Interesting Times

Here we are together, you and I, alive in interesting times. We’ve seen the first parts of this movie. Long lines at grocery stores. Empty shelves. Bewildering press conferences. The steep slope of economic charts mapping the wild gyrations of our invested futures, our 401Ks.

Familiar routines are being scrambled as normal activities get deferred, postponed or canceled. Simple things get complicated.

We return ourselves to our houses and hunker down, keeping watchful eyes on the news which seems to come at us from every direction.

We look for leaders to help us discern what’s happening and offer some small sense of what’s likely to happen next. We’ve seen the movie this far. It’s scary. We want to know what’s next.

Here’s the thing: we can’t know what’s next.

There’s no predetermined plot line with neatly designed characters to take us together through this from crisis to climax to denouement in the space of two and a half hours. This is going to take weeks, maybe months, to get the sense of things and figure out a new normal.

We should expect leaders to help us through this. But we can’t just sit around and watch for those leaders to appear. Most of what happens next is up to us, how we manage ourselves and our relationships with each other.

We are already doing some of the right things. Low risk, healthy people are staying home from an abundance of care and caution for others. People are mindfully washing their hands. Companies are swallowing the sunk costs of lucrative events early on to keep more people safer longer.

We find ourselves together at the beginning of weird, interesting times. No one exactly knows what happens next.

Keep being kind and careful as we pass each other (from an appropriate distance) in hallways. Check your supplies to be sure your family has what they need and be mindful that what you have in abundance someone else may need in a week or two. Check in on each other to see how we are doing and what may be needed. Wash your hands.

Be kind to yourself. Remember that self-isolation doesn’t mean you have to make a cave of your home. It is still okay to go outside, take a walk, and breathe fresh air. Turn off your TV. You don’t need a constant feed of uncertainty. Be informed but trust that the important information will find you.

2AM Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell | Goodreads Review

2am Thoughts2am Thoughts by Makenzie Campbell

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The experiment of the poem is compressing the emotional arch of a failed relationship into the course of an entire day. Each stanza is time stamped as the day progresses. As a thought experiment, this frame has a lot of potential but is poorly executed here.

Maximum schmaltz. Cringy, teen-age angst stuff. Self-abrogation in favor of some nameless, faceless idealized love interest. I kept hoping there would be a turn toward self-awareness and deeper layers of meaning would be exposed. I kept hoping the poem would actually be a clever address to a younger self. Alas, no. The pronouns don’t work out in that direction. The surface is all you get.

I read it through because curious but not engaged. Do not recommend.

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The Value of Reading a Book I Hate by an Author I Love

I am 89 pages into a book I am not enjoying by an author I adore. My middle life reading rule has been to abandon books to which I have not connected by page 60. Life is too short to waste reading bad books. I’m reading this one to the end.

My wife calls me a nerd for my compulsive commitment to finishing this book. She’s not wrong. I am reading this book because I am not enjoying it. Reading a book I don’t enjoy by an author I enjoy very much is a wonderful use of time.

Reading an unsuccessful story by a successful storyteller offers direct evidence of why some stories don’t work. What’s different about the way this story unfolds? What is the point of view? How are the scenes framed? How are the characters revealed? How is the conflict different from all the other stories I have enjoyed so much? What, if anything, am I enjoying about this mostly joyless work?

Reading an unsuccessful work by an author I admire very much helps isolate and clarify the variables of writing successful stories.

If I can read one book to teach me what doesn’t work in stories, I may avoid writing many such stories myself. Getting through the next 212 pages will save me a ton of wasted time in my own future work.

This has me curious. What have you learned by reading the worst book of an author you usually enjoy very much?

Manifest

Every once in a while I look up from the activities of my life and wonder what the hell I’m doing. What things are important to me, and why aren’t I doing those things?

I have to ask the questions over and over to be sure I’m paying attention, to be sure I’m answering honestly.

I used to berate myself for constantly stepping off the path. Now, I am learning that I haven’t always been the one stepping off. Sometimes, the path changes under my feet as I grow and learn. Projects that once seemed so vital, so vibrant, matter less. Goals that seemed imperative lose importance.

It is essential to be clear with oneself, to never lie.

I’ve become too small.

I want to pay better attention. It is only by paying good attention that we ever actually meet the people encountered along our path. The work of really meeting people and allowing people to really meet me enlarges us all. This will require courage and patience.

I want to make a life from words because words are tools of attention. I want to practice the craft of telling stories because stories help people see hope where they had seen none before. I want to make poems because I want to live in a world where more people do the work of making poems.

All other decisions I may make in life relate to these. This is not manifesto. This is manifest.

An (Imagined) Letter to Myself from Margaret Atwood

Stop trying so hard to become what you already are. You want to be a writer? Good news! You are writing already. Look at you, right this very moment. You are a writer who is writing.

So, you are already a writer. Now it is time to become a story maker.

If you hope to infiltrate a reader’s dreams and help them care in the way that you care, you must carefully inventory the storymaker’s tools. You must practice the craft.

Storymaking is a kind of alchemy. We cannot explain how lustrous lives are conjured from the everyday dross of syllables and sentences, paragraphs and prose. One learns by doing.

I can offer a few things that arise from my own practice. None of which may help you, but, perhaps, you will feel less frustrated and alone.

Stories come from the breaking of patterns, when the thing that usually happens does not happen. Something new must happen. This is the imperative of story. You don’t know what your characters will do until you put them in new situations. There is a threat from within; there is a threat from without. Combine these and see what the characters do.

Use the stories that came before. Everything you read, watch and hear fit like Legos connecting your stories. The Bible and Shakespeare. Greco-Roman myth and Star Wars. The evening news, so-called reality television and the weird old man across the street who no one has seen in weeks.

Stories are particular. Humans possess five senses. Your stories should use all of them.

Novels are always about time. You cannot write a novel that does not involve time and the changes that occur with time. Place your characters in history. Chart their birthdays, important historical dates, life milestones.

Proceed as if there are no ideas in your stories, only characters. You won’t understand the ideas properly anyway. The teller never does. Ideas belong to the readers.

Storymaking is a hopeful act. You are choosing to imagine future readers who will value things tomorrow that you have valued today.

The story you make is your letter to the world. Let this story say whatever this story needs to say and then let it go.

The story will be delivered or it won’t.

The story will be received or it won’t.

The story will be read.

Or it won’t.

You cannot know if your story will be admired.

You cannot know if your story will earn money.

Make your story anyway, send it into the world, and then, make the next one.

Don’t be afraid of revision. Re-vision is the work of learning to see your story in new ways. Keep what fits. Get rid of whatever doesn’t fit. The trash can is your friend. It was made for you by God.

I am glad you are here, doing this weird difficult thing.

You do not need my permission to make your stories. Your stories are your own.

I have given you my stories because it pleases me to do so. Making and sharing your stories should please you. There’s really no other reason to do this. More than pleasing your spouse, your children, your parents. More than pleasing your ninth grade English teacher and that girl who ignored you in high school, your stories should please you. Find and tell those stories which please you. Those are stories only you can can tell.


Note: I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s Masterclass course on creative writing. It is excellent. I wrote this imagined letter to myself as a way to process my notes and insights. The voice is not Atwood’s but I like to think the ideas captured are faithful. Aspiring writers needing inspiration could do worse than subscribe to her course.

A Reader’s Communion

Being a librarian, I often enjoy deeply delightful conversations about the love of books as objects. Places with books are places of power. Thoughtful people often try to describe the joy they feel at simply standing in a library or bookstore, surrounded on all sides by so many books. They can sense the psychic thrum of books waiting to be read, which is to say they feel a keen awareness of their own curiosity and native weirdness.

I often remind people that a library’s books are meant for borrowing. They can find them, use them, take them home at no cost. It may surprise you the number of people who recoil in a kind of horror at the thought. Oh no. I couldn’t. I prefer to own my own books.

I get it. Books are precious. Brand new, first-owner books are a powerful fetish. Used books found in a used book shop are like mysterious treasure bottles washed randomly, wonderfully on your personal shore. Ebooks ward against the boredom of grocery store lines. Audiobooks fold the time-space continuum, transmuting the experience of a 35 minute commute into a momentary jaunt, a kind of teleportation.

Recently, I had opportunity to read a borrowed book from the library. This, for me, is no uncommon thing. This particular borrowed book, however, happened to have one of the old stamped date due pockets in back. The book itself was first checked out to someone three months after I was born.

Understanding that this book and I were roughly contemporaries, I became curious to know about its life. Not the title but this very book, specific.Stamped date due pocket for borrowed library book

The pocket was a parade of dates: 5/31/1974; 9/4/1975; 6/3/1976; 2/4/1977; 5/23/1980; 8/6/1981; 8/20/1981; 5/10/1982; 5/22/1982; 6/4/1982; 8/12/1982; 5/26/1983; 1/29/1985; 10/19/1989; 7/20/1992; 2/1/2002.

What hands had held this very book while I was still learning to focus my eyes and grasp objects? What secret places — living rooms, bed rooms and apartment balconies — had this book seen? Where had this book gone and been?

I wondered about the reader who read this book a few months before Star Wars lit across its first screen. Did they know how much movies would come to embody our mythology? Did they care?

A sequence of three dates in May – June of 1982 where, perhaps a slow reader wandered casually through the pages, not finishing, stopping by to beg renewal for another few weeks at a time. Or maybe this was a time in their life interrupted by catastrophe and distraction. The illness of a loved one. An illness of their own.

Or, instead, during those same six weeks, a bevy of readers waiting impatiently to have their turn at that month’s hard-to-find book discussion group selection. There was no Amazon. People waited for things.

There is the mystery of the book’s resurgent popularity between 1980 and 1983 and then three year rest between 1989 and 1992, which was a mere nap compared with the long hibernation between 7/20/1992 and 2/1/2002.

And how did it feel for this book to be lifted from the shelve on February 1, 2002? I imagine it would have seemed a kind of liberation, as if waking anew to one’s purpose after a long, dusty dream.

And, finally, the mystery of whatever checkouts we cannot see beyond 2002, an event horizon in reverse, an interregnum between present and past that we cannot imagine because the library no longer stamps date due slips.

As I am reading, all of this serves to remind that books are all infused with holy and mystical purpose, but borrowed library books, perhaps more than all others, connect us to the unseen community of other eyes, hands and minds. A date stamped library book is a talisman of time travel, connecting us in communion with the readers who came before and the readers who will come after.

This is not a thing I can easily tell people in a casual conversation standing in a hallway. So I am telling you, so you can understand and, perhaps, yourself reach for a dusty date-stamped book to borrow.

Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

Lady OracleLady Oracle by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Permission to burrow deep into the messy, chaotic, wonderful lives of other people is one of the big magics of great stories. This isn’t escape exactly because their lives are often more chaotic, messy and dangerous than our own, and yet, at the end we wake up feeling as if we have been given the gift of a second, third or fourth life.

Lady Oracle is such a story. Atwood gives a loose, jangling coming of age story in which the narrator, Joan, learns the tightrope walk of expectations from her overbearing mother, her aloof father, her mercurial husband and mass culture at large.

Joan is at constant war with her own body and struggles to own her creative gifts. There’s schoolyard bullying, lurking perverts, gothic romance, political satire and, nearly, a minor act of international terrorism.

I fell in love with Joan, just a little, which maybe tells you more about me than the story. Lady Oracle is a robust, funny story bursting with the vibrant wordplay for which Atwood is known.

Read it. You may fall in love with Joan as well.

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Disappearance | Flash Fiction

I don’t honestly understand why I said it. Only that one moment I had been standing sensibly, peaceably, unobtrusively in the corner of the room trying not to call attention to myself. The next I was yelling, “Shut up! Shut up!” at full volume.

Shut up they did. The full party came to a stop and the sensible, peaceable, unobtrusive girl standing in the corner of the room was suddenly the center of everyone’s attention. No one spoke for a long moment though the music kept playing, which was a weird feeling like the movie and the soundtrack splitting apart and realizing they hadn’t ever really gone together well.

My friend, Audrey, was first to speak. I say friend because she drove me there and, also, she could always be counted on to check in on my welfare. We were the same age but she was always playing mother to me, calling me after a bad episode to soothe my feelings, check to see if I needed anything. When she came over, she inventoried my dorm room cabinets to be certain I had food in them. If she ever saw a pill lying out on the counter, she was quick to ask if I was taking my medicines. All of my medicines.

Now my good friend Audrey was just looking at me, wearing the face that everyone else was wearing. The worried, fretful but slightly irritated that I had ruined the party, again, face.

“Are you okay, sweetie?”

She calls me sweetie when she knows I’m not okay.

Yes, I try to tell her but having been so inappropriately loud, now my voice won’t come out at all. So I just nod.

“She’s okay,” Audrey translates for the others, but I can see that she doesn’t really believe it. This is just a thing she says to get people talking again, put the soundtrack back into sync with the action on screen.

People resume talking and the party slides back into its groove and I slide out.

She is at my elbow now, holding me like some priceless heirloom, a tiresome thing she has inherited and feels responsibility for but secretly resents because of the burden of its value. Like an expensive vase in which you can not even place flowers. What use is it?

She doesn’t say any of this. That is too gauche. Audrey takes care and doesn’t complain. Complaining is gauche.

“Let’s get some air,” she says. “Okay?”

I nod.

It is colder outside than I expected. I left my sweater in the guest bedroom, mixed somewhere in the sexual heap of coats and jackets and sweaters. An orgy of winter wear. Such casual disregard.

Audrey is looking at me closely. I am looking at the driveway which is lined with cars. Audrey’s car is in the middle of that scrum. There’s no easy way for us to leave. The night is young. And so are we.

Ha!

I haven’t been young for some time.

Age is just a number, they try to tell you, but, actually, age is a tightening in your lower back, a spreading awareness of pain and exhaustion.

I had been losing my breath but now my breath is settling.

I can feel Audrey looking at me and tell myself not to look at her. But it is almost impossible not to look when someone is looking. You can’t just turn yourself invisible with your own mind. I’ve tried. You have to distract them.

“I’m sorry I lost it in there,” I tell her, hoping an apology will soften that gaze.

Audrey shrugged. “You didn’t lose it. You just caught people off guard.”

“I’m pretty sure catching people off guard like that is called losing it.”

“Well, you seem fine now.”

“I am.”

“Good.” Another long look. “Did you take all your medicines today?”

“You think I’m crazy,” I told her.

“We’re all crazy, sweetie. Some of us just have a name for it.”

Audrey has a way of saying things that make me feel better.

“I just got a little bit closed up is all.”

Truth: I erupted like a volcano. The lava was still flowing around.

“Is it better out here?” Audrey asked.

“Yes. A little. A lot. There were too many voices.”

So much talking. Conversations stacked on top of conversations. They were crowding me out until there was no place to stand.

“Would you like to go back inside?”

“In a minute,” I told her. “You can go.”

“You’ll be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” I told her, smiling my brightest aw shucks smile. It was the payment she expected for services rendered. “Honest.”

“Okay, but if you aren’t back inside in five minutes, I’ll come looking for you.”

“You’ll find me right here,” I tell her.

Audrey nods and checks around the neighborhood. It is a nice night and I can’t help feeling that out here on the front porch is a better place to be. “See you in a few,” Audrey tells me.

“Okay.” And then, just before she reenters the house, I say, “Audrey. Thanks.”

She is glad for this small offering, and I am glad as well. I hate being the friend who can’t do parties. I hate being the friend  whose crazy has a name, but standing on the porch watching the moon sail slowly up the sky, I am grateful to have a friend like Audrey. A friend who comes immediately to the rescue when the party slips and the good times are no longer feeling good.

I stand on the porch for a while, longer than five minutes for sure. Audrey has gotten herself into a conversation and has forgotten the time. Which is good. I am glad. It was just a weird, awkward moment. I didn’t ruin the party after all.

I wait outside until the bad feelings pass.

I watch the moon.

The moon watches me.

I wait long enough for the moon to become disinterested.

I wait just long enough to completely disappear.

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood | Goodreads Review

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An unsettling, deceptively simple story about an unnamed narrator’s return to her childhood home in the Canadian woods and her growing desire to disappear into wildness, a desire which ultimately claims her or, more accurately, a desire she ultimately claims. Driven by a simple plot, my enjoyment of this novel came mostly from Atwood’s ability to slowly layer the tension and render the familiar unfamiliar. The narrator yearns to escape the sexual politics and unfulfilling materialism that is her everyday life. The traumas of her young life only gradually rise to the surface. The punch of this novel comes late as the narrator makes her final brutal decision and embraces the awful logic her own wildness brings.

Written in first person present tense, revelations arrive with almost hallucinatory grace. Surfacing is Atwood’s second published novel. It is very much an early novel written by an accomplished poet. A simple, spare frame draped with the fresh, succinct perception only powerful, honest poetry can provide. I recommend Surfacing for those already familiar with and curious about Atwood’s artistic gifts, but I would not recommend Surfacing as an introduction to Atwood’s work.

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Quotidian: Interestingness | Week of November 17 -23, 2019

More links from my week on the web. I do enjoy the notion of being a digital magpie, this being the place I bring my shiny scraps and sparkles found to feather the nest.

Recommended Reading

Joe Bidden struggles with, and has mostly overcome, a stutter. I had no idea. A sympathetic, insightful article that shouldn’t change your mind about the 2020 election, but maybe it can inject a little more kindness into my own social media takes about gaffe prone Joe.

Eyes and Ears (videos/podcasts)

“It’s Been 50 Years Since Apollo 12 Landed On The Moon” by Geoff Brumfiel. NPR Morning Edition. (Listen time: 3 minutes)

The heroics and success of the Apollo 12 moon mission were overshadowed by the Vietnam War and other geopolitical events. Apollo 12 sounds like the most “Guardians of the Galaxy” space mission ever.

Nicole Hemmer traces how Republican politics, since the 1990’s, increasingly operate in isolation from popular opinion, making the Nixon impeachment hearings an unlikely proxy for the current proceedings.

Songs That Found Me