Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.

 

“Funny” is Cruelty in Disguise

once, just onceOnce, Just Once  (graphite)

Humor is often based on pain and discomfort.  How many good jokes have you ever heard about sunshine, picnics and flowers?  Bad jokes, of course, are based on silly word play, puns, but the ones that really get me laughing hit on a deep level of hurt.

I heard one of my favorite jokes when I was a teenager and was dealing with daddy issues.  It goes something like this:  “My father, he was tough, really tough.  One day he rowed me out to the middle of Lake Erie to teach me how to swim.  He threw me overboard and told me to swim to shore.  But that wasn’t the hard part.  The hard part was getting out of the bag.”

I could relate to that.  My Dad forced me to teach myself how to swim by dunking me every time we went swimming.  It became a ritual of dread until I finally learned to dog paddle in the shallows when I was about ten or eleven.  Then he and my sister threw me into water over my head. They knew that I didn’t know how to tread water and thought that it was funny when they had to grab and shove me toward shore as I flailed around and choked on muddy lake water.

Pops didn’t really have any homicidal intentions, but there were times when I doubted whether he was truly happy to have me around as another burden costing him money to house and feed.  And he was tough, really tough.

The bag joke exaggerated my own situation to the point where it became ridiculous.  It defused an emotional bomb that was ticking in my head and let me know that other people had had similar doubts.  The joke had power in its truthful, if negative, take on the relationship between fathers and sons.

Some comedic writers such as Richard Russo have a keen sense of human folly, and their best work is based on the interaction of their characters as they stumble through the mishaps of their lives.  Anne Tyler’s early work often mixed shrewd observation of human behavior with comic moments that revealed flaws in her characters.  In “Celestial Navigation” she wrote a chapter from the viewpoint of an abrasive, domineering woman.  The words that this harpy uses to criticize her brother and sister end up exposing her harshness, self-righteousness and blindness to the needs of others.  She becomes a comic figure in that she unwittingly indicts herself.  Both writers were merciless and unsparing at moments while still showing some compassion and acceptance.

In his weaker, later novels Russo eases up on his protagonists and allows them to mule around, to wallow in their flaws.  He doesn’t skewer them, doesn’t deliver adequate comeuppances, and the work seems a bit flabby and sentimental.  Tyler’s work shows a similar laxness in her last five or six novels.  It seems that the two writers allowed their critical, sometimes cruel observation of human nature to soften into passive resignation. Their claws have been filed down to the nub, and the humorous elements of their work have been caged and tamed.

South Park and Family Guy will probably never lose their cruel streaks, but are often difficult to watch.  These shows keep trying to find new levels of meanness, new ways to outrage and shock their viewers.  But their humor often lacks realistic observation.  It’s often an abrasive attack on their viewers’ sense of decency, a never ending quest to violate another taboo.  Testicular cancer, grave robbing grandma’s corpse, and a father doing a lap dance for his daughter at her bachelorette party all become subjects of fun.  The two shows are like sharks that can never stop swimming as they search for new victims to tear apart.

But in the end their humor has little power;  it shocks but does little else.  It no longer connects to realistic observation of the human condition.  There are few moments of revelation, and the gratuitous cruelty becomes a pointless, soul deadening experience.

 

Reading and Writing: A Growing Addiction

My mother is an obsessive reader.  She finishes every novel she starts even if she despises it after the first few pages.  She used to try to read all the novels in alphabetical order on the shelves of our local library, and succeeded for a short time to escape from the A section.  When she had gone a few books into the Bs, however, she noticed that the library had added new authors in the As, and she returned to them out of some need for literary completion.  She eventually abandoned her quest and began to buy piles of books at a local church festival.  I contributed to her addiction on her birthday, Mother’s Day and on Christmas by sending her novels, memoirs and books on fashion.  Friends and fellow obsessed readers have lent her additional books, and she always has ten or fifteen in her queue.  She’s often said to me that she doesn’t know how some people get along without books.  They are tools of survival for her, and she uses them as escape pods when her life gets difficult.

I read a lot when I was a kid and got the reputation for being a bookish nerd.  I played basketball on our school team in middle school, and was mocked for buying a biography about Connie Hawkins.  My classmates thought that I was trying to learn how to play better by reading instead of practicing.  I had a bookshelf in my room, and when a couple of guys came over for a visit they refused to believe that I owned and had read the fifteen or twenty novels on display.  I didn’t tell them that my Mom and Grandpa Reger had gotten me hooked at an early age on novels by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain and Kenneth Roberts.  I had read hundreds of books by the time I hit eighth grade.

I’ve been an artist since the 1980s and am thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of creating visual art.  I got used to the mental and physical struggles that came with painting a landscape, a portrait, a still life. One of the plagues of doing such work is that my mind is free to roam at will as I apply my brushstrokes.  Subconscious crap rises to the top while I’m adding layer after layer of paint, and sometimes I’m busy battling enemies from long ago while also trying to figure out the shape and color of a model’s nose.  The background noise gets very loud and disruptive sometimes, and I dread going to my studio on days when I know that I’ve got plenty of mental garbage stored up.  I’ll sift and sort through memories, consider present difficulties, and worry about the future as the painting creeps along to the finishing line.  I’m like a marathon runner dragging bags of sand behind him as he tries to keep moving forward.

I began to write short stories, plays and novels about ten years ago as an alternative means of being creative.  When I’m writing I get lost in a world of imagination.  Characters and scenes take on an intense life in my mind, and there’s no space for my inner demons and trivial concerns to jump out of their hiding places and jabber at me.  For a time I can escape the prison of my preconceptions, obsessions and self-delusion.  I still paint, but can no longer claim that it is my favorite means of self-expression.

I read little when my kids were young, but books have become important to me once again now that I have a bit more free time.  I read a novel and enter a world that is not tainted by me.  I’m choosier than my mother, however, and only stick with novels that feel amenable.  Sometimes the attraction is based on plot, on interesting characters, or on rich language.  I’m a sucker for a redemption story (not religious redemption, but personal redemption) and hate novels that are slow motion train wrecks.  I love “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo.  The main character, Sully, struggles to come to terms with his life and the influence of his abusive father.  He wins out, unexpectedly at the end, over crushing difficulties.  I hate “Children of a Lesser God” by Arundhati Roy.  She telegraphs a tragic ending from nearly the first page, and makes the reader wait a long time until the desperate moment finally arrives.  This book reminds me of childhood visits to a dentist who never used Novocaine.  I had plenty of time to dread the inevitable in Dr. Roley’s waiting room as I listened to a drill drone on and on while his victims whimpered in pain.

I have lots to do in the concrete world around me, and can’t afford to live in the land of imagination constantly.  But there are days when I’m in the middle of an excellent book and it’s difficult to disengage to go to work or do household chores.  I feel like a deep sea diver who must slowly rise to the surface in slow stages.  For ten or fifteen minutes after closing a book I live in a world that’s tinted with the colors and emotions of the printed page.  I see things through an author colored lens.  The full weight of duties and responsibilities eventually presses down on me again, and it’s a sad moment when the glow of an alternative light fades away.

 

A Narrow Slice of Time

narrow slice cover 3    Cover image for “A Narrow Slice of Time”                      

“A Narrow Slice of Time” by Dennis and Judy Schmalstig is available on Amazon.com.  The following is the link for the print version (also available in Kindle):  https://www.amazon.com/Narrow-Slice-Time-Traveller/dp/1533577420/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1466860827&sr=8-2&keywords=a+narrow+slice+of+time+schmalstig

The summer of 2013 sucked.  Actually the whole year turned out to be a torture fest of illness, hospital visits, departures, wrangles with an Insurance Company Who Will Not Be Named, and a death in the family.  My wife Judy and I hit bottom sometime in August.  There was nothing wrong with our relationship, but the circumstances of our lives had become harsh. I cast about for something to distract us from continuously brooding over our situation.  I remembered that Judy had mentioned that she was interested in writing a time travel book with me.

Her eyes didn’t exactly light up when I mentioned my willingness to try a writing project with her, but we began to brainstorm a plot.  Judy was set on trapping someone in the past, and I had ideas about a time travel device and an organization that made changes in the past for the supposed benefit of the future.

I began to write chapters late at night after Judy had gone to bed.  I would print them out and show them to her, and she would get back to me in a couple days with editing suggestions and positive criticism about my dialogue, plot twists and character development.  As the story progressed and various characters went about their business on different time lines, Judy provided the vital function of keeping things straight.  She has a clear, logical mind well developed from years spent doing research as a plant physiologist, and she was able to keep the book on track.

We still faced a good deal of miseries during the time we spent working on the book, but every time we sat together and discussed it we forgot about our troubles for a while.  We got excited about exploring new avenues and about planning the end of the book.  We even got way ahead of ourselves by playing around with ideas for successive volumes in a time traveler series.

It’s been nearly three years since we began “A Narrow Slice of Time”, and our circumstances are better.  We no longer need a distraction to help us get through our days, but have decided to continue working together.  We found out that we deeply enjoyed sharing the creative process of writing a book.  Of course we don’t always agree on all issues, and I’ve dug in my heels on a few occasions.  I’ve discovered, however, that Judy has a very good sense of plot and doesn’t care for a lot of fancy frippery in the telling of a story.  She wants me to move things along and to get to the point.  She has good taste when it comes to character development wanting fully fleshed out villains and protagonists with believable motives.  I’ve learned to take her advice on most occasions.

The best thing about this whole experience has been finding something new to share as a couple.  It’s an unexpected journey, an adventure that has shown us that our horizons are still open and that there is still more to see and do.