Memory, History, and Civilization

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I know things that I cannot remember. If I can’t recall a piece of information, do I still know it? At times, usually long after the recollection would have been useful, forgotten bits of memory resurface, and I again have access to the information. Sometimes it’s a scent or a sound or a color that whacks the chassis of my memory in just the right way to coax the mechanism back into operation. Sometimes it’s inexplicable.

I never forget faces, but I sometimes forget names. I forget the names of people I meet at social gatherings, sometimes within seconds. Sometimes within minutes, despite inwardly repeating the name to myself in an effort to retain it. I forget the names of people I choose not to know. I forget the names of people I have known in the past—coworkers, classmates, people with whom I shared drinks, conversation, and hard work. These are often people whose acquaintance was a matter of necessity alone. No amount of self-interrogation will produce their names. They are lost to me. Yet weeks later, perhaps while running or cooking or in the moments before I open my eyes in the morning, a name will come to me. I’ll hear the person’s voice and experience the same emotions I felt the last time I saw that person. Though their names were lost to me for a time, I knew them. I never forget the names of people I love. I never forget the names of people I despise.

Some of my journals are older than my children, and it’s clear that my memory of events is far from accurate. More often than not, when I search an old journal for a person, event, or details such as an address, I find that what I read matches my memory not at all. My own handwriting reads like a letter from an alternate past. My journals are mental time capsules from a version of myself that I have overwritten like an internal hard drive, so many times that the original information only exists in the form of dried ink on paper. In my mind, facts are fungible, malleable things. Only in these journals do memories become artifacts that can be handled years later like weathered objects pulled from a chilly bog.

What does all this tell me about the things that I know? How can I be certain I’m right about anything I’ve learned in my half-century of life? There must be an aggregate of knowledge that exists in a thinking person’s mind that doesn’t depend on any one, particular bit of information. Maybe this is what we call street smarts, horse sense, or wisdom. Yet, as I type these words, it occurs to me that claiming wisdom in oneself must be the first step toward becoming an old fool who thinks he knows everything and has nothing more to learn about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.

History and literature provide human civilization with the wisdom of facts. We can read about the triumphs and mistakes of those who lived and loved and suffered before us. Memory isn’t a prerequisite for our species’ progress, but the ability to interpret humanity’s past is.

We remember things that we cannot know. Such memories are inborn. The compassion of humanity lives in us as it has in all those who came before us. This knowledge of the soul doesn’t require a written record to comprehend. We know in the marrow of our bones, for example, that stealing children from their mothers is a monstrous act. Yet some choose to use their innate will and intelligence to circumvent their conscience. They act outside morality to seize power or wealth and convince those who understand the faulty nature of human memory and reasoning that evil is a justifiable path to good. In such cases, the ape with the biggest stick often gains the upper hand and does a great deal of damage. Intelligent people go along with the gas-lit madness, succumbing by reasonable increments to fascism. Sleepwalking into oblivion.

Others read the journals.

We’ve seen this again and again. Most of us are too young to remember, but we have the history. Fascists constantly try to reinvent themselves. This time, in America, they’re draped in stars and stripes. They tell us that compassion is weakness, and there aren’t enough resources to go around. Again, they deny history and offer an alternate reality of their own invention.

The free press is the canary in the coalmine. When journalists begin to suffer arrest or worse at the hands of authoritative figures, as they do in under several current authoritarian regimes,  we’ll know we’re in an existential crisis as a nation. As always, the success of tyrants depends on our complicity, and our continued silence may only mean the monster will devour us last.

 

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“I Heard the News Today Oh, Boy”

Screen Shot 2018-05-26 at 8.53.33 AMAmerica experiences a new massacre every couple days now. The solution leaders across the nation are choosing is placing armed security guards in schools. As a stop-gap measure, this seems necessary. But…it’s a band-aid placed over a cancer (with thoughts and prayers), not a cure for America’s unique gun violence epidemic. It also happens to be perfectly aligned with the interests of the National Rifle Association. Why, it’s almost as if our politicians consult the NRA before making gun policy decisions, or choosing not to make them.
Unless our school guard recruits report for duty packing M-4s and wearing body armor, they’ll be under-armed and ineffective against an assailant with an AR and nothing to lose. These folks will be minimally-paid and undertrained, yet expected to step in front of a hail of bullets. Perhaps a firefight in the schoolyard is better than mass murder. This is where we find ourselves.
It seems we’re too proud to take the lead of other countries who have mostly solved their mass shooting problem, if they ever had one, by removing military-style weapons from the civilian population. The per-capita statistics speak for themselves on that front. We’ve heard it many times, but the question is valid–shouldn’t any firearm ownership should be subject to at least the same regulation as driving an automobile?
I am not against firearm ownership and have been a gun owner myself. But I see no justification for not banning the types of weapons that most or all of our shootings have in common. We’re allowing criminals to alter the once-peaceful landscape of hometown America.
Some might find the following message interesting, sent to Hillsborough County, FL, parents on behalf of our sheriff yesterday:
Dear Parents and Guardians,
There is no greater priority than the safety and security of our children. Recently, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, along with Hillsborough Public Schools and our local law enforcement partners, announced a unified school safety plan. I know you have received a lot of information about it already, but I wanted to make sure you heard from me personally.
Next school year every traditional public school and charter school within Hillsborough County will have an armed presence on school grounds. The job of these highly trained individuals is to deter potential threats and immediately respond to active shooter incidents. I have attached a fact sheet highlighting some key information about our plan. As always, if you have any comments or suggestions, do not hesitate to reach out to our office.
I know the school year is coming to a close this week. Although there have been no threats to our area or schools, we have added an increased law enforcement presence at schools to round out the year. Please enjoy your summer with your family and children. When you come back to school next year, know we will be there with you. We look forward to seeing you in the fall.
Sincerely,
Sheriff Chad Chronister

Love and Rockets

kaf-38.jpgWhile working on a longer story that included my memory of a rocket attack on a  U.S. Army forward operating base in Afghanistan, I got stuck on some details. To get past it, I tried to put myself in the boots of a young soldier working on the FOB, one who didn’t particularly care how the war turned out–one who simply wanted to go home and recover his abandoned life. I ended up with a piece of flash fiction, something I’ve never tried before. Thanks to Every Day Fiction for publishing the result.

 

 

VCCA Update

The snow has mostly melted away here at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. The winter storm that made the drive from Kentucky to Virginia such an icy, salty adventure blanketed the area in a layer of ice. A couple fellows are nursing bruises after slipping and falling on the way to their studio spaces last week, and I nearly bit the ice myself early yesterday.

Today is a day to prepare for the coming week of intense work. It’s my fourth full day at the residency, and I’m only now feeling settled into a routine.

I’ve been tweaking a story I wrote a couple years ago and put away in disgust when I discovered that the movie Passengers was essentially the same story, only with movie stars and a robot barman. I pulled it out of the trunk last week and spent a couple days experimenting with different character points of view, only to reach the conclusion that it’s dead. So, onward with a new idea.

Last night after dinner, a dozen or so fellows spent time in the library talking about our work, and the breadth of knowledge and experience in the room was humbling. Visual artists, music composers, and writers, all in a room together with a bottle of bourbon, is a recipe for great conversation. After midnight, it was down to two other writers and myself. We have our craft in common, but come from different backgrounds–a Jew, a Catholic, and a Protestant. One from the Netherlands, one from Texas, and one from Florida. Each of us stretched our perception to understand the different experience of the others, and I believe we’ve become friends. I can’t wait to read their work.

So…imposter syndrome. I suffer from it. I mean, I’m not sure how I’m even here with these tremendously talented people. Then I remember that it’s because someone thought my work was worthwhile. I look at the badge attached to the keys fellows are issued here, and beneath my name is the word “Writer.” So, not only must I make myself worthy of this opportunity by working my ass off in the quiet, perfect writing studio provided for my use, I must learn to think of myself not as an old soldier who dabbles in fiction, but as a writer. If we don’t learn to believe in our own talent, why should anyone else? This is my chance to prove that I can do this.

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Postcard on the Wall of the VCCA Library Telephone Closet

My goal here is to make significant progress toward a short story collection, for which I hope to find a publisher in the near future. I’ll try to post updates for anyone who’s interested, but mostly for my own benefit and the feeling of accountability for this precious time to write without interference from the real world.

And now, it’s time to get back to work.

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts Residency

I’m pretty excited about this, so I’ll share it here. A couple months ago, I applied for a fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). I suffer from chronic imposter syndrome as a writer, so it felt like a shot in the dark. My submission included the short story “The Grove,” which Jacksonville’s wonderful Bridge Eight Literary Magazine published a couple years ago, and a 500-word story about surviving a rocket attack in Afghanistan. To my amazement, I received an email from the VCCA Deputy Director on Thursday notifying me that I’ve been scheduled for a mid-January residency.

Here’s a bit from Deputy Director Sheila Gulley Pleasants’ email:

VCCA’s mission is to provide a creative space in which our best national and international artists (you!) produce their finest work. We take our mission very seriously, but we also know that some Fellows are interested in sharing their work, and we at VCCA are interested in promoting the arts in general and the work of our Fellows in particular.
If this is of interest to you, there are a number of opportunities for you to share your work in the local community.  These opportunities include meeting with students and faculty at Sweet Briar College, presenting work at community centers and art galleries, and opening your studio to visiting groups here at VCCA.
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VCCA Corn Crib (Writers’ Studio) Photo by

VCCA furnishes artists with a private studio, a private bedroom with semi-private bath, and three prepared meals each day.  There are 25 writers, composers, and visual artists in residence at any given time, and I can’t imagine a better environment for focus and concentration than their beautiful campus, quite possibly blanketed in snow. (Florida Man will be digging out some long-dormant clothing layers for this trip.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll develop a personal regimen to make the most of precious residency time, and I’ll probably spend way too much time making a packing list. I think I’ll bring a guitar. Definitely a camera and sketchpad.
I hope to not only get a lot of serious work done, but to meet interesting people and, if I’m extremely lucky, make a few friends.
So…wow. I’m humbled and grateful, and this is going to be fun.

 

NaNoWriMo: I’m In.

In past years, I’ve watched National Novel Writing Month pass by like Amtrak at an at a railroad crossing. I’ve always thought, even if I could crank out the word count, it would be garbage, right? I couldn’t imagine a writer worth his ink believing anything worthwhile could come of it and secretly judged the nerds who do. Well, it turns out that a few of those “nerds” are kind of a big deal.

About halfway through October, I realized I was in the perfect position to give NaNoWriMo a shot. For the past three weeks or so, I’ve solidified characters, setting, and produced a basic outline from start to finish. This is a novel I started in 2008, but dropped in the trunk when it didn’t seem to be working. It seems to me now that, with all the ingredients laid out before me, I might be able to cook this thing up into something tasty. The worst that can happen is that I’ll end up with a horrible first draft to refine into a second.

So, I’m committed and surprised to discover that I’m pretty excited about it. (I suspect that’ll wear off by about day 3.) The thing is, I don’t actually know what I’m capable of. What if I can produce 80,000 words in a month? I’m wary of the possibility that after so much sustained effort, I could be oblivious to the wrongness of the thing I have made. Luckily, my lovely wife, Susan, a finer writer than I’ll ever be, wants to read my work. Having a dedicated reader who loves you enough to provide honest feedback is priceless.

Earlier this year, having been let go as content manager from a soulless snake oil company in Tampa, I spent a lot of time and effort searching for another position. I had a bit of freelance work coming in, along with a military pension, but I felt responsible for doing more for our family. After a couple months of job hunting, I’d found nothing and started to wonder what was wrong with me. Is it my age? Are people afraid I have PTSD? Is my resume all wrong? Susan convinced me to stop looking and do what I’ve always wanted, to write full time. Yes, she’s wonderful. Yes, I’m grateful.

Even now, a nasty little internal editor sits on my shoulder as I write, criticizing each idea, every word. Perhaps running this 50,000 word marathon will wear that little bastard out enough to allow me to get something true on the page.

Terry Prachett is credited with saying “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story,” while Hemingway reportedly wrote in a letter to Arnold Samuelson, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Either way, I’m in.

What to Protect during a Hurricane? Books.

GreenBoxThanks to all who kept us in their prayers and sent good thoughts our way during Hurricane Irma. We’re fortunate beyond our hopes, and grateful for so many reasons. Those we love are safe, our home is undamaged, and it appears we’re the only house in the neighborhood whose lights never went out. We’re so grateful.

Check out Susan‘s post about our stormy night HERE, or click on the photo.

Rambling Thoughts on Running and Objects Seen Beside the Road

IMG_2495Every couple of days, I pull on a pair of shoes and go out for a run. It’s prime thinking and reflecting time, and I credit it for having kept me sane through some hard moments over the years. Running was once a mandatory part of daily life as a soldier. I didn’t have to like it. I only had to do it. My father-in-law, an Army veteran, used to say, “PT might not make you live longer, but it sure makes it feel longer.”

After a couple years of military service, I made peace with the necessity of daily running. A year or later, once I reached a place in my career when responsibilities sometimes precluded exercise, I found that I missed the feeling of my feet in contact with the road or the bare ground. I missed the rhythm of breathing and heartbeat and cadence that had become the background to a cherished interval of personal time each morning. When there was no available time during the day, or when I couldn’t sleep, I sometimes ran late at night.

When I retired from service, I spent about a week doing nothing more strenuous than grilling steaks and drinking cold beer. One morning, before my eyes opened, I saw myself running. I heard the sound of my steps and felt the humidity on my face. I got out of bed. I put on my shoes. I found that the ritual of donning shoes used only for running put me in the proper mindset to push my body toward its limits. I didn’t have to run anymore. No one was ever going to subject me to an Army physical fitness test again. I just wanted to run. Now that my body is noticeably aging, I understand that it’s the mental state running induces that I crave.

Funny thing–on military installations, there is no litter. We police that stuff up every day. Mostly what soldiers see while running is the back of the soldier running in front of them. Grey cotton, damp after the first mile, stained dark by mile two. Saturated in the North Carolina heat by the time the sun rises. Soldiers are trained to notice roadside debris. Improvised explosive devices are often disguised as bags of trash, discarded auto parts, dead animals–anything boring or repulsive. Soldiers can’t run down a road without mentally sorting every object they pass. The training doesn’t allow it. Running in the “real world,” outside a litter-free military installation, becomes a tour of objects, each with its own story.

I don’t mean to imply the streets are blanketed in litter. It’s the occasional thing on the side of the road I’m talking about.

There’s a sort of hierarchy of objects. There’s the 16-oz Natural Light beer can and the tiny airport tequila bottle. I live in the suburbs for now, so I imagine these are the detritus of reckless high school kids, or their parents making one last orbit around the neighborhood before pulling into the driveway. Where have they been? What happens when they step inside the house?

There’s the single white tennis shoe. It looks fine, as though someone slipped it off a moment before, yet there it is in the median with the stray bolts, bottle caps, and broken sunglasses. I imagine someone hit by a truck hard enough to pop right out of that shoe. Maybe they’re still attached to the grill, clinging for dear life. Single flip-flops abound. I once encountered a black, patent leather man’s dress shoe with a mirror shine. Somewhere, a hapless groom limps to the altar on one shoe. I wonder why it’s always male footwear. Somebody answer me that.

The other day, I found the abandoned driver license of a young man named Baumgartner. It hadn’t expired, and I imagined a man who had changed his identity, emptying his wallet from the passenger seat of the get-away car driven by his attractive and dangerous lover. Had he abandoned a family, a job?

I stuck the license in the top of a bus stop sign in front of the YMCA. Maybe he’d pass by again, a runner like me, and find it. Or maybe a better runner than I, farther down the road, can recover a the spare house key, the mini-Polaroid of the cute dog, and make something of the former Mr. Baumgartner’s shed skin.

A Typical Morning

The wake-up alarm I’ve chosen for my phone is the sound of various bird songs, as though in the forest. There’s a bird call on the phone that sounds identical to a species of bird I hear each morning outside my bedroom window. Sometimes I hear the live bird before my alarm goes off, and I think it’s the alarm. I open my eyes and realize it’s the bird outside in the tree, not the one in my phone, and I try to go back to sleep. Sometimes I can. Other times my mind starts to work on things. It starts to work on problems and tasks and events coming up. I lie in bed thinking, taking advantage of the time before full wakefulness when it feels like I’m made of mind only and can think without distractions. It’s the only time of day when that’s possible.

The dog hears the alarm and knows what it means and leaps onto the bed. If I don’t protect myself, he’ll lick my face and stomp all over me. I grab him and hug him, and he wags his tail. Most dogs would just as soon avoid being hugged by a human, but he likes it. I ask him if he wants to go outside, and he flies off the bed, crouches, wags, and waits for me to go out and open the back door. Then he launches himself on a high-speed yard patrol, in case a cat or a squirrel has infiltrated.

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While the dog is tearing through the yard making his 45 pounds sound like a charging rhinoceros, I like to put my fingers on the keyboard and see what they do. I keep a Freewrite on the tall breakfast table, so I can go to it right out of bed, before my brain is fully awake. Look–I’m doing that now, looking into a literary mirror.

The nights are sometimes long and difficult. Everything is better when the sun is up and I’m moving again. The dog is no conversationalist, but he’s my friend, and he never says anything foolish or ignorant. His points of view are well known to me on a wide range of subjects, many of which I agree with. Raw carrots are tasty. A quick run through the neighborhood in the morning before the sun rises above the treetops is good. Walking in the evening is good. Yowling cats in heat on the fence outside the window at night are bad.

He and I disagree on minor points such as how one should behave in the presence of another dog’s excrement, whether it’s alright to hang one’s entire body out the window of a moving automobile, and the degree of sexual attractiveness of the human leg.

Each morning, by 8:30am, a murder of crows has occupied the top of the pine tree. They drop things into the yard. Chicken bones, egg shells, aluminum foil. The dog is interested, but seems to smell crow on these things and doesn’t try to eat them. The crows’ calls are less pleasant than the bird songs I hear before daybreak. They seem to be arguing among themselves or taunting the dog and me. I stand on the back patio, watching them watch me. I sip coffee. They turn their heads sideways and direct one shiny black eye on me at a time, as though their left eye provides one type of information, and the right another. Infrared, perhaps. I am slightly fascinated by crows, but I don’t imagine that they’re my friends. If I lie still long enough, I know one of them will eventually try to take one of my eyes.

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