Tea Time

It’s Friday morning at 3am. I woke about two hours ago from a dream that I was riding in the back of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. Another passenger watched impassively as a large wasp was trying to sting me. I swatted at the buzzing insect, in the dark, with a hat. When I woke, by heart was beating double-time. Isn’t a wasp dream supposed to mean something? How about when it’s combined with the military images that usually appear in my dreams? Have I just revealed some terrible truth about myself? 

Wide awake, I reached over to touch Susan, not to wake her, but for the simple comfort of her presence. She’d gotten up a few minutes before and wasn’t there. After she returned and went back to sleep, I tried for over an hour to do the same. It wasn’t going to happen, so I rose quietly, grabbed the clothes I’d dropped on the floor earlier, tried not to step on our black dog on my way out in the darkness. I picked up pens, paper, and my trusty iPad.

Tea, I thought. I’ll make tea and write. 

I’ve had a hard time writing anything for the past year. I throw down a sentence or a paragraph now and then and feel like a failure when my weekly word count amounts to little more than my own body weight. I call myself a writer? Just who do I think I’m fooling?

I brewed the good stuff–an expensive oolong I normally save for–what, company? That’s a laugh. Including household appliance repairmen, I can count on one hand the number of visitors who have set foot inside our home in the past year. 

But you’re here with me now, Dear Reader. Will you sit with me for a few minutes? The tea is almost ready, steeping in a cast iron pot, wrapped in a towel on the small desk in the strange little common area of the house set aside for books, musical instruments, and writing—when the words will come. 

Dexter, the black dog, followed me out of the bedroom. After staring at me for several minutes, apparently confused about my moving around at such an hour, he settled under my chair to lean against my bare heels. 

Thank you for spending this short time with me. Stephen King has described writing as a kind of telepathy. Here I am encoding my thoughts into tiny black symbols made of ink, which later I’ll transcribe into what you’re reading now. These are my thoughts, transmitted from my mind to yours. There’s something—what the hell, we’re in the wee hours, so I’ll say it—there’s something magical about the reader-writer relationship that doesn’t happen in any other aspect of life, even in face-to-face conversation. That’s why handwritten letters are such a precious gift. Am I showing my age by lamenting the dying art of sending news and telling people you love them with ink and paper? Probably.

So, this is my rambling, sleepless letter to you today. And as I write it, I’m imagining you here with me in the dim light, holding a steaming cup of oolong.

It’s fascinating—and a little frightening—to watch myself and those around me change so rapidly. Just over a year ago, Susan and I had VIP tickets to Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival, a well-organized event on the Hillsborough River with the University of Tampa’s gleaming minarets cutting an exotic skyline behind the stage. That concert was the last time we spent time in a crowd of strangers, just a bunch of music lovers enjoying being together and celebrating a beautiful evening. 

Since last March, so many aspects of life have been altered beyond recognition, it’s hard to fathom what “getting back to normal” means. Because it turns out that “normal” wasn’t what we thought it was at all, and I think there are a lot of us who aren’t interested in returning to the way we were. After four years of the most destructive presidential administration in America’s history, we’ve seen not only what our fellow Americans and elected representatives are made of, we’ve also learned a bit about the people closest to us. This has been a shattering experience for some of us. 

Despite events on the large scale, life continues on the small stage as well, including its final act. I lost an aunt and a grandmother last year, one to chronic poor health and the other to ripe old age. 

I lost an uncle as well, but not to death. He fell prey to the newly fashionable open bigotry that the Trump years flushed out of the undergrowth. It’s not that he hadn’t been a lifelong racist and xenophobe. But until recently, he’d done a pretty good job of not letting it show, only occasionally blurting something embarrassing at a holiday dinner table. It was when he began to say loudly, publicly, and unapologetically that certain people shouldn’t exist, when he decided that fulminating in his own white supremacist vitriol was preferable to continuing decades-old relationships, that I had to let him go. 

Even after all that we’ve witnessed, conspiracy theories and fear-based, data-free lunacy threaten to take others from me. I watch people I always believed were too intelligent to fall for too-easy explanations and simplistic solutions subscribe to magical thinking. Of course everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. But there must be limits, and those limits appear when baseless theories, propaganda, and outright lies begin to hurt people.

I’ve changed as well. Some of those changes are undesirable, and I’m working on self-correction. Others I see as a sort of personal evolution. I’m learning, after a half century of walking the Earth, what’s important. All I need now is the self discipline to live the way I know I should, with compassion and forgiveness and gratitude, but also with a steely vigilance for those who would harm others to benefit themselves.

I’m far from blameless. I’ve made questionable choices. I owe apologies and atonement. In my own defense, I’ve offered some. Not all have been accepted, and that’s alright. Actions have consequences. I’ll keep trying to be better, mostly because I want the people I love to be proud of me. Time can harden a heart, or soften it; I’ll try to keep my own open and reachable.

We’re all feeling the strain in the world, in our homes, our minds, and in our souls. Lots of us are basically mental at this point. 

But I see the light. It’s just over the horizon. 

What? No, not that light. That’s just the sun coming up. (Thanks for sticking with me though. Is the tea still warm?)

The coming year will be one of hope and resolve. Covid-19 vaccinations are happening at an amazing rate, and this pandemic will soon be as hard to imagine as the 1918 Spanish flu once was for us. 

We kept our democracy, despite the best efforts of misguided people who tried to turn America into something hateful and evil, and when that didn’t take, tried to take it by force on January 6th. It was a close thing. As more information becomes available, we’re probably going to see that it was a lot closer than we imagined. 

There is hope. Better times are coming soon. We’ll meet again in groups. We’ll hug and kiss one another on the cheek. We’ll share drinks, play music, dance, hug each other coming and going. We’re all different now, and it’s not a bad thing. Our shared experience of the past five years of turmoil can be the very thing that unites us as a nation, and maybe, if you’ll forgive me for being idealistic, as a species. 

But we’re going to need resolve for the foreseeable future. People in government, and in our neighborhoods, continue to fight to set our country back a century by pushing for non-democratic and openly discriminatory policies. Even now, a certain discredited political party is rallying around a lost cause, doing its worst to maintain rule by a corrupt minority, knowing its only hope of retaining power is to prevent every citizen from casting a vote. We’ll have continue to fight for our democracy every day.

The Buddha is quoted as saying “Your biggest mistake is thinking you have time,” or words (not in English) to that effect. So love people now. If you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts banging against the inside of your skull, write them down. And if you’re going to make tea at 3am, brew the good stuff.

J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, a Quick Review

Like a fever dream, The Drowned World starts in a solid, believable future. The Sun has entered a period of constant flaring that has drastically raised the temperature of the Earth, melting the planet’s ice caps and inundating coastal cities everywhere. Most of the planet has become uninhabitable, and humankind has retreated to the polar regions.
A scientific team works in what was once London, studying the rapid changes taking place in flora and fauna. The season changes, the temperature rises, and the story becomes more and more like a dream, until finally I’m not sure whether the events are real, or the final act of a nightmare.
It’s a book that’s been called prophetic. Though it doesn’t anticipate that our current climate crisis would be self-inflicted, it does depict a frightening situation that could be our world in a hundred years. (Or less?) It’s worthwhile for beautiful writing, and for experiencing how the author gradually and masterfully changes the mood and atmosphere from a seemingly controlled situation to something completely outside the realm of the rational. A fun read.

Rescuing Cats

I’m not even going to mention the events at the capitol yesterday. I’ve been trying to focus on staying busy. It’s the only way I can manage my anger at the moment.

I’ve been working on a short story, or so I thought. But it continues to grow, and I like where it’s going. So, I thought, it’s a novella. But wait–how long is a novella? What about a novelette? (WTF is a novelette?)

I’d been thinking about Blake Snyder’s (in)famous Beat Sheet from his screenwriting manual, Save the Cat, did some Googling, and found a handy site called the Beat Sheet Calculator where you can enter the desired page count of whatever you’re working on, and it’ll suggest the points at which each of Snyder’s beats should happen.

I prefer to think in terms of word count, so as I entered the various page counts of short story, novelette, novella, and novel into the calculator, I converted to word count. One thing led to another, and I ended up with a reference tool for fiction word count guidelines, based on the B.S. Beat Sheet.

I spent more time constructing it than it should have taken me, but I’m now a passable user of Apple’s Keynote app. Anyway, in case this is useful to anyone, I’ll share it here.

Don’t let yourself be bound by things like this–it’s only an adaptation of one person’s rule of thumb. However, I’ve found it useful as a guide to structuring stories. If it’s helpful, let me know. If you find errors, or think of a way to improve it, I’d love to hear about it.

A Few Books I’ve Read This Year

We spent a lot of time at home this year. Even before the pandemic began, I was working exclusively at home. I realize what a privilege that is during a time when so many jobs have disappeared, and I’m grateful for it. When America gave in to Covid-19, it subtracted bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, museums, concerts, plays, and movie theaters from my life. I’ve always relied on reading to carry me through hard times, and this year has been no different in that respect.

“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.” 

― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Despite all the disasters competing for my attention, I recall reading 29 books this year. Fewer than last year, but this hasn’t been a “normal” year, has it. (Yes, the period is intentional.)

I chose some titles and authors because they somehow seemed related to what I’m writing. It’s a good idea to do a survey of existing literature before trying to create something new within a genre. I’m writing a certain flavor of science fiction, and in an effort not to be too derivative, I wanted to read, or re-read books similar to what I’m working on.

Other books I’ve read simply because they’re fun, and I needed an escape from the plague, politics, and the everyday world outside. From the time I was a young boy, reading fiction has been a healing, fortifying activity. As a kid, I was accused more than once of reading too much for my own good. (What the hell does that even mean?) I lived on a sort of haphazard farm, and books gave me something to look forward to when the chores were over, and I could run away for a couple hours into the orange grove or the tree house. Looking forward to getting back into a story helped me through the day.

I won’t tell you about every book I read this year, and this isn’t a 100% complete list, but here’s a snapshot of 29 books I recorded having read, and roughly when I read them. It’s not exact–because who cares–and I’ve omitted the comments column because that’s just for me. I keep a spreadsheet for my To-Be-Read list, and another to record a few things about books I read. Some are memorable, and some aren’t. Some I mark to read again, and some I abandon before finishing. I don’t usually do negative book reviews, which is why I haven’t included the “comments” column here, but as you can see, I didn’t care for everything I picked up, and didn’t finish some of the books I started. That’s unusual for me–I always try to stick it out at least halfway through a book, but…life is too short to read something I’m simply not interested in. One book on this list–I won’t say which–I literally threw across the room in disgust. It happens.

This year’s reading was heavy on science fiction, and because I had an Audible subscription, I listened to almost a third of the 29 titles in question as audiobooks on my morning runs. I run for around an hour every other day, and having someone narrate a story in my ears makes the time fly by. Some people seem to think listening to a book isn’t reading a book. I disagree. I do agree that it’s a different experience, but many of the books I listen to I end up buying in paper form to read again, and if I love them, to add to my permanent library. I read a lot of genre fiction. There are folks who might say I could better spend my time reading “real literature,” but I enjoy genre fiction. It’s ok. Read whatever you like, and damn the naysayers. The same goes for writing. If you write, there will be torpedoes. Damn them too.

Let’s narrow it down. Here are ten books I liked, in the order I read or listened to them.

The Memory Called Empire, by Arkady Martine. I picked this one up because so many reviews described it as a great example of world building. That it is. I won’t read it again, but I enjoyed it. Onward.

The Odyssey, by Homer. I bought this as an audiobook because it’s an epic poem that existed and was passed on by word-of-mouth for thousands of years. It was meant to be listened to. (If only I spoke ancient Greek!) I chose the Fagles translation, narrated by Ian McClellan, and it was fantastic in every respect. I had read it before twice, and I’ll listen to this version again and again, probably while running, or falling asleep to the sound of Sir Ian’s voice.

The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie. This is a seriously gritty fantasy trilogy that I thoroughly enjoyed, also as a series of audiobooks. Imagine the epic scope of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings combined with the no-holds-barred mayhem of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s character-driven, action-oriented, bloody, and straightforward. Pure fun–perhaps not for the squeamish.

The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. A series of asteroid impacts devastates the Northern Hemisphere. Set in the UK, a man and his friends must travel as fast as they can, on foot because the highways are impassable for vehicles, from Scotland to England to catch a refugee ship before it departs for safer latitudes with their families aboard. That’s oversimplified, but if you like apocalyptic stories, and if you’ve ever personally made the transition from “running is torture” to “I can’t wait to run tomorrow,” this is one not to miss. Genuinely likable characters made me feel real emotions, and isn’t that one characteristic of true art?

On Writing, by Stephen King. This book is a permanent resident of my bookshelf, and this was my third reading of it. If you write anything, and even if you simply love reading, this book is extremely worthwhile for its insight into what a lifelong novelist’s life is like, and who King is in particular. King fans, don’t miss it.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. This is a worthy introduction to Zen Buddhism, and to the essence of Zazen, or simply sitting–in other words, meditation. Zen need not come into conflict with any other belief system, and this tiny book can be a comfort as well as a guide to getting to know oneself better, to developing self-discipline, and to learning to be less negatively affected by external troubles.

Dune, by Frank Herbert. I first read this great novel at age 13, and though it amazed and absorbed me, I didn’t have the frame of reference to fully understand it. Reading again in my 50s, after years of military service in the Middle East, was a very different experience. I’m looking forward to the next movie version coming out next year, and I hope someone finally does the novel justice on the screen, if that’s possible.

Islandia, by Austin Tappan Wright. As re-readable as Tolkien. A masterclass in world building. Fascinating characters and a fully realized fictional continent and culture. It’s a satisfying look back at what American culture was at the dawn of the 20th Century, with all the Victorian sensibilities challenged by the free and sensible Islandian culture the protagonist adapts to and comes to love. An excellent novel set within an anthropologist’s dream of a flawed utopia.

The Story Grid, by Shawn Coyne. Craft book. A big-time editor with a generation of experience shows us how he identifies novels that “work” and will sell, and how he helps their authors make them the best they can be. If you, like me, struggle a bit with structure in putting your novel together, this book could improve your mental state and quality of life. There’s also a related podcast.

Las Manos del Día/The Hands of Day, by Pablo Neruda. This bilingual book of poems centers around Neruda’s recognition that there are so very many things he never did, never learned to do, during his lifetime, and his awe and appreciation for those people who make the things (such as brooms and chairs and fishing nets) we mindlessly use in our everyday lives. Like all of Neruda’s work, these poems are achingly beautiful. Spanish on the left page, English on the right.

The last book I finished this year will be George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. “In which four Russians [Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev] give a master class on writing, reading, and life.” This is a study of a few of the great Russian short stories of the late 19th Century. Saunders digs into why these stories work so well and what went into making such masterpieces of fiction seem, on the surface, to be so simple. Spoiler: they aren’t simple at all. The book offers some useful exercises in the back to help writers condense and streamline stories without losing meaning. Stephen King writes at the beginning of On Writing, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” Saunders’ book is not one of those.

That’s all I have for you tonight, Dear Readers. Thanks for spending this time with me. As always, I’d love to hear from you. What have you been reading?

Hope on a Tuesday

How are you all doing? Has anyone asked recently? I hope so, because times are hard for most, unbearable for many.

My troubles are relatively insignificant compared to people with real challenges. My daily irritations involve trivial things like watching close relatives shitposting on Facebook and being harassed by our home owners association for having “notable rust, oil stains, dirt, mold or mildew” on our driveway.”

Meanwhile, Americans are being evicted from their homes after losing jobs to the pandemic our shitnozzle president did literally nothing to mitigate. And then, there are those who have died, people who are dying, will die of this horrible virus. But there is hope, right around the corner. Always hope.

“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings…”

William Shakespeare, from Richard III

I’ve always been a calm person, but for the last few weeks I’ve felt anxious and angry about nearly everything I see and hear going on around me. I live in Florida, and that alone is stress-inducing for any compassionate, thinking person who would like to expect common sense to be a guiding principle in government, business, and community. But that’s enough of that. I’m grateful for family, for friends, for sunshine, for fresh fruit growing behind the house, for our two stupid dogs, music, art, literature, a back that bends, and another day of life. And life, despite its ever-present flaws, is good. May it last and last. I’m also grateful to the handful of you who actually read these posts. It’s so good to hear from you now and then. Stephen King, in On Writing, describes writing as telepathy, directly transmitting thoughts from one mind to another. Thanks for receiving mine.

Speaking of long-lasting life, my grandmother, Carolyn Jane Clark, passed away on November 21st at the age of 92. She and I were not close, but I respected her immensely for her grit, perseverance, and common sense. In her final three decades, she cared for my autistic nephew with the greatest love and compassion I’ve ever seen. She nurtured his immense musical talent, allowing him to become a skilled musician by anyone’s standards. I believe caring for him provided her with what the Okinawans call “ikigai,” a reason for getting out of bed each day. She had a hard life, but I think she would say that it was a good one.

A personal blog post is a curious thing, a place where someone otherwise considered a quiet person spews forth all manner of innermost secrets. What I know is that writing clears my head, helps me figure out for myself what I think about something, and makes me feel better. So, I write.

I was brought up in a typical rural Southern family in which people–especially men–keep their thoughts and feelings mainly to themselves, especially if those inner workings of the heart and mind are inconsistent with one’s “raisin’.” No, I’m not talking about dried grapes–rather, the way we’re raised.

How to describe…

Imagine a massive 4×4 pickup truck, filled with guns and liberally (But not liberal!) drizzled with Jesus and wrapped in the red, white, and blue of the Stars and Stripes and/or Stars and Bars. Except that monster truck is screen-printed on a t-shirt. Ain’t nobody can afford a sweet ride like that, amiright? You pull that bad boy on, and you stick out your chin, and you keep your “feelings” to yourself.

Am I making fun of my own childhood? Yes, I am. And my main goal as a kid was to board a rocket that would get me to escape velocity and take me off Planet Cracker. That rocketship came in the form of big student loan debt, followed by a trip to the local U.S. Army recruiter’s office. I got out, went to college, had a long military career, retired, spent my G.I. Bill on an MFA, and…

I currently live less than 10 miles from where I grew up.

Can I digress? Yes, I can.

More gratitude! I have all the freelance work I can handle at the moment, and it looks like that’s going to continue for at least another month. After that, well let’s live in the present. I’m lucky to have the work and grateful to those who let me do it. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to actually get ahead. So, I there’s a chance I’ll be looking for a traditional job soon. But I have doubts about getting hired at 54–people want youth and beauty, not a crusty retired soldier, and I’ve become pretty comfortable working from home in flip-flops and pajamas.

Other than writing and editing to make others wealthy, I’m working on a science-fiction story that I’ve re-written six times. I’ll keep doing that until it figures out what it wants to be. It feels like I’m close. I’ve always wanted to publish some sci-fi, but so far I haven’t. In a couple weeks I hope to sucker a couple of guinea pigs to read it for me and tell me what they think.

This pandemic has offered up a lot of time to read, watch, and listen to lots of good things. I’m currently midway through George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It’s a master’s-level class on the short story, it’s fascinating, and I love it. It’s Saunders–if you don’t love him, you probably haven’t read him. If you haven’t, start with one of his short story collections, and prepare for a trip across some truly weird landscapes.

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks too, mostly while running in the mornings. The last one I finished was The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. Honestly, I didn’t expect much from it; I was so very wrong. It’s set during, and after, a cataclysm that destroys much of human civilization, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about an unlikable character who endures an ordeal and experiences profound change. That’s why we read fiction, and it’s wonderful. I liked it enough to order a paper copy as well. It’ll get you in the feels.

And as abruptly and randomly as I started, I’m done for now. Drop a line or two, and let me know how you’re doing. Be safe, and take care of each other.

What So Proudly We Hailed

It’s Election Day in the United States. I voted early. Maybe you did too. Maybe you plan to vote today. I have to say–if you were to vote in only one election during your lifetime, this would be the one. I’m nobody, but what voice I have I intend to use.

Will we see a transformed version of American democracy, a disappointing return to the status quo, or a precipitous drop into totalitarianism? We must wait and see.

Be patient. We’re not going to know the result of this election immediately upon the close of polling sites. We’re probably not going to know tomorrow either. We should all be skeptical of any reports of a clear winner tonight. It could take days–several days.

Counting absentee/mail-in ballots takes time; it’s a painstaking process involving the physical handling of tons of paper according to strict procedure. Despite past notable exceptions, including my home state of Florida, the United States is good at this. Be patient.

If 2016 taught us anything about elections, it’s not to trust polls, pundits, or talking heads. I would have wagered against a ridiculous clown of a man winning the presidency against a former senator and cabinet member, and all the prevailing wisdom assured me I was correct to scoff at the prospect of a Trump victory. But the anachronistic Electoral College reared its ugly head, and here we are. We’ve suffered four years of divisive rhetoric, overt corruption, nepotism, racist legislation, militarized xenophobia, science denial, and the staggering incompetence that has killed more Americans than the Civil War as a result of Trump’s use of bluster, hubris, and con-man handwavium in the place of science to manage a global pandemic.

What was it Ronald Reagan once asked us? “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

If you’re reading this on November 3rd, you can still vote. In many states, though not Florida, you can even register and vote today. Don’t sit this one out as so many did in 2016. Don’t write in a candidate or waste your vote on one who literally cannot win. The choice has never been more clear–it’s democracy vs. whatever dystopian hell Trump might lead us to.

I’m optimistic. This is our chance to rise “out of the huts of history’s shame.” We can remake America into something better. I’m not interested in a pre-Trump America. I want a better country for all of us. We don’t have to agree on everything–an impossible outcome–but if we’re going to survive as a nation, we have to once again become the United States of America. We have to move forward, despite the attacks and resistance of the minority of us who thrives on hate and division. And we have to do that no matter the outcome of this election. What we choose as a nation today will determine how difficult that’s going to be.

At this point, I’m not going to convince anyone of anything. But I’ll say it anyway–if you haven’t done so, vote for decency and democracy in–for the moment–the most influential country in the world. What happens here determines a lot more than what goes on inside our own borders.

Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for America, and the world. I strongly believe this is the only opportunity we’ll ever have to vote him out, and the entire world is watching.

This is where I take a deep breath and give in to my optimism. It’s going to be ok. Americans will rise to this historic challenge. We always have.

So now we wait. Take a walk. Meditate. Pray. Exercise. Have a drink. If you have a loved one nearby, hold on to their hand.

Why I Forgot the Dog Food

As the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, our understanding of how to stay safe has evolved as well. When it began, many of us ventured into public wearing surgical gloves along with our masks, for example, a practice we’ve learned can be counterproductive for the average person. We used to disinfect our groceries. We know now that the most effective thing (and the very least) we can do is wear a piece of cloth over our faces in public.

Unless you live with salamanders under a rock by the river, you know by now that the mask doesn’t so much protect the one wearing it as it protects others. We don’t wear the mask for ourselves–we do it for our community.  If we all do it, it works. And it works best if everyone does it.

This is not difficult. Yet some people are making the conscious decision not to get with the program.

When I run outdoors, I pass others on the sidewalk. It’s usually early morning, so I encounter maybe one or two people per mile, most of them runners like me. When runners approach one another, the etiquette that has developed on its own is a sort of polite slalom as we pass, keeping about 15 feet of distance between us. There’s heavy dew on the grass, and we get our feet wet. Not a big deal, but one of the many inconveniences imposted upon us by the state of the world. 

Almost every morning, I pass elderly people out for a morning walk, sometimes with a dog. I give these folks a wide berth, because they’re the most vulnerable among us. I always shout a hearty “Good morning!” to them so they know I’m not anti-social. 

(I’ve gotten some what’s-your-problem stares as I veer off the sidewalk in passing, but this happens less frequently with time and the increasing pandemic body count.)

With the highest infection numbers yet coming out this week, it’s becoming impossible to deny that our behavior makes a difference. We’re quickly getting to the point where each of us will know someone, personally, who has contracted the virus.

Last week, I visited our favorite local supermarket. The store posts prominent signs requiring shoppers to wear a mask, and with few exceptions everyone complies. During last week’s visit, I encountered people who have apparently decided that acting with consideration for others is too egregious an imposition on their personal freedom. It wasn’t an oversight or a memory lapse—these people simply declined to wear a mask in the store. 

In my experience, it has been mainly middle-aged white men who flout the mask rule. I won’t speculate here on why that might be the case. Last week, the culprits were two women, each in her twenties by my estimation, challenging my stereotype of men who look a lot like me.

One woman seemed in a hurry. She had a couple items in her arms and was headed for the front of the store. Maybe she’d reasoned that she’d only be in the store for a few minutes, so it would be alright. (I call this widely used stratagem the “It’ll Be Alright” plan.)

The other maskless one strolled behind a mostly full shopping cart. She had been in the store long enough to chase down a long shopping list. She moved at a carefree, leisurely pace. 

If she was Covid-positive, it’s possible she infected several people in the store. Maybe she infected me. Who knows? That’s the thing with this virus–we don’t know at a given moment whether we’re carrying it, and we may spread it without ever noticing symptoms to people it will kill. 

The first no-masker irritated me, but she was gone in a moment. The second, with her nonchalant shopping in the crowded supermarket, kindled in me the sort of anger I’d have felt if she’d issued me a swift kick in the shin. It was an assault of indifference. She didn’t give a damn about anyone in the store, didn’t care that we knew it, and dared anyone to mention it.

So I did. I said one word. “Mask.” I said it clearly, but not aggressively. She passed by, ignoring me. Because I don’t matter to her. And neither do you, Dear Reader, nor your elderly relatives or your immunocompromised friends.

So I already had a burr under my saddle when I arrived at the dairy section for a block of sharp white cheddar. A store employee stood beside a couple co-workers, talking quietly. His mask rested well below his nose, partially exposing his mouth. Before I knew what had come over me, I looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, your nose is exposed.”

“What?” He asked.

“Your nose is out. Maybe you forgot?”

He hastily pulled up his mask. I grabbed my cheese and turned away, already feeling like an ass. In fact, I felt if I saw one more person without a mask in that store, I’d…

Whoa, I thought. Easy, soldier. I had to get outside. 

I’d forgotten the number-one item on my list–dog food.

I think I spooked the dairy man a bit—not my intention, but…
On the way home with not quite everything I needed, I thought, We should all stop tolerating the complacency, disdain for science, and willful ignorance that’s bringing our country to its knees. If we’re ever going to get past this thing, we have to change the way we think–from valuing individual freedom above all else to putting the welfare of our society first. 

People in some Asian societies have been wearing masks in public for as long as I remember. In certain Asian cultures, rather than thinking “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me,” people recognize that no one person has the right to infect others with a cold or flu, bad breath, or even the sight of the inside of one’s mouth. It’s no coincidence that countries like Japan and Korea kept Covid-19 numbers low and got control of the pandemic pretty quickly. 

When I was stationed on Oahu with the Army, I often saw Japanese tourists on the streets and in shops wearing surgical masks. At the time, it struck me as a very foreign thing to do. Did they think Americans were dirty or dangerous? I wasn’t offended—being dirty and dangerous is part of the American “mystique,” ain’t it? I wondered what it was they thought they were protecting themselves from in a modern city like Honolulu. I understand now that they were protecting me, and that they wore masks in public at home  as well as abroad. I now see that “foreign” behavior as a kind of moral superiority, and thinking now about those Japanese tourists, I’m grateful for their inherent, matter-of-fact courtesy.

Something I learned long ago, in a land far away, is that the best way to take care of ourselves is to take care of others.

Ruins

Journal Entry, 28 Jan 2001

I’m sitting naked in the bottom half of a giant clam shell at my grandmother’s house, cool water from the garden hose swirling around my pudgy legs. The outside of the shell is rough; the pearly inner surface is the smoothest thing I’ve ever felt. It’s late Florida summer in 1968, and the sun is hot on my two-year-old skin. I’m surrounded by lush St. Augustine grass. My mother is nearby, laughing. Cicadas in the hickory trees fill the whole world with their chitinous music. I pick up the end of the hose and sling running water over my head. My belly jiggles when I laugh at the arcs of liquid diamond catching the sunlight.

Memories are unreliable, and each time we recall something, it inches closer to our idea of what we want it to have been. Do I remember this scene only because I’ve seen photographs of it? Almost certainly. I remember the red roses my grandmother cultivated beside the house, but I’m sure that memory is from later years.

When I was around five years old, the man who had recently married my mother periodically sent me to the Gulf service station across the busy road to buy Camel cigarettes for him. It would never have occurred to anyone in that place and that time not to sell smokes to a five-year-old. I remember the tobacco smell and the crinkle of cellophane. Sometimes I brought back matches. I remember amber glass ashtrays and Camel butts floating in the toilet bowl.

We lived with my grandmother in that house, about 100 yards from the Thonotossassa Road exit on eastbound Interstate 4, for a couple years. Behind the house, Granny kept a few laying chickens and a pair of goats that kept the lawn uniformly trimmed. According to my mother, I drank a lot of goat milk the first couple years of my life.

In the early nineties, while I was home on leave from Fort Carson, Colorado, I drove out to see Granny’s old house. I found charred ruins. It had burned down less than a year before.
So it goes.

2020 Vision (an unedited rant)

Several simultaneous, near-apocalypse-level horrors are running their course all around us. But the one I’m thinking most about at the moment–the one that’s most affecting my family–is the pandemic it that seems half of us, at least here in Florida, are pretending doesn’t exist.

We have a full house. One daughter awaiting her return to Morehead State University in August, another bound for the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and a son about to start his senior year of high school.

All their lives have been scrambled. The future is a cloud of uncertainty. And they ask questions that are starting to sound a lot like, “Why bother?”

I spend a lot of time thinking about my oldest son, who enlisted in the Marine Corps last year. Military service requires a certain level of comfort with uncertainty, and I believe he’s naturally hard-wired for that sort of thing, but nothing is “normal” these days, not even for a young Marine.

What have I experienced in my half-century of life that I can offer them? It would be easy to tell them how easy they have it–that when I was their age, things were really hard. That’s both true and untrue, because each of us has to live within our own perspective.

Our family is fortunate–yes, privileged. The police aren’t gunning for us. We aren’t being separated from our children and deported country we’ve never lived in. Clean water flows from the tap. So far, we still have our jobs. Our family is weathering America’s steep decline better than we have a right to expect.

But all of us are going to have to adjust our expectations. America is changing. This is a metamorphosis into something we can’t yet identify. The only thing that’s clear is that we cannot go on as we have in the past.

That shit has got to change.

Liberal Professor Schooling Alt-Reich Militia Member (dramatization)

It’s time to demand that our leaders lead on behalf of all of us, that our police serve and protect everyone without checking for skin tone and listening for an accent, and it’s time for us to get involved in whatever way we can.

I often feel helpless to make a difference. My soldiering days are long gone, and I’m a freelance writer and editor who spends his days at a desk in a converted suburban dining room.

I see people around me behaving poorly. Half of my neighbors seem to think current events are an excuse to party like it’s 1999, gather as they please, and refuse to wear masks in public places. I’m not here to rant, but I am discouraged.

It’s worse than that. I live in Florida, and the willful stupidity I see all around me, at all levels, is beginning to piss me off. Seriously, if you can’t show some compassion and humanity, and if you’ve deliberately switched off your brain, at this point I have no use for you.

I’m looking for opportunities to start conversations about how we go forward as communities and as a country. As I see it, our politics have divided us into two nations–one that wants democracy and justice, and another that wants a perception of comfort and security for themselves and those like them, at any price. We’re going to have to learn to be one nation again. That’s going to be tough.

Many countries have failed to come back together after conflict. In fact, as it turns out, so did the United States. We swept too much under the rug after the Civil War, and it’s still there. All of it.

November is coming. We’re going to have to work hard to repair all the damage the current administration has done, both directly and through the sort of indirect, trickle-down-fascism that enables state and local governments and domestic yahoos to feel comfortable breaking institutions and hurting innocent people.

Whatever America looks like in five or ten years, it won’t be anything we have ever been used to. If we get it right, that’s a good thing–something not to fear, but to hope for.

Did I mention that November is coming? I suggest we vote for something better. It’s going to take all of us, so if you’re not registered, kindly get your shit together.

If you think the government we’re enduring now is ok, none of this was meant for you anyway. So get off my lawn, and wear a mask, FFS.

A Shout to the Void

I haven’t visited this website for almost a year! Where does the time go?

Maybe I should change the title of this blog to “I Wrote.”

Times are strange, humans of Earth. It looks to me like the planet has had enough of our shit and is in the beginning stages of exerting a little push-back. Countries that know the sound of existential threat have listened, and in those places, fewer people have died of Covid-19.

In places like United States of America, greed and hubris rule, and people are dying in a preventable catastrophe that takes as many lives each day as the September 11th attack. Well, there’s really no place like home, is there?

I’ve found it hard to write fiction for awhile, but I have been writing, and especially editing, for Content Workshop. I’m grateful to be in a situation that allows me to work from home during the pandemic. And, as Jason Isbell sings, I’m just lucky to have the work. I’m also fortunate to work with great people.

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I sold a reprint a few weeks ago, a welcome small victory. Thanks to Fresh.ink for picking up my short story, “The Grove,” which first appeared in print back in 2015, in Issue 3 of Bridge Eight Literary Magazine. Fresh.ink tells me to expect it online sometime in June.

My work-in-progress is another short story. It’s science-fiction this time, which is my true love. Many years ago–and I turned 54 three days ago, so when I say “many,” believe me–I read the great Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” It stuck with me, and when I read it again more recently, it inspired an idea for something new.

I’m still running, four or five miles every two days. Lately, I’ve been running with a mask. Usually, it’s so early that I don’t see many people, but I slip the mask on before I pass someone on the sidewalk. Self-conscious as a tall man in a black mask, I make a point of wishing each person a cheery good morning. That also helps not to scare people when I’m coming up behind them. I hope. Although this morning, a large shaggy dog lunged at me when I spoke.

Thanks to that pet owner for having a good grip on the leash.

I’ll be back sooner than you have any reason to believe, dear readers…both of you. In the meantime, I wish you all the best in adapting to our new, not-so-fun reality. Hang in there. If you’re lonesome, send a message here, or on Twitter @steventhowell.