Monday, November 28, 2011

Kingdom Come - Mavis Gallant

Bumping into Mavis once again. A stirring story. One that within the last couple of seconds, thinking about writing something for this story this story, has caused a flood of thoughts to pass and hopefully will result in a post that is more fitting to what this blog once was. Let’s be honest. I haven’t faithfully discharged my duties on this blog.

Taking stock of one’s life. Is one supposed to do this at my age?

It’s times like this, at 0426 in the morning when I am a little off due to the odd time and a story comes along like this one, where I get a little nervous about my place in this world, and what if anything I will ever amount to and finally, what sort of person will I be remembered as.

I pull back when I should be driving forward. I have the motivation – but then, I stop short. This can only serve to hurt me.

I should be, and it’s true, in some respects, happy with certain aspects of myself and what I have done with my life, but in others…I feel I am lacking.

I need to drive on and to find the motivation in myself to accomplish what it is that I am “here” for.

It’s stating the obvious that I need to be the one that makes this happen. I need to be the one sitting at a table writing. I need to be the one sitting at a table researching. I need to be the one exploring new avenues to enrich myself. I need to do this now.

We visited my father a couple weeks ago. He’s not doing well. His mind is getting worse. The disease is advancing and he is becoming less and less of who he was. We arrived just after dark on a Wednesday evening and as I carried the boy onto their back patio, I could see him through the window in his living room just sort of staring down at the floor. I don’t know if his wife was speaking to him and he was listening…or if he was lost in his head someplace. One evening, during our visit, I sat at a table and watched him struggle at the kitchen sink with the inability to figure out which handle protruding from the counter would cause water to flow from the faucet. I saw the frustration and confusion in his face for what felt to be the longest 8 seconds of my life as I silently coached him towards making the right selection. He walks from room to room not knowing why he walked into that room only to keep walking in hopes of quickly remembering why he walked into that room…so in the end, his journey becomes circular.

My father takes stock of his life often now, and this makes him very angry. He realizes that his mind is dying and that everything he spent his life working towards is vanishing. His friends never call him. His former co-workers never visit or call. It’s almost like he never existed, and he realizes this and it makes him sad.

I remember when he and his wife purchased their house. It was around 1996 and he was very excited that this new house had a room that would be his own office. The house is huge, and he was a little taken aback by the size. Showing me around the place back then, he talked of someday retiring, opening a private practice in the house and describing the set up in such detail as to mention the thought of creating a door that would allow his patients to enter his office directly. He wanted to write a book someday. He wanted me to help him write that book.

And now. All of that is gone. He sits in his office amongst his tall shelves of collected books and art moving one stack of magazines and papers onto the top of more magazines and papers only to move yet another stack of papers onto another stack of papers.

This last visit really caused me to pause and think about my mind and where it will be in 20 years. That’s about how long I have if the disease hits me when it struck him. I picture this giant clock ticking over my head and with each year, the hands move closer to a detonation point.

I feel that I am running out of time. And I am doing nothing to solve this problem.

Favor – Elizabeth Tallent

I was rather happy when this little story popped up in the collection. I really enjoyed Tallent’s previous story “Ice” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 1981 and which I wrote about back in February 2010.

Tallent has a nice way of carrying the reader through a story. Rich descriptions, twists of words within the dialogue that I really enjoy.

So much has changed in my life since February of 2010. It was that month that M and I decided that we were ready to take on the challenge of becoming parents. Our challenge was met, we are fortunate enough now to be the parents of a little one that has made us the happiest of people.

When M and I first arrived in America, I was returning as a man who was newly married.

It was my duty, I felt, to provide.

I felt that I had certain responsibilities as a husband. It took a little time for me to settle into my new role, and I felt that I had that time, as I had no idea as to what I really needed to do.

We lived in a crummy one bedroom apartment in a sketchy section of town and we were very happy when we made the move to a more stable location and a larger apartment. We plodded on through our daily grinds – M and I both working...and then M taking on the challenge of earning a degree while working. We each had our own lives within the life we shared together. A large part of the personal life that I created was within the time I spent reading. I also spent plenty of time alone out on the roads during my runs. M enjoyed watching her favorite movies and the “free time” we had before the boy now seems enormous.

Looking back over the ten years that we were married before the boy came along, I can’t say that I was placed into any position similar to that of the husband character in this story. I’m good at compromise and weighing out the time devoted to my responsibilities both at work and at home. Sure, as one would expect, there are minor things that M has to get on me about to complete but nothing that really gets under her skin. If marriage and fatherhood has taught me anything, it is that you must put others before yourself. The well-being of those you love the most should be your primary concern. We should endeavor to make those around us as comfortable and pleasant in this world as possible because really, it’s rough out there.

The Prince - Craig Nova

I wish that throwing away secrets were as easy as the Prince was able to dispose of his uncle's dirty little book.

I have a secret that I wish I could just throw away into a trash bin. It's nothing too scandalous but one that has haunted me and sat heavily on my heart for 17 years. It deals with my education.

Sorry… it's not that juicy.

How often do I think of it?

Far too often I feel.

At least several times a week...for 17 years.

It is a matter of shame for me.

How can I unburden myself from it?

Perhaps what I am doing now is one way. Working through it.

The Prince lost everything in his life. I doubt my losses would be as massive. I honestly don't know what my losses would be but I am sure that once the secret is revealed, there will be a few people that could be hurt and they will be restricted to family members...which makes it even worse...which is probably why I am holding this secret.
As I put my feelings down about this secret, testing the waters of allowing it some freedom, I have chosen to place it on a medium that my family doesn't even know exists.

I have been writing here and working through some of my issues with my life since 2008. M knows that I collect these books, and she sees that I read them but she has no idea what I do with them after. I've often thought about the day when one of them discovers this little corner I've carved out.

So, a little shameful secret - does it feel like a black hood such as the Prince felt descend over him?

It does on occasion...and I'm so afraid that when the secret becomes too strong, the hood will not be able to be removed.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Afterlife – John Updike

A fine enough story by Updike I suppose. I go through phases with him. There are times when I can’t get enough of his writing and with this story; he isn’t driving me back to his work. I found it hard to relate – to any of the characters in this story and for it, I found myself pushing myself to read faster so that I could put another story under my belt.

As I sit and write these sentences, I am struggling to do just that – I can’t seem to write anything about this story.

I will say this about Updike. He forces me to look at my life, my marriage, my history with women and my future with my wife, and my son…with a much closer eye than perhaps I would have ever done had I never stumbled across his works. I enjoy his style, I find his writing very readable and I always feel comfortable reading him, and I feel certain gentleness about him.

Updike is all over these volumes and in my collections of short stories and I can’t possibly expect to enjoy every one of his works.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Way We Live Now -Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag.
What could I possibly say that hasn’t already been said about her? This is perhaps the second or third work I have read by her. The first short story from her for sure. I think the other two works were commentaries or essays and honestly, I think I remember having trouble reading them.
During my early years at the paper, I had a co-worker in the library who was also the editor of the Book Page section. I remember her preparing quite extensively for a phone interview that she was granted with Sontag. I hadn’t the slightest clue at this point in my life who Susan Sontag was and I really didn’t feel the need to discover her. From what I remember, the interview was nothing spectacular…meaning that my co-worker didn’t stumble over her questions and Sontag must have gone through the motions of giving answers.
It was perhaps a year later that my co-worker was invited to a local university dinner and Sontag was a guest of the university president. The dinner was held that the president’s house so the affair would be somewhat intimate. My co-worker was very excited about the chance to meet Susan in person and to remind her of the interview and to pick her brain on “who knows what”.
As it often happens, the anticipation and build up to an event or meeting is far greater than the actual event. This was the case with meeting Sontag. For some reason, Sontag wasn’t in the best of moods that evening and that mood also projected out into creating an atmosphere that made her almost unapproachable. My co-worker left the meeting feeling upset and let down at her brush with celebrity and with future mentions of Sontag’s name, a wrinkled nose and disgusted face always seemed to make their way into whatever conversation involved the author.
I actually enjoyed this story. Perhaps I can lay its subject (AIDS and those suffering from it as well as those surrounding the suffering individual) beside what my father is going through now and how we are all attempting to deal with his Alzheimer’s.
My father and his wife came for a visit a week ago to celebrate my son’s birthday. As I’ve written before, each meeting we have opens a new door of enlightenment for me in terms of our past relationship and the one that we will have as his disease progresses.
We will visit him in another couple of weeks…on his home turf and I’m sure all sorts of new feelings will emerge and some of the current ones I carry will be solidified or discounted. I told M the other night that I feel that because he wasn’t present in my life on a regular basis after the age of 8, that his slow degeneration now isn’t hitting me as hard as is possibly could.
Yesterday, as I watched my son crawl, tumble and stumble around the room, a thought that had never entered my head before, surface and caused me to hesitate and pause the normal stream of consciousness that flows at a steady clip though my brain. I thought about my son and his future in this world as a grown man. As a man, my age, as a man who will exist someday without me looking over him (as I will always do while I am alive), and I began to wonder what he will remember and think of me, just as I am having these thoughts about my own father. I thought about my father’s mental state, and the fear that a nasty little Alzheimer’s gene is lurking in my brain waiting to attack.
I look at my son, and wonder if that gene is swimming around in his little brain waiting to destroy it someday.
I’m afraid of that for me and for him. My son isn’t even two, and it doesn’t seem fair that he is growing up with this sword of Damocles hovering above him. And furthermore, as to my own mental makeup, I’m afraid, as to what sort of father I will be. I’m afraid of embarrassing him of not being strong enough for him, of letting him down, of disappointing him and I wonder if my father ever had those thoughts about me…did he ever wonder about my future as I was crawling around on the floor?
It’s a huge charge to be a father, and I am afraid. But, I also realize that I cannot let that fear cripple me or cause me not to even accept the challenge of fatherhood.