Over the River 3

“I told Alice how I’ve been coming here for Thanksgiving every year for a decade, since the year before Stella and I were married. The first year, it was just her parents and us. Year after, it was the entire family, like it’s been every year since. That’s how I met Stella’s sisters, brother, cousins — and you.” Alec fanned his fingers in Todd’s direction.

The older man wiped his chin with a napkin. “I don’t have a family of my own, Alec. I treasure your family’s hospitality.”

“The Andersons are a wonderful family. And I’ll do anything to make sure they are never harmed, or exploited.”

Todd arched his eyebrows. “Do you consider me a threat?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. For now, you’re a curiosity. I asked Alice today where she knew you from, and she told me you went to college with Gregory. He confirmed this when he arrived, but said that while you had graduated the same year, you had never actually met until these Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Ohio State is a large university, Alec. I’m sure your brother-in-law would have the same experience with thousands of alumni.”

“Certainly. But then Gregory told me how you had worked at the same company as Clarise, and believed she had invited you here initially. So I asked her, and she said yes you had worked together, but no, you’d never actually met there, and she hadn’t been the one to extend you an invitation. Then Norton overheard us, and said the two of you had worked on the campaign for Senator Brown. I was hardly surprised when I pressed for more information, and discovered you never actually worked together at that time.”

Alec leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve made it a point to ask every adult here today about you, Todd. How everyone knows you. And I’ve found a consistent pattern. You have some type of association with every one of them — a professional society, volunteer organization, a close friend. A shared experience which establishes a bond. And yet, nobody here has had any direct interaction with you outside of this home, this day. And, more significantly, nobody remembers who provided you with the initial invitation to Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “We know you, Todd, but don’t know a damn thing about you. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little odd.”


Over the River 2

Alec stood from his chair, and after glancing at the living room and its empty sofa, shuffled to the seat at the far end of the table, between Umberto and this man they knew as Todd. His wife’s uncle, loud and outspoken at most times, had been subdued that afternoon and grown more withdrawn and distant with each bite of the heavy holiday meal, along with several glasses of wine.

“Bertie.” Umberto lifted his bald head slowly at Alec’s call. “You looked tired. You want to rest on the couch?” Umberto smiled, excused himself, and stumbled his way into the living room.

Todd lifted a fork from the table, and stabbed at the pecan pie on the plate in front of him. “Umberto’s a brave man, coming here today.” Alec agreed, commenting about the distance he had to drive, at least a couple of hours, as Todd continued eating his pie. Stella’s mother entered from the kitchen, and asked about Umberto; Alec waved towards the living room, and his mother-in-law left the two men at the table.

Alec shifted his seat closer to Todd. “Speaking of travelling, where’s home for you?”

Todd chuckled, and took another bite of pie before replying. “I’m staying at a Hilton just across town. Own a condo downtown, but I’m renting it out this month. Got condo’s all over the place, there’s no real place I call home.”

“That so?” Alec watched Todd eat his pie a moment. “Seems funny, a man who travels as much as you do, has his choice of where he could spend Thanksgiving — how you’re here, every year.”

Todd leaned back in his chair, and rubbed his amble stomach. “It’s the food. Grammie Alice — ”

“I had a conversation with her, about you. Today, in the kitchen, right after Stella and I arrived, and I saw you in the living room.”

Over the River 1

It’s been a long time since my last short story, and I’ve got an idea inspired by the upcoming holiday in the United States, as well as a poem I wrote last year.

“You kids have fun.” Alec leaned back in his chair and waved a hand towards the front door of his mother-in-law’s home. “You don’t need an old man like me slowing you down.” His son and his cousins forgot about Alec’s apology as they raced out of the room, choosing sides for their touch football game as they tugged on their jackets.

Alec tilted his chair back into position at the dining room. Stella’s sister had left for the kitchen during Alec’s discussion with the children, so Alec’s was one of three occupied seats of the eleven that had been arranged at the large oak table.He was seated toward the end closest to the bay windows looking out on the front yard; across the table at the other end, close to the kitchen doorway, was Umberto, smiling weakly as he had all that afternoon. Stella had been surprised her uncle had arrived for Thanksgiving, so soon after his wife’s passing, and Alec had been watching him all afternoon.

Sitting directly across from Umberto, three chairs away from Alec, was the man Alec was determined to have a private conversation with before leaving that evening.

“American politics is like a pendulum.” The man whom Alec knew as Todd waved his meaty hand over his gravy-strewn plate, swooping it down from his right and then back up near the center of the plate.We’ve swung over to an extreme this year, but political gravity will pull Washington back to the center, and then –” he swooped his hand back down, then over the plate — “we’ll be back to the other extreme.” Todd spoke with the cool confidence he expressed on any topic, from gardening to government, football to physics, and in years past Alec had regretted only hearing Todd speak this one day of the year (he never visited for the December holidays). But today, Alec found himself annoyed at Todd’s self-assurance.

Learning from History before it Repeats

The United States is enjoying a long period of economic prosperity. Of course, that means we’re due for a “market correction,” a wonderful phrase, implying that too much prosperity is a problem that must be avoided.

Nobody knows when economic trouble will arrive or from where it will originate, but we can use the benefit of hindsight to examine recent financial crises in our nation, with the hope of being better prepared for whatever panic comes next. I’ve recently read two insightful books on this subject.

Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind’s “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is about the collapse of Enron in 2002, due in part to the collapse of the Internet bubble in stock prices. It provides extensive and at times overbearing analysis of the company’s deceitful financial practices, which landed several of its executive in jail. Some of the many lessons you can take from this book are to beware of companies that extend into areas where they have little to no expertise (one of Enron’s many problems was the curious decision of the energy company to launch an online entertainment division), that boast about their stock price like a cocktail party boar, and whose financial reports are deliberately obscure. After Enron’s collapse, some fairly weak regulations on financial disclosures were passed, but we’re now in the process of undoing even these safeguards. When it comes to bankruptcies that rival those of Enron or Worldcomm, the question is not if, but when.

Andrew Ross Sorkin’s “Too Big to Fail” is about the near collapse of the financial system in fall 2008. Unlike the Enron book, there is little attention paid here to the causes of crisis — this time, it was the mortgage bubble that burst — and instead focuses on the effort to mitigate the disaster’s impact. If you believe Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geitner don’t deserve enough credit for their efforts, and believe Dick Fuld was treated unfairly, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. The book depicts a global financial system that is both complex and frighteningly fragile, susceptible to collapse from multiple points, yet also shows a United States government with overwhelming power to influence private markets. Americans take pride in our capitalism, but when faced with financial catastrophe, we’re not afraid of a healthy dose of socialism.

Of the two works, “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is the more engaging read despite its often weighty prose, while “Too Big to Fail” moves at a brisker pace, as it covers a much shorter period of time. Reading both may hlep make the next economic crisis seem less shocking.

Vegan Steak for America?

Sharing an interesting article today on automation and its impact on human labor from Scott Santens. Not sure I agree with the conclusion — decoupling income from work and implementing some form of technology dividend or universal basic income would require a foundational change in the American zeitgeist, and that’s not going to happen without a revolution.

Of course, if we hit something like 25% unemployment that uprising could very well come, but since revolutions by their nature are not to be trusted I’d prefer a less drastic response to the robots as they continue their march to replace human workers. Significantly changing the work week, shortening hours while keeping wages at or preferably higher than their current rates, won’t be easy — it would likely require several presidential cycles — but I can at least imagine the possibility.

Could a universal basic income be implemented in the United States? Sure, but you could also serve steak to vegans for dinner. They might eat if they’re hungry enough, but the meal certainly won’t sit well with them.

Goon Squad

Bigots, racists, and wannabe fascists have lived all across America since the colonial days. I went to school in rural Maine with a few of them, and when I flew out to Chicago for college, I met a few more. I’ve had to work with more than I care to remember. Over the years, I learned the rules of engagement — when they start talking nonsense, let them know they’re full of shit, and walk away. Avoid them if possible, and if not, refuse to indulge their ignorance. Years of evidence has shown that arguing with them is ineffective; the only way they can overcome the absurdity of their beliefs is to throw off their shackles of fear.

There are plenty of Richard Spencers in this country, and will be for a long time to come. But last year’s election gave these thugs political legitimacy. They have the support of a presidential administration, and the voice of a media empire.

Two years ago, if someone had told me Africans benefited from being enslaved, I would have dismissed that person as a lunatic. Today, I’d wonder if he was running for Congress.

We can’t ignore them any more. The goon squad has gained power in the United States, and unless they are defeated and kicked back into the gutter from which they came, we’re in for some troubling times.

On Being Angry

Andra Watkins writes today about the hazardous temptation of online invective:

Long verboten topics of face-to-face conversation have somehow morphed into ‘must shout about online,’ because a screen somehow emboldens us to type things we’d never say to another person’s face. Protracted fury takes a toll on the soul.

Yet the temptation to withdraw is equally as dangerous. To feel justified outrage, but remain silent, is to cede authority to the unworthy. Fortunately, Andra’s not in any mood to give such ground. His issue (tax policy) may not be intrinsically exciting, but he delivers a powerful argument for why it shouldn’t be ignored. He’s aware that angry voices may rise in response, but he doesn’t care about those consequences:

I’m done placating people for the sake of keeping the peace. I’m through fearing people I haven’t seen in over 30 years. I’m finished being afraid another person won’t ever buy my books, because they probably won’t regardless. 

Station Eleven

Kirsten Raymonde carries a violin and a dog-eared copy of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in her backpack. She also carries lethal throwing knives on her belt, and uses them to defend herself in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of “Station Eleven.”

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 novel is usually classified as science fiction, and it did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award because it contains many of the familiar tropes of the genre — a deadly pandemic, the collapse of civilization, a small band of survivors struggling to maintain their humanity as they battle an inhuman foe. But compared to other killer-virus novels, “Station Eleven” contains very little science. There is no epidemiology of the disease, as in Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain,” or analysis of its transmission, as in Stephen King’s “The Stand.” Only one scene depicts a person suffering from the plague; most characters watch the fall of mankind on television, before the power goes out. Disease is usually a principal character in this genre, but in “Station Eleven,” the virulent virus does most of its work offstage.

Kirsten, the violinist with the deadly knives, is one of three central characters who appears in the opening chapter. She witnesses Arthur Leander, the lead actor of a “King Lear” production in Toronto, collapse with a heart attack on stage, as Jeevan Chaudhary rushes from the audience in a futile attempt to save Arthur. The virus breaks out that evening, and within a few dozen pages and a month of narrative time, the world is largely depopulated.

The novel then leaps forward twenty years, as Kirsten tours the Great Lakes region with the Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who perform for small communities of survivors. A few chapters later, the focus turns to Arthur and the years before his death, and soon after the scene shifts to Jeevan’s escape from Toronto as the pandemic strikes. As the novel progresses, the time shifts become more frequent; readers who prefer linear narratives may find the novel disorienting. Almost as disorienting is the recurring juxtaposition of high and low culture — in addition to performing Beethoven and Shakespeare, the members of the Travelling Symphony share stories of favorite “Star Trek” episodes, and the title of the novel comes from a comic book. In the hands of some writers, the combination of so many time shifts and contrasting cultural references could have produced a mess of a narrative. Fortunately, Mandel is a masterful storyteller, and “Station Eleven” never loses focus. The multiple timelines share a theme of redemption: Arthur tries to atone for his failed marriages (he has three ex-wives, a subtle reference to the character he plays to his death), Jeevan seeks fulfillment after a series of self-centered career choices, and Kirsten agonizes over the lives she is forced to take in order to survive.

Mandel also succeeds in her description of life in the post-apocalyptic world. Those who lived before the plague pine not only for electricity and the Internet, but also for trivial pleasures like toiletries and citrus fruit. They struggle in explaining to children born after the pandemic that large metal objects could fly through the air, and it had been possible to have a conversation with someone on the other side of the planet. Any reader who has mourned for a prematurely cancelled television show, or hasn’t been able to convince her niece that computers haven’t been around forever, will be able to identify with Mandel’s characters as they search abandoned homes not only for food and fuel, but also clean towels and magazines.

Towards the end of the novel, the Travelling Symphony visits the Museum of Civilization, established in an airport terminal by another band of survivors. The Museum collects obsolete artifacts — iPhones, motorcycles, televisions — in order to commemorate the technological marvels of the pre-virus world, much as the Travelling Symphony strives to preserve a culture that nearly died along with the pandemic. The characters in “Station Eleven” care more about simply surviving, and this ambition distinguishes Mandel’s novel from contemporary works in the post-apocalyptic genre, which has been overrun by zombies (have zombies ever been the subject of interesting fiction?) and feature characters nearly as barbarous as their undead foes. The characters in “Station Eleven” lack the resources to re-create the world before the collapse, but their fondness for that world inspires them to turn their wasteland into a world fit for humanity.

The novel is not perfect — Mandel’s allusions to “King Lear” are a bit heavy-handed at times, and her principal antagonist, a religious zealot known as the Prophet, seems more fanatical than truly menacing. But these minor flaws do not significantly detract from her achievement. Much as Kirsten never feels at home in her brutish world, “Station Eleven” does not wear the label of science fiction well, because Mandel’s novel rises about the conventions of its genre, and deserves to be compared not to “I Am Legend” or “The Stand,” but rather to Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” another novel more concerned about humanity’s reaction to disease than the disease itself.

It Already Feels Like Four Years

As the Presidential election in the United States approached last year, I wrote about a possible Trump victory and attempted to think of reasons why it could possibly work well. I had a lot of fun with that post, because like most people in this country, I didn’t think it would come to pass. A year after we’ve been proven wrong, I want to revisit that jocular entry, and see if it was in any way prescient.

The reasons I gave for hope in a Trump presidency were:

  • He’s an outsider. Trump hasn’t been afraid to rattle cages, even among member of his own party. But all his tough talk hasn’t lead to any change in the status quo. Washington seems more, not less, dysfunctional since he’s taken office.
  • He is distrusted by both major political parties. How naive was that statement? The Republican party has decided to take advantage of Trump’s surprise win, and attempted, with very little success, to pass their legislative agenda. From time to time, a GOP congressman will raise objections to Trump’s leadership, but most quickly capitulate in response to a presidential tweet. Any hope that the Republicans would attempt to rein in Trump simply has to be abandoned.
  • He doesn’t care what people think. That’s the definition of a sociopath. Nothing that Trump has done as president has provided any evidence that he can ever overcome his narcissism.

In short, President Trump has been as awful as any of us feared, and we’re likely to have three more years of incoherence and incompetence. A Republican House would never impeach him, no matter what comes out of the investigations of Russian election interference, and should Democrats take control of the House next year and pass articles of impeachment, there aren’t 67 Senators who would vote to remove him from office. This isn’t Armageddon — there is still much that is great about our nation — but anyone looking for progress in America had best look somewhere other than Washington until 2021.

Friday Fictioneers: Sentries

Collected from the manor’s numerous rooms, the odd collection of furnishings (vases? ash trays? spitoons?), some dusted for the first time in decades, is assembled on the marble-topped desk. The window behind them looks onto the front yard, and as they lie waiting to be shrink-wrapped and stored in packing crates, they seem to serve as sentries, guarding the manor’s vacant interior against the outside world.

Rochelle Wisof-Fields is the host of Friday Fictinoneers, where the objective is to write a complete story in 100 words or less in response to a photograph. I encourage you to learn more about Friday Fictioneers.