Day 349

A few weeks ago, I thought I was on the verge of getting a COVID vaccine. I now have no idea when that will happen.

***

A little over a month ago, my manger asked if I was interested in being vaccinated. I answered yes quicker than a politician accepting a bribe. She had no information on when the doses would come, but with doses coming into the state on a regular basis I hoped the wait would be weeks rather than months.

Twelve days later I’m in the library (which had just re-opened to patrons — one step closer back to normal) when I receive an incoming call from an unknown number. Another automated call about my car’s extended warranty? I let the call go to voicemail, and was surprised a moment later to see a message had actually been left. Needing to return home anyway, I listened to the message on the way out of the library.

The pharmacy in the grocery store said they needed to talk to me. No other information was given… but could this be a call about vaccination?

I drove the ten minutes back home, heeded nature’s call, unpacked my backpack, grabbed a soda from the fridge, then took out my phone and called the pharmacy back. Why yes, I’m ready for my shot.

The pharmacy asked for my name. I told them. They put me on hold.

A moment later, another voice came on. “What was your name again?” After providing the information again, the speaker then informed that I had indeed been put on a list to be vaccinated that day.

However, because I had not responded within 15 minutes of being called, I had lost my place in line.

Gee, maybe you could have told me about that 15 minute time limit when you left the message?

***

Since then I’ve asked my manager, the pharmacy, HR, the store manager, about scheduling a vaccination. All I’ve heard is a series of You need to talk to…

The pharmacy got a shipment of vaccine when I worked last Friday, and I weaved through a line a couple dozen deep most of the day. The only information I got about employee vaccinations was that if extra doses were available at the end of the day — “spillage,” they called it —workers would then be contacted. I imagine they’d have 15 minutes to respond once more.

So much for being an essential worker.

One of the reasons I left a good-paying job with excellent benefits two and a half years ago was to escape from bureaucratic incompetence and stagnation. To be faced with it again, in the midst of a public health crisis, is discouraging to say the least.

Ten Flashes of One Hundred

Although the link for this week’s Friday Fictioneers is still open, submitting on the day afternoon doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the challenge. I’ll focus attention instead to ten contributors who submitted their contributions in time this week:

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson
  1. It’s always nice to see a poetry response, and pensitivity101 offers a lyric that’s appropriate both for the picture and the season.
  2. Reena Saxena takes the image in a surprising and rewarding direction.
  3. The entry by Inside the Mind of Isadora captures the implied darkness within the photo prompt.
  4. Na’ama Yehuda adds some tension to the image.
  5. The ending of draliman‘s story about adolescent heartache made me laugh!
  6. A rarity for Friday Fictioneers: an essay, from MC’s Whispers.
  7. What I like most about The Count of North Clifton‘s submission are the calendic portmanteaus Decemburary and Marpril. I may have to steal those!
  8. solothefirst gives a speculative twist to the image.
  9. A humorous contribution from Archon’s Den.
  10. Tales from Glasgow‘s tale evokes both sorrow and horror.

Day 336

Society might not be ready to return to anything resembling pre-COVID normal, but my workload has certainly returned. My tech writing job will keep me occupied full-time for the next three weeks, and I have to work in a half-day of tutoring tomorrow plus pitching in for my wife’s home business. I actually look forward to my Fridays at the grocery store; punching the time clock at the end of my shift marks the end of each busy week.

I’m also in the middle of a month-long abstinence from alcohol. I do this every year, often but not always for the shortest month of the year. It’s a reminder that I can do just find with booze, and proof that I have at least some control over my vices. And it’s also a statement that COVID isn’t defining my life. I may not be able to go to the gym or return to my fencing club, but I’m not going to be defined by my limitations.

It’s close to midnight after I’ve put in a ten-hour day among all my responsibilities. Tomorrow I’m getting up at 5 to work on my fiction, because I don’t want to put off that part of my life during this busy period.

I’m tired. Man, would I like a drink.

But I’d like even more to continue proving that there’s more to my life than this damn pandemic.

Bridge to Yesterday

PHOTO PROMPT © Alicia Jamtaas

The bridge explosion of 1938 remains the greatest disaster the town has ever suffered. But with the passing last year of the final resident alive at the time, the tragedy became like Napoleon or the Revolutionary War, a point of history that didn’t seem relevant to current day concerns.

The violence of the train explosion sent portions of the track flying for miles across the valley below. Larger remnants were retrieved to recover the scrap metal, but smaller portions were left to rot in the wilderness.

To this day, hikers still find memories of the forgotten catastrophe.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

The Scholar and His Student, Part 3

The third and final installment of an essay about a former college instructor of mine. You can read the first part here, and the second here. I should have read more of his work, asked more questions of him, paid more attention to his other students. But his praise of my work was so different from the criticism I’d received from past writing instructors — a high school teacher claimed I wasn’t ready for college, and a college instructor scribbled in the margins of one of my essays that “you write like a pinball machine” — and as someone who actually made money off his writing, Aristides’ judgement seemed more credible. He was politically conservative, that much I knew. He would often ridicule left-leaning essays in class, but he also criticized careless writing from the right. He seemed to me opinionated yet honest, critical yet fair. And more important, he thought I had promise. I took another writing course with him later in my senior year, followed by an independent study that completed my undergraduate studies. Our political disagreements came out in our discussions of George Orwell during that independent study. Aristides saw Orwell as an ironic defender of English conservatism, while I took Orwell’s self-identification as a democratic socialist at face value. He thought I was wrong, but respected how I buttressed my opinion with Orwell’s own words. For 16 months, I was the scholar’s ardent student. His wit was engaging, his non-academic intellectualism admirable. He was as iconoclastic as I aspired to be. I thought I had found a mentor. If I had been less naive… … I might have discovered his 1970 article on homosexuality, which expressed opinions which were shocking even by the standards of the time. … I might have pushed back against his overt animosity against feminists. … I might have paid attention when his fellow students expressed their discomfort with him. The term misogynist has been used frequently by critics of his Jill Biden essay. It would be truthful yet disingenuous to say I never witnessed or heard of misogynist treatment on his part, as I was too inspired by him to recognize any form of mistreatment. He was proud I was his student, and I was too self-centered to care what he thought of my colleagues. I will neither explain nor excuse him on this issue, but instead recuse myself on the grounds of being wholly unqualified. *** Mid-way through that first class I took with him, I wrote the following notes on the topic of irony:
For irony to work, the statements made must be unbelievable. Convey that you really don’t mean what you’re saying; also convey what the real hidden meaning is. The attraction of irony: once you figure what’s being meant, you feel superior. “I’m in the know; I get it. I am one of the select few who understand. I am smart.” This builds a sense of intimacy between reader and writer. The risk of irony: when people don’t get it, these people will get upset.
I don’t think there’s any hidden meaning to the Jill Biden essay. Aristides meant every condescending word he wrote. He felt superior to his subject, as do most of the people he wrote it for. The problem with the people upset at the essay isn’t that they didn’t get it. The better explanation is that they didn’t want it. They weren’t buying what he was selling, much like devoted atheists have no use for anyone preaching religious salvation. If I were to cut my former instructor some slack, I’d say he was aiming for satire, which he defined in that same lecture as “ridicule of human folly.” Aristides makes this argument himself in a recent follow-up essay. (I do hope he gets paid by the word, because it takes him a few lengthy paragraphs just to clear his throat. I recommend stretching your legs and back prior to starting any of his essays.) But this particular essay fails in its attempt at either irony or satire and reads more like sarcasm, another term discussed during that lecture: “cutting, hostile language.” The voice of the essay is that of the smart-ass, the person whose noxious opinions keep seeking you out at parties despite your attempts at avoidance. *** Penitent sycophants make for poor critics. Their previous adulation and current regret cloud their judgement in equal measure. During the final session of our independent study, Aristides offered his phone number and invited me to call. About once a year I did so, and we would meet at a coffee shop for a couple of hours to discuss writing. He encouraged me to write and submit, which I did with little success. When I told him I had applied to graduate school, he told me I didn’t need it. But our roads had already begun to diverge. After completing my graduate coursework, I had begun working in the then-lucrative field of Information Technology as I started writing dissertation. Businesses had finally embraced desktop computers, and supporting that rollout seemed far more practical than the life of a struggling writer or academic. I invited Aristides to my dissertation committee not only to acknowledge his influence and the generosity of his time, but also to say goodbye. His acceptance was his last favor to me. I did pretty well for myself in my IT career, enough to live in a comfortable suburban home. Of course I didn’t stop writing, since once my managers knew I had studied writing in school (I left the PhD off my resume, a decision which would certainly please Aristides for reasons having nothing to do with my motivation) I was assigned every documentation task. It’s not the writing I thought of pursuing as a student, yet I’ve had my share of fun while paying the mortgage. I haven’t seen Aristides since my dissertation defense. We may have exchanged email messages or even pen-and-paper letters a few times afterwards. He stopped teaching at my undergraduate university in 2003; a few years earlier I moved with my family two states away, and have only occasionally returned to campus. I doubt he’d recognize either my face or name now. In response to the Biden essay, the English Department from which I received my undergraduate degree removed my former instructor from its list of emeritus faculty. I disagree with that decision, as writing a bad essay shouldn’t be grounds for ostracization. Aristides is not a perfect man, and he stopped being my literary mentor a lifetime ago. I wasn’t able to follow the path he showed me, but I probably wouldn’t have found my own path without his help four decades ago.  It would be intellectually dishonest for me to not recognize the debt I owe him, even when he writes a really awful essay.

AGNI

Seem to be back in my tradition from last year of writing weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazines, as well as getting them in on the final day of the week.

AGNI publishes a print edition of its journal twice a year, and also posts both poetry and prose online.

What They Say About Themselves: “AGNI was founded in 1972 by Askold Melnyczuk. He was then an undergraduate at Antioch College, with his own vision of a magazine for a new generation of writers and visual artists.

Eric Hoffman, an associate editor at the time, described those days:

The first issue was printed on a printing press in the middle of the night with the two of us running it.

Askold took the printing class just so that we could gain access to the press. We spent most of the time trying to back Askold’s hair out of the press after it was caught in the rollers. Later issues were printed by the Antioch Bookplate Company.

More than eighty-five issues have appeared since, in a history spanning five decades. Since 2003, AGNI has published new work online also—as much each year as in the two annual print issues…

The magazine moved to New Jersey in 1974 and then to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sharon Dunn joined Melnyczuk as co-editor in 1977. From 1980 to 1987 Dunn took the helm solo, first in Cambridge, then for three years in western Massachusetts. In the fall 1987 Melnyczuk resumed the editorship, and AGNI became part of Boston University.”

Issue Reviewed: stories posted online from Issue 91

Genre: Literary realism

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “The Black Bear Month,” by David Crouse. Alaskan high school basketball player Heather exchanges points and insults with a rival player. I liked the story’s use of sport as a metaphor for Heather’s struggles in her wilderness of a town.

Exploding HelicoptersOne Explosion. The basketball story was the only one with a compelling narrative.

Profanometer: Shitfuck. Too many stories with over-the-top language.

Day 324

COVID numbers saw a dramatic spike immediately after the holidays. The number of people who insisted on continuing the tradition of large family and community gatherings, despite the urgent pleas of health professionals and the clear evidence that the pandemic was getting worse, was both staggering and unsurprising.

The numbers have been coming down in recent weeks, but this weekend’s Super Bowl may cause another spike. Because, you know, football is more important than health in America. I’ll be morbidly curious to see if the COVID numbers in Kansas City and Tampa become significantly worse than the rest of the country by the end of February.

My state isn’t near to either city whose teams are competing on Sunday, so I’m somewhat hopeful our COVID numbers will continue to improve. With no public holidays until the end of May and vaccinations taking place, maybe we’ll have a decent summer after all.

***

Every Friday morning I report at a local grocery store for an eight-hour shift with the curbside ordering service. What began as a perhaps misguided attempt at helping out in a time of crisis has turned into not such a bad way to end the work week.

The work is routine. I retrieve customer orders on a handheld scanner, which identifies the aisle and shelf position for each item and arranges the items in aisle order. I push a wheeled blue cart the size of a large bookcase that comes to shoulder height; the cart has six compartments, each holding a green carton of sturdy plastic. Linked to the scanner is a portable printer which produces a barcode label for each green carton used on an order. I joke with friends that the only thing I do while working is shop, but it’s absolutely true — most times I go to the item location identified by the scanner, scan the item’s barcode, then place the item into an appropriate green container (separate containers are used for ambient, refrigerated, and frozen items). After scanning the container’s label, I then proceed to the next item.

The scanner has its issues, such as believing pita bread and nan are located in the bread aisle (nosiree, there in a stand by the deli) and that most seafood items are frozen. It also doesn’t arrange produce items in any convenient order, and since most produce is sold by weight I spend most of my time with the fresh veggies and fruits. But overall, the technology makes the job very easy.

After all items on a customer order have been picked, I push the cart into a storage area. Two shelves for ambient containers line the walls, and there are separate walk-in coolers for refrigerated and frozen containers. Every storage positions also has a barcode, which is scanned along with the container barcode. With all the containers stored, a receipt is then printed and taped to one of the containers. When customers call to say they’ve arrived, their orders are retrieved on a separate scanner which shows the storage location for each of their containers. The containers are scanned, placed on a rolling plastic pallet, and the order is carried out to the curb and placed in the customer’s car.

With this entry also running long, I’ll conclude my observations on my grocery store work next. week.

The Scholar and His Student, Part 2

Continuing a post from last week about one of my former college instructors, who’s been heavily criticized for a recent essay of his

***

I first met Aristides in the fall of my senior year as an undergrad. I was at the start of my third academic program in four years, Non-Fiction Prose Writing, and beginning to feel anxious about graduation in the spring.

A slender man with short brown hair streaked in gray, Aristides wore a tweed jacket and bow tie that first day. He sat at the end of a long rectangular table, eschewing the lectern in the corner of the room. The printed class roster was the only material he brought with him. He read each student’s name from the roster and asked for an introduction; when the last introduction was made, he folded his hands on the table in front of him, smiled behind his moon-shaped glasses, and declared “writing cannot be taught. But it can be learned.”

There were no books to be purchased, which delighted me and spared another shock to my parents’ bank account. He would occasionally come with copies of essays to be read and analyzed during class. He rarely lectured; the lectern remained unused throughout the quarter, standing in the corner ignored like a barren fruit tree. He led discussions, and his direct advice was delivered in a stream of aphorisms. My notebook from those discussions is filled with these statements, each of which I know to be true yet none of which I can prove conclusively:

Two things are boring in writing: a lack of skill, and too much of it.

You have to be fairly aristocratic to write. You have to assume what you’re saying is important, and that other people should care about what you’re saying.

You never finish an essay; you just abandon it.

Style means being yourself, making your originality show. Style isn’t something a writer does, but rather what a writer has.

Each student wrote a half-dozen essays during the three-month quarter. The assigned topic was always broad — describe the neighborhood where you grew up… prove or refute the truth of a popular saying… write an attack — giving each of us the terrible freedom of deciding what was important to us and proving to Aristides that we knew what the hell we were talking about.

After the third week he would start each class by reading from two or three student essays, both to praise and point out flaws. My first few essays were desultory, the writing uninspired and void of insight; my grades were poor and he never read from my work, for which I was grateful. My stomach clenched when he began reading my essay on returning to my childhood neighborhood, and didn’t relax until I realized by the tone of his voice that this was going to be one of his “good” examples. He looked up at me when he finished reading. “Clever,” he announced, then proceeded to the next essay. My confidence improved, as did my grades. The stomach pain I felt when he read my work subsided into nausea.

Our final essay for the course was an open-ended assignment; we were invited to write on whatever topic we chose. By then my anxiety about graduation, a few months away, had grown into full-blown panic. I started and quickly abandoned each of a half-dozen ideas, and faced with a blank page the night before the assignment was due I poured my feelings onto the page. I felt it was solipsistic nonsense, a whine rather than an analysis. I even used the f-word because given the brutal honesty in the rest of the essay a more socially-acceptable term would have been inappropriate. When I abandoned the work a little after midnight I felt the result was C material at best, most likely D; exceeding the minimum page requirement was the only assurance it wouldn’t receive an F. I was embarrassed to turn it in, my only comfort being that my earlier marks would allow me to pass the course.

Aristides walked into that final class, carrying a manilla folder. “I have an essay I want to read in its entirety,” he said at the start, which was a surprise, as he would typically read only a page or two. This wasn’t going to be another “good” or “bad” example; this was going to be Exhibit A of what we should either aspire to or avoid. He opened the manilla folder, took out the top essay, and read the title of my panic-induced drivel.

The stomach clenched harder than it had all quarter. This couldn’t be good. As he read a few students looked over at me and raised their eyebrows, our way of silently asking if we were the author of the work being reviewed. When I nodded in response they looked away, their faces concerned. I thought at the time they agreed with my assessment of the essay; later I would learn they were actually thinking the essay was the product of a mental breakdown.

At least he’s not going to read the f-word, I assured myself. He’ll skip the word, or say something like ‘fudge’ instead.

He read the f-word. With feeling. Lenny Bruce couldn’t have delivered any better.

If there had been a toilet next to me, I would have used it.

He read all the way through to the last line, his voice conveying neither approval or disapproval. The room was silent when he finished; nobody was looking at me now. He then turned the paper over, and took off his glasses.

“I have never,” he said, “been so proud of a student.”

***

There’s at least one more part to this essay. I know it’s going to wind up way long, but it has to be written.