It’s On

“SEAL, I have a problem,” I say to him. “I didn’t bring any extra underwear.” “So what?” “I can’t run without underwear.” “Nah, bro, you can’t run without legs. It’s on.”
Jesse Itzler, Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet

The Block, Richardson, Texas

 

The other day I was surfing the interwebs and came across – I don’t remember how – the story of some rich dude that hired a lunatic Navy Seal to live with him for a month and help him train.

I know it sounds silly and contrived – but the guy kept saying things like “stuck in a rut”, “drifting on autopilot” and “doing the exact thing day after day”- despite being a billionaire. That resonated with me (well, except for the billionaire part). So, throwing caution to the wind, I spent six bucks on the Kindle book. I usually read (at least) two books at once – one fiction (finishing up The Conquest of Plassans) and one non-fiction – so I started Living with a SEAL: 31 Days Training with the Toughest Man on the Planet.

Not sure if I can recommend the book unequivocally – but it is interesting and an entertaining read. I went for a nice bike ride in my hood and stopped for coffee and a quick read.

The first chapter has an interesting idea. The SEAL wants the guy to do a hundred pull-ups at the gym. The author is in really good shape, but is a distance runner without a lot of upper-body strength. He can do, say 15 or so.

The SEAL says, “Wait forty-five seconds and try it again.” So the guy does and does six. The SEAL has him wait another forty-five. He can do one, barely. At this point the guy is ready to go home.

“Nope,” the SEAL says, we’re not leaving until you do a hundred. After a minute of rest, the guy can do one. Over and over again. Until he hit a hundred. I guess it only took a bit over an hour or so.

I am fascinated by that concept. Not in terms of pull-ups – but on goals in general. Say, I will ride my bike fifty miles today – even if I have to stop and rest ten times. Or, I will write two thousand words, even if I have to stop and think twenty times.

It would require some time… but it’s an interesting concept.

My folding bike at The Block, Richardson, Texas

Go From Dream To Dream

“You go from dream to dream inside me. You have passage to my last shabby corner, and there, among the debris, you’ve found life. I’m no longer sure which of all the words, images, dreams or ghosts are ‘yours’ and which are ‘mine.’ It’s past sorting out. We’re both being someone new now, someone incredible….”
― Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

Gravity’s Rainbow, marked for reading goals (one marker per week)

So I sat down with my Penguin Paperback edition of Gravity’s Rainbow and put in little tabs for each week’s worth of reading for the Wild Detectives Reading Challenge that I’m doing now. My bookmark is an old Ten Cordoba Note that I laminated.

 

Beer and Batuman

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”
― Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Oblique Strategy: You are an engineer

In my struggle to live life outwardly, I spotted an event on Facebook that looked interesting. There was going to be a Book Club discussion at The Wild Detectives in Bishop Arts. I love that place – named after a Roberto Bolaño novel – it has a carefully curated collection of books, coffee and beer. What else do you need? On the weekends, they turn the wifi off – so people will be forced to talk to each other.

What could be better than to meet in a place like that and talk about a book?

The selected tome was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The book is a bildungsroman about a ninteen-year-old woman attending her first year at Harvard.

I only had a little over a week before the meeting so I set up a spreadsheet with the number of pages per day I had to read. I have a terrible confession to make. I had a nice heavy hardback copy and the Kindle version. I never picked up the physical book. The new Paperwhite is simply too good.

I’m sorry.

The book was very interesting. Terribly well-written, it was unique in that the protagonist, Selin, was the most passive main character I have ever read in a novel. She drifts along, only slightly buffeted by life. Reading about her, I had the image of a person sliding down a featureless sheet of ice, silently observing the scenery go by (in very great and subtle detail).

So my feelings on the novel were mixed. It was interesting in that this woman’s life in her freshman year was incredibly different than mine (in a bildungsroman you can’t help but compare the protagonists experiences to your own) – for example: sex, drugs, and rock and roll make no significant appearance in her life at all.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that it takes place at the very beginning of the internet age: Selin is confused at first by this email thing – until she embraces it and has the most significant relationship with a slow email conversation with someone she met in Russian class.

The Wild Detectives is way across town from my ‘hood and I fought through the traffic after work, arriving early enough for a preliminary beer (Texas Ale Project‘s Fire Ant Funeral – if you are interested).

I really enjoyed the discussion. We started talking about the cover (I never even noticed there was a rock on the cover). Talking about the email, someone brought up that it was like letter writing in the time of classic Russian Novels (like Dostoevsky’s own version of The Idiot) people would write letters to each other, the distance and time separating the two adding a surreal aspect to a relationship.

A very nice way to wile away an evening.

The next novel we will discuss is The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet. I bought a hardback copy at the bookstore – I’ll avoid temptation and not buy the Kindle version. We won’t meet until January, so I won’t need a spreadsheet to egg on the pages.

Book With Wings

“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
― Ray Bradbury

(click to enlarge) Book With Wings Anselm Kiefer Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

(click to enlarge)
Book With Wings
Anselm Kiefer
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 13 – The Last Night of the World

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day Thirteen – The Last Night of the World, by Ray Bradbury
Read it online here:

The Last Night of the World

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
—-Final two lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
—-First two lines of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice

Bang, Whimper, Fire, or Ice. Today’s story, The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury postulates that the world will end with a dream. Everyone will dream the same dream and realize that it is all over… not because of what we have done, really, but because of what we haven’t.

The story was published in Esquire – they say of it, “One of twelve short stories the late science-fiction legend wrote for Esquire. And, weirdly, perhaps the most lasting.”

It’s a calm apocalypse, a soothing end to things. Nobody riots, nobody goes nuts… they simply live the last day pretty much how they lived every other one.

It was written in 1951 and I think of how it resonated in the time. This was the greatest generation, after all, and they should have been reveling in their victory over evil. But what do you do as a follow-up?

The couple in the story has two small daughters. The opening scene is one of tranquil family life with the girls playing blocks on the parlor rug by the light of green hurricane lamps. The couple drinks brewed coffee from a silver pot out of cups with saucers.

That’s not a modern family – time has sped too much. Today they would be gulping Starbucks from paper cups while rushing from soccer practice to dance class while text messaging each other to remember to pick up a frozen microwave dinner on the way home.

The last thing the woman does is go down to the kitchen and turn off the water tap – she left it on after they had done the dishes together. If I had written the story I would have her go down there and turn it on – have her express a desire to leave the water running for eternity. But that’s the difference between 1951 and 2014.

The one thing in the story I don’t understand is the date. It states that the world will end on February 30, 1951 – a date which obviously never existed. I’m not sure what to make of this.

They sat a moment and then he poured more coffee. “Why do you suppose it’s tonight?”

“Because.”

“Why not some night in the past ten years of in the last century, or five centuries ago or ten?”

“Maybe it’s because it was never February 30, 1951, ever before in history, and now it is and that’s it, because this date means more than any other date ever meant and because it’s the year when things are as they are all over the world and that’s why it’s the end.”

“There are bombers on their course both ways across the ocean tonight that’ll never see land again.”

“That’s part of the reason why.”

“Well,” he said. “What shall it be? Wash the dishes?”

Knockemstiff

After I finished Volt I moved right on into another book of short stories set in the gray area between doomed small-town America and the outskirts of hell. This one is called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. The eighteen stories take place from the sixties to the nineties and contain a lot of interconnected characters – all living (if you can call it living) in a small Ohio town with the odd name of Knockemstiff. It seems like a stretch of literary license to make up a name like that for a set of stories like this – but the town used to exist. The author actually grew up there. There is even a map in the front of the book – like a trailer park trashy Lord of the Rings. One woman that shows up in several stories has KNOCKEMSTIFF as a tramp-stamp tattoo.

The author says that some of the events in the stories were inspired by stuff he saw – but the real inspiration was the decades he spent as a blue collar worker  – a meatpacking plant and thirty years at a paper mill. After three marriages and four stints in rehab he quit work to write.

The first story, about a boy with a drunken, violent father, who gets the both of them in a nasty fistfight in the concession stand of the Torch Drive-in movie theater during a showing of Godzilla. It was pretty horrific in its details – the kid’s father drinking whiskey from the car’s ashtray and wiping the sweat off his head with a paper bag – but it was well-written and effective and not too over the top.

Now then, though, the second story, Dynamite Hole… well, to say it was over the top is a bit of an understatement. These are not stories for the easily offended or the weak of heart. Dynamite Hole is a true journey to the heart of perversion and hopeless doom. Do not read this book if you don’t have a strong stomach and a good sense of the separation between fact and fiction.

Now, I really liked this book. That does not make me a bad person. This is a fiction, these are lies. Even if the town once existed – this stuff did not really happen like this (I hope). It is a set of horrific tales about the dregs of human scum… all of which somehow end up in the same tiny hamlet – soon to become a well-deserved ghost town. Maybe sharing a read with these folks makes me feel a little bit better about my own flaws… I don’t know. It’s well written, interesting, entertaining – that’s good enough for me.

Even the titles of the stories seem to seep with quiet disaster.

  • Real Life
  • Dynamite Hole
  • Knockemstiff
  • Hair’s Fate
  • Pills
  • Giganthomachy
  • Schott’s Bridge
  • Lard
  • Fish Sticks
  • Bactine
  • Discipline
  • Assailants
  • Rainy Sunday
  • Holler
  • I Start Over
  • Blessed
  • Honolulu
  • The Fights

Minor characters in one story turn out to be the protagonists in another. I thought of going through one more time and making a chart of who was related to whom and who did what and what nasty end they came to. But before I could get started, I decided I didn’t really want to spend that much time with these people… at least not right now.

Despite the deep horrific lives these folks live – the Bactine huffing, the living for years in abandoned cars out in the woods, the tons of stuff I won’t even write them down here – there are moments of hope and redemption. In one of the last stories, Blessed, a father is driving with his family into the city so his wife can sell some blood (he can’t sell any because of the hepatitis). The father’s promising burglary career as a second story man was destroyed when he fell off the roof of a pharmacy in the middle of the night. The little family road trip goes about as horribly wrong as possible. What really bother’s him, though, is the fact that he has come to realize that his son is mute. When they return home, his wife won’t let him back into the house until he cleans up (for well-deserved reasons).

As he peers into the window, he sees and hears his son talking excitedly to his wife, the boy’s mother. He isn’t mute – he only refuses to speak in the presence of his dad. The father takes this as a good sign and determines to go on, as best he can.

Such is life in Knockemstiff.

 Gothic Hillbilly Noir?

Winosburg, Ohio

‘Knockemstiff’ Writer Pulls No Punches

REVIEW OF KNOCKEMSTIFF BY DONALD RAY POLLOCK