Friday, December 4, 2009

Lemon Tree – Curt Johnson


Curtis Johnson - May 26, 1928 - June 9, 2008

I think what I enjoyed the most about “Lemon Tree” was just the raw honesty of a man’s life that Johnson illustrates.

The frustrated complicated relationships, the substance abuse, the emotional abuse and the quest to reinvent oneself.

There were times in my life, and times when I was younger when I wished that I could change who I was. I remember in grade school wishing that I was taller. That my nose wasn’t so big, that I had better skin, that I was more muscular. As an adolescent, I think those wishes and desires are normal.

As an adult, we are placed into positions where we can change who we are. We just need to seize the opportunity. Now, I don’t mean that one should go about changing one’s life or leading one’s life as the main character does in “Lemon Tree”. Change should happen where there is minimal and possibly zero negative impact to others. The character sees flaws in himself, his life and seeks to reinvent himself. He does so through cheating on his wife, and abandoning all that once was his life by relocating to another country.

My idea of change in life should be accomplished through self improvement. Education, health, the expansion of ones awareness.

When I left for Romania, I was asked by someone very close to me if I was running away from something. This person in fact was acting a bit selfishly and attempting to convince me that leaving was a bad move. I fought back against the accusation that I was running (perhaps I was). I felt that I had reached a point in my life that I needed a change to happen. I was 26, and I knew that my immediate future did not lie in Norfolk. I felt that the future for me was out there, someplace in the world. I sought out improvement through volunteering to help others, and in doing so I changed so much that the man that departed Virginia was not the same man that returned.

It took 2 ½ years, and that was plenty enough time. I helped, not hurt others. I improved myself rather than injured myself or others. I grew rather than deteriorated.

Looking back, I feel though that I could have accomplished so much more. I could have not drunk so much. I could have lifted weights and come back a hulk! I could have read every book I wish I could read now.

But, I did what I did, and in the end, I am all the better for it.

Perhaps there will be an opportunity to change my life sometime down the road. In fact, I can do it whenever I feel like it. It just takes discipline and motivation. I can educate myself, I can learn a new language, I can become healthier, I can start writing, I can read more...all of these things can be done without damage to my loved ones.

It just takes responsible moves.

In 3 years I will be 40. There will be plenty of eyes on me to see if I buy a red convertible. Problem is, people know me too well and know that I would be satisfied with a bike.

Score 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Into the Wind – Robert Henderson


Robert Henderson March 19, 1906 - December 3, 1998

Before I enter into writing about this story, just a quick observation.

I’ve often wondered about the placement of the stories within these volumes. I naturally (at least natural to me) thought that the volume editor would place the stories in a specific order. It would seem that perhaps they would like to set some sort of theme...family, deaths, depression, stages of life – etc.

Maybe they felt that placing the stories into the volume with their most favorite at the beginning would ensure that a particular story would be read – thinking that a potential reader of the volume would purchase the book, make it through several shorts and then move along to something else.

A funny set of recent coincidences took place that prompted me to think about this...but I have a strange feeling that I have written about the story placement before.

Since I read these stories in order, after each story, I look back at the brief biographical information about the author. I noticed that with the current volume, all the authors were listed in alphabetical order and at the moment, I questioned this because my memory (which may have been incorrect) told me that the author bio’s appeared in the order that the stories appeared in the book. I checked the table of contents, and Elkin had the stories lined up in the book alphabetically by the author’s last name. Hum –...did Oates or Solotaroff?

Nope – their picks were not listed in alphabetic order.

Now since I have a bitter taste in my mouth concerning the picks by Elkin, I have created a little dialog between him and Ravenel.

“Hi Stanley – this is Shanon”

“Yeah whadda ya want”

“ Well Stanley, there’s just one last thing concerning your selections for this year’s Best American Short Stories volume”.

“Yeah what”

“Well, is there are particular order that you would like the stories to appear?”

“I don’t give a shit”. click.

Simple. –

Now, I imagined this little dialogue before I heard 2 interviews with Tobias Wolff.

The first was on the edrants.com site under the Bat Segundo interviews. Bat – who is an absolutely incredible reader just steamrolls over Wolff concerning his writing, and some similarities that appear in several of his stories. Wolff reacts pretty defensively...which is what I would expect of him – but it honestly makes him look like a jerk. I think he could have relaxed a bit more...but then again, this is Wolff.

Anyway, I’m off track –

Bat asks him about the placement of his stories in his collection “ Our Story Begins” and Wolff gives his reasons why he had the stories placed in no particular order. Wolff feels that the average reader of a collection does not read the collection from front to back. They pick it up and look for a story that might suit them for the moment, a story that fits into a desired length (shorter for bedtime) or if it is a volume with a variety of authors, one might be looking for a work by a specific writer.

I then listened to the Writers on Writing podcast which featured an interview with Wolff and I made it into about minute 3 when he responded to a question with an answer almost word for word from the Bat interview citing authors, books and even the same little anecdote within the answer. –Ugh – man, he was on the circuit promoting his book. Bummer.

So, I suppose that I shouldn’t look to deep into the placement of these stories because I really have no idea behind the decision making process...or if one even exists concerning this. It is my opinion that the individual who compilies the stories should consciously decide where the stories go based on a message he/she wishes to impart. – But that’s me.

“Into the Wind”

Henderson told Contemporary author: "I have always moved toward writing, even in childhood. Though making a living has sometimes intervened (along with indolence), writing has been a basic preoccupation and still is. It is a very slow process, and the results have been fairly small. Aside from some early efforts, I have published chiefly in the New Yorker--essays, paragraphs for the `Notes and Comments' section, and a number of short stories."

Here is a pleasant story. It held my attention and once again, when there is a male character that is mourning or reflecting on the life he once had with his now deceased wife, I seem to really be drawn into the story.

I love my wife deeply. We have been married for 9 years and 3 months. We have known each other since October of 1998. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her.

The exact moment, the level of light, the temperature in the hallway and room.

It is a memory that I reflect on enough in an attempt to permanently sear it into my mind.

Part of the motivation outside of love that provoked me to ask her to marry me was the feeling that I couldn’t live without her. I couldn’t possibly move forward in my life without her. At the time in which I wanted her to become my wife, there were some pretty well defined paths before me. Well, actually 2 paths. I know that if I had chosen the path that I am not on now, my life would have been miserable. I now that she is responsible for many of the good things that have happened in my recent past. Her ability to correct my course “on the fly” is incredible.

I can actually feel an ache in my chest when I imagine my life without her and when I encounter stories like “Into the Wind” the ache returns.

I often think about our final days, and I selfishly wish that when our time comes, I would be the one to go first.

But then I think further into that thought and I hurt because I know the pain that she would feel, and I couldn’t possibly imagine her living with that heartache.

Her – staring out of a dusty window at empty tree branches- mind empty, long grey wisps of hair falling across her thin face. A soft audible whimper escaping between breaths – legs weak and knees trembling from lack of nourishment.

Me- a stooped grey man, dressed in a faded flannel shirt, worn at the elbows. Cloudy eyes behind smudged glasses, mouth agape, leaking scotch fumes.

-Alone.

The wind that I would be facing as I paddled my boat alone would just be too much. I haven’t the wisdom or strength yet in life to propel my boat to its destination alone.

Crying.

Score – 9 out of 10.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The First Clean Fact - Larry Heinemann



Larry Heinemann (born 1944)

I find it funny, maybe a bit strange that this is the first story addressing the Vietnam War that I have come across in my reading project. It took 2 ½ volumes.

1980.

Perhaps it was the curse of the 1970s that prevented a mention or thought of it.

Sure, I know when this was first published...but why have there not been other stories until now?

Heinemann –

Reading interviews with the author, he doesn’t hide how he feels about the Vietnam War and his experience there. His honesty is brutal but needed and I think that the honesty was needed then and perhaps it is needed now...since we seem to be living in the age of the endless war.

But are we really “at war” or has this reality that we exist in now just become the new normal?

Where are the anti-war novels and short stories of today?

Interesting isn’t it?

Ahhh...yes...there isn’t any money behind an anti-war novel. There is plenty of money behind novels such as Joker One (not necessarily pro-war – but not really anti).

How many accounts from retired Generals or Majors are out there describing the battles that they engaged in?

Are these war porn novels? I read Joker One and enjoyed it. I considered it a war novel though. I did not consider it an anti-war novel.

I’m not going to weigh in on one side or another on the endless war(s) that we are in now...but I think that it would be quite healthy for the country to ingest some of that poison I discussed several entries ago. We need to hear about the nasty things that go on in war. We need to hear about the deaths in Iraq and the growing deaths in Afghanistan. The deaths of our young citizens as well as stories of death and horrors inflicted on the citizens of countries we happen to be conducting military operations in. We need to hear about the billions of dollars being used to fund these wars...the corruption of governments that we support...but you know what? It ain’t sexy, and it won’t sell – so you aren’t and won’t hear about it.

Perhaps, several years from now, after some of the grunts return and take advantage of the GI Bill education they deserve, (currently, there are many vets doing this) they will publish these stories and novels, and we will all sit back and say wow – we never knew...we were so busy spending money with our credit cards watching “The Bachelorette” on our 80 inch plasma T.V. to noticed how messed up you are and how you want to kill everyone due to PTSD.

Look – I know I am simplifying this – wayyy over the top simplification.

I just feel that what is going on out there is not healthy, and we aren’t paying close enough attention to what is going on in our collective name.

Sure, there is an all volunteer military force. – Try to get a job outside of the military though. Good luck.

The stats for survival within the military are great. Pay is wonderful – not to mention the benefits. Problem is – what if you are one of those guys from North Dakota who is a PFC sent on a mission and not though any fault of you own...kill a child.

Yeah – good luck dealing with that for the rest of your life.

Am I insulting someone by asking that? Should I not even dare ask that?

What is so wrong about discussing the killing that was, and is being done, with a returning soldier?

Yes, the subject should be approached respectfully – you don’t just go up to a guy and say “hey did you kill anybody over there?”

Where do I get off talking like this? What combat experience do I have?

Well- no combat experience – but does that restrict me from asking that question? I think that asking questions and not being punished for asking them is one of our greatest freedoms – and those freedoms – were purchased with blood. Were they purchased with the blood of the men and women fighting today? No – are they honestly defending my right to ask those questions by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan today?

Do the Taliban have a military force that could actually take down our government and restrict what I am saying right now?

‘Be careful” all you slippery slope people say...

Who is more likely to take away my freedoms? The Taliban in a village in Afghanistan or the current or future government of this country?

Yemeni terrorists trained in Sudan launch attacks on American soil and kill 2,000 innocents. Will that action take away my freedoms or will the actions taken by my government to “protect” me take away my freedoms? It’ll 2001 all over again but this time Total Information Awareness will be public – not hidden behind door 641A, as it is now.

I think that being a walking contradiction or holding beliefs that can seem on the surface as being contradictory is healthy.

Sure, you can look on my bio over there on the right and see that I was in the Peace Corps. But please, I won’t label you without truly knowing you if you don’t label me without truly knowing me.

I have many questions in my head.

Questions that take weeks, months and years to answer. Some questions may never be answered. But it is through my reading that I am able to go deeper into my question, become more confused, or see some light at the end of the tunnel.

-Look, I know that I’m not a great writer. I’m not even a good writer. Please, count the mistakes on this page.

I can’t explain my positions very well. I have trouble putting down on paper what I really feel – or at least making others understand what I really feel. I can recognize a good writer when I read them – and I know I’m not one. I just put words on the screen and it makes me feel better. And isn’t that what its all about?

What did this story leave me with? It left me with the thought that we need to recognize dissent.

Stop being afraid. Consider the other side. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you on a certain position doesn’t mean that they are going to kill you...or that they support those who want to kill you.

And I’m not talking about dissent directed towards the war or the government. I am talking about dissent that contradicts what you hold the truth to be – in anything.

From your favorite TV show, to an author, a movie, a car...anything. Just stop being afraid of those who don’t agree with you.

We need to question more. Question everything.

Look at where we are as a country. Look at where we could be going. How did we get here? Where were the questions? Where are the questions?

Here are a couple of passages taken from interviews with Heinemann.

The Atlantic interview June 1997

Writing about what you know or don't know is hardly the issue. As I take it, storytelling is guided self-discovery, a meditation; it means listening deeply down into your most human (and humane) imaginative resources.

Sometimes your imagination is overwhelmed by a single subject or event. The Holocaust, Vietnam, the South, growing up black. Conrad wrote beautifully about the sea and sailors; so did Melville. Kafka made a career of nightmares. Virginia Woolf wrote about the English upper-middle class. The trick, always, is to connect the story with the wider world of human relationships and experience.

Logosonline - Interview from 2003

We all heard the stories of getting spit on, that mythology, when we were overseas. I can tell you that when I arrived home I was not in the mood. Some years ago I read from Paco’s Story at the University of Wisconsin and it was the only time I ever lost my temper at a reading. This guy, a history professor and the faculty pill, I was later told, said if he had met me at the airport he would have spit on me. I came out from behind the podium. I was shaking with anger and I said, “Shooting someone with a rifle and spitting on them comes from the same place in the heart. Second, I had just come from a place where I didn’t take any shit from anybody. You spit on me and you get your ass kicked within an inch of your fucking life.” I am not going to be ashamed that I came through the war that in one piece. I’m not proud of what happened in Vietnam, either. How can an honest person be proud of such a thing? But I am not ashamed.

I don’t think a month – a week goes by without me thinking about the path that my life has taken. I think that because of my work, and the exposure to the military that we have here in Norfolk, I often wonder where I would be if I had entered into military service. I won’t deny that at times I regret not entering the service.

The chances for me to sign on the line were numerous and all too easy.

From high school – entering at the age of 18 – enlisted

-To college – possibly the Reserves and then off to the Officer Corps.

I actually had my father – not discouraging me from joining.

What kept me from taking that step? Once again, this is where I drift into the thoughts of predestination.

Where is my life going? What is out there waiting for me?

Score - 9 out of 10.

Hey – why don’t you take the above as a work of Fiction – a story? It’ll make the pill go down easier. I promise.