Small Differences

Prompt: Write half a page or more in which you experience a specified situation as your character, a stranger to this situation, would. Describe the situation in vivid, precise details that appeal to the senses, using active verbs.

 

The crack beckoned a howl I never knew I had.

***

I’ve been in the United States for two months, visiting from Lünen, Germany as an exchange student. Back in May, I watched through my living room window the rowdy celebration along my drive after nearby Borussia Dortmund won their seventh Bundesliga title. My father was among the celebrants chanting songs to prove his fandom and drinking a liter to justify being 49 years old wearing an overpriced yellow jersey bearing a 23-year-old’s name. The name wasn’t even German, but Polish. Although what did that matter to my father, who waited nine insufferable years during the prime of my puberty for another championship.

I hated that spectacle outside. The gentleman’s game, they called it. So of course the grace they found so endearing on the field had no place in the streets where they pissed on hubcaps and puked on curbs, all in the name of victory. I knew then that I had to be off to America, a land that doesn’t know a soccer ball from an overweight housecat.

***

It turns out Americans glorify another ball altogether: a rock wrapped in two white leather strips bound together by obtrusive red strings.

When I made it through passport control, I found my host brother Kenneth and his family waiting to greet me with a bright red Cardinals baseball cap. If I wanted to experience St. Louis, I’d have to become a Cardinals fan. So that first night, jet lagged and all, I watched six-foot-seven men hurl a rock to fat men whose sole job was to hit the white rock with a wooden club to a spot where no abnormally large and brown hand could snag it. I hate the game, but I can’t tell Kenneth that because he’s taken me to a game a week and I don’t think he wants to do anything else with me. So now I’m at some world championship, even though we’d never seen this game in Europe.

The game is about to end and the fans in Busch Stadium—named for Anheuser-Busch, a beer my father and his friends drink to celebrate—are drained. When the man with the tri-colored beard hit a dinger—that’s what Kenneth calls them—to start the game, the St. Louisans lost their voices cheering him along his free trot to home base. I was suddenly back in Germany, and my father was every one of the 47,000 people around me, drinking beer to excuse their overindulgence in an event played by athletes twice their size and half their age. Next to me Kenneth screamed, “’Atta baby, Lance!” He’d lost the southern accent his parents had brought from Mississippi, the one I thought all Americans had until I heard everyone hear talk, but as his passion rang so too did his twang. I hated it.

But when the Cardinals player nearest our seats missed a ball hit so high it nearly hit the TV blimp above and hit his head instead, the stadium hushed. Underneath my Cardinals hat I smirked, the way I did when I was 13 and my father screamed expletives at the yellow jerseys on the television screen. Next to me a man in his fifties with hair dyed brown and treated with a perm leaned over to his gray-haired buddy and grumbled, “Of course Hitler’s dream boy hates the most American team in the most American sport.” I slide my hat off briefly to run my hand through my blonde hair and I flash my blue eyes at the friends as my smirk turns to a full grin. There’s something delightful about irritating the irritable.

To my left Kenneth is rocking with his palms together and supporting his face, as if in prayer. Like God actually favors the Cardinals over this Texas team. Like he can knock them over with his own wooden club and march the Cardinals to victory. I lean back further in my seat as Kenneth inches forward, sweat glistening his face despite the nearly freezing temperature. Time stalls and the only sounds I can hear are the cheers from the Texas bench in front of us. I fill with a bit of contagious excitement as I realize that those actually responsible for the championship buzz. But even they hush as the man on the hump of dirt gears to throw. I don’t see the rock leave his hand, but I do hear a crisp crack, like the smashing of a bone. I notice everyone around me looking directly ahead and I catch sight of the white rock heading directly for the path of the tall black Texas player running awkwardly after it.

Oh, shit. Oh shit, he missed the ball. He missed it and they’re screaming. No crescendo at all: from country silence to a sudden and collective cheer that is shaking the ground below me. I’m trying to stay calm, but oh my fucking God he missed the ball and my heart is pumping. Kenneth’s heart stopped, I think, but he can’t stop leaping and screaming and hugging me then hugging his brother Hunter and then crying in his dad’s chest. The Cardinals player, the same one who let the ball fall on his head, kneels on the same base where he missed that ball and looks directly my way with his spotty brown beard and dirt-covered chest and howls to the crowd like a wolf to the bright yellow moon. I don’t know what to do, so I answer his howl, and I realize how my father felt that night just five months prior.

This story was inspired by Game 6 of the 2011 World Series

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The Young Mother and her Mother-In-Law

 Prompt: Rewrite one of Aesop’s Fables in a new, contemporary context in 500 words or fewer.

 

I’m done telling her. It’s your turn. She’s your mother. I can do this without her. Sheila’s right thumb hovers over the blue “send” icon on the screen before Nina bumps her arm as she rolls around on the couch, egging on their Golden Retriever, Teddy. Sheila just painted her nails a soft green two days prior, but as she sees her thumb rebound off her phone and a little “delivered” notification appear below her text message, she wishes she lacked the time to ever paint them again.

For the 137th Wednesday in a row, Bernadette was over to help raise her granddaughter. This, despite Bernadette’s youngest of five—Sheila’s brother-in-law Steven—being only 17 and still at the house for another 8 months before heading to Truman State to play baseball. Couldn’t she raise her own kids before taking Sheila’s first from her? It wasn’t as if Sheila had no experience with young kids: her sister had her babysit her first two kids—now four and seven—after she went back to work, and her brother’s two sons dirtied their grandparents’ white carpet with floral accents whenever they ran back inside following a wrestling match out front at every family party. Sure, she’d seen the innocent, glassy eyes and gummy smiles, she’d felt the delicately tight squeeze of four little fingers around her pinky; but she’d also wiped shit that had spewed down their thighs, ignored the wretched pleas of a hungry-but-fed four-year-old, and rocked her afternoons away at the crib side rocking chair. She needed no mentor.

“Oh, Nina, come here you sweet girl!” Bernadette smiled a too-big-smile and waved Nina’s stuffed horse at her in a hypnotic rhythm, begging her to come nearer.

Nina instead grabbed Teddy’s face. Lucky for her that he’s past that critical age of four that separates puppies from dogs; who knows what bite marks might have scarred her hands otherwise.

“Nina! Teddy doesn’t want your hands shaking his face round-about!” Sheila reminded her daughter. Nina laughed, her hands unmoved.

“Yes, Nina, that’s right, come over here to Jackie the Horse instead!”

“Bernadette, that’s okay, she doesn’t want to play with Jackie.”

“I’m sorry, Sheila, I thought you’d want me to distract her,” Bernadette said as her smile briefly faltered before an invisible force swooped the corners of her mouth back up. “With Teddy being irritated, and all. Keep them both safe.”

“No, no, I know,” Sheila said as she brushed a strand of her straight, dark, brown hair behind her left ear and glanced at her phone screen. No reply from her husband.

Silence filled the air for the next three and a half minutes before Bernadette jumped up, her face stricken with shame and fear. “I’ll be back,” she announced.

Glad to finally have Nina to herself, Sheila waited an hour to check her phone. When she did, her husband had finally replied: Steven was selling weed. Busted at school. I need to check on him. Be home late.”

This story is based on Aesop’s “The Young Crab and His Mother”

Rest In Turmoil, Stan

January 15, 2016

He never cared, and he never will. That’s the worst part of it.

I’m a few days late with my reaction to Stan Kroenke’s pillage of and departure from St. Louis. This week has been busier than I imagined any syllabus week could be. Plus, as huge of a sports fan as I am, the Rams lost me over the past three years. Of course, that was Kroenke’s vicious design all along: be so complacent that St. Louisans stop caring so he could play a pity card that would buy him a new home in Los Angeles. But despite my relative ambivalence, I’m livid nonetheless for the way Kroenke hustled his town and held us hostage at the cost of at least $500 million from taxpayers that the affluent County was exempt from and that City residents never were given the liberty to vote on.

My allegiance grew thin, but still. Fuck you, Stan. Fuck you.

I say all of this as someone acutely aware of St. Louis’s shortcomings. Yes, it’s probably fair at this point to speculate that we might be on our way to becoming the next Detroit. Our city’s public education is a disgusting excuse for a guaranteed service; its roads are potholed and traffic lights obtrusive; its poverty levels are terrifying (over 40% of children in St. Louis City live below the poverty line); the absurd Great Divorce between City and County some 140 years ago continues to hinder the entire metropolitan area; and population trends haven’t been wonderful. All of these issues won’t be fixed with money, but it wouldn’t hurt to allocate some of that $500 million that was on the table for a stadium for a billionaire that would be used 10 times every year. If I had to guess, though, odds aren’t high that any of that will happen. St. Louis has grown too comfortable being stagnant.

In high school I wanted to move away for college. I love my hometown, but I felt I needed to get away. When financial reasons prodded me to SLU, I fell in love with this university. When I spent four months in Galway Ireland, a city I loved but would never live in again, I couldn’t wait to return home to my richly imperfect city. But I’m again ready to leave here for a bigger city, such as Chicago. After I graduate, I honestly hope I’m getting out of here. So, Stan, I understand that St. Louis isn’t the most desirable city, and it would be ignorant to pretend economic opportunities are greater here. But I’m not going to wipe my ass with St. Louis on my way out. Even if I married into the Walton family like he did, I wouldn’t ever dream of supplanting a team that so many people are so deeply connected to and tearing out a part of the city’s heart. It’s despicable.

The saddest part is that there’s no way he cares.

He knows exactly what he did. He’s far too intelligent not to. People are calling for his head here in St. Louis so they can rip off his toupee and send Robert Quinn after him. But he’ll simply never care that he gave St. Louis two losing options and painted himself as a pariah. It’s all a part of the disgusting game of unchecked greed. We want to spit on his mustache and hold his toupee high above his head as he flails below for it, irritated like a third grader whose babysitter holds his juice box out of reach. But to those in his circle, he just did something amazing. He has a few fans, I guess.

So go enjoy the LA Rams, Stan. You won’t be able to see St. Louis from your owner’s suite in Inglewood, but we’ll be holding our middle fingers high at you forever. I wish you cared that we all hate you so much, but you proved already that you aren’t a regular human. As a conniving and perpetual liar, you took no issue using the 2.8 million citizens of this metropolitan area as tools to help you not only escape, but also leave us with two fewer sports teams than Detroit and one fewer than Cleveland. If the Rams somehow ever win more than 8 games again, I’m not sure you’ll feel the joy that comes with winning. I don’t think you can feel at all, you son of a bitch. You’ll never understand, and that’s the very worst part about you.

And for that, I actually am sorry.

***

“The Hands That Thieve” — Streetlight Manifesto

“If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” – Sirius Black (And by inferiors in reference to Kroenke I mean financially inferior because in no world is he superior to anyone I know in any other way.)

Connecting Flights

January 6, 2016

This morning I boarded my 21st plane in the past 365 days, with only 8 hours and 40 minutes to spare: from 4:00 pm on January 6, 2015 to 7:20 am on this morning of January 6, 2016, I stepped on planes that carried me not just to stretches of the world I never imagined I would go, but also corners of my very self that I never fathomed existed. Connor thinks I’m insane for keeping track of such dates. He’s probably right. But I can’t help but to find something remarkable in this anniversary.

I’m far from the same person I was at the beginning of 2015 when I boarded a Dublin-bound-via-Toronto Air Canada flight at O’Hare. I remember feeling imperfectly at ease as I read my Kindle at the gate and then explored the terminal’s bookstore to kill some time. I sensed that that twisted feeling of easiness would soon subside to make way for anxiety and doubt, but I didn’t know exactly what I was sensing those 365 days ago. The only thing I knew for sure was that my life would change in my time abroad. The mystery remained how I might change, and how long that process would actually be (hint: it remains fluid even now).

I believed a common myth before my temporary move to Ireland that studying abroad changes you only because of the wondrous places you’ll go and things you’ll see. I discounted the tremendous trials inherently necessary to truly changing and growing. Now, as so many of my friends venture abroad this week and next, I’ve been trying to debunk that myth as delicately as possible: in no way do I want to scare anyone away, but I want my friends to understand the complexity of this journey they’re about to take in a much deeper way than I did when I truly left my home for the first time. It’s a journey that starts for real the moment you make it through the security line at the airport and continues to impact you for months beyond your return to this country. A journey that takes you to both incredible reaches of the word and scarily deep parts of your own self. Discoveries abound. Favorite new places will be claimed. Parts of your life before this trip will be left in Europe forever, others shed gradually in the months you return, and plenty retained forever. You’ll bring back new features of yourself developed necessarily as a part of your immense independence and adventure. All in all, the challenges are astounding, and the victories will take you higher than any plane can over these next few months, no matter how long it takes to learn how real those victories are.

***

At dinner tonight at Epcot Canada, Mrs. Jordan asked where I was at that exact time last year. For as much as I’d thought all week about the absurdity of being in Chicago and in the air on the same date in back-to-back years, it completely slipped my mind that I’d spent a few hours in Canada on January 6, 2015 as well—from 6:34 pm until 8:55 pm, I waited in the Toronto airport for my connecting flight. All of a sudden it hit me that when we arrived for our reservation at Le Cellier tonight, on January 6, 2016 at 8:50 pm, I found myself back in some sort of quasi-Canada—an airport then, a theme park now—for a second consecutive year at the exact same time.

I don’t know quite what this all symbolizes. But the parallels can’t be for naught, right?

I find myself constantly seeking symmetry and closure, even when I know such things are impossible. We’re told that we must grow comfortable with the discomfort of a lack of closure in our lives. Loose ends don’t tie themselves unless in irreversible knots. The silent explanation is the prevailing sentiment, whether we like it or not. But every once in a while, our worlds collide and remind us that although closure might be a bit too much to ask, we shouldn’t forget the perpetual connection between all of our experiences and relationships.

***

Anyone who has kept up with my blogs probably has caught on to the turbulence that accompanied my past 365 days, particularly while I was abroad. For the first time in my life, I was thoroughly confused by everything that came my way, in some form or another. I went from having a plan to being horrified that that plan might not be feasible to finally accepting the beauty of the uncertainty in taking life as it is given, not futilely attempting to sculpt its dripping, immense frame.

Then on the 365th day I saw that it all comes together. I don’t know how, but it does. It did today.

To all of my friends who departed earlier this week, who are reading this at the airport as they prepare to board an eight-hour flight, who leave tomorrow or in a week, I’m so thrilled that you’re about to discover depths of this world and yourselves that you never knew existed before. Even when the journey makes less sense to your mind than any foreign language does to your ears, it all comes together. Go out there and do abroad better than any of the rest of us have. You owe it to yourselves.

***

L.I.F.E.G.O.E.S.O.N. by Noah and the Whale

“We seldom know what we’re hearing when we hear something for the first time, but one thing is for certain: we hear it as we will never hear it again. We return to the moment to experience it, I suppose, but we can never really find it, only its memory, the faintest imprint of what it really was, what it meant.” – Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, page 47.

The World Spinning.

January 1, 2016

I never believed I’d fall so in love with a book as I once did with Harry Potter. I craved that feeling of exhilaration, captivation, obsession, passion, clarity. That feeling you get when you become so lost in an endeavor that the world stops spinning around you, when you become hushed with amazement. But I figured discovering such a story would be tinged with a degree of cheating on my favorite story of all time. July 25, 2007—five days after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—was supposed to be the day I remembered forever as the apex of reader’s delight.

But on December 26, 2015, I finished Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and in the six days since, its words and story have kept my mind spinning.

I’m remarkably fascinated by words and stories. They simultaneously have the delicacy to make a nation cry, the power to motivate a stadium to call its rally cry, the craft to change every mind in this perpetually spinning world. They’re the result of humanity’s unique ability for complex language, a fact that baffles me if I let myself think too deeply about it. What is religion, entertainment, or relationship without stories and the necessary words to describe them? Everybody has a story, and these stories interconnect more than we could ever believe. McCann’s prose captures this magical truth about stories indelibly, and that’s why I can’t stop obsessing over this masterpiece.

I don’t want to write too much in fear of spoilers. Yes, I know it’s unlikely that everyone will read it (and probably likely that very few at all will), but I think everyone needs to read Let the Great World Spin if possible. It’s a story full of smaller stories, all twisted together by the cable stretched across the Twin Towers by an anonymous man who walks across this tightrope to find this same sense of peace and clarity that McCann seems to find when he writes the beautiful pages that weave this often tragic, eternally hopeful collection of tales together so flawlessly into one collision point.

Quotes are the greatest reminder of the immense power of words. The words that stick with us so long beyond their original utterance or scripture and manage to continually influence our actions by nesting themselves so snuggly in our minds—such quotes invoke emotions otherwise buried too deep to find. The great trove of quotes in Let the Great World Spin is one of the main reasons I find myself so connected to this novel. From the first sentence of the book—“Those who saw him hushed”— to the bottom of its final page—“The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.”—every word is so carefully chosen. For 349 pages, McCann shorted his readers of nothing and gifted us an incomparable collection of words and sentences capable of changing a person’s life direction. There are so many quotes from this book I would like to fill this post with, quotes I’m tempted to interrupt my own words with at random because they’re so much more powerful than anything I’ve ever written. Instead, I’ll temper myself until the end, although I’ll put more than the typical one closing quote.

I want to write so much more about this book, but I refuse to spoil it so I don’t ruin that incredible experience of finishing a story so wonderful and illuminating that it moves you to tears on some pages, laughter on others, and some marvelous combination of excitement, joy, hope, and a hint of dread that you’ll never feel this way about a book ever again, even though you know that some day you most certainly will, because the world keeps on spinning and words keep on accumulating and things never totally fall apart.

To sum up the wonder of this book, I must resort to the inadequate cop-out that my words fail to grasp McCann’s in their full and raw beauty. The details he describes are too real, creating pain too stabbing, discoveries too profound, laughter too uncontrollable. Disappointment reveals itself over and over, but never quite enough to destroy hope in something greater. Words: they’re pretty great. Let the Great World Spin mastered them; its words left me lost for more.

***

Love Yours by J. Cole

“What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth—the filth, the war, the poverty,—was that life could be capable of small beauties..” – Let the Great World Spin, page 20

“The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium.” – Let the Great World Spin, page 164

“Sometimes thinking back on things is a mistake arising out of pride, but I guess you live inside a moment for years, move with it and feel it grow, and it sends out roots until it touches everything in sight.” – Let the Great World Spin, page 285

“A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.” – Let the Great World Spin, page 325

“Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.” – Colum McCann, Author’s Note