During practice, Coach Gavvy was unfailingly positive, focused more on the development of her students as people rather than as fencers. But her disposition would often change during tournaments, as she would demand maximum effort from each competitor on her team, becoming a harridan of the fencing strip.

Songs of Freedom

Last evening, I attended an outdoor concert and fireworks show in honor of Independence Day in the United States of America. During intermission of the concert, popular music was played through the loudspeakers, and among the songs played were John Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses” (with its refrain Ain’t that America, for you and me, ain’t that America, home of the free), the Lenny Kravitz cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony:

  • Mellancamp’s song is a bitter satire of the American dream, and implies that the reward for hard work in this country is little more than a little pink house with a freeway running through its front yard
  • Guess Who is a Canadian band, and their 1970 song is a protest against America’s military action in Vietnam (I don’t need your war machines)
  • Born down in a dead man’s town… The opening to Springstreen’s song is dark, and the lyrics get progressively bleaker, ending with Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.

While I wasn’t offended by the choice of these songs for the event, I did think it showed astonishingly poor judgement. At first, anyway. But now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m actually believing the playlist was brilliant.

There is a long history of dissent and protest in our country. The Constitution gives legal protection to citizens redressing their grievances. As the recent Broadway musical Hamilton demonstrates, Americans were arguing with each other, often violently, years before declaring its independence.

Internal conflict is part of our country. We argue in times of war, and peace. After engaging in a devastating civil war, we acted with haste to return the rebellious states to the union, all but guaranteeing they’d find some other way to disobey.

So as we celebrate America’s independence, it does seem right and good for us to think how our old crazy dreams just kinda came and went, to let our northern cousins tell us they don’t wanna see our face no more, to remember that many of our citizens have become long gone daddies. The freedom to give voice to our dissent is one of the aspects I admire most about my country.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Anyone reading a Raymond Carver story should be required to say “the end” at the conclusion. So little happens in his stories — plot summaries read like satires (the titular story of this collection could read, “four people talk around a dinner table while getting drunk on gin”) — and their climaxes so unspectacular, to give a listener a strong cue that the tale has ended. In addition to not featuring any exploding helicopters, Carver’s short fiction violates several established conventions. Many characters do not have names; hardly any backstory is revealed; very little is shown, and even less is told.

But partly because they are so sparse, Carver’s short stories are some of the most emotionally powerful I’ve ever read. I don’t intend to imitate his style, but it has inspired me to trust that, with words, sometimes less is more.

“Why Don’t You Dance?”, the first story in the volume, is a great example of his work. An unnamed man puts the entire contents of his house onto his driveway; some of the possessions had been on “her side” of the bedroom, although no information about “her” is provided. The man leaves to pick up food at a store, and a young couple, referred to as a boy and a girl (the boy does have a name, although you have to be paying attention to catch it), drive past the house and, believing a yard sale is in progress, stop to investigate. The man returns, and after agreeing to sell many items for bargain-basement prices, puts on a record (the setting is late 1970s) and invites the couple to dance. Weeks later, the girl grapples with understanding the man’s motivation. The End.

We simply can’t understand the man, because we are told so little about him. But when he puts on the record and asks the boy and girl to dance, we can sense this is somehow important to him, that’s he’s doing more than trying to offload the record player. Maybe the couple reminds him of the early days of his marriage, and he wants to draw out those memories; maybe the man wants the couple to connect in a way he wasn’t able with his wife; maybe he wants one last joyful moment before abandoning his home. It’s a poignant scene, memorable not for its details (since there are none) but for the way it shows a man searching for kindness as he struggles with some misfortune.

Since I’m overly fond of superhero movies, I have to mention Carver’s role in Birdman, the 2014 dark comedy that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Michael Keaton plays an actor made rich and famous for performing as the superhero Birdman on film. (Birdman does not exist as a character, but Keaton did appear as Batman in two films.) To demonstrate his legitimate acting talent, Keaton’s character produces a Broadway adaptation of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” It is the perfect contrast, the sizzle and excess of the superhero genre against Carver’s minimalism, and if that is the closest this master of the short story ever gets to appearing in a blockbuster, I’ll be fine with that.