Peter Neil Carroll – The Americans

Peter Neil Carroll
The Americans

                    The last Thursday in November…is the one day
                    that is purely American. — Sydney Porter (O’Henry)

After the turkey’s been sliced and eaten, my thoughts
turn to past Thanksgivings, hosting our open house,
the old folks gone, reading O’Henry aloud to the kids,

but now as adults they propose another post-prandial
binge, beyond boring pumpkin pie, to watch a TV series
aptly named The Americans about Russian spies,

based on ‘a true story’ — a New Jersey couple who
raised a typical suburban family as they seduced
clueless citizens and ferreted government secrets.

Aliens by birth and training, the characters adjust easily
to indigenous lifestyles — pizza, Coke, TV and hang out
over beers with their close neighbour, an FBI spy catcher.

Their parallel lives blur, as their children have crushes,
the real Americans divorce, and the fakers stick as true
lovers committed to the cold warrior code of violence.

Tending to home fires, the spooks conduct their crimes
with shameless guile — wear shades, wigs, beards, and lie
to all, and reveal a subtle expertise in killing their foes.

On this purely American day, nonetheless, I’m rooting for
the enemy, as the filmmakers apparently intend. Compared
to the counter-spies, the Ruskies treat each other kindly.

The liberated mother shares equally the thrill and danger
of fighting against a country run by dull men and grooms
her daughter in the fine arts of karate and espionage.

Even when trapped, our fugitives escape as smoothly as
Houdini slipped lock and chain. They are me in my wildest
fantasy of freedom, beating Big Brother and the gods of law.

Peter Neil Carroll – Last Lecture

Peter Neil Carroll
Last Lecture

Film and history, my last lecture approaches though
there’s no reason to call it the last, except for my age
and apprehension. I could repeat it next year, surely
I can, but should I? Why this ambivalence?

Much has changed; movies, audience, my students.
I’ve learned the logic of rear-view mirrors, 50 years
stretches the gap between then and now, between
them and me. Some have seen their last screening.

One or two constants remain — chickens and eggs —
why do they appear in almost every American movie?
Scrambled eggs for breakfast, fried chicken for lunch;
walking on eggshells, chickenshit ideas, eggheads.

No one believes me but there they are — written by
screenwriters, items on Hollywood menus, symbols
of dare: Paul Newman’s Bet you can’t eat 50 eggs! or
James Dean, the rebel yelling Don’t call me chicken.

Now I urge this last class to remember young Beneatha
in Raisin in the Sun. She demands a world of choice,
wants to be a doctor, but her brother Sidney Poitier
tells her to become a nurse or get married or shut up.

In movies, women know things men know nothing of.
Plots about manhood wind up being about mothers,
sisters, wives. Men go to war, come home with PTSD,
bewildered by emotions they lack and women provide.

Pay attention, I plead — I won’t be here to remind you —
the movies are real life. We are all Beneathas or Bogarts
or Brando mumbling, ‘I could have been a contender.’
Even if the end seems fated, they refuse to stop, as do I.

Movies claim the last word, the last kiss, the last laugh.
Actors who are stand-ins for the rest of us speak again,
arise and insist it’s not too late to start over. Is it ever?
Let the credits roll, lights dim, I see my screen is fading.

Martin John – Bargain Hunt Tackles Climate Change

Martin John
Bargain Hunt Tackles Climate Change

Bargain Hunt is a TV game show where teams buy junk at a market to resell at auction.
At the end the host summarises the results and reveals the winners:

‘The Blues went ahead from the start –
who knew a grimy Victorian factory
clock would be so profitable.
But gambling with poker chips set them back.

No-one cared for the modern globe
though a little TLC could have restored its beauty.
They missed the signposts, when the expert spotted a Way Out
it seemed expensive so they didn’t bother.

The Reds, struggling from the start,
took a chance with a smoky old pipe rack.
Afraid to fall behind they ignored the expert
and followed the others.

So no winners this time but we all had fun
and it is only a game.’

Nancy Ludmerer – Cell Phones for Seniors

Nancy Ludmerer
Cell Phones for Seniors

Yesterday I answered my phone at 7 a.m. It was the 11th robocall offering me a cell phone deal for seniors. The robot claimed this was not only the best deal of the century but the best deal since the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, who didn’t actually receive gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense while hanging out in the manger, but instead was offered three cell phone plans — the Gold Plan having the most features, including, of course, eternal life. ‘I de-myrrh!’ I shouted before hanging up.

I’d only been 65 years old for five minutes when the calls began. ‘Who told you I was a senior?’ I demanded. The robot snickered. ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I hung up and immediately the phone rang again. I gave it my sternest stare, the stare I tried to perfect when my son (now 32) was a four-year-old hooligan. I’d read that some parents could discipline their children with a single look, and I wanted that look — a look that would strike fear in him, or at least shut him up. But I was look-less, as well as luckless, in the look department. So whenever he misbehaved in public, I had to raise my voice or threaten him that he was in ‘big f-ing trouble.’ This led otherwise doting old ladies — who I now realize were suffering from a lack of cell phones – to mutter that I shouldn’t have a child (much less a curly-haired angel like him) if I was going to yell at him. Nowadays those same old ladies would probably photograph me with my mouth open – a la Edward Munch’s The Scream — and post it on Instagram claiming child abuse.

How I long for the days before cell phones, before Instagram, before Facebook — but nobody else shares that view, with the possible exception of my husband, Malcolm. When we met, Malcolm was nearly a decade older than I, and shared my lack of — and near-hatred of — technology. At that time, over two decades ago, neither of us even owned an answering machine or a microwave – much less a mobile phone.

Remarkably the age difference between us didn’t go away, even after we married and settled down. Malcolm became a senior citizen nine years before I did – and although he resisted for as long as he could, he eventually purchased a cell phone. This wasn’t a betrayal of our shared values, mind you. He only purchased a cell phone because all of the pay phones he depended on when he needed to make a call had been vandalized, ripped out, or gone to that great phone bank in the sky. ‘Enough is enough,’ he said to me one night, with grim resolve, and the next day he went out and got one.

The way he bought his cell phone was this: He went into Best Buy and asked: ‘Do you sell cell phones?’ The salesman put his thumbs in his suspenders and said, ‘I believe we do.’ My husband asked, ‘Do you sell the kind that criminals use?’ The salesman looked my husband up and down; a sorrier specimen of a criminal, with his white socks, frayed black chinos, and horn-rimmed glasses, the salesman had never seen. ‘What do you mean?’ the salesman asked, wondering if he was actually going to get a sale out of this. ‘On TV, the criminals all have cell phones and once the crime is committed, they throw them away so they can’t be traced.’ ‘Yes,’ the salesman said, twirling his suspect-looking moustache, ‘we have those.’ ‘That’s what I want!’ my husband said. He came home bubbling with excitement, with something called a flip phone. It was red. The plan was 20 cents a minute, and the phone was $29.99.

After multiple attempts, my husband finally got the answering message exactly as he wanted it: ‘This is Malcolm — but don’t bother leaving a message. I only check messages once in a blue moon. If you don’t know when that is, look it up in your almanac. By the way, if this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911, or try my landline, or come on by 7E and knock. And if you don’t know my land line or street address, that’s your problem — you shouldn’t be calling me anyway.’

As you can imagine, Malcolm’s cell phone doesn’t get a lot of use. In fact, nine years later, it’s in the same pristine condition as when the Best Buy salesman took it out of its box. Which in my opinion is a good recommendation for a cell phone — even if it means that most of the time I can’t reach Malcolm.

Yesterday in the midst of those robocalls, after I hung up multiple times and gave the landline phone my sternest look, it rang again. I meant to ignore it, but out of habit, I picked it up. Remarkably it was a real person this time at the other end. ‘I’m calling on behalf of Cell-Phones-for-Seniors Sweepstakes and I have good news. You’ve just won a cell phone – and not only that, but you’re entitled to our Gold Plan, for golden-agers like yourself!’ I thought of screaming bloody murder or even Jesus Christ — but imagined my face on Instagram. Instead I put on my sternest stare and my sweetest, most moderate voice. ‘Do you have the kind of cell phone criminals use?’ I asked.

This time, they hung up on me.

Neil McCarthy – We didn’t read the news

Neil McCarthy
We didn’t read the news

I was at my usual booth, half a cold cappuccino
in front of me, my daughter crawling over my lap
in an attempt to crayon the paper I was reading.
The man at the table across the floor looked like the
prison warden from The Shawshank Redemption.
Whatshisface. I’d seen him in a few things recently.
He smiled. Stared just long enough for it not to be
awkward. Probably had a flashback of his little one
doing the same some forty years or so before.
His wife lowered her newspaper too and looked over
at my daughter, watery-eyed, as if picturing herself
at the same age; not a care in the world and more
concerned with colouring things in than reading
those little black shapes that make everyone angry.
Bob Gunton. That was him. The true miscreant of
the tale. That character you sit and watch and pray
that they get their comeuppance. I looked down at
my table and hoped I hadn’t stared back long enough
for it to have been awkward. I took my daughter’s
tiny hand and guided her crayon straight across the
front page of my newspaper, carved a waxy orange
line through the column about war; added green
to the political article, purple to the images of
Wall Street men transfixed by their sanctity of screens.
We took turns shading a bit here, another bit there,
exchanging crayons until the prismatic pages began
to glow like a city at night – a metropolis viewed from
a distant hill where the engorgement of colours is just
enough to help us briefly forget about the smaller,
anger-inducing shapes within.

Ian C. Smith – Tobias in the Toilet

Ian C. Smith
Tobias in the Toilet

Son, self-possessed, overbold, likes speculative fiction; Dad, much older, is thankful son reads, closing some of the gap he feels always separated them, many of twenty-something Son’s activities falling between irksome and baffling, but always fervid. Son knows all the spate of sci-fi movies from dystopian to disappointing Dad eventually catches on TV so they share a subject for discussion.

Dad, who prefers literary fiction, essays, poetry, bought Ulysses at Son’s vexatious age, having started to read his newspaper’s books pages. Noticing many references to Joyce he thought it time he discovered what such regard was all about. He thinks the last time he threw a book across a room was after trying to relate lyricism to his idea then of that fabulous beast, the English language.

Holidaying together in the family shack, Dad walks the edge of an ebb tide recalling how, when he picked up that upside down hurled book, he discovered another story starting from the other end, two for the price of one. He read all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, felt he understood Joyce although he knows now this understanding was preliminary.

He finds aspects of movies he can honestly praise after checking Google’s likelihood of film-flammery. Son, nudged towards Tobias Wolff’s account of his Vietnam War service, enjoys the book. Dad spots it in the toilet where Son reads, then tells him Wolff, a handful as a kid, turned out well, alert as he talks, sharing their view of the beloved harbour overlooked by a mountain, of how his own beginnings, tattooed on his brain, turned out.

Meryl Statford – Phone Booth

Meryl Stratford
Phone Booth

The elegant red phone booth of long ago
The phone booth of heroic disguise
The phone booth marching through London in seven-league boots
The phone booth of truth or consequence
The phone booth on the ocean floor
The phone booth in a no-talking zone
The phone booth and mail box in an old folks home
The phone booth in love with a violin
The phone booth of secret midnight calls
All the lonely phone booths
A phone ringing in a phone booth and no one answering
A phone call from John Wilkes Booth
Signing a three-year lease on a phone booth
Repairing and recharging cell phones in a phone booth
The improbable phone booths of Ancient Egypt
The phone booths of hell and their unending conversations
In dreams, the phone booth of telepathic communication
The meditation of a phone booth — a Fibonacci sequence
A transcendental time machine trapped in the form of a phone booth
Every phone booth reminding you — it’s time to call your mother
An imaginary phone booth for imaginary friends
A phone book of abecedarian poems

David Subacchi – Telephone

David Subacchi

Telephone transported our voices through cables
Hoisted on wooden poles above the ground
Or laid secretly on the ocean bed.

We spun dials and spoke into receivers,
Strained at ear pieces, sometimes wound handles,
Sought the advice of the Operator.

As impatient queues formed outside kiosks,
Wind intruded through vandalised panels,
Aggravating our nervous discomfort.

Confined we retched at the smell of vomit,
Stale urine or cigarette smoke, cringing
Within these communication capsules.

Little we thought that during our lifetime,
Both image and audio would be compressed
Into a portable chocolate sized bar

And communicated effortlessly,
Free from discomfort and interference
Or the need for external assistance.

David Subacchi – Raymond

David Subacchi

In those days Raymond was the media
Or the medium, apparently
Either singular or plural will do
In modern English, yet very few care
About such things and Raymond would not have,
With a battered Nikon around his neck,
The worn leather strap threatening to break
If subjected to the slightest impact.

When anything happened in town, Raymond
Was quickly on the scene, as if summoned
By a demanding angelic vision;
Highway collisions, fires, protest marches,
Weddings, funerals and celebrations;
In his grubby slept-in suit and old shoes,
Necktie never straight, cigarette hanging
From urgent lips that mumbled ‘Excuse me’

Crowds would part politely, ‘Here comes Raymond’
They’d say, ‘Something big must be happening,
Let the guy through, watch out for that big lens’
Yes in those days Raymond was the media,
His pictures adorned the local paper
And though he is twenty years gone now,
Little is known about his private life,
Which they say, is what he would have wanted.

John Talbird – Rembrandt’s Drawings

John Talbird
Rembrandt’s Drawings

Perhaps more than his paintings which he is more famous for, the drawings show a mind at work and struggling, a mind trying to connect personal thought to objective image, render two dimensions three, bring life to the white void with nothing more than pencil and eye. When you look at the paintings—especially his portraits with their flesh and earth tones, souls radiating from faces—you can see that he was a genius and understand why the world still loves his work, but I love the rough-hewn drawings more anyway. Rembrandt viewed these as the drafts, the practice runs for his real work, but their comparable simplicity has an electric charm. They put me in mind of a kid sketching cartoons on the subway or a bent old man with a floppy hat sitting on an embankment interpreting the creek that runs at his feet.

In Susanna from 1636, the biblical heroine surprised at her bath tries to cover her nakedness as she peers over her shoulder at we who have stumbled upon her privacy. She’s exposed to the elements—no roof over her head—to our eyes—a scrap of clothing clutched desperately at her groin—to two thousand years of fable, faith, and story. I got chills on the back of my neck when I first saw that painting in the Frick, but it wouldn’t be until much later that I found the sketch that led to it in a book and understood the rawness of emotion, the way it can peer out of the page like a creature hungry for flesh and I was glad that Rembrandt had had the time to temper that sharp outline with the colours of the world.