Victimhood is defined in negative terms: “the condition of having been hurt, damaged, or made to suffer.” Yet humans have evolved to empathize with the suffering of others, and to provide assistance so as to eliminate or compensate for that suffering. Consequently, signaling suffering to others can be an effective strategy for attaining resources. Victims may receive attention, sympathy, and social status, as well as financial support and other benefits
“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.” ― Alice Munro, Selected Stories
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Saturday, September 12, 1998 – this is the conclusion of the story of when one of our kids’ pet Fire Bellied Toads escaped and I bought a replacement without telling them
A runaway returns
I had a lot of trouble sleeping last night. Tossing and turning and turning and tossing, I ended up on the couch in the TV room. I kept hearing a noise from the window. A tapping, or maybe a melodious scraping sound coming from the window. My exhaustion muddled mind imagined all sorts of horrible possibilities for this sound; when I’d turn on the lights, there would be nothing there.
Finally I realized that what I was hearing was simply the sound of raindrops hitting the glass. It has been almost four months since it has rained at our house, I had forgotten the sound completely.
Today I was out of sorts, headachy and tired. We ran some errands in the morning (soccer games canceled because of muddy fields) and Candy dropped me off at home while she took the boys to a church carnival. I made an omelet and was sitting on the couch eating, watching “Planet of the Apes” and generally trying to imitate a vegetable when a movement in the kitchen caught my eye.
There he was, hopping across the tile floor, heading out of the kitchen, our missing toad. I guess he’s been hiding behind the cabinets or something; luckily I was there to see him make his run. He was hopping pretty well, seemed no worse for wear for his few days on the lam. I scooped him up before the Giant Killer Dog woke up and deposited him back into the aquarium.
We had to come clean with the kids, had to tell the truth about why there were now three fire bellied toads in there. They weren’t upset at our deception, only happy that we now have three toads.
They decided to call the new one “Runaway.”
And a Short Story for today:
You could argue about whether or not Alice Munro is the best short story author of all time… but there is no argument that there are none better. She did win the Nobel Prize for literature for her short stories – something very rare. This story, from the New Yorker’s 2003 fiction edition is a little longer than most of the fiction I link to here… but it is worth the time (as is anything Munro has written).
With the quickening cascade of political, social, and natural crises in our country, the faith in progress—the belief that good will and steady work leads to a better world—is a difficult faith to maintain. There have been times when the arc of history seemed to bend toward justice. But lately it’s snapped back the other way. It’s as if we’ve heaved a great boulder toward the mountain top, and we’re now watching it, slack-jawed and wide-eyed, as it careens back to the ground below. It feels that there is something absurd, in fact literally Sisyphean, to our predicament.
Every day, the billions of bacteria that inhabit your digestive system change; the food you eat, medications you take, and germs you’re exposed to make some bacteria flourish more than others. Scientists know that this ever-shifting balance of gut microbes is linked to your health and disease, but have struggled to pin down what makes one microbial balance better than another.
Many people have experienced reductions in stress, pain, and anxiety, and sometimes even euphoria after exercise. What’s behind this so-called ‘runner’s high’? New research on the neuroscience of exercise may surprise you.
Perhaps it is the word distemper that causes the most confusion. Few are aware that this is a generic term encompassing several different coatings. There really is only one type that is of relevance to historical buildings – or any building for that matter.
“Although frowned upon by the Reverend Johnstone and his captains, these visits across the dunes served a useful purpose, introducing into their sterile lives, Ransom believed, those random elements, that awareness of chance and time, without which they would soon have lost all sense of identity.” ― J.G. Ballard, The Drought
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Sunday,June 11, 2000
Walking in the rain
North Texas has been in a drought for… actually, about the last three years. It’s been that long since we’ve had enough rain to saturate the ground. I’ve forgotten about what real rain is like and my children haven’t even really seen it. We have had rain almost every day for the last few weeks… that didn’t used to be unusual this time of year, but it’s something we haven’t seen in quite some time. Any rain we’ve had in the last three years has been instantly soaked up by the dry ground, adsorbed, removed, and used to swell shut the cracks that vein across the parched clay every summer.
Today, it was raining particularly hard. Not a thunderstorm, no deadly lightning, but the long, heavy soaking rain – the life-giving rain. We had plans to go to a friend’s for the afternoon and they don’t have children so Nick and Lee were collecting boxes of toys to take with them. That way they would have something to do other than careen around and tear our friend’s beautiful house and possessions to shreds. Lee was collecting games for the Nintendo 64 while I hunted down the appropriate adapters so we could hook it up to any sort of electronics our friends have at their place.
Lee couldn’t find some sort of addition… some add-on pack that is used to attach his Gameboy cartridge so he could use his hand-held collected Pokemon in the N64 Pokemon Stadium game. After looking for it all through the house I had him call his friends and luckily, it didn’t take long until we located the missing pack at another kid’s house down on the end of the block.
So Lee had to go down and get it and he asked if I would walk with him. We grabbed Candy’s new big umbrella and opened the front door. Lee saw the extent of the torrent out there and asked if we could drive. I said, “No Lee, it’s only to the end of the block, we can walk in the rain, we won’t melt.”
He has a fear of storms, not an entirely unhealthy one. Lee is at the age where he is being allowed now to do some of the things that he couldn’t when he was a little younger; such as walk to a friend’s house in the neighborhood by himself. Lee takes everything to heart and still wrestles with these things. He is afraid of a lot of stuff that was forbidden to him as a small child. He can’t understand how something can be so dangerous, so full of terror one day, and no big deal the next.
Part of that is a fear of storms. He has been warned so often to watch out for lightning, stay inside when there is thunder, don’t swim in threatening weather, that he doesn’t like going outside if it’s raining. I assured him that I’d stay with him, it wasn’t a thunderstorm, we would be perfectly safe simply walking down to the end of the block and back.
So we stepped out with the umbrella, Lee standing close to me so we could both take advantage of the portable shelter. The ground was finally saturated so the heavy rain was all running off; the streets, sidewalks, yards, all covered with flowing water. We live on a slight rise so flooding is not a concern. It has been so wet the fire ants are all building desperate chimneys of mud straight up from their mounds in an attempt to escape the deluge. Unfortunately for them, this makes their nests easy to spot and apply a tablespoon of white powder insecticide.
Lee quickly lost his fear of the storm. I caught him grinning as we walked side against side, both barefoot, wearing shorts and T-shirts. The water along the sidewalk was deep everywhere and deeper is some spots and Lee took great little boy joy in padding his feet through the rainwater pools.
And so did I.
Something about fresh rainwater, it feels good. Warm water, soft water, rushing between your toes, splashing. Some of the water on the ground was tinted an ever-so-slight brown, a weak tea steeped from last year’s dead grass clippings still concealed in the lawn. There was no wind at all and the drops came straight down, big and thick and warm. The rain made a constant pinging on the taught fabric of the umbrella and a faint rustle as it tumbled through the leaves of the trees… the only sounds. For once, the constant background rumble of eighteen wheelers on the nearby Interstates and cloverleaves was muffled by the sheets of falling water.
The neighborhood smelled clean, washed, fresh. Lee was really enjoying the walk. There is nothing like the thrill of a fear overcome. The surprise discovery that something dreaded turns out to be enjoyable. We reached the end of the block and knocked on the door; his friend produced the adapter and I shoved it down a deep pocket and rolled my shirt over it to protect the electronics from the damp.
Lee was impressed by the amount of water running down the street. I wanted to drive the kids to the spillway of the White Rock Lake dam. It becomes an incredible raging torrent – a big change from the usual laconic curtain of water flowing down the concrete – but we didn’t have time.
Lee and I had to satisfy ourselves with our one-block walk in the rain, hopping in puddles, ducking the umbrella below tree branches.
“I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get.” ― Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye
Cut While Shaving
Over the years, Andrew had learned to completely avoid looking at himself in the mirror. Even when he shaved, he would only wipe a little oval into the steamed-over mirror and place his chin and cheeks right into that area, cutting away the shaving cream without making eye contact with the person in the mirror.
It wasn’t that he was ashamed of the way he looked – he knew he was perfectly ordinary and about what was to be expected for his age – a little on the downside of middle… but he was disappointed. He wasn’t the person that he had hoped he would be and didn’t like being reminded of that. He avoided having pictures taken of himself and when he failed at that he wouldn’t look at them. Avoiding his reflection in the mirror had been going on for so long he didn’t even think about it any more.
The night before was difficult. He kept waking from horrible unremembered nightmares and would toss and turn with dull pain in parts of his body he never thought about. When his alarm went off he dragged himself into the shower and then, for some reason, there was no steam on the mirror.
Still, his habit stayed and he concentrated solely on the task at hand. He brought razor up and into its long-familar position. He immediately cut himself and dropped the razor into the sink.
For the first time in years he looked at himself full-face and saw a completely different person. It was a tremendous shock – he went weak-kneed and wobbly, grabbing the bathroom counter top until he could steady himself. He grabbed a towel and scrubbed off the shaving cream and then rubbed his face, pulled on his cheeks, and closed his eyes for as long as he could stand – but it made no difference. There was a different person staring back at him.
His hair and been thin, straight, and sandy-colored but the mirror had thick jet-black hair, tousled into a mop. This new face wasn’t handsome, but it wasn’t ugly. It was a little younger, a little thinner, but not young and not thin. It didn’t remind Andrew of anyone, or bring up any strong emotions – it was nondescript… but it was different.
He thought about shaving, but didn’t want to get close to this new face with a razor. Beside – the shadow of dark beard wasn’t altogether bad looking. He felt better as he dressed, and couldn’t see that stranger’s face, though his body felt thinner and more muscular. He was surprised that his clothes still seemed to fit perfectly.
He fearfully walked out into the kitchen – worried about the reaction of his wife to this stranger walking around in his house.
“Honey, get a grip, something odd…” he shouted ahead of himself as he walked into the kitchen, where his wife always stood in the mornings, making breakfast. The second shock of the day came when he entered and found it deserted. On the counter was a brown sack lunch and a note.
It said, “Honey, remember to pick up the kids after work, I have a late meeting tonight and can’t get there in time, Love, Katherine.”
Katherine had quit work when their daughter, their oldest child was born. His kids took the bus to and from school and had for years. He couldn’t think of anything else to do so he grabbed the lunch and drove to work. Nobody in the halls said a word to him and Andrew was thankful that his cube at work still looked exactly the same. He sat down and logged in his computer. His boss appeared at the entrance with a cup of coffee and a list of tasks – he never mentioned Andrew’s new appearance.
The workday settled in as always. Andrew began to feel normal again as the routine took over. Every now and then he would start at the strange dim new reflection in his computer monitor, but after a couple of hours, even that ceased to scare him. At about ten o’clock his phone rang.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, this is Pen, I’m glad you’re at your desk, I’ve been thinking about you all morning.”
He recognized the voice as Penelope Smithers – the secretary to Johnson, the corporate vice president at their location. Every month he had to take a sheaf of papers to her, marked with little stickers where her boss had to sign them. She would call him back and he would pick them up, signed, and then mail them off to various agencies that required the periodic reports. This was his only interaction with Penelope Smithers – but this voice was heavy, breathless, excited, and personal. He could not imagine why she was talking this way. And why had she called him “Drew?” He had been Andrew since he was six years old.
“What can I do for you?” he answered.
“Oh, Drew, don’t be so cold! Wait, is somebody there? Oh, I see. Well, I wanted to tell you that Johnson is off site today and I can take a long lunch. Let’s meet, let’s get together. The usual place. I’ve missed you so much.”
Andrew almost choked on the phone. He didn’t know what to say.
“Drew! Are you there? I know you can’t talk, but give me a yes and we’ll meet.”
“Ummm, Mizz Smithers… I’m afraid I can’t…”
“Oh, is someone still there? Someone else in your cube? I understand. Well… if you can’t you can’t. You must have a lunch meeting scheduled. Call me back if something works out. I’ll be thinking of you.”
The line went dead. Andrew sat there sweating. What the hell was going on? Why did Penelope Smithers think that he would meet her… at the usual place. She thought they were having some sort of an affair. Sitting there, thinking back, he began to remember things about Penelope… about Pen – he was beginning to think of her as Pen, and he was feeling something… he wasn’t sure what, when the image of her came up in his mind.
Andrew was beginning to feel two parallel sets of memories. His old life was beginning to be overlaid with a dream life. Something new, shocking, different. Andrew began to cry. He felt his life slipping away. He was losing his mind. This dream life was getting more real by the minute.
“Get a grip on yourself,” he told himself in the voice of his father – who had told him this a million times. He looked at the corkboard beside his computer monitor and saw a scrap of paper that said, “Katherine – Work,” and a phone number. He picked up the receiver and dialed the number.
“Katherine Monroe, how can I help you?” Andrew breathed a sign of relief. The voice definitely that of his wife.
“Oh, Katherine, I’m having such a tough day. You wouldn’t believe it. I…”
“Drew, sorry,” Katherine interrupted, “I’m in the middle of something, we’ll talk tonight. Don’t forget to pick up the kids after work.”
“Umm, that’s one thing dear, I’m not sure where exactly to get them.”
“Jesus Drew! The same as always, just watch out for the Hartford private cops… they want everyone in the right lanes.”
So that was it. The Hartford School was on his drive home. There was always a huge mess with parent’s waiting to get their children. The private school didn’t have a fleet of yellow buses and all the cars waiting jammed up the streets and made Andrew’s commute home hell. Once there had been some sort of a fight and he had to creep by watching all the red and blue lights. It was on the news. And now, this is where his kids went. He had talked about this years ago with his wife, but they had decided it was too expensive. Actually, he had decided it was too expensive. And now…. He guessed he had no choice.
“Ok Katherine, I’ll get them.”
The line went dead.
Andrew had to ask the private police guard which lane to take and the guard had looked at him like he was crazy, then asked for an ID. Andrew had a moment of panic when he pulled out his wallet, but his Driver’s License matched his new face. Andrew moved into the proper lane and sat there waiting. He looked into the rear view mirror and for the first time that day wasn’t shocked by what he saw. He moved the mirror around, rubbing his chin, looking closely at the face that was getting more and more familiar by the second. With a shock he realized he was forgetting what he used to look like. That image was getting foggier every second – as if it was a bad dream.
While he was in this reverie the children had come pouring out of the school building. He looked around for his children, his daughter and son, but didn’t see them anywhere. He was beginning to think this was a big joke and thinking about driving home to where his kids would be getting off the bus right about now – when the back door opened and a young man and girl slid in.
“Hey, pops, what’s up?” the boy said. The girl was busy typing something into her phone.
Andrew looked back at the two strangers – they were the same age of his own kids, but they looked different, they looked… well, they looked more like his new face. He guessed it made sense – if he had changed his looks overnight, why not his kids.
“Umm, Jack, Samantha?” He tested. Had their names changed too?
“Yeah, Pops, are you OK?” Their names were the same. At that moment he realized they were his children. The memory of his old kids began to waver and fade.
“I’m fine kids. I just had a tough day at work,” he said.
“Hey Pops, my radio station please.”
Andrew reached forward and tuned the radio. He didn’t know how he knew the station, but he did.
“That good?” he asked.
“Perfect, Pops, like always.”
So Andrew started the car, and drove off into the complete unknown.
“when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’ ” ― Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Everyone has their traditions. The best traditions, especially the best holiday traditions… are the ones you establish yourselves.
I don’t remember how we started… probably inspired by the ending (after the disaster where the Bumpass’ dogs ate the turkey) of A Christmas Story….
Our Christmas tradition is to eat at Bistro B – a (one of many) Vietnamese restaurant in our city.
The other members of my family order various things (the menu at Bistro B is literally a book – the menu items run into the seven hundreds) but I stick to the Pho. Today, I ordered number 37 – the beef and meat ball Pho.
It was too much food. I have been trying to eat less. With most of the broth, most of the noodles, and all of the beef consumed, I was full. But, what the hell… it’s Christmas. I went for it.
There aren’t too many empty bowls left behind at that place.
I felt like I had swallowed a football. The rest of the day… well, it’s a bit of a blur.
We did open presents – not the wild blowout of rending paper as it was when the kids were little.
My son did buy my a cool and interesting gift – Tickets to the January 15th Kansas-West Virginia Basketball game – so we will have a weekend road trip to Lawrence in our future. That should be fun – I’ve only been back once in the last twenty years or so.
Joan Didion, author, journalist, and style icon, died today after a prolonged illness. She was 87 years old. Here, in its original layout, is Didion’s seminal essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” which was first published in Vogue in 1961, and which was republished as “On Self-Respect” in the author’s 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion wrote the essay as the magazine was going to press, to fill the space left after another writer did not produce a piece on the same subject. She wrote it not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.
Cycling definitely helps keep you in great physical shape, but that’s not the only benefit your favorite activity has on your body. According to new research out of Durham, North Carolina, aerobic exercise has some serious perks for your brain, too—like helping to reverse its age by almost nine years.
December 22nd will be the 50th anniversary of the release of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, a film so marked by violent killings and violent sex that, according to Peckinpah’s biographer, David Weddle, a third of the audience walked out of its premiere before the end.
“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activities in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”