Friday, July 29, 2011

Short Story: "Painless Separation"

[This story was the Featured Friday Fiction on With Johanna Harness' permission, I thought I'd put it up here, too. Thanks to @johannaharness for giving me this chance!]

Painless Separation

A few weeks ago, our relationship started to get rocky. No, not rocky. It got wiggly. Anyway, I knew a break-up was inevitable.

Noah and I had been together for over six years. I wasn’t his first (I was his third), but we were both so young when we got together, we basically grew up at the same time.

I remember when Noah introduced me to his parents. They loved me immediately. They coo-ed over me. “So cute!” they told him. That felt good. I’ll miss them, too.

Mostly, our relationship was… well, you know how, when people ask about a how things are going and you say, “Great,” but you don’t really mean exceptional? You just mean that there’s nothing wrong. Noah was very stable; considerate but not particularly affectionate, dependable but not passionate.

I mean, I had my little issues. His diet, for one thing. Noah loves candy. That always bothered me. He wasn’t heavy. In fact, Noah’s a skinny guy. But he was always looking for the next gummy bear the way a less moral man might keep an eye out for floozies. It irritated me. It wasn’t a serious threat to the health of the relationship or anything. But it was the one way Noah was inconsiderate, and because his sensitivity was my favorite of his qualities, that unwillingness to think about my needs bothered me just a bit.

Still, over-all, Noah was great to me. He was protective, but not in some annoying, macho way. And tender. I liked that a lot. I guess I’d always known we wouldn’t go the distance. Relationships that start when you’re so young almost never do. But I fell into a rhythm, I got comfortable, and I guess I let myself be lulled into a false sense of security.

Then, a few weeks ago, I could tell he was just not holding on to me quite so tightly. I thought about it a lot, of course. I suspected there was someone else. I wondered if I was being pushed out. But there didn’t seem to be any evidence. I just started feeling like I was …I don’t know, dangling there, somehow.

And the more I thought about it, the worse it got. Pretty soon I was hanging by a thread. His parents, who’d been so supportive at first, turned on me so quickly it shocked me.

“I think it’s time,” they’d tell him. I was right there!

His dad was the worst. Noah’s mom would just leave the room whenever the topic of our relationship came up. Like she wanted to wash her hands of the whole thing. That stung. But his dad was really in his face, actively trying to pull us apart. I don’t think I’ll ever fully forgive his dad. And the way Noah just let his dad talk to him like that, and never stood up for me… I thought I’d never be able to forgive him, either. But then…

See, it all came to a head the earlier tonight when his dad was getting in his face again.

“But it hurts!” Noah said. See? That was the kind of sensitivity I depended on. But now it had all turned to selfishness. No concern for me whatsoever.

“We won’t do it if it hurts. It can wait a little while. Maybe tomorrow night.” His dad said this in a completely calm voice. Like postponing a breakup for a single day was some great mercy.

“Okay,” Noah said. I was in agony. He was just accepting this one day delay without a word of protest? I couldn’t believe it!

I should have been outraged. Such an obvious attack on my pride should have motivated me to break it off first. I know that now. But it just made me more desperate, more clingy. Pathetic, I know.

Then his dad said, “Oh, I have an idea!”

My hopes fell. Brainstorming about our break-up and he’d had a eureka moment. How could it get any worse?

“What?” Noah asked his dad. And there was an eagerness in his voice that shook me to the core.

“Hold on,” his dad said, and ran out of the room.

He came back a moment later holding an ice cube. Both of us were confused.

“Lean your head back,” his dad told him. Then he used the ice to numb Noah.

It’s strange, because the cold didn’t just prepare him for the breakup. It calmed me down, too. This was happening, I told myself, happening right now, but somehow it didn’t bother me as much anymore.

Then his dad took a piece of string and looped it next to me, then around behind me, and then back around to the front. He gently moved the string back and forth until it slid up above me. Maybe it was just because of the ice, but this reminded me of the tenderness his dad had shown back when I first appeared on the scene. Despite all his calls for our separation, his dad was acting like he cared again. I couldn’t feel much, but it felt good, in its own strange way. In fact, it almost tickled.
Then his dad twisted the string in front of Noah’s face and pulled the ends in opposite directions, first very gently to get his hands a few inches apart, then one quick tug.

And, just like that, we were through. There may have been a sound, but I was so surprised I honestly can’t remember if it was a pop or a bam or a squelching or just silence.

Next thing you know, I was in free fall. There’s always that moment, right after a breakup, when you’re just untethered, spinning and bewildered. For me, it was very brief.

I hit bottom fast. But, to my surprise, I felt whole. I was different, but the same. Complete, but separate. We had ended. I persisted. Frankly, I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Maybe I’m still grieving. I don’t know. But that wasn’t the end of the breakup.

His dad picked me up and set me down on the bathroom counter, right in front of Noah. It gave me a whole new perspective on him. Noah wasn’t sad, and that should have hurt me. A lot. But he looked shocked, and I could identify with that.

Then Noah smiled and examined the new gap between his teeth where I’d been just seconds before. His smile grew a little, and his eyes, already wide from the speed of the breakup, warmed up as though someone had stuck needles in them and injected them with pure joy.

“Oh my gosh!” he shouted, his voice cracking on the “oh,” with the “gosh” bursting out like an untied balloon filled with awe.

And he was so happy, so overjoyed, so beautiful that I couldn’t hold a grudge. I forgave him. I forgive him and I love him.

When the tooth fairy slips me out from under Noah’s pillow and flies me off to whatever’s next, I’ll go away happy.

Friday, July 22, 2011

GOP's Debt Ceiling Platform: "Screw Everybody"

I've been watching the debt ceiling debates with growing horror. A few months back, John Dickerson, senior political correspondent for Slate Magazine, laid out the narrative he expected we'd see in this debate. First, he predicted, thing would look tense. Then, both sides would say they'd reached an impasse. Then the President would sit both sides down and cajole them to hammer out a deal. Then they'd storm out and say the two sides had never been further apart. They'd continue this act in public while the real negotiations went on in private in order to strengthen their hands, and at the last minute we'd have a deal.

That's the way it went down with the last budget negotiations, and it seemed like this political kabuki would play out that way this time, as well.

And it still could...

...except that something feels very different this time. Republicans were scared of taking the blame for a government shutdown. They were still haunted by the ghosts of Gingrich past. This time, it seems the only ghost that bothers them is the ghost of Obama future. Mitch McConnel, the Senate Minority Leader, said, "My first priority is the defeat of President Obama." He's the one who seems to be the most reasonable Republican at the table. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, looks like he's going to deal one minute, then looks like he's going to get neutered by his caucus, then turns around and says he won't budge. Eric Cantor, House Majority Whip, seems like he's either focused on causing a government default, or on taking John Boehner's job, and, luckily for him, those might come about simultaneously.

Now, I'm no economist, so I won't weigh in on just how bad it might be if we default. There's a range of predictions by the experts. When there is a range (as with Global Warming), skeptics say, "See, there's no perfect consensus, so let's not worry about it." These folks do not seem swayed by the fact that all the predictions are bad. I haven't come across a single economist who says, "Let's default. It'll be grand!"

Many Americans (a minority, but a sizable one), favor defaulting. They think this is some kind of principled stand. I'm staling a metaphor from Emily Bazelon, but this is not a fiscally responsible, fiscally conservative, or even moral principled stand. These people are not saying, "Let's spend less." We've gone out and run up the credit card bill already. Now, when the bill comes due and the only alternatives are to make that call and ask for a higher credit limit or to declare bankruptcy, they are saying, "Let's rip up that credit card bill! That'll show 'em!" I don't know what moral universe those people were raised in, but I was taught that not paying your bills was at the very least an irresponsible act, and not doing it when you have the money is outright immoral.

And we do have the money! No one can dispute that we are capable of paying these bills. The debt is growing, but that means we need to re-examine two things: Money in, and money out. That's a worthwhile conversation to have. But we do have the money. So refusing to pay our bills should not be an option.

A majority of Americans believe this. But that might not matter. In this game of chicken, it looks increasingly like Republicans are more than willing to accelerate into a head-on collision. The polite explanation for this is that they are too dogmatic. That might not seem polite, but that's what's been coming from conservative pundits. They point out that the GOP is too wedded to anti-tax dogma, too hemmed in by Grover Norquists' pledge, too beholden to the Tea Party wing, to consider revenue increases of any kind. That not coming from liberals like me. That's coming from conservatives like Ben Stein, David Brooks, and even Norquist himself, who went out of his way to try to give Republicans some cover by letting them know that closing tax loopholes wouldn't violate his pledge. Many conservatives (who aren't elected officials) are just as worried about the GOP politicians' intransigence as I am.

I took that as a good sign. See, I was under the cynical misconception that money ruled Washington. I thought, as we came down to the wire, wealthy GOP donors would get on the phone and say, "Look, Representative X, I appreciate that you're trying to protect that windfall I get from the Bush tax cuts. And I really love what the low corporate tax rate does for my company's bottom line. I have a good laugh every time you smile at the camera and call me a 'job creator' while I send American jobs overseas. You and I, we're on the same page. But Mr. Congressman, you have to understand, I have a lot of money in the stock market. A lot. Stocks and Bonds. I don't want to pay higher taxes any more than anybody else does, but I stand to lose a lot more from a government default that tanks the bond market, then the stock market, than I do from a tax increase. I didn't get to where I am without being able to do simple math. So say that you won't bend and screw as many poor people as you can, but, in the end, make sure the government doesn't default, or I won't be able to throw that fundraiser for you in September."

Every time a conservative pundit came out in favor of a deal, I assumed these calls were being made. And maybe they are. And maybe, after Obama and the Democrats give up on everything their party holds dear, that will happen.

But I'm starting to doubt it. Maybe the kabuki is really good. But we've entered into the danger zone. If a plan were to come out right now, it still might be too late to get it through both houses of Congress and onto the President's desk in time to calm the markets. Which means those wealthy donors aren't swaying their representatives fast enough. This makes me even more cynical. Because if money doesn't move Washington, what does? Oh yeah. Maybe it's the thing that can't be reported politely by conservative pundits.

I don't think anti-tax dogma tells the whole story. I don't think loyalty to the Tea Party does, either. I'm staring to think it's all about power. The Republicans were canny to recognize that they had the President over a barrel. He can't afford a default on his watch. Unemployment is the best chance their weak field of presidential candidates have. So they knew they could bleed all kinds of concessions before striking a deal. President Obama told Eric Cantor, "Don't call my bluff, Eric." Now, maybe this was simply the weakest, lamest thing a president has ever said. Maybe a man as smart and educated as President Obama doesn't know that you shouldn't announce when you're bluffing, but he is and he did and he'll get called. Social programs will be slashed. The economy will take a hit. The poor will suffer. The middle class will shrink. But the debt ceiling will be raised, the Republicans will call it a win, and Obama will live to fight another day.

Or maybe there is a bill he would veto. Maybe he's not really bluffing. And now, the only way for Republicans to find out is to push through some truly draconian bill like Cut, Cap, and Balance (the exact same Republicans who, under Bush, never cut, never capped, and never balanced) and see if he blinks. Maybe this isn't kabuki after all. Maybe this is theater of a more realist variety. Chekov once told Shchukin, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must absolutely go off." Perhaps the rifle is not the default, but the bluff. Now it is loaded and hanging on the wall, and by August 2nd it must be discharged in someone's face.

And this is what scares me. Because if it's not about money, if it really is about power, then all the donors can make all the phone calls and it won't matter as long as GOP politicians adhere to McConnel's number one priority. Maybe they really do want to test Obama's willingness to be a one-term president by giving him an impossible choice: Either betray everything you believe in to get the ceiling raised, or let the country default. Maybe they've done the math as well, and have calculated that even if the country defaults, they will come out slightly ahead in the lose-lose. Sure, our economy will crater, and even their supporters will be angry with them, but as long as they'll be more angry with the President, it's worth it. If that's the case, if they are really willing to rip up the credit card bill and declare bankruptcy just to win the next election, we are all in big trouble.

Because it's not just a lose-lose for Obama. It's not just a lose-lose for the people counting on a Social Security check, or the people who depend on the programs Obama will be forced to cut to satisfy GOP demands. If Republican officials are willing to enter into a lose-lose that includes the wealthy, they're really saying "Screw America. We just want the White House and both houses of Congress." And those are the last people we should want there.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Anonymous Wins an Award!

Remember when I blogged about how one of my students got a poem published anonymously? (here) Well guess what! She entered the Kay Snow Writing Contest... and won! 1st Place! She said I could brag about her again. Who has two thumbs and is the proudest teacher on the internets tonight? This guy!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Parenting, Halo: Reach, and Philosophy

Today I posted this picture of Noah and I on Facebook with the caption: My favorite video game buddy.

One of my favorite former students asked, "Is getting your Halo kill ratio up really exposing your son to the kind of philosophical depth that he'll need to think deeply and appreciate the finer aspects of life?"

I explained that, though it might not have a lot of philosophical depth, it will teach him a lot about how to behave in a philosophical debate. What philosophers should learn from Halo: Reach:

-If possible, go for the (figurative) backstab.

-If they see your argument coming, go for the (figurative) headshot.

-If those don't work, throw (rhetorical) grenades and hope to take the other guy down with you.

Noah will be fully prepared to major in philosophy like his parents. But we hope he majors in engineering or chemistry because, let's face it, we were philosophy majors and are counting on him for a comfortable retirement.

What does he want to do when he grows up? Wait for it... Wait for it... Design video games.

Fun with Words from Twitter, Part II

A couple weeks ago (wow, has it been that long?) I posted an idea I thought I might use in the poetry class I'm teaching. I made lists of the nouns and verbs I found on my Twitter news feed with the intention of making a found-poem out of them, then had the students do the same with their Twitter/Facebook/Myspace (okay, not even the kids use Myspace anymore. Google Plus? Too soon). I wrote mine while the students worked on theirs. The lesson was a hit. Here's what I came up with:

8 Hours of Twitter

In my Newsfeed
Butterflies sing commandments.
Cyberpunks apply for immigration,
And farts retweet pain.

Accountants weigh corruption.
Insects transform islands.
Families prolong their vacations in sandboxes,
While cookies threaten leadership.

Photos forget portraits.
Music gropes for affairs.
Paper-dolls tote cancer.
And sluts prefer reading.

All the babble googles gibberish,
While dementors smooch sleep.