Researching the novel God of the Internet meant a deep dive into just how vulnerable our banking, water and power systems are to hackers.
Just like that, 2020 is underway. Writers and content strategists like me have cycled through our year-end round-ups and predictions for the new year. My crystal ball is pretty hazy these days, but my hindsight vision scores a perfect 20/20 (haha).
The new year marks my 12th year using social media personally and professionally. Yes, times have changed. Platforms have faded (I miss you, Posterous, Periscope and del.icio.us!). Old platforms have evolved into places for image and video-sharing.
When I think back on the text-heavy, mini-blog posts of 2009 and reflect on the state of social today (hello TikTok), I realize that I've learned a few lessons about how best to use these platforms that seem here to stay (in one form or another). Here are five lessons I've learned:
How about you? What have you quit doing on social media?
"Nanga Parbat. It's one of the tallest mountains in the world at 26,000 feet," Brooks said, his voice rising in pitch and in speed as he told me about the book on the Himalayas he was reading. "But it's the sherpas that really get me. They were so devoted, so honorable. One stayed with a fallen climber on a ridge, facing sure death, just because he would not leave the man to die alone. He could have saved himself. Think about that! And he stayed."
Brooks slammed his hand on the kitchen table with a thwack that made my coffee shiver in its mug. "I have to show you the photo of this killer mountain," he said.
His feet hit the floor so hard I can hear the house creak. I poured the coffee down the sink drain, its dark smell now reminds of me of foreboding and turns my stomach. Cold from the tile floor shot up my legs.
Like the man in the suit waving his hand over a map on the morning news show that played silently in the other room, I was a meteorologist, not of the weather but of Brooks' moods. His mounting excitement, verging on agitation, told me a storm was brewing. When he slammed his hand on the table, I knew the funnel cloud had formed.
Now I waited for the tornado to touch down.
I let the hot water warm my hands as I washed the mug. The cat rose from her sunny perch by the back door and snaked between my legs before leaving the kitchen. Perhaps she sensed the impending storm too.
"Nancy!" His voice traveled across the wood floors and over the furniture, piercing as a tornado siren. I counted his footsteps--one, two, three, four--until he burst back into the kitchen holding what looked like one of the used clothes dryer sheets made to stop static electricity in the laundry.
"I've told you before how toxic these are! Chloroform, camphor, ethyl acetate. The EPA calls these hazardous waste and we rub them all over our clothes."
He shook with anger. The Himalayas and the deadly honor of the sherpas was forgotten in the face of the tragedy of dryer sheets.
The mug, slippery with soap, dropped out of my hand to break against the stainless steel sink. A sharp bite of pain pulsed up my arm. Blood swirled into the water. I nicked my finger on a ceramic shard.
Brooks stared at the blood, his mouth hanging open. "Do you have your tetanus shot up to date?" he asked. He looked fearful. "Do you need stitches?"
I wrapped a dishcloth around my hand and held my arms out to him. "Don't worry, Brooks," I said. "It is a small thing."
The bones of the Bloodlines story rattled around in my head for nearly a decade.
The main character, Zane Clearwater, was an intruder into my original story. He had a minor role as a love interest to another character. But as I wrote and rewrote the story and worked out the plot, Zane kept reasserting himself, standing up and waving his hands, even waking me up in the middle of the night and demanding that I pay attention to him. It didn't matter that I had a story outline established. It didn't matter that I had another heroine in mind. Zane was like a sinkhole in the middle of my story landscape, and finally, I just fell in.
I resisted Zane as the main character because he seemed so ordinary. He lived in a trailer park in a crappy Tulsa neighborhood. He had no money and no special skills or talents. He wasn't given to poetic insights about his life. His aspiration was to finish welding school. He had a drinking problem that he was trying to get under control. Many people might dismiss him as a loser, but I came to see him as heroic in his determination to make a better life for himself and his younger sister, Lettie.
I think humans are good by nature, but I also think each of us has a shadow within us. Call it the devil or evil or hate. I followed Zane into his dark places. I let him tell me his fears about his own violent tendencies, his desire for closeness with his long-lost father who may be a cold-blooded killer. I waited to see if his goodness would prevail when circumstances forced him into an awful choice.
What's surprising to me as I look back on the process of writing is how long it took me to find his story. I had wanted to write a funny novel, by the way. I really did. You can still see elements of my attempts at humor with the few scenes about the beauty pageant gown reality show. And other quirky elements, like how Zane worked at the zoo, were little oddball remnants of earlier drafts that still seemed right to me. But the story that Zane wanted to tell was a darker, more serious one. I've learned you can't fight with your fictional characters.
This first appeared in Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel in October 2018.
Are you made of lead or water? Will you sink, or will you flow?
Life is rough on the banks of the Kentucky River in Barlow Adams’s debut novella, Appalachian Alchemy, which finds the youngest Merrick boy trying to answer those questions in the aftermath of his father’s murder. When nine-year-old Book and his 12-year-old brother, Evan, watch Silas Long gun down their father, they learn firsthand that their family is part of a tribe of river people who operate under a particular code of honor distinct from the local sheriff’s brand of law. With Ennis Merrick lying on the ground “like he had fallen down drunk,” the two boys watch as Long unloads bullets from their deceased father’s gun and places the empty gun in his rope belt. Long hands the unused bullets to the boys, saying, "If’n you get on in age a bit and feel like I wronged you or your daddy...you give me [back] this bullet anyway you think is right." Grief, for these boys, comes with a responsibility for revenge.
For troubled, angry Evan, the choice is clear. He will avenge his father's death without the lawman’s help. But things are different for quiet, thoughtful Book. Will Book sink to the “ways of the county,” or will he be strong like the river and keep moving? Is he made of lead or water? Readers will appreciate his torn loyalties as the sheriff questions Book about his father’s killer. Book doesn’t so much take his family’s side as he is compelled to: “I opened my mouth to tell him. My father reached his hand out from the grave and clamped my lips shut.” This push and pull between loyalty to an insular community and the embrace of the larger world’s values of law and order form the novella’s central conflict.
Nine years pass quickly with Adams’s taut writing, and it seems Book’s elemental makeup is more water than lead. Smart, observant, and well read, the youngest Merrick is on track to transcend his raising and get out of Beattyville. In a Romeo-and-Juliet-scented plot twist, he falls in love with Silas Long’s niece, Kelsey, and seems willing to put their family feud to the side despite the displeasure of their relatives. Book may be different from his family and the townspeople, but he’s still drunk enough of the river water to have bought into the sense of honor that Beattyville’s residents prize above all.
Book’s mother and brother know he is special and expect him to leave them behind for a better life, but that doesn’t mean Book’s path will be smooth. While Evan quits school before the ninth grade, Book becomes the first in his family to earn his high school diploma and goes one step further, winning a partial college scholarship. He and Kelsey make plans for their future at random-seeming Syracuse University in New York. We never learn their reasons for that particular school over cheaper and closer alternatives in Kentucky or even big cities like Atlanta, Chicago, or New York City. In the end, it’s a missed opportunity to flesh out Kelsey’s motivations and desires beyond being with Book, but not a critical flaw. We understand their desire to leave Beattyville behind, and that is enough to keep the story moving.
But the ways of the river won’t be shaken easily. Book’s need to supplement his partial scholarship to realize his dreams drives him to sell the meth his brother has begun cooking to the area’s most desperate. These “tadpole” people who never leave the river are more than willing to trade their “cheap watches and Dale Earnhardt memorabilia pieces” for the promise of a high to transport them temporarily out of soul-sucking destitution. Book is conflicted by the morality of selling drugs, but practicality, ambition, and loyalty keep him in the game. And he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Summer is ending, and fall means a fresh start at Syracuse University, Kelsey by his side. It all seems worth it—until everything changes.
At first glance, Adams’s novella seems to revisit a familiar and sympathetic story: A young man caught between old-school loyalty and the promise of something beyond poverty and crime in his rural hometown. The polarities that can be spun from this—nature versus nurture, family loyalty versus individual advancement—sound more simplistic than the complex portrait Adams has drawn of a morally flexible young man who finds his capacity for violence is greater than he thought when his allegiance is torn between love and family. A happy ending here is not a given.
Adams’s strengths as a writer lie within his ear for dialogue, his ability to capture the insularity of Beattyville, his strong, relatable characters, and his skill for meshing the tragic with the comic. Book’s father haunts Appalachian Alchemy, while his brother provides a perfect foil and cautionary tale to any river shortcuts that Book considers. Adams paints bonds of brotherhood as blood ties that give us life and purpose, but also hold us back. Graphic violence illustrates the depth of those ties and adds a dark intensity and grit to the narrative that may not please sensitive readers who would otherwise enjoy Adams’s poetic turns of phrase, such as a boy being one of a traveling salesman’s “leftover smiles” and hearing “a cricket’s chorus to her amen.” As you read, you’ll feel the water beat against the boat’s side and smell the diesel fuel burning. You’ll root for Book to be as strong as the river rather than as heavy as the lead bullets that brought his father and brother down.
By Barlow Adams (Los Angeles: REaDLips Press, 2017)
$8.99, paper. ISBN 9780999058428, 148 pp.
This review first appeared in The Same on March 28, 2018.
My freshman year of high school I crushed on a boy named T. After months of in-class flirting and meaningful looks, T. asked me to go to the movies with him one afternoon after school. My first date! I was thrilled. I don’t remember the movie or how it ended, because we kissed for most of the second hour. Pretty innocent stuff, but literally the most exciting thing that had happened to me at age fourteen.
School was out soon after that date and I spent the rest of May and most of June waiting for him to call me. The phone never rang but that didn’t stop me from building up an entire fantasy world in which he was on an extended vacation with his family—somewhere with no phones. I was certain that once school resumed, so would our budding romance. This is not what happened. What happened is he made fun of my hair to his friends when he bumped into me at Big Splash Water Park then walked away from me like I was nothing. The romance was over before it really began.
This painful memory is also the sharpest one I have of a time when my carefully tended inner fantasy world was gutted like a dead fish. The story I had concocted—that he was a nice person, that he really liked me—was nothing more than a sand castle washed away with the morning tide. I learned a hard lesson that day about what to do when the world I had pictured vanishes under the weight of someone else’s actions.
Characters in Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It, learn this lesson too. And they learn how to move on, in tears, in joy, in resignation, and always in the knowledge that there are ways in this world that we will always, inevitably, be alone, whether in relationships or out of them. The women (and one man) of these stories are flawed, hopeful, lonely, observant women at their lives’ midpoints, navigating motherhood and marriage and professional success with sex and power and love. Taken together, the tautly written and multi-faceted story collection is a portrait of modern womanhood, albeit one within a bubble of affluence and comfort.
Misunderstandings abound, as Sittenfeld’s characters navigate the sticky mess of interpersonal relationships. While misunderstandings can be spun into comedy gold, a la the 1970s and 80s “Three’s Company,” Curtis Sittenfeld rends them heartbreaking instead. She exposes the essential, silly or delusional truths we tell ourselves, and the internal worlds we create and try to keep intact. What is life, really, but our internal voice spinning the narrative of our lives? If those inner worlds intersect with reality, sometimes we are pleasantly surprised, but more often than not, we are Julie in the story “The World Has Many Butterflies,” from which the larger collection draws its title. Julie’s marriage has lost its luster, and “for a stretch of several months, whenever Julie had sex with her husband, she pretended he was [her husband’s co-worker] Graham.” She and Graham had yet to share anything intimate other than a game they played at social engagements to which both couples were invited. At country clubs and dance recitals, they play I’ll Think It, You Say It, a game he initiates that allowed him to stand in silence while she dished and gossiped and judged the couples around them. The scene in which she confesses her love for him – at the Four Seasons Hotel – is painful and embarrassing, as he spells out in a “legalistic” manner that he was never romantically interested in her and that worse, she realized that she was never saying what he thought, that he was just listening. Her humiliation from the lunch is not quite over. Julie runs into Graham’s wife after their divorce at the Butterfly Center where their children are on a field trip. She learns that Graham had moved in with a co-worker named Beth Brenner, ten years younger, blond and svelte, in mergers and acquisitions. “How embarrassing, in light of the news about Beth Brenner, that Julie had imagined Graham might desire her forty-four-year-old self, even boob-lifted and hair-straightened…Beth Brenner offered rather convincing evidence that he’d said he was never romantically interested in her because he was never romantically interested in her.”
Part of Sittenfeld’s work is to trace how tenuous our connections to other humans, even those closest to each other, can be. And how commitments like marriage and parenthood are made in a thousand ways each day. In “A Regular Couple,” we join newlyweds Jason and Maggie on their honeymoon. Maggie, a successful attorney with a national reputation for defending a famous sports star in a rape case, and her public defender husband encounter one of Maggie’s high school frenemies, the then-popular girl Ashley Frye and her husband, also on their honeymoon. The conflict with Ashley Frye, decades-old, exacerbated by Maggie’s career choices, comes at a dance club, and causes Maggie to also spill her venom on Jason, who we learn is as much her trophy husband as Ashley is her husband Ed’s trophy wife. When Ashley finds Maggie’s sore spot and inserts the knife, Maggie’s response threatens her new marriage. Insisting that the sports star Billy Kendall “had raped the cocktail waitress” but also using a tone of voice that “she also didn’t really care,” Ashley’s comments goad Maggie into saying “As for Jason being by conscience, I’d say it’s more like I’m his gravy train.”
Sittenfeld wades into #MeToo territory in the final story, “Do-Over.” Told from the point of view of a good-looking, wealthy white male named Clay, we meet Sylvia McClellan, the woman he stole a student council prefect election (prefect, we are told, is a fancy boarding school name for president) a quarter of century ago. Readers of Sittenfeld’s debut novel Prep (Random House, 2005) will easily picture these characters in the dorms of Ault. The story opens up, appropriately, with Clay reassuring his fourteen-year-old daughter after the election of Donald Trump as president, crushing her hopes for the first female president. “Progress happens in fits and starts,” he texts his daughter, and we learn that that night he dreams of Sylvia. Four months later, he’s not surprised when out of the blue she emails him, wanting to meet for dinner. Clay is no Neanderthal, and gets why she may be calling, and this is exactly where Sittenfeld’s characterizations are so spot on. We can’t hate Clay for the white male privilege he’s benefited from, not just as a white male, but as a handsome, athletic one born to money and with little struggle ascended to success in his field. We don’t know what he does for a living, but investment banking or lawyering seem like the right fit.
Perhaps the recent election of Donald Trump spurred him to make the comment, as he avers, or maybe it is as a father of a girl about the same age Sylvia would’ve been at the time he stole the election, but he wades into an apology over dinner. “I guess we’ll never know the results of that runoff, but I’d be willing to bet I lost and you won. And even if it was a different time, even if I wasn’t the one who came up with the plan, what happened was completely sexist,” Clay says. It turns out, however, that this was not her intent for the dinner at all. She was following up on secret crush she’d had for him during that time, a crush that perhaps made her willing to go along with the plan where he assumed the prefect role and she became associate prefect just because he “had more experience.” Without ever knowing the actual outcome of the election. Sylvia, it turns out, never voted for herself in the election, a note that rings true to female readers taught that to do so would be “conceited or indecorous.”
It’s a nuanced version of #MeToo, lacking the gut punch of some of the stories passed around since the movement caught fire last October, but one that many women can relate to. It’s the story of women who have ingested messages of inferiority and people-pleasing so deeply that the acting this way has become ingrained. When the time comes to stand up, women like me fail sometimes. We don’t trust ourselves. It comes externally, and from inside our heads. How many ways, how deep is our desire to get along and be liked, how willing are we to suppress what we want for the good of the other. “I learned an important lesson from all that, which was to be my own advocate and if I came off as immodest, so be it? And you have to figure that out at some point, right? Or at least if you’re a woman, you do, or not a white man,” Sylvia tells Clay.
At any rate, it’s not why she called him. She is assailed with dissatisfaction in her own marriage, weary of seeing her husband Nelson filling his unemployed days with video games in the same track pants with orange stripes. Sylvia confesses to Clay that she cooked up the whole plan to meet him: “I came here to go on a date with you. You wouldn’t know it was a date, but I would,” she tells Clay. “I wasn’t hoping we’d end up in bed. For one thing, I don’t think I could live with the guilt, and for another childbirth wrecked my body.” Her awkward confession turns into date sabotage as she asks him if he’s ever had an anal fissure “as blasé as if she’s asking if he’s ever tasted coconut water” before telling him about her own caused by her daughter’s birth.
We feel Clay’s pain: he’s hardly the most sensitive man in the world, but he’s trying. He sits with Sylvia, he doesn’t bolt, even though “the narrowness of the margin of error allowed here, combined with the high likelihood of his screwing up—it reminds him of marriage counseling.” This is a particularly apt of the place that most men find themselves when discussing issues of gender inequality. Sittenfeld has chosen to tell this story from the man’s point of view, but still it is Sylvia whose voice shines. “There was this story I told myself, that growing up I’d been the awkward good girl, the responsible student, and I’d missed out socially but in the long term I’d come out ahead…But something came loose inside me, something got dislodged, and I am still that teenager,” Sylvia tells Clay.
The reader can take away lessons, too, that the ten stories in this collection provide a snapshot of modern womanhood that is more nuanced than proponents of gender equality may wish to acknowledge. Sittenfeld doesn’t tell stories with black-and-white morals or victories of right over wrong. She tells a quieter truth of a loneliness that can persist through marriage and motherhood and professional success. For women who thought they could have it all, the goal remains ever elusive.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld, Random House Publishing Group, Apr 24, 2018
Characters in Mary Maddox’s 2016 thriller, Darkroom, don’t crack many smiles. They live in a bleak world as full of shadows as the old-school darkroom where photographer Day Randall had developed her artistic images. When Day goes missing at the start of the novel, her absence sets her roommate Kelly Durrell on a dangerous journey into the violent sphere of drug dealing and distribution controlled by the very rich and very secretive Stuart Helm.
Kelly and Day are an unlikely pair and Darkroom asks readers to accept their friendship as deep enough to inspire extraordinary acts on Kelly’s part. Kelly, an assistant curator at the Museum of the Rockies, is attracted to Day’s photographic talent and sympathetic to her struggles with mental illness and drug use. Kelly invites the woman to share her townhome and her life. Kelly, despite her professional success, lives in an isolation of her own making, far from her estranged parents and the memory of her dead sister in the Midwest. She has no particular love for her adopted home of Boulder, Colorado, and Day is her only friend. The only real commitment keeping her in Boulder is her demanding job at the museum. She works for a micro-managing, credit-stealing boss named Joyce who makes workdays nearly intolerable. In the first chapter, Kelly describes herself as a “woman who dabbed her smudged mascara with a tissue and dreaded going to work.” Kelly seems bogged down by inertia, not particularly interested in anyone sexually, intimate with no one, working for a boss she dislikes. She’s in a sort of stasis. If she first befriended Day in order to shake up her own life, she later finds out that the price will be much higher than she considered.
Readers looking for wise-cracking, articulate cool dude bad guys in the style of Elmore Leonard won’t find them here. The novel’s other characters are as grim and humorless as the world Kelly has created for herself in Boulder. We meet the reclusive Stuart Helm, living in a high-tech compound with his child bride Odette who sneaks out at every occasion to do drugs and find lovers. His head of security, Yount, is a stone-hearted thug willing to do anything for a buck. Others include Greg, a cocaine-addicted former artist and bar owner who was Day’s most recent lover and a bar manager named Welch who rapes unconscious women. None inspire sympathy or admiration. Even the bouncer with the silly name of Animal is a serious dude, trying to help Kelly find Day without destroying his own chances at a private security gig working for Yount that he desperately wants. Readers seeking relief from the frosty and sinister world Maddox has created find some in the blossoming romance between Animal and Nina, a bartender at the club where he works.
Maddox’s writing thrums with tension and some lovely turns of phrase from the first line: “Some photographs speak for the dead, but their meanings may be elusive.” By chapter six, readers are well into the swing of the mystery. Maddox builds suspense well through a series of not-too-surprising plot twists that kept me turning pages to find out what happened to Day and what price Kelly would pay to learn the secrets of her disappearance.
Readers looking for a taut thriller populated by unpredictable characters will find Darkroom compelling and worthwhile. Maddox’s crisp writing is a pleasure to read and the smart, resilient protagonist she created in Kelly Durrell is an example of the strong female characters I love to see in fiction. Those looking for something more light-hearted should keep on moving.
Darkroom by Mary Maddox, Cantraip Press, Mar. 31, 2016
I spent the two last years of my dad’s life traveling the globe for a job, a lucky perk with terrible timing. My world expanded as Parkinson's disease shrunk Dad’s world to a hospital bed and the cracks in the ceiling. I've learned this lesson again and again: Life's good sometimes comes mixed with the unspeakably awful. My father, a blur in motion as I grew up, who had earned the nickname "waterbug" at work because he couldn't sit still, who took me as a teenager to Los Angeles from our home in Tulsa for a weekend just because, lived his last years trapped in a shaking body, his jaw slack, eyes glazed.
Dementia and hallucinations sometimes took him back to work as a maintenance supervisor at American Airlines. He felt the stress of those days too, sometimes becoming agitated that it was time to get a plane out. Sometimes he saw his long-deceased mother and father or talked about taking a trip home to Pennsylvania. Other times, he was lucid and present. I could hear his excitement when I told him my new job sent me on my first trip to Asia. “What time is it there?” he would ask on one of our Skype calls during that trip to Singapore. “What have you seen?”
His interest made me think of his old photo albums, stacked in a cabinet with their wedding photos and other memorabilia of my parents' lives before marriage. Before anyone called him Dad, my father had joined the Air Force in 1954, working as a mechanic stationed at Sculthorpe Royal Air Force base in England. Whenever he had personal leave time, he went to see another country, and the photo albums gave us glimpses of what he saw. I remember square black-and-white photos of Dad skiing in the Alps, and him squinting at the camera on a gondola in Venice, Italy, shirts and pants dangling from a clothesline above his head.
He carried that love for travel throughout his life. After the service, he worked as an airline mechanic for American Airlines, and took Mom, my sister and me on trips to Hawaii and Florida and New York using the airline’s non-revenue or “non-rev” program that allowed employees and their families to fly for free on stand-by.
"I've never been to Africa," Dad said when I had told him Senegal on the west coast was my next stop. I heard yearning behind his words, as if he wished he were beside me, and I felt deeply sad that his health had shut that door. Even though I spent most of my time in a Dakar hotel conference room, but my dad thrilled as if I’ve been going on safari. I collected impressions of that sunbaked seaside city to share with him and Mom: the tall slender woman in colorful dresses and head cloths, men talking on cell phones and leading goats on leashes through the city streets. How the hotel's plumbing only provided cold showers. How the sky turned red at dawn. It was September, and tents full of sheep and rams with curled horns dotted the main roads in advance of the Muslim holiday called Tabaski.
Stories and souvenir T-shirts became my way of sharing the experiences with my father. Mom said he wore the T-shirts to his many doctor’s and physical therapy appointments, and they acted as conversation starters for my friendly father who always had kind things to say to everyone he encountered. His favorite shirt was a bright red one I bought him in Prague that read: “Czech me out.” His parents had emigrated from Czechoslovakia in the 1920s. For Dad, it didn’t matter that the country’s split in 1993 meant his parents’ hometowns were in Slovakia, not the Czech Republic. He’d grown up saying he was Czech and he loved the wordplay.
In between my trips, I also traveled see him in Houston almost every month. Dad’s health worsened. He slipped away from us in an increasingly wordless sorrow. His eyes stayed unblinkingly open for long periods but at the same time lacked focus, often looking upward. He still smiled but hardly spoke as I talked to him from Toronto, Canada, and after that trip, I spent most of the next two months in Houston while my father did the work of dying. Every day, he drifted further and further away from us. I imagined him living some kind of active mental life, free of his body, traveling through the world and seeing all of the parts he had missed.
After he died in December 2012, I took trips to South Africa and Malaysia and China. I visualized him at each place with me: watching a pride of lions walk by our jeep on safari, baking in the heat of Malaysia’s red-painted town of Melaka, walking on top of the Great Wall of China. His spirit felt strongest in London, about two-and-a-half hours from the air base where he was stationed. Through his eyes, I imagined him as a young man from a small town in Pennsylvania watching the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace or sampling the chaos of Trafalgar Square. He still travels with me today.
Depending on the light and my mood, the potted cacti and succulents on my front porch resemble either the strange skyline of a science fiction city or the motley cast of characters in Star Wars’ Chalmun’s Cantina. A tangle of golden snake cactus, the opuntia’s sugar-dusted flat pancakes, and the meaty grey-green succulent leaves of kalanchoe all share the light and the warmth of the west-facing porch. They form a friendly welcoming committee to our visitors, even if most days, the only visitor is the postman.
I don’t pay much attention to my spiny community of survivors, relishing in their low-maintenance lifestyle and only occasionally remembering to splash them with water. Heavy winter rains did most of the work for this year anyhow.
As spring drew the sun higher and higher in the sky, the porch began to bake each afternoon in warm rays. As the soil warmed, the cacti and succulents began to grow in all directions. They grew tall, they grew wide. They began to flow over the rims of their terra cotta pots, and pips of new growth formed on nearly every cactus surface. Some pips dropped into the soil and seemed to immediately take root. The front porch burst full of joyous abundance and growth, and I grew excited. I felt like I had sprouted the greenest thumb. My cacti, some of which I had tended for five years or more, were finally thriving after years of stasis. Their green flesh swelled with stored water. The vigorous explosion felt life-affirming and miraculous.
The little mammillaria hardly kept up, allowing its cacti compadres become stars of the show. Two-and-a-half inches tall and shaped like a pincushion covered in fishhook spines, this laggard had not demonstrated the visible growth of its compatriots on the porch. Maybe it had grown a bit thicker, but I barely noticed a difference from its pre-winter form.
Until one afternoon, as I headed out of the house to run an errand, when that pincushion cactus stopped me in my tracks.
Almost overnight, the unremarkable and unchanging cactus did the unthinkable. It had burst into flower. A multitude of fuchsia flowers, each just a bit smaller than the fingernail on my pinky, had erupted from the diamond-patterned flesh in a nearly perfect ring encircling its top. The sheer surprise made me stop in my tracks, and the color and symmetry of the flowers made me fish my phone out of my purse to take a photo.
Cacti have always been the plant world’s strange cousin, able to survive great heat and drought that would kill most mammals, let alone plants. Cacti are peculiar to the Americas, with hundreds of different species growing in deserts from Canada to Patagonia. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Some botanists theorize that the first cacti evolved from roses, basing their hypothesis on the cactus flowers that rival showy roses in shape and structure.
History aside, this little survivor on my porch had commanded my respect. While I thought it only bided its time, the cactus grew roots and conserved its energy for a display like I’d never seen before. Seeing those floral eruptions of hot pink made me think that anything could happen in nature.
I sat on the porch steps and counted the flowers while the sun warmed my face and shoulders. There were twenty-three. I counted the petals on one of the flowers. There were fourteen. Up close, I noticed a thin white line along the perimeter of the petals. From a distance, this white line the width of a straight pin vanished in the crazy hot pink pigment, but up close, it formed a pretty detail. I noticed dark brown buds forming above the flowers, and wondered if the bloom had only just begun. I felt alive with possibility, like a witness to God’s work at the cellular level.
Only four things are essential for plants to live: water, light, warmth and some minerals. It’s a modest list, even more so when you realize how little of each cacti need.
I thought about my own feet, planted in the fertile soil of graduate school and life and work and love. For two years, I’ve done little other than read, write, learn and write some more. Maybe I was due to blossom soon too. In that moment, I felt the potential of all the words I hadn’t yet written, of the people I hadn’t met, of the days, hopefully still numerous, left to live on this miracle-filled earth. An earth where one small cactus can spring into fuchsia extravagance one April afternoon without a moment’s notice.
Summer camp is not just a rite of passage, but also a fine social experiment in making friends, overcoming homesickness and trying new things. A week at summer camp in Robber's Cave State Park in Oklahoma's Sans Bois Mountains when I was 12 brought me a fascination with Belle Starr the Bandit Queen, a fear of archery and a first kiss from a boy named Shane.
But 60 years ago, a group of 12-year-old boy campers at that same spot found themselves in the middle of a now-famous and quite grand inter-group conflict experiment -- a real life Lord of the Flies conflict that mercifully stopped short of killing. The study of inter-group conflict and cooperation was led by Muzafer Sherif, the founding father of present-day social psychology, and conducted with University of Oklahoma researchers.
The boys, selected for their similar backgrounds and the fact that none knew each other before, thought they were at a typical summer camp. So did their parents, who paid $25 for them to go. But the boys were lab rats in a maze, placed into engineered situations and conflicts to see how they would behave.
Sherif's research objective was to watch how tribes and prejudices could be formed and then overcome. His study took place in three distinct phases. First, the boys were broken into two separate, distinct groups that had no knowledge of each other at the beginning. A week was spent building esprit de corps among the group through camping, swimming and sports.
During the second week, the two groups were brought into conflict with one another through a multi-day tournament comprised of games of tug-of-war, baseball and tent pitching competitions. Antagonism between the groups peaked. They refused to eat together in the same dining hall. They organized raids of one another's cabins. Name-calling and trash talk morphed into flag burning, property theft and fistfights.
With hostility at its height, Sherif and his team now created extreme situations, like the water supply being shut off and the food truck breaking down. The two groups were forced to work together for things as simple as water and food. Their collective success sowed the seeds of peace between the groups. By the end of the third week, the two groups were sharing food and playing together.
Sherif demonstrated in this study our very human tendency to form groups, and within those groups, to succumb to hostility toward those outside the group. Each human group tends to develop its own culture, find its own leaders and develop its own rules for behavior. The groups become like little countries, forming mini-governments and legal systems and boundaries to differentiate it from others. These miniature systems form the root of conflicts between small groups.
The Robber's Cave experiment is famous because it seems to have the prescription for reconciling warring groups and bringing them to peace. But 60 years later, we're still struggling with the same painful issues of division and hostility.
Just a glance through my Facebook or Twitter feeds shows me that the dynamics at play among those campers are alive and well in our adult groups (political, religious, or economic). We're still inclined to be hostile to or judgmental of those who are not in our immediate group.
But we can do better. This kind of groupthink is a construct that we can break down by understanding our tendencies and then focusing on larger goals together.
Social harmony is hard to come by. An Okie girl living in California is very aware of how differently people view red states and blue states and the people within. All of us tend to think our group's views are the best, truest and most virtuous. But so did those 12-year-old boys in Robber's Cave.