Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras

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Three important differences between teaching in America and in the Netherlands

This past May, I participated in a teacher exchange between the USA and The Netherlands. It focussed on visits to “vocational schools”, the European equivalent of Community Colleges. I’ve been on all sorts of exchanges and cross-cultural academic ventures before, including participation in literary seminars, and a brief teaching stint in Cuba. This trip to the Netherlands was amazing by any measure.

I recently gave a “presentation” at my college regarding this trip. I said about as much as I stated in the previous paragraph, adding only that colleagues should take advantage of the opportunity. In all, I spoke for about three minutes, and did nothing but drop the kind of platitudes work expects from us these days.

“They have very good tea.”


As expected, colleagues, particularly upper-level administrators looking to gauge the usefulness of spending an extra $1,500 on a faculty member, had questions in private. The big one, “What’s it like to work out there? How’s it different? What do you learn?”

I’ve never answered it honestly.

So…here it is, if you want to know. Three important differences:

1.) Generally speaking, Dutch educators do not imagine getting shot at work.

I have imagined getting shot at work countless times. It happens almost every day. At work, I have thought about escape strategies, and I look at every room as a place where I might either have to hide or try to escape from an active shooter.

Sure…I have a fiction writer’s imagination, so that plays a role. But I do not imagine getting executed on a guillotine in the college courtyard. Our college has no guillotine that I’m aware of. Yet getting shot or witnessing a slaughter is a real occupational hazard. We were even briefed and shown a film. What to do if you are about to be killed at work.” Three steps: Run! Hide! Fight! It’s rare for me not to imagine, if only in a flash, a shooting taking place on campus as I sit in my office chair.

In fact, I did some calculations with a friend from the math department, and we have surmised that the chances of us both getting shot at work are substantially higher than the chances some powerful person in our community might come out and say, “Raises for faculty across the board. We really appreciate you.”

2.) Dutch educators are paid a living wage

This means they can, even when they work part time, afford either to live off their salaries or to supplement their lives while in some temporary condition or as part of a second career, usually right in the town where they are working. In the meantime they don’t have to fuss about looking for health insurance, managing how they’ll pay off their student loans, etc. etc.

I know some reader is going to throw eggs at me: you are handsomely compensated as a full time instructor. Indeed, I’m one of the lucky ones. But a minority of college classes are taught by full time instructors. Most courses are taught by adjuncts so mistreated that it’s embarrassing to begin the narrative.

It’s part of the game. American colleges, taking a tip from the government, look at students as sources of revenue first, potential graduates second, and human beings only somewhere down the line. Most colleges will happily take the coin from student loans but never bother to orient the young people to the nature of that game, one unique to America.

If students are revenue, colleges look at faculty primarily as cost. You are a walking chunk of change which could go elsewhere, preferably to the friend of a board member, one who’ll handle some concocted administrative need. It’s dehumanizing to be seen as an obstacle disturbing the distribution of revenue in the “way the powers see fit”.

3.) Corruption

I’m sure there’s some desk jockey working in the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science who has managed to secure his best friend’s son a job. That lad is now jockeying a similar desk in a similar office somewhere in a Hague basement. Or maybe there’s the college director who approved a purchase of Kapsalon for every visiting teacher, and he sent the kids to get the yummy snack from his friend’s kebab stand. The Turk charged an extra 10% and the director got a cut. The scandal! An outrage!

This is chump change compared to the corruption in American education. No Child Left Behind? Well, they couldn’t call it No Test Publisher Left Without Lube. And here in Illinois…ha ha ha…ha ha ha! Oh, shit. Oh…let me. Let me button my pants. Where are my latex gloves? Yes, I left them under the desk. My God, they’re filthy.

The CEO of Chicago Public Schools gets busted for accepting bribes


I’ve just been informed that my chances of getting shot at work have substantially increased. No…I’ve just been told…yes, I’ll comply…they remain the same. Exactly the same! There’s no corruption in Illinois. No. We treat even the birds and squirrels as human beings. We are loved as employees. We love teaching and learning, and we all teach just as we all learn, either the hard way or the easy way. We are all good here. We’ve been blessed.

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What an amazing bookstore: The Looking Glass

I thought I knew all the bookstores in Chicagoland. Then a friend of mine told me about The Looking Glass. It’s only one L stop from my house, and I learned that the owner lives a block from me. It has been on Oak Park Avenue since February of 2013.

This is just an extraordinary find, and a delight to have right in my neighborhood. It’s brightly lit used bookstore whose light blue and green walls recall a college town cafe (curiously…I felt it resembled the kind of room Alice, from The Looking Glass, might choose if she had her way). No, they don’t serve coffee, but that’s hardly an issue (not when The 206 is across the street). The website is really attractive and the owner, Steve, has excellent taste in books. I had a short talk with him and know he’s got plenty in storage. I was struck by his fiction shelves, a bibliophile’s dream: loads of classical and acclaimed contemporary titles, including those you’re “supposed to have read but didn’t”, all in very good shape and at affordable prices.

As a parent, I’m excited to have a bookstore that stocks plenty of kids’ books. But the real treat at The Looking Glass is the local author section. Obviously, both Chicago and Oak Park have a long and rich literary history (Elizabeth Berg…Edgar Rice Burroughs…Ernest Hemingway). Steve has set up two attractive shelves to feature the locals. I happened to learn that Steve also has first editions available of local authors’ works.

Tourists in the area, or anyone who ends up coming to eat at Taste of Brasil or Sen Sushi, should not miss a chance to browse and buy from The Looking Glass. Daring readers might choose to get a book wrapped in a paper bag. Given Steve’s taste, chances are these will be great surprises. My bookworm friends should look forward to birthday gifts lifted from this shelf:


823 S Oak Park Avenue, Oak Park, IL

Just steps from the Oak Park Blue Line station.

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How I landed my book deal (in only 15 years)

I’m happy to announce that the pre-launch for my upcoming novel, The Fugue, is underway. You can find pre-order information here at the CCLaP website. I also encourage people to check out what kind words Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s owner, left on the novel’s Goodreads page. “This is the literary novel for those who love literary novels…”

The Fugue started out back in 2000 when I was a student in New York. One night I wrote a vignette titled “Juri’s Window”. Juri was a painter and sculptor living in Amsterdam, perhaps in the mid 90’s, where he collected unemployment benefits and sculpted from trash. The vignette was simple: a description of a window Juri put together out of glass bottles and the remains of a discarded fence. I looked at it as a writing exercise.

But this character pestered me, kept appearing in my work. Soon the name had changed to Yuri, and he had a family, a girlfriend. Later, I moved him from Amsterdam to my hometown of Cicero, and his family gained a complex history of flight and displacement. Eventually he’d been accused of arson and murder. I realized I had a novel.

I messed around with various drafts for years. But in the summer of 2006, at that time working in Bloomington, Indiana, I felt the book, clocking in at about 135,000 words, was finished, and I started trying to sell it, going about it in the traditional way, sending cold queries to strangers.

Mind you, obsessed with The Fugue, I had not published a single piece of short fiction at that point. I don’t know how many rejection letters I collected—for a while I had been assembling them in a scrapbook, but in time I had no place to put them, and far from motivating me, they were just trash mail, most of them the usual form rejections. What kept me writing queries were the nibbles. This Midtown agent asked for the first 50 pages; that Chelsea editor asked for the manuscript. Now another agent wanted the whole thing. After reading, she told me her colleague might be a better fit and forwarded the text along.

The people who read it in whole or part all said about the same thing: “You don’t have a platform, and this book’s too difficult to market.” I took to heart that they didn’t say, “Your writing is shit.” It left me enough to maintain the feeling that I could be a writer. But I hung up The Fugue as a failure and set it under the bed, so to speak.

In the summer of 2007, I started writing Finding the Moon in Sugar, a project that occupied the years leading up to my first child’s birth in 2009. And then I took on smaller writing assignments, including a stint with The Good Men Project.

Part of the reason I self-published Finding the Moon in Sugar was to get my name out there. I wanted to have something gripping but fun to read from during events, and I thought the best way to learn how to market a book—a work of literary fiction, to the point—was to get out there and try to do it.

Last autumn, 2014, I was reading from Finding the Moon at RUI, a reading series here in Chicago. I hoped, at best, to sell a couple of copies, maybe learn about some new writers. At the bar, Sheffield’s, I ended up sitting next to a man, Jason, who had a lot to say about selling books. Turned out he had a publishing house. After my reading—I read the scene when Andy hears opera music for the first time—Jason asked me if I had any short stories. Sure, I said. I have plenty. But when I checked out his website, I figured, what the hell. Maybe I’ll tell him about The Fugue.

This holiday season, the book that started out as a vignette will hit the shelves and e-readers. In anticipation, have a look at the cover. It’s gorgeous:


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Help to fight Facebook’s secret plan!

Dear Liquid Inkers, particularly those who use Facebook:

Facebook will cuckold or whore you, or both, in the next 24 hours if you do not copy and paste this blog entry in its entirety as *your* status update, message it privately to 100% of your friends, and then share your friends’ shares of this share. Know, being cuckolded and whored is not without consequence, not in this or any other civilized society; so if you do not in the next 24 hours (at print it was just around 9:30 AM, GMT -6) copy and paste this text as *your* status update, message it privately to 100% of your friends, and then share your friends’ shares of this share, you will find yourself or your committed lover taken by Facebook to adulterous sheets, to engage acts performed only in hell, swept in the process to diabolical joy.

This is true. I have proof. To quote from Troilus and Cressida (a play by Shakespeare, who is a famous English playwright and poet): “Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery! all the argument is a whore and a cuckold; a good quarrel to draw emulous factions and bleed to upon death.”

There. Now, please help to spread the word.


Image: An Allegory of Folly, by Quentin Masys, taken from Wikipedia.

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Another blurb for The Fugue

The advanced reading copy of The Fugue is almost done. While anticipating how it will look, I received this humbling blurb from Alan Ziegler.

A character in The Fugue describes the eponymous musical form as having melodies “weave together like braids or plaits, then split up and come back together again.” One of Gint Aras’s many achievements in this constantly compelling novel is to propel the reader back and forth in time, encountering several generations of characters (mostly congregants and clergy at St. Anthony’s in Cicero) in various permutations with each other and in relationship to a house fire, the central act of violence (and many subsidiary affronts) that bind and break them. 
Set in the Lithuanian community during the decades following World War II, The Fugue is partly a “whodunit,” but is more concerned with the steps leading up to and fallout from what’s been done. Aras is a master with dialogue (especially when characters are inarticulate with each other) and details. We vicariously experience such acts as converting beer bottles “into a crude stained glass,” writing with an antique fountain pen, eating, playing and composing music, and sculpting from scrap metal, seemingly innocuous details Aras exploits to accentuate evil and surprise us with good. Aras doesn’t sugar-coat the agonies—great and small—endured and perpetuated by his cast; rather, he spices them in such a way that you feel the bite on your tongue and remain hungry for more. Amidst shattered lives, it is still possible for broken pieces to find each other and make something beautiful.
The Fugue is scheduled for release on December 7th, 2015.
A view of the Lithuanian wayside cross beside St. Anthony's Parish School, Cicero, Illinois.

A view of the Lithuanian wayside cross beside St. Anthony’s Parish School, Cicero, Illinois.

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Musical “palindrome”—Bach’s Crab Canon

They didn’t tell you about this one on MTV.

There was a time in my life, right between 2000-2003, when I would listen to Bach almost every day. Maybe some day I’ll write about why I stopped (or cut back), why the genius got to be too heavy. Recently, I clicked on the old Bach mp3s (in addition to the Mingus) and I was taken back to that point in his music where time and space and sound and distance all become one, layers forming on top of layers, things that are “the same” even though they become utterly different. It’s a mindfuck. Bach is cooler than your iPhone or your Xbox or your Fantasy Draft.

Then a friend randomly posted this one on Facebook. I just loved it. It’s not accurate to call this a palindrome, which should read identically no matter if you start at the beginning or end. (Like this: May a moody baby doom a yam?) But you get my point. The video makes it all the more insane.

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The story of my vasectomy

WARNING! This link will take you to a video of an actual vasectomy. While I highly encourage people to watch it—all surgery is fascinating, and this is the kind of “no scalpel” procedure I had done—I should state that it presents a tug of war between stainless steel instruments and very thin and sensitive body parts.

I was never this nervous going into a medical procedure. I’ve had four wisdom teeth beaten out of my skull. I’ve had my wrist screwed together. I had to get plantars warts burned off of my sole with a laser. Nothing quite compares to lying on your back mostly naked with your shaved scrotum (I did it myself) the focal point of the afternoon.

Weeks before the surgery, my doctor had explained the procedure in pretty vivid detail. Of course, my writer’s imagination had gone wild, and it did not help to see, so soon as I had entered the room, a stainless steel tray holding almost a dozen surgical instruments, and also gauze smeared with iodine, the color of brown scabs. I knew it was iodine. But iodine recalls the color of coagulated blood.

There I lay, nards under a tissue-thin square of sky blue paper, and the doctor came in with a host of people: four (at least) medical students, all of them preparing for lucrative careers of nard hacking. In the small room, I soon developed a sense of claustrophobia, this while my testicles swelled to the size of peaches. Supine, I stiffened to a board, sweat beating my brow, the room a trash compactor, my nards now ripened Michigan fruits, their skin red and downy. And I had a multicultural audience wearing scrubs.

I was wearing my dashiki. The doctor said, “Hey, this shirt looks Caribbean. Let’s put on some Caribbean music.” Songs by Mark Anthony and the loathsome Ricky Martin streamed from a corner. The procedure had begun before Ricky could sing Go go go! Ole ole ole!

“You’re just going to feel a pinch.”

Indeed, a pinch, if that’s what you want to call a needle stabbing your sack. I tried to be mindful, as my Roshi had trained me, but my mind went rather haywire, and I started hearing all sorts of idiotic associations, including the jingle, “You save big money when you shop Menards.” It did not go well with Ricky Martin, not when Raymond Jack Szmanda (the Menards guy) danced before me, his nuts bleeding.

The doctor was training his students, explaining all sorts of things about skin and vessels and placement and tools, and using words like cauterize, and a nurse kept handing him some branding rod attached to five million watts of electric death. I could smell my testes burning.

It hurt to be yanked around. Not the way it hurts when you stab yourself with a screwdriver. But the vas is short and rather thick, thicker than you imagine; the sound and vibration of cutting it was similar to what I felt when I cut my kids’ umbilical cords. There’s also very little room to maneuver, and with so much attention on me, I felt I was in a toaster.

I was pouring sweat. The doctor opened the door to let in air. This made a nurse feel she could now come in to ask random questions. “Just one quick question, doctor.” Are those Michigan peaches? Could someone cauterize Raymond Jack before he bleeds all over the floor?

The stitching required more yanking, more explanations, “These are going to dissolve.” Dissolve? How? Where? Into what? “We won’t need to remove any sutures.” You’re damn right about that. “Oh, good. Rihanna is on.”

Now that I was all stitched up, nauseated, a dripping human sponge of sweat, the doctor asked me, his hand on my shoulder, “What kind of music do you like?”

“Me?” I gasped. I found the breath to say, “Tom Waits.”

The doctor and the audience exchanged clueless glances.

“Should we know him?” he asked.

I nodded. “If you die today, what deity you believe in will meet you at the gates of paradise. And you’ll be asked, ‘Do you like Tom Waits?’ Answer ‘No’ and you’ll go to hell where five strangers will cut your genitals.”

They all guffawed. “We’ll look him up. We’ll look him up.” The doctor patted my shoulder. “You did great. You’re all done.”

Just pay at the counter. And spread no seed.

Pecan nuts on tree

Pecan nuts on tree

Photo from Wikipedia.


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