Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Someone" by Ben Pettaway

Someone woke up this morning on the east side of town in a bed that said: “Bed.”

Sat up, groaning, wincing, slipping on a pair of slippers that said: “Slippers”.

Someone examined the white walls covered with modern-day cave paintings and paused to think.

The brown door with the nametag was soon opened, leading to an egotistical bathroom that screamed, “Bathroom.”

More of the peculiar drawings adorned these walls. Yellow walls. The self-aware toothbrush was retrieved from a cup with a hole-ridden top. Instructions were followed; brushes brushed.


He stared at himself – the grey facial hair, the milky blue eyes, the cheek scar. Each held wonderful stories that he would never know, yet he would never know to mourn them.

The man ran his fingers over scrawling pictographs before reaching for the faucet that said: “Faucet.” His attention returned to the drawings - the warming red slowly making its way up from underneath his shirt, taking up residence on his wrinkled cheeks. The man paused. He let the blush run its course, removed his clothes.

The small room was filling with water, but it was no problem. This was how the world worked, what the world wanted.

He lathered the soap.

He washed the areas indicated by the cave’s previous inhabitants.

He stepped out of the bath.

The drawings told him to go here – here he came – a small room, a dark room, a switch.

The drawings showed him a “shirt”; here was a shirt. A representation of “pants” led him to pants. Socks proved to be the most difficult: someone had rolled them inside one another; someone had wanted to save space.

Some other person, he thought.


Here was the shirt, the pants, the socks, a man. And there, another man – tiny, black, thin, on the wall. He, too, had a shirt. He had pants and socks. He had answers.

Into the bedroom the tiny man crept, then into the hall, then into the living room. He found a tiny black chair.

So, someone followed into the bedroom, then into the hall, then into the living room. He found a large black chair.

The tiny man sat. A tiny black woman came through his door.

Someone saw a door. It said, “Door.”

The tiny woman helped the little man. She gave him food; she gave him pills; she read to him; she tucked him in.

So someone sat.

He waited.

And he sat.

And he waited.

And he watched the little man and the little woman.

And he waited.

He waits...

Sunday, April 24, 2011

"America is Sick: The Gentle Death of American Culture, and What It Says About Us" by Ben Pettaway

On the first morning of September 1970, the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky sat before his diary with a heavy heart. His nation was dying.

Not of war, or famine, or disease, but of internal, spiritual rot. His countrymen's hearts had grown callous to the plights of others, blinded by materialism and greed and indifference. He found evidence of this in his country's bookstores, and in its theatres, and at the box office. He found evidence every time a news anchor could read of atrocities from his teleprompter without reaction. "Entertainments" filled the cinemas. Novels sought to help people escape from their daily lives, not to convince them to make their lives better. These "arts" were not art, at all. They were distractions.

True art seeks not to entertain its audience, but to change it forever at the deepest level of human understanding -- the spiritual level.

I'm afraid that Tarkovsky's 1970 U.S.S.R. and 2011 America aren't all that different. Equal air-time is given nightly to Kate Plus Eight's weight-gain, as it is to the horrors and genocide occurring daily around the globe. Our multiplexes are filled with empty-headed rubbish and supernatural romance novels written with a tenth-grader's writing ability are lauded as masterpieces.

If one believes that art is the soul of a nation, a belief that I hold, then this trend is deeply troubling.

Why has our nation's art become less intelligent? Dumber?

The troubling answer to this question is that we, America, are dumber.

The United States' test scores are abysmal when compared to those of other world powers, and that's only when focusing on math, science, and reading comprehension*. What of the arts? What of our literature and history? What of our nation's heritage, its culture, its very identity?

A 2010 Marist University polling of 1,004 U.S. residents concluded that 26% of American citizens do not know which country the United States separated from in 1776**. That's more than 1 in 4... Startling, isn't it? Surely, with the knowledge that our country's citizens are not educated about their own culture, our government would strive to enrich its citizens by focusing more on arts and history.

This, however, has not been the case.

For the past decade, the US government has cut funding to art and music programs nationwide, and at the same time, have strong-armed teachers into altering their teaching methods to teach to standardized testing. This idiotic focusing of efforts, an effort meant solely to boost our scores at the expense of everything else, forces teachers to fly through each work of literature, and robs them of presenting the material in a manner where students could actually dwell on what the work was teaching them, instead of mindlessly memorizing facts and the theories of scholars deemed smarter than they.

This way of teaching literature is beyond useless. It goes against everything that art stands for. Two people are NEVER going to experience the same work of art in exactly the same manner. Each person brings his own history, his fears, his biases, his dreams, his faith... No two people are alike inside, so no two interpretations of an artwork should be identical. Each should have his own personal reaction; we don't need others to tell us what something means... The only way that man can truly grow is if he genuinely seeks and desires truth, and discovers it for himself.

In January 2008, There Will Be Blood, one of the finest movies of the past decade, lost its opening weekend at the box office to Meet the Spartans, an abomination against cinema and art if there ever was one...

America is sick. Our art is suffering. It's time for a change.

An excerpt from the diaries of Andrei Tarkovsky:

Sept 1st, 1970

"...Going through old papers I came across the transcript of a university debate on Rublev. God, what a level. Abysmal, pathetic. But there is one remarkable contribution by a maths professor called Manin, Lenin Prize winner, who can hardly be more than thirty. I share his views. Not that one should say that about oneself. But it's exactly what I felt when I was making Andrei. And I'm grateful to Manin for that.

'Almost every speaker has asked why they have to be made to suffer through the three hours of the film. I'll try to reply to that question.

It is because the twentieth century has seen the rise of a kind of emotional inflation. When we read in a newspaper that two million people have been butchered in Indonesia, it makes as much impression on us as an account of our hockey team winning a match. The same degree of impression! We fail to notice the monstrous discrepancy between these two events. The channels of our perception have been smoothed out to the point where we are no longer aware. However, I don't want to preach about this. It may be that without it life would be impossible. Only the point is that there are some artists who do make us feel the true measure of things. It is a burden which they carry throughout their lives, and we must be thankful for them.'

It was worth sitting through two hours of rubbish for the sake of that last sentence. This isn't the moment for complaints and indignation in the corridors. It's too late for that -- complaints seem pointless and undignified. We have to think very seriously about how we can carry on living: any rash move could have disastrous consequences.

It is not a question of safequarding particular advantages, what is at stake is the very life of our intelligentsia, our nation, our art. If the decline of art is obvious -- which it is -- and if art is the soul of the nation, then our nation, our country, is suffering from a grave psychic disease..." -- Andrei Tarkovsky




Monday, July 12, 2010

"Insomnia: A National Concern"

Last night, I destroyed my grandfather clock. My grandfather’s clock. His grandfather’s clock.

I grabbed a hatchet from my toolbox and I hacked it to splinters.

I wouldn’t be able to tell what it had been if I didn’t already know. It was a priceless family heirloom. Now it’s just a mess to clean.

Marvin won’t let me hear the end of it:

“What the hell were you thinking, you psychotic ass? Do you know what your mom is gonna say?”

“I could care less,” I said.

I actually did care. It hadn’t really been a decision I’d thought through.

“Well what are we gonna do, then?”

I didn’t have any answers.

“No answers, huh?”

Marvin knew me better than I knew me.

“Jesus Christ. . . I’ll have to think of something.”

It was true. Marvin would have to think of something. But I didn’t regret my decision, hasty as it may have been. That grandfather clock had it coming.
First off, it fell behind by seven minutes every three weeks. This was just unacceptable.

Furthermore, that clock dinged out a soprano version of “Dixie”. . . every fifteen minutes. If that wasn’t enough reason to euthanize, the fourteenth chime was severely off-key:

Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton.
Old times THERE are not forgotten...

I should have loaned it to interrogators at Guantanamo years ago.

I haven’t slept in seven days.

in•som•ni•a (ĭn-sŏm'nē-ə)
n. Chronic inability to fall asleep or remain asleep for an adequate length of time.

Insomnia is a tricky malady to understand.

“A recent study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that roughly one out of five Americans suffer from some form of insomnia. It is difficult to treat, due to its many potential causes.”

That’s from

It’s my homepage.

“You need to quit drinking so much coffee and start exercising.”

“Shut up, Marvin. You don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about.”

He doesn’t even have a job.

Marvin is one of those guys that’s always trying to tell you what to do. He always has his remedies and his quick fixes and his words of wisdom and his epiphanies to share. He’s the guy that when you get hurt - mentally, physically, financially, whatever - he’s the guy who’ll tell you what you did wrong.

“You wouldn’t have had this problem had you blank.”

Marvin’s been around for almost as long as I can remember. I can remember a time before Marvin, but it was so long ago that it seems like someone else’s life and not my own. I really don’t know why I hang out with the guy, much less live with him, but once someone’s been around for long enough they tend to stick. Plus, I don’t want a new roommate. I don’t like change.

Anyway, Marvin tells me I’m doing everything all wrong, and not just with this sleeping thing. He tells me I need to get a new job, I need to change my hairstyle, I need to wash my car. Unable to live his own life, Marvin tells me how to live mine.

re•sent•ment (rĭ-zěnt'mənt)
n. Indignation or ill will felt as a result of a real or imagined grievance

The most infuriating part of lying awake is what I could be doing instead:

I could be out drinking.

I could be watching a movie.

I could be dusting the tops of my bookcases.

(Actually, I need to go clean the top of the bookcases.)

ob•ses•sive com•pul•sive dis•or•der (əb-sěs'ĭv, kəm-pŭl'sĭv, dĭs-ôr'dər)
n. A psychiatric anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding.

I could be out drinking.

I could be watching a movie.

I could be dusting the tops of my bookcases.

Anything would be better than lying awake, but sleep, like my job, is part of my responsibilities. Long gone are the days when I could stay up until 4:00 a.m. watching poorly acted skin-flicks on Cinemax©, and then sleep through Algebra class.

“You have to get adequate rest to perform adequately as a human-being.”

(That sounds like something Marvin would say, but it’s actually not. My Dad said it.)

The bastard of the issue is: I chose to stay in and sleep, to be responsible. It’s amazing how appealing a beer or an ex-girlfriend’s phone number can look at 3:30 in the morning.

Tues⋅day (tooz-day) n. the third day of the week, following Monday.

Last Tuesday, I dusted my grandfather clock.

I mopped the tile floors in the kitchen and Swiffered the wooden floors in my combination living/dining room.

I noticed that Jay Leno was on, so I watched the monologue.


Then I got back to work.

I sprayed the shower down with some Scrubbing Bubbles ® and cleaned the toilet. I took a Brillo® pad to the sink and wiped the cleaner from the shower walls.

“You didn’t wait long enough to wipe it off. The box says three minutes.”
Late Night with Conan O’Brien was airing, so I sat down and watched his monologue.

Quite funny.

I brushed my teeth, washed my face.

I folded my clothes, cleaned my room, and checked the doors.

Then it was time for what Marvin calls, “the light show.” The light show is Marvin’s name for my nightly pre-bed ritual. He’s also referred to it as “the freak show” on occasion.

I turned the light off in the bathroom. I turned the light on in the pantry. I pulled the drawstring in my closet, then flipped the switches in the study. I reached for the lamp next to the couch.

“No, you son-of-a-bitch!”

“What in the hell?” I yelled. My neighbor from upstairs stomped on the floor three times.


“What in the hell was that, Marvin?” I whispered.

“Oh, that was just me.”

“No it wasn’t.”

“Yes it was.”

“Marvin, I know what you sound like.”

“I was trying to scare you.”

I didn’t believe him, so I looked around for awhile.


Maybe it was him.

I turned off the lamp and turned toward my bedroom.

While I crawled into bed, The Carson Daly Show’s opening theme blared from my bed-side television. I watched his monologue.


And there I was, on my back, staring at my fan, wondering if the blades’ tops were clean.

The light bulbs rattled. Shit.

I willed myself up from under my Cuddledown© comforter, and flipped on the lights.
The first bulb proved easy. It’s tightening was quick and painless.

Bulb Number Two was equally simple.

The third bulb clicked into place with a satisfying pop.


Back in bed, with the lights turned off and the fan turned on, the bulbs began to rattle again.

“Jesus Christ!” Marvin yelled.

“I’ll get it, I’ll get it.”

I shot up and repeated my ritual, biting my tongue a little too hard in concentration.

The rattling ceased.

Then returned.

“Come on, tighten the damned things!”

“I did, I don’t know why they’re rattling!”

I decided to switch the bulbs’ spots in the fan’s line-up. Bulb Number One became Bulb Number Three. Bulb Three, Bulb Two. . .

I flipped on the fan, turned off the light, and sat on my bed.

I waited – nothing.

“Alright, I got ‘em.”


“Turn it off!”

I sighed.

Three quick pulls and the beast was mortally wounded. The blades spun excitedly for ten or fifty seconds before resigning themselves to their fate.


It was at that point I noticed that the blades were at awkward angles to the bulbs. I clenched my eyes, vainly attempting to forget about the detail. Why I even thought this was a possibility is beyond me. Seventy seconds and nine muttered curse words later, I got up.

“What the shit are you doing?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

“Are you moving those fan blades?”

He knows me better than I know me.


“Yes, you are, you psychotic bastard, now please go to sleep.”

“One sec…”

“Come on!”

“One more second…”

The blades rested at perfect ninety-degree angles. I laid down.

“Finally! … Shit!”

I closed my eyes.

Sunlight came pouring through my window.

ex•po•sure (ik-ˈspō-zhər)
n. the condition of being presented to view or made known

Last Wednesday, or maybe two Wednesdays ago, the carpet sang to me.

Come with us, dear soul.
Down into this deep, dark hole.
Where sleep and sex abound.
Don’t worry, you will not be found.

“Get up shithead! You’re gonna get fired!”

I was lying in the downstairs copy room of my office building, drooling on the plush, red carpet.

“Get up!”

“Shut up, Marvin. Let me sleep. Nobody comes in this copy room anyway.”

This was partly true. The copier was entering its rebellious teenage years. It rarely heeded commands, and when it did follow directions, the results were often incomplete.

“Do you know what would happen if you get caught down here?”

I ignored him.

“Are you really gonna ignore me? Seriously?”


“Fine. Do whatever the hell you want, I’ll sit back and watch ‘em shove that pink slip up your ass.”

To be fair, when I was discovered, nothing was shoved anywhere near my rectum. I did, however, receive an exclusive VIP trip to the Head of Human Resource’s office. Marvin delighted in his foresight, though I reminded him that, technically, he was wrong. After all, no pink slips were shoved into any orifices.

Marvin reminded me that there was still time.

I entered the office of Edward Roberts III less than an hour later. I seriously doubted he was the third in a line of Edward Robertses. Marvin doubted this, too. Edward had 780 books in his office that day.

“Well, well, well…” Edward began.

I could envision him hazing pledges at a lower-tier Ivy League fraternity.

“It seems someone decided to catch a little shut-eye on the clock?”

I bet he pretended to like croquet.

“What do you think I ought to think of this?”

I had no idea what he should think about this.

“I’m not sure, sir. I’ve been having a really tough time sleeping, lately, and I guess I just blacked out in the copy room. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.”


“Yes, sir.” I replied.

I was surprised. He seemed concerned.

“Well if that’s the case, we have a psychiatrist on retainer who is very experienced with insomnia.”


“Yeah. I’ll set you up an appointment for tomorrow morning. Go see him and come talk to me next week.” He wrote a name and number on a slip of paper and looked back up. “I’ll set it up, don’t worry about anything. And get a cup of coffee before you go back to your desk, okay?”

“Okay… sure. Thank you.”

“No problem,” Robert said as he handed me the slip of paper.

I exited the office with a little more faith in humanity.

"I don't trust him."

Shush, Marvin.

ther⋅a⋅py (ˈther-ə-pē) n. The treatment of disease or disorders, as by some remedial, rehabilitating, or curative process.

The waiting room was unusually warm. I never liked waiting rooms, their extreme chilliness often unsettling, but I found this change in temperature a much more drastic red flag. I don’t like change.

“Look at that one over there,” pointed Marvin.

I followed his finger to an overweight man-boy of undeterminable age. His eyes flicked back and forth as he petted the cover of an old Sports Illustrated. The tattered magazine displayed a faded image of a baseball player in blue uniform.

“That’s George Brett,” Marvin informed me. “That magazine must be twenty years old.”
He was probably right. It looked twenty years old.

I had been to a psychiatrist before, when I was younger, but never had I experienced another patient as openly troubled as the man-boy.

I felt uneasy, so I began stacking the magazines in neat stacks on the end-tables. Germs from the magazines leapt onto my hands.


I jumped from my chair and hurried to the bathroom.

“It’s your turn!” Marvin yelled while I was mid-wash, but I chose to continue.

I returned three minutes later to find an annoyed orderly, tapping her foot on the fake wooden floors.

“Right this way, sir,” she said through a forced smile. I followed her down a hallway. There were seven pictures on the wall. She led me into an empty office, and there, I took up residence on a leather couch.

The doctor appeared shortly.

“Why, hello there!”

He had two moles on his neck.

“Hi, thank you for squeezing me in.”

“Oh, anything for Ed.”

He sat down, “So, I hear you’re having trouble sleeping.”

“Yes…yes, I am.”

“How long have you had this problem?”

“Years,” I said.


“Yes, years.”

“Hmmm…” He wrote a few lines on his clipboard. “How much sleep do you get a week in hours?”

“Less than ten.”

“Less than ten?”

“Yes, less than ten.” I was annoyed by the repetiveness of our exchange.

So was Marvin.

“Well, this sounds pretty severe. Have you tried any medication?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Well, why not?”

“A friend of mine had a bad experience with medication.”

“That may be, but there’s no way you can be functioning properly on ten hours a week,” he scribbled some more. “Do you have any idea what might be triggering the insomnia?”

“I think it might be my OCD.”

The doctor arched both of his eyebrows. “You have OCD?”


He flipped through the pages of my chart. “That’s not written anywhere in here.”

“I haven’t been to the psychiatrist in fifteen years.”

“Why? OCD is very serious.”

I paused.

“My friend had a bad experience with medication.”

“Well, shit,” he said. “You need medication.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“There’s no probably about it. You need medication.”

He pulled a prescription pad from his desk.

“You need to fill both of these immediately. The OCD and insomnia medication shouldn’t clash,” he said, jerking the pen across the small, white slips. “Is there anything else you’d like to ask before I let you go? I have a patient at 10:30.”


Marvin told me I’d better not.

“Would it be alright to--”

Marvin threatened to leave an unfinished puzzle at my bedside every morning.

“--take those medications--”

Marvin assured me that he would mimic the grandfather clock every five minutes.

“--if you have--”

Marvin pleaded with me. No...

“--have schiz...”

"The Heathen Section"

The Wrinkled Mouth’s grandchildren enjoy having their hair brushed before school.

They really do.

* * *

An aging socialite is sitting cross-legged on a veranda discussing her grandchildren’s favorite treats.
Not as much discussing as explaining.
Not as much explaining as lecturing.

The old socialite manages a wrinkled mouth.
She is The Wrinkled Mouth.

The veranda doesn’t overlook the sea, though I’d prefer one that did.
I’m there, too – the veranda.
It doesn’t overlook snowy mountain peaks or a bustling urban scene.

Our veranda overlooks the Barnes and Noble sales floor.

* * *

Our veranda offers a breathtaking panorama of what The Wrinkled Mouth calls “The Heathen Section,” though Barnes and Noble employees chose to label the same racks: Self-Help, Philosophy, and New Age.

Our veranda meaning:
My veranda.
And The Wrinkled Mouth’s.
And seventeen others’.

The Veranda’s crew, we’re all in our twenties or thirties.
Most of us have coffees and laptops and looming tests and essay deadlines.
We are all linked – kindred spirits of the Internet generation – save the wrinkly upper-cruster and her gabbing partner: The Gabbing Partner with No Name.

She didn’t need a name, nodding intently at each new mentioned foodstuff, eyes brimming with adulation, pining for the next profound word that would, without doubt, change her life forever.

It was corn dogs.

Epiphany #1: Corn dogs.

The Wrinkled Mouth and her disciple are in their sixties.
They have pill schedules and plastic-covered couches and irregular bowels and biases.

The Wrinkled Mouth, she uses her outside voice.

* * *

They like to eat carrots, the mouth’s grandchildren.
They like cottage cheese.
Every now and then they take pleasure in a bowl of oatmeal.
(They don’t know it’s good for them.)

The Wrinkled Mouth and her daughter have a great relationship.
“Not just great,” The Veranda is told obliquely, “but perfect.”
They eat lunch together three times a week.
Sometimes they get manicures.

Christine’s husband is doing well, I learn.
Darren took up jogging recently.
He looks good.

Darren can do forty push-ups.

“He’s probably going to get promoted soon,” says The Wrinkled Mouth – more than a few decibels above her already elevated norm – eyebrows arched, pupils darting, ears pricked, hoping that we would hear.

Praying that we would hear.

* * *

A half-dozen irritated sighs rise above the ethnic music, confirming The Veranda’s knowledge of Darren’s potential promotion. I can’t be sure how many polite sighers have been drowned out by the tribal drums.

A Brooks Brothers suit near the coffee bar hovers over an audit form, gritting his teeth, glancing up at The Wrinkled Mouth, tearing eight tooth-shaped holes in his Invisalign®.

The modern-day beatnik in the armchair reads a page from The Andy Warhol Diaries, then he reads it again, then he reads it again, then again. . . before slamming the hardcover onto the neighboring coffee table.

The Veranda’s
crew is restless.
Our vibrations were getting nasty.

I wonder which one of us will throw The Wrinkled Mouth overboard.

* * *

“Monogamy is everything,” the mouth says with conviction.
The divorce rate is at an all-time high.
Teen pregnancy’s on the rise.

She angles her head toward an expecting twenty-two year old.

“Nancy has all the answers,” she says.
Nancy knows how to make America great again.
The Gabbing Partner with No Name nods, gives a few “uh-huhs,” nods some more.

“She’s a straight shooter, that Nancy Grace.”

We learn The Wrinkled Mouth has a penchant for Tucker Carlson.
She thinks he’s cute.
Not as cute as Darren, though.
She makes sure everyone aboard The Veranda knows that he’s not as cute as Darren.

Darren, who recently took up jogging.
Darren, who can really cut a rug.

“Sarah Palin’s new book should be an eye-opener.”
“She. . .” starts The Wrinkled Mouth before aborting the sentence.

Her lips purse. Her brow furrows.
This next sentence must require special consideration; she needs to get her words just right.
Her disciple leans forward, inhales, eyes wide.

“She’s got moxie.”
“That one is one to keep an eye on,” she says.
The Gabbing Partner with No Name exhales, satisfied.

Epiphany #2: Sarah Palin has moxie.

This country is going to hell in a hand-basket.
“Our country,” says the mouth.

Obama’s the last prophecy, she says.
Then it’s The Rapture.
“It’s all right there . . . in Revelations.”

The Veranda is enlightened.
The Veranda can find the particulars in The Good Book.

“I swear it, I’m moving to Canada if things get any worse.”

* * *

A head comes into view over the veranda railing, emerging from the deceit of “The Heathen Section.”

I watch the heathen head:
It bobs up and down along the rail, nearing the four small steps that lead to The Veranda’s deck.
Steps it reaches.
Steps it climbs.
Steps that reveal its godless gender.

The Veranda learns that Darren speaks a little French.

Darren, who can name every state capital.
Darren, who looks really good these days.

The heathen learns this, too.
He makes his way to The Wrinkled Mouth’s table, nods to The Gabbing Partner with No Name.

He bends forward – the heathen – leaning inches from The Wrinkled Mouth, now silent, now lacking opinion.
The heathen leans in and he smiles.

The Gabbing Partner with No Name smiles.
The heathen cheeks swell.

He parts his lips, blowing thick, putrid air towards The Wrinkled Mouth with deliberation before stepping back from the table.

* * *

The Veranda learns that the younger generation, we’re all going to hell.
We learn that belching is not mentioned in Barnes and Noble’s bylaws.
We learn that wrinkled old socialites know The ‘F’ Word.

Epiphany #3: Old women know The ‘F’ Word.