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The International Writers Magazine
: FIRST CHAPTERS - work in progress

Between A Rock and Randomness
Dan Schneider

Chapter One: Chance, Reason and Timing

'Life is not fair. Most would settle for it not being outright malicious'.

The other day I was in a bookstore, thumbing through another book on how to get rich quickly and was struck by the notion the real impetus to foist these scams upon people was not only ripping people off, but to assuage people ‘luck’ or ‘randomness’ isn’t as pervasive as we all know it in our lives. This is one of the pillars of religious nonsense, but the urge to deny or diminish randomness cuts across modern life.

Think of the myriad things that occur in a single day - how many could be different if one small aspect were changed? Were I feeling under the weather the day I write this I may not have written this tale at all. Even if the impetus carried over into my tomorrow, by the time you read these words my argument may not have opened with my trip to a bookstore. It may have been to condemn the horrible memoirs I perused through at the bookstore. This get-rich book had the typical advice to eschew hard work, indulge in hedonism - do not get out of debt, but in debt. Any financially intelligent person knows this is bullshit. Most rich people are rich by happenstance, not any ‘accomplishment’ of their own. Every computer programmer I’ve met tells the tale of Microsoft’s Bill Gates allegedly ‘borrowing’ computer codes from rivals, outflanking them in the market, then crushing competition via bribes, threats, hostile takeovers and other unethical, if not illegal, methods. While the world is now a cyber-village the question of 'has he contributed anything to the world to outlast his lifetime'? has to be answered. Not because any of his competitors would have stepped right in to fill his niche - perhaps bettered his notoriously mediocre products.

Oprah Winfrey cored into a TV niche and this is evidence she’s an insightful interviewer? No. She has a gift for sensing the lowest common denominator weaknesses of her audience and preys upon them to empower herself. Think Michael Jordan was the best basketball player on the planet? No. He was a great athlete who had luck- no major injuries, in the right spot when scouts came calling, drafted by a team in a major market - Chicago, when the NBA expanded and watered down its talent pool. Teamed with a great complementary player in Scottie Pippen to win championships and received favoritism from league officials. Change any of these things and his net worth would be closer to $200, not $200 million. Think Julia Roberts, the best or prettiest actress on the planet? No. She hit right when America needed another movie goddess. Although she showed acting talent in Erin Brockovich her name brand owes nothing to that talent. Are there actresses better than her both categories? Sure. Circumstances got in the way - they perhaps refused to sleep their way to the top (not to imply Julia did), didn’t get the part they were born to play, or something simply got in the way.

We all know people for whom little goes wrong, and when bad stuff hits they easily turn it into something good. My best friend, Joe Homrich, is one of those damnable people, even though he (and I love him) has the motivation of a ground sloth. A few years back - before getting married - he was laid off, felt the sting of professional rejection for the first time. Yet, within two months he had a better job, made more, and still works there. I, on the contrary, am full of drive, and need it merely to tread water. When I lost my job last year there was no better job waiting for me - I had to change my life and have yet to be rewarded. This fate has been true in the rest of my life, as well. Despite manifest excellence I barely skim above life’s hardships, while poetasters like James Tate, Adrienne Rich, & Maya Angelou make 6 figure incomes from teaching sinecures earned not by excellence but cronyism, granting by friends, and paid lecturing. Is this envy? No. Just recognition of truth- something few artists do, kowed into silence by dreams of making it in the corrupt system.

Life is not fair. Most would settle for it not being outright malicious. Most are not in either boat occupied by me or Joe. The ratio of failure/success to your own personal habits and efforts is fairly consistent. Where it frustrates is when you deal with people who ‘influence’ your life. For most homo sapiens this is accomplished by breeding. We hope our kids or grandkids do something noteworthy. But political leaders, scientists, thinkers, and artists, are that breed for which (amongst the best) there awaits a posthumous fate and judgment. The innovations made, barriers forced outward, become examples inspiring future generations of innovators and rebels who slowly lug the rest of society along with them. Randomness affects the arts. I beleive I'm a great poet and writer. I’ve displayed such in my memoirs, essays, and poems. Greats often eschew praise by modestly stating hard work, or faith in some deity, achieved those things. This is not entirely true. As of this writing I’ve been to over 1500 poetry events, encountered 5-6000 poets, heard 3-4 times as many poems, read over 100,000 poems, & state only 3 or 4 dozen people had as much or more raw talent than I did as a poet. None has come remotely close to my poetic output in quality, quantity, nor diversity- the hallmarks of greatness in a field, and only a few have ever maximized their own potential to produce some excellence. I’d like to think their failures solely based upon lack of will and/or initiative, for it would portray me not only superior in making, but in intangibles. Yet, I know while true in the main it is not true on the whole. The very reason I’m a great poet rests on many factors- trying poetry to woo my high school heartthrob- Brenda Hiram, discovering Walt Whitman’s poetry, knowing I could do better, a long series of other chance events. Had I married young (Brenda Hiram, Irene Bruno, Margit Blum) and reproduced I wouldn’t have had time to practice art. Had I been better off, financially, I may have gone to college, found another outlet for creativity. Myriad things having nothing to do with skill nor will had to happen for me to achieve my current status. Without will I wouldn’t have gotten great at poetry either, but will is merely another contingent part of life- it doesn’t guarantee success.

How is it heiress/vapid blond/tramp Paris Hilton has such an easy life while millions of more worthy human beings duke it out every day in the real world? Luck - pure and simple. There is no ‘deep reason’ to things. Life just is - the key is to keep moving. If you only have a 1% chance of success, better to do the shark thing, keep moving, and increase the odds of getting there. That increase is only a chance, as raw talent only increases your odds in life’s crapshoot; like being born with physical beauty or wealth increases the odds on eventual happiness- but it’s no guarantee.
Let me return to ‘influence’. Most desire this in their life- a legacy to say ‘I was here. I mattered.’ This primal scream tremors its way forward until twilight. Look at nubile Miss Hilton- worth in excess of $350 million dollars. She has little real world experience. The chances of her money doing any good is negligible. Is this fair? No. Hers is the ultimately historically silent existence of the gaudy and superfluous. Is this fair to her?

If you read biographies of financial titans you see they had some once-in-a-lifetime circumstance that changed their life, some secret benefactor or unknown ace-in-the-hole that virtually assured their success- a friend, connection, inside tip that removed randomness from the equation. This is true of Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, Howard Hughes, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, and many more. The common thread is not perseverance, nor talent - but luck. The average person has little better shot at getting rich via industriousness than playing the state lottery. ‘Winners’ are freaks. In poetry I am a freak- by virtue of my talent, industry, and artistic success. Yet I’ve neither the acclaim nor financial comfort that should be due upon success. Success is a freakishness all its own. The human heart cares less for the envies of ‘betterness’ than for the outrage of ‘difference’- even if the same in a given circumstance. It will always be difference that dominates and motivates the pre-molded cookie cutter soul.

A few years after moving into the neighborhood of Glendale, on 79th Place, there moved into a home midway down the block a thirty- something couple. The man was average looking, 6’, thinning sandy hair, average build, with eyeglasses. His wife was a supertall, 6’4", superthin gangly brunet with large, sharp, ugly facial features and Coke bottle eyeglasses. She soon became the victim of taunting by a girl in the neighborhood, Laney Morgan, a good friend of Stacy Steiner’s - a short, pretty, olive-skinned tomboy with a vicious streak. When she hated she hated with passion and for some reason she hated the tall, thin woman she dubbed ‘Big Bird’. Other kids had seen her cruelty directed at children - obese, and gifted, Laura Stuckner would visibly quiver with fear whenever Laney bellowed: ‘STUCKNER!’ Laura was a pretty brunet who, by her preteen years, fattened up. Laney subjected her to endless cruelty - psychic and physical - to the point Laura actively avoided Laney.

A pair of blond girls who were the sisters of Donald the newsboy also felt Laney’s ire. They were mercilessly flayed for their looks, lack of intelligence, and general inhuman unworthiness. They became virtual shut-ins. Even local retards- the Osterbeck’s foster child Jarvis and the weird girls’ older brother Grape Ape- suffered under Laney’s need to put someone down. No one inspired more venom than Big Bird. Whenever Big Bird walked by, or parked her car, if Laney was around, she would hear taunts of Big Bird, freak, ugly cunt..., but she could do nothing since Laney was a child. Occasionally, other kids might echo her taunts, but Laney was especially loud, mean, ruthless, and relentless. Big Bird’s immasculate husband shrugged it off. They were just kids- besides, he and his wife dealt with mockery since childhood.

Laney was bold and fearless in her hatred. This inspired a weird admiration for her, as well - on my part - a desire, not just based in lust. I never acted upon those feelings, for she never liked me in that way, but I’ve wondered if my affections could have quelled what poisons churned within he? I asked Laney out on a date for shy Vinny Slater. I was Cyranno for him. Laney may have thought, or hoped, I was asking her out for myself, which I thought about, but then male bonding took over - Vinny would never forgive me had I won Laney’s affections away from him. Not that I would not have liked to have gotten in Laney’s pants, but I’d given my word to help Vinny. He and Laney soon broke up, but by that time my lusts drifted elsewhere. Laney’s hatred for Big Bird increased exponentially. It was humous - after all, Laney was just a kid and her target a grownup.

We could see the absolute dread this adult woman had whenever she stepped outside her house- even when Laney was not around. Laney had beaten her down, just as she had Laura and the weird blond girls. We saw her body’s readiness to block out the abuse she knew was coming. I felt for her - not only because I’d been victimized by taunts and other violations, and the pain Big Bird felt now, but for the manifest pains compounded with high vigorish through the years of taunts she had endured. Little Laney Morgan was merely the last link in a great chain of abusers hounding Big Bird. Then, it all came to a head. No one was the same again.

Big Bird gave birth to a baby. After parking her car, she crossed the street, headed quickly toward her front stoop. Laney was lurking behind bushes in a neighbor’s yard and hurled a stone at Big Bird. It plunked her straight in the right temple. The woman fell. Her body totally gave way. There was no slow motion, no detailed replay in my mind as I watched this. Big Bird just dropped. The baby lay on the ground, next to its mother as Laney looked on, stunned, and could do nothing. Big Bird’s husband rushed out and Laney reacted instinctively- hopping behind the bushes. The husband picked up the baby, rushed inside,and called 911. When he came out he spied me, Vinny Zarelli, & Stan O’Dougal across the street on the Zarelli’s stoop. He asked if we saw what happened? The rock bounced off Big Bird’s head and rolled under a car. We saw Laney hurl the rock, and still cower out of sight. But, who were we to give up a friend? Big Bird must have had a ‘stroke’ or ‘heart attack’. We said, no, we just came outside - what happened? After an ambulance came and the husband rode off with Big Bird (a neighbor lady went in to look after the child), Laney finally emerged from behind the bush. She was shaken, teary-eyed. She protested she never meant to really hurt Big Bird- she didn’t hate her, REALLY! It was just a joke because the woman was so goddamned freaky looking.

A part of me wanted to hug Laney, tell her it would all be alright. Big Bird would be ok. I could have, perhaps, weaseled my way into her life, and between her legs. I thought of using Big Bird’s hurt, and Laney’s shock to my advantage - but didn’t. Whether that refrain was out of conscience or reckoning of the odds against my success I do not know- and it’s not the point. Like Vinny & Stan, I walked away in silence and left Laney to her silent toxicity.

In the long run, Laney was the person most hurt by the incident. Big Bird was back in a day or two and never knew what literally had hit her. She had merely been KO’d, had her wind knocked out. She had no long-lasting ill effects. The baby was fine, just a few bruises from the fall, and they went about their business until they left Glendale a year or two before I did. For reasons she could not discern the life Big Bird led was not what it was before her beaning. Her little tormentor had either gone away or grown up. She was barely recalled. Big Bird gained confidence. She was no longer a scared, little girl inside a tall woman’s frame. Laney Morgan was never the same - once an outgoing, pretty tomboy who inspired desire in more boy’s libidos than mine, she withdrew from the kids she used to hang with. A few years went by without my seeing her. Then I saw her with Stacy Steiner. Although we lived on the same block the kids from the neighborhood found their ways to separate lives and rarely spoke anymore. Laney was thin, ashen, her pretty features a thing I could barely reframe upon the face I knew, but did not recognize. She’d been released from a hospital, suffering from bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Although shorter, she looked eerily like Big Bird. I said hi. She barely noticed me from her glaze as she walked down the block with Stacy to her house.

One rock thrown changed everything. Laney’s personality switched off because of her guilt. The kids of Glendale were always different from those of Ridgewood. Ridgewood’s violence was massive, gaudy, and large while Glendale’s was rapier, swift, and clean. Had the rock not hit Big Bird’s temple and she merely screamed in pain, perhaps Laney’s sadism would have continued, the anger and violence she directed outward would have stayed in that direction, and not turned inward, causing who knows what greater damage to some future victim? Where it sprung from is an open query. Had Big Bird’s genes provided her with more appealing looks Laney’s insecurities and need to belittle might have lain dormant, in regards to her. Maybe I should have played on Laney’s pain? I could have gotten my rocks off, lhonestly claimed it all for Laney’s good? I understood Laney’s anger and will to violence. I possessed my own versions. Had we become lovers we may have canceled such passions out or synergistically erupted them upon the world. More chance. Some amoeba moved left instead of right a billion years earlier, Big Bird laid out prone on the concrete, and Laney Morgan was not what she was seconds earlier. I never knew if her health recovered- inside or out.

A couple years ago a great little film came out dealing with the randomness better than any film since Woody Allen’s Crimes And Misdemeanors- Jill Sprecher’s 13 Conversations About One Thing. The title refers to characters coming to grip with that one thing- randomness. Most critics mistakenly took the one thing to be happiness- but it’s not. Few of the characters actually seek happiness, all are struck by randomness, and deal with the fallout of that imp.

A college physics professor named Walker (John Turturro) is a life study in opposition to randomness. He constantly strives for order. But, chaos theory is not his pet. He is mugged, and embraces randomness as a lover (along with a colleague he begins an adulterous affair with). In a hilarious scene he thanks his lover for helping him embrace randomness and destroy order, then schedules their next tryst for the following Thursday, same time.
His midlife crisis has him move out on his wife and buy a sports car. The fellow he buys it from is a guilt-stricken rising star in the Manhattan DA’s office. Troy (Matthew McConaughey) sells the car as penance for hit and running a woman he left for dead, despite prior bravado over a need for law and order. He begins a masochistic assault on his body and mind to punish himself. In a world where the rich and powerful can get away with a crime (like he does) there needs to be punishment. If the cosmos lacks a punitive agent, he might as well assume that role, to stem chaos and ensure randomness is not free to infect all. Yet, randomness works positively, too. Troy finds out his victim survived- the desire to make amends forestalls his soon-to-be-suicide.
The woman he hit, Beatrice (Clea Duvall), likewise deals with the random nature of things. Why was she hit? Why did a shirt blow out of her hand, precipitate her running into the street? Before the accident she was upbeat, always looking ahead, for things change. She survived a near-drowning as a child and saw it a ‘sign’ of her special nature. But, no good can be seen from this accident: her body is broken, she is reduced to moving back in with her mother, her job is gone, she’s wrongfully accused of theft, her coworker and best friend have drifted apart. Like Troy, she’s near suicide, wanting to end it all, until ready to cross a street, at a traffic light, planning to jump in front of a car, she sees a happy man across the way, whose smile buoys her into believing not all is forlorn.

The happy man is also is the victim of randomness, whose boundless Pollyanna obviates any talk of such a topic. He’s the Joe Homrich of this world, with a great job as an office supply salesman, gotten by the guilt of the ex-boss who fired him - jealous over his happy nature. Wade (William Wise), was fired by Gene (Alan Arkin) from his job as insurance claims adjustor. Even fired, Wade sees the best in things and people- never realizing the disgust and loathing Gene feels toward him. Nor does he reason a guilt-ridden Gene got him his new job with his ex-wife’s husband’s office supply company. Randomness is not recognized in Wade’s world - his new job providence he’s not sure he deserved. Gene is not alone in his misery - another adjustor, after years of abuse from Gene, quits when he hits the lottery (the defining metaphor of the film), only to come back, groveling after family, friends,and moochers leach him of every penny. Gene is eventually downsized after hopes of promotion to vice-presidency vanish. At a bar, with his buddy, he runs into Troy, whose sense of purposiveness has yet to be diminished by the hit and run. He regales Troy with tales of the chance nature of life, but realizes it is only those at the other end of the tunnel who will listen, and by then it’s too late.

As he leaves the bar, Gene ponders what might have been in his failed marriage, and his drug addicted son who’s squandered the material advantages Gene slaved years for, and who rejects him. As he sits lonely on a subway he sees a despairing woman. The audience knows she is Patricia (Amy Irving), the cuckolded wife of Walker, despairing over her marriage - ended because her husband’s mugging led him to damn randomness, be unfaithful, and leave a clue to this in his belongings that she finds. As he leaves the train all Gene can do is weakly grimace and pitifully wave to a woman he does not know, and will probably never see again. Her husband ended the affair because his lover realized he did not love her- she was just an instrument in his newfound war on order. Meanwhile, a student of his seeks order, is rebuked by Walker- then commits suicide.
The stories intertwine in a non-chronological fashion, but makes sense- as much sense as Laney Morgan’s stay in a hospital for her body could not sustain itself, weakened by her desire to punish herself for the pain she caused Big Bird. What Beatrice says to a child who asks her why she was hit by the car serves as de facto epigraph to those accustomed to the prow of fate, ‘I was in the way.’

Been there. Done that.

Things happen with no rime nor reason- only the human ability to go on retroactively allows anyone to tentatively ascribe meaning to the innate randomness shimmering through the cosmos. Why did I lose a job? Because some boss had a bad day, or did not like me? Or I actually followed instructions not meant to be followed ‘in the real world’? No matter how good, nor hardworking a person is almost all the things in a life come down to chance, luck, randomness. We have little control over the grand, and worse - the minor, forces shaping our beings - the insertion or deletion of a piece of DNA before our birth, the trajectory of a rock flung from a little tomboy’s arm. This is where true human fear comes in. Not of death, not of the unknown- but the lack of control over the most banal of circumstances, and fundamentally knowing this. We deny it, constructing religions and philosophies, but their existence is the proof. Making a film like 13 Conversations About One Thing is a hell-mell process. Its greatness could have been aborted before conception- a shortsighted studio ‘suit’, a poor performance on oneday by a cast member, a mediocre script, poor distribution, some national emergency that kills an opening week’s box office, the pullout of a backer. That I can reference the film in this way is, itself, a manifestation of chance.

Rewind the 4.5 billion year history of earth and if any nanosecond was just slightly off I might not exist, the human race might not, I might be a famous film star, or an aardvark! Director Jill Sprecher perfectly encapsulates that greatest of human fears - not death, but CHANCE- into an incredibly poignant, cogent, and literate film showing all the algorithms in the world cannot guarantee a butterfly fluttering in Brazil 60 years ago was not the cause of the most recent disaster in your life, community, or world.

Only by accepting we have so little control over things can real happiness come. The cosmos is indifferent and purposeless. Human beings are not. I will write as many great poems as I can until death seizes me, not because it guarantees influence, because I am a better person for the effort. I will better myself in all respects, not out of vanity nor a Sisyphan urge, because it increases the odds for all who might stumble across my existence to know they are not the only ones, nor first, to soldier on. Randomness may be the rule, but nothing guarantees conformity leads to success, either.

I think of Laney Morgan now and again. It is a decade since I last laid eyes on her wasted form. I remember her jumping out from behind the bush and hurling the rock at Big Bird. An act of hate changed the hater forever. She releases the rock from her grip. The rock hangs forever in my memory. I think of other thrown things in my life: dead rats, jellyfish, a coffee can, a Chinese star. They are all there, hanging in the same moment, even as they are different moments. I walk by and pluck the objects back from the ether. Then, I put some back within. Things go on despite, and in spite of, my ways.

Years earlier, I’m in the basement apartment of the house I lived in, in Ridgewood. The landlords’ niece, Bessy, had been raped last night and is near catatonic. She always liked me. I like her. She is hurting. I sneak past the Kelnhoffers and my parents, rush up to where she lies. I stroke her shoulder, tell her it’s a sunny day, and she explodes, screaming and running toward the door, up and out in to the street in her night frock. Dad and Mr. Kelnhoffer catch her, bring her inside, & restrain her. Later, men in an ambulance take Bessy to a sanatorium. I never see her again. I wonder if the rape or my touch was the final straw?

Here is Laney Morgan’s rock - or one not unlike it, hurtling through the years. I have not returned it. Instead, I toss it to you:
I remember some wails- but that’s about all-
from Bessy’s basement apartment. Below us,
the Kelnhoffers went down. Dad stood in the hall
as mom kissed me goodnight. I got a good sleep.
The next morning I held all the sounds of spring
like a child should. The grownups said nothing
of the night, the strobe lights. I heard the word rape
for the first time. It nearly happened to her,
they said. I did not see her for days because
of it. And when I did it did not occur
for me to act any different. I didn’t.
I touched her. And her eyes turned around screaming
through me. I jumped back, as she started walking,
out the door, as if a love which once was felt.

© Dan Schneider October 2004

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