A Star is Born samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but it fails to delve deeper. By Yaël Ksander
A Star is Born samples black, queer, and immigrant experiences like items in a buffet, but it fails to delve deeper.
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.
The kumbaya of Bradley Cooper’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 Lady Gaga’s eyebrow back in her dressing room
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.
Money and status alone cannot create meaning and happiness. Less can be more; in fact, less may be all there really is.
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
A few facts about the fiction in this issue
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.
The Color of the Wheat Fields
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.
Not Even a Cloud in the Sky
by Adam Huening
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 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.
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.
By Dennis Sipe
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.
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.
“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 Tribe of Nephilim
By Noah Sandweiss
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!
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.
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.
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. –Alex Hollet
“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.
Change was in the air in Bloomington in 1971; only those in power could fail to notice.
By Charlotte Zietlow
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” –Margaret Mead
In 1971, Bloomington was a very different place than the modern city we know today. Surrounded by forests, quarries, hills, and hollers, you couldn’t tell if the home of Indiana University was a boom town or a backwater burg.
City and County governments were run almost entirely by Republican businessmen–upstanding citizens who were active in both their churches and the few charitable organizations in the area. As might be expected at the time, these city officials were men, and the charities they administered were geared mainly toward boys they hoped would someday take their place as city fathers.
In 1971, Bloomington was an employment center for thousands of workers from Lawrence, Greene, and Owen Counties. The majority of these were women who had come to work for local stalwarts RCA or Sarkes Tarzian, as well as for newly established firms like Westinghouse, GE, and Otis. The Cook empire was still in its infancy then. Along with Tarzian, it had not been unionized, but the other major firms were. Times were good for those who had jobs.
The Bloomington of 1971 was a city ready to flourish. The IU population had tripled to over 30,000 students in just over a decade and beautiful university buildings were sprouting up all over campus. Historical preservation was an unknown concept; elegant, older homes on Walnut and College were torn down to make way for bland, one-story insurance offices.
Mayor Jack Hooker had foreseen the wisdom of at least rudimentary city planning but the rampant residential growth to the east and south went largely unregulated. There were no uniform requirements in place for sidewalks, sewers and gutters. What older homes that remained were bought up by ambitious landlords and either replaced by poorly built apartments or chopped up into units. The calculations of these landlords were many–they fought vigorously to minimize city mandated maintenance requirements. Green spaces were ignored.
In 1971, Bloomington felt like a closed system. There was very little interaction between the connected folks on the city council and new residents–the faculty coming from around the world and other, more developed campus towns, the students and union workers who weren’t born in Bloomington and seemed like a passing phase. Government meetings were short, simple, and the decisions were made in advance. New ideas were not encouraged. Neither were questions. Checks and balances did not exist; beyond a few shunned outliers, the council was perpetually allied to the mayor.
Coming from Minnesota and Wisconsin, as I did, I couldn’t believe that developers didn’t have to help put in sidewalks and provide for storm water on the hilly terrain here. Single family homes were being rezoned without question. Housing codes were not enforced. Citizens raising questions were treated with condescension or ignored. We had to go to Indianapolis to buy kitchen appliances. The city government was unreachable—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church.
But change was in the air; only those who held all the power could fail to notice. New IU faculty poured in by the hundreds, coming from sophisticated university cites from all over the world. Most of the new hires at IU were men. Of course, most of the new faculty were too involved with their work to look around and notice the conditions that surrounded them. Except for the wives, that is. They had plenty of time to gauge what was happening.
In many ways, our experience in Bloomington was a reflection of what was happening throughout the country. After all, the sixties hadn’t exactly been a picnic. In fact, they were incredibly disruptive and challenging. Following the ‘quiet revolution’ of the Eisenhower years, a New Frontier suddenly appeared. JFK’s ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ urged all toward the future with a renewed sense of responsibility.
The Pill had just reached the mass market, changing the way women and their families could plan their futures. The Kennedy Peace Corps was unlike anything that had preceded it–a brand new and inclusive approach to the rest of the world. Those who possessed the stamina and curiosity for exploration suddenly had the structure necessary to do so. We could now reach out and help other nations much more easily, thereby increasing our understanding of diverse people and places. It was also the beginning of the Space Age, with the funding of NASA motivated by a race to the moon.
Millions of people, young and old alike, were excited. The smell of marijuana wafted through neighborhoods. There was even the possibility that everyone in the nation would receive sufficient health care. It truly was a New Frontier, one that everyone who chose to could participate in. Popular music broke out of its Great American Songbook tradition, the British Invasion mesmerized fans of many different ages, with rock and roll, folk music, and bossa nova added into the mix.
Then in 1961, The Bay of Pigs disaster shook our confidence. The following year, we waited through the fear and anguish of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which had housewives in Ann Arbor wondering if they should even bother to cook dinner. Civil rights leaders were met with systematically cruel responses. Women fought hard to carve out a place for themselves in a male-dominated society, but progress was slow and painful. This remained true even after the Griswold decision allowed married women in Connecticut to purchase contraceptives.
Unbelievably, in front of the whole world, our glamorous, charming leader John F. Kennedy was shot dead. Then, to make it a devastating one-two punch, his alleged murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also killed before millions of television viewers.
So many of us had worked so hard to arrive in the New World, believing in its promise so deeply that we were filled hope and unbridled enthusiasm. We had a new President, Lyndon B. Johnson, a southerner, very effective as a Senate leader but what could we expect in the areas of civil rights, health care, peace?
At first it was a miraculous gift—Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the War on Poverty. Overriding his fellow southerners, LBJ worked to fulfill Kennedy’s promises. It was unbelievable, and major pieces remain part of the fabric of our society.
And then we bombed the Bay of Tonkin. Suddenly, young men were being drafted to take up arms in a tiny country no one had ever heard of and for reasons that were never fully clear. Young men, boys really, were hustled through basic training and sent off to fight in Vietnam. Many of these soldiers weren’t even 18 yet. Consider that for a moment. These young men found themselves in a tropical land of rivers and jungles, the alien backdrop to a culture and language they didn’t understand. They were surrounded by both enemies and friends, without any way of knowing which was which. We had weapons of mass destruction and used them viciously against a force armed with bamboo contraptions and Russian machine guns.
The whole country erupted after that. Friendships and marriages were destroyed by external events. Children disowned their parents and vice versa. It seemed like the whole world was trembling
By the end of the sixties, our country was riven, torn. Either you were for the war or against it with mounting fury and desperation. Young men poured out of small towns to enlist, many choosing the armed services over jail stints for petty crimes. College students, many of them white and affluent, opted for university deferments. The less well-to-do, who were disproportionately black, had no choice but to go. Students everywhere insisted that we ‘question authority.’ ‘Never trust anyone over thirty’ was another favorite mantra. They remained excited about the New Frontier and were willing to help bring it about through protests and violence. Chaos littered the prosperous times brought about through military production. Both free love and hatred were rampant. No, the sixties were certainly no picnic.
The city government was unreachable in 1971—one council member suggesting that if we had a problem we should all go to church.
The tipping point in Bloomington came with most of the shock waves rolling through the mayor’s office. A consortium of the largest church congregations had made a proposal to build a high rise apartment building for senior citizens at the intersection of Kirkwood and Dunn, where Dunnkirk Square is currently located. The City installed parking meters in the residential neighborhoods to underwrite part of the project. Needless to say, this idea did not sit well with the people who actually lived in those neighborhoods.
The City planned to contribute a substantial tract of land to the project. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any money in the general fund to pay for it. Undaunted by this difficult reality, Mayor Hooker dipped into the utilities fund to buy up a large parcel of land downtown. The plan was to repay this ‘loan’ with the revenues generated by the parking meters. In the meantime, the church consortium was working with HUD to support the actual construction.
Then something rather important came to light. Someone had failed to do their homework and using the utilities fund for such a purpose turned out to be illegal. Ultimately, the mayor and the controller were indicted and brought to trial. Prosecutor Tom Berry had no choice but to take the case to court. He did a workmanlike job during the prosecution, but the trial ended in a hung jury. Eventually, the mayor was fined two dollars and the City was forced to repay the utilities fund.
The fallout from all this was momentous. Outraged, many Bloomington residents began to attend city council meetings, intent on voicing their complaints. Unfortunately, they never had the chance. These angry citizens were denied the right to speak.
But this strategy turned out to be a big mistake because it caught people’s attention and persuaded them to become actively engaged. The outrage was pervasive throughout Bloomington, but nine of us were upset enough to offer ourselves up as candidates for city council. Along with this writer, the Democratic slate featured Bobbie Bennett, Al Towell, Sherwin MIzell, Hubert Davis, James Ackerman, Richard Behen, Brian de St. Croix and Wayne Fix. A promising young Republican named William Andrews ran for city judge, on a platform that had much in common with the Democrats’ agenda. Lastly, members of the old guard selected Frank McCloskey to run against Hooker for mayor.
Most of us were Roosevelt and Kennedy Democrats, but in some ways, we were all very different people. Fortunately, this did not impede our ability to work together. Although we came from disparate backgrounds, we had several important values in common. Chief amongst these were transparency and a commitment to citizen participation. We were new and inexperienced, but we certainly weren’t dumb. We knew how to learn and were willing to listen. Unlike our predecessors, we actively acknowledged the citizens’ inalienable right to be heard.
We ran in the primary election and became the slate for the fall.
We got down to business quickly. We worked hard every day. Most important of all, we persisted. We had the shared goal of increasing citizen participation and maintaining proper respect for their input. We wanted informed, professional city management, not constant political jostling. We wanted to replace the unresponsive cronyism of the past and build a city we could be proud of.
Senator Birch Bayh came from the State of Indiana, not exactly a hotbed of dissent. He and his staff saw what was happening and responded in kind, one of his aides drafting the 26th Amendment of the constitution and watching in amazement when it was ratified within a few months. The 26th Amendment granted the right to vote to all U.S. citizens over the age of eighteen. It was a response to the chant ‘if they’re old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to vote for the people who send them to their death.’ It went into effect on July 1, 1971.
Strangely enough, Bloomington was the first city in the country to hold a municipal election after that. We were a college town facing an intense election campaign. The national press watched closely to see whether the students would ‘take over’ our little city as was generally predicted by the status quo. Reporters from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune came to Bloomington. The city resonated with the dire warnings issued by the establishment. None of the reporters spoke to us. The people in power shouted: ‘the students will take over and ruin our town.’
Amazingly, we won. We won these seats in an upset and immediately began putting clearly defined policies into practice. Eventually, we transformed Bloomington by changing the way it did business. We didn’t turn the city around alone–it was truly a community effort–but we used our positions to lead the charge.
A Local Sea Change
Our efforts brought about a much needed paradigm shift. We created a list of issues called The Better Way to Govern and tackled each of its items in turn. Take the issue of patronage, for instance. Instead of the ‘to the victors go the spoils’ approach that dominated the era, we intentionally retained all government employees who did their jobs effectively. We also recognized the importance of having the department heads who helped make policy be in sync with the Mayor.
We encouraged citizen involvement. Both the mayor and the city council called on interested and qualified residents to serve on the growing number of boards and commissions that were created to manage the City. To stir productive dialogue, we insisted that citizens bring facts and knowledge to the table, not blinding biases or relentless self-interest.
We also made great strides in administrative effectiveness. When filling professional positions, we sought out well-qualified, credentialed candidates, hiring them for their abilities in the field. Whether looking for a city planner, a utilities manager, a city engineer, a city attorney, or a controller, we hired people who truly knew what they were doing–not just ‘good guys’ we knew in the community. Lastly, we always checked with our attorneys before starting on any project. We believed in doing our homework, not in taking orders.
Today, the term accessibility means something quite different than it did in the past. Now it refers to the importance of accommodating person with disabilities, but in 1971, it referred to the facilitation of open communication between local citizens and the government officials that served them. We wanted the people of Bloomington to know that their government listened whenever they spoke, and that they would be treated with the respect they deserved.
We were especially proud of the job we did on economic expansion. Up until the 1960’s, job creation programs centered almost entirely on skilled and unskilled men who supported single income households. In those days, corporate headhunter types took their orders from (“consulted with”) the Chamber of Commerce and the West Side Development group, neither of whom saw much need to create employment opportunities for unskilled or qualified women. This was true despite the fact that there was now a glaring need for jobs among this segment of the population. To counteract this, we advanced directives that helped women enter the workplace and allowed families to keep up with an economy that had made two-income households into a requirement.
At the time, the concepts of planning and zoning were anathema across Indiana. “You can’t tell me what to do with my land” was a common refrain. To its credit, Bloomington had tried to implement city planning but in 1971, property developers did not have a clear set of guidelines. With a new planning commission in place–one selected directly from the community–we began to transform the chaos into a working system.
IU experts were anxious to work with the City to create a public transit system and federal funds were becoming available to help. We were happy to work with both the feds and IU and confirmed the need for it with our Manpower task force. Bloomington Transit was born.
Republican President Nixon signed the bill creating the Environmental Protection Agency and in 1970 the first Earth Day was proclaimed. Bloomington merchants and students had been developing a plan for recycling, but had been ignored by the City. The School of Public and Environmental Affairs was born in 1972, and eager faculty worked with local environmentalists to protect our water supplies, especially Lake Monroe. We supported both strongly in contrast to those whom we defeated.
We also created a Manpower Task Force, established a preliminary historic preservation policy, a beefed up human rights commission and ordinance with enforcement options and a staff, and sought out federal and State funding for social services, a commission on the Status of Women, child care. And we made government feel as if it mattered.
At the very end of our term (December, 1975) a city building inspector denied a building permit to a group hoping to renovate space for a gay coffee house. At that point Brian de St. Croix came out, and in 1975 he worked to draft a gay rights amendment to the Human Rights Ordinance we had written and staffed to enforce in 1972.
The response was incendiary–both for and against–very vocal, threats, name-calling etc. When the time came to vote only five of the nine council members showed up. Both Council members and members of the overflow audience spoke passionately. The Bible was quoted—opponents favored the Old Testament, proponents the New Testament. The vote was unanimously “aye.” The Mayor immediately indicated he would sign it. It became law.
IU opposed the human rights ordinance for other reasons, and several years later sued to have it nullified at the State level. IU’s concern, they said, was that the ordinance might be applicable to the University. IU prevailed. They resisted any implications they would be subject to City rules and regulations in any way. In overturning the Human Rights ordinance, they also killed the gay rights amendment.
Several years later a new Human Rights ordinance was adopted by the City. It did not include the gay rights clause. Gay rights was finally codified in 1993 (about ten years later) ominously, but only after a marathon six hour meeting which also was incendiary, with lots of singing of Onward Christian Soldiers.
A Microcosm of the Wider World
On November 9, 2016 life in the United States changed dramatically. We suddenly had a president who was unpredictable and communicated in the most idiosyncratic ways imaginable. He was also new to the workings of Washington, D.C., ignorant of custom and precedent that demonstrate both his scorn for propriety and his relentless will to do things his own way.
Some of us are delightfully surprised at his election and are now waiting for America to become great again. Others are dismayed, fearful, and trying desperately to figure out how to cope with this bizarre new regime. Difficult questions abound. Will we continue to honor the Constitution? Will everything familiar be changed into something unrecognizable? Will the rule of law somehow prevail? Will Obamacare be replaced or eliminated? And if we wander into nuclear war, who will be our allies?
Here, in the richest nation in the world, economic inequality has worsened considerably over the past few decades. Small towns are disintegrating beneath the weight of economic hardship and an unprecedented opioid epidemic. Major issues surround us at every turn; we are beleaguered with concerns about everything from social justice to health care and education. All of these stand in great need of help. In other words, it’s an absolute mess. It doesn’t feel good. And what can we do about it?
This is not the first time in our nation’s history that our problems have seemed overwhelming. it’s not even the first time in my lifetime. Some of us experienced The Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Cold War, and McCarthy’s Un-American Activities Committee. Not to mention the devastating assassinations that occurred in the late 1960’s. And now more than ever, there’s the ongoing struggle for racial equality and prosperity and climate change. There have been many crisis moments in my lifetime, some of which are not yet resolved. Yet we have managed to find solutions for some of them, and we continue to try despite tremendous adversity.
Similar Challenges, Similar Methods
It’s been 45 years since a small group of concerned citizens helped transform the Bloomington community. Since then, some things have reverted back to near tyranny and a certain amount of power has shifted away from the citizens. But although this means it’s high time to remind those in power that they work for us and not vice versa, there remains a great deal of hope in the thought that most of the major changes remain in place. I write this story to encourage others to do as the ten of us did in 1971. Although some of us were recent immigrants and new to the work of government, we still managed to gather a little army to assist in our work. We recreated the City of Bloomington in a more democratic image. The result was a vibrant, attractive, and comfortable place to live, work, study, raise children, and retire. It will require faith, dedication, and a great deal of focused hard work to push back against the current adversity, but I hope all of you will find inspiration in our story.
Hope Going Forward
We can affect change today, but only if you become a part of the process. It won’t happen by itself, but you can do it. It will take stamina, careful planning, self-awareness, and understanding of our local citizens’ actual needs. It will also require a willingness to forge alliances whenever you can find like-minded people and to keep your eye on the prize at all times– a city where everyone can live and thrive.
Never forget that everything you do makes a difference. Your actions affect everything that comes next and life is full of surprises. Don’t burn bridges with anyone–you never know who your next ally might be and you’ll need to build working relationships with them in advance. Life is short, so use the time you have wisely. We must keep going. We must continue to fight for change right here at home; this is the best chance we have to contribute to a democratic world community.[editor’s note: Charlotte Zietlow moved with her family to Bloomington in 1964. She has a checkered career in linguistics, city and county government, business, education, social services and family. She was the first woman president of the City Council and the first female Monroe County commissioner. Dubbed by some as “the woman who swims upstream,” she believes we can all build a better world together. This article is a relatively short look back at the 1971 election and its results. Many details are not included, but will be presented in great detail in her forthcoming book We Did This, publication date to be announced.]
By Joe Hiland
In 1973, Indiana University awarded Kurt Vonnegut Jr. an honorary doctorate in Humane Letters. Two years earlier, he had finally earned his master’s in Anthropology from the University of Chicago more than two decades after the faculty rejected his first thesis. They didn’t have a change of heart about the work he’d done as a graduate student; instead, they accepted his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle as an alternative thesis. The belated degree suggested that his fiction had contributed more to the study of humanity and our social customs than his youthful scholarship had. If you care to weigh the wisdom of this decision, you can find early drafts of the novel and copies of his rejected thesis in the Lilly Library’s archive. There you’ll also find Vonnegut family photos, original drawings from Breakfast of Champions, and the rulebook for a board game he invented but failed to sell. You can see these and other pieces of Vonnegut paraphernalia at the library’s new exhibit, Random Acts of Granfalloonery: The Art and Fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Read the full article, along with a complete schedule of Granfalloon events, in the current issue of The Ryder. Pick up a copy at one of 250 locally owned shops and restaurants or on the IU campus.
Hal Hartley has been an unwavering independent filmmaker for thirty years. His films, The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men, Trust and Amateur were touchstones of the early 90s and his Henry Fool trilogy is a masterwork of contemporary American cinema. Hartley will be at the IU Cinema on April 26th and 27th to talk about the challenges of independent filmmaking and introduce his films.
We recently interviewed Hartley – the full text will be published in our May 7th issue. Here is an excerpt.
Ryder: How did you get into filmmaking?
Hartley: Almost by accident. I went to art school–MassArt in Boston–in the late ‘70s. One of the electives I took that first year was a Super 8 filmmaking class. It was with a guy named Steve Anchor. He was a solid San Francisco and Boston American avant-garde filmmaker. He was interesting. He turned us on to a lot of things. You know, visual art filmmaking…. Dan Brakhage, Peter Hutton, Maya Deren. I was very excited, but as it turned out my dad and I ran out of money for me to stay there, so I had to go back to Lindenhurst on Long Island. And I got a job, figuring out what I was going to do. I had to go to a New York school that would be cheaper. I had really been bitten by the film bug, but I had to spend another year back home working.
I got myself a camera and a projector. I discovered my library had Super 8 versions of classic films. It was amazing. No one took these things out. Yeah, it was a lonely but fun little initiation.
So I spent 1979 making 6 or 7 short films and I was sort of writing. And then I decided to apply to a New York state school for film rather than continue with art. There was really no looking back after that.
Co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander are just getting started
What were you doing at 4:58 pm on February 28th, 1988? Think real hard. Listening to WFIU – that’s the correct answer. And if you were listening to WFIU, you would have heard the very first episode of A Moment of Science, titled “Benjamin Franklin’s Swatches on the Snow.” Is there snow on the ground as you are reading this? If so, and if you listened to that first episode, and if you retained just a little bit of what you heard 30 years ago, then chances are you are dressed properly. If not, well, maybe it’s warm out.
A Moment of Science is celebrating its 30th anniversary. Over the years, the program has become an integral part of the cultural landscape of Bloomington. How did it begin? Where is it going? We sat down at a local café with co-hosts Don Glass and Yaël Ksander to talk about the past, the future, and all things in between.
Interview by Peter LoPilato
Ryder: So, 7,000 episodes?
Yaël Ksander: Is that right!? I know that Don and I have done about 4,000 together.
Don Glass: I’ve lost count. I think it’s between 7,400 and 7,500.
[RYDER]: Which was the best one?
[DG]: The one we just did.
[RYDER]: What’s the coolest part of doing the show?
[DG]: I think there are two cool parts. The first one is learning cool stuff. And the other (gesturing towards Yaël) is working with her.
[YK]: Awwww![RYDER]: So in other words, this show wasn’t really that good before she joined? [YK]: (laughter) Yeah, that’s pretty much what he’s saying…. [DG]: Actually, it wasn’t. [YK]: There’s a funny story about how we segued into my tenure, but I don’t want to accelerate things… [DG]: The long answer to your question is, the shows are better. They’re certainly better for us to perform, so to speak. I think they’re better to listen to when there are two people doing it, especially when there’s a man and a woman, which is something I insisted on– [RYDER]: There’s that sexual tension. [YK]: (laughing) When we have sex on the show, which we often do, it usually has to do with the hermaphroditic qualities of worms or something like that. Usually when we have a little of that piquant touch there, it’s Don saying something like “I wish my mom would stop signing me up for these online dating services.” We’ll have things like that, but we don’t usually explore the, you know, sexual tension between us, because that’s just obvious. [DG]: Sometimes there is a sort of tension, not in a sexual sense, but in a gender sense [RYDER]: Has the show evolved since Yaël has been part of it? Was there a defining moment where something clicked? [DG]: It’s been an evolution. [RYDER]: But if I were to listen to an early episode, say the fourth episode with Yaël– [YK]: So much has changed. The bottom line is our relationship, which is real. We aren’t just hired guns showing up and doing voiceover….We were joking earlier that it really is like The Sonny and Cher Show (laughing)….Don and I have just gotten to be better and better friends over the years and so a lot of that comes through. And so when he first hired me to do this show, I didn’t know him very well and I was on my best behavior (more laughter). Now, I’m extremely disobedient and he puts up with me. And he lets me make fun of him all the time. [DG]: And the writers have sensed that. [YK]: Yeah, right, they’ve responded. [DG]: A lot of credit has to be given them, because when they write the scripts, we ‘just’ read them, but the creativity’s behind them. [RYDER]: How involved are you? Do you sometimes revise the scripts? [YK]: Yeah, he does a lot on the front end. [DG]: I’m the producer’s last editor. So the writers send the scripts to me after I approve what they’re doing in the first place. Then, if it needs some tweaking, I ask them to do it. I mean, I could do it, but they’re paid to do it. They’re also very good at it. [RYDER]: How many writers are there? [DG]: Let’s see. Oh, this numbers thing. I’ll have to go through…(mentions several names under his breath while counting) Is that five? Oh, six. [RYDER]: Are they also researchers, or are they just writers? They’re researchers as well, right? You’re not just pulling the Encyclopedia Britannica off the shelf and reading from that? [YK]: No. There’s a lot of vetting that goes on. [DG]: They come with the ideas and I say ok, this’ll work. Then they research it, which means probably browsing the web to look up stuff. They see an article in a magazine and pattern the script after the information in that article. Several articles for that matter. It might not just be one. Then, once we get the tweaking done, all the programs are sent to a scientist. So we’re not just going to rely on what somebody reads in the New York Times. [RYDER]: No fake news. [DG]: Did you see my letter-to-the-editor the other day? [YK]: Did they put it in? [RYDER]: You had a letter in the New York Times? [DG]: No, I wish it was. It was in the H-T….So each script is checked by a scientist. Which is not foolproof, but it certainly gives it a certain amount of authority by having them check it because sometimes they disagree. They might say that article in the Times left out this or it left out that. So they’ll help us correct that. [YK]: And originally, for the scientists, we drew upon on the resources that we had here at IU. In fact, as the show came together, that was the idea, that we would take the name of Indiana University and our significant scientific resources to the world… Don, why don’t you explain the origin story. [DG]: Paul Singh was a professor in physics, and he was coming home from a fishing trip with one of his sons and they were listening to StarDate on the radio. And either he or his son said “If they can do that with astronomy at the University of Texas, why can’t we do something with general science?” I was concerned that it might be a little esoteric. But Paul convinced me. His point was to bring science to the people.
We were joking earlier that A Moment of Science really is like The Sonny and Cher Show. — Yaël Ksander[RYDER]: Each episode is two minutes on the air. How much time goes into preparing each episode? [YK]: Yeah, good question. Like all radio, oh my goodness. [DG]: It takes hours. [YK]: You know, film production, TV production, radio production…. [RYDER]: Speaking of film production, when are you going to pitch Moment of Science to a Hollywood studio? [YK]: Yeah! Who’s going to play you, Don? [RYDER]: George Clooney. [YK]: George Clooney! Who do I want? Scarlett Johansson. (laughter) [DG]: Stephen Colbert can play me. Stephen Colbert or Chevy Chase. [YK]: Chevy Chase? He’s too goofy. [DG]: That’s what I like about him.
[RYDER]: Has there ever been a question or a topic that you would not discuss? Maybe something that might be politically sensitive? [YK]: We think about the political ramifications all the time, and we’re not interested in putting people off. So a lot of times, we’ll have to tweak the language in order not to make untoward suggestions. For example, the other day we had a script about how drones were being used to measure and collect and photograph the stuff that whales blow out of their spouts. They’re using drones to do that. And the first line was just a real casual: “You know, Don, drones are pretty cool!” I think we had to tamp that down a little bit. Because obviously, drones are used for warfare. [DG]: I wasn’t thinking about the military part of it. Drones can be just a disaster if people aren’t careful how they use them. They can wreck airlines. [YK]: In radio you get only one chance. People can turn you off real quick. [RYDER]: Do you ever tackle subjects like climate change or evolution? [YK]: Oh yeah. We don’t stray away from provocative subjects. [DG]: They’re provocative to some people and not others. We deal with the science. [RYDER]: So how do you feel about the current administration dismissing scientific research? [YK]: That’s why we think now the program’s more important than ever, because, like on that bumper sticker, “science is true whether you believe it or not.” So just getting people to think about how things work and the fact that there are these laws that determine … [DG]: But at the same time, we’re going to look at the science, not the political aspects… [YK]: So we refrain from moralizing or putting the stamp of approval on things. [RYDER]: How many takes does the average episode require? [DG]: Two point something. [YK]: 99% of them have no overdubbing. We record it like old radio theater. We do it in one take, whether or not that take takes 17 takes to get. We don’t splice things together, so the interaction you’re hearing is real life interaction. And we have to get all the way through a two minute thing with the music underneath us without screwing it up. [RYDER]: Do you record back to back episodes? Do you record five or six at a time? [DG]: Six a week. It takes about an hour and a quarter, which isn’t too bad. [YK]: It has been an incredible school for me in terms of voice work because I remember looking at these scripts that were two minutes long, and thinking how in the heck am I going to get through all of this without screwing up. And it used to scare me so much. It’s so unforgiving. If I’m reading a newscast live and I stumble, no biggie, right? But for this, we don’t do stumbles, so it’s been a way of trial by fire. It’s been a great way to learn actually, like boot camp. [RYDER]: Where do you see Moment of Science in ten years? [DG]: Oh, man. Who would have thought we’d be here for 30 years? I don’t know. Probably the way it is now, in terms of radio. [RYDER]: What about podcasts? [YK]: Yeah Don, talk about how much action they get. [DG]: I was getting to that because in some people’s minds, radio is dead. Traditional broadcasts, that is. And the fact is, there may be some truth to that. Some people still listen to the radio, but they’re older people. Other people listen to their own music on their phone. They listen to what they want, when they want. [YK]: We only listen to podcasts. I say we, but I mean 30-year-olds do that. [DG]: The whole media environment is changing so rapidly, and I’m not keeping up with it. I’m doing radio. As long as people want radio programs, that’s’ what I’ll do. If they want something else, somebody else can do that. I’m not criticizing it. It’s just the way i approach it. [YK]: Luckily, the station has had the foresight to adapt and make the program available. [DG]: They just branched out to the web and its’ been very successful. In 2017, A Moment of Science got over two million site visits. Two million! That’s 45% of WFIU’s website activity. I can’t act like a total idiot and pretend it’s not happening. [YK]: He doesn’t like it. [DG]: I don’t dislike it. I think it’s fine. Obviously, more people are hearing it, just in a different way. I’ll have to ask the people who analyze the website, but I wonder if more people are using the podcast than just going to the website and listening to it. My guess is they probably are. It’s a bit more cumbersome to go the website and click on the script and click on the audio.
[RYDER]: So Yaël, tell us the story of how you became co-host. [YK]: I had just joined the station in the Fall of 2000. At the same time Angela Mariani was leaving for Texas–she had been the co-host with Don. So [turning to Don] you were thinking maybe you were going to record her an ISDM line, but that was going to be pretty expensive. [DG]: Or just have her record scripts and send them back. But it was too cumbersome to work. Really complicated. [YK]: Yeah, you were kind of flummoxed about how to proceed. Then, in comes unsuspecting me. I don’t know how you just thought to “give the new girl a try.” [DG]: I can’t remember that part either. I must have heard you. I would never just take somebody off the streets. [YK]: I’ll tell you, I was pretty thrilled because I had enjoyed the program for a couple of years before joining the station. I was very excited and Don said, “Well, come over on Thursday and you can audition. You’re an unknown quantity and Angela and I had this rapport going, but it’s getting kind of difficult, so why don’t you just come in and give it a try.” And so I came in on a Thursday and we recorded some scripts. I was thinking I was auditioning, right? I was waiting for the other shoe to drop; then he said “come in next Thursday and we’ll do some more.” Then he didn’t have to remind me to come in on Thursdays and then about five years later, I said “Don, did I pass the audition? Or are you going to give it back to Angela?” He never told me. [DG]: I never even thought of it. I don’t know if it’s a male/female thing or not, but I kind of assumed that you’d already been doing it for five years that maybe you’d assume you had it.
[RYDER]: I’d like to end with a quote and ask you to respond: “All of our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike.” [YK]: Who said that? [RYDER]: Nobody important. I’ll tell you who said it after you respond. [which we forgot to do; the quote is from Albert Einstein.] [YK]: I feel somewhat agnostic about everything – that there’s so much more to discover than we can even begin to grapple with [RYDER]: Every three years we learn that a healthy diet is different than we thought it was three years earlier. [YK]: Right . . .my father as a child had leeches put on him as a way of bringing down a fever – I mean, it was in another country and 70 or 80 years ago but still – [DG]: They use maggots to clean wounds. Maggots only eat dead tissue so they use them to heal really bad wounds that have dead tissue around them – we covered that on a show about ten years ago. [YK]: We like to do gross-out scripts on the program. Scripts about maggots and roadkill? – they’re memorable! Like naked mole rats. One time I asked Don, “What does a naked mole rat look like? Is it like a possum?” This was completely unscripted. Don said — this is a direct quote: “A naked mole rat makes a possum look like Raquel Welch!” (loud laughter; people in the café are staring) [RYDER]: Not too many people reference Raquel Welch anymore. She might be appreciative. [DG]: If she ever saw a naked mole rat, I don’t think she’d be flattered.
Photo: Hannah Sturm
Scott Fivelson chronicles the life and times of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, or does he?
Interview by Richard Fish
Oskar Knight is so real, he really ought to be real. His entire career is a shining example of why Hollywood has always been the foremost place on the planet where reality, myth and legend don’t just meet, they dance. But (spoiler alert!) Oskar isn’t really real, except that he is now, since the movie came out. This delightfully crafted, engagingly funny mockumentary does for Tinsel Town what This is Spinal Tap did for Heavy Metal: in the age of Alternative Facts, this is a perfect Alternative Biopic.
The pun-gently titled Near Myth: The Oskar Knight Story was born in the brain of writer-director Scott Fivelson, whose wide-ranging creativity is all the more amazing because he doesn’t get to live here in Bloomington. I caught up with him at his home, somewhere in earthquake-prone, fire-ravaged, mudslide-covered, traffic-choked, rain-inundated, drought-stricken Southern California.
Ryder: This was obviously a labor of love, Scott, and when you come right down to it, it’s really a movie about Hollywood – about Oscar Night as well as Oskar Knight. You certainly understand how the movie industry works, even when it doesn’t! So, how did you manage to use that understanding to whack the Zeitgeist right between the eyes?
Scott: Ha! It’s true reality has been getting kind of blurred lately in the media, and it’s nice to discover we’ve made something that resonates in a timely way, but that wasn’t in my mind when we started. I just loved the stories of these great filmmakers so much that I wanted to have another one, so we could enjoy his story….and miss him. Oskar is a larger-than-life character, a bit like Charles Foster Kane – in fact, this picture is something of a tribute to Orson Welles.
Ryder: Who does appear, briefly, and Oskar’s right there with him of course. Do you think people need to be serious movie buffs to really “get” this movie?
Scott: Oh, no, not at all. I’ve had people tell me they really liked the picture, thought it was very funny – and then said they’d tried to find out more about Oskar and his movies online, and asked why a Google search only turned up references to this movie!
Ryder: They actually thought–?
Scott: Yeah, they did. Of course the more you know about movies, the more you’ll get out of it.
Ryder: Oh, yes! The detail is amazing, all the way through. All those pictures of Oskar with the great stars and in famous places, so perfectly chosen to evoke the era –
Scott: It’s up to the viewer to decide if we inserted Oskar, or just found those pictures in Hollywood archives.
Ryder: It’s great fun to spot all the stars as they flash on the screen, but you move right on because you’re into the story. It’s a great story.
Scott: All the best stories are about people, and that’s why it’s the arc of a life, a career, the triumphs and the struggles – Oskar lived a long life, you know, and he never gave up trying. If someone is around long enough, they have a story like this. And we do have some real stars to help tell it.
Ryder: What Lolly Poppins and Hedda Publicity used to call “Hollywood Insiders?”
Scott: Yes, we had great luck with the casting. We had some hot young up-and-coming actors and some well-established names – of course Lenny Von Dohlen has done a lot of things, from Miami Vice and Twin Peaks to The Orville, and David Suchet was brilliant as Hercule Poirot, and Margaret O’Brien goes back to the 1940s, starting as a child actress.
Ryder: She looked great, and I loved seeing Noel Neill and Jon Provost, from Superman and Lassie on TV –
Scott: Yes! We had so many wonderful experiences working on this project.
Ryder: And it’s very funny. Would you call this film a satire?
Scott: I’d call it a blend of satire, comedy, whimsy, nostalgia…
Ryder: …sort of a love letter to Hollywood.
Scott: Love…but in the real world. It can be poignant. There’s heartache and heartbreak, but there’s something really inspiring in Oskar’s story, too.
Ryder: And we’re getting to see the picture just as it’s coming out.
Scott: That’s true, and I’m delighted it’s going to be shown in Bloomington. It’s an independent project, you know, and the whole team that worked on the film – we’d like to believe we’ve made something kind of special. The Ryder Film Series is just the sort of program that can really add to the buzz, and Oskar always was a good time – that’s what his friends always said. I hope people will spread the word, especially online.
Ryder: Well, Bloomington people do tend to have a lot of connections. I sure enjoyed it. Thanks, Scott, for talking with us and giving us a movie that is an ideal prelude to the Academy Awards show on Sunday, March 4th. Got any predictions?
Scott: Just that nobody’s going to break Oskar Knight’s all-time record as the Director with the most nominations.