Language Arts

Photo by 2y.kang on Unsplash

What follows is a story I drafted in early 2022, in the thick of the Teacher Shortage (by which I mean the predictable consequence of decades of disparaging and belittling an entire profession, which reached unprecedented heights during the pandemic). I still quite like the story, but I suspect the context–legislation that allowed a host of classroom-adjacent staff, like office professionals, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers, to substitute teach in my home state–has been largely lost. I think there’s something to be said about what comes of viewing K-12 teachers, some of the loveliest, most dedicated, most generous critters on the planet, as functions rather than people, and this is my way of saying it. So here we go.

At some point after the morning bell, in the middle of her third ice-breaker of the week, Sonya looked out over the rows of masked, bright-eyed faces with names she would never remember and realized she couldn’t take it anymore.

When the last student in the last row had offered a fun fact about himself, all those faces turned to her expectantly.  By then Sonya was looking past them, staring at a faraway point somewhere beyond the coat closet, the broken clock, the bone-white cinderblock wall. 

“Are you feeling okay, Ms. Bottoms?” a red-haired girl in the front row asked, her hand tentatively raised.

She blinked, turned to the girl, and smiled.  “I’m doing just fine—better than ever, really!  Thank you for asking.”  Sonya chewed her lip and scanned the room, sizing up those thirty waiting faces.  “Today feels like a very special day,” she finally said.  “How would you like to spend it?  Talk it through and let me know.”

The class was stunned, but only for a moment.  When they understood that she was serious, a lively debate erupted among them.  Sonya excused herself and slipped into the hall to see if she could get away with what she had in mind.

As soon as she closed the door behind her a strange silence settled in.  The whole upstairs wing was essentially empty, with the students from all four of Wheaton Elementary’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes consolidated into her home room for a run through the daily rotation. 

Wheaton served both Folsom Falls and a ring of rural areas, so the shift to online classes had involved a series of staggering steps, setbacks, and on-the-fly adjustments.  The Folsom Falls students with good internet connections were at home, taking classes from the teachers at Plainview Elementary.  The rest of the older students were here with her, collected in the January dark and brought in to face whatever skeleton crew Wheaton could scrape together for the day.

In the Social Studies classroom across the hall she found Dante Winn, a lanky, well-dressed Black man who was thumbing through a book and fleshing out a lesson plan, waiting for his turn with the kids at the 9:20 bell.  He greeted her from his desk but held up a warning hand, the lenses of his glasses clouding as his breath escaped his mask.  “Chances are good that I’ve caught it; made the mistake of going to a funeral last Friday,” he said with a sigh.  “No symptoms so far, but we’re a half-dozen teachers down.  I had to come in.”

Sonya nodded and smiled sympathetically.  “I was at Oak Grove on Monday, over with the first- and second-graders here on Tuesday.  It’s the same thing everywhere.  The cupboard of available subs is running pretty low.”  She took a step backward and looked down the hall.  “Speaking of which, I’ve got an idea for the day,” she added, “but I need to see who else is holding down the fort.  I’ll be right back.”

Sonya walked down the hall and waved her arm back and forth inside the Arts and Music classroom, turning on the motion-sensor lights.  The room was empty, save for the mess left from the day before.  Markers, colored pencils, and construction paper were scattered all over the widely-spaced tables.  It looked like the kids had started making paper lanterns, but the work had been abandoned halfway through.

The lights were already on in the last classroom in the wing, the all-purpose Math and Science lab.  Sonya peered around the corner, started, and grinned at a familiar face.  “Hey, Jerry!” she said with a wave.

The occupant of the lab, sorting a tall stack of worksheets into shorter piles, tugged at his collar and sat up straight behind his desk.  “That’s Mr. Rawlings to you, young lady,” he said with a wink.  “At least for today.”

Sonya laughed and curtsied.  “I’m ever so sorry!”  She stepped inside the classroom and stood at the corner of the chalkboard, a healthy ten paces away.  “They roped you in for a tour of duty?”  

Jerry nodded, slipping off his reading glasses and untangling the arms from the elastic straps of his mask.  “It was either me or Judy from the cafeteria,” he replied, “and I’m not just going to stand by and see these kids cheated out of their pizza.”

Sonya walked to the window and saw Jerry’s bus dominating the far side of the faculty parking lot.  There were about a dozen cars in the lot, all told.  “They had Naomi from the principal’s office with me over in east wing on Tuesday, picking up a third-grade class, but today she’s got to field yesterday’s backlog of calls from parents.”

Jerry shook his head.  “I knew they ‘d written up that bill that’d let any warm body stand in as a sub, but I never thought the schools would actually use it.”  He slumped in his chair, looking incredibly tired.  “It’s a damned shame we can’t do right by these kids.” 

“I’ve got a little notion about that, if you’re willing to hear it,” Sonya said.

She led Jerry over to the Social Studies room and introduced him to Dante.  It took all of three minutes to convince them to hand the kids over to her for the day—a farewell gift for her last day of substitute teaching.

Jerry nodded his assent.  “If any of the kids want to rattle the test tubes they can come on over to the lab,” Jerry said, “but if we manage to send them home healthy and a little less feral, I’ll be a happy camper.”

“I could use the extra planning time,” Dante admitted from the far side of his desk, smiling and stretching.  “And I seriously doubt anyone in the front office will have a chance to make the rounds today.”

Sonya grinned.  “If they do, and if anyone complains, just send them to me.”

Sonya slipped back into her classroom, and her return went largely unnoticed.  The debate about how to spend the day was apparently still raging, and the students in the frontmost rows had pivoted in their seats to challenge a cluster of kids in the back corner.

“And what have we decided?” Sonya asked cheerily.

The kids looked at one another, and at last a tallish boy in the center of the classroom piped up.  “Most of us want a free reading period—just reading, no pop quizzes or comprehension tests or anything like that,” he said.  He twisted to the right and pointed a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the corner-dwellers.  “But they don’t want to read today.”

A brunette in the very corner of the room, her hair pulled back in a ponytail and her face half-covered by a homemade gingham mask, glared at the back of the boy’s head and then looked to Sonya.  “You did say it was a very special day,” she said, catching Sonya’s tone exactly.  “So we were wondering if we could work together and write a story of our own.”  The kids just around her all nodded in unison.

Sonya stepped around her desk and sat on the edge, smoothing her skirt to her knees.  “A little disagreement is healthy, so long as we’re civil when we settle our differences,” she said.  “Today, however, I think we can agree to disagree.  And I think we can get away with doing both.”

The eyes of both the readers and the writers widened, and they whispered excitedly to their neighbors.  “And,” Sonya continued, holding up a finger before the readers all bolted for the bookcase, “you’ll have all day to work on whichever project you prefer.  We’re not doing a rotation today.”

“No Common Core stuff today?” the tallish boy asked, incredulous.  “None at all?”

“Nope—no quizzes, no discussion, no Common Core bubble sheets.  Just free reading and writing.  Is that okay with everyone?”  Sonya spread her hands, and thirty fifth- and sixth-graders nodded in unison.

Sonya rounded back behind her desk.  “Writers,” she said, addressing the back corner, “why don’t you step down the hall to the Arts and Music room—no, we’d better make it the Math and Science lab.  That way you can talk while you work on your story.  Let Mr. Rawlings know that I sent you, and let him know what you’re up to, okay?  If you have any questions as you go, just come back to me if he can’t field them.”

The writers looked at one another, then gathered up their things and filed out the door.  A boy with curly blond hair from the front row joined them.  

Sonya let the readers make their selections from the bookcase, sending them over to the side of the room in pairs, starting from the back of the alphabet.  When everyone was more or less settled in, she powered on the computer, pulled the keyboard out from its sliding drawer, and started typing.

In twenty minutes Sonya had drafted a letter to the email list most of the substitutes for the district used, and she took another ten minutes to revise it, making her points brief and compelling.  She nodded to herself.   When she was finished the letter set precisely the tone she wanted:  it came up short of calling for a sick-out, a walkout, or something like a strike, but those possibilities were heavily implied as unavoidable steps if the district kept stretching its supply of teachers and subs so thin.

The boy with curly blond hair slipped into the classroom and sidled up to her desk just as she clicked Send.   “Ms. Bottoms?” he said shyly, resting his hand on the side of her desk and looking at his fingers.  “What’s the difference between no one and nobody?  We don’t know which one to use.”

Sonya smiled.  “Have you tried them both out in a sentence?  Which one sounds better?”

The boy’s brow furrowed, and he pushed the stapler so it was parallel to the edge of the desk.  “I can’t really tell the difference.  ‘No one can hear you holler’ doesn’t sound much different than ‘Nobody can hear you holler’.  Not to me, anyway.”

Sonya nodded and touched his hand reassuringly.  “I think that’s exactly right—as far as I know there’s no real difference between them.  No one is a little more formal, but nobody sounds just fine to me, especially with a verb like holler.”

The boy’s face brightened.  “Thank you!” he chirped, and he hastened from the room.  As soon as he was gone she squirted a glob of sanitizer into her palm and massaged it into her fingers.

Sonya looked out at the readers and sighed.  They were all utterly engrossed, lost in Oz or Narnia, caught up the adventures of Pippi Longstocking or Klaus and Violet Beauregard.  They were all eager to learn, hungry for words and the world, but on any other day, with any other sub, they would be taking practice tests to prepare for the real tests that would decide how much funding Wheaton would ultimately get from the state.  It was a stupid, pernicious system.

It took Sonya half an hour just to address her next letter.  She intended to mail it directly to the school district’s superintendent, but she wanted to copy in everyone she thought might weigh in on the side of the teachers and substitutes:  sympathetic principals, the presidents of the school boards for Folsom Falls and Oak Grove, and even the leaders of a few parents’ groups.  When she was satisfied with the list she spotted another student just outside the classroom door, a bespectacled Black boy in a blue cardigan.

Sonya waved him inside, and he began without preamble.  “Ms. Bottoms, is it duct tape or duck tape?” he asked in a whisper.  “And is scissors supposed to be a singular word?”

Sonya smiled.  “The answer to your first question is actually a fun little story.  The tape we all use was originally called duck tape because it was originally made from a material called duck cloth, but not many people knew that, so the spelling changed.  You can use either one really, or you can use gaffer tape, too.  Readers will know what you’re talking about.”

“Could you spell that for me?” he asked, and Sonya did.

“And to answer your second question, scissors is one of those weird nouns that only comes in a plural form, like glasses—and I mean like reading glasses, not drinking glasses—or pants.  So if you’re wondering about verb agreement, it would be ‘the scissors are’.  Does that cover it?”

The boy nodded, smiled, and darted for the door.  “Thank you!” he cried over his shoulder, and the readers looked up from their books and glared at him. 

The bell rang a short while later, and Sonya glanced at the classroom clock automatically before remembering it was broken.  It was 10:15, and she was stuck. 

The overture to the letter had been easy.  It involved a bit of inflated praise, characterizing her readers as well-meaning people who had been dealt an incredibly bad hand, even though she felt most of them were bean-counters and penny-pinchers who viewed the kids as little more than costs in a column on a spreadsheet.  Deciding how she could really reach them, however—how she could make the plight of demoralized teachers and their overworked stand-ins vivid—eluded her. 

A petite girl with a patterned mask and matching hairband materialized beside her desk.  She was a little flushed and fidgety, shifting from foot to foot as she waited for Sonya to acknowledge her.

“And what can I do for you?” Sonya asked, turning from the monitor.

The girl started, stopped, and began again, struggling to phrase her question.  “Is it cut or cutted?  If it happened in the past, I mean.  And would you say a number of cuts or an amount of cuts?  I think we should just go ahead and change the verb, but Laurie says that only cut will really do.”

“It sounds like it should be cutted, doesn’t it?” Sonya began, and the girl nodded.  “Cut is one of our irregular verbs in English, though.  We have cut, cuts, and cutting, but no cutted.”

“I still think we should use snip,” the girl said.  “I just like the way it sounds.”

“Me too!” Sonya said, smiling through her mask.  “And when I need to decide if I should use number or amount, I try to think in terms of how many or how much.  If I think “how many cuts,” then I use number, if it’s “how much cuts,” then I use amount.  Which one sounds better to you?”

The girl nodded again.  “‘How many cuts’, definitely.”

“Then number it is,” Sonya said.

“Thank you, Ms. Bottoms!” the girl said, and she turned on her heel and bounced out the door.

Sonya watched her go, looked out over the readers, and returned to the screen.  She pursed her lips and started typing. 

She would pull no punches.  She would tell the people who had been entrusted with ministering to the needs of these kids that they were failing, that they had failed.  Kids need guidance, supervision, commitment, and consistency, and what passed for education in the district was erratic, haphazard, and contingent.  If they expected the schools to serve their purpose—to turn out young adults who were ready for the world—they would need to invest in something better than the patchwork, piecemeal scheme they had settled on.

When she was done Sonya nodded.  It wasn’t a perfect letter, but she couldn’t think of any way to make the plight of students, teachers, and substitutes more vivid.

“Ms. Bottoms?” a girl’s voice called, and the brunette with the ponytail and the gingham mask curled around the corner of the door, holding onto the jamb.

Sonya turned to the girl.  She saw an irregular diagonal slash of dark red that crossed the gingham, descending from the brim of the girl’s mask to her chin.  When she slid her hand down the jamb the girl left a red smear, redder than fruit punch, redder than fingerpaint.  Sonya’s mouth went dry.

“If you have a name that ends in an S, do you make the possessive with an apostrophe S or just an apostrophe?” the girl asked.  “Like, would it be ‘Mr. Rawlings’ head’, ending with the apostrophe, or ‘Mr. Rawlings’s head’ with a second S at the end?” 

The girl tilted her own head and waited for an answer. 

Sonya swallowed hard and clicked Send.

Victory Conditions

Photo by Alperen Yazgı on Unsplash

This morning, as an index of just how much time I’ve squandered over this long weekend, I’ve begun doing math.

It started out as a bit of innocent mischief, as I wondered how a blood loss mechanic might work in a horror game, a TTRPG. I could think of some simple ways to simulate the effect (deductions from dice rolls, or the use of dice pools from which dice might be removed over time), but I was wondering about a means of making the experience more intense, more vivid, and more visceral. I settled on a potentially lopsided yet simple opposed roll mechanic (e.g. a wounded player rolling 1d6, for instance, vs. a machete-wielding narwhal rolling 1d12), hence my tumble down the rabbit hole of variance and probability.

Because way leads on to way, as the kids say, I’m now neck-deep in thoughts about victory conditions. I was thinking about what it means to “win” a horror game, which tends to be a problematic concept if there’s no ulterior goal to be realized. Over Halloween, for example, I ran a summer camp game in which the players learn that there are one or more murder-monsters hanging out in a (problematically) nearby asylum. Session A involved all sorts of backstory building, in which the players discovered a bit about the spoopy history of the milieu and the threats they might face if they dared to enter the abandoned facility. At the start of Session B, they discovered that a) the vague threats were almost certainly real, and b) that there were artifacts on the grounds of the asylum potentially worth bajillions (one of the players found a Gustav Klimt original long thought lost in an early scene). What did the PCs do when faced with such a bepicklement? They Noped the heck out of there tout de suite, which is an eminently reasonable choice. In that kind of context–and, to be frank, most any context–not getting murdered counts as a win.

In the gaming space we tend to be fairly pragmatic, after all. We calculate risks and rewards a little differently, but we also tend to avoid self-immolating behavior, even when we might be involved in the serious business of saving kingdoms or civilizations. At the same time, we dive into games for scads of reasons–for the vicarious experience, for imaginative self-actualization, for collaboration, and (one rather hopes) for fun. If you’ve ever seen some of the wholesome variations on the “Are Ya Winning, Son?” meme, you know that there are a few thousand ways to win.

Life tends to be like that, too, though I reckon we reflect on both wins and losses in equal measure. Yesterday I sent off a novella to a publisher about a week ahead of schedule, which feels like a significant win, but I also decided that there’s not much point trying to actively maintain a connection with an auld friend, which feels like an abstract kind of loss. There’s a tension we all have to navigate, a network of pushing and pulling that we can only tweak to a modest degree if we’re playing fair.

The catches, of course, are that a) not everyone agrees on what it means to win, and b) not everyone is interested in playing fairly. Not terribly long ago, for example, I attended a gaming session that was ultimately (and responsibly, and thoughtfully) scrubbed. The folk who were running the game realized that a guest player sitting in on the session wasn’t particularly interested in any of the collaborative or interactive ends of a game; that player really just wanted to break stuff–which is a play style, of course, but one that doesn’t lend itself especially well to a collective social diversion. And one sees discrepancies more routinely on social media, where any given day will see people playing at politics (or law, or economics, etc.) in cases that for them are thought experiments but for others might be matters of subsistence or survival. That’s the essence of most forms of trolling–trivializing the thinking and feeling of other participants (not players) in discourse concerning real experience and deeply-held beliefs. It becomes an easily winnable game, a little splash of the right neurotransmitters, but it comes from an experience in which there was never any real risk of losing.

Right now, for example, I’m looking at the residue of a social media scrum that started last night, in which a person suffering from the symptoms of a long-term illness was confronted by a person who sought to undermine and/or minimize their claims. It’s sort of a Greatest Hits version of unsportsmanlike conduct, featuring bad-faith reasoning, purposeful efforts to provoke and harm the opposition, and a few classic tactics (such as the troll deleting a post that effectively undermined their own argument), all for the sake of enjoying the pleasures that come from scoring points. That the troll was obliged to change the rules of engagement more than once to score those points is immaterial–they realized something like a victory, and they can point to any number of public instances of similar victories to validate the feeling.

And in all the ways that matter, at least to me, my overarching sense of what’s involved in play–social, interactive, collaborative play–makes the math, odds, and probabilities more or less incidental. What’s important are mechanics that allow good-faith players to explore and experiment, to have meaningful experiences and earn significant victories in the terms they choose, both as individuals and as a group.


Today marks the annual ritual of either a) posting about resolutions for the coming year, or b) posting about how one is far too cool to post about resolutions for the coming year. I just realized that I failed to post for the whole of December as well (sorry for the belated comment approval, Justin!), so this particular post will have to do triple duty.

December on the whole was decidedly tricksy, for some of the reasons you might expect and some of the reasons you mightn’t. I had to wrap up work on the fall semester, which is about as predictable as things get, and normally I give myself a week or two off in order to recover, to attend to all the stuff I deferred while grading final exams and essays, and to plot out what I’ll need to tackle when the dust has settled. This year, however, I decided to round the corner with virtually no downtime, as the haps at the Abbey are a little friskier than usual.

The first bit of business involved trying to be a more supportive feller for my partner, for she is launching her own enterprise after a couple of decades working for other folks. I am, alas, a pretty limited critter and not all that useful, but she’s primarily needed a sounding board and accessible ear over the past month. All systems, happily, appear to be go: today she’s moving in to her new office space, and this week she’ll take delivery of scads of furniture and office equipment. She’s omnicompetent and possessed of about 50,311 useful skills–the new business will focus primarily on signmaking for accessibility/wayfinding, but she’s a skilled graphic designer, maker, and creative type who has already made inroads in a variety of industries–but right now she’s dancing on the line between excitement and worry. My only real responsibility is helping her to stay on the right side of that line. So far, so good, at least as far as I can tell.

The second bit of business has involved writing a novella, which was not exactly planned (though an outline and scattered bits and bobs have been haunting my desktop for a long time). My compositional process is more than a little involved, but I’ve managed to formalize and finalize the lion’s share of a first draft. I’ll need to polish things off, drop the manuscript in the hopper, and revise it a week or two later with fresh eyes, but it should be ready to send out into the galaxy by mid-January. And then I can turn to the twenty-odd starter documents that are also littering my desktop: premises, outlines, and fragments of poems and short stories that have been on hold while I focused on putting the novella to bed.

I’m fairly fond of resolutions–any occasion make a fresh start on things, or to see old things in a new way, has value–but I’m not especially good at formulating them or articulating them. This year, however, I think I’ll aspire to work through more projects from start to finish, and to get items off my docket sooner rather than later. The Shawty, my partner, is going to need plenty of support as she works out the kinks of her business, and I think I’ll be better equipped to provide it if my own nogginspace is reasonably clear. So here’s to that, and here’s to you. Thanks for reading, and good luck to you on all the promises you plan to keep in 2023!

Facing Forward

Once upon a time I was an 18th-century scholar, and I imagined that I’d spend an inordinate amount of classroom time trying to reconstruct the historical considerations that shaped the literature of the era, ideally while wearing a monocle and a periwig. The Long Eighteenth Century (1660-1837, by my nefarious, grabby reckoning) is a pretty perky frame of inquiry, what with the rise of the British novel and the Gothic and the various what-have-yous. For a variety of reasons I don’t get to delve down in those mines very much anymore, but today I’m thinking (as I do with uncommon frequency) about the olde-skool idea of countenancing, which I think is just as relevant as ever.

The subject pops up in my noggin for a number of reasons. ‘Tis the season, for example, for letters of recommendation. Some folks are applying for positions in M.A. and Ph.D. programs, some others for jobs and scholarships, and to nudge those doors open they generally need a reference or three from someone who’s already walked down comparable corridors. That’s countenancing in the most conventional sense, pairing my name and my reputation with my professional evaluation of a student in the hope that doing so will open the way for them. In some cases it’s incredibly straightforward, as when I write a letter for a historian who plans to pursue a doctorate and wishes to establish that he’s a strong writer and skillful researcher. I’m nicely positioned to add my face to his case. In others it’s a little more elusive, as when a former student who works as an academic administrator asks me to serve as a reference for bigger, better gigs. I have no doubt that she’ll excel in just about any context, but to countenance her I’ll need to write a very different kind of recommendation, one that downplays particular sensibilities that most ac-admin critters don’t find particularly valuable. I’ll leave off there, less I inadvertently reveal any of my spicier opinions on the subject.

Countenancing, however, seems increasingly relevant in the virtual realm as well, occurring for social media users in a variety of slippery yet significant ways. What happens in those areas of operation feels to me a little bit wilder, in part because it more openly acknowledges that every one of us is a constellation of personae, not a singular, all-purpose, head-mounted human face.

At the most localized levels it’s not hard to witness the power of the countenance. Have you ever mistakenly liked or hearted or starred a photo that a friend (or, more appallingly still, a past-tense paramour) posted a couple of years ago? That frisson of apprehension–how will that positive regard be read? will attempting to undo it only compound the problem of acknowledging my acknowledgement?–speaks to the power of the countenance. It involves owning up to something, an impulse, at least, and potentially affection or admiration as well, that admits all sorts of reading and misreading. Just yesterday, having not visited one of my social media sites in awhile, I liked a photo that was posted in early November. And here I am, about three weeks later, wondering if doing so might be improper somehow, amounting to something like a confession of stronger feeling than I intended. One begins to wonder how one’s face looks in context, how the admission that I looked and admired affects the complexion of being seen.

And at times it feels like an even more tricksy business. Generally speaking I’m kind of a trollop when it comes to liking stuff. Posted an accomplishment? I’m gonna like it. Posted a good joke? I’m gonna like it. Posted an adorable picture of your cat gone goblin? I’m gonna like it. But there are times when my clicking finger hovers above the mouse, trying to decide what my wanton liking might imply. It’s an awkwardness we recognize most easily when it comes to affixing a simple heart or a star to someone who confesses a worry, grief, or loss. In some regions of social media we can convey our sense of support with a special emoji, but in others we can only crudely acknowledge our commiseration. And what to do when an acquaintance posts a semi-scandalous entry in the Feeling Myself genre of photography? One would like to think liking the photo amounts to a statement of support, a gladness for that good feeling, but one does not want to own up inadvertently to anything more. Given my tendency to speak on strange and sordid subjects in my own feeds under various guises, I often come across a phenomenon I think of as a dynamic of discouragement. Post on literary topics or mention achieving some writing or gaming goal, and I’m apt to garner a like or three; post something more indelicate or unseemly, however–a weird recreational application of hypnosis, for example, or some other indication of my wickedness or naughtiness–and folks will quite reasonably veer off. Even in the realm of casual, incidental operations we don’t want to be seen acknowledging (and tacitly accepting and supporting) positions and perspectives that might seem to us discreditable. It’s a variation on the theme of benign neglect, a gentle pressure to reform. Avoiding any statement on those unsavory matters protects our own reputation and gently discourages the poster, informing them that we’d really rather not be put in that difficult position again.

That’s the core function of countenance culture: our readiness to attach our good reputation to some stuff, which makes our refusal to do so in other contexts more meaningful. You see it a lot in romances and novels of manners, where it’s incredibly important for the good and the virtuous not to countenance the bad behavior of various rakes, scoundrels, and similar folk who are too loose in their manners or free in their affections. To acknowledge them, whether that involves admitting them into polite company or writing them a letter of introduction (the sort of all-purpose reference that openly asserted one’s endorsement of the good character of a critter back in the day), is to risk one’s own status or standing, the good name we’ve earned over time. Like it or not, our faces are all too often on the line.

These days we’re experiencing a particularly acute bout of countenancing, given the instability of some of our legacy social media platforms. Facebook seems to be becoming obsolete, serving as the haunt of older social media users. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that most of the folks still on that site are only lingering there because they don’t want to lose touch with the far-flung friends who’ve yet to give it up and migrate to Instagram, TikTok, or some other mod, happening, and switched-on site the kids are into these days. And of course the spectacular implosion of Twitter is obliging plenty of users to examine their own positions critically, which involves a whole world of awkwardness.

To remain on Twitter, at one level, feels like countenancing some utterly repellent behavior, both from the new owner and from the throng of bad actors that’s been allowed back inside. Many folks want to express their scorn and their disgust, as remaining on the platform feels like a kind of complicity. It’s not exactly facing, but it’s facing-adjacent: we users have to acknowledge that our revolting host is not the sort of person we’d normally allow to make use of our good reputations. But for a number of reasons it’s difficult for people to simply disconnect, to migrate to another site, no matter how many contenders old and new might be out there. It’s a space where a number of forces–ideology, commerce, activism, access, and influence–merge and converge. A critter like me, with indirect connections to just a few hundred people, can climb up on my very tall and decidedly noble destrier, the highest horse I can find, and ride away. I mostly use Twitter to find calls for submissions and identify publishers (for which it is valuable but not indispensable) and to keep abreast of breaking news and cultural happenings (for which it is all too often critical but increasingly unreliable), so for me the losses would be nominal and could perhaps be recouped on Hive Social, Cohost, Mastodon, or some other site. But for writers and game-makers who’ve earned followings in the tens of thousands, or who rub elbows with folks who can spread word of their creative projects near and far for the sake of promotion or fundraising, it’s a resource that’s far too valuable to relinquish. Until some viable replacement emerges–and until a goodly crowd moves in a single, determined direction–it’s simply not a resource they can abandon without suffering significant losses. It’s what we in the countenancing industry call a proper pickle, as we don’t want to associate (or be associated) with some of the company we currently keep but lack the authority to turn them away.

Right now it feels quite like those awkward tables at the holidays, where spending time with our family, friends, and loved ones too often involves acquiescing to the presence of folks we’d rather not acknowledge, much less validate. That’s something of a sour note to end on, I confess, as it feels like a circumstance we cannot avoid. But I find a bit of comfort in the fact that, at least when it comes to countenancing, the openness with which we face toward some things and face away from others can become a powerful kind of action in its own right.

Patronage and Aid

I am, in the parlance of the virtual realms, an easy mark.

Over the course of the past year I have handed over more cash than I care to mention in support of Kickstarters, Patreons, political campaigns, charitable causes, mutual aid, and other calls for crowdfunding. It doesn’t take much to entice my interest or stir my sympathies, and I do my best to support those causes and projects I believe in.

That being said, that patronage begins to weigh more heavily on me as the year draws to a close. It’s not an entirely material thing, though domestic economics certainly bear on my decisions. Them What Lives Beneath the River know that I have plenty of standing subscriptions to services I seldom use and memberships I rarely inquire after. I’m bleeding money as we speak. My decisions, at least in part, are predicated on a desire to spread the wealth around, so each fall I take stock of how much I’ve spent and where it went. In the following year I’ll try to point my resources in a different direction.

And then we have my idiosyncrasies. So, so many idiosyncrasies.

I’m no expert, but here are a few tips I think I can responsibly offer when it comes to hitting up the interwebz for a bit of financial assistance.

  1. Build on desire, not fear. When it comes to money, I know that fear is a powerful motivator. Just about every political campaign I’ve ever donated to is pretty energetic when it comes to fearmongering, particularly in the mailings that follow hot on the heels of initial donations. But–and this is true of artistic projects and mutual aid as well–I have an easier time supporting or promoting a good thing than trying to prevent a bad thing from happening, and that’s doubly true when I know that preventing the bad thing hinges on contingencies in which I have no part. Tell me you’re a few bucks short of acquiring a new computer with which you can write or make art and I’m apt to donate; tell me you need a few dollars to acquire a new computer or you might never make art again, and I’m apt to pass you by. I think/hope it’s not some essential defect of character that drives such decisions, but (given the limits of my personal economy) I’d rather contribute to bringing good things into the world if I can.
  2. Make giving simple. Here’s a real (all too real) observation from three recent fundraising campaigns, two for 2023 projects and one to meet immediate needs. Easy mark though I might be, that easiness comes with a catch: it’s driven by impulse, not by logical processing. If I see a cause I’d like to support, I like to click and donate/patronize. That’s it. But in the three cases I mention indirectly above I literally couldn’t find the links to the fundraiser itself, at least not in the thread that drew my attention to the calls for patronage/aid. To be clear, it’s not malicious omission on my part. I don’t log off from my computer in a huff and wail “I would have donated to your cause if you’d only made it eeaaaasy,” and then pat myself on the back for my generosity of spirit. It’s always along the lines of “Mental note: look for that fundraiser tomorrow.” Trusting in my incidental memory, alas, is generally a losing bet, and in the flood of posts and tweets the odds that I’ll find my way back to a cause are pretty small. (And to be doubly clear, it’s worth noting that the usual search engines are of precious little help, even when you hunt for very particular things–algorithms and engine optimization mean I will get plenty of comparable causes instead of the one I seek.)
  3. Motivate donation. This too, alas, feels like a failing in me, but I kind of need the why behind a call for giving. I actually have a line item in my wee budget for such things, and (though I’ll refill those coffers if a windfall comes my way) that means I sometimes have to choose from several good causes. A simple, seasonable reason is almost always all it takes for me to click the link. I’ve read more than a few calls (usually in an attempt to meet an ongoing need) in which the writer is understandably exasperated and tired of asking for donations. They’ll write “Looks like we won’t meet our goal/deadline; you know what to do.” As above, though, asking a prospective donor to hunt down your why, when any given afternoon will confront them with a dozen comparable calls, is apt to mean they click a different link just because it requires less processing power to do so.
  4. Differentiate and discriminate. One of my social media friends posts several calls for mutual aid per day, all for good, if miscellaneous causes. For that reason, I’ve more than once missed out on their own calls, lost as they were in a wash of information that all looks about the same to my speed-skimming eyes. The same holds true for folks with projects in the offing, who naturally want to be supportive of their peers. They’ll post a link to their own Kickstarter/Patreon, and doing so will put them in mind of promoting their friends and colleagues. That is, I think, positive human policy, but it can cause me to scroll on by in the midst of my skimming. As above, this is more habit than malice on my part. I try not to feed my addiction to social media overmuch, and that leads to some terribly casual reading habits.
  5. Spread the wealth. This post is getting a little on the sprawling side, so I thought I’d try to close out by squeezing three bits of advice together. The first derives from the fact that it’s October, the best of all possible months, which means that I’ve got I’ve got a few calls for donations from places that circle the academic calendar and a few dozen more from horror projects. As above, I have a finite budget for such things, so only a few of those can get my support. Calendrical pragmatics stand in the way, so it’s not a bad idea to seek support in odd months if you can. By the holidays, despite the giving spirit, many folk will be tapped out. The second derives from the difference between calls of general use and localized value. A request for funds that will support a virtual student magazine will always get my attention; a request for funds that will support a reading series in Texarkana probably won’t. I have a pretty good attitude about Texas, but this feels like it falls into the greatest amount of good to the greatest number of critters category (and my calculations would certainly change if it’s made clear that the reading series would be broadcast to a wide audience). Finally, when it comes to tiers and rewards, I think it’s wise to distribute thoughtfully. If you need to raise a bajillion dollars, having a ten-dollar tier that gets you the critical thing (a digital issue or digital version of a game, for instance) strikes me as a problematic proposition. I think in those cases a blank give-what-you-will entry field will serve the cause better. And I think when it comes to stretch goals the folk who were already able and inclined to support a cause will snatch up the best, limited-edition perks straight away. Larding the lower and middle tiers with things cash-strapped would-be donors might like can make it more appealing to get on board. The rewards are seldom the point, but as an added enticement they can tilt the scales and maybe get a bit of extra buy-in as a personal splurge. It’s not a bad thing to send a donor away with that good feeling–and a nice reminder to think about giving again a little ways down the road.

A Very Wrackwell Hallowe’en

Crikey. It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?

Truth be told I have only myself to blame. I’m the sort of critter who creates work for himself when left unattended, and the academic semester makes that prospect temptingly simple. At one level I’m glad for it: when I take more time to put together lesson plans, for example, there’s generally more consistency, continuity, and utility. Most of the stuff I’m cobbling together for class right now is stuff I’ll be able to use again. There are some natural drawbacks involved–the fact that my lesson plans and assignment sheets are clearer and tighter doesn’t in any way seem to diminish the amount of time I spend answering emails and fielding questions–but I feel good about the effort, which is a reasonable reward in its own right.

I’ve got plenty of irons in the fire on the professional and paraprofessional fronts as well. I’m pleased to report new work (one of my favorite stories, happily) will soon appear in Bourbon Penn, and in just a few months I’ll appear in Hidden Realms, to be published stateside in March by Flame Tree Publishing. (They’re the folks responsible for Ramsey Campbell’s latest, the folks who have issued books by a gaggle of Stoker Award winners.) I’ve been making progress in establishing my footing as a virtual hypnotist as well, which is no small feat. As it turns out my home recording situation was lousier than I knew, but a few changes have improved the sound quality significantly, so much so that I’m going to be able to res-record a few files and launch a proper SoundCloud site before long. Not bad for a shut-in.

In relatedly unrelated news I’ve taken on a few committee obligations, the most pleasurable of which involves work on our university’s game-based learning program. The committee is a new one, which means that there’s less procedural mapping an a lot more freedom. The CLGS (Center for Learning through Games and Simulations) is kind of killing it, and the connected press is currently in the home stretch of successfully fundraising for another game–Rising Waters, which you can find over here–that chances are good they’ll launch another project over the holidays.

And I’m writing, of course. Hooboy, am I writing. This Friday I’ll be running a game, Legends of Lost Lake, which is pretty polished as far as 1980s-set slasher simulations go. (The trick, as it turns out, is devising ways to build suspense over one session so that everyone can die or survive in the second half of the second.) I decided to tuck into a novella, and that’s unfolding in unexpected ways. Most of the time I build around an event or a fairly fleshed-out character, but this one feels more like exhuming a voice, a rather different thing. Right now I’ve got four stories and four poems half-concocted on my desktop, too, which should keep me busy enough when only one or two cylinders are firing.

With some luck I’ll be able to keep all the necessary plates, pins, and rings in the air, at least for the rest of the semester. But if you can’t get enough random bald man, you can always read a good book between now and my next post.


Tension headaches normally occur for me as a band of muscular discomfort that’s snuggest around the back of my skull, and right around 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon I felt that old familiar band ratchet tight around my noggin. The source of tension, in this case, was both trivial and knowable: my partner asked me to find another landscaping company to do our annual shrub trimming next fall, as the folks we use had made the same mistake they’d made before.

That is, as I hope you can tell, a terribly small thing. It’s a tenth of a gram in the Grand Scale of Life. But the sudden tightening of that band told me I had just about reached the limit of my working memory.

I’ve had a headache for about four months now, which is of course a cause for concern. (I have some small reason for hope right now, as a second opinion from an optometrist following a couple of months of testing suggests that it’s nothing but the result of some corrective tension in the muscles surrounding my eyes.) But what it means these days is that I can tell almost to the moment when my working memory has reached capacity.

It’s almost always just a little thing, like the aforementioned incident, or someone sending me an email asking me to pencil in a meeting a couple of weeks away. That extra cathexis (a commitment of mental energy) shorts the circuit board and prompts my brain to power down, to idle for awhile. I told you recently about the ways in which I try to manage imminent tasks, but this is the flip side of that necessity. If I don’t keep clearing the queue, and if I don’t actively detach cathexes from things I can’t actually do anything about, then I am essentially sentencing myself to some cranial pain.

It’s easy to neglect that aspect of our processing, like subscriptions we signed up for once upon a time or appliances that are constantly running in the background. We’re not often aware of them. Walk down a hall in the middle of the night, however, and you’ll often find the faces of clocks running in other rooms, chargers lighted to let us know our phones and controllers are ready, appliances on standby. In my life I’ve got new stories and poems to draft, older ones to revise, lesson plans to write, and the like. That’s my day-to-day stuff, always drawing a little bit of energy. But the pending bits and bobs add up. I need to collaborate on a syllabus, though I don’t know when a colleague will be ready to tackle it; I need to make some hypnosis recordings to see how viable they might be as a side hustle, but I need to test some new tech before I do; I need to keep in mind appointments I’ve got on my schedule or plans I’ve made with my partner, though those hinge on a dozen contingencies beyond my control. And of course there are all the ambient worries I have zero control over, which take up a few amps of brainjuice each day. Until I get them off the docket they’ll hang around to haunt me.

No easy solutions to this matter, alas, aside from doing my best to clear projects from my to-do lists as soon as I can. What’s more important, though, is to recognize the underlying pattern and not lay blame on the wrong doorstep. Unless we inform them, folks don’t know, and only we ourselves really know the state of play inside our minds. The trick, I think, is to create a little space to spare so that it takes some really extraordinary new commitment to take us over capacity.

If you figure out how to manage that, do let me know! Until then I’ll try to keep one step ahead of my own mind and see what I can do to make that tension relent.

On Time

I’ve been chipping away at several projects lately, though the going has been unusually slow. The causes of the slowdown? Time, timing, and timekeeping.

Time, of course, is something of an ass. Though it feels like this summer has been unfolding slowly (perhaps because I’ve been awaiting the outcome of Several Significant Things, and the suspense has stretched out the hours), each individual day passes by far too quickly. I rise at about 5:00, have a pre-workout drink before heading to the gym, come back around 9:00, have a proper breakfast between 9:00 and 10:00, take a second shower, run whatever errands need to be addressed, eat a light lunch, and then sit down to the keyboard. Though I know that I write best in the early morning, this is the schedule I’ve been obliged to settle into, that makes the best use of my time overall. Last summer, when the gym held odd hours in light of COVID protocols, worked very well for me, as it shifted my gym arrival time to 11:00 and gave me a few hours of drafting time in the morning as well as a few hours of productive revising time in the afternoon and early evening before my partner came home from work. This year has given me more room for self-determination, but the result has been less than ideal.

That’s the view from the world outside my fiction and poetry. But the inside is where things have become both sticky and tricksy of late.

The novel I drafted last summer, for instance, plays out over the course of six narrative weeks, with two sides–and multiple actors on each side–conspiring and acting against one another. Much of my revision, alas, has centered on making the time line simpler and clearer while trusting the reader to follow along a little more gamely. I suspect that when all is said and done I’m going to strip out a few thousand words just to get some excesses in temporal reckoning out of the way. The same hold true for the novella I’ve recently begun, which hinges on reflection and retrospection. For the story to work I need to fix the central story events at a specific point in time, then count forwards and back to attend to the aftermath. I can skate on historical details to some extent–the narrator/point of view allows me to dispense with most of the period particulars–but I need to make sure the timing works out for the young protagonist, for the life events that ultimately shape their older self, and for all the bits and bobs in between. In the drafting process that leads to quite a lot of spot research when I want to mix in a historical point of reference to enrich the context and enhance the realism, which means the going has been slow. It’s not a bad thing–the researching and dreaming stages are important portions of the program–but at day’s end I always wish I was working a little bit faster.

To offset the tension that come with slogging progress I’ve been writing poetry, but that, too, has come with its own snags, snarls, and opportunity costs. Normally when I compose a poem I’ll knock out a few lines, arrive at an impasse, and step away from the keyboard for a few minutes (or hours) so my noggin can resolve the problem with some background processing. When I’m working on multiple pieces, however, I wind up using my working memory to deal with some new issue that arises in the interim. I can’t count on background processing when I’m preoccupied by objects in the foreground. That means that my mind is trudging haltingly along parallel lines. I know the solution–to deal with one project at a time like a grown-up–but that’s a hard ask when all the work is equally intriguing.

Today I intend/hope to rethink things and settle on some short-term priorities, though my long-term prospects will probably hinge on refining my habits of mind. I’d rather be writing, of course, but devoting some of my writing time to roping coltish notions in the cognitive corral is probably time well spent.

Knives In

I’m working on a reflective, retrospective story right now, so I went back to Different Seasons to see how Stephen King handled reflection and retrospection in “The Body.” I wanted to revisit the narrative to see how he handled dialogue particularly, as it strikes me as a little slippery in reminiscences but, as always, new eyes led me to notice new things.

All the gestures of artifice and artfulness are there, and it’s hard (having read King’s On Writing more than once) not to notice debts to geography and biography in King’s work. But what caught my eye most this time around were the plotting and the violence, especially in terms of how the story portrays pain.

I won’t spoil too many features of the narrative, but I think it’s fair to say the plot is broadly mimetic in its effort to capture memory. Although we know the narrator, Gordie, has grown up to become a writer, the piece follows the contours of his remembrance, which is a kindly way of saying it’s sprawling. But it sprawls revealingly, catching at all the moments that Gordie has attached to the singular experience of traveling down the train tracks with three friends to see a dead body. In short, until they reach that body and live out all the consequences of doing so, not much happens. They buy supplies, they swim, they walk and talk. We get glimpses of how Gordie sees the world along the way. King spikes the journey with thrills and horrors, as one might expect, but the walking and talking is paramount.

And at story’s end we get a grim epilogue. If you’ve seen the film adaptation, Stand by Me, you might imagine that the focus of the conclusion is on remembered friendship, a bit of misty-eyed nostalgia offered by an older, wiser man who sounds a lot like Richard Dreyfuss. In the narrative, however, the ending centers on pain. Most vivid, I think, is the depiction of the beatdowns the reader is led to expect. Older bullies, thwarted in their ambitions earlier in the story, pick off the members of the quartet one by one. Blood is shed and bones are broken, and King catches at the harm done vividly and viscerally.

More haunting, however, is the manner in which King threads other kinds of pain through Gordie’s reflection. We learn a great deal about how life treated these four boys after this pivotal event–about the changes they underwent, about the kinds of young men they grew to be. Gordie’s story fixes particularly on the fate of Chris, his closest friend, and reflects on his short life in a clear-eyed, almost declarative way. But pain–felt pain–comes through. It’s subdued, understated, and tinged with the matter-of-factness that characterizes Gordie’s point of view most of the time. It’s a pain that lingers, however, that lasts after the wounds have closed and the bones have mended.

I think that’s one of the elusive qualities that elevates King’s stories in the eyes of his audience. Over the past few weeks I’ve binged on quite a bit of cinematic horror, and in those stories it’s easy to see both how fragile and durable our bodies are (at least on the silver screen). Between Scream 5, the Fear Street trilogy, and a few other flicks I’ve seen at least twenty slashings and a great deal of blood loss. Those moments shock and appall, just as you’d expect.

But the stories, like “The Body” itself, take on depth and complexity when viewers and readers see costs and losses, when they plug into characters with sympathy and imagination and try to envision what a life would be like with all those absences, with all that trauma. Those costs and losses, when reckoned well, seem to me more meaningful, more momentous. At least a couple of the films I’ve screened have thrown in an extra knife wound or two just to remind the viewer that no one is safe, that no one comes through the experience without shedding a little blood. But to me, at least, those casual stabbings are gratuitous in a suggestive way. We don’t need to see them to know that the characters we care about are leaving the screen harmed and scarred, with the sort of aches and pains that will haunt them all their lives.

Heat and Light

Photo by Huper by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

While I’m only a few weeks into The Academic Summer, the season is already off the rails. As always, I gave myself a couple of weeks to gear down from the semester. I tackled a few cleaning projects and domestic diversions I’d deferred, and I also wrote/revised some short stories I thought I could manage in the three-week frame of May. It made for a goodly transition, and June and beyond were reserved for the revision of the novel manuscript. I made that plan last December, and it seemed like a fine one at the time.

Predictably, alas, I’ve moved into June with reservations. The trick for me invariably involves deciding if I’ve got reservations of the right kind.

As a rule, I resist (or try to resist) deferrals inspired by dread. If I suspect I’m avoiding a project because it looks daunting in prospect, then I’ll talk myself into proceeding (though it might take me a few days to get my skull on straight). Fear is a bad reason to punt. Revising the novel does seem to me like a sizable, significant thing, but it’s also an eminently manageable one–it’s work I’ve done before and I enjoy doing. I’ve jotted down notes since December to guide my revision, and I know exactly how I have to start. It will involve several weeks, but I’ve tucked into far more time-consuming work before. It’s decidedly doable, which of course means that a horde of smaller, more manageable projects are vying for my attention,

Some of them are bright and shiny–lots of anthology calls for short stories, for example, all of them with cool presses I’d love to work with. Some of them are also sizable and enticing. I have an idea for a volume of thematically-bound genre poems, for example, and in the process of sifting through the folders on my desktop as part of my three-week cleanup I realized I had a measure of the prep work already finished. Forward momentum seems like it should be well worth capitalizing on. But in the scheme of Wandlessian thinking both the shiny and enticing tend to be perpetually renewable resources. I could get more stories done for June deadlines, but then will I be able to resist new calls when July arrives? And completing a poetry manuscript would certainly involve not only realizing the bigger vision but also making sure that I’ve got plenty of stand-alone pieces to put into circulation. It’s the sort of thing that would be rewarding but would certainly stretch into next summer. And in both cases the work is on the speculative side–I’m not entirely sure what calls for stories I would answer, and I’m not certain what shape the collection will finally take. I’ll have to write my way toward those destinations in a loose, exploratory way. There’s heat to be had, but not light–not a clear sense of design and destination, a sense of how it would fit into the scheme of progress that will still see the novel revised in some definable amount of time.

The nail in this summer’s coffin for me, however, has been an opportune convergence, a more or less fully realized vision for a 30,000-50,000 word novella that grows a little sharper for me every day. It builds on the sort of impulse I generally trust: I had a vague recollection from my youth I wanted to flesh out, and it converged with a superficially unrelated idea that gives it shape, scope, and energy. If I just had a raw-yet-solid idea in mind I probably could set it aside. But this one comes with a sense of plot escalation right out the box. And a vivid sense of character arcs. And, as it turns out, a tone and a theme that very much vibe with my Wandlessian obsessions. That’s the sort of work I can’t easily turn away from. The heat is there, and so is the light, and I’d be a chump not to see where it leads me.

So my summer is off the rails, but I ain’t even mad, as the kids are wont to say. It’s not a trolley problem: I’m confident the new rails I’m on run parallel to the ones I planned to ride this summer. And if I learn a few things along the way that allow me to come at the revision of the novel with fresh insight and energy, then it’s a side quest well worth accepting.