Monday, March 20, 2017

The Short List

I love short stories. When done well, they are a window frame, a walk through a single house, a photograph which allows the imagination to create a story which continues past the final sentence. Here are a few I've read again and again and again, each time captivated by the worlds or characters they create in a short amount of space. I deliberately picked ones most people may not have heard of: maybe I'll do a list which includes Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and other famous names at a future time. 

"The Swimmers", by Randi Ewing, published online in American Short Fiction.
Here, an earth-shaking event rocks the world, making everyone question and theorize. Yet, more quickly than you'd think, the event is absorbed into everyday life, becoming the new normal. The line "We stared at it until it seemed normal, and then we forgot about it", is powerful in how it could translate to many parts of life. The writing is clear and concise, moving quickly through the central narrator's life, yet with vivid details which give it an intelligent breadth.

"A Tiny Feast", by Chris Adrian, published in The New Yorker.
Oberon and Titania, the fairy king and queen from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", take in a human baby boy. When he becomes sick past any fairy magic they possess, they are lost in a world of hospitals and doctors. Of course their true splendid faces and powers are too much to show the hospital staff, so spells cover them in normality. It is fascinating to read and picture what is seen by the doctors versus the flurry of pixies and brownies rushing to obey the will of their rulers. Titania's regal and dismissive line, "You will do your mortal thing" - about the boy's treatment - has stayed with me since I first read it. Though highly creative, it's a more difficult read. A sobering look at immortals colliding with human sickness and frailty, as well as dealing with difficulties in their marriage. Not for everyone. (Sadly, the author turned the story into a full-length book which, in my opinion, was a terrible mess. The strange, imaginative story stands on it's own, for those who can take the grief it encounters.)

"Healthy Start", by Etgar Keret, translated by Miriam Shlesinger, published in TinHouse.
Likely, you've had the experience of meeting up with someone new for the first time in a public place.  You set up the time and location via phone or email. Maybe it's business, or maybe it's a friend of a friend who is new in town. Maybe it's a blind date. In this compelling short story, a lonely man named Avichi who eats breakfast at the same cafe every morning is mistaken for someone else. Instead of waving the stranger away with, "I'm sorry, you have the wrong guy,", Avichi allows the stranger to sit down across from him and begins to act as though he is indeed the man who the stranger came to see. From then on, Avichi makes a point to pick out the people looking around for the stranger they are supposed to meet with, nodding them over and diving into the conversation as they lead. It is the greatest game of ad-lib, with lonely Avichi becoming any number of characters depending on who is sitting across from him and what they seem to expect.

"The Key-Bearer's Parents", by Sian Griffiths, published in American Short Fiction.
Here's something to briefly note: I very strongly dislike clowns. As many people do. Yet I get that many people also love them very much, and love being them. Here, we have the story of a pair of gentle clown parents, who are increasingly sad both that their only son is embarrassed by them, and that he can't seem to get a handle on what he wants to do with his life. "Children should have aspirations," they think. "They should believe in their own future, if nothing else". However with every turn they support him, encourage him, until he choses a role which many consider to be highly controversial. It is this newly-created fictional position - the Key-Bearer - which is morally shocking, an idea which could easily be explored in a whole book. Yet it is the quietude of the storytelling, the weight of misunderstanding from very caring parents, which lends added depth to the brief tale.

Monday, March 13, 2017

What They Wear

"I've got halo's made of summer, rhythms made of spring
What she wears, what she wears, what she wears
I've got crowns of words a woven, each one a song to sing
Oh I sing, oh I sing, oh I sing"

- "Something In The Water", by Brooke Fraser 

A teenage girl wears jeans with a large, sequined Playboy Bunny symbol covering one thigh. The sequins are red, white, and blue: a tribute to an unfortunate American creation. It's likely the teenager has no idea exactly what the bunny symbolizes, just as many t-shirts with phrases in English (sometimes grammatically incorrect) are popular, despite the fact that the wearers often do not know their meanings. It is shiny and eye-catching and that is enough.

A young man, around 19 if I were to guess, boards the bus in jeans, a suit coat, and no shirt underneath. The long V of the jacket exposes his chest, and - along with his carefully styled hair and dark sunglasses - he looks like a displaced boy band member, an attempted emblem of 'cool' stuck in the middle of a normal day.

An indigenous family crosses the street in traditional garb. The women wear lacy, embroidered white shirts tucked into a long piece of dark cloth which is wound around their waist as a skirt and held in place with an intricately woven belt. They wear shoes which resemble house slippers with hard, flat soles. Their hair is worn in long braids, and necklaces with layer upon layer of delicate beads adorn their throats. The men also often wear white, embroidered shirts, just plainer and without any lace, often with ponchos layered over them. Both women and men wear fedoras to protect them from the sun.

A woman walks past wearing a shirt which leaves part of her stomach exposed. She is not thin or young but unlike in the States, these things do not seem to bother people here. Just as tight, brightly-colored leggings (or flesh-colored ones) are worn as pants without any attempt to cover one's butt. I have never found this look to be flattering, personally, preferring to wear legging only under a dress or a tunic-length shirt which covers my hips. Different perspectives from different cultures.

I wonder, in return, what people think when they see me. When I wear a long skirt, or flip-flops (which are not common here), or something which shows the open-book tattoo on my back. What do they sum up about what I wear? Clothes are this curiously outward expression of more than simply style. Some people like to stand out and proclaim their individuality. Some prefer to carefully follow current trends, while some chose clothes in order to not draw attention to themselves. Styles across different countries fascinate me, as well as people's choices. Then, there are people who are grateful for any clothing at all, t-shirts and pants scrounged up or donated. Everything in perspective, everything some part of someone's story.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Mountains and Men

"I worried about rain and I worried about lightning
But I watched them off, to the light of the morning
Marking the slope, slung low in the highlands."
 - 00000 Million, by Bon Iver 

When my alarm went off at 7:00, it sounded strange. "What is that?" I thought, still so immersed in deep sleep and dreams that it felt as though I were climbing upwards towards the sound until it became distinct and real. I had slept poorly that night, thoughts which hailed themselves as important jerking me awake at what felt like every hour. I get that way before a race, or before Christmas; my mind knows something important is coming and runs through everything I could potentially forget.

I arrived at Casa Gabriel at 8:00 to cook the boys breakfast. You see, it wasn't just an ordinary Monday, it was Carnaval, a vacation day. To celebrate, we had decided to climb a mountain. The city of Quito rests on the side of Mount Pichincha. Even on a very clear day, it is difficult to see the peak, so I knew it would be a challenging climb. The evening before, I made twenty ham and cheese sandwiches and bought other snacks. However a normal Ecuadorian lunch is much more filling (soup, rice, meat, vegetables, and fruit juice), whereas breakfast may consist of a simple roll. So I decided to make them eggs and sausages, filling them with protein before the hike.

As I cooked, the boys passed in and out of the kitchen, watching me curiously and asking questions about the day. When we finally sat down to eat (because I forgot that cooking a batch of 40 scrambled eggs is much more time consuming than making a couple just for myself), I picked up my glass for a sip of juice and found that my hand was shaking. It's one of my tells: when I have a dozen things running through my head, checklists and responsibilities, I usually manage to keep cool and calm, yet if there's a moment of rest in the middle of the rush, my hands shake. I gripped the glass tightly, set it down and asked one of the boys to say grace.

When I finished eating, I got up and arranged the food that each person would take. Water, Gatorade, two sandwiches, an apple, a granola bar, plantain chips, and two packages of sandwich cookies. The boys watched me arranging everything in a neat row on the pool table. Finally we were all packed up and ready to head out. I asked the weekend house-dad Edgar if he'd pray before we left. I was in charge of six boys that day. When I had volunteered to take them hiking, I hadn't given a second thought to being the leader. It crossed my mind then, as we stood together with heads bowed, what a privilege it was to be trusted like that, an honor to be the one they'd look to to get them there and back safely. I was thankful that among the boys were two I highly trusted to help me in leadership: Carlos, who was the current house leader, and Jesus, who had graduated two years before and was a natural leader. I gave Jesus money for a taxi and we split into two groups, driving up to the cable cars which would take us to the start of the hike.

I paid everyone's fee for the cable cars and up we went. The day was cloudy and cold, even more so up on the mountain, of course. When I offered up three extra pairs of gloves and a hat I'd brought along, the boys quickly snatched them up. We set off into the mist. Within fifteen minutes of hiking uphill in the cold, we were all breathing heavily. We were surrounded by clouds.

In a humorous voice, Carlos mumbled, "Go on an enjoyable hike, they said. See the beautiful views of Quito, they said." We all laughed. I had been up there on clear days and the view was incredible. That day, however, I looked to my right and saw the mountain drop off into nothing but pure white cloud. It was both eerie and gorgeous. I had the strange desire to take a running leap over the edge, imagining that I would fall through the white for ages before somehow coming to a soft landing.

We ended up hiking in two groups, a fast one and a slower one, with myself in the middle to call to the fast group to wait for the others, trying to keep us all together. At one point, I caught up to the first group and waited for the second one, calling out to them and finally hearing Jesus call my name yet being unable to see him.
"Where are you?" I called, scanning the horizon.
"Here!" he called, yet it was still a couple of minutes before I could see him and others sitting on an outcrop of rocks, waving yet appearing like mere ghosts in the mist.

In front of us, at one point, power lines hummed above us, dipping down from the mountain and on into the valley below. You could hear them before you could see them: crackling evenly in the mist. It was somehow both unnerving and fascinating at once, part of the strange magic of that day.

We reached what is called The Cave, a space which just barely gives shelter from the elements. In this case, the elements included a light flurry of wet snow. We sat and ate and to my surprise, the boys voiced the opinion that it was time to turn around and go back.
"Look at my pants! These aren't warm enough. I'm going to die!" Joel exaggerated.
"Come on guys! We've made it this far! We can do it!" I encouraged. "Though if you really want to go back, we can."
We went back and forth, finally deciding to break into two groups: Joel, Moises, and Paulo would head back with Jesus, and Carlos and Luis would press on with me. So off we went, snow falling gently around us.

About twenty minutes later, I was greatly second-guessing my decision.

The snow was falling harder and wetter, gathering in tiny drifts along the path, which was growing steeper. Instead of following an earthen path, we were climbing up sharp rocks, pulling ourselves upwards with carefully placed hands and feet. My pack felt like lead on my back, and in truth it was the heaviest of all: I carried extra water and snacks, plus first-aid items, a flashlight, and other things I thought good to bring.
"It's getting pretty slippery and hard to see. Maybe we should turn back," I told the boys.
"We are fine either way. We're your bodyguards: you decide," Carlos told me, Luis nodding along. I smiled and nodded to the path for us to continue on. I love those guys so much.

Eventually, though, I made the call for us to turn back. The path, if you could call it that, was very steep and slippery in the snow. Plus the further we went, the longer the others would be waiting for us. So we turned around and headed back.

Almost immediately, I slipped and fell in the slushy snow and mud. I kept falling and falling, both on my butt and my hands, so that I was quickly covered in patches of mud. Yet almost as soon as we had turned back, the sun broke through the clouds. Suddenly, we could see parts of Quito running down into the valley. Of course, the bits of sunshine also meant that the snow was melting and making the trails even sloppier. Every step had to measured carefully.

During the walk through the clouds, I had Harry Potter in my head, with visions of the fictional castle rising through the mist. With the appearance of the sun, the mountain trail became much more Lord Of The Rings, the Howard Shore soundtrack playing in my mind. I'm a nerd and I embrace it, because even though I was wet and cold and covered in mud, I was also in literary heaven. That's the dream. Carlos laughingly agreed.

All through the hike, little Luis surprised me more than anyone. At age fifteen he's the youngest in the home, and has a reputation as a couch potato. He refuses to play soccer or do rock climbing with the other boys, instead preferring to be on his phone and lying in front of the TV at every opportunity. Yet on this adventure it was Luis who took the lead and volunteered to keep going with Carlos and I. On the trek back, Luis would search out a different trail from the one we were on, scampering ahead on a side path and meeting up with Carlos and I later with a grin. It was great to see a new side of him.

Back together once more, we took the cable cars down the mountain and got coffee and hot chocolate in a small cafe, warming up. We hadn't completely conquered Mount Pichincha, but we'd gotten close. The boys were tired but happy. Maybe one day we'll try once more to make it all the way to the top and see the volcanic crater at the peak. For now, we'll have the memory of hiking through clouds and snow, and returning home muddy and tired and happy. No one was hurt or hungry or regretted going, and as I sipped my coffee, my hands no longer shook.