“Do It For The Vine: How Six Second Videos Help Us Be Good Readers” by Jacob Fowler

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I want to believe that I am not wasting my time watching Vine compilations on YouTube, that the hours I spent scrolling through the Vine app during college were not lost but rather purposeful in some way. Luckily, I have rationalized spending this time because I have discovered–or rather, decided– that Vines are the ultimate medium for creating good readers. I can justify this idea by leaning heavily on Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture titled “Good Readers and Good Writers” and focusing on three principles he outlines for good readers: fastidious reading, impersonal imagination, and summarization avoidance. Nabokov is certainly not the terminal figure in deciding what a good reader is –as no one with a sex crime book can be–but his lecture incorporates itself nicely into this miniature-internet-video-analysis.

I will use the word “reader” as freely as Nabokov does in his lecture/essay. For us, a “reader” is not only someone who looks at words on a page. For us, a “reader” is anyone interacting with a closed system of media with the intent of enjoyment and some kind of artistic appreciation; and the Vine is the ideal closed system for cultivating strong readers.

Perhaps the most advantageous quality of the Vine format is its length. There is a rich history of scholars from Flaubert (whom Nabokov quotes in this lecture), to Cleanth Brooks, to Roland Barthes who claim that there is no reading, only rereading. Vines are only six seconds long and it is easy to find oneself becoming a pedantic re-reader when the subject of one’s focus is limited. And it is this sort of pedantry, one which focuses the on the intricacies of the “text”, one which Nabokov advocates for, that can lead to an enhanced experience with the art form.

In a novel, television show, or movie — art forms which require long or multiple sessions– it is easy to be lost in any number of nuances and complexities; even the most attentive reader or viewer might find themselves racing down a rabbit hole that is only tangentially related instead of fastidiously consuming the main piece. Instead, a single Vine can be consumed multiple times in under a minute. No chance for mishap, only a medium that encourages short bursts of close reading. Take, for example, the “So, no head?” Vine.  There is so much to unpack in that short video: the movement, the inflection of the words, the character himself; all of which would be impossible to register with one pass of the video. Rather: this Vine demands and encourages rereading, such as all Vines do.

Additionally, Vines demand imagination, but not only imagination, the “impersonal imagination” which Nabokov advocates for. A two line caption and a six second video provide little context for the reader. So it is the role of the reader to imagine everything that the Vine cannot include. This is the mode in which the aforementioned unpacking must happen. With imagination, the Vine comes alive in interesting ways which excite the reader. Only through imagination, and the unpacking and contextualizing of the piece, can the reader fully engage with the Vine. Other art forms have the space and time to provide necessary information, with the Vine it is all on the reader therefore creating an attentive and imaginative recipient.

But not only that, it is the responsibility of the reader to imagine without identifying with any of the characters. Here Vines also have an advantage over most literary or otherwise artistic forms: their characters, due to the shortness of their medium, are nearly unidentifiable. All subjects of Vines –whether humans, animals, or characters in sketches– are caricatures. Vines are not funny or enjoyable because the character is relatable, they are funny because the characters are grotesque. This is not to say that they are gross, but that, since there is no time to flesh out and define characters, they are all parodies of the human condition: recognizable enough to be funny, but too burlesque to be personal.

The best literary analogue is John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Which, without delving into it too much, is hilarious because of the enormity of all the characters. This is just one example of a long book that has uncontainable characters; every Vine features such characters and thus, impersonal imagination is not only fostered but demanded by Vines.

Finally, Vines escape summary. Imagine, for a moment, trying to describe your favorite Vine to someone who has never seen it. Not only would your summary probably be longer than six seconds, it would also be an inadequate representation of the video. The “Hurricane Tortilla” kid, the “suh dude” boys, the white girl retelling her birth story, the “you’re disrespecting a future army soldier” boy are all entertaining not because they are easily summarizable, but because they cannot be summarized. No artistic medium protects itself from the danger of summary as effectively as Vines do.

I have found it impossible to write about Vines without using words such as “entertaining” and “enjoyable” which leads me to a similar conclusion as the author of our source text. Nabokov, in his lecture, comes to somewhat of a conclusion that being a “good reader” is not as important as enjoying and succumbing to the piece of art. Nabokov states that “the wise reader reads the book of genius not with his heart, not so much with his brain, but with his spine.” and, perhaps, this is the lesson to pry away from Vines. Perhaps it is less important to worry if this time spent interacting with Vines is justifiable and accept it as an opportunity for sincere entertainment, an entertainment rooted in a specific epoch riddled with insincerity. Vines are, and presumably will always be, special to millenials; let’s enjoy them with a fervor strong enough to support “a castle of beautiful steel and glass”.  

 

Works Cited

“Good Readers and Good Writers” Vladimir Nabokov, 1948

http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/scans/goodre.html

 

Jacob Fowler (he/him/his) is an elementary school teacher living in Oakland, CA. He recently graduated from Pitzer College with a BA in World Literature. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Selcouth Station, Ghost City Review, and Riggwelter Press, among others. You can find him on Twitter @jacobafowler.

“wash it down with gin” (NF) and two paintings by Kelly Matheson

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Each joint has a price. In terms of insurance, that is. Worker’s comp is a son of a bitch to people who sprain an ankle because you wore flip-flops to work that day or slipped on ice in the break room. But if you find a band-saw and make the calculated decision to remove appendages to work the system, you’ll find a legend of values for each limb and ligament. I know this because my brother cut his fingers off. I half wondered if he did it just to get out of work for a few months. At least it got rid of those trashy prison tattoos on his fingers. That’s the kind of contempt you hold for someone who has tried to choke the life out of you on multiple occasions. He received a settlement check that gave him the only stability he ever had.  A trailer that he paid the down payment on and then never made another payment. He rented the lot, of course. It was in the middle of nowhere and we only visited him a few times to help him clean and move in. He was riding a sympathy high for a while. He got to live the way he wanted. No responsibilities like working, paying bills, or cleaning. Just smoking, bartering his pain meds, and making god-awful food. He sat in a singlewide trailer, chain smoked and corresponded with a slimy attorney every day to make the best case and get the biggest payout. He got a check for somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,000. A hell of a bankroll for someone who’d been relegated to poverty his entire life. With it, he played house. He found some semblance of love and got married. Even attempted to start a family. Several months of marital and patriarchal bliss. He added an entirely impractical iguana to the mix. Years later, on one of his quests to live on the fringe of society, he let the beast freeze to death. After a year of growing moss and a rubber tree, a Magic Chef range and having to maintain 700 square feet, it all proved to be too much for him. All relationships were too much for him. I have no qualms admitting his accident was most likely on purpose. My brother was a rambler in a post-rambler world. There are no more brakemen and hobos. Only sad, lonely homeless men who claim park benches in the winter and creeks in the summer. It never did sit right with me knowing he was sleeping in the park or on someone’s floor. He wouldn’t reach out often to me considering my brash nature and my selfish shithead of a husband. He wasn’t welcome as an overnight guest and he knew this. I can blame my husband, but that kind of life scared me. No stability, no check, no 800-thread-count pillowcase and lamp to light my nightly escape from reality in some book. Brian was a bastard. Not in the descriptive sense, but in reality. He knew because he was told over and over and over again. Drilled in him that he was a mistake, born to be resented.  He was made in a one-horse pseudo-old-west town as revenge for my mother to pay back my father for all the bullshit he pulled. My brother, his namesake nonetheless, was the collateral damage. With each signature and roll call he was reminded that he was the illegitimate child of his mother and named after the man she avenged herself against. He was not wanted and he would never truly know his lineage. He was always a problem or issue to be dealt with, with thrown punches and sharp words. Funny thing is I met his so called biological father. He looked nothing like him. So in all these fights and mud slinging there was a name that rang out. But now I knew that wasn’t even his real father. I never made this known to my brother, we never talked about anything really. Until the day this mans obituary came out. I’ll never know if my brother believed me when I told him, there’s no way that was your father. It made me feel sad for him. It made me remember when he turned eight. The doctors handed down the news. It felt like a terminal diagnosis at that time. Juvenile diabetes. To a family with no money, no prospects, and too much pride to accept help. Two shots a day. Insulin and syringes twice every day. Every day was a struggle. He was already ostracized in every way. In his own family. In school, due to his learning disabilities, which could probably be explained by his illness and the ever-present mood swings. Now he was different physically. He never belonged anywhere. His sheared wool was always black as soot. Constant fighting with my mother, who poured her resentment of his existence straight into him, unapologetically, which only exacerbated his distaste for living in reality. His ability to lie as a means to an end was honed at a young age. She told him what a sorry piece of shit he was. The fact of the matter remained that my mother and brother were so much alike in the fact that neither of them could hold a job very long or maintain any kind of relationship. They were both infamous for screaming matches in the front lawn. Fist fights and dramatic attempts on each others lives were just another day. In our little slice of rural North Carolina, it was always a first-name basis with all the deputies. In a time when mental illness was an urban issue, these were nothing more than rural realities. Nothing you can do to help them.  Keep them from shooting the neighbors. Anything more is out of my pay grade. The rest of the souls living in that hellhole are just SOL. So you wake up. Another day of shit to eat. Go to vacation bible school where you are taught to be grateful for the shit you eat. Forgive your mother and file your brother away in a part of your brain that can’t be explained or contacted without pain and confusion. Make a complacent attempt at finding normalcy and stability. Then they both die, and you are left craving shit for breakfast.

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Kelly Dishmond is an artist and writer who lives in Hickory, North Carolina. Kellsbells1783

Excerpts from ‘Autobiography’ by Hatelet (NF)

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Wading through my memories feels like walking into an attic that has a roof battered by raindrops and is filled with rising spirals of dust.  When I was 16 years old I fasted for four days. I was at a boarding school that was at high altitude, and I ran every day of the fast, on a winding trail that climbed through rock and pine trees and dry, oily soil.  I got weaker every day of the fast. I started to feel like I was made of too much dry air– brittle, spacey, birdlike.

The last time I was happy was around two to three years ago.  I have been sick for a long time. I forget what my life was like before this.  I recall things with difficulty. In moments of lucidity provoked by medication, I feel as if everything in my body is flowing.  I like the pagan light that comes from the earth, that illuminates forest clearings where dryads and faeries lurk. How do mushrooms see?

I relish pain sometimes, but there are so many different kinds of pain.  Pain is a blunt word that means “aversive stimuli”. There are so many ways a body can fail, that it is hard to articulate the feelings.  Some kinds of dull pain are worse than sharp pains. In sickness, the body sometimes senses geological spaces, flows, and times. The body becomes desert sand, bones of giants, rock and mineral strata grinding slowly against each other.  It thirsts like rock does. It is helpless like rock.

I do not like marijuana.  When I smoke it I think of the book “Flatland”.  Everything becomes two-dimensional; the walls scream.  I like opioids, especially oxycodone. I have never used intravenous drugs.  As a child, I used to say that my favorite color was blue. I don’t think I have a favorite color now, but I would like to live in a red room with a bright yellow incandescent bulb.  

In the spaces in between falling asleep and dreaming, I am transported to dimly lit planes that I think are embryonic versions of different geological-spatial formations.  For example, I was at a central or southern african savannah before it was formed. I was in the most northern part of the tundra where you pass through the border and everything starts to twinkle and things become green again, welcoming you to the other side.  It was as if places I’ve been had a negative correspondence that wasn’t an ideal form but was nevertheless otherworldly.

I like cats and consider them my equals, or better than me.  Because of this I do not like to talk to them as if they are babies, although sometimes I do raise my voice in a sing-song way when they are particularly cute.  I think of Hell often. I might believe in reincarnation, but I’m not sure. Death is completely opaque to me. I have only lucid dreamed two times in my life. My memories elude me often, which is why this piece of writing is an endurance sport for me.

I feel that many women are angels.  On LSD I would often feel that men had an uncomfortable energy around them, women were more cooling.  One time on LSD I experienced a sort of “imprinting” in which someone who took care of me for the duration of the trip became a fixation for me, for no other reason than that.  We didn’t have anything in common but for this period, she had been my mother. I am too immature to have been in love, but nevertheless I have been in love once. I do not think I have many years left to live, but telling myself this is most likely a coping mechanism.  I do not know if my inability to kill myself is weakness or strength. After all, the present is very precarious, and many things could go either way for me.

I used to enjoy food far more before I got sick.  As a child, all my strongest memories were associated with food, although I was never at all overweight.  This is probably because I was largely friendless for most of my childhood. My relative lack of romantic relationships or serious friendships in childhood through high school may have been responsible for me developing a feeling of being constantly late for something, as well as a feeling of being orthogonal to the world.  

I think human life is so frustrating because we are “not quite there yet”.  I have always been an extremely messianic person, but this zeal has been mostly extinguished by events of the past year or two.  The Tibetan Book of the Dead says the inability to distinguish between different types and qualities of light is a serious concern for those in the intermediate state between life and death, but I think it is also a problem for the living.  I have always had a fear of not being noticed enough. This fear has been exacerbated by becoming a total hermit due to circumstance, and because of this, I use social media in fitful bursts occasionally, then retreat when the light hurts my eyes.

I turned away from religious and occult belief like a spurned lover.  I am a zealot and thus I believe or oppose belief in extremes. I cannot stand to be abandoned by God, and thus I am not patient enough to be a Christian.  I still like to wander into services sometimes. I like shaking the hands of the other people in the church and wishing each other peace. I find many religions and myths incredibly evocative, but the only ones that I think are really real are the impersonal metaphysics of religions that involve some form of reincarnation without a god.

I used to ski a lot, mostly alpine, but some nordic.  I loved skiing through glades with deep, powdery snow.  I mostly skied alone, all day, for a large portion of the winter months of my adolescence.  I sometimes got lonely and frightened once the dark came right as the mountain was closing and I waited for a ride home with my parents.  I used to be triumphant about being an atheist as a young child, until I realized the gravity of disbelieving in life after death, at which point I became often scared and depressed.  Winter always used to be my favorite season. I have seen things in the shadows and quiet of a snow-dampened, dark wood.

The last time I was truly happy or excited must have been in September of 2016.  In September of 2015, I met someone who I would fall for at a party a half-mile into the woods near my college.  In September of 2016 I went to a party in the same woods, after we had broken up, and met her there again. I try aggressively to not believe in magic, or coincidence, but the repetition of this occurrence felt like closing a circle, and set the hairs on my arm on edge.  That night I think some kind of threshold was crossed, and I walked into the unreal world that I reside in now.

I think that perhaps the closest one can come to the supernatural is by refusing to believe in it, but going through the motions of belief very strictly, as if one did.  Trying to draw a perfect circle, chanting in monotone, are all things that do something to the fabric of things regardless of whether they are believed in or not. Only fraud requires belief for it to work.

I slowly and imperceptibly become accustomed to the unreal and terrible existence I have, but I wake up sometimes in a start; terrified of how time passes and leaves me with nothing.  I remember when I was four, that I used to think the willow trees we passed on the South Carolina back roads actually turned grey at night–I didn’t realize that it was just how light works.  I was comforted by them as they seemed to be benign beckoners of a soft and rich dreamtime. I would sometimes play with the other children at the houses where we went to hear bluegrass and country music.  We were told to watch out for snakes and rusty metal scraps, and to not go too close to the river. Many dramas were hinted at that seemed inaccessible to me. I wanted adventure, but never really got it. I would hang out downstairs where people played music casually, offstage.  The floor was unfinished concrete and the air was filled with cigarette smoke and the bathroom was lit by a red incandescent bulb.

I can’t stand the idea of useless suffering.  Time passes and then congeals, in dirty glass jars in a cabinet in a small wooden house that cramps in on itself–this makes me nauseous.  I hate when things are not redeemed somehow. I don’t want my hand to be forced, I would like to not have to redeem my life in a final act.  I do not like anything much anymore. I am becoming immaculately boring, except for my rage, which I cannot usually express but would dignify my stupid existence.

I know that more women attempt suicide than men, but more men succeed.  Women are more likely to use less lethal means, like taking pills or cutting their wrists.  Men are more likely to use guns or hanging. Pills are less successful mostly because people taking them do not know much about pharmacology, generally.  It is not very difficult to kill yourself with pills if you know much about pharmacology. Anti-emetics are a very important aspect of this method because many people vomit up the pills.  

We were talking earlier about different types of pain.  I do not mind the feeling of a needle piercing my vein, but the duller feeling of the plastic catheter sliding in bothers me.  I broke my leg once, when I was about 16. I was playing an informal, or “pickup” soccer game at my high school in the mountains in California.  I was not wearing shin guards because it was an informal game. I was playing goalie, and I didn’t want to let my team down, so I charged the ball.  The player on the other team did not stop, and kneed my shin. There was a sickening, hard slap. I was helped off the field and then     

 

 

 

“Cosmic Micros” part two, by Neil Clark

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Left in the Dark

You told me your party trick was to imitate a black hole.

You covered my eyes with your hand, and when you took it away, you were gone. As was gravity. And time. And all the universe.

Bit of a shame, because I never got to show you how I can burp the national anthem.

Left in the Dark II

You asked me to watch your stuff while you went to the toilet.

As I said “yes,” my espresso became a black hole. Sucked the whole universe into the base of my cup.

But I’m a man of my word. I kept an eye on your stuff. It’ll be there when you return, albeit dotted across a billion dimensions.

Left in the Dark III

The aliens use keyboard shortcuts at the controls of the mothership.

CTRL + X cuts the contents of a planet out.

When they cut Earth, they selected everything but me.

Now I float alone in space, the rest of my planet on a clipboard, to be pasted somewhere without me.

 

Neil Clark is a writer from Edinburgh, The Universe and everywhere between and beyond. His work is published in Okay Donkey, The Molotov Cocktail, Five:2:One and other cool places. Find him at neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com or on Twitter, where he posts a new micro fiction most days @NeilRClark 

“Tenting Tonight in a Four Poster” by Walter Giersbach [Non-Fiction]

 

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[Pictured: Marion Fisk on the Chautauqua Circuit billed as “America’s Foremost Cartoonist.”]

I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The rewards came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent.

I rushed to get in my PJs and pulled the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans.”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged.

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

“When the man was 21 years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed. But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them. But, the soldiers wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma — received him with joy in the kitchen.

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice. At last they sang songs, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

 

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,

Give us a song to cheer,

Our weary hearts, a song of home,

And the friends we love so dear.

 

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,

Wishing for the war to cease,

Many are the hearts, looking for the right,

To see the dawn of Peace.

 

“Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,

Tenting on the old camp ground.”

 

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house.

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the country week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents. In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all. Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

 

 

Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel.  He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.

 

‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine

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As the eldest in a large family, I grew up taking care of others. Watching my younger siblings, I learned to develop a sixth sense; I reserved a part of my attention to wander on that periphery where something might flare up among any one of them, at any time.

This ability turned out to be useful during the decade in my young adulthood when I was a teacher. All children share a yearning and striving after something too unformed and unknown to put into words. A great teacher is someone who takes a student’s poor question and, without any embarrassment to the student, transforms it into a profound inquiry with reverberant answers that ripple through the consciousness of the class like circles of water spreading outward in a pond. I wasn’t a great teacher, but I was a good teacher who got my students excited about learning and served as their guide.

All of my life, I have identified with being competent, dependable, responsible. My parents were strict with me and punished me for infractions. I absorbed their lessons and was hard on myself. I didn’t allow myself to make mistakes, and when I made them, I suffered agonies. Self-torture was the price I paid for error. I missed opportunities where others might have helped me because I wouldn’t let them.

There were times when I wanted help, and I didn’t get it. For a long time I was frustrated and unhappy. It took a paid professional—my therapist—to tell me that I didn’t get the help I wanted because I never appeared as though I needed it. His observation stunned me. I thought others could tell when I felt needy and vulnerable. Apparently not. I had learned to conceal my feelings. I thought neediness ugly and repellent, and I was afraid of being vulnerable. Being vulnerable meant letting my defenses down, leaving myself open for attack.

It’s often said that to be loved, one must be a lovable person, someone who knows
how to love. It’s the same with receiving help. To an extent, it’s knowing how to ask. That was hard for me, because I always thought I had to be in charge. From my parents I had learned that any help they gave was in exchange for something else. They expected a return, and often I thought the price was too high. The help they gave wasn’t really help at all. It was barter.

I knew that not everyone was like them, but my fear of this transaction infected my
interactions with others. When I needed help, I couldn’t bring myself to ask for it until I was desperate. When I did ask, it was with the expectation that the price would be too great, or else I would be turned down. The cycle fed on itself: my defeatist attitude ensured that I would be defeated.

And sometimes I was guilty of the same behavior that I deplored in my parents. I
asked for help as if I were extracting a promise, and when I met with resentment in return, I only had myself to blame. That was another of my misperceptions.

Continue reading “‘On Letting Oneself be Taken Care Of’ by Adrienne Pine”

‘The Worst Call’ by KR Pendergrass

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I sat alone on the bench of my ambulance, tears falling unchecked, quite sure I had made some seriously bad career decisions. The stretcher was all made up with clean, folded linen and a fresh pillow, but in my mind I still saw it disheveled, only one strap fastened over the tiny, still body. I wasn’t cut out for this. I mean, who was? What kind of lunatic could do this?

The infant had been gone too long for me to do anything to help, but in the dimness of the mobile home I couldn’t be sure. In the bright lights in the back of the ambulance, it was clear. She was blue, and cooling quickly out of the hot environment of the trailer in the summer heat. There was no activity in her heart. She was dead, and there was nothing I could do about it.

My partner had kept her distance, not sure how I was going to react, giving me time to compose myself. It was cool inside the ambulance bay, but I could still feel the heat from that home, giving me false hope that the baby could be saved. I had put on a professional mask, informed the family that she had been gone too long, transferred the scene to the state troopers and the coroner. Being a paramedic, there was nothing else I could do there.

It was the first question everyone asked when I said I wanted to be a paramedic. “How will you handle children, babies, dying?” It was the topic of conversation among students, the first thing rookies asked the old pros. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” It is the question on everyone’s mind when they first get into an ambulance on the first day. The half-finished letter of resignation on the bench beside me was my answer. “How did you handle your first SIDS baby?” “Not well, kid. I quit to become an accountant…”

I sat there alone trying to deal with my feelings for almost an hour. Layers of tears dried on my face as I went through waves of being ok, NOT being ok, wanting to finish my letter, wanting to tear it up, and wanting to just lay down and sleep for a month. I was so deep in thought that I jumped a mile when the back door opened and a familiar face appeared.

This particular state trooper had worked dozens of scenes with me, seen me hold together through some messy ones, heart-wrenching ones, all the stuff that goes along with our professions, and had seen me be strong. I guess now it was only right that he see me be weak.

Without invitation, he climbed inside and sat down on the bench. Picking up the half-finished letter, he read it. Putting it down and looking at me, he said, “That’s your plan? Walk away?”

I shrugged, changing the full battery on my monitor so I wouldn’t have to look at him. “Not a bad way to deal. There’s plenty of other jobs out there where you don’t ever have to hold a dead baby.”

“True,” he said. “There are. But not for you. This is where you belong.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied, now deciding my airway kit needed cleaned.

“Then tell me this,” he said, taking the airway kit so I had to look at him. “You couldn’t help this one. And that feels like crap. Maybe you can help the next one. But I can tell you this for sure.” He held up my letter. “If you turn this in, you go become a teacher or a carpenter, you absolutely, one hundred percent, CAN NOT help the next one. You stay here in the ambulance, the next person who needs your help will get it. If not… Well who knows who will get the call?”

I stared at him, processing his words. He was right. I might be able to walk away from the job, but I would always wonder. Every time I saw a wreck or obituary in the newspaper, I would wonder if I could have changed the outcome, If I could have done something someone else wouldn’t have thought of.

Before I could form the words to respond, my partner hurried out. “We got a diabetic emergency at the nursing home. You ok, or do you want me to send the other crew?”

The trooper gave me a questioning look, still offering the letter to me. “It’s your call,” he said.

It was. And there was only one I could make. “We got this,” I told my partner. “Let’s roll!”

As we exited the back of the truck, he held up the letter again. “And this?”

I shook my head. “Just toss it. I don’t think I need it anymore.”

KR Pendergrass is a paramedic of 13 years, author, homeschool mom, wife, pet of a particularly spoiled dachshund. Years in rural EMS has produced many heartwrenching stories. It has also produced many hilarious ones as well. Her home with her husband, sons and dogs is full of both laughter and stories, because you can’t let the heartbreaking stuff take a piece of your soul. Her first novel, Incompatible With Life was released last spring, and her followup, Crisis of Faith, should be out in time for Christmas this year.

‘The Seven Words That Changed My Life’ by Mary Campbell

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April 1991. I want to be anywhere but indoors. A light rain has rinsed the dust off the creosote bushes, leaving that fresh, ephemeral scent of just-washed desert foliage that you absolutely cannot describe but that leaves a vague sense of having been an earthworm in a previous life.

By dusk, the whole world smells of Mock-orange in bloom. Nothing can compete, not jasmine or honeysuckle, diesel fumes, steaks cackling over mesquite; nothing brings on spring fever like the Mock-orange at the glorious height of its blooming season.

Tonight I must forgo my small luxuries: watching the sun set over the mountains, imbibing Mock-orange fragrance, chipping with an ice pick at the solid inch of salt atop my cold, tart margarita-on-the-rocks. Tonight I must attend a Leadership Class. Titled “Managing for the Organizationally Challenged,” it offers “useful strategies for ADD/ADHD sufferers,” on the apparent assumption that we’ve already exhausted the useless ones.

Arriving, parking, and going through my mental checklist—“clip keys to purse handle, lock doors, note car location”—I take a last, longing look at the Tucson Mountains to the west—always purple and mysterious when the sun sets, hinting at secrets in those backlit hills: The Elves’ Masquerade is about to start and you’re invited, but you must find the Enchanted Quarter-Acre. Sighing, I enter the windowless building and follow the unmistakable pre-class hum of desultory conversation and languid laughter.

There isn’t a soul I recognize in the large, drab room, which is packed to capacity with bodies steaming slightly from the unseasonably humid warmth of the April night. Tables and chairs are nowhere to be seen, so when the instructor says, “Find a seat, folks,” gesturing to the floor with a small laugh, we plop down complacently on the industrial-grade carpeting.

The instructor—“Sheila,” if her name tag is to be believed—is young, blonde, and busy, answering questions, emptying a large tote, then handing out single sheets of paper to the floor-sitters. She catches my eye, all confident, intelligent energy, as she works her way back to my corner. Over the heads of a half-dozen dark-suited up-and-comers, she sends two pages sailing. I catch them neatly, giving one to the jean-clad woman behind me. She is sitting on a small, quilted pillow. Has she been tipped off about the absence of furniture?

I glance incuriously at the letter-size sheet. In the years to come I will wish I had kept my copy, though it contains only four or five lines in the familiar Courier font. Perched on a bare table someone has scavenged from a closet, Sheila clears her throat and conversation dies down. With little introduction and no fanfare, she explains what we are to do, elaborating on the written instructions.

First, we have to “find a partner—someone you’ve never met before tonight.” I have been chatting with Diane, the woman in jeans, and we give each other that raised-eyebrow half-smile that seals our common destiny for the next hour or so.

Continue reading “‘The Seven Words That Changed My Life’ by Mary Campbell”

‘Talking Dogs Aren’t Real, but If They Were They Wouldn’t Be Cool’ by Maddy Isenbarger

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I don’t think enough people are upset by the concept that Scooby-Doo speaks English. If a dog ever spoke to me, I would never be okay again. In fact, I think I would enter such a severe state of fight or flight, I would panic-murder the dog just to be certain I would never hear it speak again. It is fucked up that the Mystery Gang recklessly exposes Scooby-Doo to others as if that isn’t a crime against humanity. They carelessly parade around this gargantuan beast of a hound that moves its dog mouth and says things like, “ruh roh, Raggy” and, “Scooby-Dooby-Doo” as if that isn’t going to unravel the minds and lives of those who hear him speak English out loud.

A lot of people say they would be psyched if they encountered a talking dog, and I think that’s because they haven’t considered what it would actually be like to be alone in a room with one, and have it say, “hey, I was thinkin’ about heading over to Josh’s later if you wanna come.” In that moment you would be petrified beyond recovery, because everything you understood to be true would be in question. Even if the dog said something super nice, like, “I just want you to know that I love being your dog, and I think you’re a very special and kind person” it wouldn’t make it any less upsetting, because the DOG is TALKING; implying that nothing is real, and yet everything is, and that overwhelming realization is enough to cause anyone to cry out to a vague-deity, and bring them to their knees in unspeakable horror.

I’ve had my share of traumas I didn’t think I’d be able to recover from; they manifest as intrusive thoughts and images that terrorize me when I least expect it, but in time have dulled and become manageable to live with. That being said, I cannot fathom how infinitely haunted I would be by a dog speaking to me. No amount of time could pass where I would no longer be consumed by the thought of it. It would taint every aspect of my life, slowly destroying my interpersonal relationships and forcing me to implode until my untimely self-destruction.

Anyways, Scooby-Doo doesn’t accurately depict the reality of talking dogs, and it isn’t fair that we’re all just okay with that.

Maddy Isenbarger is finishing up her degree in Film Studies, and just trying to stay alive long enough to hold hands with Frances McDormand on day. You can find her screeching into the abyss of the World Wide Web on Twitter: @maddymoiselle.

‘Things She Left Behind’ by Walt Giersbach

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My wife, Judy, and I moved back to New Jersey with relief.  Earlier in 2008, we had returned to Connecticut from a year of raising a new-born grandson in Cambridge, Mass., sold our home and decided to rejoin our son’s family in Jersey.  We swore this was the last time we were moving.  We were both tired of relocating and excited about settling into our final home.

After a day of cleaning house in February 2014, Judy complained uncharacteristically of being tired and in pain.  Half an hour later, a heart attack took her out of my life.  My attempts at CPR while simultaneously talking with paramedics on the phone had been useless.  All my life I’d believed everything was possible, but I ran headlong into a roadblock when her body refused to respond.  It was the end of a 46-year marriage in which “she” and “I” had become “we.”

It had been a successful marriage of opposites: She was a hard-working Taiwanese and I’d grown up in a comfortable middle-class American household.  I was a college grad and she had no more than an elementary school education.  She’d been raised as a Buddhist and I was the son and grandson of Christian ministers.

Eighty-five friends and family attended her funeral service, and then time stopped for me.  It hit me that when a person goes missing from your life, the entire world is empty.

George Eliot wrote in The World Before Us, “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”  But knowing that doesn’t ease the grief or lessen the loneliness even when surrounded by crowds.

The months since then have been long and difficult, costly in terms of burial arrangements and mental turmoil, and unusually quiet with just half the household noise and even less conversational chatter.  I’d never before noticed how loud a light switch or clock can be in the silence.

Slowly, as I go through her things and select clothes that will be given to charity, I’m uncovering the bits and pieces of her life that I wasn’t aware of.  I found loose change in the pockets of her jackets hanging in her half of the closet.  I uncovered clothes, purses and scarves with store tags attached or still in their boxes.  These were her anticipated holiday and birthday gifts.  And there were shoeboxes with our children’s greeting cards from years ago.

Tucked in her bedside table were half a dozen hung bau, little red envelopes the Chinese use to give children money on the Lunar New Year, each containing a $20 bill.  They were all to be gifts in case a child or older person came to our house or was celebrating an event.  Judy was a great gift-giver, with protocols and propriety.  No birthday or anniversary was ever missed in our extended family.

We took Judy home to Massachusetts for burial in the cemetery where she now rests with my parents, brothers, grandparents and great-grandmother.  Although she was born in Taiwan, she had adopted New England as much as my forebears had.

And then a curious thing happened in that Northfield cemetery overlooking the Connecticut River.  Following the interment service, the pastor came up to me and said, “While you were delivering your eulogy this leaf fell on your shoulder.”  She held out a red maple leaf.

I seized on this as an omen, a sign that Judy was listening and perhaps death is not the finality it appears to be.  I’ve saved the leaf as a keepsake.

And now I have much more to think about than the things she left behind.

Walt bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and moderates a writing group in New Jersey. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries.