Is This the Start of a Story?

Man with umbrella walking in the rainI was returning from a trip to New York City and the short piece below came out.I shared it on Facebook and some writer friends have written two beautiful responses to it, picking up the story from other points of view. As I was reading and editing it, I was thinking of my recent post about what makes for good story telling when the truth seems to bleed into fiction.

I was also reflecting on a weekend dinner with my brother and two of my oldest friends. We were recalling stories and relying on each other to fill in the details. For some of the stories I had departed from the real at some point. Perhaps other details sounded better, perhaps I honestly forgot, perhaps some combination of both.

Anyway, the story–all of which, or nearly all of which, is true.


 

You could put me in Greenwich Village on a stormy evening. You could make the wind sweep rain up from my feet, soak through my pants in a minute. You could have me duck into the first restaurant.

Make it Russian. Drape it in deep velvet where people sit in wicker thrones at preposterously small tables. Shake my head at the chairs. Put me instead at the bar.

Make the bartender look like Ivanka Trump but put her in jeans and a Yankees t-shirt. Make her warm and attentive. Have her introduce herself as Cosma.

Have one of the waiters join me at the bar. Between deep groaning spasms of Tourette’s have him tell me, in perfectly accented English, to try the dumplings.

Have him start to tell me that they are perfect for “this shitty weather.” But then have Cosma shut him down. “You think this is shitty weather? Come to Serbia. I will show you shitty weather.”

Have some young guys show up and flirt with Cosma despite her engagement ring. Have them ask her name and have her tell them Natasha and point to me. “And him? That’s Boris.”

Have me hold up my drink, nod to them across the bar. Allow me a smile and give me a look that says I am in for a good night if I can hold my vodka.

You could tell that story and know that it’s almost true. You really could.

Too Good to be True

5700-raw.jpgA friend has told me that some of my stories sound fictional. “That’s just too good to be true,” she will say, and honestly, I can’t deny it. They do sound too good to be true. That’s what makes them worth telling again.

Take the time when, years ago, my angry voice mail was broadcast over the PA to my entire company. That alone could make it sound unbelievable. What made it more unbelievable was that it was loaded with f-bombs, one after another, each one directed at a different colleague. There were about 300 employees in that company. I don’t think I missed one.

The specifics of that day make it even better. I was visiting our major client, installing the latest version of our software that felt like little more than vaporware at the time. The client was furious. I was shuttling between the systems room and the editorial floor, watching every feature blow up, one after the other.

So I left the client, drove to the nearest pay phone (this was before cell phones). I poured quarters into the phone, dialed my boss. When he didn’t pick up, I just let loose. If my memory is correct, my tirade lasted for five minutes. I hung up and drove the three hours home.

Meanwhile, back in headquarters, my boss returned to his desk. By his telling, he only had to hear the first few words of my message to know what was up. He was in a day-long meeting with the senior management of that very client. They were ready to bail. We would lose the contract, maybe even be sued, if the ship couldn’t be righted. So he hit a few buttons on the phone, thinking he was transferring it to another one of the managers on our team.

He hit the wrong buttons. The message went to the PA system.

As he told the story later, there was no mistaking my voice. I have a deep voice, nasal to my ears, but he considered it quite distinctive. He also knew that everyone else knew my voice–every employee and everyone from the client. After panicking for a minute and hitting every button he could think of, he realized that maybe not all was lost. The clients were sitting in our executive meeting room. They PA didn’t work there. He took a few deep breaths and returned to the room.

Meanwhile, downstairs, the technical director from the client was in our smoking room. The PA did reach there. A friend and colleague, Dan, was in the smoking room as well. Dan was a veteran of the first Iraq war. Nothing got past him, so when he heard the start of the voice message he knew what was what. He stood up and he started singing, “New York, New York.”

I understand he sang it pretty well and he kept singing until the message was over. The client finished her cigarette and went back to the meeting.

The client never got word of it. The fallout had more to do with me insulting and denigrating every one of my colleagues. However I was well liked and everyone knew the pressure I was under. The software did suck then. I was in an impossible situation of driving three hours down and three hours back every week to install a new version of the software that didn’t work.

My boss, for his part, decided to fall on his sword. He went into our CEO’s office, told the story, and he was ready to resign but our CEO burst out laughing and couldn’t stop. Crisis averted.

Back to my friend who didn’t believe the story.

We traveled together recently to New York City. On the train back, who should be in our car but my old boss. I introduced them and asked him to the story. He told it with relish. He’s a great storyteller anyway, but he really loved this one. Almost 25 years have passed and he still told it in all its detail, reminding me of things I had since forgotten. I was vindicated.

In the workshop at Ferry Beach, our long-time facilitator Jim Ellefson offers a prompt I have long enjoyed: tell a tall tale. Wikipedia helpfully explains that “a tall tale is a story with unbelievable elements, related as if it were true and factual.” I especially like the second element, “some stories such as these are exaggerations of actual events.” I love tall tales and I write them. This one, though, happens to be true. My old boss will even tell you so.

Around the House

ariensst724I have now owned a house for nearly 25 years. It has been a love-hate relationship at every step. It is old, built in 1880, and big. It is listed at 1700 square feet, but we added a 400 foot addition. It has a full basement, four bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and the half-finished attic office that I now sit in.

I don’t say this to brag. I know that I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, and I feel blessed to have been able to raise my boys in a nice home in a nice small city outside of Boston. If things go well, my wife and I can retire here or sell the house, buy something smaller, and use some of the gain to help with our retirement.

No, I say this because every inch of this house is a blessing and a curse to me. Whenever something goes awry–and things always go awry–the house reminds me of all the things I am not good at. I don’t do plumbing or electric or carpentry. I don’t fix things. I don’t know how to troubleshoot pretty much anything except electronics.

It’s worse, really. I don’t know the right tool to use in nearly every situation. I don’t think before I do things so of course I screw up or make it worse. I invariably start whining. It’s pathetic, really.

So I stick to what I am good at. I like doing laundry. I like cleaning the kitchen. I like organizing things when I have time and patience. I am good at getting the yard ready for the seasons. For some reason I especially like putting things away in the fall. There is an order to the world when the yard is free of furniture and garden fencing and hoses. I like sweeping out the shed and leaving it neat, the tools in their place, the garden supplies on their shelves.

Today I got the snowblower out. First I emptied the shed of as many things as I could, lined them up outside, then swept the shed. It took me less than an hour, but when I was done everything was back in the shed and organized. That left me with the snowblower sitting on the driveway behind the house.

It is a nice machine, a hand-me-down Ariens 24 from my brother. If I bought it new today, it would be about $900. My brother even had it serviced before he gave it to me before the winter of 2014-2015, when we broke the record for most snow in a season (and that same article tells me that six of the ten worst snowfall seasons have happened since I bought this house).

I checked the oil, filled the gas, lubricated the auger. I opened the choke, primed the engine, pulled the starter.

Nothing.

I pulled it again.

Nothing.

This is where the snowblowers of the world defeat me. This is where the snowblowers of the world not only ruin the day but threaten to ruin the week, the month, the season. This is where the snowblowers of the world remind me, for the thousandth time why I should have never bought a house.

I have learned, finally, after nearly 25 years of owning a house and 27 years of marriage, to exercise at least a little patience in such moments. So I tried a few more times, double-checked everything, tried again.

Nothing.

I sat on my back stairs, Googled the model number, hoping to find the documentation so I wouldn’t have to rummage around inside (and likely not find it and likely get pissed off). I didn’t find the documentation right away but I found a video instead, “Ariens ST724 Snowblower Cold Start.”

My prayers were answered, but it was quite humbling. It turns out this snowblower has an electric start. I vaguely remember asking my brother about it, but I can’t remember what he said, so I hadn’t spent any time on it. It turns out that it works. You plug an extension cord into it. prime the engine, open the choke, and the freaking thing starts up.

As my friend Jake F. likes to joke, “The farm’s been saved!”

And my family has been saved from some of my whining.

Marginalia

marginaliaA colleague told me a story once. He had been advising the Vatican on work they were doing to scan important documents, some dating back centuries. IBM had been given the work, and they had put equipment and a team on site so that none of the documents had to travel.

Document scanning can be dreary work. Consider things like contracts, business correspondence, financial records. But in publishing and in archives, the work can be interesting. I would love, for example, to be involved in scanning documents related to the transcendentalists. They have to be voluminous, far-ranging, and rich.

Anyway, back to the Vatican. As my colleague tells the story, one of the technicians was having trouble scanning a page so that the marginalia was coming out as clearly as the main text. The technician, an American, called over one of the Vatican archivists.

“Is this important?” the technician asked.

The archivist studied the document for a moment, handed it back to the technician. “Apparently da Vinci thought so.”

The story could well be apocryphal. I don’t even remember who told me the story. It was that long ago and my connection to the colleague was thin. Apocryphal or not, though, it made a point. Sometimes the marginalia is more important than the text itself.

I mentioned my note-taking style in a recent post. Through college and into graduate school, my style was always to take voluminous notes. It helped me structure what I was hearing and it helped me remember. I didn’t even have to go back to the notes, necessarily, because the process worked so well. Over time, I became even better at creating structure as I listened.

When I look at those old notebooks now, as interesting as they might be, I am most drawn to the marginalia. They tell me, in small ways, what was going on in my life. They tell me, even more importantly, what I was thinking about, and sometimes fretting about.

  • At the start of one semester, I made a note about the names of the other people in the class (“Kus, Donna, Patricia, Nikki, Chris E.,” and someone I could only identify as “Boston5.” Maybe he or she worked at the local television station?)
  • In the opposite margin, I wrote down the names of several other BU professors in the program (Mager?, Kelley, Robert Davis). Maybe I was trying to figure out who my dissertation advisors might be?

I wrote many other notes.

  • “Hypertext” in a circle
  • “128 Bay State Road (next to Army Vans)”
  • “Call Susan Morgan” (Susan was a colleague at Xyvision, the new company I had just joined as a Course Developer.)
  • “EM 711” (I wrote this several times, as a reminder that the material covered in the text would be covered in more detail later, in another class.)
  • Apparently one of my classmates wasn’t in class on 10/31/1989: “Chris Out Sick”
  • After the midterm, I wrote the word “Papers” in the top right corner of one page. Again circled. I must have been anxious about getting things done.
  • A week later I used the upper-corner again for another circled note, “Monday Nights 7-10,” then that same evening I made a note about another possible class, “EM 731, CBI, Screen Design, Human Factors, Authoring Language Programming.” That is so 1989.
  • Work was clearly on my mind, though, because that same evening I wrote, again circle, “OVERHEADS FOR CALS.” This was a reference to a work project at my new employer. Apparently I needed to write it in all caps.
  • (A brief aside: I was marveling at the quality of my notes and I remembered what a good lecturer my professor, Wilbur Parrott, was. I then did a search for him and that led me to an 1878 patent, “Improvement in whiffletrees” and another Wilbur Parrott, who was listed as a witness to that patent. I doubt I will end up using it, but there is indeed poetry in everyday things.)

My notebook ends with what may have been the final lecture on 11/28/89, but after a few blank pages I had faithfully recorded an informal bibliography of the five journals I should be following and then a list of books. I then have two more pages of notes at the very end of the notebook. Left loose in the back of the notebook were the slide I mentioned above and its accompanying note, the journal article, four other journal articles, and some handouts. There is also a short paper I wrote. There’s no grade on it, so I must have handed in another copy. I have to admit it’s pretty good.

Why do I mention all this? I am convinced that our own marginalia is good raw material. As mundane as the notes are, I can use some of them for germs of stories or details for other stories (see my recent entry here on this same subject). I like the thought of this student being so focused in the class, and clearly enjoying it, but then work creeping in. It’s not easy being a working student. and more students than ever are working more hours than ever.

I lived that life for a long time. I worked and did freelance work for each of my four undergraduate years. For the six years that I was a graduate student, I worked anywhere from 24-40+ hours per week in a day job and also freelanced. After I was awarded my M.A., I added teaching to that. For five of those years I was also married. I changed course, so to speak, when my wife and I decided to have children,  so I didn’t have the added stress of being a parent. (That’s also a rising percentage of even undergraduates who have children, and the majority of parents who go to college are women.)

There are stories in there. Some of them might even end up being pretty good.

January 15, 1987

nissan-stanzaOn January 15, 1987, I left my office in Bedford early, drove to the post office near my apartment in Arlington, then to the library, and then into Harvard Square to teach a class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I put 46 miles on my 1984 Nissan Stanza, going from 37,418 miles to 37,464 miles.

How do I know this? I know this because I was earning some money as writing and had to keep good records. I also know because I am a bit of a pack rat. No one has to keep 29-year-old tax records. In my case, the records take up the first 20 sheets of a small notebook. There was simply too much good blank paper left to throw it away.

I still have essentially all of my notebooks–and probably nearly all of my blue books–from my undergraduate and graduate classes. For example, on November 28, 1989, in a classroom at the Boston University School of Education, I presented a single slide on the idea of advanced organizers to help improve reading comprehension. The slide was based on a 1960 article in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled, “The Use of Advance Organizers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material.” I know this because I still have the slide, done by hand, and a set of notes, and a copy of the original paper. I also took well over 150 pages of notes that semester because writing so many things down always worked for me in helping to learn new things.

(The notebook reminds me that, even though I didn’t finish my degree, I was a pretty good doctoral student.)

Here’s what else I know about November 28, 1989, this time with help from the web:

  1. It was a Tuesday.
  2. It started out as an unusually warm day for Boston, with rain in the morning, then a high of 59F that lasted most of a cloudy day. Then it cleared and the temperature dropped precipitously, and by the time I got out out of class (probably around 10:00 pm) the temperature had dropped to the high 30s. The 20-mph winds, though, made it feel like 29.
  3. The Boston Bruins beat the St. Louis Blues that night, 5-1. Ken “The Rat”  Lineseman, one of my favorite players of that era, scored twice. The game was in St. Louis, so I may have been home in time to catch the end.
  4. Deer hunting season began in Massachusetts (I didn’t even know we had one).
  5. Further away in the world, the Soviet Union continued to crumble.
  6. In the midst of the Velvet Revolution, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced it would give up its monopoly on political power.
  7. In another blow to communism, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci fled to Hungary.

To dig in a little more, I browsed the online Boston Globe through my MIT library credentials. While all these things were happening, the Globe showed what I could not recognize at the time. It was (and is) a provincial paper. Local news–murders, lesser crimes, obituaries of the minor and very-minor–outpaced all of the larger international stories. There were six stories about the Boston Red Sox, even though the season had ended almost two months before.

Why mention all this? I’ve discussed how internet research can provide wonderful raw material for writing. I recently finished writing a short story that I kind of like. It blends a fictional story with a few elements from my own past and, significantly, some events in history. The setting was 1982, and the narrator, like me, was working in the defense industry at a point when the Cold War was still very real and very scary. I remembered certain events of that time, and tracked down the details, read a number of articles about them. It brought the events themselves into sharper focus, but it also helped me understand why the character was as fearful as he was. He had good reason to be, even while many of the people around him were not.

All of this raw material can prove useful. I could base a story in that time. The main character could be based on my life as a graduate student or it could not. It could be the professor listening to the brief presentation. Maybe the professor is irritated or bored or distracted. Maybe it’s a classmate and she has something else more important on her mind. Maybe it’s someone at the Bruins game. Maybe it’s a man setting out to hunt or his son watching him leave. Maybe the man is not well. It’s his last hunt. Maybe his son is with him and is trying to come to terms with what this means.

I could write about some of those ideas without a great deal of additional research at this point. I’ve been that graduate student. I’ve been that professor. I’ve been that fellow student with something else on my mind. I’ve been at Bruins games. But I’ve never been hunting, and I never saw life behind the Iron Curtain. I wouldn’t visit Germany until 2001, when I was in Berlin and there were only vestiges of communist rule left.

I can even keep mining this material for now. I just picked up my mileage log for 1989, turned to a page. On November 7th I drove to Computer Mart of New Hampshire and then returned there on November 9th. I remember Computer Mart as the go-to place for Apple Macintosh repairs. Clearly something had gone wrong with my machine. It had to have been stressful for me. I was at a new job since late September, I was taking that class, I was a newlywed. They were champs, apparently, for getting the computer back to me in two days. Still, that was a long drive, 115 miles round trip. I left work one of those days, picked up the computer, and drove home. I could write about that.

 

A Christmas Story

In 1988, my wife Michele and I were a young, engaged, happy couple and looking forward to Christmas. We lived in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston at the time. Michele was working full-time at Harvard Community Health in Kenmore Square. I had cut down to three days a week in my regular job while I started on my doctoral work and did some adjunct teaching.

christmastreeThe end of the fall semester was especially hectic that year. I had taken a full course load and was teaching two classes. Christmas was coming and I was frantically writing my own papers and grading papers for 50 students. I really didn’t focus on Christmas at all until the day before. By that evening we weren’t at all ready. We didn’t even have a tree yet.

I picked Michele up in Kenmore Square after dropping off my final grades at Bunker Hill Community College. We were picturing a couple of places in Brighton Center that sold trees, but when we got there, they were closed. We were standing outside a flower shop on Washington Street. It was closed, and it had been our last chance.

I guess we were looking forlorn. I guess our predicament must have been obvious to the cop who pulled up next to us. He rolled down his window.

“I bet you are looking for a Christmas tree.”

I remember Michele answering him. “We are. Everything’s closed.”

“It’s your lucky day,” he said. “I busted a guy earlier who was selling trees illegally. Follow me. When I flash my lights, look to your left. There will be some trees behind a wall.”

We followed him up Washington Street and a few blocks up he flashed his lights. We pulled over, crossed the street, and looked over the wall. There had to have been 20 or more trees there. We called out our thank you to the cop. I think he was smiling as much as we were.

It’s nice picking out a tree when price is no object. Memory is a funny thing, but in my mind, it was a big tree. If my memory is right it was also the first real tree I ever had. We brought it back to our apartment, decorated it, put the presents under it. It was going to be a good Christmas.

Currently Reading…

bridgeofsighsBridge of Sighs by Richard Russo.

I reached out to one of my favorite college professors, Ed Thompson, several years ago when I hit something of a reader’s block. I had taken on several reading projects to challenge myself, and I was done with them. The last of these was to read Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. I then rounded that project off by reading McCarthy’s The Road and, finally, Blood Meridian. If you know one, some, or all of those books you will understand why I might have been a little wrung out.

(And, by the way, to the Amazon reviewer who gave Blood Meridian a one-star review in part because it had a 163-word sentence, you need to put on your big boy shoes and march over to another Amazon department.)

Anyway, Professor Thompson answered me thoughtfully. I had explained that McCarthy and some others had opened my eyes to gritty realistic fiction after years of reading short fiction masters such as Andrew Dubus, cornerstone male American authors such Updike and Roth, post-modernists such as Heller and Borges and magical realists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He pointed me to Richard Ford and Richard Russo.

I had bought Ford’s The Sportswriter more than a decade before. I knew it was considered a great novel. As a once-aspiring sportswriter, I should have been more drawn to it (though perhaps that’s one of the reasons I didn’t read it). Professor Thompson also pointed out it was the beginning of a trilogy and I liked trilogies. I had read the border trilogy of course and I had read the Rabbit trilogy before it became a tetralogy.

I read Ford’s trilogy and I was deeply moved. Even more than that, I was knocked off my literary moorings. For more than two decades I had considered Andre Dubus my favorite writer–and really without peer for me. I read everything he wrote and reread favorite stories many times over. I taught “The Winter Father” and “Killings” more than a dozen times. Each time I would reread the stories, recast my notes, and read selected reviews literary criticism. I held other favorite stories such as “If They Knew Yvonne” and “Townies” closer. I considered Dubus’ novella trilogy (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Adultery, and Finding a Girl in America) to be the greatest fiction writing produced in English.

Ford kicked that all to the curb, but more on that another time.

I concede several things about my reading. It tilts heavily male. It is almost exclusively literary fiction. It is melancholy. It features themes and subjects like sex, religion, violence, and the nature of masculinity. It is also not everyone’s cup of tea. I know this because I know the broader canon and I know my friend’s tastes. I also work in publishing and have some sense of the very broad marketplace. People read many, many things besides what I read.

Amazon reviews are an unreliable barometer. Many reviewers have clearly not read the books. Many who have shouldn’t have. Reviews whipsaw from ecstatic to flaming. Still, when a novel such as The Sportswriter has an average review of 3.2, I know not to give it as a gift for Christmas or recommend it to a casual acquaintance. Years ago I recommended a collection of Dubus’ short stories to a lovely friend of my wife. I thought she would enjoy it. She hated it. That was the last book I recommended to someone I didn’t know very well.

Russo is a warm and humorous writer, even as he mines some of the same themes as people like Ford. Some of his writing–including Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls–is also panoramic while Ford is often internal. More characters fill the pages, and while many are of a type, Russo is generous to them, their quirks serving as introductions to their experiences and their background. When his characters stumble and even fail, Russo often gives them a soft landing. They might be victims of ne’er-do-well fathers or vindictive spouses. Many are victims of economic upheaval but they are loyal to the old mill towns that are collapsing before their eyes. Their own generosity doesn’t allow them to make the grim conclusion that Greg Brown makes in his wonderful song, “Our Little Town,” They say it’s dyin’ now and there ain’t a thing we can do.

Bridge of Sighs is 642 pages, and while it focuses on one of Russo’s archetypal small towns and its inhabitants, it adds four interesting layers.

  1. The book goes back and forth in time.
  2. It follows one character abroad
  3. The primary narrator is relating the states-side story as he himself is  also writing the same history he is relating (though by his appraisal in another form).
  4. The story abroad is told by a third-person narrator

You can imagine, if you know Russo, that these worlds–here and abroad, past and present, fictional and nonfictional–are destined to collide.

I am about halfway through. I am busy but will certainly finish it Christmas week, then I hope to read a couple of books that my boys will give to me. They have good taste in books.