Archive for February, 2013

Murakami II

I check the clock on the dash. Sure enough, it’s 7:22 and there to my right, one car ahead of me in the next lane, is my friend in the Porsche Boxster.

We often meet like this, he and I, at this one traffic light between 7:22 and 7:24 in the morning. Sometimes one of us is just a little off and makes the light, but I would say it’s about three times a week now that we find ourselves here waiting at the red together. Usually he is just ahead of me and I wink at the tiny, black chip in the fiberglass of the back bumper. It’s like that one thread out of place in a Persian rug.

I suppose I first took notice of him because of the car itself. I’d always said that if I could have one sports car, it would be a Porsche. Obviously, the 911 is a more coveted machine, but I think the Boxster is a respectable choice. Less showy, less ostentatious.

I respect that about my friend in the silver Boxster. He might have stretched his finances further and gone for the candy-apple red 911, but no, that wouldn’t be responsible. He chose well.

Maybe someday we’ll take a trip together, he and I. A nice getaway. It’ll have to be on his dime, of course, since he clearly makes more money than I do. Maybe a road trip in the Boxster itself. We could go up into the mountains, creeping carefully up the icy roads to a ski lodge. The Boxster is rear engine and rear-wheel drive, after all, so we’d probably be fine. At first, we’d probably think about skiing, but then maybe the weather wouldn’t look too good for that and we’d have to just stay in for that first night. He’d talk about his life in high finance and I’d confess it troubled me how much difficulty I have hanging onto a job.

Then, as the sun set and things got dark, maybe we’d find ourselves falling silent for a moment. In that moment, maybe my friend with the Boxster would realize he’s been missing something all this time, maybe he’d see himself as a fundamentally lonely person, and he would look up then and see me, really see me for the first time and realize, all at once, how important our friendship that started at that intersection in the morning between 7:22 and 7:24 really is.

I think then he would come over to me and sit down, place his arm around my shoulder like a chum–just like a chum, mind you–and smile.

Yes, maybe someday we’ll do that.

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End Times

Yesterday I started writing a story (posted today) about an unabashedly positive and optimistic reaction to crisis–a hypothetical portrait of the best in the human spirit prevailing in the, literally, darkest hour. I don’t remember at what moment yesterday I looked up and imagined the sun going out, but I do remember thinking right away that the story taking shape in my head would be a foil to my earlier portrayal of the same kind of resourcefulness mustered for narrower, more selfish ends in “Mending Wall.”

“Mending Wall” was a little story I wrote back during the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. It reminds me now of the people I see on Doomsday Preppers (not that I watch that show…much) and the figures from the gun debate who insist that we need to have the right to bear arms for the (they seem to think inevitable) event of social collapse.

So I found myself thinking again about the anti-government sentiment often expressed by those people who are so certain that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that there’s nothing our institutions can do to stop it–in fact, many of them believe it is government itself that will cause this cataclysm. In a way, they’re right. In this spending/debt crisis coming to a head yet again this week, the government is the problem. The Tea Party House pressed for spending cuts in the midst of a recession, leading to brinkmanship politics and this sequester. That government, though, was acting at these voters’ behest. We created this crisis through government. The whole mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy brought on by people who voted in a government that doesn’t believe in government!

These folks need a civics lesson. In a representational democracy, the government is our government. It’s ours. It’s us. So this disdain for government, its contention that it can’t be trusted to solve any of our problems is really the assertion that we can’t fix our problems, that we can’t progress. It’s the same fatalism that leads so many conservatives to stockpile weapons for the presumed collapse of society. It is ultimately a dogged determination not to be part of the solution, and you know what they say about people who aren’t part of the solution…

Unabashed

It happened so quickly, I don’t think many of us noticed it.

I was about to walk past the curb on 34th when suddenly the gray asphalt I was about to step onto went black. I pulled back my foot in confusion, as if the street had vanished, but it was everything. Everything had gone dark. Around me, cars screeched to a halt and for a moment, before the drivers thought to switch on their headlights, the only illumination came from the green and red globes in the streetlights overhead and the fluorescent glow of a drugstore behind us.

The sun was gone.

“What’s happening?”

Murmurs everywhere. The throngs on the street were frozen.

“What happened to the sky?”

The sky was fine, though. There was no cloud cover. Peering up, we could see straight through to the stars. Orion’s belt drifted over Broadway as lights flickered on in the buildings above us.

“It’s not the sky,” someone said. “It’s the sun. It’s gone.”

Gasps. Profanity. In a few moments, we could see that we were wrong. It wasn’t gone exactly. It had gone dim.

“Is it an eclipse?” someone else asked, but no, it clearly wasn’t. The disc of the sun wasn’t blocked, it was simply browned out. An ember at best.

“How could this happen?”

We were all silent. Noon in Manhattan without a sun and we stood there, mute.

“It’s the end of the world,” someone finally said.

And it seemed true. Panic started to boil in each of us.

“What will happen?”

No light. No food. Everything would die.

“Nothing can survive without the sun,” I said in a whisper, but it felt as though everyone heard me.

There were shrieks now. People grasped onto one another. I couldn’t say whether they were strangers or lovers, but they held fast.

“Hell it can’t,” a voice said beside me. I turned and saw him. He was barrel-chested. Yes, that’s what they would call it. He was a barrel-chested man. He was wearing a suit, but it was a suit that had been stripped down throughout a long day. The trousers were still pressed, pinstripe gray, but his jacket and tie had been left behind somewhere and the sleeves of his silk shirt were rolled up to his elbows. As more lights came on around us, I could see the orange stubble on his chin. It was as if he had been working on this problem already for a full day–unflappable and unwearied.

“We’ve got to get moving,” he said.

“But–” someone began.

“If the sun’s gone,” he interrupted. “Then there’s no time to fart around.”

“There’s no time for anything,” someone else protested.

“You three,” he said, ignoring the dissent and pointing at a group of denizens still awestruck by the darkness. “Head uptown to the UN, tell them we need a concerted effort to gather up every last scrap of biomass that we can.”

“Biomass?”

“Anything edible. We’ve got to get it right now, while we can. Preserving it shouldn’t be a problem, since I expect things are going to get cold fast, but we need every harvester out in the heartland to run until its blades go dull and every fishing boat working overtime. Hell, if we could catch us some blue whales, that would go a long way.”

“You want us to go to the UN?”

“Hell yes, we need every government coordinating this right away. Every last scrap of food on the surface has to be gathered. We need supplies to last until we get hydroponics going.”

The three looked at one another. Again, I couldn’t say whether they had been traveling together or not, but now they nodded slowly to each other and then back to him, before turning and heading toward the East River.

He singled out another cluster of people, “Why don’t you two head over to NYU and find somebody in the astrophysics department–”

“Find out why this happened?” one of them asked eagerly.

“Too late for that. We need to know what’s going to happen now. How bad is the weather going to get? How fast is it going to become freezing? We need projections.”

“Right,” the young man answered. He laid his hand on the shoulder of the woman beside him and then they set out.

He barked a few more instructions and then said in a booming voice to catch all the parties starting to spread out from the intersection, “Everyone rally back here in two hours!”

Dazed, I watched the others scatter into the dark, then I felt a fist close around the shoulder of my coat. “Come on, buddy.”

“Where are we going?”

“I know they’re digging that new tunnel beneath Grand Central. We need to get down there, see if they can point that giant drilling rig downward.”

“Downward?”

“We’ve got to dig deep to survive this.”

“But…how can we survive? Even if a few can make it, most people–”

“Stow that, mister. We’re not going down that road. As far as I’m concerned, we need to be digging seven billion berths in the rock down deep where there’s geothermal power and heat. We don’t have time to think about anything else, got me?”

I looked at him in the growing glow of artificial light. I opened my mouth, but found I could think of nothing to say.

“Yes…yes, alright,” I stammered. “But what about the others? There are millions of people–”

“We’ll tell them on the way. Now, come on,” he said, pulling again on my coat.

And we went.

4 AM

Come to in a room emptied by night
a steady throb inside my temple
the only thing I can remember from the dream
is you calling my name
I hear it
like church bells

Forcing Inspiration

Dance of the Muses

It’s been a lousy day.

Not terrible, mind you, but lousy to be sure. It’s the kind of day you don’t exactly feel at your most creative, your most alert, your most inspired. Yet, I found myself at home with a few minutes alone before the wife and kids tramp through the door with stories from school and requests for assistance on homework, so I felt I had to try–at least try to write something.

So in the process of trying to force out some kind of inspiration, I thought of the students I worked with today. Beyond my regular classes, I’ve been working one-on-one with a number of students who I’ve just met recently. This week, I’ve got them writing literary compositions–short, one-page narrative stories. I go through the usual motions: stress “show, don’t tell;” try to get them to focus on images; pinpoint moments for character development; all while addressing run-ons, spelling problems, verb tense errors, and the like.

Basically, I’m teaching them how to write flash fiction.

And I’m doing it because of a test.

Texas has decided that one of the modes of writing students should be proficient in is microfiction. Granted, the state board of education doesn’t call it that, but that’s what it is. As freshmen (and sophomores if they don’t pass it the first time like the kids I’ve been working with this week) they have to write both expository essays and literary compositions. These have to be no more than 26 lines long, develop character and plot, and utilize other literary techniques like dialogue or figurative language.

For their efforts, they will receive a number: 1 to 4. 3 and 4 are good. 1 and 2, not so much.

I’m obviously all for assessing writing. If I got to design a single end-all-be-all exam for the nation’s schools it would, not surprisingly, be almost entirely writing. (I’ll grant my colleagues in math some multiple choice questions if they want, but I’d still prefer a written response explaining mathematical reasoning.) So the fact that Texas has placed such an emphasis on writing doesn’t necessarily bother me, but when we were first introduced to these new testing standards a few years back, I was more than a little alarmed. Only four points on the rubric? A single page for every composition? Three essays on one four-hour exam?

But something interesting has happened. In the last two days, I’ve had moments of pride for these young writers–most of whom would probably never call themselves “writers.” When I see a really clever phrase or a well-deployed simile, I’m proud of them. Sometimes, I catch them being proud too. When I applaud their little victories in prose, there’s often a smile, a glimmer of self-satisfaction with their own creativity.

These are moments we wouldn’t have had–these students and I–if it weren’t for the test.

I’m not sure how to feel about that. I’m an outspoken opponent of standardized testing. I think it leads to lowest-common denominator strategies in education. I think it ratchets up the pressure, at the expense of the very joy in learning I’m describing above. I hate these tests. Hate them.

Yet there it is. Even in the dismal forest of standardized test prep, there are moments of real humanity between student and teacher. I suppose ultimately, that’s the thing I wish I could convey to all my beleaguered and wary colleagues–my comrades in arms–all across the nation. Many must have faced a day like I did today. Frustrated, tired, feeling beaten down, we trudged on. Sometimes we must all wonder if it’s worth it–in this climate of “accountability” and high-stakes tests, dear God, can it really be worth it?!?

And the answer is “yes.” If we keep our wits about us, stay true to what’s important–fostering those moments of actual learning–above everything else, then yes.

Finality

After weeks of secret saucers of milk and clandestine naming of the kittens, she snuck out to feel the frost on the grass crunch beneath her bare feet and found instead a sticky mess under her toes. She looked down and it took several moments for her to understand what she was seeing. Gray fur smeared with red paste and protruding ebony tooth picks.

At last she realized that it was one of the kittens. Frozen in the night and cannibalized by its brothers and sisters, perhaps even its mother.

She knew then there was nothing of the quick black eyes that had watched her from the hedges left in that once-living debris. She also knew it would be the same with every living thing, including herself.

Right there, nine years old with feet going numb in the cold, she faced the terror, the terror of seeing the edge of you just ahead, because the edge of you is the end of everything, and once you are gone, everything will be gone. Your lens on the world blacked out. Your thoughts snuffed out. The ultimate oblivion. She knew it and felt its grip, felt and knew that it was coming, someday.

And at the same time, she felt a resolve, a stubborn, hateful determination not to. Not to die. Not ever. Through sheer will, she would prevail, she would persist. This, too, she knew.

That is why, as the doctor spoke, all those years later, spoke about metastasis and prognosis, she nodded slowly, unafraid.

the measure

the awareness of time is itself a curse
without the clocks
we’d be unburdened by the future
safe in the warm now
beyond the reach of the tempo
of the twisting tension of the watch spring
unaware of the growing mass of second ticks
one billion
one hundred eighty two million
and on
and on
envy the untouched tribes
beyond the delusion of cargo cults
living only by the sun and solstices