Leah and Dottie

Ballet Olympia, SunTrust Plaza, Atlanta, GA.

Leah Walker enters her dorm room at Wellesley College and sets her backpack onto a chair. It’s her freshman year, and her roommate, Heather, is visiting family for several days, so Leah’s looking forward to having the room to herself for a long weekend. Leah’s average height, with shoulder-length auburn hair, and steel-blue eyes. She’s wearing her usual attire of baggie warmup shorts, New Balance sneakers, and an oversized MIT sweatshirt. Her hair is pulled back into a ponytail. She drops her keys onto the nightstand and takes a package of red Solo cups from the top drawer, removes one cup, and replaces the rest. From behind the nightstand, she takes out a bottle of Merlot she bought at a package store in Boston which never checks ID, unscrews the top, and pours half a cup. 

Leah’s from Atlanta, and Wellesley is her first time living away from her family. She continued to live in her family’s home in Buckhead after the family moved to Lawrenceville just before the start of her senior year at Pace Academy, but Leah doesn’t count that, since her father, Paxton, was there off and on throughout the week. Leah had objected to the long commute, and both her parents deemed her responsible enough to go it alone for the remaining time before graduation. Since Paxton still had business in town during the week, he would stay at the house evenings when he needed to be at the office early. Leah viewed it as an opportunity to get closer to her father, with whom she’d always had a tense and distant relationship. Unfortunately, the best they managed was a sort of détente, where they’d exchange a few words going or coming, or, a bit of conversation if Paxton happened to be around in the living room while Leah was working on a school assignment. 

She sits on her bed, takes a sip of wine, and picks up a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, a gift from Marla Prentice, an instructor in one of Leah’s core Humanities classes, and with whom Leah’s been spending a lot of time lately. Starting her second week at school, Leah found herself involved in a rather passionate relationship with Marla, which started nearly the moment she entered class, and fell under Marla’s scrutiny. After class, Marla made a point of striking up a conversation with Leah. Marla’s a few inches taller than Leah, and several years older, with a trim, athletic build, and jet black hair, that’s very long, and which she wears in dreads. She always wears short, dark dresses, over tights in various colors, with clogs. Her complexion gives Leah the impression that Marla’s of mixed race, though Leah can’t tell which races went into the mix. Marla’s very economical in the facts she shares about herself. She speaks and moves with a frenetic energy, which Leah finds infectious. They ran into one another a short while later, on a smoke break before lunch, and Marla invited Leah to join her for a bite. They ended up back at Marla’s apartment, just off campus, where things got very heated very quickly. Over the next week, their afternoon dalliances progressed into an intense physical relationship, which surprised Leah, as she’s never before entertained ideas of being involved with another woman. 

The situation excites and troubles Leah, who finds the intimacy thrilling, but wonders what it all means. Throughout high school, she had the usual teen relationships, occasional dates with guys she knew from math class or science club, who’d take her out after school, or sometimes evenings, often with other computer geeks like her, and she had a number of girls she spent time with in school and out, or with whom she played on the lacrosse or softball teams, but she’d never entertained the thought of having a sexual relationship with any of them, male or female, nor could she recall ever having crushes on any of her female teachers, regardless of how attractive they’d been. It worries her that she could be so unaware of such an important aspect of her personality, and wonders what else she might have missed. A few days into the relationship, Leah decided she needed advice from someone more worldly.

She has a great relationship with her mother, Melinda, but she’s not sure how her mother will react to Leah potentially being a lesbian, so, for advice, she decided to sound out her aunt Margaret on the matter. Since childhood, Margaret has been an important influence on Leah, second only to Melinda, with whom Margaret’s been friends since college. Like Leah, Margaret is a first-born daughter, who’s two years older than Paxton, and it was Margaret who introduced Paxton to Melinda when Leah’s mother was still in college. Melinda had traveled to Atlanta from Charleston, South Carolina, to attend Agnes Scott, with the intention of being a teacher, but instead met and married Paxton Walker. As she was getting started back at school, she discovered she was pregnant with Leah, and put her dreams of teaching on hold. Leah has always harbored a bit of guilt, knowing that she prevented her mother from finishing school, but Melinda’s always maintained a cheerful and upbeat attitude about it, telling Leah she’ll head back to school once Alyssa, Leah’s baby sister, who’s twelve years younger, is out of the house. 

Leah phoned Margaret and wasted little time in getting to the point. 

“Margaret, have you ever been with another woman?” Leah asked. 

“In what sense do you mean that?” Margaret said, a bit of discomfort evident in her voice. 

“Seriously?” Leah said. “What sense do you think?”

“Oh,” Margaret said. “Well, if that’s what you mean, then no.”

“Have you thought about it?” Leah said.

“Hmm, let me guess,” Margaret said, “you’re asking because you’ve either thought about it, or—”

“No, I’m way beyond thinking about it, at this point,” Leah said.

“I see. Well. Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes,” Leah said.

“Then what’s the problem?” Margaret asked. “If you had a good time, where’s the harm?”

“But what does it mean?” Leah said.

“Why does it have to mean something?” Margaret said.

“I guess it doesn’t have to,” Leah said. “It just usually does.”

“Look, you didn’t go blind and you weren’t struck by lightning were you?” Margaret asked

“Not yet.”

“Then, we can assume the universe is okay with it,” Margaret said.

“I don’t know if I’m okay with it,” Leah said, “I mean, I like her, but I don’t think either of us is interested in a real relationship.”

“Is it ongoing?” Margaret asked.

“As of right now, it is,” Leah said.

“Then go with it,” Margaret said. “See where it leads. I’ve never found myself in this situation, so I don’t know how I’d respond. You went away to college to learn, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, part of that is learning about yourself,” Margaret said. “You have an excellent opportunity to explore who you are without the glare of your family judging your every move. Take advantage of that.”

“Perfect. Thanks, Margaret.”

“Anytime, sweetie,” Margaret said. “Let me know how things turn out.”

Leah leans back on her bed and resumes reading the book. She manages about five pages when her reading is interrupted by the sound of someone pounding insistently on the door. An unfamiliar voice follows the first round of pounding. “Open this door, you bitch!”

The pounding resumes.

Leah puts down the book and cautiously approaches the door.

“Who is it?” she says.

“I said open this door,” the voice says, “I’m going to kick your ass, you slut.”

Whoever’s outside sounds drunk. 

Leah looks at Heather’s bed, then says, “Are you here to kick the ass of a brunette or a redhead? Cause the brunette isn’t here.”

There’s a long pause, before, “Kind of reddish brown. Not a brunette.”

“Perfect,” Leah says to herself.

She considers calling campus security, but decides against it. As the next round of pounding begins, she quickly pulls open the door. A young woman, about Leah’s age and height, with curly, dirty blonde hair, and wearing a short, polka dotted dress and slip-on sneakers, comes tumbling into the room. She falls to her hands and knees and seems somewhat confused. Leah takes the opportunity to grab her roommate’s umbrella, which she brandishes as a weapon.

“Who the hell are you and what do you want?” Leah says to the woman. “Apart from what you’ve already stated.”

“I said I’m going to kick your ass, you bitch,” the woman says as she struggles to get her footing and rise. She looks up at Leah, then says, “Yeah. You.” She looks around for something to hold onto. At last, she pulls herself up on a table and stands up straight, but swaying, as she confronts Leah. She’s wearing a slight amount of makeup, but it’s gotten splotchy from crying. Leah holds the umbrella in front of her as she speaks. 

“Okay, I gather that you’re pissed about something,” Leah says. “Why don’t we start with your name. Who are you?”

“I’m Dottie,” the woman says. “Dorothy, actually, but most people call me Dottie.”

“Okay — ah — Dottie,” Leah says, still brandishing the umbrella. “I’m Leah — or do you already know that?”

“How the hell should I know what your name is?” Dottie says.

“You showed up at my door wanting to beat me up,” Leah says, “I assume you’d know my name. What’s this about?”

“It’s about Marla,” Dottie says. 

“Marla Prentice? What about her?”

Dottie begins to reply, but suddenly throws her hand over her mouth and starts to heave. Leah hurriedly points to the bathroom. Dottie quickly stumbles in and kicks the door closed. Leah can hear her vomiting. She puts down the umbrella and sits on her bed until she hears the sounds subside. At last, the toilet flushes, followed by the sound of water running in the sink. This goes on for several minutes before Dottie returns to the room, far more subdued than when she left. Leah motions to Heather’s bed and Dottie sits.

“Let’s start over, shall we?” Leah says. “You want to kick my ass and it has something to do with Marla.”

“You stole her from me,” Dottie says. “She won’t return my calls. Then I saw you with her at our coffee shop.”

“Coffee shop?” Leah says. “You mean Sandusky’s? I took her there.”

“You did?” Dottie says. “She said it was our special place.”

“Yeah, she sort of told me the same thing after our first visit,” Leah says. “When did you start seeing her?”

“Right after classes started,” Dottie says. “About a month after I got here.”

“So did I,” Leah says. An idea occurs to her. “Did she take you to The Jewel of the Nile?”

Dottie nods. “The night we first—”

Leah holds up her hand. “Same here.”

“Why aren’t you upset?” Dottie says. “I just confirmed I’ve been sleeping with Marla. That doesn’t bother you?”

“Not really,” Leah says. “I haven’t figured out exactly what our relationship is yet. I take it you feel a bit more committed?”

“I haven’t felt this way before,” Dottie says. “I was all ready to tell my family I’m gay and she ditches me. Told me I’m getting too serious. I figured there was someone else, so I followed her. That’s where I saw you.”

“Meaning you must have followed me here,” Leah says. 

“Yesterday,” Dottie says. “It took me all afternoon to get up the courage to come over.”

“Speaking of which,” Leah says. “How much did you drink?”

“Bottle, bottle and a half,” Dottie says. She notices the book and points to it. “I suppose she gave you that.”

“She did.”

“I gave it to her,” Dottie says. 

Leah picks it up and looks at the spine. “You’re DG? She said it was on the book when she bought it.”

Dottie nods. “Dorothy Gage.”

“Isn’t that the person in The Wizard of Oz?” Leah says. 

“Oh, that’s original,” Dottie says. “Her name is Dorothy Gale. Don’t change the subject.”

“What makes you think I stole Marla from you?” Leah says. “Sounds to me like she’s been leading us both on.”

“Yeah, it’s starting to look that way,” Dottie says. “There’s this girl in my English Lit class who said she had an affair with Marla last year. I didn’t want to believe her, but then I saw the two of you together.”

“Why didn’t you confront Marla?” Leah says. 

“I tried, but she’s not at her apartment,” Dottie says. 

Leah shakes her head. “She’s never there on the weekend. Hmm. This makes me wonder where she goes.”

Dottie looks down. “Would you mind if I just lie down for a minute or two?” 

“You’re not going to throw up again are you? I doubt Heather would like that, and I don’t feel like cleaning up after you.”

“God, I hope not,” Dottie replies. She lies on her side, and pulls her knees up, crossing her arms in front of her.

“I suppose you can kick my ass when you wake up,” Leah says.

“Maybe,” Dottie says as she drifts off.

Leah continues reading while Dottie sleeps. She’s still asleep when Leah goes to bed. The following morning, Dottie is awake and very embarrassed by her behavior. Leah treats Dottie to breakfast at the nearest cafe, and they have a long talk, where they discover a lot of common interests. Leah is fluent in most of the European languages, owing to her family’s many visits to the continent as she was growing up, and she’s pleased to learn Dottie is as well. They switch to speaking German to keep people from eavesdropping on them as they decide what to do about Marla. By the time they part ways, they’ve developed a plan of action. 

A few days later, Leah is sitting with Marla at the coffee shop. They’re discussing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

“Take that lesson to heart,” Marla tells her. “Men are not to be trusted.”

“They certainly didn’t come off very well in the book,” Leah says. 

“Have you read any of Dworkin’s work?” Marla says.

“Andrea Dworkin? I’ve heard of her.”

Marla suddenly focuses on something over Leah’s shoulder and shakes her head. “I don’t believe this.”

“What is it?” Leah says. She looks to see Dottie seated at the lunch counter, wearing dark glasses, situated where she has a good view of Leah and Marla. 

“Nothing,” Marla says. “Just this student who’s been giving me a hard time over a grade.” Marla rises. “Excuse me just a minute.”

She goes over and confronts Dottie in low tones. While she’s gone, Leah slides over and picks up Marla’s bag. She checks to be sure Marla isn’t looking, then she pulls out Marla’s wallet and checks her driver’s license and credit cards. Finished, she replaces the wallet, and puts the bag back where it was. She moves back to her chair, and makes an okay sign to Dottie, who abruptly breaks off her argument with Marla, gathers her things, and storms out. 

“I’m really sorry about that,” Marla says when she returns to the table. “I failed her on a test and she’s been stalking me ever since.”

“Not a problem,” Leah says. “Say, where do you disappear to on the weekends?”

“Where did this come from all of a sudden?” Marla says.

“I’m just curious,” Leah says. “I figured you must be sneaking off to some cozy little bed and breakfast to write and might want some company.”

Marla laughs. “Trust me, if I was, you’d be the first one I’d call.” She reaches over and places her hand on Leah’s. “I’m free for the next hour. Want to swing by my place?”

“I’d love to,” Leah says, “but I have a midterm in chemistry coming up. I’ll take a rain check, though.”

“You’re on,” Marla says. They talk for a few minutes before Leah insists she needs to go. Marla walks her to the door and they part with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, then head off in different directions. Leah walks about half a block, then checks to be sure Marla is far enough away, then ducks down a side street and circles back to the rear of the coffee shop, where she finds Dottie seated on the back deck. Leah sits with her.

“Anything?” Dottie says.

Leah shakes her head. “Her license has her campus address. But it did have a different name, Marla Rogan.”

“Rogan?” Dottie says. “That kind of takes some of the luster off.”

Leah leans forward and says confidentially, “Know anyone who works for the university? If I can get on the computer network, I can probably hack into payroll and find out where they’re mailing her checks.”

“Actually, I do,” Dottie says, “and she spends a lot of time away from her desk.” She rises. “Come on.”

Several hours later, they’re back at Leah’s dorm room with new information.

“Shrewsbury,” Dottie says. “Figures she’d live someplace called Shrewsbury.”

“She’s also listed as Mrs. Marla Rogan in payroll,” Leah says. 

“I can’t believe you got in so easily,” Dottie says. “How’d you know Barb’s password?”

“I didn’t,” Leah says. “I took the chance she used ‘password’ and it worked.”

“So, what next?”

Leah grins. “Marla has classes all morning. How about a trip to Shrewsbury?”

Dottie laughs. “So, I wonder what the husband of the ultimate feminist looks like?”

“Only one way to find out,” Leah says. 

The following morning they hop into Leah’s Karmann Ghia, which Margaret loaned her as she headed off to college, and drove to the address in Shrewsbury, where Marla’s paychecks are being sent. Parked out in front of the brownstone, Dottie says, “You think this is a good idea?”

“Probably not, but I don’t see a lot of options,” Leah replies. “If we just ignore her, she’ll keep doing this.”

“I mean, rather than the dumping part, I did have a good time,” Dottie says.

“Same here,” Leah says. “But she’s taking advantage of impressionable girls when they’re least equipped to handle it.”

“Right,” Dottie says. “We’re just taking a stand. That’s all.”

“Right,” Leah says. She holds up her hand and Dottie grips it and nods.

“Let’s do this,” Dottie says.

They get out and walk up to the door. Dottie rings the bell. A few moments later, a child can be heard yelling, followed by the locks being unlocked. A thin man, probably just under six feet tall, with short blonde hair and tanned, leathery skin, opens the door.

“Yes?” he says. “How may I help you?”

He speaks with the precise phrasing that’s reminisent of someone who’s first language isn’t English, but Leah cannot detect any recognizable accent.

“Hi,” she says, “are you Mr. Rogan?”

“I’m Lance Rogan, yes,” the man says. 

“I’m Dorothy,” Dottie says, “this is Leah. We’re — ah — friends of Marla’s.”

“Ah, yes,” Lance says. “Marla’s not here currently. I believe she’s teaching today.”

“We know,” Leah says. We’re not here to speak with her.”

“More to speak about her,” Dottie adds.

“I don’t understand,” Lance says. He opens the outer security door. “Please come in.”

As they enter, Leah notes a black woman, wearing a uniform and holding the hand of a small boy.

“Nina, would you take Alexander to the play room?” Lance says to her. 

“Of course, Mr. Rogan,” Nina says in what sounds, to Leah, like a Jamaican accent. 

“Please have a seat in here,” Lance says, directing the women to the living room. “Can I offer you something to drink?”

“Water would be great,” Dottie says, to which Leah nods.

Leah and Dottie sit on the couch. A moment later, Lance returns with a pitcher and two glasses on a tray which he sets on the coffee table in front of them. He takes a seat in a leather chair facing them. 

“Now, how may I help you ladies?” he says. “You say this is about Marla?”

Leah and Dottie look at one another and Leah says, “Mr. Rogan, there’s probably no easy way to say this, but Dorothy and I have been — involved with Marla.”

Lance continues to look at them displaying no emotion. “I see. Why have you brought this information to me? Are you here for money?”

“Oh, no. No. Nothing like that,” Dottie says.

Leah slides to the edge of the couch. “She’s right. We’re here because we feel we’ve been taken advantage of and we wanted to let you know.”

“Please, tell me your stories,” Lance says.

First Dottie, then Leah tells Lance about their relationships with Marla. Throughout both stories, his expression does not change, nor does he display any reaction, other than to occasionally nod. When Leah finishes her story, they sit for a long moment in silence.

Finally, Lance says, “What is it you wish me to do about this? That is, if you are certain you’re not here for money.”

“We don’t exactly know,” Leah says. “To be honest, we didn’t really think this part through very well before coming here.”

“I see,” Lance says with the hint of a smile. “Well, I do not wish to share intimate details of my marriage, since I know nothing about either of you. However I will say that I am aware Marla has certain needs that I’m not able to address. If you have been harmed in any way I apologize.” He rises. “I’ll have a talk with her when she gets in this evening, and we’ll decide together how best to handle this situation.”

He motions toward the door. Leah and Dottie rise and follow him back to the front door.

“I trust you will be making no further trips to visit us?” he says.

Leah and Dottie look at one another.

“Definitely not,” Dottie says. Leah concurs.

“Very good,” Lance says. “I will appreciate your continued discretion on this matter, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Leah says.

“You ladies have an nice afternoon,” Lance says as he lets them out.

Back in the car, Dottie says, “What just happened in there?”

“I have no idea,” Leah says. “Let’s get lunch somewhere.”

“You’re on.”

The following day, when Leah shows up for her Humanities class, Marla isn’t there. The instructor filling in for her explains that Marla has taken a leave of absence for “family reasons”. Neither Leah, nor Dottie, see or hear from her again.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Dottie says as she and Leah are lying on the bed in her dorm room. “You think she’s okay?”

“Hard to tell,” Leah says. “That’s an odd family.”

“We make a pretty good team,” Dottie says. “I have this feeling you and I are going to get into lots of trouble together.”

“I think you’re right,” Leah says. “Still planning on telling your famly you’re gay?”

“Nah, I’ve gone back to questioning,” Dottie says. “Why limit myself? My family can figure it out on their own.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Leah says.

“Hey,” Dottie says, sitting up. “What do you think about getting an apartment?”

“Now?”

“No,” Dottie says, “over the summer. You know, just stick around Boston instead of going home.”

“Summer’s a long way off,” Leah says.

“I know. But it doesn’t hurt to plan,” Dottie says. “If we strike at the right time, we could get a great deal.”

“Oh, trust me, I know real estate,” Leah says. “My father’s the man who gave Atlanta its suburban sprawl.”

“Good to know,” Dottie says.

From that point on, not a day goes by that they don’t spend time together. As summer comes along, they move off campus into a nice apartment. 

Atlanta Stories Available August 1


Coming soon! Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South. Eight stories about people coming to Atlanta to reinvent themselves. Stories include:

  1. Mockingbird 
  2. Journey From Night
  3. A Debt to Pay
  4. Dead Man’s Hat
  5. Remains 
  6. Bare-Assed Messiah 
  7. Atomic Punk
  8. Phoenix 

Release date: August 1.

Available at online bookstores and direct from the author. 

Eternal Present 

Clock
Most people would agree that 2016 has been a horrible year. The number of famous people who’ve died seems far out of proportion to any other year, and the political climate, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, has been extremely bitter and hostile, leading many to fear what comes next. The world situation seems just one misunderstanding away from igniting into a major conflict on many fronts. On a personal level, 2016 has been very trying for me as well. I’ve lost family members, had very little success with my writing, my health has been questionable, and my “day job”, which pays all my bills, has been on shaky ground since July. Many people, myself included, will be happy to bid farewell to this lousy year.

As U2 reminds us in their song, New Year’s Day, however, not much actually changes when we make the arbitrary switch from one year to the next. Companies which operate on a calendar year may have more resources at the start of a new year, and therefore are in a better position to hire or expand, which can definitely affect individuals, but if it’s cold and rainy on December 31, it will most likely be so on January 1, and if one has a lingering illness or pending financial commitment, it’s unlikely to go away just because the calendar changes. However psychologically comforting ending a year might seem, the reality is that time itself, and, by extension the calendars it yields, is an artificial measurement created by people. Time is a tool, developed to help distinguish one collection of days from another. It’s ironic that so many people stress over deadlines and schedules, when the very time underlying it all has little to no meaning outside of its given context.

At one point in history, calendars were often measured in accordance with important events. Roman time was usually marked in accordance with the reign of a given emperor, such as fourth year of the reign of Augustus. This tradition continued among the monarchs of Europe after the Roman empire fell. The Western calendar once marked time from the estimated birth of Jesus, though most scholars now place his birth before the start of the current calendar. At some point, as the Western calendar became more prominent throughout the world, the religious trappings were removed to give us “before common era” and “after common era”. Jews maintain their own calendar, in addition to using the Western one, as do Muslims, and other nations, such as China, measure the years differently than those in the West.

It is said that, in writing, the best way to increase tension is to start a countdown, and consistently worrying about the passage of time certainly increases a person’s tension and stress level. For most, time serves as just this sort of stress inducing catalyst, with as many people hating the pressure imposed as there are folks who feel motivated by deadlines or the sense that “time is slipping away”. As with most human-made constructs, there is a great deal of absurdity inherent in creating a method of marking time, only to realize we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we need to do.

Many Eastern philosophies speak of existing “in the moment” and this is, perhaps good advice for us all. In reality, we all exist in the Eternal Present. While we can remember times past, and have the ability to envision a future, what we experience is the here and now. True, there are times when we may feel the passage of minutes and hours, usually while trying to meet some deadline, but it’s also very easy to lose track of time if one is engaged in some endeavor, like reading, writing, or having a stimulating conversation. Just as we often feel enslaved by the clock, we have the ability to turn off our sense of time, as many do by “unplugging” when camping or otherwise on vacation. Oftentimes, when people plan vacations around events, or scheduled activities, they come back feeling just as stressed out as when they went away.

Despite the precise measurement of days, hours, minutes, and seconds provided by the clock and calendar, most people mark time by the events they experience. Most people alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination can relate exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the Challenger explosion. Personally, we recall births, deaths, marriages, divorces. In such instances, it’s not the calendar which governs the moment; instead, it serves its purpose of being a marker documenting an event. My mother used to remark on how unbelievable it was that so much time had passed from some event she recalled from when she was younger. I’m sometimes amazed when I look back on events like the Olympics, and realize how far I’ve come.

For better or worse, time is a constant in our lives. It serves the purpose it’s intended to serve, but, for many, it can also become an impediment, forcing us to rush toward some imaginary goal, sapping our energy for other, more desirable activities. We should never become so caught up in the so-called “rush of time” that we allow it to dictate our lives. Always be sure to steal a few moments away for oneself.

I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2017.

Shadow Selves


Can you see the real me?
–The Who, Quadrophenia

We all have secret sides to our personalities that we keep hidden from those around us — thoughts we never share, opinions we never state, fantasies we never reveal. Each individual carries around multiple perspectives inside his or her mind, a unique vision that no one else can imagine or share. Artists tap into this reservoir to bring their views of reality to light, and often, in creating fiction, shine a spotlight on the truth. 

Jack Henry Abbot gained fame in the early 80s when his writing was published with the assistance of Norman Mailer as the bestselling work, In the Belly of the Beast. Critics praised his writing for its raw and powerful depiction of prison life. The recognition led to his being released from prison, and not long afterward, he murdered a man in an altercation outside a restaurant, returning him to prison. One might wonder how such a violent individual could craft words with such intensity. The reality is that Abbot was both a brilliant writer and a hardened criminal. The aspects of his character which made him a violent felon also fueled his more poetic side. The tragedy was that he was never able to find a way to reconcile both sides within himself. He eventually took his own life behind bars.

We’ve all heard stories about people who hid aspects of their characters, the church deacon who was secretly molesting children; the homeless person who was a covert multimillionaire; the shy store clerk who no one knew could sing like an angel. Writers who publish under assumed names are often nothing like the characters they create. For every story of someone whose hidden side was revealed, there are hundreds of others who never reveal who else may be lurking inside their heads. 

The question is, which one is real? Are we the faces we present to the world or the compendium of voices which issue forth from our subconscious minds? We’ve all had moments when our actions astound even us. Confronted with a situation, we can imagine the absolute worst way we could respond, then proceed to do just that without being able to explain why. The question of nature versus nurture also looms large in our experience. Are we the people we imagine we are or those we’ve been conditioned by circumstance to be?

The Internet has given rise to a similar phenomenon, quiet, unassuming people becoming trolls and cyber bullies online. I once knew an individual who inhabited a news group I frequented. In the group, he posted under his actual name with a superior and insulting tone toward those who disagreed with his opinions. Whenever I’d bring up his online endeavors in person, however, he’d become defensive and wouldn’t talk about it. He probably viewed his online persona as detached from his “real life” without recognizing how much a part of his character it was. 

The truth is, we are whoever we define ourselves to be. It’s common to see artists behaving in a manner that seems outside society’s norms, but really, we all have people we’d like to be if certain constraints were removed. How much time and effort do we invest in being who we think others want us to be instead of concentrating on who we’d rather be?

Dead Parrots and Shows About Nothing 

Question MarkPython, Seinfeld, and Absurdity

People think of absurdity as someone acting irrationally, or strange things happening to an otherwise normal person, but often the heart of absurdity comes from people rationalizing behavior which defies explanation. My stock portfolio just tanked; now’s the perfect time to buy more! Whenever our instincts conflict with our intellects, we’re often at a loss to explain the discrepancy and grasp for whatever explanation seems to best suit the situation, regardless of how convoluted it may be. Writers such as Albert Camus have explored the absurdities of human behavior, the struggle to find meaning in an otherwise chaotic universe where events often seem random and arbitrary. For Camus, the ultimate absurdist act was suicide, particularly in reaction to the perceived meaningless of existence.

The human compulsion to create rules, only to search for ways to bend or break them provides endless examples of absurdist logic in action. While the tendency to make inexplicable decisions sometimes defies common sense, there is, often, a logic to absurdist reasoning, even if the reasons defy convention or otherwise seem contrived or arbitrary. A good source for examples of this is the Bible, in particular the book of Job in which Job must endure numerous hardships including physical maladies and the deaths of loved ones for no other reason than God has made a bet with Satan on how righteous Job is.

On the iconic television show Seinfeld, the absurdity sprang from the fact that the main characters knew their method of dealing with life often hurt them, but were unable or unwilling to change. Other commentators have pointed out how unlikable the characters were: Jerry the self-centered perfectionist; Elaine the insufferable intellectual snob; George the pathological liar; Kramer the bumbling n’er-do-well who often succeeds in spite of himself. What is most apparent about each of these characters is how often their problems are caused or escalated by their refusal to alter their behavior, even when that behavior was shown to have negative consequences. This was best highlighted in the episode entitled The Opposite, where George started doing the opposite of what his instincts told him, and soon found his dream job, an attractive girlfriend, and the success which had long eluded him.

A forerunner of the absurdity implicit in Seinfeld was the legendary British show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which introduced the antics of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam to American audiences, and befuddled numerous Silent Generation parents. The absurdity of Python often derived from distinguished people doing silly things; proper British upper crust individuals acting like idiots. With Python, it was common to establish a theme early in the show which keeps recurring throughout, such as a segment on identifying trees that only seemed to highlight “the larch” or having characters randomly say, in utter confusion, “lemon curry?” Seinfeld also had such themes, such as when George gets in trouble for saying “Bless you” when someone sneezes. Jerry proposes replacing the phrase with, “You are so good looking,” establishing the running gag for that episode.

One of the most famous sketches on Monty Python was The Pet Shop or, as it’s better known, the dead parrot sketch. In it, John Cleese portrays a disgruntled customer returning to a pet shop with a parrot he purchased there which he’s discovered is dead. The outright absurdity of the customer trying to convince the shop keeper of the condition of the parrot is compounded by the revelation during the skit that the bird was apparently dead when sold to the customer. What is instantly recognizable is not only how ridiculous the situation is, but how true to life it is. Who among us has not had to deal with a know-it-all salesperson whose eye toward the next sale overrides his or her concern for customer satisfaction. Is Cleese’s indignation at being “had” any different than a shopper’s ire over being sold a substitute pair of shoes that do not fit properly or shoppers learning that the advertised deal which lured them into a store is not available and most likely never was?

What often made Seinfeld so interesting was how densely packed it could be. In the episode called The Pothole, each one of the main characters had storylines, and even Newman had a subplot related to the main action. Jerry accidently knocks his girlfriend’s toothbrush into the toilet, and she uses it before he has a chance to tell her; George loses a key chain given to him by his boss; Elaine tries to devise a way to order Chinese takeout despite living on the wrong side of the street; and Kramer adopts a highway. In this episode, the worst tendencies of each character were fully on display. How else could it end than in a fiery cataclysm?

For centuries, it has been the province of drama and literature to point out the foibles of human nature and thus hold a mirror up to the behavior of individuals with an eye toward instructing them in proper actions. The Greek tragedies were filled with the consequences of failing to heed the will of the gods, and medieval morality plays featured characters often led astray by their baser instincts. In Job, his three friends try to convince him his fortune will improve if he’ll only admit that he’s not as righteous as he claims, while Job protests that he’s done nothing wrong and the reader knows he’s telling the truth. Throughout, Job’s pronouncements have a decidedly sarcastic ring to them leading one to believe the writer’s intent was to be darkly humorous. If Job doesn’t represent the actual birth of absurdist literature, it’s certainly one if the earliest surviving examples of it.

Even the most absurd situations have a logic to them. In my sketch Got Your Goat, a man named Harold comes home to his high rise condo in Midtown Atlanta and asks his flustered wife, Agnes, where the goats are. After a bit of conversation back and forth Agnes confirms that Harold isn’t crazy, they really do have goats. While the surface situation is absurd, underlying it is the logical premise that Harold has a familiar ritual in his life which brings him solace and when it isn’t there, he doesn’t accept the loss easily or well. The sketch ends without a coherent resolution but with one which further deepens the absurdity.

Whether it’s the contrived silliness of Monty Python or the situational absurdity of Seinfeld, the humor presented resonates with audiences from one generation to the next. Perhaps the impact of Seinfeld was its instructive nature, displaying the petty and superficial actions of its characters as a mirror on the narcissistic and self-serving culture of the nineties as a warning against becoming too self-involved. As with previous generations, tracing back through the morality plays, the Greek tragedies, and the book of Job, it’s a lesson people need to be reminded of again and again.

The Cheese Toast Project Now Available!

Cheese Toast Animated Graphic 02My collection of essays, The Cheese Toast Project (ISBN: 978-0-9848913-4-4), is now available in print at online booksellers, and in print and Kindle versions at Amazon.com.

The essays are about family, writing, music, drama, religion, politics, and history. Early drafts appeared on my blog, Raised by Wolves and have since been revised and expanded.

 

Free Will

 
A central tenet at the heart of many philosophies and religions is the notion of free will and how much it guides our daily existence. Are we free to choose our own course in life, or have our lives been written ahead of time by some unseen heavenly entity and we are merely following a script created before we were born? We must also question the idea of free will within the context of human behavior and the extent to which it is guided by our instincts rather than our intellect. The survival instinct, common to all creatures on earth, has two imperatives, survive and procreate, neither of which is dependent upon the higher brain functions necessary for the exercise of free will. Earthworms, for example, don’t appear to contemplate the existence of a higher being, yet have managed to survive, largely unchanged, for several million years.

One aspect of free will arises from the struggle between our instincts and our intellect, and the instincts have several billion years head start on the intellect. The instincts are like our autopilot, telling us, among other things, to eat, to sleep, to run away when there’s trouble, and to seek a suitable mate when the time is right. In most cases, when one finds himself or herself acting in a manner which can’t be explained logically, the instincts are often the culprit. Humans choose to view themselves as rational beings, guided by logical reasoning when, in reality, we’re driven by an instinct to survive just like every other creature on earth; find shelter, find food, eliminate the competition, and insure the survival of our genetic heritage at all costs. The effect humans are having on the environment and other species demonstrates how adept we’ve become at following this script. 

At the same time, humans have built a civilization based on laws which attempt to curtail the animal instincts and insure all people have the opportunity to benefit from the earth’s resources. Such laws often rely on compromise, and, in many cases, coercion to keep people in check. While these laws are founded upon the belief humans are essentially moral beings, it’s been my observation that humans are not huge fans of artificially imposed rules and regulations, and what stops many people from acting badly is the threat of legal retribution from society or moral retribution from a higher power. 

When the established order is overthrown, even temporarily, people are capable of hideous atrocities. We see evidence of this in riots following sporting victories when fans take to the streets for the flimsiest of provocations and create significant chaos and loss of property. When the stakes are higher, such as when people are fighting against social injustices, the reaction is even more violent, yet even when the cause of the initial conflict is justifiable, individuals still use the resulting chaos as a cover for crimes unrelated to the cause of the initial violence. Humans are opportunistic beings and look for every opportunity to turn off their higher reasoning even for a few hours. If one were to ask these people afterward why they behaved as they did, they most likely would not be able to offer a logical explanation.

For Christianity and its predecessor Judaism, Genesis, chapter three, tells of the fall of man which led to the acquisition of free will. In this account, the god YHWH has created a paradise in the form of a garden, in which the man and woman, sometimes identified as Adam and Eve, live happy lives, totally devoid of all the frustrations that accompany higher consciousness. They are given just one rule, don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. YHWH is so adamant about this rule that the stated punishment for disobedience is death. A serpent tricks the woman into sampling the fruit and she convinces the man to try it. Both immediately gain awareness, signaled by the fact they realize they’re naked.

From the account in Genesis, it is clear that YHWH does not know that the man and woman have eaten of the tree before observing their behavior and questioning them. It is also obvious that YHWH had no foreknowledge of what the man and woman were about to do and simply relied on the threat of retribution to keep them away from the tree. This portrayal of God brings up a crucial factor in whether or not humans are free in cosmic terms to chart their own course in life, that is, whether or not our destinies are known or determined by a higher power.

It would appear that the notion of free will is at odds with a belief in an all-knowing and all-seeing God. Such an entity is said to know us better than we know ourselves, which presupposes that this entity already knows the decisions we will make. If so, the concept of free will is simply not feasible. For those who will attempt to refute this argument, the question is, can God be surprised by our actions? If not, this implies our actions are pre-determined by God and we do not have free will. If God can be surprised, then God cannot be all-knowing and all-seeing.

If everything is predetermined by God, as many religions and philosophies hold, then we can conclude from this that everything is already working the way God designed it. All the debates about God’s will are irrelevant because we’re already living according to God’s plan. The outcome is already programmed into the equation and nothing we do will change it. If, as I believe, the outcome is not predetermined, then God is neither all-seeing, nor all-knowing, and humans have the free will to determine their own course in the universe. The entity we call God is just as uncertain of how it will end as we are. 

I believe the future is being written as we live it and no force in the universe knows the outcome. We are, therefore free to choose our own course, but only if we’re able to come to terms with how much our lives are still guided by our instincts. It has been shown that humans do have the capacity to overcome our basic biological needs when necessary. We can choose if and when we eat, and, when given the proper guidance and resources, whether or not to procreate, and the fact that humans are at times willing to sacrifice their lives on behalf of others demonstrates we can even overcome the ultimate biological imperative when circumstances dictate. Still, much of our behavior is controlled by forces often unnoticed or not acknowledged by us and this is the chief argument against free will. We need to come to a better understanding of how our biology affects us and fortunately, we have the capacity to do just that. If we can become more conscious of the forces influencing our behavior, then perhaps we can, at last, truly take control of our destinies.