Wednesday, August 29, 2012
(Most peculiar, mama.) That line from the old John Lennon song "Nobody Told Me" has been running through my head these last couple of weeks. I don't know about where you are, but for me and mine the summer just passed was mighty strange indeed. It kicked off in early June when a close colleague of my wife was arrested for a sex crime; a shock and a tragedy on many levels, one being that it badly discredited an organization she has given her heart to for ten years and overnight made her job much much harder. In July, during the halcyon early days of a marathon east coast vacation, we checked our cell phone to find two frantic messages from the woman who was minding our dog back home: 1) the dog had blood in his feces and she was rushing him to the veterinarian, and 2) (later) the vet was not yet sure what the problem was, but thought it could be the return of parvo, the disease the came within an inch of taking our dog's life when he was a puppy and which the vet assured us he could never catch again. (Turns out, it was nothing.) Later in July, not twenty minutes after I told my mother we needed to leave earlier from her house in southern Maryland--"just in case something happened" on our way to Durham--the air conditioning died in our Toyota Sienna. The temperature outside was 104˚. Needless to say, it became impossible for us to make it to Durham without a long and rather costly service stop. The same month, on the same vacation, it was so freezing cold in my father-in-law's air-conditioned basement that I had to wear a sweatshirt to bed and sleep under a quilt. Around this time word came to us, from a variety of sources, that a very prominent southern literary and lifestyle magazine--one housed at my university--had locked out its employees. Moreover, the head editor and founder of the magazine, along with his co-editor girlfriend, had been fired for inappropriate behavior toward interns. Far from a mere local scandal, news of this miserable affair actually made it into the New York Times. In August, Mitt Romney decided that Paul Ryan, of all people, would make his candidacy more palatable to the 99% who will be savaged by his policies. A week later my philosophical Episcopalean son announced that he was a deist and also that for his birthday present he wanted to dye his hair black. (This son, without benefit of dye, has the most beautiful chestnut brown hair you'll ever see on any living being. Go figure.) In June, a blog post I wrote that complained about the criminal indifference of administrators to faculty at my university went viral across the university and the state. People who'd never read my blog were embracing it; people I'd never met were congratulating me. A faculty member--who had already taken a job at another school all the way across the country--cornered me in a stairwell and told me we needed to organize a sit-down strike in front of the administration building. Yes, well.
But you know, there's always an upside to strange. Lennon's song is bouncy and jocular, but it's also severely critical of the era in which it was written. I can't say that about my summer. Wonderful, extraordinary, and equally unexpected things happened as well. At a conference in June, Robert Olen Butler, a man I'd never had the honor to meet, happened to visit a session in which I was reading one of my historical fictions--not to see me, of course, but to see the other presenter--and wound up telling me how much he enjoyed the story and asking me questions about the collection it's housed in. At the same conference a woman I had a three minute conversation with--an American, she is permanently situated at a university in France--offered to let me and/or my family stay at her place if and when I or we happen to pass through Angers. I and we might have to take her up on that! (The graciousness of people can be truly humbling sometimes.) In August, after ten years of thinking about a novel, and researching and thinking more and researching more and drafting and redrafting and being distracted by other projects and redrafting some more and finally getting feedback from friends about the project, my wife got off the phone, walked into our living room and announced "I think I've found an agent!" (Not only an agent, it turns out, but the perfect agent for her.) Perhaps most wild of all, in June, after a strange little story of mine was published in the online journal Literary Mama, I received an email from a movie producer in England who wanted to use the story as a basis for a short film. And possibly, later, a feature. Most peculiar, Mama. This story was something I drafted a year and a half ago in a notebook in a UCA classroom while my students were all attempting to write fictions in their notebooks. I put it aside for at least six months. Then came I back to it, revised it, read it at a literary conference last February, and decided that, yes, I really did like it after all. So I was happy that it finally found a home in a special Father's Day edition of Literary Mama. But a movie? Strange days, indeed.
I recall some sage advice I once received from Darrell Bourque, my dear, now retired, dissertation director at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Reviewing my discussion of postmodernism in the introduction to my dissertation, Darrell noted a certain kind of disapproval--or maybe it was merely overseriousness--in my tone. "Remember," he said, "for a postmodern chaos doesn't just mean uncertainty; it doesn't just mean darkness; for a postmodern chaos is the state with the most inherent possibility." Hear, hear. In the chaos of this summer, sad things certainly happened (I haven't even mentioned the shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Times Square), but possibilities also arose that I could never have imagined a year ago. Will these possibilities be realized? Or will they displaced or superseded by others? I have no living idea. But what's clear to me now, as it should have been all along, is that despite how I might try to plan for and predict and structure the future, I can't actually know where my life will take me by next summer. I can't know what else that is new and unexpected and literally unimaginable will be presented in the next twelve months. Life is just that strange and just that chaotic. And thank god for it, people. Because I can swear for sure that that's where the beauty lies.