Odd Bits Here and There
I arrived in Saddle Brook for the symposium Friday evening after an unusually slow, painful drive from Boston through New York via the George Washington Bridge. It was more brake than gas pedal the whole way. There were four of five accidents along the route that led to a lot of stopping, moving twenty feet and stopping again. At one point after crossing the border from Connecticut into New York, my bladder, which had been trying to tell me something for a number of miles, finally made it very plain that if I didn’t take corrective action soon I might arrive at my destination not very dry and with a distinct freshness problem. Just leaving what might have been the Deegan Expressway (I can never remember the names) and inching onto a ramp leading to another congested highway, I gathered my resolve and pulled over to the breakdown lane; I switched on the emergency flashers, got out of the car, locked it, stuck my arm out like a traffic cop to signal the other drivers to stop, crossed the road, hopped over a low guard rail, sprinted across a field some one hundred yards in length, and huddled in front of a high concrete barrier to relieve myself in full view of everyone. What a show I must have put on. How I regretted the quart of water I drank along the way and the cup of tea I bought at a rest stop just outside of New Haven. When I returned to cross the road, two truck drivers anticipated me by stopping the traffic and letting me pass. They were not laughing; they understood. I waved to them in gratitude.
I made some friends at the symposium. It was a bit like how I remember summer camp was as a boy; back then, the kids seemed to form alliances within the first day and became bosom friends. There were three keynote speeches that weekend which were very well prepared and delivered; I participated in several workshops, and we all ate our meals together. There might have been as many as fifty of us, most of them from the area; all the New York and New Jersey accents reminded me of the Sopranos. You might think stutterers have a lot in common, that our personalities must be similar, but in reality the only thing we share is our speech disorder and we are all as different from each other as any other random sampling of the population; and even then there are no two stutters that are alike. There are closet stutterers who are quite masterful at hiding their disfluencies by substituting words or opting for silence rather than take risks with their speech; some struggle in silence, making all manner of odd facial expressions until they finally, in the end, produce the sentence with no stutter at all like a conjurer’s trick; and there others who more or less let it all hang out, get stuck on words, blast their way through them, then go on a roll for several sentences until they encounter another “block” and need to grind it out again. I’m sort of like that last type, only I do substitute words every so often and try to use my airflow technique when I can remember. People tell me they hardly notice my stutter and claim it doesn’t look like it bothers me when it happens. I take that as high praise.
Jason of Clarity of Night held another flash fiction contest recently, which my good buddy, Scott, told me about in an email. I informed him I was too busy to participate (which I was), but promised I would check in when I could to read some of the entries. When Jason does these, he posts a photograph he’s taken (Jason is both is a talented photographer and writer) and invites people to write stories no longer than 250 words in length based on the image. After the deadline, Jason then judges each entry using a system he devised and awards generous prizes. It’s great fun and a wonderful writing exercise, getting in all you can in 250 words or less. Usually I go right to the limit, editing and re-editing, replacing three words with one like a boxer starving himself to make the weight limit, so this process of asking the fewest words to cover the longest distances can make it sometimes seem more like solving a puzzle.
This time around around, Jason posted a photo of a cluttered kitchen counter with a sink crammed with dirty dishes. The curtain of the window in front of sink has come loose and fallen into the sink, making the observer wonder how long those dirty dishes have been there, and just what is the state of the home. There are equal signs of activity and disuse, habitation and desolation. Which is true? Can they both be? What is the story?
So I logged onto Jason’s site, saw the picture, asked myself what story could I write about it if I had the time, and then thought, well, I’ll give myself fifteen minutes to try. I started off with the sentence “When you close your eyes at night, you can be anywhere,” and this is where I wound up:
“When you close your eyes at night, you can be anywhere. Darkness brings you where you want to be. You can change your space, right there in your room, the same room with warped paneling and stains everywhere that won’t come out; your room can be the palace at Versailles, I swear. Who’s to say different when you’re all alone?
“Morning is harsh, though. Damn sun finds its way in everywhere, birds won’t shut up either. Motes of dust slow dance in the air, hanging there, hanging there, refusing to breathe or come to a point. Place is a wreck today. I forget all that went on last night. Somebody said something, it might have been her, it might have been me. She took off in the truck, I don’t even need to look to see that. I'll find out later what she took with her.
“Sometimes inertia isn’t a choice. The fight just goes away. Struggle to your feet all you want. Get up, take a leak, brush your teeth, fry an egg, pop a pill, fix the curtains, sooner or later down you go. Down . . . you . . . go. Man, I need the darkness. Got to get me some darkness real soon.”
Not even 250 words. Maybe not the finest thing I ever wrote, but I really like the mood of it. Not so much a story as a sort of glimpse or a slice of time. Most of the entries are better than this, but I enjoyed writing it.
Last week I wanted to write a post about the Virginia Tech shooting; the title would have been “Say No to Cho.” Here were my two points: number one, the extent of the media coverage regarding the murderer himself was irresponsible. In giving the public what it wanted, which was everything they could lay their hands on about the shooter, our slavering watchdogs of the press glorified him. There are nitwits out there right now who have hung on their walls reprints of the stills news outlets faithfully reproduced from the media kit Cho Seung-Hui thoughtfully sent to NBC: carefully staged portraits of himself with pistols in either hand, ammo vest with pockets bulging, baseball cap slung backwards, looking cooler than anything they ever saw in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Sure, we we’re all curious about him, we all wanted to hear what he had to say and see what he looked like, just like I am always curious about what a fan is doing when he leaps onto a baseball field and interrupts a major league game. I’m curious, but I understand why television stations don’t show the moron cavorting around center field making a complete ass of himself, because giving that idiot the notoriety he seeks will only encourage other similarly disposed idiots to do the same. I’m not so curious that I can’t see the sense of that policy, and consider not seeing or knowing everything a small sacrifice. With Cho, everyone with a TV and an Internet connection has seen his pathetic posturing and heard his absurd, sick, muddled rants, including myself. Say all you want about your right to know, this, my friends, goes too far. He parlayed his allotted fifteen minutes of fame into instant international recognition. Our culture threw him an 85 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate and he got all of it. This bastard will live on forever through his actions while the innocent slain will sink into eventual obscurity. Maybe someday we’ll wise up and call people like Cho Seung-Hui a fittingly generic name, like “Murderer Number 12,” and offer no pictures and allow no personal statements to reach the public’s ear and leave it at that. We’ll probably need to get the Constitution drunk one night and make it agree to things it wouldn’t while sober, but a Constitution with a hangover and vague feelings of regret is better than indulging in an unhealthy freedom of the press where absolutely anything goes, with no sense of restraint or decency.
Point number two: I feel bad for the shooter’s parents. I grieve for them as much as I do for the families of his victims. I will guarantee you right now they didn’t raise that kid to be like this. Certainly they must have made mistakes, ignored warning signs, should have done what they could to get him therapy or whatever, but no parent anticipates this. What mother or father can ever admit to giving birth to and nurturing a monster? Their lives are stained forever. The guilt by association will never wash off. They lost a child, and the manner of his passing makes it a sin to mourn him. Grief feels like complicity; they’ve got guilt and shame and hatred coming at them from every conceivable angle. They, the ones left behind, will be blamed and feel the blame for this until the release of death. For this they have my sympathy.