Mystery Train: the Amtrak Residency

I’m thrilled beyond recognition – -thrilled to a crisp, in fact — to share the exciting news that I’m one of 24 professional writers selected out of 16,000 entries in this first ever Amtrak Writers’ Residency competition.

amtrakThe what? You heard me.  I’m thrilled beyond recognition — thrilled to a crisp, in fact — to share the exciting news that I’m one of 24 writers selected out of 16,100 entries in the first ever Amtrak Writers Residency.  Not without its fascination and controversies, the residency has been covered microscopically in the New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and HuffPo over the past 8 months.  For my money, Boris Kachka wrote the best overview in New York Magazine.   Basically, we each get to travel for a week or two in a private cabin on the Amtrak routes of our choosing during the next year as kind of a moving residency, as opposed to being isolated at a cabin in the woods or holed up at an artists colony like Yaddo where I have also stayed.

Alexander Chee, the writer who started it all.

This unique residency program started because last year in a PEN interview, novelist Alexander Chee said that he did a lot of writing on trains and that he wished Amtrak had writers residencies. He was joking but Amtrak got wind of his remark, thanks to a grass roots Twitter campaign, and decided to heed his call and launch such a program for established writers.

One of the writing samples I submitted was my Washington Post story from last year about my crazy spiritual experience aboard a commuter train between New York City’s Penn Station and Philadelphia.  However, my primary writing sample was an excerpt from my award-winning, yet unproduced (anyone?) screenplay Lords of Light, an historical drama about Nikola Tesla and his rivalry with Thomas Edison, written while I was a graduate student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Speaking of this, I can’t help but proudly mention that Continue reading “Mystery Train: the Amtrak Residency”

Supernatural Skeptics Don’t Know What They’re Missing

“I try contacting the spirit world before live audiences to keep an element of hope simmering on the back burner of my mind.”- playwright and performance artist Jeffrey Stanley

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On Faith

Supernatural Skeptics Don’t Know What They’re Missing
by Jeffrey Stanley

These ghosts are primed and ready to provide a ghoulish Halloween on the 500 block of Summit Ave in Jenkintown.

I like Ouija boards. I’ve used them since I was a teenager.  More recently I’ve messed around with electric spirit boxes, also known as Frank’s boxes after their inventor Frank Sumption.  They’re radio receivers which allow you to listen to and record voices of the dead, also known as EVPs (Electronic Voice Phenomena) or Raudive voices, after one of their early discoverers.  Over the past two years I have frequently used Ouija boards and spirit boxes in my performance art, attempting to conjure up the dead as my co-stars before a live audience.  At one of the universities where I teach playwriting and screenwriting part-time I am also the faculty adviser for a student-led paranormal investigation club.  Friends and fans assume I am a true believer but the truth is that I am not.  I am a healthy skeptic.  And that’s depressing for me because it means that on some level I feel certain there’s nothing out there. I try contacting the spirit world before live audiences to keep an element of hope simmering on the back burner of my mind.

Given the many millions of religious folks in the world (surveys tell us time and again that the vast majority of us believe in an afterlife) I am not alone in my desire for proof of a promise made long ago.  I don’t want to be told it by a clergyman or a book or a website. I want to see it.  Because of the world’s overwhelming belief in an afterlife I am always amazed at the number of people who are absolutely petrified of Ouija boards. Shouldn’t we be elated when the pointer, properly called a planchette, moves and spells out things?  Shouldn’t we jump for joy when a spirit box calls out to us?  Instead we flee in terror at the most innocuous of communications.  I’m reminded of my good friend Steve who received a strict Catholic upbringing.  Once as a teenager he played around with a Ouija board and it spelled out his dog’s name: HOBO.  He ran shrieking from the room,

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My Way or the Yahweh

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On Faith

A Jewish-Hindu connection

Talk about a crazy commute. After a spiritual encounter, a stranger and I spent the next 90 minutes discussing the nature of the universe.

Jeffrey Stanley, 7/23/13

Not so long ago after nearly 25 years as a hidebound New Yorker I moved to Philadelphia for my wife Pia’s career needs, inadvertently becoming part of a popular regional migration known to urban statisticians as the 6th borough phenomenon. She’s Indian-American and we’re raising our child in a bilingual home. I’m a writer and professor. She’s a scientist by day and an Indian classical dance professional by night. Religiously we are at best agnostic but culturally we are Hindus, and will identify ourselves as such when pressed, like on the hospital intake form the first time we took our baby in for a routine doctor’s visit.

This identification sits well with me. Despite growing up Nazarene in the Bible Belt I had long ago developed an affinity for Hindu philosophy—ever since I’d come across a used copy of the Bhagavad Gita at a flea market in high school and realized how similar it was to the New Testament. I still remember the perplexed look on my Sunday school teacher’s face the morning I brought the Gita to church. I had marked the sections that reminded me of Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount with an orange highlighter and asked him why Hindus were all going to Hell and we Christians weren’t. Suffice it say I quit going to church not long after that. Christianity just wasn’t speaking to me. When I met my wife-to-be years later while canoeing in Brooklyn’s fetid Gowanus Canal I fell in easily with her cultural worldview. We were a match made in moksha.

Imagine my surprise when, on a recent Friday afternoon while returning to Philly on a crowded New Jersey Transit train out of Manhattan’s Penn Station I came face to face with the power of YHWH.  I have regular writing and teaching obligations in New York City so I typically commute between the two cities once or twice a week. The pre-rush hour train was unusually packed and it was running local but that was fine with me. In fact I had chosen the local on purpose, adding an hour to my travel time to get as much work done on the typically placid ride as possible before reaching home and hurlyburly.

Still awaiting departure from Penn I sat alone next to the window of my three-seater bench, opened my netbook, and sank into writing comments on my university students’ movie scenes. This was my Screenwriting II class and the scripts weren’t half bad. I had barely made a dent in my work when a rocker in a long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans and two black triangular ear studs plopped down next to me. I felt mildly annoyed by the disruption as he took off his coat and tossed it on the overhead rack along with his bag, and I was relieved when he settled into his seat, took out a paperback and began to read. Hallelujah, he’d be quiet like me instead of yammering away or playing videogames on a so-called smartphone. I continued my work in peace but couldn’t help noticing that he was reading a book on Hinduism. Another time I might have struck up a conversation but I had a lot of work ahead so I kept my nose to the netbook.

Continue reading “My Way or the Yahweh”