Adventures in Customer Satisfaction: Two Dispatches

i.

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Dear Valued Customer,
Thank you for flying with us! 
We would like to get your input on your recent experience with this flight by completing this quick survey.  We recognize that listening to our customers is one of the most important things we can do, and your response will help us ensure that your next experience exceeds your expectations.

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Well, that’s a tough one, frankly. My overall experience on December 04, 2016 from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Baltimore, MD (BWI) was really not at all about Spirit Airlines, until, abruptly, it was. My overall experience was about my father in the hospital, dying, in Baltimore, and me, in Chicago, trying to get out to see him for the last time. So as you can imagine, Spirit Airlines, my overall experience that evening was both all I could think about, and all I could not think about.  Instead, I focused on details: the email you considerately sent informing me that the flight had been delayed by 45 minutes; the amount of shit I could cram into a carry-on that would be light enough not to be confiscated at the gate, at which point I would be charged $100 to check it; rushing to the airport. I was not overly concerned with missing the flight (I had some other things on my plate, like getting someone in to feed the cats, finding a place to park the car that wouldn’t overdraw my checking account, merging onto the rush-hour Kennedy Expressway, speaking to the nurse who stood at my father’s  bedside, her voice timid and southern-inflected in the Bluetooth-configured cabin of my car, assuring me that while he could not speak, he smiled as he heard my voice: ‘I’m on my way, Dad. Hang in there. I’m on my way.’

You had assured me there was a delay, Spirit Airlines, and I had left enough time that I was certain to be at the gate before even the flight’s originally scheduled departure.

There was plenty of time.

I was reassured, upon arriving at the airport, that the delay was still in place: all six monitors I obsessively checked assured me of this.  So imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the gate, 15 minutes prior to the *original* departure time, I was informed that the plane had already left and was taxiing down the runway.

If you actually gave a shit, Spirit Airlines, about your employees, those beleaguered and expressionless gate agents who have to break this kind of news and then endure the blowtorch of wrath from your paying customers, you would ask these particular two what they had to hear from me, maybe have given them a little bonus, or at the very least a day off.  There was a lot of obscenity, some flying spit (I’m a theater major; my professor tells me if you aren’t drenching the people in the first row you’re not enunciating sufficiently), some tears, some flung baggage.  What could they do? The plane was on the runway. My father was, as the doctors called it, ‘actively’ dying. I was, I’m embarrassed to confess, on my knees, clutching my head, wailing.

Oh well!

I’m going to assume that ‘overall experience’ includes my attempt to reach your customer service line, a succession of cheery bots who led me in a mechanical circle right back to where I’d begun, so I’ll toss that into the mix too.

My overall experience? Are you sure you really want to ask me that?

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Hmm. The primary reason.  How about ‘you fucking suck’?  I think that about covers it.  I have not filled in any of the holes above because there is not a number low enough. How likely? How likely?

departureWell, now, see, this is easy, because none of this part ever actually happened. It’s hard to assess a boarding process when you didn’t get to even fucking board.  I mean, I suppose I could apply this to the flight the following morning, but I was a little distracted by the fact that by the time we landed in Baltimore my father was dead, and I had an email from you, time-stamped two hours earlier, assuring me that the delay on the flight that had departed before its scheduled departure time the previous evening was still in place, so hey! No rush!

Now, this afternoon, in the Uber on the way to the funeral home, I have occasion to ponder your choice of name. Spirit. I assume it’s meant to evoke a sprightly will, a zest for life, a seize-it-by-the-horns, embark on an exciting journey kind of feeling. But I find myself drawn-chalk it up to the emotional intensity of the present moment, I guess-to its more ethereal, metaphysical connotations: spirits, like that of my dead father, like mine, like those of all of your other passengers, all of whom, I’m guessing, have reasons to travel that are, well, shall we say, pressing.

You bear each of our spirits into the air and back down again. We give you our money. We pass through security, throw away our water bottles, take off our shoes, stand in the backscatter booths with our arms over our heads like caught criminals, participate in the magical-thinking rituals, reassuring ourselves that we will not fall from the sky or careen headlong into an office building, screaming the names of our children, our parents, our lovers. We run down the concourse, draw up breathless at the gate, only to find that you have left us.We trust you with our lives and those of the people we love. But you have left the gate, and as one of the blank-eyed gate agents told me, almost wistfully, ‘I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do.’

But I’m here now, Spirit, and I have to pay the driver and go in to pick a coffin. I hope that this survey will help you ensure that my next experience exceeds my expectations.

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ii.

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  1. Why was the restaurant three-quarters empty when we arrived for the ‘only’ reservation your hostess told us was available?
  2. Was the jewelry the hostess wore real or fake? And has she heard how much she looks like Ali MacGraw? Does she even know who that is?
  3. Why did we have to wait 15 minutes to be seated?
  4. Why were we asked three times, by the hostess, the man who seated us, and our server, whether we had any vouchers or coupons? And, perhaps more to the point, why did this not set off alarm bells in our exhausted brains?
  5. Why were we asked, also three times (must be a charm!), whether we’d been to Ruth’s Chris before? Was this simply small talk, or a canny stab at assessing our level of gullibility?
  6. Why was it a nearly two-minute walk through the murmuring plush and glint of dimly lit winding corridors to the heart of the labyrinth, a tiny walled booth (if memory serves, there were drapes), where we were placed in our seats like dingy chocolates in a gilt box, a massive cube-shaped chandelier glaring and winking above our heads? 1aaabirdcagegfairy003Might it have been that we were rumpled after a long drive, for which one tends to dress casually, and that landed us in the cheap seats?  Might it be that there is a certain standard a restaurant is within its rights to uphold, that it cannot afford to have other diners, of which there were, at this particular moment, roughly 12, put off by shabby patrons? Is it maybe because we didn’t look like these guys? Does anyone look like these guys?Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 5.02.41 PM
  7. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to produce smoky-voiced-chanteuse, lounge-lizard covers of such favorites as Wish You Were Here, Under My Thumb, Billie Jean, and Smells Like Teen Spirit? And why did your establishment opt to play them?

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an Albino
A mosquito, my libido, yeah
8. Why–wait, what, I–what the actual…are these Canadian dollars? Are we at a movie theater concession stand for steaks? Is this a fucking *joke*?
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9. Why didn’t we listen to our 19 year old son, who dropped his menu and said ‘let’s just get out of here’? Did it have something to do with feeling flattered and shamed at the exact same moment? Or were we just exhausted?

10. Why does a dinner that costs a fortune come with a stern warning not to touch the plates, which are heated to 500 degrees (to ensure your food stays hot from first bite to last!), lest you badly burn yourself? Why am I paying for that?
10a. Why were my crab cakes cold anyway?
10b. Why was there no glass of ice water to plunge my fingers into after I forgot (do you know how easy a thing that is to forget?) and touched my plate?

11. Why is there some guy in the men’s room chatting up my son, nudging his little saucer of dollar bills across the counter, offering a paper towel in exchange for a tip?  Is a man in a bathroom assuming familiarity with a stranger in exchange for cash somehow classy?

12. Why does a tablespoonful of mint jelly cost 4 dollars?

13. How long did the ‘julienned potatoes’ (read: fries) sit under the warming lamp?

14. Why did our server never quite strike the balance between attentive and discreet, instead veering wildly between obsequious and oblivious? Was she having a bad night, maybe? A babysitter flaked on her? Her mother showed up drunk to her kid’s birthday party?

15. Why did I feel sorry for the unseen couple at the adjacent booth (‘my table just proposed,’ our server blurted breathlessly as she bustled past us with two little flutes of champagne), muttering under my breath ‘I give it six months’? Does a marriage whose seeds were planted in this place stand a chance?

16. Why did my food taste like rain-soaked charcoal ashes?

17. Why, at 27 dollars a glass, did my husband order a second glass of wine? I mean, I guess that’s something I should ask him. Or not.

18. Why did I ask for the remainder of my dinner to be packed up when we were staying in a fridgeless hotel room, then scurry out of the restaurant with a plastic bag with handles feeling like maybe, at least, I’d gotten away with *something*? I mean, it would’ve been like leaving 65 dollars in cash (well, I’d eaten half of it, so let’s call it $32.50) on the table.

19. How would Ruth Fertel, your establishment’s founder, described on your website as a feisty single mom who overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a fire that burned her first steakhouse to the ground, have felt about being cynically pampered, deftly insulted, and divested of her money for a *steak* when she had children to send to college? Or was this what drove her? Was this how she justified the business model she strove to create? Did hardship beget hardness? Eat or be eaten? Did it beat the decent right out of her? Hers is a compelling story, an inspirational screenplay. Just look at her, tiny, barely 5 feet tall, butchering steaks with a bandsaw, hiring only single mothers as waitstaff. What’s not to love? But did it occur to her that maybe she had some single mothers as customers?

20. Did our server maybe for one second feel a little bit sorry for us, or does she have problems of her own (see above)?

21. Why am I surprised that Donald Trump is the president?  I mean, well, we’re in Canada, but only by about fifty feet. You want to feel rich? It’s gonna cost you. Even with the vouchers, you’re getting gouged. And ‘Wow!’ we think. ‘What a deal! I’m surrounded by velvet!’

22. My son picked up the little frosted glass votive on the table, peered in, and saw a battery-operated lightbulb, showed it to us with a wordless eye roll. Could you maybe have sprung for some actual candles?

23. Why, after we left, did I prefer to imagine I’d just been mugged than out to dinner? Maybe because at least a mugger acts out of necessity, however base? Maybe because a mugger wouldn’t pretend he was doing me a great service by pressing a steak knife to my throat? Maybe he wouldn’t shower me with false flattery first?

 

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24. Why was I relieved to learn that we were not your only victims?

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25. Four dollars for a diet Pepsi?

26. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?

 

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I mean, if you’re going to sit awake all night thinking about your health insurance, your property taxes, the credit card balance and the weird noise coming from underneath your car, you couldn’t ask for a better view.  I’d say it puts all of it in perspective. I’d take a moment to be grateful that such beauty is given to us, this miraculous world, regardless of whether we deserve it.

But I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another day.

 

 

 

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies

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Part 1: Trick or Treat
Riley Detmer, age 9

Why do I always have to be doing something?  Mom and Dad all the time ‘what are you doing?’ How does a bag save a planet?

I don’t know.  I think this is going to be my last year.  I was too young and now I’m too old to remember when it was fun. The one story I always hear is how I went through my entire candy bag when I was three and a bumblebee, ran around like I was crazy and stopped in the middle of my grandparents’ all white almost empty living room and turned white like a ghost bee and barfed all over the floor.

I mean, that doesn’t sound very fun.

unknown-5Last year I was 8 and I wanted to be Wolverine from X-men. Wolverine could save the planet better than a bag. The answer was no. The reason was my mom said Wolverine made violent choices and didn’t think of better ways to solve a problem. Is that really what you want to be Riley she said which the answer was yes. Is that a part of yourself you think is okay? she said. What if I don’t have the claws I said. She shook her head. Nice people are the real heroes she said.

This happens a lot. I used to get mad about it but finally I stopped. Getting mad is a violent choice and besides it just makes her talk more. I ended up being a fireman with a plastic helmet and coat that looked totally fake.

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When I was 7 I wanted to be a Apache brave which we were learning in school. This was also no because we shouldn’t take things from the Indians and we also should not be calling them Indians. You’re a lucky little boy because you are privileged she said, and that means you can’t take things that aren’t yours and make fun of Native Americans. I said I am not making fun. If I am privileged I said I wonder why does that mean I can’t pick my costume and be whatever I want. This was before I stopped arguing about everything. Plus it was totally confusing because Wyatt who is 5 and my brother was Ariel from Little Mermaid. But Ariel is a girl I said. Wyatt can make that choice my mom said. We can’t tell him how he should express himself. But I want to express myself and be a Apache brave I said. Wyatt is not a girl I said. Riley, she said. Stop making fun of your brother. This is along with my friend Chloe at school who was a artist with a french hat called a beret because she was not allowed to be Ariel from Little Mermaid because it is not what little girls should want to be. So Wyatt got to be Ariel with a boob thing made of two plastic seashells and a tail thing with sequins.  I don’t know why but I just wanted to hit him really hard. And I was a cowboy because it is okay I guess to make fun of them.

imagesWhen I was 6 we didn’t do Halloween because refined sugar. When I was 5 I wanted to be a hobo with a stick but that was no for some reason too so my mom made my costume without even asking me which was a bunch of grapes made of balloons. I was mad and got a timeout. Before that I don’t remember except the story about barfing which is not really a thing I remember but just a thing they told me that happened.

So I think this will be my last year. I don’t know what I will be. I guess I will wait for Mom to tell me. But I will take this bag because those plastic pumpkins with handles are stupid and for babies and I swear to God I will argue about that if I have to.

That is what I am doing.

Part #2: Domesticity
Amy Wallace-Detmer, age 38

What am I doing? What does it look like? I’m putting away the goddamned groceries.  There’s a guy who loads them into my car at the store but once I’m home I’m on my own. It’s easier than trying to get the boys to help me.  I pick my battles.

I remember you. Back when I was young, in that big old first wave of recycling, you all were saying the same thing. And now it’s back, and the bags are back, asking questions: a successful campaign; why wouldn’t it be successful again?

But I’ll ask you a question back:  What did it succeed at?  Do people shop more at stores with bags that sneer at them?  I saw lots of you tumbling empty through parking lots, wadded up in garbage cans.  Just what was it you were trying to accomplish?

All you have to do is wait long enough and everything comes back around again.

You can be reused 125 times.  Well, we have that in common, at any rate. In fact, I may very well have you beat. And will I reuse you? Not likely. I never think to bring bags along until I’m in the car. They pile up under the sink. So you are not the first bag to ask me that question. I’ll stuff you down there and you can all trade saving-the-planet stories, congratulate yourselves in a crinkly little cocktail-party mumble.  I’ll pull one out to carry wet bathing suits, clean the litter box, load up with some stuff to take over to Dad on the days Meals on Wheels doesn’t come, give to Riley and Wyatt for trick or treating.

That snuck up on me. I used to be better about holidays. Now I’m always running along behind them, like the kids. I thought I had parenthood nailed, once: cupcakes one year topped with orange frosting and spiders with gum-drop bodies and licorice-whip legs, a dozen of them, for Riley’s pre-K. I was up until 3. I wanted to do everything for him, which might’ve been a mistake. He’s become so passive. It kept me anchored, the routines, the recipes, the things it was okay or not okay to do or be or read or say.

I am a parent. Everything is my fault.

You’d like Ted, bag.  He is saving the planet, or the people on it with cancer, at any rate.  Does that count?  You and he would get along, trading smug challenges and debating the finer points of planet-saving. He’s always taken care of me, from the time he met me when he was rounding through the psych unit as a med student. I was glad I’d washed my hair. He saved me, I guess you could say–so it would be peevish to criticize. But I sometimes think he loves that he saved me more than he loves me.

I love him. I do.

That said, there’s a whole continuity of care issue–I stole that from him–when it comes to the boys.  He’s never around, in other words, to see things and watch things, which to me means that he’s not in a super-good place to worry out loud that our kids are always trying to comfort me and settle me down and that that is bad for them, that I am always trying to control them, and that that is bad for them, when all I am doing is trying to keep them safe, calm, confident, on the right path. And maybe they could want to comfort me sometimes? Is that such a bad thing? Aren’t we all supposed to kind of look after each other? Isn’t loving someone enough to want to comfort them a good thing?

I mean, Ted, stick to cancer, okay?  Help me out by not suggesting maybe I should’ve gone back to work, which implies there was work to go back to: B.A. in Music, Minor in Astronomy? As my mother once said, ‘Now, there’s a lucrative career path.’ Maybe only remind me of the psych unit a few times a year, the checking account I emptied to make that model of the universe, the run of not-so-wise intimate encounters, the inanimate objects like cell phones and shopping carts coming to life and trying to hurt me, you know, the suicide stuff after.  Holidays, maybe. Mention it on holidays. Halloween. Last year I got that haunted house place across town to close down the room that was supposed to be a mental hospital full of wackos, but it’s funny; I couldn’t really work up a big old head of steam about it. Stigma, it’s called, but that’s just another word for being afraid: their problem, not mine.  Crazy people have bigger fish to fry: med compliance, shrink after shrink, bloodwork, behavioral coping therapies, insurance, revolving fucking door policies.  I was lucky.  The meds finally caught and held, never let go after that, and I never let go of them. I joke to people that I am a professional patient.  I am my own job.

There is really nothing wrong with being afraid of crazy.  I mean, I have enough trouble with what I think; I have to decide how others think now too?  I mean, I try to say the right things, have the right feelings, arrange them neatly, like setting a table for company.

You’ve got enough job for two people, Ted. It all balances out.

Meanwhile, well, yeah, groceries.  And the phone call to that woman at the managed care place; my father’s going nowhere fast. And Riley’s waiting for me to tell him what he wants for a costume. Like I would know. I don’t understand why he doesn’t want to decide on his own anymore. I don’t know why Wyatt wants to be a girl.

I just don’t want them to be crazy. That is all I don’t want.

So, yeah. Not real interested in saving the planet. I’ve got other things on my plate. But you go right on ahead.

That is what I am doing.

Part 3: Music of the Spheres
Conrad Wallace, age 68

What am I doing? I’m going through Amy’s things. And I guess you’re the bag I’m not supposed to open but must be sure not to leave behind or throw away, her machine-gun instructions from the unit, over the phone, what the docs called pressured speech, don’t open it, Dad, and don’t even fucking think about throwing it away, it might look like garbage to you but that’s because you don’t get it, you never got it, I had to ride this goddamned genius train all by myself, feel the music all around and align my body to it like a tuning fork, Dad, do you even know what a fucking tuning fork is, Dad? Of course you don’t, because you don’t get it.

She was never a cusser.

‘It’s a work-in-progress, Dad, a model, I’m helping the structure perfect itself, capture the music, make it audible to everyone. And if you throw it away like everything else you’ve always dismissed and made fun of–‘

‘Honey, I never–‘

‘Shut up Dad! Shut the fuck up, Dad! You don’t get to talk! I’m giving you simple instructions.  You throw away that bag and that will be the end of us.  The end of Amy and Dad at the planetarium. No more music for us.’

So the work in progress, and boxes of books, sheaves of sheet music, clothes, sheets and towels, a giant pair of men’s basketball sneakers, a small pair of briefs that I tweeze from the floor like a dead animal. One man? Two? The guy she brought to our house for dinner once and spent the evening fondling, scratching his back under his shirt, murmuring in his ear as her mother and I sat and watched, our food cold lumps in our mouths?  There were a lot of them, when things got bad. It was how you knew they were getting bad. There was no stopping that either.

And you, bag, heavy, clanking like pirate’s loot and knotted tightly at the top, everything goes into the U-Haul, again, another failed flight for Amy, again, her third school in as many years, the meds make me fat and stupid, Dad, I’m meant for bigger things, I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t wake up. I know how to balance this.

I read her a story once about Phaethon, the son of the sun, his father had made him a promise: ask me for anything and it is yours, swore on a sacred river. And he asked to drive his father’s chariot dawn to dusk across the sky. Myths were my music when I was a kid; I thought I might grow up to be a writer once (‘Now there’s a lucrative career path,’ my practical wife told me, not unkindly). The sun balked and begged his son, please don’t make me keep that promise, it is more than you can do, the horses are wild, but he had sworn on a sacred river, that is of course what a promise to a child must be, unbreakable,  and Phaethon was stubborn like kids always are, convinced he could control the uncontrollable and he took off and the horses sensed his tentative hold on the reins and went wild and the chariot tipped down toward the earth and set it alight, the fire spreading so quickly birds burned in the trees, then veered back up and just as fast it froze, charred branches locked up in layers of ice, the chariot’s axle snapping, Phaethon falling into the sea, slipping between the waves, and he was gone.

Oh, her baby-bird wings, no escape velocity, she peaked for a moment in the sky, pausing as if taking a breath of surprise–Jesus, how did I get up here–like one of the model rockets she made dozens upon dozens of once, her fingers peeling with hardened glue, gunpowder on the air, then turning nose down, plummeting to the ground.  Again.

I was old when she came, closing in on 50.  Her mother, too, 45.  An accident after we’d given up, a wish we no longer made. Was it that? That we’d stopped hoping? Was it faulty sperm? A stale old egg like a wrinkled pea? She was odd from the beginning, never cracked a smile. She never knew happy.

I am a parent.  Everything is my fault.

And here is the present moment again, life is a messy pile of them, I’m poised on it, weaving, like a drunken gymnast on a bar, the present only starts to make sense once it isn’t the present anymore. The past falling away behind me, her sweaty hand in mine, the future dim in front of me, will she come back this time? Will she ever have a nice house, the right meds, a couple of kids, a husband who maybe won’t be real warm but helps her stay on track, will always come to save her, kind of like me, who feels for her the kind of love he’s capable of feeling on his best days?   Will they have a piano? Will daily things replace her magic flights?

Will she be okay with that? Will she be okay?

My knees ache as I bend to drag stuff out from under the bed, my neck twangs as I pull posters from the cinder-block walls, her roommate silent in the doorway, owl-eyed, who called the Student Health Center three days ago, got the hospital ball rolling. Again.

I think it burned her brain a little, each time. A smell came off her: carbon, model rockets. When she was a kid there wasn’t a name for it. Then, suddenly, there was.  And it turns out it did. Burn her brain, I mean. An electrical storm. The psychiatrist used those exact words.

She used to love explaining things. I’ve always been good at having things explained to me. I like to think she loved me for that. I’d take her to the zoo, the Natural History museum, the aquarium on the Sundays when her mom went for coffee and an afternoon with her journal, but she loved the planetarium the most. We’d sit in the soft movie-theater seats, a curved acoustic-tiled heaven within a heaven, pinpoints of light, a man’s deep voice-over edged with static, explaining, and she’d name the planets above us, trace their orbits.

The music came later, flowing out her fingers into white keys, stretched strings, padded hammers. I took out a little loan for the piano, the lessons, the expensive schools. She’d sit and watch the tuner work his magic, striking keys, adjusting wires, damping pedals.

I sit back on the floor for a minute, stretch the stiff out of my knees, look around at all the crap, don’t know where to begin. And you sit there, I look over at you again: ‘I’m saving the planet.’  As though you are inviting me with a weird plastic sympathy to look inside: maybe this will vindicate her. Maybe she really is on to something.  Maybe the third time’s a charm, where the crazy finally burns away to leave a bright star of brilliance. Maybe you really do hold magic, the mechanism she began to describe over the phone six weeks ago, screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-3-59-23-pmshe’d never made anything before, this was new, an hysterical thread running through her voice, dead men whispering, Pythagoras, Kepler, the music of the spheres, hidden ratios, that unheard song, the cycles of the planets, the stringed instruments of bodies, one cannot hear nor align with the other, she’d found a way to do that, emptied her checking account buying the materials and the tools, was embarked on the design and construction of the tool that would make it possible, she ticked the list off during another phone call, this one at 3 a.m.: a jeweler’s drill, sheets of brass, a tiny saw, rubber hammer, watch springs, threaded screws that would pass through the eye of a needle.

People need to hear it, Dad. People need to hear it.

Then the Health Center called, then the Dean. Then I got in the truck and drove to the hospital.  Then I stood outside the ancient spacecraft airlock doors of the unit, waited for the burly male nurse who’d greeted me twice before–a former Marine, maybe? his hair was so short, his crossed arms behind the chicken-wire glass as big around as my thighs, I looked like him once–to buzz me in, took that short instant alone to drop my head into my hands, feel my legs begin to go, feel the wail run through me, aligning me with that silent chord of the universe, escaping, my mouth shaping it into her name.

I don’t have room for any of this stuff anymore, her mother’s death only made the house smaller, I guess I’ll rent a locker. That way there’s a chance she’ll come get it, a chance she’ll come back to earth, heft the heavy lock in her palm, scroll in the combination, slide open the door.

But meanwhile in this present that makes no sense yet I drag you acrogears_watch_piless and up and into my lap, work the knot with my fingers, give up, tear you stem to stern. Tiny gears and crookedly sawn tiny lengths of brass, sharp enough to draw blood, and the tools, a miniature disaster, chaos in a bag, clashing, crashing notes. I gather them up in my hands, let them fall, and they jingle and ring with trapped music.

That is what I am doing.

Part 4: Do No Harm
Ted Detmer, Age 46

What am I doing. Well. Do you want the methodical answer, or the existential one? I’ll confess, as a research physician, that I prefer the former. My cocktail-party rap about my research is that I am in the business of blocking microscopic traffic.  You see, there are these proteins. Well (*chuckle*, sips drink), that’s pretty much all there are, actually. But the ones I’m interested in are the ones that block other proteins from rushing like repair teams to damaged DNA, lashing it back together before it collapses like a rickety ladder or a rope bridge across a chasm. If my interlocutor’s eyes haven’t glazed over by now, he or she might ask ‘well, why would you want to block something that fixes damage?’ I then can give him or her the lip-twitch ironic smile I’ve been perfecting since high school and say ‘well, what if that DNA codes for cancer cells?’ Depending on how late the party has gone, it can take from seconds to a full minute for this to sink in.

The War on Cancer. Dramatic, sexy, an heroic standoff with the forces of chaos. But cancer is really quite methodical, tedious even.  It makes petty plans and carries them out pretty much the way people do: sophisticated but often fucked up communication, ill-advised liaisons, mixed messages, amassing of armies, sabotage, subterfuge, disguise.

All you really have to know is how to look really closely, for a really long time, at really small things, and be willing to do that over and over and over again.

I once thought I’d work with patients, but that was the existential end of the continuum and it turned out not to suit me: too many variables, or too few.  I realized this very early on, my third year of med school, rounding through the psych unit where I met my wife. I saw it as a choice: I could try to slam the gate after the horse had escaped, talk patients down as I scrambled for a treatment, an explanation, a reason to fight, or I could climb into the stall myself, corner that fucking horse at the molecular level and take him out.

So let’s go with methodical: I’m emptying out a bag of things I found in Wyatt’s closet. In order of extraction, I find the following:

  1. child’s plastic princess crown, symmetrical placement of false gems in a blue, clear, pink, green, yellow progression, one (pink) missing
  2. small plastic sandals, colloquially termed ‘mules,’ pink, with a kitten heel and a vamp made of puffy pink and white synthetic feathers
  3. child-sized kimono-style robe, red synthetic satin, machine-embroidered floral details at hem, collar and sleeves
  4. iridescent, semi-translucent rainbow-hued scarf, fabric unknown

    pinterest-com

    pinterest.com

It is perhaps more challenging to identify and assess my reaction (mouth goes dry, heart rate quickens, mood darkens and edges toward anger: he has hidden them! he has deceived me! we had an agreement!), and it is unclear whether it would serve any useful purpose: it is familiar and chaotic at once; it is both fully aware and utterly bewildered.  It explains everything and nothing at all.

None of this is new; he has had the scarf since he was 3, snatched from a bin at Goodwill while shopping with his mother. He enjoyed lying on his back and arranging it over his face so that the world bloomed into color as he looked up through it. He danced, flounced, squealed, *lisped*: behaviors I’d always understood as learned, acquired, socially and politically inflected, and have now been forced to attribute to…what?  Where could he have learned this? Where acquired? At 3?

This is where my reaction gets chaotic, and hence not helpful, and I have borne this in mind when I have talked to Wyatt, who is old enough, at 5, to be talked to; old enough, at 5, to understand that there are things you do, and things you don’t do, depending on who you are. We don’t get to decide what we are any more than we get to decide whether or not to be born. It is not about *us.*  We are all prisoners of our bodies: capricious, prone to failure, stubbornly insistent on being what they are. The sooner peace can be made with that, well, let’s just say I want to spare my son the exhausting and futile task of trying to make himself into whatever he wants to be.

It’s just not that simple.

These things are scripted, okay? DNA is an instruction manual: what you will become, how, when, everything but the why. We don’t get to write it.  It writes us.

Trust me.  I’m a doctor.

So I was methodical with Wyatt, a year ago, and it appeared to gain purchase: you are a boy, Wyatt; it is what you are. These things are what girls do, and I don’t want you to feel confused. We reached an agreement, I thought: together he and I gathered up the clothing, the toys, the Barbies with their tiny pointy shoes, the kitchen things, the toy vacuum cleaner (such oppressive roles!), the miniature cosmetics, all the girl stuff (Amy has poor boundaries with these things, more often than not simply buying him what he asks for rather than asking why or- and I don’t think she has this in her- simply saying no), and boxed them up for his new little cousin in Seattle, just born into her body, just beginning to sense the limits, the possibilities, the finite number of options.

And then his mother allowed him to be a Disney mermaid for Halloween, dismantling it all with one swoop. ‘There are things we just don’t understand, Ted,’ she said. ‘But we can understand what he wants.’
‘He doesn’t know what he wants!’ I shouted.  ‘He made a deal with me, Amy. We had an agreement. We gave away the girl things. He was fine with it.’
‘Fine with it? Fine with it? Is that why he’s out back right now dancing around in a plastic seashell bra?’
You bought it for him!’
He wanted it!”
‘It’s going to Sophia. He and I tomorrow will put it in a box, and it is going in the mail to Sophia.’

Can we just have a few things that are clear and unambiguous? Can we just agree on that? And could one of them be my child’s gender? I’d be fine with a clear message. It doesn’t have to be the one I’d prefer; the clarity would be sufficient.

I was the only one who could comfort him, right from the beginning. He was born crying, howling in protest. Amy likes to say she felt him wailing before he’d even left her body, but Amy is like that: prone to hyperbole and excess, needing a steady hand. I sometimes wonder whether she loves that I saved her more than she loves me.

And of course there was the question of whether to have children at all. The nifty little salt that settles Amy’s brain-no one has ever been abled to explain why-has been linked to heart defects in infants; when she turned up pregnant with Riley, unplanned, we did a risk-benefit with her ob who, once he’d read her history, advised her to stay on it. We’ve kept an eye; Riley’s heart ticks as steadily and soundly as a Swiss watch.

Were we gambling when we opted for a second? I am not a gambler by nature, and Amy has learned caution the hard way. I think it was more that we carefully looked off the other way and let it sneak up on us. Can you plan to be surprised?

She’d call me in tears, Wyatt wailing in her arms, beg me to come home.  I’d take him from her and he’d settle instantly, which only upset her more. We were spoiled by Riley. He was an easy baby, fooled us into thinking we knew what we were doing. I’d sit with Wyatt as he fought sleep, fix him on my lap and page with him through the color plates in my medical books, the stained microscopic images of cancer cells: the swirling shapes and brilliant colors, which I would explain in a sleepy, lulling murmur aren’t their actual colors

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cancerresearchUK

but rather a broad range of contrast media saturated with ultraviolet and infrared light: it defined them more clearly. It isn’t art, Wye, I’d murmur. It’s science. He’d stare, transfixed, lay his fingers on the glossy images, nod into sleep, eyes rolling back and his heavy head dropping against my chest.

I sit on the bed, lift a shoe, drop it, pick up the crown, perch it on my head, lift it off, drop it.  The door opens and slams downstairs, a murmur of voices: Amy, Riley, Wyatt, back from some errand or other.

I have samples to culture, rows of test tubes in wire baskets (that’s not strictly true; I have techs and assistants for all that by now, but I prefer thinking that this is what I still do.  The writing and grant-grubbing and lecture circuit and panel-sitting are wearing away at me. It’s not what I am good at).

Oh, Wyatt.  Oh, Wye. I stand and bundle all of the stuff into my arms, lift and shake you open, bag, to jam it all back in, and find that I cannot do it, the way that on my honeymoon, two thirds of the way from the summit of Mt. Katahdin, clouded in so that I could see nothing but my feet below me, I could suddenly no longer walk, could suddenly no longer detach myself from the rock face behind me. I was nearly there.  Nearly there.

‘Pick a snack, Wye, then nap,’ I hear Amy say.  They’ll be heading up soon.  We’ve talked about naps, that, at 5, he has surely outgrown them, but he insists, sinking into them like a fainting lady on a couch, as eagerly as he resists going to sleep at night. I stand there for a moment longer, drop you on the floor so that I can use both hands to place Wyatt’s

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things on the bed, laying down the scarf first and arranging the crown, shoes, and kimono on top of it,  a neat colored square, a contrast medium, everything carefully arranged.  I step away, assess the symmetry, make a few adjustments, stand there a moment longer, then turn and leave the room.

That is what I am doing.

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Recycled Declaration

 

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Peter Breslin

“Happy Independence Day! Today, I declare my independence from jingoism, nationalism, American exceptionalism, starry-eyed sappy sentimental faux-patriotism, hagiography of our military forces and police and other public servants masquerading as unquestioning respect for heroism, willfully gluttonous and destructive consumerism masquerading as freedom.

I declare my independence from the tempting blindness to the entrenched corporate-fascist plutocracy that has slowly maneuvered a (bloodless?) global coup of politics and press.

I declare my independence from the State-sponsored story, the lies my teachers told me, the narrow minded, provincial and embarrassing ignorance of what it means to be not just an American but also a global citizen in a rapidly shrinking world.

I declare my independence from an all-too-convenient and unearned pride in an alarmingly deteriorating country where Constitutional freedoms have been slowly eroded or eliminated and where protest, speaking the truth to power and political activism (the very bedrock of our revolutionary origins) is now seen as, at best, ungrateful, and at worst, a form of treason.

I celebrate the true spirit of the American revolution and the American experiment today. I celebrate the human passion for freedom and justice, the universal longing for a better life, the grand ideal of a government of the people, by the people and for the people. I celebrate the greatness of America’s marginalized, disenfranchised, oppressed, exploited and apparently disposable people who have made it all possible from the bottom up. The poor and educationally short-changed who seem so easily put in harm’s way and who constitute the vast majority of our volunteer military, the suffering and homeless veterans who have been bought and sold on the market of questionable wars abroad, the labor force that sacrificed so much life and safety and comfort in the early part of the 20th Century for quality of life improvements we now take entirely for granted but that has been relentlessly disempowered and excluded from the economic and social conversation today.

I celebrate those who worship whatever God or Goddess they worship freely, humbly and quietly and in the true spirit of their faith, not obstreperously, legislatively and oppressively in the marketplace of public, civic ideals.

I celebrate the grand tradition of progressive thought and action in American history, represented by progressive education, progressive health, labor and work improvements, progressive programs to ameliorate suffering and aid the worst off among us, progressive attitudes about the privacy and security of our persons, papers and effects, progressive voting rights, progressive civil rights in their long, slow, painful unfolding, progressive and open ideals regarding the free exchange of ideas (including the least popular of those ideas), progressive attitudes of welcome and appreciation for those from other countries yearning to be free.

I celebrate America’s great innovators in the arts and sciences and America’s irrepressible spirit of not so much ‘why?’ as ‘why not?’ (to paraphrase Ornette Coleman). If there is any heft in the oft-repeated claim that America is the ‘greatest nation on earth,’ perhaps the anchor for that claim, ironically, rests in the most bold, progressive and innovative, most free and most humane and democratic of all of our contributions to the world.

If America has been great and exceptional in human history, it has done so along these lines: the greatest possible liberation of the human spirit, in spite of vicious and regressive attempts at oppression, for the greatest number. Empires are a dime a dozen throughout the centuries of our species. Tribalism, exclusion, oppression, greed, genocide, invasion and exploitation are dirt cheap and common in the human story. I celebrate an America that has been and perhaps still could be a true exception to these commonplace horrors.

Happy Independence Day! How free do you want to be?”

©Peter Breslin, 2010

Peter Breslin is a teacher, musician, PhD student in plant conservation biology at Arizona State University and writer who lives in Tempe AZ.

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  1. Who are you named after?
    No one. My mother opened a baby name book and dropped her finger on a page. My father came and went and left me in his wake, a little seed and I grew into a little plant, and she said she’d jump off a bridge before she’d name me after him. All I know is that he is a rock star. She didn’t want me doomed, she said once, to either having to live up to him or repeating his mistakes. She had this thing about fate and free will. She went to college for awhile I guess. She read me a lot of books.
  2. Last time you cried?
    When she died. I was twelve. She jumped off a bridge.
  3. Do you like your handwriting?
    Very much. I was praised as a child. People are more likely to help you out if you take some trouble making your sign. You can’t just scribble any old which way on some crappy piece of cardboard. You don’t want to look crazy. You have to make an effort, have a little self-respect. If I can scare up the right kind of marker and a relatively blemish-free surface, I mean, get out of my way. (Dumpsters outside movie theaters are great. If they haven’t just crumpled them up, if they’ve gone to the trouble to roll them which you’d be surprised, a lot of them do, the back of a movie poster is the perfect medium: glossy, pure white, just stiff enough to withstand some weather. And there are a couple of the librarians here, they loan me Sharpies. Sharpies only used to come in black but they’re all colors now.) Sometimes I’ll make a little picture: a puppy, a bunch of flowers. One of my foster moms, she liked to do art. And school was not for me but I did like the books and art class. My philosophy is you make it nice for people, they’ll want to make it nice for you.
  4. What is your favorite lunch meat? download
    They don’t make it anymore. Or maybe they do and I just haven’t been in a store for awhile. It was this baloney with sliced olives in it. Pimento loaf. On rye bread with cream cheese. Foster Family Four, if memory serves.
  5. Longest relationship?
    My mom. We lived in a bus. After that I kind of went from house to house, you know, sometimes a juvenile facility. A hospital once.
  6. Do you still have your tonsils?
    She didn’t believe in doctors. And we couldn’t pay for one anyway.
  7. Would you bungee jump?
    Not likely. But I’ve been known to surprise myself. I kind of have enough on my plate.
  8. Favorite kind of cereal?
    I’ve only ever had one kind. We didn’t do refined sugar or Screen Shot 2017-06-05 at 3.58.37 PMpreservatives and plus the no money thing so I stole a box of Frankenberry from a Kroger’s one day when we came into town and ate it in the parking lot. I was six I think. I don’t know. I guess I’d eat Frankenberry again. I’m not sure they make it anymore, like the pimento loaf. It makes your poop a funny color.
  9. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off?
    I avoid shoes. It’s what’s nice about warm climates. That and you can sleep outside and not freeze to death. There’s a shoes rule here, but I hole up in one of the computer cubicles so I’m generally not seen. I bring all my shit in with me, you know, because you need to keep an eye, and that has likewise never been a problem. As I said, I think it’s preferable by all that there be the option not to see certain things.
  10. Favorite ice cream?
    Ah, see, now you’re just messing with me.
  11. What is the first thing you notice about a person?
    The way they pretend not to see me. Everyone’s different, the way they do it, like fingerprints. It’s why I make an effort with the sign.
  12. Football or baseball?
    Baseball. Spring training down here. Nice guys. I watch through the fence.
  13. What color pants are you wearing?
    You mean originally? Couldn’t tell you.
  14. Last thing you ate?
    Why? You offering?
  15. What are you listening to?
    Grunge. Any and all. Once when I nagged her my mother told me that’s what my dad played. So I think sometimes hey, maybe this song I’m listening to? Maybe that’s him. They make me use these headphones. You know: shhhh. I like YouTube. And these quizzes. No one can see you on Facebook, so no one has to on purpose not see you. Simplifies things for everybody. I have a profile and everything, I’ve made some friends, you know, I have a list. I get to answer questions as if someone really wants to know. They say this stuff about privacy, about stealing your data, but I got nothing to steal, and privacy is overrated. You only care about privacy when you’re not alone all the time.
  16. If you were a crayon, what color would you be? download
    Burnt Sienna. I loved crayons as a kid, still do. That little sharpener in the box. Sometimes with a new box I’d just run my fingers over the tips and not want to use them because they were so perfect.
  17. What is your favorite smell?
    Simmering garlic and onions.
  18. Who was the last person you talked to on the phone?
    Some lady at the shelter.
  19. Married?
    Once. Wasn’t for me.
  20. Hair color?
    Blonde. The greenish is from chlorine. I sneak into people’s yards sometimes, you know, use the pool. One place? Really rich folks, never there. Easy to creep in through the woods, lame security system. It’s called an Infinity pool, and it just tips right off the edge of the world. That’s a favorite spot.
    stirling infinity
  21. Eye color?
    Brown, but kind of dull and blurry, like beer bottles on the beach.
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  22. Favorite foods to eat?
    Whatever I can find. Whatever they give me.
  23. Scary movies or happy endings?
    Depends on my mood.
  24. Last movie you watched?
    Wizard of Oz. That’s a weird fucking movie. No one ever points that out.
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  25. What color shirt are you wearing?
    Formerly white.
  26. Favorite holiday?
    New Year’s. People give you drinks, you know, they’re drunk so they’re nice to you.
  27. Beer or Wine?
    Do I have to choose? I mean, I’d prefer weed but I had to give it up awhile back. It made me too hungry.
  28. Night owl or morning person?
    Both. I can’t afford to be choosy.
  29. Favorite day of the week?
    I stopped keeping track awhile ago. You’d be surprised how quickly it stops mattering. I hate Sundays though and I always know when they are because they are when the library’s closed. The library’s quiet. You can’t believe how noisy the world is when you’re outside all the time.
  30. Favorite season?
    No seasons here. I miss the fall sometimes, the trees like they’re on fire, frost in the grass. It got cold in the bus, but my mom was always there and we’d bundle up, and I don’t know how she did it, but she was always warm.

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    ©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Little Martha

Recycled: Found Narratives of Everyday Life

The story is disputed, as stories often are. And a song without lyrics…well, the story will rush in and, with the help of its listener, tell itself, and it will be both different and the same to everyone who hears it. It can’t be bothered with the facts.

Or, rather, it will take facts and make with them whatever it pleases. Stories want to be told, and heard, and passed along and told and sung and heard again, and they’ll do whatever they have to do to ensure that, seeking out those who have the craft and skill to get them out into the world and nagging away at them until they surrender, sit down, hammer it out, set it loose. And as often as not, even as they take a circuitous and often ‘unfactual’ path, even as we might never get back to the strict truths underlying their origins or inspiration…

View original post 1,239 more words

A Night on the Town

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  1. Why was the restaurant three-quarters empty when we arrived for the ‘only’ reservation your hostess told us was available?
  2. Was the jewelry the hostess wore real or fake? And has she heard how much she looks like Ali MacGraw? Does she even know who that is?
  3. Why did we have to wait 15 minutes to be seated?
  4. Why were we asked three times, by the hostess, the man who seated us, and our server, whether we had any vouchers or coupons? And, perhaps more to the point, why did this not set off alarm bells in our exhausted brains?
  5. Why were we asked, also three times (must be a charm!), whether we’d been to Ruth’s Chris before? Was this simply small talk, or a canny stab at assessing our level of gullibility?
  6. Why was it a nearly two-minute walk through the murmuring plush and glint of dimly lit winding corridors to the heart of the labyrinth, a tiny walled booth (if memory serves, there were drapes), where we were placed in our seats like dingy chocolates in a gilt box, a massive cube-shaped chandelier glaring and winking above our heads? 1aaabirdcagegfairy003Might it have been that we were rumpled after a long drive, for which one tends to dress casually, and that landed us in the cheap seats?  Might it be that there is a certain standard a restaurant is within its rights to uphold, that it cannot afford to have other diners, of which there were, at this particular moment, roughly 12, put off by shabby patrons? Is it maybe because we didn’t look like these guys? Does anyone look like these guys?Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 5.02.41 PM
  7. Why did anyone think it was a good idea to produce smoky-voiced-chanteuse, lounge-lizard covers of such favorites as Wish You Were Here, Under My Thumb, Billie Jean, and Smells Like Teen Spirit? And why did your establishment opt to play them?

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious
Here we are now, entertain us
A mulatto, an Albino
A mosquito, my libido, yeah
8. Why–wait, what, I–what the actual…are these Canadian dollars? Are we at a movie theater concession stand for steaks? Is this a fucking *joke*?
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9. Why didn’t we listen to our 19 year old son, who dropped his menu and said ‘let’s just get out of here’? Did it have something to do with feeling flattered and shamed at the exact same moment? Or were we just exhausted?

10. Why does a dinner that costs a fortune come with a stern warning not to touch the plates, which are heated to 500 degrees (to ensure your food stays hot from first bite to last!), lest you badly burn yourself? Why am I paying for that?
10a. Why were my crab cakes cold anyway?
10b. Why was there no glass of ice water to plunge my fingers into after I forgot (do you know how easy a thing that is to forget?) and touched my plate?

11. Why is there some guy in the men’s room chatting up my son, nudging his little saucer of dollar bills across the counter, offering a paper towel in exchange for a tip?  Is a man in a bathroom assuming familiarity with a stranger in exchange for cash somehow classy?

12. Why does a tablespoonful of mint jelly cost 4 dollars?

13. How long did the ‘julienned potatoes’ (read: fries) sit under the warming lamp?

14. Why did our server never quite strike the balance between attentive and discreet, instead veering wildly between obsequious and oblivious? Was she having a bad night, maybe? A babysitter flaked on her? Her mother showed up drunk to her kid’s birthday party?

15. Why did I feel sorry for the unseen couple at the adjacent booth (‘my table just proposed,’ our server blurted breathlessly as she bustled past us with two little flutes of champagne), muttering under my breath ‘I give it six months’? Does a marriage whose seeds were planted in this place stand a chance?

16. Why did my food taste like rain-soaked charcoal ashes?

17. Why, at 27 dollars a glass, did my husband order a second glass of wine? I mean, I guess that’s something I should ask him. Or not.

18. Why did I ask for the remainder of my dinner to be packed up when we were staying in a fridgeless hotel room, then scurry out of the restaurant with a plastic bag with handles feeling like maybe, at least, I’d gotten away with *something*? I mean, it would’ve been like leaving 65 dollars in cash (well, I’d eaten half of it, so let’s call it $32.50) on the table.

19. How would Ruth Fertel, your establishment’s founder, described on your website as a feisty single mom who overcame all kinds of obstacles, including a fire that burned her first steakhouse to the ground, have felt about being cynically pampered, deftly insulted, and divested of her money for a *steak* when she had children to send to college? Or was this what drove her? Was this how she justified the business model she strove to create? Did hardship beget hardness? Eat or be eaten? Did it beat the decent right out of her? Hers is a compelling story, an inspirational screenplay. Just look at her, tiny, barely 5 feet tall, butchering steaks with a bandsaw, hiring only single mothers as waitstaff. What’s not to love? But did it occur to her that maybe she had some single mothers as customers?

20. Did our server maybe for one second feel a little bit sorry for us, or does she have problems of her own (see above)?

21. Why am I surprised that Donald Trump is the president?  I mean, well, we’re in Canada, but only by about fifty feet. You want to feel rich? It’s gonna cost you. Even with the vouchers, you’re getting gouged. And ‘Wow!’ we think. ‘What a deal! I’m surrounded by velvet!’

22. My son picked up the little frosted glass votive on the table, peered in, and saw a battery-operated lightbulb, showed it to us with a wordless eye roll. Could you maybe have sprung for some actual candles?

23. Why, after we left, did I prefer to imagine I’d just been mugged than out to dinner? Maybe because at least a mugger acts out of necessity, however base? Maybe because a mugger wouldn’t pretend he was doing me a great service by pressing a steak knife to my throat? Maybe he wouldn’t shower me with false flattery first?

 

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24. Why was I relieved to learn that we were not your only victims?

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25. Four dollars for a diet Pepsi?

26. Have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?

 

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I mean, if you’re going to sit awake all night thinking about your health insurance, your property taxes, the credit card balance and the weird noise coming from underneath your car, you couldn’t ask for a better view.  I’d say it puts all of it in perspective. I’d take a moment to be grateful that such beauty is given to us, this miraculous world, regardless of whether we deserve it.

But I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait for another day.

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Unconventional Forms

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)

Sunday, April 30, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

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Each of Russell’s poetic exercises from the Pop-up Poetry series (and I really wish I hadn’t missed the first workshop) stands alone as a path to deeper creative fluency,  but taken together they share a common intention: to startle the writer into thinking differently, to jump-start creative association and engagement with words and the world outside of us, to connect and communicate with the work and words of others.  It’s a curriculum both of surprise-folding old and new together, forcing a new perspective that takes us out of ourselves-and recognition: there’s material everywhere. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that as we sit there with blank minds and pages.

This final class in the series examined several lesser-known poetic forms, daunting in their rigid structure and requirements. We were instructed to dive right in and make them our own.

1. The Abecedarian

AbecedarianA

…an ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached. The earliest examples are Semitic and often found in religious Hebrew poetry.
 -The American Academy of Poets

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Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

So we wrote our ABC’s down the left margin of a piece of paper, and had ten minutes to generate a poem: a love letter to a person, place or thing.  Three imposed limits: the form itself, the time constraint, the theme.

I didn’t get real far. It was incredibly difficult.

After the divorce
Before the reunion
Coincidence? Or Fate?
David
Edged over
Found me at the table
God!
How weird!
I loved him when I was 20.

Yeeesh. And that was only the beginning of the alphabet. Imagine if I’d made it to K and Q and X.  And Z. The idea that the structural requirements might actually enable rather than inhibit expression made sense to me in theory; in practice….well, yeah. Maybe I could look at it as an exercise, like a musician running scales.

Yeah. That’s it. I was just warming up. There was a big crowd on Sunday, 10 people all told, with only a short time to go over what we’d done, so it was hard for me to tell how many others had as tough a time as I did (and doesn’t it always seem like other people are ‘getting it’ more quickly than you are?).

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2. Cento

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From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources.
-The American Academy of Poets

 Or, as Russell described it, it’s a sort of ‘chainmail’ made out of the pieces of other poems, ‘pulling a poem of your own out of the lines.’

We were instructed to go to the poetry section of the store and choose a book, either by a favorite poet or one entirely unfamiliar to us. We were then directed to page through the poems, cherrypicking a striking line here, another striking line there, then assemble them into something resembling meaning.

Because my confidence was a little shaky I went straight for this, as he has never let me down: Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 10.59.42 AM

We had ten minutes.

Cento
after Billy Collins

The tip of the nose seemed the first to be lost
If you tripped on a shoelace in the hall,
The air ionized as before a thunderstorm.

I heard the ghost-clink of the milk bottle
I fell in love with a wren
It played while I watered the plants
It repeated itself when I took a walk

There was a lot to notice that morning
My new copper-colored bicycle
The music of the spheres
I peered in at the lobsters.
How many things have I looked up
In a lifetime of looking things up?

It’s really sort of amazing what happens; it feels like the sense makes itself.

Again, there sadly wasn’t time to read them all aloud; we chose favorite passages and passed them around (this easily could’ve been a three hour workshop!).

3. Collaborative Poem
(*this is what I’m calling it; it may have a formal name that I don’t remember or know*)

It’s what it sounds like (remember the dread you felt in school when you were told to ‘pair off’ for some class exercise or other?): work with a partner, trading couplets back and forth: you write one, they write one, then you write one, etc.  We were instructed to arrive at a theme by brainstorming with one another, then get down to writing. I don’t know if everyone was as squirmy about this as I was, but it seemed like it.

Why? Why did we feel that dread in school; why did we (or I, at any rate) feel this way?

I think one of the reasons I am a writer is that I am shy, am too easily distracted from my own thoughts by those of others, need to mull my words over and play with my ideas before I share them. It’s a comfortable if not always optimal place, and when you are asked to work with someone else (for some reason, it’s not as difficult for me with a group as with a single partner), you don’t have the safety of privacy anymore.

Or something.

Anyway. My partner Calvin (I never learned his last name…sorry, Calvin!)  and I put our heads together. We were each skittish, I think (I know I was!), tossing the task back and forth like a hot potato. He said ‘you lead,’ and I balked, said something about being that dancer who prefers to follow (or not dance at all, unless I’ve had a couple of drinks), and we finally stumbled on Dancing as a theme.

Dancing Tango [a is one voice; b the other]

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a
Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me

b
I’m not much of a dancer
More a stand-against-the-wall type

a
Come off that wall
Stand tall
You win
If you don’t fall

b
Well I guess I’ll win then
Which foot goes where?

a
Look what they
Doing, shakin
Soft shoeing
Let’s steal a dance
Do that prance

b
They move so fast
Like they know what they’re doing
Maybe if I move fast
I’ll look like that too

a
A one and a two
A stolen soft shoe

b
Who’s leading? The follower?
Or do I follow you?

While putting this post together, I came across this, a collection of poems for two voices:

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4. Ghazal

Its restrictions belie an exhilarating freedom not found in other kinds of poetry. It becomes a liberating sort of puzzle.
http://ghazalpage.com

Pronounced ‘guzzle,’ this is a form I’d never heard of. Originating in Persia, its name originates in an Arabic root that means talking to women.  At its best, flirtation is a subtle art, with a particular and often daunting set of rules. The ghazal is no different.

With gratitude to Holly Jensen at ghazalpage.com, here are the rules:

  1. A traditional or free ghazal has at least 5 end-stopped couplets. Repeat: no enjambment  between couplets. A caesura or end-stop between the lines of couplets is common.
  2. Couplets are autonomous. They need not tell a single narrative, share a single voice, or use common imagery. You can even think of each couplet as its own small poem. They’ve been described as beads on a necklace: separate elements that combine to create a beautiful whole.
  3. The poet often refers to or addresses herself (or an alter ego/pen name) in the last couplet, directly or through word play.
    [in addition to meeting the above guidelines, a ghazal in English has three additional rules]
  4. The defining characteristics of a traditional ghazal are its rhyme and refrain. The refrain can be a word or phrase. The rhyme appears directly before the refrain. Every couplet ends with the rhyme and refrain. In the first couplet only, both lines end in the rhyme and refrain.
  5. Every line of the poem shares the same meter or syllable count.
  6. A ghazal doesn’t always follow every rule!

download

I found this ‘ghazal defining a ghazal’ to be (a little) more enlightening:

Ghazals on Ghazals
John Hollander

For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”

But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s this second line only will rhyme at the end

One such a string of strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!

All our writing is silent, the dance of the hand,
So that what it comes down to’s all mime, at the end.

Dust and ashes? How dainty and dry! We decay
To our messy primordial slime at the end.

Two frail arms of your delicate form I pursue,
Inaccessible, vibrant, sublime at the end.

You gathered all manner of flowers all day,
But your hands were most fragrant of thyme, at the end.

There are so many sounds! A poem having one rhyme?
—A good life with sad, minor crime at the end.

Each new couplet’s a different ascent: no great peak,
But a low hill quite easy to climb at the end.

Two armed bandits: start out with a great wad of green
Thoughts, but you’re left with a dime at the end.

Each assertion’s a knot which must shorten, alas.
This long-worded rope of which I’m at end.

Now Qafia Radif has grown weary, like life,
At the same he’s been wasting his time at. THE END.

A string of beads: the ‘string’ is its series of repeated Screen Shot 2017-05-03 at 6.32.32 PMrhymed refrains, its ‘beads’ the images: ‘wine, roses, candles, birds, war, prayer, politics, jokes, deathbeds, and kisses…’ [Holly Jensen, ghazal.com]
I never quite found my footing with this one: *so many rules* with only a short amount of time left.

Clouds out the window, wool in a box
Ice in a plastic cup, handful of rocks

Seat back and tray table, cart in the aisle
Upright and locked, she says with a smile

You’re now free to move in the cabin…..

…aaaannnnd it peters out. Where’s that repeated phrase? Nowhere to be found. Why are those rhymes so lame? Best I could come up with. Not much came out on the page, but I was doing some real mental gymnastics; maybe that’ll help me the next time I take a stab at it.

What were the gymnastics, exactly? They were a struggle between the restrictions of form and the completely different restrictions of freedom. Russell mentioned hating the requirements of rhyme; it can shut down association and imagination…except when it doesn’t. They were a struggle between my own words and the words of others, an often noisy conversation, a jumble of sense and nonsense. It was a struggle between what hinders creative expression, and what enables it.  It was a struggle between private and public, individual and communal, original and borrowed; it was a struggle with the self-contradictory idea that rules allow freedom, and that freedom creates rules, almost requires them.

Poetry is, I guess, a humanity-wide effort, a democratic art: we borrow from others, generate from within ourselves, join the conversation. We build it in cooperation with one another: everyone who came before us, everyone who will follow. It’s an alphabet, a patchwork, a dialogue, a string of beads, a dance.  And when you’re jammed up, when you can’t quite complete that circuit between head and hand, mind and heart, ideas and images and words, ‘Steal everything!’ Russell said, then get out on the floor, write about dogs, and make something of your own.

Let’s dance
Tango is cool with me.

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
[Skeleton Tango by Laura-Anca Adascalitei]

 

Image, Metaphor, Simile

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)

Sunday, April 23, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price 
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

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First, a word to the wise: unless you have a really good sense of humor, and/or a morbid fascination with your silly past self, you might want to throw away, unread, the journal you kept in the 8th grade (my mother kept everything, then sent all that everything to me). I was running late for this workshop, and it was the only notebook I could find. 

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I couldn’t even get the lyrics right. 

And here’s my Christmas list: 

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The upside was that I felt confident that anything I put in it today could only be an improvement.

Similes and metaphors are phrases likening two things. A simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’; a metaphor is a little bolder, stating that one thing actually is another. ‘Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun?’ Langston Hughes asks of the fate of a dream deferred. ‘My mother is a fish,’ Vardaman Bundren muses in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. It’s my conviction that our brains are wired to make these associations. We learn the world and life by comparing; it brings us a little closer to cracking the code of the essential mystery of things. We all do it; this is not merely the stomping ground of poets. Or, looked at another way: we are all poets. Spend some time noticing, over the course of the rest of today or even the next hour, how often and effortlessly you make an associative, symbolic link between one thing and another. Deployed deftly, honed and polished, metaphor is the resonant end result of an imaginative and intellectual process, the effort to engage with, understand, and express our experience of the world.

But it is also a fertile beginning, forging links between abstract and concrete, trivial and profound, self and other, life and story; cracking open locked boxes, setting all kinds of things in motion, pointing in all kinds of startling directions, setting writers and readers on a path both familiar and entirely strange. You feel for a moment as though the meaning in the words has visited from the outside: a whispered message, a bird on your shoulder. It has assembled you, rather than the other way around (and I think it’s a little of both).

‘What I want to do is ruin a word for everyone else,’ Russell said as the workshop began, explaining that they seek to link it so memorably to its association that readers can never hear that word again without the metaphor ringing in their ears.

And with that, we set out to ruin some words.  

We warmed up with a kind of batting practice fry, taking some tentative swings, warming up.


After listening to some examples from other poems, we were instructed to think of a body part or human quality: heart, eyes, courage, anxiety, then to freewrite our associations to it-concrete objects, specific details-for ten minutes (which as a writer knows is at once a very long and a very short time).  We then went back over what we’d written, bracketing the three IMG_3335.JPGmetaphors we liked best and sharing them around the table: an aging head is a rotary phone, a 60’s-era television without a remote, a plant with a tangle of roots that, when you pull it free, takes the exact shape of the pot it was in (these are mine; I shy away from taking those of others as I feel they’re not really mine to take, although this one is so good I just can’t help myself: a brain is a ‘machine made of meat’).  

Then it was time to step up to the plate (see how ingrained the habit is?). We were each given three small pieces of paper and instructed to label them: Noun, Verb, Adjective. Then, for fifteen minutes, we walked around the wonderful Volumes BookCafé in Wicker Park, searching for words. This was, as it was at the last workshop, an exercise in yearning and frustration: so many things to want, to sit down on the floor with and get lost in. But we had 15 minutes to find 15 words: 5 nouns, 5 verbs, 5 adjectives. The yearning was going to have to wait. 

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When we dragged ourselves away from the shelves and returned to the table we were instructed to sort our papers into three piles, which Russell then sorted, shuffled, and stacked. We each took one piece of paper from each of the piles, so that we had 15 words in front of us, 5 nouns, 5 verbs, and 5 adjectives, chosen by someone else

We were again given 15 minutes. We were to sit with the words in front of us, let them percolate, then cobble together a poem, bringing them into a relationship and compelling them to make sense, to arrange themselves in an entirely new way. 

*Frantic scribbling ensues*

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But then, oh God, about 7 minutes in, Russell says ‘…and now for the curve ball,’ and proceeds to have us pass our nouns to the person to our right, our verbs to the left, and our adjectives across the table, so that we each now have three entirely new lists of words to draw from…for a total of 30 words.  Then the frantic scribbling recommences, new words folded in, old ones discarded, a rearrangement of meaning and image and…metaphor.  

And voilà: a poem.IMG_3330.JPG

Here is mine. At the next workshop I’m going to solicit contributions from other participants; anything they’re willing to share I’ll post in my Anthology section, so stay tuned. 

A Viewing

Grandfather in the barber’s chair
Furred clippers revise him
That grumpy, glowing face
That wild hair
An unfettered armadillo once
A crafty crocodile
A roughneck

Furred clippers revised him:
Happy now,
Undisturbed,
Eyes iced-over jellybeans
His fingers carrots in the dirt
An empty house
An android, vanishing

…a work in progress, but hey, it beats this: 

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And I feel compelled to add that I think that the goofy scribbles in this old notebook from (okay, fine! I’ll just say it!) 40 years ago propelled me into what I wrote in it on Sunday evening: a series of meditations on growing old. A 54-year-old sidled up to her 14-year-old self and maybe told her a couple of things she’d never have known otherwise, and maybe I learned something from her, too. And now we’re sitting there together, tucked between the worn-out covers of a (79 cent!) composition book.

Inspiration is everywhere.

Thanks, Russell, for another wonderful workshop.

Oh, and Go Cubs!

©Melinda Rooney, 2017