The new temp didn’t seem very bright. Just something about him. He’d taught English in Korea and now he was home: he would always talk about that, or anime. The two ran together in the minds of the permanent staff.

He said the culture was different, it wasn’t easy to live that way. He would just get tired. At the first he loved being strange. He could say what he wanted. But now he would rather be home where things made sense, and relax.

It was suspicious, somehow. Did he have to talk so much? He was answering what nobody asked him. Was he stupid? You look up, and he was standing with his mouth open.

He didn’t seem to catch on to the work. What he could manage, he did slowly, and he filed the papers out of order and mis-stamped things, no matter what you did. And there was something superior in his attitude.

He was standing behind the older temp one day. He’d had to vacate his cubicle temporarily for repair work. He was standing there, staring at her back, whenever she looked, for half an hour. The work director passed by.

Were you needing some work, she said. He mumbled something. They went into another room. Later in the day the older temp asked where he had gone. He won’t be coming back. A frightened look across her face. We had to let him go, said the manager. She made a defensive gesture near her chest.

Let that be a lesson

Two children, one of them in a brown cap, it might have been a girl, were kicking a beach ball up in the air, back and forth. It would go up quickly, weaving side to side like an inflatable buoy against the mottled blue backdrop of the sky. It would complete the curve, drifting down slowly.

They ran up and down on either side of a green asphalt tennis court with a saggy, torn net. For all the attention they paid one another, they might have been side by side or miles apart – they were watching the ball. The surface showed a map of the world in bright, unhealthy color. The surface was divided into twelve longitudinally, like long cantaloupe slices. The sea was pointillist blue.

The nearer child, probably a boy, kicked at it too hard and lost his balance. He fell on his back, the ball bouncing behind him. The large-eyed, bearded man with that had been observing them trotted quickly after it. He bent and picked it up in one hand.

Eight countries in a row across sub-Saharan Africa had been colored the same pinky orange, and the borders of a small middle eastern country did not appear, its name showing in a non-specific location. The child that fell had rolled over and both were watching him. He made sure. He unplugged the north pole and squeezed from east and west until the ball was a limp pankcake between his large palms and his long, thin fingers.

An early fall afternoon

From an elevation in the sandpit you commanded the playground. There was a train of boys running after a train of girls. It was shapes and activity. One girl seemed to stand still in the center of it. She held her eyes tight closed. He raised a sliver of bark above his head. It was his sword of justice.

He fell upon the group shouting, holding his weapon, he flew down from the hill with air rushing past his scalp. He felt glee and power as he chased. Older boys shouted after him, he felt the sun. He was a good runner. With a sudden burst of speed he caught up with and tackled a boy. He heard cheers. The wind was rushing past and he was strong.

He pinned his shoulders to the ground. Underneath him, he rolled like a snake. He couldn’t keep hold, and lost control of the wriggling, struggling thing. He reached out and bit the neck, hard. The boy grabbed at his head and yanked, and slid out and escaped in disarray. He stood and walked proud.

He passed the older boys again, on the rise before the school. You fight dirty. Didn’t you see him bite? And here came the monitor. His smirking grimace looked severe. Who is your teacher. He was delivered to his classroom. He saw fear cross the face of the stiff girl, who kept her eyes turned away. His hands were dirty and left marks on his workbook and forehead.

The lodger’s money

Trying something a little different here: write a story keep it at exactly 250 words. We’ll see how it goes. Just trying to keep things simple for now.

The mother and her daughter were sitting at the small table by the window in the otherwise empty kitchen. The lodger came in and sat down. The mother yanked closed the curtain on the window that looked on the road. She turned to her daughter: did she have anything to say for herself? The daughter continued to stare at the lodger. She sat curving her spine, contrary to her recent, conscious habit. Her mother repeated the question. She bent further forward, her head tilted back and her broad chin elevated. She kept her small teeth tight together. The silence acted as a goad on him, and he jerked forward in his chair.

So it is nothing to you? Is it nothing that you have ruined our relationship? You have made everything rotten. Do you have nothing to say to me? The mother looked at him out of the side of her eye. She sat for a moment, then sent the daughter out of the room.

She said, I ask myself, what have I done wrong? Does she fear me so much, she couldn’t come to me? The lodger interrupted her. But she isn’t afraid of me, I would have given it to her if she had asked. She knew that.

The mother accepted and dismissed it with a gesture: her hand, curled slightly, came in to her body, palm up; then it rotated and, flat, palm down, and went out straight to her side. She knew it, she knew it.

Some reconsiderations

Well, that’s frustrating. I was going to write a post about the Kalevala poetic meter and illustrate its rules with samples of traditional songs performed by the Finnish folk group Värttinä, but I’ve just spent a couple hours looking, and I can’t seem to find a single stanza of theirs that doesn’t violate at least one of its rules. It must be said that the rules of the meter are really complicated, and in general, Värttinä’s songs do appear similar – accentual trochaic tetrameter, longer words tending towards the end of the line, no splitting four-syllable words across the caesura, end the line with a short vowel – until you look in detail. If you enjoy poetic meters, you can read about it here.

But that’s the truth about inspection and consideration. You go in with an idea of what you’ll find, it looks like what it looks like from a distance, and sometimes your idea is changed, and sometimes you have to drop your idea entirely; it looks different from close up. I thought of even writing a post illustrating the rules of the meter by Värttinä’s songs’ departures from it. But that seems inappropriate or even ungrateful, and happily, there are other things to talk about. I was thinking last night about a novelist, I haven’t read too many of her books, and haven’t re-read any of the ones I have read, but she’s made a distinct impression on me, and there is a certain fundamental pattern that persists unchanged from book to book. I said: she is like a Dostoevsky or a Shakespeare crossed with a choreographer.

I think what I meant was: her characters, like theirs, are stuffed too full, there seems to be almost too much of them to fit in themselves, and they almost seem to burst the sides of the story, like an over stuffed doll whose head bursts and breaks the plane of the diorama. Shakespeare or Dostoevsky’s characters are unruly, and narrow, a collection of forces governed by a single idea or passion which contradicts the rest. They elbow one another aside and get more attention for themselves, at the expense of other characters who tend to remain somewhat peripheral or off in a shadowed corner.

Whereas her characters seem to move on and off stage in an orderly, almost mechanical way, and give space and breathing room just when it is needed to allow another character to fully emerge and absorb the reader’s attention. And her plots, the sequence of her scandal scenes comes to seem stereotyped, mathematical and brittle, when you look at their pattern, they build and build and release, then reform and build and build, unlike Dostoevsky’s who seems desperate for energy and can only get it by throwing his greedy, egoistical characters together and riding on the discharged energy that bursts out of them, they are plots by brute force.

In the next day’s light, I’m not sure that this is accurate; so I’m leaving out the author’s name. But the impression is very different from a distance than close up. In the case of this author, the impression close up is not of arbitrary, forced conflicts or rigid plots, but viewed from a distance, the rhythm of tension and scandal, the alternation of focus, the repeated or recreated pattern over different books, gives a totally different impression. It’s something like the movements of a dance which seem to be, taken one after another, controlled expressions of passion, but on reconsideration in context are rehearsed and orchestrated to match a predetermined score and the motions of dozens of other dancers in a wide spectacle.

New habits bear easy

I have started up a couple new habits recently. It makes me have to do things a little more deliberately, because I am still having to choose to do them instead of doing them automatically. But it’s important to keep changing habits, or at least it has become habitual, to me. There is something about a habit that shapes the time it is found in, or that flows through it. And old habits which I resurrect seem to bring with them a little bit of the former time, like a flavor of the atmosphere that you didn’t necessarily feel at the time. Like when you are away from home long enough that you notice how it smells on your return.

It’s an accidental time capsule, like a picture of the pile of library books I had out at one time, or an old recipe file, there’s an atmosphere that comes with that. The ghost of a life that you used to live, ghosts being distortions in the air. I remember the carpet that I fell asleep on one night up late working on a short story I was writing, I was in the habit of walking every evening twenty minutes to work on it and not leave until I had met a certain word goal. I think I was seventeen, I was working late, I thought I would lie down and take a rest, and when I woke up I had a spotted red area on my cheek, but the carpet I was on had waves on it. I remember that result seemed unlikely. It’s a whiff of the past in the present. The feeling was alienating and it remains a little strange.

New habits create their own atmosphere as they become habitual, before which they are just an event or an act like any other. The newest one I added yesterday, it’s really an annex to my current writing habits. I write at different parts of the day in twenty minute or 250 word chunks, and the things I am working on are all at different stages and mean different things to me, so I am running the same emotional obstacle course day after day. It makes a backbone to hang my different days on. Every day I write as fast as I can for twenty minutes first thing in the morning in my journal, I focus on one word after seven am, I am working through a shameful period in a memoir of a friend and figuring out what I learned from it, and I have serious doubts about where my pre-lunch short story is going but I manage to eke out another block of words every day. All these go together to make up the stable pattern that underlies the varied texture of this time. I wonder what of the stuff around me now would return in ghostly form if I was to bring a part of this pattern back, later in life.

Sketch of character

If I’m going to write I’d better do it. (It’s easier to steer a moving ship.) I might make a series: people I have known. Character sketches. I’ve never liked the idea of writing about people. It seems somehow disrespectful. People are large, and mostly invisible. How can I claim to know them well enough to represent them? They could always come back at me and deny my representation: I’m not like that at all. And then I’m exposed, as arrogant and deceitful.

I don’t think that fear is grounded. (It’s a cover [attached only at some edges, with thread – the wind picks up, it billows out, you can see beneath it].) I don’t mind writing about: my state of mind, which is complex and which I’m constantly misrepresenting (except of course I’m in collusion there); what people do, actions being just as complicated as the actors, and just as misrepresentable; or books, which ditto with a multiplier effect.

They say one way to defeat a fear is to confront it. That’s the source of this idea. I thought I might coordinate it with my poor premature project, the book about my travels, such as they are. The happy suggestion was to write short, separable pieces about people I have known. (To be added later: stuff that happened.) Toss them out onto the graph paper. Let them define a field between them. Then try to navigate within that field. One’s in the works. (Really, I need to use this blog for something.) Feel free to comment on them as they come. (You should always feel free to comment, unless you are spam.)