Friday, February 25, 2011

Human Smoke

I just finished reading Nicholson Baker's "Human Smoke", a nonfiction collection of reportage from the beginning of World War II. Baker collects diary entries, newspaper stories, speeches, and other bits from sources on both sides to tell a version of the story up to and including Pearl Harbor. I went on to read, on Goodreads and Amazon and other places, some very angry negative reviews of the book.

The complaints seem to center on the notion that Baker isn't being fair to figures like Churchill and Roosevelt, and is being too fair to pacifists like Gandhi and the Quakers. Indeed, any selection of quotes includes the bias of the selector- and you come away from Nicholson's book with a new perception of the absolute goodness of the Western powers. You could probably select a different series of entries and come out with a very different book. The complaints usually also say something along the lines of "pacifism is all well and good, but there was no negotiating with Hitler." That is probably true. And Baker's work, powerful as it is, does not give you an entire picture of World War II- if this is your first World War II book, you should probably look elsewhere.

But what I came away from the book with was an appreciation for how consistent the peace movement was. I think I always knew (and after sending my son to a Quaker school, I couldn't help but know) about Quaker pacifism. A question that had interested me, but I never asked anyone who was in a position to know, was "You oppose all wars? Even World War II? Even against the people who built ovens to roast human beings?" And the answer is, "Yes, even then." I don't know if I have the courage to favor such an absolute path. But I certainly admire the consistency. If you want to know a little bit more about how some people opposed even World War II, "Human Smoke" is a good place to start.

Flashing On Friday With Someone Who Isn't Angie Harmon

The 52/250 blog has another story by me this week. The theme is "Coincidence", and my story can be found here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Top of the Pop Charts

Five Seconds Of Every #1 Pop Single Part 2 by mjs538

This absolutely freaking fascinated me. It is, as it says, 5 seconds of every number one song on the US Pop charts. (This part starts with "Down Under" by Men At Work- there is a part 1, too.) It astounds me the number that I knew. I didn't realize performers like Lionel Richie had that many #1 hits- which I guess in part explains why he lives where he lives, and I live where I live. (h/t to the Nerdist for finding it.)

100 Word Challenge: "Not Scary"

Velvet Verbosity's 100 Word Challenge has not been traded to the New York Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony deal, contrary to previous reports. This week, the word is Frightened, and as those of you who can read headlines know, my story is called "Not Scary". In an additional twist I was simply too dim to engage in last week, you can now enter the Challenge right here, as well as reading all the other marvelous entries, in case clicking on the link to go to Velvet's site was just too complex.

Without further ado, here it is- "Not Scary".

"Nope, he's not scary."

Diesel 10, usually the villain in my nephew's imaginary play, sat on the floor.  

"Diesel 10's not scary?"

"Not scary." He looked at me, patiently waiting for me to catch on.

"You used to be scared of him." The past was gone, obliterated in the onrushing now.

"Not scary," he said, a little disgusted that I wasn't on board.

"Not scary?"

"Not scary." I remembered when I used to hold him, walking in circles in his yard, telling him about trees, and water, and yellow school buses. He was growing up.


IndieInk Writing Challenge: "All Apologies"

The fine folks at IndieInk.Org ( have started issuing Writing Challenges, in which a member of the IndieInk community challenges another to write on a specific theme, and is in turn challenged by a third person. We have all week(Monday-Friday) to answer our challenges. My challenge comes from TJ, who writes here and says, "You have an apology to make.  You wronged someone or did something to someone as a child/teenager that you still think about today. Apologize.  What did you do, to whom and why do you still think about it today?" (My challenge is being answered here, if you're interested. And even if you're not.)

There really is only one possible answer to this for me. There is a hinge point, a "Sliding Doors" moment where my entire life goes left instead of right. I could write about something else, but it would be fake, and I'd be thinking about this moment instead. I read some sage advice about that situation once- when you find yourself unable to focus, you may as well stop and deal with what's distracting you. Because that's what you're doing, even though you think you're working on what you're supposed to be doing.

I did someone wrong when I was in my very early 20s. I actually have apologized to this person, and she graciously accepted it. But the key now, as a friend mentioned to me in a letter, is that I have to forgive myself. That, I'm still working on.

What follows is fiction, in the sense that it never happened. Names have been changed, of course- places and events are not at all as they occurred. Then again, anyone who's tried to write a true account of anything knows that is true of nonfiction as well. So this never literally happened, and this isn't really me. But the emotions are real, and the apology is real- as real as fiction gets, anyhow.

All Apologies

I slipped into a long, shiny, polished wooden pew. I wasn't quite in the back row, but near enough. Not being technically invited, I wanted to draw as little attention as possible to myself. The wood was slick and hard, and I slid down, trying to look like I was waiting for others to join me. There was a burble of talk- not the boisterous talk of socializing, but a lower, tighter rumble of anticipation. The room was filled with stagnant light hitting dust motes, and it had that unmistakable church aura that made you look down quietly and mind your manners. It felt heavy and serious, and it was getting warm as more people filed in.  

I had slid out of my house amid the early morning chaos, my wife managing the throng at the breakfast table, her pregnant belly poking out, bare and vulnerable, where her shirt gapped above her pajama bottoms. She looked at me, up early in a suit on a warm fall Saturday, with mild surprise. "Just a quick thing," I told her, grabbing a waffle as I slid past her. "I'll be back by lunch." She was used to business taking me away on the occasional weekend day, but not so used to it she didn't shoot me a furrowed brow as I made my way to the door.

That was fair. I had read about her wedding on Monday, a section of the paper left in a conference room revealing her face next to a rugged, handsome guy with dark hair and dark eyes. I knew instantly I had to attend, feeling the urge keenly, but I hadn't revealed anything of my plans to my wife. This was underhanded, at the very least, but I couldn't see the ensuing conversation leading anywhere I wanted to go. I concocted a morning planning meeting that would break up just in time for Tom Jenkins to hit the links in the early afternoon.

Anne had been my first real girlfriend - the first soul destroying, life dominating, every waking moment girlfriend I had ever had. She was bashful, sweet, with dark hair, a mild temper, and a delicate dancer's body. She had been my sole concern for almost a year, until, in a moment of weakness, I slept with one of her friends while she was squirreled away, trying to get into med school. I slept with her friend, without telling her, without breaking up, without making amends, without giving her a chance.

I watched people beginning to file into the rows near me- couples with small children, older people, dignified and quiet. Families. I seemed to be the only person here by myself. I tried to shrink down, studying the back of the program intently. The church we were sitting in predated the Revolutionary War, which was interesting, certainly. I thought about the generations who had sat here, the families that had formed and passed on and were replaced by new fresh faced people to fill the pews, and the nurseries below.

My betrayal was a routine one- one reenacted, probably, through all these generations that had sat here, singing these songs, carrying out these rituals.  It wasn't anything I was proud of, but even as I moved on, meeting my wife and marrying her and siring my own brood, it always bothered me, like a tickle in your throat that won't go away.  I had left her, but worse, I had left her without saying so, without having the decency or the sense of honor, the sense of self to stand there and tell her what I was doing.

I let her discover it, like John Lennon's wife coming home to find Yoko Ono there. I loved her, and I dishonored that love by a base, mean act. That was the part that burned- I loved her so intensely. I really did. And then, her absence enforced by something outside of her control, I threw it all away in a moment of weak shame. And to compound the problem, I didn't stand up and own what I had done, slinking away into the darkness with the friend, who would leave me eventually in any case.

It was so long ago, but it was my low moment. It was the one moment when my actual conduct so dramatically conflicted with my imagined self that I felt sick. I came here to see her at her moment of triumph, to allow her to win a battle that was being fought only in my own head. To think that she was still bothered by what I had done was pure hubris- we were adults at the time, but we were really children still, and she had moved on, probably days after I had left her. I had the same delusion many middle aged people do that anyone younger than me is a child, so I saw the person I was then as a bank account having, check writing, bill paying, credit card using child, partially because I didn't want to note the many ways that person and I were the same.

The church was full, and, without a word, the ceremony began, the air filling with heavy, reverent tones from the organs. I watched the procession, the gowned women teetering on uncomfortable shoes, the men trying to restrain giggles in matching suits. She came in. She was beautiful- every bride is, but the years that had passed had defined her, gave her more seriousness. She was still trim, obviously keeping in shape, but she seemed less delicate now, more able to withstand damage and heartbreak. And she smiled, a wide, radiant smile that told me she was at peace.

I thought about my wife, now probably trying to wrangle our sons into pajamas while showering and changing into fresh clothes for her own day's work. I loved her. I really do, I thought, listening to the pastor beginning the service at the front of the church. I didn't want to trade her messy hair, her absentmindedness, and all the thousand faults and tolerances we had built up over the years. I didn't know if there was a possible future with Anne I had missed out on- we could have broken up the next week, or the next month. I didn't know if this alternate future life would have been better, though I could scarcely imagine.

I'm sorry, I thought as she kissed her new husband. I'm sorry I treated you as less than human, and I'm sorry I punted away a chance at a life with you. I'm glad you found a life. Smiling quietly, I planned my escape and return to the lunchtime madness at my house. I'm glad I found mine, too, I thought.   

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rejection? Pour Moi? C'est impossible!


C'est vraiment possible.

The fine folks at the 52/250 Flash have turned down another story of mine for entry into the marvelousness that is the Year of Flash. Not wishing to let my story go to waste, I present it here: "No Monsters", another 250 word story on the theme "broken shells".

I watched him running away from me, across the hard, wet sand, tiny lights on his sneakers illuminating each step. I had told his mother, with her black dress and red eyes, that Steven and I were "going to take a walk". I had to get out of there. She assented, probably because everyone in the house was afraid to say no to me. It helped her, too- with one less little head to track, the complex mathematics of mourning while watching kids would be made slightly simpler.

He never went far, always looking back at me for reassurance that I was watching him.

"Lookit," he said with a child's wonder. "Shells."

"Yes, buddy," I told him.

"They broken." The shells were fragments, chips and pieces scattered near the shoreline.

"Yes, they are."

"Who broke'em?"

"The water did, pal. I think. Unless it was a monster."

"Uncle," he said, frowning, "there are no monsters."

"You're right," I agreed. "It must have been the waves."

He ran a little further on, picking up a stick.

"Where Aunt Rachel?," he asked. My heart seized.

"She's not here, pal. She's gone."

"Why she gone?"

"She got sick. Her body was broken. Like the shells. Now she's gone."

"Who broke her?" Life did, I thought.

"I don't know, pal."

"No monsters," he said solemnly. He dropped the stick into the water at his feet.

"No," I agreed. "No monsters." I wished I believed him.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

TED on advertising and marketing

I've become enamored with online videos again, specifically the TED talks, available for free at Here is the latest one to catch my fancy, about advertising and marketing. 

Toss A Coin