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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — V

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 5

 And so it ends—most of my friends had already hit the airport by the time I got up at 10 am CST. Checkout time was noon, our departure at 5:40 pm CST, so why hurry? We got ready and finished packing and headed out, most of our purchased books and journals (and my AWP bag) already on the way to Vegas via UPS. We ate lunch at North 45, a lump crab cake sandwich with aioli on a ciabatta roll for me, burgers for Kalene and Maya. After the meal, we hung out in the lobby until the shuttle arrived. I graded papers. Maya read and played video games. AWP ’15 was truly over.

The shuttle arrived a few minutes early, and the three of piled in, along with three or four other writers with late departure times. One carried a bag that read, “Poetry.” I guess that’s about as direct as it gets, like Richard Castles’ bullet-proof vest with “Writer” printed on it. (CASTLE, by the way, has always seemed like PATV to me—perfectly acceptable television, fun enough on its own merits but not memorable or important. It’s really like a younger-skewing MURDER, SHE WROTE with more romance angles. I’d watch Nathan Fillion in pretty much anything, of course, but it bugs the hell out of me that real-life, highly talented, even previously published writers I know can’t get their current project published, yet you can go into Barnes & Noble and find works by Richard Castle, who doesn’t even exist. You should have seen me roll my eyes when JANE THE VIRGIN’s title character stated her desire to be a writer. “Of course,” I said. “Why not?”)

At the airport, we found that our usual luck was holding; our drop-off point was about a mile away from our ticket counter, which was itself about a mile away from our gate. At least there were almost no lines. We reached the gate with two hours to spare, which is what always happens when we get to the airport two hours before departure and what never happens if we’re even fifteen minutes later than that; in those latter cases, half the world is flying with our airline, and everybody’s got fifteen bags to check, and none of them know how to navigate security. Anyway, our gate had free wi-fi and lots of plug-ins, so we got more work done as the area got more and more crowded. Soon, three gates’ waiting areas were packed, and more passengers milled about in the aisles and shops and restaurants, probably anywhere from seven hundred to a thousand people. Meanwhile, the only men’s bathroom in the area had maybe five stalls and six or eight urinals. Not cool, Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Not cool.

Our flight was packed to the gills—everybody wants to go to Vegas, right?—and we stuffed ourselves into the tiny coach seats, three on either side of the aisle. Maya and I sat together, along with a guy who was traveling from Minneapolis to Vegas for his own convention, kind of our trip in reverse. Kalene had the window seat across the aisle. My seat’s “locked and upright position” seemed about ten degrees forward out of true, so by the time we could move about the cabin, my back was killing me. I fell asleep as we were ascending (I was exhausted), so when I woke up, the crick in my neck nearly matched my back pain.

Of course, when I say “move about the cabin,” I am only speaking for the five or so minutes of the three-hour flight when we could actually do so. The seatbelt light stayed on for most of the flight, which was the most turbulent I have experienced since a stormy trip to Philadelphia back in 2000 or so. We rattled and shook and bounced and laughed nervously and prayed and sweated until we were descending into Vegas. My bladder was near to bursting after my in-flight coffee; every time someone got up, the flight attendants would cluck (and, once, announce that we were taking our lives and those of our fellow passengers’ in our hands), but I tried once anyhow. I found that the muscles required for standing up in a jittery plane were precisely the ones I needed to relax before I could pee. Plus, I kept seeing vivid images of getting a flow started just as we hit some bad air and spraying the entire compartment and my clothes and shoes, so I finally just gave up.

Naturally, we landed at McCarran terminal three and had to get our bags in terminal one, so another long hike took us to baggage claim and then to the shuttle parking area. There, we waited nearly 45 minutes, because Silver Se7ens shuttles run on the hour. At least they sent a stretch Hummer for us.

We retrieved our car and, starving and too tired for a store trip or cooking, we decided to eat at Friday’s, one of the only places nearby that wasn’t closing soon. I had a Long Island Iced Tea and some fried shrimp. An hour later, we finally got home, where our cat yelled at us all night. Apparently she has abandonment issues, even though one of our good friends came over a couple of times a day to feed and play with her.

As of this writing, she’s still clingy. She keeps cutting me off as I try to walk and hip-checking me, herding me toward her food bowl, even when it’s full. It’s as if she’s convinced that she’s going to starve if she can’t see us at all times. One wonders how much our absence traumatizes our pets.

I have other things to say—a comparison of this year’s conference to last year’s, the nature of community in writing, and more—but I’ve got about three hundred things to do this week, so that will have to wait. Watch this space for more.

Given world enough and time, more later.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — IV

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 4

 Up at 7 am CST on this, the final day of AWP ’15, and already contemplating next year in Los Angeles, when I’ll hopefully have some new publications to make me feel like less of a poseur—I greeted what turned out to be a breakfastless morning (no supplies, no time to order) on which my shower and shave and tooth-brushing feel positively Sisyphean, a beautiful cloudless day in Minneapolis, warm enough to make you sweat on your walk. By 8:30 am CST, Kalene and I have quit the room.

We split up in the Convention Center, heading to different sessions and, in my case, a pit-stop for a caffeinated beverage. The line for coffee snaked around corners, the people surly and red-eyed and territorial; do not come between writers and their coffee, lest you put your very life at hazard. No thanks. I stopped by a food kiosk for a Diet Pepsi, a 20-oz. bottle consisting of what appeared to be plastic, not gold, but which nevertheless cost me four dollars.

My 9 am CST session consisted of a panel of editors discussing what made a submission leap off the slush pile and into their magazines—or the trashcan, depending on the piece. They shared a lot of advice, much of which can be boiled down to this: “make sure your story/poem/essay fits my personal taste.” They talked a lot about finding your unique voice, being “surprising”, and the like. Of course, those sorts of nebulous, subjective areas are really life-long projects for any writer, and so much of it seems to come back to luck—getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time. The editors weren’t able to give much insight on how to write a piece that would necessarily appeal to any subjective criterion—who could give such advice, and what would it be?—but they did provide a lot of helpful hints on things like following guidelines to the letter, being professional in any contact, and so forth. They also hinted at trends that writers might not be aware of, such as how they are seeing so much dark content that humor—even dark humor—stands out these days. Good to know. I enjoyed this session very much; the editors all impressed as knowledgeable, passionate-about-literature people with whom you might enjoy sharing a beer.

I was particularly gratified when the editor of Juked discussed how tired he was of stories that begin with the protagonist’s waking up for no particular reason and going through a typical, boring routine before anything happens. He also hates personified body parts, which I can understand, given how many times my recent students have written things like “He gave a sigh” (how? Did he wrap it up in a gift box and send it by UPS?) or “The smile crept onto his face” (where was it before? On his leg?).

After that, I skipped out on a session I had planned to attend and hit the Book Fair, where I scored some copies of journals to show my classes.

Next, “Marketing Your Small Press Books,” a session I really need, so maybe one day I can sell more than fives of copies at a time. (Have I mentioned that The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light is available through fine online retailers everywhere?) This session was a blast. The panelists shared a lot of great practical device and a good deal of humor. I’d tell you what they said, but I’ll probably be using some of the techniques quite soon, so you’ll get to experience them first-hand. You can thank me later.

Back to the Book Fair for one last pass and a few more journals. I was hoping to chat up some more editors from small presses, since I’ve got a second collection of stories that I haven’t placed yet, even though most of the tales therein have been published in various journals. Of course, around 2 pm on the last day, said editors and staff are more interested in selling their books (for the press’s sake, for the authors’, and for the aching backs of those who have to lugged the unsold tomes back across the country), so very little of said chatting up was accomplished. Still, I grabbed a few more journals for classroom use (and my own reading pleasure, naturally).

Here, a bit of editorializing. When you know a lot of writers, and especially when you get a boatload of them in one place like you do at AWP, you hear a lot of understandable grousing about journals and presses and editors and agents and publishers and how they’re all out to get us and ruin our careers, either by tanking the publishing of our work or by not taking what is obviously brilliant in the first place. You also hear a lot of equally understandable griping from publishers and editors about how not enough people are buying their books and journals.

I think both sides need to remember that we’re in this together. I’m in a slump myself, so I know how hard it is to have your work rejected, especially when you honestly believe in it, when you KNOW it’s good. Rejection sucks. Lots of rejection sucks a lot. But I don’t think for a minute that there exists a cabal of editors who have a list of writers they automatically reject. Whether we’re talking a single poem or a book-length work, we have to remember that “quality” really is a subjective term, and what one person loves, another may feel indifferently about or even hate. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. If someone passes on our work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves suck or that we have no talent. It just means they don’t see the connection between our work and their journal/press, even if we do.

On the other hand, editors/publishers who rant about sales should remember that writing literary works and teaching are not clear pathways to riches. It happens, but it isn’t what you’d call easy or common. Many AWP attendees are graduate students who share rides and pile a half-dozen people into a hotel room. Many others are adjuncts, who are criminally underpaid, or tenure-track professors at places that can’t or won’t pay what the professors are worth. Others are starving writers who don’t have a teaching gig—the writer/barista, the writer/construction worker, etc. In short, you can’t assume that everyone who comes to AWP carries with them a truckload of disposable income that they’re just hatefully withholding from you.

Plus, you can only buy and ship so many books at once. A lot goes into buying books at an AWP outside your home city. It is unlikely that many attendees aren’t buying your books because they’re out to get you.

I think we can all be better to each other.

We stopped by the UPS store to ship all our books home and there finally met up with our friend Robin Becker, fiction writer extraordinaire (check out Brains if you haven’t already). We hadn’t seen Robin since she left LSU ahead of us, way back in the early 2000s, so we had a snack and a beer in the hotel bar. The chat was lovely, the company awesome. I’m only sorry that I had to spend half the time on the phone, fighting with the world’s least helpful and most sarcastic customer service representative. “Superior” Shuttles my ass. This is the last time I use that company.

A one-hour nap later, we met my good buddy Ash Bowen for one more meal and a couple rounds of Guinness at Brit’s Pub. We had a great time and talked about our pasts, art, our lives today, art, food, art, and why making art in a world that devalues it hurts so much. Ash, thanks for your encouraging words. I needed them.

Back to the room by 8:30 pm CST for some grading, packing, and writing this dispatch, and the time is now 12:47 am CST. In eight hours, we will rise, finish packing, eat lunch, and head to the airport, and then it’s home to Las Vegas and, perhaps, one final dispatch.

AWP, AWP, AWP—we’ve all been there.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — III

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 3

Today, we might have grouped most of our experiences under the general heading of “mishaps.” You can’t use something with a darker, more serious connotation like “disaster” or “debacle” or “catastrophe,” because nothing terrible happened, but a lot of little inconveniences added up to a day that was less than it could have been.

At 9 am CST, the first of our alarms sounded. We shut it off. At 9:30, the backup alarm blared until somebody smacked it upside its head, after which it got the message and left us alone. We awoke at 10 am CST and ordered breakfast—in my case, ham and eggs, fingerling potatoes, grilled veggies, and toast. I did not bother with lunch.

Our hunger and exhaustion having ruined our chances of making our first scheduled session of the day, as well as a friend’s book signing, we finally stumbled out of our room at approximately 11:35 CST, headed for a session on applying for an individual creative writing NEA grant. Having seated ourselves around 11:45 CST, we got word of a minor issue in our room (don’t ask), so Kalene headed back to deal with it. I stayed long enough to discover that I was attending the exact same session that I attended last year, and we were once again discussing poetry submissions because I had somehow missed the fiction submission deadline. This….THIS is what happens when you teach five classes and serve on seven committees while trying to write. Something inevitably slips by, no matter how structured you are, and it’s usually something important. Now I can’t apply for an NEA grant until 2017.

Kalene texted an update about our situation at the hotel, and I wasn’t learning anything new, so I bailed and headed back.

The situation-that-shall-not-be-named required a trip to Target, and it was cold outside (Minneapolis in April, but hey, it wasn’t snowing like it did yesterday), so we decided to take the free-ride bus to the store. We sat down at a covered stop and shivered in the wind, watching buses pull up on the other side of the street and rumble away in the wrong direction until we said, “Screw this,” and started walking. The store lay only three or four blocks to our north (I think), and we were enjoying the chance to see a bit more of downtown—clean, modern, not as many people walking about as you’d think—until we started to cross what I have already come to think of as That Stupid Intersection.

We had barely stepped into the crosswalk when a car driving parallel to us suddenly put on its left blinker and veered our way. “Wait!” I cried, sure that we were about to be flattened, but the car merely changed lanes at seven thousand miles per hour and went on its way. Unfortunately, Kalene tried to heed my warning while walking much too fast for her own good. She managed to step in the one piece of broken pavement that I saw for at least a block. She turned her ankle, cried out, and fell onto her knees, scraping the skin off one of them. Then she rolled onto her back and lay there groaning. By this time, a bus was bearing down on us and showing no signs of stopping, so I reached down and yanked her upright. We stepped back onto the sidewalk and assessed the damage as the bus passed on by us like nothing had happened. The driver didn’t even glance our way.

Like the trooper that she is, Kalene kept going. We reached Target, bought our supplies and some snacks and first aid stuff, and headed back. We were going to catch a bus so she wouldn’t have to walk, but she decided that she would rather not let her ankle stiffen up, so we finished the trip on foot.

Back to the room for a bit of relaxation (for me, that meant a twenty-minute nap) before we headed back to the Convention Center (yep, Kalene was still walking) for two sessions.

The first one featured T.C. Boyle, Ron Carlson (for this semester’s CW students at CSN, he’s the one who wrote “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”), and Susan Straight. The panel was about the importance of place in creative writing (hey, CW students—think “grounding,” “setting,” etc.), specifically the landscape (physical and otherwise) of southern California. Straight and Carlson read short pieces from existing novels, while Boyle read a thus-far-unpublished story about a guy who invents a five-pound burrito. It struck me as very Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I mean that as a compliment. All three were great, of course.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to buy their books and or meet them because our next session started right away—a live NPR conversation with Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter. The talk veered from memorable bad reviews to books that evoke a certain place/time in the writers’ minds to what the panelists wish that they had known when their careers were just beginning. Both demonstrated a sense of humor that most good writers have and that are often on display only during readings.

We had nothing scheduled afterward, and I had picked up copies of Baxter’s latest short-story collection and Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, so we lined up to get them signed. A first for the Rileys, whose bad luck in minor matters is legendary—we were second in line. Usually we’re more like seven hundred and second.

Mr. Baxter was warm and gracious. He chatted with Kalene about the dangers of Minnesota roads as he signed my book. Ms. Erdrich was more reserved, but not in an unfriendly way. One gets the feeling that, like me, she’s a bit of an introvert and thus more comfortable in front of large crowds than when she’s chatting with people one on one. In spite of that, she took Kalene’s hand and complemented her on her style. I told Ms. Erdrich that this moment, speaking with her one-on-one, was our main motivation for coming this year, and I wasn’t lying. The pedagogy and craft talks are invaluable, and I admire the various other writers very much. Who could possibly dismiss T.C. Boyle or Baxter or Dybek or Prose? Still, I find that Erdrich’s work speaks to my own individual sensibilities in ways that I can’t quite explain, so I really wanted to meet her. She seemed surprised but touched that we felt that way about her books.

From there, we picked up Maya and sent across the street to the Hyatt, where we ate supper at the Prairie Kitchen and Bar. I had a ribeye (I’m eating more meat than I should on this trip, which is to say more than almost none, but after a rough day, I was in the mood to rend some flesh), while Maya chose a burger. Kalene had a mac and cheese dish with some kind of chicken in it. It was all good, made even better for me by a couple of margaritas on a mostly empty stomach.

Afterward, we returned to our room, where I graded a few papers and wrote this dispatch in about fifteen minutes.

I’m beginning to think any profundity in these little pieces may have to come later, upon reflection, because by the time I’m ready to write them, it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve still got grading to do. Still, this was our least busy day in terms of conference activities, and I’m just now winding down at 10:40 CST.

If any of my CW students are reading this, though, I’d like to share something that Ron Carlson said about place: “Nothing happens nowhere.” Every story has a setting, and every setting has a feel, a texture, an atmosphere. Within that setting—desert landscape or bedroom, alien planet or storm-tossed ocean liner, meth lab in the California mountains or a dude ranch or an urban diner—people live. They act. They talk to each other. They think. They react, to each other’s actions and thoughts and to their own emotional turmoil and to the setting itself. Place is not just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing, absolutely necessary part of any story, and a writer at any stage ignores it to his/her peril.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before, as have thousands of writers before me, as will thousands after I’m gone. If you’re a writer and you haven’t learned that lesson yet, there is no better time than now.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 II

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 2

So I woke up this morning to a rainy Minneapolis that looked more like Seattle allegedly looks than Seattle did last year. As I got out of bed, I still felt weary, but at the same time, my blood pumped with exhilaration as I pondered another day full of writers, books, pedagogical panels, and craft talks. I love the free exchange of ideas you find at conferences, the passionate way that people voice their beliefs and philosophies combined with their open acceptance of others’ methods and thoughts.

It sure as hell beat Facebook this afternoon, where I saw more “If you don’t agree with ___________ in all cases and all circumstances, I’ll unfriend you” posts. My response is always, “You’d probably better unfriend me, then, because I tend to think about complexities and variations and shadings, and I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with or supported anything 100% of the time.” Meh.

A quick breakfast bar and shower, and off to our first session, walking fast enough to work up a good sweat inside my aptly named sweatshirt, you could already feel the city’s balance tip as more and more writers poured into it. More people walked the skyway from our hotel to the Convention Center, and over near the registration kiosks, the handlers had opened up the gated labyrinths that you might recognize at Disneyland or Six Flags. All around us, a steady thrum, the sound of several thousand voices muttering and shouting at once.

My first session of the day was titled, “How to Write and Publish a Book while Teaching Five Classes,” a panel of note for anyone in the two-year college system, not to mention all the underpaid and overworked adjuncts out there. Advice ranged from letting yourself off the hook for not producing as much as your peers with two-two loads to teaching summer courses exactly never to taking unpaid leaves to attending writing retreats. Some advice seemed more practical if, say, you’re pretty sure you have enough savings or other sources of income to take a year off without pay, but I appreciated the perspectives. The session also led Kalene and I to have a serious conversation about how much pressure I put on myself to produce, publish, and grade so thoroughly that my students could never possibly have any questions. Basically, we decided that I’m driving myself into an early grave and that I need to accept that it’s okay for me to write and not teach during at least some summers, that it’s okay for me not to spend forty-five minutes on each student paper, and so forth. Now all I have to do is implement all that advice.

Next, our first stop at the Book Fair. We spent some time at the LSU Press and Southern Review table, where we learned that James Olney had passed away. We hadn’t heard. James co-edited the Review with Dave Smith while we were in graduate school, so the news saddened us.

Next, we stopped by the tables of some publications from which I got fairly recent personalized rejections—One Story, Pleiades, Gulf Stream, Ploughshares. I wanted to thank the personnel for their kind words. Hopefully some of those near misses will see the light elsewhere, and these staff members will remember me in the future.

We made sure to stop by the Crab Orchard Review table and say hi to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble—great editors and poets, excellent people with generous hearts.

I spoke to one editor who publishes books that he hand-stitches personally. All proceeds go directly to maintaining his press or to his authors. Take that, world of corporate publishing. There are still those who love the art more than the profit. I plan to say more about this at a later date.

We ate lunch inside the Fair—burgers and fries, passable but unspectacular.

My second session was titled, “More Than Luck: How Publishers Select Literary Manuscripts.” Somehow I missed the fact that it was concentrating on poetry contests, but I was struck by how the advice often ran to what I tell my first-semester creative writers—follow the guidelines, make sure you know what your press publishes and that you want to be affiliated with it, etc. Meanwhile, Kalene ducked upstairs for a session on crafting literary page-turners and came back with a bunch of advice for me. I’m already excited to try some of it out.

Back to the hotel room for a quick nap, and then it was on to supper in the North 45 bar and restaurant downstairs, where we were joined by the incomparable Ash Bowen. I hadn’t seen Ash since 1997, and ye gods, how I missed him. We spoke about writing and music and family and our shared past and where our lives have taken us. We talked so much that we both only drank two beers, which I can usually pour in my eyeball without ill effect. Outside the restaurant and before the meal, we ran into BJ Hollars and Lucas Southworth, two writers we knew from our time in Alabama. All three of these gentlemen have produced work that is very much worth your time and money. Buy their stuff, right after you pick up a copy of my book. (Heh heh)

From there, we hoofed it back to the Center in time for Karen Russell’s keynote address, which touched on dolphins and Melville and playground equipment and poetry and about a million other artifacts that, on the surface, might have seemed unrelated, but part of her point was that you should allow yourself to play instead of “just getting to the point” as if that were the goal of all art. Another point was that things that seem unrelated on the surface often reveal connections when we examine them with open minds and hearts. She sometimes read a lot of complex stuff pretty fast, but it was a fun talk. I get the feeling she’d be fun to have a cocktail with and spitball ideas for stories. In fact, a lot of her quirky tales remind me of what I’ve tried to do in some of my own work.

I have to make that comparison, because right now, nobody else is. See what I mean about how you need to buy The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light? (Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and other fine online retailers!)

This dispatch is nowhere near profound or insightful—it’s more summative than analytical—but it’s 11:15 pm CST and I still need to write, grade six papers, and get up at 7 am. Somehow, I get the feeling that not everything will get done.

Where are those “Teach Five Classes” people when you need them? Maybe they can give me advice about working and attending conferences, too.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 1

Ah, travel—asleep at 1 am Las Vegas time (PDT), then startled out of a now-forgotten dream at 4:30 am, an hour so ludicrous and detrimental to sanity that it should not even exist. Even milkmen and grumpy old cigar-smoking guys running newsstands would shake their heads and groan. My wife Kalene got up first and showered. I fell back asleep. Half an hour later, she woke me up to tell me that I could sleep another extra hour because we had gotten a text from Delta Airlines. Our flight was delayed an hour and a half. I had never been grateful for a late flight before, and for a moment, I flashed back to last year’s AWP trip, when my flight to Long Beach got delayed so long that I missed my connection and had to head for Seattle the next morning. But once I realized the implications of what Kalene was saying, though, I nestled deep into the covers and crashed until she dragged me out at 6 am.

The fingers of my right hand and the muscles in my forearm have ached all day because I spent over thirty minutes last night setting up our DVR for the next week. Our Cox remote only recognizes that you’ve pushed a button after you’ve done so four or five times, so multiply that by recording five to ten shows a night for the next week, and you can probably understand why I’m sore. (“Why doesn’t he just set up a series recording?” you might wonder. It’s because our multi-room DVRs sometimes just decide that they don’t feel like doing what you’ve told them to do, and often, having little time to watch TV on a given day, I only discover the problem when I’m trying to set up more recordings. The joys of cable! “Why doesn’t he get DirecTV or Dish or something?” you might be asking. It’s because we currently live in an apartment that we rented sight unseen upon accepting employment in Las Vegas. Ours is apparently the one apartment in the building that, for shadowy reasons I only partially understand, is not allowed to have any equipment mounted on the exterior walls. Whee!)

Out the door at 7 am, we dumped on bag of trash in the dumpsters and took Broadbent to Russell to the freeway to Flamingo, cursing every slow driver and flipping off every red light. We arrived at our parking facility, the Silver Se7ens Casino (their spelling; don’t get me started), though to tell you the truth, we picked another place on the Internet but somehow got booked at the one place we knew we wanted to avoid. The last time we parked there, the shuttle rules were so labyrinthine that we missed it and had to pay a cab to take us to the airport, even though we had already paid for parking and the shuttle. When we got back to Vegas, we went to the wrong level of McCarran Airport and missed the shuttle back, so we had to take another cab to Silver Se7ens, meaning we paid for two shuttle rides and never actually even saw the vehicle. Imagine our displeasure at clicking on the “book it” button for off-site parking at a different hotel and then finding that they had dumped us back in Silver Se7ens’ lap anyhow.

We were instructed to park, unload our luggage, go inside to let them know we had arrived, and then park the car. Knowing that we were only going to be there for a minute, we parked behind a shuttle van. My daughter Maya and I unloaded while Kalene ran inside. As soon as we shut the trunk, a burly security guard tooled up in his golf cart and said, “I’m gonna need you to move that car. This area is for shuttle parking.” When I told him that we were there for the shuttle and were simply waiting for our parking assignment, he said, “Oh, okay. So you’ll just be here a minute. That’s good, because the shuttle is gonna be back [looks at his watch, incredulous] any minute now.” Then he looked at me expectantly.

“I knew something like this would happen at this dump,” I said to Maya. I didn’t even bother to ask what the big white bus-looking thing that we had parked behind was, if not a shuttle. I simply loaded all our bags back in the trunk. As I finished, Kalene came out with our parking permit, and we drove around to the garage and up to the fourth level, where we left the car, lugged our bags to an elevator, zoomed down to the casino, fought our way through tourists, and finally arrived back outside, twenty feet from where we started.

The shuttle, whose imminent arrival had so concerned the guard, showed up thirty minutes later. It was a van, much smaller than the bus-like vehicle we had so foolishly thought it might be fine to park behind for five minutes. We piled inside and took the ten-minute trip to Departures, where, as I disembarked, I was promptly almost flattened by a bus being driven by, it seemed, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Inside the airport, there was virtually no line at the bag-check counter or security, and no one decided that today would be a good day to pull the Rileys out of line and wand them and pick at their laptops and stare suspiciously at their phone chargers. We made it to our gate in plenty of time.

For breakfast, a big slice of pizza from the airport’s Metro outpost. Though our flight was delayed, the gate personnel were on duty already, and they worked their magic so that we could all sit together. When we booked the flight, we had chosen seats next to each other, but of course that didn’t take, and they had spread us all over the plane, me in the fourteenth row and Kalene and Maya in different sections somewhere in the twenties. Now we all boarded together, sat together, and fell asleep together as soon as the plane cleared the runway.

Twenty minutes later, I woke up. My memories from Delta Flight 1851, with service from Las Vegas to Minneapolis:

  • When asked for my beverage choice, I picked coffee, which I never do on flights because it sometimes hits my bowels and bladder like a sledgehammer, sending me scurrying for the insidious inventions known as airplane lavatories, so small and cramped and loud that it simulates the effects of riding in a coffin to one’s own funeral via a major freeway. This cup was good to me, though. I got up only once afterward.
  • However, we were flying coach, and when the airline personnel moved our seats, they put Kalene and Maya in my row, near the front of the plane, so the coach lavatory was approximately a quarter-mile away from us, the way often impeded by the refreshment carts, which are engineered to fit (barely) in the tiny, cramped aisle in much the same way that a drawer fits into a cabinet. Of course, we could have just headed up to the much-closer business-class potty, but airplanes are such obvious symbols of the American class system that I’m always half afraid that some sonorous claxon is going to sound as soon as I pass the curtain, that some air marshal will tackle me and cuff me and then lecture the rest of the coach-riding riffraff on the perils of not knowing one’s place. So, yeah, I waited on the carts to move.
  • Speaking of class—for those who have never been on an airplane, you have more room in business class, and a flight attendant dedicated to serving the ten or twelve of you on that side of the curtain. When I have flown business class, I have known the exquisite sensation of stretching my legs all the way out without kicking anyone or banging my shin on the underside of a seat, taking off an inch of skin. I have had someone take my coat and hang it up for me. I have had attendants call me by name. I have been asked for my beverage preference and gotten whatever I wanted without extra cost. Contrast that with coach, where you are crammed in two or three to each side of the aisle in a configuration that a sardine would dismiss as too restrictive. You don’t get premium drinks unless you pay for them, credit cards only; you get a small plastic cup of juice or soda, perhaps a cup of coffee. Today, I watched business-class customers be served full breakfasts in real dishes and on actual platters. Then I watched those who had upgraded to a “comfort seat” be served from a fruit-and-muffin basket. Then it was our turn. I got a cup of coffee in a small Starbucks cup and two ginger snaps. Two. Ginger. Snaps. Don’t tell me there’s no American underclass.
  • Across from me, some guy spent the entire flight frantically rearranging everything on his computer. We weren’t close enough for me to see what he was doing, so I didn’t feel like I was snooping as I watched him open multiple windows and cut parts of a document out and paste that part into an email and send it and then go to other documents and cut out parts of them and paste them into different emails and send them and on and on, ceaselessly, for three hours. He looked like one of those computer experts you see in action films, the ones who create a sophisticated virus and hack a major secured network in thirty seconds with nary a typo. Maybe those people really do exist, though from the images I spotted, this guy appeared to work for an auto manufacturer.
  • On the way, I read the first chapter of a novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a page and a half, I found what appeared to be two misplaced modifiers. Now let me assure you that the chapter was mostly excellent, in terms of grounding and characterization, deft use of exposition a bit at a time, and so forth. But those modifiers haunted me. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have been enough to get most people rejected, regardless of their manuscript’s strengths, and that led me to a long, dark reflection on the entire publishing industry and how random things sometimes seem.
  • People sleep ugly on planes—necks cranked hard to one side, giving them the appearance of having been throttled to death; mouths open wide enough for you to throw things in there; strangers’ heads falling onto other people’s shoulders. It makes me wonder what I looked like during the first twenty minutes of the flight.

Arrival in Minnesota at approximately 3:20 CST—naturally, we deplaned at a gate so desolate that we needed to take a taxi just to reach the taxi stand. Without this option, we hoofed it for God only knows how long, barely making it to baggage claim before somebody hauled our luggage away.

Observation—on its outskirts, Minneapolis in April looks much like Mississippi in January. Downtown seems shiny and clean, even when it’s overrun by writers…and today, it wasn’t nearly as overrun as it’s going to get.

Our room in the Millennium Hotel is nice but small. The bathroom door is either so modern or so old school that it doesn’t have a lock; it slides shut, and then you have to trust your roomies not to burst in on you. It’s got two double beds, meaning that Maya gets one to herself, while Kalene and I have to adjust to not having our queen-sized mattress. I expect some elbowing to occur later. The hotel has no distilled water for my cPap machine, and there is apparently no pharmacy or grocery outlet within walking distance, so I am faced with the rather silly task of paying for a taxi in order to procure a gallon of water. That, or not, you know, breathe while I sleep.

The registration process was a breeze this year but for the walk. From the hotel to the convention center to the specific part where registration occurs is about as far as the hike from our airport gate to the taxies. I’ve gotten my exercise for today.

Dinner at the hotel bar—Scottish salmon with mixed veggies, fingerling potatoes, and arugula. It was an excellent dish. To wash it down, I tried a local brew called a Surly Furious. If there were ever a beer made to fit my personality, it’s that one. As I joked on Twitter, it even has the bitter aftertaste.

We retired to the room by 6:30 pm CST, where I have thrown this dispatch together through the fog of exhaustion that makes any grading or work on a manuscript unlikely. Perhaps tomorrow, after a few sessions but before Karen Russell’s keynote speech.

It seems to me that writers gather together like this, in spite of snafus and grumpy airport personnel and the bone-deep exhaustion that sets in before you even get your lanyard, because, in part, writing is a solitary, lonely activity that much of the world can’t wait to dismiss. From people who get up in the morning and make the effort to insult you on Twitter to the comments sections of website articles you’ve written to the odd guy who shows up at your signing with blood in his eye, the average artist in any medium must first struggle against his/her own sense of inadequacy and a lack of funding, against a government that devalues what keeps us human, against hatred and small-minded sniping and careless words. Here, at AWP and other events like it, we can come together, support each other, reach out and make contact.

Yet these places also exacerbate one’s sense of never having met one’s goals. There is a comparative element that is at times inescapable—“look how little I’ve done compared to so and so.” There is, if your specific friends don’t show up, the lack of the very community that you’ve come to seek.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be able to look back and measure the effects of this year’s conference on our self-images, our contacts, our careers, our art. Now, we’re busy living it. This was my first day.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

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Randoms: On David Foster Wallace and The Hush Puppy

We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.

I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.

I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.

Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men[1]. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.[2]

Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. [3]

When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.

I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted.  Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.

And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do[4], for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.

DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.

For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.[5]

On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.[6]

So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.

“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.

The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.

I know what it means to hurt.

But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.

I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:

“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”

Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?

This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.

What the hell am I supposed to do about that?

And now, on a different note…

I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.

For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.

It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.

Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.

Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.

I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?

Well….

The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.

At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.

Then the entrees arrived.

Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.

That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.

But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.

The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.

The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.

I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.

So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.

What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.

Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.

Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.

Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.

Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?

Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.

“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.

“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.

“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”

She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.

“You want to-go box?” she asked.

No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.

At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.

“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.

I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.

This is a manager?

And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.

But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.

Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

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[1] I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.

[2] This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 [3] These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.

[4] Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?

[5] A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.

 [6] I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.

A Garden Where the Sun Always Shines: Regarding Shauna

In his obtuse, frustrating, beautiful poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Life is very long.” That idea goes against what most of us have heard—that life is short, that we must make the most of every day, that every passing second leads us that much closer to dying. I’ve always wondered which is true. Does life stretch out and out and out, or does it flash by like a film montage where pages fly from a calendar, floating off-screen and disappearing forever, moving us toward the action that matters, the conflict that advances the story?

 In my forty-second year, I have decided that the answer is both.

Some days, even weeks, of my life creep by on their bellies like snakes that have lain too long in the sun. Time seems interminable—the in-class activity that shuffles along until it ends in a whimper, the grading session that drags on and on and on, the dinner where the waiter pops by every twenty minutes to make sure we haven’t died of thirst while he took his smoke break.

But other times are different. They don’t creep or shuffle or drag. They zip past you like the purse snatcher that steals your valuables without ever breaking stride, so that you don’t even realize what is missing until the thief has turned the corner and disappeared forever.

These moments fly.

The hell of it is that these latter times aren’t bad, at least not all of them, maybe not even most of them. Often, the moments we would love to cherish are the very ones that we cannot hold onto. They disappear in the space of a breath, leaving us gasping in their wake.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately, not because I’m forty-two, which isn’t that old. No, I’ve been pondering the passage of time because my children are growing up. One, in fact, is no longer a child in any sense of the word, and another stands on the cusp of adulthood. My youngest is thirteen. And as they grow up and perhaps have children of their own, I have been thinking, even more than usual, about what kind of father I’ve been. What kind of man I am. What kind of people they’ll be, and how much I influenced their evolution, for better or worse.

Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I have never been good at sharing my feelings. The only-sparsely-revised, not-all-that-carefully-edited nonfiction on this blog represents more confession than I’ve ever made to most of the people I’ve met in my entire life. I am trying to be honest here, because if you are going to write any kind of non-fiction, you have to be honest to the point of brutality, of rawness. The audience will recognize your bullshit. They will crucify you for it. So you try to be true, even when it hurts, even when it angers those closest to you, and you pray that the art (if there is art) in what you say will eventually salve those wounds.

So I come here again, as I usually do, to open up a part of myself that I have never been able to express, except, perhaps, in some oblique fashion through my fiction. I come to speak from the heart, directly and honestly. I come to speak about my kids.

More specifically, I want to talk about my oldest daughter, Shauna. I want to say things about all my kids, of course, but I cannot say everything, even if I wrote nothing else for the rest of my life. And I cannot speak about all of them at once, because the very facts of their being overwhelm me. Thinking about them is like standing on a ship’s deck in the middle of the ocean, nothing but expanse and majesty all the way to the horizon. I have to take them one at a time, one piece at a time, and if I do this occasionally throughout the course of my life, perhaps they will know me better than they would have otherwise. Perhaps they will not be sorry that it was their fate to spring from me and the better parts of myself.

So. One at a time, whenever I can muster the courage and, hopefully, the words. Starting here, with the first about Shauna, others to come in the future, given world enough and time.

But really, what can I say about her that would be sufficient? Saying something in an honest, hopefully new way is part and parcel of the writer’s job, but sometimes language seems insufficient in and of itself; to truly know the thing about which one writes (or reads), one must experience.

We named her Shauna, but we might have named her other things. My first reason for living. My North Star that guided me through the darkest part of my life. My friend. My daughter. String bean, lovely woman.

I would like to start here by telling you that the person she is, the woman she’s grown to be, staggers me. At twenty-four, she is a better person than I have ever been. She has always been better, right from the start. And in being nothing more than herself, she has made me better.

She is a child of divorce—of two parents who became parents too young, who got married too quickly, who bulled their way into adulthood as if some Matador were waving a red flag that attracted them when it should have signaled a warning. I lived with her for the first several years of her life, before her mother and I finally did what we should have done in the first place and got away from each other. After that, every parting was a little tragedy marked by tears and sighs and regrets. Because of the divorce’s timing, I never got to take her to school or pick her up. I seldom got to help her with her homework. I never hosted a sleepover or helped her build a school project. I did not teach her to drive. I did not get to embarrass her in front of her boyfriends. Now that she is grown, with a life and job of her own, I get to see her roughly once a year. In so many ways, our story is about pain and missed opportunities, about how the little aggravations that typical fathers and daughters experience were lost to us. When I think of all that we missed and are still missing, I can barely lift my head.

And yet. And yet . . .

For many years, until she matured enough within herself and in her social relationships to let go of her father’s hand and fly on her own, we maintained a ritual on the night before I had to take her home. As that last day progressed, she would grow quieter and quieter, and nothing I could do or say would draw her out of that silence. Eventually we would go to bed, and I would lie there, dreading morning’s arrival, until I would hear it coming from her room—tiny little sniffles, choked-back sobs, the sounds of someone in pain, of someone who wants to keep that pain to herself. Of someone who did not want to bother anybody.

I would always get up and go to her room, and there, for minutes or hours, we would talk—about why she had to live so far away, about why I couldn’t just get a job where she lived, about why she couldn’t come see me more often, about how she didn’t want to go home. Not, I always hoped, because she did not want to see her mother, but because she knew we would miss each other.

During these conversations, I would never allow myself to weep. It was her time to hurt and my job to salve it in whatever way I could. It was not about me, would never be about me. I had no right to share my tears with her because, knowing her as I did, I knew that she would push aside her own pain and try to stop mine. To weep would have been selfish and egotistical and wrong. Our children should not have to bear our burdens. They should not have to fix us.

One day, though, in the middle of our end-of-visit ritual, I said to Shauna, “I’m really, really sorry you’re so upset.”

She looked at me for a long time, her eyes filled with tears, before she said anything. Then, finally, she asked, “Do you ever get upset?”

This question poleaxed me. I had never considered that my calm-on-the-surface demeanor might have been suggesting that I was perfectly okay with her leaving. That I would go back to bed and fall right to sleep as soon as she let me off the hook for the night. That she might not realize that I lived every single day of my life in fear that I was failing her in ways both fleeting and fundamental. That she might one day wake up to the fact that, in spite of all his efforts, her father was not a good man and might never be one, and that for evidence she need look no further than how I had failed to remain an everyday presence in her life.

Of course, I could no more tell her all that than I could burst into tears and ask her to comfort me. All I could do, all I had the right to do, was pull her close and hug her as hard as I could without cracking her ribs. All I could do was kiss the top of her head and say, “Of course I get upset, every time. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you.”

I suppose that if I could say only one thing to her that would sum up her place in my life, it would be the same thing I would also say to my wife and my other two children, and yet it would be just as true for each of them. “All that matters is you.”

I don’t mean that nothing else matters, of course. I cherish my art and glow with pride every time something is published, every time someone tells me something touched them or made them laugh or think or curse my name. I want my work as a writer, a teacher, and a human being to survive me and matter to the world. I want to make the world a better place, not a worse one. I want to give my family the best life I can possibly give them, and if I can’t give them what I want, then I want to be able to say, honestly, that I tried hard to do it. These things matter more than I can say.

But these things are tied inextricably to my love for and duty toward my family. It is a Gordian knot that I have no interest in untying. In this case, being bound is the greatest kind of freedom. And before I knew Kalene, before Brendan and Maya existed, Shauna taught me that. She was my first graduate program in being a better man.

I cannot possibly tell you about everything we did and what it all meant and what it all taught me. But I can tell you some things.

 * * *

 I remember when her mother announced to me that we were likely going to be parents. It was the summer before our senior year in high school. We had broken up, as we often did, and this time, I was determined to make it stick. Even then, the relationship was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and I had finally had enough. I was out, and I was determined to stay out. I had taken back my class ring, that great high school symbol of commitment, and wore it myself for the first time since buying it. I had even gone out on a date with an ex-girlfriend with whom I still had a connection, and I felt pretty sure we were going to get back together and live a long, happy life together.

Then Shauna’s mother-to-be showed up at my house and knocked on the door to my room. I opened it, saw her standing there, scowled. I had nothing to say to her and felt no interest in hearing what she had to say.

“I’m late,” she said.

“Here,” I said, giving her my class ring back.

We were married a few weeks later, and we spent every day together until the moment when I left, heartsick and wrecked and wondering if I were doing the right thing.

I don’t regret marrying her. We were miserable and at each other’s throats day and night and poor and stupid, but at times, we were also happy and in love and rich in ways that most of our classmates would take years to discover. Mainly, I don’t regret it because it gave me years with Shauna that I would not have had otherwise—feeding her, changing her diapers, watching the same videos a million times until the VHS tapes broke. It was all as glorious as a sunrise over the sea.

 * * *

I remember the trip home from a high school football game—Malvern? Pine Bluff?—where we had gone to watch my former teammates play. I had loved the games and hated the practices, so it was no great loss for me or the team when I had to go to work and miss playing in my senior year. Still, whenever we were both off on Friday, Christie and I would go to the games, where I would cheer on my friends and part of me would wonder what might have been.

I was driving through the dark, the road unspooling in front of me, Christie in the passenger seat and asleep for all I knew. I was thinking about what I might have done on that long pass that just missed the receiver’s outstretched hands; in my head, I would have caught it, though in my heart, I knew I probably would not have been fast enough either. I was watching the road and daydreaming and listening to some hard-rock song on our car stereo when Christie reached over, turned down the volume, and said, “I just felt the baby kick.”

Something turned over in the deep pit of me. Some creature that had been sleeping in the darkness and dreaming in its own primordial way. It woke up and whimpered and crawled away from the crack of light that had suddenly appeared.

Never taking my eyes from the road, I reached my right hand over and Christie took it, placed it low on her stomach, pressed it harder than I would have advised. The car had grown silent; it seemed that even the regular thrum of the tires, the whistle of the wind as it blew past us, faded, until all that I could hear was my own heartbeat.

Then I felt it—a tiny, almost imperceptible tap against my palm. Like placing your hand on a taut tent wall and feeling someone brush against the other side. Just a millisecond, just once, but undeniable, and very, very real.

And light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t until that creature in the deep pit of me screamed and vanished that I realized it was my own ignorance, my own sense that, even though we had gotten married and had begun compiling cribs and plastic bottles and onesies, we could not possibly be parents. I had known Shauna was real, but I had not believed it on some vital level until I felt that tap, the touch of a person who was not yet a person but who one day might be anybody.

Five miles or so down the road, I felt my face hurt and realized that I had been smiling for a long time. And for perhaps the first time in my young life, I was truly happy. Terrified and incompetent and ignorant, yes, but happy.

 * * *

I remember her birth, the moment she was pushed out into the world, screaming and purple and covered in goo.

“Why is she purple?” I asked, alarmed.

 “She’s cold,” said the doctor. “Where she’s been, it’s nearly 99 degrees.”

“Want to see me weigh her?” asked a nurse. I walked over to the scale with her. She eased Shauna onto it and waited for the readout. The numbers appeared; the nurse looked at me. “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”

“How the hell should I know? It’s your scale.”

By this time, the doctor was pulling out the afterbirth while Christie grimaced and grunted. When he got it out, it looked like something you might see on the side of the road in the deep South, a creature that dozens of tires had squished beyond all recognition. I mentioned that I had once seen something like it on Nightmare on Elm Street. Nobody laughed.

A few minutes later, still clad in the disposable gown they had pinned on me, I walked into the waiting room and presented Shauna to her grandparents. She was wrapped in a blanket and looking about curiously, acclimating herself to her new world. Everyone ooohed and aaaaahed and grinned and slapped me on the back and passed her around like they were playing Hot Potato.

Later that night, as Christie slept in her hospital bed and Shauna dozed in her bassinet beside me, I took in the silence, the sheer peacefulness of that room compared to the chaos of the birth, and wondered, not for the first time, if I were remotely qualified to be in charge of this little person who would look to me for everything.

 * * *

I remember one night, a few months later when I had been at home alone with Shauna. It was time to pick up Christie from work, so I loaded Shauna into the carrier-thing that also doubled as a car seat. I strapped it down and got in the car and backed out of the driveway. About halfway to Andy’s Restaurant, where Christie was working at the time, I held the steering wheel with my left hand and stretched my right hand into the back seat. I touched Shauna’s tiny little bird hand and she jerked it away.

“Huh,” I said. Against all reason, it hurt my feelings. I wondered if it meant something, knowing in my head that it was probably a reflex or evidence that she had not yet learned to control her body, any of which would have been perfectly natural. But in my heart, a voice whispered, She knows about you. She knows you are not a good person. She wants nothing to do with you, which just proves how smart she is.

All of this happened in perhaps two seconds. And then, before I could pull my hand back and grasp the steering wheel and start feeling really sorry for myself, that tiny bird hand settled on mine and wrapped itself around my index finger. And in that moment, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew two sizes.

I drove all the way to Andy’s like that, my right arm cranked painfully backward and twisted and stretched. I smiled through the pain and the numbness and kept on driving, and Shauna did not let go.

 * * *

I remember watching the same videos hundreds of times, everything from Disney classics to Scruffy to stop-motion California Raisin shows. I had them all memorized. So did Shauna. She never just sat in front of the television for hours at a time, and we never used the television as a de facto babysitter. But when she wanted to watch, she would sit there attentively while those same dogs did and said the same things they had always done and said. It never seemed to get old.

I can no longer quote those movies and shows verbatim. I don’t even really remember the plot. But just hearing the word “scruffy” sends my mind down those same roads, and I wind up back in that mobile home, sitting on that couch and watching Shauna watch TV. In times like those, that trailer was a sanctuary, a garden where the sun always shined and things grew in rich black soil.

 * * *

But like most places, there was nothing intrinsically good or bad about our first home. Its nature depended on the people in it and what they did for, or to, each other. I also remember the fights, the screaming matches that often devolved into physical confrontations.

Just as when Christie and I were dating, our marriage was a study in extremes. We were giddy and joyous and thrilled at life’s possibilities. We were hateful and violent and heartsick. I loved her desperately and wanted her to love me back, but she never did, at least not like I loved her. At times, she seemed to value me; at times, she would speak and act with nothing but contempt, as if I were a bug that she wouldn’t bother scraping off her shoe. I never knew which Christie I was going to get, and I didn’t understand the one that seemed to hate me, and so, once I learned to lash out, I let that part of me take over when I felt hurt or threatened or useless or stupid, which was most of the time.

When our arguments became physical, they threatened to rip that trailer in half. We were like a storm that blew in out of a cloudless sky, tearing sturdy buildings off their foundations and scattering trash for miles around.

Every time this happened with Shauna in the house, she would do something unexpected while we were raging about her. She might fold the basket full of clean laundry that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. She might pick up the clutter in her room. She might grab a rag and dust. Whenever I would see her trying to impose order on the chaos surrounding her, my heart would break, and I would try to stop the argument, shut down the swirling negative emotions filling the house like acrid smoke. Sometimes it even worked. But it never fixed the underlying problems.

One day, in the middle of a huge fight in our kitchen/dining area, I happened to look down. Shauna was hiding under the table, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She was crying and rocking back and forth. And in that moment, something broke inside me. What spilled from that break were pain and guilt and the sudden, dawning realization that my marriage would never last. I knew that Christie and I were too different, in our goals and our worldviews and our values. I knew that as long as we lived together, the fights would never stop, and that every single day would bring about the possibility that Shauna would wind up under that table, sobbing and wishing that her Mom and Dad would just love each other.

I stayed a couple more months and tried to fix things, but eventually, I did what I had always known I would have to do. I packed my things and moved out. I initiated divorce proceedings that would drag on for several months as we all wept and wailed and fought and tried to patch it all back together and eventually moved on.

It was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving that trailer and the woman I still loved and the daughter I adored. I was afraid and depressed and so very, very angry, none of which would change over the next two years of my life. I was entering the darkest period I have ever been through, but I had to do it. I could no longer abide the sight of that sweet girl hiding under a table, the knowledge that I bore half the responsibility for putting her there. I was changing things in the only way left to me. But every night, for months and months and months, my heart would break all over again, and I hated the world for letting things come to this. I hated it, but even more, I hated myself.

What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

 * * *

I remember when Christie’s mother informed me that Christie was getting remarried and moving to Pine Bluff. Until that time, I had seen Shauna whenever I wanted, which meant any time that I was not in class or at work or trying desperately to get some sleep. Now, the original custody agreement would be enforced—visitation every other weekend and alternate holidays.

The prospect of not seeing my daughter daily finished shattering what was left of my heart. In fact, it nearly killed me.

I got this news with only a couple days’ notice. I was supposed to work that night. I had an American Novel test the next day. I knew that I would not keep either commitment. Not when my world had just been turned upside down again.

I picked up Shauna and brought her to my parents’ house. I found her something to do. Then I went back to my parents’ room, closed the door, and grabbed their phone. I called my workplace and got an assistant manager.

“This is Brett. I’m supposed to work tonight, but I….I…” And then I burst into tears.

I couldn’t stop. The pain and confusion poured out of me in deep, throaty sobs. The manager listened quietly, and when I finally calmed down a bit, he said, “What is it?”

“It’s my daughter,” I whimpered. “She’s moving away, and I…”

“Don’t worry about coming in,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Take care of her. Let us know when you can come back.”

This small act of generosity—of taking me at my word, of putting my obvious breakdown ahead of whatever inconvenience the store might feel at my absence—nearly sent me into hysterics again. But I managed to swallow it. I thanked him and hung up.

Now for the test. I tried to look up my professor’s phone number, but it wasn’t listed. So I checked the number of another professor, one I had taken classes with several times. She was friends with the American Novel professor. I was in good standing with both of them; I was honored to know that they considered me one of their best students. I was hoping that Professor #2 would give me Professor #1’s number.

I dialed Professor #2 and waited as it rang. I took deep, slow breaths, determined to calm myself this time, to handle things better. I didn’t want to look like a fool, and I wanted to make the best case possible for myself.

“Hello?” said Professor #2.

“Hi,” I said. “It’s Brett Riley. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I….”

That was as far as I made it before it all ripped out of me again. I burst into sobs that were just as deep, just as uncontrollable, just as wrenching as those that came before. It took me at least a couple of minutes to calm down.

“What’s wrong?” said Professor #2, and I was grateful for the concern that I could hear in her voice.

“It’s my daughter,” I said. “My ex-wife is moving away, and I’ve only got two days, but see, I’ve got this test in Professor #1’s class….”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Professor #2. “I’ll talk to Professor #1. She’ll let you make up the test.”

I thanked her about a hundred times and hung up, feeling a bit better because at least I could spend those two days with Shauna without worrying about all the other things in my life. Not until I became a teacher myself did I really understand what Professor #s 1 and 2 did for me. It wasn’t just being generous enough to give a make-up exam to a student with a real-life problem. It was how they worked together. Professor #2 had made a promise about how Professor #1 would handle a situation in class. Professor #1 lived up to that promise, even though she hadn’t made it herself and would have had every right to be angry with me and Professor #2. I have worked with several professors—little martinets who run their fiefdoms with iron fists, regardless of circumstance—who would not have been so generous. Who might have failed me for seeking aid from a colleague. Who would have resented the colleague for speaking out of turn. But somehow, Professor #2 had conveyed the depth and sincerity of my sorrow. Professor #1 honored both me and her friend. To both of them, I have ever been grateful.

When I came out of that bedroom, I had dried my eyes and blown my nose. I would not cry in front of Shauna until she was in her 20s. But when she asked me if I ever got upset when she had to leave, I thought back to those first departings, the ones that knocked my world off its axis and left me a blubbering mess in front of my co-workers and my teachers, and I think, “Yes. From the very beginning of all this. But that was not your cross to bear. It was always mine, and mine alone.”

 * * *

I remember leaving work once a week and driving an hour and a half to Pine Bluff. I would pick Shauna up from her new apartment and take her somewhere—a restaurant, a movie, a mall, some combination—just to get some extra time. I would have to drive back home, crash for a few hours, and get up early the next day for work or school.

One mid-week visit found us at the mall’s arcade, playing all those carnival games that spit out tickets based on your score. We managed to cobble together enough tickets to purchase the kinds of crummy prizes those places stock, garbled and hastily-constructed bits of plastic and rubber that would either survive a tactical nuclear strike or break within two days.

After she picked out the prizes she wanted, we had a few tickets left over, just enough to get a plastic Sheriff’s badge, gold-ish and hard as a rock, a clip-on job. You could barely read the writing on the front. It was the very definition of a throwaway toy. It was not, strictly speaking, a toy at all. It was tacky decoration, the kind of thing only a little kid would be drawn to.

I remember wondering why Shauna wanted it, what appeal it possibly could have held. She took it and clipped it to her shirt, where it hung like a dead man from a tree, weighty and shifting with every movement, threatening to drag the neck of her shirt halfway down her torso.

Nothing about her outfit or bearing connoted “Sheriff.” She was not dressed in western garb. She was obviously not wearing a county sheriff’s uniform. She might as well have been wearing a football helmet or a pair of boxing gloves.

There was something about the incongruity of the badge—her wanting it, her wearing it unselfconsciously—that struck me as such a little kid thing to do that I found myself misty-eyed, a lump in my throat. It was the sweetest thing I had seen in months.

I still think about that day, that badge, her wearing it while holding the rest of the loot we had won. It still chokes me up. Meaningless to anyone else, probably forgotten by her. Yet it has stayed with me in ways that other, seemingly more memorable events have not.

From little moments like this, we piece together our lives. 

I remember how once, when I was taking her home from a weekend visit, Shauna asked me to stay the night. “You can stay at our house,” she said. “I bet Mom won’t mind.”

“Yes, she would,” I said. “She would definitely mind.”

I left that night after another bout of tears. Our visits during those years were always punctuated by Shauna’s tears and my sleeplessness, my nightmares. I don’t care what Shakespeare said. When it comes to your kids, there’s nothing sweet about the sorrow of parting. Nothing sweet at all.

 * * *

I remember moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin my doctoral program. I had to do it. I am a writer, but I am also an educator, and you cannot work in the college/university system without a terminal degree, not if you value decent pay and the possibility of job security and benefits. I had to go, for myself and for my family. And so the every-other-weekend-and-alternate-holiday visits became six-weeks-in-the-summer-and-alternate-holidays-and-sometimes-spring-break visits. Even less time than before.

Thus, the end-of-visit anguish intensified, for both of us. We had great times during the visit. It always seemed like we had never been apart. We still knew each other as well as ever; we still loved each other just as fiercely.

But the time. Always the time, and never enough of it.

The night before her leaving was always like a little funeral, not for us or our relationship but for every missed day, missed conversation, missed opportunity to share our lives.

We have survived so many little deaths.

 * * *

I remember living in Baton Rouge and hearing her ask tearfully if we could at least arrange it so that we could see each other more.

“Six weeks just isn’t very long,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “As soon as I can save up the money for the court costs and get things settled enough to impress a judge. We can absolutely do that.”

“Okay,” she said.

It never happened. By the time I saved that money and settled my life, everything had changed. Now she had friends, boys, a social life, activities—the things that every healthy, well-adjusted kid has, the things that no decent person can begrudge them.

“Six weeks is an awfully long time,” she said when she told me that she wanted to cut those six weeks down to two. The two would eventually become none, and then she was grown, and working, and dating seriously.

Time flies, and all your good intentions fly with it. When it all goes, you are left with empty rooms, the silence that always descends in the wake of loss. People call it Empty Nest Syndrome, and it is no less painful when that nest has only been occupied part-time. It is natural and good; it is progression, evolution, maturation. It is the very essence of the word “bittersweet.”

What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

 * * *

I remember Shauna’s high-school graduation. I watched her walk across that stage and take her diploma, and I felt as proud as any parent ever does. I felt relief, because she had not only survived all the mines that her mother and I had dug for her; she had thrived. She was moving on to an adult life full of possibility. She could be or do anything. And whatever she might do, I no longer had a say in it. More bitterness, more sweetness—that moment when your child moves past you into a world truly their own. Visitation dependent not only on desire and convenience but also work schedules and vacations.

Graduation is beautiful and agonizing and scary and part of the natural order. It is like the moment when the baby birds finally jump out of the nest, exhilarated and flapping their wings as hard as they can, hoping to catch the right updraft before they splatter on the ground. Meanwhile, the older birds sit in that nest, suddenly alone, time stretching before them all the way to the horizon. They want to scoop up those children and usher them safely back to the fold, knowing all the time that they cannot, must not. That they would not be allowed.

 * * *

I remember Shauna’s surprise visit on my birthday. I had not seen her in a year. I walked into Kalene’s office one Friday afternoon, tired and grumpy and ready to go home. Shauna was sitting in a chair, smiling.

I was thunderstruck. I said the only thing I could think of: “Holy shit!”

It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I remember once, when she was a little girl, she drew a picture for me and presented it to me on my birthday. I can’t even remember what it was. All I know is that it was hand-drawn and colored and said, “To Daddy.”

“It’s all I have to give,” she said.

“It’s all I want,” I replied, hugging her. “I can’t imagine getting anything better.”

What do you do for someone who has so often given you all she has to give? When you have so often failed to give her what she asked for, what she needed? How do you sleep at night? What do you dream about? What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?

I suppose that the only answer is that you try again. That, even when you can barely stand to look at your own reflection, you stand up and walk. You write her on Facebook. You text her. You invite her to your new home and let her know that she always has a place there, that she never has to ask. You remind her that if she needs something and it is within your power to give it, you will, for this is your duty and your privilege.

And when you screw it all up, you pray that she has one more ounce of forgiveness in her heart.

Do I ever get upset? Oh, yes. God, yes.

But I don’t dwell on those things. I dwell on the blessings I’ve been given—to know her, to be whatever kind of father I’ve been, to spend time with her, to influence her in ways that are, hopefully, more positive than negative. I look at the woman she’s become and hope that her goodness is partially because of me, not just in spite of me. I thank God for her presence in my life—a presence that saved me in very tangible ways.

And then I move onto the next task that will take me through the next minute, and the next hour, and the next day, until she gets off the plane and everything is like it should be again, for just a little while.

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com

 

 

Returning with …

Returning with Some Random Thoughts

So I guess I should start out with an apology for not updating this blog over the last three or four months. Last semester got really crazy and pretty much stayed that way, and then the Christmas holiday travel and gift-shopping schedule took over, and then I had to prepare for this semester. In short, I’ve been swamped. I got very little done on my ongoing projects, including this blog. But I’m trying to start off this semester on a better note. I’ve been working on my young adult novel and have finished first drafts of two other projects. I continue to submit finished works to various places. And I’ve got a comic-book project percolating at the moment. As for this blog, I will do my best to update regularly, though when the grading crunch arrives, I’ll probably have to take some time off. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day.

As a way of reconnecting to all my faithful readers (all three of you), I thought I’d return to this blog with some random thoughts on things that have happened since the last update.

The Political Circus

In no particular order:

1)      I support the Occupy movement. It’s good to see Americans returning to their roots as protestors, dissenters, and activists. Naturally, the mainstream media’s dismissal of the now-worldwide movement was both expected and disheartening, but it’s done very little to stem the tide of the movement. Keep on occupying, folks. When they try to dismiss you as if you don’t matter, you know you’ve at least gotten their attention.

 2)      I have stated before that many Republicans seem to have gone functionally insane in the post-9/11 world, but this latest round of–*ahem*–“candidates” should make any thinking Republican shudder with fear and contempt. As they all scramble to take ever more reactionary positions in order to appease the fringe nutjobs, they get more and more laughable yet dangerous. Is the moderate Republican (and no, I don’t count Romney in that bunch after some of the things he’s said) really extinct? I hope not.

 3)      Barack Obama should have this election sewn up since the right can’t find anybody even remotely appealing to run against him. I’ve got mixed feelings. As an Independent, I have no particular loyalties to the Democrats, though the ever-more-radically-conservative Republicans present no candidates I could stomach voting for. That pretty much leaves the Democrats, since this country has no viable party beyond those two. It’s a damn shame, because we should be able to choose the best candidate, not the less-crappy one. As for Obama himself, I like a lot of what he’s done—ending the Iraq war and DADT, passing some semblance of health care reform, and so forth. But I’m troubled by other things he’s done or failed to do. He hasn’t addressed true financial reform; you can’t do that and still leave the same guys that got us into this mess in charge. I didn’t like the compromises in the health care bill, especially the lack of a public option. Some sources claim we’re the only first-world country without universal health care. If that’s even remotely possible, we’re not whom we claim to be as a people. And we still need to address LGBT and women’s rights, especially given how they’ve come under fire from the Republican candidates. Those are just a few of the actions and positions that please or disturb me, but I hope they demonstrate my concerns with the country’s directions. We’re much more on track now than we were under that jackass Bush, but we’ve still got a long way to go, and too many people still want to live in 1830, not 2012. I hope the President and his party gets off the fence and start addressing more of those issues.

Mixed Martial Arts

1)      I truly think that Shogun Rua vs. Dan Henderson was the best fight I’ve ever seen, but the end result was wrong. The fight should have been scored a draw, and I can’t believe that not even one judge saw it that way. Under the current scoring system, the winner of a round gets ten points, the loser nine or less. Judges are supposed to score rounds 10-8 or below only when one fighter truly dominates the round. Under that system, I would have given the first three rounds to Dan Henderson, all of them 10-9. Henderson’s camp has argued that you could have scored the round a 10-8 because Henderson dominated Shogun and almost finished him, but that only occurred over approximately one minute of a five-minute round. Later in the round, Shogun came back to stagger Henderson with several hard punches. That’s hardly a dominant round; it’s a dominant minute. But, demonstrating the kind of heart that both fighters have and that made the fight so special, Shogun came back and completely dominated Henderson throughout the fifth round. He stayed on top, much of the time in full mount, and bashed Henderson throughout the round. Henderson did nothing offensive and very little that could be called defense, other than rolling from side to side and covering up. If that wasn’t a 10-8 round at least, I don’t know what is. Thus, since the bout went to a decision, the final score should have been 47-47. This is especially true because, earlier in the night, these same judges gave Stephan Bonnar a couple of 10-8 rounds, even though he maintained less dominant positions (fighting in half-guard, for instance) for lesser periods of time. Inconsistent judging caused Shogun to take a loss, when both guys deserved equal status.

 2)      I’m glad Brock Lesnar is healthy again, but I’m not shedding any tears if he’s really retiring. I’ve never cared for the guy on a personal level, and it isn’t as if he needs the money. Go have a great life, Brock, and let the martial artists get that money now.

 3)      Jon Jones is hard to figure out, and I don’t mean his fighting style. One minute he seems like the most humble, respectful guy you’ll ever meet. The next, he has to be told to check on a downed opponent after a win. Weird.

 4)      So both Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida have knocked people out using what is essentially a Karate Kid-style crane kick, and now Edson Barboza has knocked out Terry Etim using a spinning-heel kick. I can’t believe either move worked in real life, but I watched it happen. What’s next? Shooting-star presses? Asai moonsaults? Crazy stuff, man.

The BCS Championship Game

The LSU Tigers had what may well be the greatest regular season ever. You’ve all heard the numbers—wins over eight ranked teams, a division title, a conference title, wins over two or three top-three teams, wins over two BCS-bowl-bound AQ conference champions. Certainly no team has accomplished so much in my lifetime, and only that one Notre Dame team from seventy or eighty years ago has come close. I’d say it’s much harder to accomplish today, too, given the methods of preparation and the state of today’s athletes.

But the team that played in the regular season was not the team that showed up in New Orleans. They looked flat, lifeless, uninterested—especially on offense. The regular season showed that they were the best team in the nation, but on that night, I’m not sure they would have beaten anybody. As an LSU graduate, I’m very proud of them for the year as a whole, though that final game leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In theirs too, I’m sure.

Most of LSU’s problems over the last four years can be traced back to two things—poor quarterback play, and Les Miles’ refusal to take Jordan Jefferson out of the game. I don’t like to pick on college players; they’re all very young. They are amateurs. They have their whole lives in front of them, and I don’t want to throw them under the bus. But four years of Jefferson’s lack of pocket presence, middling accuracy, and panic-mode bone-headed mistakes have tried my patience. I truly believe that LSU would have been near-unstoppable over the last four years if we had had a strong quarterback. What else have they lacked? The offensive line was porous for only one year. The running backs and receivers have all been awesome. The defense has been great. But at the most important position on the field, we’ve been lacking.

I don’t know what Jefferson has on Miles, but it must have been really damning. I can’t think of any other reason Miles would have stuck with Jefferson against all logic, common sense, and evidence. It took Jefferson’s arrest to get him out of the lineup, and even then, Miles seized on the first opportunity to yank Jarrett Lee out of the game—when he had two interceptions in a row against Alabama. Lee seldom saw the field after that, in spite of his excellent play in the first two-thirds of the season. And when did LSU’s offense start struggling? When did they suddenly find themselves trailing in games, needing the special teams to give them the spark they needed to come back? It all happened after Jefferson took over.

All of this was never more evident than in the title game. Jefferson was the only player on the field who looked terrified, overwhelmed not by Alabama (whom he has faced multiple times and beaten before) but by the stage he was playing on. He made bad decision after bad decision, looking completely lost. And yet Miles never pulled him. When asked why, Miles claimed that he thought about going with Lee, but that given the pass rush, he needed a quarterback that could run.

Yet Jefferson was not running effectively. More often than not, he folded like a cheap card table. At some point—trailing, in the last half of the last game, the national championship on the line, the crowd chanting for Lee—why not try something?

I still don’t get it. But at least now LSU goes into next season with new people at quarterback. We don’t know if they’ll be better yet, but we know they can’t be much worse. And on behalf of Tiger Nation, I’d like to wish Jarrett Lee a great life. You deserved better than you got.

Aftermath of the BCS Title Game

I’ve been really dismayed by the responses to the game I’ve seen, both from the national media and from people I know personally.

The AP ruined its credibility in my eyes when they failed to vote for a split championship. If ever a year screamed out for co-champions, this was it. Look, the Alabama Crimson Tide are my second-favorite college football team. I have worked at the University for six years. I don’t begrudge them their national title; they were certainly the better team on championship night.

But they weren’t the best team this season. Not even close. Like I said above, no one had a season like LSU’s—not this season, perhaps not ever. They won their division; Alabama didn’t. They, not Alabama, won the SEC. The Tide did not beat every SEC team they played, or Oregon, or West Virginia, and so forth. Going into the title game, everybody in the nation agreed that LSU should be there. The controversy revolved around Alabama, given that they didn’t win any championships to get there and lost to LSU during the regular season.

The voters have split the national championship several times before, for much worse reasons. LSU certainly did a hell of a lot more this year than USC did when they got to split the championship with LSU.

No, the refusal to split had nothing to do with credentials, or fairness, or a holistic view of the season. It was borne out of a backlash against the SEC.

In the wake of the all-SEC title game rematch, the BCS is considering changes to negate any such possibility in the future. Before the rematch was announced, fans and sportswriters from all over the country lamented the possibility and voiced their displeasure with the SEC’s dominance, as if the conference’s strength was somehow a bad thing for which it should apologize. Tons of people threatened to boycott the game, even though the only non-SEC team with any claim on the title game was Oklahoma State. I publicly claimed that Oklahoma State had an excellent argument for being in the title game; they had a better regular season than Alabama, even though I still felt that Alabama would beat them if they ever played. Eventually, Alabama got its rematch, leaving the rest of the country out of the sixth straight SEC national championship. And the whining, kvetching, and tantrums commenced.

None of that was LSU’s fault. It wasn’t Alabama’s fault. But LSU—the only team to truly dominate on a national scale—was the only team to pay the price. I truly believe that the AP was terrified of the backlash against their own writers and voting system if they let not one but TWO SEC teams take home a national title. So they acted like chickens and voted for the team that won, even though all logic, evidence, and precedent screamed for a split title. Shame on you, AP writers. As far as I’m concerned, you undermined your own integrity.

Some of my Alabama friends and acquaintances have also been a bit overenthusiastic about how things turned out, to say the least. When LSU beat Bama in the regular season, theoretically ending their national title hopes, I could have rubbed it in. I could have acted immaturely. But I knew that the game and the team were really important to my colleagues and students, so all I did was congratulate the Tide on a good game and a great season.

Unfortunately, in many cases, that courtesy was not returned. As soon as the game was over, I saw several Facebook posts whose contents might be summarized thusly: “Nan-neh nan-neh boo boo, my team won and your team sucks! Ha ha-ha-ha-ha!” The LSU jokes flew fast and furiously. In other words, even though many people knew that my team and that game were important to me, they did not congratulate my team on a great season. They took the opportunity to poop on something that I cared about. And these are highly-educated, really nice people that I like very much.

I even had one fifty-to-sixty-something acquaintance who got on Twitter and taunted Tyrann Mathieu. He’s like nineteen years old and can thus be excused for a certain amount of immaturity. I wonder what my acquaintance’s excuse was.

Then there’s the contradictions in attitudes that drive me crazy. Bring up the idea of a split title with some Alabama fans, and they’ll shake their heads firmly and say, “No way.” Uh-huh. Right. But I guarantee you that if the situations were reversed—if Bama had had the kind of season that LSU did, and beat LSU on Nov. 5th, and won the division and then the conference, but lost the title game—this entire state would be screaming bloody murder for a split title. (Well, probably not in Auburn, but you get my meaning.)

The advent of social media has taught me that there’s something about sports that make people act irrationally, even with mean spirits. You don’t have to like LSU’s football team to respect me and have some courtesy for my feelings. Why are your loyalty to your team and your investment in them more important or legitimate than mine?

I saw a lot of this earlier in the season from some of my Arkansas acquaintances. I grew up in Arkansas, so, according to some people, I’m legally and morally required to root for the Razorbacks. I reject that notion. I’ve got actual ties to LSU and Bama; I’m going to root for them over a team that happens to be located in a state I used to live in. But according to some folks, I’m not allowed to choose my own teams.

Moreover, there’s been a real double standard about who can say what. My Arkansas friends can apparently make all the LSU jokes they want, even when such “jokes” attack the character of the young men on the team or the intelligence of the schools’ personnel. I find nothing funny about those kinds of jokes. They’re just mean and have nothing to do with football. But these folks claim that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. If I say anything back, though, all bets are off. I made some football-related Arkansas jokes and got lambasted for being unfaithful to my home state (whatever that means) and for taking college football too seriously. I should also point out that when my team beat theirs, I didn’t rub it in. You can bet I wouldn’t have gotten the same consideration. I know, because I didn’t last year.

See how that works? When they do something, it’s fine, all in good fun, light-hearted. When I do the same thing, it’s overly sensitive, disloyal, grumpy. I didn’t think you could have it both ways.

Here’s grumpy: “Oooh, I see what you did there. I’m shocked the Nobel committee doesn’t know about you—your depth of thought, your awesome creativity, your sheer originality! You actually managed to rhyme the word ‘who’ with the letter ‘U!’ Wow! I bow to your awesome intellectual and comedic prowess!”

I didn’t say that. I have tried to be light-hearted and generous and kind in both victory and defeat. I’m not perfect, but I’ve sure tried. I wish everybody I knew would do the same.

Basically, social media is ruining sports for me, not because people root for different teams but because so many are hateful or hypocritical about it. We’re all mean and distant from each other for so many reasons already; do we really want to let sports divide us even further?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Kalene and I went to see it on our ten-year anniversary (yes, I know it’s hardly a romantic choice). We both liked it a little better than the original. Excellent film, but for God’s sake, don’t take the kids. Hoo boy.

More soon, I hope. And more focus next time.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com