Personal Writings

Untitled [Flash Fiction]

This untitled work is my first attempt at writing creatively for any flash fiction audiences that may be out there.   It is a story of a father who doesn’t appreciate the things in life that he should, with dire consequences.  The word count is just over 1,210 words, but I’m sure there are some adjustments that can be made to bring it under the mark.  While it is a difficult topic for a story, I hope you, the reader, are able to take something away from the story I have written as I have done from other flash fiction writers out there.  Without further adieu!

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“Are you ready yet?” a father asked.

“Okay, daddy. I’m ready,” his little boy replied.

He reminded his son, “did you remember to grab your water bottle from the counter top?”

The sound of little feet racing back into the kitchen to grab a forgotten water bottle answered him, the little boy’s bulky Spiderman backpack wobbling back and forth from all of the commotion, almost as if it were trying to break free from the little boy. He finally came back to the front door, his water bottle — and a cookie — in his hands.

“No wonder it took you so long. Come on, we’re going to be late,” he scolded.

“Okay, daddy.” Giving him his hand, the little boy walked briskly to keep up with his father as they made their way to the daycare conveniently located down the street. He never had the time to eat his cookie.

“Come on, I have several meetings to go to today, and you’re going to be late for the morning circle,” the father said with a sense of urgency in his voice. The little boy could do nothing but struggle to keep up with his impatient father, taking two steps for every one he made.

As they drew near the daycare, car doors were slamming, as more impatient parents — some mothers, others fathers, all dressed for business — were herding their children into the day care. The buzzer at the door allowing everyone in was ringing constantly; the tone of it seemed to match the irritation the adults were having with their reluctant children.

Once they were inside, the little boy ran at a sprint into the hallway toward his classroom, his bulky Spiderman backpack wobbling crazier than ever from all of the commotion. In fact, every child’s backpack was moving this way and that in an almost hypnotic motion, the rhythm of everything happening at this one moment as everyone came into the daycare a cacophony of orderly chaos. Some mothers were helping their little girls into their slippers; some fathers were helping their little boys out of their jackets; most of the little boys and girls were rushing to keep up with their impatient parents.

“Did you brush your teeth this morning like I told you?” the father asked while he helped his little boy out of his worn-out and dusty sneakers.

“Yes, daddy,” he replied, his tone drowned out by the commotion coming from a fussy little girl having her jacket taken off by her mother.

The father placed his little boy’s sneakers under the bench in their designated spot and walked him to the door to where the daycare assistant was greeting the little boys and girls as they were coming in. Rather shyly, his little boy shook her hand like his father always instructed him to do, and walked into the room where the other little boys and girls were waiting for their day to start.

The father watched his little boy go up to the other children for a moment, a moment that seemed to stand still amidst the chaos of the other parents pushing their children into daycare. He wanted to speak out to his little boy, to call him son and to tell him that he loved him very much. That all of the eagerness to see him to the daycare was not to be rid of him, but to see him someplace where he could make friends, someplace where his son would be safe while he worked to sustain his family’s livelihood. He knew, though, his little boy wouldn’t understand at such a young age.

The moment was over as quickly as it had begun — his little boy’s attention was focused elsewhere — so he turned at a brisk pace toward the door. He walked to his house the way he and his little boy had come; he grabbed his briefcase and his satchel, both waiting patiently for him by the front door. As soon as he had come in, he was closing the door on his way out. He climbed into his parked car, put his keys into the ignition and drove off at a pace faster than he should have been driving in this part of the neighborhood. He made his way to work.

His day was finally over. It was a productive day, he thought. He had been to meetings with numerous people; he had had teleconferences with people from other parts of the world; he even had lunch with the vice-president, who told him about a promotion they were considering him for. He thought about this and what it would mean for his family. It would mean more job security; it would mean more responsibility; it would mean more hours and more traveling. But then, his mind went blank, and he drove the rest of the way home, forgetful of the important things he was supposed to remember for the next day. Finally, he pulled into his driveway, parked his car and went into the house to drop off his briefcase and satchel. He made his way at a much slower pace toward the daycare, where his little boy would be waiting for him expectantly. His shirt was hanging out of his trousers and his shoes were untied. He even had a five o’clock shadow that looked unkempt, but he didn’t care. He had worked all day. He had an excuse for his appearance.

At a much slower pace, he walked up to the daycare and tried to open the door, but a sudden wave of exhaustion overcame him. He staggered as if he had been hit by an unseen force, an invisible barrier that was keeping him from advancing any further. He supported himself on his knees, slouching and breathing heavily as he did, the world spinning as he watched the door open in slow-motion, the director and her secretary coming out to assist him.

“It’s him again. Should I call the police, ma’am?” the secretary asked, her voice filled with annoyance and a mild touch of concern.

“No,” the director said, directing her attention toward the father, “but you need to understand, sir, that we are very sorry for your loss, but there is nothing we can do here to help you. Maybe you should speak to someone, you know, professionally — to help you through your problems, sir,” she recommended, a hint of nervousness in her voice.

“I… I don’t under… understand?” His question and his delirious state only made him look pathetic and weak in front of these two young women. He didn’t know what else to say or do but slouch there in front of the daycare door and look pathetic and weak. In fact, there was nothing else he could do. His helplessness was so overbearing, that he did the only thing he could do; he started to sob — uncontrollably.

“Sir, you’re in denial. You need to get help. You lost your wife and your son in a car accident three months ago. We’re truly sorry.  Is there anyone we could call?” but, the two women could only watch solemnly as the man, stripped of his purpose and his future, collapsed to the ground and cried, and there was nothing he could do to help himself.

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Review of “The Star” by Arthur C. Clarke

It was one of those night skies that I will never forget.  The Milky Way galaxy was spread across the sky in all of its awesome glory.  Never before had I seen such splendor as this.  I felt its pulse, the same as I can feel my own.  The night sky felt alive!

Perseid_and_Milky_WayI remember the moment well.  I was on maneuver in Hohenfels, Germany, and the night was calm and clear.  We were staging to go out into “the box,” as the training area was called, so there was little for us to do that evening but wait.  Given the remoteness of our location, there was virtually no light pollution in the sky, which set the evening’s mood perfectly for a star-filled sky the likes of which I had never seen.  I walked away from the buildings we were living in to find a secluded spot, away from the bustle of my comrades, and laid down upon a bed of grass to watch the night sky.  Many of my friends were busy playing spades or doing their laundry at the automat, but I wanted my peace away from it all.  I wanted to take in this rare moment, and I did.  I spent hours that evening just lying on the ground, watching the stars as they worked their way across the sky. Shooting stars cascaded across the night sky like mystical rain, and in that moment, I realized that the Earth was moving; the moon was more than a luminescent sphere in the sky, rather it was an instrument of perfect symmetry with the Earth, both dancing their waltz around the orbit of our sun.  I envisioned the sun casting its rays of light upon the surface of the moon, and how other planets took their rotational turn around the sun at that same moment.  The universe was moving, and I could feel its movement in my very soul.  I did nothing but watch on in wonder.  I had never taken a moment like this to myself, alone and self absorbed as I was to ponder and contemplate my place on this planet, an intricate system of life that is able to thrive because of oxygen and various other elements contained within its gravitational influence.  The only thing separating me from the vast openness of the universe was our atmosphere, a component to life on this planet that we often take for granted; for without it, we would be nothing but a lump of rock floating through space.  I stared out into the cosmos, enthralled by its complexity. Yet, lying there on the ground like that, observing the universe around me, made everything feel so simple, regardless of the complexity of the universe’s mechanics, if such a paradox could exist.  I was having an Olaf Stapledon moment.  To put it simply — I was awestruck.

One video found on TED by philosopher John Silva suggests that I am not the only one to have had a moment like this.  In fact, he claims that feelings of awestruck lend themselves to our biological advantage as a species for survival.  These moments of awe are what fuel our passion, imagination and will to learn about the universe we live in; they motivate and compel us to live not just in our present moment, but in the future.  While scientists seek to rationalize and explain the universe at large, others seek to explore the universe in their own way.  Their imaginations guide them into the cosmos, allowing those of us willing to listen along for the ride.  One such author is Arthur C. Clarke.  A Science Fiction (SF) writer of legendary status, his works explore the concepts of life beyond our planet and the full spectrum of the universe with such vivid imagery, it is inspiring to read his works.  SF writers who embrace the genre often use the compelling evidence of the scientific community and its discoveries to extend new questions derived from their findings to a new level, one where the imagination is only limited by the capacity of the writer.  Clarke was one of those writers who seemingly transcended what the genre was capable of, taking SF to new levels of the scientific imagination.  One of his short stories only affirms this, “The Star,” written in 1955 and published in The Nine Billion Names of God, an anthology of short stories signifying the best of his works.  While questions of faith and our place in the universe are central to the theme of this short narrative, anyone who picks up this story to read it will be left wondering about more than their relationship with a higher power, but about time and its influence over our lives.

When I finished reading it, I could not help but think back to that moment in Hohenfels, laying there in the dead of the night contemplating my existence.  All sense of time was lost, except for what the perpetual motion of the night sky afforded me.  The moon idly swept across the sky, and it felt as if I could feel the movement of the Earth below me. Actually, it made me feel small and puny, like an insect under a boot. I was not depressed by feeling infinitesimal, but rather I felt like a part of it.  My time and place on this planet are important to me; I am here now, living my life, and I feel I have a sense of self-worth in my daily affairs.  I live as others have lived before me.  I am learning about the world around from the voices of the past, as others have done before.   Reading this story made me realize that watching the night sky as I did that evening is looking upon the infinity of time, no different than any astronomer would do looking upon images through a telescope, such as the deep field image taken from the Hubble.  Astronomers and physicists are uncovering the past of the universe in the same way historians and archaeologists are unearthing our cultural identities.  I feel compelled to ask whether I am indeed a mortal being, or something much more than this, an immortal who will live on through the life that continues beyond me.  My role on this Earth may be a small fragment when compared to the grand scheme of the universe, but I have a role to play in it none-the-less, whatever that role may be.  Only by living will I be able to tell.

The Short Story

In Clarke’s “The Star,” humankind has a similar fascination with the stars, our exploration of them conflicting with our sense of self within the divine order of God’s will.  In fact, this is the central conflict within the story, played out by a protagonist who is a man of the cloth, ordained in the ways of the church, an institution in Clarke’s vision that has learned to embrace science as a means of justifying itself.  This father is not one you would find governing any parish on Earth, rather he is returning from an epic journey to the “Phoenix Nebula,” a cloud of dust born out of the cataclysmic ending of a star, a supernova.  Their original mission was to learn as much as possible about the process a star goes through to become a white dwarf, a body of mass incomparable to anything found on our Earth, and to analyze the aftermath of a supernova.  What they discover as they enter the dusty nebula is something quite unexpected.  By this point in the story, dated around 2500 A.D., we know that humanity has been trekking through the stars using a technology Clarke calls a “Transfinite drive.”  This engine allows us to move throughout the Cosmos in measurements of light years, quite necessary considering the distance to the Phoenix Nebula, which we learn to be over 100 light years away from our solar system.  What they find when they arrive, though, is quite extraordinary:  a planetary system that survived the destructive force of the supernova.  The narrator describes their initial reactions to the planet and what they found there: “The passing fires had seared its rocks and burned away the mantle of frozen gas that must have covered it in the days before the disaster.  We landed, and we found the Vault… Our original purpose was forgotten: this lonely monument, reared with such labor at the greatest possible distance from the doomed sun, could have only one meaning.  A civilization that knew it was about to die had made its last bid for immortality” (Clarke 306).  We learn from this expedition that everything this civilization sought to protect, the “fruits of their genius” were placed in this Vault on the most distant planet away from their unstable sun in the hopes that it would survive and someone would find it.  And, we did.

The weight of this discovery plays heavily on the crew of the ship, as it makes its return voyage back to Earth.  The father on board struggles with his faith in God and His will, having gained knowledge of their demise from interpreting their cultural records stored within the Vault.  Our narrator questions His motives, “This tragedy was unique.  It is one thing for a race to fail and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth.  But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors — how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?” (307).    While it is an important question to ask in terms of our own race and how many of us see God’s influence over our lives, what I find more significant to this is the manner in which they rekindle their existence.  Granted, this terrestrial planet and its life forms cease to exist in a biological sense;  however, they live on in spirit and in mind through the discovery of their Vault.  It is only fitting that the nebula this crew discovers this extinct civilization in is called the “Phoenix Nebula.”  Like the mythical bird of legend, this culture raises out of the ashes of its planet’s ruin at the hands of its rogue star, having preserved remnants of their culture for another exploratory race to uncover.  Like archaeologists, the astronauts unearth the Vault and collect their secrets, secrets that were otherwise meant for immortalizing a race that was faced with its extinction.  This Vault is no different from a time capsule one would bury in the backyard.

Conclusion

I once buried a time capsule with my friends in the backyard.  My friends and I collected our things, action figurines and baseball cards mostly, and buried them in a lunchbox, in the hopes that one day someone from the future would find it.  Ironically, we have long since forgotten where we buried this relic; nevertheless, the concept of the time capsule remains the same in Clarke’s story.  This got me thinking — what would humanity place into its Vault if we learned that our sun was unstable and would nova in the near future?  How would we preserve our race for future beings to discover?  Would we place the National Archives in this Vault, preserving documents of significant importance to our civilization?  Would patents and manuscripts of our technologies be placed therein?  What about the blueprint of our own biological code, the Human Genome Project?  Would this be placed in the Vault, as well?  Or would we loss sight of ourselves, being taken over by the emotional burden of realizing the inevitable demise of our race? (I recall the Lars Van Trier film Melancholia to prove my point here)  I like to think we would keep our “cool” in the face of such peril, for the sake of continuity, just like this race of beings did when their star exploded.  After all, is that not the point of science and our ambition to chronicle our environment and to learn about the universe we live in?  To see to it that future generations are able to expand on this knowledge base, and to learn what it means to exist in the time-space continuum on this little planet we call Earth; one of eight (nine, if you’re still a believer) planets we inhabit in our solar system around the sun; one star that resides within the Milky Way Galaxy; one of many galaxies that make up the overwhelming vastness of the universe, and my description here really does it no justice.

I’m curious to know of my readers: have you ever buried a time capsule?  What did you place in it? 

Works Cited

Clarke, Arthur C. “The Star” (1955).  eFictions. Eds. Joseph Trimmer, Wade Jennings, and Annette Patterson. Boston: Heinle Thomson Learning, Inc., 2002. 303-307. Print.

Image source:  Inaglory, Brocken. “Perseid and the Milky Way.” 12 Aug. 2007. Image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 13 Jul. 2013.

Review of “The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer

(Reader’s note:  I wrote a series of notes on this review shortly after I finished reading the book, nearly a year ago, but I never managed to publish my thoughts until now.  Enjoy!)


The Wall

Now that I have finished reading The Wall, I will never think about our yearly vacations to the Austrian Alps the same way again.  It has been a growing tradition in our family to try to go skiing twice a year, once on Thanksgiving weekend and then again in March, at the end of the season.  For a couple of years we managed to do this yearly routine.  We would stay in a small village along the main road leading into the Oetztal valley. A small mountain brook fed by a waterfall some three hundred meters from the bedroom window and balcony ran by the vacation apartment where we stayed.  On the night of our arrival, we would go to bed early to have the chance to get to the slopes the following morning.  From there, we’d ski the whole day until before the last ski gondola would return to the valley below.  The view was always something to see.

Mountain pass panorama

Here is a panorama I took of the Austrian Alps the last time I went skiing in 2013.

I remember the first time I went skiing in the Alps.  Shortly after we’d arrived at the tallest lift station on the mountain, the wind picked up and a cold weather front came up over the neighboring mountain range.  It was really ominous, watching those milky clouds roll over the mountain like that.  I’d never seen clouds move the way they did.  There was nothing we could do but ski downhill.  We were in the mountains, and it was becoming clear that this would be my rites of passage, so to speak.  My partner went down the mountain with a cat-like grace, weaving this way and that. Clearly, thirty plus years of experience guided her the whole way down.  I could barely make a sweeping turn, on the other hand, what with this being my third time on skis.  I felt ridiculous as more and more experienced skiers passed me by.  What the hell am I doing way up here, I thought on more than one occasion.  Once, I had to side-step my way down the slope; it was just too steep for my skill level.  This and the pending doom that the clouds forbore only made me more anxious — and annoyed.  I still blame my partner for taking me down a red-diamond slope with a snowstorm just off the horizon. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy myself; after all, I did survive to tell the tale. What an adventure that snowstorm turned out to be, too.  A complete white-out at 2,500 meters.  I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path that I was skiing on.  There was nothing but raging snow, blowing this way and that, to remind me that I was on top of a mountain.  It was all one big blur, the whole three grueling hours of it.  Eventually I made it down to the middle station, drank a lot of Jägertee to calm my nerves and relaxed in the end at a thermal spa that evening, where I gave my aching muscles the rest they deserved.

Coming back to this book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, I could think of nothing but my own experiences in the mountains as I read it.  How rugged and hazardous living there could be, especially if it was without the support of some fraction of civilization.  The thought of living alone, the way she does in the novel, with no one to aid, comfort or console you, is tormenting, not only for her but for us as readers, as well.  To consider how this story came to be is somewhat puzzling, too.  From one day to the next, she is alone, terribly alone, because of the wall:

I couldn’t see what he was so frightened of.  At this point the road emerged from the gorge, and as far as I could see it lay deserted and peaceful in the morning sun.  I reluctantly pushed the dog aside and went ahead on my own.  Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s [the dog] obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.  Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs.  Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air.  I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane.  Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears.  My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it  (Haushofer 8).

From this point on, this unnamed narrator struggles to survive in a world where only her and her animals exist.  All other traces of humankind are frozen on the other side of the wall, an invisible barrier that keeps her trapped within a mountain valley.  At one point during her survey of the valley, she describes a man she finds on the other side of the wall: “The man by the stream had fallen over and now lay on his back, his knees slightly bent, his cupped hand still on his way to his face.  He must have been knocked over in a storm.  He didn’t look like a corpse, more like something excavated from Pompeii…. rather like things that had never been alive, entirely inorganic” (Haushofer 45).  In the end, she finds companionship with the animals living with her inside the wall, her dog companion, Lynx, and several cats, who all help her maintain her sanity.  That, however, does not go untested without its trials and tribulations.  There is a return to nature of sorts in this novel and that means more than simply existing.  She is no different from the animals she natures and cares for in the novel, but at the same time, she is more than that.  She mostly tells us about her experiences behind the wall through a reflective journal, but traces of her thoughts, her memories are periodically forced to the surface throughout the text to reveal clues to her past.  And she struggles with those memories, for better or for worse.

Snowfall

Ultimately, she is alone.  Except for the many animals around her, she is terribly alone.  These animals become characters.  They take on a life of their own.  She survives because of them and they because of her.  The tragedy at the end of the novel rips the reader from the comfortable complacency that settles and takes hold and forces us to loath what happens — more so, how it happens.  To reveal this point in the plot would spoil the whole novel, but it is in this moment at the end that the strength of this female protagonist comes shining through.  Even after something tragic like this happens, she still goes on living.

Whether you look at the book from a feminist point of view, with the female protagonist struggling to survive in the mountains behind an invisible barrier or from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, with a hint of her isolation being self-imposed, almost as if she is living in a personal hell, if you will, one thing remains certain of this book:  it is not easy to analyze.  Some would argue that the novel is SF (science fiction), but the only reference that suggests any possibility for such a genre classification lies in the very early parts of the book, where she says something about “nuclear wars and their consequences” (Haushofer 3), but claiming it to be such is a bit far removed from any SF sub-genre I can think of.  It could very well be an existential novel, one where she must learn to find her place in nature.  There is one point in the book that I found to be supportive of this idea, and it rests with the appearance of a white crow:

This autumn a white crow appeared.  It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions.  I can’t understand why the other crows doesn’t like it.  I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant.  I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow…. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows.  It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren.  Perhaps they find it so repugnant that they can’t even peck it to death.  Every day I wait for the white crow and call to it, and it looks at me attentively with its reddish eyes.  I can do very little for it.  Perhaps my scraps are prolonging a life that shouldn’t be prolonged.  But I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other (222).

The white crow showing up is no coincidence in terms of the plot development, either.  It appears just before the tragedy and becomes a point highlighted by the narrator even again in the final lines of the story, after she’s lost everything else.  “The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest.  When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow.  It will already be waiting for me” (244).  It would be easy to link this white crow to her own character, an outcast of sorts, left to die alone, outside of the security of the flock.  The black crows are bully-ish, scavenging and taking what they want for themselves, carrion opportunists that would eagerly jump at the first chance for a meal.  But, this white crow is different.  It separates itself from the flock, much like our narrator, contrary to exile being involuntarily imposed on her.  Perhaps the ostracized bird is forced to stay away, too, a thought worth thinking about.

On a side note to my existential thoughts here, the crow was once commonly known to be white in Greek myth.  It was only through tragedy that the black crow was born.  According to Cassandra Eason from her handbook on Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols, the story goes that Coronis, the daughter to Phlegyes, became pregnant by the god Apollo, who left a white crow to watch over his beloved mistress at the city of Delphos.  Coronis, however, went off and married the hero, Ischys, despite her previous affections for the god.  Upon learning from the white crow that reported everything to him, Apollo slew Coronis and Ischys, and in his anger turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news.  Apollo claimed the child born unto the world and named him Asclebius, who later became the healer semi-deity (66).  Seeing the symbolism of the white crow here as the bearer of bad news might help to foreshadow certain events in the novel, but that would require a certain amount of knowledge on Greek mythology to see it coming.

Whatever way you look at the book, there are many reasons why I feel this book is a genuine work of art.  Written by an Austrian writer who clearly had a way with the world she was raised in, Marlen Haushofer told a tale of isolation, despair, but above all else hope that is so convincing, it may very well bring you to tears.  If nothing else, it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. This is the perfect novel to read on a cold, wintery day, albeit I would not recommend it for those who may be weary at heart or who find themselves easily depressed.  In fact, I would recommend drinking a hot cup of tea (perhaps a Chai) while reading it or going for a run once you’re done.  Whatever you do, though, go out and meet a friend or talk to a neighbor.  Go out and be social, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re alone, or taking for granted what may not be there someday.

Works Cited

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. Googlebooks. Web. 08 Aug. 2013.

Haushofer, Marlen. The Wall. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Berkeley: Cleis Press, Inc., 2012.  Print.

Candied Almonds at the Christkindelsmarkt 2014

I have written this story to thank an unknown vendor for a kind service rendered at the Christmas market this year.  The story is a bit off topic from what I usually post here, but I thought I would share the story for the holidays.  Season’s Greetings, good readers!



“So, can anyone tell me how to get to the bus depot from — let’s say — here, at the shopping center?” I scanned the room, looking for anyone willing enough to give the lesson a try.

I caught Gretchin out of the corner of my eye, who seemed moderately interested and brave enough to give the directions I was asking for.

“Gretchin, would you like to try it?”

“I will. Go out onto the street and turn right.”

“Good, and then?”

“Walk straight along the road to the intersection and turn left.” There was a slight pause as she thought a moment about the next step.

“Yes, and then?”

“The bus stop is in front of the hill,” she said, wincing at her uncertainty for this last part.

At the top of the hill,” I corrected.

“The bus stop is at the top of the hill,” she repeated, a little discouraged by her mistake but thankful for having the opportunity to have another go at it. A few of the others were diligently writing in their notebooks.

“Well then, everyone, I do believe we are running out of time,” I said, noting the relief in everyone’s faces, “so my last question for the day will be — where’s the Christkindelsmarkt?”

Everyone chuckled at the suggestion, and immediately began gathering their things. I too set to the task of straightening up, eager to join my students for a nice evening at the Christmas market. I hadn’t had the chance to visit the market yet, and it was already two weeks into the season for it. Judging how quietly most of my students reacted during this evening’s lesson, I would say we were all in need of a spiced wine.

I took my jacket down from the coat rack and pulled it on over my shoulders as I hoisted my leather tote, bulky and cumbersome from the weight of a whole day’s worth of English lessons, and made my way for the door, switching off the lights as I left. All of my students approached me the week before, asking if I would be interested in joining them after this evening’s class for a festive outing at the Christmas market, and I humbly accepted the invitation. It was a nice feeling to know that my relationship with them was being taken to a new level.

*****

We all walked down the steps together and made our way for the main entrance. I dropped off the CD player with the School’s caretaker, bid him a nice evening, and caught up with those who were making their way out of the door. The weather outside was frightful, and the misty dew made the evening air cold and clammy to the touch. One could see the mist swaying this way and that under the sodium lamps, the orange tinted glow taking the edge of the chill the moisture created. We walked together down the main street to the pedestrian zone, making small talk along the way.

Not even five minutes later, the cobble-stoned streets turned into the first signs of holiday festivities. Hanging over the street, from store front to store front, were the first ornaments leading one to the Christmas market. Wreaths adorned with holly berries and mistletoe hung from lighting fixtures at intervals of a few feet all the way down the street, marking the way through the city’s center to the marketplace where the kiosks could be found. People were coming and going from shops, large shopping bags showing their agendas, as we made our way closer to the market’s edge.

Finally, our group stood before the Christkindelsmarkt. We slowed down and stopped at the edge of the market to take the scenery before us in. The constant chatter of people talking, conversations that were muddled out by other conversations, filled the night sky. All of the eateries and stands were centered around a gigantic conifer tree that towered well over a few of the storefront buildings along the marketplace’s edge. The tree was adorned with large glass-ball ornaments in varying shades of red, green and violet; long strands of lights were draped from head to toe, illuminating the tree to reveal its magnificence.

I scanned my students, taking in their reactions, and waited for them to make the first move. It was soon clear that we didn’t have a plan of any sorts, so we decided to meet back up in ten minutes time to allow everyone a chance to fetch something for themselves. Most of them went for the eateries. I headed to the first spiced wine stand I could find. It wasn’t long before I was sipping on a steaming-hot mug of mulled wine, the savory taste of the wine lifting my spirit.

As everyone started to make their way back to our meeting point, we started to settle into our niches. Some of them were interested in practicing their English, so we conversed the majority of the evening on a wide range of topics. One of my colleagues from the school stopped by to join us, and she added all the more to great conversation that was developing from the evening.

I took a look around at the various stands, my wine having since been empty some minutes before, when I noticed people around the stands thinning out. More and more people were beginning to part ways. “Seems to be clearing out,” I commented, as the others turned around to look. The eight o’clock church bells started to ring out into the night, marking the closing of the Christmas market.

“Well, I must go home now,” Terrence said politely, addressing each of us, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. From there, it was a chain reaction of departures, everyone seeming to buzz still with the last vestiges of the festive outing. Suddenly, it dawned on me. I was forgetting something. Knowing that I was going to the Christkindelsmarkt that evening, my wife instructed me to pick up a bag of candied almonds. The last strike of the eight o’clock bell was like a light bulb going on in my head.

“Oh crap! I forget to buy almonds! I’ll be right back everyone.”

*****

In a mad dash, I raced through what remained of the Christmas market, but it seemed I was too late. Most of the kiosks had already closed up their stands, heavy blinds keeping me from fulfilling my promise. I paced the market aisles, running from one row to another, in the hopes that around the next corner would be a stand still open for business. By the last row, I had lost hope. I had forgotten to buy candied almonds, and my wife would be disappointed for it. “What luck,” I said to myself out loud, disappointed in myself for having gotten too wrapped up in the festive moment. Suddenly, I saw them.

“Wait! Please, wait,” I yelled, nearly out of breath from rushing over to them.

Two men were wrapping a tarp over the open side of their stand, both vendors struggling to fix the tarp in place. They stopped what they were doing to listen.

“Please, I made a promise to buy almonds for my wife this evening, and I nearly forgot. Would you be so kind to sell me some before you close up for the evening?” I pleaded, hoping they would make the transactions.

Both vendors looked at each other, when I added, “I know you’re closing up for the night, but I would be very grateful if you would sell me a bag.”

“Alright. No problem. We will sell you a bag,” said the man closest to me, a tall fellow in a winter vest and ski cap. He looked at his colleague, who immediately looked annoyed at his statement.

“You have no idea how much you’re helping me. Thank you.” I added, hoping to smooth things over a bit.

The other vendor, now behind the display, asked what I wanted. I took a look at the prices and opted for the more expensive bag, in hopes that my selection would at least show my gratitude for their service.

The man began shoveling candied almonds into the bag, setting it upon a scale for measure, and started closing it up, when his colleague closest to me said rather curtly, “This man asked for a large bag of almonds.”

With a mounting tension in the air, I listened as the vendor with my almonds exclaimed something back to his colleague in Russian, a language I didn’t need to understand to know just what was happening. I took a quick look at the scale and saw that the balance has tipped for a lesser weight. He was planning to rip me off a few almonds, no doubt for my disrupting their closing time.

I cast a quick look at the taller man next to me to see what his reaction would be and his glaring gaze at his colleague was colder than the night air where we were standing. I turned back to the vendor behind the display and asked how much it would be for a large bag, knowing full well the price was marked right in front of me.

I pulled out another bag, a larger bag, and began loading more almonds into my request, seemingly disgruntled at having been called out for his actions. Once he finished, he placed the rightful amount of almonds up on the glass counter and said, “5 Euros.”

I quickly paid the man, nodded to his friendlier colleague, thanking him for his kindness, wished them both a nice evening and ran back to my friends. Of course, they were waiting, perplexed by my sudden disappearance, as they knew I was coming back but they didn’t know why I had run off in the first place, so I owed them an explanation. I told them about my promise and why I needed to run off the way I did, and they all laughed with me.

*****

It was easy to shrug off what had happened just then in the presence of my new friends, but I couldn’t help but wonder on my way home that evening if I had set things in motion that would change the way those two men would come to work with one another. I wouldn’t have been none the wiser if that vendor had indeed cut me short on my request. The fact that his colleague stepped in to defend me, a customer — no doubt for something as simple as a bag of almonds — when he could have turned a blind eye to the own ordeal leaves me thankful for all of the honest people that exist out there in the world today.   It’s the principle of the matter that counts here, so I have written this piece to thank him, whoever he may be, for doing the right thing, even when it was at his expense in the end.

Image source: ReneS. “Christmas Market in Jena.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia foundation, Inc. 21 Dec. 2007. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_market#mediaviewer/File:ChristmasMarketJena.jpg]

A Toast to Writing

A Scotch Whiskey Glass from thechoppingblock.com

The purpose of this post is to simply write about anything I want –writing for writing’s sake — to help motivate me to write a bit more frequently, to see what comes from free writing.  Typically, when I sit down to write a piece, I invest myself in the planning, the layout, the presentation; I look up words that I think may make sense in the context I am trying to use them in; I even reverse outline my drafts to ensure that I have catered to some sense of organization.  One article I wrote took me well into a week before I even considered posting it to the public.  To write like this — more openly, more freely, letting loose my thoughts and allowing myself to say what I want — I find, requires more effort.  In all respects, I am not used to chronicling my thoughts on a more sporadic basis, and I find it telling to simply hold up with the challenge I have set for myself to write more.  It’s hard for me to just let go.

Take this post, for instance.  I am writing this for the sake of free-writing my way into this piece.  A motivation piece, if you will.  Yet, I do not feel all that motivated to let go of myself.  I have never felt like the type of person to simply let go of my reserve, always staying in control of my environment, aside from the occasional run-in with a bottle of Scotch.  Perhaps, therein lies a truth to my dilemma for want of a better word.  Whenever I drink, I do it to relax, to enjoy the savory flavors of the alcohol, whiskey being my current poison.  In my youth, I would indulge a bit too heartily into the mirth that comes with social drinking and would inevitably find myself hung-over the next morning with little recollection for the night before.  I have always been a happy drunk early on, then as the fresh air and perpetual motion of the world around me set into place, my head would become the center of gravitational forces my drunken stupor failed to understand.  I almost always became the hopelessly pathetic drunk, a clear sign that I had overdrawn my limit.  Could this be compared to writing in anyway?  Could it be possible to get drunk on words in the same way one gets drunk on alcohol, to let these words — all words — course through me like the first stinging swig of whiskey, settling on the tongue with its oaken and smoked luster?  In finding my muse I would find that same relaxed state of mind that comes after a couple of drinks.

Perhaps this is why so many writers have been known to be raging alcoholics.  To sit before a writing desk or table and commit one’s self to the writing of a novel, to the characterization of memories invoked as protagonists, bringing with their creation the hardships that serves as the basis for their existence, evoked through the need to write something, anything.  It’s in the alcohol that the true work of an artist emerges.  The reserve that comes with sobriety,  of being self-conscious of the world around, of the people listening and watching, of social expectations, of responsibilities — this reserve holds back those who seek to let it out on paper.  In reading Jack London’s biography, he occasionally drank the drinks of men, hitting the saloons along the sea ports wherever he was, whiskey helping to maintain the social call.  Ernest Hemingway, another one of literature’s great writers, was notorious for his love of the drink.  In a letter he wrote to Ivan Kashkin in 1935, Hemingway describes what drinking meant to him, by this point a lifelong admirer of the bottle: “When you work all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?… Modern life, too, is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief” (qtd. in Willett).  If these men and many others like them of equal caste, no doubt, were drinking as often as they were and were able nonetheless to produce some of the greatest works of fiction and non-fiction the literary world has known, no doubt there must be some truth to alcohol’s role as a provocateur of men.

I have often heard that a writer has not really mastered the art of his craft until his muse has taken him over, producing a work entirely uninhibited by restraint.  Giving in to the moment, the writer is consumed in the act of writing, letting his body serve only as a conveyor for the thoughts pouring forth from his mind.  Thought transference at its finest.  Nothing else matters but the moment in which the mind takes over the body and produces a work of fiction, the characters as real as those standing nearby.  Whether alcohol of any sort is useful in evoking such experiences is hard to tell, what with the many variables associated with alcohol consumption and the merriment, melancholy or stupor that often comes with it.  No doubt, though, it is not needed so long as you are able to find a hook, something to pull you into the moment where you stop thinking about yourself and start to focus on the writing you want to do.  Looking back at where I was 170 words into this piece, I see how effective it is to let oneself go for a moment, forgetting about the body and its needs and allowing the mind to work how it wants.  And this, I might add, was done without the influence of alcohol.

Works Cited

Willett, Megan. “In the Post-Script of a Letter, Ernest Hemingway Explained his Deep Love of Alcohol.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc. 02 Jul. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Longing to read when books keep me from doing so…

Stack of booksBookstores are dangerous places for avid readers.  If you’re anyone like me, then you have a long list of books you’d like to read.  Compound this list with the new books you check out from the library or the books that arrive by mail from your late night online shopping spree, and your monster-of-a-list keeps growing.  I told myself at the start of the year that my resolution would be to read 10 books before I purchased anymore.  I tried, I really did, but I only read 8 books before I started purchasing the next to be lined up.  Like so many others, I face a dilemma.  My problem is not that life keeps me from finding the time to read; rather, my rate of consumption does not match the rate at which books accumulate on my shelves.  You see, I am a book addict.

Sure, I find myself working a lot more these days, now that I have to commute to my place of employment;  I also want to spend time with my family whenever I’m not working; I have to invest into the garden, too, since Spring is upon us; and I have to sleep from time to time.  This last one is usually forced on me, as I find myself rereading a lot of pages from the books I have started just before dozing off.  If only reading worked like osmosis.  But, these are not issues in the same way that other books are.

I always manage to find time to read.  One solution to compensate for life’s callings has been to listen to audio books.  I simply tune in to an audio book from the Overdrive Media Console while on my way to work.  This simple app allows me to download audio MP3 books from the library I check out books from, and I listen to them on my hourly commute to work.  It’s great because I get to read a book almost every week, depending on its length.

No, where the real problem lies is when I finish reading a physical book.  The decision on which to pick up and read first is almost always a daunting process. I can never decide on which book because I own so many.  Quite a few of the books I pick up with the intention to read get placed on hold for more immediate books that I have come into contact with, either from the free BargainBook box at the library or from what I buy at the various bookstores I frequent.  There’s a used book store I like to visit that almost always contains a gem-of-a-book whenever I shop there, which I always feel pressured, self-imposed no doubt, to read once I bring it home.

Some books are more engaging than others, though.  I usually read multiple books at any given time to compensate for those that require more attention.  I like to read short stories, so I’ll read a story here and there (one over a cup of coffee in the morning, perhaps).  I have several collections of essays that I enjoy reading through.  I have been reading The Oxford Book of Essays off and on for well over a year now, but I don’t feel pressured to read it in its entirety.  They’re essays, after all.  Then, there’s the book I read just before I go to bed.  This one takes the longest to work through for some reason.  I have my books I simply want to read to savor and enjoy; my poetry books that I like to read when time permits for such leisurely reading; my books I need to read for work; my books to help advance myself professionally; my books for the personal research I’m doing.  Looking at it like this, I think I need to focus my reading habits a bit more.

But then, there are books like this one.  I am very excited to start reading this one book, the book I ordered from Amazon before I finished my reading resolution for the year.  Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands by Rizzoli exlibris publishing, 2013, finally arrived by post and what a beautiful book it is; so much so that I want to share some of its more enticing features with you:

The book cover is by Thomas Cole from The Voyage of Life: Childhood (1842) located in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Eco book cover

The images throughout the book (shown below) are rendered in the most pristine quality, making their colors vibrant and an absolute pleasure to behold.

Eco page example

Here is another example of the beauty this book reveals.  This marvel of a work is from Gustave Dore The Celestial Rose (1867), out of The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, canto XXXI.

Eco page example 2This book will most certainly be a real treat, and I will likely move it up my reading list to start it right away.

I love books like this one by Eco, but they don’t help me make headway with those other books I’ve been collecting over the past couple of months.  No, these books, like so many others before them, will be placed on hold, so that my curiosity about legendary lands, places I’d often read about as a boy, may be sated.  Books like these only further my dilemma, but it is a dilemma I can learn to deal with.  I may be slow and methodical in the way I read, what with all of the other obligations keeping me from working through my reading list; I may also find myself curious about newer books that are being published (or older ones that were once forgotten), but I love to savor a good book, regardless of what life throws my way.  That, and I love to be surrounded by books, knowing full well that there will never be a dull moment in the near future.  After all, there’s always a good book to be read.

Review of “Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens

MortalityIt saddens me to a certain extent that the very first book I read by Christopher Hitchens should also be his last. Originally published posthumously by Twelve, Mortality offers one of the last insights into the mind of a journalist who by way was also a socialite, an intellect and an iconoclast, amongst other things. While this may have been his last book to have been published, there are certainly enough other books that precede this one, should I feel the desire to pick up any of his other writings.  He was quite a prolific writer, after all.  Recommended to me by a good friend, I sat down with Mortality periodically and read about the difficulties Hitchens faced, not just with the discomforts from dying of cancer but also of the struggles he endured to maintain his sense of humanity.  It does not matter if you are reading about his antics with a disgruntled believer or if you are reading about the day he learned of his terminal illness, his ability to pull the reader into his world is a testament to his prowess as a writer. I felt more like I was having a conversation with him rather than reading his book.  If his other works are anything like this one, I can understand why so many reviewers either loved him or hated him.  He seemed to be quite the controversial character in his lifetime.  I do not know much about him, aside from the references made by many for his views on atheism and religion. While these were a central theme in his book — after all, he defends his views against critics and haters, even with the face of death staring him down– he is not limited to discussing them only.  I believe he makes these references more out of spite to his opponents and to maintain his reputation for the debate until the bitter end.  I did not read this book, though, for his religious views, per say.  I was more concerned with something else when I picked up this book to read it. The reason why it was referred to me in the first place was because of a particular point in his discussion where Hitchens describes the feelings he has about losing his voice to esophageal cancer. Like Hitchens, my mother lost her voice three years ago, only for other somatic reasons.

I was curious to learn what he had to say about this.  I have never really found much in the way of popular commentary on what life is like for someone who has been struck dumb by an illness, but it happens all the time.  My grandfather had his throat box removed and replaced with a voice box implant, along with countless other people throughout the world; however, what happens to them socially?  This is something that is seldom discussed, even amongst the closest of friends, unless you know someone personally who suffers from such a dilemma.  This is what Hitchens was afraid of the most, the fear that by losing his voice to cancer he would lose his ability to write.  He confirms this by saying, “Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality.  To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice.  All the rituals and etiquette of conversation… were innate and essential to me” (48).  I  have often wondered if this is how my mother feels.  You do not have to be a renowned writer like Hitchens to dread losing your voice.  We are all human beings capable of socializing with each other, but when a voice that was always there suddenly disappears, it is easy to fall into isolation and despair.

It has taken my mother a long time to come to terms with this.  She has been told by multiple doctors multiple possibilities.  It was only a year ago that her health problems were resolved, but it was too late for her voice.  It is all but a wisp that she struggles to express beyond her lips.  She has better days than others, but it is straining to say the least.  She told me that the most discouraging part is how most people immediately distance themselves from her.  When she would order from a restaurant, she would have to write down her order because the waiter/ress could not hear her speak.  When her food was served, it was always incorrect.  She tried at first to get her order corrected, however, over time the difficulties she faced with this forced her to be silent.  Hitchens talks about this, too.  It is something I never thought about before, and having since listened to her stories and having read Hitchen’s account, I try to be exactly the opposite of what he “can’t stand.”  He writes, “Timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent.  I lived for moments like that.  Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’ At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to” (48).  Before my mother and I used Skype to video conference with one another, we would talk on the phone for as little as fifteen to twenty minutes at a time.  I can only imagine for her what a conversation must have been like with a stranger, what with our phone calls back then being so short-lived.  Video conferencing through Skype has been the best medicine for us both since she first lost her voice.  Now over long distance, we can finally “talk” to one another.

To end this, I want to draw attention to the very way that Hitchens ends his own book.  His final words, from a memoir’s perspective anyway, are quoting Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams.  He quotes:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives.  Grandparents never die, nor do great grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through generations, all alive and offering advice.  Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers.  Nor do daughters of their mothers.  No one ever comes into his own…(original emphasis) Such is the cost of immortality.  No person is whole.  No person is free (qtd. in Hitchens 93).

Sons and daughters may never be able to escape from their parents’ influence, but neither can parents from their children.  We have to be there for one another, through “thick and thin.”  Family is blood.  An incredible ending to an incredible author.  Requiescat in pace.

Works Cited

Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve (Hachette Book Group), 2012. Print.