside. I saw this:

viewcity
As I stood there gazing upon the picturesque skyline, I realized that I had no idea what came next. The itinerary on the website had merely said for us to meet our greeter at the airport and check into our hotel rooms. Orientation didn’t begin until the next morning, but I figured it might not be a bad idea to check out the Kansas City Convention Center where I would be spending much of the following week grading.

The shuttle buses were prompt, one leaving every 15 minutes or so. I explored the Convention Center for a while, gaining both my ‘credentials badge’ and some useful tourist brochures and maps in the process. I did some further exploring within the sprawling complex back at the hotel (which was attached to a three story mall), but before long it was time to shower and go to bed – though not without finally meeting my so far elusive roommate, Robert.

I had spoken with a handful of AP readers while waiting in various lines, the bus, and in the lobby bar so far. They had all seemed congenial enough, but nothing like Bob (as he told me to call him), who sat next to his bed sipping from a freshly poured glass of Talisker 10 Years Old. “Have a glass,” he kindly offered  as we exchanged pleasantries, to which I gladly responded, “Thanks, Bob. Don’t mind if I do!”

Turned out Bob was a seasoned AP reading vet. “My first reading was in ’79,” he told me. “It’s grown a great deal since then.”

I was pleasantly surprised to find myself paired with such a genuinely kind and experienced roommate. I had worried that I might be lotteried in with a party animal, or weirdo, or a weirdo party animal – as some had been, at least according to their accounts. More shocking was the realization that was the young gun who was innately determined to go to bed and wake up as late as practically possible.

Fortunately for me, I awoke the next morning to the scent – and sight – of freshly brewed coffee on my night stand. “Coffee’s ready,” Bob said, rolling up his sleeves, already dressed and ready to go. “You probably want to catch the bus by 7:15 if you want time for breakfast.”

Bob, as if through some natural paternal instinct, had not only gotten up in time to make sure I wouldn’t be late, but provided me with the caffeinated fuel to get going every dawn. I did have my alarm set, but why bother when I could opt for such consistent and comfortable personal wake up service? When he asked toward the end of our trip how in the world I got up in time back home, I answered that this was one of my girlfriend’s many jobs – and so thank goodness he was here.

The first morning of the AP reading is very much a confused herd, shifting about en-vague-route to their designated grading areas. There had been a subdued sort of freak out among the English Language readers (the exam I was grading) the day before due to our question (and table) numbers having yet to be assigned on the white poster boards near the check-in tables like the others exams (statistics, biology, and so on). Initially, I didn’t understand the concern. The board had our question assignments now (number two for me), though as I came to learn through my own experience, the ‘freak out’ was perhaps more of a psychological than practical reaction, as we would become married to our questions for the next seven days.

The orientation herd gathered in one of the Convention Center’s football stadium sized arenas with its concrete floor and metal-beamed arched ceiling. After a brief greeting by the AP Big-Whig we were shepherded toward our designated question sites. The arena was subdivided by tall steel poles with blue blanket-curtains draped between them, creating a sort of semi-permeable barrier between each section. Question two’s camp was pitched in the far back right where I found my assigned table as well as grading coworkers for the next week.

Most of my fellow table readers were veterans of varying years of service, but even then I was among a pair of other newbies out of the eight of us total. The first half of day one is mainly about ‘calibration’ – essentially you’re given the grading rubric (scaled from 0-9, zero being an unrelated response to the question prompt and nine being “especially sophisticated” even if not perfect) and practice responses to assess and discuss where and why they fall wherever they do within said rubric.

There was certainly some interesting discussions about this grading process – some of us being from university and seemingly many more from high school. I overheard more than once (in fact, I believe they declared it themselves during orientation) that the AP reading was the best professional development experience in the industry. As such, I was eager to learn about others’ pedagogues, lesson plans, and further tricks and tips of the trade.

While I definitely exchanged some useful assessment guidelines with my tablemates, our job was to conform to the rubric given, which we did and were thankful to have come about essay 200 out of at least a thousand.

Overall they did a great job breaking up the monotony of grading for 8 hours a day, given the rigid nature of the whole process. My daily schedule more or less went as such:

  • Bob wake up coffee 6:30am
  • Breakfast 7am-8am;
  • Grading 8am-10:15am
    • Mini-break 10:15am-10:30am
  • Grading 10:30am-12:15pm
  • Lunch 12:15pm-1:15pm
    • Mini-break 3:15pm-3:30pm
  • Dinner 5:00pm-6:00pm
    • Complementary Bob Scotch 6:15pm
  • Professional development lectures, events, readings, etc./party-time/exploring 6:30pm-11:30pm

There were also briefer ‘stretch’ breaks scattered throughout the week, at least until the last day when we, according to the Big-Whig who came to our blue-curtained corner to declare to us, “fell behind schedule,” which seemed strange, given the fact that I had doubled my daily grading output from the first day to the final one, as had many others whom I’d spoken with. Then again, we were merely among many hundreds grading many thousands of exams.

The table leaders and question leader for their parts did all they could to keep us encouraged and going. Our question leader was particularly lauding, at least until it was time to, as she would declare when returned from breaks, go “back on your heads.”

It wasn’t until the third day or so that she finally revealed what this strange phrase really meant. Each question leader had a bell or whistle or squeaky duck to alert their readers’ attention, to call for us to put on our black headsets to listen to their orders, instructions, guidance, etc. – which we were glad to do amidst the prospect of diving back into yet another hour or two of uninterrupted, factoryesque grading. “I realize I haven’t explained what this really means,” she said, referring to her return-to-work phrase – and oh, how her explanation became an apt summary of the AP reading experience. The joke went (more or less) like this:

There’s this man, a very bad man. He lives his whole life by cheating and swindling and stealing from others, causing them to suffer and fail and end up dwelling in abject misery while he prospers. One day he gets hit by a bus while crossing the street on his way to work and dies. He wakes up in hell where he meets the devil.

The devil tells him that he has three choices, or doors rather, to spend all of eternity behind. He must choose one – a fair offer given all of this bad man’s various misdeeds throughout life. He sighs, resigned to his fate. He knows how rotten he’s been and that he now must pay his dues and so he asks to see what’s behind the first door. The devil opens it to reveal an endless room full of people doing headstands on wooden planks. “That doesn’t look took too comfortable,” the man says after observing their discomfort for a brief moment. “Let’s see door two.”

The devil shows him the next room, another endless chamber full of people doing headstands again, but this time on concrete slabs instead. They indeed seem unhappy, groaning and sweating just like the last sorry bunch. “Ouch, poor fools. That doesn’t seem much better! Let’s try number three.”

The final door reveals a sea of people standing upright, which pleases the bad man, except for the fact that they’re all nearly waist deep in excrement. Yet despite this fact they seem to be having a great time, chatting and laughing and frolicking as much as their circumstances will allow. The bad man comes to a relatively quick decision. “Well, it’s not ideal, but I think I’m gonna have to go with the third door here.”

The devil, without hesitation, nods and declares, “Alright then, in you go.”

The bad man enters to join his forever brethren as the door closes behind him. He’s hardly introduced himself to his neighbors when he hears a knock on the door, which opens once more to reveal the devil. “Alright, break’s over,” the devil says, grinning. “Back on your heads.”

I spent the first couple of nights trying to acclimate to my surroundings, mostly enjoying the hotel gym and pool as captured in stunning detail here:

pool

There was also a ‘mixer’ the first evening back at the Convention Center. The first face that greeted me upon entering was none other than Bob. “Have a free drink card,” he said, smiling. “Here, take another; I have plenty.”

I also met some very interesting folk at the hotel bar – other readers from all over the country: California, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, and Montana to name a few. It wasn’t until the third night or so that I set out by myself, having previously been wary of the lack of pedestrians on any given night. In New York there’s a natural inclination to avoid strolling down empty city streets, especially when they feel as if they should be packed with people out to party.

But as I soon learned Kansas City was a different sort of place, in many ways a lonely place. Not the residents (the few I ran into and talked with at least), but the buildings – many of which were foreclosed or for rent or in mid-construction. Granted, we spent most our time in the south side of the city, but even then there were afternoons when I wondered if a zombie apocalypse had struck the nation, unbeknownst to us amidst our timeless marathon grading sessions.

But it was safe, once I realized that there were few people to cause life here to be unsafe. The question then became what to do with the little time left for entertainment and frolicking? There were plenty of AP organized events, but the workday left us exhausted both mentally and physically, hardly wanting to remain at the Convention Center when there was a whole city to explore.

There’s a great deal of small talk at the reading, especially in the buffet dining hall. It’s a great way to meet some fascinating and like-minded intellectuals, but also a crapshoot that might place you at a table surrounded by bleak-staring statistics readers, who always seem to be smirking even when they’re not asking their scripted conversation starters. One must wonder if we’d all have to suffer through so many mundane and awkward exchanges had the food been better, and thus mouths fuller. But such is buffet style on a mass scale.

Luckily at one dinner another fellow English Language reader, and writer, who by crapshoot’s chance had sat down at my own randomly selected table, saved the day by asking if anyone wanted to go see Shakespeare’s First Folio. Not so shockingly, the statistics folk remained unphased, but I gladly volunteered to join.

This might have been the best decision of the trip, as I found not only a fellow literature nerd, but a talented poet and friend. By the next night we were conducting our own little poetry writing club in the hotel lobby, exchanging ideas, works, and even press information. This accounted me as one of the lucky ones.

By the last day I still noticed many readers sitting silent (and perhaps a little sullen) during mealtimes. In retrospect this is one of the few places of oversight where it felt as if the AP reading program had failed. With such little time to find friends and organize adventures, a bit more effort could go a long way in bringing together those who share common interests. A bit more advertising and organization of the opening night mixer, for example, could have helped these groups find each other more easily and quickly. Or maybe simply an online forum to start our own interests outreach efforts?

I don’t mean to sound critical, but this is an especially valid critique of the reading week when one recalls the fact of how little time there was to ‘go out on the town’. Granted we were there for a job, but an hour of leisure extra a day or even a ‘break day’ in the middle could go a long way to retaining readers – if that’s something that the program is truly interested in doing. Most whom I spoke with plan to return next year – newbies and veterans alike. But the fatigue was palpable, and given the vast number of new readers I myself spoke with, I could easily see why so many end up not returning for one reason or several.

I might not have gotten to see and do everything I wanted to in KC, but I did get most of my traveler’s goals in. For that, I count the whole experience as a success (despite the fact that by day five I was starting to see Reagan’s name (see question #2) within the swirling marble patterns of the restroom floor). As a self-proclaimed ‘fraudetarian’ I took this work-cation as an opportunity to indulge in what I had heard was a distinct brand of Kansas City barbecue. I saw one of a kind art and heard live jazz. And I learned a thing or two about the world, realizations that I might otherwise not have gained had I hunkered down back home within my regular routine for another week instead. Some of these facts:

  • The phrase “shittin’ in high cotton” is a Texas-based colloquialism used to describe someone who is “doing well” in one or more aspects of their life.
  • If you see something on a menu along the lines of “burnt-ends”, try it.
  • What constitutes as “traffic” is far from a universally consistent concept.
  • Pizza can be done well in other parts of the country, but it still just doesn’t taste like home.
  • People in public snapchat stupid shit everywhere.
  • Don’t order the marlin if you’re a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
  • Californians and New Yorkers (myself being raised within the latter fold) sound pretty much about the same; everyone else either sounds ‘Mid-western’ or at least speaks with some variation of what I’ll generalize as a ‘Mid-land’ accent.
  • Everyone compared to me walks painfully slow. This again may be another NY phenomenon. But regardless I could swear there were people who left the grading arena before me and didn’t sit down with their meals in the dining hall until I was wiping away my last bite.

As far as the actual grading process, it was truly a mental slog – though the relief when we dropped our pencils on that last day also brought an exhilarating sense of pride and accomplishment. And it seemed based on our output that we would be asked by the powers-that-be to return for next year’s grading.

But would we choose to come back even if we were offered to? As utterly exhausted as I am, even now about to board my flight back home, even as I was all week up until the end of the reading, the answer seemed obvious.

“Well, at least I know the city well enough now to see everything I want to next time,” I mentioned to one of my fellow readers, who to my surprise chuckled.

“You’ll have to come back here on your own then,” he said, yawning. “Next year’s in Tampa.”

Thanks for reading my account of this incredible event. Please feel free to ask any questions regarding further specifics about in the comments below! And again, you can also view the rest of my photos here!

Game of Thrones, 5.7 Brief Review-Predictions

*Warning, this article is darkly intelligent and full of terrifying spoilers*

Well, another week, another action-packed hour of plotting, chaos, and mass murder in the land of Westeros. This one certainly had its shocking moments, but perhaps it’s best to focus on one development in particular – a foreshadowed event that now (for truly the first time in the T.V. series) seems more like an inevitability rather than wishful book-reader dreaming. If you haven’t read the books and or don’t dare to ruin the shocking revelations to come in the sure-to-be shocker-packed final three episodes of this season, turn back now.

Many of you, book readers or not, might be familiar with the ominously (yet aptly) named Lady Stoneheart (LS). For those of you not acquainted with Westeros’ finest hangwoman, a quick google search should clear up any confusion – though again I remind you, spoilers abound here.

Most book readers have long since given up on the appearance of LS in the T.V. adaptation. Indeed, it seemed after her lack of mention in any of the previous couple of seasons that she simply wasn’t in on the HBO-version party. But last week’s episode has renewed hopes that she will in fact be joining us, and soon. Here are the five main reasons why:

 

1) The Brotherhood Without Banners Returns –

It’s likely with all the other madness and murder raging throughout the land that many viewers have long since forgotten about these once popular figures; this band of Robin Hood-esque vigilantes, including: Beric Dondarrion, Thoros of Myr, Gendry, etc. However, they’ve now been mentioned in more than one episode this season.

Say what you will about the show moving beyond the source material, but whether you agree with some of the writing decisions thus far, the show runners are highly tuned in with pacing, plotting, and suspense building – and that seems to be exactly what they are doing here. Think about the progression. The Brotherhood was mentioned by Walder Frey and others to be raiding throughout the Riverlands – just like in the books. This reminded viewers that the band of lovable anti-establishment rebels we last saw a few seasons back are still out there, carrying on the good fight for the people. However, in last week’s episode, we saw the Brotherhood practicing what they once condemned: raiding, pillaging, and murdering anyone and everyone in their wake.

This is a far different version of these outlaws from what we’ve known. Why this change of heart? A change to Stoneheart, perhaps? As they themselves warned last episode, “The night is dark and full of terrors.” This certainly sounds like the motto of a band of raiders who may have lost their more morally justifiable leader in exchange for a Red God power-fueled zombie lady.

A little context here: in the books, Beric sacrifices himself to resurrect Catelyn (they find her body washed up on a riverbank a few days after the red wedding). Despite Thoros’ strong opposition to this due to her advanced state of bodily decay, Beric passes his life to her, finally leaving us for good while reanimating the ruthless and vengeful Catelyn, henceforth know as LS.

Clearly the Brotherhood has ‘lost their way’.  It seems pointless now to bring them back into all of this without delivering on a much bigger reward. LS hanging Freys and joining in with the havoc of winter certainly seems like a juicy payoff.

 

2) It Makes Sense Thematically –

Season six has largely been thematically centered around this idea of resurrection – both physical and spiritual. But what’s more important are the specific effects of these rebirths.

Take Jon Snow, for example. His was a quite literal resurrection. He died, and then was brought back to life. Otherwise, little seems to have changed for his emotional state. He’s still fighting the good fight, trying to do what’s best despite the odds and consequences. This motivation would strongly contrast with the resurrection of LS, whose rule would seem to be one built on terror rather than pure justice such as with Jon. In a series that is mainly about the relative humanity of those struggling to protect, save, and avenge those they love, this fits right into the thematic fabric of it all.

Some of the other hints feel almost as if we’re being slapped in the face with thematic foreshadowing. For the Gods’ sake, look at what Stepton Meribald (who is trying to resurrect the Hound’s soul) preaches to his congregation literally seconds before the Brotherhood darkly rides in to demand tribute: “It’s never to late to stop robbing people, to stop killing people, to start helping people. It’s never to late to come back.”

Maybe for the Septon it’s not too late. Maybe not even for the Hound. But the Brotherhood and LS? Their hearts at least certainly don’t seem to be in the right place.

 

3) Lining Up with Book Content (And Connecting to the Plot Moving Forward) –

When Jaime was sent on his wild golden goose chase in Dorne last season, many wondered if he would ever make it to the Riverlands, like he does in the books to end the siege against the remaining Tully forces at Riverrun. It looks like the show runners are finally bringing his plot back in line with that of the text, but what next?

In the books, Jaime is able to find a peaceful resolution to the stalemate, though if his initial conversation with the Blackfish in the show is any indication of what’s to come, it’s not going to end well for either side. However, there is still hope. With Brienne en route, her negotiating might perhaps be the only chance to prevent imminent bloodshed, as well as save Jaime’s life and Jon’s uprising in the North.

The Blackfish seems intent on remaining behind his walls, ready to fight to the death. So what could possibly convince him to budge? The Blackfish has no trust for Jaime, and just as little respect. However, with Brienne to vouch for him, perhaps a deal can be struck; a deal where the Tully forces would be allowed to surrender the castle, march north to help oust a rouge murderous bastard, and install Sansa to her rightful seat as wardeness of Winterfell.

This indeed is a tenuous theory, as there would be many stark political implications and consequences, but at this point if it is the best option, might all sides agree?

The point of all this is that with the siege lifted and only the Brotherhood left to contend with in the Riverlands, this could be Jaime’s only chance at survival if he is to run into LS like its implied he will in his last scene in the books so far. Maybe lots of hopeful thinking here, but in GOTland you just never know.

 

4) Kill the Freys –

Who doesn’t want to see Freys swinging from trees at this point, especially those two loathsome dopes who were running the operation at Riverrun. It was nice to finally see Jaime smack down someone who deserved it, but what’s next for that pair once the siege is lifted and the Tullys are gone from the Riverlands? It’s entirely possible that we’ll see these idiots happy and eager to return to Papa Creepy Frey to tout their great victory, a victory that the only real hand they had in achieving was the golden one Jaime used to smack them across the face with. Well, we all know what happens en route to places in Westeros: chaos. And what better chaos than LS wrecking her vengeance upon the two who murder her son and daughter-law?

 

5) The Writers Love to Lie –

I don’t know if George Martin has said anything about this, but I wouldn’t trust anything that either he or Weiss&Benioff have to say about the matter. For years readers were convinced that Benjen Stark was not Coldhands (which he seems to now be, at least in the T.V. adaptation). Kit Harrington had to publicly apologize for repeatedly lying about his character being dead – as was ordered of him by the producers. LS’s appearance at this point in the series would simply be another welcome, even if long overdue, revelation.

 

What do you think? Feel free to comment below to share your own thoughts, theories, etc.!

Game of Thrones, 5.6 Brief Review-Predictions

*Warning, this article is darkly intelligent and full of terrifying spoilers*

Swarms of ice-zombies, Franken-Mountain smashing in sparrow heads, Dothraki-dragon barbeques; this episode had, well, not a whole lot of this. Still, after last week’s utter mind/heart bomb this latest installment of GOT came as almost a relief – as seems to be the general formula so far this season while the show continues to deviate from and expand beyond the yet to be completed source material. There were some interesting revelations and set-up – particular for those of us daring, desperate, and insane enough to have read the all books to date.

Benjen Stark, for one, is back, though I’d forgotten that he had been on the show in the first place until Jon Snow’s treasonous watch bros duped him with his whereabouts in the final moments of last season’s finale. This was a particularly interesting development for book readers as we’d all but given up both Benjen and or Coldhands making a big T.V. screen appearance. One may wonder where in the seven hells he was on Bran and Company’s journey north (he aided them to the Three Eyed Raven in the books), but even so, it was fairly obvious who the mysterious man in black was when he rode out of the forest.

It is worth noting that this episode was big on returns: Benjen, Edmure Tully, Drogon. These reappearances should give one hope that more seemingly lost characters might still make a comeback… My votes are for the Hound and Lady Stoneheart – one of which I am almost positive will be revealed as early as the next episode, aptly titled “The Broken Man.” If you’re not familiar with the ‘gravedigger’ theory and don’t mind further and much more detailed spoilers, definitely checkout this video.

Long story short, it seems likely that Cersei’s opponent for her trial by combat will be…wait for it…none other than the Hound. Their battle was foreshadowed in this latest episode, as Cersei says to Jamie, ‘it will be a trial by combat… I have the Mountain.’ She has every right to be confident in her choice. After all, who else would dare to fight let alone could triumph against such a monster? The Hound not only makes thematic sense but it’s just too damn cool of a theory to give up on until I see the Hound’s rotting corpse for myself.

Then again, all too often some maniacal authorial amalgamation of George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, and D.B. Weiss has cleverly shattered our theories and expectations of what’s to come next. I, and many others, for example, were convinced based on the hints and foreshadowings of Bran’s wargtastic experiences so far this season that Hodor was half-horse brain, or full-horse brain, or some other fraction of non-human, post-warg-trama intellect. Yet the reality as it turned out in the previous episode was far more complicated, disturbing, and tragic than I had feared to imagine.

Maybe the same type of twist will floor us all for what the High Sparrow really has planned next? He has certainly proven to be a master manipulator the likes of which few in Westeros seem able to counter. When you have the Queen of Thornes declaring that she’s being beaten, the masses cheering for you, and the King and Queen touting their faithful allegiance to the Faith Militant; you’ve really accomplished a scheme or several the likes of which Littlefinger and Varys would both raise a goblet of Kool-Aid to.

But what in the heck does this damn High Sparrow want anyway? There’s some really interesting theories on who the man truly is, namely this one, though at least for the show version such a theory seems less and less likely as time, and episodes, pass. More and more likely it feels as if the High Sparrow is exactly what he says he is: an honest zealot looking to overthrow an empire.

There’s so much more that seems to be setting up for an action packed final few episodes to this season: Arya-Waif deul, battle of the bastards, Cleganebowl, etc., etc., etc. Some of these slower-paced episodes are permissible because the writers have overall done a very strong job at forwarding the plot so far – even seeming too rushed at times. This episode didn’t feature a single non-ice-zombie kill as far as I can recall, though going in we were set-up to expect plenty of hostilities (and ideally more than a few Franken-Mountain head bashings): Arya assassinations, Faith Militant slaughter, Randyll Tarly smacking someone upside the head (which he did verbally at least). This seems to work, keeping viewers off balance as to when the exactly the next bout of chaos shall ensure. This show will turn from King’s Landing politics to a zombie apocalypse so fast that you’ll often wonder if you blinked too long and are still watching the same show. #hardhomehardorharhomehome.

Here’s looking forward to the chaos to come whenever it does! *Raises goblet of Kool-Aid*

P.S. it was really cool to see the mad king screaming “BURN THEM ALL”. Now bring us back to the Tower of Joy already.