Fiction, Pandemic diary, Writing

A pandemic diary: New story, new times

June 21, 2021

Child climbing on seaside rocks.

My new short story is out, published by Flora Fiction in their literary magazine. The story, “Country Dark,” is about a young woman in an isolated rural home, desperate to escape a violent, abusive man.

The theme of this edition of the magazine is freedom and what it means to each of us. I’m trying to figure out how free I am from worrying about the pandemic, and I keep coming back to, “Not completely, no. Not by a long shot. Not yet.”

It’s true that nationwide case numbers and deaths have nosedived from their horrible peaks of last winter. However, the highly contagious delta variant has gained a foothold, and a big chunk of the country is unvaccinated. A lot of these people think “freedom” means ignoring science and their neighbors’ safety. None of this qualifies as “normal.”

But even if these days aren’t the familiar old times, for many of us they’re better than they’ve been in what seems like forever. Right now I’m looking out my window at a blue summer sky and the young trees in our yard pushing branches toward the sun. That’s plenty for me. Take care and be safe.

Fiction, men and women, Pandemic diary, Writing

A pandemic diary: Fiction about reality

Full moon shining through clouds.
Photo by Pexels.com

May 14, 2021

My new short story, “The Man With the Six-Foot Soul,” is live on the Red Fez. It’s about how the pandemic has battered our sanity, stretching the boundaries of truth and illusion, past and present.

The man is a presence in the lives of Emily and Tyler, a young couple struggling to stay together amid the chaos. She seeks a lifeline, he worries about her behavior, and the tensions bring them close to the breaking point. Will the relationship become one more casualty of the past year?

If you’re a “Twilight Zone” fan, you might notice echoes of a highly-acclaimed episode. I’ll let you figure out which one. And please check out the other great pieces in the new edition of the Red Fez. Take care and be safe.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Fiction, Writing

A pandemic diary: Stay away from those boats!

April 6, 2021

This can’t be coincidence. Just when we’re rediscovering Ernest Hemingway, who chronicled the Roaring 20s so memorably in “The Sun Also Rises,” along comes a prediction that we’re headed for a post-pandemic blowout that’s already been dubbed the Roaring 2020s.

Ernest Hemingway at typewriter.

At least we’ll have legal booze, which no one did during Prohibition. But unlike Jake Barnes, Brett Ashley, and the others in the novel, we won’t be bouncing from Paris to Pamplona any time soon, especially with France back in lockdown. I’d settle for the trip to Florida that my wife and I have had to postpone twice because cases there were so high. That’s not in the cards yet either.

Still, there are similarities between the eras. Hemingway’s characters were damaged by the Great War, none more so than Jake, whose wounds left him impotent. My American lit professor in college told us Hemingway wrote to his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald that the title should’ve been, “The Sun Also Rises (Like Your Cock If You Have One).”

Our war has cost us 31 million U.S. cases, 555,000 dead, an uncounted toll of long-haulers, and tens of millions unemployed, some possibly forever. Even us lucky ones have social and psychic hangovers. Due to stress, my tinnitus (ringing in the ears) is consistently worse than before. My legs are stiffer than old wood from lack of exercise, and “restful sleep” is often oxymoronic. (I’ve also got a new form of PTSD, Post-Trump Scrolling Disorder, which even now causes compulsive reading to find out what H-bomb might fall on our democracy next. The Georgia voting law isn’t helping matters.)

It’s worth remembering that those who came of age in the war years and the 20s, who were labeled the Lost Generation by Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, weren’t as aimless and decadent as they appeared in books. Hemingway thought his characters had been “battered” but were also resilient, which their real-life counterparts demonstrated when they survived the Depression and became the parents of the Greatest Generation. We’re strong too, but we don’t need to set the bar that high.

We do have to stay focused on protecting each other until cases and deaths go down for good, which isn’t happening yet. It’ll be worse than horrible if we have yet another damned surge, or as F. Scott put it, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” 

I’m ignoring the clatter about “what next,” “is the old normal good enough,” etc., having been happy with life before last March and not about to make any cosmic changes. However, I plan to catch up on the Hemingway I didn’t get around to in college, and ASAP I’ll be making tracks toward France, Spain, Key West, and other places. Take care and be safe.

Fiction, hometown, life, Writing

Another new short story!

Remember the band The Dead Milkmen? Even if you weren’t around in their heyday, you’ve probably heard the joke and urban legend that gave rise to the name. Only what if it wasn’t just a joke? Did your placid suburban neighborhood have a Lothario prowling the streets at dawn, delivering more than milk and cottage cheese to desperate housewives?

That’s more or less the subject of my latest short story, The Milk of Human Innocence, just launched to the world by the good people at Red Fez. It’s based in part on recollections of my hometown in Michigan and the times we lived in back when I was a tad, though none of the characters are drawn from real people. The events that drive the narrative didn’t actually happen either — as far as I know. This song has nothing to do with the story but I thought you might enjoy it too.

coronavirus, Covid 19 pandemic, Fiction, Florida, Writing

A pandemic diary: My new short story

September 1, 2020

While this blog keeps me busy and helps me cope with the pandemic, I also write fiction. I recently turned out a story called “High Tide,” which is about the virus, beaches, life, and most of all, love. It’s just been published by the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Click on the image to read it.

Dead Mule School of Southern Literature logo showing mule on his back.

Since my stuff has already appeared in another fine regional outlet, the Birmingham Arts Journal, I believe I may now call myself, without fear of contradiction, an official, certified, no-two-ways Southern Writer.

Which is good, because the Deadmule folks require a Southern Legitimacy Statement from all contributors (seriously!). Here’s mine.

Though I was born in upstate New York and grew up in Michigan, my Southern leanings began to emerge in college, where I studied blues, jazz, and Faulkner. I’ve now lived for almost twenty years in the South and have earned regional citizenship by virtue of loving and marrying a Southern woman. Of course, they don’t give out green cards to us northern expats. Somewhere I do have a card for a free fried apple pie from the very best barbecue place in Alabama. Will that suffice?

As always, take care and be safe, y’all.

coronavirus, Fiction, Florida, Pandemic diary, Writing

A pandemic diary: Independence

Beach at sunset with waves and people on sand.

July 7, 2020

You had the perfect Fourth. Everything was great – the beach, the weather, the fireworks, and most of all, just hanging out and being normal again. You’d almost gotten used to the six-foot bullshit, and the mask when you absolutely had to, but no more. From now on you’re free.

Just like old times, the weekend fell into place. Ashley got an awesome deal on a condo right on the beach. Your special restaurant, the Captain’s Cabin, had reopened and you sat on the porch eating grouper and shrimp, all the outdoor tables full, everybody drinking and laughing. The server, Rosa or Rosita or whatever, didn’t look happy, though. She probably made more money from unemployment than working.

Your old UGA friends Chris and Beth were at their place up the coast, and Ashley’s friend Sarah had come down with her husband Jason, so you threw a party. Beth’s sister came, Jason brought a couple of his golf buddies and their girlfriends, and you invited the two couples staying next door, so there must’ve been a dozen, maybe fifteen people. It got a little crowded in that small living room.

So what? Everybody was young and like Sarah said, if it was that dangerous we’d all be dead already. People didn’t even talk about it much except when one of Jason’s friends, who was pretty hammered, said he didn’t wear a mask because he wouldn’t take orders, “from some Black Lives Matter mayor.” The room got quiet but then came the pop! of the first fireworks, and everyone headed for the deck and that was that. Actually, he seemed like a nice guy.

And Beth. Damn, she looked so, so great. It’s been six years, she’s with Chris now and of course you’re with Ashley, but when she walked in, right away you felt the old spark. Later, after the fireworks, you drifted out to the deck and there she was in the corner, no one else around, her eyes telling you she felt something too. You grabbed each other and started kissing really hard, her hands in your hair, yours around her back, pulling her close, only for a minute but unbelievably hot. You tried not to think about her when you and Ashley went to bed, and almost succeeded.

*****

It’s Wednesday and Ashley’s running errands. You’re in the home office, wishing your Zoom call was over because you’re congested and feeling crappy. This happens sometimes during allergy season but it hasn’t been this bad all summer. Your throat’s a little scratchy and your usually mild sinus headache is more like a migraine.

Your phone buzzes. You don’t check it until the Zoom session ends and you’ve finished the report that’s due by COB. You play the message and hear Beth’s voice.

It’s me. I got your number off Chris’s phone. I– oh God, I can’t believe this. I’ve got it.

There’s a long pause as she tries not to cry. Then she says I felt sick Sunday and just got the test results. I haven’t even told Chris yet. I’m not blaming you. I don’t know how it happened, I just – A barely stifled sob. I don’t know anything. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.

Now your head and heart are pounding. Time seems frozen as you sort out all the scenarios. She could’ve caught it from someone at the party. That doesn’t mean you or Ashley did. You try to remember who you talked to and how long you were outside where it was safer. You may be okay. Or Beth might have been sick already and not had symptoms.

As you sit, breathing rapidly and staring at nothing, it registers that you could be the one who infected her — and maybe the whole crowd. You frantically Google Captain’s Cabin and don’t find any news about cases. You know you still have to tell everyone.

You try to console yourself with the thought that you might have gotten the virus even if you and Beth hadn’t made out. You don’t have to tell Ashley about that. It’s not relevant.

But what if Beth tells Chris? He was talking about his guns at the party. He’s always had an awful temper.

You hear Ashley’s car outside.

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coronavirus, Family, life, new old age, War, Writing

A pandemic diary: Lessons from the last world war

March 25, 2020

I’ve hardly been out of the condo for three weeks. Except for my wife, my last offline human interaction was five days ago with a grocery clerk. Every time I wash my hands, which is often, I feel like Lady MacBeth: “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” But I know I’m one of the lucky ones and hope everyone understands that yes, we are in this together.

The notion of a common enemy and shared sacrifice is simply foreign to most people in this country. Though the Cold War could have wiped out the world if it turned hot, and a few hard-core preppers even built their own fallout shelters, it generally didn’t affect daily life. Vietnam turned us against each other. Some compared 9/11 to Pearl Harbor, but except for the armed forces and their families, most people didn’t need to do much except take their shoes off at the airport. (Watching “Rescue Me” was optional.)

A collective effort of this magnitude hasn’t been asked of us since World War II. I know some of y’all are about to click away from yet another tribute to the Greatest Generation by one of its boomer children. History is made up of small stories, not big names. My dad’s story offers a few examples for today.

Don Swan in Army uniform with his mother in 1943.
My dad on leave in Elgin, Illinois with his mother

He joined the Army in the spring of 1942 and was assigned to the Air Corps, which was part of the Army then. At the age of thirty, he was considered too old to fly, so he was sent to clerical / administrative training in Colorado, then to an air base in Salt Lake City.

When he wrote to his family back in Elgin, Illinois, he always emphasized that he was fine and, “there are a lot of worse jobs in the Army.” He used his great sense of humor to ease the strain of separation, telling his sister how the Colorado post was built in 1888 and still had a regulation that said, “…it was positively against all rules and stuff to shoot buffalo from the barracks window.” He added, “Being in the Army isn’t as bad as a lot of people seem to think, though I wouldn’t be mad if I could get into my blue double-breasted pin stripe suit again.”

What he wanted most was for my mother to join him in Salt Lake City, even if it wasn’t like their old home. “It will be swell having her out here, or wherever I am, and although it won’t be like the place we had, anything will do until this thing is over,” one letter said. “Practically everything we have is in cold storage, furniture, car, boat, everything except dreams…if we can keep those out we’ll be okay, and I don’t think we’ll have any trouble doing that.”

A couple of weeks later he wrote to his parents, “There is an awful big show going on, and I’m glad to be a very very small part of it…All of this, like everything else, will come to an end some day, and if sitting here in this office pounding a typewriter all day and part of the night will help to bring that end about, this is where I belong, and I wouldn’t get out for anything, even if they’d let me.”

There’s not much I can add to that. Be safe and look out for each other even if you can’t hug each other. Don’t forget to laugh. This will pass. Take care.

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Internet, life, nature, tech, Writing

Do not operate heavy equipment while reading this post

Being a writer takes purpose, a thick skin, and not least, concentration. To produce pages, I need to tune out the world and stay in the moment, focused on the story and absolutely nothing else. It makes me appreciate my grandmother’s favorite saying: “One thing at a time, and that done well, is a very good rule, as many can tell.”

I can’t imagine what she’d think of today’s vortex of tweets, texts, multitasking, and general chaos. She’d survive by drawing on the inner strength that carried her through the Depression and other very tough times. She certainly would not give a darn (her word) for self-care snake oil like this video on how to optimize your life.

After watching the thing several times, I’m still not sure if it’s a serious manifesto or a modest proposal but I’ll assume it’s real. Claiming the average person wastes 21.8 hours a week, it gushes, “This six minute video could add years to your life,” and offers various cures. Example: “If you order your coffee while you’re still at the gym, you can pick it up on your way to work practically without having to stop.” What if the place is busy or the barista accidentally gives you—shudder—decaf? You might lose five or ten whole minutes that you could’ve spent on something vital, like learning Ukrainian.

“Read a book while you cook, but not the whole book. There are services now that actually just give you the short version of the book. Same info, way less time.” Try reading a dictionary, pal. “Shorter” ≠ “Same.” It’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” not “A Tale of Two Townships.”

Finally, there’s this, which reads like the writer is on diet pills: “At the gym, check your emails on the bike while drinking a meal replacement shake with an added shot of MCT oil to stabilize the glucose in your bloodstream and prevent you from getting hungry until dinner or maybe ever again. You’re saving time and feeling great. And when you save time and feel great, you’re going to have more time and energy to plan out how to save more time and feel even better.”

This isn’t just snake oil, it’s a pyramid scheme. You multitask and keep one step ahead and plan how to multitask better and keep two steps ahead and plan more efficiently and get three steps ahead and cram more activity into each day and and optimize every last second. The treadmill never stops, let alone takes you to the top of the pyramid.

I’m not saying we should be slackers. All my life, I’ve tried to do each job a little better every day. I worked at being healthier too, because my family has a history of heart attack and stroke. But when I’m off the clock, whether at 5:00 or 9:00 or 3:00 the next morning, I’m done, son. My idea of optimizing is sitting on the porch with friends, listening to music, and drinking beer. What good is adding years to your lifespan if you’ve forgotten how to spend them?

It’s a safe bet that when your optimized life nears its end, you won’t pine for videos and MCT. You will slowly turn your head toward the window and notice the colors of the new grass and the morning sky. You’ll hear a whole gang of birds, each with its own cheerful call, and watch some kids zipping by on bikes, laughing and hooting for no particular reason. You’ll decide this would be a fine time to sit under that big tree with a real full-length book and….

“Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy” – Simon and Garfunkel

humor, life, new old age, Writing

The kindness of non-strangers

So you made it through the holiday. Congrats, but don’t stay happy for long! Seeing as how you’re a Real American, it’s time to shed the mindset of celebration and take up the mantle of guilt and self-improvement. New Year’s resolutions? Dude, like soooo last millennium! According to the poohbahs of pop-psych, what you need to do in 2020 is be kinder to yourself.

I’ve always thought of myself as the kind kind (and modest about it), but this one has thrown a whole set of wrenches into my gearbox. Here’s how the ideas in the article shake out for me.

Take more time for yourself. I’m retired. I’ve taken a whole life for myself. Not that it’s all chocolates and violins, because reaching retirement age means the spirit often makes promises the body can’t keep. I’ve become very familiar with “Pill Hill,” the part of Atlanta overrun by medicos and hospitals. I’ll probably be dead to the world long before the ball drops in Times Square. But I can’t figure out how to retire from retirement.

Take time to do nothing at all. See above. Besides, what’s “nothing?” Does that mean sitting in my recliner reading the good books I got for Christmas? That’s “something.”

Cultivate more casual, low-stakes friendships. The article hints, “Think of the parents you see in the drop-off line at school. Your favorite bartender. The other dog owners at the park.” I’m way too old for kids, don’t have a dog, and haven’t had a favorite bar or tender in years. And “casual, low-stakes” sounds like “friends with benefits,” which is NOT on my horizon.

Learn to enjoy things when they’re good because, “Worrying about when ‘the other shoe will drop’ will only steal your current joy.” Well, maybe. But this runs up against the fundamental nature that’s gotten me this far in life, summed up by John Cale in “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend.” The other size nine is always out there, like an asteroid that could blast our world right into the cosmic corner pocket. I will remain my own toughest critic and like a boxer will protect myself at all times. So sue me.

Learn to accept a compliment—even if it’s from yourself. “Dave, if I say so yourself, this is truly one of your best posts. It’s witty, timely, and not too long. It should yield a bounty of likes, hits, and clicks to start the New Year.”

Yield a bounty? Who the hell taught you to write? Go back to the recliner and let me finish this before you kill what’s left of our reputation. My advice to me is to recall what James Thurber wrote in response to the self-improvement loonies of the 1930s: “Let Your Mind Alone!” Okay, we’re done. That’s still not too long, is it?”

Facebook, humor, life, Writing

40 shades of Dave

I recently ran across one of those “copy and paste and play along” posts on Facebook, a list of questions to answer and share. This one was called “40 things about me,” but I’m too busy to wade through the whole bunch, and I’m betting a lot of y’all would tune me out somewhere around 13. So here’s the short list, or for those in my approximate age range, the Cliffs Notes / Reader’s Digest version of my life.

  1. Do you own a gun? No, I just sort of borrowed it from the sporting goods store.
  2. What do you drink in the morning? This question has a typo. It should be, “What, do you drink in the morning?” and the answer is “Usually.”
  3. Can you do 100 pushups? Maybe, but why would I want to?
  4. Age? I sure do, and brother, it’s a bear. Forget being 21 again; I’d settle for 59.
  5. Nick names? My only names are “David, “Dave,” and “Swan.” I am not called by “St. Nick,” “Nick the Greek,” “Nick Danger, Third Eye,” etc.*  
  6. Employed? I’m retired, self-employed, and freelance. Figure it out.
  7. Biggest downfall? I took a header off the porch at a rather young age after wrapping a red towel around my shoulders and deciding I was Superman.
  8. Worst pain ever? Writer’s block. That’s why I’m writing this instead of my novel. (Blogger’s block is a whole nother mess.)
  9. Do you like to dance? Love it, but I’m banned from doing so in seventeen states because I do it like this.
  10. Three drinks you drink? Sometimes. Other times four or five.
  11. Favorite color? Blue – no, yellow AAAAAAHHHHHHH!**
  12. Summer, winter, spring, or fall? I prefer Carole King and James Taylor’s version: “Winter, spring, summer or fall / All you have to do is call / And I’ll be there / You’ve got a friend.” You do. Right here. 😊

*As a kid I was known as “Tito,” not for the Jackson brother or the Yugoslav dictator but Tito Francona, then with the Cleveland Indians and whose signature adorned my baseball mitt.
**The obligatory Monty Python reference.