Pensive

After an even lengthier hiatus — need to recover my enthusiasm for this project — here’s another of my reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Pensive is an online literary journal published by the Northeastern University Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service.

What They Say About Themselves: “Founded in 2020, Pensive is published online biannually by the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service (CSDS) at Northeastern University, and showcases work that deepens the inward life; expresses a range of religious/spiritual/humanist experiences and perspectives; envisions a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world; advances dialogue across difference; and challenges structural oppression in all its forms.”

Issue Reviewed: Issue 2 (Spring 2021)

Genre: Literary realism with spiritual elements

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Entwined,” by Laine Cunningham. Regina, a single woman in an uninspiring job, takes in a stray cat who keeps showing up at her door. When Regina is stuck with cancer, the cat takes on a larger role in her life. What I found interesting here was the absence of dialogue; the story is all third-person limited omniscient narrative, but it works.

Exploding Helicopters: One Explosion. Not very much action in the stories.

Profanometer: Dammit. A few f-bombs here and there, but noting gratuitous.

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.