My feed this week is full of so-called Values Voters asking variations on the question: “What teenage boy hasn’t tried to rape a girl at a party?”
Me. And all of my friends.
My feed this week is full of so-called Values Voters asking variations on the question: “What teenage boy hasn’t tried to rape a girl at a party?”
Me. And all of my friends.
I recently told a friend that posting an annotated bibliography of the interesting things I have read, heard and watched in a week is the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done. That’s not true.
I used to update a monthly spreadsheet of how many times I had listened to each song in my iTunes library so I could track which songs were charting faster in my personal faves.
I also used to keep a monthly spreadsheet of Twitter stats — how many tweets, how many followers, how many followed.
I still keep spreadsheets of how many words I write each day, how many pages I read in a year, and how many miles I run, but everybody should do that. That’s just plain good sense.
I rate books, movies and beers. I rate the books I have read on GoodReads. I rate the movies I’ve seen on MovieLens. I rate the beers I drink in Untappd.
I once had a small nervous breakdown because I set a daily reading goal for myself that I couldn’t complete. I had to take a temporary break from reading until I could figure out how to enjoy it again.
When I was in middle school, a friend tried to show me his porn collection but I was unimpressed, having created a much richer, more vibrant inner fantasy life involving renegade robot sluts and killer alien sex queens. They frequently enslaved my GI Joes and made them commit unspeakable acts.
So, no. Posting an annotated bibliography of the interesting things I have read, heard and watched in a week is not the nerdiest thing I’ve ever done.
Death was taking its sweet, slow time finding Archie Wheeler. Archie waits, impatient, sitting his living room, his dinning room, his toilet, his porch, like a man sitting a bus stop bench waiting for a bus that is running hours, days, years too late. A man with somewhere else to be, anywhere other than wherever he was. A man forgotten by time and circumstance. A man who has stopped changing calendars or noticing the batteries in his clocks have all expired.
Ninety-eight was an indecent age to reach. As a younger man, Archie had imagined life to be a slippery, fleeting quicksilver moment like a fish you could never quite get your hands around. As a husband and father and employee and club member, he had felt the passage of time barreling fast.
But now he knew the filthy secret of life. Time isn’t short. Time excruciates.
His life has become a waiting room. He has read all the books on the shelves, all the magazines. He has seen all the shows he cares to see, the black and white oldies replay on mute. He doesn’t need the sound. He knows all the dialogue by memory. He has lost his enthusiasm for music, playing only the one opera on record player, letting it dig a deep, angry welt in the vinyl.
Doris died 30 years ago. At the time, it had felt too soon. She had passed too young. She had lived a good, happy life. She had been spared 30 years of cable news updates. She didn’t have to lose their daughter.
Helen was lost 14 years ago. Sixteen years after her mother. Sixteen years in which Helen had her father and her family, children of her own, to look after and help keep her grief at bay. But the grief gets us all, every one. Some call it depression. Some call it cancer. The name doesn’t matter. The malignancy catches us, each one, in the end.
Archie was impatient for his turn. And on occasion, he flips the channels, flipping past the Such and Such Headline News. The bloviating President. The forest fires. The stock market’s endless arrows. Zigzagging up in green. Zigzagging down in red. The panic. The turmoil. The same problems each year dressed in different clothes. He watches with detached interest, a fatal fascination. Each dispatch he imagines Death taking its step closer. So close, surely, Archie expects to see Death grinning out at him through the screen, asking to be invited into his home.
But no. And still he watches, to bear witness. His life with Doris and Helen has been his true life, not this shriveled, forgotten, useless thing. And if he were really honest with himself, he would say he watched the news as a way of letting go of his life. The world was burning. He was swimming out to sea.
Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.
First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.
Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.
This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.
In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.
Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)
That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?
Don’t know. Don’t care.
I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.
This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.
Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.
Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I finally read Chekhov because Francine Prose said I should. In her excellent Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them, Prose venerates Chekhov as the writer’s writer, the master of human emotion, keen observation and the devastatingly well-placed detail.
Prose offers Chekhov as a writer of superhuman intellect and heart. She writes, ““By the time Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-four, he had written, in addition to his plays, approximately six hundred short stories. He was also a medical doctor. He supervised the construction of clinics and schools, he was active in the Moscow Art Theatre, he married the famous actress Olga Knipper, he visited the infamous prison on Sakhalin Island and wrote a book about that.” (Prose 243) I happen to be 44 and suddenly feel like a slacker. I had to take a look.
Prose devotes an entire chapter to “Learning from Chekhov”. From Chekhov’s letters, “You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.” (Prose 245) I was intrigued by the proposition that writers shouldn’t aim to solve problems but only ensure that the problem is properly stated.
And then this from Chekhov’s letters, “It is time for writers to admit that nothing in this world makes sense. Only fools and charlatans think they know and understand everything.” (Prose 246)
Having read Prose, I understood that I was supposed to love Chekhov and love him deeply. I picked up The Essential Tales of Chekhov (Richard Ford, editor) thinking myself ready to love. The actual experience was something else. Not love. Remote admiration, perhaps. Confused esteem. Chekhov, it turns out, is very Russian. He writes about thoughts and feelings so fine, so nuanced and mature that I revert to a confused, naive youngster. After all, I’m only 44. What’s this story about? Love. Passion. Disappointment. And also something more. It is the something more I could not grasp.
There are, to be sure, clear moments of brilliance. There are many more moments that sail entirely over my head. I’m not grown up enough, or cultured enough or, perhaps, Russian enough.
Chekhov had always been presented to me as the master of showing not telling, but in the stories I read he tells more often than shows. The fascinating thing about Chekhov is where he starts and stops his stories. He does not begin with catastrophe and he does not end with resolution. The beginning and end are more ambiguous. We meet characters in the middle of their situations and leave them before they understand their situations for themselves.
Chekhov, to me, seems the forefather of flash fiction. Stories told quickly in a rush that isn’t actual impatience but an attention to weird, unexpected detail that alludes to bigger truths off-page.
You can, it turns out, appreciate Chekhov without exactly loving him. If you get the chance to read for yourself, I recommend “Hush!”, “An Anonymous Story” and “The Lady with the Dog”.
Rest a moment from the frenetic chaos we have made our daily lives. Excuse yourself from the binge-purge cycle of fear then outrage. We are meant to be more than only this. Look up.
I’m not sure exactly what this piece is. The impulse came while driving home from the grocery listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9”. I wanted to write a thing that moves like that song. Alternating bruising punch with psychedelic caress. This isn’t the thing but it has some of the shape of the thing.
That first night after her burial is the longest night of your life. You are meant to be putting the past behind you, placing things in their proper order, making room for the new normal. That first night becomes your entire life. It never actually ends, just stretches more and more thin until the shell of it finally cracks and morning rushes out in a bloody smear of light.
You don’t sleep. Every where you look is a place she isn’t, a place she is meant to be.
Evelyn snores in the next room, coiled cozily in oblivion. She is too young to need the help of sleeping pills but the doctor gave them anyway, pressed her gently into the soft, dreamless slumber beyond grief.
You don’t take the pills. You want to keep your wits or at least keep watch for them in hopes those wits might return. This night is the rest of your life.
You envy Evelyn, her youth, her future. She still has the illusion of a long, happy life ahead. Perhaps she has not yet sensed the thing you now know that life is short and brittle and brutally brief.
You looked through the pictures in the photo albums, the photos on your laptop and phone. How all those moments seemed enough to fill a endlessly long lifetime but now seem to have gone screaming by. What had seemed long years, decades now seem a mere piffle of days. There is nothing for it but to revisit. Each picture a moment gone, a memory you could visit but only as a guest knocking on the door of your neighbor’s house. The door opens. You are welcome to come inside but you can’t really get comfortable. You don’t really belong. This place is not your place even though it is close to where you live. The past, even your own happy past, is a friendly neighbor’s home. You are welcome to visit anytime but you cannot stay.
That first night is the longest night and you mark time by walking the floor. Checking the windows and the doors. Keeping all the lights turned on, wondering how to keep all that darkness outside from getting in. You do not check the clocks. The clocks are all liars. They measure it out in steady increments. The ticks. The tocks. The clocks pretend time is a constant, steady thing but now you know it is not. Time is capricious. The past moves quick. Now drags slowly by. The future is a mote of dust right in front of your face. Right in front of your face. A moment. Then another. Perhaps another. That’s all there is.
“Hand me a cigarette, will ya?”
“I don’t smoke anymore,” he tells her, that inscrutable smile of his. Mocking her.
“Bullshit. Hand over.”
“For real. Not joking.” He turns away from the view to show her his serious, not-joking face. Cars and buses and bikes and people walking dogs bustle below. They stand alone at the rooftop, the roofline of the world, not drinking, not smoking. Contemplating the end of the world.
It wouldn’t be much more than one step to it all now. One committed step and the quick tug of gravity. Not smoking. Not drinking. Contemplating the end of the world.
“Since when did you give up smoking?”
“Since last year. Those things will kill you.”
It was a stupid thing to say but now it was said and he couldn’t keep the inscrutable smile from breaking into ironic parody. All of the TVs in the apartments beneath them tuned to the Fox News, the CNN, the MSNBC. All counting down the missile exchange with hysterical enthusiasm. It was the last day on earth but it would be the best ratings day ever. Everyone watching. No one able to look away. Except the two alone on the roof of the midtown apartment building surrounded by the midtown apartment buildings and banks and restaurants and coffee shops. The restaurants and coffee shops were full. It was, at last, to be the end of the world, but no one could be bothered to interrupt their meal, their last lingering cup of joe. The people below ate and drank and laughed with the languid leisure of another age. They did not belong to this time, this place. These people were already dead. They just did not know it. They couldn’t see. Or seeing, they could not care.
She nods. “Yeah. Those things will kill you. Not fast enough.”
He laughed. “Yeah. A slow motion execution. One puff at a time.”
“How much time you think we’ve got?”
He watches the far horizon. The city spreads in every direction. He cannot look and find a place that is not the city. Hard to imagine the fiery stitch of missile reaching in like fingers. But they were on their way.
She nods again. “Not even one cigarette?” she says, watching him with those steady, eager eyes. He had fallen in love with that look of hers before, that expression of naked need, that bald hunger. She catches his gaze and, for a moment, he can’t remember why they aren’t together anymore.
“Why did we break up?” he asks her.
“You said you needed space.”
“Ah yes. That’s right. Space,” he recalls.
“Was it worth it?”
He shrugs. Is anything really worth it? But instead he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single, crooked cigarette. “My last,” he tells her, handing it over. “For emergencies.”
She takes the cigarette, pushes it between her lips. “I think this qualifies.”
She tries to light the cigarette with trembling hands but the flame is restless and will not catch.
“Me too,” he says, taking the lighter from her to steady her hands. The cigarette catches and releases its small bitter breath.
She drags a few and offers the rest to back to him. “One last time?” she asks.
He studies her face for a hint of mockery or shame or uncertainty. There’s only that look of need, that hunger which is life.
“I’d like that very much.”
He takes the cigarette. Pulls a few drags. Coughs a little. It is a vice his body has almost forgotten but quickly remembers.
He surveys the city one last time. It is mid afternoon but in his mind the sun is already sinking low.
He smokes it down, hands it back to her. She takes the last drag, flicks the butt off the roof. They don’t watch it fall.
“Let’s go inside,” he says and takes her hand.
“One last time.” She smiles and lets herself be guided to the stairs.
They walk unhurried though there is so little time to waste. So little time for their bodies to remember all those things they thought had been forgotten.
Inspired by Daily Prompt: Talisman
For much of today I kept one eye on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle. I had planned to write tonight about Facebook, how my use of the platform has changed and rules for putting social media into its proper place.
For my morning commute, I listened to a podcast speculate at length about whether or not the president is about to fire Robert Mueller. It was decided that the president appears more likely to fire Mueller than he was a few weeks ago but is still not very likely to fire Mueller after all unless he actually does. The rest of the podcast was devoted to what would happen if the president did, after all, fire Mueller.
I glanced at headlines about another school shooting, this time in Great Falls, Maryland.
This all happened today. But for the most part, I was thinking about Facebook/Cambridge Analytica and my social media hot take.
Meanwhile, people of color in Austin, Texas are finding bombs on their front porch. They are stepping on trip wires. Boxes are exploding on Fed Ex conveyor belts. It was almost eight o’clock before I heard about the most recent explosion and really thought about it.
That’s white privilege.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Whenever people ask me this question, I usually run down the traditional pros and cons of invisibility versus flying versus mind reading but the honest, actual truth is I’d choose speed reading. I would rather read three times faster than I do now (with complete recall and undiminished joy) than prowl forbidden hallways unseen beneath a Cloak of Invisibility or leap tall buildings in a single bound or peer inside the unguarded mind of friends and foes.
With the talent of speed reading, I could plow through my personal bookshelves and liberate the unread volumes from their years of dusty confinement. I could traverse my library’s bookshelves, first reading everything that interested me from the new book shelves before systematically attacking the circulating stacks in Library of Congress Classification order. First: philosophy, psychology and religion. Then: World and American History. Then: Geography and Anthropology. Next: Political science, law, education, music, fine art, language and literature, science, medicine and technology. I would weave from topic to topic, bouncing from print text to eBook and back again, setting each discipline atop the other like a foundation of well-hewn bricks. When I had digested the entire collection, I would end my journey in the Zs, which is where Library of Congress places Bibliography, or Books about Books. And I would take extravagant notes until my Goodreads account was bursting with To Read titles. And my college would have to hire two additional interlibrary loan clerks to manage the volume of my requests.
The PDF app on my iPad would rejoice whenever I pushed an article there because, at last, articles saved for eventual reading would be read. And my Pocket app for mobile would be a well-oiled machine — articles in, articles read.
It would be a joy.
And so, try to imagine the scene when I came home from work today and my wife said, “Do you want to sign up for this summer speed reading class? They meet for two hours every Monday evening in June. Its kind of expensive, but we can figure it out if you want to give it a try.”
When the call center guy at registration asked about my goals for the program, I told him I read about 20 books each year but want to read more. My dad’s dad took a speed reading class many years ago and eventually came to read a book a day. I know because my grandfather let me scavenge his basement mounds of mass-market paperbacks. That’s where I found out about Clive Barker and Dean Koontz and Robert R. McCammon.
And so, I signed up for summer speed reading classes with the University of Tennessee non-credit program. I gave the call center guy at registration my credit card number and fully expect to gain an incredible superpower in return. I always look forward to summer but this summer is going to be extra nerdtastic. You can have your fantasies about invisibility or flying or mind-reading. I will be gaining an actual super power. I’ll be learning how to read. By August I expect to be making my way through the Top 100 Lists of the Top 100 Books About x.
And yes. You’ll be most welcome to peruse my basement.