Monday, October 22, 2012

Who or What to blame this time?  I have to have something to turn to for my slack-ass reading.

Shit look at how long it took me to read this volume. 

6 months 13 days


28 weeks


196 days


0.54 years

I have to figure that it's a record.

20 stories

That works out to one story read and written about every 9.8 days.

11 stories by men – 9 by women authors.

ONLY 3 from The New Yorker! – The Atlantic is represented the same number of times.

In terms of motivation, I will say that I was not at all motivated to read the stories in this collection. 

I can easily lean on Helprin and say that his distaste for the minimalist turned me off...I can blame my work schedule...

There is no one to blame though - just me. 

There really is only one thing to do.  Keep reading.  1989 is up.

Helping - Robert Stone

It's tough out there. Life is tough.

I wonder if there is anyone who lives there life without a struggle of some sort.

Sure, our struggles are relative to our existence and I think that my struggles/problems/issues/challenges are nothing compared to those faced by someone someplace else.

It's almost embarrassing to even think of my life and associate the word tough with it.

But - it's all relative.

I am so very lucky in my life.

I have a job (two actually) that I enjoy.

I have a wife that loves me.

I have a beautiful wonderful son. We have plenty of food to eat. We are all healthy -physically and emotionally.

I do not sit in a cubicle, in a job that I detest.

I do not have coworkers that I loathe.

I do not suffer from PTSD or substance abuse.

I do not self-medicate through food or drink.

I do not fight with my wife.

I am not envious of my neighbors.

I am so fortunate.

I read the news, and it seems that people are so troubled - that they are so unhappy.

There seems to be millions in our society that are challenged with problems that make their lives so difficult. They hate their job, they fight with their spouse, their children are in trouble, they wrestle with mental illness (their own or another's), their finances are shot, they struggle with substances - they want to be better than the Jones'.

There are petty little things that we (M and I) would like to change in our life (house vs. apartment), no student loans...and some stability in my parent's lives. But honestly…this is nothing.

This story – Helping, it’s about love and need and companionship – I have all those and more –

Victoria - Hilding Johnson

I'll turn once again to my thoughts on me and writing - and yes, they are still thoughts and they are just that – nothing more.

Perhaps I'm a volcano and I'll erupt - or one day, I'll get hit on the head, and my world will tilt just enough to get me to actually write something - meaningful.

Hilding Johnson, in her contributor's notes, reminds the reader that an author has the luxury of creating a world through their writing...sometimes a world that they have never physically visited.

I've been doing a lot of world creating and it's remained in my head - there have been efforts in the past to get them on paper but that perfect stone has not fallen from the sky causing those worlds to be transferred to paper.

I am afraid at times that the stone will be too big and crush me under its weight. It needs to be just the right size - and come at just the right time.

Could I possibly set up any more barriers for myself?

Still Life- Marjorie Sandor

I still find pleasure in flipping through old photo albums.

The yellow tinted photos of the 70s, the overly color saturated photos of the 80s and the glossy deep rich photos of the 90s. The near perfect processed hard copy photos of the digitally manipulated shots that I tuned before sending off to the drugstore – existent - but a noticeable smaller collection as most live in hard drives.

The photo albums that W will be able to glance through will be so different that what his mother and I once thumbed through in our younger years.

In my albums, no doubt, he will find old hard copy photos of M and I dutifully ordered by our parents many years ago swiped from their albums to fill our own. He will be able to look back through old photos of M and I – and recreate our lives in his mind before he was born.

He'll be able to see us before our marriage, before we met each other, before I left home and traveled to that town in southeastern Europe He'll be able to fill in the gaps with his imagination and over time piece together stories from the stories we tell him...someday relying on his own memory of our fractured memories.

He will see himself in my baby pictures, as a boy of 2. He'll see me as a scared and awkward boy of 10, and then a teenager struggling with teenage problems. He'll see me in photos with girls that aren't his mother. He'll see me with friends that he'll never meet. He’ll see me with my parents - grandparents that he may recognize in their physical form but who are something different in who they present themselves as today. He'll see me in a uniform. He'll see me with a beard and long hair. He'll see me in distant countries, with strange looking people. He'll see me living in his mother's village...but in photos without her.

And then he'll begin to see her appear in my photos. He'll see us as friends, co-workers and then the shots of our marriage. Celebrations with a family so far away.

He'll see two young people boarding an airplane looking brave, hiding their fears and insecurities about their future together. He'll see their lives develop together over the years, trips with family and friends...and then with the turn of a page, he'll appear.

If he finds his mother’s small book of photos, flipping through the pages, he’ll see his eyes in his mother's eyes as she stands in her little "young pioneer's" kindergarten uniform. Photos of her playing with her two brothers. Black and white images not taken not in the 40s...but the 80s...poor Romania.

He'll see her as a student with friends and boys that aren't his father. He'll see her happy at family gatherings and at dances. And then he'll see the two books become one as he begins to recognize images from my photo albums.

I have seen a few...5 or 6 at the most, photos of my mother and father when they were young. I don't ever remember seeing photos of them starting school, attending dances, graduating from high school or college. There are a couple of the two of them before I was born...but the real photos start flooding into the pages of albums once I arrived. As a child, I viewed the photos, I placed myself at the center of my focus. I've since shifted that focus to what surrounds me in those photos in an effort to understand the two of them a bit more.

Their relationship intrigues me and I have a long term assignment to learn from it. I no longer trust either of their memories - obviously not my father’s due to his disease, but my mother's memory has started to shift towards invention. She also has tainted her memories with those leaning towards only the good aspects of their time together - forgiving him for what he did, and not holding him accountable for the life he gave us after he left.

I will teach W to look at these photos without placing himself our M or me in the center of the focus. I'll ask him to look at our surroundings - the pictures on the walls, the leaves on the trees, the food on the tables. I'll ask him if he thinks that the people in the photos were happy when the photos were taken. Were they wearing false masks? What does he think is really going on in the photo - does the photo represent that instant accurately?

I'll do this to stimulate his imagination and to fill in the holes of our history. I'll tell him stories of those photos and give him details of my life, our life before and after they were taken.

It will be a wonderful experience for him to see our lives as far apart...joined...and told in a story that he'll soon tire of hearing...but one that he'll repeat one day.

And he'll also look at his life someday, collected in photos...almost a photo a day - and not see the changes that one can only recognize in photos taken at monthly intervals- will he notice the changes?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Smorgasbord – Tobias Wolff

Before I even reached this story, I had a reader that provided me with a bit of education in my comments section on the introductory post of this volume of BASS.  The comment linked here provided me with a little “head’s up” and I absolutely love the engagement of a reader.  I love that these little words that I am shooting out into space make their way onto someone’s screen and are then digested and are such that they prompt a response…and even a bit of information that I may not have been aware of make’s its way back into the post!  Truly a wonderful feature of the internet (how I love to love and hate you!).

I think I have shown my appreciation for Wolff in the past –

I really dig the guy and I needn't restate my appreciation again.
In the contributor’s notes of this volume, Wolff writes “This story wanted to be written for years before I gave in and wrote it.  Part memory, part invention, I can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.  The very act of writing has transformed the original experience into another experience, more “real” to me than what I started with.”

I appreciate this little tidbit.  When by buddies from Norwich and I get together –  the stories start to flow and the old line “The older I get the further from reality our stories become” is stated as we remember our days on “The Hill”.

So where did this story take me?

Back to college naturally!  Having attended military college I have a special relationship to some of the short stories Wolff writes – specifically stories birthed from incidents at “The Hill School” (no relation to Norwich).
It was my freshman year at Norwich and my father decided to drop by for a visit.  I think he was in the New England region so a quick trip to Vermont was easy.  He wanted to take me out to dinner and asked if there was anyone that I’d like to bring along (when I read Smorgasbord this is where my mind drifted back to the story I am now relating).

I decided that I’d like my friend Todd to dinner.   It was a bit of an odd choice because Todd was a year my senior and was also my assistant squad leader and my Cadre during my freshman year.  We were into similar music and had the same outlook on the world so we became friends once my class was accepted into the corps.  Todd wasn't the muscle-head mil-dog type and he (and I suppose I) never really fit into the military mold.

So the three of us headed out for dinner at an inn in Vermont on a cool spring evening in 1991 and dad allowed us to order what we wanted from the menu.  My dad ratcheted me a few notches in the small social world of our company by pulling out several very old bottles of single malt scotch to share with Todd and me.  I wasn't of age, and I’m pretty sure Todd was by this time old enough to drink, and conveniently the wait staff looked the other way as my dad poured us drinks. 

Part of my father’s ceremony with scotch is introducing and educating people as to the finer points of single malt.  This was lost on me but it made quite an impression on Todd.  We all enjoyed our drinks and after dinner my dad safely deposited us back at school.

There were a couple mentions of that dinner with my father over the months that followed, and Todd asked several times about my father as his time at Norwich came closer to ending in the years following. 
Todd and I were good friends.

The late spring of 1993 found Todd and I celebrating the last week of school for him. We sat in his room and shared a small bottle of tequila and rolled our own cigarettes.  It was of course against university regulations , but our reputation as being untouchable had been set (more on that some other day).

I remember the hazy conversation we had.  Girls, hazing, drinking…stories of mutual friends, plans for our futures.  

I remember his suitcases and boxes of books ready to be loaded into his car.  U2, his favorite group was on the stereo.

I called Todd once or twice after college.  I don’t remember the conversations.  I called him once after I returned to the states.  I vaguely remember that conversation.   And then on May 14, 2002, this arrived in my email inbox (being a quasi-librarian, I seem to keep everything).

hey jakon -

hope all is going well for you.  just wanted to touch
base and find out where you are and what you're up to
these days.

i'm living in new mexico right now.  but only for
about another month and a half.  on my way to england.
we'll be living about an hour north of london.

i won't bore you with too much info right now.  hell,
i'm not even sure if this will reach you.  let me know
if it does.


I remember reading this and was so happy to hear from him . 

I wrote back immediately.

A little information about Todd and where he found himself in life after school. 

As you can see by the date, we were well into the post 9/11 world.  Todd mentioned that he was moving to England.  He said that he didn’t want to bore me with the details because he couldn't bore me with the details.  Todd is a Special Forces Pilot. 

didn't hear from Todd after that quick little email exchange.  He was pretty busy with…you know… flying missions.

I drifted back to our conversation over the tequila – I never imagined these years later that Todd would be landing in some of the hottest zones where our troops needed to be. I was pretty tripped out.

And then, on April 1, 2005, his name appeared in the subject line of an email from a person that shared his last name.
It was from his wife.
Here is that email:

I am sending out this email to let you all know that we don't have any "official" word on Todd as of yet.  However, as I am sure all of you have seen the news, they are saying otherwise.  Todd took off for a scheduled training flight in Albania and then never returned.  The Air Force is doing all they can to help me and make sure that the closest of family members are flown out here to England to be with me and the two girls.  Todd's body will more than likely be sent via Air Force plane to Dover, from there I'm not sure what we will do with him.  Please continue to pray for each of us.  You all were important to Todd and I in so many ways.  Please feel free to email me or even call if you need to talk.  I can be reached at 011-XXXXXXXXX.  I do have people here with me at all times so don't worry about that.  Right now we are waiting for the "official" word and awaiting family to fly in to help me and the girls.  I am sorry to notify you all via such a cold medium, but as you can imagine, I do not have the strength to call each of you like I would like.  If you look at my list and feel that I may have missed someone (this list is mine, I don't have acess to Todd's) PLEASE forward it on to them.  Todd would want EVERYONE to know. Please pray for us.

Todd crashed into a mountainside in Albania. 

Three days later this email arrived.

I wanted to give you a little more information about Todd and what is going on here.  It seems that the plane crashed into a pretty precarious spot, so there is some delay with getting the bodies out of the plane.  There were live ammunition on board as well, so these must be removed before they can safely remove the bodies.  The plan is to take all the remains of all the bodies to Dover (in the States) and do the DNA testing there to confirm their identities.  After this is accomplished, then we will be having a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.  Since there is no way of knowing when his remains will be identified there is as yet no date for the funeral.  I will update you as soon as we have more news.  You are ALL invited to attend this service.  I feel we would be honoring Todd's life if you could attend.  Thank you all for your prayers and support of us during this incredibly difficult time.

I have no idea how his wife wrote this.  Her strength is incredible.

M and I went to Arlington for Todd’s funeral.  It was tough.

That’s all I’m going to say about that.

This short story, about two boys, joining a classmate and his step-mother for dinner took me back 20 years to an inn in Vermont. 

And it took me back 19 years to a shared bottle of tequila.
And finally, it took me back 7 years to the death of a good friend.

The story let me honor him by remembering him and placing this little bit of him out there into the universe.

Todd and I are good friends.

That's Todd on the left leading our platoon.  I'm behind him carrying the guidon.
I'm right behind you brother.  -Never forget-

No Friends, All Strangers – Lucy Honig

If you’ve had the chance to ride in a train, subway, trolley or crowded bus, this little short could bring some memories back of your time spent traveling on that mode of mass transit.
I have been lucky enough to experience this –in other countries and in conditions that I could have never imagined myself. 
The last time I had the chance to sit on a subway, to look at my fellow commuters, was several months ago.  I was on a day trip up to DC.  I was there to interview and I decided that it would be smarter to park in northern Virginia and make the trip into the District via train/subway. 
It was a good choice, landing me right in the heart of DC with plenty of time before my interview.  I was able to ride the train for a good 45 minutes observing my fellow travelers and of course making stories up for selected people that caught my interest. 
I have no doubt that there could have been a couple that looked back at me doing exactly the same. 
I felt good on that train – like I belonged there.  I conveyed that to M as I sat in the subway station eating a banana before the interview. 
The interview went very well, I felt good about how I presented myself, and all sorts of thoughts concerning our future move to this area flooded into my head as I rode the train back to northern Virginia to jump into our car and make my way home. 
But it was not to be.  I received a short 3 sentence email from the HR department of the company I interviewed with and then a couple days after that a somewhat longer (still only one paragraph) email from the supervisor in the department I interviewed for.
But my little 12 hour trip and my ride on the train/subway left its mark – a beautiful one that I won’t forget.  I remember faces.  I remember the beautiful business woman reading a book on her ipad and so lovingly cleaning the screen as her stop approached. 
I remember the men in military uniforms with their various unit patches getting on and off at the Pentagon.  The group of students hustling on with their bags stuffed with books at the Georgetown stop.  Tourists with their bright tie-dyed t-shirts and fanny packs sun burnt cheeks and thick middles – comfortable walking shoes and freckled forearms – all getting off near the Capitol building.
 Another beautiful woman, pale skin with a shadow cast across her face from a large floppy hat, whispery thin white fabric dress, not doing anything at all to conceal the shape of her body – the dress no doubt selected not only for its comfort on a hot day, but also because it did show off her body.  
All of these people caught my eye and left enough of an impression that I can call them up in my memory today.
When I lived in Romania, travel between cities was done by train, car and bus.  We/I would wait on the outskirts of town for a car that was going in my direction and I would attempt to catch the driver’s attention as they sped down the road out of town.  If they had a seat or two, we would jump in and pay the driver enough to cover gas at the end of our trip.  We would meet some interesting characters- and by the end of the trip there really wasn’t much left to image about our companions or driver. 
When fate had us jumping onto a bus that traveled between the smaller cities, we were transported from rural Romania to a cramped 30 year old Soviet autobus that had somehow been transported to India…meaning that we were stuffed in there with chickens, sheep, luggage, instruments, kitchen and construction supplies, raw meat, cooked meat GARLIC and the lovely breath of countless individuals who didn’t feel the need to brush their teeth or use deodorant…and it was lovely.
One thing that this story reminded me to do, is something that I think I have forgotten – something that is important to a person that needs to be creative, something that will be fun to pass on to W. 
I need to start using my imagination more – to tap into the creative side that I once had.  I’m feeling a new surge of this energy could be coming on.  I welcome it and will try to exploit it.

Wonderland - C.S. Godshalk

I was going to start off this by writing that “it is hard to imagine that there are any children today that live like this,” but after a moment’s thought, it’s easy to image that there are children that live like, this and in even worse conditions.

I would even go as far to say that there were classmates of mine that lived under similar conditions and probably were inches away from death.

Stories like this solidify my appreciation for the environment that I grew up in, and it forces me to pause and appreciate my life today.

Yes, we all may grow up under some pressures that may be less than ideal but I would venture to say that a good percentage of us have it pretty good.

At least in this country.

M has told me of her upbringing but I think that there are things that she won’t tell me – I’ve never pressed her on certain issues and I’ll just leave them. I also do not see anything in her behavior towards W that would make me nervous or cause me to press her on anything in her past.

There are so many children that are forced to grow up too quick as a result of their parent’s inability to parent or their inability to parent correctly.

Sure, I’m new to it…but we are doing a pretty good job at it. There were and are challenging times and there are going to be MANY more times that will dwarf anything that we have yet experienced as parents.

I know that we’ll work our hardest to deal with those problems as they arise and I have faith that we’ll be OK.

Parents can’t just run away. Yes, there are divorces…and I suppose that could be a form of running away and honestly, when the parent tells the children that the problem is with the other parent…is it really?

Again, I’m still working through the issues of my father leaving and his selfish actions –

I would like to think that our society here in the States are holding parents more accountable for raising their children than when this story was written.

As I would like to think that this is true…I am not surprised when I see a story in the media about a child left at home for days…or alone in a car…or a child held captive in a room, a closet or basement. And as I write this, I know that this is happening now – and it’s probably happening in my city, and I have the deepest pain in my heart to envision an innocent child – a child that I can only assign the same characteristics as my son, being subjected to conditions that no human, let alone a child who knows nothing in this world should have to bear.

And I can only assume that the parent or guardian of that child was subjected to a similar sort of punishment and this could be all they know – or perhaps the chemicals in their brain are just off a bit and they have no way of correctly caring for that child.

I think I’ve written before at my inability to read stories about the death of children or neglect/abuse of a child ever since the birth of W. Again, I can only assign the child victim a likeness of my son – and it’s too much to take in.

So, it goes without saying that this is one of those stories that will stick with me.