Friday, January 30, 2015

A short story: An Opportunity Not to Be Missed (Fiction Friday)

“Don't forget the bow. We have the recital next week.” she shouts, her voice burrowing deep in his brain where it will spend the next few minutes bouncing around until it sinks into the hidden recesses to fester there with all of her other commands. 

Without responding, he gets in the car and closes the door. He watches her on the porch, her hands on her hips, her hair, make-up and clothes all perfectly in place, her mouth solidly in the position of disapproval that she wears when he's around. His son, Edgar, stands next to her. Small for his age, carrying his violin case, wearing a too-large suit even on this hot September morning. They are his family. Words written on official papers that had never found a place in his heart. The feeling was mutual, he thought, he was not part of their tight little circle of two either. He drives off, relieved to be leaving them.

The early morning Boston traffic is heavy and he panics realising that he might be late for his flight. He knows how important the meeting in Los Angeles is for the company.  “Mess this up Eddie, and you’re out!” Mr. Cleaver had screamed in his face the day before.   

Company finances meant that he had to make this early morning flight, land in L.A. at 11:00 and be ready for the 1:00 pm meeting. After the meeting, he’d get straight back on the evening flight to Boston, expected back in the office tomorrow morning.

 “God I hate this job,” Eddie says to no one.

“Hey, drive your car, stupid!” he shouts at the grey sedan in front of him. He glances at his watch. Twenty minutes to get to the airport. He’ll never make it. Swerving into the fast lane, he ignores the honks of the discontented behind him. He has to make this meeting. It was a huge deal with a new California hotel chain - all the fittings for all the hotels. It would save the company and, hopefully, his job too. Mr. Cleaver had reminded him it was “an opportunity that they just couldn’t miss.”

He pulls into the parking lot at 7:45, he has fifteen minutes to get through the gate. Grabbing his briefcase from the back seat of the car, he runs for the door of the airport. Inside he quickly scans the information boards and finds his flight, United Airlines Flight 175. He dashes left to the terminal.

Five minutes, the big, plain-faced clock on the wall says.  He throws his briefcase on the counter and steps into the metal detector. It beeps. 

"Damn. Please, it’s just my watch. I’ll miss my flight,” he begs the officials. Just then the loud speaker announces the last call for Flight 175. Eddie turns to the officials in desperation.

A fat man who appears to be the boss smiles and says, “Okay, go through.”

He reaches the gate, his breathing heavy from the unaccustomed run. “Please, that’s my flight,” he shouts at the prim young man who has already closed the door and is packing up his papers to move to the next terminal.

Pointing out the big window, the man says, “They’re leaving. Just on time 7:59. I’m sorry but you’ve missed it. You can take the flight at noon.” He smiles at Eddie and turns and walks away.

Eddie walks to the window, pressing his face against the thick glass. He wonders if he  somehow managed to get out to the runway, would they open the doors for him? If they did, it was so high up, how would he get on? He decides he's thinking crazy. There's nothing he can do. He has missed the plane. He will not make the meeting. He will likely lose his job. He will not buy the violin bow for his son’s recital next week. His wife will be furious and his son, as usual, will be disappointed in him.

He knows full well that the responsible thing to do is to call Mr. Cleaver. Let  him know that he has missed his plane. Maybe the meeting could be postponed, maybe he could take the next flight, maybe he would still be able to buy a bow. But, instead, he heads for the airport bar.

Three people sit at the bar despite it being only a few minutes past eight in the morning.  Eddie sits down next to a man about his age and nods a hello. “Give me a scotch, a double, on ice,” he tells the bartender. “Waiting for a flight?” he asks the man next to him.

“Yeah, I’m leaving for Thailand. I got a job there taking tourists out on boats.” He smiles at Eddie.

“That sounds great. How long you staying ?”

“I don’t know. As long as I want. I don’t like keeping schedules. Just take life as it comes mostly,” he answers.

 Eddie looks at the man. He wears jeans and a T-shirt with a leather jacket hanging at the back of the bar stool.  Eddie wonders how a life like that would be, nobody expecting him to do anything. He picks up the glass the bartender sets in front of him and takes a long, burning drink. In moments, he feels better. What did it all matter anyway? So he’d lose his job? He’d find another one. So his wife would be angry? She always was anyway. And he’d long lost hope at being his son’s friend, they were too different to ever find a way to make that connection.

Time passes as Eddies finishes drink after drink idly talking to the man next to him, quietly envying the man's uncomplicated life.

They are interrupted by the television.

 “Breaking news. It appears that an airplane has crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. At this point details are sketchy about what could have caused such an accident.”

Eddie and the others in the bar become quiet listening to the newscaster.  In moments, the images appear on the screen. A tiny toy-like airplane flying directly into the massive building, black smoke billowing behind. 

Eddie’s new friend turns to him. “Jesus, what do you think could have happened?”

Eddie shakes his head. Just as he is trying to say something the newscaster breaks in again.

“Oh my god, I’m getting news.... news from New York that another plane, it appears to be a United Airlines flight, Flight 175 out of Boston, has been hijacked and is heading toward New York. This looks like a planned terrorist attack.”

Eddie suddenly goes blank as his eyes watch the plane he should have been on crash directly into the top floors of the south tower of the World Trade Center. He feels ill. In perplexing slow motion, the building collapses like so many houses of cards. He hears screams coming from inside the terminal. He turns to his friend. 

“That’s me, my plane.... the one I missed.....I’m supposed to be on that plane.”

His new friend pats him on the back. “Oh man, are you okay?” 

Eddie feels numb, he feels cold and hot, and, as the realisation sets in, he is surprised to find himself crying. His new friend pats his back again, repeating words that Eddie can’t quite hear.  Time stops as they watched over and over the image of how his life could have ended.

The rest of the day Eddie and his new friend sit together at the bar watching, wondering what to do. Evening arrives and, now both properly drunk, his new friend turns to him.

 "What you gonna do man? You need to call someone, let them know you’re okay. They’re gonna be thinking you’re dead.”

Eddie nods his head. He’s right. They’d likely be relieved to hear his voice, but still he stays sitting, unable to do anything, mesmerised by the unending news coverage, by his paralysed thoughts.

His friend gets up to leave. “Well Eddie, I gotta go. There are no flights taking off today. Listen, if you find yourself in Thailand look me up.”  He takes a slip of paper out of his pocket and writes his address and phone number on it then hands it to Eddie.

Eddie slips the paper into his pocket. He reaches out to give his new friend a hug. “Thanks for staying.”

Eddie sits alone at the bar watching people coming and going in different levels of shock and sadness. His mind slowly creeps through the events of his life up to this point. His happy childhood full of so many dreams, his typically problematic teenage years, his dismal performance at university that led to a series of dead end jobs he hated, and his marriage.  His wife, always critical; he would never be good enough, not for her. Eddie wondered what went wrong? Where did he stop being that happy, sandy haired boy who would one day grow up to be a cowboy, a police officer, Superman? What if he had died today, what would that boy have thought of the life Eddie had lived for him? Would he have been proud or disappointed? Eddie hardly needed to ask the question.

He sits drinking until the orange light of morning pokes through the big windows behind him. A new day. Eddie thought of going home to his wife and son, to his life, and he realises that he can’t. He’s made some wrong choices in life and fate has offered him a second chance. That thought alone gave him a surge of energy and hopefulness. For the first time in years, he looked forward to this new day and all of the excitement that it would hold for him. He pays off his tab and heads towards the exit.

At the airport door, Eddie spots his car in the parking lot. He takes his heavy key ring out of his pocket. For a moment he looks at the familiar keys: to his house, his office, his life,  then he drops them in the dust bin and heads for the train station.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Reading Fiction is Good for You- The Scientists Say So

Some people like saying that reading fiction is a waste of time- but science has now proved otherwise. There have been numerous studies showing that reading fiction makes you a better person, and it might even change the chemistry of your brain.

In 2013 researchers at Emory University wanted to find out if reading fiction had any effect on the brain and if that effect had any staying power. Study participants were given the thriller, Pompeii by Robert Harris and were told to read 30 pages each night. The book is a fast-paced story set during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius but with fictional characters. The participants read each night for nine days.

In the morning, after reading, they went to the lab and the researchers scanned their brains with a functional magnetic resonance machine. After the nine days of reading, they continued to come each morning for scanning for five additional days.

The participants showed a heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain for language. They also showed heightened activity in the central sulcus which is the primary sensory motor region. This part of the brain is able to allow us to think about an action, for example running, and we will be able to feel as if we are doing it. These biological changes in the brain were there in the morning after a night of reading fiction, but they also persisted for the five days after the reading ended.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” said Gregory Berns, the lead researcher on the project. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

In another scientific paper titled, “How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation of the role of emotional transportation” researchers P. Matthijs Bal and Martijin Veltkamp wanted to find out if reading fiction increases a person’s empathy for others, or makes it easier for a person to understand and feel what another person feels, an important part of having healthy relationships with others.

In the study, one group of participants were given a Sherlock Holmes novel to read while the other group was given newspaper articles.  To measure if the participants were emotionally transported by what they read, they were given a survey afterward asking if what they read affected them emotionally, they rated it on a scale for 1 to 5 with 1 being not at all. They were then given surveys to measure their empathy for others.

What was found was that in the fiction readers, if they were emotionally transported by what they read, their scores for empathy improved. But this was not the case for people reading nonfiction. In both fiction and nonfiction, if the reader was not emotionally transported (meaning they did not engage emotionally with the story) there was no improvement in their empathy for others. It was suspected that when readers are not emotionally engaged in the story, they become frustrated and they disengage, this caused them to be more self centred and selfish as a response to the frustration.

Another study published in The Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that reading Harry Potter books could help reduce prejudice and discrimination. The study done in Italy with primary students and high school students showed that groups that read the Harry Potter books showed more tolerance for immigrants and people from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT)  community.

Another study done at Washington and Lee University showed that participants who read excerpts of the book Saffron Dreams by Shaila Abdullah about an educated and strong-willed Muslim woman, Arissa, who is assaulted in a New York City subway station showed a lessened rigid racial bias against Arabs as opposed to people who only read a synopsis for the excerpt of that novel. This showed that the writing along with the images created in the reader’s mind and the internal conversation of the protagonist was important in the reader developing a change in attitude.

But it may also matter what type of fiction you read. In a study published in the 18 October, 2013 issue of Science, title “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind”, two groups were given stories to read.

One group was given popular fiction to read, while the other was given literary fiction. In tests given afterwards to measure each group’s ability to guess the emotions of a person by only looking at their eyes, the group reading literary fiction consistently scored 10% better than the group reading popular fiction. The researchers speculated that the complex characters in literary fiction assisted readers to understand better the complexity of real humans.

So read fiction! It’s good for you!

(This first appeared in my column, It's All Write in The Voice newspaper)

Friday, January 23, 2015

Birds of a Feather (a short story)

Birds of a Feather
Bontle hated everything about Gaborone Birding Club: the heavy shorts that created an embarrassing ‘shwish’ sound when walking, the wide expanse of khaki vest advertising she’d not earned a single birding badge, and, most of all, the pith helmet written- “I’m a Gaborone Birder!”.  

 The members lived in some La-La Land where bird lists and call recognition created an odd hierarchy they worshipped with voracity unseen outside of African Evangelical Churches. She knew on their ladder she was at the bottom rung, but she also knew she had only herself to blame. It all began because of lust and a lie.
 Bontle had lusted after the tall, heavy-brained Dr. Kavindama ever since she heard him give his speech- ‘Cloning- It’s Always Good to Have a Spare’. One day in the university cafeteria he said, “I love bird watching”, and without thinking Bontle responded, “Me, too.” Now, here she was.
 “Don’t forget your guide, Bontle, we don’t want another embarrassing incident,” Lillian Molemi shouted already pushing to the front of the queue. Lillian -the Birding Queen. Bontle wondered how she moved weighed down by all of her badges; ‘Best Birder’ 1989 through 2007, alone, took up the whole left side of her vest. Then she had ‘Warbler Call Recognition’, and ‘Complete List’ for ducks, birds of prey, and- the coveted- owls.
 The Bird Queen called and the group congregated like moths to a cherished lamp. “Turn Newman’s to page 471, Voila! Today’s bird- the Long-Legged Buzzard. Let’s be on our way Birders!”
 Professor Kavindama pushed to the front, his pith helmet slightly askew. “Lillian, let’s not forget, a sighting will earn the person a ‘Rare Vagrant’ badge.” He smiled up at his Queen.
 Bontle looked away. Professor Kavindama of the Gaborone Birding Club was not the Professor Kavindama with a passion for clones. He likely stole hair samples from Lillian with the hope of re-producing his own Birding Queen back in his lab. Bontle felt ill.
 Lillian kept a brisk pace when hunting a bird and Bontle quickly fell to the back. She’d never be the first to spot the Long-legged Buzzard anyway. The members were ruthless when a badge was at stake. On a trip in the Okavango Delta,  Gothata Modise, a slightly built accountant,  pushed two members into a hippo-infested channel just so he could see a copper sunbird and earn his ‘Complete List: Nectar Feeders’ badge.
 ‘Kraak!’  Bontle strained her ears.  ‘Kraak!’
 Wait-she knew that call! It was a White Back Night Heron, a very rare bird for this area.  If she found it, she’d get one of the most prestigious badges- ’Rare Night Water Bird’. She looked left then right- she was alone. Bontle set off towards the sound. 
 Suddenly she heard the group in the distance- they had heard the call too and were coming her way!  Bontle ran, ignoring the thorns tearing at her bare, chubby legs.  She pushed through some reeds and then- there it was; the white eye ring and yellow legs gave it away.  
 In seconds, Lillian’s annoyed face appeared through the reeds. “Imagine you stumbling upon that, Bontle.”
 “No stumbling involved. I heard the call, I followed it. I don’t believe you have this badge, Lillian, am I right?”
 Ignoring her, Lillian ordered a bit too harshly, “No time to waste ogling that, let’s find the buzzard!” She set off and the group trailed away after her.
 Bontle sat down on the mat of reeds, happy, and watched the heron hunt in the marshy water.
 “Quite a find.”
 Bontle jumped; she’d thought she was alone. It was Professor Kavindama. They both watched the bird for some silent moments. “I wonder…. would you’d like to accompany me to brunch later?” the Professor asked hesitantly.
 The heron pulled its beak out of the water holding a wriggling frog- finally -hunting success!
Sharing the imagined thoughts of the bird, Bontle looked back at Professor Kavindama and smiled. 
The End

This story was included in the anthology, 100 Stories for Haiti, which raised funds for the hurricane victims.