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.

 

 

 

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*

Unknown

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

Blackout/Whiteout

From the ‘Pop-up Poetry’ series of workshops sponsored by StoryStudio Chicago
(http://www.storystudiochicago.com)
Sunday, April 9, 2017
taught by C. Russell Price
(http://www.english.northwestern.edu/people/faculty/russell-price.html)

I promised the poet who taught the workshop that I would not steal any ideas. They laughed and said ‘Oh, steal them! Steal anything you want!’

All writers are thieves, after all, and the prizes we treasure most are words.

The workshop consisted of two parts.

Part One: Blackout

Step One
Two back issues of two different literary magazines were passed around the table, and we were instructed to open each at random and rip out a page. We each cringed a little, all avid writers and readers, loath to defile a book. All the same we closed our eyes, flinched, and tore. IMG_3307

Step Two
We were instructed to read quickly over them and cross out all of the words that didn’t ‘jump out’ at us.

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Step Three
Giving us 7-10 minutes, C. Russell instructed us to rapidly compose a piece consisting of the words we had not crossed out, going back and forth between the two pages from the two different magazines, dovetailing words together.

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Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud. I wish I’d thought to pull out my phone and film it (though that might have been met with protest, so maybe it’s just as well).  I wish I’d captured the amazement on both readers’ and listeners’ faces as we heard what we’d written spoken aloud, how each piece cohered, flowed, meant. Our instructor listened intently, scribbling madly as we read, noting one or another striking image, association, emotion, larger meaning. Then they read theirs to us, for as all good teachers do, they had done the same work right alongside the students.

Part Two: Whiteout

We repeated Steps One, Two, and Three, with three variations:

  • First, rather than using the pages we had torn out and marked up, we marked them up then passed them to the person sitting next to us, so each of us had an entirely unfamiliar set of words to work with.
  • Second, we got up and wandered around the bookstore where the workshop was being held, picking up one book and then another at random, choosing five words that jumped out at us and writing them down on another piece of paper. We then returned to the table and exchanged those.
  • Third, we were given 7 minutes to compose a poem out of the available material, but this time we had to ‘whiteout’: impose connecting words of our own to cobble together the un-crossed-out ones (and remember, they’d been chosen by someone else!) on the page. This was *really hard*.

Step Four
We went around the table, each reading our pieces aloud.  And while everyone agreed that this exercise was much more difficult than the previous one (we were using words we had not chosen, had been asked to impose words of our own onto them and cobble meaning together), on the whole, again, there it was: the same amazing experience, the same amazed reactions.

We had destroyed, then created; defaced and repaired; unwoven, then rewoven, obliterated meaning and brought it to life again in an entirely new form, with an entirely surprising shape.

How did that happen?

One of us spoke of how desperate we are for meaning, that we will seek it, and find it, or, failing that, insist on making it, in, or out of, the most random collections of things. We talked about how there are stories in everything, just waiting to be told.  We talked about how nice it was-as writers constantly worrying over our work, the possibility of eventual success, the inevitability of failure and rejection and the effortful determination to shake it off and stick with the work- to return to the thing that had made us want to be writers in the first place: the pure joy of literally playing with words. I thought about the freedom that rules and strictures make possible. I thought about how lonely writing feels, when the truth is it is about as communal as it gets: we are immersed in conversation with our characters, with one another, with (ideally!) our readers, with all of the writers and words we’ve ever read; the authors of the pages we’d marked up were, in a way, sitting there at the table with us. Would they be annoyed at our appropriation, our desecration of their carefully wrought pages? Possibly. I’ll admit I might’ve been. But I suspect not.  ‘Oh, steal them!’ they might have said. ‘Steal anything you want!’  After all, we weren’t stealing their voices. We weren’t appropriating their meaning. We weren’t telling their stories; only they can do that.  We were simply playing with the words they’d played with too, arranging them like Legos into something entirely new. We were recycling.

Think of the possibilities, C. Russell said: medical textbooks, cookbooks, travel magazines, each of them using words in very different ways: technical, descriptive, instructive, lyrical. Think of pulling words willy-nilly from each or all, mashing them together and seeing what surprising things simmer to the surface. I wish I had all of the pieces generated there to share here; I wish I had the pages so I could show you, up close, the scribbled ground from which the pieces grew.

Here’s what I do have.

Blackout
or
Motherhood: A Log of Regrets

Oh, litany and happy prospect,
You’re just like your father.
A peasant.

The press of many matters,
The South Seas,
The Sandwich Islands

Stop it, mother

Seizures
Amusement
Self-Pity
Invective
A volunteer fireman!

Stop it, mother

Your haircut of a father
A demigod, numinous, biblical, divine.
How could this have been my life?

Physical afflictions
A glass on the table
A pleasure and an honor
Grindingly dull, adrift on seas of island flowers
A hundred days

The press of many matters

A slow, meditative cloud
Wallows: malign, aggressive, fractured images
A shining past, exalted primogeniture
it might cost you a nickel-
Conjuring the myth.

You’re just like your father
A schooner, a captain, two crewmen, a second novelist

You must not call me, Mr. Stevenson. 

Whiteout
or
Passing the Bar

Perfect glasses, black and grey
The lawyer pursed her lips

Viewed the statue.
Remembering brick,
She said
 ‘There is one thought enough to kill me.’ 

She sets up her easel
Loud, marigold-colored paint
Pink and candy-blue,
Hydrangea bushes.
‘I don’t understand,’ she says,
‘all of the beauty and fashion of Rome.’

‘I can end this terror,
This posthumous existence, the sweat of 
Those boys.’
In the name of profit, she turns,
Questioning potted honey lilies and spiderplants:
‘Who is to say that I’m not a criminal myself?’

Indigestible words
Earliest days in Rome

Everything I have reminds me of her. 

IMG_3308

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

[For other workshops like these, and other writers’ resources in Chicago, please see http://www.storystudiochicago.com. Many thanks to Jill Pollack, founder and director, and all who work there, for what they make happen. Special thanks to C. Russell Price, *from whom I shamelessly stole*]