Then There Were Five

We added a new dog, a four-month-old Boston Terrier, to our family this past weekend. Her name is Luna, and she’s tiny and cute and all of the things you’d expect from a sweet little puppy. She gets along with our nine-year-old Boston, Pearl, who has only had to put her in her place a few times since she arrived. I think it’s clear who’s boss in that hierarchy of two.

I’ve always had dogs in my life except for two brief stints – when I was in college and when I lived in China. They’re as much a part of my life as any human relationship. From Sam, who occupies the furthest reaches of my memories from my childhood, to Pearl and Luna today, I could chronicle my life based on the dog or dogs I had at the time. Growing up, my dogs were mostly mutts my Dad acquired from a guy with whom he worked. They were outside dogs, all of them, and they came and went with the perils of being outdoor dogs living along a rural, two-lane road. If the speeding cars didn’t get them, something else did, but I never lost my love for dogs in spite of the heart-wrenching losses.

My kids have only ever known Pearl as their dog because she’s been with our family for seven years, and they were young when we she arrived. Since our dogs are indoor dogs, they are less prone to the inexplicable disappearances or tragic endings that often beset my dogs when I was a kid. Pearl has taught my kids kindness and responsibility, something that I also learned from my dogs as a child. Most importantly, she’s given them a sense of joy that only dogs can deliver. When they had a rough day, Pearl was there to lick them and snuggle with them and make it all better. When they needed someone to talk to or to dress up for an impromptu tea party, Pearl was there. It’s hard not to smile when you look into that face with the big ears and bulging eyes atop the short nose and drooping jowls. Her solemn and serious look belies an innate sweetness that defines her.

She has grown with our family, and as the years have slipped by, she has been aging gracefully. Despite being in her tenth year, she still gets excited when we go on a car ride. The gray on her muzzle and the occasional missed jump are the only indications of the passing of time. She’s gone from being the patient puppy (yes, there is such a thing and Pearl exudes it) to the grand dame of our family, a dog so spoiled and well-loved that her life has to be the envy of dogs everywhere.

It is in those few moments that I recognize her age that I lament the fact that dogs don’t live longer. Even removed from the dangers of living outdoors, dogs have such limited time. While it could be a tragedy, it’s also a gift. Making the most of that limited time is the essence of any life, dogs or otherwise, and we’ll certainly make the most of it. Luna, the fifth member of our family, reminds us of Pearl’s younger years, and she promises to bring many more happy moments to our family. We’ll enjoy every moment.

Perspective

At some point when we reach our late 20s, our perspectives harden like freshly-poured concrete forming a sidewalk or a driveway. From there it’s unlikely that our perspective will change much despite evidence that suggests it should. As we get older, confirmation bias stretches its dark tentacles deeper into our brains and squeezes harder making it even more difficult to shift our perspectives. Everything that supports our view of life is acknowledged; everything else is ignored. I imagine there’s an evolutionary reason for this. We keep doing what has kept us alive thus far, and if we’ve made it this far, then we must be doing something right. Right?

As a writer I spend a lot of time observing what’s happening around me, how people are reacting or not reacting to the world around them. I play a game of “What if?” quite often as I’m always thinking about story ideas. I’m inherently a skeptical person, so when I’m presented with rigid dogma or thoughtless conventional “wisdom,” I habitually ask myself “What if the opposite were true?” The most interesting stories often lie at the intersection of two different perspectives, or as I like to muse, two different realities.

When I reached my 40s, I realized something had subtly happened to me over the prior decade, something that had not really dawned on me until it was too late. I had lost touch with the rest of the world in a way I couldn’t explain much like flotsam on the beach gets buffeted by the waves until it is dragged out into the middle of the vast ocean far from any land. Age does that to you. The world belongs to the young, a collective consciousness that surges into the mainstream and spits you out the other side like a remnant of a bygone era. What was once a fresh and engaging perspective becomes tired and worn.

Writing allows me to assume different perspectives, to step into another’s skin and try it on for size. It also forces me to consider what it’s like for someone else in a very real way, not in some superficial attempt at empathy. To make the story authentic, I have to be deeply thoughtful of perspective. How would it feel to be this character? How would this character react to this situation. The opportunity to do this is rewarding in its own right, liberating even. I feel subtle shifts in my own perspective because assuming another’s is so taxing that I cannot help but be affected. Is it possible to break free of our own constraints?

Years ago I moved my family to China for my job. Before I interviewed for the job, I had never been to mainland China. My vision of the nation was exactly what you’d expect from an American, exactly what is displayed on the myopic television news. I imagined staunch Communists parading in the streets in abysmal outfits drooling the party line, but the reality was anything but that. Instead, I found an engaging culture with a rich history bursting at the seams. Sure, there’s the creepy big brother government lurking in the background, but that wasn’t the only thing that defined the nation. My perspective shifted. Being there and putting myself in the shoes of Chinese citizens changed my perspective. The same thing happens when I write.

It is possible to change my perspective in spite of the gravity of confirmation bias. I’ve come to the conclusion that only a fool would go through life and not change his perspective based on new evidence, even if it were anathema to him at another point in time. The world belongs to the young, but even a middle-aged writer can test the waters of something new. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Concept: The Castle on the Hill

The first time her husband, Alfred, punched her, Anna Modena stayed on the floor for a while, not because he followed up the punch with a swift kick to her rib cage but because she couldn’t believe what had happened. She’d been punched and kicked before. Her father had done it plenty when she was growing up, but she had never expected her father’s ghost to come alive in the man she had married. She had escaped one horror to land in an atrocity. She couldn’t win.

After her wedding night, she learned to adjust like she had adjusted with her mercurial father. She was just 17 years old then, but she felt much older when it came to rules of the world around her. She knew that she couldn’t talk back to a man, that she should do what she was told the first time, and that she should always be on guard for a punch. These rules helped her stay on her feet and kept her alive, but it was her imagination that kept her sane.

She didn’t care much for anything except for her daughters. Those four girls provided the only welcoming light in the dim, double-wide trailer they rented at the end of Victoria Lane in Norwich, Alabama, a small town wedged against the northern edge of Interstate 20 just west of the state line between Alabama and Georgia. Megan was the oldest at 13 and reminded her of herself when she was young except that she had stayed in school and planned to go to college to be a doctor. Brittany, a child whose conception still brought Anna nightmares, was 12, just ten months younger than her older sister. Christina and Emma likewise were close in age only separated by 18 months at 10 and 8, but Emma’s difficult birth had put an end to Anna’s child-bearing days at the ripe old age of 23. She didn’t know what else she was good for and neither did Alfred.

The afternoon sun pushed through the heavy curtains in her living room exposing the dusty air that surrounded her as she sat in the old chair that formed one end of the semi-circle in front of the TV. The vinyl-covered cushion sighed under her weight as she shifted to get more comfortable. A man and woman argued on the talk show that played quietly before her, but she mostly ignored it. The girls would be home soon. That brief interlude between the girls arriving home from school and her departure for her job was her favorite part of the day. With Alfred at his day job, she’d have the girls to herself as she did every day during the school year.

A large vehicle grunted outside, but it didn’t slow down in front of her driveway, so she knew the bus had yet to arrive. Disappointment washed over her. If the bus was early, she’d have more time with her girls before she left. Instead, she feared it’d be late, and her precious time with them would be rushed. Finally, the roar of an exasperated engine surged and stopped near her mailbox. The exhale of the brakes gave Anna hope that she’d soon see her children. The bus roared to life again and ambled away from the stop, and as the noise of the vehicle faded into the distance, she could hear the animated cackles of young kids talking and laughing as they walked down the main street through the neighborhood.

Tiny, muffled voices arrived at her door, and Anna tensed as if she were waiting for intruders. She still felt overwhelmed with joy when her daughters returned home even though it happened like this every day. She missed them. She hated not being able to spend the evenings with them like the other mothers did, but her job put food on the table. She waited.

The door knob glinted in the dull light as the door swung open and Christina poked her head around its metal edge. The sunlight from outside enshrouded her like an angel descending from heaven. “Mama?”

“Chrissy! How was school?”

A smile wrapped around Christina’s face when she finally saw her mother sitting in the living room. “Okay,” she replied in the universal response she gave to every inquiry about her school day.

“Mama!” Emma shrieked as she trailed her sister through the door.

Both girls ran to Anna and wrapped their arms around her. She kissed the tops of their heads and hugged them close.

“Do you want a snack?” she asked. They shook their heads eagerly. Anna stood up slowly. The bruise on her left hip screamed at her and made her catch her weight on her right side. She almost tumbled over, but she steadied herself on right leg shuffling toward the tiny kitchen with her youngest daughters in tow.

She peered out the front window as she walked to the kitchen. The next bus would arrive soon she thought as she grabbed packets of crackers from the mostly-empty pantry and sat them before her eager daughters. As she poured them some milk, she heard a bus rumble to a stop outside her house again. Its air brakes hissed in a momentary pause before it rolled on down the street. Anna tensed and took a deep breath.

It took longer than usual for Brittany to open the door. She stepped through it quickly shutting out the flash of outside light before Anna’s eyes had a chance to adjust. Brittany had a grim look on her face as if her backpack contained some unbearable weight. She said nothing to anyone as she made a beeline for the bedroom she had once shared with her older sister. Her youngest daughters stayed quiet, but Anna could feel their eyes on her.

“Finish your milk,” she said finally. “And clean up your mess.”

The crinkling of the plastic wrappers seemed louder than it should have been as the girls busied themselves with cleaning up. Anna sighed and returned to the chair in the living room relaxing for one last moment before she had to leave for work. The girls joined her and sat on the floor before the TV.

“Why don’t you turn it to a cartoon?” Anna suggested. Christina gladly obliged and the girls sunk, zombie-like, into the odd world of a cartoon that Anna didn’t recognize. Anna smiled at her girls basking in the glow of the TV. Emma peeked over at her at one point but quickly returned her attention to the cartoon.

Anna wished she could sit there with them until it came time to put them to bed, a luxury she only experienced when one of them was sick, but work would beckon soon, and she’d trudge off down the street to catch the bus into town while Brittany put herself and her sisters to bed before Alfred came home. The monotony of her life weighed on her, threatened to pull her under. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and it all disappeared, not her daughters, but everything else. This other life, the one she wanted, existed out there. It kept her sane for she would otherwise crumble to the earth amid the sea of insults and bruises and despair.

A heavy knock rattled the thin door on the trailer. Anna opened her eyes to see the dust swirling in the light that broke through the curtains near the door. Christina and Emma looked back at her as if they had never heard an unwanted knock at the door, their expressions startled and uncertain. Anna winced at the pain in her throbbing hip. She stood up and stutter-stepped before she steadied herself and walked to the door.

When she opened the door, a short, stocky man dressed in all black stood before her. He wore a baseball cap with an unrecognizable logo on it and reflective sunglasses that captured the startled and puzzled expression that Anna felt at that moment.

“Good afternoon, ma’am. Is Mr. Modena home?”

“No, he’s at work. I’m his wife. Can I help you?”

The man tightened his lips across his face as if he were upset that Alfred was not home.

“Please give this to Mr. Modena. It’s very urgent.”

“What is it?” Anna tentatively took the paper from his hand. She looked at it as she waited for him to explain it. The tiny words crammed onto the pages befuddled her.

“It’s an eviction notice. You’re six months behind on your rent. The landlord has filed a motion to evict you.”

The rest of his words failed to reach her. She stood there watching him speak, his stern jaw flexing each time he mouthed a word. She felt like she was watching a muted TV. He finally pivoted away from her and returned to the SUV he had parked on the street. She wavered in place for a moment before she stepped back into the comforting darkness of her living room. She shut the door behind her. The girls, enthralled by the cartoon, ignored their mother. Anna took a deep breath and walked into the kitchen where she deposited the notice in the trash. It was time to leave for work.

 

A Writer Must Read

I often tell my kids that they have to read to learn. There’s simply no way around it. This is especially true when they’re no longer in school and they don’t have teachers and assignments forcing them to read. While they may dream of a day when they don’t have a long list of reading assignments, the truth is that they will (or should) spend the rest of their lives reading. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it. My wife and I began reading to them almost from the moment we brought them home from the hospital, and over the years that’s turned into family reading time each night before bedtime. As a result it’s not unusual to see my kids lumbering around the house with a book in hand without any assignment hanging over their head.

While most of my reading is done for pure pleasure, as a writer I must read. One of the most salient nuggets of advice Stephen King delivers in his memoir On Writing is just that: A writer must read. It’s necessary to get better. You have to observe the craft in its finest form (or not so finest) to really understand how to improve your own work. There’s no way around it, nor are there any shortcuts. If you’re writing and not reading, you’re limiting your potential as a writer.

Reading is what brought me to writing in the first place. Way back in fourth grade when I pulled Richard Adam’s Watership Down from the top shelf of the musty, old school library and checked it out, I started down the path to being a writer. That book subsumed my imagination and took me to a different world. I loved it so much that I read it twice (it remains the only book I’ve read more than once). After I read that book, I decided I wanted to create wonderful stories like that. I wanted to become a writer. Three decades later I took that first step toward being a writer, but by then, I had read many more books and learned much more about writing.

Every time I pick up a book, I learn something. I learn new words, new ways of describing something, or a new approach to creating a scene or imagery. I’m currently reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The way she creates a scene is remarkable – a prime example of “show, don’t tell.” Her use of imagery and words puts the reader right in the middle of her stark, apocalyptic world, which is equal parts horrifying and mesmerizing. The novel spans several decades, but she manages the time shifts expertly so that the reader doesn’t get whipsawed by the jumps along the timeline. I’ve learned a lot from reading her book, and it will make me a better writer.

I could go on and on with examples of how I’ve learned about the craft of writing from reading. Wally Lamb taught me the true art of character development with his books that often delve deep into the psyche of his protagonists (see She’s Come Undone). Khalid Hosseini taught me how to bring the setting alive and make it just as much a part of the book as the main characters (see A Thousand Splendid Suns). Jonathan Franzen, a true literary genius, taught me how to weave a beautiful story from the seemingly mundane interactions of the characters (see The Corrections). His stories aren’t for thrill seekers, but they are beautiful in that they capture the emotional reality of life vs. some fantastic version of it.

There are so many books to read, and so little time, especially as I’m trying to squeeze in time to write myself. Nevertheless, I will always make time for reading, whether it’s just before bedtime or on the train to work, because reading is necessary for writing. A writer must read.