Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Miasma : a very short story

A ride with increasing unknown pressure, no resolution.  Driving into a pin prick of light at the end.  And all around it, the odor rising from all sides like a silky black curtain streaming up from the land caked with night-shade

            Cars seats
            Canned fish

            She enumerated the needs of the family, but the list was too long, and the trunk was narrow, tall, and all the articles could not fit without a reorganization of both the list and the space in the trunk…

            Toilet Paper
            T-bone steaks, frozen
            Surgical masks… boxes and boxes..

            So she began to stack items everywhere, although she knew it would distract the twins.  But what did it matter?  It was imperative to get away.  So she began to pitch things into the car without a semblance of control.  More toilet paper, an extra packet of diapers – no way of knowing right now what would be key and what would be discarded and beyond this terrible reality, this field of unknowns in a new world.

            The twins were strapped in their car seats.  She pulled away from daycare in a sharp k turn.  The sat wide-eyed and plump, seemingly cognizant of their world, but neither forming a cogent word at this late age.  They took no notice of the mask on their mother’s face.

            “She I worry about them?” she asked Dr. Kane a year ago.

            “No, not at this point,” and he explained standard distribution of human abilities to her, a pointless exercise, as she knew already.  “Some children speak early,” he told her, “but most speak about an average of X months,” she could no longer remember the time.  “Then some children are behind the bump of the curve.  They don’t use words till late.  That’s what is happening with the twins.”

            So there they sat in their seats, still on the leading tail of the curve, too fat puti exchanging objects they could grasp: Dixie cups, paper towels, and gum drops, all the while gurgling and trilling as if labeling the word fresh like Adam.  She watched in the rear view mirror, transfixed as they dismantled the minutiae of their world: a baseball without its leather cover, a teddy bear bereft of stuffing, a plastic lizard without a tail.

            Distracted, she hit a curb and was on the sidewalk.  A plume of gas erupted from the dying Zoysia.  People peeled away from the car like water vapor hissing from the onslaught of a flame.  When she reached the cross street, she cursed, for a line a traffic extended back from the bridge like the tail of a sluggish snake.  She pulled on the sidewalk once, again, pressed down the gas, and after taking out a decorative Japanese red maple nearly stripped of its leaves, was speeding on side streets sharply for another route.

            24 Flares         
            Flare gun
            10 writing tablets
            20 boxes of bandages
            16 rolls of duct tape
            27 yards of plastic sheeting

            She knew she had little time.  When one began to cry, and the other would start as well.  There wasn’t conscious coordination in this act.  It simply happened, just like rain turning into snow on a progressively colder day, or snow changing to rain on increasingly warmer day.  She hope to reach the ferry before that. 

            The single late country road was nearly empty, which was good in the sense that no one was heading toward the ferry, but bad in that the ferry might very well not be running.  She imagined an empty dock, a sealed ship, a car full of supplies and two twins on the verge of a mammoth collapse.

            When she skidded on the gravel of the ferry parking lot, a fog had rolled in off the water.  She pinched her nose around the mask as she opened the door, and then tried in vain for two minutes to get masks on the twins.  They resisted in their playful, thoughtless way, not heedful of the subtle moods and exigencies of the moment.  She gave up, even as she began to cough in heavy air, and as he head swam in the dizzy soup of her disintegrating mind.

            She turned and peered through the fog, she saw the running lights of the car deck of the ferry.

            She was the only one on the ferry.  The twins sat upright in their car seats, improbably asleep as the night set in early.  Usually one was always up, but something about this night, the thick fog, the rolling darkness, the slight pitch of the wave, had lulled them into slumber.  A teenage walked through the bulkhead and into the room with long, chipped orange benches, a closed snack stand, and life vests stowed away in the overhead.  He stopped by her, about to say something, and then seeing the babies in their seats, he hushed his tone.

            “Heck of a night,” he said just above a whisper.  His twanging tone revealed his country origin – a boy from the farm now working on a ferry between the old town center and the mainland.

            “Yes,” she answered.  “Crazy… I just don’t…”

            “Know what to make of it,” he finished her sentence. “No one does.  Everyone is streaming out of the city to the north, and look at this ferry.  Empty but you are your babes.  Crazy thing.  Just crazy.  Where are you headed?”

            “I have a brother in Greenburg,” she answered. 

            “Have you heard about the situation there?” he asked.

            “I’ve heard some stuff, but not everything.”

            “I hear everyone has decamped,” he answered.  “Just left the city.  Gone.”

            “Well, no one knows for sure.”

            “That’s true,” he answered, his face skewed to the left.  “All we have is rumor.  Well, good luck miss.” And the boy left the cabin.

            When the ferry docked at the port, the deep fog enveloped the land.  The twins were up, playing with a squashed Dixie cup, cooing and murmuring in their dialect.   She turned to car up the ramp.  She felt the gravel beneath the tires, but could not see above or below, ahead or behind, right or left.  But she had no choice.  She had to move.  The twins had somehow taken hold of her carefully stowed gear.  With the wonder of naive savants, they passed the objects between them: cheese, canned fish, salt, pepper, tissues, toilet paper, T-bone steaks, surgical masks, a flare gun, flares, writing tablets, bandages, and rolls of duct tape, yards of plastic sheeting, more.

            She was already in the deep haze before she realize they had opened a window, and tossed the supplies on the road.  And by that 
time, it was too late.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Good Mother

Sue Miller’s 1988 novel The Good Mother raises a great many questions about the guilt and punishment men mete upon women’s sexual impulses and deeds.   Anna (as in Anna Karenina?) divorces her husband and maintains custody of her small daughter. Then her lover, appropriately named Leo Cutter, enacts a mild, yet still disquieting, sexual misdeed with Anna's daughter.  Cutter, true to his name, does just that: cut off Anna's primary contact to her daughter, while at the same time bruising and damaging her self-worth, and strength of will.  He finished the job her first husband stared.

Reading this book is disquieting on another level.  Here we have another story illustrating that women will invariably be punished for having, and especially enjoying, sex.  Is Miller reinforcing this paradigm or stereotype, or simply laying out a dynamic that already exists?  Do we need such stories anymore, or are they just the confining narrative of patriarchy?  

This is difficult to know for certain; all that we know is that in The Good Mother, a woman can’t be a good mother and enjoy good sex.  Why this is or even is case, is left for us to decide.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,  by J. D. Vance, is the book everyone is reading now post-Trump victory, to attempt to understand the forces that brought that man to the White House.

For people who know something about poverty in America, there is little to learn from Vance.  Children from dysfunctional families, raised around drugs, without a loving and fostering authority figure, fall into the same cycle of poverty, drugs, teen pregnancy, and unemployment as their parents.  This is the plight of the poor everywhere. Vance, in a sense, is lucky; his grandparents played a dominant role in raising him, giving him stability and love. This saved him. 

Perhaps the most fascinating parts of this memoir is Vance’s deep ambivalence of his culture. He knows that Appalachian Hillbilly culture lay at the root of some of the social problems he experienced .  He is harsh on his own people, while maintaining his compassion.  But at the same time, he is proud of his culture.  One section about Barack Obama is telling:

“Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities. He is a good father while many of us aren’t. He wears suits to his job while we wear overalls, if we’re lucky enough to have a job at all. His wife tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it—not because we think she’s wrong but because we know she’s right.”

In one place he presciently writes about the Appalachian distrust for government:

“This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society.  And it is becoming more mainstream.”

All of this may be true and should be read and discussed. But I must admit I come to this book with a great deal of preconceptions.  My ancestors came from Europe in the 1890s with nothing; and at least one side of the family was worn down by grinding poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness.  Life was difficult, but their descendants have, by and large, left that culture behind.  Rather than ennoble a life that crippled them, they changed and adapted to the dynamic of New York City and were rewarded.

Vance's book shows that the Scotch-Irish culture, with its insularity and sense of victimization, is  a crippling agent.  My ancestors chucked their culture away to build a new one.  They had no choice.  And that adaptive sense, the idea that America demands flexibility in nearly all areas of life, I carry with me. That is what America demands of us, or we are left behind.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Olive Kitteridge: a novel, by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge, holds much promise in the title, before we even open the book.  There will be a central protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, and like Anna Karenina, other characters will be introduced; yet the central axis of the novel will remain the title character.

When Strout does this, her novel soars.  We fully explore the interconnected world of Olive Kitteridge, her family, friends, and acquaintances. 

But Strout overshoots the mark in places.  She introduces too many characters, and often their connection to Olive Kitteridge is slight, or missing.  At moments like these, the novel goes into the weeds. Had Strout kept control of her material and stayed on the mark, this book would have been a masterpiece.  As it is, it is a very good, perhaps even great novel.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters

In Elie Wiesel’s Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters, Wiesel artfully blends conversational and erudite discussions of characters from Judaism’s most sacred texts.  

The strength of this work is the great breadth of the material covered.  Despite this, Wiesel is never stretched thin; he brings a life-time of study and reflection to these chapters, providing fresh insights and details, and we are the beneficiaries of his work.

If you want to know how Jewish people read their sacred books (or should!) this work is a necessity.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Minted Riot : a light poem

The Winter Sun is warming
The charming time is dawning
We stand here at the lip
No more to skinny-dip
In winter’s great gloom

We write a little rhyme
To pass away the time
Till spring’s sun does shine

Then we slip into the quiet
Of life's newly minted riot
Leaves a buds on fire
Our nose the eager buyer
Of the season's fresh scent
Our souls, doubled and bent

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith,

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future by Laurence C. Smith, explores, just as the title suggests, the world as it could be in 2050.  Smith examines this scenario through four lenses: demography, natural resource pressure, globalization, and climate change.  The book was written in 2010, so Smith was trying to peer forty years into the future.

Forecasting is an extremely difficult venture, and given the topics he picks, even harder.  He sets certain ground rules.  One is the current conditions will continue for the next forty years.  There will not by World War III, nor will great technological advances come to the aid of our ailing planet.

These premises are hard to swallow, especially technological advances. But Smith must have some fixed point, or the book would not have a steady foundation.  

Really, we learn far more about the present conditions of our planet in this work, rather than the future.  Smith is also a climate scientist, so expect far more about climate change than the other three steams.

We can argue about details – yet this is a sound work that explores difficult problems.  What can we expect in forty years?  Our planet and society is changing profoundly.  Where does it lead?

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson,

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, deserves all the accolades it has received (including a Pulitzer).  He has written a monumental book, both familiar and strange, dense and fluid… the kind of novel novelists should strive to write.  Despite the title, the overused formula of "The ____’s Son or Daughter," the book delivers the goods. 

The novel takes place in North Korea, with excursions in Japan and Texas.  The main character, Pak Jun Do, is a kind of clever and driven Forrest Gump.  He keeps getting into tight squeezes (most deadly) but gets out of them from the force of sheer luck.  He sheds jobs and identities like shirts.  

Ultimately, in the dystopic world of North Korea, you are what the Dear Leader wants you to be, and this will spell doom for Park; yet in the end, it is Park's selfless act of love that makes him a uniquely free person, despite his fate.