Curious

PHOTO PROMPT © Krista Strutz

Karl hadn’t seen an eagle perched this close to the ground. He’d seen them lurking high in trees near the shore and soaring over the lake, descending with deadly grace to snatch fish from the water.

He was suddenly curious how close it would allow him to approach before flying off.

As if understanding the human’s intent, the eagle locked its predatory eyes on Karl before he completed his first stroke. Thirty feet, twenty… ten…

Karl was close enough to see the the sharpness of the beast’s ebony talons.

He paddled in reverse slowly, the eagle glaring at his retreat.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Day 551

On Tuesday, I returned to one of my old workplaces for the first time since March 5 of last year.

Since 2019 I’ve worked as a tutor in the Writing Center for a local community college. The job pays well, and I enjoy interacting with students and other tutors. Some day I’ll write about “Son of Sam the Poetry Man,” but that’s for another time.

The COVID-19 lockdowns began when the college was on spring break. The college extended the break an additional week, then moved entirely to remote instruction at the end of March. With the campus effectively closed, the Writing Center resumed as a remote service through email, phone, or online conferencing.

While continuing our work has been a relief, tutors agree that the experience isn’t the same. We’ve learned to read the messages students convey in their bodies and faces while we work with them, and this unspoken communication is often very helpful. We also consult with each other when working with a student, and when there’s no students around we enjoy each other’s company. Of course, none of that happens when working remote. We’ve also found that we spend more time on student essays when there’s no one sitting across a table from us. Our work days are longer, and not as much fun.

The campus has reopened this fall semester. Masks are required of everyone, but in-person classes and services have resumed. The Writing Center has also reopened, and this week I walked into that office for the first time in 558 days.

And I was the only one there.

The Writing Center us a glass-walled office located inside the college’s tutoring center. In the days before the pandemic, I would usually see a dozen to 20 people sitting around tables in the tutoring center, with between three and six people in the Writing Center.

On Tuesday, there were three people in tutoring — all staff, no students. There were no other tutors in the Writing Center, and not one student stopped in during my four hours there.

Since the semester’s just started, the lack of “foot traffic,” as we call it, isn’t surprising. The pace should pick up in the coming weeks. I hope so, because the “I Am Legend” feel of the other day was kinda creepy.

I’m a little apprehensive about spending more time in close contact with other people, but working in the Writing Center will be no riskier than my grocery store job. And the increased risk is far outweighed by the benefit of knowing there’s one more thing I’ve taken back from this damn pandemic.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel is the third in a series of works I’m reading with multiple storylines. Instead of a gestalt structure or dual narrative, the novel features a linked novella structure, with each chapter focusing on a different character, place, and time. There is also a great deal of variation among the storytelling methods — some chapters are in first person, others in third, one in second, and one chapter is composed entirely of presentation slides.

Each chapter can be read as its own novella (most are too long to qualify as short stories). This is a sharp contrast to Anthony Doerr’s dual narrative, which uses very short chapters. Because Egan uses many more characters and the chapters progress in a non-linear fashion, using lengthier chapters grounds the reader — you won’t have any idea where the story will go in the next chapter, but within each chapter you know exactly who is the focus and when the events take place. There are glimpses of characters or storylines developed in later chapters, but within each chapter the focus is very limited — no in-chapter time leaps, no changes in storytelling method, no shifts in principal character. Each character and the story’s plots are also associated in some way with two characters (a cynical record producer and his assistant), who serve as structural links between the chapters.

The primary benefit of this structure is that it allows for focusing on a theme. The plot of each chapter shows its central character coping with aging and decay; time, the ultimate goon, visits everyone. The diversity of narrative perspectives underscores the universality of time’s effects.

The lessons on storytelling from this novel:

Show connections. If chapter two takes place twenty years before chapter one, allude to what happened in the past during the opening chapter. If you introduce a new character in a chapter, identify his or her association with characters established from previous chapters. If a chapter takes place in a new city or country, allude to that location in earlier chapters. A reader too preoccupied with figuring out who these people are, when the story’s taking place, or how anyone wound up here is less likely to see the themes your developing.

Writing is not juggling. You can bounce back-and-forth between two characters and/or timelines, but more than two requires a different approach. In a structure that links multiple story elements, it’s best to stay in one place for a while. Go with longer chapters, exploring that character or setting or era in depth, before moving on to a different story.

Day 543

I took a COVID-19 test on Sunday, and was notified today that it came back negative. I’m free of the coronavirus — for now, anyway.

***

For my tech writing job, I took a tour of a wastewater treatment plant last Thursday. Most of the tour was outside, and both my guide and I had been vaccinated.

About 24 hours later, my throat began feeling sore. My sinuses began congesting a few hours later. When I woke up the following morning, I had a headache in addition to the earlier symptoms.

No fever, no muscle or joint aches, no swelling. None of the notorious COVID symptoms — the toasted English muffin covered in blueberry jam smelled wonderful and tasted even better. Eighteen months ago, I would’ve resigned myself to battling a nasty cold for the next few days.

But… didn’t I meet other plant workers during that tour? didn’t I talk to some of them? didn’t some of those conversations take place indoors? I hadn’t asked whether other workers at the plant had been vaccinated. And I hadn’t always remembered to put my mask back on when we entered a building after being outside.

All minor faults. But too many for this anxious time.

***

Many pharmacies and other sites in our area offer COVID testing. Not paying for the test takes a little creativity, though.

I didn’t find any walk-in testing sites, of the here I am come stick a swab up my nose variety. The tests I found required online registration, along with a series of questions to determine if I was eligible for free testing. Ordered by your employer or doctor to be tested? Been in contact with someone with a confirmed COVID infection? Severe symptoms (fever, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste)? Upcoming plane trip to destination requiring a negative test? I chose the three symptoms I exhibited, all under the “Minor Symptoms” category, and after clicking Next found out that I could schedule a COVID test — for a fee of $125.

So I hit the Back button, selected every check box under “Minor Symptoms,” and clicked Next again. Free test!

After the scheduling screen showed no available appointments for the next four days, I registered on another site, selecting all symptoms that wouldn’t generate additional questions — so who is that person with the confirmed infection? The scheduling tab showed one appointment available Sunday afternoon. Haven’t clicked an icon that quickly.

***

As instructed, I entered the pharmacies drive-up window ten minutes before the appointment time. After giving my name and date of birth (without being asked for identification or insurance card), the pharmacist behind the large window printed my paperwork and inserted it into a baggie with the testing supplies. She then pushed the baggie out to me, and walked me through the test:

  • Rip open the disinfecting wipe and clean my hands
  • Open the swab
  • Insert into one nostril, swirl around, hold for fifteen seconds
  • Repeat for the other nostril
  • Open the sample tube without spilling the contents
  • Insert the swab and break it at the perforation
  • Close the sample tube and put it in the baggie
  • Close the baggie and place it in the deposit box at the end of the drive-thru
  • Have a nice day

***

Taking the test on a Sunday afternoon before a national holiday delayed the testing results — instead of one to two days, it was three. But just as my irritation began approaching an unhealthy level, I got the email confirming my hypothesis.

Inhaling the fumes at the wastewater plant likely overloaded my sinuses. Mowing the lawn after coming home that afternoon probably didn’t help.

Could I be more diligent with masking? Certainly. Should I be bothered at exaggerating my symptoms to qualify for a free test? Please.

***

At some point in the future, I’m going to get COVID or one of its cousins. This virus and its mutations is too contagious, this country’s commitment to public health is too effed-up to contain it, and I’m not perfect.

But I don’t have it today, and that’s going to have to be good enough for now.

Day 537

I’ve made some changes in response to the Delta variant, yet I’ve resisted other changes so far.

Knowing there are members of my fencing club who haven’t been vaccinated (I don’t know who exactly, but the club owner has confirmed there are unvaccinated members), I don’t feel safe there. It’s my favorite exercise activity, and I enjoy the people there; being apart from the club is difficult. But the ventilation isn’t great, and there’s a lot of heavy breathing; it’s time to stay away.

Yet I do continue going once a week to the gym in my local community center. I go on weekday mornings between 10 and noon, between the early-morning and lunch break crowds. There’s maybe a dozen people in the workout area, which is on the second floor of the center with high ceilings and balconies overlooking the first floor — ventilation is great. I wish I wasn’t the only one wearing a mask, but I feel reasonably safe at the times I go there.

I’ve told my monthly writing group that I won’t be attending meetings in person until the public health environment improves. We meet in a library conference room for two hours — everyone’s vaccinated, but being so close for so long when an infectious variant is circulating, and infecting some of the vaccinated, doesn’t seem right. I’ll use email to make comments on submissions, so this activity isn’t going away completely. I’m actually avoiding the library except to check out books I’ve reserved. All public libraries are requiring masks for everyone (which makes me wonder why they continue making conference rooms available); it’s a sound policy, but I’d rather stay home and write rather than wear a mask.

Then there’s my job at the grocery store. All employees are required to wear masks, and I’ve been happy to see that most are actually wearing them correctly now, i.e., covering both nose and mouth. Mask wearing for customers is “strongly encouraged;” we have a worker at the entrance who offers a mask to anyone entering who isn’t wearing one. No action is taken against refusers; just wave ’em in. I don’t see the point of this exercise, but knowing I spend very little time around any one customer makes this threat seem small.

The Dead Key

My wife and I enjoy audiobooks on our long car trips — the hours and miles disappear — so as we prepared for our vacation excursion last month we decided to download the debut novel of someone we actually know.

D.M. Pulley’s 2014 thriller takes place in Cleveland during two different eras. In 1998, a young structural engineer named Iris is assigned to inspect a bank building that’s been abandoned for two decades. As Iris stumbles across secrets that were buried when the bank suddenly closed, we also get the story of Beatrice, an employee of the bank when it closed in 1977. Their timelines converge in a vault of safe deposit boxes, many of them left unopened when the bank shut its door. And as the title indicates, both characters come across a key that could literally unlock the mystery that lead to the bank’s closure.

I’ve been analyzing books with multiple timelines recently, and like the novel I most recently examined, Pulley’s work alternates chapters between the two timelines, and begins each chapter with a date. Each timeline also advances in a linear fashion. Keeping track of the timeliness is relatively easy, which is especially important for an audibook.

This was a great selection for our two-day drive. The story is suspenseful without being melodramatic or scary; Pulley keeps the reader wanting to know what happens next, and both Iris and Beatrice (who admittedly are a little too similar to each other for my tastes) are easy to root for. Cleveland natives will enjoy the local references, yet the book isn’t so provincial that it can’t be enjoyed by readers unfamiliar with the city. The audiobook reading by Emily Sutton-Smith is also engaging. This book made us keep our rest stops short so that we could continue listening, a sure sign you’ve made the right choice.

All the Light We Cannot See

I’m continuing my analysis of novels featuring multiple storylines with Anthony Doerr’s award-winning novel from 2014. This work features a dual narrative structure, with two principal characters living in the same timeline. What’s also interesting is that two separate timelines are maintained for both characters.

The novel is divided into 14 numbered sections, with section Zero serving as a prologue. Through section 11, the even-numbered sections occur in the Nazi-occupied French town of Saint-Malo over a five-day span in August 1944, while the odd-numbered sections begin in 1934 and show the development of the two principal characters (a blind French girl and a radio technician ambivalent about his role in the German army) in their respective countries over the ten years leading up to those five fateful days at the end of World War II. Each section begins with a date, making the transition between the two timelines easy to follow.

While the novel includes several memorable supporting characters, the focus remains consistently on either blind Marie-Laure or the brooding Werner. The chapters are short, most being two or three pages, and rarely does either character feature in two consecutive chapters. The balanced alternating structure highlights the similarities between the two characters, despite their being on opposite sides of the same conflict.

The structure of the novel works because the two principal characters and the dual timelines progress to the same point. Marie-Laure and Werner meet in Saint-Malo as the timelines converge in the eleventh section, with the last three sections showing the aftermath of their meeting. For all its complexity, the novel actually has a fairly straightforward progression.

The lesson on storytelling from this novel is on consistency. Keep the spotlight on the principal characters from the outset, and always let the reader know when the timeline changes. Being consistent allows the author to include a great deal of complexity.

Practice with Care

PHOTO PROMPT -Brenda Cox

Phase shifting is like dynamite — helpful when used properly, deadly if misused.

Misjudgments are frequent among newbies. Passing through an object in front of you without also passing through the ground underneath takes concentration. Even the best-trained shifters make mistakes once they begin practicing in the field.

Like this guy. Late on his courier run, he phased through a concrete barricade with ease. But when he saw the worker in his path he phased again, panicking the worker. The courier phased in too soon, bike tripping over a cable.

The residual energy in the bike hurled it into the building.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

The Divine Comedy

Some books can’t merely be read; they must be studied. Dante’s epic 14th century poem is an amazingly complex work, expertly combining ancient Greek and Roman literature, Christian theology, human psychology, and contemporary politics. If you don’t read the endnotes, you miss a lot of the work’s value.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the approach I took on my recently completed first reading of the text. I used the same approach that’s worked well for my reading of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, and Thomas Malory — download an audiobook and read along to the recital. I chose the Robin Kirkpatrick translation, as Audible had a matching recording. The performance, done by Kirkpatrick and two other readers, is fine, but the experience was unsatisfying because I realized how much I was missing by not stopping the recording and checking the notes.

I can say I’ve finally read the work, but I’m a long way from appreciating it.

Several moments do stand out from this initial reading, one in particular during Canto 24 of Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil encounter a thief, named Vanni Fucci in Dante’s text but translated by Kirkpatrick as Johnny Fucci. Anglicizing the name makes this character more relatable to readers like myself, and I also appreciate that Kirkpatrick doesn’t attempt to whitewash Johnny’s blasphemous diatribe against God. I did not expect to see an f-bomb, but there it was on line 2 of Canto 25. According to Wikipedia, Vanni Fucci has been used by a couple contemporary writers, and should the situation arise I might use him in one of my own stories.

Should I decide to read Dante again, I’ll take the studious approach I used for Ulysses — do the Great Courses overview, then read a canto or two at a time, flipping back to the notes whenever one’s available. That’s going to be a long project, but I picked up enough of the work’s majesty to know the experience will be worthwhile.

First Ride

PHOTO PROMPT© Lisa Fox

“Didn’t know they made motorcycles in 1914,” Henrietta said, hoping to get the gaunt man’s attention in front of the exhibit.

“Oh yes,” he replied. “Owned one myself.”

“You collect antiques?” He was becoming more interesting than Henrietta had hoped.

“No. I was a boy at the time. I remember my first ride, down a dirt trail near my family’s lakeside cabin. I thought if man could build such a wonderful machine, there was no limit to what we could achieve.”

“That’s… impossible.” He looked no older than thirty.

“Not at all,” he replied, turning to Henrietta with red eyes.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.