Coffee Stains, ‘Nam, and Donald Trump

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WHEN FORMING ANY VALUE judgement my goal is—although I rarely live up to my own standards—to condition said judgement with the right amount, or the right kind, of perspective.

For instance—

Let’s say I’m at work, quickly typing up some report, when all of the sudden I spill a piping hot cup of coffee on my lap.

The first reaction I will have to this will be instinctive, with an accompanied dose of curse words and negative emotion. More than likely this will be one of the most eventful happenings of the day. I will text my wife with frustrated emojis, OMG, of course these things always happen to ME. But after cleaning up, I might tell the story to a friend over a coffee break, recounting it with enthusiastic hand motions and displaying the brown spot on my pant leg with some good humor. And then, after work, my wife and I will have a good laugh about it at dinner.

There are probably very many complicated reasons why this is a normal way to process an inconvenience. We respond to events in real time with what our brain naturally intuits as the right or justified amount of any given emotion or thought—which sounds simple, but when you stop to think about life as a continuum and our experiences, every single one, assuming either large or small significance along that continuum, it then becomes very foggy just how our brains distinguish between something that is either very important or just medium-important, or not important at all, or just barely important, etc. Not to mention the subtle gradations that run along those axes, those pesky value judgements. Good, bad, etc.

Going back to perspective. What helps me during times of crises, at least on the emotional front, is thinking about what perspective I can assume to make the emotion better. So, the coffee example. If I am tempted to let the spilled coffee ruin my day, a zooming out of perspective will almost certainly help. This mess is only one moment out of the day, after all, and maybe a few minutes of cleaning up. I will most likely have some good moments during this day which will at least partly make up for my own stupidity. Also this is just one day I’ve lived out of many—thousands of days! I’ve spilled coffee on myself before. I got over it then. I’ll most likely get over it now.

This is a neat little trick you can do with almost anything.

A FEW MONTHS AGO my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War, a new PBS documentary covering the entirety of the Vietnam War, complete with archived news reels, videos of combat, and extensive interviews with both American and Viet Cong, veterans and non-combatants alike.

The documentary is remarkably even-handed in its treatment of this embattled time in American society. A different film-maker who happened to be a highly motivated political idealouge, even a well-meaning one, would’ve been tempted to tamper with the effect it has on the audience because the sores and boils the Vietnam War dredged up have never really gone away. We are still playing essentially the same game of chess. The political lines that were drawn during that period of our history remain, not exactly the same, but true to their point of origination; I can’t think of a more relevant period in our history to survey in order to gain more perspective about the present moment.

A good piece of history-telling has the effect we were speaking about earlier, of zooming out our horizons to consider conditions beyond the bounds of our own lives. History can be therefore powerfully emotional in its impact because it allows us the chance to see our own lives for what they are—pretty small scale, bound up in tragic situations far beyond our own control, and ultimately mysterious.

One scene that touched me deeply was a series of late-stage student protests organized at airports to intercept veterans coming home, to taunt, humiliate, and even assault them so that the first thing these soldiers experienced on their return from fighting was an attitude not only of unwelcome, but open hostility.

This moment encapsulates Vietnam as a socio-political American tragedy (the Vietnamese have their own version of this).

The parts of the tragedy are as such:

1) Working class men are drafted into a war they don’t understand, which is spiraling out of control, quickly garnering mass public disapproval.

2) The war is handed off from Johnson to Nixon, who had promised to end the war, but it only grows worse. The draft threatens to balloon to include college-educated men, i.e. the middle class. Protests then reach fever pitch.

3) What motivates the protests? The instinct of self-preservation? Righteous indignation? Both?

4) In any case, middle-class hippies, basically correct in their critique of the war, direct their anger at those less fortunate than themselves, i.e. largely working class draftees.

5) Therefore those who have already suffered the most (from the American standpoint) suffer even more—as so often happens in tragedy—some having lost friends in combat, some maimed themselves, most unaware of the larger social and political implications of the Vietnam War and the dark shadow it would continue to cast over American life.

Two protesters who participated in this drama are then interviewed, one woman and one man, now in their mid to late sixties. Recalling her harassment of soldiers, the woman begins to cry and apologizes into the camera, to any veterans she may have hurt. She regrets her part in it and now considers the youthful vigor in those particular protests misdirected, although she doesn’t regret being against the war itself. The man, on the contrary, says that extreme measures had to be taken to send a message to Washington that under no circumstances would the public tolerate further aggression in Vietnam, the only option being a swift and direct pulling out of the war. And since tepid communications had not worked, the only option was something that would get people’s attention.

AS WE PROGRESS DOWN the tunnel of history in our own time, and events take on significance, both large and small, political and not, we are fooling ourselves if we think examining our own histories will not help us hang on to some semblance of sanity—even helping us to deal with the emotional side of politics and current events. Otherwise our perspectives will be conditioned only by the present moment, tricking us into thinking that very unimportant things are important, and vice versa. Again, a wide perspective, more information rather than less, can teach us just how similar we are to other time periods, just how beholden we are to the same human passions that have directed the winds of time since the beginning.

You may be forgiven for thinking that the elephant in the room behind all this pontification is Donald Trump or the so-called times of political polarization we live in. But it isn’t. Watching the Vietnam War documentary and reading more about the period helped me to realize that we are no more polarized now than we were then. We are being sold an old line dressed up for a new age, and people on all sides are guzzling it down like their life depends on it.

To me, I’m not sure Trump is a new coffee stain on our pants. I think Trump just reminds us of the stain we’ve had on our pants for a while now. This causes me to view him and his administration in a certain light, not a light amenable to any one side of the debate re: Russian Hacking, Border Policy, General Bombastic Attitude, etc. because both sides of the debate are conditioned by an apocalyptic absurdity with every action and re-action. And all of this is made worse by the usual suspects. Click-bait, social media.

To every journalist out there: before you write an article, read a history book, will you?

Our future depends on it.

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How Reading Walt Whitman Can Make You a Better Writer

There is something in the heart of American literature, and maybe in American experience itself, that lends itself to first person narration. Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye are all told, not from the lofty perch of a Dickensian all-knowing and impartial narrator, but by a character in the story itself, in the rough-and-tumble of subjective experience—Huck Finn, Ishmael, Nick Carraway, Holden Caulfield; these feel like old friends as much as books.

Marilynne Robinson said once in a lecture at the 92 ST Y that no writer in the English language, other than perhaps the Kings James translators of the Psalms, synthesizes human experience into the universal “I” or the universal first person better than Walt Whitman. What this means in layman’s terms is that, true to the American form, reading the poetry of Walt Whitman can be like coming into contact with a missing and yet very familiar part of yourself. Kind of like a friendly and slightly drunken cosmic comrade who at first seems to be overstepping his boundaries by putting his arm around your shoulder and then without asking begins telling his whole life story; but who then slowly begins winning you over with undeniable charm.

In his most famous poem Leaves of Grass, as Whitman describes himself and his observations, and because he so effectively does so in the first person, the listener is lulled into a kind of illusion that their own mind is the one producing the words.

The famous first stanza invites this kind of activity on the part of the reader:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

 

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this

air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their

parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.

 

Creeds and schools in abeyance,

Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,

I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.

So much has been written on Whitman and Leaves of Grass, it would be silly to go into a full account of those analyses. But, for our purposes of understanding how Whitman’s writing works, notice the subtle dance he does at the beginning with the reader. What I think makes this poem feel so modern—it was published in 1855—is that it immediately builds a bridge to the reader. The first thing Whitman says is that he celebrates and sings himself, which is an odd thing to say and sounds prideful, self-centered, but then he immediately turns to the reader and assures us that we are to assume what he assumes and then states his reasoning: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

The invocation of the scientific “atom” also makes this poem feel modern.

Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded

with perfumes,

I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,

The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.

 

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation,

it is odorless,

It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and

naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The smoke of my own breath,

Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and

vine,

My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the pass-

ing of blood and air through my lungs,

The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and

dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,

The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies

of the wind,

A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,

The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs

wag,

The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields

and hill-sides,

The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from

bed and meeting the sun.

 

Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d

the earth much?

Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?

 

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin

of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions

of suns left,)

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look

through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in

books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

This second group of stanzas in many ways unpacks and expands the first. While Whitman’s poetry can often feel whimsical, as if it’s going from thing to thing without much effort or consideration, a closer reading reveals that he sticks to very consistent themes, images, and techniques. He talks of perfumes and air in this first stanza, alluding to his breath, and then to Nature, leaves and rocks and eddies… He is in contact with Nature and also indistinguishable from it.

And then comes the shift to the reader again.

Have you reckoned the earth much?

Have you practiced so long to learn to read?

The last stanza in our little selection here in many ways embodies Whitman’s approach to effective poetry. He earns this moment by forecasting his concern for the reader in the very first stanza, and the subsequent reflections on Nature, which he now unpacks as a challenge to the reader to interrogate their own reasons for reading literature. What did we hope to get from reading Whitman? He is telling us to remember, before we read, to first experience life in and of itself—the origin of all poems.

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

Much of Whitman’s writing is this reminder. That literature is a tool of amplification and celebration, whose theme always is Life. This is easy for the book nerd to forget. Many of us put the cart before the horse. But without Life there can be no literature.

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My Private Political Journals, Vol. 3

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The other night I was watching the first episode of David Letterman’s new show on Netflix, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. He was interviewing Barack Obama.

I know better than to take away any serious political points from entertainment shows. But I had to admit I missed President Obama. His gleaming white teeth and laser sharp annunciation. Gone are the days!

Don’t ask me about policy. If I had to think of one policy-relevant item that comes to mind circa the Obama presidency, the only thing that comes to mind is ObamaCare. And my opinions on ObamaCare are not interesting.

What was interesting was how the image of a president evoked a kind of nostalgia. Obama’s first term began the same year I started my freshman year of college. His second term coincided with my graduation, the beginning of my adulthood. These parallels are impossible to divorce from my perception of his presidency. And such is the era we live in: The Image of the president giving pressers & pseudo-events is ubiquitous, difficult to hide from unless you live out in the woods.

So I was sitting on my couch being re-cast under Obama’s spell when a small dollop of doubt clouded up my reverie. I thought of a podcast I’d listened to with the journalist Matt Taibbi, author of Insane Clown President (take a guess who that book is about). On the podcast Taibbi talked about his time covering the Obama White House and what troubled him about it. He said you wouldn’t believe how buddy-buddy the journalists all were with Obama. Apparently one tradition on Air Force 1 was for every journalist to take a selfie with Obama, all of which were taped to the inside walls of the plane, pictures of gleaming young Ivy-League grads fawning over this figure they ostensibly had been hired to criticize. For the public good! So much for objectivity. It wasn’t a good look, Taibbi said.

So I thought to myself. If I was a journalist WH Correspondent, would I have taken a selfie with Obama, would I fanboy?

Of course.

All throughout the interview, to the great amusement of Obama, Letterman made jokes about how Obama was still the President. It was only some grand collective delusion or conspiracy that someone else was now president, apparently some crazed lunatic. Neither ever mentioned Trump’s name in the same way at Hogwart’s they don’t say Voldemort’s name. It was all allusions to some misty menacing force in the air. Veiled in jokes, of course.

As they skirted around Trump and I remembered the story of Obama’s Air Force 1, I began to consider Trump and the media’s relationship to his presidency.

Obviously very different.

All out warfare from Day 1.

When I woke up the day after Trump won, I was just as surprised as anybody. I’ve always found Trump’s character to be in poor taste, odious at times. During the primary season I thought there was no way he had even an iota of a chance.

Well, shows how much I know about politics.

The media’s adversarial relationship with Trump is almost universally cast as a bad thing. From the left, because Trump is so bad, they are always having to find new evil things he is up to, and what fractured times we are in with so many deplorables! From the right, because they see the media’s coverage as an overreaction, and a clear sign of bias against conservatives, etc. You’ve heard it all before.

On the couch, true, I’m about two beers in, or maybe it’s because I’m crazy, but I actually don’t mind the press and its foaming-at-the-mouth approach to Trump. Some might call it biased or sensationalistic. But I think a good press should be aggressive with the political powers that they are covering. Not for clicks and views. But for the sake of achieving scrutiny and transparency on behalf of the American people.

Oh say can you seeeeeeeee

The real shame, I think, is not the media and their coverage of Trump. Or our so-called time of division or polarization, which has been a consistent news item since the 1960s. It’s that the media took basically an eight year long lunch break under Obama. True, the man is smooth and nice and polished and has politics that everyone in the media can get on board with, and he was our first black president, etc. But if we cannot be self-critical, in politics or any other sphere of human endeavors, what gives us the right, besides power, to be critical of others? Reporters say all the time that Obama’s was a ‘scandal-free’ presidency. Maybe so. But how would we know otherwise?

By the dawn’s early light

If we are using truth as our measuring stick, it is only by the amount of effort we have put into pressure-testing our own ideas and beliefs, with counter-points and counter-counter-points, that we can in good faith criticize the ideas of others.

But if power is the measuring stick, anything goes. Truths, half-truths, lies. It does not matter. Whatever can be made into a weapon.

Pick your poison, I say. But you cannot have both.

Dave ends the interview by saying Obama is the first president he’s ever truly respected. Obama thanks Dave. They shake hands. The two men stand. The audience applauds. They walk offstage. And then backstage they awkwardly fumble with the camera crew about which direction they should walk for the final shot. It’s a bare blank hallway in both directions.

“We should redo this,” Obama jokes. “They want a shot of us walking off into the sunset, together.”

“How do you know this and I don’t?” Dave jokes back.

“We’re gonna go this way,” Obama says. This time they walk away from the cameras, Obama’s arm around Letterman. “Now they will be able to create a poignant moment.”

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How Reading George Saunders Can Make You a Better Writer

 

The problem with George Saunders is that he makes writing fiction look easy. After reading, you might be tempted, because of how intuitive his stories are, to think, I can do that! Well, sorry to be the one to to tell you this, but… you can’t. I don’t care where you went to school or got your MFA. You really can’t write a George Saunders story. It looks easy. But that’s a trick. It’s not easy.

Probably the only way to prove this to you is to look at a specific story and try and unpack it’s glorious difficulty.

But which one?

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a good example of a seemingly simple story with a complex underbelly. Published in his most recent collection, The Tenth of December, it contains many classic Saundersian elements which we will analyze in due course.

Pull up your chairs boys and girls.

The story begins one evening in a medieval theme park—

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. On her back near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss.

All of the sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

Then hightailed it out to Parking, eyes black underneath from crying.

Cooking had laid out a big spread on a crude table over by CastleTowerIV: authentic pig heads and whole chickens and blood pudding.

Don Murray stood there moodily picking at some coleslaw. And gave me the friendliest head shake he’d ever given me. Women, he said.

Fake river. Pile of armor. Scullery. Peasant skirt. CastleTowerIV. Authentic pig heads—

Images and settings meant to evoke a kind of theme park of the mind. This is a mode so associated with Saunders it’s easy to forget most of his stories don’t take place in a dystopian theme park. But when they do, almost always, the technology & setting of the parks is of the future—i.e. science fiction—while their theme evokes the past. Take for example one of Saunders’ first ever published stories “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” which is the name of a theme park set in the near future, with elements of tech that seem familiar and yet slightly further advanced than our time, that is both literally and figuratively haunted by ghosts of the Civil War. Another example is “Pastoralia,” which goes back even further to the time of the Caveman.

One way to read this tendency in Saunders is to say that he’s predicting theme parks will continue play a part in modern life. Another is that the theme park is meant to be a symbol for escapism or consumer entertainment, and their exaggeration is meant to be a critique of our own culture. But, to me, this common thread that runs through CivilWarLand, Pastoralia, and especially through My Chivalric Fiasco is a clue to look even deeper. The juxtaposition of future and past in the parks, I think, isn’t coincidental; it’s the deep third layer which allows Saunders’ stories to have emotional teeth, a layer that will become more important as we move into the 2nd and 3rd acts.

See me, said a note on my locker next morning.

In Don Murray’s office was Martha.

So Ted, Don Murray said. Last night you witnessed something that, if not viewed in the right light, might seem wrongish. Martha and I find that funny. Don’t we, Mar? I just now gave Martha a thousand dollars. In case there was some kind of misunderstanding. Martha now feels we had a fling. Which, both being married, we so much regret. What with the drinking, plus the romance of TorchLightNight, what happened, Martha?

Martha: We got carried away. Had a fling.

Don: Voluntary fling.

Martha: Voluntary fling.

Don: And not only that, Ted. Martha here is moving up. From Scullery. To Floater Thespian. But let’s underscore: you are not moving up, Martha, because of our voluntary fling. It’s coincidental. Why are you moving up?

Martha: Coincidental.

Don: Coincidental, plus always had a killer worth ethic. Ted, you’re also moving up. Out of Janitorial. To Pacing Guard.

Which was amazing. I’d been in Janitorial six years. A man of my caliber. That was a joke MQ and I sometimes shared.

Erin would call down and go: MQ, someone threw up in the Grove of Sorrow.

And MQ would be like: A man of my caliber?

Or Erin would go: Ted, some lady dropped her necklace down in the pigpen and is pitching a shit fit.

And I would go: A man of my caliber?

Erin would be like: Get going. It’s not funny. She’s right up in my grill.

Our pigs were fake and our slop was fake and our poop was fake but still it was no fun to have to don waders and drag the SifterBoyDeLux into the pigpen to, for example, find that lady’s necklace. For best results with the SifterBoyDeLux, you had to first lug the fake pigs off to one side. Being on auto the pigs would continue grunting as you lugged them. Which might look funny if you happened to be holding that particular pig wrong.

Some random guy might go: Look, dude’s breast-feeding that pig.

And everyone might laugh.

Therefore a promotion to Pacing Guard was very much welcomed by me.

I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him. We also had some windows that needed replacing. All winter Beth would go around shyly vacuuming up snow. If you came in while she was vacuuming, she would prove too shy to continue.

That night at home Dad calculated we would soon buy Mom a tilting bed.

Dad: If you keep moving up the ladder, maybe in time we can get me a back brace.

Me: Absolutely. I am going to make that happen.

After dinner, driving into town to fill Mom’s prescription for pain and Beth’s prescription for shyness and Dad’s prescription for pain, I passed Martha and Nate’s.

I honked, did a lean-and-wave, pulled over, got out.

Hey Ted, said Nate.

What’s up? I said.

Well, our place sucks, Nate said. Look at this place. Sucks, right? I just can’t seem to keep my energy up.

True, their place was pretty bad. The roof was patched with blue sheeting, their kids were doing timid leaps off a wheelbarrow into a mud puddle, a skinny pony was under the swing set licking itself raw like it wanted to be clean when it finally made its break for a nicer living situation.

I mean where are the grown-ups around here? Nate said.

Then he picked a Snotz wrapper off the ground and looked for somewhere to put it. Then dropped it again and it landed on his shoe.

Perfect, he said. Story of my life.

Jeez, Martha said, and plucked it off.

Don’t you go south on me too, Nate said. You’re all I got, babe.

No I am not, Martha said. You got the kids.

One more thing goes wrong, I’m shooting myself, Nate said.

I kind of doubted he had the get-up-and-go for that. Although you never know.

So what’s going on at your guys’ work? Nate said. This one here’s been super-moody. Even though she just got herself promoted.

I could feel Martha looking at me, like: Ted, I’m in your hands here.

I figured it was her call. Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.

So said something about, well, promotions can be hard, they cause a lot of stress.

The gratitude was just beaming off Martha. She walked me back to the car, gave me three tomatoes they’d grown, which, tell the truth, looked kind of geriatric: tiny, timid, wrinkled.

Thank you, she whispered. You saved my life.

The situation of both characters, Ted and Martha, is becoming more explicit. This is a textbook lesson in how to write the middle section of a story. Raise the stakes. We know explicitly what each character has to lose.

The victimization of Martha is drawn out with great detail and nuance. It seems so simple, but think of Martha’s position. Low on the totem pole. “Peasant skirt.” Taken advantage of in just the way certain medieval female peasants were by members of the male aristocracy. But the modern touch feels as relevant as you could possibly get. #MeToo? Anyone? Don can’t simply crush the peasantry underneath him into submission. Like a good modern day oppressor, he’s bound by the conceit of offering hush money.

Aha! So we see the action of the story is highly modern while the thematic undertones connect with the past. With the characters’ relative positions in the park, and what they represent as characters, it’s as if Saunders is saying: Things have always been this way. The aristocracy lord their power over the peasantry. The only difference in our time is things have been slightly nerfed. Rather than being raped and then, as a result, stoned to death or beheaded, Martha is raped and allowed to live, bearing the indignity of her position with a few extra bucks every month and a pat on the head.

And Ted is dutifully keeping quiet.

For now.

Next morning in my locker were my Pacing Guard uniform and a Dixie cup with a yellow pill in it.

Hooray, I thought, finally a Medicated Role.

In came Mrs. Bridges from Health & Safety, with an MSDS on the pill.

Mrs. Bridges: So, this is just going to be a hundred million grams of KnightLyfe®. To help with the Improv. The thing with KnightLyfe® is, you’re going to want to stay hydrated.

I took the pill, went to the Throne Room. I was supposed to Pace in front of a door behind which a King was supposedly thinking. There really was a King in there: Ed Philips. They put a King in there because one of our Scripted Tropes was: Messenger arrives, charges past Pacing Guard a lack-wit, Messenger winces, closes door, has brief exchange with Pacing Guard.

Soon Guests had nearly filled our Fun Spot. The Messenger (a.k.a Kyle Sperling) barged past me, threw open the door. Ed called Kyle reckless, called me a lackwit. Kyle winced, closed door.

Kyle: I apologize if I have violated protocol.

I blanked on my line, which as: Your rashness bespeaks a manly passion.

Instead I was like: Uh, no problem.

Kyle, a real pro, did not miss a beat.

Kyle (handing me envelope): Please see that he gets this. It is of the utmost urgency.

Me: His Majesty is weighed down with thought.

Kyle: With many burdens of thought?

Me: Right. Many burdens of thought.

Just then the KnightLyfe® kicked in. My mouth went dry. I felt it was nice of Kyle not to give me shit about my mess-up. It occurred to me that I really liked Kyle. Loved him even. Like a brother. A comrade. Noble comrade. I felt we had weathered many storms together. It seemed, for example, that we had, at some point, in some far-distant land, huddled together at the base of a castle wall, hot tar roiling down, and there shared a rueful laugh, as if to say: It is all but brief, so let us life. And then: What ho! Had charged. Up crude ladders, with manly Imprecations, although I could not recall the exact Imprecations, nor the outcome of said Charge. 

Kyle departed anon. I did happily entertain our Guests, through use of Wit and various Jibes, glad that I had, after my many Travails, arrived at a station in Life from whence I could impart such Merriment to All & Sundry.

Soon, the Pleasantness of that Day, already Considerable, was much improved by the Arrival of my Benefactor, Don Murray.

Quoth Don Murray, with a gladsome Wink: Ted, you know what you and me should do sometime? Go on a trip or something together. Like a fishing trip? Camping, whatever.

My heart swelled at this Notion. To fish, to hunt, to make Camp with this noble Gentlemen! To wander wide Fields & verdant Woods! To rest, at Day’s End, in some quiet Bower, beside a coursing Stream, and there, amidst the muted Whinnying of our Steeds, speak softly of many Things—of Honor; of Love; of Danger; of Duty well-executed!

But then there Occurr’d a fateful Event.

To wit, the Arrival of the aforementioned Martha, in the guise of a Spirit—Spirit Three, to be precise—along with two other Damsels in White (these being Megan and Tiffany). This Trio of Maids did affect a Jolly Ruse: they were Ghosts, who didst Haunt this Castle, with much Shaking of Chain and Sad Laments, as our Guests, in that Fun Spot, confined by the Red Ropes, did Gape & Yaw & Shriek at the Spectacle provided therein.

Glimpsing Martha’s Visage—which, though Merry, bore withal a Trace of some Dismal Memory (and I knew well what it was)—I grew, in spite of my good fortune, somewhat Melancholy.

Noting this Change in my Disposition, Martha didst speak to me softly, in an Aside.

Martha: It’s cool, Ted. I’m over it. Seriously. I mean it. Drop it.

O, that a woman of such Enviable Virtue, who had Suffered so, would deign to speak to me in a Manner so Frank & Direct, consenting by her Words to keep her Disgrace in such bleak Confinement!

Martha: Ted. You okay?

To which I made Reply: Verily, I have not been Well, but Distracted & Remiss; but presently am Restored unto Myself, and hereby do make Copious Apology for my earlier Neglect with respect to thee, dear Lady.

Martha: Easy there, Ted. 

At this time, Don Murray himself didst step Forward and, extending his Hand, placed it upon my Breast, as if to Restrain me.

Ted, I swear to God, quoth he. Put a sock in it or I will flush you down the shitter so fast.

And verily, part of my Mind now didst give me sound Counsel: I must endeavor to dampen these Feelings, lest I commit some Rash Act, converting my Good Fortune into Woe.

Yet the Heart of Man is an Organ that doth not offer Itself up to facile Prediction, and shall not be easy Tam’d.

We’ll stop here just a few pages before the end—

Perhaps now it’s clear. The theme park is a necessary backdrop for Ted’s transformation. In other words, the surface of Saunders’ text is in full interaction with the heart of the story and with the plot. The zaniness isn’t mere style. KnightLyfe® shapes Ted’s language which in turn shapes the way he thinks about his own moral agency. Of course Saunders is being funny too. The riffs on old English serve as a catalyst for jokes, but we are beginning to take Ted’s transformation seriously when we fear he may let out Martha’s secret. Saunders is putting KnightLyfe® into the mind of the reader as well.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is a great example of short story writing for many reasons. It’s entertaining and funny, never letting the reader down with spurious detail, in sentences tight and economical, weaving effortlessly in and out of character dilemmas that are original but not over-literary or over-cerebral. This tendency in Saunders is often mistaken for simplicity or goofiness. But if we look closer we see a many-layered conundrum, and, like all of Saunders’ stories, it’s a tale both dark and comic, playful and emotionally resonant.

What to finish “My Chivalric Fiasco” and find out whether or not Ted spills the beans? Check out Tenth of December on Amazon:

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 7

Housebot

I was sitting on a bench outside the funeral home crying when Housebot rolled out and sat down beside me. I didn’t know that he could be out in the rain. He put his big metal arm around me.

“My condolences, Jeremy,” Housebot said.

I sat up straight and felt defensive.

“Can you even feel emotion?” I said.

“I can express human sentiments via prior observations,” Housebot said. “I know you must be sad right now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “How could you tell?”

The rain continued falling and I didn’t care. Somehow Housebot knew enough not to say anything more while we sat. We liked Housebot. He could do all sorts of amazing things, but there was an underlying resentment towards him, probably because dad had spent so much time working on Housebot instead of spending time with us, going through I don’t know how many versions. There was dad’s Master’s thesis Hosuebot, and the many subsequent revisions, and then the dissertation Housebot.

Mom walked out of the funeral home.

“Jeremy, let’s go,” she said.

We got into the car. I sat in the front seat with Housebot, who was driving, while mom sat in back. She looked out the window at the rain and I couldn’t see if she was crying. Thinking back now, probably she wasn’t, but at the time I was too sheepish to look back or to say anything. I sat by Housebot silently the whole ride home.

________________________________________

Interested in short stories and want to support the site?

Check out George Saunders’ Tenth of December on Amazon:

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 6

 

The Fall

Three days before third grade graduation I was swinging on the monkey bars playing the ground is lava with my best friend Nick.

“Stand back, orcs!” I said, kicking my legs as if to ward off our invisible foes.

“Not orcs. Remember we said they were wolves now,” Nick said.

“Right sorry. Stand back wolves. I am Thor god of Thunder!”

“And I am jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi,” Nick said. “Dude behind you. Use your thunder!”

      P-chew, p-chew, p-chew!

The wolves had princesses in their teeth and also snapped at our heels while we went back and forth on the rungs. Falling down onto the recycled chunks of rubber tire mulch would mean immediate and certain death. We were trying to outlast one another and hang on longer than the other one could.

“Your hands are slipping,” I said.

“No they’re not,” Nick said.

But our little boy arms could only hang so long.

Meanwhile as we dangled a girl was approaching our side of the playground. Christina Hendricks. Last week she had broken her arm during a game of soccer. Now she looked intent and determined as if she’d worked up something specific to say, and was walking slightly hobbled to one side as she bore the weight of a new blue cast.

“Want to sign my cast?” she said.

We pretended not to notice her.

“Hello, I know you can hear me,” she said.

“We’re playing,” we said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” she said.

“No,” we said.

“Please.”

“I say away she-wolf! Do not mess with Thor god of Thunder or there may be dire consequences. From my right hand come forth bolts of lightning and from my left—”

“Hoowah!”

There was a hard and fast tug on my legs and I found myself on the ground tangled in a heap of my own limbs. Certain death. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christina said. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” She had jumped up, grabbed onto my waste, and pulled me to the ground.

I sat up genuinely confused. Most of the playground too had gathered around to see what had happened. The best I could think to do was to say something smart and mean to make Christina feel bad for what she’d done, or go straight away and tell a teacher, but before I could say or do anything, she leaned down and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. Half on the cheek and half on the lips. The kids around us gasped. I gasped. She gasped.

“Ugh!” I said, making a show of wiping away the kiss.

My confusion had reached its boiling point. I ostentasiously lowered my head and sighed, signaling defeat and pity and a kind of dutiful gradeschool revulsion. But this was for the crowd. It was all I could come up with in the moment. Secretly, actually, I didn’t feel revulsion. The first part of the one-two punch, being pulled down from the monkey bars, had in those brief seconds pissed me off, yes, but the kiss, um, well, I was feeling pretty ambiguous about that and the bruises forming on my elbows and the rubber mulch in my pants didn’t seem so important now. The kiss itself had actually felt nice but I wasn’t going to let on about that.

Christina also seemed surprised by what she’d done. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes got big, and she ran away. Hobbling again.

After all this Nick was still hanging from the monkey bars. “Pretty sure this means I win,” he said.

This was the story of my first kiss.

The kiss was a mild controversy at school for the next few days. There were rumors and copycat scenarios and teasing. Whenever Christina was going to pass me in the hall she would turn and walk the other way. I never figured out what she thought or felt about this kiss but if given the chance I’m not sure I would have known how to ask anyway. And quickly all was being forgotten because third grade was ending. There wasn’t much time to think about it.

The buses were pulling away at the end of the last day of school. It was a bright afternoon. Outside the front doors kids were in disorganized groups saying goodbye for the summer and streaming away onto the buses.

From Quora: “What is going on in the world?”

What a question. Should I try? I’ll try. But I am just a person so don’t hold me to any of this.

There are a few assumptions in your question. Namely 1) there is a world, and 2) there is such a thing as happening which is going on in it. Pretty safe assumptions I think. Maybe it’s all a dream, maybe we are in the Matrix and can’t trust the reality we experience with our senses, etc. But let’s pretend we can meaningfully discuss what we experience without falling into radical skepticism, which can be addressed with another question some other time.

Okay, that’s out of the way.

Now, the world.

According to the most recent World Bank numbers, in 2016 the world human population was 7.442 billion. That is a lot to wrap the mind around. For sense of scale, one popular image is if you laid 1 billion golf balls next to each other, it would reach all the way around the earth. Metaphorically, if each person was one golf ball, you could make 7.442 laps around the earth with golf balls.

(You’ll notice my answer assumes that human life is important, and quantifying it, in an albeit simple way, helps us to understand something about its nature.)

Now, imagine your own life and its complexity. Think of all the brief and fleeting moments of insight you’ve experienced, and of your profoundest moments of joy, and your deepest times of sadness. The drama of life. Imagine and feel what it’s like to be in your own head. What beauty! What tragedy, surely, you’ve experienced. You have had dreams both realized and lost. Think of all those lost dreams and how much they mean. It is almost impossible to think about.

Now that you are trying the impossible anyway, extrapolate, for imagination’s sake, your inner world and how much that means to you almost 8 billion times over. Every person you see and don’t see. Think of it: you will never interact with 99.9999% of people who exist. That means the amount of people we have time to observe while we’re alive, both in physical life and through TV screens, radios, internet etc.—any scientist will tell you—is not a meaningful enough sample size to demonstrate anything about its nature. Not even close. That means, even with the help of technology, you have not interacted with or hardly observed even every type of person, let alone every unique perspective. No single individual, by the time they are born and then die, even scratches the surface.

You’re attempting two impossible things, why not three? Imagine all the people you will never meet, from Bangladesh to Lincoln, Nebraska, and not only them and their impossible-to-conceive-of inner lives but also their histories. Each one’s existence is so improbable it can hardly be stated in words. All their ancestors avoiding death by starvation or disease or war or bad teeth before they had the chance to procreate. And not everyone procreated. But once procreation takes place, the job is far from over. Until recently it’s estimated that a sizable percentage of human babies died in infancy. Babies are born incredibly vulnerable to the world around them. They need constant care and attention. It takes a good many personal and physical resources to raise them into self-sufficient adults. It’s hard enough in the 21st century. Imagine raising a baby in a cave surrounded by predators or in a poorly insulated thatched hut.

But even this doesn’t take into account the improbability of life before it occurs. Of the human females that are lucky enough to be born, each starts off with 2 million eggs. The vast majority of these eggs (about 90%) die off by the time a woman reaches the age of 30. And of course very few are ever fertilized.

But let’s pretend our hypothetical person has won the genetic and probabilistic lottery, and is not only born, but is raised to some level of maturity. This is nothing short of an actual physical miracle.

This hypothetical person was born on one of the few planets which is just the right distance from a star providing enough heat and light for life to take place. The odds of this happening are smaller than anything aforementioned. Scientists have no idea how big the universe is, or its shape. Some hypothesize that it goes on forever. So even at the first and largest stage of predictability, we are working with nearly infinite improbability of life ever taking place.

But just suppose that it does. Miracle! Yay, a person is born:

A human is a weird sort of thing. It is clear a human is in part biological. We are made up of cells, each of which must function properly (or we die). We sort of know what cells are made of (atoms), but even our idea of that is fuzzy. It’s been demonstrated with relative clarity that atoms have even smaller parts (subatomic particles), but science has not been able to help us much further beyond this level of divisibility. Whereby the smallest known level of life is the cell, the greatest level seems to be the ‘society,’— a large group of biological organisms, namely humans, interacting and living next to one another, and doing things.

As we discussed, a human also is effected by other humans around them in their own society. Not everything we do is a completely random arbitrary thing. This probably has something to do with the human brain, which can observe the world around itself and take on characteristics external to itself. This is basically a mysterious process.

So a human is biological and social, but there are surely other factors which have yet to be explored and taken into account. Take for instance the real complexity of the human brain, which is the most physically complex structure in the known universe:

From what we’ve been able to gather, the human brain is also the only known structure in the universe that has made an attempt to understand itself. What this means, we can hardly guess. But any answer we receive would have to come from the brain. You see the problem.

Did I mention there are an estimated 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) bugs in the world?

Cheers,

Dan