These are the first words I’ll write in the small second-floor room I’ve set up as an office/study. Susan and I started planning to sell our house in the Tampa Bay suburbs in early May. It sold six days after hitting the market, and before we had much time to think about it, we’d chosen a home in Statesville, North Carolina, to make an offer on. Within a month, it was all done, and we started preparing to move.
As we approach the end of June, we’re exploring a new town. We’ve met several neighbors who have brought us baked goods. Our mailman, Matt, stopped by to chat for about 10 minutes yesterday and told me about a good place for a haircut. We’ve sampled the fare at three local restaurants so far, all delicious. I think we’re going to love it here.
The weather, compared to Central Florida this time of year, is gentle and pleasant. Our house is surrounded and shaded by a massive oaks that make this part of town an oasis of cool, moist air. Songbirds and woodpeckers dominate the day, and at dusk thousands of fireflies appear, lighting up the night like they did in Seffner, Florida, when I was a kid. Their habitat in Florida is mostly gone now, pushed out by the burgeoning population with its need for more storefronts, parking lots, and mass-produced neighborhoods. I’d almost forgotten how magical it feels to walk outside among all those tiny, twinkling creatures.
Best of all, we have friends and family nearby, here in Statesville, in other parts of North Carolina, and in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And some of those friends are musicians I haven’t seen in a long time. I look forward to getting in tune with them again soon. And if you’re anticipating the November Baghdad Bad Boys reunion—well, I’m sure by now you’ve figured out that it’s not going to be in Florida. We have a back deck large enough to accommodate you and your instruments, and if it gets chilly, we’ll light the fireplace and bring it inside. For most of you, having the reunion in North Carolina means a much shorter trip, so I hope that’s some consolation for missing out on visiting the Sunshine State.
Yesterday, we finished emptying the PODS shipping containers that arrived two days ago with most of our stuff. The house is full of boxes and disorganized furniture, but the hard part of moving is done. It’s time to settle in and do some exploring. Our kids all plan to visit in July, a good friend from Florida is going to join us a little later for a couple weeks, and my sister may be here in October.
There are people I love in Florida, and I’ll miss things like the sound a warm breeze makes in the fronds of a palm tree, fresh papayas from the back yard, and Cuban food. But I’ve loved North Carolina since I first served at Fort Bragg in the 90s. When I retired from the Army, I expected to return to certain aspects of life in Florida that had always made it “home” in my mind. What I found was that Florida had changed so much in the more than 20 years I’d been away that it wasn’t the same place I’d left behind, and some of the reasons I’d wanted to return to the county where I was born and raised turned out to be illusions I must have dreamt up over the years in the heat and loneliness of distant, arid, war-torn places. Like the fireflies, the magic was gone.
So, I’m looking out my window at 8am sunlight on bright green leaves. A mockingbird is singing. I just finished my coffee, and I plan to go see that barber Matt the Postman told me about. Then I’ll unpack some boxes and maybe plug in the television. Susan and I love it here, and we’re grateful for so much. And if you’ve read this far, I’m grateful for you too. Come out for a visit. Take off your shoes, listen to the birds, and stay awhile.
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.
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.”
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?
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,inOn 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I graduated from the University of Tampa low-residency MFA program in 2015, and I’ve missed the sense of community that came along with it ever since. In my everyday life, the only writer I have regular contact with is my wife, Susan. She and I talk about all sorts of things, including writing, and not writing, but there’s no substitute for spending day after day in the company of a bunch of people pursuing artistic goals.
I try to attend UT’s Lectores reading series whenever I can. It happens twice a year, during the program’s 10-day residencies. Last Friday’s reader was Alexander Chee, whose essays I’ve read and who I had the pleasure of meeting in the space of a brief handshake. He impressed me as a quiet, intelligent man–maybe a bit shy–whose favorite activity I’d bet is something other than standing at a podium in front of a bunch of MFA candidates and strap-hangers such as myself.
UT hosted a reception for students, faculty, and alumni the same evening. During the reception, I had a conversation with a member of the faculty whose writing I admire. It was the sort of conversation over a couple of beers that starts with catching up on the past year or two, then veers off the trail and into the woods. We each have a son on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out how to be a man. As fathers, we’re horrified at the used-up state of the world our generation is handing down for our descendants to deal with. The political situation, the threat of war each generation of Americans has come to expect, and how we deal with it brought out some of our hopes and worries about what’s ahead for our sons.
When he asked me how I felt about my son’s having recently enlisted into the Marine Corps, I offered up some boilerplate crap–“I’m proud of him, but terrified of what he’s getting into.” My writer friend wasn’t having it and let me know by asking gently incisive, and direct questions, like precisely targeted rabbit punches. He drew out some of my real fears, some based on my own military career, not all of which I confessed on the spot, and the conversation became an unexpectedly intimate thing that stuck with me for days and led to this rambling post.
To be in the company of writers is to take the risk and enjoy the rewards of being around people who think and evaluate for a living and miss little. I was saved from oversharing by the interruption of one of his bright-eyed students, but not before I shared some of how my son went through the process of deciding to enlist, rather than go to college. I talked about something Susan told me, that with her daughter, who is off studying astrophysics, she has progressed from acting as the parent of a teenager to the parent of an adult. That is, from the role of directly managing a kid to manage her life, to the role of a consultant who offers advice when asked for it.
This led to the subject of the shortness of a human life and the limited time each of us has to accomplish anything that can endure beyond our life spans. People, nations, civilizations come and go, each amounting to no more than the briefest flash of smoke in the scope of geological time, never mind the cosmic scope. Our squishy brains lack the capacity to comprehend a timescale beyond the existence of homo sapiens. To demonstrate this, he asked,
“Do you know much about dinosaurs?”
I said I think so, for a non-paleontologist.
“My son knows everything about them,” he said. “So–he’s got this pile of plastic dinosaurs, and he brings me a couple and shows me a t-rex and a stegosaurus–you know what those look like?”
I said that I did.
“We see those species together all the time, right? In picture books from the time we’re toddlers and on the shelf of all the toy stores, but–”
“They lived in different periods right? Jurassic and Cretaceous?”
“Right! T-rex and stegosaurus never laid eyes on each other, and the periods of time they lived are as far separated as humans are from the last of the dinosaurs. In comparison to the dinosaurs, humanity isn’t even a blip on the screen. But look at what we’re doing to the planet. It’s hell in a handbasket.”
“And our own pitiful lifespans are so short, we’re just ants in a pile.”
It was time for another beer.
“How do we keep from falling into nihilism?,” he said. “How do you do it?”
“I guess I try to have some hope that we’ll survive long enough to figure it out, as a species, before we burn it all up.”
“That’s why I turn to absurdism in my writing. It’s the only way I can move forward in the world without becoming a nihilist.”
This conversation, or whatever version of it my memory retains, has been playing in my mind for several days. It has led me to ask myself why I’m spending my time writing science fiction. How can I devote myself to creating what most consider mere entertainment? There’s limitless opportunity to tell stories that say, look, here’s what could happen if we don’t change. Or, we can unleash the dread inner nihilist and write stories that show how utterly fucked we are. We can shake our fist and call out warnings like Margaret Atwood or grit our teeth and go for the full Cormac McCarthy apocalypse. (I doubt either of those two would label themselves genre writers, despite clearly having written science fiction novels, and because the majority of their work is marketed as mainstream literary fiction.)
It’s possible that more beers were opened before time to move into the reading space for Mr. Chee. I mentioned the relatively sparse crowd. When I graduated from the program four years ago, readings were packed with students. I asked where everybody was.
“This is pretty much it,” he said.
Apparently, the program isn’t drawing the same number of suitable applicants. Of course, this is only my speculation. I wonder if the “MFA bubble” has finally popped. It seemed, a few years ago, that every writer (and a few non-writers) in America was rushing to enter an MFA program. I wonder if other programs have seen a decline in applications. I’d rather believe that than believe the program I attended is in decline.
In any case, I’m glad to have experienced it. UT is a great place to go to school, though without the G.I. Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, I couldn’t have afforded it barring an automobile-sized student loan.
I’m sorry to have missed my friend’s reading last week, and if he happens to read this, let it be known that I have one of his novel’s for him to sign when, hopefully, our paths cross again in six months or so. I’ll look forward to hanging out in the bar and bumping into other ever-more-grizzled alumni, meeting current students, and talking with writers.