50 Shades of Greg by Daphne Lamb now available on Amazon!

Mr. Right is hard to find in an Apocalypse. But, Mr. Right Now just won’t go away.

I am so psyched and thrilled to announce the released of 50 Shades of Greg by my good friend and fellow Fabulous Fictionista, Daphne Lamb.

50SOG_cv_HRIt’s the end of the world as we know it, and Verdell is just okay.

In this bitingly funny short story follow-up to The Girl’s Guide to the Apocalypse, Daphne Lamb gives us a glimpse of dating in a new world disorder.

The handful of survivors of a viral Incident (thanks, infected transplant organs from China) are scraping by and dealing with water rationing and oddly-named street gangs, among other things. Still, girls just want to have fun. Verdell’s housemates drag her to a club – the height of post-Incident chic in an abandoned gas station with a battery-powered CD player, and a ‘bar’ serving drinks that taste suspiciously like gasoline.

Verdell finds it’s not so bad to let loose for one night. It’s the morning after when she finds a random Greg in her bed that is the problem.
When Greg decides she’s the love of his life and takes drastic steps to prove it, she realizes post-apocalyptic dating has new rules that are as crazy as the survivors.

Get 50 Shades of Greg now at Amazon!

The Business of Being a Writer with ADHD

An example of all the iterations of organization I go through to get to a workable to-do list for a day/week.
An example of all the iterations of organization I go through to get to a workable to-do list for a day/week.

Lazy. Lack of work ethic. Slow. Procrastinator. Distractible. Squirrel. Unproductive. Confused. Frustrated. Angry. Panic. Anxiety. Late.

Overwhelmed.

Yes, that could be any of our to-do lists. But if you suffer from ADHD, you know that no matter how many planners, apps, systems, and timer tricks you use, you will always feel behind and inadequate.

Today, I’m not going to talk about “writing” with ADHD. That’s a whole different barrel of squirrels.

Today, I’m talking about the BUSINESS of being a writer with ADHD. Yeah, OMG, I said the B-word. The nasty, commercial slur on our pure art.

Okay, distracted, gut-reaction rants on why writers need to be doing marketing and treating themselves as a small business aside, there’s still the whole issue of working with ADHD.

For most of my life, I didn’t know I had ADHD. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t as consistently productive as other people. I marveled at anyone who could exist without a list, or just settle down and plow through tasks.

My coping mechanisms were lists and deadlines. But coping mechanisms are a double-edged sword, and I began to have lists of lists, charts, calendars, and master plans. I had to play games with myself to get stuff crossed off my lists.

And then, just as I started to check a few things off my list, I’d feel the urge to rewrite it, and I’d end up with nothing crossed off and a sinking feeling of being behind.

I’d also be angry and frustrated with myself that I needed to take the time to constantly work with my lists. Other people just wrote stuff down and made it work. I had to write, rewrite, reorganize things two or three times before I felt I had a list I could work with.

Even after I started understanding that I had ADHD, taking Adderall, and doing cognitive behavioral therapy, I found I was still angry and anxious at the amount of time I still spent organizing myself before I could get down to work.

Then, two weeks ago, a minor miracle occurred.

Okay, it was a big freaking miracle in my world and kinda changed my life, but I don’t like to be melodramatic about things.

I accepted the fact that this was just how I needed to do things in order to get my ADHD brain to understand what I needed to, how to do it, and when to do it by.

Suddenly, I was free. I was 20 pounds lighter in my heart. I wasn’t a struggling freak who was wasting time.

Writing, rewriting, organizing, and reorganizing was simply the way I managed my productivity goals. I accepted that I needed to build in time at the start of my day to do this. Once I felt I had a list that was reasonable (i.e. using my cognitive behavioral therapy techniques of cutting my to-do’s in half because the executive functions in my brain don’t work right and can’t calculate time correctly) and that I understood (i.e. actually seeing the reason behind what was priority for the day and accepting that other priorities would have to wait for tomorrow and the world wouldn’t end as a result), I could get on with my day and actually be productive.

So now, when I feel the anxiety rising, I realize that my thoughts are starting to run wild and that I need to sit down and take 10 minutes to reorganize myself. I make mini-lists based on the time remaining in my “work day” and what I can reasonably accomplish.

I still have multiple lists. I still have lists of lists. I still have master plans.

But, I don’t resent them anymore. I understand their purpose. I accept them as the helpers they are. Do I wish that I didn’t need to spend time working through setting up my lists? Heck yes! The things I could do with an extra half-hour a day!

But, better to lose that half-hour in list-writing and be productive for the rest of the day than become anxious, paralyzed by worry about whether I’m doing the most important thing I should be doing, unable to focus, and ending up curled in a little ball playing Soda Crush.

How do you organize yourself for your writing business to-do’s? I’m always looking to learn new strategies and techniques for time management and productivity, so feel free to share!!!

I Pantsed a Book Title, and Pierre Bupres Made it Work

Angel Hands BD PressI will admit this right from the start: I suck at coming up with titles. Usually, I leave the dirty work to my friend Britt, who is amazing at picking a title that reflects exactly what I meant.

For example, I nicknamed my first book “Underworld Queen” because I couldn’t think of anything, and I had to save the document with a name. I complained about this to Britt, and she paused for a moment and came back with, “Downcast.” Just. Like. That. Incidentally, she also came up with the series name for Olympus Falling.

No, you cannot have Britt. She is MINE!

“Angel Hands” was supposed to be the same thing. I was supposed to just use it as a nickname until I could come up with something better. Except, it ended up sticking.

I wrote the first chapter of the story and went to save it. It asked for a name for the document. I let my mind flip through random words and images. The word “Angel” came up a couple of times in my thoughts, mostly to reflect the Angel of Music that the Phantom portrays himself as. Then, the idea of music gave me the image of hands playing the piano.

As a result, I came up with “Angel Hands,” fully intending to ask Britt for something better later.

Well, later came closer and closer, and I was writing the final chapters of the book. I was frankly starting to get a little worried about the title. I hadn’t asked Britt, and I hadn’t thought of anything better.

Then, Pierre Bupres, the cheeky little bugger (and if you read “Angel Hands,” you’ll understand why I say he’s a cheeky little bugger), unexpectedly explained the title to me in one of the final scenes.

To say that I was floored by the real meaning of “Angel Hands” would be an understatement. I tried to reason with Pierre that he really shouldn’t be saying things like that because I was going to change the title.

Pierre winked at me and kept on talking. No wonder the Phantom wanted to strangle him on a regular basis.

So, there you have it. The title of “Angel Hands” was a total accident that ended up having meaning.

But, you’ll have to read the book to find out what that meaning is…and why I love and can’t stand Pierre Bupres at the same time.

ANGEL HANDS at Amazon.

Why Write About The Phantom of the Opera?

End of LoveThe most common reason people love the story of The Phantom of the Opera is not the reason I wrote about it.

People identify with the Phantom’s longing to be loved and accepted for who he is. We have all felt the sting of rejection at some point, and we all worry that some secret ugliness inside us will keep us from being worthy of love.

But, none of that is why I wrote Angel Hands.

I wanted to know what happens after the end of love.

And yet, could he even claim to still love Christine? Did the holy light still burn holes in his heart? Unconsciously, he touched his hand to his chest, as if to feel for the scars of the holes left by Christine. No, no immediate shock of pain. No stabbing. No slicing. No agony beyond endurance. A slow, soft feeling of regret, and raindrops of bittersweet memories.

Was this how love died when not returned? Like lamp flame flickering then falling until a final winking out?

What came after love?

Indeed, that was perhaps a more frightening concept than love itself.

The whole “dying for love” thing seemed rather far-fetched (admittedly, the entire story of the Phantom is far-fetched). Unless there is an active choice to end one’s life, the days keep coming. Life doesn’t stop because you’ve had your heart broken.

So, what happens after the end of love?

I am endlessly fascinated in life and in writing by the transformative power of love, and using the story of the Phantom in Angel Hands was a way for me to explore both the darker side of love’s transformation and the path toward a new and different love.

I always wondered what happened next after the Phantom let Christine and Raoul go – assuming that he lived, as opposed to Leroux’s ending.

He would have to have food and clothing. He had a great deal of money but would need ways to get at it. Surrounded by solitude, how would he replay and reinterpret his actions toward Christine? And, how would he deal with the change in an emotion that he believed to be one of the few absolutes in his life, something as key to his identity as his disfigurement and his mask?

In the end, I found myself writing not so much about a Phantom, but about someone very human…just like us.

You can find Angel Hands at Amazon!

Exclusive Excerpt from Angel Hands

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM ANGEL HANDS BY CAIT REYNOLDS – AT AMAZON

AH Promo“Because of what I am?” His voice was now very, very quiet, and he stood with his back turned to her.

“Yes!”

“A monst-“

“A liar, a cheat, a murderer, an embezzler, and worst of all, a Nosey Parker who can’t keep his sticky little fingers from interfering with my opera house!” She marched right up to him and poked him ferociously in the back.

“Ah, but with a face like mine, how could I be anything but such a…monstrous creature?”

“Oh, don’t give me that!” Mireille spat. “Your face, whatever is wrong with it, has nothing to do with what you are.”

He whirled around, candle smoke carried on the air. Seizing her shoulders, he drove her back against the rock wall and shoved his face up to hers.

“It has EVERYTHING to do with it!” he roared.

Oddly enough, now that she had gotten him worked up, Mireille felt no need to continue being angry. She relaxed under his grip and sighed.

“No,” she said simply. “It doesn’t.”

“Pray explain to me your precious little theory of how I am not a monster,” he snarled, not budging an inch.

“We become monsters from the choices we make, not from how we look.”

“Says a woman with a whole face.”

“Says a man who has not had to work with Monsieur Carcasonne.”

“I had no choice in the things I did,” he ground out, his fingers digging into her shoulders. “I learned, the hard way, that the world values appearances more than fact…that, in fact, appearances make the man.”

“If you let them,” Mireille shot back. “After all, at least you’re a man. Try being a woman, and a plain one at that. Then come crying to me.”

“You have no idea how I…plain?” The growl suddenly melted into a tone of genuine surprise, and his eyes widened. “Do you think you are plain?”

“I know I am, Monsieur de la Persie,” Mireille replied drily. “Do not change the subject. You are what you choose to become.”

“Then there is no hope for me,” he said, but the fight had gone out of his voice.

“Well, until you’re dead, you have a future,” she quipped, gently easing herself out of his grip. “Therefore, you have a choice every minute, hour, and day of who and what you wish to be.”

She let out a long breath, then rubbed her face with her hands. She was tired again, and her mouth felt fuzzy and foul. When she looked up, he was gone.

“Brilliant,” she grumbled. “Just fucki-”

“Language, Mireille,” A ghostly voice floated back to her across the cavern, a hint of a laugh behind it.

She grabbed a porcelain teacup that she recognized as a prop from the production of Don Giovanni and hurled it against the wall with a satisfying smash.

 

A Note from the Opera Ghost

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT FROM “ANGEL HANDS” BY CAIT REYNOLDS AT AMAZON

Angel Hands BD PressA Note from the Opera Ghost

Chers Mesdames et Messieurs,

It is a curious thing to be a legend in one’s own lifetime, or perhaps more accurately, a lifetime in one’s own legend.

As with all lives and legends, certain things about my story are quite true, while others have been exaggerated to the point of farce. Perhaps one of the worst of these offenders has been M. Gaston Leroux himself with his ridiculous pulp penny dreadful. Allow me to state here once and definitively that I have never referred to myself in the third person. Nor do I have the ability to breathe, sing, and swim at the same time. Nor did I possess a torture chamber in my house.

Good heavens, who would think of such a thing?

M. Lon Cheney in the 1920’s cinematographic presentation of my story did not help matters much. Both he and M. Leroux seem to have taken an extraordinary delight in greatly exaggerating my deformities. That is not to say that I did not posses a face that…well, not even my mother could love my face. It is also true that I wore a mask.

However, let me assure you that my eyes are not yellow, nor do they glow in the dark. I have a fully-formed nose. I do not have jaundice, nor do I smell like rotting flesh.  I was never skeletally thin—except for that brief, unhappy period of my life when I traveled with the gypsies and lived off little more than sips of water and regular beatings. In point of fact, my ‘work’ about the opera house kept me quite fit, and I never lacked for food with the opera house kitchens so conveniently located next to one of my secret passages.

Ah, yes. The secret passages and infamous mirror. There, I will admit to the truth of it all. My opera house was riddled with passages and trapdoors of my own invention. The mirror was my particular triumph, and non, I regretfully inform you that I will not share the secret of how I achieved it.

But the Opéra de Paris—oh, I beg your pardon. This is another misconception I must clear up. M. Leroux would have it that I was a great architect who had been responsible for the entire design of the Palais Garnier, which enabled me to build my ‘lair.’ Please tell me that you, dear readers, are not so foolish as to assume that one man could design an entire opera house? Charles Garnier had a veritable army of draftsmen, clerks, and engineers working with him to design his Third Republic monstrosity.

The original cover.
The original cover.

No, I inhabited an older—but only a little smaller—opera house known as the Opéra de Paris, situated in a quartier not far north of where the Garnier would eventually be. Eventually, it was torn down—a casualty of Haussmann’s mania. It has been forgotten about, along with so much of the Paris I knew.

But, change is inevitable, n’est-ce pas? Even I, who thought my existence to be a single life sentence of isolation and darkness, found that people and circumstances combined to render my life far more interesting and varied than I have ever anticipated.

This brings me to the more modern incarnations of my tale. M. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a musical production on a scale that is somewhere between the Opera Garnier and Le Lapin Agile in terms of both music and spectacle. However, he did get certain aspects of my story surprisingly correct.

I did fall in love with a young opera singer and had my heart broken by her. I also did set fire to my opera house—though, I did not do it by crashing the chandelier onto the stage, nor did I ignite barrels of gunpowder (per M. Leroux’s fantastical ideas—I mean, come on, man! Where would I be able to purchase such large quantities of gunpowder and keep it dry while storing it in a damp cellar by an underground lake!).

I digress.

In truth, the ‘love story’ of the singer and her valiant suitor is mostly correct. I loved her. She loved him, and he loved her. I went mad with love, and there were those who stood in my way and paid the ultimate price for it. In the end, I was redeemed from madness by her compassion. She and the boy left me, a shell of a man with a broken heart skulking about the shell of an opera house with ash for a stage.

There was no Persian police chief involved in any way, shape, or form.

What nonsense.

I have never been to Persia in my life.

Ah. I digress again.

The world thought my story ended that lonely, smoky night when my love left me. In point of fact, however, one could say that was actually when my story truly began.

It is now my great pleasure to set the record straight and hopefully restore my legend to merely a lifetime.

Your most obedient servant,

O.G.

Postscript: I have used the actual names of all persons involved. Except my own. It would not do to have one of those pesky ‘cease and desist’ letters find me.

The Roots of Downcast Part 2: High School

High school graduation. Who would think such an innocent face would hide such a caustic sense of humor?
High school graduation. Who would think such an innocent face would hide such a caustic sense of humor?

Some of the classes that Stephanie Starr takes in “Downcast” are actual classes I took at my high school, including European History, and Honors (or rather, A.P.) English.

It was in A.P. English that I first read Jonathan’s Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and Volataire’s “Candide.” These two satires resonated very deeply with me, as I had finally found words that saw the world the way I do – with its beauty, hope, and hypocrisy.

The assignment that came with these books was to write our own satire.

I wrote a piece called “The Quest.” It got an A+++ (I’m not kidding. That’s literally the grade it got).

So, for your satirical enjoyment, here is the masterwork from 17-year-old Cait.

***

“The Quest”

It all began with an innocent quest for the answer to the ultimate question: where can a girl buy a pair of run-free pantyhose?

Honors realized how critical run-free pantyhose are for a first impression and vowed never to rest until she found the answer to this question and freed all woman-kind from the bondage of worrying about their pantyhose running.

For days, Honora tried to think of the answer to the ultimate question, but, alas, she could not find it. She then tried to think of how she could find the answer. She thought for many days and many nights, and finally found a solution.

“I must find a place where there would be people who would know where a girl can buy a pair of run-free pantyhose,” Honora thought to herself.

Being the bright girl she was, Honora sat and pondered until, in a burst of inspiration on the fourth day, she concluded that fashion-sconscious young girls would probably know where to get run-free pantyhose. The inspiration lasted long enough for Honora to realize that young girls are usually found in high schools.

Honors hopped into her car and sped (not literally, she was too honorable to drive faster than the speed limit) to the nearest high school. She walked in determinedly and put her nose in the air. The highly sensitive organ soon caught the smell of heavily fried foods and sugary deserts. Honor’s nose led her straight tot he cafeteria where she found clusters of students anxiously bent over sheets of paper.

“Excuse me,” she said to the nearest table of kids. “Are you students here?”

A student looked up and said scornfully, “We are seniors, not students. Furthermore, we are currently involved in enjoying our high school career, so will you please state your business succinctly or go away.”

Honors was taken aback, but not to be deterred.

“What are you doing?” she asked politely.

All the students looked up at her, each with an expression of absolutely terror and confusion.

“We’re filling gout college applications for colleges that we have to go to, or else our prestige and position in the world will be forever affected negatively!” said a panic-stricken student.

“Oh,” said Honora, not really understanding, “But what will happen if you don’t get in?”

But her question was lost to the students who had returned to filling out their applications.

One student spoke to himself as he checked off boxes on the application.

“National Honor and Sobriety Society President, Spanish Club President-” the boy was interrupted by a girl going for his throat with a her pen, yelling “I’m the Spanish Club President!”

A short, bitter fight ensued which ended quickly because both students killed each other rather efficiently. Four students from the Environmental Club came and took the bodies away for recycling. They gave Honor to understand that this was a fairly common occurrence, and that they had a special bin outside just for senior bodies, and another one for junior body parts (the juniors were not as violent yet; they were just practicing for the real thing).

The scornful student blinked and remarked, “Actually, I’m the Spanish Club President.” He then went back to his work.

Honors pondered this strange turn of events for a few moments, then embarked on another round of questioning.

“What do you put on your college applications?” she asked.

A harried-looking student looked up and said, “Everything we’ve ever done that was important, and if it’s not important, they have classes here that teach you how to make it sound important. For example, I have 16 scholarships, 27 extracurricular activities, two part-time jobs, and I do 10 hours of community service a week.”

Honor was astounded.

The student continued,” I also have a 5.23 GPA out of a 4.0. I have taken all the A.P. Classes there are.”

“What intelligent people these students are!” Honor thought to herself in awe.

“Who wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ and what kind of writing is it?” Honors asked. She had always wanted to know about it, but nobody had ever told her. Honor figured that these brilliant students could tell her.

The student looked sagely at her.

“Ahhh, that was a paper I got an ‘A’ on, but I do not remember.”

“Oh dear. Well, can anyone tell me the answer to the ultimate question?” Honor cried.

A girl looked up and said, “If I can, I can put on my application that I answered the ultimate question!”

“Where can a girl find a pair of run-free pantyhose?” Honora asked.

The girl’s face went blank, then she turned back to her application and wrote under awards: “Finalist in contest to answer the ultimate question: Where is it physically and geographically possible/probably to employ capitalistic principles of free market to gain possession of nylon habiliments that are technically designed to resist the destructive action of action.”

Honora realized that she couldn’t find the answer here. Disappointed, but not discouraged, Honora got back in her car and went home to think of where else she could find people who would know where to find run-free pantyhose.

After five days of intensive thinking, Honora came up with an answer.

“Pantyhose are sold in stores, and store clerks have to know about the products they sell,” Honora reasoned, “Therefore, I must go to a store.”

Honors got in her car and sped to the nearest clothing store. The moment she walked in the door, a bevy of salesladies swooped down on her, all smiling, offering assistance.

“What lovely, friendly people!” Honors thought, “Surely I can find the answer here!”

The saleslady with the broadest smile and the most robust offers of help shooed the others away and turned back to Honora.

“Hi, my name is Betty. Can I help you in any way? My job is to make your shopping experience here better and better and better…” the saleslady said, firmly grasping Honora’s arm and propelling her into the middle of the store where Honora could get a complete view of the store.

“I’m looking for the answer to the ultimate question,” Honor said.

“In the great mix-and-match sales rack of life, aren’t we all?” the saleslady replied brightly.

Honors paused then continued, “I was wondering where a girl could get-”

“You can get everything a girl could want right here!” cried the saleslady, enthusiastically flapping her arms to indicate the whole of the store.

“And what’s more,” she continued, “I’m here to make sure you get it in a pleasant and efficient way. I just want to let you know that anything you ask me to do will make me ver, very, very,very happy.”

Honors was delighted. At last, she had found the place where a girl could get a pair of run-free pantyhose.

“Then take me to them!” cried Honora.

The saleslady looked blankly at her.

Honora looked at the saleslady, taken aback.

The saleslady coughed suggestively.

Honora, being the bright girl she was, realized the saleslady didn’t know what she had come for.

“Run-free pantyhose?” Honora said sheepishly.

The saleslady paused a moment, then said cheerfully, “We have everything a girl could want except run-free pantyhose.”

“Don’t they make run-free pantyhose?” Honora asked anxiously.

“Oh, probably not,” replied the saleslady, shrugging, then smiling in a way that would have made most people call for the men in white.

“Why not?” inquired Honora.

“Let me show you the latest in pantyhose technology,” said the saleslady happily, dragging Honora over to the stocking section. The saleslady rifled through packages until she came up with the one she wanted.

“This is the newest pantyhose style,” the salesleady announced, holding up a package of ‘Banes Worry-Free Pantyhose.’

“These pantyhose are specially designed to free women from the threat of getting runs in their pantyhose,” the saleslady explained ebulliently.

“How?” asked Honora.

“Simple,” continued the saleslady jubilantly, “The manufacturers recognized the problem women face each time they wear pantyhose. Since we, the women of the United States of America, in order to form a more stress-free life, demanded worry-free pantyhose, manufacturers made pantyhose with runs already in them. That way, you don’t have to worry about getting runs in your pantyhose because they are already there! Now isn’t that just peachy and marvelous?”

Honora looked dejectedly at the package of run-filled pantyhose and asked, “How much are they?”

“A real bargain!” cried the saleslady, “Only $37.99.”

Honora was shocked. “Why do they cost so much?” she asked.

“Profit, of course. That is the great blessing of the capitalist system! But let me assure you, dear customer, that we here in this store have the lowest prices of anywhere in town. And if we don’t, and you can prove it to us, we will all happily commit suicide and leave you the store in our will, just to oblige you,” replied the saleslady excitedly.

Honora realized sadly that she would not find the answer to the ultimate question here. She took her leave of the saleslady and the store, with all the salesladies sending her off with bright cheery calls of farewell and promises of making her next visit even better and better and better…

Honora left the store and went home, despairing of ever finding the answer to the ultimate question. Upon her return home, she found the latest fashion magazine waiting for her. She absently flipped through it. Suddenly, she sat bolt upright. There, on page 79 of the magazine, in big, bold letters, was the answer!

Honora read it carefully: “The new trend in fashion: Out with nylon pantyhose, in with cotton stockings and knee-high socks!” Honora reflected on this and finally came to the conclusion that it was the best, most convenient and sensible answer. After all, hadn’t she proved that a girl can’t get a pair of run-free pantyhose?

The Roots of Downcast Part 1: College

Cait circa junior year, the time I wrote this paper. Yes, that is a champagne flute. It's filled with iced tea. And yes, that's a J. Crew catalog. I was making fun of it. College was weird, okay? Leave me alone.
Cait circa junior year, the time I wrote this paper. No, that’s not my room (it’s my neighbor across the hall). Yes, that is a champagne flute. It’s filled with iced tea. And yes, that’s a J. Crew catalog. I was making fun of it. College was weird, okay? Leave me alone.

“Downcast” was not my first attempt at trying to capture the splendid complexity of high school social hierarchies. Apparently, I have been thinking about this for a very, very long time.

Way back in college, I took an anthropology course called, “Myth, Ritual, and Symbol.” This class may or may not have inspired me to want to become an anthropologist…how I ended up in marketing is a whole other story…

The other day, I came across a paper I wrote for this class, and it was clear that I was already trying to analyze and distill the crazy crucible that is high school.

So, here, in its entirety, is my college anthropology paper on high school social structures. (Being a good academic, I would have added the footnotes, but the ancient word processing program I wrote the paper with decided to garble them beyond recognition. Suffice to say that I did footnote the heck out of this thing and can provide notes/bibliography as asked.)

Also, FYI, I got an “A” on this assignment, with Professor Kaplan remarking, “Caitlinn – This is an excellent paper. You provide a detailed ethnography and use both Tume and Gluckman in creative and convincing ways. One point for further thought: what would Bruce Lincoln ask us to consider about the ritual if we put it into real historical context (e.g. compared to 1950’s, 1960’s/70’s versions)? Good work!”

***

Honors Convocation: An Attempt at Communitas through a Ritual of Rebellion

I. Introduction

High school is one of the most important socially formative experiences in the lives of the majority of Americans. Teenagers go to high school to play the role of students, and the primary goal of most high schools is to provide these young men and women with an academic education.

However, the social education received through the social structures of the student body go far beyond the media stereotypes of camaraderie and popularity contests. The organization of student social groups and relationships is an extremely complex entity, informed by many factors such as the personality of individual actors, the particular myths and traditions of the school, and the variations in the social map that occur in different schools and class years.

A better understanding of the tacit social arrangements of high school students might further our understanding about the effects of this influential time. An approach to opening up this field would be to look at certain rituals in high schools and how they reflect the social organization and conflicts within the student body.

One such ritual is the “Honors Convocation” held biannually at Brebeuf Preparatory High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Honors Convocation was a ritual meant to bring together the student body by honoring those who had excelled academically and to inspire everyone to work hard and do well in the coming semester.

However, Honors Convocation failed to bring together the students in a kind of communitas and was in fact divisive because of its similarities to a ritual rebellion.

In order to see how this ritual failed so consistently, it is necessary to place it in the context of the pre-existing social structure of the student body and to examine the actual mechanics of the ceremony. Then, by using the theoretical frameworks of Victor Turner and Max Gluckman, Honors Convocation can be analyzed and evaluated as to its effectiveness.

 

II. Student Social Organization and the In’s and Out’s of Honors Convocation

It would be tremendously difficult to imagine a ritual or a ceremony without some sort of cultural context. In fact, in the case of Honors Convocation, there is such a myriad of variables concerning the social structure and the administrative goals that it would be almost impossible to map out all the rapports and connections.

Thus, it is easier to use the senior class as a model and to extrapolate general trends from there. By describing the composition of the senior class’ social hierarchy, the context of the ritual of Honors Convocation itself comes into focus more clearly.

Brebeuf Preparatory High School is a Jesuit college preparatory school located in the more affluent northside suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. The school’s stated goal is to educate students, prepare them for college, and send the entire graduating class to college.

There is a heavy emphasis placed by administrators and teachers on academic excellence and the accumulations of honors and achievements that will increase one’s chances of getting into college. There are about 150 students/class year. The number of students in a given class would be about 15-20. The student body is predominantly upper-middle class whites, however, there is a noticeable presence of Asian-Americans and African-Americans.

An entrance exam is required for admission and once admitted, that exam is used to determine which level of classes one takes. Every year, there are several levels of difficulty in core classes such as English, math, and science.

As the years go on, a group of selected students are strongly encouraged to take Honors and Advanced Placement classes. Thus, the result is the formation of an academic elite over the years who compete for the same scholarships, club offices, and college admissions.

The trials and tribulations and pressures put on this group give them a common ground for commiseration and a limited camaraderie. However, the competitiveness of their academic situation inhibits relationships born of the scholastic context.

A greater influence is exerted on the formation of social groups by the nebulous concept of “popularity”, which might be quickly defined as charisma coupled with the ability to draw other to oneself, and the establishment of leadership as evidenced by one’s powers to determine social and fashion trends.

The social hierarchy was formed by strategic combinations of four basic criteria: popularity, athleticism, academic ability, and involvement in extra-curricular activities.

At the zenith of the senior class was the group of young men and women who “covered all the bases” by being in the top echelons academically, active in athletics, on the cutting edge of fashion, in the know about the parties and social machinations, and involved in many extra-curricular activities such as clubs and volunteer work.

Next came a less gender-mixed group – this meaning that they were both on this social level, but they tended to segregate more by sex. They were active athletically, socially and somewhat extra-curricularly.

Underneath that came the group of students who were also in the academic elite, and involved in extra-curricular activities, but who were not invited to participate in private parties and who were on the whole less involved in athletics.

At the bottom of this hierarchy were those who were neither top nor bottom academically, occasionally in sports or clubs, and who were nearly non-existent socially.

For all practical purposes, this bottom group and the group of academics just above it were taken as one level most of the time. Of course there were crossovers and variations since these groups were not hard and fast, as is implied by delineation of social categories, and there were social intrigues within all the groups, with leaders and followers, etc.

However, overall, this seemed to be the model of the hierarchy used by the senior class and others. Even though academics was an element of being on top of the hierarchy, it was the icing on the cake because of all the other prerequisites.

However, there is one moment during the school year when the social hierarchy is redefined by factors outside its control, namely the administration. That event was Honors Convocation.

Honors Convocation was announced in the school calendar and in all the letters home from the administration. Parents and friends of the family were encouraged to attend this ceremony in honor of the accomplishments of their children.

The students were informed that this was to be treated with as much importance as the all school convocation on St. Jean de Brebeuf day, meaning dressing up was required. Any boy not wearing slacks, a collared shirt, a tie, and dress shoes was subject to detention, as was any girl in casual attire, skirts that were “inappropriately short”, etc.

The morning of convocation, in homeroom, honors and high honors ribbons were distributed. Honors meant that one had a GPA of 3.0-3.4, and high honors was defined as 3.5 to 3.9.   A 4.0 was considered as “class honors” and those ribbons were to awarded during the ceremony.

The distribution of ribbons in the homerooms eliminated what would be a time-consuming process during honors convocation, and also distinguished even more the awarding of class honors ribbons since the recipients would get to walk up to the stage, shake hands with the principal, and be presented to the school.

After the class that followed homeroom, the entire student body was directed to the gymnasium. Students had to sit in the sections that corresponded to their class years. Those receiving class honors were told to sit further down on the bleachers so that they wouldn’t hold up the procession to the stage.

Parents and other guests sat on fold-up chairs set out for them on the floor of the gymnasium. The principal and other administrators sat up on the stage. The teachers stood along the back wall by the doors, and some sat up in the bleachers with the trouble-makers. Finally, everyone was assembled and it was time for the ritual to begin.

The principal got up and gave a short welcome speech to the students and to the parents who had come. In the fall Honors Convocation, which celebrated the achievements of the previous spring semester, the freshmen were excluded from any of the activities, since they had not been at Brebeuf long enough to amass any honors connected with their time there.

The winners of various memorial and other scholarships were announced. In the winter Honors Convocation, the next thing to follow would be the induction of the qualifying members of the junior class into the National Honors Society. They went up on stage, received their certificates and shook hands with the president of the school.

The final part of the ceremony was the announcement of all of those who had received any kind of honors. The listing of those receiving honors began with the freshmen class, unless it was fall Honors Convocation, in which case the president of the sophomore class would get up and begin the announcement of sophomore names.

Those with honors were announced first, then high honors, and finally class honors. The student with class honors were called up to the stage to receive their ribbons. They walked from the bleachers to the staircase up to the foot of the stage where a teacher put the in alphabetical order and prompted them at the right moment to walk up on stage.

Then when everyone was lined up on stage and awarded, the audience applauded and the students left the stage. The senior class was left to go last, and at winter Honors Convocation, it was mentioned that this would be their last Honors Convocation – a remark which always brought tears to a few senior eyes and handsome rounds of applause from everyone.

The principal concluded the convocation by thanking everyone who came and exhorting the students to continue to work hard and strive to be the best they could be. Parents and guests were allowed to leave first, then most of the teachers (except those who were to keep the students in line). Seniors were dismissed next, then juniors, sophomores and freshmen. Students returned to their classes and tried to continue the rest of the day as if nothing had happened.

In the afternoon aftermath, students tended to be particularly listless in their classes, as if to show that what had happened during convocation hadn’t really mattered. A few congratulations had circulated among friends who had gotten class honors or a scholarship, but most of that was previously known because of the quick circulation of information through the classes.

The social structure had been challenged and needed to return to its normal hierarchy in order for the students to function properly in the relationships the understood and were comfortable (although perhaps not happy) with. The next day, there was no talk of what had happened during convocation at all.

Honors Convocation was disruptive because of the way it reflected the tensions in the prevailing social hierarchy of the student body. It was forgotten quickly, in order to circumvent the blossoming of any more ill feeling than what already existed.

This was the opposite effect hoped for by the administrators who had planned this event as a communitas-building moment. In order to better understand this failure, it is necessary to use two theoretical perspectives that address the meaning of what the ritual attempted to do, and how it was actually unconsciously perceived by the student body.

 

III. Victor Turner’s Take on Honors Convocation

Despite the fact that Honors Convocation was a secular ceremony and that many of Victor Turner’s ideas are geared toward more religious rituals, there are several concepts of his that can be transposed to an analysis of this ritual.

In his article “Passages, Margins, and Poverty: Religious Symbols of Communitas”, Turner introduces three terms: liminality, structural inferiority, and communitas. Interwoven into his discussion of these terms are Turner’s discussion of ritual degredation and ritual elevation and a definition of social structure.

Using this point of reference, it is possible to examine critically Honors Convocation in terms of an exercise in building communitas, the aspects of this ritual that correspond to liminality, and the structural inferiority built into the context of the social structure of the student body.

Before plunging into a full analysis of Honors Convocation in Turnerian terms, it is necessary to outline some of his definitions and ideas, from communitas to social structure, and to show how they apply to the study of high school social dynamics in general.

According to Turner, secular communitas is a spontaneous feeling of fellowship that is engendered outside of the set social structures. While Turner argues that institutions cannot successfully communitas, he believes that communitas is not completely separate from social structures and that it is often institutionalized in the form of religion. In the high school setting, an example of communitas outside the self-imposed social group distinctions among students might be the commiseration and relief shared by students as they get out of particularly grueling test.

The students might belong to different “cliques”, but the feeling of relief is outside of that structure. Turner’s definition of a social structure is the “patterned arrangements” of different roles and degrees of social mobility that function and are sanctioned in a society. This structure can be seen in the established social hierarchy described earlier, especially in the two groups at the bottom of the social totem pole.

Being in a group that is classified as somehow lower than another group illustrates the concept of structural inferiority in which there is a permanent class on the bottom of social stratification. In general, movement between social groups was very subtle. A more formalized and ritualistic movement between groups would take place at sports banquets, and club parties and elections, where there would be a more qualifiable liminality.

According to Turner, liminality is the midpoint of a transition between two positions in a society, and may include ritual degredation, ritual elevation, or homogenization of the group. All of these concepts of communitas, structural inferiority, social structure and liminality play into the construction and failure of Honors Convocation.

The established, everyday, dominant social structure of the student body was suspended for 1 1/2 hours during Honors Convocation, and a temporary, artificial structure was imposed which meant to show the possibility of other structures and encourage fluidity between groups.

This new arrangement placed the emphasis and importance on those who had excelled socially across all social lines. Unfortunately, the other pattern of social relations was too firmly entrenched, and the students were not in that setting long enough for it to make a real difference over time.

Part of the reason for the lack of lasting effect was the way the structural inferiority of the senior class, and in general the student body, was constructed. Those who tended to excel academically, aside from those at the top of the hierarchy, were the students who were strong academically and in extra-curricular activities. Thus, the placing of this low group on top was a change that was too drastic to be tenable, let alone comfortable.

There were serious attempts made by the administration who presided over the ritual to achieve a moment of true liminality among the students. They sought to do this through the homogenization of the look of the student body through clothing (formal dress). While clothing has less of a distinguishing impact today, there were still markers of social rank such as cheerleading outfits, letter jackets, sorority sweatshirts, etc. However, those who took the lead socially still were able to “lead” in the realm of formal fashion.

By making everyone sit according to their class year, the administrators seemed to convey their desire that the students think of themselves as “juniors” or “freshmen”. There again, the organization of how students sat according to their social groups showed that there was no elimination of divisive elements. Perhaps the only true liminality that occurred was the ritual elevation of the academically honored and the ritual degredation of the socially prominent but academically weak.

The attempt to find some sort of communitas generated by Honors Convocation may be the hardest and most complex application of Turner’s analysis to the ceremony. The spirit of goodwill and fellowship that the administration hoped would come from the recognition of scholastically strong students by their peers never materialized because of all the pre-determined factors working against it.

Also, as Turner points out, the creation of communitas is usually uncontrollable and unharnessable. Thus, no amount of exhortations by the principal to work together and be a community of scholars only aggrieved the tensions that existed in the social system and reinforced the desire to stick to the established hierarchy.

There were some instances of communitas that happened during the ceremony, such as the explosion of feeling by the senior class at the mention that this would be their last convocation. In a way, this illustrates Turner’s idea that communitas does have a rapport with structure – that in fact, it is often a response to too much structuring. But these moments are few an far between, and sadly brief.

Honors Convocation meant well. It wished to instill feelings of goodwill in its students. However, the arbitrary imposition of communitas and a new social structure based on the overturning of structural inferiority only brought into sharper relief the conflicts and stratification of the senior class and the student body. It succeeded in distinguishing for a moment those who had excelled academically, and this ephemeral triumph call to mind the theories of ritual rebellion put forward by Max Gluckman.

 

IV. Gluckman on Honors Convocation as a Ritual Rebellion

Max Gluckman’s ideas encompass a new vocabulary and a new frame of reference.

There are many questions that arise from a brief examination of his analysis, such as: what is ritual rebellion? what are the criteria that allow this classification? and, in regards to an application of his theories to Honors Convocation, what are the elements of this ritual that resemble the structure and significance of a ritual rebellion?

The rituals of rebellion in south-east Africa offer Gluckman ample concrete examples for this theories. The sacred protests against the king, but not necessarily the kingship, both release pent-up tensions and affirm the support for the institution that allows society to continue.

Every society is full of tensions resulting in both struggle and cooperation. The societies in which these rituals of rebellion against the distribution of power tend to occur are in what Gluckman would call “repetitive” societies, where there is relatively little, or extremely subtle change in the institutions. This can be seen in the structure of the student body.

The designation of class years does not change, and there always seems to be the athletic crowd, the brainy crowd, the popular crowd, etc. According to Gluckman, a ritual of rebellion is an institutionalized and traditional protest by those in habitually subordinate roles.

In the African tribes, the ceremonial expression of hatred for the king is not just a mass assertion of unity in face of the oppression, but also it is a highlighting of the conflict inherent in their society, and a statement of rivalry with the king. The king himself is made to be the symbol of the nation and its strength and prosperity.

By transposing the structure of a monarchy to the structure of a social hierarchy, it is not hard to see how many of these concepts are applicable to an analysis of the social organization of the student body as well as Honors Convocation.

This ceremony is definitely a reversal of roles for students at opposite ends of the social hierarchy, and this factor may be the most important link to Gluckman’s theories.

By giving these students on them bottom a moment of importance that allowed them to assert their worth, tensions were released since there was no concession by those on top because the entire ceremony was handled by administrators.

Those on bottom were only responsible for having worked hard, and thus they avoided spreading the image of a personal attack on the system that allowed everyone to know his place and to establish the pattern of social relations.

Having publicly affirmed their value, these students could return to their position of the social hierarchy and to enjoy the unity and in some cases prosperity of a class that functioned well because of everyone playing the same social game. Thus, in evidence here is the paradox the Gluckman sets forth by showing that through dissent, unity (happy or not) is possible.

Perhaps Honors Convocation did succeed at creating unity, although not the kind it necessarily wanted, by the very disruption it caused in the social fabric of the student body. Whatever its original goals, the effects and perception of Honors Convocation are closely aligned to those described in rituals of rebellion by Gluckman.

 

V. Conclusion

 

Honors Convocation was a problematic event in the course of the scholastic year.

By its elevation of the students who had excelled academically, it overturned dramatically and briefly the established and sanctioned social hierarchy. Its goals were to honor those who had received good grades and to encourage a feeling of academic fraternity.

However, because of all the factors working against it, the ritual fell short of achieving this scholarly agape among the students through the methods the administrators thought would work. As the application of Victor Turner’s theories shows, many elements of the cultural context of Honors Convocation, such as the inherent social structure, the shallow quality of any liminality, and the firmly entrenched structural inferiority, all turned the odds against the development of communitas through this ceremony.

The analysis of Honors Convocation from the point of view of Max Gluckman’s theories comes much closer in its conclusion that it represented to the students a ritual of rebellion. All of these analyses and evaluations attempt to delineate the social dynamics of the cliques of the student body.

Honors Convocation is but one ceremony at one particular high school. There are numerous other rituals ripe for studying and who could yield a valuable guideposts on the road to understanding the impact of high school social structures on the development of groups and individuals as the move on in society.

Behind the Screens: Author Support from the Soul (Sister)

12036712_693610170738476_7641421313610088168_nThis is a guest post written by my best friend, soul sister, and fiercest supporter, editor, critic, cheerleader, and slavedriver, Britt Behm. I am thankful every day that she is my friend and that she loves me enough to give me the honest praise, critique, and unstinting encouragement I need to keep going.

Readers should know that after she sent me this, I roped her into a half-hour Facebook chat about my emotional hangups with Thunderstruck and Helen’s character. As usual, she talked me off the ledge and put my butt back in my seat. I love her.

So a while ago, Cait asked me to tell you guys what my “view” of the creation of Downcast looked like. I said yes, and then delayed. But, since my hubby has our offspring occupied outside, I am momentarily free to write at will!

Let me give you a little back ground on Cait and I real quick. We met eleven years ago. Yup. I was a mere slip of a girl at nineteen. I had joined a yahoo romance writing group by way of a Sookie Stackhouse fanfic yahoo group. I forget how Cait found her way to us, but she did. (I forget how I found my way there, too, but that’s how I found my Zee, my Elle, and my Kate, along with my Britt.)

I was not sure what to think of her. But, she was interesting and lively, and that drew me in! Eventually, a few of us formed a close bond. It survived a lot of upheaval. A. LOT. From in the group, from our personal lives, etc. (Yeah, what she said. A. LOT.)

I lost touch with Cait for a while. When we found each other again, we clung to each other like oxygen masks. There was no letting go.

So, we started sending each other writing bits. It was addictive. And then, we started sharing personal things. We formed a tight friendship. When I tell my besty everything, it’s in a phone call, text message, or fb message, because my heart-sister lives on the opposite coast from me. (Britt calls me on my perky BS on a regular basis and forces me to get things off my chest. I don’t even have to hint at anything. It’s like she psychically knows something is wrong, and she will not let go until I confess all…which makes me feel better, which she knows it will, so…yeah…stopping now.)

Cait and I have never met in person. SOON THOUGH! (SOOOOOOOON, MY PRECIOUSSSSSS!)

Anyway, on with the show. When the creation of Downcast began, I was in a job I hated. (It wasn’t really the job’s fault, it was mine, but that’s a different thing.) Reading installments of Downcast got me through many rough days and made the commute to work half bearable. It was lovely. (I was very angry at her job for making her do actual work like filing when her primary job really should have been talking about writing with me all day. Filing. Humph!)

At this point in time, Cait hadn’t really perfected her writing process yet, so we were both bumping around a little bit. She was having issues with the timeline of Downcast. (She’s not kidding. There are six different fully fleshed-out, detailed timelines because I wasn’t satisfied with my plot or pacing.)

But, the story really stuck. It was solid. It was beautiful.

And, as a writer, when you have ideas that really stick, both you and your reader can’t forget. It’s always in your mind.

But, Cait put it on the back burner. She needed to get other things done to survive. Like a job out of the house. Like take care of her father after he had a stroke. Take care of her mother, move her mother, set her mother up in a new home in a new state. Like writing other books. Like doctors appointments just to stay alive, because as a kidney transplant recipient, the common cold could kill her. (That life thing, you know. Gets in the way sometimes.)

And through the following years, Cait would occasionally bring up DC, and tell me, “I still want to finish this. I don’t think it was that bad.”

I felt like I had unfairly nitpicked that story to tatters before, in the name of helping, so I was happy to hear that! DC needed to happen. 

And finally, it did. (CORRECTION: She didn’t unfairly nitpick the story to tatters. She did the most loving thing possible and told me that she didn’t feel it was as good as I was capable of doing. And, she was right, which resulted in the second draft, which forced me to really up my game. That was the start of the real Downcast that would eventually become the final product. I am always so thankful she did that).

The amount of excitement that I could read in Cait’s messages about it… I can’t even tell you. My heart would race. Some chapters got gutted. Others got tweaked. And finally, we came to the creation of new chapters.

Cait would go on writing sprees, little blocks of time where the only thing she did was write, and fuck all else. She would take a breather to update me, walk the dog, fix a meal, or do a chore, or (most importantly) take time with her husband and their family and friends, and then she was off again. 

Pictures of her closet door covered in papers and notes surfaced. Random comments about Greek history and mythology appeared in her FB timeline. Tweets were tweeted. Plots plotted. Shots fired – metaphorically speaking.

And the whole time, I would be getting a text or fb message. “Sent you a new chapter.” “New chapter right now.” “Sent you chapters x & y.” And off I would dash for a few moments of peace to greedily gobble up new chapters. (Knowing I had Britt waiting for the new chapters really motivated me because I knew I would get valuable, honest feedback, as well as the crack of writing motivation: encouragement.)

Reading the story as it’s written is glorious. Don’t get me wrong, reading it as a published unit is one thing. But as it’s written? It’s a whole new kind of tension. And hearing the writer critique herself, explain her thought process, her reasons, the random tidbits of history and humor? It’s awesome. (It’s only because she has known me so long that she can decipher my blathering, whether it is joyous, stream-of-consciousness plotting, angry, historical geekery, etc. Most people give me a frozen smile and move away…slowly and cautiously.)

Sometimes I would get messages that read like strange wishes to Bondage Santa. ”I need a wet noodle lashing.” “I need story yoga.” (Case in point.)

So we would sit and she would lay out the issue she was having. I asked a lot of questions. Lots of them. Apparently it helped. Cait would end up deciding to follow her gut, and it worked out beautifully. She just needed a minute to hear someone else ask her the questions she needed answers to. (Full disclosure: I whined. Britt asked questions. I whined and fretted through some answers. She asked more questions. I squirmed. She asked again. Finally, I had to be honest and THEN, we got to the heart of the matter.)

Cait loves to write, don’t get me wrong. But she LOVED writing Downcast. She had so much excitement. She couldn’t wait to get back to work. She slaved. She ranted. She raved. She was attached to this work in a way I had never seen before. Finding a publisher for it though… that fueled the fire that was already under Cait’s ass.

She wanted to get it in, get it published, have a book put out with her name on it. No pen name. Her real, honest-to-blog name. And Booktrope gave her that. And finally, when the book was sent in, from the final edit (the final edit on her end ran the deadline very close, in true author style, thank you very much), I could HEAR, all the way on the other side of the US, the ginormous exhale she let out… and then the huge inhale right before release. (Britt frequently exhorted me to ‘Breathe.’ I don’t think she meant for me to hyperventilate. That was all my fault.)

There was a conference. She sent pictures, she tweeted, she networked, and she looked fabulous doing it. If you haven’t seen those pics, pause your read, and run and look through her Twitter. Do. IT!

Ok, so that was my home girl. And I am so frikkin’ proud. She worked her ass off for this book. She really did it!

And I just have to say, to her Gibralter, thank you for being who you are! You enabled her to reach for her stars, you lifted her up. You are amazing! (That would be the husband unit, Eric, who is one of the best men ever.)

And now that I’m all sniffy and teary eyed, I better go get a tissue. And then I need to get some wet noodles ready because Cait is working on the sequel… and it’s pretty amazing! (ARGH! I hope it will be. My insecurities are flaring up. I am in the fretting and fuming stage, waiting for the groove to click…but I know that Britt will be with me all the way. Every writer should have a Britt. No, you can’t have her. She’s mine. Hands off! I MEAN IT!)