“And how long was your father asleep by the pool?” The nurse’s voice bit into my seven year old ears. Of all the images of peeling skin and sun poisoned shoulders that should have burned themselves into my memory, only the school nurse’s question from that hot September day stuck with me twenty years later.
The sun shining through the open car window triggered those words vividly. Lisa sat in the passenger seat with her iPod shooting pop music into her ears. She couldn’t hear the miniature squeals of strain from the sun baking my skin.
My choppy request tested the guard’s patience, yet I instantly noticed the signature of Davy’s last visitor: our mother. She told me that Davy still refused to talk, and asked if I would go to him.
Nine weeks ago Davy decided that he wanted the surgery. Mom delivered the ultimatum: a one thousand dollar check and a moving truck rental, or the surgery. His fury exploded through the house. I should have stayed, but I snuck out the back and got in my truck and drove to work four hours before my shift started.
The following passage was prepared for tomorrow’s Creative Writing class. My task was to introduce a character. I drew heavily from a professor at Michigan State University whom I admired.
Jin’s arrival accounted precisely for the time needed to navigate the receptionist at the State Housing Authority. “Good morning Rhonda,” he said as though they were old friends from Seoul.
“Hello sir,” she said, thrown off by the use of her first name. The Asian man carrying a leather briefcase was not somebody she immediately recognized visually or by the sound of his voice. His suit jacket had an anonymous appearance, as though it could fit on anybody and have no affect on their style.
Jin stopped at the exact distance that was appropriate from her desk. A desk that was in his opinion a barricade between the decisions coming from this office and the people who would could potentially be their strongest allies. Jin did not let this contempt linger in his mind for more than a second and refocused on Rhonda.
“I am here for a meeting with Roger Ballard.” Jin said. Rhonda reached over to page her supervisor. The click of the phone receiver disrupted the lobby’s silence more than his voice. Rhonda suddenly became very self aware of everything around her.
Jin walked only two steps in front of the elevator doors on the eighteenth floor. The din of typing and work-related conversations barely indicated that life existed in this place. The glass door on his right opened as three well-dressed men walked across the lobby to greet him. Before the door shut behind them Jin had greeted each of them “Kevin, Aaron, and Roger. Good to see you.”
In Jin’s view a thing always should conceal its true intention. The pretense of his meeting at the State Housing Authority was to discuss internship opportunities for students in his introductory college level classes. Paperwork filled acres of cabinet space inside the Authority’s headquarters. The three men now shaking Jin’s hand welcomed the possibility of hiring eager college students to sort the unimaginable volume of applications, notices, and memos. They led him to a bland, windowless, yet respectably furnished conference room.
With a few carefully placed signals, Jin could tell if a person was driven by their work. Today’s small talk (that most people subconsciously started with Jin) acted like a litmus test for their commitment to their vocation. At its natural end Jin said, “Gentlemen,” and opened a void in the floor with the breath in his voice. He continued “I would like for you to entertain a proposal.” The vagueness of his request surprised the men hosting the meeting. After a moment of silence which Jin took as consent he said, “I would like for my graduate student Gillian to assist the Governor’s select committee on Housing.”
This silence was different, it was stunned and surprised by the size of the request. Only high level department managers served on the Governor’s select committee.
“A voice is needed to represent the future.” Jin continued to explain. He eventually mentioned how many undergraduates he could send to work in the administrative tasks that Kevin and Aaron had hoped for. Six interns was double the number mentioned in his initial letter.
Jin knew that he would need to convince Roger, the department manager. His brows were slightly furrowed and he fussed with the face of his watch; two indicators of his apprehension toward this proposal. “Roger, I believe we share a purpose, and I wish to help you fulfill it.” Jin said facing his counterpart directly.
Twenty minutes later a burst of boisterous laughter distracted nearby cubicle dwellers. The three men walked with Jin to the elevators, smiles brushed on their faces.
Gillian owed a debt of gratitude to her professor for that meeting. She kept a photo taken at the city’s only Korean restaurant with her classmates and Jin on her desk, facing her visitors. Jin’s broad smile invited conversation from all who saw it, including the governor.
In less than one hour I will begin a class on Creative Writing at Washtneaw Community College. I am looking forward to sharing some of the work that I produce from this experience through this website.
I was on the fence about this class for a few weeks until one day I clicked on the WCC class list and read: “two spaces remaining.” In a marketing class, this type of signal might be classified as an “urgency” or “scarcity” promotion. It worked in tipping me over the edge in my decision to volunteer my credit card information to WCC.
Here is the class description:
This class offers a gentle, structured environment where you can find inspiration for your work. Fellow writers and an experienced instructor and author read your work and offer thoughtful feedback. You’ll also look at others’ work through the eyes of a writer.
I haven’t heard anything from the instructor – so I am planning to bring a note book and a pen and nothing else.
Over Thanksgiving, my grandmother related a story about how her aunt Helena’s mother had run away with the free fair many years ago. The details were foggy, but she was just one of uncounted youth who left home mysteriously and without any clear destination. The story below is my re-interpretation of this event.
Cover of Freedom: A Novel
It was Black Friday and I was at Schulers Books on Twenty Eighth street in the Grand Rapids area when i purchased my used, paperback copy of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I had some awareness of the book’s success and praise, but no clear idea of what all the hype was about.
This book got its hooks in me deep. The first chapter (can we call them chapters?) is “Good Neighbors.” The hub of this novel is the Berglund family: Walter, Patty and their children Jessica and Joey. As a student of urban planning and social science, the first chapter is practically a melodramatic case study on the urban pioneers who settle in an up-and-coming St. Paul Minnesota neighborhood. The conflict between the Berglunds and the one non-gentrifier family of Carol Monaghan becomes the force that drives each of the main characters along shockingly different paths.
After the opening scenes in St. Paul, the breadth of the plot expands greatly and in a very satisfying way. Each of the characters seems to live in some state of contradiction at least tangentially related to the events of the early 2000s. Franzen explores the boundless opportunities presented to those who are willing to stretch their willingness to accept morally ambiguity. He also traces the powerful human forces of depression, addiction, and creativity as they shape the Berglund family.
It felt clear from my reading that Franzen set out to establish this book as an era-defining work: a book that I can hand to my grandchildren and say, “this is what it was like in 2004.” Even if Freedom doesn’t have the lasting appeal that its author intends, it is an intoxicating ride.