Saturday, October 31, 2015

Chaz Bennet: Encounter with a Cow

This is not my story. This is a Chaz story. I first heard this from Chaz Bennett at our writing group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective, the group he founded, in early 2014. By then he had almost completely lost his voice, and was using a voice synthesizer on his tablet to read the story to us. The voice he had chosen was male with a very proper British accent, which made an already funny story that much funnier.

I saw this absurdist tale as a meditation on the Undiscovered Country: not necessarily death, but the unknown that lies beyond this moment. I wanted to read it as the final story at the final open mic at the Vintage Theater back in August of 2014, but I didn't get it from Chaz in time. But he did send it to me, and I think he knew that I would hold onto it until a specific future event happened.

That event has happened. Chaz Patrick Bennett (nee Charles) died on Tuesday, October 27. His obituary was published October 29, and I found out about the funeral this morning, three hours before it took place. I made it there. His wife recognized me and remembered my name. For some reason, that more than anything else made me burst into tears.

Chaz wrote many, many stories over the years. I hope someday they are all seen by the world. Here is one of them.

Note: This story is edited from the version Chaz sent me, to clean up some typos and format the punctuation. It also cuts off a few lines at the end that were not included in the version he read to us. This is not necessarily the definitive version of this story. 

I am walking on a country road.   It' s a sunny day in May and I  feel like obliged to reconnect with nature. I've my Brownie Instamatic hoping to get a picture of robin red breast, the only bird I can recognize. I think I should do this more often. I pause and practice deep breathing.  My friend on nature walks, he stands his head and mediates.  I consider this and rule it out.  For one thing, I don’t know how. For another thing, he’s crazy as a loon.

I hear Louie Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful...’

Satchmo stops singing, I stop dead and stare.

“You looking at me?  Never saw a talking, purple fucking cow before?'

 I shook my head.

“I cannot hear you.”

“I didn't say anything.”

“Get over here.  You’d think we’re a couple of farmers shouting at each other.”

I'm thinking not every day you get an invite from a purple cow.

I take the bait. I walk to the purple cow making sure the fence is between us. 

“Took you long enough.”

“Can I take your picture?'

“Nooooo. Did that sound like a moo?'

“Yes it did.'

“It did?  I’ve got to work on it.”

“You’re a cow, for christsake.”

“Hey, watch it buddy. I’m born again. As a matter of fact, you can not take my picture, you can not say 'that got past your eyes,’ and if ever call me Betsy, I will bury you under of avalanche of cowshit.”

I sensed that I pissed off the purple cow. Since I have an aversion to manure, I’d continue my nature walk.

“Hey. Where you going”

“No where, man - I mean, cow."

“Don’t lie to me.” 

“I won’t.”

“I like you, pal.  Want to see something?  Come over the fence.”

I do. Why, I don’t know.

“Twist my tail."

I do.

A set of steps pop out of the purple cow.

“Climb  in."

I do.

My feeble attempt at illustrating this story, painted on the wall of The Vintage in Scranton at the very last 24 Hours of Art celebration. The Vintage closed shortly afterwards.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moon over downtown Nanticoke, October 27, 2015

I stopped at the grocery store after work tonight to pick up some things for my mom. As I turned from Market Street onto Main on my way home, I saw a sight that made me think "I wish I had my camera with me." The just-past-Full Moon was rising through clouds, lighting up the sky gray and silhouetting the century-old architecture  and modern sodium vapor lights that line Main Street. Then I remembered that I did have my Nikon p520 camera with me. I pulled over into a parking spot in front of one of Nanticoke's  ancient banks to see what I could do.

I first tried a shot from inside the car, with the camera propped on the steering wheel. This was less than ideal: The Moon was off-center, the bent street sign for South Prospect Street was in the way, and the windshield wiper scratches created lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams swoon. I decided to step out of the car and try my luck with taking pictures from the middle of Main Street.

You'd be surprised at how much traffic there is on Main Street in Nanticoke at 7:30 on a Tuesday night. I know I was. My location in the middle of the road gave me a better angle on the Moon, but also meant I was in danger of getting run over. Also, the low light levels meant the camera needed more stability than just being held freehand, so everything came out blurred.

Finally I gave up and packed it in. The oncoming traffic was one thing, but the sound of cars approaching from behind was unnerving. Plus, the Moon was moving out of position and into obscuring clouds. Most of my photos came out blurred and useless. I laughed when I reviewed the images and realized that the best one was one that I took from the safety and stability of my parked car.

And the lens flares don't look so bad, either!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susquehanna (poem)

The theme for this year's Poetry in Transit was "River." For those who don't know, Poetry in Transit is a project led by Mischelle Anthony from Wilkes University to have short poems by local poets displayed in the advertising spaces of Luzerne County Transit Authority buses. The project has been going on for a few years, though I only became aware of it two years ago. I submitted an excerpt of an already-written poem last year, and it was chosen as one of the poems for display.

I didn't have a suitable poem to submit this year, so I realized I would have to create one. I mused on it while mowing the lawn - this is actually an excellent time to compose poetry or plot out stories - and tried to think of the images that came to mind when I thought of the Susquehanna river. ("Susquehanna" wasn't a requirement: the theme could just as easily have been used to compose a poem about River Tam, or River Song, or the River Styx.) The most pressing memory was one that was idiosyncratic and personal, and, I realized, would be understood by no one but me. The others were also personal, but wouldn't need the same level of explanation.

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

I hate poetry that needs explanation to be understood. I have heard some excellent poems that made no sense without prefatory comments - and would future readers have access to these comments? So how could I explain the "Books pressed against the ceiling" line without doing this very thing?

And then it hit me: I could explain it in a poem - which I presented at the Poetry in Transit rollout event.


Agnes came through when I was four and a half
young, but not too young to remember a time before then
it wandered up from the Gulf on a drunkard's walk
came ashore through New York City
and hit Pennsylvania

the rain came down and the winds blew for days
our basement flooded, but that was about it,
and then the storm moved further north and stalled out
dumping its load of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna

My uncle was getting married the day the flood came
the river carried away his wedding cake
A few days later he drove us to the edge of town, where Main Street in Nanticoke becomes the San Souci parkway, drops down to head for Wilkes-Barre
It dropped down into water. There was no more road after that
And the lights of Wilkes-Barre were dark

My father took us into the flood zone a few weeks later, after the river had receded and the cleanup had begun
the streets were brown, like the grass and the trees, yellow-brown and dusty
we found a glass decanter, probably from Avon, in the shape of an old Volkswagen
it had belonged to somebody, and now it was garbage
we kept it, heedless of the toxins that coated it

We went to his aunt's house
she had stayed there, had planned to ride out the storm,
and had to be rescued by boat from her second floor window
Her front room had held a library, hundreds of books, maybe more
the Susquehanna's waters had floated them out of their shelves, floated them to the plaster ceiling
held them there and kept on rising
when the water receded the books were ruined things, dead, destroyed,
but they had left imprints on the ceiling,
colored stains on the white plaster,
faint images of the covers of hundreds of books, jumbled and arrayed where no books should ever be
ghosts of the books they had once been

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you, Susquehanna

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Moonrise over the Susquehanna, September 27, 2015

I spent some time on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge at and after sunset on Sunday, September 27, 2015. That was the night of the conveniently-timed (for the East Coast of the U.S., at least) total lunar eclipse described here. I wanted to catch the moonrise. I only had a vague sense of where the Moon would rise, within about sixty degrees, but I was hoping I would get some cool moonlight-on-water effects. As you can see in the image above, I did.

I wanted to get the moonrise because the Moon that night was going to be a "Supermoon," significantly larger than the average angular size of the Moon thanks to it being at its closest point in its orbit at the same time as being Full. This is something you can't really notice without some sort of measuring device, like an aspirin or pencil eraser held at arm's length - normally this will cover the face of the Moon entirely, but for a Supermoon it will not.

I had the timings of the Moon's rise memorized, but the appointed time came and went with no sign of it. I didn't realize until the next day that the time displayed on my camera was four minutes faster than the actual time, but even with such an allowance the Moon was distinctly absent. I began to suspect some supervillain had stolen it. Then it appeared, like headlights piercing the fog.

It had been above the horizon but hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. But that didn't matter: it was here now, and all was forgiven!

Until a minute later, when it vanished again behind another layer of clouds.

And so we began a waiting game, waiting for the Moon to clear the clouds and put on a show for me. After a few more minutes of being gawked at by passers-by who wondered why I was on the pedestrian walkway of a bridge taking photos of nothing, the Moon again broke through the cloud layer.

The Moon was safely clear of the thick light-blocking layers, so now it was just a matter of waiting for the sky to darken a bit to allow better images.

I posted my favorite photo of this sequence at the top of this post.

Finally, it was time to call it a night, head home, and get ready for the eclipse in a few hours. I grabbed one last image as I was getting ready to pack away the camera and tuck the tripod under my arm.

And so ended the first part of the evening's lunar photography.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Terror in the Infants Department

I came across this while taking a shortcut through the Infants department in Walmart a few weeks ago. It's called the "Womb Sounds Bear." While it's a whole bear, at least according to the terrifying illustration of the bear hovering over a sleeping infant, the packaging makes it look like half a bear lunging out of its box at you, like Johnny Eck in the climax of Tod Browning's "Freaks."

But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that I heard it first - a muffled, echoing heartbeat, like the sound of a beating heart heard through amniotic fluid, or buried under floorboards. The Womb Sounds Bear lives up to its name, I suppose - my memory isn't that good.  And while it may bring comfort to newborns, it will bring everlasting terror to unsuspecting adults who come across it it while taking a shortcut through the Infants department.