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“What if your money maker is your cunning intellect and sense?”

Matthew B. Crawford’s argument that

“‘the age of distraction” we’re living in is making it more and more difficult to ‘achieve a coherent self’”

presents issues and ideas worth bringing into a public discussion, but it is necessary to receive these ideas with caution. Properly weighing his propositions with their counterarguments will keep the conversation from becoming a simple one that might better succeed in instilling public fear than provoking intelligent criticism and awareness.

(Image via  www.frontpagemag.com)

Opening up a discourse that encourages the general public to observe how they’re allocating their “finite executive attention” is a noble task—kudos, Crawford. That being said, I think a large number of lives in this era have benefitted tremendously from the constant communication and plethora of instantaneous resources we presently live with.

Crawford’s ideology regards skilled practices as the Rosetta stone to truly finding coherence in life and oneself; consider how this philosophy intersects with an interpretation of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” in which this creed seems to be rewarded. Mama and Maggie find a sense of self and a sense of generational unity in their ability to do rather than to simply know of these skilled practices.

(Image via www.quickmeme.com)

Walker presents the type of counterpoint that Crawford’s argument needs via the unlikeable character Wangero (Dee). Dee is an outsider to the skilled practices of churning butter and quilting—such an outsider that she takes physical elements of these practices to showcase as artifacts of her heritage rather than to use practically. Okay, fine… She is also a version of what Crawford’s argument cautions against, but just as we can’t ignore the flipsides of Crawford’s beliefs, we can’t ignore that Dee has obtained a new position in society. Perceived moments of disrespect and ignorance force the casual reader to be unlikely to read farther into Dee’s character, but a look at some of the basic facts about her personality show that she is an intellectual with aspirations. The American Dream even comes to mind.

Dee comes from the exact same household as Maggie and Mama. She could have stayed there, but “Dee wanted nice things;” she wanted to evolve (50). She could have been sent to school and decided it was too difficult for her. She could have failed. She could have remained illiterate. She may have become condescending in her quest for her greater, more intellectual lifestyle and I’m not condoning that behavior, but I do think that we should reward the side of this person who persevered and learned!–within this space, we should counter Crawford.

Why can’t being an academic be as much of a coherent version of self as is partaking in a skilled practice like churning butter or knowing how to kill and strip a cow? We need to not forget to reward the fact that in the face of all this stimulation and constant communication, people are adapting and evolving and becoming humans with skills that are useful for the direction in which the world is going. Not that we should be rid of cooks and welders and mechanics and farmers, but that society doesn’t require as many of these positions as it once did.  And that’s OK.  It makes room for people like Steve Roggenbuck:

And who is Crawford, or anyone, to tell him that he is not someone with his beautiful poetry?  He has a coherent self.  He inspires.  He spreads happiness.  He has a next step.

Now consider the relationship between Crawford’s argument and Joseph Harrison’s poem “The Site.” These two texts can easily be regarded as complimenting one another. They share an underlying murmur of fear that I think we should combat. As my professor, Dr. Norwood, mentioned in class, movies concerning future technologies are almost always disastrous; of course a story needs a conflict to be a story, but our society takes the evolution of cyber-realism to an extreme. We will create our own demise! Robots will overpower us! We’re becoming mindless! Slow down.

It seems these fears are quite alive in “The Site.” “We have all your information”… “You cannot leave”… “You have lost your will.”  When did we sign this blood contract?  I’m still perfectly happy to spend an extended period of time outside, sans technology or advertisements, as are most human beings.  We are complex creatures that require a change of scenery, fresh air, activity, curiosity and sating of curiosity. We have desires.  The fact that I browse Instagram while I’m on the john doesn’t mean I’m not going to read a book ever again or know how to ride a bike or make a paper airplane.

Executive attention may be finite but we are capable of an extraordinary amount of learning, and there is so much knowledge and experience we’ve gained from this era of constant communication. Think of all the people who have learned how to play guitar or make music because of Youtube videos. How many people have learned how to cook family recipes handed down for generations because of Allrecipes.com or the Food Network? Think of all the people, young and old, who have been able to further their educations, both skilled and intellectual, because of the internet and advertising and awareness. All of the teachers and students out there.

Crawford wants us to “reclaim the real,” but I think we are reinventing it.

We are not in a time of crisis. We are in a time of vast opportunity. Some people may fall down the rabbit hole and waste these chances, but all that just chalks itself up to social Darwinism. Not everyone can be saved, but perhaps instead of cautioning against all the media and technology at our fingertips threatening to dissolve us, we should be focusing on and teaching others how best to utilize these incredible resources.

(Image via www.quickmeme.com)

Yes, yes it is.

Public Reading Response (Oliver de la Paz)

Oliver de la Paz was an incredible treat to have on campus;  I was in another world from the very first poem he read and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the idea of seeing jars with fireflies in them, but “no, they’re hands holding matches.”  Fantastic.  I had never heard of the term “ekphrastic poems” but I’ve done an exercise in which I had to write a poem based off of a picture and it was difficult, so I was pretty impressed that de la Paz had a whole bunch of really neat pictures and corresponding poems.  I also really liked the anecdote and practice of the post card poems.  My least favorite poem or idea was the one about Aeros, the colt, trotting.  I suppose if I were a horse lover it might have stood among the other poems, but as I am not, it was the weakest link for me (which in no way made it a bad poem).

It was really helpful to hear that there was a 10 year span between his first and second book publishing.  I liked the idea of using titles as prompts, as in his “Aubade with constellations, some horses, and snow.”  Very cool experience to get another great poet’s advice and perspective.

I also took great pleasure in hearing “In Defense of Small Towns” read by Oliver himself, as I’d studied this poem, along with a few others, this semester and it was by-far my favorite of his that I’d been acquainted with.

Word Count: 246

Reader Response: The Third Dumpster (Jen Gish)

In The Third Dumpster, Gish Jen uses the contrast of dialogue and thought—direct method—to provide complexity to her characters, which in turn makes them interesting. Goodwin and Morehouse Lee are unemployed, ex-contractor brothers doing their best to fix up an extremely run-down house that they acquired for free so that their parents might have a more easily navigable home to live in. An important theme that keeps this story moving forward is the fact that the Lees are a Chinese family, and despite the parents having lived in America for 50+ years, the Chinese traditions are still extremely important to them.

This detail provides the motivation for the story itself, as the Lee brothers had attempted to fix their parents up in an old folk’s home but were unsuccessful due to the “Western food,” which provided enough of a reason for the Lee parents to decline the option. With this premise at the forefront, the Lee brothers appear to be extremely patient and loving children who will stop at nothing to give their parents the comfort and safety of a new, ranch-style home. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear through a number of thoughts presented that these boys aren’t as angelic as they first seem to be.

By the second page, suspicions are definitely aroused about the boys’ mission. Despite being in a recession, one that has clearly affected them personally, they are still moving forward with the house flipping process, even stooping to the level of illegally dumping asbestos-ridden debris into a dumpster that belongs to another construction site. They hire illegal Guatemalans for cheap labor, endangering their health. They complete the electrical wiring of the house without being certified in that department, hinting that their parents might not really be that safe in their new house.

At one point the question is posed from brother to brother, “What choice do we have?” On the last page of the story, the answer is given in a thought that neither son will speak, “you guys could come live with me.” Leading up to this point, Jen has done a clean job of depicting reasons why the Lee brothers would not want to extend this offer to their parents; for example, the berating imaginary dialogue filled with disapproval from their parents. It seems both boys have struggled to escape this treatment in their adult lives and perhaps had successfully done so until their parents’ age became an unavoidable issue.

Even in the last couple paragraphs of the story, Jen contrasts Morehouse’s thoughts with the dialogue he might have with his mother, “nodding and nodding” at her remarks, “even as he went on building.” While there is a lot more to analyze within this story, I think it is a great example of using contrasting thought vs. dialogue to create complex characters, difficult situations, and a very believable conundrum for the family presented.

 

Word Count: 485

I Refuse to be as Redundant as the Moon: A Found Poem

I’m frozen, I’ve just been dumped

here inside my alphabet, I’m shackled

to it and asking myself some questions.

 

It’s in the area of this invisible lake that I’ll set my story.

 

Nothing feeds my soul any more:

no starry night transmutes my desert

into sheets of shadow and mystery.

 

My story is interrupted because I don’t know the first word of the next episode.

 

I must struggle like someone drowning,

even if I die in the end, roaring and chanting

the name of the woman I love. Only I,

her author, love her. I suffer for her.

As long as I have questions and no answers,

I’ll keep on writing. The silence is such

that not even thought thinks.

My God, I just remembered that we die.

 

My wish is complicated by the fact that I long to do something original.

 

Strategy #7: Take Control.

Did the fellow suppose he was made of paper?

One cannot write those words too often: I do

not know. This story I am telling is all in my imagination.

Grounds enclosed by a sharp fence that marks

the boundary between what’s unpredictable

and what is locked up. I risk everything

when I admit why I’m hesitating.

 

I can barely keep from writing with both hands at once, so I’ll think less.

 

From now on I’m exempt from acting

coherently and released once and for all

from making a success of my life.

My double life. A night love with you.

A readership that will never be anything more

than the multiplication of your eyes.

 

I’ve been aging at a terrifying speed. But he must take his place, he must fit himself.

 

You confuse what’s important with what’s impressive.

To commit suicide everywhere, with no respite – that

is my mission. Then darkness rolled up again,

the darkness that is primeval but not eternal,

and yields to its own painful dawn.

 

He had accomplished an act of creation, and as he did so Death turned her head away.

Reader Response: Encouters with Unexpected Animals (Bret Anthony Johnston)

Despite being a mere four pages long, Encounters with Unexpected Animals by Bret Anthony Johnston provides a remarkable amount of action and emotion to process. I want to focus on the answer to the question “what does it mean to be a human in this particular story?” I think one of the most predominant human characteristics woven in this story is control/power or lack thereof. The reader does not have access into the mind of Lambright, but the story is filled with his decisions.

From the first sentence, Lambright is deciding to drive his son’s, Robbie’s, girlfriend home, an action that seems to have a particular motivation since it is said to be an abnormal choice for him to make. The girl, Lisa, is described as a rebel and a potential bad influence on Robbie, who is younger than she. When Lambright is the one driving Lisa in his own car, he holds a position of power and control over her. He literally gets to decide where they go, and he tries to assume the role of navigator within their conversation as well. His actions are entirely premeditated, regarding motivation.

Lambright recalls a wild dinner-table conversation, in which Lisa claimed to have seen many non-native animals in domestic spaces. At Lambright’s house, Lisa plays the role of the exotic, a fact not lost on Lambright who wonders not what Robbie sees in her, but what Lisa finds attractive in Robbie. He recalls Robbie’s average, childhood boy’s room and compares it to the brasher standard of living he has acquired since Lisa came along. Not only is Lambright losing his sense of control and security concerning his son, he mentions that two of his wife’s necklaces and a bottle of her pills have gone missing. The underage couple is also caught drinking whiskey in his own backyard. Not even his own house is under his control anymore.

Lambright tries to regain his pre-Lisa control by telling her to ditch Robbie and move along. When she provides resistance to this idea, positions of power intermingle and things get sexual, another form of power and control. Lisa questions if Lambright might try to rape her if she refuses to dump Robbie, to which Lambright only says, “Lisa,” in a tone that makes him feel superior and father-like. He revels in these feelings and then things become overtly sexual. From keywords like “stiff,” and “shiver,” Lisa begins taunting Lambright by scooting close to him and seeming to give him approval to dominate her in an act of sex. There is a major game of control and power playing out here, which Lisa seems to win. Lambright backs down from her seduction. The mouse ends up fleeing from the cat, as it were, when Lisa bolts from Lambright’s truck before he makes a move in any direction. Instead, he begins to make his next move, thinking about how “to see her as an animal he’d managed to avoid, a rare and dangerous creature he’d describe for Robbie when he got home.”

Reader Response: Chapter Two (Antonya Nelson)

In an effort to better understand power struggle, crisis, and resolution within others’ work and my own, I am going to work to identify these elements in Antonya Nelson’s Chapter Two. Disclaimer: I may not fully get there in 500 words.

The foreground of this story provides Hil, a woman who routinely attends A.A. meetings despite the fact that she is not following the program. One of Hil’s peculiarities is that when it is her turn to share at meetings, she deflects by telling stories about a Waspish, perpetually drunk, older woman who lives in her neighborhood, named Bergeron Love. Within this structure, I see two power struggles; Hil feels powerful by talking about Bergeron rather than reflecting on her insubordination of the program, effectively continuing her streak of rebellion, and Bergeron holds a power over Hil by embracing her alcoholism unabashedly. It is probably because Hil is jealous of Bergeron’s open affair with alcohol that she berates her to different A.A. groups, neighbors, and family members, even when Bergeron is deceased.

Hil implies a surface crisis to the story, being that Bergeron is frequently intrusive, inappropriate and belligerent. Hil’s words and actions imply a different crisis, especially considering that she seems to enjoy Bergeron’s evening intrusion, and her story-telling tone is of a humorous nature. The crisis then, would perhaps be that Hil is struggling with where she wants to fall on the spectrum of ‘relationship with alcohol.’ Bergeron represents an extreme that seems to appeal to an inner desire of Hil’s. Hil herself choses to drink at what seems like a moderate level, though she goes through the A.A. meetings that correspond with people who, one would imagine, are trying to be sober. Hil seems to be focusing on the mini-crises of her neighbor in order to avoid the large crisis occurring in her own life.

An important stake that is brought to light would be the well-being of Hil’s son, Jeremy. It is also presumed that Hil has a job and helps her food-addict roommate Janine pay rent or a mortgage. Another element of this story would be Hil’s desire not to be “defined” by her “overwhelming weakness”—her addiction to drink. This desire then feeds into the power struggles and crises.

My amateur mind cannot come to a complete conclusion about the resolution of this story. Assuming the ideas that I identified as the power struggle(s) and crisis are in the realm of accurate, I find two ways to read the ending of Chapter Two. Either Hil’s recollection of Bergeron’s pitiful son trying to call his mother back into their house when she is on a drunken spree convinces her that she doesn’t want that for herself and her own son, and she therefore resolves to not become Bergeron—or, mainly influenced by mention of a pub on the route to/from her new A.A. meeting spot, Hil is having some sort of shared experience with Bergeron in the last sentence of the story.

Reader Response: The Chair (David Means)

In David Means’ The Chair, readers learn about Bob Allison, his wife, Sharon, and their son, Gunner (along with an assortment of minor parent characters) through the thoughts of Bob Allison, himself. Bob seems to be an earnest, passionate man, a loving father, an intelligent being, and a worrier. Sharon is portrayed by her husband as a beautiful woman, a workaholic, and a liar, potentially having an affair with another man or just with the city of Manhattan. There is a sense that she is the family realist while Bob is the dreamer, which may or may not be a product of his occupation as a stay-at-home father. Gunner seems to function as both a source and recipient of his father’s love, as well as philosophical prompting device, and, potentially, a wedge driving between the stability of his parents, as separates and individuals.

Each character has a very distinct function in this story, driving the “plot” forward. On the forefront, there is Gunner who is literally forcing his father to chase after him as he daringly heads towards a retaining wall in their back yard. In this scene, there are also the birds that seem to prompt both Gunner and Bob to observe and think certain things according to their sounds and movements.

In another storyline that overlaps Gunner and Bob’s outdoor excursion, Bob procures multiple scenes that revolve around his wife’s movements to and from the city of Manhattan. Her commute, which involves driving and taking the train, is discussed. Her tendency to arrive home after the expected time, as of late, is mentioned in a way that is simultaneously expected and untraditional; it seems, throughout the rest of the story, that Bob is less fearful of his wife cheating on him with another man than he is jealous of her “grown-up” world in the city that he is not a part of. It is implied, through Bob’s deep understanding (verging on recollection) of life in the city, that perhaps he was forced to sacrifice his own career and world in Manhattan with the arrival of his son. Sharon is portrayed as a woman who was not willing to stop working to raise her child, and Bob assumes a life of martyrdom, “willing” to raise Gunner, but obviously unfulfilled at times, as seen in his imagining following Sharon to work.

I think the use of movement throughout this story is extremely well executed. Not only is it functioning on multiple levels, but also it is so well intertwined with the characters that Means has created a very realistic slice of how the momentum of life can quickly pull a person into a life that they never imagined, and somehow also in slow-motion. There are contradictory paces being presented at once with the layering of actions and thoughts and imagination that really encompasses the complexity of the moment when you realize that this is your life; your son’s life. I wish I had more room to talk about this one.

Reader Response: Train (Alice Munro)

Alice Munro’s Train is not a story that lends itself easily to summary, or quick understanding, for that matter.  I am honestly having a difficult time formulating what I would want to stay about this story, predominantly because I can’t pinpoint the role of the war within it.  I am accustomed to analyzing the role of war within any story as the main point of concern and source of change, but I feel like that is completely overshadowed by the theme of sexual abuse or sexuality in general.  I can’t seem to connect how the war-forged parts of this story might tie into the sexually motivated parts, aside from the fact that both war and rape are acts that can involve a person without their consent and radically change a person’s ability to function in the world. This connection also provides, for me at least, an understanding of why Munro spent so long getting the reader of Train involved in the life that Jackson builds with Belle before taking it away with no reward or logical explanation. It was extremely jarring and unpleasant to be waiting for the story to pay off—or at least continue on the same tracks it was headed down—only to have it abandon you and bombard you with a new, unmentioned, unrelated story. If Munro was attempting to write a story whose form mimics the content in the sense that we, as people, don’t always get to choose or end up with what we want, I feel she succeeded.

I also particularly liked the characterizations of the creepy Mennonites and of Belle. Regarding the former, the Mennonites were a haunting collective from the first moment that they were mentioned, and their presence in the area that Belle was living in gave a very The Village-esque feel to the setting. This feeling stuck with me throughout the story and did a really good job of keeping the eerie tone that I think Munro wanted the reader to feel to better relate or react to Jackson and Belle in the end. Belle was an overtly interesting character as well. A lot of description went into her history and her present, down to the fact that the majority of the story took place in her house. In this way, the reader was almost misdirected away from thinking about Jackson and Jackson’s odd choices throughout the story, which also helps exaggerate the impact of later messages.

Train was a very stimulating, almost puzzle-like tale to read. I can’t help feeling like there are a hundred things I missed as a first read-through, which I enjoy in a short story for the satisfaction of going back and figuring it out.

Reader Response: Malaria (Michael Byers)

Michael Byers opens Malaria with a swath of indirect character presentation via exposition through the eyes of the narrator, Orlando. He quickly summarizes himself and his then-girlfriend, Nora Vardon—including what he thinks their outward and inward appearances are like, what they are generally doing in life, who they hang out with, and how they associate with one another. The effect of this information is that we expect a change in their love story (or anti-love story) to unfold in the coming pages and we expect it to include some significant presence of either the Vardon family’s “depressives and schizophrenics” or Orlando’s “bunch of drunks, mainly the men on [his] father’s side.” While the story unfolds with the former, the latter is still of importance. The author has created longevity to the characters; what might yet befall Nora and George, or Orlando, who is poised as the next man in a line of alcoholics, beyond the confines of this story? With that in mind, I find it interesting that the first line of direct dialogue is from Orlando himself, regarding his name saying, “They wanted me to be different.”

While Byers uses summary and indirect dialogue to great effect, from a reader’s perspective there is a clear change in attention when he begins using direct dialogue. There is a lot of thought-provoking banter between Mrs. Vardon, Nora and Orlando that circles around racial identity. The resulting conversation allows a reader to interpret the perceived intellectual levels of the characters, but also brings in some very important ideas about “othering” and “sadness” and “problems,” that interacts with the rest of the text in very peculiar ways considering that son and brother George Vardon is diagnosed with schizophrenia within the story.

There is a skillful manipulation of indirect and direct dialogue throughout this story that allows the reader to draw their own opinions and ideas of and about each character presented, and procure a sense of empathy or sympathy for each one. Because of these direct glimpses we are given of the characters that beacon the story, there is no real need to question Orlando despite the vast amount of exposition that comes from his point of view. I think this allows for a greater connection between Orlando and the reader, which is important because of the nature of what “changes” or “goes wrong” within this story. That slightly sick feeling that Orlando seems to have over George’s long-passed Malaria comment is more easily understood because we were there (through direct dialogue) in the key moments that produced those feelings.

Aside from the use of direct and indirect method, it was an intriguing experience for me to be able to see how mental health issues can seriously affect the people that are surrounded by those who have them. Somehow it stripped away a level of loneliness and perhaps even added a level of bonding that I would not have imagined had I not read this story.

READER RESPONSE: REFERENTIAL (LORRIE MOORE)

While Referential has all the potential to be an impactful short story, I feel that Lorrie Moore made some language choices that lessened the experience of what the piece could have been. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge and understanding on my part that allows me to point out the following, what I consider “missteps,” and which case I suppose there is a bigger problem afoot; however, I am going to shamelessly volunteer the things that interrupted my experience of what could have been an incredible story.

Just when I was settling into the story, the first of a series of off-putting references, similes, and metaphors happened at the end of the first paragraph, which was the following description: “The jars were arranged by color… as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.” There is potential here for beauty or even a better medically-centered description (one that speaks to mental decay rather than physical) but this seems more fitting for a story in which a character is suffering from kidney failure or cancer. It did nothing to emphasize what the child was missing out on by not receiving the jams, nor did it relate to his plight.

While I liked the imagery of “the words ‘peace’ and ‘fuck’ [carved] into picnic tables and tress, the ‘C’ three-quarters of a square” because the detail of the “C” in such graffiti is true yet rarely made a spectacle of, this line was the third successive description using figurative language to refer to the scars on the son’s arms. This was preceded by the mother figure thinking that the scars “sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin” and the scars depicted as “white webbed lines” that somehow get tied into the campground graffiti simile. These back-to-back descriptions resulted in a long-winded heap that I did not find striking or helpful when reading the story. On its own, the idea about Pete and the loss of fathers is very complex, being that Pete is not the child’s biological father, and one could argue that a father-figure’s presence in the child’s life is unplanned—how could anything have been pre-etched into self-made scars? While I can venture at what Moore was hoping to accomplish in all of this, it could have been presented far more effectively.

Adding to the hard-to-swallow, was the over-swallowed. Looming storms, stabbing tears, mirrors, pictures of memories past, phantom callers and a relationship on the rocks—not even the à la carte version, the full meal with probable cheating included—all detracted from my feelings for this story. The only thing that made me question my understanding of the entirety of the seemingly confusing choices in language throughout was the “monkey’s paw” reference at the end of the story that appeared to hearken back to an Edgar Allen Poe story I read over a decade ago. I’m still not convinced it isn’t a coincidence.