Yaël Ksander on Quentin Tarantino, Jason Vest on the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, Brian Stout on Cancel Culture, and Steve Volan on living in the dorm with the 1987 IU basketball team
All this and more in our December 2019 issue
Yaël Ksander on Quentin Tarantino, Jason Vest on the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, Brian Stout on Cancel Culture, and Steve Volan on living in the dorm with the 1987 IU basketball team
All this and more in our December 2019 issue
Our favorite writers from long ago revisit the early years of The Ryder. Essays by Michael Bourne, Anthony DeCurtis, Lisa Sorg, Mike Cagle, Paul Sturm, D. Self, Jason Vest and Chrissie Dickinson.
Here’s a link to our 40th Anniversary issue
Look Who’s Talking:
After 33 years, Bob Zaltsberg retired as editor of the Herald-Times. Former city councilman Tim Mayer sat down and talked with Bob about his teenage years in a small Indiana town, his time at the H-T, and the future of journalism
Photo by Jeremy Hogan
The old saying “we went to different high schools together” best describes my relationship with Bob Zaltsberg. Bob recently retired after 33 years as editor of the Herald-Times. I had retired from Bloomington’s City Council in 2017 after serving many years.
Before the internet, our friendship was limited to telephone or office visits about H-T stories and editorials. Our conversations shifted to email with the advent of electronic communication. My friend always listened to my concerns and compliments with great respect and understanding. I learned a lot from him.
When I was approached to do this interview, I welcomed the opportunity. We met, one Thursday afternoon, at the Uptown Cafe for coffee and conversation. I learned a great deal more about Bob and hope you will too.
Tim Mayer: Why don’t you tell us a little about how you got from Winchester, Indiana to Bloomington?
Bob Zaltsberg: I went from Winchester to Oxford, Ohio. I was an English major and I thought I wanted to get into radio. I always liked the whole current events thing. I did some dabbling in radio classes. I had an emphasis in journalism so I did some journalism classes. For a variety of reasons the newspaper thing seemed like a better fit for me. I wasn’t really that good at, or thrilled with, the radio stuff.
So I got a degree in English but my emphasis was on media; I wanted to get a newspaper job. My first job was a twice-weekly paper in Plainfield, Indiana. I had a friend on the staff here in Bloomington named Phil Coffin, who still is a copy editor with the New York Times. Phil and I were former roommates at Miami and he called me one night and said, “a job has opened down here in Bloomington–you might want to apply for it.” I applied for it and so here I am. This was shortly after Watergate.
The next logical step from here was always Louisville; the Courier Journal and the Louisville Times were great papers. Phil, had moved on to Louisville. So I thought maybe I’ll do that. But before I got the opportunity, the managers here in Bloomington said “we’ve got our eye on you to be editor of the paper in the next 3-5 years.”
It actually was about 2 years later. Bill Schrader was my mentor and a great news man. I learned a whole lot from him, he was a nice guy. There were people in Bloomington, because he was a conservative, that probably didn’t have a lot of great things to say about the job he did but I think the people who were in government and in the business community probably did really appreciate the work he did. I didn’t realize how good he was until I’d been in the job for a few years.
TM: I’ve heard you talk about your parent’s department store in Winchester, Indiana. How you started working there as a teen and how the advent of a shopping mall at the edge of town forced the closing of your parent’s store. I wondered how you thought about Bloomington’s growth and development downtown and on both the East and West sides of our community. And, the impact it has had on Bloomington overall.
BZ: I think that Bloomington was in the same situation in a lot of ways that a lot of downtowns were in the 1970s. A lot of the retailers were starting to go elsewhere, College Mall, Kmart on the west side. At that point the group and the City under [then Mayor] Tomi [Allison] and the County Government, they all really got together and created this synergy downtown. As the small town kid who grew up in a department store on a downtown Indiana square, I was all for it. I think local business and a thriving downtown are just absolutely crucial to a place where I would want to be. I think that’s true for many other people.
The obvious follow-up is what about now? I still think it’s a fabulous downtown even though it’s had some growing pains. All the people that have moved in, the university, high-end apartments and all that, all the growing pains. But oh my goodness, the energy in downtown Bloomington, compared to a lot of cities, it’s just fantastic. My brother was in town from Orlando the other day and he was really taken just by what downtown looks like and how much activity there is.
TM: We took a trip up to Lake Michigan, sometime in the summer. We get up around Michigan City. There’s a city that did it wrong from the beginning. They built a consumer mall on the edge of town, and they certainly turned their main drag into a pedestrian road and just killed it.
BZ: I don’t know what Burlington, Vermont is like today, but they’ve made a lot of their downtown into a pedestrian mall. They relocated their big box stores to the outskirts of town, way out. I haven’t been there in years, but the one time I did visit I really appreciated how they had planned: “we’re not going to say no to these big box stores, we’re gonna put them in a place where they don’t really affect downtown Burlington.”
TM: When Sue and I moved to Bloomington we had a five month old son, it was in January 1968, and at that time State Road 37 was a two lane highway, both north and south out of Bloomington. A trip to Indianapolis was dangerous. I almost ran over a concrete block in the middle a lane one time. Over time SR 37 was divided and made limited access. In the 80s, the discussion to build Interstate 69 began in earnest and the lines were drawn between those for and those against. The H-T was on the side of “build the highway.” It was a difficult decision for you to find yourself in, and now that it’s here and what are your feelings and what do you see for Bloomington’s future and our special relationship to Indianapolis and are we becoming a community to Indy?
BZ: I personally was never too concerned about whether the highway was or wasn’t built. I thought Bloomington would thrive and survive whether there was I-69 or not. Our newspaper’s editorial position was always in favor of I-69–a lot of decisions are made by our editorial board, The ownership–Scott Schurz and the Schurz family–they were strongly in favor of the highway. I was personally ambivalent about it, but I didn’t see the significant harm some people thought it might be. I did agree with the values that might come with it. I don’t pretend to be an expert in the cost-benefit analysis and all that. I’ll leave that to people like Andy [Ruff]. I admired the people that fought against it but as a newspaper and looking out for our editorial board position we thought it was the best thing that could happen for Bloomington.
We won’t know, until twenty to thirty years from now. But people fought I-37, the 4 lane, when it was going to be built. People fought Lake Monroe when it was going to be built. And those things all turned out to be the right decision. As part of the editorial board at the time, I was confident that if the decision was made it wouldn’t be the wrong decision. I was just, as I said, kind of ambivalent. I thought Bloomington was going to be a great place to live and be no matter what. I love to be able to get on the highway on the outside of town and get to Martinsville in just 15 minutes. I love to be able to get to Evansville, personally, in two hours. And I see the great benefit of being able to get to the Indianapolis Airport and Indianapolis in a shorter amount of time.
As far as whether we’re becoming a bedroom community of Indianapolis; I don’t think so. I think we’re always going to be apart from Indianapolis and every other city in the state of Indiana. There are a lot of people that drive to Indianapolis and it will make it easier. But it will make also make it easier for people that live in Indy that want to drive over here. Not a very deep answer, might be controversial to some. I didn’t have to lose my house or my farm because of it either. I took a broader view, I did my job and we evaluated it as a newspaper and as an editorial board. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for the greater community. I think it’s a good thing.
TM: For a number of years you were the moderator for the Ivy Tech O’Bannon Institute’s “Conversations” event. You had an opportunity to meet and interview some really interesting people. George McGovern in 2007, Paul Begala in 2008, Eugene Robinson in 2009, Arianna Huffington in 2010, Richard Dreyfuss in 2011, Cokie Roberts in 2012, Judy O’Bannon in 2013, John R. Whikehart in 2014, and Shiza Shahid in 2015. I must admit that the Richard Dreyfuss interview stands out to me. But I don’t want to step on your story. Can you share some of your impressions from those interviews?
BZ: Absolutely! The Richard Dreyfuss interview was the worst interview I’ve ever done because all I got to do was ask one question and basically RIchard just took over and did a soliloquy on the stage. It was great from a standpoint of just sitting back and watching; it made the job really easy. But, Richard was just an unusual character. It was enjoyable though.
With the rest of those interviews I got more comfortable, you know with repetition you get more comfortable. I’m sure the interviews I did with people like Cokie Roberts, she was great. She was so much fun to talk to, and I was able to meet her where she was, she’s a journalist and I’m a journalist. While she’s a world famous journalist, I felt like I could handle myself and talk to her about it. So it was really fun for me to get to talk to her.
George McGovern was one of my all-time heroes. I did a column a few years ago. I called the county clerk’s office in Randolph County, Winchester to find out how many Democrats voted for McGovern in 1972. Because I was one of them, but I wondered how many other people voted for him. And I was kind of surprised to find out it was something like 2700 or 1700 or something. So it was certainly in the thousands, but he still lost by like 65% to 35% in Randolph County, which is a very Republican county.
Arianna Huffington was a hoot to talk to because she was interesting and she was so cutting edge with the Huffington Post. Judy O’Bannon is such a gracious lady. John Whikehart is such a funny guy. Those interviews were a lot of fun. As I said, as time went on I got better at them. I just figured, it’s me and this other person and we’re going to have a conversation. They have much more stuff to say than I do, I just need to draw them out.
TM: When I moved to Bloomington in 1968, Westinghouse, RCA, Otis Elevator and GE were going gangbusters. Over time, one-by-one, they shuttered their plants and moved on, GE being the last to go. A great loss for our community with many lives being disrupted. As best we could, the community stepped up to help with the transition for those affected by the closings. We’ve transitioned from assembly line fabrication (elevators, television sets, electric transformers, and side-by-side refrigerators) to medical assembly, automotive part manufacturing, pharmaceutical development and packaging, as well as technology driven ideas and products. Bloomington has many innovative people looking for the next big breakthrough. How do you view the transition from where we were in the 70’s to today and beyond? Are we doing enough to give everyone the basic skills to earn a well-rounded living?
BZ: That’s a great question; you went through the history and it’s pretty staggering when you think about it. The first color TV rolled off the assembly line down there and there were 8,000 people working at that plant. That’s stunning to think about, when GE was in its heyday and we thought GE was a huge employer there were 3,500 or 3,200. So 8,000 people working at RCA, 3,200 working at GE. Probably close to 1,000 people worked at Otis. Westinghouse, of course they were contaminating the community, but several hundred people were working there–if not a thousand.
Thank goodness Bill Cook and Gayle Cook decided to make medical devices in their back room at Art Villa. It’s such a great historical point for Bloomington. But even besides manufacturing it’s helped to create this innovation community. We can’t separate Bloomington and IU. I think a lot of the reason Bill Cook was attracted here was because the university was here. I don’t think Bill Cook would have just gone to any community. He could have gone to a lot of different places but he came here. A lot of companies come to Bloomington because we’ve got a university and we’ve got all this intellectual capital.
Now, we’re entering this new phase of startups and innovation I can’t pretend to be an expert in. But, I’ve thought enough about it to know you just got to have smart people, you’ve got to have a good quality of life, you’ve got to have a place where people want to be.
For part two of your question; there are a lot of people that need to be trained to be able to take these jobs in the future. Are we doing enough to train them? I think Bloomington and MC will always rise to it. I mean again, go back to Cook. He sees the need for more educated workers so he just creates his own educational program to try and make sure they have their people trained up and that other people can learn from them. The argument about good jobs and good jobs for everybody in Bloomington is gonna be a constant. Not everybody is going to be suited for the creative and innovative jobs. I don’t have the answer for how we’re gonna train people for every job that’s going to come here, but I think Bloomington’s up for the challenge. We’ll find some innovative ways forward.
TM: We could talk a little bit more about what Cook is doing and things like Ivy Tech and what the Chamber of Commerce is doing, they’re all components.
BZ: Tim, you’re absolutely right. I’m glad you’re here to ask these questions because they prompt a lot of thoughts. IU of course is the big dog, it’s got its shadow over everything. But, Ivy Tech is a huge part of our community now and they are very nimble with being able to come up with programs that fit workers who industries. You know like French Lick, they needed a bunch of hospitality workers down there and Ivy Tech was able to create a program to train them. Same thing with the MPRI, the Proton Radiotherapy Institute, when they needed workers for proton therapy jobs, Ivy Tech was able to train people for those jobs. But then you mentioned the foundation, stuff that the community foundation and United Way. School corporations are doing things with early childhood education. They understand that you got to get people early. Young people from 3-5 years old are gonna benefit from these programs for the rest of life. Those groups — I can’t say enough about them.
TM: That shows that the community does understand what the problems and the issues are and they’re willing to take a shot at it. So far we’ve been talking about our shared experiences and observations about Bloomington and the impacts of time and change. Your recent retirement as editor from the Herald-Times at a crucial time in the news industry gives me an opportunity to explore your views on the coming changes. I’d like to get a little closer to your line of work and hear your thinking on how the changes in the news industry will impact how we receive our daily news.
BZ: There’s been a transitional time in the past 20 years. I was the editor for 33 years, probably the first 10 years or so was a period of growth. We built our circulation up to a high of close to 32,000, mostly the print copy, and then starting to dabble with the Internet and digital. But then, digital just became the thing that overcame everything else. Circulation has dropped by more than half since then. But the readership of the H-T is still probably about the same or up because of all the online readers. And I know we could all talk about the H-T being a paid subscription based behind a paywall but all the photos are free, all the ads are free, all the videos are free, all the headlines are free. So more people are still going and seeing and reading the H-T everyday than there were at the peak of it. But they’re not spending as much time with it and they’re not paying as much for it, if they’re even paying at all. How are you going to pay for news? That’s the big issue. The H-T is one of thousands of news organization that’s trying to figure it out. Both in print and commercial television they’re trying to figure it out. And commercial television isn’t so much who’s going to pay for news but who’s going to pay for content and how people want their content delivered. The newspaper business itself still has a strong place. It still has a strong audience, but that audience is getting older all the time. My last few years there we were trying to figure out how to engage people better, how are we going to provide more value in print? And those are questions that the next generation of H-T leaders are going to have to deal with.
BZ: Do you want to talk a little bit about how the H-T was recently sold to Gatehouse Media? What can we anticipate going forward?
TM: I retired on Jan 31, it’d been about a year in the making So I wasn’t pushed out by Gatehouse or anything else. But I did learn about 2 weeks before that the company was going to be sold to Gatehouse Media. And the rest of the staff only learned about 5 days before. So I retired the day Gatehouse Media took over from the Schurz family.
It was a sad day for me, I sat in my office on that last day with Scott Schurz and Scott and I reminisced. The day that he walked out, when he left Schurz Communications, he didn’t leave the company but he left the publicity side the same day I did. It’s sad; family owned media companies valued their employees and their communities and wanted to provide value and wanted to take part in the community life. I say that as a positive sentence, that’s what family owned media wanted to do.
How are you going to pay for news? That’s the big issue. The H-T is one of thousands of news organization that’s trying to figure it out.
I don’t know about Gatehouse, I can’t say they don’t want to do those things. But I can say they do have stockholders that require a certain amount of return in their investment. It’s different than a family owned paper. Every three months there’s a stockholder report, and every three months there’s somebody somewhere making decisions about which of the Gatehouse Media operations are making enough money and which ones aren’t. That’s bound to affect some of the properties–whether it’s Bloomington, Bedford, Mooresville, Martinsville or somewhere in Illinois or Texas. I don’t know, but it’s going to affect some of them. We didn’t have those pressures with Schurz
TM: What do you think are the best trends in journalism today? The worst?
BZ: The best trends are trying to speak in various languages. That is: good investigative work in print that can also transform to digital in either audio or video. I think podcasts have been great. Podcasts are a really nice trend where people can tell a longer story in a serial form. What we always tried to do at the H-T in the last five years were watchdog reporting, that is trying to dig deeper on stories, and digital engagement. In the media those are two things that you have to have.
Bad trends are the idea that anybody thinks they can be a journalist whether they have any training or not. They’re willing to put out stories that aren’t vetted or are basically just their point of view. They haven’t checked the facts and they don’t really care to check them. Anybody can be a publisher now just by creating a website. In a way it’s really egalitarian in that you don’t need money now to buy a printing press you just can publish online. There are some very good online operations that have grown off of this — but there are an equal number, or many more, where people can just package up something as news and it’s just propaganda. It’s not well sourced; it’s inaccurate; it unfair. They don’t try to subscribe to any journalistic principles. I know people don’t like the media that much today but I think when you get down to a local level or any professional media level, people have principles they follow. They want to be right, they want to be truthful, they want to get all sides of the story. A lot of the people that try to be journalists today don’t even care about that.
TM: Someone once described the New York Times as a symphony and the Washington Post as jazz combo — what kind of musical group is the H-T?
BZ: Great question! I would say the H-T is more like a marching band. We’re gonna play a lot of popular songs and we’re gonna keep a beat going all the time. You got to just keep marching, keep going forward.
TM: The Jefferson Street Band
BZ: I love those guys! We’re probably not as cool as they are, we dress a lot more conservatively than they do. I love that question. You know, a marching band, it’s a lot of different people, you have different sections like we have a lot of different beats covering different things. We have different departments that have to do different things, there are a lot of different parts of a marching band like there are a lot of different parts of a newsroom. You’re always trying to push it and move forward with some sort of a rhythm. Whether it’s daily or hourly online, you gotta have a certain kind of rhythm to what you’re doing.
TM: A lot of change has happened since you retired from the H-T. I understand that you have accepted a position at IU Bloomington with WFIU. Can you give us some insight on the changes at the H-T and tell me about your new position at IU?
BZ: We’re talking today two days after my successor J.J. Perry announced he was going to leave the paper after less than three months. At the end of three months he’s gonna leave. Really sorry about J.J. He’s a great guy, a great journalist. But for some reason his time in Bloomington just didn’t fit what he wanted to do. He wasn’t pushed out, it wasn’t anybody’s decision other than J.J.’s. I’m sorry that it turned out that way.
I don’t know who the next leader of the H-T will be, and I don’t know what it’s like working under Gatehouse Media. I’m hopeful, I’m a big supporter of the Herald-Times. I love the staff they’ve got down there, the newsroom staff are people that I worked with and they’re almost all people that I hired. They’re wonderful people and they work really hard and they care about the community. I feel very strongly that people should support the H-T because having a local newspaper is a really important thing.
As for myself, I teach at IU. I’m going to continue to teach one course a semester at the media school. I just took a very part time job, very part time — I have to stress that — at WFIU working with Sara Wittmeyer and the staff there on a project called city limits. It’s basically stories about Bloomington that people will email or call in. The leadership at WFIU thought that I was in a unique position to be able to contribute to that. I think that after my years at the paper, I can’t disagree with them. I did Noon Edition as a volunteer for 20 years. So I worked for them for 20 years without being paid a thing. Now I’d get an hourly rate, well it’s more of a contract. But I’m not doing it to get rich, I’m not doing it for the money, I’m not doing it for the glory, I’m doing it so young journalists can continue to tell good stories about Bloomington.
TM: As one who’s recently retired myself, I applaud your decision to keep going because if you don’t you’re in trouble. The other thing is that I’m sad to see JJ go but I really admire him for making this decision — if you’re not happy doing what you are doing its time to get out.
BZ: I think so, and I can speak from experience, that when it was time for me to get out I still liked my job. I didn’t like it as much as I used to and I didn’t like it every day. I felt like I had already turned 65 years old, I could see myself continuing to work for a while but I don’t know what else I could do. I didn’t want to get to the point where I don’t like working and I don’t like my job. As I said, my retirement was in the works for about a year. I was quite happy to retire when I did. When I found out about the sale I thought somebody else is going to have to lead this transition because I don’t know that I have the energy or the interest.
TM: You retired under the Schurz’s family ownership.
BZ: They were a great family to work for and Scott still has a home in Bloomington and they’re a good Hoosier family. They still have a very strong company — it’s just not a newspaper company.
TM: I’d like to thank you for sitting and talking, and thanks for all your time at the H-T. You really did make a difference in Bloomington. I’m sure people have told you that.
BZ: I’ve heard it more since I retired than I did when I was working [laughs]. Did I tell you how great you were as a city council member?
TM: [more laughter]
Real history is much more complex than the nostalgic myths presented in Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour
By Tom Prasch
Mr. Dawson, the civilian captain of the Moonstone, a small fishing boat, is preparing to weigh anchor. The Moonstone is part of a flotilla of small ships coming to the rescue of the sailors stranded on the beach in Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk. Dawson explains: “They’ve asked for the Moonstone and they’ll have her. And her captain.” His young son chimes in: “And his son.”
George, a boy helping them prepare to embark, hops on at the last minute as well. “What’re you doing?” asks the captain’s son. “You know where you’re going?” “France,” young George declares. “Into war,” Mr. Dawson warns. “I’ll be useful, sir,” the boy insists. So they carry on. Multiply that by hundreds, that’s the British spirit.
Winston Churchill, in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, after struggling through most of the movie to cope with the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk–as well as with the backstabbing, appeasement-inclined political opponents within his own cabinet, Lord Halifax and Neville Chamberlain, mostly–on a lark leaps from his chauffeured car and plunges into the Underground to complete his journey to Westminster. At the same time, his war cabinet, in his absence (and in intercut scenes), reads out their approved terms for a negotiated peace: “If Signor Mussolini will cooperate with us in securing a settlement of all European questions which safeguard the independence and security of the allies, and could be the basis for a just a durable peace, we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, the matters in which Signor Mussolini is principally interested. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions, and if he shall state in secrecy what these are, France and Great Britain will do their best to meet his wishes.” Goodness, hadn’t Chamberlain learned anything from his Munich debacle?
Meanwhile, Churchill sorts out the Tube–a girl at the map explains he’s one stop from Westminster, he just needs to take the District Line east– and an agape subway car full of ordinary citizens suddenly find themselves sharing a ride with their Prime Minister. All of them are white save one: Marcus Peters, a black man, presumably West Indian; why he would be going west on the District Line rather than east (toward the capital’s political center, but away from most of the work) is less than clear, but then why the bricklayer would be on the tube in the middle of the workday is also unclear. And surely even in 1940 one heart-of-London stop on the tube would go faster than this scene, but never mind all that.
After introductions all around and a bit of cheery banter (“Madam, all babies look like me”; “Oh, a Jerome. My mother was a Jerome. I expect we are closely related”), Churchill gets to the point: “Let me ask you something that’s been weighing on my mind. Perhaps you might provide me with an answer. You, the British people, what is your mood. Is it confident?” They all murmur assent. “How confident?” “Very,” one declares. “Some say it’s a lost cause,” one dissenter notes. Churchill counters: “Oh, lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” “Too true,” one woman chimes in. And then, to the real point: “Now, let me ask you this, if the worst came to pass, and the enemy were to appear on these streets above, what would you do?” The answers are unequivocal (even the “lost cause” guy chiming in): “Fight.” “Fight the Fascists.” “Fight them with anything we can lay our hands on.” “Broom handles if we must.” “Street by street.” “They will never take Piccadilly.” Churchill pushes further: “They will never take Piccadilly indeed. And what if I put it to you all, that we might, if we ask nicely, get very favorable terms from Herr Hitler, if we enter into a peace declaration right now. What would you say to that?” And they answer, uniformly: Never, never, no never.
The moment leads Churchill to wax poetic, reciting from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome: “Then out spake brave Horatius/ Captain of the Gate/ To every man upon the earth/ Death cometh soon or late/ And how can man die better/ Then facing fearful odds.” It is Marcus Peters—perhaps asserting his Britishness—who finishes the verse for him: “For the ashes of his father/ And the temples of his gods.”
Thus inspired, Churchill heads to meet his Outer Cabinet—notably bypassing the War Cabinet —where, naming his subway common-man consultants (he’s jotted their names down on a scrap of paper)—he lays out the case for continued war. By the end of it, the Outer Cabinet is echoing the “No, never” of the subway citizens, which sets up the climax, Churchill’s famous “Darkest Hour” speech before the House (here misdated; the movie tells us it’s 28 May, but the actual speech was given on 18 June, inconveniently a couple weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation was completed).
You know the speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets … we shall never surrender,” and all that. If you had forgotten, both films remind us in their final acts: Churchill’s speech the finale of Darkest Hour, and read from a newspaper by one of the rescued sailors in Dunkirk.
Note, then, that both films limn a predictably nostalgic heroic picture of Dunkirk, transforming what was at best less of a disaster than it might have been into a moment of British triumph. Beyond such rose-glassed nostalgia, both films also make that moment an essentially populist one, in both cases through distortions of the historical record: in Dunkirk, through the exaggerated invocation of the civilians bringing boats to the rescue (more on that in a moment); in Darkest Hour, with the utterly invented subway scene.
And not just populist, but narrowly so, a thoroughly British self-celebration, conceptualized (with one single exception—Marcus Peters on the tube) as utterly white, and pointedly celebrating the insular. What’s that Churchill line? “Defend our Island home … if necessary, alone.” “Splendid isolation,” Max Hastings calls it in the New York Review of Books, recalling the late Victorian phrase. This is Britain away from, and mostly against, the Continent.
Ian Jack, writing in The
Guardian, usefully warns against the sort of reading I am developing here,
noting that, while both films were playing in 2017, in the wake of the Brexit
vote, they had been some time in the making. Both scripts were finished in
2015, and Nolan has claimed his as a long-time obsession, going back over a
decade more. But even Jack wonders: “Was there something in the air?” And we
can add: Brexit cannot be reduced to a single moment, that voting day in June
2016. It was, after all, a campaign before it was a vote, and that campaign in
turn played on long-term insecurities and restiveness that have always cut
across party lines about the place of Britain within-but-still-outside the European
Union (they kept their pounds, recall). In the making of Brexit, longer-term
processes—Zadie Smith, in “Fences: A Brexit Diary” (New York Review of Books) notes the role of working-class
discontent in response to both austerity and growing income disparities, issues
nearly a decade in the making (going back to the market crash of 2008), plus
white working-class anxieties over the entrenchment of multiculturalism,
possibly going back even further—combined with shorter-term events, most
notably connected to the migrant wave that hit as Arab Spring got wintery in
2013-14, with the Syrian civil war and the breakdown of the Libyan state. The
promoters of the referendum, Smith also notes, used Brexit to promote agendas
with far deeper roots (Michael Gove’s sovereignty issue, Nigel Farage’s array
of rightist causes from anti-climate change and opposition to freedom of
movement to gun control and xenophobic fears about immigration).
And, certainly, the uses of the films in the wake of Brexit suggests more than mere handy coincidence. Andy Stowe notes, in Green Left Weekly: “Nigel Farage tweeted ‘I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk.’” Stowe concludes: “It is not possible to watch Dunkirk except through the prism of Brexit and the orgy of British chauvinism that made it possible.” Jack points to “headlines in the pro-Brexit press such as ‘For Brexit to work we need the Dunkirk spirit’ and ‘We will channel Churchill.” Something, indeed, seems to have been in the air. But where do these films—and in particular the version of history proffered in these films—fit into all this?
The whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit debates.
To begin with Dunkirk, let me offer my modest dissent from the dominant red-carpets-for-the-masterpiece take on Nolan’s film. Dunkirk does some things phenomenally well: it masterfully uses the machinery of cinema to give us an immersive experience of war; it balances its varied dimensions (the ground war, the air war, and the story of those boats) with precision, epic scale matched with individual tale, three distinct timelines kept in motion; Hans Zimmer’s timepiece-anchored score masterfully controls tension and release, even if Nolan leans on it over-heavily at times (and even if multiplexes played it WAY TOO LOUD); the key actors hold their own despite a nearly wordless screenplay; Nolan even makes some strikingly interesting choices of focus, like picking two shirkers as a central focus. But still….
But still the mythic whale that is Dunkirk, the great strategic retreat that anchored Britain’s wartime self-image, its spirit of hunkered-down carry-on survival mode, is utterly unchanged and unchallenged here. The story arcs–overall and individual–are utterly predictable (who doesn’t know, when the amount of fuel in the plane is first mentioned, where that story line goes?). They all lead inexorably to the heart-tug patriotic we’re-all-in-together moment when the small ships arrive. The moment works, hearts tugged sure enough, but it simultaneously annoys. Just this again? And then closing with that rescued sailor reciting Churchill, that famous speech, was for me the final nail. So obvious, so predictable, so simply sappy. But that is the film as film. How about its history?
As Joseph Coohill (so rightly aka’d Professor Buzzkill in his online columns) has noted, citing an array of recent scholarship: “The problem with what’s come down through the decades as the story of the Little Ships is that a lot of it isn’t true, most of it is greatly exaggerated, and that exaggeration (and the imagery of ‘average’ people providing the key to the Dunkirk miracle) covers up the stories of most of the true civilian heroes of the Dunkirk evacuation.” In fact, the salvation of the British forces was mostly in the hands of the Germans, who halted their advance, and who in any case were more focused on the French troops; two-thirds of those evacuated came via the large destroyers, not the little ships at all; most of those little ships were piloted by Royal Navy and Coast Guard personnel; and only about 10% of the rescued troops came on ships that fit the Dunkirk model. Less populist a tale than the myth has made it.
Perhaps more importantly, the true story is less white as well. Yasmin Khan and Sunny Singh have both underlined the erasure of non-white troops from the story. Khan, writing in the New York Times, emphasizes the absence of Indian soldiers (mostly Muslim, from territories that would later become Pakistan), and notes as well the contributions of Caribbean and West African colonials. Singh, in The Guardian, points to the presence of colonial forces in both British and French armies (the French drawing on colonies in North and West Africa).
Darkest Hour (save in that subway scene) shifts the terrain from the on-the-ground perspective of those actually involved in the evacuation to the official rooms where policies were shaped, and tells the somewhat more complicated double story of Churchill’s struggle against the appeasers within his own party while confronting the crisis on the beaches of Dunkirk as France collapsed before the German blitzkrieg. Appropriately, then, it is a movie with a starkly split personality.
The cue is in the music. Listen for those swelling chords, when the score goes all stirring and the volume rises with it, and you’ll know what you’re in for: another bit of powerhouse oratory or some dramatic set piece calling us to battle against the forces of darkness, all nostalgic-for-imperial-greatness hope-and-glory simplistic and unexamined patriotic claptrap, if very elegantly done as such claptrap goes. But then things get quieter and the movie’s Jekyll comes forth, in a sometimes brilliant, quite witty, charming up-close-and-personal humanization of Churchill, a study of the private man behind those public pronouncements. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the personal portrait, and then, when the music swelled again, found myself wishing for something, a touch of Graham Greene perhaps–some darkness, some ambiguity, something not so utterly kneejerk–to make it all less treacly.
Gary Oldman is indeed brilliant as Churchill; less regularly mentioned are the excellent supporting roles played by two women, Kristin Scott Thomas as his long-suffering wife, Lily James as his suffering-not-quite-as-long secretary. Director Joe Wright, as in Atonement (2007), showcases an exciting visual style. His sky-to-ground (or vice versa) tracking shots get used a bit too often but are stunning nonetheless; the way he visually isolates Churchill (in elevators, for instance) is also quite nice. But how about the history here?
The focus on Dunkirk oddly erases the lead up to that moment, and in particular the decidedly disastrous decisions (based on misplaced confidence in France’s fighting plan) that left all those troops on the beach in the first place. The film’s portraits of Churchill’s appeasing opponents are, as Geoffrey Wheatcroft notes in the New York Review of Books, “coarse caricatures, outrageous in the case of Halifax, who was the least enthusiastic of the appeasers.” The whole sequence from adventures Underground through the rousing of the Outer Cabinet were pure fabrication; as Ian Jack writes: “No, he did none of these things. The scene was absurd.”
And Churchill’s climactic speech Wright frames again in terms of Englishness. “What just happened?” an MP wonders amid the unanimous cheers and tossed papers that greet the address, and Halifax responds: “He mobilized the English language and set it out to battle,” an ironic concession from the man who, earlier in the film had dismissed Churchill’s assertion that the Channel was “our moat, our battlement” with the declaration: “What is to stop Herr Hitler, then? Words, words, words, words alone.” The actual response was hardly unalloyed endorsement. As Wheatcroft notes: “the Tory benches were sullenly subdued through his first famous speeches in May and June.” But sullenness hardly fits the fusion of great-man and populist rallying of the (insular, white) nation that Wright’s film shapes.
whitening of history reinforces the xenophobic tropes in contemporary Brexit
debates. Zadie Smith, in her brilliant
essay “Fences: A Brexit Diary,” writes: “The painful truth is that fences are
being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around
neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and
openly reveal a deep fracture in society that has been thirty years in the
making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between
Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and
between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted.” Yet the
problem Brexit presents is that it displaces and projects those divisions,
turning those internal divides into an us-versus-them opposition between Britain
and the world, and erecting a new fence as a response. Films such as Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, by entrenching populist, whitewashed, simplified, and
insular myths for the complexities of real history, evade the necessary
A Memoir as Historical Fiction
by John Bob Slone
I was thinking recently about the time I met punk-rock’s poetic high priestess, Patti Smith. It was 1976; she and her band were touring behind their newly-released Horses album. One of the tour venues was the Poplars Hotel Ballroom in Bloomington. That in itself was newsworthy. The Poplars was owned by Indiana University and, by reputation, represented all that was staid and conservative in the Midwest. The hotel had never before hosted a concert, let alone a band of wild, grungy, high-volume, NYC punk rockers. It was, to put it mildly, a curious juxtaposition. But what was even more curious was this odd match made for a happy marriage.
It was a strange brew, but a delightfully delicious one, a blend so special blend that it etches an extra-deep groove in the record of memory. From such a deep groove, memories are manifest in high-def full color with a quadrophonic soundtrack; the sights, sounds, touches and smells remain forever fresh. In short, they are memories that can be relived. So cue up the swirling harp music and follow me back in time to the day I met Patti at the Poplars.
I’m a 24-year-old freelance journalist, and I’ve been asked to cover the show for Primo Times, a regional alternative weekly tabloid. It’s a peachy assignment. Primo circulates 100,000 copies with editions in Bloomington, Lafayette, Indianapolis and Terre Haute. Printed on thrifty newsprint, the mag is distributed free of charge and is one of the most widely-read publications in Indiana. Every Friday they leave big stacks of their colorful papers around Bloomington. By Saturday, they are gone.
I love working for Primo. Part of that affinity lies in numbers. I like the large numbers of readers, and I like the large numbers on their checks. But numbers aside, what I like best about Primo is their managing editor, Vic Bracht. He lets me write whatever I want and makes sure my stuff is only proofread and never edited–unless for space :(. To me, he is the perfect editor, and he stands barely a notch below Buddha in the echelon of my esteem. It’s a given that Vic steered this much-desired story my way.
Editorially, Primo Times is much more culturally than politically inclined. The philosophy is, since no news is good news, traditional news should be avoided in most cases. That makes this story, Patti Smith coming to Bloomington, a candidate for Primo’s biggest story of the year. Patti is more than just making waves. She is the wave. And now she’s making airwaves with Horses, and I can hardly wait to ride them.
Even before this tour, Patti was long legendary in punk circles. She was a regular at CBGB, New York’s punk Mecca. From there her band, along with Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, Sonic Youth and The Ramones, stand the rock world on its ear. Crudely recorded cassettes of these bands reach hip kids’ collections around the country, and a musical explosion is fomenting. And Horses is the match that will light the fuse.
It’s Patti’s first studio album release, and it comes on a silver platter—recorded at Jimi Hendrix’ Electric Lady Studio, produced by John Cale, and released on Clive Davis’ big-clout Arista label. Patti, with her raw, Chelsea-Hotel-stained poetry, her CBGB-honed wild looks and her straight-from-hell punk eloquence, has won the hearts of Andy Warhol and New York City. Now, with Clive’s powerful backing, she is about to win over the rest of America.
Horses is the first punk rock album ever released on a major label. Fittingly, it is a masterpiece. The record makes all kinds of best lists, be it “Best Punk Album,” “Best Debut Album,” or “Most Influential Album.” In 2003 Rolling Stone rated it as the 44th best rock album of all time. It’s also often mentioned for having the best opening line in rock history. Side One/Track one is a Saturn-rocket take-off on Van Morrison’s Gloria that starts softly with a lonely, haunting piano, slowly riffing through Gloria’s chords. Then Patti’s vocal comes in, low in register, rich in tone, dripping with pain: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine…” In mere seconds Patti becomes transcendent, gripping listeners by the lapels and dragging them to new dimensions with whole new worlds of possibilities. I’ve listened to that opening segment dozens of times over the years, and it still takes me to those worlds. Every time.
In 1976, Patti Smith was more than just making waves. She was the wave. And she was coming to Bloomington
Mort Salt is Primo’s music editor, a Midwest-condescending, ex-pat New Yorker. He’s a little older, and considers himself to be a real pro. He’s not at all a fan of my writing style. He complains that it lacks proper content and once derided it as “unprofessional self-indulgence”. Leary of what he perceives to be my propensity for poor preparation, he’s called me daily for the past week to make sure I understood the enormity of this assignment, “not only to this publication but also to the alternative community we serve.” He insists that I stop by the office to pick up a portfolio of Patti’s news clippings that he’s amassed for my benefit. Having no interest in press clippings, I let my answering machine take his calls and steadfastly refuse to respond. It is my policy to avoid office visits except for the essentials: dropping off articles (usually only slightly past deadline) or picking up checks.
On Saturday morning, the day of the show, I waken to see the answering machine already blinking with two messages. Steeling myself for Mort’s harsh, boxing-announcer voice, which usually hits me like a hard-pitched Brooklyn beanball, I tap the play button. Mort barks: “JB, I can’t believe you still haven’t picked up those fuckin’ clippings. Have you even listened to the album yet? Call me. Now!“
I must admit I take some pleasure hearing that trace of panic edging into Mort’s voice. I laugh and say to no one, “Sure thing, numb nuts”. I play the second message. Once again it’s Mort, but this time he comes in with a high, hard one that catches me right on the earflap: “JB, if you haven’t picked up those clippings by noon today, I’m pulling you off this assignment. Vic’s gone for the weekend, so don’t think I can’t do it.” Well, that gets my attention…
…About a half minute after leaving the office, I stuff Mort’s big manila envelope, bulging with Patti lore, into an over-spilling city trash can. Before turning away, I pause to look at the envelope, wedged precariously in the overspill and glaringly visible to prying editorial eyes. Staring at the obscene object, I contemplate my lack of preparation and feel a ball-tingling surge of fear. “Pre-show jitters,” I think. “Good.“
Truth is, Mort has it right. I know next to nothing about Patti. My promo copy of Horses remains intact in its shrink wrap. My notebook is devoid of well-engineered questions. Even worse, I’ve never actually attended a punk rock show. Truly, I realize Mort’s worst nightmare. But for this story, that’s the way I want it. I’m no punk rock expert, so my best approach to this story is per my alter ego–a card-carrying, law-breaking, whacked-out, knee-knockin’ Gonzo journalist. As such, all those manila-wrapped clever facts are, at best, boring and, in truth, irrelevant. I grab my notebook and jot down these words: “What is important for me is to physically enter into the story, to live the story–to walk, talk, assault and gestalt the story—by whatever means necessary.”
I contemplate my brave bit of prose. I imagine the balancing scale of justice and place those brave words in the left tray. In the right tray I place a cold, hard fact: If I fail to enter into the story, I’m left with squat. I take my hand off the cold fact and watch the scale dip to the right. More tingling balls. I need fortification, and since I’m giving up booze, I turn to my heroes.
Gonzo is the doctrine of my hero #1, Hunter S. Thompson. I don’t copy Hunter, but I do emulate him. So far in my budding career, it’s stood me well. I’ve already seen two of my Gonzoid stories go out on the AP wire. That’s pretty much like finding the Holy Grail in my world. AP wire stories are sent by Telex to every major publication in the world–and quite a few minor ones too. Many of these publications ran my pieces, and I got a nice fat check from each one that did so. The memory of those fat checks, reaped at the cost of a few cheap sheets of typing paper, is indeed fortifying—but that isn’t enough today. The tingling abates, but doesn’t cease entirely.
I turn to hero #2, Jack Backer, the faculty adviser for The Indiana Daily Student. IDS isthe Indiana University student newspaper, the venerable great white way of Hoosier journalism where I learned to be a good little journal-bot. Thanks to Jack, I learned all that crap and a whole lot more. Backer is a big fan of Hunter S and his “new journalist” comrades, But Jack doesn’t see much new about it. He once said to me, “Take Ernie Pyle – he was nothing if not a new journalist. He hung his ass out, down and dirty, right on thefrontlines, European and Pacific theaters. Hunkered down in foxholes with the GIs and shared the misery, terror and utter futility of war with all of America. How’s that for some Fear and Loathing?”
“And that’s just it,” I tell myself. “You don’t get the really good stuff without taking chances.”
What? Me tingle? Feeling thus reassured in my insanity, I nevertheless pluck the envelope from its dangling perch and stuff it into my knapsack. My thought bubble says, “Sometimes that stuff comes in handy when you’re writing up your story”
Before closing up the knapsack, I check its contents, the tools of the Gonzo trade: seven ink pens in various degrees of depletion; a battered reporter’s notebook whose outer surfaces are blanketed by a blizzard of scribbled names and telephone numbers, whose swirling, intertwined, poly-chromatic patterns bring to mind Jackson Pollock on crack; my vintage Ray Ban Aviators, snug in their fine leather case; one unopened half pint of Cuervo Gold Tequila for medicinal purposes only; a black faux-leather card case that houses my prized collection of fake press credentials and business cards; two Fender guitar picks (one medium, one thin); three Durex condoms; one Zero candy bar. At the bottom of the pile lies the pièce de résistance, my slender Norcom 550 mini-cassette recorder, secured in its leatherette sleeve that is almost exactly the same size as the Aviators’ case. Assessing the collection, my thought bubble opines, “Weak on recreational drugs, but it will do!” I tuck the recorder into my shirt pocket, close and shoulder the knapsack, and pedal on over to the Poplars.
I am no stranger to the hotel. Vic and I, along with a few other budding Ernie Pyles, started out Primo Times in a print shop that sits directly across Seventh Street from the Poplars’ front doors. It’s a straight shot through the lobby to the back doors and then through the parking garage to the Runcible Spoon, Bloomington’s premiere coffee bistro. Coffee being the life blood of journalism, we traveled that conduit frequently in quest of the Runcible’s glorious, fresh-roasted brew. By the time we put our third issue to bed, I was on a first name basis with Tony, the evening security guard.
The lobby, I recall, has about as much character as a laundromat. The style is more institutional than decorative, which is to say, horrible. I remember occasionally seeing signs for events in the ballroom, and these are inevitably forensic seminars. I came to realize that the Poplars is pretty much cop central for Indiana. With that understanding, the décor began to make sense. Of course! Cops feel right at home in such bleak confines. Put in a donut stand, and they’d call it heaven.
On this Saturday in the summer of 1976, the lobby barely resembles the forensically-friendly place I remember. For the Poplars, it’s Freaky Friday come a day late. A scene is unfolding, one heretofore unknown in provincial Bloomington. Oh, there are still plenty of cops in the lobby. They’re plumply parked, leaning against walls and columns all around the huge room. Frowning. Disdaining. Leaning with hugging arms crossed, firing arms holstered, and both arms ready for action. An army in blue protecting its sacred ground. Against…
…An army in black. Swarming brigades of roadies, techies and merch pushers. A platoon of apparent non-combatants gathered in conversational gaggles to watch the circus unfold. Skeleton-thin people. Clothes shredded with strategically random precision to expose small expanses of snowy flesh and vibrant tattoos. Dynamic vectors of spiked hair, either dyed inky black or sprayed fluorescent purple, red, pink, orange and green. Untanned faces coated heavily in macabre Goth make-up to channel ghoulish, ceremonial masks. Raccoon eyes corralled by fences of heavy black kohl. Piercings everywhere, especially the ears, where scores of implanted metal trinkets serve to bear semblance to miniature ear-shaped tea tables set with silver cutlery. The observers, those not there for heated labor, wear their obligatory black-leather jackets festooned with legions of silver chains, cloth patches and pinback buttons. The backs of the jackets are dark message boards with band names, obscenities and symbols of anarchy hand-painted in angry slashes of white. The ones there to work are stripped down to their well-ventilated, hole-filled t-shirts, most of which are imprinted with pictures of punk bands whose members look just like themselves. Curiously, their heavy black boots bear no small resemblance to the cops’ footwear. Middle ground? Not!
I spot a group of people who, clad in comfortable every-day attire, don’t look like the band people on the t-shirts. They are, of course, a band; MX-80 Sound, the mad-scientist art/noise savants who will share tonight’s bill with Patti. They’re a Bloomington band, and I know them, especially the bassist, Dale Sophiea, who is Primo’s movie editor. I approach them, and soon I’m immersed in an animated discussion re: the merits of Andy Warhol with enigmatic guitar maestro Bruce Anderson. Bruce is a unique man, one who once, to maximize blood flow to his brain, rigged up a special harness so he could hang from the ceiling, upside down, in full lotus posture, and practice guitar.
Though I’ve known Bruce for years, this is the first time we exchange more than a couple words. Talking with this shy, soft-spoken, left-brained genius from Oolitic, Indiana is a rare treat. He prefers to let his guitar do the talking, and unlike his mouth, it talks real, real loud. Bruce is at heart an art-loving nerd, a profoundly cool dude who never spends a second trying to be cool. He’s also one of the best and most innovative guitarists the world has ever known, one who will, possibly, become much more well-known as time passes.
I say possibly because he, at present, has a considerable following. MX-80 relocated to Frisco in 1978 and signed with The Residents’ self-owned label, Ralph Records. That got their music out to the world. They’ve prospered since, especially in Europe. They are world-renowned in their field, and, remarkably, they’re still making records and playing shows.
Perhaps I’ve dawdled too long with Bruce in this story. Or perhaps not. But I definitely dawdled too long with him on this Seditious Saturday. I recall, perhaps too late, that I am due at a presser with Patti in five minutes. I rush, on time, to the conference room where it is to be held, only to find the room empty and unlit. Confused and panicking, I trot back to the lobby, and, luckily, I see Tony, the friendly security man, leaning cross-armed in his favorite spot. Slightly out of breath, I ask Tony if he knows anything about the press conference. He says, “Oh man, she just moved the whole thing up to her penthouse. Room 800. Come on! I’ll take you up there!”
We hurry to the elevator and ride to the eighth floor. Tony keys the lift doors open and leads me down the hall toward Patti’s suite. I’m glad to see that the door is still wide open. As we draw near, Tony stops me with a tap to my shoulder, leans close, and whispers confidentially, “Good luck with that one, man.” I don’t know what the hell he means, so I just say, “Thanks, Tony. You da man.”
I pause in the doorway, realizing that, even though I’m only a couple minutes late, the conference has already begun. I eye the big room. It’s a good fifty feet from where I stand to the balcony’s sliding door. It’s easily thirty feet wide. Midway along the wall Patti sits in a half lotus on the end of a king-sized bed. She’s wearing a vintage black men’s sports coat with narrow lapels over a black-and-white checked vest. The vest is unbuttoned just enough to show she’s wearing a black, see-thru bra beneath. Skin-tight leather pants and bare feet complete the outfit. Beside her on the bed lies a Middle Eastern tabloid with headlines in pretty, looping Arabic. Behind her and leaning against the pillows lies a battered, black Fender Mustang guitar. She sits facing out over a single row of about twenty reporters who sit before her cross-legged on the floor. They are all like me: young, shaggy-haired men with notebooks and mini-recorders. I recognize only a few of them.
The guy seated nearest the door is asking a very long question. Patti angles her long, thin, frowning face toward me and slowly looks me up and down. Interrupting the reporter’s question, she says loudly to me, “Hello, Mister Late. I should fucking kick you the fuck out of here for being late, Mister Late.” Before she can do that, I quickly dive over to seat myself beside the interrupted reporter. My butt barely hits the carpet before she says, “Not there, Mister Late.” I stand, and she points toward the balcony, saying, “All the way to the end, and sit cross-legged, Indian-style, if you please.”
I stand, the subdued chorus of chuckles from the press corps adds to my chagrin. My thought bubble says: “Fuck! This is exactly the start I didn’t need!” I see directly before mea set of French doors opened to a short, cabinet-lined passage that leads to another large room. In there I see luxurious living room furniture and rock stars gathered around a coffee table. They appear to be snorting cocaine. I think for just a second about continuing ahead into the naughty boys room, but think better of it. Not following Ms Smith’s instructions could turn bad. I take the good turn and begin my slightly cautious saunter past her to my designated spot. As I pass before her, she catches my eye. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I think that when our eyes meet, I see a little sparkle in hers.
Mister Interrupted By Mister Late resumes his question, and what a question it is. He goes on and on with authority, sometimes glancing down to refer to his notes. By the time he finishes I have more than quadrupled my knowledge of Ms Smith, who, speaking of, just sits staring glumly at the guy for several long seconds.
Finally, in a barely calm voice she says, “You know, really, that’s not even a question. That’s just you showing how incredible you are and how fucking much you know. I’ll tell you one thing you don’t know. You don’t know rock and roll. If you did you wouldn’t be asking fucking show-off questions. You have no business writing about rock and roll, because you are SO-O-O not fucking rock and roll. Get the fuck out of here, please.”
The kid just sits there, not believing his ears. Suddenly, as if touched by a live wire, Patti goes off. She leaps from the bed and stands screaming obscenities at the dude. Mister Interrupted By Mister Late aka Mister Not Fucking Rock ‘n Roll just sits there paralyzed, so she throws herself at him like a Tasmanian devil. But before she can seriously harm her victim, a man shoots out from the hallway and grabs Patti around the waist. He lifts her off the floor, and she, with legs and arms flailing, continues screaming obscenities with a flow to rival the St. Lawrence Seaway. Given this reprieve, Poor Mister Interrupted (etc.) wisely flies out the door.
Improbably, Patti calms down almost instantly and resumes her Indian-style perch on the end of the bed, acting as if nothing absolutely insane has just happened. The guy that saved Mister Interrupted takes up a position near the bed. I, for one, am glad to see that. He is a slightly older dude who has the look of a musician. And well he should. I find out later that he’s Lenny Kaye, formerly of MC5 and currently lead guitarist of the Patti Smith Group. He is definitely fucking rock and roll. Later that day I get a great and hilarious interview with him. But that’s another story.
Patti turns to the next reporter in line and asks for his question. He stands up. She tells him to sit back down. Undeterred, he announces, “I actually have two questions.” Ms Smith replies, “I have one question. How long will it take you to get the fuck out of here?” Remembering Mister Interrupted (etc), he’s out in record time.
A disturbing pattern emerges. Serious young man asks serious, thoughtful question. Serious young man gets told he’s not fucking rock and roll. Serious young man gets sent packing. Next! She mows down half of my colleagues with her Tommy-gun tongue.
I hate it, and I hate her. Sure, these guys aren’t rock and roll. Sure, we’re a bunch of self-absorbed nerds–but so too are a hell of a lot of great rock and rollers. They just plug in amplifiers instead of typewriters. Friggin’ Marilyn Manson, once you get to know him, he’s just a nerd with an electric guitar and a comely make-up artist. These banished kids will go to the show, give it their full attention, and then go home to write a brilliant, inciteful review without even mentioning shrewish Ms Smith’s disgraceful antics.
After she’s dispensed with half of the assemblage, Patti announces that she needs a break and heads off into the adjoining room. “Probably to powder her nose,” I bubble. Several of the remaining victims take advantage of the hiatus and head post-haste out the door and to safety. In the end there are only two of us, rooted to our spots, too intimidated to sensibly move closer to the throne. I seriously contemplate making it a singleton. I have no idea what I will say when she asks for my question. “You think those well-prepared guys’ questions sucked? Get a load of this one, bitch!” I finally decide to stay, thinking, “This so-called press conference is my story. I’ve got to stay and ask my question. Maybe she’ll get past Lenny and punch my lights out. Now that would be a story!”
Patti returns looking slightly more subdued but not a whit less malevolent. Her homely face is as ugly as a witch’s fist. She’s removed the sports coat and unbuttoned the vest completely to reveal a good portion of her breasts, visible through the translucent bra. I try not to look, but they are quite beautiful. She resumes her throne, lights up a fat joint and passes it to Lenny. The fragrant smoke wafts about the room bearing the distinct and heavenly aroma of some really good shit. She turns to us, her final two victims, and, neither inviting us to move closer nor, most uncivilly, offering us a hit off the joint, points a lazy finger toward my companion.
He asks his intricate question, and as he finishes Patti’s head slumps wearily downward. This guy saves a little face by asking, “Not rock and roll? Get the fuck out?” She merely nods without looking up. After he’s gathered his gear and left, Patti, without raising her head, says to me rather gently, “Alright, Mister Late. What’s your fucking question?”
At that point I still have nothing. But I also have nothing to lose. So I say, “May I please have a hit off that joint?”
I watch closely as she slowly raises her head to reveal, to my utter shock, a little Gioconda smile. A transformation occurs before my eyes. Her body language softens to sensuous, and I swear she is glowing, exuding a soft blue light. And her face! My God! She is so beautiful!
She slides off the bed, walks over to me and passes me the joint. As I take my righteous toke, she starts giggling. Then she says to me:
“Now that, was a really good fucking question.”
By Yaël Ksander
It’s an old-fashioned story with a lot of familiar elements, but we just can’t seem to get enough of it: rock and roll cowboy meets unconventional beauty from the wrong side of the tracks; amidst pills and booze, there’s wild success and inexorable descent. A Star Is Born has enjoyed at least four turns on the marquee over the last 80-plus years, but there’s a profound poignancy to its resurrection in 2018, almost two years into Trump’s regime, a year into the #metoo movement, and deep into discussions of toxic masculinity against the backdrop of a generation of underemployed men finding refuge in opioids and isolationist politics.
Played by a more-rugged-than-usual Bradley Cooper, Jackson Main is introduced to us on stage, basking in the glow of a festival crowd that clings to him all the way to the limo. Fans still stuck to the windows, our hero takes refuge in the back seat with a bottle as the driver maneuvers through the crowd. When the bottle runs dry, Jackson has his driver pull over when he spots a watering hole. Recognizing Jackson on his way in, the androgynous and ethnically ambiguous doorman suggests that this might not be the star’s kinda place. In other words, partner, This Ain’t Marlboro Country.
But Jackson settles in amidst the sequins and ostrich feathers, and this endears him to us. He’s cool. (Or maybe just thirsty.) The drag show will feature a special act this evening, he’s told, and because we’ve rehearsed this story a few times, we know that it’s going to be Lady Gaga, and that he’s going to fall for her. But if we think about it for a moment, how is she even his type? For someone who codes pretty darned straight male, wherein exactly lies the appeal of this creature, channeling some of the most sexually fluid moments of 20th century culture with her Piaf tune and her Weimar brows? How, for starters, does our hero, after all those drinks, decipher the elaborate construction of this drag: a woman playing a man playing a woman?
It’s a richness that doesn’t get explored. And that turns out to be a tragic miscalculation, both for the film, in its quest for greatness and for our hero, in his quest for healing. To quote its big, powerful hit song, the film gets mired in “the shallow” tropes of the Hollywood rom-com, while grasping for deeper, more complex, and certainly more relevant identities and situations. The kumbaya of Jackson’s comfort level in the gay bar lures us into thinking that this version of the ASIB franchise has been thoroughly steeped in 21st-century mores and values – until that veneer is ripped off along with Ally’s (Gaga’s) eyebrow back in her dressing room.
It’s not an intentionally violent act; quite the contrary, it’s presented as a step toward intimacy. “I know my mind is made up,” to use the logic of the great bard Sting, “so put away your make-up.” No sooner does Jackson inquire whether her brow is real than he asks to remove it. Ally acquiesces, only to recoil and cover her denuded face with her hand. The confident performer withdraws into a frightened shadow without her mask; indeed, the first time she emerges completely démaquillée after agreeing to join Jackson for a drink after the show, she waits behind the curtains while he serenades the queens (yet more proof of this cowboy’s cool). The dramatic irony of our knowledge that she is Lady Gaga, rarely seen sans drag, adds suspense to the anticipation of her presentation to Jackson. “You look beautiful,” old-fashioned viewers might murmur, “he’s gonna love you.” Even the more jaundiced among us have been convinced by this seemingly reconstructed good ol’ boy that nakedness equals authenticity, that the essence is revealed once the layers have been removed.
A doctrine that privileges the simple over the complex, the direct over the oblique, the homespun over the contrived, this myth of authenticity has had remarkable staying power in the American narrative. Take popular music, for example. Think about how those fans called Dylan “Judas” when he plugged in at the Newport Folk Festival. There’s just something wholesome about a feller singing a song he wrote, accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar and maybe a harmonica. Although the electric guitar did ultimately gain passage, this symbology of authenticity has held such sway in popular Western music for the last 50+ years we hardly question its authority. Or the fact that its standard-bearers are white and male, and its origins Anglo-Saxon (with some blues licks copped off the African-American tradition). Its normalization as the signifier of sincerity drowns out a lot of other music, through the implication that these strains are somehow effete. Which is how we got to that ignominious moment in 1979 when 50,000 guys emerged from their parents’ basements to explode a pile of disco records in the middle of Comiskey Park. Of the damage incurred by Disco Demolition Night, White Sox pitcher Rich Wortham commented, “This wouldn’t have happened if they had country and western night.”
With its synthesized sounds, relentless rhythms, disposable lyrics, and an emphasis on its performers’ glamour, disco posed a distinct alternative to rock-n-roll’s earnest, organic aesthetic in the 1970s. But historians suggest that the vehemence with which disco was demonized may have had more to do with its demographic origins than its formal qualities. Taste is never that innocent. New York’s late 70s nightclub landscape was, from all accounts, nothing if not ecumenical with regard to race and sexual persuasion. Whitewashed for the mainstream with Saturday Night Fever and the hits in 4/4 that every band from the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead was incentivized to produce, disco was incubated in the black, Latinx, and gay scenes. A highly mannered aesthetic, disco performance may have relied on conventions, costumes, and masks to convey its meaning as a legacy of those origins, and the code required to operate as a subculture. To borrow a term from cabaret culture, there is a safety, and a freedom, in wearing a mask: Maskenfreiheit.
Ally’s own orbit is similarly removed from the bourgeois. From the club where she works and performs, to her gay BFF and the drag queens she’s got on speed dial, to the working-class home she shares with her (ostensibly) Italian-American father and his band of racially diverse chauffeur buddies, hers seems to be a thoroughly multicultural 21st-century urban experience. When we get a glimpse into Ally’s bedroom, we notice a framed copy of Carole King’s Tapestry hanging on the wall. The cover of the album is iconic in its unpretentious realism: the natural woman in her natural milieu. The multi-platinum record foregrounded King’s voice and her simple accompaniment.
But King’s origins were in the Brill Building, cranking out songs for the Hit Parade. One of the songs on the album, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” debuted as the first number one hit for an all-black girl group in the U.S., a feat that feels downright conspiratorial in 1960 considering also that it was a song interrogating the gender-based sexual double standard written by a Jewish teenager who’d gotten pregnant out of wedlock. Another one of King’s originals on Tapestry had first known life as Aretha’s hallmark: “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” A Jewish woman who wrote songs for African-Americans that were sold to the masses, King occupied a cultural space where pop music and the more respected singer-songwriter genre were as cozy as she and that cat on the album cover. Maybe Ally too?
And why not? It’s 2018, and a lot of us, even the rock-n-rollers, have gotten more heterodox in our musical taste. If we’re, admittedly, a little weary of the guitar hero, Jackson’s own ambivalence about the role convinces us of his sincerity. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” he croons to the queens in the club. The song is reprised two more times over the course of the film. This is revisionist rock-and-roll, we’re persuaded, so we give him a chance. His willingness to share his spotlight with Ally as she joins his act further disarms us. Hey, this guy is a real feminist! Without a streak of makeup (but tarted up nonetheless in country-western’s own formidable drag) Ally enjoys a picturesque partnership with Jackson until she gets offered a deal of her own. The would-be manager hooks her by suggesting that she has something unique to share with the world. Speaking your truth is this flick’s shibboleth. Jack takes Ally’s news begrudgingly. His jealousy comes as a shock to her, as much as to us. This sensitive new age guy isn’t as cool as we had hoped.
As Ally’s career as a pop star takes off, Jackson’s own declines (which may have to do with his escalating substance use and tinnitus, sounding an ever-loudening refrain inside his head that, if it were set to words, might just echo the rallying cry sounded last year in Charlottesville: “You will not replace us.”). The music Ally is making progressively incorporates the artifice of her first performance at the drag club, while in her home life, those origins have been reduced to a small neon sign hanging over a door protesting “La Vie En Rose,” appearances notwithstanding. Having originally encouraged Ally to perform her own songs, Jackson is not a fan of the music that’s putting her on the charts. In one scene he drunkenly ridicules her while she bathes. Having originally encouraged her artistic stripping down, when she’s actually naked in the tub he only takes advantage of her vulnerability. It’s a painful reprise of a previously joyful tub scene, in which Jack lets Ally stroke his lashes with mascara while they soak. In the end, it turns out to be a temporary makeover.
Jackson’s growing sense of irrelevance manifests itself as desperate, dramatic monologues and gestures that effectively banish the film’s last shreds of believability once and for all (admittedly, this is a Hollywood musical). Moments before Ally heads out for her first show of the tour, amped after Skyping with her besties from the club and basking in the glory of her stories-high face on a billboard, Jackson delivers a buzz-killing soliloquy about the importance of staying true to oneself. It’s hard not to imagine Ally’s inner monologue after the addled soothsayer lays his ancient wisdom on her: “Um, okay? Headed out on my world tour now. You do you. Next time, how about ‘Break a leg’?”
Another Hail Mary of a scene resorts to the device of a Wise Person of Color (a stock character Spike Lee has anointed the “Magical Negro”). Having passed out on the side of the road after his gig in Memphis, Jack is discovered by his old friend George (Dave Chappelle), who hauls Jack’s ass back to his home for some straight talk and sobering up. They go way back, we learn, and we get the sense that George has had his own rough years. Stable now, with a beautiful wife and a pack of kids, George tells Jack that happiness may simply be a function of flexibility. Give something new a shot, and let that be your reality, George suggests, like this new gal who seems to be making you happy. In other words, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”
The magic dust George disperses prompts what could only be described as a fantasy sequence where Ally suddenly shows up, Jack twists up some guitar string and slides it on her finger, and George calls his cousin to open up the church and marry ‘em up. I’m not sure if the Reverend Al Green played the preacher, or Aretha Franklin led the choir, but they may as well have in the ensuing wedding scene that feels more of a piece with Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again than a sort of biopic that’s trying to make a big point about authenticity. Needless to say, the foray into the black community of Memphis works like a stint at rehab: momentarily transformative, but ultimately ephemeral. As it turns out, having a black friend, and even getting married in a black church, can’t save you any more than having a drink in a gay bar.
So we return to the film’s, and our hero’s, fatal flaw: the premise of multiculturalism as prop to shore up the culturally hegemonic definition of authenticity. Just like Jack, the film samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but ultimately fails to delve deeper. And it’s positively agnostic as to the (cisgender) female experience: besides Ally, and George’s placeholder of a wife, the xx tally stands at a couple of backup dancers and makeup artists. We’re so far from passing the Bechdel test here it’s not worth discussing. Jack’s mother died in childbirth and the whereabouts of Ally’s are never addressed. Mothers are missing and it’s a non-issue? Really? “Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?” Ally inquires, in the film’s thrilling hit duet.
There may be no better way to express her frustration with Jack’s choice to “keep it so hardcore” – and ours with the film’s unapologetic choice to languish in the shallows of the patriarchy — than the eight wordless bars of the song’s refrain. As Robin Zlotnick suggested in her delicious piece of satire in McSweeney’s — “Appropriate Moments to Respond with Lady Gaga’s Guttural Howl From the Song Shallow” – the wordless wail provides a sorely needed response for any number of situations in which one is confronted with mansplaining and assorted jive from the fellas of today. It’s a good song, but it is the song’s function within this stubborn mule of a film that should win it the Best Song Oscar. Long after the film has faded away, we’re going to be needing that primal scream.
Slave hunting requires whiskey….A new play looks at racism in the IU community in the middle of the 20th century
by Bill Breeden
I am honored to play small parts in Stories of Monroe, a play by Gladys DeVane in collaboration with Danielle Bruce and Elizabeth Mitchell. As a sixty-nine year old theater rookie, it’s nice to work with some very talented actors, in a play with a message critical to our present morass of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism. A people who cannot face who they’ve been cannot know who they are, and cannot become who they need to be. This is our history, local, with recognizable names. It is painful, yet redemptive to visit.
During the first read-through, I found myself struggling to control my emotions as I listened to the stories of Joel and Tony, two runaway slaves who passed through Bloomington in the early 19th century, travelling the Underground Railroad that carried runaways to Canada. It is a story of villains and victims as well as heroes and healers of the national disease that infects our nation on both sides of the Mason/Dixon line. The play doesn’t remain in the distant past but follows the ravages of that racist malady and the struggle for justice in Bloomington and specifically in the IU community through the middle of the 20th century. The echoes of runaway slaves resound in the stories of George Taliaferro, Denver Smith, and the many unnamed African Americans who suffered from, and struggled against, systemic institutional racism.
Perhaps that first read-through weighed heavy on me because I was reminded that I am a son-of-a-sundown town. When I grew up, no person of color could be found after dark in Odon, Indiana, for fear of loss of life or limb. I know racism, because I was a racist, reared in racist culture. That is not to say that my family, my church community, and my hometown folks were bad people. They were wonderful people who loved their children, and believed in the American Dream because they had never been forced to live the American nightmare.
As I read through this script, I was reminded of the first African Americans I ever knew personally. My coming to know them was an accident of history, religion, and location, location, location.
My family lived five miles east of Odon. It so happened in the mid-sixties that a minister was sent to serve a church in our very conservative town. His bishop either didn’t like him, or just had a hankering to see what would happen. The minister was a holiness minister, but a social liberal. He supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. The congregation loved his preaching but disliked his politics.
The minister had the right to call whomever he pleased to aid in the fall and spring revivals. He called “Walking” Bill and Blanche Smith. He was called Walking Bill cause he couldn’t sing without walking, and Blanche played honky-tonk gospel piano so hot it pealed the paint off the walls. A few weeks before the revival meeting, the minister and my Pappy were fishing together, and he turned to Pappy and said,
“I got a favor to ask of you.”
“This evangelistic team’s coming for the fall revival and I need a place for them to stay.”
“Our evangelists usually stay with our preacher in the parsonage.”
“Well, they can’t stay in the parsonage, or in the hotel either.”
“Because they’re black.”
“They’re holiness evangelists?”
“They sound like white people to me, they can stay at our house.”
And so it was that Walking Bill and Blanche became honorary “white folks” to my family. (“Black” wasn’t’ good enough.) Ironically, the local church fell in love with them and called them back for three years running. They stayed at our small farm in the country. They were Uncle Bill and Aunt Blanche to me.
Perhaps the pain I felt in the reading of Stories of Monroe is related to the pain I saw in Walking Bill’s eyes one night at the holiness camp meeting when truckloads of locals drove by hollering, “Get them niggers out of town! We got laws around here!”
Let us look at our past, that we may determine our future. I hope you see the play.
By Tom Roznowski
“Life isn’t always what one likes”: a line from Roman Holiday, the 1953 Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. Pairing this with another timeless mantra, “Life is brief,” one might feel trapped beneath the weight of despair. We travel this path. We tear up maps. We remain lost until we’re found.
Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo achieved considerable success during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Increasingly though, his populist and pacifist sentiments drew him into conflict with America’s dominant post-war message: that the material and manufactured would elevate our mortal souls.
The inevitable collision of perspective and policy occurred in 1947 when Dalton Trumbo was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in the film industry. Along with Ring Lardner Jr. and Edward Dmytryk, Trumbo became one of the original Hollywood Ten, individuals whose names and talents would be blacklisted by the major studios.
In his appearance before the Committee, Trumbo refused to answer direct questions, remaining steadfast and unapologetic about his contempt for the inquiry. His comment about the sentence that would result in his incarceration for nearly a year at a federal penitentiary in Kentucky: “As far as I was concerned, it was a completely just verdict. I had contempt for that Congress and have had contempt for several since. That this was a crime or misdemeanor was the complaint, my complaint.”
Upon his release, Trumbo and his family moved to Mexico City. Exile from one’s homeland has informed and enriched the work of writers from Dante to Durrell. Separation from one’s origins will often focus the writer’s gaze upon life’s essentials as deeply-held values become more precious and their expression suddenly more critical.
During his time in Mexico City, Dalton Trumbo would produce perhaps the most resonant single work of his creative life. The screenplay would emerge as a light romantic comedy, oddly enough; carrying with it a far-seeing wisdom that had somehow eluded Trumbo during his years of political activism. It is ironic, yet somehow logical, that due to the on-going blacklist, this signature piece would be presented to the world anonymously. It was not until 2011, thirty-five years after his death, that Dalton Trumbo would finally receive formal writing credit for Roman Holiday.
The film opens with a newsreel report about Princess Ann, a young royal-in-waiting in the midst of a whirlwind goodwill tour through post-war Europe. Her stress levels reach a saturation point in Italy, which in 1953 was still bearing the social and economic scars of the previous decade. The country’s rampant post-war inflation, with 10 American dollars being equivalent to over 6,000 Italian lira, serves as a running joke throughout the film.
In a strange way, the modest circumstances of daily life in Rome provide a common ground for the film’s two disparate characters. The Princess, as played by Audrey Hepburn, is privileged and sheltered. Her stress arises from hauling the weight of abundance. Every waking hour is planned in advance by her handlers. She walks through her days in a daze, motivated by other’s expectations.
On the first night of her visit to Rome, the Princess steps out onto the balcony of her embassy, drawn to the laughter and music of an open-air party just outside the gates. She is transported, initially by a desire for meaningful connection and later by a laundry truck as she sets off on her journey of discovery.
Trumbo then introduces us to Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), a reporter for the American News Service. Bradley is also eager to escape his daily reality. For him, though, it is the lack of abundance that proves confining. His one-room walk-up flat has no kitchen, no telephone. His life abroad has no traction. He can’t even win at poker when dealing the cards.
The desperate reporter’s discovery of the sleeping princess suddenly offers him the opportunity of a lifetime: a relative fortune of $5,000 U.S. dollars for an exclusive story about his new friend. The fact that the amount translates to over 3,000,000 Italian lira means little to our hero. Joe Bradley wants to abandon his modest situation in Europe and return to America.
The chance meeting of these two characters produces a brief spark that illuminates the space surrounding them. Rome is called the Eternal City for a reason. In fact, at the moment when Princess Ann, still concealing her identity from Bradley, agrees to a day of doing everything she’s always wanted, time actually reverses itself. The clock tower of Trinita dei Monti above the Spanish Steps reads 11:30 AM, a half hour before the chimes that actually begin their day.
Symbolically, this illusion wipes the drab slate of reality clean and propels the fated couple into a mystical adventure: their past, their future, forgotten for just a few stolen hours from one precious day in pursuit of the now.
So just how does one get to the now? In transitioning from a formerly comfortable life to sudden exile, Dalton Trumbo has some thoughts to share. The full embrace of the present is a fundamental goal of the searching soul. The couple’s day together in Rome plays out with a mix of the unanticipated and the intentional, a range of emotions from fear, to reverence, to delight. And as it all unfolds, Dalton Trumbo’s script places his personal values squarely in the couple’s magical experience.
Fundamentally, Trumbo is inviting us to explore and come to know the place where we find ourselves, beginning with the other people who share it. Trumbo considers this in both its global and local implications. Throughout Roman Holiday, the Italian language is neither anglicized nor sub-titled. It remains the visitor and the viewer’s responsibility to understand. The couple deepens their awareness of Rome’s history, its fables, and its legends, all the while reveling in the beauty and pleasure the city affords.
These discoveries are necessary in our lives, Trumbo believes, because we walk this way but once for a relatively short time. Indeed, Princess Ann realizes that she is living out a fairy tale and at midnight she will return to her previous reality – to be a princess once again.
On the other hand, for Joe Bradley, this return to reality proves stark and sacrificial. At journey’s end, he does not collect his prized interview with the wayward princess. He does not collect his $5,000. In fact, he emerges even deeper in debt to his employer and his photographer friend, Irving. Rome, temporarily a fantasy of escape, will become Joe’s everyday reality going forward. America is relegated once again to being his perpetual dream.
With Roman Holiday, Dalton Trumbo urges us to commit to life’s simple pleasures, whether an afternoon glass of champagne or dancing to a live band beneath the stars. An enduring populist truth emerges: that money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.
In 1953, this guide for daily living was still on display throughout Europe as the continent recovered from two devastating wars within a generation. Dalton Trumbo provides us just the briefest glimpse: noon to midnight on an average day in Rome, Italy. In the film’s final scene, Princess Ann continues on her path to a life of structured, subsidized luxury. Joe Bradley heads toward a life of material uncertainty. With their last glance, they both share knowing grins, no sign of despair as they turn away – maybe because from now on each of them truly has no idea what might happen next.
Tom Roznowski is a performer and writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. His new radio series PorchLight with Tom Roznowski airs at Saturdays at 8:00 PM on WFIU-FM
When we started publishing an annual issue showcasing fiction from Bloomington writers, I hadn’t realized I would have to come up with an introduction every single year. But what surprises me now, four years later, is how easy these are to write. Namely because the stories we select are always so good, so rich and diverse, but also because they inevitably have a unity about them that I couldn’t predict or plan but at the same time, can’t deny.
Take this year’s stories. These pieces are as diverse as they come: one deals with someone trying to survive the two hells of chicken-catching and love; another focuses on the life journey of a woman in love with the clouds; a third details the brief interaction a man has with a vagrant; and the final story takes the form of a retrospective of a narrator’s life, which eventually focuses on the life of another.
As different as these sound, they all resonate with concerns shared not just by one another, but by everyone, concerns both timely and timeless. The main theme running through all of these works centers on questions of home: how we find it, how we keep it, how we escape it, and how we return. Home can be a place of solace, a place of conflict, a place of outright oppression. I wondered, while reading these stories, what does it mean to find a home? What does it mean to lose it? And what are they searching for, those who run away? I don’t know that any story could ever answer these questions definitively, but the ones you’re about to read do a wonderful job of introducing us to the complexities behind these questions.
Robert Arnove (“The Color of the Wheat Fields”) is IU Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus. His scholarship focuses on the role of education in individual, institutional, and national development. Bob’s latest book, Talent Abounds profiles life trajectories of peak performers in the arts and athletics. He has been active in the Bloomington arts scene, especially with the BPP
Adam Huening (“Not Even A Cloud in the Sky”) grew up in a small Indiana town where nothing of much consequence happens. Like many, he found refuge in Bloomington as a student and never really left. He works downtown now and writes constantly. Read his work in a variety of places. Google will help you with that.
Ali Maidi (illustrations) was born and raised in Bloomington where he received a BA from Indiana University with a focus in Jewelry and Metalsmithing. This is his fourth year in a row serving as the artist for the fiction issue. He currently divides his time between Bloomington and Potsdam, Germany.
Noah Sandweiss (“The Tribe of Nephilim”) is a longtime resident of Bloomington and graduate student at Indiana University. They study history, and have a particular interest in Bloomington’s past and character.
Dennis Sipe (“Chicken Catchers”) has published nearly fifty poems in various literary magazines. His chapbook My Days Are Stray Dogs That Won’t Come When I Call was nominated for the Pushcart Prize; “Chicken Catchers” is his third published story. He is looking for an agent for his novel, Releasing Herschel. He also writes song lyrics.
Robert F. Arnove
My life is written in a bundle of forgotten letters reopened: picture postcards from not so long forgotten friends in Istanbul, Madrid, Florence, Amiens. They were a generation boarding boards but somehow never getting started, never reaching some mythical, long sought after Paris of the 1920s. My friends were all very young, wandering. They were returning to Norway in the winter when they lived there but one summer; they were renting studios for me, any friend, in Paris in the hope we would materialize, magically, but never would; they were returning to boot camp in Oklahoma, to Allentown, Pennsylvania to teach second graders about American Indians; and to Alberta, Canada to go grocery shopping – why not? They were returning to tell their stories on typewriters, blackboards, and the blue books of Midwestern universities.
What happened to all my brothers and sisters riding all over this country, the world by thumb and backpack? They were running all the time, running away from themselves hoping to find some deeper meaning to life.
Then, there is always Christmas time, and cards, and promises of reunions in New York – perhaps in another life. Open a card and tinsel falls on your sleeves, on your hair. Thanks for the stardust, but especially for knowing you.
Sometimes I come to life in a New Year’s Eve party where a lonely girl slumps against a corner indulging her memory while blue lights flash shadows of pounding bodies, and shrill notes reverberate against a silver Christmas tree, and sweat-laden crepe paper dangles in puddles of champagne. I think of Dee’s card to me.
Memories are four walls emptied as snow drops melting off my roof. Now it is March with rain and snow. Winter is still in the ice on the muddy, bleeding earth, in the forgotten foot ruts of the sloping sidewalks. It is wet and cold, not as wet and cold as remembering last summer, or spring which might never come.
But, sometimes it is summer and colorful streamers thrown from shipside to the dock, to the hands holding the threads of paper life stretched as ships are tugged seaward, snapped and falling, down, down to float away on the face of the sea, off the face of the earth. White handkerchiefs s waving in the breeze in the distance.
Somewhere it is summer and perpetual longing for a pebbled, sandy beach, and your feet dug into it. Red-tiled roofs baking, and hours and hours of sun and quiet on the Mediterranean.
Somehow you are alone and so am I. I also have thought of that ship that summer, the loves and life that I looked forward to and lost in time. Lost when paths returned home and left me at a point midway between then and now, between two continents – sinking, hung over the railing of a ship, looking down into the mist and spray, and foamy moonlight.
You are left playing categorical number games and disciplining yourself by reading European histories. You are sick, writing me, urging me to write you. You feel small and insignificant tonight. You are alone in a dark room rocked back and forth like that night when the sea was turbulent. You promise God that if he should come back in the night to wish you a tender farewell, you should be, for that moment, happy, fulfilled – never in your fondest dreams believing the wish to come true. So now your four-walled chamber bulges with a memory, a brief sweet minor note. A star you touched.
I have lost my unique rose and I wonder if friends, loves, are really replaceable. But it is tonight and I am bitter and sad. I too am staggering back in time to a pasture and that night before you left. The two of us, the younger leading the older along a rough path. The memory fades and returns stranger than a dream.
Not far from the university tennis courts, the path ends in a barbed-wire fence. Beyond it there is wasteland into which no life has been imposed. They step among and across the bars of black tree trunks gently thrown against the broken ground, rustling black leaves carried along with flowing white moonlight. Wandering and stopping, he leans her against a tree. Hands pull him in closer, struggling and pushing and kneeing harder, almost violently, whirling away into the night, into sublunary bodies, into flesh – and, suddenly she whispers stop!
Eyes are watching us? Someone is there? They withdraw, and turn to look. No one is there. Through the trees others can watch, but no one is near. The students are back by the patio. The distant and low building of the rectory is dark. The pasture is empty. It is empty and yet alive, burning with intensity. They begin again. He struggles to postpone climaxing, his stomach tightens, hardens . . . His pants are wet. Released and ashamed, he falls to Dee – holds her. The thin child-like body tightens. Was this fulfillment of a long held wish or much less?
She asks, “Did you every cry? Yesterday at dusk, when we saw land for the first time in seven days, the rock coastline, the orange sunset, the fishing, boats then the ship docked in Kristiansand, I cried.”
“When everyone went below to shower and dress for dinner, along on deck, I . . . . Do you ever?”
Dee was leaving, She cried often. She would cry again. Tomorrow she would go to the airport with her two very good friends. Pg had met her on campus in Spokane. Ruth became her life-long friend during the ten-day voyage. Tomorrow she would join the student tour from which she was missing. Dee would join the group and be pushed from country to country.
But, losing her airplane ticket to London, maybe she would stay, rent an apartment, and have parties every night. How would her father understand? What address could she give? It didn’t matter. She would move along. There was no choice. What remained of her heart was torn apart every time she left, every time someone boarded a train, said good-bye. On the continent, moving in a group, maybe she would stop, check her luggage before emptiness enveloped her. The dream was all over.
The Mediterranean faded into the past, although it was before her. Probably there were several nice people on the tour. It wouldn’t be bad.
Dee half naked stood eyes upward, frowning. She was different. Yet, she would probably be like any other girl who came to Europe and paid for drinks and slept with men. Dee would be any woman who could be picked up by a seventeen or eighteen year old lover. Gigolos of all ages abounded. There were plenty of them in Europe. Good-looking, good on the dance floor and in bed.
In London, where Dee was headed, they visited coffee shops and waited for secretaries. They wore very tight trousers and colorful, carefully tailored jackets. They had long dark curly hair, and went to dances.
All kinds of young women came, those upwardly mobile living in modest flats as well as rich society girls from mansions with gates running around them. Dee would be all right. She would fit in. She was like any number of young women coming to Europe.
On the ship when they drank every night, Dee was near him. Often she paid for his drinks. He said that he would take care of her the next night, but he never did. In the dining room there were four at their table. She always watched him. At times he stopped and looked at her, but only briefly.
I can see her carrying packages of groceries and art supplies in sneakers, without socks, and denim pants rolled up. Somehow she no longer was with a partner or even a date, going to an off-Broadway show, afterwards aimlessly walking down Village streets in the night time alive with denizens coming out of basements or sauntering down steps of brownstones, wandering among winding streets with international shops, art and antique shops, and day time window displays packed up for the night.
Dee looked nice dressed up, older, particularly in black. Although twenty-three she usually looked no more than seventeen. Knowing this, she was nic- named Dee Dee, and sometimes Dee Dee Doll. By request she would render her baby-voiced version of “My Blue Room.” Her voice was weak and she was small, but cute.
It is difficult to remember her eyes. Perhaps they were green or khaki brown to match her Bermuda shorts, and greenish blue and black striped polo shirt. Her face was small and her hair was clipped short in a thin bang running round her forehead. She tugged her legs and moccasins under her. Because of this, and because her neck stretched thin and high over the table in the lounge, she looked like a newly hatched chicken. And she was nice in silk pajamas under the heavy blankets in bed.
Anyway, Dee Dee was his friend from the very night when her group accepted him, listened to what he said, thought him very charming in a crowd. There was only the four of them, and then many clustered around them. Dee Dee was really something. She acted and she wrote. Dee was only his friend, and yet he slept with her on that voyage.
It was this bond that made her tell him of the story of the Little Prince and the fox – a story of friendships and loves established, of separations and remembrances. The fox would always remember the Little Prince because of the color of the wheat fields – golden – like his crown of hair.
Dee lived in Greenwich Village one summer. She talked about a kaleidoscope of parties, one after another in the nighttime, in the daytime, until there was no difference between the two, hopes and productivity, and promises that never materialized, vanished, or simply dissolved in sodden forgetfulness.
I can see her carrying packages of groceries and art supplies in sneakers, without socks, and denim pants rolled up. Somehow she no longer was with a partner or even a date, going to an off-Broadway show, afterwards aimlessly walking down Village streets in the night time alive with denizens coming out of basements or sauntering down steps of brownstones, wandering among winding streets with international shops, art and antique shops, and day time window displays packed up for the night.
But, there were other shows, in which she was a player. Beat Generation jazz cafes or dives where everyone knew each other, or hung around on the steps outside, draped over the railing, leading down to where the party buzzed.
People wore sandals, large earrings, lots of stripes, and long, very long hair. For the gays who were beginning to come out with growing confidence, outrageous colors and long scarfs made a statement. Blacks and whites, gays and straights, international exiles and displaced Appalachian youths all mixed consciously and happily.
This is her story, her painting. Complete vegetation and good friends, who you could find by pulling aside a beaded curtain in your own hang out. Her friends acted, and wrote, and painted, and composed. They were very intelligent. One of her best friends just had his poetry published in the Atlantic.
The Village is fading. It is a summer rainstorm. Everyone leaves the playground, and those running for shelter kick up dust clouds as newspapers scamper down empty streets.
Suddenly, everyone is gone, and soaking, and still wanting to do something, but with nothing to do, you return to your room and perhaps read, or write, or do what you are supposed to, but don’t want to do.
Darkness comes very early on such a day, and then maybe you won’t be able to get out into the street with friends, or find a party, or find anyone. Maybe you will have to go to sleep alone, and sober, and questioning, “What are you doing here alone in bed?”
It will soon be fall, and all over. It will be autumn and college. There are many days like this when she returns home to Seattle.
Sometimes she wishes she were back on the campus. But Dee has graduated. There is loneliness among many people, but not loneliness with yourself, afraid of yourself. At the university, you were in a dormitory, and could open your door to light in the hall. People often walked in, and there was talking in hallway telephone booths. There were various kinds of faint noises, and the few friends you knew, but no longer know.
Then there were the dreams, both good and bad. The promise of success and fame, only if.
At times, the puzzle of different life pieces became frightening, very much like the dreams about which she told her friends on the deck of the Norway-bound ship. There were several nightmares; but vividly she remembered being chased and held in darkness. One nightmare was of a room at the end of a long hall, very much like in the fun house with slanted floors and trick mirrors. A clown growing larger and larger coming upon her, laughing with sweat streaming down his face. He is on stilts and growing, she falls backwards, tumbling. The clown grabs her. Then, Dee realizes she knows the distorted face, the grey-haired man. He is the theater director who often peeped in the dressing room. The image fades. He is gone. “Poor man, I really think he was very strange.”
Yes, Dee acted: “In one play, I had only a bit part and yet the review singled me out!” She talked of her character parts. As she did, there were mirrors again, and a shadow-dark room with a ballet rail, and many figures in unself-conscious poses. There was great activity and preparation, an amateur acting group hoping to come to floodlit life in an old barn or more conventional summer stock theater. Dee could become famous, if she wanted to, but even that wasn’t sure.
As it turned out, there was no promised, breakthrough performance.
No immortality on the stage, but a memorable conventional married life with a wonderful husband and a son successful in the arts.
We corresponded at Christmas time over the years. As time passed, the gaps in correspondence increased. There was an occasional telephone call, the last one eight years ago. Her husband Mort answered, his speech hesitant, due to a stroke, but also to his having to share news with me that Dee had passed the previous year after heart surgery.
I was left with a bundle of our correspondence, and a wisp of her golden hair. There will always be the color of the wheat fields.
Hannah thought the winds would never change.
Standing at the window jealous of the high clouds barreling across an indigo sky, Hannah turned away and held the simple sight squarely in her eyes. That everyday spoon askew on the wooden table. The mixing bowl and spatula, the flour and sugar and cocoa; everything all spread out across the surface, her mother dangling in her periphery. She discarded these common sights with a flicker of her eyes as she turned back to the window, away to the horizon and all the things she could not see beyond.
She contemplated history projected on the sky’s expanse. Her mother’s incessant necessity for the simple things; all the minor movements made in the manner of importance. Making her bed then washing her face, wiping away all the stardust and dreams that accumulated there overnight. Mixing the butter in the batter slowly so the pancakes fluffed up perfectly like clouds skimming across the skillet’s surface. The speechless solitude of knitting by the fire – the crackle and the pop and the clicking and the humming – these were the little moments that made a tidy, satisfactory life in her mother’s eyes.
Hannah was never allowed to run, to skip, to stray, to wander. Her mother kept her close, whether they were in the kitchen, or walking the thin path through the tall saw grass to the tiny town down the hill or sitting in the morning sun as she bound Hannah’s hair in a practical braid.
Even as a child, Hannah had no patience for simple things.
Held fast and tight in her mother’s hand, Hannah’s attention would turn upward, her blue eyes falling into a defiant and envious gaze fixed upon the clouds carelessly making their way to lands untold, pushed by the whims of the wind across an ever-changing sky. Sometimes she would wiggle and drift away from her mother. Sometimes she would make it so far across the meadow that when her mother called her name, her voice was nothing but a suggestion; an intonation lazily lilting upon an indifferent breeze.
She stood in the kitchen staring out at the horizon as a storm swelled somewhere – the clouds creeping up the edges of the evening sky – and ignored the common room behind her. Her mother was close, humming a hymn so near silence the song was more like gentle breathing. She smiled simply, mixing the batter of the cake that would hold all eighteen candles.
Hannah, however, had no desire for cake. She turned back to the room and spoke simple words.
“I wish to see the world,” she said firmly.
Her mother did not answer. She picked up an egg from the carton, and her humming ceased. She cracked it on the edge and let the yolk slip into the bowl, and her heart broke with it, all her hope and happiness folding into flour and sugar.
The cake baked in silence, the sweet fragrance lingering in the thick air between them as the storm grew closer. The sky grew dark, streaked in tumultuous blooms of ominous grey thunderheads.
The candles quivered on the cake as clouds wrapped the little house in darkness. Hannah sat at the table, embraced in the common gloom, her face alight from the flicker of the somber celebration. Her mother gently stroked her chin, turned her face upward and offered a strained, simple smile.
“Go then, make your wish.”
As lightning cracked and thunder rolled, Hannah conjured her wish, held it deep in her heart and allowed it to fill her body. She drew a breath, but before she could blow out the candles, the wind whipped through the window and snuffed the light, laughing with a deep, boisterous guffaw that echoed in the room.
A knock followed on the simple, wooden door. Hannah stood transfixed as the knock came again, then she slowly crossed the room. Though the storm rumbled around them and shook their little house, her mother held her breath and swallowed a word: “Don’t.” Hannah’s hand was already reaching for the knob.
She turned it slow, expectant. The door burst open, and the wind came howling in, whipping around the room disturbing everything, making the contents of the tiny house rattle and shake, stumble and tumble, plummet and break.
Hannah’s mother pushed upward from the wooden table she used to balance herself and saw Hannah sitting in awe on the floor. Before them, in the open frame, a large dark cloud hovered confidently, a knotted mass of palpable vapor filling everything before them. A wisp unfurled like a long muscular arm and beckoned to Hannah. Then a deep voice boomed in a kindly, cordial tone.
“I believe you made a serious wish, and the winds seem to have changed, my dear. Come with me. Let me show you all that you’ve been missing.”
The arm of fog and vapor beckoned once, twice for Hannah to come forward.
And so she did.
Hannah felt as if she were breathing for the first time.
It was as if her lungs had never felt air; her face had never felt the breeze. That her heart had never taken a beat.
As the storm rolled in, she was swept up into the cloud. Embraced in vapor, she raced across the sky and disappeared into the dark night. She awoke in the gleaming sunrise; twirling, unfurling, churning as mist and fog. She was a cloud born on the wind, and she smiled and laughed and gazed down at the grandeur of the world; a ghost filled with rain and snow, ice and hail, puffy and soft on sunny days, dark and seething with electricity when the storms came.
Hannah held fast to her cloud, and he showed her the world entire as they traversed the endless sky. They became one, and the Earth was but a patchwork quilt of farms and towns and roads all simply stitched together to make up something so much more.
Each time he passed over the ocean, he grew with the water that evaporated into the air. He held the vapor within and grew and grew until he was swollen and massive as the mountains and plains, the deserts and cities that passed languidly beneath them. She would run a loving hand through his knotted wisps and be amazed by his prowess, the largest of all clouds, a Genghis Khan among his kind, a sentiment whispered in his misty ear that unfurled as a smile across his foggy expanse.
And the cloud would eye the land and laugh. Everything below was his to conquer, his invading shadow passing over the earth. When so inclined, he conjured thunderheads and lightning bolts, washing the ground in sheets of torrential rain. His winds whipped tornadoes to the sodden earth hundreds of miles away; they spiraled into hurricanes somewhere lost in the grandeur of the ocean.
Sometimes he would lower her to the Earth. Barefoot and beatific, she would walk slowly across the landscape wet from the storm, the flowers growing in her wake. The leaves and grass and plants deepened their green; the vines wound around and the trees stretched taller. She would glance up. He would swoop down and the garden would glisten beneath them as they moved across the brilliant sky.
They went where they wished, and no one could stop them.
Years passed, and Hannah hovered above the earth, a cloud within a cloud. Years passed, and Hannah never once thought the winds would change, even when her mind drifted down to the memory of the mother she left behind.
After a time, the current seemed to shift. She felt it in the way vapor twirled in him, something amiss. It was one gilded, starry evening hung high above the Himalayas when Hannah felt the winds change. The Genghis Khan cloud had a sudden wish to be something more. He did not speak, but she sensed it in the way he held her. Uneasy, she tossed and turned and tumbled into sleep.
The next morning, he was idly drifting higher upon the sky than he had ever been, Hannah slumbering within, when her wish casually floated through his thoughts. He recalled that day long ago, the strange unspoken words that came rushing through him, that wind that brought him to her simple door.
He looked down at the Pacific Ocean rolling lazily beneath him. The sun shimmered in shafts of diamonds, a brilliant display that spread wider and farther than anything. In the middle of nothing, he spied land.
He gently brought her to the top of a dormant volcano high above a tropical paradise on a tiny island in the lost Pacific. Placing her softly on the ground, he whipped the trees and stones into a tiny house, sturdy and strong, which nestled on the verdant green mountaintop looking out at the endless ocean. Grey and swollen spreading across the entire sky, he smiled down at her and spoke deep, simple words.
“I wish to be spread across the world entire, more than the sky and great as the sea,” he said.
Her heart sank, though she said nothing. She understood his desire. And she hated him for it.
Hannah’s eyes burned with a thunderous storm, but she would not let it come. She would not give him the satisfaction. Instead, she held her chin high and admired the simple house, stone and palm leaves and pastoral. It was there, in the sunshine, where she closed her eyes and made a new wish. When she turned to him, she had nothing left to say.
“I expect you’ve now shown me everything there is,” she spoke to break the silence.
He embraced her one last time. Defiantly, she kissed him. Lightning flashed and the wind passionately ripped through them one last time.
“I leave you now, but not alone. Every time you look down from this volcano, you will stare across the sea, and I will be there,” he said.
He coiled gently around her three times before shuffling swiftly out to sea.
She watched as the rain fell, and her cloud grew smaller until he had spent himself, transformed to waves to race across the wide, wild sea.
She wiped one tear – the only tear she would ever shed for him – and placed the hand on her stomach, already swollen and heavy as a rain cloud.
Daily was born at the edge of dawn just as the light cracked the horizon and spilled in shimmering shafts through the window. There wasn’t even a cloud in the sky.
Hannah drew one breath and pushed and a new life rushed into the world. She lifted the baby girl to her chest and felt her heartbeat. She was light as a feather with blue eyes like the sky that flashed with bolts of lightning when she cried.
As the morning sun trickled in shifting shafts through the room, Hannah saw everything pass through her daughter’s tiny face and felt a rush of memory convalesce in her chest.
She spoke a simple name to the infant. “Daily.”
Beyond the preferential considerations of a mother’s heart, Hannah knew Daily was unique. Though she was but a baby, she felt strangely weightless, like a wisp caught within the form of a human. When Hannah held her to her breast, she had to do so tightly for fear she would float away.
They passed the days together on the mountaintop. When she could walk, Hannah fashioned heavy shoes to keep Daily on the ground. The little girl, however, always found a way to gravitate upward. Hannah tied a tether made of thick rope to Daily’s waist and wrapped it around her wrist when they went out. Inevitably, a wind would blow, or Daily would discard her shoes to feel the grass beneath her toes, and she would float up into the sky, and Hannah would hold on with all her strength and pull her back to the earth.
Hannah’s wish for a simple life looking out at the sea with her daughter by her side dissipated with a heavy realization. Hannah knew in her heart Daily was not meant for the ground.
The child grew as children do, and Hannah made each second something saved for later. They would pass evenings sitting together on the cliff, staring across the vast expanse of ocean, Daily’s head resting lightly on her shoulder, their bodies tethered together with thick, wide rope. Hannah would tell the story of the girl’s father, and Daily’s eyes grew wide and wistful, drawing in every drop of the ocean along with it, and it kept her weighted, for a time.
When she was nearing adulthood, Daily began to wonder of certain things; of being somewhere else, of being someone else; what it would be like without the weight of her heavy shoes; what it would be like without the ropes and stones that kept her to the verdant green top of the dormant volcano.
Hannah knew the tethers could not hold her much longer.
They were picking fruit from the treetops the day the wind blew through. Daily dangled like a balloon bobbing above the jungle floor, pulling down mangoes when Hannah felt a strange breeze – stiff and cunning, perfumed with the alluring scent of the wild ocean, rippled with the mischievousness of somewhere far, far away. She felt the rope go taught in her hands as the mangoes rained down to the dirt.
“Do not speak to that wind, Daily,” she said firmly as she tugged back.
“But mother, the wind is whispering of Madagascar. I don’t even know what that is,” Daily replied, fingers fumbling absently with the knot of the rope.
The wind whipped into a fury, tossing palm leaves and branches through the air. Daily laughed and spun, the rope leaving burns on Hannah’s tightly wrung hands. She pulled and pulled, but Daily was caught in the wind, laughing and swirling around everything.
Hannah did not remember if she called out her daughter’s name as the rope left her and she watched the girl drift away. She scaled the winding path to the top of the mountain as her daughter continued her ascent, floating carelessly. Daily danced in the air, spinning in pirouettes as strokes of white clouds streaked across the canvas of the azure sky. Daily laughed and drifted further and further away, onward and upward – the rope falling to the earth – and upward – her heavy shoes crashing into the sea – and upward, rotating softly, her chestnut tendrils outstretched and reaching – and the clouds parted gently – and she opened her eyes wide to the sun – and upward – her arms open and accepting – and upward – as she sunk into the embrace of the untethered sky.
Hannah watched her daughter fade into oblivion, into everything. She held the discarded rope limply in her burned hands, unmoving as she stood on top of the mountain, in front of the little house her Genghis Khan cloud had built so he could be everywhere all at once.
Hannah surveyed the sky until the sun sank into the sea, and the black blanket of night covered the world. She watched until the twinkling stars pin-pricked the quilted darkness, and all was silent.
Finally, she dropped the rope and went inside, alone.
Hannah walked up the hill along the path through the tall saw grass beneath the cloudless blue dome of a perfect summer sky. She did not know how long it had been, but each simple step drew her closer as a familiar wind swirled around the little home she had kept in her heart.
Her mother was in the kitchen. Hannah could see her framed by the plain, open window. Her hair had gone silver and her back slightly curved, but she wore the same apron and leaned over a mixing bowl, slowly stirring something. It was as if she had never left, but as she stood staring at all those things that she thought would only ever exist again in memory, she realized her eyes could not adjust to the contrast of light in the same manner.
She walked to the simple, wooden door and knocked. It creaked a quaint revelry, revealing the slightly shrunken frame of her mother. They did not speak, their smiles the only words their mouths needed. They reached out and fell into an embrace, as warm and assuring as a cozy fire on a windy wintry evening.
They fell back together easily, the tasks of the sheer necessities for the simple things fully occupying their time. They made the beds and swept the floors. They walked side by side down the path. At night they sat humming hymns quietly as they knitted and rocked to their own simple rhythms.
Hannah did not know how many years had passed when the crisp, autumn wind blew a tornado of crackling orange leaves past their window and stole her mother. It came with the golden sunlight of evening, rapping on the window pane, and though Hannah wanted to speak, she said nothing. Her mother looked out the window – a simple stitch of a smile across her wrinkled face – and crumpled to the floor, her silvery ghost escaping through the pane of glass to join the dying leaves oscillating toward the edges of oblivion.
Hannah spent the next few days taking care of earthly affairs, simple tasks to pass the leaving. She tidied the world her mother left, then embarked on her journey home.
On the verdant mountaintop, all alone, she settled into the tiny house, speaking to her Genghis Khan all across the ocean and searching the sky above for a wisp she hoped would settle back to the ground someday.
As time passed, she could no longer wait and watch the sun sneak slowly with the shadows across the wooden floor. Hannah took to the horizon, staring into the thin line between here and everywhere else, rocking slowly in her chair.
It was one morning with no clouds and no breeze that Hannah rose and left her bed unmade. She passed by the basin and didn’t make breakfast.
She dressed, packed her things and said goodbye to the little house. She made sure the home was burning fiercely before making her way down the mountain path, across the verdant jungle floor to the warm, pale sand.
Hannah put her things in the sand and paused. She sat in the sun and studied the waves rolling in and out, blessing the shore before rolling away. The wind rushed in from the opposite direction, pushing and prodding her back to the jungle, but she did not listen. She had decided. She no longer cared to wait for the wind.
As the sun burned from overhead, Hannah stood and walked to the shore. She closed her eyes and made a wish. She held it in her heart and allowed it to fill her body.
When she opened her eyes, the horizon stared back, and she smiled.
Hannah took a deep breath, deeper than she could hold, deeper than the ancient caverns from whence it came. She exhaled fiercely, and the wind ripped across the sand and sliced through the ocean. As she blew out again – twice, thrice – the waves parted before her revealing the ocean floor leading all the way to the horizon, thousands of fish dangling, half-suspended between the open air and the glistening water.
Hannah stared down the horizon, then stepped into the open sea, making her way forward, not caring if the winds changed, only that her feet and breath would take her there.
On Fridays after work us Chicken Catchers meet at Wiley’s for a few beers —- except for Trisha who has to get home by seven because of her little girl. Trisha drinks one ginger ale with lemon and tries to laugh at my jokes. There are four of us right now. We had a new guy a few weeks ago. He worked twenty minutes.
“Fuck this,” he screamed. “Jesus, help me out of here.”
We heard him run into the side of the metal catch building and knock himself out. We didn’t know he was down then, or one of us would have tried to find him sooner. You can’t see much when the storm is raging. That’s what we all call it, the storm.
You may not know what a chicken catcher does. I’ll tell you and maybe it will scare you into making more of yourself than you’ve been on the road to lately. Everyone starts off wearing gloves. But you can catch faster barehanded, so you take the cuts. After a while they don’t hurt as bad. Sometimes I don’t know who’s more numb, me or the chickens.
The one thing everyone does, is wear goggles. They steam up and sweat stings your eyes, but it beats wearing an eye patch over a dead hole. You mostly catch by feel anyway. When the air is full of feathers and dust you can’t see much. It’s like chickens in a tornado. They just open up around you from fear. You grab and grab. You feel a leg or a wing. You take a neck if that’s what you get, and you snap it if the chicken it belongs to gets its claws into your hand.
Thank god the de-beakers have melted the points off of their beaks. They will still work those pathetic, dull clackers against whatever they can of you, if they get the chance.
You break out in hives for the first two or three weeks. You cough from breathing in dust and feathers. Ammonia from their piss makes you want to puke until you get used to it. What’s that say about someone who would get used to that? I keep a bottle of mouthwash in my truck just so I can eat lunch.
An old chicken catcher has been at it six months. No one knows anyone who’s done it for over a year. It is the last thing you would ever do. And you will do it to keep your house or feed your kids. But you wouldn’t wish it on anyone you didn’t hate. I’ve done it the longest of any of us here now, eleven months. Tommy and Jack are high school buddies. They started together going on five months ago. Trish just finished her tenth week.
The catch building is a football field long and sixty feet wide. You make eight bucks for every thousand chickens. I can catch between twelve- and thirteen-hundred an hour. What works best is to take two hits of good weed about ten minutes before you start in the morning and then again after lunch. It focuses you and helps you get past the stinging sweat. You won’t have too much if you wear a sweatband. I have a red, white and blue one. You stand in the storm and grab. Trish doesn’t smoke. I’ve told her it will help, but she loves her baby girl.
“I won’t take the chance,” she says. “They might take her away.”
Trish is pretty too, even with her blonde hair caught up in a hairnet. She could get money another way. You know she knows it, but it’s the same as with weed. They might take her little girl away. Alice is Trish’s daughter’s name. She’s four years old. I met her when the three of us went fishing in Rough River. Trish made bologna sandwiches and I brought good chips and some sweet tea. I helped Alice catch her first fish.
Alice has blonde hair, blue eyes, and high cheekbones. There is a faint line running down from her nose to her upper lip. The surgeon that fixed her harelip did an amazing job. I don’t think by the time she’s twenty you’ll ever know.
I wonder things that I shouldn’t. But I’m lonely. I wonder how Trish could have afforded such work. I wonder if Trish used her looks that one time or how ever many times it took to settle her bill. I’m bad to think such thoughts.I tell myself, you don’t know that it wasn’t a woman surgeon. Then I think about the other thing and how she could still have worked it out that way too. That wouldn’t bother me so much. But it hurts to think of Trish with another man. Even if I had anything to offer Trish, I’m shy around women. Trish says she doesn’t date, which makes me feel bad about the fishing trip. One night I gave her a ride home to her mother’s house and she told me a few things.
“Alice’s father — I shouldn’t even call him that. He’s never been around but once since Alice was born. An insurance salesman, a regional troubleshooter really, he called himself. His card said it, but you can put anything on a card. I knew better, that he had a family. You could see the pale circle on his tanned finger. I wanted to get away from home. My dad drank and he was a mean drunk.”
Trish stopped talking and looked down at her knees as she worked them together and apart in front of the dash. Trish looks good in jeans.
“Does your dad still drink,” I asked.
I wished I hadn’t.
“He died two years ago. Heart attack.”
“It’s okay. Mom is better off. Even she says it. She always went to church without dad. A good man from church takes her out every Friday night to eat fish. He’ll be here in a few minutes. That’s why I have to get home by seven.”
I buy Trish her ginger ale every week at Wiley’s. She smiles when I do that and a lot of times when I say things. I think she likes me and yet there’s this line I can’t cross to tell her how I feel. It’s just as well, I think sometimes. I don’t want to be hurt. I know she should try to find someone with money or figure out how to get back into college and slog through it with her mom watching Trish while she goes to class and works a little. Trish has a year in at the junior college over in Delano.
Last Friday night Jack pissed me off. He knows I like Trish and he said something crude after she left the bar.
“You wouldn’t know how to eat something that fine, Jack,” I told him. “That would be a man’s job.”
“Like you would know what a man was and you living in your mom’s house at thirty-three.”
This is my Jesus year and I should be farther along in life, I know. Still, that remark hurt me and I didn’t smile. I went for my skinning knife, only remembered I don’t carry it anymore for that reason. My temper. I tried to play it off, like I was reaching in my front pocket for change for the jukebox. Jack knew better. He hasn’t spoken to me since.
I could be a dad to Alice but I don’t know if I should be. I’m good on my medicine, but why let Trish into my screwed up world?
I asked Trish yesterday at lunch if she wanted to go fishing again Sunday.
“You, me, and Alice,” I said. “Like last time.”
“I don’t know,” was what she said. Then at the end of the day, I waited around outside the women’s shower room after I was cleaned up.
“Oh, hi,” Trish said, when she came out.
It wasn’t a good surprised, “Oh, hi,” but a nervous dread type.
“Just wondered about this Sunday.”
“Sure,” Trish said. “Sure. I’ll fry chicken legs and make potato salad.”
“I’ll bring the sweet tea and some cookies,” I said.
Trish had a cornered look in her eyes, like a young deer in the road, trying to figure which way to jump to get out of the way of a car.
“Pick you up at ten,” I said, then I turned and let her be.
The next day at lunch Trish put her hand up to stop me as I walked back from my truck.
“Anything good for lunch today?”
“Peanut butter and jelly. It’s underrated as a sandwich,” I said.
“Yes, it is. You know, I’ve been thinking that maybe we shouldn’t go fishing.”
“It’s me, isn’t it? You don’t like me.” I didn’t think. I just said it plain out.
“It’s Alice,” Trish said. “She gets scared around men.”
“She didn’t seem to mind it before.”
“Well, she is hard to read, unless you know her.”
“I’d like to know her.”
“I know you would and that’s sweet but it would mean something I’m not ready for.”
I said good night and went home and listened to Johnny Cash records and felt sorry for myself. The next morning as we were walking to the catch shed, Trish stepped around in front of me.
“Hey,” she said.
“I made a mistake. I want to go fishing and bring Alice.”
I felt pretty good by lunch. Still I didn’t talk to Trish. I went out to my truck like usual and ate my sandwich and listened to Johnny Cash. His voice calms me, always has. When he died, I didn’t know it for almost twelve hours. I was mowing grass all day. That was September twelfth two thousand three. I came home and found out that he passed in the hospital. I was happy for John because I figured he’d been reunited with June and they’d played for God all day while I was walking my ass off, making two high class apartment complexes look good. I was so happy for J.C. that it made me feel thankful for two good legs to wear out. I just cried myself to sleep, not because I was sad but because I was happy.
I took pride in cutting grass. I’d probably still be mowing if the owner hadn’t caught me taking a hit off a joint one morning with this blonde on her patio. He fired me on the spot. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, I appreciated Mr. Cash when he was alive. Most people don’t appreciate what they have until they lose it. I learned that from my dad dying when I was twelve and my momma going last year. I listen to Johnny Cash and I chew that voice like a piece of leather and it gets me through.
I picked Trish and Alice up on Sunday. We found a good spot on the river, down under the bridge in the shade. Usually the old men are already under there, lined up and telling stories and spitting tobacco juice onto the bank.
“Look what I brought you, Alice.”
“What,” Alice asked?
“You shouldn’t have,” Trish said.
I slipped a grocery sack off each end of Alice’s package and handed it to her. She ripped open the flowered wrapping paper.
“A Snoopy rod. Look Momma, a Snoopy rod.”
“Alice, what do you say?””
“Thank you. Can you help me get it out?”
“I sure can,” I said.
I slit the plastic with my truck key and undid all those little ties that hold everything made in China these days against its cardboard backing. I took a little plastic tackle box from my tackle box.
“This is your box, Alice. You keep your bobbers, your hooks and your sinkers in it. Don’t put the sinkers in your mouth. The lead is bad for you. When I was little I didn’t know that. We all used to crimp sinkers down on the line and open them too, with our teeth. There’s a pair of pliers in here for your mom to use ‘til you’re old enough.
“The rod was enough, really,” Trish said.
“I know, but she needs the things that go with it.”
“Thank you,” Trish said.
I smiled and tied on the rubber casting weight. Alice caught on to casting it pretty well. Then I rigged up her rod for bluegill with a size 10 hook and clipped a bobber on two feet above it.
“Pick out your worm,” I said.
Alice did. I could see out of the corner of my eye that Trish was surprised.
“That is a good worm,” Alice said.
“It’s the best one in the can,” I told her.
I curled it onto the hook.
“This is better than that cane pole tip you used last time isn’t it,” I asked.
“Yep, I like my Snoopy rod better.”
I found a forked stick and stuck it in the bank for Alice to prop her rod in, but she wanted to hold it in her lap. I cut a couple forks for Trish and me. Alice caught over a dozen little bluegills and one six-inch bass. That little bass swallowed the hook pretty deep. I cut the line and left the hook in it.
“The hook will rust,” I told Alice. “He’ll be okay.”
“It might be a girl.”
“Then she’ll be okay.”
“Good,” said Alice.
I lied. It hurts me to see a bass killed.
Trish and me didn’t catch anything. Fish stole our worms while we talked. It was just stories about things we did when we were kids. How close we came to dying different times and things like that. At noon we moved out into the sun and laid out the food. After we ate Alice was sleepy. She slept with her head in Trish’s lap.
I felt good there in the sun with Trish and Alice. Trish rubbed sun block on Alice in a way that made me tear up.
“I never was lucky at catching fish,” Trish said.
“I could always catch big crappie,” I told her. “I caught one once when I was seventeen that couldn’t turn around in a five gallon aquarium. It just hung in there. I let it loose the next day. I like bluegills better. They fight harder.”
“Thank you for today.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“I don’t know what can come of this,” she said.
“Can’t it just be what it is?”
“What is it,” Trish asked?
She didn’t wait for an answer.
“If it’s just that we’re friends,” she said, “that would be okay with me.”
“I’m not good enough for you, am I?”
“Don’t say that.”
“It’s true isn’t it?”
“Actually,” Trish said, “it’s probably the other way around. I’m not good enough for you. But . . .”
“Let’s just fish.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I have to think of Alice — if I didn’t have Alice. I have to find a successful man or no man. I can’t have something in between. I don’t need a man, really.”
“You need to be held, Trish. That’s all I’m asking is to hold you. And I’d love Alice like she was mine.”
“I know you would. I can’t think about me. I did that and that’s how I got Alice. Now, it’s all about Alice. That’s all. Can we just be friends? If you could take us fishing now and then.”
“It’s just hard to be around you,” I said. Then I thought about it and smiled.
“Yeah,” Trish said with her sweet grin, “I’ve noticed.”
I was still red-faced and smiling when she told me:
“Friday was my last day.”
Monday I’m going to work for Mr. Jenkins from mom’s church.
“He’s the one who’s been taking your mom out to eat,” I said.
“Yes. I’ll be answering the phone in his office. He has a gravel and rock hauling business.
“I know what he has.”
“Eight dollars an hour.”
“Sitting in a dress answering phones, I’ll bet.”
“There’s nothing wrong with looking professional.”
“No, there isn’t. There isn’t. But did you ever think Jenkins is just using your momma to get to you? That you’re what he wants?”
I looked over at Trish. She didn’t answer. She didn’t have to. I could see in her eyes what I didn’t see before. You could have stuck a knife in me and it wouldn’t have hurt as bad.
“Good,” I said. “That’s good. You don’t deserve to be catching chickens.”
“You don’t either. Maybe I can see if Mr. Jenkins needs a driver. You’d have to have the right license for it. I’ve been learning about that.”
“How do you know I don’t already have the right license?” I asked in a mean way.
“I guess I don’t,” Trish said.
We’ll see,” was all I said.
It gets so quiet those times when the world slaps you in the face to remind you of your place in it. The slow, clear-green river moved past. Alice made a little sound like the start of a snore. Something crawled on my calf. It was a piss-ant. And when I caught it and threw it in the water, it struggled as it floated for about five feet. A bull bluegill with a golden ring around its dark eye rose up beneath it at an angle. I just watched it rise like an indifferent god.
The factory chimneys stood dormant in the summer night, thick with bug calls and life. Henry stuck his tongue up into his flask, probing for the last drop of whiskey. I make a penny, the boss makes a dime, that’s why I drink on company time. Some nights he’d sit at the train depot and listen for radio from Louisville. Other nights he’d pull out one of his wife’s misplaced pulp novellas. Most of the time though, Henry would just walk the length of the freight yard and imagine he was the last person on Earth.
For Christ’s sake Henry, your kid’s growing up without a father. You’re asleep when he leaves for school and gone right after he gets back!
Each day at noon, he’d hear his wife shuffling around and force himself out from under the sheets. On Saturdays Henry could wake up to an empty house. He liked those days the most and would set an early alarm, so he could appreciate the luxury of sleeping through it. His wife had been pretty once, not beautiful, back when they were kids and their world stretched from the railroad track down to the creek. This was before he was a renter, and a borrower, and a drinker, and before the birth of their son.
Henry here is our garbage man. He watches the freight yard and throws out the trash.
On a quiet night he felt like a ghost floating around the yard, pacing with his lantern swinging low until daybreak. He surveyed the length of the sleeping train. Slabs of white limestone disinterred from under the town waited to be shipped off somewhere with name recognition. On some he saw bits of antediluvian sea creatures frozen like the bodies at Pompei.
Making his way back to his chair and pulp romance, Henry heard a cough from inside one of the boxcars. Goddamnit. He lifted his lantern to the open boxcar and banged on the wall.
“Get out, I can hear you in there.”
No reply. Some folks just don’t know when they’re beat. Henry sighed and dragged himself up into the car. Casting his lantern around the space, he found a body hunched over in the corner. A scruffy bearded man sat curled up against the wall, gazing out over the limestone slabs.
Henry gestured with his left hand, “No free rides in life buddy. I can see that you don’t walk.”
“Huh?” The man straightened his back, blinking into the light.
“Money, dinero, you got it?”
The Vagrant stood up, “Oh, I don’t invest in money.”
“Christ almighty,” Henry sighed, “You’re on of those Wall Street types. Why don’t I show you the window?”
“No one has to know I’m here,” the Vagrant whispered, “I’m just passing through till I make it to the coast. Once I get to the sea I’m done riding rails.”
“You gotta have something. You got a watch? A drink?”
“Nothing like that,” the Vagrant sniffled, “I got some advice for you though. You’d better get out of here and head for the coast.”
Nothing new, Henry had thought of leaving his whole life, but he’d never gone further than Kentucky, and didn’t have enough to last his family through the month. He made a move to grab the joker, who deftly clambered away over the limestone, positioning himself like a boxer.
“I ain’t getting off this train till I reach New York. Now you can come with me, or we can throw down right here, but there’s no way I’m getting off this train.”
The man wasn’t bigger than Henry but looked wiry and fast. And besides, no one hopped trains without some sort of protection. The vagrant’s right hand trembled like a loaded spring over his right pocket.
“Come one week’s time, maybe less, this whole town—the whole country’s gonna be gone. All this here is gonna be ocean.”
Only the droning of crickets, now thundering, broke the silence between them. Henry let down his lantern and the victorious stranger assumed his seat against the wall.
“You must feel it coming, you might not know it, but even a dog or a bug can feel it coming. ‘Wisdom found no place where she might dwell; then a dwelling-place was assigned her in the heavens. Wisdom went forth to make her dwelling among the children of men and found no dwelling-place. Wisdom returned to her place and took her seat among the angels. And unrighteousness went forth from her chambers. Whom she sought not she found, and dwelt with them, as rain in a desert.’”
Henry forced a laugh, “An unemployed Sunday school teacher, I’m sure you’re just a devil with the ladies.”
The Vagrant went on, “Never went to Sunday school. That there’s the book of Enoch. The fallen angels of the Lord begat with mortal women a race of giants, the Nephilim. Always hungry, they devour the birds and beasts, and fish of the sea, and the yield of the earth, and when they’ve eaten every living thing they turn on one another eating the flesh and drinking the blood. Semyaza the watcher, Azazel the black goat, Lucifer the star of morning, they taught the people to make war and things of beauty, and to measure and cut, and to build towers so that the angels might climb back into heaven. Seeing that all the children of the earth would parish under this course the Lord sent a flood so that those righteous enough to hear beyond the noise of thunder could save what remained from the great hunger of the Nephilim. And so that the lord may begin to heal the earth of the plague and that his children may not parish through those things learned from the watching angels.”
“Now here in America we’ve got land that won’t grow no more crops, and we’ve got towers so tall that you can’t see the bottom from the top or the top from the bottom. We had flocks of birds more numerous than the whole of mankind put together and buffalo that swarmed like schools of fish. Now everyone has a car, but you’d be hard pressed to meet anyone who’s seen a buffalo. There’s people in New York and Washington talking bold about freedom and plenty, and families in California trading bags of oranges for fried dough. And you know the surest sign that the storm’s coming?”
The Vagrant stared down Henry, who shrugged and averted his eyes.
“Its that we all want it to. The world keeps spinning faster and faster, and we just want it to stop and throw us off. But no, we’re just stuck here—each of us getting up in the morning checking to see if time has finally stopped. Now what kind of a world is that? Everyone hoping that their next sin will be the one that breaks the Earth so it simply can’t spin on anymore.” The Vagrant hesitated, “Well, I’m not having it no more.”
Henry turned his back to the Vagrant and took a seat in the boxcar’s doorway. The night buzzed with insects and frogs. Fireflies hovered over the meadow by the freight yard, fumbling their way through the dark. Gnats danced around his lantern, daring each other to touch the light. His wife and son were asleep in the shotgun shack, and he had hours to go before sunrise. Henry opened his flask and stuck in a finger. Sticky but mostly dry, he pocketed it again. Lingering for a moment longer, Henry took his lantern and jumped off the train. He shut the car door behind him and headed back to his novella and chair.
By Filiz Cicek
John F. Kennedy in a 1963 speech declared, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him.” He was eulogizing American poet Robert Frost, who two years earlier, at Kennedy’s inauguration, wrote: “And by the example of our Declaration / Make everybody want to be a nation / This is no aristocratic joke / At the expense of negligible folk.” His subject was America.
Kennedy’s invitation to Frost demonstrated his desire to include arts in government and to celebrate the role of the artist in society. Kennedy stated that “the artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state….If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice.” And that
“we must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” And the truth can often be inconvenient to those in power.
Kennedy, like Thomas Jefferson, was a lover of arts. The latter was a true renaissance man who produced the declaration of independence. Indeed the age of enlightenment gave rise to revolutions, separation of church of state, rejection of monarchy and the embrace of democracy. One thing the West did not embrace however, was the practice of homosexuality.
We celebrate Alexander the Great yet we overlook his bi-sexuality; his marriage to Roxana, a noble Sogdian for purposes of breeding and his passionate love affairs with Hephaestion, a general in his army and with a former Persian slave Bagaos. Ancient Greeks–Spartans in particular–believed that homosexual sex strengthened bonds between soldiers. And we overlook the fact that so rampant was the physical intimacy between Roman soldiers that Augustus found himself forcing thousands of them to marry at the Colosseum, not for moral reasons but rather for the strategic purposes: their progeny would ensure future generations of Roman soldiers and therefore the Roman Empire. The West adapted Roman rule of law while completely ignoring widely accepted homosexual practices in Roman society.
In our selective adaptations of cultural values, we in the west also embraced Greek misogyny. Today we don’t widely celebrate Sappho’s poetry, nor do we generally support women in the political arena. We are still happy to confine women to domestic roles. In the West this can be traced to the Ancient Greeks who blamed the long and devastating Trojan War on women, in particular Helen and Clytemnestra. Aeschylus in his trilogy Oresteia defined murder of Agamemnon at the hand of his wife Clytemnestra, as an example of misuse of power and argued that women should never be allowed to govern again. Never mind that Clytemnestra, as a mother, was exacting revenge for the death of her daughter, Iphigenia. The first victim of the Trojan War, Clytemnestra was sacrificed by her father Agamemnon to Artemis for favorable winds for the fleet.
Such misogyny was exported to the Americas. Native Americans not only acknowledged, but celebrated, two spirit people, who possessed both male and female attributes. Such fluid gender roles also exist elsewhere in the world, such as among the Bugis people in Indonesia who recognize five genders: makkunrai, oroané, bissu, calabai, and calalai. Makkunrai and oroané are comparable to cisgender women and men. Bissu are androgynous shamans and calalai and calabai are approximately equivalent to trans men and trans women. The bissu, the calabai, and the calalai may enter the dwelling places of both men and women. Bugis believe that all five genders must co-exist harmoniously. But the adoption of Islam in the 8th century, (which was more mystical at the time, and more compatible with native practices) and western colonialism led to the oppression of gender fluid individuals.
And today in America we are waging Cake Wars in which the choices of same sex couples have clashed with the religious identities of the cake makers. This, after the passing of the Defense of the Marriage Act in 2013, a long and hard won battle for the GLBTQ community. The concept of freedom of choice, of being yourself is a very radical act indeed, one that has been regulated throughout the centuries by tyrants, dictators, patriarchs and matriarchs alike.
Art too can be a radical act. It was so for the impressionists, the original eco-artists who rejected modernity and pollution by re-embracing nature. Since the 1970s feminist artists have infiltrated masculine dominated art galleries and museums. Indeed art is one of the most powerful tools we have to express ourselves and explore our surroundings. Art experienced at the time of its creation is often radical by its nature, since it challenges norms and operates outside of the collective, highlighting the individual’s vision. Art is subversive at times, yet equally celebratory, affirming love and life.
Then again art can be a rebellious act any given moment in some corner of the world. Putting on a hijab in the French Riviera and shedding it in downtown Tehran. Ordering a cake in Kentucky and serving at the military while queer. Life and art are irrevocably intertwined, often compelling artists to speak from the margins to the center, enabling visibility and audibility to the oppressed, shifting societal norms for the better.
“Every Body” features work by local, national and international GLBTQ artists that illustrate the presentation of self. It will be on display in August at the Thomas Gallery in conjunction with the Pride Film Festival. The participating artists look at the human body from many different viewpoints; they explore identity, sexuality, movement, form and the transcendence of form.
Jessica Hurt is a multimedia artist who creates 3D works utilizing mannequins and also performs at the Back Door. Performing drag, she says, has opened up a safer space for her as a queer person. Patrons speak to her openly about her gender and pronoun preference.
She went through gay conversion, she says, “after I came out as a lesbian [while enrolled] at Central Christian College of the Bible.” It consisted of Jessica living in isolation in a cell-like room and watching videos explaining and instructing how to please a man. It didn’t work. “I puked” she says, with a lingering nausea, “and chose to leave and give up my course credits.” She was accepted in a program to become a minister in the Church of Christ denomination but was told during her first semester that women could not be ministers. Today she still believes in Christ and practices whenever she can. “My family, who are devoted Episcopalians, are doing it right. They accept me as I am, with unconditional love.”
Alex Hollet is a doctoral candidate at the IU Gender Studies Department who creates and performs regularly. She sees and utilizes art as a form of resistance. “Art-as-activism sometimes means exposing pain and power for what they are,” she says, “and sometimes it means reveling in the beauty that exists outside of, underneath, and around the status quo.” Hollet acts very much as an individual within a collective: “Regardless of whether it’s a revolution or a rave (or both, simultaneously), my process of making art is my small attempt to get free, and my approach to art-as-activism seeks to emancipate not just my individual body but also that of the collective.
“Art is a way for marginalized people – and anyone who cares about justice, really – to not only challenge the harmful mythologies that are often (but not exclusively) rooted in nationalism and racism and sexism and heterosexism and classism, but also to create something fresh and authentic and liberating in their place. Consequently, the art I’m interested in making and interacting with is, in general terms, deeply political and justice-oriented. It is art that forces us to confront our complicity in harm and violence. It is art that celebrates divergence. It is art that offers personal and systemic interventions. It is art that organizes communities. It is art that rebukes theories of pleasure that are almost always predicated on the exploitation of another human being or the earth.”
Participating artists include, Robb Stone, Randy Rud-Cloud, Alexandria Hollett, Brick Daniel Kyle, Smoove G, Dimosthenis Prodromou (Greece), Jessica Hurt, Filiz Cicek, Lucy Donnellan (Australia), Javier Cardona Otero, Jenni Cure, Jasper Wirtshafter, Margaret Belton, Mia Be, Kelvin Burzon, Shadia Siliman.
To see and celebrate GLBTQ art and artists featured in Every Body head over to Thomas Gallery on the square on August 3rd. The opening is from 5.30pm-8pm. You can experience art and eat cake at the same time! The exhibition is open until August 31st with an additional poetry reading by Jasper Wirtshafter on August 10th.