Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Instruments of Seduction - Norman Rush

Norman Rush - October 24, 1933


I’ve sat on writing about this story for sometime now. I simply didn’t know what it was try to tell me.

Until this morning…

As the seductress in Rush’s story expected certain things from the men that she seduced I find myself all too often living my life expecting things from…well…life.

I feel that expecting things from life sets you up for disappointment.

We expect to find a job after college.

We expect to earn good money at that job because of our degree.

We expect that with our success, we will find a mate.

We expect that with that mate we will start a family.

We expect that family to run like a well oiled machine.

We expect that with a successful job, stable home life that our future can only be bright and rosy.

And sometimes, this causes us to never expect bad things to befall us.

But if we don’t expect certain things, does that force us to live a life of mediocrity or force us to not strive to greater heights? Do we just accept the ebb and flow of life and let the often rising waters of “bad things” drown us? Do we accept what happens to us as fate?

I think I need to find a happy medium between expectations and the unseen hand of “life”.

I knew that after my son was born that the majority of control that I like to have over my life would disappear. He would throw so many variables into the equations of events that it would be impossible for me to calculate how I could exert my control over events.

I am still learning to let go of some of that control and let go of expectations.

In the case of his birth, the expectations I envisioned of my life after his birth have been exceeded.

I never could have imagined the range of emotions that have saturated my life over these past three months.

So as I continue to live, and as I raise my son, I will learn, and he will in turn, unknowingly teach me how to flow within this world.

Why I read

Again, I have been thinking a lot about why I read, and in particular why I read short stories and looking even deeper into that question, why I have chosen to read the “Best American Short Stories”.

I found the answer in an interview that I was reading this morning. A piece of reading that – surprise – is not what I should be reading. But please look forward to a post sometime in the future with me complaining that I am not making any headway in my efforts to plow through the BASS.

Tobias Wolff in The Paris Review Fall 2004 issue no. 171.

That’s the way we view our lives, by way of stories. Jesus taught mostly in stories—in parables: the good Samaritan, the woman at the well, the prodigal son. The teachings of that ancient Taoist text the Chuang Tzu are essentially a series of parables that force the mind into unexpected avenues of consideration and intuition. That’s what story can do that statement can’t do, axiom can’t do, rules and commandments can’t do. And that’s why Chekhov with his freedom from programs and vulgar designs continues to have this power over us.

Full interview can be found here.

So – there it is. Simply.

No let me go read something other than what I should be reading. – ugh -

Friday, January 7, 2011

Raven’s Wing – Joyce Carol Oates

A strange, kind of “out of place” story for JCO. “Out of place” meaning…well…to me, this just didn’t slide into what my mind accepts as a JCO story. I certainly don’t expect every story that she writes to be about incest, murder, rape or cheating spouses…you know…the “type” that everyone expects JCO to write. I just really couldn’t get into it – probably because horse racing and gambling doesn’t do much for me. Sure, I cold look past that into the overall message she was trying to deliver…and blah…blah…blah…but I just couldn’t sum up the energy to really get into this story. And you know what, that’s a good thing. I haven’t fallen totally under her spell.


City of Boys – Beth Nugent

Beth Nugent - ??

Ahhh…yes, another story to remind me how lucky I am to be born male. Jeeze…the headaches you women have to deal with throughout your lives.

Godwin hits us with the victim/victimizer one-two punch giving us this selection right after Angela. Sure it’s placement is due just by luck of the author’s last names…but, you know…is there a theme to her selections?

A gritty little story which ends up lending its name to the title of a collection of short stories from Nugent in the early 1990s.

Stories like this cause me to think back to my teenage years. I wonder if any of the girls that I knew in those days we in situations similar to that found in this short. Chances are, they were – and probably worse. Was it of their own doing…or were they subjugated?

Then I think back to my days in the classroom. I think about the young girls at their desks intimidated of me as I walk past them…intimidated just because I am a man, and someone has put that fear of men into them.

And then I am once again reminded that we are humans, and this is how things are, and this doesn’t make me happy but it does fascinate me.

Angela - Bharati Mukherjee

Bharati Mukherjee - July 27, 1940 –

My fortunate life has given me the opportunity to travel outside of this comfortable culture…this comfortable country, to discover the lives of people I will call the “others”. I’ve seen gypsy children in Russia, Romania and Italy. Legless beggars on wheeled platforms begging for food in the streets of Ireland and teenaged prostitutes in Eastern Europe. They are small slice of the “others” that remain bouncing around in my memory jarring me into facing my cushy life and recognizing that my petty problems are…just that.

Now that I have a son, I am hyper conscious of his little world. He lives in a warm house, with warm clothes, a soft bed… is provided with the best of food, has a set of loving parents and extended family. When he cries, he is consoled. When his diaper is wet or dirty, it is immediately removed and replaced with a clean one.

I have to work hard not to think of children that live in the mud, that are abused daily and go to sleep hungry. Children that look at their parents with a smile and see a frown returned.

At times, recently, I have been reflecting back to a train station in Rome.

The group of gypsies mark my father and I at about 20 feet.

Uh-oh… I’ve had run-ins with gypsies in Russia and Romania.

I mumble to my father to keep his guard up. We really don’t have an alternative path and we have to keep moving forward out of the station.

This of course was the reason why the group positioned themselves there.

Wonderful choke-point.

As we approach the group of 5 women, we clutch our packs close to our bodies and notice a swaddled baby being tossed through the air towards us.

Perplexing and fascinating as this is not a sight one encounters too often.

The mind is so quick to process this vision and to recognize that yes, in fact, there is a baby flying towards us and if we do not lift our arms to catch it, the little one will certainly fall onto the street.

Without consciously considering our actions, our arms lift away from our packs in an effort to catch the baby.

The group of thieves, having honed this maneuver to perfection, are able to calculate the speed at which we are approaching, knowing just the right time to throw the baby so that even if we do not reach out to catch the infant, their forward progression measured against ours, would allow them to catch the baby at about knee level.

But they knew!… that we would strain to catch the baby, raising our arms away from our packs and pockets, their forward progression allowing them to come against us in a “hug” with their hands quickly finding our pockets and making away with the contents while shouting and spitting.


The baby came to rest in the “hug” created by one of the women and my father. His pockets were fortunately zipped shut.

I joined the scuffle which ended in the blink of an eye as the women scurried off with their little swaddled baby “bait”.

I placed the baby at about 2 months old. He probably had about another 8 months in his position. That is of course if he was caught after every toss. What was the success rate of a successful toss and catch?

It’s not that hard to imagine that his little life couldn’t have lasted into its first year.

My son has once again forced me to acknowledge that I, we, are so fortunate.


“Angela” was/is an incredible story. Strong with raw detail and jarring in the images it paints.

But where does good intention butt up against exploitation? Love of a person or pity?

When can the good intentions of one, driven by love, actually do harm?

My son was born to us…here in America and is being held in my wife’s soft warm arms. Someplace in Asia, another “Angela” is pulling herself out of a leech infested mud pit…and in Rome a swaddled baby is flying through the air not knowing if this moment of weightlessness will be his final earthly sensation.

Fellow Creatures - Wright Morris

For 28 months, I lived in a small room in a small town in Romania. The room was in a student dormitory. I guess you could say that the room, rather my living space, was divided into three spaces. There was a small entrance hall. Small meaning 3 feet by 5 feet. Immediately off of the entrance hall was my bathroom. 3 feet by 8 feet. Just enough for a toilet, sink and bathtub. Walking forward from the entrance hall, you would step into my living quarters…my room. The room served as my kitchen, bedroom and study space.
Life was tough at times in this little space. It was freezing in the winter, broiling in the summer and there was at least one mosquito in the room biting me throughout the entire year. At one point, I held off an invasion of about half a dozen mice. I used a wooden kitchen spatula to defend my territory.
Early on during my time in the room, I was set upon by the devils of loneliness. The only thing that kept them at a distance was a few beers which would allow me to drift off into a pleasant slumber forgetting that I was very ALONE.
As the first winter was setting in, M and I took a trip to Iasi. As we walked down a street towards the train station we passed a small pet store.

It was in this store that I found a friend that would pull me through some dark days of my life in Romania and who would later connect M’s parents to us after our departure…acting as our presence in their newly empty nest.
He was a small white parakeet we named Bolfic (chubby cheeks).
Bolfic was plucked from his nice warm home in a large cage with about 50 other birds and slammed into a small cage, alone, thrust into the cold October air, transported by train back to Negresti and placed upon my table in my bedroom. Bolfic sat in his 1 foot by one foot square cage for about a month. I provided food and water for him and after a few short days, he seemed to be comfortable in his surroundings. He would chirp in the mornings and was nice and quiet during the evenings.
One day, late in November, I had the rare visit from some friends from another town. The girl who accompanied my friend walked into my room, and after the expected “oh…how cute…you have a little bird”, she opened the cage and allowed Bolfic to fly from his cage.
It was seconds into my protestations that she set upon me scolding me for not allowing the bird just a little bit of freedom.
It was the best thing that could have been done for the little guy.
For the rest of his life, Bolfic enjoyed a bit of freedom that most “domesticated” birds never see. He was allowed to fly about my room, sit on M’s head, and when he was hungry, he realized that he would still have his freedom even if he returned to the inside of his cage to eat a few seeds.
This little bird, in a way helped right me…kept me a bit sane. Was a presence when I walked back to my cold room after a hard day of teaching.
He had a personality, and was rugged.
When M and I got married, I moved into her parent’s apartment. Bolfic came with me. Her parents came to really love the little guy.
It was obvious that when we moved to the States, we would be leaving Bolfic.
Right away, he acted as a stand-in for us.
During our weekly phone calls back to RO, we would ask about him and he parents would carry on telling us stories about his latest misbehaviors.
M’s father would play the flute for him and feed him corn puffs.
He kept M’s mom company during the long dark cold days of wither while her husband was out working.
He had become their “child”.
Well, as it happens to all living things, he died one day.
It’s sad, because I can’t remember exactly when this happened.
I think we found out about his death through M’s brother. He mentioned it off hand during a conversation.
We immediately called her parents, and they explained that yes, Bolfic died.
They said he was flying about the room and hit a wall…they supposed that he broke his neck.
He died doing what he loved…simply flying.
From a crowded cold cage in Iasi, to a small cold room in a student apartment and finally, into a warm loving room in a Romanian bloc, Bolfic brought love and comfort.