Flashfiction: “But I Have”

15 years, I spent in Northern Colorado.  I got to the know the place pretty damned well in that decade-and-a-half.  I love the area, in fact.

I love the area, but I left.  For a number of reasons I left…a year and a half ago, to be semi-precise.  Today I’m back for a visit.

I’m back for a visit, and I don’t recognize the place.

Look, I know shit changes, but this is insane!  Blocks and blocks of new developments where once there were empty fields.  I stopped counting major constructions sites at 25 — and that was just in one small area!

*sigh*

As often as I’ve lived it — and that is often enough to know it for absolute truth — I still get blindsided by the feelings and emotions behind Thomas Wolfe’s* famous wisdom that you can’t go home again.

*No, not that Tom Wolfe.  Different writer…but one who was just as brilliant.

I sat down to try and capture my morning in a blog post.  The trouble wasn’t a lack of words, to be honest, it was a surfeit of them.  I couldn’t capture it, that feeling of alienation and distance in a place so intimately familiar.  I couldn’t capture the memory, and the nostalgia.  Just as I couldn’t capture the nagging sense of loss, of something left behind.  Over two thousand words I wrote, and still I couldn’t capture it.

Screw it, I decided.  When a lot of words won’t work, go for just a few.  After a moment to “Select All” then “Delete”, I started over with a blank screen and my normal flashfiction challenge: one hour to conceive, write and post a story.  This time it wasn’t a story based on an image or a lyric, but one based on the hours I just spent driving around Loveland and Fort Collins.

I haven’t written it yet, by the way,  It is currently 12:33pm and I’m sitting on the patio of a small taproom/restaurant in Fort Collins with a beer at my elbow and some pizza on the way.  I have until 1:30 to hit “Post Now”.  Let’s see how this goes…

“But I Have”

The sun baked, hurt his head.  The sweat had given up an hour ago, too tired and hot to flow any longer.  The pain had fled, too, thankfully.  Now the sun’s burns were just a nuisance…one he knew he would pay for soon enough.

The buildings offered no shade, not with the sun directly overhead.  He wandered anyway.  He wandered the town’s central plaza and stared, searching for some sense of welcome.  For some sense of home.

“Can I help you find something?” She asked, all solicitude and friendliness.

It always had been a friendly place, this.

Can you help me find it all again? he thought.  Can you help me find who I used to be?  Who I am now?

“No, thanks.  Just…remembering.  The place has changed since I lived here,” he answered with his own smile.

“Was it long ago that you lived here?”

“A couple of years.”

She looked puzzled, then.  “It can’t have changed too much…”

He sighed and turned, started to walk away.  A look back and he answered, “But I have.”

—-

1:06pm.  I guess I coulda spent another few minutes editing and re-writing…but that ain’t the challenge, is it?  I don’t know if the story worked, but I’m glad I wrote it nonetheless…

Insert Catchy Title Here

You know those false images we all have?  The ones we know are false, but still use for jokes and assumptions and all kinds of other nuttiness?

You know the ones I’m talking about: rural folks are all inbred morons, city folks are all pampered incompetents, Germans are all evil and nasty, Canadians are all nice, Australians are all drunk…

All of those are illustrations of what I’m talking about….well, except for that last one.  That last one is pretty much true.

Here’s one I’m at least as guilty as everyone else in using, if not more so: Americans like to wallow in isolation and ignorance of the rest of the world.  Friends of mine in Europe love to point to stats like just 42% of Americans holding passports (compared to 76% in Britain, for instance).  Americans, they say, just don’t want to go anywhere, or see anything, that isn’t the US.

Now, as someone who has travelled pretty extensively, I’m gonna call bullshit on that one.  As someone who has travelled the length and breadth of Europe, I’m also gonna have to point out something that most of my European friends — especially those who have never been here to the US — like to ignore: America is pretty stinkin’ big.

Look at it like this; I’m about to drive 14 hours to go visit my family.*  If you aren’t aware, I now live in Montana, right outside of Yellowstone’s northern boundary, while my family is (mostly) still back “home” in northern Colorado.  NoCo is, in terms of the US, right-next-door…fourteen hours away.

*And get yelled at for my recent anti-Trump post, I’m pretty sure.  *sigh*

To put that little jaunt into perspective, a fourteen hour drive from London puts you in the Orkneys, for pete’s sake.  Want a nice long drive from Berlin?  You’ll get to freaking Romania in that same fourteen hours!

Okay, so why do so many Americans never leave North America?

Do you have any idea just how much there is to see?!  Add in Canada and Mexico, and I would have to drive a minimum of those same 14 hours in order to reach the “end” of any road (in this case at the Pacific Ocean)!

Travel is about something different for everyone.  It’s about different cultures, or different histories, or different scenery.  It’s about external activities, or about internal satisfaction.  It’s about education, or entertainment, or exploration.  It’s about whatever the hell you want it to be about, when you get right down to it.

Now, I’ve made jokes and comments about those who “never want to leave home.”  I’m guilty of using that “shorthand” of misguided and foolish assumptions to make a point from time to time, but all you have to do is remember something I talked about a few posts ago.  All you have to do is remember that key we writers — we humans — should never lose: perspective.

All that being said, here’s a little perspective for those who wonder why I picked this particular prejudice to make my (admittedly allegorical) point:

80DD291E-DCF3-4C66-BA59-479874BAEFDB

Since I haven’t done one in a while, here’s a little musical accompaniment…because you can’t go wrong with a good song!

Wait, Didn’t I Once Promise to Ignore Politics?

So I’m sitting here, having coffee while I wait for a friend…

“Hey, I’m early, let’s kill some time with the news!”

Of all the good ideas I’ve had, that one is right up there with “…of course I’ll take you to an occupied bear den!  The cubs are super-cute when they’re at home…”

Ahem.

link_CRUqKZKKFRGAlAFTlfPdN5TEw3cvwdL4,w1200h627Anyway…the news…

I think I prefer the angry momma grizzly, thank you very much.

A few random thoughts and notes based on what I read, then, in no particular order:

  1. “Editing” the Constitution — *sigh* look, I know the language in there can be a problem.  I know the concepts and compromises from 200+ years ago can bring pain and outrage now, but “editing” our past isn’t going to solve anything.  It would be much better to use the language and concepts and compromises as the basis for teaching.  For teaching how things have changed…and how they haven’t.  Both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence are more aspirational than concrete, anyway, so they make wonderful tools for teaching middle and high school kids about reality — both the reality of now, and the reality of two hundred+ years ago.
  2. Whites Need to Speak Up…or Shut Up (which one kinda depends on who you are reading) — One of the things I’m not going to do is try to divine peoples’ emotions and motivations, and to advocate who should or should not be able to speak.  Skin color does not change the validity or honesty of what a person has to say, and that is flat out the only way to look at it.  To argue otherwise is to simply flip the script of racism, which leads to nothing but the tit-for-tat bullshit we are starting to see every day.  That being said, I’ve chosen to keep my own mouth shut and listen.  I listen because I don’t know.  Oh, I know the history and sociology and intellectual side of race and the US…but I don’t know.  I’ve never been pulled over because of what I look like.  I’ve never been followed by store employees because of my skin or hair.  I’ve never felt the sting of violence and hate and fear because I was other.  I’ve kept my mouth shut because I don’t think I can add to the discussion at this point.  Instead, I would rather let the eloquence of others speak with the power and authority of experience and authenticity.  But that is my choice, valid for me alone.  It in no way means that “no white person should ever discuss race” as I’ve read some suggest.
  3. Apathy vs Delusion — this election promises to keep poli-sci programs, not to mention generations of “political strategists,” busy with examples and lessons for generations to come.  Leave aside the names involved, and all of the emotion and judgments contained therein, and just look at the dynamics of the race itself: you have one candidate, running on a broad range of supporters that numerically should be able to dominate the opponent.  That range, however, has very little enthusiasm or energy.  They support, but they don’t do so with any real intent or drive.  On the other side, you have a candidate with a small base of supporters who in no way represent the nation at large, but have all the energy and dedication in the world.  They will believe anything — do anything — their candidate says, and they will do so in the most aggressive and offensive ways.  So, politically, which wins?  4 years ago it was passion and rage, running against a shrugging nonchalance, but will that hold true today?  If I weren’t living in the midst of this, it would make for an interesting modern lesson on the historical examples and dynamics I have studied for so long.  If I weren’t living it.
  4. The Company You Keep — As a child I was taught that your character is defined by what you do, and by the company you keep.  Now, that outlook has been put to the test more than a few times in some of the, uhh, “shenanigans” that have made up my life, but it is something I long ago took to heart and have tried to live by.  Enter Donald Trump.  If he is defined by what he does, and by the company he keeps… *sigh*.  Sorry, folks, but I’m lost with this one.  Since I don’t want to get into a 5,000 word diatribe — one that George Will did much, much better here — I’m going to focus on just one thing: Trump’s choice to keep company with traitors.  He has chosen to laud and irretrievably pin himself to the “heroes” of the Confederacy in the Civil War.  That is the company he has chosen to keep: those who chose to pick up a weapon and fight for slavery.  Sorry Donny, but that there is ‘nuff said…you are thoroughly defined.
  5. Recrudescence — yep, COVID is coming back, and it’s coming back hard.  Nope, conspiracy theorists and denialists, this is NOT just “another flu.”  Nor is it “fake news” made up just so the left can go after Trump and the hard right fringe that is today’s GOP.  Coronavirus and COVID-19 are very much real, and still very much a threat.  If you are getting your news on COVID solely from Fox News, Powerline, OANN and Townhall…well, I can’t help you.  You may have chosen to put yourself in an echo chamber — as is most definitely your right and privilege — but please do the rest of us a favor and stop assuming those echoes mean a damned thing to anyone else.

Okay, so this bit isn’t really a part of the “list,” it is just…

It is just a thought, and a (sorta) plea: people change.

Yes, this post went a little “rant-y,” but I couldn’t stop myself.  I have friends and family who still expect me to be the good conservative Republican I once was.  Sorry, folks, but I ain’t that person anymore.  I’ve changed.  I’d like to think for the better, but there is no question that I very much have changed.  One of the biggest of those changes is that I have no more patience for the willful ignorance and demented worldview that characterize both extremes.

Quite simply, I want nothing to do with either.

Live and let live, that’s it.  That’s what matters to me.  That’s also how I judge any and all politicians and others who claim to “lead.”

Every day I become more libertarian.  Every day I become more convinced that this overwhelming drive both sides have to dominate and rule the lives of everyday folks is what is driving us to a second civil war.  I wish I could say we could stop this slide, but I’m pretty sure we passed the tipping point years ago…if not decades ago.

But, hey, when that war comes, well…

No one does memory, and monuments, better than the Central Europeans — a reminder of the costs:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Random Writing Thoughts for a Random Friday

It’s a hard thing to keep in mind the concerns and worries of the world right now.  Yellowstone has been open for a couple of weeks, and it has been calling to me.

AF63D968-D103-408D-BF26-43F7EA4F3D3AThere’s nothing to wash away the effects of news and stress and worry like a hike beneath the lodgepole pines.  There’s nothing better to make COVID and Trump and the rest of the world’s idiocy disappear than returning to my old stomping grounds in Hayden Valley to search for signs of “my” wolf pack.

Oh, the wolves themselves might argue with that “ownership,” but I’ve been following and watching and studying this pack for years now.  Named Mollie’s Pack after a longtime wolf researcher, they are a small, tight knit group that is impressive as hell.

The pack might be small, but the wolves themselves are anything but; they are physically the biggest wolves in the entire Yellowstone ecosystem (which is several times larger than the park itself).  Most of the animals in Mollie’s Pack average around 130-150 pounds, and are tough as hell.  They’re big and tough because they have to be — they are the only pack that actively hunts and subsists on bison.

Two thousand pound bison.

C3439B3C-9669-4D67-88DF-769913F7548CLet’s put that in perspective: this is an animal the size of a medium-sized woman, taking down nature’s equivalent of a freaking tank.  What?  Not impressed, you say?

Go on out then, folks.  Go out and try it.  Go outside to the street, find the nearest hatchback, and try to “take it down” using only your teeth…while that hatchback is moving at top speed, trying to hit you.

Welcome to the wilds.

Which, happily, brings me to my writing thought for the day as I settle in to get some words on the page…

Perspective.

We tend to forget it in our regular lives.  We forget just how big a bison — or even an elk — truly is, until we’re standing next to one who is irritated and giving us the stink-eye.

We tend to forget just how hard life is without modern conveniences, until we have to walk twenty-five miles in rough terrain, and still make a fire and secure camp at the end of the day.

We tend to forget because those things — along with uncountable others — have no role in our day-to-day lives.  Hell, we tend to forget even those things that once used to be day-to-day concerns and activities because they have slipped into the mists of fading memory.

We tend to forget because our perspective changes even as we change.

Yes, that applies to writers, too.

We forget where we were in favor of where we are.  We forget the past in favor of the urgency of the now.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes that forgetting is a good thing.  I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears repeating: when I’m in the deep woods, off-trail and using just a map and what’s left of my wits to make my way, the rest of the universe slips away.  I focus solely on the moment because I have to if I want to make it back out.  The past and future are distractions that mean nothing at that point.

But when I come back…

…when I come back, I have to regain perspective.  I have to remember that life, the universe and everything* is more than just the next hill I need to climb, the rotting tree trunk under my feet, the curious grizzly snuffling among the trees…

*Thank you, Douglas Adams!

The question for us writers is how we effectively can we use that dynamic in our stories?

Far, far too often characters and settings in stories are too simple.  They’re pencil sketches, rather than full portraits, of folks who either never forget a thing, or all-too conveniently forget everything.  They, like the stories of which they are a part, are static and unchanging.

Jack Ryan never forgot anything.  He never forgot a single skill or fact.  The Ryan of Clancy’s last books could muster every single skill and fact at his command, whether mastered in the first book or the last.

Bullshit.

Look, I like Clancy — well, I like his early stuff, the rest went downhill fast — but I used to be able to rebuild a carburetor without having to think about it when I was a kid.  Would I even know where to start on the thing today?  Nope, not a chance.  Put a broken carb in front of me and I’ll tell you to go find a freaking mechanic.

A poor character — a Mary Sue — would just fix the thing, even if the last time he or she touched one was thirty years ago.

Mary Sue characters — and their stories —lack the perspective that makes the real world…well…the real world.

I know a bison is a big freaking tank who can turn on you in an instant because I live that.  On the other hand, I have no idea what a real tank is like.  I’ve stood next to a handful of them, but not when they were in actual use.  I’ve certainly never driven one, and god knows, I’ve never been shot at by one.*  I know people who have been shot at by one, however, and I rely on their perspective if and when I need to write about that.

*Yes, I have been charged by an angry bison.  A handy tree and some creative cowardice solved that problem.

Some of the most interesting and educational things I have ever done are oral histories.  I had the chance, a few years ago, to interview a sailor who fought in a famous battle in the Pacific in WW2.  His words and story were powerful…but even more powerful was the journal he allowed me to read.  The words and memories of a man in his eighties were a whole lot different from the words and experiences of the twenty-something man writing that journal.

61757408-3125-4679-B796-8A24FAB74ACFThe details changed.  The memories, even, changed.  But the emotions…

My God, I still get the chills thinking about that…about not just his experiences, but his words and emotions.  His reality, both then and now.

What does an eighty-year-old remember as important, versus what a twenty-year-old notes as important?  That is perspective.  That is reality.  That is what we as writers have to note and use.

One of the pieces of writing advice I once offered on this blog was to write a funeral/memorial.  Not just any funeral, but one for your main character(s).  Write the funerals, and the eulogies delivered.  What did those characters accomplish that folks actually remember?  With a new perspective, years later, what did they mean?

Yeah, yeah, I know…I’m weird because I write shit like that; I write the end first.  But writing the end is…enlightening.  Writing the impact your characters have makes those early scenes — those days of “innocence” and ignorance — that much more fun.

{Edits — correcting crappy spelling and grammar because editing sucks…}