Tag Archives: ordinary madness

Bombardment, Episode 13: Peace, How We’ve Longed for You

Splattworks continues its presentation of Bombardment, a two-act drama by Steve Patterson. The author will attempt to post an installment each day, but, if events intercede, installments may occur a day or so apart. So please be patient.




PLACID and CARMELITA sit in the armchairs. CARMELITA’s shopping cart is overturned, her stuff spread all over the stage–balloons, trinkets, gobs of colorful, wadded paper: a toy chest emptied for Mardi Gras. PLACID and CARMELITA have exchanged clothes with ARETHA and CORNO. PLACID reads the newspaper. CARMELITA curls up in her armchair. She has PLACID’s bag of surprises beside her. No matter what she does, PLACID does not react. CARMELITA takes out a pair of pruning shears, plays that they are shark jaws.

CARMELITA: (Singing “Mack the Knife”) Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear/And he keeps them pearly white. . .. (Rummages, rummages. Comes up with a banana. Swims it past her. Singing “Sub-Mission” by the Sex Pistols) I’m on a submarine mission for you, bay-bee. . .. (CARMELITA makes bubble sounds as the banana “submerges.” Puts it back. Takes out a hacksaw. Puts it to her throat.) No. . .please. I’ll tell you where the treasure is! I will! Just don’t. . .don’t. . . arrrghghghghghh. (Her head falls forward. Lets it hang.) Arrrghghgh? (CARMELITA puts the saw away. Takes out an awl, and pretends to tie her arm off and shoot up, but can’t stomach it.) Awful. (CARMELITA returns the awl to the bag. Very slowly pulls out the long carving knife.) Oh, it is a long way to Tipperary. Just an extremely long way. No matter how you try to get there. Whether walking or flying or swimming like a fish. It’s an extremely long, difficult way to go. Wherever the hell Tipperary is. Know where Tipperary is, Placid? Well, I’ll tell you. Tipperary is nowhere. Maybe it was somewhere once, but it’s nowhere now. It’s a song. It’s in songland, and not even a song people know anymore. It’s in the Lower Slobbovia of songland. Peace. How we’ve longed for you. Listening, Placid? (She pricks her finger with the knife.) Ow! Shit. (She gets up, slips into a pair of pumps with stiletto heels. Picks up the knife.) I’m stalking. I’m stalking the beast. Oh, it’s a fierce beast. Got long, jagged teeth. Scaly skin. And, and…it’s invisible! It can eat you, and you’ll never see it. Even when the teeth tear into your flesh. Oh, you see the holes ripping, the blood. You’ll feel it. Definitely. But you’ll never see it, even after you’ve been eaten. Even when you’re deep in its guts. You’ll just dissolve. Become part of it. Then you’ll be invisible too.

[To be continued]

The Abyss Looks Back

Portland’s a relatively peaceful place. I say relatively because, if you read the Metro section of The Oregonian, you’ll be treated to semi-regular tales of family members murdering each other, meth freak antics, weird suicides, and robberies gone awry—the dark background music that’s long been a part of American society. Some oldsters will tell you it used to be different, you didn’t used to lock your doors, left your key in your car, and so on; others will share a penetrating look and tell you it’s always been this way, but people just didn’t talk about it.

History tends to bear out the latter view. A read of David Lesy’s “Wisconsin Death Trip”—a collection of 1880s newspaper clippings and photographs from a small, Midwest town—is a surreal, numbing litany of murder, madness, suicide, and disease. If anything, you might come away thinking things have improved. Maybe they did for awhile in the 1950s…unless you were black, gay, female, or weird.

And then Jared Loughner—Travis Bickle made flesh—stares out from the newspaper or the Web. (Anybody who’s spent time on listservs or message boards know Web is a more appropriate term than Internet.)

Around 1993, Portland had one its perfect spring-into-summer days, and I took a break from work to go for a walk, relax, and drink it in. My mind was channel surfing, the way it will when you’ve been concentrating for awhile and let the brain off the leash to run. I vaguely registered a tall, lanky man in a stocking cap passing, and a bum note registered as to why someone would wear a stocking cap on a balmy day.

Then my head exploded with sudden pressure, and my vision briefly went black. I recovered almost instantly, and, as I straightened, I saw the man in the stocking cap flick his fist out at a bystander. It was an absent, dismissive gesture, as though swatting flies. He was just walking down the street, randomly hitting people. He missed the person ahead, but he’d popped me on the left cheekbone. It stung and surprised, but did no physical damage. I didn’t even bruise. Other people were solicitous, caring, but I and another guy took off after the man. I was angry, but I also didn’t want to see others hurt. He disappeared at some point. I spoke with a concerned, professional police officer, who took my information and phone number. Directly thereafter, I pretty much fell apart.

I was contacted a couple of days later, and the police informed me the man was apprehended, that he was familiar to downtown officers, suffered from mental illness, and had gone off his medication. He was under treatment again. I declined charges, both out of empathy and knowing the outcome would largely be the same. The incident lingered—I had occasional flashbacks—but times, good and bad, eventually washed the incident away (though I can still feel it if I remember—such is the power of violence upon memory).

The last few months, I’ve been seeing an older, tall, lanky man on the streets. He swears at unseen people and occasionally strikes empty air. Menace and foreboding surround him. I don’t know if he’s the same guy, but the similarities are strong enough that it’s brought back the Great Cheekbone Bashing of 1993. My assailant caught my eye for just an instant that day, staring out from the same infinite darkness you can see in Jared Loughner’s gaze. I sometimes wonder if I should do something about the man who fights demons only he can see, but I’ve asked, and he’s well known to local merchants and, I’m sure, the police. I just discreetly avoid him.

Right-wingers are playing defense as Loughner shot a Democrat and has used some far-right, anti-government rhetoric; they’re also probably relieved that he appears to be out of his mind. But I recently heard a small-time, right-wing talker use a fallacious argument that shows how deeply the inflammatory set have been shaken by the recent shooting.

He blamed liberals for turning mental inmates out of asylums and endangering society. It’s true that compassionate mental health advocates pushed from more humane treatment of disturbed people, which included moving them from institutions to halfway houses and outpatient treatment, where, with medication and counseling, they could be woven back into society’s fabric.

The movement gained traction during Jimmy Carter’s administration, a framework put in place. What the talk show host won’t—and can’t—say is the process accelerated under Ronald Reagan, using a budget-cutting rationale, while his administration cut spending for treatment. As a friend of mine put it: “Reagan turned the whole country into an outdoor asylum, then blamed the chaos on bleeding-heart liberals.”

Which is damned cunning politics, but not particularly good for society. Analogies may be apt, but reality is always more complex; there’s more than enough blame to go around on this issue, from politicians to the medical establishment to insurance companies. But an echo of that sentiment resonates today. In short, given that politicians and commentators have played with fire, it’s not surprising they’re feeling singed. And they can’t back down because we’re talking about political leverage here, and an industry built on jacking listeners’ adrenaline levels. Getting angry, oddly enough, is fun. It reinforces belief systems, whether you’re in agreement or disagreement. People get hooked on the rush (no pun intended, seriously), come back for more, ratings go up, and merchants buy ads. It’s more profitable and secure than selling heroin.

But it’s dangerous. Out of the most perfect spring days, storms erupt.

Jared Loughner, on the day of the Tucson shooting, wore a hooded sweatshirt, possibly to keep his shaven head warm. He could just as easily have worn a stocking cap.

Call of the Wild Amplifier

Some folks get into cars. A Ferrari or Jag passes by, and they’re transfixed. Others collect antique…well…anything. A relative of my collects salt shakers; I try not to judge. Sometimes it’s craftsmanship that draws us, other times it’s rarity or an investment.

But, most often, I suspect it’s mystique. An object psychologically resonates, whether you need it or not. (Usually, you don’t.) Still, you can’t look away. At various times in my life, I’ve felt the irresistible pull of a Canon F1 SLR, a professional workhorse of infinite flexibility and outstanding construction. When I lived in New York, where having wheels was a serious hassle, I spent a couple days of moral torment over a neighbor selling their black and gold Honda Hawk 450 before coming to my senses and realizing Manhattan was very possibly the worst place in the world for an overly cautious driver to ride a impressively light, fast motorcycle. Thus, I’m still using my corneas. And, for the longest time, I couldn’t pass an IBM Selectric typewriter without my mouth going dry; it was the most elegant of machines. I couldn’t probably pick one up for a pittance now, but, you know, now what’s a typewriter?

Then there’s guitar amplifiers.

Which is ridiculous because I have a very, very good amp that’s so stunningly clean and loud that I’ve never turned past five. As it’s very neutral in tone, it’s an ideal tool for applying effects boxes (another addictive gizmo…you start out thinking, well, it’d be nice to have a flexible delay unit, just for playing those U2 riffs, and the next thing you know, you’re eyeing the original Univibe Hendrix used playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock). But…ah. You innocently go to a music shop to try out said delay, and they say, yeah, man, pick any guitar off the rack and plug in to any of the amps…they’re all on. You bet they are. And you go, oh, right. Well, I play a Strat; so I guess I’ll grab this, uh, $5,000 Robert Cray signature model and I’ll plug it into…. Oh, look. They happen to have a Fender Vibro-King Custom 60W 3×10 Tube Combo. That’ll do.

Seriously: do not do this. Because that tone will hook you, shining, shimmering. And late that night, when you’re trying to fall asleep, you’ll hear those icy notes dripping like droplets off an icicle. And pretty soon, tone knobs will be dancing through your mind’s eye, and you’ll find yourself looking for a jar in the garage that’ll work for tossing in a couple bills, you know, now and again. Just in case.

Forget. Plug in the amp you have. Turn it up to…six. And listen to how utterly lousy you play. Whatever you do, don’t think of a blackface grill with the ultra retro cool Fender script logo. Anything but that. Anything….

Amp lust. It’s ugly.

Then again, if there’s anyone out there not using a vintage amp tucked in a closet….

No. That would be wrong. I know it. And you know it.


The Writing Life

Long stretches of your work involve doing nothing. This is hard to explain to others, who think you’re goofing off. Sometimes you are, but goofing off is part of the job. It may look like you’re just sipping coffee, listening to music, and staring into the middle distance, but, in actuality, scenes play in your head. Characters speak, laugh, argue, die. Whole worlds appear and disappear. A pen moves across paper. The paper gets crumpled and thrown into a wastebasket. All this in your head. Your family worries about you. You’ve just been sitting there for hours….

A routine helps. You carve out this little chunk of life dedicated to sitting quietly and appearing to do nothing. Often, that’s what gets done. Failure makes up a large component of what you do, but you have to keep trying and keep failing to make anything happen. When things are dead and nothing comes, it’s blindingly frustrating, painfully boring. Your words are colorless, inert. Repulsive. You want to get up, walk away, do anything else. When it’s completely hopeless, that’s about all you can do, but you keep at it anyway. You hate what you’re doing. You curse that you ever got into this thing. You’re never going to have another idea, never going to write a decent word.

Then something happens, a glimmer…and suddenly it’s four hours later, your hand’s cramping, and you feel like you’ve been tripping your brains out as you flip through a dozen pages and wonder where they’ve come from.

The mail carrier is not your friend. Most of the time, he or she brings you envelopes you’ve typed and stamped yourself, and, though their contents may vary in form, language, and tone, they usually more or less say: no. You teach yourself not to care, but you do, and any writer who says they don’t care about rejections is lying to you or themselves. You do learn to keep going; there’s no choice, really. But once in a while, you’ll let your guard down and let yourself hope–really hope. This movie begins to play about how this’ll happen, and then that, and then another thing. How the doors are about to burst open and welcome you in.

Then the rejection comes, and it hurts the hell out of you. You have go sit by yourself, unable to be with people. Sometimes, frankly, you just fucking cry. A tiny part of you wants to die and be done with it all. Sometimes it takes a couple days to get over, sometimes a couple of weeks (occasionally, never…though the intensity lessens with time); and, all the while, you have to deal with the voices that tell you: you’re wasting your time, you suck, it’s pointless, nothing’s ever going to be produced or published again. This is not a condition solely of beginners; your favorite author faces the same thing because there’s always another level to rise to and, usuallly, fall short of.

Other times, the bounce comes, you shrug, move on. There’s no telling how you’ll feel. Sometimes, the big ones have no effect. Sometimes, the little ones snap your bones.

Perversely, you have to hope. When you drop an envelope in the mail or click “send” on an e-mail, there’s one part of you urging “yes, yes, yes…this time” and another going “forget it, no way, never happen.” The “yes” keeps you going; the “no” keeps you armored. The only thing that stops the strobing between poles is more writing, more submissions. Like planting a perennial, submitting a manuscript is an affirmation that there will be a tomorrow. And, like a perennial, those manuscripts have a way of coming back year after year. Submission means you’re in the game; being in the game means, most of the time, you lose.

When it gets really bad, you’ll go the files and take out old reviews, thumb through production photos, wonder if you’re ever going to sit in the audience and see your work again or walk into a bookstore or library and see your name on a book’s spine. When it gets really, really bad, it’s time to take a break, pull weeds, play the guitar, do some art you don’t have to be good at, see a movie, get together with friends and listen to problems refreshingly different from yours…if they are, because artists have a way of flocking together in solidarity. And, yeah, sometimes we pour a glass or flick a lighter or swallow a pill because, for a little while, it turns you into someone else–someone with a window between themselves and their self-inflicted suffering.

You learn humility, and not for show, at the same time you have to carry an ego sufficiently outsized to believe what you’re doing matters and will somehow pay off. That people will actually come to see your play or buy your book, and that, incredibly, they’ll like it…or at least remember it.

When success comes, it’s surreal. You disconnect, not quite believing it’s happening. And, in a strange way, you don’t because you still have to protect yourself, and, when it’s over, you realize you’ve missed part of the experience due to your wariness.

Truth? It’s gets incredibly dark sometimes. Grim. Your own personal cloud follows you, and rains continually while the rest of the world basks in sun. On the other hand, you’re one of the luckiest people in the world, and you can’t imagine what it’s like for everyone else.

In other words, you’re a complete lunatic: a writer.

Dept. of Stupid Ideas

I was recently chatting with a friend about making music, theatre, etc., and we were both agreed that, yeah, it’d be cool if there was a place in the country you could go where you could crank up the amps, and folks could jam, try out new stuff. And pretty soon we were like…and yeah…we could do play readings! And workshops! And record! And a space for photographers! And…and…and…we need a barn! Or a rich friend with a barn. A rich patron of the arts with a barn. At which point, it devolved into some kind of mutant Mickey Rooney on acid let’s put on a show, and we laughed it off, and the conversation meandered into something equally silly….


For some reason, I keep thinking about the barn. What if…there really was one out there? And someone was into it? You could kind of, I don’t know, do a co-opt thing where folks chipped in a few bucks to help defray costs, and you could have jams with a few invited friends, a pot-luck, a bit of theatre, a bit of music, and….

Yeah. It’s totally fucking nuts. But then, so am I, so I went a posted an inquiry on Portland Craigslist under “Artists.” I’m sure nothing will come of it. But…but…but….