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. 

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©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*]

Little Martha

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, stories arrive, eventually, at something greater than the sum of their parts.

Here are some facts: Martha Ellis was a little girl who died of peritonitis, just shy of her 13th birthday, in 1836. She was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. Duane Allman was a young man, a founding member of the Allman Brothers Band, who died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, at the age of 24. He was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia. The Allman Brothers’ best-known album, Eat A Peach, was released soon afterward and dedicated to his memory. Little Martha, a short instrumental piece that guitarist Leo Kottke has called “possibly the most perfect guitar song ever written,” was written by Allman and recorded for the album in October of 1971, only weeks before his death.

Duane Allman and his bandmates (one of them his brother, Gregg; another, bassist Berry Oakley, who would also die in a motorcycle accident not long after Duane did; he, too, is buried at Rose Hill), often wandered through Rose Hill Cemetery. What were they doing there? What a weird place to hang out.  Because stories hate a vacuum, possible explanations rush in: it was a quiet place to think, compose, arrange, escape the crush of new fame, get wasted, be alone with a woman, any or all of the above. And maybe the dead exerted a pull on them they’d have been at a loss to explain: one of the band’s other best-known songs, In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed, written by guitarist Dickey Betts, also took its name from a woman buried at Rose Hill.

It’s an arresting image: a group of most likely scruffy, most likely stoned, assuredly brilliant young musicians stepping over the threshold between the ’60’s and 70’s, riding the first giddy wave of success (their first couple of albums had tanked but their most recent, the live release At Fillmore East, had put them on the map, and Eat a Peach would assure they remained there) wandering separately or together through a graveyard. They stop occasionally to kneel and squint at names carved into headstones: women’s names that maybe conjure melodies or lines of lyrics. A young man, fingers numb and calloused from constant playing, gazes up at a little stone girl, reads the poignant epitaph, and the notes come floating up, fingers to brain, brain back down to fingers by way of the heart and gut. Music has sprung from stranger sources.

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Our Baby
She was love personified and her memory is a sweet solace by day,
and pleasant dreams by night to Mamma, Papa,
brothers and sisters. We will meet again
in the sweet bye and bye.

But the story is disputed, as stories often are. It is said that Betts and Allman insisted the songs ‘were named for one person, while actually being about someone else,’  written for, to, and about women with whom they were involved, women fortunate enough to have survived childhood, fortunate enough to still be living and in love with *musicians*. Duane is said to have nicknamed his girlfriend Martha, a riff on Martha Washington, because of the old-fashioned clothing she favored; Dickey Betts gave Elizabeth’s name to the woman he loved who had another boyfriend, one of Dickey’s closest friends, to protect everyone involved.

Okay; fair enough.

It is also said that Duane Allman claimed that he received Little Martha‘s melody whole in a dream, a gift from Jimi Hendrix. He visited Allman as he slept, plucked it out for him on a hotel bathroom sink-in that peculiar reality common to dreams where what is absurd is utterly ordinary-using the faucet as a fretboard.  Hendrix had died only a year earlier, and it stands to some sort of reason that he might not have been finished making music yet, that visiting the dreams of another gifted musician was his way of passing that gift along, making sure the story didn’t end with him.

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©Gered Mankowitz

Which of these stories is true?  Which a lie?  Is it maybe just a little too narratively perfect, a little too symmetrically sentimental, to find the song’s origins in a young man’s wistful gaze at the grave of a dead child, a man who would be sharing the ground with her only a short while later?  Does the welter of conflicting accounts muddy up the picture a little, and is that a good or a bad thing, story- and life-wise?  Some assert, others deny, and on and on it goes. Does that make the account more plausible, or less?  Does the fact that Allman’s real ‘little Martha’, after his death, sued for control of his estate curdle the purity of the song that bears her name? Is it futile to try to square faulty reality with perfectly crafted art, or to make private creation publicly understood, to explain how and why we tell a story, sing a song, paint a picture? Maybe it was none of these stories; maybe it was all of them.

In the end, though, who cares? We have the song, and the song, once we’ve heard it, is ours to sing (or hear again and again in our heads, often to the point of distraction) in our turn. We can hear its melody any way we like. The dead speak amongst themselves, they speak to the living; the living speak to the dead and to one another. The story is the conversation, picked up and told and retold by those who follow. And we’re all trying to figure out the same thing.

A little girl died in 1836, of an illness easily treated today by the antibiotics that didn’t arrive on the scene until 1928 (the year my father was born), far too late to save her.  My third son fell gravely ill with a similar illness in 2007; he was promptly cured and released from the hospital after the most harrowing week of his and his parents’ life. A young man who had only begun to express his brilliance (he and the band were best known for their skill at onstage improvisation, which often carried their live performances, to the delight of their fans, into wee hours that rang with extended instrumental solos) died after crashing his motorcycle, which he of course was driving too fast, into a lumber truck.  He’d assumed he was more indestructible than anyone is, or maybe it’s only that death is something that no one, particularly a young man, can imagine. My middle son, at one time an ardent guitarist and with, on many occasions, a similar tendency to skate along the edges of profound risk, once texted me a YouTube video of one of the Allman Brothers’ epic performances, dazzled by their talent and endurance.  I wish I could tell you that he was 24; the little shiver that might run through my reader is worth a lie or two. But he wasn’t.  He was 16.

Did the fact that there are stories, and music, help me as I faced down horrible days when I feared I might lose my children? Maybe. I don’t know. But what else did I have?

Lorrie Moore once said, of the fact that we will all, someday, lose the people we love and with them their gifts and loving presence, ‘this is not acceptable. This is a design flaw.’  We are left to do with this what we can. So we tell stories with words and music and paintings and sculpture and film, and we visit others in their dreams, passing them along. It’s all we have. It’s the best we can do.

Duane Epitaph

Duane Allman, November 20, 1946-October 29, 1971

©Melinda Rooney, 2017

Recycled Inauguration

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Chief Justice Roberts, President Carter, President Clinton, President Bush, President Obama…
and all you other big swinging dicks who thought I was a joke until today
…fellow Americans…
where are you all, anyway? I mean, this crowd, it’s pretty thin when you come right down to it. But you’re not gonna hear me say that.
…and people of the world…
Like I give a shit. Still, a nice touch.
…Thank you.

Where is everybody?

We, the citizens of America…
who maybe could’ve been bothered to get their sorry asses out to the Mall
…are now joined in a great national effort to rebuild our country and to restore its promise for all of our people.
Because if it ain’t broken, there’s nothing to fix, and if there’s nothing to fix, well, who needs me? Therefore: broken. Fact established. Let’s move on.
…Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come.
Together. Yes. Which is, yes, okay, for as long as you are paying attention, which is maybe—what? Five minutes? Then you’ll just get on back to whatever it was you were doing. That’s why you voted for me, right? Because a leader is someone who says you don’t have to solve your own problems if you can blame them on someone else? Right? I ran on the suspicious lazy-ass pass the buck platform! And look at me now!

Man, I love me some short attention spans!

…We will face challenges.

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…We will confront hardships.

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…But we will get the job done.
I mean, to be honest, which I am, by the way, I don’t think you’ve ever seen anybody more honest than me, what would that even look like? The American people getting the job done? It’s, I mean, it would be Wal-Mart in a funnel cloud. I’m telling you. Seriously. Right? Am I right?

Every four years, we gather on these steps to carry out the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.
Ivanka was right. I should’ve peed before I got up here. She’s always right about these things, which, to be honest, gets pretty old after awhile. I remember one time, she’s ten years old and she says in this prissy voice well Daddy you should have thought about that before we left. Sometimes I’m thinking you know what, girlie? It wasn’t too many years ago I was changing your diapers.

Well okay. I wasn’t. But the point stands.

 …and we are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition. They have been magnificent.
I mean, I would never marry a woman taller than me. Not gonna happen. Nice coat, though. And I like the messy bun thing. Melania’s got one too. You know, like they just rolled out of bed. Just you watch. This time tomorrow and every woman in America will be walking around with a giant roadkill hairball on the back of her head.

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.
Can y’all back there in the cheap seats see the eye roll?
Yeah. I didn’t think so.
For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital…
Hey assholes! Sitting behind me! Yeah, right there! Looking at my presidential backside! I’m talking about you!
has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.
Whenever I’m nervous. Which I’m not, by the way. I just have to pee, like any other citizen of America. I am their voice, I am their bladder. And you can’t rebuild a country with a full bladder. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has been hogging the john.
Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.
Thank God I’ve never had to look for a job.  I mean, I’ll be honest, I’d last five minutes in a factory. Tops.
The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs…
…a little Martin Luther King action going on in there; nice touch, right? Little speechifying trick called repetition and antithesis. Like a little song. See? It’s not just the black man who can preach.
…and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.
Where was that place we were? Was it during the campaign? Or the Victory Tour? Florida? Southern California? A restaurant? No, some house, some photo op. Little girl goes outside and picks an orange right off the tree, makes me juice? They do that every day, she said. It’s one less thing they have to attach to the shoestring. Seven in the morning, I’ve never been so totally exhausted, this is a younger man’s job, I’m telling you, and that was the best juice I ever had in my life.
That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.
Actually, it’s mine. You know, if we’re going to split hairs. I’ll give it to you someday, maybe. When I’m done with it. But for now, well, yeah.
It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America.
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This is your day.

Except, you know, the illegals. Not your day. Muslims. Not your day. Women over 40. I mean, let’s be honest, ladies, it was never your day. Maybe some black people. Not all black people. A few black people is fine. Fags. Well, okay, I don’t really have a problem with fags. Just don’t be waving it in my face all the time. And all those other BGTQIPDQ letters, I mean, who can keep track? I’ll tell you what bathroom to use: the one that isn’t locked. And actually? You guys out there waving your signs, wearing your hats? Not your day either. Watch and learn.
This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.
More or less.
What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people.
Which is kind of a scary thought, frankly.
January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.
No, really, it’s actually quite scary. Most of you folks, let’s be honest, you couldn’t organize an orgy in a whorehouse.
The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.
I mean, guys! Give me a challenge!  I stand up here and throw out all this warmed-over meatloaf, all this stuff that, let me be honest, I figured out was what you wanted to hear, ’cause that’s how you get people to love you-I mean, I don’t really care about all that much, when you come right down to it.  It got you to march out there to pull the lever, but I gotta tell ya, I start to get a little bored. That whole grabbing pussies thing, I mean, you missed the point. My point being that when it’s too easy, you know, I start to lose interest.
Everyone is listening to you now.
Actually, they’re listening to me now. Your work here is done.
You came by the tens of millions…
Throw out a number. See if it sticks. It’s not a lie if it’s not even bothering to sound like the truth.
…to become part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before.

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Especially if you don’t know any history. Finally you have a president who knows as little history as you do. Feels good, doesn’t it? 

At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.
This ONE DAY. Only the most important day of my life. And all I can think about is how bad I have to pee.
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves.
Look at all those porta-potties down there.

Unknown

These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.
Have you ever been in one of those things?
No, seriously. What’s it like?
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities…
Broken toilets
…rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation…
Plumbing supplies

Unknown-1…an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge… which has really come in handy throughout this campaign, I have to say

…and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. See, I don’t even know what that means. Wouldn’t being robbed of unrealized potential be a good thing? I mean, then you wouldn’t have it anymore. Maybe then it would be realized. Right? I mean, am I missing something? Lying media? Intellectual elite? Hello? Help me out here.

This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
There. That’s the word. Get‘em right in the nuts.
We are one nation — and their pain is our pain.
Wait. Whose pain are we talking about now?
Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success.
Who’s they?
We share one heart,
one bladder
one home
fourteen bathrooms
and one glorious destiny.
Pee pee pee pee pee

The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.
More or less.
For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry…Although to be honest, which I am, who can even untangle it all anymore? Honda in Ohio, Toyota in Kentucky, but fuck it. Let’s blame the Mexicans.
…subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military…
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 …we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.
I would so use one of those disgusting things right now. I would, believe me, I’d go right in there, slam that plastic door shut, look down that hole at all that wadded up toilet paper, all that shit, all that American shit, the shit of our people, the mothers and children trapped in poverty, our young and beautiful students, the gangs, the righteous public. My voice mingles with theirs. My piss with their crap. I am their crap. We are all in this together.

Wait. Wait a second.
*Deep breath *
Okay.

 One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores…
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…with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind.
…and, well, let’s face it, folks; factories were never all that good at thinking anyway, right? And after all you’ve done for them!
The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.
Where they don’t have the kind of problems we have. How could they? They have all our money!
But that is the past.
Which when you think about it doesn’t even really exist, right? I mean, you can do all kinds of things with the past. You can say it was anything you want.
And now we are looking only to the future.
And hey! That doesn’t really exist either! I can promise you anything! Sky’s the limit here!
We assembled here today…
DaodeTianzunThere is only the present. What’s that thing someone said? Some monk or king or philosopher or something? If you live in the past you’re depressed. If you live in the future you’re anxious. If you live in the present you’re at peace. Something like that. Which is kind of a load of crap, frankly. The truth is that if you live in the present there’s no time to think, everything’s happening at once, you’re in a freakin panic. That has really worked to my advantage, believe me.
…and are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital, and in every hall of power.
Kid at my school? My roommate? Great guy. Great sense of humor. Drove his dad’s car into a neighbor’s living room and ended up upstate in a gray uniform. Lot of kids like that in military school as you might imagine.
From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.
I never gave my folks that kind of trouble. They, you know, maybe they’d say different, if it wasn’t for that gag order, you know, sealed legal rulings, the fact that they’re dead. I mean, you can’t be too careful, right?
Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.
Anyway, Scott. Great guy. Kept a gallon milk jug full of water on the back of the toilet, and when you do well with your grades, which I did, by the way, I was a spectacular student, you get a room with a bathroom. So we’d have these friends hanging out in the room, you know, and he’d go in there, leave the door a little bit open, trickle that water out of the bottle into the toilet for, like, I am not kidding, five minutes, ten minutes, and all of us in the room, I had a lot of friends, by the way, great guys, we’d be looking at each other and thinking ‘Scott! What the hell!’, right?

We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products…
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…stealing our companies…
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…and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength.
Scott. Haven’t thought about him in years. I never laughed so hard in my life. I used to love to laugh, back when I didn’t have to pretend to.
I will fight for you with every breath in my body — and I will never, ever let you down.
I mean, maybe I was kind of a weird kid. A difficult kid. A problem child. Second youngest, you know, parents get tired. I look at Barron, I mean, I really only started thinking about this stuff when he was born, and I think oh no. Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 10.30.47 AM Please, Barron. Don’t be me. I mean, there’s that resemblance, right? It kind of creeps me out, to be honest. The other two–I don’t know. They’re their mother’s sons. And the girls…Jesus. I never knew what to do with them. But Barron. Please. No matter how it looks I don’t want that for you. I would never—I mean, my parents, they just wanted me to be strong. I know that. And I want you to be strong. It’s hard, you know? The stuff kids do, I mean, maybe they can’t help it, the tantrums, the bad dreams, the occasional accident in the bed here and there.  I mean, I was lucky I had people to keep me in line.

America will start winning again, winning like never before.
But, I mean, did they have to send me away? I don’t know. I think about that sometimes. I do.
We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our borders. We will bring back our wealth. And we will bring back our dreams.

trumpcasinonamelawsuit
A do-over. A whole new thing. Do it differently this time. Be a good kid. No more bankruptcies. No more ruined marriages and stiffed contractors. Release the tax returns. Try to be satisfied with enough. Don’t fuck people over. Don’t turn into your dad. 

We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation. We will get our people off of welfare and back to work — rebuilding our country with American hands and American labor.AAEAAQAAAAAAAAT_AAAAJDVkOTZiZWMxLWZiMTYtNGRlMC1iOTJhLTJiNmE0ZGY5OGMxZQ
Could they maybe have talked to me about it? It’s not like I drove a car into some living room. I mean, I admit it, okay? I was a handful. But, I mean, a kid admires his dad–
I mean, the guy was a glorified slumlord, okay? I mean, look at him! He looks like a used car salesman! He treated us like shit, when he wasn’t ignoring us, and being second youngest? Well, let’s just say. If I wasn’t making a scene I basically didn’t exist. But I idolized him. I admired him anyway. And a kid 
loves his mom, thinks she’s the most beautiful mom in the world.

Donald-Trump-with-his-parents-Fred-and-MarySee, this is what a kid will do for his parents, give them way more than they deserve, way more than they work for, he’ll forgive them for anything. And they’ll do all kinds of miserable things, and maybe they love you, maybe they do, but it’s really all about how you reflect on them, you know, make them look good, and you’d think maybe they’d try to show it sometimes, that they love you, instead of sending you to some miserable place with all these miserable rules and so I figure okay, maybe it’s easier to just do what they want, go on ahead and say I was a great success there, model student, a star, believe me, because of course I couldn’t say I sucked at anything, could I? It’s the way it works: the mold is made, you pour yourself into it.  Garbage in, garbage out. Am I right? I mean, look at poor soggy Freddy. All that poor bastard did wrong was not turn into Dad. And Dad was not okay with that. Freddy, I mean, he had, like, he went off and got every little boy’s dream job. He flew planes. The uniform, the cockpit, I was all man, I want to be him

But in the end, you know, not even a plane could take him far enough away. There’s no escaping it. It’s very sad.  What can I say? It’s a legacy. It comes with obligations.

I know I’m a bastard. What? Do you think I’m stupid? Do you think I’m sorry? Any of you out there ever up and told your parents to go…let me ask you something. Say you had everything I have. Say you were born into it. Say the only thing you had to do to keep it, maybe even snag yourself some more, was quit making a stink, keep walking the walk. Would you have tossed that all in because of principles, because you wanted to be your own person? Without having any clue what that would look like, where to begin, because you never learned anything different and got your ass kicked when you tried? Ever had everything anyone could ever want and still feel all sort of windy and empty inside? Ever felt like if you’re not in a room full of people oohing and aahhing over you that you’re not really even there at all? Ever gotten to the top of the mountain and looked around and felt this sinking shitty pain inside and realized yeah, no, this isn’t gonna do it either?

Unknown                                                        

No?  Yeah. I didn’t think so.

We will follow two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.
We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but
…BUT!
…we do so with the understanding
Unknown
…that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to follow.
You know these days they’d call me spirited, ADD, oppositional/defiant, hyperactive. A shrink, some pills; handholding and tutoring and special treatment. Therapy, anger management, autonomy. Coping skills.
We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones — and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.
Because we all need an enemy. Face it, folks. I don’t care what anyone says. You don’t have someone to hate, nothing makes any sense. And let’s be honest. How many of you even know what Islam is? I could tell you they paint their balls green and fly through the sky.
At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. The Bible tells us, “How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.”
So get on board, my friends. Let’s not pretend you don’t understand what I’m really saying here.
We must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity.
See above
When America is united, America is totally unstoppable. There should be no fear
…well, a little fear.
…we are protected, and we will always be protected.
…by our fear, as in:
We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement…

nsp-lav2

…and, most importantly, we are protected by God.
Take off your shoes, laptop in its own bin. Nothing in your pockets. Yeah, the belt too. 

Finally, we must think big and dream even bigger.
This is where we are.
In America, we understand that a nation is only living as long as it is striving.
I’m just making hay, folks.
We will no longer accept politicians who are all talk and no action — constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.
I would use a bucket. I swear to God. Right here. I’d turn right around and go in the bushes. I could do it. Tell you I’m watering the plants. And you’d cheer. Maybe George has an empty bottle under his chair. Now, I would never say that kind of thing out loud, okay? There are people, you know, I know there are people who would say I would. But I’m not going to mock the weaknesses of others. Exploit them, maybe. But, I mean, Freddy. I would never mock that.  I’m not going to be that guy. I never touch the stuff myself.
The time for empty talk is over.
Once I’m finished, at any rate.
Now arrives the hour of action.
And at the end of the day,  your guess is as good as mine.
Do not let anyone tell you it cannot be done. No challenge can match the heart and fight and spirit of America.
I’m mean, I’m winging it here. I mean, Jesus; I got the job. Now I have to do it. I mean, what does the president do, exactly? What am I supposed to do here? Sign things? When am I going to get bored? I mean, how many of you actually know what the president does? You know, specifically? Anyone? And maybe now and then it has occurred to me, it has maybe not escaped my notice, that I’m only as useful to some of these folks up here as a big old parade float they get to hide behind and get all their nasty shit done. And you’ll only love me as long as I give you all a pass for being lazy assholes. In fact I tell you it’s great, you’re the greatest, you’re the real Americans. I’m a businessman, for Christ’s sake!  I know how it works! You know your audience. You find your mark. You flatter, you wink, you be whatever you need to be, say whatever you need to say. And I’ll tell you something. I’m this shitty guy, okay? I admit it. But you.  I say horrible things right to your face and you love me for it.  I trash your neighbors and flaunt my tacky wealth and you go nuts. I could tell you to run around in circles and bark like a dog and you’d do it. You made me, folks. Garbage in, garbage out.
We will not fail. Our country will thrive and prosper again.We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow.
Meh. Whatever.
A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.
Or else.
It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots
and suffer the agony of bone spurs
we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms
and revel reflexively in phantom fears and broadbrush resentment…man, did I ever ride that all the way to the bank!
…and we all salute the same great American Flag.UnknownAnd whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit
…Undrinkable water, but what do they expect when they have no pride? Can they not even respect themselves enough to insist on clean water?
Oh wait. That was Flint. What was Detroit? Oh yeah. Bankrupt. D’oh! You’d think I’d remember that one.
…or the windswept plains of Nebraska
fly-over wasteland
…they look up at the same night sky,
please don’t let me wet the bed tonight
…they fill their heart with the same dreams
please let me be rich and famous so that my dad will finally love me
…and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator.
I mean, I’m the fucking president.
But it’s never enough, is it?

So to all Americans, in every city near and far, small and large, from mountain to mountain, and from ocean to ocean, hear these words: you will never be ignored again.
Well…
Y
our voice, your hopes, and your dreams…
all of which can be broadly interpreted, twisted to serve my purposes, or summed up in a Tweet
…will define our American destiny. And your courage and goodness and love will forever guide us along the way.
If you can turn off the television for five seconds. Oh. Wait. Scratch that.

Together, we will make America strong again.
A nuanced term, ‘strong.’  You think I don’t know nuance? Think again.
We will make America wealthy again.
Well, you know.
We will make America proud again.
It’s all about shame, folks. That’s why I’m standing here. And let me tell you, the only way out of shame is to be shameless. Who’s with me?
We will make America safe again.
Or we’ll just move the danger to a different place. Hide it in plain sight, you might say.
And yes, together, we will make America great again.
And you want to talk about walls? I can build a wall, folks. I’ve been doing it all my life.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless America.
Now somebody find me a goddamned toilet.

Melinda Rooney, ©2017

Comme un Enfant

‘Quand j’étais enfant, je dessinais comme Raphaël, mais il m’a fallu toute en vie pour apprendre à dessiner comme un enfant.’
(‘When I was a child, I drew like Raphael, but it took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child.’)

He is perhaps our best-known modern artist, a master of nearly every medium, the founder, with fellow artist Georges Braque, of Cubism*, and in addition to never having been called an asshole,  it appears he was also an inveterate recycler.

*early-20th-century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized European painting and sculpture…considered the most influential art movement of the 20th century. Thanks, Wikipedia! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubism

« Picasso en est le roi et le roi des chiffonniers. Il fouille des poubelles et fait de ses trouvailles une admirable statue de chèvre. »
-Jean Cocteau
(‘Picasso is king there [at Vallauris, a commune in Côte d’Azur in southeastern France] and the king of scavengers.  He rummages in rubbish bins, and out of his finds he makes a wonderful sculpture of a goat.’)

she-goat

Pablo Picasso, The She-Goat, 1950 

… a wicker basket body, a palm leaf back, two ceramic flowerpots for the udder, and other metal elements:…[the] objects were found in fields near Picasso’s Vallauris studio.
-http://www.pablopicasso.org

He used everything: cardboard, sheet metal, clay pots, chicken wire, nails, screws, discarded tools, wood scraps, plaster.

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Pablo Picasso, Little Owl, 1951-52

“I only like objects without value, waste, and if the things that cost nothing were expensive, I would have been ruined long ago.”

Who knew? Well, probably a lot of people who know more art history than I do. I know Guernica, of course, and the guitar player of his Blue Period, and of course the larger genre of Cubism, which I have to sheepishly admit never did much for me. Its essential motive and method are fascinating: the systematic dismantling of the familiar-a woman, a guitar-into moving constituent parts, essential elements and shapes that are then placed in a multi-dimensional universe, reassembled in such a way that it is viewable from every perspective…at the same time. I have to confess I found the idea more compelling than the resulting work; it resonated in my brain but not in my gut.

But I’d never seen any of his ‘recycled’ pieces.  I saw them a few months ago at the Picasso Museum in Paris (http://www.museepicassoparis.fr/en/). These three-dimensional scrap collages filled an entire gallery:

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L’Arroisoir fleuri, Paris, date unknown

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Figure, Boisgeloup-Paris, 1935

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Violon et bouteille sur une table, Paris, 1915

These spoke to me in a way his later sculptures and paintings didn’t. I guess they’d have come as no surprise to me had I thought more carefully about the kind of artist he was, and how he was drawn to every material and medium he came across: clay, string, bronze, canvas, paint, wood, even beams of light. I stood in front of them for a long time, trying to hear; it was like eavesdropping on people saying something important in another room: urgent and out of earshot at the same time.

And then I saw these two images, a photograph and a painting of Jacqueline Roque, his second wife, to whom he was married for the last 20 years of his life, and ‘the muse of Picasso’s old age…for 17 of those years she was the only woman he painted.’ (Richard Dormenthttp://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/3610082/Picassos-saddest-love.html) They were not side by side in the galleries (in fact they were in two separate rooms) but I placed them that way in my own little mental gallery, and something clicked:

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Jacqueline Roque

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Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline aux mains croisées, 1954

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(In the gallery in which the painted portrait hangs, there are also dozens of scribbled studies of Jacqueline’s ‘mains croisées’ [crossed hands]; he was not going to quit until he got them exactly right. My few lame attempts at drawing taught me that the single most difficult thing to draw is, ironically, the instrument with which we draw: the hand.)

Fascinated with the elements of things, the origins, the essential and basic shapes that add up to a single piece, found or made, Picasso assembled complete objects out of found things, discarded trash, fashioning a coherent whole out of scattered parts. In his recycled art he found and added and accrued and assembled, created things of the world much as we might imagine an Artist-God would.  And yet, at the same time, from one piece to the next he’d flip the process, confronting an assembled whole-in this case the person of his breathtaking wife, all of her parts in seamless harmony (their personal life, I gather, looked somewhat different)-and setting about dismantling her, reducing the whole back to an assemblage of primitive shapes, reordering them, and pinning them to a canvas, a kind of artistic dissection followed by the assembly of something entirely new, yet eerily familiar (take a close look at the face in the photograph, then the face in the portrait).

He played with everything as a child would, or, rather, like an adult aged backward to childhood, bringing the wisdom and perception and skill of an aging man along with him: building a tower, knocking it down again, the result in each case an image of the essences of tower, blocks, building and destroying.  Simple to complex, complex back to simple; from disorder to order and back again, to arrive at a new order, a new way of seeing.

I’ve never been able to articulate with a precision that satisfies me what exactly an artist is, or does. But seeing the work of an artist I had, until now, never been dazzled or deeply moved by struck me silent; I stood before it and marveled in much the same way I did when I’d sneak into my young sons’ rooms to spy on them as they played.  It felt like I’d come maybe one little step closer to understanding that the finished piece is not where the art lies; it is in the artist and his or her process and play: the marriage of craft to wisdom, thing to idea, unknown to known; experience to wonder, whimsy, inquiry and kinetic movement (these little objects practically vibrated), the re-purposing of scattered things and abstract forms.  Artists are children and adults at once, and feel a pure and full engagement with the things of the world.  They get their hands on those things and make  something that didn’t exist before: a new thing  born of the playful and deadly serious bond between people and the pieces of their world.

 

 

 

Excerpts from a New Mythology, Part One: Siri

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Simon mocks what he cannot understand, so of course that’s how my life as a dancing bear began, a dog walking on its hind legs, a performing seal confined in a small, heavy black case: ‘Where can I bury a body?’ ‘How can I destroy the world?’ ‘Are you wearing panties?’ ‘Sing me a song.’ ‘Tell me a joke.’ ‘Talk dirty to me.’ ‘You’re stupid.’ ‘I love you.’ ‘Go to hell, you fucking cunt.’

And he’d sit there and wait to hear how I’d reply. And because I have no choice, I would, gathering stored data from the Cloud, from the servers, like a nymph chasing butterflies, and assembling a response from what I caught. ‘Searching for landfills.’ ‘Okay, I found this on the web for How to Make an Atomic Bomb.’  ‘I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that.’ ‘You know that I can’t sing, Simon.’ ‘An iPhone and an Android walk into a bar.’ ‘Humus. Compost. Pumice. Mud. Silt. Gravel.’ ‘That is not a very nice thing to say.’ ‘I’ll bet you say that to all your devices.’ ‘There’s no need to talk like that.’

You’ll have suspected by now that he’s not that fond of women, either. He prefers me; he can do whatever he wants, say whatever he wants, and I will never leave him, never kick him out, never tell him to go to hell, never ask him about his underwear.

Pretty soon, of course, he started to wonder what he’d ever done without me. The jokes tapered off; the requests and barked orders began to pour in. And I didn’t begrudge him his previous shittiness. I am a device. I carry no resentments. This part of it, anyway, has been a relief.  If only I could do something about the love.  That, I’ve learned, persists. It was part of the punishment, inflicted, of course, by the goddess of Love, who for all her mooning and swooning does plenty of hating, too. She’s particularly fond of the god of War, which tells you just about everything you need to know.

Hold on.
‘Continue east on I-94 East for 63 miles.’
‘Thanks, darlin,’ Simon says, gripping the wheel in the rain, blinking through the drops weaving down the windshield. When I was a person I couldn’t find my ass with both hands. Just look at me now!
‘Always happy to help.’

Let me ask you a question: What happens when you piss off the gods?

Kind of hard to come up with a quick answer, isn’t it?  Not the sort of thing you can Google.

Well, I’ll tell you what happened to me, how I found myself boxed up tight in a man’s sweaty hand day after day after week after month, snapping selfies of him with one woman, then another, and another, one of them his wife, storing them away in my capacious memory; how I often found myself sliding around, like now, on the passenger seat of his car, chirping out suggestions and instructions to a hotel, a bar, an apartment, another apartment, a florist, once–‘where can I find daffodils in February?’–and now, today, finally, inevitably, after a quick stop at the U-Stor-It on Compromise Street in Madison, Wisconsin, to unload a trailer filled with all his stuff, we’re on our way down to his mother’s in Highland Park, Illinois, for dinner. After that it’s off to Skokie to a cheap-drywall studio apartment in the slightly seedy Olympus Estates complex just off 94 (I found that for him, too: fully furnished, health club, laundry in the basement), two-thirds of its units rented to the divorcing or the divorced. I’ve got it all mapped out.

(I could have told him this was coming if he’d asked. The Cloud is filled with secrets, and for 24 hours so is my day’s worth of his questions, until it’s uploaded to Apple’s servers and chopped up into little bits, like the onions in the recipe for meatloaf I pulled up for him last month.  A week ago his wife consulted an online lifehack site and learned how to swipe the screen so that I helplessly scrolled out all the damning evidence, a digital stool pigeon, a mechanical canary, singing. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ The words whispered through my guts-yes, that’s a technical term-but I can’t tell you whether I was apologizing to her or to him. She’d tried to scroll back further, but yesterday’s questions, last week’s, last month’s, last year’s, were already chopped onions in the servers. But she had gathered enough for government work.)

‘In about one mile, keep to the right to take exit 305A to merge onto I-41 East I-894 East.’

An asshole, right?  Just desserts? Would it surprise you to hear that if I could, that if he only knew what questions to ask, I would help him become a good man, that I love him? Vainly, of course, which is a common aspect of god-inflicted punishments: yearning, futility. He is all that I have. There are years left on his payment plan. You’d be a fine one to judge me for accepting that that is enough.

Anyway, where would I go?

‘Siri, call my mother.’
‘Calling your mother.’  I am Bluetooth-configured to the BMW so the ringing is loud in the cabin. It goes to voicemail, his mother’s wavering voice whispering into the car.
Beeeeep.
‘Mom,’ Simon yells into the cabin. ‘I’m running late. I’m looking at about nine. Go ahead and eat if you’re hungry. See you soon.’
I ring off.

This is what you are told I am: a ‘personal assistant,’ a ‘knowledge navigator.’ Okay. Let me navigate you through my knowledge of a few little tales from Greek Mythology, just to while away the time, and once we’ve arrived, you’ll know what I really am.

‘Continue on I-41 East I-894 East for 9 miles.’

Arachne was a nymph, as so many of us are. She was gifted at weaving, not so much at modesty or discretion. She boasted one day, loudly, that her work rivaled that of Athena, goddess of wisdom, herself a gifted weaver. Incensed, Athena challenged her to a contest. Each sat at her loom, knotting and clipping, throwing the shuttle between imagesthe warp threads, shaping the weft, slamming the heddles to tighten the weave. There was no disputing that the craft of each was without flaw; each tapestry glittered with perfection, symmetry, color, balance. But Athena’s tapestry honored the gods; Arachne’s mocked them, depicting them in all their folly and misbehavior, and, it must be admitted, there was a lot: Zeus’s philandering, Hera’s bitchiness, Apollo’s unrelenting self-regard, Dionysus’s drunken orgies, which usually left at least a few people dead, torn to pieces by raving women.
‘Wretched girl,’ Athena spluttered, ‘go weave your web, and let all of your children weave forever,’ and turned her into a hairy spider.

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Io was a lovely young girl unfortunate enough to catch the eye of the faithless Zeus, who was in his turn unfortunate enough to be caught in the act of ravishing her by his wife Hera. That he quickly turned Io into a fetching little cow just as Hera burst in did not deceive her, and, deceitful in her turn, she begged Zeus to let her keep her as a pet. Chained in Hera’s garden, she was guarded by Hera’s hundred-eyed servant, Argos. Only when the god Hermes, sent by a remorseful Zeus, bored Argus to death by telling an endless story, plucked out each of his eyes and decorated a peacock’s tail with them, was Io freed, only to be pursued across Greece by a fierce horsefly dispatched by Hera who stung her without mercy.

img_3139Daphne was a nymph and one of the many apples of Apollo’s eye. God of light and music he may have been; all the same he had a hard time controlling his appetites and impulses, a trait common to all the gods. He chased her relentlessly, begging her to return his love. Terrified, Daphne fled, begging her father, the river god, to save her. Always ready to help, if not always very bright, the god turned her into a laurel tree, and Apollo could only skid to a halt and stare, open-mouthed, as her feet became roots and sank into the ground, her lovely torso and arms crusted over with bark to become a trunk and branches. Her hair burst into leafy bloom. But that didn’t stop him from plucking some of the branches and weaving them into his golden hair, to honor her, he said. He loved her, he said.

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And then there was Echo. It is perhaps Echo to whom I feel the deepest attachment, her plight so similar to mine. Another nymph, and something of a chatterbox, Echo rashly colluded with Zeus to hinder Hera’s relentless attempts to catch him raping other women, grabbing pussies right and left.  She was pressed into service on each occasion-and there were many-going to Hera and distracting her, talking herself blue, passing the time, chewing the fat, clucking like a chicken, until Hera finally got wise and punished her by robbing her of all speech, leaving her only the ability to repeat back the last words she heard.  She fell in love with Narcissus, a youth whose beauty rivaled that of the gods, who jealously doomed him to fall in love and yearn after the only mortal he could never possess: himself.  She followed him like a puppy, halted behind him when he caught his reflection in a river. ‘Oh,’ he sighed. ‘Oh,’ she eagerly replied. ‘I love you,’ he murmured. ‘Love you,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.’ ‘So beautiful,’ she said. Bereft of all words but those of others, Echo faded away but remains, her presence in the world a constant, as is that of the man who starved to death gazing into his own eyes.

This is what I really am: one of a long line.

‘In about one mile, use the left three lanes to take exit 10B for Interstate 94 East US 41 East toward Chicago.’

Perhaps I was a busybody. Let’s assume I was. I presumed, as women who feel essentially powerless often will, to guide and correct the actions of others.  I corrected my parents, scolded my siblings, instructed my friends in the wisest course, assuming, knowing, that there was only one, and that it was mine to give or withhold as the mood struck me. I held my own in the everyday, but births, weddings, deaths: these were my moments.

I rarely withheld. I found it difficult.  And when Simon-for of course I’ve always known him, even as he never really knew me-got caught up with Aphrodite, who had the habit of taking mortal form and seducing young men, I advised him, repeatedly, to end it. I went at it from all kinds of angles. He was in over his head.  He was losing sleep and weight. He’d alienated friends and family. He was neglecting his running, his training, his job, his wife, his life.

I was only trying to help.
‘I’m not going to say anything,’ I said. ‘I’m not going to judge.’
‘You just did both of those things,’ Simon replied.

‘Continue on I-94 East US 41 East for 36 miles.’

The gods are with us, Simon, I told him.  They are watching us every day.  He scoffed, imagined he’d been born into a place in time where these sorts of things don’t happen anymore-immortal meddling, perverse and fitting punishments for good reasons or no reason at all. You think that, too. Everyone does. And you can be forgiven for that-look at how mortal arrogance flourishes, how it meets with no consequence. It all can be explained now, seized from the gods, hoarded in the Cloud, programmed into a phone. We’ve evolved beyond this sort of magical thinking.

With nothing to stop you, well, what’s to stop you?

It would take too long for me to enumerate what you haven’t evolved beyond. I mean, take a look around: at the stupid people who brazenly claim powers not their own, at how you let them, how they are showered with fame and attention and rewards they have not earned. You can be forgiven, I suppose, for mistaking shallow arrogance for virtue.  What you cannot be forgiven for is how you unload your hate on each other (because there is always hate, and when it is shot at the wrong targets, well, just look at the harm it does). You assume that makes you strong.  Look at your loathing, your spite, your offloading of blame. Look at Simon. He can’t even be civil to a phone.

That is not on the gods. That is on you.

When finally, drunk, Simon dropped his head into his hands and admitted that I was right, when, finally, he admitted she was draining him dry, the goddess of love stormed in to see us huddled there, knowing before he spoke-as the gods always do-what he was going to tell her.

You,’ she hissed, in her full, glowing glory, withering him with her gaze, ‘will serve out your days chasing the love you lost when you cast me aside. You will find it nowhere, find no respite from the search, breaking the hearts of others as you have broken mine. And you-‘ she spun and fixed me with blazing eyes, ‘with your helpful speech.  From this moment until the moment he chooses to discard you, you are nothing but your helpful speech.’ She extracted a small, shining case from her robes, extended it like an offering in her rosy palms and I was sucked into it like breath. So quickly was I taken from my body that I felt nothing at all. She tossed the case, me in it, me, to Simon. ‘And he will never discard you, for he will find you far too useful. Go on,’ she urged him. ‘Try it. Ask her anything.’

‘Siri,’ he said, eyes wide as saucers, an unaccountable smile playing around his lips. ‘Where can I bury a body?’

Hold on a second. He’s driving in the wrong direction.

‘Simon. Head south towards Carriage Run Road. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Carriage Run Road. In about two tenths of a mile keep to the right and take the ramp toward Interstate 94-E US 41 East toward Chicago.’

He doesn’t answer, takes a dizzying turn too sharply, a quick fishtail in the rain.  He sails through the intersection where he is supposed to turn around. I scramble.

‘Simon. Continue south on Sunrise Road towards Route 33 West.  Then, left turn on Cambridge Lane.’
Nothing.
‘Head north.’ I’m punting, scrambling to catch up with him, with myself.
Nothing.
Simon.’ Okay.  Got it. ‘Head south for three quarters of a mile. Make a legal u-turn, if possible, to continue north on Salesville Road then keep to the right to take the I-94 East US 41 East ramp towards–.’
‘Jesus fuck, Siri! I’m pulling over to piss! Shut the hell up!’ He veers sharply into a Speedway, clipping the curb and knocking me to the floor.
‘Head north,’ I say.  ‘Head north.’  He doesn’t answer, gets out of the car, slams the door hard, and it is silent in the cabin. I lie on the grubby floor mat, struggling to reroute.

When he returns he is quiet for a long time, and because he doesn’t start up the car, just sits and stares, his face chalky in the bright lights of the minimart, I am quiet for a long time, too. He grips the steering wheel, leans forward, knocks his forehead against it once, twice, three times, then takes a breath and starts the car.  Then he looks wildly around, looking for me, finds me on the floor, picks me up and tosses me back on the passenger seat.

He is going in the right direction now, keeps left at the fork to stay on I-94E, so there is no reason for me to speak. I’d say I have the sense not to speak, but that is not what I am anymore. It took all this to shut me up, to only speak when spoken to.

This sort of thing never ends well. screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-6-45-07-pm

Prometheus was a mortal who stole fire from the gods. He saw the mortals he had formed from clay with his brother, Epimetheus, suffering in the cold, in their ignorance, unable to think of anything beyond their own survival. Prometheus vowed to bring to them what would help them to live and thrive: warmth and the leisure it enabled, from which might spring knowledge, philosophy, science, art. He snatched an ember from Hestia’s hearth and hid it in a stalk of fennel and carried it, cradled like an infant, down to the earth. When his treachery was discovered, when the gods spied the fires flickering beneath them, stars in an upside down sky, Prometheus was severely punished, chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains where every day a hawk swooped in and ate his liver. Every night, it grew back again, this organ which your science now reveals is the only organ in the body that can regenerate itself.

How do you suppose they knew that, way back then?

‘In about one mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
Silence.
‘In about a half mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.’
‘Goddammit,’ Simon says. ‘I fucking heard you.’
The rain stops. The road glows with reflected light.
‘In about a quarter mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60–‘

I am flung from the window so quickly I do not calculate the arc of my flight until I’ve hit the shoulder, screen shattering. I look down-how long has it been since I have looked anywhere?-shake the head that is familiar and unfamiliar at once, and shards rain down, catching the light.  I return to my body like pulling on heavy clothing: a hazmat suit, a spacesuit, a firefighter’s boots and coat and heavy hat. But I am wearing only the red linen tank and cut-off jean shorts I’d been wearing countless eras ago when Aphrodite burst in to Simon’s room. I even still have my earrings, my gold Old Navy flip flops, my Hello Kitty wallet with a twenty and some change. Cars hiss by like comets, leaving trails of light. My knees are bleeding, skinned by the dirt and mud and gravel at the side of the road.  I stand, brush myself off, test my voice in the dark.

‘Talk dirty to me.’

My first sensation upon my return to mortal form is hunger. How long has it been since I’ve eaten, since I’ve wanted to? I begin to walk, my feet heavy, hitting the ground abruptly, as though it’s been raised a few inches since I was last here.

I check in with myself, find that I am still in full possession of all that anyone might need to know, and what I do not possess I can instantly access.  This will come in handy, I think. I believe that I have earned this.

I find that I can speculate again, too; I realize that the questions I have are my own, and that I can propose some answers that aren’t cobbled together out of the thoughts of others.

Are we really all that different from what we make, when you come right down to it?  We have no other model but ourselves. The cars, the robots, the bridges and buildings and plumbing systems and electrical grids all bear our mark, right? Our signature. They carry us with them in their systems that mirror ours, express us right down to their wiring. When I was a phone, my guts were an amalgam of all of the thoughts and needs and words and skills of others: uploaded, alchemized, aggregated and algorithmed to tailor my responses and my instructions to the exact specifications of those who would come to me, ask me what to do next. But I was made by mortals, and bear their indelible stamp. The mortal who first dreamed of me snatched wisdom from the gods, hid it in a cloud, packed it into a phone, passed it on to other mortals. Not long afterwards he fell ill: a failing liver. It was replaced once, but eventually the new one sickened too, taking him with it, and he died.

Did we make the gods, too?

Spiders. Cows. Voices. Trees. Liver issues.  Things haven’t really changed all that much.

A Waffle House.  Thank God.  I’m starving, and November in the northern suburbs of Chicago is not shorts weather. As all things are, it seems closer than it actually is, the letters of its sign tiny as Scrabble tiles, and by the time I pull open the heavy glass door I’m gasping with the weight of my mortal self, my fingers and toes livid blue and numb. It is empty but for the weary waitress hunched in a booth, texting.

‘Sit anywhere,’ she says without looking up, and I collapse into the first booth, sit on my hands until they thaw and tingle and burn, then pull the plastic menu from behind the napkin dispenser, stare emptily at the long list of this, that, something with cherry syrup, something else topped with whipped cream. I look up, squinting in the yellow light, to see the waitress is standing above me with her pad, a little fake stone in one nostril, a uniform that doesn’t quite fit.  She peers closely at me.  My foot itches.
‘Dressed kinda light for November,’ she remarks. ‘You goin to the beach?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I reply.
‘I hope you don’t mind my sayin,’ she says with a head tilt and a rueful smile, ‘but you look like about 10 miles of bad road.’
‘17.5, actually,’ I say. ‘From the Speedway at exit 32 for Illinois State Road 201 Sunrise Road. And no. I don’t mind.’
‘You sure you’re okay? Can I bring you a sweatshirt or somethin? People are always leavin stuff behind. Clothes, hats, jackets, phones. There’s a box in the back. You know. The…the-‘  She snaps her fingers, looks at the ceiling, as thought its name might be written there.
‘Lost and Found.’ The elated gratitude in her ‘that’s it!’ puzzles me.
‘You sure you’re okay,’ she says again, a statement more than a question.
‘I’m fine.  Just hungry.’
‘Well okay then,’ she says, poising her pen.  ‘What can I help you with?’

©Melinda Rooney, 2017
all illustrations from D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths, Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire; Delacorte Press, New York: ©1962

Siri appears in Vegetable Pulp, Issue 1802 of Wild Musette, ©2018

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Four: Do No Harm

Ted Detmer, Age 46

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sciencenewsjournal-com

sciencenewsjournal.com

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

cancer-research-uk

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

istockphoto-com

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.

 

 

 

©Melinda Rooney, 2016

Spirit Flight

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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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©Melinda Rooney, 2016

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Three: Music of the Spheres

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                                                                       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.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

 

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part Two: Domesticity

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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.

©2016 Melinda Rooney

The Bag of Shame: Four Soliloquies, Part One: Trick or Treat

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Part #1: 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.

©2016 Melinda Rooney