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standards

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What Are the Best Things Ever Grackled?

10yearsTen years ago, a recent college graduate with trailing clouds of liberal arts glory still fading behind him decided to make and sell a print literary magazine. Who knows what was going through his mind or why he ignored everyone who told him this was a bad, impractical way to spend his time. But now Grub Street Grackle has produced seventeen issues and is ready to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in a big way.

Over the past few months, we’ve been posting some of our favorites from the first ten years, many of which have never appeared online. (Many more never will, as we often publish work whose meaning depends on its appearing in print.)

You know what to do: like and share, fave and retweet, reblog, whatever buttons you customarily press when the internet gods chatter fervidly in your ears, do it for these stories, please!

Mouse over the images below for quotes, and click to read the full piece.

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Featured image: “Making His Point…” by Pat Gaines, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 // caption added

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An Aristophanic Impossibility

This story first ran in the Late Winter 2009 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story ran in the Late Winter 2009 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

(In Which Rainscape Becomes a Crossing Guard and Other Diverting Incidents)

This is a work of fiction: names of persons and places, products and divinities bear no relation to real life persons and places, products and divinities with the same, similar, or in some cases quite different names.

I am insane. I no longer doubt it. Allow me to convince you. This morning I found myself desperately trying to put milk in cereal instead of cereal in milk. Always with the same result: the cereal in the milk, and not the other way round. I’d gone through three boxes of Grandy O’s and two gallons of milk before I gave up on breakfast. Last evening I read twenty pages of a novel… backwards. I only realized something was off when at the end of ten minutes I got to the beginning of a chapter. When I confide these things to my friends, they try to soothe me: “look, Rainscape, you’re just a little distracted… Get some rest… Try and exercise a little more… Go out and talk to people… You’ll get over it.”

Yes, I am distracted, I tell them.

I have tried resting, but my dreams are of wayward sentences that either run on in different directions past the point where any period will contain them, or are matter-of-factly stated ambiguities following one upon another until the words, continually so self-assured, become to me so frightfully senseless that I wake up between panting and laughing, not knowing whether I should be terrified or amused, and walk to the sink to throw cold water on my forehead and stare at the frightened and confused expression reflected there in the electric light from just outside my window.

Exercise, yes. There’s nothing like physical activity and fresh air to restore the daylight sanity to a maniac, I agree. I go on walks: sun, rain, moon, or windy skies. Sometimes, when I feel myself becoming happy, I skip. Sometimes, when I feel drab and gray, I hum, and try to shake it. One day, not too long ago (I think), I stopped at a busy intersection and watched the streams of traffic each stopping and starting, diverging and converging each in their turns For so long. . . and at last I grasped their dynamics so completely that to my bewildered mind I could only be the traffic director himself—myself… . So I took charge of the intersection and managed it, for a while quite as well as any stop lights in the world. But then I got a little too cocky. It started out pretty innocuously. I was having a splendid time sneaking left-turners into the occasional gaps in the two-way oncoming traffic so that when their turn came the opposite stacks of left turners would be equal, and the flow of traffic perfectly balanced and expeditious. Never have I been such a satisfied servant to society. And never have I managed any situation with such grace, such finesse. For now I began to innovate, to discover the momentary path for every passing car that barely had to slow its pace, much less stop. More and more, the streams of humming automobiles ran without resistance like soft sand through the fingers of my mind. I wove the strands of traffic in a mighty pattern like a Celtic knot, but woven into it the mass and power, the steady thunder of the big Mack truck, and the maneuverable speed of buzzing Fiats and Festivas! The ecstasy! I was a four-headed Janus! I was a Herm! I was the intersection, the exchange of roads, the origin of new directions, the still point of the turning world.

But every Hubris has its Nemesis. Mine came in the form of a Peugeot; yes, a mere cyclist interrupted my apotheosis. You see, traffic direction as a fine art is entirely dependent on the accommodation of contingencies; the medium in which you work is whatever objects are coming down the road toward you at whatever speeds and from four different directions at once. The first principle of the art is this; no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. In other words, you have got to find a window in the space-time continuum For each one, and that window is going to be limited by all the other objects for which you have to do the same. So, as you’ve got to be continually estimating speeds, sizes, momentums, accelerations, yadda-yadda-yadda, all the time intuiting a pattern in what is potentially chaos, you’d do well to simplify it as best you can. There are some general rules of thumb: like, make sure you’ve provided for the biggest and most unwieldy objects first; if you save them for last you won’t be able to squeeze them in at all. In the hands of the expert the smaller ones start to take care of themselves, almost… and you can work them in with dazzling intricacy once you’ve more or less got the bigger pieces in place; that‘s the really fun part. However you must not let even the smallest tile in your four-dimensional mosaic give you the slip.

Now I’m gettin’ it, that’s what you’re thinking, he forgot to leave room for the bicycle. No, ladies and gentlemen, I provided a needle’s eye for the cyclist to thread. It was a far more ludicrous error that spelled my fate. It was myself that I forgot. As Archimedes boasted to the Syracusans, “Give me but a fixed point on which to stand and I will move the world!” Silly, if you think about it. But Archimedes’ riddle was a joke on me. For in a kind of other-worldly trance, alive no longer to the growl and screech of rushing steel and rubber, but only to the ever-flowering pattern through which they rushed, I found myself within that needle’s eye. The blazing sun off the front reflector of the elegant French racer all but obliterated my vision, as with beatific satisfaction I watched the slanting cycle, a faint shadow following that brilliance, as it swerved into its appointed path. Then suddenly my legs were clipped; my head came back to the concrete with a kaleidoscopic explosion of pain. And the cyclist, her flight as perfectly projected as an Archimedes’ catapult upon its target, caught up with me and brought our spheres into shell-shocked collision.

Fate is always contact before sight. If you can gauge its approach, and see it coming at you, you retain some control over the situation. But fate is out of your hands, it annihilates, empties, slices you in half, re-does, fulfills, and empties you again, and all before you have a chance put a word in edgewise. Looking back it is as if that one event had so much sheer velocity collapsed into it that it has never yet stopped happening. So somehow there I am still, stunned, bleeding at the head, in midst of the now and forevermore hopeless confusion of those crossroads, that beautiful girl on every side of me, stunned: the two of us thrust into hopeless proximity by the miraculous impossibility of my happening to be standing right in the needle’s eye of the kosmos, and just then and there forgetting my existence.

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On Ignoring Your Standards Sometimes

When I was seventeen years old, I thought American Beauty and Fight Club were the best movies ever made, and I said so at every opportunity. After much pestering, Mom and Dad sacrificed two evenings to watch them with me, even though they hated both movies almost from the first minute. They even sat through the credits with me, because I insisted they were part of the film.

Afterwards, Dad blew my mind by finding things to admire in my favorite movies. He let them become touchstones in a series of conversations that guided me out of adolescence. He would rather have talked Chesterton and Narnia, but for my sake he talked Tyler Durden. He was critical, as always, calling out the odd mixture of preachiness and moral emptiness in American Beauty, the narrowness and sensationalism of Fight Club. But he saw and paid respect to what he knew I had seen in the films: the power of a truthful action; and more than that, the valor of relinquishment. He helped me identify these principles and pry them away from the brittle narratives in which they were embedded.

If something has moved someone you love, you sacrifice your time and attention, and sometimes even your standards, to find out why. This was why I first read Pride and Prejudice. At the time, all I knew about the book was that many readers reacted to it with sentimental effusions, and it cut very much against the grain of my personality to expose myself to anything sentimental. But I had learned to be true, not first to myself, but to the bonds of love, and someone I loved told me that it was her favorite book. So I discovered a subtle, ethically sophisticated, and magnificently entertaining masterpiece that otherwise I would have missed. Wisdom bubbled naturally out of it, and the only thing I had to pry away was my preconceptions.

If you always refuse to read, watch, or listen to things you feel are beneath you or just “not for you,” you’re sealing yourself into a dark, dusty cell of your own preferences, and you can neither teach nor learn from others. Of course, you have to have standards. But you can’t hold them as if they only belong to you.

Featured Image: “Box Turtle Closeup” by flickr user audreyjm529, used under CC-BY 2.0

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.