The Next Wish

I had a moment in the middle of a dream when I understood that most of my wishes have been granted.

Most, but not all. Mostly.

And the majority just happened. Yes, there was some degree of effort involved, some nervousness, too many false starts, an occasional appeal to a higher power that, as far as I know, paused in the management of the universe to find me a parking space, send me a sign that my writing (and my life) still mattered, help me pass my second black belt exam, and, most important of all, reunite me with my one true love. The parking space wish was granted in seconds. My first published novel required about four years, with some unbelievably frustrating moments. The reunification with my love happened after  40 years.

Along the way, all these great things happened that I didn’t ask for, didn’t plan, didn’t anticipate and couldn’t avoid (I wasn’t sure they’d be great, so I tried to make them not happen, but they did anyway).

I look around and see (and hear about) so many people who could use a few wishes coming true. I know of too much suffering in this world. People have terrible illnesses, horrible predicaments, long runs of bad luck that should have stopped short.

Why were my wishes granted?

I’d like to claim that it was all due to my hard work, righteous lifestyle and the eating of vegetables, but, no. I’d like to point toward a book whose words of wisdom and inspiration lighted the way, but there were too many books and, to be honest, what worked for the author of that book almost never worked for me. I had to be banged around by life. I had to have moments when I was scared out of my mind and nothing worked.

Then…something worked. A higher power? Perhaps, but I can’t be certain. I have hints but never enough to be absolutely sure.

Can I praise my stubborn, determined certainty?  Nahhh. I have fretted and doubted my way up and down mountains. I don’t merely second guess myself. I third, fourth and tenth guess (I still wonder if the first paragraph of my first published novel could have been improved with a little more of this and a little less of that).

For me, achievement tended to happen most frequently when I forced myself to forget about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing, and merely did my best.

This method has not been as successful as I’d liked, and I’ve spent too much time moping over might-have-beens. I know that I’ve failed people, and people have failed me, and that it doesn’t even out.

I have not been careful of what I wish for. Yes, some answered prayers did not improve my situation. They didn’t give me what I thought I wanted.

But too many of them did.

Some of those granted wishes could have been granted further. I’ve been published, but nothing I published made me more confident about what I wrote. Nothing I published made it easier to write, or to have my great ideas for books see print. I found that when you publish a lot of one thing, some publishers will consider you publishing more of that thing.  Most will just say no, no matter who you are, and who you think you are.

Today, anyone can publish just about anything on the Internet. Will anyone see it?

It’s time to make a new wish. I’ll call on that higher power.

And listen.

 

 

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Uh-Huh, Bummer, Wow

A spiritual leader once confided that you can handle just about any conversation–with anyone–by using these three responses. I found this disturbing, at first, because one of the most difficult tasks spiritual leaders must perform is listening to those who are confused, in pain, in trouble, afraid, dying or uncertain if they will help pay the spiritual leader’s salary.

Then I tried this and discovered how well it works.

I’m one of those shy people who deals with his fear of social situations by talking. After thirty years in journalism I have developed some techniques that gently control conversations.  When I’m in a conversation I tend to want to share experiences or information, so when someone says this happened, I come back with what happened to me. This tendency is often misjudged. People tell me later that I shouldn’t have “topped” the other’s experience. “It’s not supposed to be about you,” I hear. If I mention a fact or bit of knowledge I find interesting and relevant, I’m told I’m too much of a “know it all.”

The art of conversation is now taking place mostly in cyberspace, which has its own rules, morals and manners. Many people find “face time” conversations that don’t involve an aim (a journalistic interview) or an anticipated outcome (“Excuse me, but can you show me where I can find frozen peas?”) difficult. I’m one of them.

Now that I am old enough to be never mistaken for young I’ve discovered that, on the whole, older types are not that important to our youth-oriented consumer society. We are not that interesting and are too eager to offer advice about things we couldn’t possibly know, or that, because of our age, are buried in our past and obviously irrelevant.

But every so often younger people occasionally need, or want, our approval, permission, resources (typically money but also emotional support, or a vote of confidence) and, when they realize how scary the world can be, comfort.

If we older types just say “uh huh” more often, we appear to understand everything. We are suddenly up-to-date and relevant. We get it. We are woke.

Too much human interaction involves being manipulated by social media protocols, phone trees, machined responses, unanswered e-mails, voice mail boxes that become catacombs for our hopes and fears.

So, when people talk about themselves, more often than not, they want is to feel as if someone is listening in a manner that connotes less comprehension than respectful attention. When you say uh-huh repeatedly, you’re not merely showing the talker that you agree. You’re also encourage people to keep talking until they run out of energy or they begin to repeat themselves and then run out of energy. You may not understand everything they’re saying, but, having sat through a foreign movie with hard-to-read subtitles, you get the gist eventually.

Use “wow” and “bummer,” or some similar colloquialism, to show sympathy. “Wow” is not just surprise at what this person is telling you. It shows that you feel the delight, shock, indignation or amazement that your speaker experienced. You may have done something similar. You may have climbed the same mountain and want to show that you share the experience in common.

But your speaker doesn’t want to feel a shared bond. Your job is to not to speak and, thereby, validate that person’s need to speak.

“Bummer” says, yes, that wasn’t good, or it should have been better, and–necessary for spiritual leaders–indicating little about fault, blame or responsibility. A bummer is a cloud without a silver lining, a bad thing that crosses our path, the yucky stuff that hits the fan. Some bummers make us turn to God and ask why. We don’t always get an explanation and some explanations only make a bad situation worse.

So the fact that another human being is listening, without judging (or appearing to judge) the speaker’s life, can take that speaker away from the bad feelings that accompany bummers. Psychologists call this release of buried, suppressed or overwhelming emotion through conversation, abreaction. It isn’t the only benefit of therapy, but it can be the moment when healing begins.

I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten what it is like to need a parent to hug you and say let you cry, or laugh, or merely feel safe. Words can do that.

Words like words uh-huh, bummer, wow.

 

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The Angels You Meet

It came out of a dinner party conversation that could have been as light and evanescent as a sweet dessert: sometimes a person you may not know, in a place you’d never expect, says or does precisely the right thing to help you on your way.

You may not be aware that you need assistance. Your mind may be on other things. The person may not be the kind you would notice. But something is said, or done, and your life changes for the better.

I thought back about so many human angels in my life. Some I came to know too well. Familiarity made me downplay the miraculous nature of the good advice, the helping hand, the kind act.

We are most contemptuous of angelic behavior with our parents. For so many years I held tight to grudges, mulled over wounds, railed against mistakes and adjusted downward my opinions of their mental state. It’s so easy to forget that, despite the obvious errors, the inadvertent or deliberate cruelties, the acts of unfairness, injustice and hypocrisy, I would not be here if not for them.

This fact of “being here” does not merely refer to conception. How many times, I wonder, did my behavior bring forth the wish that they simply hadn’t had me? If I hadn’t been born, how many times could they have slept the night?

In such situations, angelic action resembles divine restraint. In others, it can be like a samurai sword cut–a single slash of the blade the ends the conflict.

I once wanted to drop out of college because none of the classes were giving me practical, survival skills. I had lined up a job as an apprentice cook in a diner when an angel told me, “You don’t want to learn the multiplication tables. You’d rather play outside.”

I still haven’t memorized the answer to 11 times 12. And I don’t have the timing and mastery of a short order cook. But I didn’t drop out and, when I was on a group tour of the English Lake District, I was the only tourist on the bus who knew who John Ruskin was. That I had learned about Ruskin after graduating didn’t matter. What I learned most powerfully in college was that learning feels good, and I’ve been an autodidact ever since.

Just recently my wife and I were walking up an uneven stone path to a summit of Helvellyn, the most famous mountain in the Lake District. When it began to rain, we donned our raincoats and kept going. Two climbers came down and warned us of a “white out” at the peak: a condition in which a cloud descends and you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

We took the advice of these angels and turned around. A few days later I heard someone had died when he slipped and fell off the same path.

As I thought about angels, I remembered when I became one. No, I was not filled with a spiritual glow and a resounding sense of purpose. But, through what I said and did, the “white out” became clear.

Less than a month after my son bought his first car, a convertible, he’d driven it too fast on a winding road and hit a tree.  The air bag had just gone off and had blown his glasses off his face. He called me and I drove out as quickly as I could. My had no injuries but he was very upset. I stayed with him as the police car rolled up. The officer came out and judged the car totaled. My son became even more upset.

Then I asked the officer how many others had gone too fast on the same road, and hit the same tree. He laughed and said he had done it with his first car.

My son calmed down. When I asked the tow truck driver the same question, we got the same answer. So many people had wrecked the first cars on that road, that my son could not just understand that he made a mistake, but see into what, about that road with its posted 20 miles-per-hour speed limit, had inspired him, and so many others, to go too fast.

At the time I did not know that others had hit the tree. The question just popped into my head, and the answers turned out to be the right ones for my son to hear. I did not feel like an angel. I was just grateful that he was safe and sound.

We never found his glasses.

At times our lives and our world seem so angry and divided that it is difficult to believe we will survive the next hour. Sickness, misfortune and violence visit us for no reason. In the great pursuit of happiness, we find ourselves far behind.

And that’s when angels find us. We get a glimpse, a hint, that problems can be solved, we really can help each other, things may not be as bad as they seem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Return to Great Langdale

My first experience in England’s Lake District was a fool’s journey. My second was gently reassuring: no matter how deeply the rest of the world descends into selfishness, ethnic hatred, greed, cruelty and vain arrogance, a place will remain for those who have found a home in nature, and care enough about that home to maintain its beauty.

For those who don’t know, or believe a trip to England is London, Stratford-on-Avon and Windsor Castle, the Lake District is the United Kingdom’s largest national park, a UNESCO Heritage Site on the northwestern side of the island, from Morecambe Bay to Solway Firth. It is famous for its residents, who include the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author Beatrix Potter and social critic John Ruskin, and its spectacularly scenic lakes and rugged, barren mountains, known locally as “fells.”

Though you can find similar rural landscapes in the United States, the Lake District is uniquely, marvelously English. Near the town Keswick is a stone circle that is smaller, and believed to be older, than Stonehenge. The larger towns began as Roman forts. You can walk a Roman road built, not in the valleys, but along a high ridge. Many of the dry stone walls that enclose grazing areas for sheep, goats and cattle go back to the Viking invasion. At least one of the small islands in the lakes was a hermitage for Christian monks. The fells are riddled with abandoned mines that produced copper, gold, slate and graphite–that brittle, powdery substance that inspired Lakelanders to invent the pencil during the 16th Century.

The region became a tourist destination in the 19th century, when Romantic poets and artists found inspiration in a rustic, agricultural landscape in which man and nature appeared to exist in harmony.

I hadn’t heard of the place when I joined a high school friend in a month-long back-packing, rail-pass exploration of England, Scotland and Wales. Up to then, nearly every experience I had with hiking and camping was dreadful. My introduction to the Lake District would be worse.

We were staying in a London youth hostel when someone told us we should go to the Lake District, to a place with the unforgettable name of called Dungeon Ghyll, and climb the Great Gable. We could do it in a day, we were told.

We had rail passes that took us as far as Windermere, a town named for the lake. From there we boarded a bus that left us off at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where we went to small fell walkers provisions shop. The bearded guy behind the counter recommended we take some kind of lunch with us. My friend bought a can of tuna. I got a can of ravioli. We had Swiss Army knives with a can opening tool.

After we dropped the cans in our back packs, we asked the guy where the Great Gable was. He pointed and said “you can’t miss it.”

He could have said that the Great Gable was about 12 miles away, up and down and up a considerably difficult series of trails. He could have suggested that we could buy a guide that showed where the trail, and this particular mountain (there were several in the Great Langdale valley) was. He could have glanced at my Converse sneakers and told me I should invest in climbing boots. He could have warned us that, though no rain was expected, the Lakes District is the wettest place on an island fiercely proud of its miserable weather.

He could have added that a ghyll is local dialect for mountain stream, and that Dungeon Ghyll was a waterfall we could see if we followed the creek near the hotel.

But, in the way that locals understand the virtues in failure, he said little. We set off in late morning and were soon tromping up a grassy slope where sheep turned to stare at us. We slipped and skidded over large swaths of what I would learn was “skree,” cascades of broken rock that gave way underfoot without warning.

My legs ached, my feet throbbed and sweat dripped off my forehead into my eyes when I noticed the sun dipping behind what my friend was certain was the Great Gable (it wasn’t). We stopped, sat down on lumpy grass that wasn’t spotted with sheep droppings. The can opener came out. I couldn’t eat my ravioli. We had finished all the water in our canteens (this was before the era of water bottled in plastic).

It became very, very cold. I put on another pair of pants, a second shirt and a sweater, and pulled my London Fog raincoat around me. I shivered as the stars came out. Somehow, we fell asleep.

The next morning I worked up with crusty eyes. A sheep was close enough to investigate the open can of ravioli. I watched it shake its head and look back at me, as if to say, “You crazy, or what?”

I wasn’t crazy. I was cold and miserable. I sat up and saw, in the distance, a tent.

Someone else was on the mountain! My friend thought whoever was in the tent would know where the Great Gable was.

I had no intention of going any further. I wanted to go back where we came, but I couldn’t see the path up, or any landmarks.

As we stumbled toward the tent, a man came out. He wore climbing gear. He wore boots. He had a beard and a thick sweater and a propane stove with a pot of tea at boil. When we told him we were looking for the Great Gable, he laughed and offered us a cuppa.

That tea was one of the best ever. As I sipped it, he told us about trails and guidebooks and that whoever told us to climb the Great Gable had been putting us on. If you’re going to begin walking the fells, we should do something easier.

All I wanted was a hot shower. He laughed again and said “Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel.” He pointed. “You can’t miss it.”

Before we left him, he warned us that going down was harder, and more dangerous, than going up. “Mind your feet.”

It took the entire day to find our way back to Dungeon Ghyll. I had to check into the hotel to take a bath, and so I did. My friend, who had enjoyed sleeping outdoors, wandered off and didn’t see me until the morning.

That bath was everything I’d like, and the bed held me like a baby. The next morning, I bought a roll with a small piece of cheese for breakfast. Then I walked with my friend back to road, took the bus to Windermere, got on a train for Edinburgh and never looked back.

My friend went on to attend medical school. He practices on the other side of the country.  His website says he likes to ski and jog. I guess he likes the great outdoors.

I like to jog, though I have be careful of my knees. I go to the gym and lift. I do karate katas. Sometimes I stretch.

I looking at the great outdoors–from a bench, or the window of a hotel room. I avoid most invitations to hike, camp or wander anywhere that isn’t paved.

My wife likes hiking and camping. When I told her about my brief experience with the Lake District, she wanted to go back to Dungeon Ghyll, with a guidebook, maps and really good hiking boots.

She bought the boots. She got the guidebooks and the maps. She found Lake District hotels near some of the famous peaks, such as Helvellyn and Cat Bells.

And so we went to Windermere for more than just a day. We tested our boots on a short trudge up to Orest Head, a walk that inspired a British civil servant named Alfred Wainwright to climb nearly every fell in the Lakes District and write a series of guidebooks about them.

We did another walk to a waterfall–not the “force” at Dungeon Ghyll, but good enough. The walks exhausted me and, again, reminded me how good a cup of tea tasted when they were over.

The climb up Hellvellyn could have been a far more dangerous disaster when a downpour caught us three quarters up the Stairway to Heaven, a trail of rough hewn stone steps going up and up and up.

I balked at going to Great Langdale. She booked a small group tour that include a ride up Hard Knot Pass and other scenic delights. The tour passed through Dungeon Ghyll and Great Langdale. We drove past the old hotel and went up a road that I recognized. We stopped in the valley to take pictures.

I don’t take pictures when I travel. I learned when I went to Rome the first time. My camera and film took up about a third of my luggage. I looked for the best shots. I went crazy when I misplaced a lens cap. I had the film developed and never looked at the pictures after they were printed.

Now I sit or stand for a while and notice as much as I can about a place. If I want a picture, I can buy a postcard.

So I stood and saw the cascade of skree that I had stumbled over. I saw the grassy slopes with sheep grazing on them. Those slopes had started out as gentle hills and then that became so steep that I had, so many years ago, I had to hug the earth to stop from sliding down.

And, just below those slopes, I could make out the trails we should have taken. I asked the guide which of the peaks was the Great Gable.

“You can’t see it from here,” he said.

I couldn’t see where we were stranded. I did, however, admire how beautiful the place could be, when you know where you are, and where you’re going.

A few days later my wife and I gasped our way up Cat Bells, a “family-friendly” fell that is supposed to be one of the easiest in the Lakes District. We had to rest frequently. Families with small children and dogs tromped heartily past us. We did not linger at the top, which buzzed with a zillion black flies.

The experience did not convert me to the fanatical fold of fell walkers. I did not feel Wordsworth’s blissful solitude. My feet throbbed. My legs ached. I was soaked in sweat. We took a bus back to Keswick, found a tea shop, and sat down.

And you know that cup of tea tasted very, very good.

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Lifting

I finally found that feeling you get when you lift, of pushing back, and pushing out, of creating a space from inside out. When the sweat streaks down your face and your shirt sticks to the bench, the space becomes yours.

The feeling eluded me for most of my life. For me, exercising was an escape from being the fat kid who couldn’t catch or throw a ball. I discovered if I offered to run the track, the phys. ed. teachers would leave me alone. Only during football season did I find some pride. As a center, I was too massive to move. Kids tried to run into me and knock me down. They bounced off. This wasn’t enough for me to be accepted on a team.

After more than enough self-hatred for being fat, made me buy a set of weights. After a month in our dusty garage, I could put on larger plates.  Firmer muscle lurked below the flab, but the flab remained.

I forced myself not to eat the bread, pasta, potatoes and ice cream that was a staple of our family meals. It took me five months, but I lost 50 pounds when I entered high school. Not long after, a girl gave me her telephone number. She is now my wife.

But lifting was still a strange, noisy, clunky thing that didn’t seem to take me anywhere. Holding the bars felt strange. The weight was an intrusion. The gnurled collar on the bars dug into my skin. In college, I wandered into the weight room, and dropped a few plates on the Universal, but I mostly went for long runs down flat, two-lane roads in the surrounding Ohio farmland. I’d discovered that runner’s high, and I liked it. I also took yoga back when it was uncommon. The class was taught by an American graduate student who grew a beard so he could look like a mountain man, or, more likely, an Indian yogi. After a while, I’d get that loose limbed yoga high, the blissful relaxation that freed memories or helped me really enjoy laying on my back without a pillow.

I also heard about aikido, and became interested in the martial arts as a way to blast through writers block when caffiene didn’t work. It would take a few more years before I took lessons in aikido and shotokhan karate. I also exercised in a nearby gym, crashing plates on the Universal, going into the zone on a step machine and, later, an F/X. I finally achieved that perilous state where you believe you are “in shape.” I could do pull-ups. I could do more than 1,000 crunches. I could run from one part of the city to another, arriving at a restaurant, an editor’s office, or a classroom to teach writing–in a sweaty mess.

But I never quite felt that I had achieved anything. I didn’t have the cut and shredded torso of body builder. I wasn’t thick and beefy like power lifters. My body ached in different places at different times. When I hiked the Inca trail in Peru I had such a severe case of altitude sickness that I couldn’t carry my day pack. My knees began to swell oddly, leading to the first of several surgeries.

Lifting was still a chore. It didn’t feel good and, if anything, the numbers on the stacks reminded me that, yes, I could move this much weight, but, somewhere was another person who could lift more.

So I stopped lifting, remaining with karate and the occasional long run. Then I had surgery on my wrist, two heart attacks and another orthoscopic clean up on my knee.

I stopped exercising. When I’d do the run or the karate, I’d hurt. When I didn’t, I still hurt.

What got me back in the gym were a few days when a steaming temperature inversion turned the outside air into stifling miasma of auto pollution and the parching odor of evaporating lawn treatments that the HOA provides, whether you want them or not.

I put the headphones on, started on some of the lower weights, and those awkward feelings returned. I was older and, possibly wiser, but I still felt like a fat kid in a garage, hoping to lift himself into a different person.

That went on for another few weeks. At least the gym’s air conditioning filtered away the pollution. Somehow I stayed at it.

And then, on a day when I was quite actually going through the motions, I felt as if pushing those weights was creating a new space. The space had always existed, but, this time, I owned it.

It happened the next day, and the day after that. I’m sure I can find a biophysical, neurological explanation for this but….

I’d rather go to the gym and lift some more.

 

 

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Short Fiction

I am reading a short story in a magazine I admire. The story, like this post, is in the journalistic present, as if everything is happening all at once. I, too, have written in the journalistic present, and I’ve come to distrust it.

I don’t like the journalistic present tense because we experience our lives as a narrative, with beginnings, middles and ends. Narrative is a contrast that blissful childhood state when we assume that things will go on more or less as they are: our parents will be with us, our house will remain and the only thing we’ll have to learn is how to please ourselves and others, without making a mess.

Sooner or later we discover that we really can’t understand anything unless it is in the past–a thing that happened, a beginning that ended, an event whose importance may change as we grow older, but remain back there, in that house, with our parents, in that mess.

We acquire what happens to us through our five senses, which means that there is likely a great big pile of stuff that we miss because we don’t see it, it doesn’t fit into our ears, it wasn’t the kind of thing we’d put into our mouths, it had no recognizable odor and wasn’t anywhere near our skin. This stuff that we miss is a great source of the short fiction that I read in college, where, certain that my literary efforts would eventually preoccupy a professorial lecture, I wrote stories about young people who visit friends, wander into a familiar wilderness or go to what they believed was home, and notice more of what they previously ignored, or had been incapable of noticing.  It wasn’t that my characters couldn’t go home again–I retained obsessions with my parents’ divorce, my high school girlfriend (who is now my wife) and the science fiction and fantasy writers I felt were as important a literary force as the naturalists and realists I met in college. My characters went home, sometimes relentlessly. Every time they did, they were forced to admit that what was home was a narrative that had ended.

I sent those short stories to the magazines I admired. The stories came back, rejected. I read the short stories those magazines published and tried to figure out why those stories were published and mine weren’t. When I began to write for newspapers and magazines, I saw that those who were published had won an important award, written a best seller or attained a national reputation, and, therefore, helped sell the magazine. Was that the only reason?

I return to the short story. It’s set in a strange, slightly menacing wilderness area that reminds me, not of strange, slightly menacing wilderness, but of a person who is not comfortable where he lives, and is projecting that discomfort on to the setting. This could be the author’s intention, or an insight to the author that, like a flash of skin at the edges of a mask, is a part of an illusion I’m not supposed to see.

The short story ruled the American literary scene in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Popular authors, most of whom did not find immortality in college literary classes, were paid as much as $40,000 (yes, Forty Grand, as the great short story writer Damon Runyon would say), for a few typewritten pages. This sum could be doubled or even tripled if the story was turned into a play or movie.

Whether these writers thought what they were writing was junk, or art, did not matter to them as much as their need to make a living until they made their living and discovered that those people they based their stories on–the blithely affluent Gerald Murphys who inspired Fitzgerald, or Hemingway’s lasting infatuation Slim Keith–did not appreciate their fictional portraits. So great, however, was the art of these and other writers of that era, that it is largely through the fiction that these people are remembered today.

Far more magazines existed in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Few survived into the second half, when I was born and began reading science fiction and fantasy published by authors who were dismissed by my English teachers as hacks. The major difference between the hacks of yesteryear and those of my youth was their prodigality. Instead of few typed pages, they had to grind out 75,000 word paperback novels. Some of these authors (I met a few) had literary pretensions, but their efforts were treated as disposable by just about everyone but their fans. A very few hacks experienced the thrill of “breaking out” of their genre and selling science fiction to mainstream magazines that paid as much for their story as they got for a novel. How you did this wasn’t easy.  I heard of one science fiction writer whose friends staged seemingly accidental, but ultimately successful run-ins with the short story editor of one prestigious publication.

But, at writers conferences, where I shared a dais, or a panel discussion (I was moderately well known as a regional journalist and mystery author), with some of these editors, they all said, “you just have to write a great story.

And yet, when you look back to Dickens and other literary giants who were popular in their lifetimes, you can find the same stuff that animates the comic book adventures of today. The entertainments that make the most money today spring from comic books, video games, toys, theme park rides, literary fantasy (“Game of Thrones”), and space opera (“Star Wars”).

None of which you’ll ever see as short fiction in the magazines I still admire. I want to feel grateful that in the same metaphorical movie multiplex where supervillains and superheroes throw things at each other, is a smaller, quieter theater where kids who go home again discover the end of one narrative and the beginning of another.

Or something like that. Not only do these films exist, but there are so many on the streaming channels that you may not live long enough to see them all. If you tire of the films, you can read books, some of which are reviewed in the magazines I admire. A major difference in the rites-of-passage, coming-of-age stories I read in college, and those being published now, is that the settings are in cultures as exotic as anything we can imagine on an alien world. Characters are mixtures of this and that, not so much flawed as uncertain of who they are. Their search for understanding yields new narratives that temporarily confirm notions of identity, but the endings remain disquieting and unfulfilling.

I grew up believing that art was necessary, that great art would change us for the better, that delight in the sense of wonder might unite us and save us from our vain pursuits, and that persistent, sincere effort of the highest quality possible would bring success, if not a livelihood, and that awards, national reputations or best-selling products would happen in time. I did fewer wrong things than right ones. I find myself in a world with too much art in it, and stories whose presence in magazines remains inexplicable.

After the first few paragraphs I want to give up on the story. The characters don’t interest me. The description of the setting does not provide that “ludic” moment when I leave my world and enter the author’s fictional domain. The plot doesn’t move forward as much as it wallows around, with a flashback that is supposed to show me how things have changed.

But I persist because this is a magazine that has published some of the best short stories ever written. I want to honor the choices made by the editor who, I presume, waded through mountains of submissions, most unsolicited, to bring this to print.

That might not be the best way to appreciate art. You can miss things if you go into a museum, or attend a concert, and quietly demand an understanding of why this work is offered and that another, perhaps your own, is not.  You want first impressions to confirm your best hope–that great art is deserving of its medium–and your worst fear–that your efforts are insufficient, unworthy, second rate, inept.

The importance of the magazine short story died in toward the end of the Twentieth Century when it became the laboratory rat of creative writing classes. Suddenly more people wanted to write short stories than read them. The Internet resurrected the short story, and every other form of art that can be converted into electronic pulses. There are so many short stories on the Internet that you won’t live long enough to read them all. An unknowable quantity are available without charge. You don’t have that you-paid-for-this, might-as-well-get-your-money’s-worth goad to finish the story. The only things will know that you’ve stopped reading the story are the machines owned by the Internet warlords that record everything we do in front of a screen, forever.

The history of art can be explained by money and what we now call technology.  Artists have meager needs, but they must be met or the pen doesn’t move. Some of history’s wealthiest people–the Medicis, the Guggenheims, the Fricks, the Gettys- live on just because they bought stuff, or supported artists. That some of these wealthy people may have done nefarious things tends to be overlooked. Great artists have been great sinners, or have been pointlessly cruel to those who loved them, but the art remains.

Many kinds of art would not exist without the technology, which now is a part of nearly everything we say and do. Science fiction used to be about the effect technological changes may have on current social norms. Though we can find accounts of trips to the moon as far back as the Second Century AD, we wouldn’t have movies about space ships if we didn’t have a way of seeing moving images which, before the invention of the motion picture, was done with words. We wouldn’t have those words if they weren’t written down and reproduced inexpensively on paper in books and magazines.

But we’d still have stories, told wherever human beings gather. You’d think, with all the possible motifs, tropes, cliches, myths and metaphors, we’d reach a point where every story was told. Some would say that we have. You see these people waving a single book, typically a sacred text. You hear them insisting that everything you need to know is inside, and that to look elsewhere is a sin. Alas, you can read a text again and find new meanings. You can go home again, and find new meaning. The best narrative endings are meaningful. We feel that whatever brought us to this point has been worthwhile.

I continue to read and, about eight paragraphs in, I find a description of a sexual act. The act, and the words that describe it,  would not appear in this magazine some years ago.  Famous battles against government and cultural censorship are part of the folklore of the Twentieth Century.  Some artists suffered when their work was branded indecent or obscene. Others profited. William Faulkner attained a national reputation with the publication of Sanctuary, a novel with a brutal rape scene. I read Sanctuary in college. I didn’t think it was Faulkner’s best, and the rape scene seemed gratuitous–something Faulkner tossed in just to shock people. I found Henry Miller’s ravings about his paltry sex life monotonous. James Joyce was definitely writing about sex in Ulysses, but did he have to? Hemingway’s sex scenes were silly.

The long battle to write freely about what people do with their privates, in private or in public, was not altogether won. Nowadays there is such an art to finding and proclaiming offense, on the Internet and off, that I wonder how many great things may have been accomplished if people hadn’t burned up so much energy and bile. I’m not doubting that the offenses were real–the art of making enemies goes way, way back. The art of living with enemies, regardless of our responsibility in creating them, remains a work in progress.

I read this story and ask if it was necessary to include a vulgarity. Almost immediately, I qualify vulgarity, a word that descends from the Latin for “common” and “ordinary” that unfairly implies that such detailed depictions are common and ordinary. They are not. What is most common is the description of sex through taboo language. What is better is the use of metaphor, simile, implication and wit. Like many human endeavors, human sexuality is ultimately beyond description. When it is contained in a written narrative, the reader gains inadvertent insights into the narrator by what is left out.

I continue reading and the first-person narrator suggests a way the story may turn out, and then immediately discredits that ending as the kind that would be typical if this story were fiction, which is isn’t. But it is.

I’ve encountered similar tropes in thrillers in which the naive, fresh-faced hero is told by the grizzled veteran that what they have experienced isn’t what happens on TV, or in movies, that this is real life.

But it isn’t. I quote the title of David Slavitt’s short story collection: Short Stories Are Not Real Life. Real life is ultimately beyond containment or summation in any art form. Real life is too frequently messy, meaningless, pointlessly cruel, surfeit with failed climaxes and unresolved tension. We turn to art because of what the author leaves out.

Why did the author leave in that pointless aside about this story not being fiction? Was this an attempt at the irony that leads to the alienation inherent in Brechtian drama? Or did the author assume that I was so far into the story that I would trust his character to be capable of trite observation?

A few pages later the narrator is about to make a decision that, if made, will confirm the desperation, pointlessness and hopelessness of all that has happened so far. The position of this decision suggests that I am nearing the climax of the story. The decision is made and–surprise!–the preceding action wasn’t desperate, pointless and hopeless after all. A story in which characters spend most of their time reacting, with few attempts at action make things worse, leads to an ending that does not resolve tension or conflict, but isn’t so bad, as endings go.

If a story becomes a quest for the reader, must it end in banality?

Reading this story has not made a qualitative change in my life. It has not lit up the sky, as I had wanted to do with my work. It has not delivered to me a sense of wonder.  It has not challenged received values and then comfortably restored them, as is the custom with most television comedy and drama. Super people haven’t thrown things at each other. I have not seen the inside of a space ship.

I have seen the inside of a simple, somewhat uninteresting human situation, in a magazine that, despite short stories that I’d rather not read, every once in a while, publishes one that tells me, writing stories is a worthwhile thing to do.

Maybe next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Redemption Song

I was feeling especially grumpy. In the words of Jean Shepherd, I was dejected, disgusted and despondent. Then I got an e-mail from a program director for a senior adult community. Was I still teaching and would I like to do a lecture for the group?

For a while I did not reply. I never thought I would ever teach again because teaching high school English had been so was emotionally shattering.

It had nothing to do with the kids, or the stuff I taught. I gave three years of my life to teaching tenth grade English for kids who aren’t good at reading and writing and, for too many reasons, may never be.

Before I stood in front of these kids, I had taught undergraduates and graduates.I had lectured to senior adults about history and biography. I taught karate. I helped kids at a community college find some reason to practice writing until the nonsensical matrices of English grammar began to make sense. I went to the best graduate school in the area to take education classes and I passed all the examinations necessary to get a teaching license.

I did this because my wife teaches high school. We met in high school. I was well aware that things happen in high school that can make the future happen a little bit faster. In high school I became an autodidact: a person who teaches himself.  Later, as a journalist, I proved to myself repeatedly that I could learn just about anything, if I gave myself enough time, and that if I found the sense of wonder in what I learned and shared it with readers and students–then everyone benefited.

Or almost everyone. I was also aware that education creates paradoxes, and the biggest is that some students are not ready for what is being taught, or they don’t want it and they try to fight it as hard as they can. I knew this because I was not ready for much of what my teachers put before me, and I did fight some of it until I stopped fighting and just let it in.

 

What shattered me about high school teaching was my relationship with administrators. For all its many rewards, teaching is relentlessly demanding and difficult, and when your supervisors are trying as hard as they can to demean you and denigrate your efforts, leaving it all behind seems to be the best choice.

My wife said the school was just a bad fit for me, and that I would probably find another school whose administrators understood me better. It can take a while before any teacher finds a school where she feels he belongs.

In my long life I have never become good at failing. I typically blame myself when things don’t work out the way I’d like, even if much of what occurs isn’t my fault. I fall into dark moods. Worst of all, I reject things that I once valued, as if the act of having faith in those things betrayed me, or was somehow false.

When I left that school, my indomitable urge to learn, died. I could no longer focus on the books I used to read voraciously. Unresolved stress led to two heart attacks.

I lost my faith in myself as a person who loved finding out cool things about the world, who truly enjoyed sharing those things–not to show people how much he knew, but because, as the I Ching says, pleasure shared is pleasure doubled. There’s more than enough misery and misfortune clouding our skies. When you find something wonderful about life, or when somebody shows it to you, you reconnect with hope and joy. Like the kid who fights all that good stuff in front of him, you find the little bit of delight that moves you forward.

I lost faith in the sense of wonder. What was it, if not a momentary emotional response that so quickly dissolves into irony, paradox and bitterness?

This request that I teach again surprised me. The senior group was in New Jersey. I had been one of their favorite guest lecturers over the years. I specialized in historical and biographical subjects: kings, queens, Hollywood stars, disasters, triumphs, entertainers, artists, history’s hidden villains and unsung heroes, and some of other fascinating people whose lives helped create the world in which we currently live.

But I gave it up after moving to Virginia, because the last time I made the long drive north, the car broke down and, though I rented a replacement and delivered the lecture (on the life and accomplishments of Emily Post), the car trouble had left me addled. On top of this, I had tried to use some of the techniques I had been taught in grad school and none of them worked. The people liked what I did, but I felt I had let them down.

And now I was being asked to do it again. I thought about it. The fee was the same–but I had never, ever done these lectures for the money. For me, this was a chance to find out fascinating things about a person, place or thing, and share them.

I had been reading about the Roman statesman Cicero but thought that his writings on growing old were a bit shallow. I had also read recently about the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who selected Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius as his successors. Of the two, Aurelius was intriguing because he left behind the Meditations, a manuscript of aphorisms, bromides, Stoical thoughts, observations, dour thoughts on death and reflections on power and leadership that he never intended to have published. Somehow they were and they have inspired theologians, philosophers and world leaders to this day. Aurelius is occasionally sour and sometimes puzzling, but some of his writings have an uncanny way of speaking directly to his readers.

Then there’s the irony of an emperor who could have and do just about anything, who maintained an almost humorlessly austere and honorably responsible lifestyle. His son, Commodus, would go on to be the exact opposite of his father. One of the worst emperors ever, he would send the Roman Empire into its slow decline.

I hit the books and, because we had a different car, had an uneventful ride north. I recognized a few faces in the audience. I gave the talk, doing what I did for so many years.

And it worked beautifully. It felt good to be in front of people. I could tell from their faces, and their responses, that they enjoyed listening to me.

Everybody benefited.

On the way back home, I had that confident glow when you know in the deepest part of your being that you’ve done the right thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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