Will the deer antlers that you found on the forest floor hold your attention for more than a decade or two? The tin-foiled paper that once wrapped the chocolate bar your mother gave you on your thirteenth birthday-- is it still taped to your bedroom wall? The beaded white necklace that your husband gave you when you were dating-- which box have you stored it in?
Looking back, I went to a pretty open high school. And, like most people probably, I never felt that I fit in. The reasons for this are many, but I among them was the fact that I could never muster the preppy wardrobe necessary to blend in with other students. Izod shirts were popular. As were conspicuous displays of orthodontia. My father worked at a Chevy plant and we lived way way out of town in a house right behind the railroad tracks. Although I kept up with my peers intellectually, on many levels I felt like I couldn’t compete. At the time, I remember people saying that I was amazingly stuck up, but really I painfully shy.
But going back to being an open high school. On a couple of special days, normal classes were cancelled. Outsiders were invited to give various talks throughout the day, but students were also invited to give their own presentations. Along with a couple of friends, I remember giving a seminar on protest songs.
Okay, “seminar” probably gives off too stiff of an academic vibe to what we did—mostly we played socially-motivated songs by our favorite bands and talked about the circumstances that gave rise to them.
John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” was one of the songs I played, dragging to school my original Apple-label vinyl pressing of the album on which it appeared. I have no idea how much the record was worth on collectors’ markets, but I kidded myself into thinking it was really valuable. When I finished playing that song and lifted the tone arm off the record, the entire room was quiet. I doubt many had heard the song before, but it was a good kind of quiet—the kind of quiet that happens when people are actively thinking and negotiating the meanings of what they just heard.
I thought of this moments ago when I stumbled upon a rare live version of John Lennon rehearsing the song prior to a 1972 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. For what it’s worth, here’s a clip of the version that appeared on Lennon’s first post-Beatle album, Plastic Ono Band. Even after all these years, the song still gives me the chills.
So anyways, that high school seminar from long ago. We talked about the song. People asked what it meant to be a “working class hero,” and why a pop star millionaire Beatle could possibly be so bitter. Whatever the song might be, it’s not a Springsteen-esque glorification of the working classes. Nor is it a rallying cry for others to join the ranks of working class.
After the school bell rang, ending the seminar, I discovered just how great of an impression the song made with at least one of my peers: someone had walked off with my rare Lennon record.
Errata: I’ve had a few more stories published recently. “Kryptonite” appears in the latest issue of Tampa Review Online. “Bronzed,” winner of The Packingtown Review’s flash fiction contest, appears in their new issue.
And, lastly, here’s “The Communion of Saints” appeared in Corium’s Winter issue. Of the bunch, I had probably worked longest on this story. For years, I had given it the working title of “More Words About Children and Dollars.” Don’t worry—it’s not a boy losing his rare John Lennon record.
So the dream I woke up to this morning. I'm walking through an underground shopping/retail space (like the Crystal City underground in Arlington, VA), going through these winding, semi-lit corridors with maybe some people I met a few years back at the MacDowell Colony.
A women in a wheelchair with a cat on her lap zips past us saying, "Everyday I tell myself, every day I spent with kitty is better than a day without my kitty."
It just cracked me up.
Which is to say, this dream was better than the dream I had the previous night. I've been reading a few articles about North Korea and their threats to wage nuclear war against us. Of course, we doubt their capability to launch long-range nuclear missiles against us, and I really not all that frightened by their “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan,” but North Korea has long fascinated me. I really enjoyed Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON.
But anyways, in that dream, I'm in a conference room with other people. We've been told a nuclear attack might happen. I look over my shoulder and, through a window, see a white-hot fireball light the sky, and I think to myself, "please take me with you."
I haven’t been blogging much because I’ve been devoting almost all my time to the new novel I’ve been writing. And I’m excited about it. Right now, I’ve got about 63,000 words down (of anticipated total 75,000) so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s much more “realistic” than most of my other work, and I’ve been focusing more on the “story” of the novel rather than playing with tone, style, and textural issues. It’s been fun.
Reading-wise, I’ve been delving into a lot of Alice Munro lately. I still can’t believe how novelistic her 30 pages stories can be.
The world's tallest woman, all 7' 8" of her, has passed away, likely leaving behind an entry in The Guinness Book of Records. She was 39, and living in Beijing, a victim of gigantism and an overly active pituitary gland. Because of her height, she saw herself as a freak.
"I am very unhappy. Why am I so tall?" she said from an interview conducted while she lay in her bed, despondent. "If I were not this tall, others would not look at me like this."
I'm not sure an American would have expressed herself in the same way had she had the same condition. The comments seem unguarded. You can almost feel her anguish.
In America, she likely would have been allowed to monetarize her grotesqueness, appearing in some kind of "Take the Freak Out to the Mall for a Make-Over" reality shows that are so popular on cable TV nowadays. Perhaps she would have entered kick-boxing competitions and participated in Coney Island hot dog eating contests. Had she lived in the 19th century, she would have been paired with a midget and cavalcaded throughout the nation, appearing in carnival sideshows.
But in America, except for the poets we posthumously honor, real anguish (as opposed to that reality show he dumped me! aguish that can be Kleenexed off the face just in time for the next commercial break) does not sell tickets. So she would have been coached to hide her anguish, or, at very least, funnel it into the more culturally accepted troughs of drug, alcohol, and/or sex addiction, making her subject to the kind of tabloid frenzy that has served, say, Lindsay Lohan so well.
Not My Child
Ellie, my seven-year-old daughter, has become quite a dedicated reader. Yesterday, she was so wrapped up in whatever she was reading that she totally forgot to come off the school bus in the afternoon. The bus normally drops her off with the neighbor's girls at a spot between our houses, but although the neighbor's girls got off, Ellie did not. The bus took off before we had a chance to flag it down. Alison, my wife, quickly called the school, which radioed the bus driver to make another swing past our house, but for a few minutes we were frantic.
Thanksgiving here was really nice. It was just our family, no visitors. I made the turkey, stuffing, gravy, and a creamed spinach dish that was quite tasty, and heated up a couple of cans of corn. Alison made this homemade cranberry sauce recipe that she makes every year, plus she did the mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie. I think there was something else too, but everything turned out fantastic. At one point during the meal, my 13-year-old Stephen turned to me in shock. He just had a bite of the creamed spinach and was shocked that he liked it. "I thought I wouldn't like it," he said, dumbfounded.
Writing-wise, I’ve been bouncing between work on a couple new stories. Monday was a real downer for me for some reason. I just felt sad/depressed until, at night, I started playing with Ellie. Sebastian, my 11-year-old, came in the room and started talking about "forgiveness." His youth group had been talking about it, and he had his own ideas about the subject. It was actually a pretty good conversation, and between the Ellie playing and the Sebastian talk, I just really perked up.
Yesterday, Alison was driving the boys somewhere when a story came on NPR about families who use their children as drug mules. The boys were shocked. We talked about it at dinner. And it made me feel good, in a weird way, knowing that we're not the kind of parents who would even think about using their kids as mules. I guess in this day and age, that qualifies us as being successful parents, no?
My review of Luke Geddes's I AM A MAGICAL TEENAGE PRINCESS is now up at The Collagist. Luke's stories are inherently fun, populated with pop culture icons like Scooby Doo and Fred Flintstone. Here's his story about Elvis Presley. And here's one about a group of teenagers exiled into outer space. Or, better yet, buy his book!
I've also got a review of James Tadd Adcox's THE MAP OF THE SYSTEM OF HUMAN KNOWLEDGE coming out shortly in Mid-American Review. Adcox's flash fiction is wonderfully inventive, and I recommend it to everyone who cares about the form.
Evidence of an Egging?
Saturday began on a tense note. At 7:30, I woke Sebastian, my 11-year-old son, up to watch the morning’s Arsenal-Tottenham game. We are diehard Arsenal fans who have survived the last few weeks in a state of shock. Although the season began on a promising note, Arsenal has been dropping points left and right. We’ve been conceding goals out the wazoo lately and our offense has been sketchy at best. Sebastian and I had been anticipating this game with a sense of dread. We expected the worst: a drubbing. And indeed, the game started out poorly. Tottenham dominated the early possession and were quickly up 1-0. The game had all the makings of a disaster. In my mind, the narrative had already been set: it was going to be an ugly drubbing, owing in no small part to poor offseason personnel moves that have rendered Arsenal a second-class Premier League squad.
But then something unexpected happened. Emmanuel Adebayor, who scored Tottenham’s early goal, made a reckless senseless midfield tackle on Arsenal’s Santi Cazorla and was ejected from the game. The narrative of the game had changed. Playing a man down, Tottenham totally fell apart. Arsenal dominated possession from then on and went on to easily win the game, 5-2.
We were happy, Sebastian and I. Nay, we were elated. Football is like a drug, filling the diehard fan with either ecstasy or despair depending on the state of his favorite team.
Still, thinking about that Adebayor tackle now, I just have to wonder what game Adebayor thought he was playing in—until that moment, Arsenal’s attack was toothless. They could barely string together a couple of passes, let alone mount a serious challenge on Hugo Lloris, Tottenham’s goalkeeper. Nothing in the game indicated that Adebayor’s reckless challenge was necessary. Until that moment, Tottenham appeared in all likelihood en route to an easy victory. So why did Adebayor think it necessary to mount such a reckless challenge?
I’ve been working on a story again. It’s actually something I started a few years ago and abandoned, only to rediscover again recently while weeding through some files. The story is kinda wonderful but kinda icky. Icky, as in, it’s just not performing the way that I want it to perform because the story’s protagonist keeps making butt-headed moves that are totally inexplicable given what is going on around him.
Last night, I read a David Foster Wallace essay, “The Nature of Fun,” that’s now online at The Guardian. In it, Wallace labels a story-in-progress as “a cruel and repellent caricature of the perfection of its conception.” Which I guess pretty much describes this particular thing I’m working on.
But anyways, after watching the game, I was back to work on my repellent caricature when I became aware of a commotion in the house.
Sebastian was in a huff. He was sitting in the living room watching television when he heard a car drive by our house. Moments later, he was startled by a loud whack on our front window, which now sported several glossy reddish-orange splotches about the diameter of a silver dollar. Instantly, he surmised what happened: SOMEONE HAD EGGED OUR HOUSE. Which he proceeded to scream as he ran around the house, outraged.
I've never lived in a house that had been egged before so I was, frankly, shocked. Halloween, the season in which I imagine most eggings occur, has long since passed. And I couldn't imagine anyone we had offended so grossly as to provoke an egging. But still my mind raced. Stephen, my 13-year-old who's got a very flimsy grasp on social awareness, is always ranting about some real or perceived slight he's suffered at school. And of course, being social awkward, he's rubbed a few feathers in the wrong way himself.
But still... Stephen is a 13-year-old boy. If the narrative of a drive-by egging were to hold up, it would require that whomever Stephen offended have access to a car. Which I thought was questionable. Not that Sebastian was able to ID the make and model number of said automobile, but by this time it had become an essential part of his story--someone drove by and hurled an egg at us! He hadn’t so much as looked outside to investigate, yet already he was prepared to call the police so they’d nab the perp.
There was something glorious in Sebastian’s outrage. He had been unjustly wronged! Which gave him the right to a sense of indignation that all worldly martyrs must feel.
But there was a problem. Once we looked outside, we saw no egg shells or egg yolks. What we saw was a mass of red feathers on the ground below the window. When we investigated further, the feathers turned out to be affixed to a very startled female cardinal. For reasons unknown, the bird had flung itself at our window. The bird must have thought she was flying into open space. She never saw the window. Sad, isn’t it? How something could be so unaware of the reality around them, that they could fling themselves into an optical illusion.
Needless to say, assertions of an egging diminished upon seeing evidence of the bird.
My children huddled around the woozy bird. Already they were hatching plans of its rescue.
“Don’t kill it,” my wife whispered to me.
Don’t kill it?
For all my faults, I am not one to snuff out the life of a feathery if woozled creature. Even just suggesting such at thing went against the reality I was experiencing.
Still, the bird seemed injured. So we called Virginia Tech’s Emergency Veterinary Services, which suggested bringing the bird into their facility for care. Yet when I tried to gently usher the bird into an old shoebox to transport it, the cardinal hopped away. My children were watching and I did not want to harm the bird, so I was being extra-special gentle. Every time I tried to capture it, it hopped further into the bushes.
If I were trying to write this into a piece of fiction, I’d change the narrative into a tragedy. The protagonist would become frustrated. Perhaps he would worry that, in front of his children, he was being outsmarted by a bird. The children would laugh at how foolish he looked crawling through the bushes with his paltry shoebox. He would become more rash, more reckless in pursuit of this cardinal that’s making a mockery out of him. Out of frustration, I would have the protagonist slam the box over the bird, injuring if not maiming the bird. The children would look up at him in revulsion as he yanked the bloodied bird by its wings.
“Why, Daddy?” they’d blubber.
Wallace talks of nascent stories being like deformed children, “hideously defective, hydrocephalic and noseless and flipper-armed and incontinent.”
But this blog post is not a short story. It is real.
After a few gentle attempts to nudge the bird into the shoebox, the bird flew away.
And my wife? The woman who feared I’d kill the bird? She went off and made cupcakes with the children. I hope they give me one.
This morning, I clicked on a story about tonight’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York. Buried in the story were the sales figures of the five books nominated for the year’s Best Fiction book award. And I was shocked. All five nominees received a fair amount of public praise, and all are published by reputable presses, yet of the bunch, only one has sold more than 27,000 copies. Indeed, one of my favorites, Ben Fountain’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK, has sold the fewest—only 11,000 copies.
Here are the figures:
Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her 48,000
Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King 27,000
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds 18,000
Louise Erdrich, The Round House 15,000
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk 11,000
Seeing figures like this can be depressing. Of course, art should never be judged solely on measures of sales, but it just made me feel out-of-step with the society in which I live. Years ago, Philip Roth posited that, at most, there were 120,000 readers of serious fiction in this country. Today, not even Roth classifies himself as a serious fiction reader, having declared that he will no longer read fiction.
Last night, I took Sebastian (11) and Ellie (7) to a screening of THE CITY DARK, a documentary that explores the consequences of light pollution, which, especially in urban areas, diminishes our ability to look up at the sky at night at see the cosmos. (You can see the movie’s trailer here.) The visually-stunning documentary talked about the health consequences (both to humans, and others inhabiting our planet), but one question more than any other stayed in my mind afterwards.
Nearly every civilization before ours could look up at the night sky and feel dwarfed by the sheer majesty of stars in the firmament. How will it affect us, philosophically, to no longer experience that sense of being dwarfed by the cosmos?
Years ago, I read some column or another that suggested that we no longer give books as gifts with the expectation that the recipient will actually read them. To be fair, the book in question was Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Instead, the columnist suggested that when we give a nice leather-bound volume to Aunt Sally or Uncle Joe, it is given as a complement, suggesting that we’d like to think Sally or Joe is capable of reading the book.
But what happens after we cease the charade of thinking ourselves as a race of people actually capable of reading a great novel?
I’ve been working a lot on novel revisions, which is one of the reasons I haven’t blogged much lately. One of the questions I’ve inserted into the particular novel is what are the consequences of the eclipse of the book. Perhaps it’s a question I should insert more forcefully into the work, but what does it mean when one no longer looks at oneself as being capable of reading, say, a 250-page novel? The book might very well have been the most important “discovery” invented by man, enabling people to hold within their hands a vast compendium of human thought. But what good is it as we ebb closer to our post-literate age?
Sad news. Salon is reporting that Philip Roth will write no more.
Roth told a French interviewer,
“I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”
I'm actually kinda speechless just thinking about this. All I can say is,
Over Memorial Day weekend, I took the children to a hiking trail that runs along a creek in the nearby mountains. We were experiencing the first real hot spell of the season, and the prospect of escaping to cooler climes was calling out to us. Our objective wasn’t a strenuous hike but a calm respite. My children love this particular trail for the opportunities it presents for splashing in cool mountain streams and, knowing the kids’ propensity to get fantastically muddy, I brought along extra towels and sneakers and a change of clothing.
This particular trail is actually an offshoot of the Appalachian Trail, that 2,100 mile beast of a trail that runs from Georgia to Maine. When I was younger, I had actually thought of taking a summer off and hiking the whole distance, an idea that didn’t go far when I balanced it against my callow desire for comfort. That, plus the stories you occasionally hear about incredible acts of wonton violence on the Trail, convinced me that I wasn’t cut-out to be a through-hiker.
Wandering into the woods, we discovered the leafy cool paradise we sought. The children scampered into the creek, giggling and splashing. They talked of finding crayfish and spotting brook trout in the racing waters. Being spring, the waters were cool, almost cold, but children must have a different sense of temperatures—when I waded halfway into the stream, I couldn’t bear the cold water running around my calves for more than a few minutes. So I walked back on dry ground and kicked some pebbles into the water, the pebbles landing a safe distance from my children.
Then I heard a man call out to me. I became frightened, for I had thought my children and I were alone in the woods. I turned around. A man was sitting on a log, a huge nylon backpack and a pair of titanium trekking poles at his side.
“Those are nice sandals,” he said.
I was wearing a pair of Tevas that I originally bought to take with me to a writing conference eight years ago. Though not quite fraying, the sandals had seen better days. They had indeed once been nice sandals, but “nice” was no longer the adjective I’d use to describe them.
The scruffy man who had misidentified them as being “nice” grinned at me. Though I realize now this might be an unfair characterization, I read into that grin the peculiar kind of bug-eyed craziness that one associates with drifters who’ve spent too much time alone. Instinctively, I sized him up for the threat he might pose to my children. His legs were huge, like muscularly-developed tree trunks, but his thin arms and upper body seemed almost frail. If it came to it, there was a fair chance I could take him in a fistfight. These were the calculations one made when encountering strangers in the woods, especially when one’s concern is of children’s safety.
But then guilt racked through me. My train of thought was ridiculous—me, a whimp for god’s sake, thinking I might have to mix it up with a nature-loving long distance hiker.
“I’ve been hiking a long time,” he said.
Over the next several minutes, as I shooed my children back into the creek (i.e., away from this man), he proceeded to tell me exactly how long he’d been hiking: very long.
“Some days I hike fifteen or twenty miles. And then there’ll be a storm, maybe hail pelting on my head all day, and I’ll barely make a mile.”
Last week, I read Sven Birkerts’s “Envy, or, The Last Infirmity,” an essay appearing in Los Angeles Review of Books. The essay is about how writers envy the outward success of their colleagues. The envy bubbles barely below the surface, but it is always present.
As Birkerts says, “Find me an artist who is without artistic envy. If you do, you will have found a genius who has never doubted himself.”
Anyone who writes, and even those who just hang around writers, knows that self-doubt is omni-present in the writing profession.
But what, exactly, are writers jealous or envious of? As Birkerts admits, rarely are writers envious of the work itself.
Instead, it boils down to platform.
“A well-placed publication equals exposure, and insofar as we believe in what we do, we all hope to have it set before the best possible audience… And when I see that someone has achieved just such placement, I feel the pang of wanting it for myself. If that someone is a writer I know, I feel an extra pang, one that is only rarely pleasurable, is far more commonly tinged with darker hues. Would I want to publish there? Yes! Am I being published there? No. And even if I have in the past had that good luck, or may in the future, it’s not happening now. It can’t be, because it’s happening to someone else.”
When I read this, I thought immediately of the hiker I met in the woods. He had been without human interaction for several weeks. No doubt he had thought dazzling thoughts as he internalized what it meant to be a long-distance hiker. He had insights! Yet each night he listened to the hiss of his campfire coals, unable to express to another living creature his impressions of the wonders he had seen.
And yes, it was his choice to set off on his long sojourn alone—and therefore, it was his choice to be unable to communicate his thoughts and experiences—but at some core human level, it must have been crushing.
What he sought was an audience for his thoughts and experiences.
A blog post has been making the rounds of my Facebook friends, a sizeable portion of whom are people like me: writers and poets who have recently completed their MFAs.
In the blog post, Bryan Furuness asks, “What’s the point?”
“Somewhere between 2-4 years out of the [MFA] program, you realize that no one is reading your work, even if it is landing in lit mags… Maybe you thought there would be more by now. Maybe you thought, by this time, you would have ‘arrived’—whatever that means to you.”
To this, I would add that maybe you thought you’d be relevant by this time.
Envy for audience equates to a desire not to be irrelevant. There is the assumption that if our creative lives to have worth, or relevancy, we must be read, seen, and talked about.
Of course, the question of how one gauges “relevancy” is troublesome. As Birkerts asks,
“How do we measure? Is it being on reading lists and syllabi? Having one’s name recognized when it comes up in conversation? Having it even come up in conversation? Having one’s books in print? Having them in print and selling? Selling more than such-and-such a number? I don’t know which of these things matter, but somehow the idea of the work not disappearing—the idea that is the very root of ambition—does.”
I keep thinking of that hiker who politely accosted me in the woods.
Context is everything.
If I encountered him, say, in a coffee shop, his tales of the Appalachian Trail would have captivated me. Alone in the woods though, I was wary. A brown slime filmed over his teeth. And he smelled bad—which, given that he’d been out in the woods for the last month, was understandable. Plus there was that bug-eyed spacey-ness to contend with. And there was the way he gazed slightly over my shoulder, at where (not incidentally) my children played.
But more worrisome was the way he tried to glom onto me. It had been so long since he encountered meaningful conversation. He seemed desperate to talk to someone—anyone!— yet his desperation gave me the creeps.
I was not a good audience for him.
Within minutes, I gathered the kids and tramped back through the woods, away from him. The kids were dumbfounded. When we reached the car, they hurled questions at me--why do we have to leave now? We were just starting to have fun! Why can’t we go back and play in the water?—yet I could not explain in rational terms why I wanted to get away from that hiker.
And now I wonder what that hiker must have thought.
His target audience had rejected him. He was in the midst of a long, arduous journey, yet no one wanted to hear about it. At that moment, he must have doubted whether what he was doing had any fundamental worth or merit. Were his experiences irrelevant?
When I turned my back on him and stomped away, he may have thought (falsely) that his love of nature had no place in among the things that I valued. Were his sensibilities and values so out-of-step with those of his fellow countrymen that he would be denied an audience?