Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Volume of Mundane Adventures, Episode 2

We return now to the adventures of Agent E...

     We'd been stuck in the same room for weeks, months...maybe years. Always They forced us to do the same tasks, stacking contradictory knowledge into a pyramid of confusion. Always They forced us to examine the Numbers, the omnipresent, omnipotent Numbers. The undercurrent of their presence ruled our thoughts, our words, our calculators. They left us one option of escape, but the consequences that followed would leave indelible marks, marks that sent even the bravest reeling. Fools took the easy way out and tried to brush it off. Fools tried with only half their hearts and failed, earning, in the end, only suffering.

     I was one of the misfortunate thousands who had to suffer through the Numbers.

     My line of work calls for a cool, calm, and collected demeanor. I'm never allowed to show my true feelings, no matter how strong my emotions may be. There are always people depending on me, always lives at stake, dangling from the thread of my false bravado. I can't crack. But that doesn't stop me from being afraid.

     As I approached the building, the building with the Numbers, my stomach twisted into knots more tangled than the pretzel I wished I'd eaten. The structure stood like an iron sentinel, challenging my confidence. I wavered. What was a simple agent against something so terrifying? Something that not only managed to snare countless hostages, but could keep them placid and obedient for months at a time? I shook my head. I couldn't let Them sense my fear. I had a mission to complete.

     I threw open the double doors and strode into The Room.

     The Room boiled, full and brimming over with tension, the roiling nervousness eating away at our minds. I wanted to reach out, reassure the frightened people that it would be alright, that after today we wouldn't have anything to be scared of anymore. The calculators couldn't hurt us. I stared at the machine in my hands, craving reassurance. The machine stared back, its exterior blank and cold. I swallowed. The calculators couldn't hurt us. 

     They handed us papers, each sheet whiter and more sickening than the last. Scattered laughter did little to mask the curling scent of fear and spiking heart rates. I was silent. I had to focus; if I didn't... Well. If I didn't, then the calculators wouldn't be the only thing to fear.

     Silence fell. The frantic scratching of lead on parchment, the clicking of keys, the occasional whispered curse word: those weren't noises. Those were the tangible outworkings of our numbed minds, a mere outworking of the Numbers. They were a curse of The Room. Nothing more.

     Someone stood up. They gathered their papers, their pencils, their calculators, and strode to the front of the room. Then they did the unthinkable, the unimaginable: they handed over their paper and left. Hope sparked in my heart, and I bent over the paper with renewed fervor. I could get out of this alive.

     Soon enough, I completed my task and surrendered it to our all-seeing overseer, then fled. I wouldn't know know if I'd succeeded or failed for weeks, months even. But I felt sure that I hadn't hoped, hadn't believed, hadn't suffered for nothing. The Numbers hadn't wholly claimed me yet.

     Later the truth would unmask itself, crashing in clearer than daybreak and washing my mind of its fear. My doubt slipped away, and I allowed myself one tiny smirk, one little exhibition of triumph.

    I smiled knowing I'd passed Probability and Statistics.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

In Which I Survive A Haunted Golf Cart Ride

     I went back to Kansas. And this time I didn't wait more than six months to write out my thoughts about it.

     It’s not every day you get to survive a haunted golf cart ride.

     Three of us, tingling with excitement, squeezed onto the vinyl seat. We were elated that the S’s had chosen us, deemed us worthy to endure the exhilarant terror of the golf cart. What more was there to life than this? Then the engine roared to life, and I knew immediately that we had made a terrible, terrible mistake. The contraption bucked and rattled, clearly unhappy with new presence of such na├»ve, inexperienced passengers. I knew deep in my shaking bones that pleading for mercy wouldn't save us, so I clung to the metal bar with all the desperation of a warrior making their last stand. My friend held onto me for support, but I'd already volunteered to speak at her funeral; I couldn't keep her on the mad chariot of death if it chose to cast her away. Mr. S. had promised that the seat belts would protect us, but where were the seat belts? 

     However, despite all our expectations, we somehow emerged unscathed from the wrath of the haunted golf cart, and that glorious ride is indelibly seared into my terror-tinged memory. Near that new memory is an old one, recurring echoes of the gang I somehow started last workshop. I longed for those friendships to return, but they belonged in another week and another year. Still, I came back to Kansas expecting sameness.

     Of course, this workshop was different, gloriously different, but I still wanted the same answers, the same peace and joy I found last year. Instead, I found a different kind of sameness in a handful of all-too-familiar emotions. Sadness. Fear. Loneliness. I shook them off as best I could and tried my hardest to Have A Good Time. I mostly succeeded, but the expectations lingered. At the top of the list floated the longing for another workshop epiphany. “Fair Winds and Following Seas” gifted me with the courage and humility I needed to finally become the person I’d been afraid to be. But this week passed without another blinding realization. Instead of driving away my ghosts, the workshop seemed to intensify them, amplifying the noise in my head until I couldn’t hear anything else.

     Then one day in critique group, my friend handed me back my excerpt. She’d circled all the ‘I’s in one paragraph, revealing far too many of that particular pronoun for a few sentences to contain. While I didn’t think much of it at the time (beyond a note to revise my narrator’s train of thought), those spirals of ink contained that missing epiphany: my life is a paragraph with too many ‘I’s.

     As a narrator of a first-person novel, it’s impossible not to talk about myself. However, no two novels are the same. Some narrators choose to begin each sentence with themselves, with an ‘I’. They talk about the things they’ve done, the things they’ve accomplished, the golf carts they’ve survived. But others manage to find different subjects. They manage to talk about anything and everything, and when they do talk about themselves they gloss over it with a grace that lifts others up and fills them with excitement.

     I’m that first narrator. The proud, selfish narrator that can’t think of another way to begin a sentence.

     To be fair, I’ve done my share of interesting things. In Kansas alone, I danced and sang on stage with a myriad of joyful personages, joined the dab squad, wore multiple tiaras, and impersonated Darth Vader. I even survived a haunted golf cart ride. But I forgot that even though the narrator is important, there are other characters in our first-person novels. Some of those characters are known and well beloved, while others are little more than annoying necessities. The richest stories explore these other characters and acknowledge how important they are, even if we don’t always like them. Even if they hurt us. Even if we give and don’t get anything back.

     My workshop epiphany reminded me that my first-person novel is very much a work-in-progress. I’m still afraid to walk into a roomful of people, my perseverance is weaker than my muscles, and wonder is awfully hard to come by—and that’s not even mentioning such unattainable things as selflessness. But the workshop managed to penetrate all my cowardice and weakness and teach me one thing: life’s a little bit like a haunted golf cart ride, One has to have courage to get on it, to do what we know we should, and, before that, the perseverance to wait for our one glorious turn. But when that turn comes, we hold on, screaming and laughing, to the wonder of that ride, because after the sadness, after the fear, after the loneliness, there is always joy.