Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 7 Justin St. Germain: Marijuana in Oregon

After Walter Benjamin's "Hashish in Marseille"

Walter Benjamin took hashish for the first time at three-thirty in the morning on December 18, 1927, probably in Berlin—he was a setting savant, but his notes don’t specify a location, although they do go into luxuriant detail about rooms. 

Nor do his notes explain why Benjamin—a critic, philosopher, and essayist, among other things, although none of those exactly fits—would suddenly start doing drugs at the age of thirty-five. The book in which his notes were published, On Hashish, offers some possible explanations. He was inspired by Les Paradis artificiels, Charles Baudelaire’s pioneering account of opium and hashish intoxication, and after reading it told a friend, “It will be necessary to repeat this attempt independently of this book.” His translator writes that he wanted to broaden the concept of experience, more or less the same reason everyone does drugs. His experiments were also material, a kind of research. Benjamin was planning to write a book about hashish, a project that never materialized; instead his drug writings would be published as individual essays and stories, and parts would appear verbatim in his (also incomplete) opus, The Arcades Project

But Benjamin waited eight years after reading Baudelaire to get around to getting high, and when he did, it wasn’t his idea. Doctor friends of his had connections at German pharmaceutical companies, which meant access to a whole cornucopia of psychoactive compounds. They set up a series of drug experiments they called protocols, and convinced Benjamin to join them. In most ways, he wasn’t so different from your average teenager presented with free drugs for the first time. How many would say no? Lots, probably, but I’m not one of them, and neither was Walter Benjamin.

As his first high unfolded, Benjamin recorded his experience in twenty-five numbered items. He hallucinates the room stretching and filling with phantoms, a desk transforming into a fruit stand; he becomes “fixated on the intellectual sphere,” experiences “boundless goodwill” and “extraordinary mental vacillation,” sees “the gates to a world of grotesquerie” opening. His friends become strangers, and he wants to laugh. But his notes remain calm, analytical, clinical, observant. The world’s smartest stoner. 

His last note: “One traverses the same paths of thought as before. Only they seem strewn with roses.”

*

The first time I got high was late on a Friday night in the summer of 1995 in Tombstone, Arizona. I was thirteen, with my friend Frank—not his real name, obviously, this is going on the internet—at his older brother’s studio apartment on the west side of town, out by T Hill and the cemetery. Frank's brother was known around town exclusively by an iambic mammalian nickname. Let's call him Wombat. He'd bought us a pint of Cuervo at Circle K, and we’d just finished drinking it straight, chased with Sunny Delight. It wasn’t my first experience with alcohol, but it was the first time I’d gotten properly drunk. 

Soon Wombat’s girlfriend—I don’t recall her name for reasons that will soon become apparent, but let’s say Cindy—arrived with a dime bag, broke out a pipe, and asked if we wanted to get stoned. The tequila was taking over, and I felt as if I finally understood that song about straight-tequila nights that had recently been so popular in my hometown. Besides, a few things worth celebrating had occurred that summer: the county had dropped some charges against me after a year of juvie nightmares; my third stepdad, who’d been ritually abusing my mom for the last three years, had finally moved out of our trailer; and mine and Frank’s classmate Charlie, our third amigo, had just escaped to Tucson. It was because his mom died, and we missed him, but still, he’d made it out. High school was starting soon, a new beginning, a chance to become a cooler version of myself who drank tequila and smoked weed. When Cindy and Wombat proffered the pipe, I thought, what the hell.

Our situation was less formal; Tombstone wasn’t big on protocols. We smoked in Wombat’s bathroom. After her first hit, Cindy grabbed my face and put her mouth against mine, inflating me with secondhand smoke. It was the first time I’d ever kissed a woman without some middle-school premise, a spun bottle or a dare, and I don’t know if it was the weed or the tequila or the notion of sex, but I felt like I’d finally escaped myself and was seeing my world clearly for the first time. (Benjamin called this phenomenon “profane illumination.”) I didn’t have much time to meditate on the experience. Soon Wombat head-butted me and I passed out. He wasn’t mad or jealous. It was just a thing he did.

Needless to say, I didn’t take notes. But I remembered the bliss of detachment, and wanted to get high again. I did most days for the next year.

*

Benjamin took hash again a month later, with his friend, protocol wingman, and fellow philosopher Ernst Bloch, who wasn’t there the first time. This time they both took notes. They were written in various hands and sometimes repeat one another, so the authorship and methods of their taking aren’t clear. This would become a pattern of the protocols, a rotating cast of participants leaving notes in various forms—handwritten, typed, dictated—with no regard for authorship. Fragmentary, allusive, digressive, collaborative essays.

Benjamin wrote a sober account the following afternoon. Both the notes and the account describe a much different hashish experience from the first. He describes a “Satanic phase,” the red room he’s in velvety and aflame, the conviction that great historical events could be occurring in the next room, coronations and executions. He laments the “basically depressive nature” of the trance, which he attributes to taking a higher dose. It is no longer, as it was the first time, a friendly, sociable lingering in a room. Rather, it is like being enclosed in a dense spider’s web. It sounds like he was having a bad trip, which makes sense. He was eating the hash, not smoking it, and ingesting high doses of cannabis can be unpredictable, as anyone who’s taken too many edibles can attest.

At one point, Bloch reaches toward his knee, and Benjamin feels it as “a highly repugnant violation of my aura.” Certain words and phrases recur, including my personal favorite, when the philosophers describe their high as “an ambiguous wink from nirvana.” (Capitalize the last word and they sound just like me and Frank seventy years later.) The account, which Benjamin seems to have thought of as an essay, engages with the experience theoretically, not descriptively; in it he’s a critic, not a pilgrim, and his writing assumes the density characteristic of his criticism. He meditates on the “colportage phenomenon of space,” references Kafka and Greek myth, employs and tortures critical metaphors. 

The essay is less interesting, at least to me, than the notes from the experience, which are raw, bizarre, self-aware, sometimes lapsing into the second person, as if he’s speaking to his sober self or a future reader: I intentionally say something flowery—you must be suspicious. He compares this high to the last, as Calvin to Shakespeare: this is a Calvinist intoxication. His descriptive metaphors are vivid and surreal: he’s on a ship at sea; the room is a stage lit by tiny, hidden levers; his friend descending the stairs becomes a spider lady, a skirt of webs around her feet.

The whole room is woven in hashish.

I keep bumping against the ceiling, which is exceedingly thin.

Near the end of his notes, he has a breakthrough. He sees a zone surrounding the intoxication, a zone he recognizes as death. Dying has an imperative character.

The essay he wrote afterwards hardly mentions death, and blames the depressive nature of the experience on a higher dose. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that his perceptions on hashish were real or true, revelations rather than hallucinations. Are we not surrounded by death?

*

I think of my first stoned year as one long protocol. Weed was everywhere in Tombstone, practically free so close to the border, and that was the year meth arrived, or at least the year I first saw it. Normal weed, dusted weed, the occasional grandma’s pill, little baggies of peanut butter crank; I swallowed, smoked, or snorted whatever was in front of me. It culminated in a surprise drug test courtesy of my mom’s short-lived doctor boyfriend and threats of military school. 

But I didn’t really quit until I saw death. Near the end of my freshman year, a friend—who in a rare exception for that reckless year was driving sober—rolled his parents’ Blazer with six of us inside. I walked away physically intact, but an old friend died in front of me, and the rest of us were transformed. I couldn’t get high after that. I couldn’t handle the visions.

It’s not like I went sober. I just switched to a worse and more accepted drug, alcohol, the marrow of my hometown; Tombstone has a dozen bars and no grocery store except the Circle K, which does most of its business in beer and liquor. I spent large parts of my teenage years getting wasted at boonie parties, huddled around tire fires, staring back across the black expanse of the San Pedro valley toward town, watching for cops.

But save for a handful of times in college and the years after, I didn’t do illegal drugs anymore. Not even during the four years I lived in San Francisco, where at the time high-grade marijuana was practically, if not technically, legal—you could call a guy and have it delivered via bicycle—and where I got stoned exactly twice. I thought the last time might be the last time. I was applying for real jobs, and needed to be able to pass drug tests. Besides, I thought I’d outgrown drugs.

From San Francisco, I moved across the country to a strange place where I knew nobody, and where I was ostensibly a professional for the first time in my life. Then I did it two more times. In none of my new settings did I get high. I thought I was reformed, responsible, adult. It didn’t occur to me that I hadn’t changed, only my context: nobody was offering me drugs anymore.

*

Nine months into his hash experiments, Benjamin did a protocol alone. It was seven in the evening on a Saturday night in Marseille, a city foreign to him. In his notes he says a passage of Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf prompted his “last impetus to taking hashish.” (He doesn’t say which passage.) After taking hashish, he writes and dictates a series of banal notes, waiting for it to kick in. Soon, convinced it will have no or mild effects, he leaves his hotel room to wander the streets.

The rest of his notes were written the next morning, with the “positively splendid” aftereffects still lingering; he warns the reader, presumably himself, that he may not stick to the actual chronology. He reports strolling along the quay, reading the names of boats. He dines at two different cafes, oysters and pate, half a glass of white wine. As the trance intensifies, he sits on a bench by a park, watching pedestrians pass by and experiencing “isolated moments of mania.” Faces strike him as monstrously ugly, and he hallucinates Dante and Petrarch walking past. At one point, he seems close to solving “the riddle of the trance,” and compares it obliquely to a labyrinth, one of his favorite metaphors. 

He would later publish two separate pieces based on the notes from his Marseilles protocol. One was fiction, the short story “Myslovice—Braunschweig—Marseille.” The other was an essay, “Hashish in Marseilles.”

*

I moved to Oregon at the age of thirty-four, the week its governor signed a bill legalizing recreational cannabis. At the time, I knew of Walter Benjamin, and had read a bit: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” excerpts of The Arcades Project. But I didn’t know he’d written about taking drugs until a few days before marijuana went on sale. 

I was looking for something to teach in my first class, an introductory survey of the essay. I’d never taught the subject and had only written a couple of essays myself, but there I was, charged with delivering their lone required literature credit to thirty undergraduates at nine in the morning, three days a week. While leafing through an anthology, I stumbled upon “Hashish in Marseille.” I read the first few paragraphs, scrapped the Annie Dillard essay I’d been planning to teach—on the subject of Dillard, I agree with The Malcontent—and assigned Benjamin instead.

We discussed it the day after legalization went into effect. It will surprise few who teach that assigning Walter Benjamin to a large group of mostly freshmen the first week of class did not go well. A few red-eyed young men chuckled knowingly at some of his more prosaic observations—his “lionish hunger,” say, or his gratuitous descriptions of ugly faces—but by and large the class didn’t seem to appreciate the stoned philosopher’s musings, and a stark generation gap revealed itself. Getting high and walking around was no big deal. Not in Oregon, not anymore. It’s legal.

*

And here is where our threads intersect. First I should make a couple of confessions. I’m altering the timeline here, just like Benjamin did—his Marseille protocol occurred on September 29, but he dated his essay in July, for reasons that remain unclear, at least to me. He also published his account first in a fictionalized form, at least partly to protect his reputation from puritanical readers. I’m doing the same here. For the record, this whole essay is fiction.

Anyway, shortly after teaching “Hashish in Marseille” for the first and last time, I stumbled into a protocol of my own. At the threshold of my first Oregon fall, I found myself sitting at a table in a stranger’s backyard one evening, dusklight deepening the green: the grass, the garden, the trees, the neighbor’s trees, the other neighbor’s trees. I’d grown up in deserts and had never seen so much fucking green.

It was my old friend’s old friend’s house. I hadn’t seen my friend in some time, and we’d never met each other’s partners—on the West Coast everyone is partners, it’s one of the things I’d missed—or kids, or friends. We drank Oregon wine and Oregon beer and talked about Oregon things, rain and rivers and beer, books, Portland, farmer’s markets, whatever. Somebody mentioned the new marijuana law—probably me—and the man of the house explained that you could grow it now, too. His partner gestured toward the garden and said they had a plant right over there. I was trying to spot it through the tomatoes when someone asked if I wanted to smoke.

I hesitated. The old sense of transgression, imminent consequences, checking for cops. The others declined, in the Oregon fashion, without a trace of disdain. If I didn’t do it, no weed was getting smoked. Sure, I said, why not.

The homeowner left, returned, and showed me the buds in a baggie, saying it was good grown-up shit, nice and mellow. He loaded a small pipe with water in it—plain glass, no skulls or mushrooms, I hesitated to call it a bong but it must have been one, an adult bong, my first, the kind of thing that exists in Oregon. He lit it, took a hit, passed to me. I wondered if they were going to drug test me at my new job. Could they? Fuck it. It’s legal.

I took a modest hit, choked, coughed hard in the bloody way only a bong makes you. Then another. I waved off the third, waiting to see, and just when I thought it didn’t work, I didn’t get high, I remembered in a rush that you don’t notice the change, it just happens.

It wasn’t what I’d remembered. I’d been high a hundred times as a teenager, but that was ’90s border weed, brown and dry and cheap, full of stems and seeds, like smoking dirt. My two experiences with California’s “medical” marijuana had left me unable to move, talk, or think enough to take notes. This was something else, more of a trance, an attunement, the treble turned down. My brain let my body drive, and I noticed my arms prickling in the chill, the twinge in my lower back from sitting in the chair. The feeling was not a presence so much as an absence—my anxiety was gone, and Jesus Christ, how much of it had there been? The proverbial veil lifted; I saw who I was in my waking life, neurotic and obsessed with death, just like my old friend Walter. I had changed without understanding it was happening. This was high me, Oregon me, and I liked him a whole lot better.

When we left, our host slipped me a baggie containing what I would later learn to eyeball as a couple of grams.

*

In the service of multiple interests—decorum, employability, the feasibility of anyone finishing it online—I should wrap this up. Like Benjamin, I’m hoping to complete this later, perhaps even as a book. Then again, it seems like most planned books about drugs don’t get finished.

One potential exit would be to mention a disturbing fact I’ve been hesitant to deploy, lest it read like something our D.A.R.E. officers would’ve told me and Frank in middle school: at least two of the participants in Benjamin’s protocols died of drug overdoses. Benjamin was one of them, although the drugs were just a mechanism in his case, and far the lesser evil. His Satanic hash visions proved prophetic. Soon after the protocols began, Hitler rose to power, and Benjamin found himself in exile, stripped of his German citizenry, arrested by the French and sent to a prison camp. He lingered too long afterward in Paris, home of his arcades, and fled only a day before the Nazis rolled in. 

He went south, headed for Portugal, and crossed the Spanish border to the small town of Portbou, just across the Gulf of Lion from the city he’d once wandered in a hashish trance. When the Spanish authorities told him he’d be deported back to occupied France in the morning, Benjamin did his last drug experiment, ingesting an intentional overdose of morphine. Fanciful legends say his suitcase contained a completed manuscript. It was never found.

But that’s not very Christmasy, so instead I’ll steal a happier ending, the one Benjamin himself came up with after that long stoned night in Marseilles, the wisdom of his trance. “When I recall this state,” he wrote, “I should like to believe that hashish persuades nature to permit us—for less egoistic purposes—that squandering of our own existence that we know in love.”

*

Justin St. Germain is the author of the book-length essay Bookmarked: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and the memoir Son of a Gun. He lives in Oregon.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 6, Eric Aldrich: The Brain of Ozzy

After Roland Barthes' "The Brain of Einstein"

Ozzy Osbourne is a mythical subject: paradoxically, the man who withstands the most punishing substance abuse is viewed with admiration rather than pity. Rock stars always have something reified about them, be it their genitals, their hair, or their hands. Thus is the case with Black Sabbath’s front man; Ozzy is commonly signified by his substance tolerance, which among the pantheon of rock and roll, is rivalled only by Keith Richards. Perhaps because of his aesthetic connection to the occult, Ozzy Osbourne’s ability to consume huge doses of drugs and alcohol without dying is infused with a sort of magical character; not a physiological trait, but an act of will; he defies moralizing about drugs through tolerating their prodigious side effects. Mythologically, Ozzy is the party without end, the artist untethered from consequences, free to escape the confines of reality while clap-jumping up and down before thousands of enthusiastic fans.

Ozzy has to some extent perpetuated his myth by mumbling his way through thousands of interviews, recounting his most psychotic, drug-addled behavior again and again. At a meeting with record executives in 1981, the Prince of Darkness (as Ozzy is sometimes called) bit the heads off two doves that his wife/manager, Sharon, had given him to release as a publicity stunt. He was extremely drunk. In 1982, a fan threw a live bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa and Ozzy bit its head off. In 2019, he released a toy bat with a removable head to commemorate the 37th anniversary of the incident. In 1989, while heavily under the influence, Ozzy tried to strangle Sharon to death, was arrested, and avoided prison because she refused to press charges. One can hear all these stories and more in the 2020 episode of A&E’s “Biography: The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne.” The myth of Ozzy elevates someone so unaffected by consequences that people speak of his substance abuse and violence with awe rather than fear or judgement; his actions, so far outside what almost anyone could get away with, make him the subject of a sort of ritual exoneration in the media, the inarticulate outsider celebrated for his inability to accommodate societal norms.

In 2010, Ozzy Osbourne, who was 61-years-old at the time, became the first rock star to have their genome sequenced. He provided a blood sample to Cofactor Genomics, a company that performed the sequencing; another company, Knome, Inc., analyzed the genetic data. About the project, Ozzy told the Sunday Times of London, “I was curious. Given the swimming pools of booze I’ve guzzled over the years – not to mention all of the cocaine, morphine, sleeping pills, cough syrup, LSD, Rohypnol...you name it – there’s no plausible medical reason why I should still be alive. Maybe my DNA could say why.” Knome Inc. co-founder Nathan Pearson reported the results at a TED event in 2010, explaining, “We found many variants – novel variants – in genes associated with addiction and metabolism that are interesting but not quite definitive.” Weeks later, ABC News ran the headline, “Ozzy Osbourne is a Genetic Mutant.”

The act of having his genome sequenced contributed to Ozzy’s myth in several ways. First, it allowed another opportunity to repeat the legendary amounts of drugs and alcohol the singer consumed. Next, searching for a genetic explanation for Ozzy’s substance tolerance fed into his characterization as superhuman. At the same time, allowing DNA to explain his behavior refused to hold him to the same moral standards as someone’s 61-year-old addict brother who has consumed a comparable quantity of liquor, paint thinner, and crystal meth, likely of far lower quality than Ozzy’s supply, all without access to rock star-quality medical care or substance abuse therapy.

Of course, someone’s addict brother didn’t belt out “Supernaut” at California Jam in one of the most immediately recognizable voices in the last 50 years of popular music. There, in 1974 at the Ontario Motor Speedway, from center stage ensconced with a broad rainbow, Ozzy invited 250,000 fans to, “Clap your hands everyone, let’s get stoned!” Before his 2002 MTV reality family drama, “The Osbournes,” depicted Ozzy as shuffling and geriatric, his anti-Christian, anti-traditional persona in Black Sabbath and his solo career allowed fans to view Ozzy’s self-destructive substance abuse and violence as evidence of authenticity. Through substance abuse, Ozzy fulfills the myth by seeming to embody the character depicted in his music. For example, in the 1970 song, “Fairies Wear Boots,” Ozzy sings, “So I went to the doctor, see what he could give me/ He said, son, son you’ve gone to far/ ‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do/ yeah.” The final line delivered in response to a doctor’s warning – simply, “yeah” – demonstrates the singer’s disregard for establishment views on substance abuse with an oblivious, humorous dismissal.

Today, Ozzy Osbourne is 72-years-old. He has spent the last twenty-years in and out of relative sobriety, living a semi-retired life curated by the ever-busy and controversial Sharon. Black Sabbath finished out their farewell tour in 2017. In 2019, Ozzy fell and broke his neck. He recently underwent surgery to address his injuries. In 2020, the Prince of Darkness was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he’d been described as having a “Parkinson’s-like” disorder for years, often attributed to his legendary substance abuse. In September 2021, Sharon told the Daily Mail, “The thing I’m most excited about is my hubby getting back on stage. It’s what I pray for.” This means Ozzy is currently incapable of performing. Though he may have held up through intense substance abuse in his younger years, it would be hard to say Ozzy has continued to live with the impunity that endowed him with mythological status. He would have to tour for 16 more years to match country legend/stoner, Willie Nelson. However, by outliving Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Syd Barrett, Jerry Garcia, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more substance-abusing rockstars, Ozzy has come to embody the myth that someone can endure unmitigated self-destruction if only they are oblivious enough to the consequences of their actions.


*


Eric Aldrich's recent work has appeared in Terrain.org, Euphony, Full Stop, and Weber: The Contemporary West. His favorite Black Sabbath tune is "A National Acrobat;" from Ozzy's solo work, Eric particularly enjoys "Over the Mountain."

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 5: Jamie Etheridge, In My Head


After Joan Didion's "In Bed" [link]

*

Bro, Fate can fuck you up. —Beowulf, Maria Dahvana Headley translation

*

I do a lot of living in my head. Dreaming, thinking, meandering through the fertile, verdant garden of my imagining. But when the migraines come, the pain desiccates my life. It feels as if every drop of joy and wonder, every liquid whimsy evaporates until I writhe like a fish thrown onto dry land. Desertified. 

Migraines are a family inheritance, a twist of fate. I remember my father, eyes hooded and lips knotted, waiting in an emergency room for a shot of morphine. Later, at home with the curtains closed against the daylight, my mother would turn off all the lights and we children could only watch TV if the volume were turned low and the screen angled away from where Daddy lay, immobilized. He lived with his migraines for years, then bequeathed them to his daughters when he died. 

I carried mine through hormonal teenage years across the decades safely into middle age. There were long periods where I did not have them. In my 30s when my babies were small and I lived wholly in the present, smelling perpetually of baby milk, dry shampoo and spit up, I suffered only the rarest headache. I gloated that I’d outgrown them, escaped the monster within, my tainted bloodline. 

But in my early 40s the migraines returned with a renewed vigor, an ancient bloodlust. One in five women suffer from migraines, one in 15 men, on average. All four of my sisters experience migraines and at least one takes a daily dose as a preventative. The American Academy of Family Physicians lists no less than 16 migraine prophylactics, all with their own attendant side effects. 

I hate taking medicines of any kind. Advice to swallow a few paracetamol or some aspirin may seem useful but it never helps. Like most migraine sufferers, I already know these pills will make no difference but I hold off as long as possible before taking something stronger.

I’m not sure why this is but I think deep in my heart, I’m hopeful that I can overcome the migraine through sheer willpower. That if I just try hard enough, that if I grin and bear it, show enough ‘grit’ the migraine will be defeated. I like to think I have some control over my fate, some agency about what happens to my body, inside my head. Each time I feel the migraine coming, I repeat to myself: “I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.”

Migraines conquer my head time and time again.

Like me, the migraines have grown up in these intervening years. Once brought on by hormonal episodes and tied closely to monthly periods, the migraines now come and go as they please. 

I can count on three or four per month, more if my life hits a particularly stressful point or if I eat poorly, fail to get adequate exercise, read too much, get caught in rush hour traffic, talk on the phone too long, sleep on the too-fat pillow, step on a crack in the sidewalk, count backwards or go to the airport for any reason at all. 

Joan Didion likens her migraines to a friend, uninvited. “It comes instead when I am fighting not an open but a guerrilla war with my own life, during weeks of small household confusions, lost laundry, unhappy help, canceled appointments, on days when the telephone rings too much and I get no work done and the wind is coming up.”

I too am fighting such a war and the other side is winning. The migraines now are richer, deeper, and full of their own confidence. 

First comes a throbbing, aching pain in my left ear. The lobe starts to pound and palpitate and a creeping tightness moves up my back to my neck and shoulders, as if someone has tied me in a constrictor knot, pulled tighter the more I try to shake it loose. 

Once the ear pain has started I have only two options: Get home and get into bed and weather the coming storm or take medicine and hope to head it off. Zolmitriptan is the best, the fastest and surest source of real relief but works only if I take it right away before the migraine gets going. 

I never take it on time. I eat dark chocolate or drink a coke or even lay down for a bit in the cool dark of my air-conditioned bedroom and hope the pain will ebb. 

It never does. 

Instead, it spreads and next comes the aura. My vision doesn’t so much blur as erode, the edges eaten like a photograph devoured by fire, disappearing pixel by pixel. Distortion with lights smear across my vision, twinkling, sparkling but indistinct. This can last from five to fifty minutes. 

The nausea is insidious, a low-grade movement, gentle waves across a small pond, lapping against the shingle. Often, if I go too long without eating, I get hunger headaches that can trigger a migraine. But just as often the migraine comes no matter what I do.

The migraines force me to stop my life right in the midst of living. I am thrown to a halt and the running to and fro, the endless demands of the newspaper where I work, the life of my family, the inbox and social commitments, the dog’s bath, the dinner cooking, the checking of children’s school work—must all get on without me. 

I think of the migraines as processing stress, as my body’s only means of working through all the anguish, all the hurt I carry around as if nothing is wrong. I think of the migraines doing what I cannot do, recycling the pain by violently breaking down what I cannot break myself.

Inside the migraine lurks a particular kind of self-love and self-hate. I roil on the bed, a rubber water bottle wrapped in pillowcase laid across my forehead, beneath my neck, pressed hot and burning against my ears and I dream only of escape from self. I am loathing and disease. I am hate and anger. Broiling. Boiling up with the rage of this pain that I cannot express, cannot escape, cannot let go of. I squirm and would cry except the crying itself hurts. I ache and ache and then finally give in and pop a Zomig. 

From inside the darkened bedroom, still and powerless on the bed, I hear life going on without me. The bark of the dog when someone’s at the door, my girls laughing or squabbling in their bedroom, the neighbor’s high heels tap tap tapping as she walks down her hallway. I smell the curry my husband cooks in the kitchen, hear the sound of the shower steaming and the beep beep beep as the garbage trucks pick up debris from the street downstairs. Every sound and sensation another nail hammered. 

My children have come to understand that sometimes Mom disappears. Her form might be slumped across the bed, sheeted and blanketed, but she isn’t really there. She is debilitated into another realm, a place where light is painful and sound carves into her like an ice pick. She is solid rock and also a gelatinous goo, unformed, forming, unformed again. 

In my head there lives a monster, a Grendel transported from his underwater cave, ravenous and angry and there is no escape from his rampages. Finally I give in. There’s no Beowulf to rescue me and, as Didion rightly pointed out, “no escape from heredity”. Only teeth and claw marks and fresh coffee in the morning.


*


Jamie Etheridge's creative writing has been published or is forthcoming in JMWW Journal, (mac)ro(mic), Bending Genres, X-R-A-Y Lit, Emerge Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic as well as anthologies like Serious Flash Fiction 2021 and Parenting Stories Gone Speculative. She placed 2nd in Versification Zine’s Mosh Pit CNF contest 2021. She is currently working on a memoir about her fugitive father and her childhood on the road. She tweets at LeScribbler.

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 4, Jodie Noel Vinson: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. It's 2021.


After Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold"

Frank Sinatra slipped off his mask to sip his bourbon. Tucking the elastic bands back behind his ears, he stared at the patrons strung out around tables placed at six-foot intervals across the dance floor of the private Beverly Hills club. When one of his songs came over the speakers, no one got up to dance.

Sinatra, silent and still, as if conserving energy, let his recorded voice speak for him, serenading the club with silken strains.

That Sinatra was ill was obvious to everyone in the unventilated room. The two blondes who’d sidled up to him at the bar were shifting on their stools. They’d caught sight of the famous blue eyes hovering above the mask: pale and watery, without their usual spark.

Both blondes wore face coverings coordinated with their monochrome attire. The club had recently adopted an “honor system”—if vaccinated, you didn’t have to mask. Probably neither had gotten the jab, though you never could tell. The blondes hadn’t cared much about honor systems before the health crisis.

Sinatra had been too busy, so he claimed, to go get the shot. Rumor was he hated needles. When he ducked his head to sneeze, one of the blondes gestured to the other, and they slipped away.

The singer sat glumly at the bar in his immaculate suit. He was the victim of an ailment so common that, were it not the middle of a pandemic, most people would consider it trivial. Frank Sinatra had a cold.

Beneath his mask, Sinatra sniffled. His eyes were lakes of stormy blue. Twice they paused on a young man near the pool table. When Sinatra looked again, it was clear there was going to be trouble. Everybody knew the kid wasn’t vaccinated. It didn’t matter that Sinatra wasn’t either. The guy was unmasked; he was breaking a rule.

“Hey, kid!” Sinatra called over the clack of billiard balls. There was a raw edge to his voice; though muffled by the mask.

When his target didn’t respond, Sinatra addressed the man nearest him instead: “What kind of mask is that? N-95?”

The man nodded and, sensing a fight, moved off. Sinatra swaggered closer to the kid, and the room went quiet, billiard balls, for the moment, still.

“Hi, where’s yours?”

“Look man, I donno.” The kid shrugged him off. Then, perhaps noticing the sickly glint in Sinatra’s eye, frowned and took a step to the side. “Is there a reason why you’re talking to me?”

“Is there a reason you’re not wearing a mask?”

“Sorry, man,” the kid snatched an idle cue from the wall and held it between himself and Sinatra. “But no one tells me what to wear.”

At this point, one of Sinatra’s men stepped in. “Com’on, kid, get the jab or go home, ok?”

Someone else went for the manager, but the kid eventually left, mumbling something about his first amendment rights. At which point an assistant manager showed up.

“I don’t want anyone in here without a mask,” Sinatra told him.

*

Sinatra with a cold is Brady without a ball, Trump without Twitter. Robbed of his fleet-footed voice, the singer becomes surly, initiating what one writer has called a “psychosomatic nasal drip” through his personal staff of 75, his family, his friends, his flunkies—those who depend on him for their personal welfare. A sick Sinatra had, in the past, sent small tremors through the entire entertainment industry. People came running, ready to restore him to health. But Sinatra with Covid? The nasal drip was real.

The press manager who’d sat next to him at dinner stopped by CVS for a rapid test. The woman who looked after Sinatra’s 60 hair pieces for 400 bucks a week was out with a fever. Her grandkid’s school went back online. His daughter Nancy felt a little under the weather, but like many of her generation, was already vaccinated (she’d been working on her father). Everyone worried about his valet, who had a pre-existing condition. Testing sites around Beverly Hills were filling up in Sinatra’s wake. The lines were astronomical.

Because the singer traveled by private plane, there was less concern his illness had spread outside these close-knit circles. But within them, circumferences grew. While many had said they’d kill for Sinatra, no one wanted to die because they’d caught Covid from him.

One thing was clear: Sinatra would need to be tested before recording his next show—a performance he’d been looking forward to for weeks. Plenty of planning and over fifty rapid tests had gone in to ensuring the event would be safe. The 43-person orchestra was reduced to 21 musicians fronted by plexiglass. The director and his staff were also behind glass, enclosed in a control booth overlooking the orchestra and stage. Camera crews, technical teams, and security guards all wore masks. The Budweiser ad men had been banished to the parking lot, and the secretaries from other parts of the building, who might have otherwise left their desks to watch, were all working from home.

Despite these precautions, at rehearsal the following Monday a current of unease rippled through the orchestra.

Frank Sinatra might have Covid.

Rumor was he’d agreed to the test. Apparently, the run-in with the unmasked kid had scared him. Now the whole world seemed to await the results (it was a PCR test).

Finally, there was a stir from inside the control booth: the test was negative. An audible sigh coursed across the studio, followed by a collective intake of breath. Sinatra had arrived.

He was, as yet, unwell. Instead of his usual tailored suit he wore a cozy gold sweater. His shoulders slumped, and his face was ashen. When, on his way to warm up in the rehearsal room, he glanced into the studio and saw the stage and orchestra platform were not close together, as he had specifically requested, Sinatra turned a shade paler. From the next room you could hear his hoarse shouts, as he pounded the top of a piano.

The director came down from the control booth to explain the safety measures that required the extra space between the singer and his accompaniment in the airtight studio. A sullen Sinatra took the stage.

After a few songs, his voice had lost its silken quality to a noticeable rasp. Following a rendition of "I Did It My Way"—during which Sinatra’s voice cracked noticeably, twice—there was a long silence from the control booth.

Sinatra shifted in his well-polished shoes. “What the hell are you doing up there, anyway?” he demanded at the darkened glass.

Silence.

“You having a party up there or something because there’s limits these days on how many you can have in a…”

The intercom crackled to life, and the director’s voice could be heard, sounding loud and sure over the failing vocal cords of the talent. “Okay, Frank.” It wasn’t working; Sinatra could hear for himself.

They didn’t want him in the control room, so someone tossed him headphones. Arms crossed, Sinatra glared up at the dark glass of the booth as he listened back, wincing at occasional intervals. Then he ripped off the headset and stared at a large monitor, where a voiceless mime of himself continued to sing soundlessly.

Turning his back to the image, the singer fixed a wounded, glassy gaze on his orchestra. Some of the musicians had accompanied him for twenty-five years. “I know what you boys have been thinking,” Sinatra sniffed. “But what you got there,” he nodded at the screen, “is a man with a cold.”

After ordering the day’s work destroyed, Sinatra left the studio.

*

Word of the botched recording spread like the pandemic itself, down Sinatra’s staff, throughout Hollywood and across the nation. Speculation about the singer’s vaccination status circulated widely.

Sinatra disappeared for a while. It was 21 days before he declared himself ready to record.

He strode into the studio a new man. He was still impeccably dressed, and he still wore a mask. But his eyes danced in a way that told you there was a smile below. The troubled waters had cleared. As he resumed his place on stage, the musicians, from a distance, raised their instruments in silent salute.

Frank Sinatra had been vaccinated.


*


Jodie Noel Vinson holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College. Her essays and reviews have been published in Harvard Review, The New York Times, Creative Nonfiction, Ploughshares, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and Electric Literature, among other outlets. She lives in Providence, where she is working on a book about creativity and chronic illness.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 3, Mieke de Vries: Subjunctive


After Naima Coster's "Subjunctive"

Let’s say your name is Ashley. But you never liked it, so you were always Ash. We met at a high school, a shitty one, in our hometown. And let’s say we loved each other from the start, and we decided when we were 14 that we would be together forever, and we knew this was reckless and improbable but we decided anyways. Let’s say we wanted to get married, but at that time we couldn’t, so we settled for lifelong love. Let’s say once we graduated from high school we moved out of the suburbs and into the woods. Let’s say we adopted a cat and then another cat and then a dog and that all these animals made us want babies to kiss and hold close to our chests. Let’s say I knocked you up when we were both 19 and we were so foolish we thought it would be fun. Let’s say I got a job in town while you stayed home with our baby and I started to hate working nights so when I got pregnant the next year, I proposed that we switch. And let’s say you took to being the breadwinner with ease and confidence, enjoying your independent days and coming home with a sense of excitement to see us.

You are beautiful—this is not a metaphor—and you grew up in a cold place. Let’s say you still learned darkness and lightness. Let’s say your mother emptied her pill bottle and you opened the door to her bedroom and your sister found her on the bed and you took the cordless phone from her bedside table and called for help. Let’s say you were ten. Let’s say your father was at work, if work is another word for gone. 

I thought I was broken and hid away. I didn’t know then that nothing about me was broken. My mother was full and didn’t empty any bottles. She took up all the space our house contained. My father was smaller, more my size. They loved me so fiercely I felt guilty that it wasn’t enough, that I wasn’t enough. When I was ten nothing bad happened to me.

Let’s say we are happy together with our family in the woods, a sense that feels unfamiliar to us both. Let’s say we are the type of moms who go hiking with their babies in backpacks, panting up the side of a hill. Let’s say we are so wholesome we bake pies together on Sunday. Once our kids are old enough, they help us measure out the butter and lard, the flour and salt. You build a stool for them to stand on so they can reach the kitchen counters. You find miniature rolling pins, light enough for small child hands to grasp and roll tiny circles of dough. We fill the dough circles with apples and cinnamon and sugar and sing while we wash the dishes. We eat our miniature pies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and watch the leaves drop outside our kitchen window.

It is in our cabin in the woods that my nervous system (and yours) can finally release. I journal in the mornings and weep while our children play in the dirt. We bury seeds in the ground and watch them sprout. Our children show you our daily progress when you arrive home in the evening. You call your sister and tell her to come visit. You want to share with her our hideaway.

There are daily mistakes in our daily love. We are women but that doesn’t mean we know how to communicate with each other. You hide away your sadness until it bubbles up and drowns us both. I tell you about my sadness until you press your fingers into your ears. I coddle the children and you let them light things on fire.

A diagram—

When she was ten, your mother’s mother cut off her long blond hair with her mother’s sewing scissors. Her grin, triumphant, as she admired her new look in the dirty bathroom mirror. Now, she could pass for a boy. When your great-grandmother returned from the store, she held the sewing scissors by the closed blades and struck your grandmother across the face with the hard metal handles. Your mother’s mother tried not cry. Your mother’s mother learned how to be a woman.

My mother showed me how to shave my armpits when I was 13 with a plastic pink razor with only two blades. When I attempted to shave my legs, I sliced off a two-inch hunk of flesh. Like slicing a milky block of mozzarella before the blood appeared. I had smooth legs covered in plastic bandages. I had long blond hair that hung from my head and bare armpits coated in chalky deodorant. I learned how to be a woman.

A cousin who took her husband’s name and moved from her father’s house to her husband’s house. She loved her husband and wanted to be with him and they had children right away. She also hid from herself a deep inner knowing that although she loved her husband she had also kissed her best girlfriend when they were both 15 and she couldn’t stop thinking about that drunken kiss despite 10 years passing. And it was so much effort for her to suppress this knowing, to hide it from her very self—

An uncle who wore his mother’s clothes when he was home alone and finally felt like himself—

A grandfather who bloodied his son’s face when he found the son wearing his wife’s clothes—

The uncle who bloodied his daughter’s face when he found her kissing her best girlfriend in the basement—

Your mother’s empty pill bottle and my mother’s fullness—

The sunflowers we grew together in the woods.


The road to our house is long and dusty, and the tall trees cover us. Here, we are protected by the sounds of the forest. The flapping of a crow overhead, rattle of branches against our single-pane windows. We stack logs and collect kindling for winter. We gather around the fire pit in our backyard. Fire spits and hisses as rain collides with it. Rain on my face when I look up, it soaks into me—fills me. I look over to your face and it’s wet too. Our babies are protected in their rain jackets and they pounce on every puddle. We wanted to escape and we deadbolt our front door, close the storm shutters. We’re safe here, in our cabin in the woods, with our babies and cats and dog. No one knows we’re here. In the back yard, surrounded by tall trees, gathered around a fire. Even now the dog is in the yard, running circles around us.


*


Mieke de Vries is a queer, neurodivergent writer and editor of Dutch and Danish descent. She currently lives as a settler on the unceded, traditional territory of the Cowichan First Nation. She has a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria and during her time there was a student intern on the fiction editorial board at The Malahat Review. She writes in the genres of fiction and creative nonfiction. Find her on Twitter @miekeleigh.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 2, Joe Bonomo: Confession



After Stuart Dybek's "Confession"

Father Krastel was the priest who usually awaited me. He was the pastor, large and vaguely unfriendly, with wisps of dark hair on top of his head and a pinched smile he’d direct at us when he’d visit our classroom. He sweated a lot, though he didn’t seem or feel quite human; none of the priests or the nuns did.

There were times in the sacristy when Father Krastel angrily slammed shut the cabinet and refrigerator doors, his voice raising in last-minute commands to me and the other altar boys, minutes before Mass would begin. In the way that adolescents intuit things before they have the language to describe them, I felt that Father Krastel was unhappy then, or anyway deeply pissed off. (I wonder now if he drank during those years. I imagine him hiding bottles behind the plastic bags of communion wafers, or deep in a closet behind the cassocks, and arriving at church suffering.) Yet those were rare flashes of startling human behavior, surreal, as if I’d dreamed them. Years later in high school, a legend arose that a priest had admitted to the student body that he’d become addicted to masturbation, his body imposing itself as something greater than his vocation.

As usual, I’d saved the deadly sins for last: the lies and the cussing, biting my little brother on the arm, stealing glances at the Hustler and Oui magazines on the high shelf at Wheaton Newsstand, which I’d been convinced was one of the worst sins of them all. But I was already lost. Across the street from my house, under wet leaves at the bottom of a hill, somebody had stashed a Playboy or a Penthouse, and there it stayed, unrepentantly cached in a tree stump. I knew that being alive meant that I was sinning. He knocked and said I was forgiven.

As for Penance: “Go in peace, my son, sit and recite ten Our Father’s and ten Hail Mary’s, and think about your transgressions.” Later I’d wonder if a priest would ever admit to suffering enough for the two of us. I’d wonder if sometime during the early years of his calling the inevitable, unhappy sins of his body had been gratefully taken by God, the temptations and irritations and hungers lifted from and unburdening him, but that seemed impossible. What would be left?


*


Joe Bonomo's most recent books are Field Recordings from the Inside and No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing. He writes music essays for The Normal School and blogs at No Such Thing As Was. You can visit him at @BonomoJoe.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Advent 2021, Dec 1, Heidi Czerwiec: The Resonance of Lyric Essays, or Lyre, Not Liar




I shall write about resonance. Here’s the truth: when I first heard the resonance, I sang out loud. The song burst forth, I could not stop it. And now that I’ve admitted singing, I shall admit this: what sounded forth was jubilant, rhapsodic, astounding—whatever is the opposite of calm.

Resonance is what Judith Kitchen insists with her declaration against D’Agata: “to be lyric there must be a lyre…. The lyre, not the liar.”

Resonance of origins, lyric, Orphic, endorphic. Strike a chord, an accord of notes, denoting and connoting, a word-chord of word-play, proliferating.

This is how to begin. This is how to begin again. This is how to wear your refrain with a difference. Don’t space your rhymes too far apart for the ear to hear. Don’t amplify your alliteration, lest you write like the slut you are so bent on becoming.

Resonance begins with sacred theft, then a gift, and ends with a bargain. Apollo’s sacred herd returned; the fine, Hermes’ invention, a lyre from a liar; then, offered to Orpheus. Tortoise shell strung with entrails. Hollowness that hits you in the gut so hard even Hades himself will trade with you, your lyric skill for your silent sylph of a wife.

Resonance is how we learn by rote: the English rote, small lyre the bard strums in time with the mnemonic rhymes to firm them in the mind.

We will not be discussing whether “that really resonated with me” so let us never speak of it.

Resonance: at all the “Thirteen Ways” essays, the bawds of euphony cried out.

Resonance, the rosin on the bow creating texture in the text, the drag across the strings, resinous. The bow bows to no one.

A bard, a bird, traveling throughout the piece, a Chanticleer strumming his Oo-De-Lally.

Resonance as aural tagging of significant words, signifiers spray painted with bright sound—semantic underlining, a sonic highlighter.

Songbirds decorate their nests with scraps of resonance, some spectacular bits, but beneath it, nested patterns of sound provide the structure.

Language interpretation happens in the left-hemisphere of the brain, yet musical sounds are interpreted by the right hemisphere. Resonance as the harmony of the spheres. When the tonic and fifth of a chord are played perfectly in tune, their soundwaves average to create a ghostly third—invisible scrim, thin meniscus vibrating between. Both sides are listening intently.

We carried the resonance itself. We marched for the sake of the march, simple writers, soldiering with our pens, because it was cadence, it was anatomy, and the resonance was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the resonance was everything—and for all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that we would never be at a loss for sound to carry.

Resonance, what carries, bears us back, each thread, each spoke of speech starting from the same wheel hub.

Resonance the rhythm, the soundtrack below the action, the beating heart, the pulse along the vocal chords, an unbridled galloping faster and faster until the beat is beat back. A stick in the spoke. Stop. Restart.

While refrain means to bridle, restrain a thought or feeling, the lyric refrain is freeing, unbridled, a body leaping across the expanse of the page.

Resonance a sound re-sounding, to reverberate, to echo, the sound patterning a system by which we echolocate through the essay’s space.

Resonance as sonar. In English, sound comes from Old Norse sund which also means swimming, a body in water. As well as a body of water bordering the sea. A body made mostly of water in a body of water, dissolving borders (between writer and reader, between word and speech), where the ear (whose?) amplifies sound, sounding the depths of an essay. It shall be called Bottom’s Dream because it hath no bottom.

My music theory teacher taught us sound is founded on three conditions: a source, a medium through which sound travels, and a receiver. Thus, the tree falling in a forest koan, resolved. Timber/timbre a relationship based in sound. Do you hear what I hear? Without you, dear reader, no resonance.

Resonance: I saw Doyle do it and I saw Kincaid do it, and I saw Purpura and O’Brien do it and I hang on to that.


*


Note: This piece contains riffs/reworkings of bits of Lia Purpura’s “Autopsy Report,” Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” Wallace Stevens “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” Timothy O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Brian Doyle’s “Leap,” and borrows its form from John Scalzi’s “Being Poor”


*


Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.