Thursday, November 29, 2001

Dry Turkey

"Insert humor column here:" Oh, how those words mock me each and every fortnight. Every two weeks, rain or shine, in war or peace, in sickness or in health, with croutons or without, I must bring myself around to face that command, and comply.

But even clowns despair. Even Jerry Lewis must weep, even in France. Even Charlie Chaplin had to make Limelight. Even Pee Wee Herman had to have time-outs to... well, no, that's not a good example. But you get the idea.

It's my turn. I'm in a foul mood. I am probably coming down with a virus or two, most likely viruses previously used by Anitra "Oh no you don't, YOU gave it to ME" Freeman, who is just now recovering from bronchitis and who is no help at all. On top of that there's this war thing. On top of that, I've never been to Bora Bora. It was just Thanksgiving the other day, and the turkey we had was much too dry. Furthermore, I've never learned how to dance the Rhumba, a modern ballroom adaptation of a complex rhythmical dance that originated in Cuba. As if all that wasn't enough, there's this whole bleakness-of-the-universe business that comes up from time to time.

Here's another thing. Don't ever try to use your flesh-and-blood partner for a Muse. It never works. They'll talk too much or they'll talk too little. They'll try to take over from you or they'll bore you with their own whiny gripes about their own deadlines. Worse yet, they'll try to tell you how sick and tired they are, as if you have time for that.

Fortunately, I have never retired my one True Muse, Cindy Holly, Muse of Other, AKA Muse of Few Words. So I asked her what I should do here today.

"Well, let's see. You're depressed, right? And you're feeling desperate, right?"


"Well, then, if I were you, I'd write about that."

"But what would that have to do with homelessness, or poverty issues, or the concerns of other marginalized peoples?"

"What wouldn't it have to do with them?"

I had to admit, she had me there. How many times, I wondered, had I been homeless, starving, desperate, and just a little bit sore at the cosmos? At least once or twice.

For me, what was so horribly depressing about homelessness wasn't so much the periodic hunger or the absence of a warm dry bed, or the fact that I didn't have money to replace the shoes I was wearing -- the shoes that leaked and kept my socks cold and wet all winter. No, what was so horribly depressing about homelessness was that Life Sucks and Then You Die, but unlike homeful people I had none of the usual means to distract me from that fact.

If only I could have been watching SeƱor Wences, instead of sitting in that alley forced to be aware that we as humans lack the means to become truly connected, or that the one most human thing we all do, which is to die, we must all do alone.

If only I could have been bowling and sharing pizza with some buddies, instead of scrounging the gutters for pennies unable to forget as I did so that the alternative to this un-asked-for life was and remains, as far as any of us really knows, only the eternity of oblivion that we can imagine as having proceeded all of our recollections, and in all likelihood will succeed them.

Surely I am better off even now, even in my depression, given that I may spend an evening watching the TV premier of The Phantom Menace, rather than spend my dark nights counting the number of stars above me that couldn't relieve the anguish of existence and dividing the total into the amount of my anguish.

Surely I am better off too, as I can now watch election returns, and can witness the political fortunes of Mark Sidran. Yes, now I feel much better.

Thursday, November 15, 2001

Scare Me Hebdomadally

As you may recall, these are the things that I have said you need to write a poem: 1. Words. 2. A form to put your words in. 3. Something to say with the words you put in the form (this will affect how you arrange the words.)

Regarding the words themselves, there is some controversy over how many different kinds you need. Here are three viewpoints on this matter: 1. "You just need to know everyday common words. People don't have strong feelings for the others, so they tend to get in the way of whatever mood you are trying to create, so don't use them." 2. "What a crock. Poems are made of words -- uncommon words make uncommon poems, but they're still poems you dolt." 3. "So, you don't think I have strong feelings for 'martingales'? I feel so hurt and misunderstood. I'm going home to Mother, right now."

Another viewpoint says that you can sometimes discover poetry inside uncommon words -- in just the same way that, sometimes, you can discover ugly mollusks inside beautiful sea shells. With a pen or a sharpened pencil.

Lets look for mollusks inside the beautiful but uncommon word-shell "hebdomadal."

What are hebdomadals? Well, lots of things are... there's original episodes of X-Files and I Love Lucy, lunar quarters, approximately, blue collar pay days, days set aside for gods, the TV Guide, the Stranger, Monday Night Football, days of rest, TGIF, Saturday Night Live, my parents' trips to restaurants, days set aside for gods, soup kitchens at some churches, bowling days, poker nights, days set aside for gods.

OK, all it really means is "weekly". But it means it with so much more beans than "weekly" means it. If you say that you go to church weekly, it sounds like you don't care the other six days of the week. But if you say you go to church hebdomadalistically, it sounds like you're putting serious effort into it. .

Here's a poem with hebdomadals in it. I was inspired to write the following "prose poem" by the fact that hebdomadal nearly rhymes with "bomb it all", but not with much else, so don't look for any rhyme.

Charlie's Hebdomadals

by Copyright Dr. Wes Browning

Wednesday at noon used to be air raid drill time,

get off the street behind your screen door.

Charlie had to prepare for World War III

so we could all outlast the Russkies.

Then Charles went to college.

Noon Wednesdays brought the experimental film series.

An Andalusian dog met with severe abuse.

After that Charlie's Wednesday noon hebdomadals

rapidly became personal.

Once, a kangaroo escaped from the zoo

and jumped in Charlie's mocha.

Last Wednesday noon Charlie's shorts everted

while he was wearing them.

Next Wednesday Charlie will attempt to eat lobster.

He expects his food will assault him.

Let's surprise him with a tie.

I wonder how many people here in Seattle remember how frightened everyone was back in the Fifties by the threat of being bombed to death. There really were air raid drills every Wednesday noon. Though everybody knew about them and could brace themselves for them, they still sent chills up people's spines. Of course it was nothing so personal as having a zoo animal in your drink. Or like having an actual ten ton bomb dropped on your own house.

The US gets bombed once in half a century and all of the sudden we're the world's victims.

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Insert Title Here

Let's talk about titles!

Titles are the most important part of an artistic or literary "work". In fact, a good title may completely eliminate the need for the work part of a work. For example, you can take a blank white canvas and title it "A Diaper Dreams of Better Times." That's art, and it's a whole lot easier than mucking around with brushes and paints that would probably have just gotten on your shirt or up your nose, anyway.

Here's another illustration from my extensive poetry files.

The World's Shortest Poem Ever

by © Dr. Wes Browning

-- Finis.

See how easy that was? I didn't even break a sweat! Other great titles of mine are the ever popular "Nine Lines of Really Really Blank Verse," and the haunting "Sounds of Silence, a Spoken Word Piece of Indeterminate Duration." That last was inspired by a composition of John Cage and is meant to be accompanied by a plucked stringless guitar, forever, or until everyone leaves. People who have heard my other poems as well usually pick these out as their favorites. It can only be because of the titles.

Literature is full of books that have become famous almost entirely because of their titles. Moby Dick, for instance. A book named after a whale, of all things. Nobody wants to read the book, but everybody wants to repeat the title. Moby Dick, Moby Dick. Moby Dick.

A particularly clever title is James Joyce's Ulysses. What a case of bait and switch that one is! It puts me in the mind to write the second by second story about the tragic day back in '78 that my toilet backed up and flooded the house. I would call it the Iliad.

The mistake most people make is to think that titles merely inform about content. They suppose that the title ought to just tell you what the piece is about, and then get out of the way. OK, maybe that's the way it should be, but that isn't the way it is.

The crowning example of what I'm talking about is the topical, ongoing, TV news program title. You turn on the nightly news, and instead of the usual title, "The Nightly News", or whatever, you get "America Strikes Back" with fancy graphics and its own specially composed theme music faintly suggesting Holst's "Mars" or the Empire theme from Star Wars. You turn the channel, and instead of "The Other Nightly News," it's "War on Terrorism" brand news. Also competing on more channels are "War in Afghanistan" and "America Fights Back" news, and who knows what other kinds.

These titles aren't simple descriptions of content. They express a clear bias. They tell you more than what's in the news. They tell you how the makers of these programs want you to think they are reacting to the news. The titles say to the majority of viewers, "We're feeling exactly the way you are, and we promise not to challenge you with viewpoints that might risk disagreeing with yours."

To see how unobjective these titles are, imagine how it would be if they used different titles. What would it be like if Dan Rather worked under a title that read "America Finds Scapegoats"? How about "1984 Finally Starts," or "America Lashes Out Exactly the Way Osama Wanted Her To," or "America Murders Back"?

Imagine a news program title of "America Steps In It" with a graphic of a foot landing on a burning bag, to the sound of a muted trombone. It could be fun for a change.

Say, if the nightly news can have an uninformative ongoing title what's stopping the rest of us?

For the next couple of weeks title me "America Gets By."