“At the Atlas Summit, a conference for libertarian devotees of Ayn Rand, the question is inescapable. It is scrawled in black magic marker on the plain white T-shirt of the white-haired man I pass on the way into the ballroom. It is printed on the green button on the corduroy blazer of the man who wants to share his thoughts on "the envy-driven wizards at NASA." It is emblazoned on the limited-edition gold coins advertised in the special three-ring binder given to all attendees. It is hanging, really, over the heads of all of us who have convened at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown DC in early July to celebrate Ayn Rand's sacred scroll of objectivism. The question, parroting the catchphrase of Atlas Shrugged, is "Who is John Galt?" The answer, apparently, is Elon Musk.”—Why Ayn Rand acolytes want to move to Mars.
A Very Short Story
One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night.
Luz stayed on night duty for three months. They were glad to let her. When they operated on him she prepared him for the operating table; and they had a joke about friend or enema. He went under the anesthetic holding tight on to himself so he would not blab about anything during the silly, talky time. After he got on crutches he used to take the temperatures so Luz would not have to get up from the bed. There were only a few patients, and they all knew about it. They all liked Luz. As he walked back along the halls he thought of Luz in his bed.
Before he went back to the front they went into the Duomo and prayed. It was dim and quiet, and there were other people praying. They wanted to get married, but there was not enough time for the banns, and neither of them had birth certificates. They felt as though they were married, but they wanted everyone to know about it, and to make it so they could not lose it.
Luz wrote him many letters that he never got until after the armistice. Fifteen came in a bunch to the front and he sorted them by the dates and read them all straight through. They were all about the hospital, and how much she loved him and how it was impossible to get along without him and how terrible it was missing him at night.
After the armistice they agreed he should go home to get a job so they might be married. Luz would not come home until he had a good job and could come to New York to meet her. It was understood he would not drink, and he did not want to see his friends or any one in the States. Only to get a job and be married. On the train from Padua to Milan they quarreled about her not being willing to come home at once. When they had to say good-bye, in the station at Milan, they kissed good-bye, but were not finished with the quarrel. He felt sick about saying good-bye like that.
He went to America on a boat from Genoa. Luz went back to Pordenone to open a hospital. It was lonely and rainy there, and there was a battalion of arditi quartered in the town. Living in the muddy, rainy town in the winter, the major of the battalion made love to Luz, and she had never know Italians before, and finally wrote to the States that theirs had been only a boy and girl affair. She was sorry, and she knew he would probably not be able to understand, but might some day forgive her, and be grateful to her, and she expected, absolutely unexpectedly, to be married in the spring. She loved him as always, but she realized now it was only a boy and girl love. She hoped he would have a great career, and believed in him absolutely. She knew it was for the best.
The major did not marry her in the spring, or any other time. Luz never got an answer to the letter to Chicago about it. A short time after he contracted gonorrhea from a sales girl in a loop department store while riding in a taxicab through Lincoln Park.
A Few Great Things I've Read Lately
Haven’t done one of these in a minute, but it’s a rainy Saturday and I need a break from halfheartedly cleaning my apartment. So here we go. Some are longish, some are shortish. Some just are.
“When you see the entrance to Marquee at 11 P.M. on a Saturday, you know why the promoters call this process “bringing the shitshow.” Massing out front were, by my estimation, at least 2,000 people. Packs of Asian bachelorettes sucking on cock-and-balls lollipops. Pods of probably either Libyan or Italian princes of the overclass in blazers and exposed solar plexuses and calfskin loafers and Adrian Grenier knit caps. Teams of 29-year-old white men in untucked dress shirts and heavy cuff links who stood stunned mute by the endless throng of women wearing almost identical vagina-length dresses that perpetually seemed on the verge of revealing at least, at least, a butt cheek—though by some invisible force above the hemline never, never ever did.”
“The apartment was huge, beautiful, and, best of all, free. I had a big window and a view of the Williamsburg Bridge. Stephen Malkmus was rumored to live there. Some scenes from Eternal Sunshine were shot in our building. I was the Help. The help with a college degree, peroxide blonde hair, and a newly-cultivated addiction to Menthol Lights. I felt adrift and un-at-home, reading their Houellebecq books, and ruining my too-fragile psyche. I left the house whenever I could, and walked through the courtyard gate each time charged with possibility in my Forever 21 dress. I felt very lucky to be young, a strange and sad thing to be aware of and console yourself with, because I knew that while I was not where I wanted to be (like everyone I met, it seemed), I also knew I had time to figure it out. I could leave all of this behind one day, whenever I wanted (if I could only get up the guts to look them in the eye and tell them so).”
“That isn’t to say, thought, that things weren’t weird. Because they definitely were. Like the time Neil Patrick Harris, old Doogie Howser himself, called our house to talk to Larry (character motivation, I guess). Or the fact that we all sat together as a family and watched that made for TV movie — I’m pretty sure the dictionary definition for meta-surreal is something like ‘Watch the scene where Doogie Howser, playing your adopted brother, brutally kills his parents on TV, as the real killer, your actual brother, eats popcorn in your living room.’”
“I’m in the midst of my own freelance experiment. Admittedly, I started with the advantage of several years of experience as an editor, so I know a lot of the people to whom I’m pitching, and I know how editors think. I’ve made some freelance rules for myself: 1) Set up a few recurring gigs (like this column) to add structure to my week and my finances. 2) Send at least two additional pitches per week. 3) Meticulously track each assignment through six stages: pitched, assigned, published, promoted, invoiced, paid. The lag time between publication and payment is usually significant. So prepare to harass your employers to cut the check.”
“I couldn’t afford to do a film set in 1968 or 1969. We’d need period cars, costumes, all that. So I didn’t specify. I also think that isn’t very interesting; once you specify a time, once you say “this is 1969,” you separate people from the story. So the idea was to suggest the past, but not say too much. People can come to their own conclusions about what period it is. And the reaction was great: there were some people who thought it was the 50s, others, the 60s, others who thought it was the 80s, when it was filmed. What helped the ambiguity on film is that most cars parked on Park Avenue, or on any street, are old cars. No one parks their new Jaguar out there.”
“Hardy is a “face” – a good guy character – and the face role in a match is always the same: get tossed around the ring until turning it around at the last minute for a win. Hardy, who has back and knee injuries, doesn’t perform any of his famous high-flying moves from back in the day. This match is certainly a huge step down from the packed stadiums he used to perform in, but he takes hits and rolls around theatrically on the mat, and when he pins Jay Lethal for the win, the crowd goes wild. Hardy rips off his T-shirt and tosses it to them as they cheer.”
“Like her fictional hero Tony Montana, Lee maximized her power over those around her. She surrounded herself exclusively with obedient sidekicks and avoided situations where people weren’t prepped to be wowed by her presence, as when Cady once invited her to a party at actor Jeremy Renner’s house: “Does he know who I am?” Lee asked, declining. Cady soon found their relationship shifting from friendship to master and servant as Lee tightened her leash, especially after Cady acquired a boyfriend. Lee made her break plans at a moment’s notice, scrolled through Cady’s phone “just to see what you’ve been up to,” and bought Cady a three-carat diamond ring, instructing her to display it on her engagement finger – a symbol of the girls’ emotional betrothal.”
“Cue “Desperado” as McCarthy heads off a journey of self-discovery, one that involves much staring into the middle distance, licking of ancient filial wounds, charged but chaste interactions with women with “ample breasts,” and of course, pizza. Specifically: “Papa John’s quatro queso pizza at six-thirty in the morning.” Morning pizza! The taste of freedom! It’s a sensitive-yet-vulnerable man’s rumspringa interrupted only by the occasional pang of conscience.”
Book reports are a kid's worst nightmare.
Even for a bookish fourth grader, I hated writing book reports. Ironic that I should now desire to write reviews of books each week for no reason other than a love of literature. At that early age, I had developed a taste for Jules Verne, and Edgar Allen Poe, but I had learned that it wasn’t exactly something to be proud of.
Elementary school was brutal.
I remember a cloudy morning, when I slurped through a bowl of cereal, unusually early, and in no rush to walk to school. I glanced over my cereal at my unread copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I had been so excited to start on it, but somehow three weeks had gotten away from me. Somehow, the fact that Mrs. Halsbrooks asked me to do it, had crippled my ability to pick up the book.
It was 7:30 am and I had not read a book, much less written a report on it.
I left the bowl of cereal, spinning on the kitchen table with a flash. “Mom!” I cried, “I have a book report due today! What am I going to do?”
My ever-clever Mother replied, “Read.”
“But I didn’t read the book!”
She laughed. My mom had grown up in Venezuela, was Valedictorian of her high school, and was the kind of person who handed out hand-typed communist manifestos to passers-by when she was in college. The idea that one of her children couldn’t do a simple book report was outrageous. Without skipping a beat, she replied, “Read the book of Jonah.” As a life-long catholic, my Mother had never read the bible. Why would you? The priest tells you everything you need to know. It wasn’t until arriving in the protestant South that she realized that religious literature was truly accessible to her.
When I was punished, she made me copy Proverbs. When she was in a good mood, we read Psalms. When I had a book report, she had me read Jonah.
And in desperation, I did. As Jonah, flung himself from the boat into the mouth of the fish, so I read quickly from the King James Bible, writing my one-page book report as I went along. I continued reading as I walked to school and then tucked the old worn bible into my backpack, walking into class.
Mrs. Halsbrooks hated me. Even as an adult, I don’t know why. I sat in the front row, and geared up. Roll call. Homework was passed in, and I wrung my hands. She closed her binder and I knew it would happen. Despite the fact that my name was in the middle of the roster in both first and last name alphabetically, she had a way of trying to mess me up. “Ro-” She didn’t even finish before I stood up.
“My book report is on the book of… Jonah”
The awkward silence of kids listening filled the room, or more accurately, seemed to suck everything out.
“So, uh… this book is found in the Bible.”
Mrs. Halsbrooks had had enough. “You can’t do that. Fail.”
“Why not?” I asked, partially sincerely, the other part just plain smartassy.
“Because it’s…” She stopped herself. Expressing your personal religious beliefs in front of a room of fourth graders is never smart. “Because we shouldn’t do reports from religious texts…” She attempted.
“But I read the book.” I replied. “And I have this report.” As was evidenced by the sheet of paper I waved in hand.
“Principal’s office.” She glared. “Now.”
As I marched down the hallway, away from the snickering classroom, I was forced to ask myself, “Is this religious persecution?” But only in the way that a fourth grader could, “Is my mom going to be really mad? Oh man… Yeah.”
I arrived to the safe-haven of the principal’s office, where I sat with my backpack between my legs waiting on the principal to return from “something important”, and realized, I could finally start on the book I wanted to read. I pulled the copy of “20,000 Leagues” from my backpack, and made myself really comfortable, free of the pressures of the book report.
“All right," Franny said wearily. "France." She took a cigarette out of the pack on the table. "It isn't just Wally. It could be a girl, for goodness' sake. I mean if he were a girl - somebody in my dorm, for example - he'd have been painting scenery in some stock company all summer. Or bicycled through Wales. Or taken an apartment in New York and worked for a magazine or an advertising company. It's everybody, I mean. Everything everybody does is so - I don't know - not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and - sad-making. And the worst part is, if you go bohemian or something crazy like that, you're conforming just as much as everybody else, only in a different way." She stopped.”—J.D. Salinger | Franny and Zooey, 1961 #nothingnewunderthesun
FRAMES (version 2)
Thank you to everyone who gave me notes on this piece, here is the edited, expanded version of FRAMES, with changes according to the notes given to me. Thank you.
A man screamed.
The missiles whistled toward us, where we stood at the foot of the huge robot. They sparkled in blue and green and black ooze peeled from the skin of the large projectiles. As the missiles crashed into the ground, I felt my heart leaving my chest, lurching forward onto the ground. The crash blew us all in different directions. One of the scientists on the project, Dr. Narita, lifted me up under one arm as I tried to regain my senses. After the first wave of explosions subsided, deafening and blinding, I realized I was still alive. The world was moving around me in slow motion and there was nothing but a high-pitched ringing in my ears.
Dr. Narita, uncle’s superior, was still dragging me through a row of soldiers who were beginning to turn their weapons on the craters where the missiles crashed. Black ooze gurgled in the crater. They knew what was coming out of them. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.
In the distance, I could see him running toward the colossus. Tetsuo ran nimbly toward the leg of the mecha-frame, where a service door swung on its hinges. Despite the falling debris and dust, he ran with his head down.
Our time was up.
The lost sky.
Two birds alighted on the branch of one of the trees at the roadside. They did not sing to greet the morning sun, but instead exchanged perplexed and worried looks.
“Where shall we fly?” one of them asked the other.
“Our sky is full of planes.”
“The only space left for us is inside cages.”
“We’ll lose our wings.”
“And we’ll forget how to sing.”
The two birds stared up at a black plane traversing the heavens at enormous speed and then exchanged worried glances again. To them, the city seemed like a greedy mouth with huge teeth. They swallowed sleeping pills and fell dead to the solid cement pavement below.
-Syrian author Zakariyya Tamir, “The Enemies,” 1957.
FRAMES Part 2
I stood in quiet prayer in front of the colossus. I was not a religious man. I was barely a good man. I worked in food service most of my life and had become a bit of a slob before the war. Though I was born a big boy, I had become overweight, sluggish and apathetic as a man. I lived alone and didn’t have much to offer a woman.
When the military came to our Province to build a large robot to fight the alien invaders, I volunteered to work on the construction of the machine but was chosen to be a janitor. It was dishonorable. What would my mother think of me then? I did my job though and I worked hard. The large robot was erected quite quickly. The skeleton of the thing was made of reinforced steel and in the center of the chest was some sort of control console for an operator to turn it on.
It looked like the giant skeleton of a demon of some sort, hunched over and exhausted. It would have had a samurai helmet but that part had not been finished. An attack had befallen our village and after the black ooze had settled and the bunker had been destroyed. I was the only survivor, having run into the woods alone.
Here’s an attempt to convert my love for anime into a short story for National Short Story Month.
As their missiles crashed into the ground, I felt my heart leaving my chest. One of the scientists on the project, Dr. Narita, lifted me up under one arm. After the first wave of explosions subsided, deafening and blinding, I realized I was still alive. The world seemed to be moving in slow motion and there was nothing but a high-pitched ringing in my ears.
He was still dragging me through a row of soldiers who were beginning to turn their weapons on the holes where the missiles crashed. They knew what was coming out of them. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.
The Danger of a Single Story
Alex Kotlowitz, one of my favorite writers, in Chicago magazine:
Stories inform the present and help sculpt the future, and so we need to take care not to craft a single narrative, not to pigeonhole people, not to think we know when in fact we know very little. We need to listen to the stories—the unpredictable stories—of those whose voices have been lost amidst the cacophonous noise of idealogues and rhetorical ruffians.