September 6, 2016: “The Tao of Humiliation” by Lee Upton

Hey there, Story366! Today is Tuesday and here’s a thing that happened to me: I was at a playground with my youngest, pushing him in a swing, and from the far end of the park, I saw a woman approaching the playground with her child, who was on a leash. It was one of the leashes that was plush like a stuffed animal, a monkey at the center, the points of the leash going over her shoulder, between her legs, and around her waste, meeting at the middle in a clasp, under said monkey. A human child, one and a half years old, on a leash.

You can tell from my tone that I’m not a fan of this practice, as I think it dehumanizes the kid, etc. If kids are sponges at that age, picking up everything, then they’re certainly going to pick up on the fact that they’re a human being on a leash and the only other things on leashes in the park (and there were a lot of them) are dogs. I reserve too much judgment, though, as you never know: The kid might have some kind of hyperactivity disorder, the mom might have a handicap that keeps her from being able to catch the kid, who knows. I’m not a fan and I’m sure I rolled my eyes a bit when I first saw this pair emerge from the corner of the park.

The kid made a beeline toward me and my son, dragging her mom behind her. She was clearly headed our way. She passed slides and other playground equipment, and as she got close, I thought the mom was going to, you know, yank the chain, pull her back, so my kid’s feet, you know, wouldn’t catch her in the face as he swung forward.

Instead, the mom released her from the leash.

So, with about five feet to close before foot-to-face collision, this kid—who had walked fifty yards across an open, green field on a leash—is free and runs directly at my kid, who is flying through the air with great force and speed. I had to grab my kid, jolting him still, the chains making those startling chain noises, right before my son’s new Spider-man shoes left imprints on this little girl’s forehead.

“Whoah!” I said to the kid, but friendly-like, as I’m a three-hundred-pound dude and she’s a baby. “Careful!”

“Oh, she’s fine,” the mom said, catching up, obviously annoyed I was implying that her daughter was in any danger. “She’s fine. I guarantee it.”

And yeah, she stressed “guarantee.” So the kid climbed onto the swing next to my kid, and it’s the big kid kind, just the rubber strip attached to the chains. My kid is three and a half and has just graduated to this swing (but still needs pushing), while this girl was clearly too small, even with Mom pushing. So the girl jumped off the swing and again, dove right in front of my swinging kid again, forcing me to grab him again to keep her from getting T-boned.

The stuffed monkey leash? Folded over Mom’s arm.

So I’m not sure if I’m anti-child leash or if I’m anti-misuse of child leash. I mean, you walk your kid down Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras or take that kid to Lollapalooza or Burning Man or a Trump rally, hey, maybe a leash isn’t a bad idea. The park? Of course fucking not, as that’s where kids run free. But if the kid doesn’t know the ground rules of the playground, how when you walk in front of other kids on the swings, you’re gonna get smacked. What do you think, Story366?

While I was there, not saving other people’s kids from themselves, I read a few stories from Lee Upton’s collection The Tao of Humiliation, out from BOA as a winner of their BOA Short Fiction Prize. I’d read some of Upton’s poetry before, publishing some pieces in Mid-American Review some years back. Like Joshua Harmon yesterday, I’m always glad to read poets writing fiction, which means they’re fiction writers and poets, and had I thought about it at the e start of the year, I could probably have put together a whole week of such writers (Jim Daniels, for example, coming to Story366 soon). I read the title story, about some guys at a confidence-building retreat, then moved to a piece called “Beyond The Yellow Wallpaper,” which is kind of like fan fiction for the Charlotte Perkins Gillman story (not unlike “The Lottery Redux,” from Megan Mayhew Bergman’s book, which I covered the other day … hmm, another theme forms). Then I read another story, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes Me Stronger,” which is about a different group of guys at a different (or maybe the same?) confidence-building retreat. I think I’ll stick with the title story, which I think is pretty hysterical.

“The Tao of Humiliation” is about Everett, who is at a weekend strength-building seminar with a bunch of other guys he doesn’t know. Everett is there, we later find out, more or less because he left a woman he’d been dating whom he found naked on a friend’s couch, when she knew he was going to that friend’s house. Everett is more of a background guy during the circle chat that opens the story, several guys who are just airing their laundry, getting to know each other. There’s a guy named Lucas who had cancer. Another guy named Dwayne who was a dentist. Most prominently, there’s Barry, who says every single thing that pops into his head, many of his claims lies that he immediately admits are lies; he also wears a kilt, which Everett takes special notice of. It’s unclear what exactly anyone wants out of the seminar, but they go through the typical retreat shit, including motivational speakers and team-building exercises in the woods. It’s a fun trip, meeting these guys, seeing how broken they are, watching them interact.

Everett, through a really close third-person narration, watches all of this happen and it’s easy to see the skeptical, satirical bent Upton’s putting on it. The author is subtle, but she’s definitely having a laugh at the expense of these men and their “problems,” how they think a weekend with strangers—which they’re paying handsomely for—is somehow going to improve their lives. Really, a bunch of fragile, self-conscious white dudes is an easy target, a really great set-up for a story (which is maybe why Upton uses it more than once).

Everett eventually gets lost in the woods on the aforementioned team-building exercise, standing out in the middle of nowhere, knowing that being humiliated at a place where he’s gone to fix his humiliation is pretty humiliating (the story’s title comes from Dwayne, who has developed his own credo in reference to humiliation, his three-step Tao of humiliation). It’s when Everett is out in the woods that we really get to know him, get to know about Lisa King (the naked couch woman), why he’s at this getaway. Upton ends the story on a humorous note, using her fantastic supporting character, Barry, complete with kilt and penchant for saying anything.

I really like the stories in Lee Upton’s The Tao of Humiliation, witty, solidly constructed pieces that are really unlike anything I’ve read before. I’m curious, of course, as to whether there’s more stories that feature a bunch of fragile males trying to sort out their feelings in hotel conference rooms, or if it’s just coincidence that two of the three I read feature this set-up. Either way, I’m going to read more of this book, as it’s a good one.