Destiny (Flash Fiction)

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We’re using the book The 4am Breakthrough by Brian Kitely in my MFA Advanced Creative Writing Workshop class. The book is a compilation of writing exercises.

This week I selected one called Self-Loathing.

Basically, the directions say to write an incomplete piece of narrative (500 words) in third person about a character who deeply despises herself but without letting on to the other character(s) in the scene that this is the case.

I chose the exercise because I thought it would be interesting to imagine a character’s internal conflict and pain born from a secret so awful that it carries over into her everyday life.

If this was complete, I’d love to include more backstory about Destiny’s past and how she came to be who she is. But even without all of that I like how this turned out. To me, it feels like a snapshot taken in what should have been a happy moment if not for such a sad life.

Destiny:

“So… what do you think?” Nina asked Destiny.

It was the final gown fitting. As the oldest of four girls, Destiny had been through two of these already, once for each of her other sisters’ weddings. There were no sisters left, thank God, so technically this was the final final fitting.

In just a few days, Nina, the baby of the family at 28, would walk down the aisle and marry her stockbroker boyfriend, Antonio, and once that happened then only Destiny would be left. She managed a smile, but wondered if she’d qualify automatically for some sort of society of spinsters, or if she’d have to officially apply.

“You look beautiful!” Destiny gushed.

“You really think so?” Nina said and twirled a full 360 degrees around in the mirror.

“Like a princess,” Destiny chimed, trying not to let on the pain she felt inside.

Nina was beaming from ear to ear and Destiny could tell by the expression on her face and the excitement in her voice that her sister thought she’d finally found the one.

But Destiny wasn’t so sure…

Nina and Antonio had only dated—a term Destiny had always used loosely—for three months when he popped the question. There’d been plenty of other contenders before Antonio. Destiny wished her little sister had chosen one of those instead. But Nina chose Antonio.

Destiny wanted to be happy for her sister but happiness never came easy for Destiny. In fact, she couldn’t quite remember if she’d ever been truly happy.

“We’re going to have a cake and sing Happy Birthday to you at the reception,” Nina said. “You know… as a thank you for all you’ve done for us.”

“Oh. That’s so… sweet,” Destiny said.

Destiny tried not to think about all she’d done. Instead she pictured a blaze of 39 candles. Guests would need to be evacuated and the whole thing would be her fault for getting so old. On the upside at least Destiny wouldn’t have to jump out of the cake and blow a train of groomsmen.

Destiny first started stripping with the clichéd intention of putting herself through med school but then she flunked out of school because she was stripping when she should have been studying. It was great money and such a rush. She never regretted her choices until the day she went and fucked her baby sister’s fiancé for five hundred bucks.

As the bridal consultant assisted Nina with her virgin white veil, Destiny looked past the blushing bride-to-be and caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She touched her face and cringed—another wrinkle. She should have stayed in school, she thought.

“You’re next!” Nina teased, hoping to cure that familiar frown.

But Destiny didn’t want to be next.

“Fingers crossed,” she said anyway and forced a gracious smile through a hopeful sigh.

I’ll keep my mouth shut today, Destiny thought. Then she peeked down at her watch sensing it was time for another Zoloft.

“The Writing Life”

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Annie Dillard’s book, The Writing Life, and many of its messages have stayed with me these past few weeks as I continue to read and write, and a few in particular have even carried over, playing like background music, as I live.

There’s no denying the fact that Dillard hits the nail on the head when she describes what it’s like to be a writer. I mean, wow. I felt this way in the early chapters when Dillard spoke of the pain and importance of rewriting, chopping, developing the “courage to tie off the umbilical cord” of first drafts, pushing through mistakes, and even as she touched upon writing habits like drinking too much coffee. So many times, I saw myself in Dillard’s stories and explanations.

Honestly though, I could do without so many personal anecdotes. While a few have been spot on and managed to open my eyes wider and make me think, there were those, too, that left me scratching my head. Some of Annie’s stories missed quirky and landed on mundane. I still don’t understand the points in sharing the coffee pot story, the butterfly mating story or the dream in chapter four. I found those to be confusing in general and, at times, even a little boring. That’s not to say I won’t have some sort of eureka moment later and suddenly understand.

Still, I love when writers share with us these types of personal insights into their own lives and explain why and how they write. I love the sneak peek into their writing processes, methods, thoughts, fears and quirks.

That said; when I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast or King’s On Writing, I got the feeling that these writers lived and wrote. They ate, drank, traveled, experienced different cultures and people… they lived (and in King’s case continue to live) full, satisfying and interesting lives. But I don’t get that same message from Dillard. Dillard says “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” By her own description, she locked herself away and missed the fireworks (literally). I find that sad. I also think that feeling comes across in her writing. While I think Dillard writes beautifully and intelligently, I wish her stories came from living rather than from hibernating. She’s such a strong writer, I’d be curious to know how much more wonderful her stories might have been if she allowed herself to live more.

I want to live and write. In fact, I put off writing (full time anyway) for a long time so that I could live. Rather than pursue a writing career straight out of college, like I always thought I’d do, I chose another route—a fun, scary and far more adventurous route. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a conscious choice to collect stories and experiences to later write about. I simply craved knowledge and experience. Looking back, I know my writing is a product of my experiences, old and new, and my relationships, those I’ve nurtured along the way. If I don’t live my life, I’m not sure what I’d write about. And while I, too, lock myself away these days to write (and though Dillard hates the idea of “trancelike” writing that’s often what I do) and, in doing so, I ignore and shut out the rest of the world, I still take breaks from writing to live, love, laugh and learn.

For my own writing, specifically the novel I’m currently overhauling (for the fourth time), Dillard’s many messages are both poignant and practical. Dillard gives me perspective and a welcome shot in the arm when she says things like “what would you write if you knew you were going to die soon?” but she also gives me hope with things like “it takes between two and ten years” to write a book and “it is that one pitch in a thousand you see in slow motion.”

Sure I’m obsessive and completely bullheaded, dreamily optimistic and borderline nuts, but those qualities are normal for a writer with a dream. Those qualities, I believe, eventually pay off and take us where we want to go.

In this week’s lecture, Professor Hurt selected the quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book; or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things will fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.”

That quote really spoke to me, as well. In fact, I typed it up, printed it out and taped it to my laptop. I need to read this message every day. I also made it my Facebook status. I wanted to share it with other writers and even non-writers. I want to remember it as I write this draft, as I try my best to “give it all” this time. And while it’s a lesson on writing it’s also a metaphor for life—another twist on the classic “live life to the fullest.” Not only is this a theme throughout Dillard’s book but it’s also an important life lesson. Isn’t living life what we all want to do? Writers are no different except we need to live life and write about it to the fullest, too.

Over the break, I finished reading Miss Hempel Chronicles. The novel turned out to be wildly different from what I expected after reading that first chapter. The book is a compilation (or chronicle) of multiple stories and that chapter was just one of them. It didn’t take long for my quirky, fun and funny middle school adventure to morph into a wacky, strange, sometimes sad and heavy flashback of this woman’s soured life and disappointing youth. I wasn’t expecting any of that. Without revealing too much and ruining the literary experience, which really was a good one, the book was really two stories—two completely different stories—in one. But this works perfectly because, in a nutshell, Miss Hempel Chronicles is a story (or two stories, really) about a woman who lives two different lives. Circling back to Dillard and her message, Miss Hempel Chronicles captures Miss Hempel’s whole life, not just her life as an elementary school teacher. It succeeds because it doesn’t save the good stuff. It leaves nothing out.

In my writing and in my life, I plan to do the same.

My New Year’s Resolutions (More or Less)

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Take less
Give more
Procrastinate less
Write more
Thirst less
Drink more
Spend less
Save more
Snack less
Workout More
Whine less
Smile more
Cocktail less
Wine more
Ache less
Sleep more
Dry out less
Moisturize more
Worry less
Meditate more
Nitpick less
Celebrate more
Cry less
Laugh more
Dislike less
Love more
Bitch less
Adore more
Sit less
Play more
Limit less
Imagine more
Fear less
Dream more
Want less
Be more.

Writing Short Stories

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Joyce Carol Oates says, “Fairy tales are miniature narratives that typically begin Once upon a time and swiftly, sometimes bluntly summarize entire lives within a few paragraphs.”

Oates also says, “The miniature narrative is often most effective when boundaries between ‘real’ and ‘surreal’ are dissolved.

I’ve never been very good at writing short stories. I think this is mainly because so much needs to be covered in such a short span in a short story that my mind cramps trying to think how I might fit it all into just a few short pages.

It might seem silly but I get nervous thinking about them and tangled up writing them.
But, before now, I’d never thought of fairy tales as miniature narratives. 

Being the mother of a three-year-old girl, I’ve certainly read (and memorized) my fair share of fairy tales. I’ve even composed a few impromptu fairy tales typically at the bedtime request of my very own Princess Lyla (my daughter’s name and her preferred character title). All of which have been met with smiles and gleeful giggles. Of course, she’s not exactly the toughest critic and as long as she lives happily ever after in them, well, then she’s happy (and I am, too).

But using Oates’ thought process, maybe it is simply about dissolving that line between real and surreal. If dissolving the boundaries between real and surreal is what makes fairy tales more effective, then wouldn’t that be true of other types of writing, as well? In a fairy tale, those boundaries dissolve immediately, of course, as we open our minds in a carefree fashion to the magic behind fairies, frogs and princesses. But couldn’t we, as writers, achieve that same effect by working to dissolve that line between real and make believe in non-fairytales, as well?

Isn’t writing fiction about creating something that someone will be willing to believe in whether or not the subject in and of itself is naturally believable? Isn’t our job as writers to make our stories believable? Or perhaps it’s simply (or not-so-simply) to inspire our readers to believe.    

I believe it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that makes one thing seem more or less challenging to accomplish. What is a challenge to one is a piece of cake to another. For example, I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel. Ironically, my brother can. If you asked him, he’d claim he could never write a novel. I think he could if he put his mind to it. He’d say the same about me and that cartwheel. Clearly, we both have our fears.

These pages have inspired me to make a real attempt at a “real” fairy tale. Not just an off-the-cuff version of someone else’s tale with my daughter’s name and favorite past times slotted in but something tangible, written down and that other children might enjoy, as well. Maybe that will be the push that will help me conquer my silly little fear of short stories, too.

I’m still not ready for the cartwheel.

You Oxymoron!

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It was rush hour and I was on my way home from work in my Hyundai Excel sitting in traffic and going nowhere with a terrific headache and a mild case of PMS. I had nothing much planned for the evening and I was desperately in need of a quick fix so I decided to make a fast stop at the convenience store and pick up some non-aspirin, white chocolate, low fat ice cream and a tube of Icy Hot.

It was then when I remembered the bottle of dry wine my sweet mother-in-law gave me for my birthday and figured I might as well pick up something for dinner to complement it.

So I was standing all alone at the seafood counter trying to decide between the jumbo shrimp and the extra large shrimp. Both were on the daily special board though seemed enormously small and a whole lot freezer burnt.  I grabbed a can of genuine imitation crabmeat and turned to peek at the fresh fish and was stuck between the fresh frozen salmon and the catch of the day.  I was absolutely unsure which to choose when I was approached by a customer service associate who told me that there was a sale on boneless ribs in the meat department.  That was awfully nice of him, I thought, and off I went.

That’s when I spotted the biggest baby I’d ever seen! Good grief!  If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say the baby was an old newborn or maybe a young toddler and easily 50 pounds and all head. A head butt from that kid would knock you into next Tuesday! While that’s seriously funny it’s also a true story! And in case you think I’m exaggerating I’m nearly 100% sure that it’s actually a pretty accurate estimate.

While my brain was sadly amused my body was ridiculously horrified. The baby’s mother was enormously small, too. On first impression, I wondered was that even humanly possible? While common sense says no, it seemed like Mother Nature’s idea of a rather unfunny joke to me. Perhaps the most unbelievable part was that the woman was slightly pregnant again. The little tank was undeniably cute and favored his mother. She was awfully pretty and had the glow everyone’s always talking about. But all I kept thinking was ‘is she a glutton for punishment?’ That’s most definitely my initial conclusion since it didn’t seem like an easy labor and, Lord knows, our bodies aren’t exactly one size fits all.

But it’s really neither here nor there because it’s a free world. And what I see as her bad luck proved to be my good luck when I remembered to call in my prescription for birth control. It’ll be safe sex for me from here on out! So I whipped out my cell and used my free minutes to get it done. It may seem like insane logic to some but I’m no dimwit and I’m so not ready for that kind of a fine mess.

Then I realized I was still staring at her with a mean smile on my face. Not wanting to make a negative impact on her day, I had to tell myself to act naturally but I just couldn’t do it. So since I was almost done anyway I skipped the spare ribs, hopped in the self-checkout line and decided to stop for some good fast food–maybe a gourmet burger or chicken fajitas–on my way home instead.

Little Miss Sunshine – Dialogue and Subtext

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The dinner scene works because there are so many curiously chaotic things happening all at once. What could have been a typical, mundane family dinner is brought to life through a ballet of interesting dialogue and subtext which keeps the viewer intrigued and highly entertained by the ever growing quirkiness of the characters and the story itself. In this week’s lecture, we learned “(subtext) can be used to develop psychological depth in your characters” and “Innuendo and double entendre can also be used to add tension and excitement to a scene.” This scene is loaded with gestures, offbeat comments, odd behavior and innuendo working together to add insight into the characters’ mentalities and motivations. Sheryl trying to juggle everything including her job, family and her brother Frank’s attempted suicide, Frank’s disappointment in himself and his growing interest in Dwayne, Grandpa’s outbursts, Dwayne’s vow of silence and all the silly facial expressions and notes which come with it, Olive’s naivety and unrelenting curiosity over Frank’s “accident” and homosexuality and her overwhelming obsession about becoming Little Miss Sunshine, and Richard’s obsession with winning and his feelings about “losers” and his innuendo that Frank is a loser for giving up on himself all transpires over a bucket of KFC. All of these things contribute to the conflict while working together to add tension and excitement to the scene and brilliantly set up the story and the actions which follow.  

Another scene that is infused with subtext is the one when they get pulled over. Everyone clearly thinks they are about to be busted for having a dead Grandpa in the trunk but instead the dirty magazines pour out and kind of save the day. From Richard’s obvious panic to the rest of the family simply watching the highway patrolman in silence to the trooper’s reaction to the porn magazines, all of it adds more and more tension to the moment.  When the trooper grins and waves to the family trying not to let on about what he thinks is the reason Richard is so freaked out (the magazines) and the family waves back so innocently, as viewers we are hoping for the best for this poor family and we’re locked in to whatever happens next. Then when the trooper sees the “Honcho” magazine, stops grinning and looks at Richard who laughs nervously and offers a look that says “I’m guilty” the whole scene comes together. We don’t need any more action, dialogue or explanation. Watching the trooper drive away is enough. This entire scene pulls the viewer in as though we are in the van with this family. We’re more than just watching passively, we are locked in and invested, and just like any member of the family we are holding our breath as we hope for the best.

A Creative Writing Activity

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Activity and Justification—Valerie Zane

Activity:

Part One: Taking no longer than five minutes and keeping your words to under a page in length, write your autobiography. Part Two: Next, using the same time and length limits as in Part One, write your biography from a parent or parental figure’s point of view.

The narrative can be fact or fiction and written in any genre or style of choice. Let your imagination lead the way. Be as descriptive and creative as possible while paying close attention to narrative and voice.

Justification:

The purpose of this exercise is to inspire creativity and flex writing muscles while focusing on narrative and voice and keeping to a tight deadline and length limits. 

I like this exercise because it forces the writer to step in and then out of his or her own head and immediately into someone else’s head but on the same topic. The students can approach this exercise in any way they wish—serious or comedic, fact or fiction, essay or poetry, for a few examples. Any way it is approached, the exercise will stretch the creative muscles much like a 10 minute warm-up loosens the legs before a long run.

Also, by focusing on voice and narrative from both the student’s own and someone else’s point of view, but someone close and familiar like a parent or parental figure, it allows the student to get deep quickly and in a short period of time and space. In the first part, the student tells his or her own story. In the second part, he or she tells basically that same story but from someone else’s point of view. The most important aspect of both parts is the narrative itself, including actions, descriptions and voice.  

In the lecture this week, we learned “Another thing that a master craftsperson shares is perspective. This is not only helping students see subjects from new angles, but also guiding them to useful ways of thinking about skills, tools, or processes. It is a way to encourage productive ideas and discourage unproductive ones.”  In many ways, this is an exercise in perspective. By telling a story from two different perspectives, the students are able to explore their creativity and thoroughly inspect and play around with these unique perspectives. It will be interesting to see the difference between what students will write about themselves versus what they think their parents would write.

Finally, much like King uses his close personal relationships, memories and experiences to weave his stories, this exercise allows the student to do the same. By getting personal, so to speak, in a similar way and also from someone else’s (in this case, a parent’s) point of view, while under tight time and length constraints, it gives the writer the freedom to be creative without being self-conscious.

To the girl at the supermarket

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I said hello and smiled through you

And you eagerly smiled back before

Mine melted away

Into your molten scarred unrecognizable face

An innocent smile instantly replaced with sadness since

I could not hide my horror, then my shame

I peered up and down aisle after aisle

Slowly filling my cart while searching and

Wondering—how could I?

And if and how could I correct my transgression?

Should I apologize or simply start over and try again?

Offer up a joke or a note about the weather?

I wanted…

I needed another chance to prove I’m not that person

To you

To me

To the guy cleaning up in aisle three

But neither of us knows me evidently

Or even well enough to know I’d react that way

Or that I’d care this much about a complete stranger

Or that I’d obsess over you and then somehow forget you

Before suddenly spotting you again

In the last aisle

My last chance

But face to face I froze again before making amends

I was immersed in fear again

I smiled that same stupid smile again

This time sincerely hoping it might hide

My insincerity, my regret and my fear

But it didn’t.

I wanted to tell you I didn’t mean to hurt you

But my pathetic face failed us both

And you let me know I missed my chance to make it up

To you—oh who am I kidding?

To me!

This time, you didn’t smile back

This time, you looked through me

And I deserved it

I had my chance to be a better me

And I blew it

I’m so sorry.

For the Birds

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Iowa is great for bird watching!

In fact, though I’ve always loved birds (especially ducks — they’re my all-time favorite animal), I had no idea how much I loved them until we moved here.

Birds are amazing. I love to watch them fly and land, peck, hop, run and more than anything I love to listen to them sing. It’s so beautiful waking up to their joyful song amidst the morning breeze and rustling of the trees.

My husband and I have really embraced our new aviary friends and even purchased a bird feeder (then another soon after) so that we can appreciate the birds even more. Now we get to watch them from our front window! And since spring has sprung, it seems we have become a bird haven. It’s awesome.

I even started appreciating some more than others. I love this one particular red bird best who visits us. Jason says it’s a cardinal. I don’t really care what he is; I just know I love him. He’s a brilliant reddish orange. And I adore this group of small black birds who fly by every day and land in the field across the street. They’re not just black; they look like they’re wearing black, red and yellow striped tuxedo jackets — so stylish! And when they extend their wings, it’s majestic. I also love these cute little bright yellow finches. They are so cute and happy. Jason really likes these cool looking blue ones, though I forget what he called them. And orioles… we’ve seen a lot of those and he and I both like those, too.

Anyway, we’ve been getting curious about which birds have been visiting us most and in learning more about them. So we started researching. In doing so, we’ve learned a lot of neat local bird factoids.

But of everything I’ve learned on the topic, the names have to be my favorite. Some seem pretty standard and I’ve certainly heard, if not seen, most of them before. But others… well, others are FAR more interesting. And by “interesting” I mean hilarious.

Seriously, whoever came up with these names was either high at the time, had their minds in the gutter or simply had a sick sense of humor.

Either way, I appreciate the outcome.

Here’s a list of my favorite funny bird names, some new and others newly appreciated now that I’m thinking about it:

  • Dickcissel
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • Swallow
  • Chickadee
  • Killdeer
  • Ruddy Duck
  • Loon
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Coot
  • Magpie
  • Wood Thrush
  • Red Faced Booby
  • Grosbeak
  • Zitting Cisticola
  • Scrub Jay
  • Clark’s Nutcracker
  • Northern Screamer
  • Brown Trembler
  • Fluffy Backed Tit Babbler
  • Cuckoo
  • Shag
  • Thicknees
  • Agile Tit-tyrant
  • Morepork
  • Wild Turkey
  • Turdus
  • Cock-of-the-rock
  • Penduline Tits
  • Wrentit

Seriously. Who comes up with this stuff?!?!

“Facts” by Philip Levine (Poem Analysis)

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When I first read this poem, it seemed so simple and straightforward. It’s just a bunch of random facts, right? Instinctually, I felt there was more to it. So I tried my best to break it down…

In each stanza of this poem, Levine uses the first two lines to state what seems like a random fact and then he uses the last two lines to add a sort of sarcastic, snarky or even just funny or interesting attitude or note about the fact previously stated. Most of the words he selects are either one or two syllables. This makes it feel simple as if he wants us to think these are just simple, separate facts and yet when read together they don’t seem so simple. I felt like I had been fed a bunch of facts and, yet, I was missing the point. Maybe that was the point. Maybe he wants us to question the facts.

I enjoyed the rhythm. It felt like he was rambling on (much like I’m doing now) and reminded me of all the times I’ve gotten stuck sitting beside a seemingly crazy person on an airplane. But as I continued reading, he seemed less crazy and more interesting much like most of my experiences with inflight insanity. Similarly, just when the poem started making sense, the plane landed. I found this both frustrating and addictive.

The way Levine switches back and forth between past, present and future tense struck me as pleasant somehow. It felt so natural and conversational and not at all stuffy or formal. He also shifts between first, second and third person. Depending on whether he started a line or thought with “I” or “We” or “You” or an ambiguous he/she/it felt important. When he separated “—if you’re scared—” from everything else using dashes, it felt like he was talking to me specifically and I found myself paying closer attention, wanting to prove I wasn’t scared to tackle this.

Levine uses inflection and rhythm masterfully. He repeats certain words and phrases for emphasis, like Cleveland and Rolls Royce for examples, bringing attention to their importance. He states facts about places and things and by repeating them or by illuminating their rhythms through alliteration or consonance (“perfect grill for a Rolls Royce” or “the coldest I’ve ever been is in Cleveland” or “the citizens of Cleveland passed me sullenly”) they start to feel connected like memories along a journey. The Rolls Royce might signify the car industry which could connect all the other places he mentions back to Detroit, his home town and first spot on his journey. He also mentions several types of transportation (Rolls, Dinky, bus, train, walking) and that along with the cities is making me think all of it is symbolic of this journey being a major theme.

The poem is made up of eleven stanzas, each with four lines. Fact about me: eleven and four are my lucky numbers—I was born 11/11 and my brother was born 4/4. But just like the facts in this poem, I don’t think this matters to you as much as it matters to me. Similarly, I think the facts in this poem mattered to Levine because they belong to him. But he shares them in such a beautiful, unique and rhythmic way that we can’t help but feel connected. The way he separates his thoughts makes each fact seem separate but of equal importance. This, along with his rhythmic choices, makes it feel so fluid when Levine draws our attention to something or when he refers back and forth between stanzas (i.e., “there are two lies in the previous stanza”) like he’s trying to get us to see the bigger picture.

I keep thinking that if I figure out how to connect the dots, I will eventually have a complete story but doing so “strikes me as an exercise in futility” much like Levine describes living “in Cleveland” or “saving your pennies to buy a Rolls Royce.”

This poem started to drive me crazy. I’ve read it over and over again, and still haven’t figured it out. I went so far as to Google Levine to learn more about him and one thing I found interesting was this quote by him during an NPR interview: “The real challenge is when language, instincts, technique and practice come together. You have to follow where the poem leads. And it will surprise you. It will say things you didn’t expect it to say. And you look at the poem and you realize, ‘That is truly what I felt.’ That is truly what I saw.”

I admit I’m no poet (at least not yet) but I was surprised by how strongly I felt about this poem. In trying to dissect it, I found myself getting more and more confused by the facts while my emotional connection to them became stronger and crisper. I fell in love with this one.