Dennis's Non-Fiction

Derailed: A Reflection on Dating, Dogs, and Family

            I put the car in park after pulling into Kevin’s driveway. Tonight was supposed to have been a return to the drunken glory of the summer before last, the months following his divorce. But it was a cold and rainy night in October, and none of the three bars we’d checked out looked at all promising. I’d warned him this might be the case, but he was determined to get out and make something happen. For close to a year now, he’d been dating Susan, and for all that time he’d been repeating his litany of reasons for not wanting to be in a serious relationship with her, or with anyone else. Then came an invitation for him to have dinner with her parents. He made it clear how little the idea appealed to him. So she decided they shouldn’t see each other anymore. He casually agreed. Over the past week, however, I’ve seen and heard enough to know that neither of them is finding it as easy to walk away as they’re both trying to make out. They’re playing the old game of breakup chicken—testing to see who can withstand the self-imposed misery the longest. Hence his determination to get out to the bars for a night of unencumbered fun, and hence his disappointment now.

            Since his divorce two years ago, Kevin has taken to fervidly disparaging the married life. You can’t be yourself in a marriage, he insists. The way he sees it, all the men in his life are being stymied and suffocated, just like he had been for those eleven years with his wife—and they don’t even realize it, just as he didn’t. The willing confinement and constant stifling inevitably narrow a man’s perspective to the most miniscule of apertures. Your whole life becomes effortful, forced. You have no energy and no time for pursuing your old passions. Women’s nature and desires are too bizarre, too overbearing, too irrational to be compatible with men’s nature and desires. Once we give in and settle down, once we compromise and allow ourselves to be trapped, we begin a slow but inexorable process of forfeiting everything that makes us viable individuals, everything that makes life worth living, everything that makes us men. As we sit side-by-side listening to rain beat half-heartedly against the windshield, he repeats these sentiments once again, interspersing them amid complaints about the unreasonableness of Susan’s request for him to meet the parents she’s given so little indication of even liking herself. I know what he’s doing because I’ve done it myself once or twice. He’s reciting his motivations for keeping to a course that’s getting increasingly difficult to keep to.

Kevin had decided to divorce his wife a year and a half ago, after they both met up with me and an old friend in Nevada. While we were all there together, we did the standard Vegas thing for one night, but most of the trip was devoted to visiting national parks: Zion, Red Rock, Valley of Fire. The whole trip, he would later tell me, his wife was irritable, tetchy, impossible to please. He felt the full force of a familiar realization as he’d never felt it before: he would be enjoying the trip much more if his wife hadn’t accompanied him.

And so it was with the rest of his life. Kelly, the friend I was traveling with, is a lot like me in that she’s an uncompromising free spirit—though she’s more the free spirit and I’m probably the more uncompromising. In the two of us, Kevin began seeing a model for what life could be like. Kelly and I have both had our share of heartbreak, but now that we’re free of those old entanglements there seems to be nothing holding us back. It must look as though we’re both far better off. To Kevin, it must also look as though we’re both far better off than all those married men he sees withering away under the yoke of uxoriousness.

            In their basics, the stories about Kelly and me are true enough. Back when I was living with Erica, the ex I believed I would marry and grow old with, I really couldn’t be myself. I really did feel like I had to compromise some of the best parts of who I am for her sake. The breakup wrecked me. Now I’m far better off. I get the sense from Kelly that her story is similar. Her boyfriend was disdainful of her time-wasting creative endeavors. He was intolerant of anything that wasn’t practical. He belittled her for being too sentimental, too uninterested in making money for the sake of making money, too dependent on him in the selfsame way he loved her to be. Her final leave-taking was more recent than mine, but it seems she’s on her way to bouncing back with a vengeance, just like I eventually did. Neither Kelly nor I, however, took up proselytizing for the unmarried, uncommitted, unmonogamous lifestyle—at least not consistently. Though at times we both despair, I don’t think either of us has completely given up on the idea of finding a more compatible partner. But in the meantime we both do a pretty good job of enjoying the shit out of our single lives.

            As I sit listening to Kevin’s list of reasons for staying unattached, I find myself settling on a decision, prompted by reasons that are mysterious to me. Maybe, when it comes down to it, I just need to talk to my friend, and whatever point I work back around to will be mostly serendipitous. Or maybe I feel responsible for conspiring in the creation of an image of my life that, while not exactly false, is certainly incomplete. I have, after all, shared with him many of the juicy details of my active and quite polygamous sex life. I have also structured all the stories I’ve told him about my struggles with my ex to make them sound like some heroic journey from domestic oppression to intellectual, spiritual, and libidinous liberation. Again, the stories are all true enough. But I tell them in the manner I do for my own ends, for my own psychological benefit, and now I’m worried he may be applying the lessons in a way that’s far less beneficial to him than they have been to me.

            Anyway, for whatever reason, I start talking. I start telling another story.

            “When I was in Boston a few weeks ago, the conference I was attending was just bizarre. For the past three years, I’ve been doing this thing for my company called inbound marketing. I know what it is. I know how to do it. Hell, I may even be pretty good at it. But I realized when I was there with all these thousands of other inbound marketers that they all take it far more seriously than I do. For me, this shit is just something I do. It’s my job. But for them it’s who they are. They identify with it. So I felt like an anthropologist studying this weird cult. Which would have been fine, except, you know, fifteen years after graduating, I still identify more as an anthropologist than as a damn inbound marketer—something I do every day, something I actually make a decent living doing. I identify as a writer more than anything else, though, so I guess it works out well enough.

            “Anyway, so I’m feeling completely out of place—and wondering how all these people could be so taken in by all the crap we’re hearing—and I go out in front of the building to have lunch. While I’m sitting there, facing the front of the building, I see this woman with these really great legs—just stupid hot. I was working out how to talk to her, even though I didn’t have a lot to work with, and it wasn’t like it could’ve gone anywhere because I was sharing a hotel room with one of my coworkers. But, you know, you’re in Boston—when are you going to have this opportunity again? Instead, what ended up happening was that I casually butted into a conversation two women sitting beside me were having. And I talked to them about marketing for nonprofits for the rest of the lunch hour. One of them, Lindsay, I ended up hanging out with for the rest of the trip. So it was cool, you know. I made a connection.

            “But when I got back to Fort Wayne, I felt really out of sorts. It was actually pretty bad, and it lasted for about two weeks. My whole life seemed completely fucking arbitrary, you know. I kept thinking, well, I was in Boston a week and I made this connection. I could almost as easily have connected with the chick with the nice legs I’d seen. It was a cool experience, the kind you hope you have when you go on a trip like that. But I didn’t really feel it. I’d talked to her, hung out with her—maybe if we’d had a place to ourselves we would’ve hooked up. She’s awesome. She owns her own design company in Austin, Texas. She was talking about doing business deals with chauvinist dudes in Colombia. I mean, we don’t meet women like that here. But still—no feeling. It was just a bunch of stuff that happened. It was just like the whole inbound marketing thing. I do it. But it’s not who I am. It’s just a surface behavior, an act. I go through the motions. Then I’m back in Fort Wayne and I realize—that’s how I feel about my whole life lately. That’s how I feel about all the women I’ve been hanging out with. You know, I care about them. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. I just don’t feel it. And I’ve been telling myself, that’s exactly what you want, right? Now, I’m not sure.

            “So for like two weeks I’m home and I’m feeling—just hollowed out. Empty. Every day is just going through the motions. Then last weekend I drive over to my dad’s house in Clarksville for his birthday. Saturday night, I get there late, and I stay up drinking with my dad, my brother, and my sister-in-law Amy. But right away Sunday morning my niece Josalyn wakes me up and tells me how mad she is that I took so long getting there the night before that she’d already been in bed, and now she wants to go looking for my stepmom’s goat Triscuit in the woods behind the house. When the family’s all together, I usually end up being in charge of Josalyn a lot because to her I’m kind of a novelty, and she just sort of seeks me out. So we’re walking around in the woods and looking for this damn goat in the junkyard behind the property, and it wasn’t right away—but at some point I notice that for the first time since Boston I’m starting to feel normal again. Because when you’re with a little kid you don’t have that feeling that whatever you’re doing, it’s just you that it matters to, and it’s just you it has any meaning for. For one thing, you have to watch her to make sure she doesn’t get hurt or anything. Beyond that, though, you have this sense that everything you say has more of an impact on her. She’s really listening and taking it in. She’s not just nodding along and going about doing her normal thing the same as before.

            “After the junkyard, Josalyn decides she wants to go back to the trench we climbed down the last time we were back in the woods. It’s this ravine covered in loose shale that slopes down from a big pond to a bunch of old farm land. It’s actually pretty sketchy at a lot of points because it gets steep, and the rocks you’re stepping on can slip out from under your feet. But we go down a ways and come back up. When we run into my brother and my nephew Ellis back at the top, Josalyn starts telling them how awesome it is. Of course now Ellis wants to go. My brother says it’s alright if I take him, and Amy is kind of hovering around too, keeping an eye on everyone. Still, I’m not completely sure taking Ellis down there is a great idea. I slip and stumble on those rocks enough myself. And Ellis is like five.

            “I try to explain to him how dangerous it is, and how you have to test each rock to see if it’s going to hold you. But he keeps walking with us right up to the trench. When we get there, I’m expecting him to realize how scary it is and decide not to go. But he climbs right down with us. Right away, my stepmom Jan’s dog decides to start circling us. I think he’s a pit bull-Border collie mix, and he’s rambunctious as hell. Maybe a year ago when we were all at my dad’s house, I’d seen him plow into Josalyn a bunch of times. So now I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before he runs up and knocks Ellis down, making him tumble all the way down to bottom of the damn trench. Ellis keeps on going, though. And the whole time he keeps talking—it was actually really funny. He’s like, ‘This is so dangerous. This is just crazy. These rocks are not even safe to step on. We should not be doing this.’ I keep asking if he wants to stop and go back, though, and he just keeps climbing down and talking about how crazy it is the whole time.

            “I stayed really close to him the whole way down. At the bottom, though, he and Josalyn turned around and started heading back up by themselves. I figured going up was a little easier, so I let them both get a ways ahead of me. As I’m going up myself, though, I keep thinking whenever I get to a sketchier part of the climb that I need to run up and make sure Ellis makes it alright. The first time this happens, I look up and I see Booth, that damn dog, running up right behind Ellis. At first, I freaked out a little, thinking I’m about to watch the dog knock the poor kid down. But Booth just kind of stops behind Ellis and slowly picks his way up the trench behind him. I’m thinking that’s good—if Ellis slips or stumbles, he’ll land on the dog and it’ll break his fall. So I keep climbing up along the trench a ways back from the kids. Eventually, I get to another sketchy part. So I get ready to run and catch up with the kids—and there’s the damn dog again, right behind Ellis, with his nose right in his butt. I go through the same thought process as before. You know, the dog’s going to knock the kid down, he’s going to get hurt, and then my brother’s going to kill me. I watch for a while, though, and it looks like the dog’s behaving fine. But then I get to a third rough stretch in the climb, I look up, and there’s Booth again with his nose right in Ellis’s butt.

           “This time it finally dawns on me—the dog is fucking herding Ellis along the hardest parts of the path. And he must know exactly what he’s doing. It’s the Border collie in him. Later, I told Amy about it, and she said they’d been playing a game the day before where Booth followed right behind Ellis—with his nose in his butt just like I saw—while Ellis walked around in circles in the front yard. So when it dawns on me that the dog is being really fucking smart and that he’s actually protecting Ellis, I just stop in my tracks, and it hits me like a truck. I don’t know why. I’m just suddenly overcome with emotion—ha ha, and you know how awful that feels. It was like I got the wind knocked out of me. My insides all clenched up and I could barely breathe. I start climbing again, to sort of walk it off, you know. But now all I can think about is this day I spent with Erica like five years ago.

            “It was during the summer, about a year after we broke up and I moved out of the house on Lambert Lane. At that point, I wasn’t really hanging out with her that much anymore, but we saw each other once in a while. This was the first time I’d seen her after her hysterectomy, and she was still a little wobbly on her feet, and she was moving around really slow. She’d told me about how after the surgery she’d actually passed out while she was standing in the bathroom at her foster family’s house in West Lafayette and woken up on the floor. It was this fucked up situation, you know, because I felt like I should have been there and it broke my heart to hear about it. But then I was still pretty pissed at her, so whatever. Anyway, we’re hanging out that afternoon, and she says she has to stop at the bank.

            “When we get there, we both go in the door and walk up to the counter. The teller is this older woman, and as Erica is telling her what she needs she looks back and forth between Erica and me a couple of times and gets this weird look on her face. Then she kind of half smiles and says to Erica, ‘You’ve got yourself a nice bodyguard there.’ Erica says something about how I’m easy to look at so she doesn’t mind having me around, or something like that. But I’m standing there trying to figure out what the hell the teller is even talking about. What I realize is that, without even thinking about it, every time Erica and I move I’m keeping her in my peripheral view, and I’m staying within arm’s reach of her. Because I’m afraid she might get dizzy and fall again—and I’m making sure if she does I can catch her. What the teller noticed was that I was watching Erica out of the corner of my eye even as we stood there at the counter.

            “For all of about ten seconds, I’m standing there completely shocked at how automatically I fell into that position alongside her. But then I thought, you know, are you really surprised? Because the truth is, I would derail a fucking train if I had to for this girl—no hesitation, no questions asked. And if I couldn’t do it, I’d still find a way somehow. Just moving her off the tracks wouldn’t be good enough because that fucking train needs to know it doesn’t come at her like that—not this girl. This one’s with me. You don’t fuck around.

“Have you ever had that feeling? So I’m standing there in this shitty bank, and I’m thinking, there’s all this feeling, all this energy, all this passion. And it’s all a complete fucking waste because whatever the two of us had, it was already so thoroughly ruined by then. She didn’t trust me anymore because she was sure I cheated on her—though if she had any sense she would’ve known she never had to worry about that with me. And I sure as fuck didn’t trust her anymore because she’d turned on me so many times I’d starting suspecting that she was always just looking for another excuse to turn on me again. So what do you do with all that energy and feeling and passion? It’s utterly useless. Actually, it’s much worse than useless.

            “You don’t just recover from that in a couple of months, or even a couple of years. That kind of thing fucks you up for a while. After that, I kept kind of plodding ahead, doing my own things, trying not to think about it too much. I actually made the conscious decision to spread myself thin in relationships from then on, to keep things caj—I just didn’t believe I’d be able to pull it off as well as I did. But I had been on and off with Erica for like seven years. And here’s the thing—you were with Emma for about eleven years. And I know getting divorced felt like this glorious, triumphant liberation, like you were finally free to be yourself again after all those years, but so much of what you expect from people, what you expect from women, comes from what happened between you two. It sucked. It was like a prolonged type of mild torture. I know.

            “But I’ve been free, completely free to do pretty much whatever the fuck I want for the past five years now. I’m not going to lie—it’s been fucking great. Every time I’m with a woman who doesn’t have all the stupid hang-ups Erica did, all I can do is smile and think how lucky I am not to have to deal with that bullshit for the rest of my life. Every time I spend the whole day reading, or hours and hours writing, or get off work and decide to go running in the woods for like two hours, or every time I go out drinking with you or Fred till three in morning, even to this day I smile and think how awesome it is that I don’t have to check in with anyone, or deal with anyone hovering and waiting, or deal with anyone being suspicious or pissed off for no damn reason.

“Every once in a while, though, I feel like I felt when I first got back from Boston. You know, like nothing I do fucking matters. That makes it really hard to get into whatever book I’m reading. That makes it hard to get off the couch and go running. The reason any of that gets done is that I’ve made it such an ingrained habit. I just do it, unthinking, unfeeling. And writing—I could quit my job and write full-time and ultimately whatever I come up with isn’t going to mean much to anyone but me. The fiction books that have had the most impact in the last thirty years are fucking Harry Potter. I’m never going to write anything like that. I’m never going to write anything that changes the world like Origin of Species. Mostly, I’m fine with that. I write because I enjoy it. But knowing that its significance is so limited like that makes me question how much meaning I can get from it. Can I derive all the happiness and fulfillment I need in my life from writing the stories and book reviews I post on my damn blog?

“The reality is that without you and Kelly and my brothers and Amber and Fred, without all the people I’m closest to, you know, I could spend every waking hour doing the stuff that means the most to me personally, but it wouldn’t mean a damn thing. I’d probably fucking kill myself. Ha ha, and most of you guys don’t even read most of the stuff I write, or get pissed off because you think it’s about you. The reason that I’m actually happy to go to work most days isn’t that I give two fucks about inbound marketing; it’s that I love all the people I work with. Going to work is like going to hang out and work on projects with all these cool, really smart and creative people I call friends. Even the women I date—I don’t feel the way about them I felt about Erica, but the reason I enjoy spending time with them so much is that I’m friends with them all.”

Kevin has sat listening silently to my story up till now. I’ve been talking for a long time, not knowing how he’ll respond. As I take a breath before starting again, he stops me saying, “But that’s the way I think it should be. I mean, you have your friends and your family and your work. You don’t have to rely on any one person so damn much. You don’t have to live with her and tie so much of your day-to-day existence to her. I mean, you know what it’s like living with someone. That balance of doing what you want and still having people in your life—it’s not possible if you get too close with any one woman.”

“Honestly, I’ve been doing my best to make it work. But I’m not sure the type of meaning I’m talking about can come from a bunch of casual relationships. Four or five casual arrangements don’t add up to one profound connection. Doing it that way is fun as hell, don’t get me wrong. But after a while it starts to feel shallow. You start to feel empty. Any one of the women I’m dating now could decide she wants something more serious with some other guy. That wouldn’t bother me. I’d be like, ‘Cool, I hope it works out for you. It was fun hanging out.’ But the fact that I can walk away like that shows how little meaning it ultimately has. And when shit really starts going wrong—and you know it will sooner or later—when my dad dies, or my brothers get sick, or I get hurt, who knows? When shit like that happens, it’s not really fair to ask anyone you’re in a casual relationship with to be there for you. And even if they are, what are they going to do? Show up and hang out like they usually do? And if they do more than that, if they really are there for you, then aren’t they making that relationship more meaningful in the process?”

“Ugh, it’s not like that though,” Kevin says. “You’re painting this picture of being down and having some chick supporting you, but what would really happen is that she’d be there making it fucking worse. She’d be making the whole thing out to be your fault, criticizing you. Or she’d be remembering every last little thing she does for you so she can remind you of it later. I know, I know. Sometimes people are just nice to each other. But the longer you’re with someone the more resentment builds up. And it happens so gradually that you wake up one day and realize you’re basically stuck with someone who doesn’t even like you, who’s annoyed by everything you say and do—and you feel the same way, but she’s sucked out your will to live so much you don’t even have the energy to get away.”

“That’s the risk you take. You and I both got pretty much wrecked. And I don’t even want to say it’s because either of them is a terrible person. But they were terrible to us. That’s just the thing, though. You form these bonds because when it comes down to it they’re what makes or breaks your life. Every time you get close to someone you run the risk of it being the wrong person. All you can do is be careful not to spend too much time with someone who isn’t right for you. I knew from early on that Erica was going to cause me a bunch of problems. I should have stayed away, but we worked together, a bunch of crazy shit was going on in my life, and she kept coming after me. If I saw the same warning signs today, I wouldn’t go anywhere near her. And you know exactly what it was about Emma that made it not work. You know what the problem was—hell, you just described it. Aside from all the daily compromises of any relationship, there were some pretty huge fucking deal-breakers, right? Now think about Susan. Do you have any of those same problems with her?”

“Not even close. She comes with her own set of problems. It’s true though that they’re nowhere near as bad.”

“I think it’s got to be this process of making sure the person you’re getting close to is cool with who you are and accepting of how you need to spend your time. We’re both pretty introverted, so we need a lot of time to ourselves to do our own projects. We need to find women who are the same way, so when we go off on our own they’re ready to go off on their own too. We need to find women who aren’t fucktard feminists, who don’t feel like they have to get all weird about sex, and who like to fuck all the time, but who aren’t uneducated idiots. I’m starting to realize they’re out there. What happened was that we both got in really deep with women that we were just fundamentally incompatible with. And it fucked up our lives for a while. I don’t think that’s inevitable for every relationship though. I fucking hope it’s not.”

“Seriously, though, do you really think there’s someone who’d be compatible with you out there, someone you’re likely to meet?”

“They don’t have to be perfectly compatible. But, sure, yeah, there are so many people out there, someone has to be as introverted and laid back as us. You can look at the statistics on what makes people happiest. You can look at all the people who are most successful. And the trend is that most of them are married.”

“No, I mean you personally. Knowing yourself as well as you do, do you think there’s someone who’d be cool with you going off on your own as much as you like to? Someone who’d be cool with your views and opinions and wouldn’t get pissed off all the time, or take what you say personally and get hurt feelings? Just someone who’d be cool with you even after you’d spent tons of time together.”

“You make me sound like Rustin Cohle on True Detective,” I say before pausing to think. I feel like I should say yes and explain why I’m optimistic. But I don’t want to be anything less than perfectly honest. So after thinking about his question for a minute, I answer, “Judging from the women I actually know now, I have to say the chances are pretty slim. And if I never find anyone like that, I figure I can still find a way to be happy, to live with the feelings of emptiness and pointlessness that come up once in a while. I’ll just have to hope to hell you and all the other people I’m close to are still around. Still, I have to say, as shitty as the chances are, I’m feeling like I can’t help keeping an eye out, like I’m open to it in a way I haven’t been for the past five years.”

Driving home after the conversation, I wonder what Kevin might have taken away from it, if anything. It’s impossible to tell. Then, despite myself, I start thinking about my ex, about what it would be like if we’d had a little girl like my niece Josalyn. After the family had spent most of the morning in the woods behind my dad’s house last weekend, everyone packed up for the drive back to Fort Wayne. Before leaving town, though, we stopped at a fall festival hosted by an old dairy farm. Jos came and sat next to me in the back of a trailer hooked up for a hayride that took us along winding forested trails decorated for Halloween. When the guys in ape masks and other costumes started jumping out from behind the trees to scare us, she curled up in the corner of the trailer, under my arm, complaining about how they’d tried to “take my head off.” I smile at the memory. Don’t worry Jos. They won’t harm a hair on your head. They wouldn’t fucking dare.

The Creepy King Effect: Why We Can't Help Confusing Writers with Their Characters

            Every writer faces this conundrum: your success hinges on your ability to create impressions that provoke emotions in the people who read your work, so you need feedback from a large sample of readers to gauge the effect of your writing. Without feedback, you have no way to calibrate the impact of your efforts and thus no way to hone your skills. This is why writers’ workshops are so popular; they bring a bunch of budding authors together to serve as one another’s practice audience. The major drawback to this solution is that a sample composed of fellow authorly aspirants may not be representative of the audience you ultimately hope your work will appeal to.

Whether or not they attend a workshop, all writers avail themselves of the ready-made trial audience comprised of their family and friends, a method which inevitably presents them with yet another conundrum: anyone who knows the author won’t be able to help mixing her up with her protagonists. The danger isn’t just that the feedback you get will be contaminated with moral judgments and psychological assessments; you also risk offending people you care about who will have a tough time not assuming identify with characters who bear even the most superficial resemblance to them. And of course you risk giving everyone the wrong idea about the type of person you are and the type of things you get up to.  

My first experience of being mistaken for one of my characters occurred soon after I graduated from college. A classmate and fellow double-major in psychology and anthropology asked to read a story I’d mentioned I was working on. Desperate for feedback, I emailed it to her right away. The next day I opened my inbox to find a two-page response to the story which treated everything described in it as purely factual and attempted to account for the emotional emptiness I’d demonstrated in my behavior and commentary. I began typing my own response explaining I hadn’t meant the piece to be taken as a memoir—hence the fictional name—and pointing to sections she’d missed that were meant to explain why the character was emotionally empty (I had deliberately portrayed him that way), but as I composed the message I found myself getting angry. As a writer of fiction, you trust your readers to understand that what you’re writing is, well, fiction, regardless of whether real people and real events figure into it to some degree. I felt like that trust had been betrayed. I was being held personally responsible for behaviors and comments that for all she knew I had invented whole-cloth for the sake of telling a good story.

To complicate matters, the events in the story my classmate was responding to were almost all true. And yet it still seemed tremendously unfair for anyone to have drawn conclusions about me based on it. The simplest way to explain this is to point out that you have an entirely different set of goals if you’re telling a story about yourself to a friend than you do if you’re telling a story about a fictional character to anyone who might read it—even if they’re essentially the same story. And your goals affect your choice of not only which events to include, but which aspects of the situation and which traits of the characters to focus on. Add in even a few purely fabricated elements and you can dramatically alter the readers’ impression of the characters.

Another way to think about this is to imagine how boring fiction would be if all authors knew they would be associated with and held accountable for everything their protagonists do or say. This is precisely why it’s so important to avoid mistaking writers for their characters, and why writers feel betrayed when that courtesy isn’t afforded to them. Unfortunately, that courtesy is almost never afforded to them. Indeed, if you call readers out for conflating you with your characters, many of them will double down on their mistake. As writers who feel our good names should be protected under the cover of the fiction label, we have to accept that human psychology is constantly operating to poke giant holes in that cover.

Let’s try an experiment: close your eyes for a moment and try to picture Jay Gatsby’s face in your mind’s eye. If you’re like me, you imagined one of two actors who played Gatsby in the movie versions, either Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford. The reason these actors come so readily to mind is that imagining a character’s face from scratch is really difficult. What does Queequeq look like? Melville describes him in some detail; various illustrators have given us their renditions; a few actors have portrayed him, albeit never in a film you’d bother watching a second time. Since none of these movies is easily recallable, I personally have to struggle a bit to call an image of him to mind. What’s true of characters’ physical appearances is also true of nearly everything else about them. Going from words on a page to holistic mental representations of human beings takes effort, and even if you put forth that effort the product tends to be less than perfectly vivid and stable.

In lieu of a well-casted film, the easiest shortcut to a solid impression is to substitute the author you know for the character you don’t. Actors are also mistaken for their characters with disturbing frequency, or at least assumed to possess similar qualities. (“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”) To be fair, actors are chosen for roles they can convincingly pull off, and authors, wittingly or otherwise, infuse their characters with tinctures of their own personalities. So it’s not like you won’t ever find real correspondences.

You can nonetheless count on your perception of the similarities being skewed toward gross exaggeration. This is owing to a phenomenon social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that, at least in individualist cultures, people tend to attribute behavior to the regular inclinations of the person behaving as opposed to more ephemeral aspects of the situation: the driver who cut you off is inconsiderate and hasty, not rushing to work because her husband’s car broke down and she had to drop him off first. One of the classic experiments on this attribution bias had subjects estimate people’s support for Fidel Castro based on an essay they’d written about him. The study, conducted by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at the height of the Cold War, found that even if people were told that the author was assigned a position either for or against Castro based on a coin toss they still assumed more often than not that the argument reflected the author’s true beliefs.

The implication of Jones and Harris’s findings is that even if an author tries to assure everyone that she was writing on behalf of a character for the purpose of telling a story, and not in any way trying to use that character as a mouthpiece to voice some argument or express some sentiment, readers are still going to assume she agrees with everything her character thinks and says. As readers, we can’t help giving too little weight to the demands of the story and too much weight to the personality of the author. And writers can’t even count on other writers not to be biased in this way. In 2001, Eric Hansen, Charles Kimble, and David Biers conducted a series of experiments that instructed people to treat a fellow study participant in either a friendly or unfriendly way and then asked them to rate each other on friendliness. Even though they all got the same type of instructions, and hence should have appreciated the nature of the situational influences, they still attributed unfriendliness in someone else to that person’s disposition. Of course, their own unfriendliness they attributed to the instructions.

One of the theories for why we Westerners fall prey to the fundamental attribution error is that creating dual impressions of someone’s character takes a great deal of effort. Against the immediate and compelling evidence of actual behavior, we have nothing but an abstract awareness of the possibility that the person may behave differently in different circumstances. The ease of imagining a person behaving similarly even without situational factors like explicit instructions makes it seem more plausible, thus creating the illusion that we can somehow tell whether someone following instructions, performing a scene, or writing on behalf of a fictional character is being sincere—and naturally enough we nearly always think they are.

The underlying principle here—that we’re all miserly with our cognition—is bad news for writers for yet another reason. Another classic study, this one conducted by Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues, was reported in an article titled “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read,” which for a fiction writer sounds rather heartening at first. The experiment asked participants to determine prison sentences for defendants in imaginary court cases based on statements that were color-coded to signal they were either true or false. Even though some of the statements were marked as false, they still affected the length of the sentences, and the effect grew even more pronounced when the participants were distracted or pressed for time.

The researchers interpret these findings to mean that believing a statement is true is crucial to comprehending it. To understand the injunction against thinking of a pink elephant, you have to imagine the very pink elephant you’re not supposed to think about. Only after comprehension is achieved can you then go back and tag a statement as false. In other words, we automatically believe what we hear or read and only afterward, with much cognitive effort, go back and revise any conclusions we arrived at based on the faulty information. That’s why sentences based on rushed assessments were more severe—participants didn’t have enough time to go back and discount the damning statements that were marked as false.

If those of us who write fiction assume that our readers rely on the cognitive shortcut of substituting us for our narrators or protagonists, Hansen et al’s and Gilbert’s findings suggest yet another horrifying conundrum. The more the details of our stories immerse readers in the plot, the more difficulty they’re going to have taking into account the fictional nature of the behaviors being enacted in each of the scenes. So the more successful you are in writing your story, the harder it’s going to be to convince anyone you didn’t do the things you so expertly led them to envision you doing. And I suspect, even if readers know as a matter of fact you probably didn’t enact some of the behaviors described in the story, their impressions of you will still be influenced by a sort of abstract association between you and the character. When a reader seems to be confusing me with my characters, I like to pose the question, “Did you think Stephen King wanted to kill his family when you read The Shining?” A common answer I get is, “No, but he is definitely creepy.” (After reading King’s nonfiction book On Writing, I personally no longer believe he’s creepy.)

            When people talk to me about stories of mine they’ve read, they almost invariably use “you” as a shorthand for the protagonist. At least, that’s what I hope they’re doing—in many cases, though, they betray no awareness of the story as a story. To them, it’s just a straightforward description of some real events. Of course, when you press them they allow for some creative license; they’ll acknowledge that maybe it didn’t all happen exactly as it’s described. But that meager allowance still tends to leave me pretty mortified. Once, I even had a family member point to some aspects of a character that were recognizably me and suggest that they undermined the entire story because they made it impossible for her to imagine the character as anyone but me. In her mind, my goal in writing was to disguise myself behind the character, but I’d failed to suppress my true feelings. I tried to explain that I hadn’t tried to hide anything; I’d included elements of my own life deliberately because they served what were my actual goals. I don’t think she was convinced. At any rate, I never got any good feedback from her because she simply didn’t understand what I was really trying to do with the story. And ever since I’ve been taking a reader’s use of “you” to refer to the protagonist as an indication that I’ll need to go elsewhere for any useful commentary.

I’m pretty sure all fiction writers incorporate parts of their own life stories into their work. I’d even go so far as to posit that, at least for literary writers, creating plots and characters is more a matter of rearranging bits and pieces of real events and real people’s sayings and personalities into a coherent sequence with a beginning, middle, and end—a dilemma, resolution, and outcome—than it is of conjuring scenes and actors out of the void. But even a little of this type of rearranging is enough to make any judgments about the author seem pretty silly to anyone who can put the true details back together in their original order. The problem is the author is often the only one who knows what parts are true and how they actually happened, so you’re left having to simply ask her what she really thinks, what she really feels, and what she’s really done. For everyone else, the story only seems like it can tell them something when they already know whatever it is it might tell them. So they end up being tricked into making the leap from bits and pieces of recognizable realities to an assumption of general truthiness.

Even the greatest authors get mixed up in people’s minds with their characters. People think Rabbit Angstrom and John Updike are the same person—or at least that the character is some kind of distillation of the author. Philip Roth gets mistaken for both Nathan Zuckerman (though Roth seems to have wanted that to happen) and Mickey Sabbath, two very different characters. I even wonder if readers assume some kinship between Hilary Mantel and her fictional version of Thomas Cromwell. So I have to accept that my goal with this essay is ridiculously ambitious. As long as I write, people are going to associate me with my narrators and protagonists to one degree or another.
 ********

Nevertheless, I’m going to do something that most writers are loath to do. I’m going to retrace the steps that went into the development of my latest story so everyone can see what I mean when I say I’m responding to the demands of the story or making characters serve the goals of the story. By doing so, I hope to show how quickly real life character models and real life events get muddled, and why there could never be anything like a straightforward method for drawing conclusions about the author based on his or her characters.

The story is titled The Fire Hoarder and it follows a software engineer nearing forty who decides to swear off his family and friends for an indefinite amount of time because he’s impatient with their complacent mediocrity and feels beset by their criticisms, which he perceives as expressions of envy and insecurity. My main inspirations were a series of conversations with a recently divorced friend about the detrimental effects of marriage and parenthood on a man’s identity, a beautiful but somehow eerie nature preserve in my hometown where I fell into the habit of taking weekly runs, and the HBO series True Detective.

The newly divorced friend, whom I’ve known for almost twenty years, became a bit of a fitness maniac over this past summer. Mainly through grueling bike rides, he lost all the weight he’d put on since what he considered his physical prime, going from something like 235 to 190 pounds in the span of few months. Once, in the midst of a night of drinking, he began apologizing for all the time he’d been locked away, gaining weight, doing nothing with his life. He said he felt like he’d let me down, but I have to say it hadn’t ever occurred to me to take it personally. Months later, in the process of writing my story, I realized I needed some kind of personal drama in the protagonist’s life, something he would already be struggling with when the instigating events of the plot occurred. 

So my divorced friend, who turned 39 this summer (I’m just turning 37 myself), ended up serving as a partial model for two characters, the protagonist who is determined to get in better shape, and the friend who betrays him by being too comfortable and lazy in his family life. He shows up again in the words of yet another character, a police detective and tattoo artist who tries to convince the protagonist that single life is better than married life. Though, as one of the other models for that character, an actual police detective and tattoo artist, was quick to notice, the cop in the story is based on a few other people as well.

My own true detective meets the protagonist at a bar after the initial scene. The problem I faced with this chapter was that the main character had already decided to forswear socializing. I handled this by describing the relationship between the characters as one that didn’t include any kind of intimate revelations or profound exchanges—except when it did (like in this particular scene). “Oh man,” read the text I got from the real detective, “I hope I am not as shallow of a friend as Ray is to Russell?” And this is a really good example of how responding to the demands of the story can give the wrong impression to anyone looking for clues about the author’s true thoughts and feelings. (He later assured me he was just busting my balls.)

            Russell’s name was originally Steve; I changed it late in the writing process to serve as an homage to Rustin Cohle, one of the lead characters in True Detective. Before I ever even began watching the show, one of my brothers, the model for Russell’s brother Nick, compared me to Rust. He meant it as a compliment, but a complicated one. Like all brothers, our relationship is complimentary, but complicated. A few of the things my brother has said that have annoyed me over the past few years show up in the story, but whereas this type of commentary is subsumed in our continuing banter, which is almost invariably good-humored, it really gets under Russell’s skin. In a story, one of the goals is to give texture to the characters’ backgrounds, and another goal is often to crank up the tension. So I often include more serious versions of petty and not-so-memorable spats I have with friends, lovers, and family members in my plots and character bios. And when those same friends, lovers, and family members read the resulting story I have to explain that it doesn’t mean what they think it means. (I haven’t gotten any texts from my brother about the story yet.) I won't go into the details of my love life here; suffice it to say writers pretty much have to be prepared for their wives or girlfriends to flip out whenever they read one of their stories featuring fictional wives or girlfriends. 

I was initially put off by True Detective for the same reasons I have a hard time stomaching any hardboiled fiction. The characters use the general foulness of the human race to justify their own appalling behavior. “The world needs bad men,” Rust says to his partner. “They keep the other bad men from the door.” The conceit is that life is so ugly and people are so evil that we should all just walk around taking ourselves far too seriously as we bemoan the tragedy of existence. At one point, Rust tells some fellow detectives about M-theory, an outgrowth of superstring theory. The show tries to make it sound tragic and horrifying. But the tone of the scene is perfectly nonsensical. Why should thinking about extra dimensions be like rubbing salt in our existential wounds? The view of the world that emerges is as embarrassingly adolescent as it is screwball.

But much of the dialogue in the show is magnificent, and the scene-by-scene progression of the story is virtuoso. When I first watched it, the conversations about marriage and family life resonated with the discussions I’d been having with my divorced friend over the summer. And Rust in particular forces us to ask what becomes of a man who finds the common rituals and diversions to be resoundingly devoid of meaning. The entire mystery of the secret cult at the center of the plot, with all its crude artifacts made of sticks, really only succeeds as a prop for Rust’s struggle with his own character. He needs something to obsess over. But the bad guy at the end, the monster at the end of the dream, is destined to disappoint. I included my own true detective in The Fire Hoarder so there would be someone who could explain why not finding such monsters is worse than finding them. And I went on to explore what a character like Rust, obsessive, brilliant, skeptical, curious, and haunted would do in the absence of a bad guy to hunt down. But my guy wouldn’t take himself so seriously.

If you add in the free indirect style of narration I enjoy in the works of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, and others, along with some of the humor you find in their novels, you have the technique I used, the tone I tried to strike, and my approach to dealing with the themes. (The revelation at the end that one of the characters is acting as the narrator is a trick I’m most familiar with from McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.) The ideal reader response to my story would focus on these issues of style and technique, and insofar as the comments took on topics like the vividness of the characters or the feelings they inspired it would do so as if they were entities entirely separate from me and the people I know and care about.


But I know that would be asking a lot. The urge to read stories, the pleasure we take in them, is a product of the same instincts that make us fascinated with gossip. And we have a nasty tendency to try to find hidden messages in what we read, as though we were straining to hear the whispers we can’t help suspecting are about us--and not exactly flattering. So, as frustrated as I get with people who get the wrong idea, I usually come around to just being happy there are some people out there who are interested enough in what I’m doing to read my fiction.  

Also read: 

The Fire Hoarder


Bedtime Ghost Story for Adults

            I had just moved into the place on Berry Street with my girlfriend and her two cats. A very old lady lived in the apartment behind us. She came out to the dumpster while I was breaking down boxes and throwing them in. “Can you take those out?” she asked in her creaky voice. I explained I had nowhere else to put them if I did. “But it gets filled up and I can’t get anything in there,” she complained. I said she could come knock on our door if she ever had to throw something in the dumpster and it was too full. I’d help her.

            A couple nights later, just as we were about to go to bed, my girlfriend asked me to tell her a story. When we first started dating, I would improvise elaborate stories at her request—to impress her and because it was fun. I hadn’t done it in a while.

******

            “There was a couple who just moved into a new apartment,” I began as we climbed into bed.

            “Uh-huh,” she said, already amused.

            “And this apartment was at the front part of a really old house, and there was a really old lady who lived in the apartment behind theirs. Well, they got all their stuff moved in and they thought their place was really awesome and everything was going great. And the old lady liked the couple a lot… She liked them because she liked their cat.”

            “Oh, they have a cat, huh? You didn’t say anything about a cat.”

            “I just did.”

            “What color is this cat?”

            “Orange.”

            “Oh, okay.”

            “What happened was that one day the cat went missing and it turned out the cat had wandered to the old lady’s porch and she let it in her apartment. And she really liked it. But the girl was like, ‘Where’s my cat?’ and she went looking for it and got all worried. Finally, she knocked on the old lady’s door and asked if she’d seen it.

            “The old lady invited the girl in to give her her cat back and while they were talking the old lady was thinking, wow, I really like this girl and she has a really nice cat and I liked having the cat over here. And the old lady had grown up in New Orleans, so she and her sisters were all into voodoo and hoodoo and spells and stuff. They were witches.”

            “Oh man.”

            “Yeah, so the old lady was a witch. And since she liked the young girl so much she decided to do something for her, so while she was talking to her she had something in her hand. And she held up her hand and blew it in the girl’s face. It was like water and ashes or something. The girl had no idea what it was and she was really weirded out and like, ‘What the hell did she do that for?’ But she figured it was no big deal. The lady was really old and probably a little dotty she figured. But she still kind of hurried up and got her cat and went home.

            “Well, everything was normal until the boyfriend came home, and then the girl was all crazy and had to have sex with him immediately. They ended up having sex all night. And from then on it was like whenever they saw each other they couldn’t help themselves and they were just having sex all the time.”

            “Oh boy.”

            “Eventually, it was getting out of hand because they were both exhausted all day and they never talked to their friends and they started missing work and stuff. But they were really happy. It was great. So the girl started wondering if maybe the old lady had done something to her when she blew that stuff in her face. And then she thought maybe she should go and ask her, the old lady, if that’s what had happened. And if it was she thought, you know, she should thank her. She thought about all this for a long time, but then she would see the boyfriend and of course after that she would forget everything and eventually she just stopped thinking about it.

            “Then one day their cat went missing, their other cat.”

            “What color is this one?”

            “Black. And, since she found the other cat at the old lady’s before, the girl thought maybe she should go and ask the old lady again. So one day when she was getting home from work she saw the old lady sitting on her porch and she goes up to talk to her. And she’s trying to make small talk and tell the old lady about the cat and ask her if she’s seen it when the old lady turns around and, like, squints and wrinkles her nose and kind of goes like this—looking back—and says, ‘You didn’t even thank me!’ before walking away and going in her door.”

            “Ahh.”

            “Yeah, and the girl’s all freaked out by it too.”

            “Oh!—I’m gonna have to roll over and make sure she’s not out there.”

            “Okay… So the girl’s all freaked out, but she’s still like, ‘Where’s my cat?’ So one time after they just had sex for like the umpteenth time she tells her boyfriend we gotta find the cat. And the boyfriend is like, ‘All right, I’m gonna go talk to this old lady and find out what the hell happened to our cat.’”

            “Oh! What did you do to Mikey?”

            “I didn’t do anything. Just listen… Anyway, he’s determined to find out if the cat’s in this old lady’s apartment. So he goes and knocks on her door and is all polite and everything. But the old lady just says, ‘You didn’t even thank me!’ and slams the door on him. He doesn’t know what else to do at this point so he calls the police, and he tells them that their cat’s missing and the last time, when the other cat was missing, it turned up at the old lady’s house. And he told them the old lady was acting all weird and stuff too.

            “But of course the police can’t really do anything because there’s no way anyone knows the cat’s in the old lady’s house and they tell him to just wait and see if maybe the cat ran away or whatever. And the girl’s all upset and the guy’s getting all pissed off and trying to come up with some kind of scheme to get into the old lady’s house.

“–But they never actually get around to doing anything because they’re having so much sex and, even though they still miss the cat and everything, a lot of the time they almost forget about it. And it just goes on like this for a long time with the couple suspicious of the old lady and wondering where their cat is but not being able to do anything.

“And this goes on until one day—when the old lady just mysteriously dies. When the police get to her apartment, sure enough there’s the couple’s black cat.”

“Ooh, Mikey.”

“So the police come and tell the guy, you know, hey, we found your cat, just like you said. And the guy goes and gets the cat and brings it home. But while he’s in the old lady’s apartment he’s wondering the whole time about the spell she put on him and his girlfriend, and he’s a little worried that maybe since she died the spell might be broken. But he gets the cat and takes it home. And when his girlfriend comes home it’s like she gets all excited to see it, but only for like a minute, and then it’s like before and they can’t help themselves. They have to have sex.

“Well, this goes on and on and things get more and more out of hand until both of them lose their jobs, their friends just drift away because they never talk to them, and eventually they can’t pay their rent so they lose their apartment. So they get their cats and as much of their stuff as they can and they go to this spot they know by the river where some of their hippie friends used to camp. And they just live there like before, with their cats, just having sex all the time.

“One night after they just had sex again, they’re sitting by the campfire and the guy says, ‘You know, we lost our jobs and our friends and our apartment, and we’re living in the woods here by the river, and you’d think we’d be pretty miserable. But I think I have everything I need right here.’ He’s thinking about having sex again even as he’s saying this. And he’s like, ‘Really, I’m happy as hell. I don’t remember ever being this happy.’

“And the girl is like, ‘Yeah, me too. I actually kind of like living out here with you.’

“So they’re about to start having sex again when the black cat turns and looks at them and says, ‘And you didn’t even thank me!’”



 

Gracie - Invisible Fences

Invisible Fences

I hated Tony’s parents even more than I had before when I heard about the “invisible fence” for Gracie.

They were altogether too strict, overly vigilant, intrusive in their son’s, my friend’s, life, and so unjustifiedly.

He and I were the shy ones, the bookish, artistic, sensitive ones—really both of us were conscientious to a fault.

What we needed was encouragement, always some sort of bolstering, but what Tony got was questioned and stifled.

 

And here was Gracie, a German shorthair, damn good dog, spirited, set to be broken by similarly unjustified treatment.

As dumb kids we of course had to sample the “mild shock” Gracie would receive should she venture too near the property line.

It seemed not so mild to me, a teenager, with big dreams, held back, I felt, by myriad unnecessary qualities of myself—

qualities I must master, vanquish—and yet here were Tony’s parents, putting up still more arbitrary boundaries.

 

I could barely stand to hear about Gracie’s march of shameful submission, conditioning to a high-pitched warning.

She started whimpering and shaking, and looking up with plangent eyes at her merciless or misguided master—

this by the second lap along the border of the yard, so she’d learn never to get shocked—it was all “for her own good.”

The line infuriated me more than any lie I’d ever heard, as there was no question whose convenience was really being served.

 

That first day after Gracie had been trained as directed, Tony and I were walking away from his house,

and I looked back, stopping, to see her longingly looking, desperately watching us leave her, leaving me sighing.

I shook my head, frowned, subtly slumped, which maybe she saw, because just then a change came over her.

She fell silent, her ears fell flat to her brown, bullet-shaped head, her body tensed as she lifted herself from her haunches.

 

And then she shot forth her willowy, maculated body in long, determined strides, but keeping low all the while,

as if somehow intuiting that the impending pain was simply a manifestation of her master’s hand to be ducked under.

My mouth fell open in thrilled astonishment, and as she neared the buried line, I shouted, “Yeah Gracie! Come on!”

Tony likewise thrilled to the feat his old friend was about to perform, shouting alongside me, “Come on girl! You can make it!”

 

About the time Gracie would have been heedlessly hearing the warning beep, my excitement turned darker.

Simultaneous with the shock I barked, “Go Gracie! Fuck ‘em!” with a maniacal, demoniacal, spitting abandon.

Without the slightest whimper Gracie broke through the boundary, ducked under the blow, defying her master’s dictates.

“Yeah! Fuck ‘em!” I enjoined again, my head jolting, thrashing out the words, erupting with all the force of self-loathing.

 

If Tony had any apprehensions about hearing his parents so cursed he never voiced them—was I really cursing them?

Gracie approached atremble, all frenzy from her jolting accomplishment and now met by our wild acclaim and eager praise,

or not praise so much as gratitude, as she anxiously darted between and around us as if disoriented, reeling, overwhelmed.

But Tony and I knew exactly what we had just witnessed, the toppling of guilt’s tyranny, a spirit’s willful, gasping escape.

 

Our deliverance lasted hours, while we idly ambled about and between neighborhoods, casting spiteful glances

along the endless demarcations of land, owned, separated, displayed, individual kingdoms, badges of well-lived,

well-governed lives—I wanted to tromp through all those manicured front lawns, my every step spreading pestilence

to the too-green grass we weren’t supposed to walk on lest it wear a trail, ruining the pristine quality of ownership.

 

Our march of euphoric defiance inspired by Gracie’s coup de grace could only go on for so long, though—

we were newly free, but free to do what?—before we’d have to return home for a meal, shelter, electronic entertainment.

As the sun sank, I began to have the sense of squandered opportunity, dreading the end of my reprieve from invisible impediments.

Back toward Tony’s house we hesitantly made our way, but all the while I kept the image of Gracie’s escape fresh in mind.

 

My friend and I took up conversing as we neared the stretch of road by his house, ranging widely and irreverently—

our discourses having served as our sole escape up to then—in the tone and spirit of seeing right through everything.

We were both halfway up Tony’s driveway before we noticed that Gracie was no longer keeping pace with us.

…She was turning tight circles in the street, whimpering, anxious, and seeing her, Tony and I exchanged a look I’ll never forget.

Even after removing the device from Gracie’s neck, we still had to lift her, squirming desperately, over the line to get her home.

The Ghost Haunting 710 Crowder Court

        Long before I was an atheist and scientific skeptic, I was fascinated with and scared shitless by ghosts. I remember watching a show called Sightings with my best friends down the street. Their Filipino mom was superstitious and had told them all kinds of stories, like one about a baby born in the Philippines with horns and a tail, and because of the distinctive cuisine the house always had a strange smell. But it was their dad, who had met their mom while in the navy, who really scared me. Those guys were my best friends for years, but I don’t think I ever heard their dad speak. I had met the two boys at school years earlier and become fast friends with the younger one because he appreciated my ability to make up ghost stories on the fly. He was the one who first introduced me to Alvin Schwartz, whose “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” would be one of the delights of my childhood.  

       After watching Sightings, the three of us would try to regale each other with stories of our own experiences with ghosts. It would have been around the same time that I started hanging out with another aficionado of the horror story who went to the same school but lived the next neighborhood over. This guy had HBO and it was at his house that I first saw Tales from the Crypt. I can’t think about this period without picturing the strip of woods separating the two backyards forming the border between our neighborhoods. Too often I made Ichabod Crane’s mistake—though I wouldn’t read that story till years later—indulging in all the stories I loved so much only to have to walk home in the dark, along a poorly kept trail through those woods, scared half to death.

As a kid I was imaginative, suggestible, and prone to vivid dreams—hell, I kind of still am. But I only ever had one ghostly experience that I didn’t quickly attribute to being less than fully awake and still dreaming. I remember recounting it to my best friends after watching an episode of Sightings in their strange-smelling, uncomfortably silent house. The oldest boy had just told us about how he’d been doing homework and heard someone enter the room. Thinking it was his brother, he made some snide remark only to turn around and see that he was alone in the room. But the dangling cord from the telephone was swinging back and forth. As he sat there frozen, trying to figure out what had just happened, the light hanging from the middle of the ceiling began to flicker, sending him out of the room shouting for his brother. It was the same room we were sitting in now. I looked over at the telephone. Then I looked up at the light. I was glad there were no woods between our houses.

            Now that it was my turn I began to tell the story of my first night at 710 Crowder Court, the house my brother still lives in to this day—but not for much longer (he's moving). I had learned from the younger of my two friends down the street that some years earlier the family who lived there before us had experienced a tragedy. Their little boy had slipped while running near a pool, hit his head, and fallen into the water. He had drowned. I actually remembered hearing about this, and at the time I recognized the boy’s name. I want to say Eric now, but that was another little boy I knew from a much earlier time. Eric had died of leukemia; his funeral is one of my earliest memories.

            The boy who’d died in that pool had an older sister, who apparently moved into what had been his room in our new house because the walls and the carpet were pink. I’m the youngest in our family, so I got the last pick of the bedrooms. My friend assured me the pink room had in fact been the boy’s bedroom when he died, giving me two reasons to dread moving into it. But move in I did, and I’ll never forget my first night sleeping there.

            I woke up terrified, as if from a nightmare. It was still dark but I sensed there was someone in the room with me. The reason I couldn’t dismiss what happened next as the remnants of a dream was that I lay there wide awake for what seemed like hours. My eyes were peeled open and my heart was pounding. I was completely frozen with fear. Next to my bed was a digital clock, but it took me some time to work up the courage even to turn my head. Like I said, it was completely dark when I first woke up, but what finally prompted me to check the clock was the graying light of morning coming in through the window. It was before six. I began to calm down, hoping I might still get some more sleep before my alarm went off.

But that’s when I heard it. I immediately tried to ascribe the sound to the expansion of pipes. My stepdad must be up already, I thought, getting ready for work. He’s running hot water. Then I heard the sound again. If it was a pipe, then it had to have been running directly over my bed. I’d spent enough time in houses still under construction, seeing them as playgrounds of sorts, to know how unlikely that was. I lay there frozen in my bed as the rising sun gradually lit the pink walls of the room. The third time I heard the sound there was no mistaking what it was—the pathetic moan of a little boy. I didn’t budge again until over an hour later, when the room was fully lit by the morning. I never heard anything like that sound again as long as I lived there.

But there was another sound I heard that would keep me up through countless nights over the following years. Whenever the wind came up at night, I heard what I at first took to be tree branches scratching against the vinyl siding outside my room. I took this explanation for granted for a while. I still recall the first time it dawned on me, while I was pushing the lawnmower around after a night of particularly intense scratching, that there weren’t any trees or bushes remotely close to the siding. I turned the lawnmower off and began pushing and pulling at the vinyl slats, trying to reproduce the sound—not even close. After that, whenever I heard the scratching, it heralded a long, sleepless night.

            Years later, long after I’d moved to my dad’s house on Union Chapel Road, long after I had largely outgrown my fascination with ghosts and such things (sort of), I got in a conversation with my mom about my stepsister. Mom was mad at her because she was starting to skip her weekend visits to her dad’s house. As a teenager now myself, I tried to explain that it was perfectly natural for her to prefer spending weekends with her friends, that nothing sinister should be read into it. “No,” my mom said, “she says she can’t sleep here because she thinks there’s something scratching on the wall outside the bedroom.” She was talking about the pink bedroom--even though by then the walls had been painted.

Occupy Fort Wayne

What is one to do when the purpose of events like this is to rouse passion for a cause, only he believes there's already too much passion, too little knowledge, too little thinking, too little reason?
Heather Bureau from WOWO put a camera in my face at one point. "Can you tell me why you're here today?"
I had no idea who she was. "Are you going to put it on TV?"
"No, on the radio--or on the website." She pulled her hair aside to show me the WOWO logo on her shirt.
















"I wanted to check it out. We're here because of income inequality. And the sway of the rich in politics. Plus, I guess we're all liberals." I really wanted her to go away.
The first speaker filled us in on "Occupation Etiquette." You hold up your arm and wave your hand when you agree with what's been said.
And the speakers use short sentences the crowd repeats to make sure everyone can hear.
The call and response reminded me of church.

Rallies like this are to gather crowds, so when talking heads say their views are the views of the people they can point to the throngs of people who came to their gatherings.
But what is one to do about the guy carrying the sign complaining about illegal immigrants?
What about all the people saying we need to shut down the Fed?

What about the guy who says, "There's two kinds of people: the kind who work for money, and the kind who work for people"?
Why was I there? Well, I really do think inequality is a problem. But I support the Fed. And I'm first and foremost against tribalism. As soon as someone says, "There's two types of people..." then I know I'm somewhere I don't belong.
We shouldn't need political rallies to whip us up into a frenzy. We're obligated as citizens to pay attention to what's going on--and to vote.
Maybe the Occupy Protests will get some issues into the news cycle that weren't there before. If so, I'm glad I went.
But politics is a battle of marketing strategies. Holding up signs and shouting to be heard--well, let's not pretend our voices are independent.
Some fool laughingly shouts about revolution. But I'm not willing to kill anyone over how much bankers make.
Why was I there today? It seemed like the first time someone was talking about the right issue. Sort of.

Literature and Rock n Roll

I ended my Intro Rhet Comp class early on Thursday. I’d scheduled fifteen minutes of the class for discussing the chapter of the textbook assigned for the day, and fifteen minutes after that to a group project based on the reading. After calling on two students randomly and getting a bewildered look from both, I asked for a show of hands to see how many of the eighteen present had read the chapter. One hand went up. Suddenly, the class’s performance on the last paper began to make more sense. Bewildered now myself as to how so many students could be so cavalier about their grades, how they could be content with doing the bare minimum and constantly testing to see if they could get by with even less, I floated the idea of daily quizzes by a few of my fellow TA’s who share an office with me during our pointless office hours.

“I don’t see my job as making sure students do the reading,” Darlene said. She’s a returning adult, one of the women who frequently derail classes by straining to apply their personal and family experiences to the questions raised by professors. “I look at the textbook as just a guide they can use if they need it.” It’s her first semester teaching.

A visceral antipathy toward reading is pervasive on our campus. I read it in my students’ faces every time I discuss an upcoming assigned chapter, this look of “Why are you doing this to us?” But I also encounter it in advanced Lit courses. Last week, after having been arranged into groups of five by the professor, I was excited to see what my classmates had to say about Gatsby, an old favorite of mine. Before getting started, though, we did what had become an obligatory round of disclosing how far into the reading each of us had made it. I was the only one in the group who’d actually finished it.

Undeterred, I kept an eye on my classmates’ Blackboard postings over the following days. The few comments that appeared that were actually about the novel were resoundingly, astonishingly, negative. “The characters are superficial and the plot is confusing.” But mostly people wrote about their difficulties making sense of the “tricky” narration—as if Fitzgerald had let them down instead of the other way around. And these are people who profess to enjoy reading.

Seeing those responses was shocking, uncanny, and oddly encouraging. This past summer I finished a draft of a novel and, after asking on Facebook who all was interested in reading it, sent out fifteen copies. My goal was to get as many responses as I could from educated people who weren’t necessarily English or Literature majors. I got three detailed responses. One was from a fellow English grad student. The other two I would see echoed almost word for word two months later in my classmates’ postings on Gatsby. They complained about not getting the characters, but they’d also missed key elements of the plot which would’ve brought the characters into better focus. I could’ve responded to the poor reception—the twelve copies that went unanswered were somehow worse—by blaming the readers. Instead, I became pretty demoralized. Seeing how many people had the same response to Fitzgerald didn’t exactly reassure me of my bright future as a novelist, but it did hang a question mark over what had for those two months been a period.

Still, I have to wonder if literature has become one of those geeky pursuits, like video games, Dungeons and Dragons, or magic, that so many people--males in particular--obsess over, only to experience more and more isolation because of it. At the opposite end of the spectrum lie passions for sports and music, the crowd-pleasing passions, which are really just as pointless except for their wider followings and the social sanction of popularity.

One Foot in the Real World: Some Thoughts on the New Job

When people asked me about my restaurant job, I'd say, “I like to keep one foot in the real world.” It’s a response to my family’s heckling, itself a response to their inability to convince me they know what they’re talking about on a range of topics. School, where I spend the rest of my time, when I’m not reading or cranking out calories on the elliptical, isn’t real. At best, it’s a pseudo-reality built up of vain attempts by vain professors to capture something from an impossible distance. The only reason to take the charge of unreality seriously is that they pin their entire case on it, their entire violent dismissal of all I have to say. So I work in a regular, salt-of-the-earth type of place too. You want to see real? Listen to the problems my fellow servers go through—excluding the ones who just graduated from Homestead High School and are working to keep their rich parents off their backs.

I sat taking notes about an email marketing project I’ll be working on at the new job and I was slightly shocked, mostly delighted, by the way it operated. I needed to be brought up to speed. They needed to coordinate their ideas for where we’d be going with the project. Me, two guys, one a Battle-of-the-Bands veteran younger than me, the other a management type with a kind face and a polo shirt with the company logo, and one woman, pretty, assertive in a way that suggests she never had to deal with severe dismissal, the four of us sitting around a table in an office throwing out ideas with only the whisper of top-down control. What would it be like to work at a place where you hardly ever, if ever, eat shit? I don’t know about this real world everyone likes to talk about, and I’m pretty sure the people who talk about it, to a one, don’t know about it either, but I do know that a hell of a lot of people’s jobs consist of eating shit all day, every day. I’m left wondering what I can say about my feet now that I have this new gig.

Twenty hours a week, and most of that time will be devoted to writing copy. At that rate, it won’t take long before my copywriting has overtaken any other writing I’ve done. Are there measures I can take to avoid getting trapped in that style, at once condescending and wheedling, straining to be colloquial and simple while working secret magic on the minds of hapless, bored, or desperate readers with fancy titles and impressive investment portfolios. “Connect with their pain” is the first step in the sales technique I’ll be learning. People are motivated not by promises of gains but by threats of losses. So find out what people are afraid of losing or how they’ve already experienced loss and dangle a way to avoid or restore it in front of them. I have no qualms about selling to “C-Level” people. But what will it do to my writing? My outlook?

Twenty hours at work, then there’s my thesis with its high academic, acid-free prose. Between school and work then I’ll be writing in a voice far removed from what anyone might recognize as genuine or authentic. Of course, I have my suspicions about the use of those terms, but you can’t explode what you haven’t mastered, at least when it comes to conventions of communication. The work you do becomes a part of you, and so you can’t just say this place has a great atmosphere, decent pay, no dealing with moronic disrespectful customers. You also have to ask, who will this job turn me into? Who will I become after I’ve adapted to this place, begun the inevitable social jostling and taken on a role, climbing or otherwise?

I console myself that I’ve spent lots of time eating shit, that people who eat too much shit eventually lose the capacity to arrive at perspective, and I’ll never acclimate as fully as my coworkers in their early twenties. Plus, white collar work is what most of the oblivious conservatives actually mean when they talk about the real world. So maybe I’ll discover some key to the lock of their oblivion. It’s something new. It’s an opportunity. And I’m not the type to forget where I came from.

Kayaking on a Wormhole

            We’d been on the water for quite a while, neither of us at all sure just how much longer we’d be on it before reaching the Hursh Road Bridge, cattycorner to which, in a poorly tended gravel parking lot marking the head of a trail through a nature preserve, I’d parked Kevin's work truck before transferring vehicles to ride with him in his wife’s truck, kayaks strapped to the roof, to Cook’s Landing, another park situated in the shadow of a bridge, this one for Coldwater Road just north of Shoaf on the way to Garret. After maybe an hour of paddling and floating, it occurred to me to start attending to our banter and assessing how faithfully some of the dialogue between friends in my stories mimicked it.

            “What the hell kind of bird is that?”
            “Probably an early bird.”
            “Probably a dirty bird.”
            “Oh yeah, it’s filthy.”

            At one point, after posing a series of questions about what I’d rather have fall on me from the trees—a cricket or a spider?; a spider or a centipede?; a spider or a snake?—followed by the question of what I’d do if I saw a giant snake someone had let loose slither into the water after me, he began a story about a herpetologist in Brazil: “Did you hear what happened?” Of course, I hadn’t heard; the story was from a show on cable about anacondas. This hundred and fifty pound woman was walking through the marshes, tracking a snake, which turned out to be about twenty-eight feet long and five hundred pounds, to study it.

            “She’s following the track it left in the tall grass, and then she senses that there’s something watching her. When she turns around, she sees that it’s reared up”—he held up his arm with his fist bent forward—“so it’s just looking at her at eye level.”
            “Did it say, ‘Who da fuck is you?’”
            “Snakes don’t generally creep me out, but I don’t like the idea of it, like, following her and rearing up like that.”
            “Yeah, I’ve never heard of an anaconda doing that. You hear of cobras doing it. Did she say, ‘Dere’s snakes out here dis big!?’”—my impression of Ice Cube in the movie Anaconda.
            When I asked what she did, he said he didn’t remember. The snake had attacked her, lunging at her face, but she must’ve escaped somehow because she was being interviewed for the show. At a couple points in his recounting of the story, I thought how silly it was. For one thing, it’s impossible to sense something watching you. For another, her being a herpetologist doesn’t rule out the possibility that she was embellishing. And yet I couldn’t help picturing the encounter, vividly, as I paddled my kayak.

            The story was oddly appropriate. Every time we put in on Cedar Creek and make it some distance from the roads, we get the sense that we’re closer to the jungle than we are to civilization. Kevin knows snakes are my fear totem. At times, scenes from the Paul Bowles collection A Delicate Prey, or from Heart of Darkness, or even from Huckleberry Finn would drift into my mind. We did briefly discuss some paleoanthropology—recent discoveries in Dmanisi, Georgia suggesting a possible origin of modern humans in Western Asia rather than Africa—but, for the most part, for the duration of our sojourn on the river, we may as well have been two prepubescent boys. Compared to the way we were talking, the dialogue between friends in my stories is far too sophisticated.

            But that’s really not how we normally talk. As our time on the water accrued long past our upper estimates, and as the fallen-tree-strewn stretches got more and more tricky to traverse, that sense of being far from civilization, far from our lives, our adult lives, became ever more profound. The gnats and mosquitoes and splendidly black dragonflies, their wings tipped with blue, swarmed us whenever we lolled in the shade, getting more bold as more of our bug spray got washed away. We talked about all the ways we’d heard of that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples avoided bug bites and poison plants. The shores were lousy with poison ivy. It was easy to lose your identity. We could’ve been any two guys in the world, at any time in history. The phones were locked away in a waterproof box. The kayaks could’ve been made of anything; the plastic was adventitious. Out here, with the old-growth trees and the ghostly shadows of quickly glimpsed fish, it was the big concrete bridges and the exiguous houses and yards backing up to the creek that seemed impermanent, unreal. Even the human trash washing into the leafy and wooden detritus gathering against the smoothed-over bark of collapsed trees was being dulled and stripped of all signs of cleverness.

            “Do you ever have déjà vu?” Kevin asked after we’d passed all the expected landmarks and gotten over our astonishment at how drastically we’d underestimated the length of the journey down the creek. “Because the first time we kayaked here, I was completely sure I’d had a dream about it—but I had the dream before I’d ever been here.”

            “I think it’s something about the river,” I said, recalling several instances that day when I had experienced an emptying of mind, something I’ve often strived for while meditating but seldom even come to close to achieving. You find yourself being carried downstream, lulled, quieted, your gaze focused on the busy motion of countless tiny bugs on a swatch of surface gilt with sunlight. Their coordinated pattern dazzles you. It’s the only thing remotely resembling a thought. “There’s something about the motion of the water and the way it has you slowly moving along. I keep laying back and watching the undersides of the leaves move over me. It puts you in a trance. It’s hypnotic.”

            “You’re right. It is, like, mesmerizing.” He knew what I was talking about, but we kept shuffling through our stock of words because none of them seemed to get it quite right.

            So there we were, a couple of nameless, ageless guys floating down the river, leaning back to watch the trees slide away upstream, soft white clouds in a soft blue sky, riotous distant stars shattering the immense dark of some timeless night.

            “I forgive you river for making me drag my boat through all those nettles.”
            “I’ll reserve my forgiveness until I find out if I have poison ivy.”

Taking the GRE again after 10 Years

            I had it timed: if I went to the bathroom at 8:25, I’d be finishing up the essay portion of the test about ten minutes after my bladder was full again. Caffeine being essential for me to get into the proper state of mind for writing, I’d woken up to three cans of Diet Mountain Dew and two and half rather large cups of coffee. I knew I might not get called in to take the test precisely at 8:30, but I figured I could handle the pressure, as it were. The clock in the office of the test center read 8:45 when I walked in. Paperwork, signatures, getting a picture taken, turning out all my pockets (where I managed to keep my three talismans concealed)—by the time I was sitting down in the carrel—in a room that might serve as a meeting place for prisoners and their lawyers—it was after 9:00. And there were still more preliminaries to go through.

            Test takers are allotted 45 minutes for an essay on the “Issue Topic” prompted by a short quote. The “Analysis of an Argument” essay takes a half hour. The need to piss got urgent with about ten minutes left on the clock for the issue essay. By the end of the second essay, I was squirming and dancing and pretty desperate. Of course, I had to wait for our warden to let me out of the testing room. And then I had to halt midway through the office to come back and sign myself out. Standing at the urinal—and standing and standing—I had plenty of time to consider how poorly designed my strategy had been. I won’t find out my scores for the essay portion for ten or so days.
**********************************

            I’ve been searching my apartment for the letter with my official scores from the first time I took the GRE about ten years ago. I’d taken it near the end of the summer, at one of those times in life of great intellectual awakening. With bachelor’s degrees in both anthropology and psychology, and with only the most inchoate glimmerings of a few possible plans for the future, I lived in my dad’s enormous house with my oldest brother, who had returned after graduating from Notre Dame and was now taking graduate courses at IPFW, my alma mater, and some roommates. I delivered pizzas in the convertible Mustang I bought as a sort of hand-me-down from that same brother. And I spent hours every day reading.

            I’m curious about the specific date of the test because it would allow me place it in the context of what I was reading. It would also help me ascertain the amount of time I spent preparing. If memory serves, I was doing things like pouring over various books by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, trying to decide which one of them knew the real skinny on how evolution works. I think by then I’d read Frank Sulloway’s Born to Rebel, in which he applied complex statistics to data culled from historical samples and concluded that later-born siblings tend to be less conscientious but more open to new ideas and experiences. I was delighted to hear that the former president had read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and thought it tragically unimaginable that the current president would ever read anything like that. At some point, I began circling words I didn’t recognize or couldn’t define so when I was finished with the chapter I could look them up and make a few flashcards.

            I’m not even sure the flashcards were in anticipation of the GRE. Several of my classmates in both the anthropology and psychology departments had spoken to me by then of their dejection upon receiving their scores. I was scared to take it. The trend seemed to be that everyone was getting about a hundred points less on this test than they did on the SAT. I decided I only really cared about the verbal reasoning section, and a 620 on that really wasn’t acceptable. Beyond the flashcards, I got my hands on a Kaplan CD-ROM from a guy at school and started doing all the practice tests on it. The scores it gave me hovered in the mid-600s. It also gave me scads of unfamiliar words (like scad) to put in my stack of flashcards, which grew, ridiculously, to the height of about a foot.

            I don’t remember much about the test itself. It was at a Sylvan Learning Center that closed a while back. One of the reading comprehension excerpts was on chimpanzees, which I saw as a good sign. When I was done, there was a screen giving me a chance to admit I cheated. It struck me as odd. Then came the screen with my scores—800 verbal reasoning. I looked around the room and saw nothing but the backs of silent test-takers. Could this be right? I never ace anything. It sank in when I was sitting down in the Mustang. Driving home on I-69, I sang along to “The Crush” by Dave Matthews, elated.

            I got accepted into MIT’s program in science writing based on that score and a writing sample in which I defended Frank Sulloway’s birth order theory against Judith Rich Harris, the author of The Nurture Assumption, another great book. But Harris’s arguments struck me as petty and somewhat disgraceful. She was engaging in something akin to a political campaign against a competing theory, rather than making a good faith effort to discover the truth. Anyway, the article I wrote got long and unwieldy. Michael Shermer considered it for publication in Skeptic but ultimately declined because I just didn’t have my chops up when it came to writing about science. By then, I was a writer of fiction.

            That’s why upon discovering how expensive a year in Cambridge would be and how little financial aid I’d be getting I declined MIT's invitation to attend their program. If being a science writer was my dream, I’d have gone. But I decided to hold out for an acceptance to an MFA program in creative writing. I’d already applied two years in row before stretching my net to include science writing. But the year I got accepted at MIT ended up being the third year of summary rejection on the fiction front. I had one more year before that perfect GRE score expired.
**********

            Year four went the same way all the other years had gone. I was in my late twenties now and had the feeling whatever opportunities that were once open to me had slipped away. Next came a crazy job at a restaurant—Lucky’s—and a tumultuous relationship with the kitchen manager. After I had to move out of the apartment I shared with her in the wake of our second breakup (there would be a third), I was in a pretty bad place. But I made the smartest decision I’d made in a while and went back to school to get my master’s in English at IPFW.

            The plan was to improve my qualifications for creative writing programs. And now that I’m nearly finished with the program I put re-taking the GRE at the top of my list for things to do this summer. In the middle of May, I registered to take it on June 22nd. I’d been dreading it ever since my original score expired, but now I was really worried. What would it mean if I didn’t get an 800 again? What if I got significantly lower than that? The MFA programs I’ll be applying to are insanely competitive: between five hundred and a thousand applicants for less than a dozen spaces. At the same time, though, there was a sense that a lower score would serve as this perfect symbol for just how far I’d let my life go off-track.

            Without much conscious awareness of what I was doing, I started playing out a Rocky narrative, or some story like Mohammed Ali making his comeback after losing his boxing license for refusing to serve in Vietnam. I would prove I wasn’t a has-been, that whatever meager accomplishments I had under my belt weren’t flukes. Last semester I wrote a paper on how to practice to be creative, and one of the books I read for it was K. Anders Ericsson’s The Road to Excellence. So, after signing up for the test I created a regimen of what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” based on anticipation and immediate feedback. I got my hands on as many sample items and sample tests I could find. I made little flashcards with the correct answers on them to make the feedback as close as possible to the hazarded answer. I put hours and hours into it. And I came up with a strategy for each section, and for every possible contingency I could think of. I was going to beat the GRE, again, through sheer force of will.
***********

            The order of the sections is variable. Ideally, the verbal section would have come first after the essay section so I wouldn’t have to budget my stores of concentration. But sitting down again after relieving my bladder I saw the quantitative section appear before me on the screen. Oh well, I planned for this too, I thought. I adhered pretty well to my strategy of working for a certain length of time to see if I could get the answer and then guessing if it didn’t look promising. And I achieved my goal for this section by not embarrassing myself. I got a 650.

            The trouble began almost immediately when the verbal questions starting coming. The strategy for doing analogies, the questions I most often missed in practice, was to work out the connection between the top words, “the bridge,” before considering the five word couples below to see which one has the same bridge. But because the screen was so large, and because I was still jittery from the caffeine, I couldn’t read the first word pair without seeing all the others. I abandoned the strategy with the first question.

            Then disaster struck. I’d anticipated only two sets of reading comprehension questions, but then, with the five minute warning already having passed, another impossibly long blurb appeared. I resign myself at that point to having to give up my perfect score. I said to myself, “Just read it quick and give the best answers you can.” I finished the section with about twenty seconds left. At least all the antonyms had been easy. Next came an experimental section I agreed to take since I didn’t need to worry about flagging concentration anymore. For the entire eighteen minutes it took, I sat there feeling completely defeated. I doubt my answers for that section will be of much use.

            Finally, I was asked if I wanted to abandon my scores—a ploy, I’m sure to get skittish people to pay to take the test twice. I said no, and clicked to see and record my scores. There it was at the top of the screen, my 800. I’d visualized the moment several times. I was to raise one arm in victory—but I couldn’t because the warden would just think I was raising my hand to signal I needed something. I also couldn’t because I didn’t feel victorious. I still felt defeated. I was sure all the preparation I’d done had been completely pointless. I hadn’t boxed. I’d clenched my jaw, bunched up my fist, and brawled.

            I listened to “The Crush” on the way home again, but as I detoured around all the construction downtown I wasn’t in a celebratory mood. I wasn’t elated. I was disturbed. The experience hadn’t been at all like a Rocky movie. It was a lot more like Gattaca. I’d come in, had my finger pricked so they could read my DNA, and had the verdict delivered to me. Any score could have come up on the screen. I had no control over it. That it turned out to be the one I was after was just an accident. A fluke.
**************

            The week before I took the test, I’d met a woman at Columbia Street who used to teach seventh graders. After telling her I taught Intro Comp at IPFW, we discussed how teaching is a process of translation from how you understand something into a language that will allow others who lack your experience and knowledge to understand it. Then you have to add some element of entertainment so you don’t lose their attention. The younger the students, the more patience it takes to teach them. Beginning when I was an undergrad working in the Writing Center, but really picking up pace as I got more and more experience as a TA, the delight I used to feel in regard to my own cleverness was being superseded by the nagging doubt that I could ever pass along the method behind it to anyone.

            When you’re young (or conservative), it’s easy to look at people who don’t do as well as you with disdain, as if it’s a moral failing on their part. You hold the conviction deep in your gut that if they merely did what you’ve done they’d have what you have or know what you know. Teaching disabuses you of this conviction (which might be why so many teachers are liberal). How many times did I sit with a sharp kid in the writing center trying to explain some element of college writing to him or her, trying to think back to how I had figured it out, and realizing either that I’d simply understood it without much effort or arrived at an understanding through a process that had already failed this kid? You might expect such a realization would make someone feel really brilliant. But in fact it’s humbling. You wonder how many things there are, fascinating things, important things, that despite your own best effort you’ll never really get. Someone, for instance, probably “just gets” how to relay complex information to freshman writers—just gets teaching.

            And if, despite your efforts, you’re simply accorded a faculty for perceiving this or understanding that, if you ever lose it your prospects for recreating the same magic are dismal. What can be given can be taken away. Finally, there’s the question of desert. That I can score an 800 on the verbal reasoning section of the GRE is not tied to my effort or to my will. I like to read, always have. It’s not work to me. My proficiency is morally arbitrary. And yet everyone will say about my accomplishments and accolades, “You deserve it.”

            Really, though, this unsettled feeling notwithstanding, this is some stupid shit to complain about. I aced the GRE—again. It’s time to celebrate.