My Take on Veterans Day

“In the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight”
― Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August

America, where only one percent of the population has served in the armed forces, is sufficiently detached from the daily experience of war service members endure that I suspect most people can live weeks or months without considering the hardships and sacrifice of service members and their families.

Veterans Day has its roots in the deep grief that followed World War I — the “War to End All Wars,” as it was called in a more innocent time. In the bright light of over a century of hindsight, it’s easy to criticize the naïveté of leaders who hadn’t yet learned that technology always evolves more quickly than the tactics and policy used to manage it.

We, and the technology we wield today, are no different. The future will judge us harshly unless we learn to count the cost of war in lives, not dollars or barrels of oil. Veterans Day serves as an annual reminder of the human price of war, and that we’re never as prepared as we think we are to start a new one.

 

Crazy Talk

The acrid smell of ammunition propellant wafts through my mind every now and then. Not the memory, but the actual smell. Now, for example, sitting at my desk in a corporate office for no apparent reason, I smell it clearly. Slightly sweet and alarming.
Another smell that sometimes insinuates itself is weathered cotton duck canvas. Also diesel exhaust. And aviation hydraulic fluid. These are some of the more pleasant smells. There are others–burning or decaying things–that don’t bear mentioning.
The better smells that haunt me remind me of early, frigid mornings on rifle ranges, of distant desert afternoons under a blazing Asian sun, parachute drops, and dusty convoys. The smell comes first, then the memories fill in around it.
I can only explain it as synesthesia caused by some nearby stimulus. All I know to do with decades of memories no one around me can possibly understand is to write about them, one sight, one smell at a time, as they occur to me. For a long time, I’ve pushed these things to the back of my mind, thinking it’s not normal to have these memories invade my present, that people will think I’m crazy if I talk about them. The more time that passes, the less I care about that sort of thing.
Is it like that when we die? Do all the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve ever experienced return to us at once? I hope so.

“Waiting,” by Raymond Carver (1938-1988)

I read this poem today for the first time. A message from the past, just for me.

Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hand another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There’s a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there’ll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There’s a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all the time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?”

Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest Winners

Formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel, the University of Tampa’s Plant Hall is the city’s most distinctive landmark overlooking the Hillsborough River, near where its black waters slide into Tampa Bay. It’s a beautiful old building with a rich history, and some say unexplainable things happen in its halls late at night. It’s a building full of stories, and it’s where writers meet twice a year for the University of Tampa’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing program residencies. Inspired by the spooky nature of the surroundings and the inherent weirdness of writers, the program director sponsors a bi-annual contest for the best spooky story, open to writers of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry pursuing UT’s Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.

We students have been waiting to hear who won the competition, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to read the work. So, it’s my honor to share the two winning entries to the January 2015 Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest.

First, here are a few words from our director.

Please join me in congratulating Maggie Felisberto and Carolyn Eichhorn, who are the co-winners of the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest! There were a ton of good entries this time around, including some very impressive demonstrations of writerly ambition. We had poets writing stories, fiction writers trying poems, and nonfiction writers trying a little bit of everything.

—Steve Kistulentz, Director, University of Tampa MFA in Creative Writing

Without further adieu, here’s the first of our two spooky Plant Hall stories.

Office Hours

by Carolyn Eichhorn

CE

I spend a lot of time in this stairwell. The tiny one tucked at the far end of Plant Hall that no one uses. It’s quiet here and I can easily duck staff until everyone has gone home. Everyone but me. I haven’t been home for a long time. During the day, I am another young face, eager to learn, to soak up knowledge. Sociology, Composition, Art History, French. At night, I tuck into a corner unnoticed until day again brings the crowd into which I disappear.

I suppose my things are still at my apartment, though I haven’t been there for some time now. I have what I need. Mostly, that’s quiet. Time to study, to understand all that is available to me here. This week, Dr. Demopoulos has been taking his class through the Renaissance. In halting English, he shares Florentine frescoes, their beauty visibly moving him, and by extension, his rapt students. When he pauses, searching for just the right word, his graying temples tilted in thought, I have to stop myself from suggesting what he might be trying to say. I won’t dare to presume that I could anticipate his insights, but I so want to help, to assist him. I wait with the rest of the class, breathlessly, and with a self-deprecating remark, a half smile, Dr. Demopoulos woos us all into his beautiful world of art, of enlightenment, his accent making every word sound like that a lover. After an impassioned discussion of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, the female students, making up eighty percent of the class, release an audible sigh.

I can tell which of the young students is his current favorite because he is careful not to acknowledge her, not to call on her, as if by ignoring her existence in the classroom, he is saving his special attention for their time later in the privacy of his small office. Her questions will come at the end of his posted office hours, late enough that traffic in the building is minimal, though few are ever down by the tiny stairwell at the far end of Plant Hall.

On a few occasions, the desperate beauty of line or color or theme translates to a passion less academic in nature, always followed by tearful declarations of affection mixed with apology, gentle caresses, and compliments crafted and delivered in accented English complete with dramatic pauses as he searches for just the right word. As I did, they always rush to help him, their empathy desperate, wholly engaging, generous with youth and inexperience. These transgressions in professorial professionalism occur several times over the course of any given semester only to wither in time for the lengthy and difficult final exam.

I watch this over and over with a mix of contempt and regret, as I understand only too well the intoxication of special attention from Dr. Demopoulos. I am obsessed and I cannot turn away each time, observing from the small stairway by his office. The small office where he once made me feel distinctive, worthy of his attention. Before the test results came back. Before his fear and his passionate nature made him wrap those long fingers around my throat and squeeze. Before he tucked me into this place, just off the small stairway at the end of Plant Hall.

Thanks, Carolyn.

You can find more of Carolyn’s writing at http://groundsforsuspicion.blogspot.com.

Next, we have…

The Bruja’s Gift to the Cat

by Maggie Felisberto

MF

The first to wake was the rat at midnight. She uncurled a broken toe, twitched a half-tail, then arched her back to stretch the stiffening out of her spine. She had died that morning. Outside, the moon was new and the clouds were thick. No light eked through the slitted windows of the minaret.

The others came slowly—shrews and voles and salamanders and mice—they stitched themselves back together from their fallen and splintered pieces. A young pipistrelle pulled wings and feet and ribs from the pellet he’d become in death. Though his flesh was missing, he flapped and flew in silent glides, pinpointing each lifeless one to rise within the bell of the minaret with soundless squeaks and echoes. The dead don’t talk, but the pipistrelle didn’t notice his own silence. Two small sparrows flitted at his side. Some of the company, like the lady rat, still bore their skins and faces, but even more had been whittled down to bone.

The last to wake was the cat. She linked herself together, bone to bone to bone to bone until she was complete. Her pearl jaw opened in a silent shout, and the company paid their predator heed. With this witching night, they would meet with the other minarets’ companies—the ones led by the owl, the eagle and the opossum were waiting at the Rathskeller. Each minaret housed a small universe of the dead.

Cat and Rat and Bat pushed and swung the door together until the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice had all escaped the tower top. The sparrows sped through on silent wings, beckoning Bat to join. The pipistrelle broke from the door and followed. The lady rat slipped past next, still favoring her broken toe. The cat checked for any remnants left behind, then shut their home behind her.

The shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, the two sparrows, Bat and Rat stood silent and steady, watching Cat and waiting. It was their first witching, and only Cat could lead them. In life, cat had loved a bruja who had granted Cat seven lives, but who had forgotten seven hearts and seven pairs of lungs and seven skins. Cat had one life left, but had waited forty years as bones for this witching night, a night she could regain a heart, lungs and skin and leave the old hotel again. The bruja smelled of sweat and cigars in Cat’s memory, like the hotel once had as well. Now the hotel smelled of stress and books and old carpeting. Cat knew that it had become a school.

The owl, the eagle and the opossum were already waiting at the bar. The ghost of the bruja served them a sweet vermouth, the wine of the dead. Cat’s company of shrews and voles and salamanders and mice each drank when they were served, the cool red liquid disappearing under invisible tongues and into silent mouths. Cat drank, too—dipped one paw into the wine and licked it clean with a bristled tongue only she could feel. The lady rat and the pipistrelle flanked the old cat on either side. Each of them drank vermouth.

“You know,” the bruja’s ghost said to Rat, “This bar is called the rat’s cellar.” Rat squeaked an inaudible reply.

Once each in their companies had drunk their fill, the owl, the eagle and the opossum led their groups of bone and flesh back to their own minarets. Cat’s company was the last to leave. The bruja’s ghost scratched Cat behind the ears, fingers rubbing solid air where fur would have been. Cat loved the bruja again, but was glad she’d been a bruja of seven and not a witch of nine. Nine-lived cats never died, but after six whole lives, Cat was ready for one last life and then rest.

Cat and Rat and Bat led the shrews and voles and salamanders and mice, along with the two sparrows, back to their home minaret. Cat pushed open the door, and the small boned creatures scurried and fluttered through the door. Rat and Bat were the last to go through, each turning to Cat and beckoning her in. But Cat shook her head. The lady rat and pipistrelle passed through the door with silent sadness.

Then Cat closed the door. Outside, the sun began to rise, and Cat began to grow. Fur and skin, tooth and claw, heart and lungs and liver. Muscle and blood and tongue. The new cat turned her head and licked the fur of her haunches. In this life, she would be a tabby. When she had finished her grooming, she yawned with a loud pop of breath, arched her back in a stretch and darted through the old hotel to the main doors. Once they were open, she would live her last hurrah before returning to the minaret, her home.

Thank you, Maggie.

If you enjoyed that, click the hyperlink to pop over to Maggie’s blog and let her know.

The next Plant Hall Spooky Story Contest is in June, and I hope to post those winning stories as well.

Now go, all of you, and write something that scares the hell out of you.

Today’s word is “笑.” (Xiào)

I’ve been grouchy lately. I have several theories about why that is that I won’t go into here, but I’ve been thinking the past few days that I need to actively seek out joy and focus on the small things in life that make me smile. I need to laugh more. We all know that happiness is healthy. I read just this morning about a recent study that links cynicism and dementia.

So, what am I going to do about it? I decided a couple weeks ago to seek out friends more often, visit my mother and sister more than the once per month that seems to be the trend. Last week I took my Mom to a Lyle Lovett concert in Saint Petersburg, and we had a great time catching up and enjoying the music. She’s one of my favorite people, and I’ve always wanted to be more like her. As a bonus, I ran into two old friends at the Mahaffee Theater while waiting for the concert to start. So, I’d say I’m off to a good start on the road to being a more cheerful guy.

Here’s what prompted this semi-silly post. I’m training for a 15km run in February, so I’m working on increasing my weekly mileage. I ran 6 miles this morning and felt great. You can’t beat fall in Florida for perfect, cool, sunny weather in the mornings. On the way out, I passed by my youngest son’s middle school, and some of the older kids happened to be out on the field for recess or P.E. A group of three or four of them tried out their taunting skills on the old man jogging by with “run, Forrest, run,” and “work them skinny thighs!” As I continued to run, that encounter struck me as increasingly funny, and I laughed out loud as I tried to remember what being in 8th grade was like.

On the way back home, something caught my eye–the sun reflecting off a shiny surface on the sidewalk. I saw what looked like a Chinese character in red and, curiosity whetted, I turned back to look. What I found was a small, magnetic clip-on thingy, possibly intended as a bookmark, with the Chinese character for “laugh” printed on one side.

I recognize that I’m one of those people who looks for meaning in things, and I know I have to moderate that tendency with common sense, but this seemed like a benevolent message directly to me from the Universe. A sign, if you will. As soon as I got home, I went to the computer, dripping sweat on the keyboard, and looked up a pronunciation of the character in Chinese. What a fun language. Turns out it also means “smile.” I’ll be walking around the house today enjoying the taste of the word Xiào, and smiling.

Untitled, 2007

I found this in a journal I wrote in Baghdad during the “Surge.”

In Mesopotamia the god is angry,
The air stinks and the dogs are mangy.
Eye-for-eye and hand-for-hand,
And the blood of the people soaks the land.
From deep inside the Green Zone’s walls,
Send Hershey bars and soccer balls
to soothe angry fathers’ hearts
while they police the body parts.

Happy Holidays, and the Dog with No Name

Dog

Dear Readers,

Thanks so much for visiting now and then. Happy Holidays from me and from this cute critter I rescued yesterday from the Humane Society of Tampa. He and my family became instant friends. Now, it’s time to train him to be a polite member of society, but…he is currently known as the Dog with No Name. That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue while teaching him to sit and breaking him of his paws-on-the-chest habit. So, I wonder if anyone out there on the interwebs has a clue what we might call this new addition to our household. Send me some ideas, won’t you?

Thanks.

February 2014 update: We named him Dexter. It seems to fit.

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son

Image

I recently finished Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories called Jesus’ Son. The book follows a drug-addled character known as “Fuckhead” through several misadventures that are likely to produce a range of emotions from empathy to disgust, humor to anger. I met Denis Johnson back in June at the University of Tampa MFA summer residency where he appeared for a readings, question-and-answer, and had lunch with a small group of us star struck writing students. I seriously doubt he’d remember me, but I remember him as a polite and intense man with no time for bullshit. I liked him.

The overall effect of Jesus’ Son on me, once I got over being reminded that a layer of our society exists in a constant state of hopelessness fueled by a circular cycle of alcoholism, hard drugs, and bad decisions, was to ask myself what it is in human nature that nudges some of us toward self-destruction. I think these stories illustrate, like old-time fairy tales that teach children to obey their elders, what can happen when we value escapism more than establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships. To the question of how people can descend into a state that allows them to commit terrible acts without remorse, the stories in Jesus’ Son may provide some insight.
Denis Johnson may not have intended any sort of instruction when writing these stories, and perhaps they are as pointless as they seem, the ramblings of wasted losers clinging to the underbelly of society. I prefer to assign some sort of purpose to stories like these to counteract the realistic horror I find in them, and if readers are looking for a modern set of cautionary tales, Jesus’ Son fits the bill.