29 Feb

From the Swamp (part 3)

Mike popped the trunk and threw his bag inside. In the dim light cast by the weak bulbs in the car, he caught sight of the tire iron.

“Are you hearing this?” Chris persisted. “I wonder if it’s some domestic dispute.”

Another “Fuck you, Sherri” echoed across the campground.

Chris listened for Mike. He’d heard the warning dings of the car door ajar, the punch of the trunk’s latch releasing, a shuffle of luggage. And now he listened to some metallic clink. “Mike?” What if it wasn’t Mike? “What are you doing?”

Again: “Fuck you, Sherri.” And this time, another “Relax! God!”

“Mike?” Chris fumbled for his flashlight and turned it on, illuminating the inside of the tent. He sat up and shone the light at the mesh entrance but couldn’t see out. He unzipped the tent door, grabbing onto the oversized tag warning to “Keep all flame and heat sources away from this tent fabric” which he’d neglected to remove from the zipper after purchasing it three days earlier.
Mike was standing by the car, looking slightly guilty.

“What are you doing?” Chris said.

Mike held a finger to his pursed lips.

“What’s going on?”

Mike shushed him.

Some campers were confronting Sherri’s companion. The words “quiet,” “need to,” and “police” rose above the other mutterings.

“Call the police, then!” the man shouted. More barking reverberated over the dark lake.

Mike had already imagined how things might go. He’d walk calmly over to the asshole and deliver a few intimidating lines – something like “Say, “˜Fuck you, Sherri’ one more time. I dare you.” Or maybe, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to call the police. By the time we’re done here, you might be the one calling the police.” Yes, they were silly one-liners, but aren’t there times when the bad guys are so bad that you can forgive the over-the-top machismo of the hero?

It was no mystery why Mike was a better windsurfer than Chris. Much better, in fact. He’d gotten beyond the 12-knot barrier soon after beginning and was working on his slam jibes, quick 180-degree turns that lost little speed. A week in Hood River and he might come away with an aerial jibe or two if he worked at it. Chris, on the other hand, preferred long, straight glides in calmer waters, when the surface wasn’t so bumpy. Give him a big lake with little boat traffic and he could traverse it dozens of times without tiring. Truth be told, water scared him a little. He hated falling off the board, sinking into the dark drink of unknown depth. And that’s why skating on its surface was so exhilarating.

“I’m gonna go talk with Sherri’s buddy,” Mike said.

Chris noticed the tire iron that Mike was half-concealing behind his thigh. “Seriously?”

27 Feb

From the Swamp (part 2)

The commotion started just as Chris was drifting off to sleep. He dreamt of a ninja leaping onto his car and smashing the windshield with a hammer. And though it would only take a second or two for him to realize that, in reality, someone across the campground had broken a beer bottle, the dream logic persisted long enough to cross over into the waking world. He had to save his car. He would need help. He shouted Mike’s name.

It was unfortunate, really. The ninja scenario had provided a common enemy, a reason to band together again. And the hope of being of one mind with Mike outweighed the dread of discovering the car’s windshield in pieces on the dashboard.

But outside the tent, putting away his toothbrush, was Mike, who, unaware of such amicable intentions on Chris’s part, felt that the shout was one more demand, one more instance of Chris holding him back. What would happen, once they got to Hood River, if Mike were to hook up with some hottie and take her back to the hotel? Would Chris emerge from the closet, shouting “Mike”?

“Did you hear that glass break?” Chris spoke to the flimsy wall of the tent.

“Yes.” They were in a campground. A bottle broke. Big fucking deal.

A thick silence punctuated Mike’s yes, as the entire campground held its breath, listening as if more bottles would break. And then more bottles broke. Three of them, actually. Each shrill crash came at a regular interval: one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand, three. And then came the first shout: “God damn it, Sherri!”

Dogs barked in the distance, probably somewhere across the lake. Mike exhaled audibly, vowing that if shit like this continued throughout the night, he’d kill someone. Of course, a part of him wanted it all to go south; it would make his anger just.

“I was just having the weirdest dream,” Chris said. Like Mike cared.

A woman in the distance implored someone to relax.

“Fuck you, Sherri!” came the reply.

“Mike, are you there?” Chris’s voice once again rose from the darkness, disembodied – like a conscience.

25 Feb

From the Swamp (part 1)

Don’t be surprised if you’re ever on the interstate west of Spokane and the road kill still looks alive. Here, where the urban sprawl gives way to tall pine forests and then to high, treeless plains, things don’t die easily – despite the open skies, the lack of obstructions, the frequency of collisions. Exit at Fishtrap Lake and beyond the still-snarling dead possums on the roadside you’ll see the landscape turn strange. Unlikely mounds of rock covered in wispy grass, small abrupt hills that seem drawn by children, a crooked tree here and there, winding roads – it’s like something from a Dr. Seuss story. A perfect setting for a murder.

There’s no way, of course, that Chris Vance could have known what would happen once he headed off the highway toward the campground at Fishtrap. Though he’d claim later that he’d had a bad feeling about the place, the truth is he had no such premonition. But he did have an argument with his passenger and friend, Mike Wallace (yes, Mike Wallace), which soured the entire evening. Chris wanted to stop for the night; Mike wanted to push through to their destination – Hood River, Oregon – where the two would spend ten days windsurfing.

It began with playful college-boy goading, but when Mike finally said, “God, you’re always pussin’ out,” the awkward silence that followed confirmed that he meant it.

“Fuck you,” Chris said, spotting a sign for a campground and pulling on to the off ramp.

It was Mike’s turn to pay, and his mood was improved when he discovered how cheap the place was — well below the price of your typical KOA or other side-of-the-highway campsite. As he gave the gregarious, gray-haired campground owner twelve dollars, he felt like he was getting some revenge for Chris’s pigheadedness. They only had four and a half hours left to Hood River. It was ridiculous that they were stopping now, at nine o’clock.

Outside the office, Chris was standing at the edge of a small inlet, examining the labyrinth of docks and small fishing boats. The inlet was flanked on one side by a 20-foot cliff; a red and white hand-painted sign warned that cliffjumping was prohibited. The sun had set recently, leaving a still-blue sky, but robbing the world of shadows. Mike stood by his companion, saying not a word, but following Chris’s gaze to a spot on the surface of the shallows where bubbles were rising like boiling water.

They said nothing to each other, despite being faced with this blatant curiosity. Was it a bullfrog? A spring? A swamp creature awaiting the hour when the campfires went dim?

“We’re at site thirteen,” Mike said. Behind him, a floodlight turned on, illuminating Chris’s squinting face.

They got in the car and drove 30 feet to site thirteen, where they wordlessly set up the tent and unpacked their sleeping bags. Chris crawled into bed first and listened to the quiet chatter of campers across the grounds, the snapping of twigs in fires, and what he thought sounded like waves lapping the shore, the origin of which was as mysterious to him as an easy friendship.

02 Feb

How A Teacher Reacts to A Snow Day

Well, technically, it was a “cold day.” The district has a policy which states that if the wind chill is under -30, then school gets cancelled. And even though it later got sunny and warmed all the way up to 9 degrees, it was too cold at 6:00 am to allow school to go on.

Of course, I still went. See, I don’t watch the local news in the morning. Or at all, really. So I was not informed of the cancellation. But on my way to school, I noticed the streets were eerily empty of traffic, and as I got closer, I saw too many free parking spaces. And then the real tip-off: the teacher’s lot was empty.

Still, it didn’t feel right. I didn’t trust it. I went home and checked the district’s website. Sure enough, it said, “Madison Schools Closed,” which should have meant case closed. And yet, I couldn’t help but doubt. So I turned on the TV and waited for the scrolling “school cancellation” notices to say “Madison Schools.” And then I checked the local news websites.

Later, I even called another teacher.

Can you believe that crap?

I wonder if it’s human nature to distrust good fortune. I can see how it would have been advantageous to our ancestors — like those who were fighting with neighboring tribes — to suspect their good luck. (“Oh look, our enemies are bringing us virgins and livestock. How cool is that?”) So maybe we’ve gradually evolved to be suspicious of gifts.

But throughout the day, the other thing I noticed was that I felt like I should be working on something. It was the third day of a new semester, so I didn’t have anything to grade; my classes were all planned for; I didn’t have to copy any handouts; I didn’t have letters of recommendation to write; and since I’ve taught all of this semester’s classes before, I really didn’t need to plan ahead at all.

I had no obligations.

It was truly a day off.

And yet, all day long, I couldn’t shake this nagging guilt that I was slacking off. I was reminded of an article I read years ago in Harper’s Magazine about idleness. I vaguely remember the author’s argument being about how American society has deified work. We all worship this “Church of Work” and we praise being busy. As members of this strange cult, we sacrifice our relationships and our time. But we also sacrifice our cognition. We sacrifice thinking.

Last semester was one of my busiest in years, despite my being part time. I was putting in way more than 40 hours per week, schooling myself on literary movements in England from Beowulf to early 20th-century Modernism. And it was certainly thought-provoking. But there’s a qualitative difference between thoughts of an idle mind and thoughts of schooled one. Schooling (for teachers and students) requires a focus and some structure — both good things to become familiar with if, for instance, you’re going to write an essay as good as that Harper’s one (which, by the way, I found online: it’s called “Quitting the Paint Factory” and it’s by Mark Slouka). And I don’t think I’d want schooling to be any other way.

But when it’s all-consuming, it kills another type of thinking. I’m not sure exactly how to describe this idle thinking. You can get originality elsewhere; you can get wonder in other places; you can get brief bouts of mental healing from a variety of sources. In fact, everything you get from idle thinking, you can get from other sources. But you never get them in one place. It’s like a nutrient-rich stew for the soul!

Okay, that’s hyperbole, but I still think I’m onto something.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about working hard. I love challenges and believe whole-heartedly in being put to the test occasionally. In fact, I run my classes with this belief in mind, and I get noticeable results from students when I push them. It’s not effort, determination, or working one’s ass off that I oppose. It’s the sheer quantity of work that so many of us are engaged in — so much that a day off leaves us feeling like something is wrong. And so much that the quality of it all is diluted.

On that cold day, as I was walking home, I predicted that I’d sit around playing video games for hours (they are, after all, my guilty pleasure). But I ended up messing with some web design stuff and playing the guitar, both of which I haven’t done much of in recent months. And that’s the difference between leisure and idleness. Idleness is unpredictable and chaotic. It feels like a waste of time, but it really isn’t.

As Mark Slouka puts it,

Leisure is permissible, we understand, because it costs money; idleness is not, because it doesn’t. Leisure is focused; whatever thinking it requires is absorbed by a certain task: sinking that putt, making that cast, watching that flat-screen TV. Idleness is unconstrained, anarchic. Leisure – particularly if it involves some kind of high-priced technology – is as American as a Fourth of July barbecue. Idleness, on the other hand, has a bad attitude. It doesn’t shave; it’s not a member of the team; it doesn’t play well with others. It thinks too much, as my high school coach used to say.

I have no plans to work toward making idleness the dominant state of my life. But I hope not to lose track of its importance. When the next snow day comes, I’m going to try my hardest to do nothing.