Under Construction

I feel rather like I’m under construction, not just this website, and after a few months of quarantine followed by an enforced return to face-to-face work, I’m ready to construct.

The word ‘construct’ makes me think in terms of language. Construct a sentence. Construct a cathedral. Deconstruct a poem, find its arcane parts and bind them into a spell. Unpick bindings.

But this is just a note to say this site is under construction! And I am on a quest for a web designer, so drop me a note if you personally know someone.

Average Day

Another Average Day in the Life of a United States American Citizen:

I’m at the cash register, chatting with a customer who’s going to California, my home state. He met Ford Coppola and was invited to his winery.

“I’ve never been further west than Chicago,” he says.

A colleague appears at my right. “Jess, what school does your mom work at?”

A pang. A tiny jolt of adrenaline, automatic, minuscule. But I am collected. “Why?”

The customer is standing there, waiting.

The colleague: “Just what school?”

Me: “Owensmouth. Why?”

The colleague, staring intensely down at her phone, glances up – notes the customer transaction I am still proceeding with: “I’ll tell you when you’re done.” Vanishes back.

Me, to the customer: “There must have been another shooting.” Casual. It’s casual.

Customer: “Oh yeah. California.”

After he is gone, I learn this time it is the town I lived in for most of my life — where my brother and mom still live — the shooting happened. Not my high school but a school I visited that one time, a school friends and acquaintances of mine went to.

The next day, I learn how many died. How many are in the hospital.

And I read articles about and watch a video of a lawmaker who says — the very morning, the same hour, the kid decided to kill his schoolmates —

“Many questions about this legislation need to be answered before it’s forced upon law-abiding gun owners. If I wanted to give my best friend’s son or grandson my hunting rifle, would we first have to appear before a licensed gun dealer and go through a lengthy and potentially expensive background check?”

She kills it. The bill doesn’t even get to be voted on. It dies.

Why, I wonder, are law-abiding gun owners more important than citizens who don’t own guns? Why are they more carefully protected than children?

The kid’s father was a hunter who owned many guns. Okay. His father is dead – sad. There’s no legal way in California for the kid to buy a gun himself. Who gave it to him? Did he just keep his dad’s guns? Did one of his dad’s hunting buddies give it to him, thinking, hey, this is a good kid, a quiet kid, a boy scout?

Outside, the trees are almost bare. It’s too damn cold. And it’s just another day.

Kim Gurnee

Today I discovered Kim Gurnee, who taught at College of the Canyons, passed away in 2017. I’m so sorry for it. She was an incredible woman and I’m sorry there’s so little to find about her online. Where are the obituaries? Where are the words of sorrow? So. This poem. Rough, but here.

Kim Gurnee

The silvery woman is gone.
Her wide smile, her generous eyes,
her elf-land bones. Gilt threads in her hair,
dawn-quiet and pale, she had a way
of cupping a moment, just so —
as if it was alive
and loved. As if — I can see her, even now
smiling — she took no measure of time
for granted, as if — I can see her,
intent on a speaker, or language,
the weaving of words —
she might learn warp and weft, rise and fall,
what passes unsaid and
what is told. As if — oh, I can see
her kindly speaking an observation
that would crack open the sky —
she was infused, a cordial,
a charm, a heady elixir. As if, kindly radiant,
she could give the moment to you,
thank you for it. I can see her, absorbed
in a poem. Remember her,
in this poem. The silvery woman
is gone. Her wide smile,
her generous.

Marjorie Prime

Let’s begin in Norwich. There the streets loop around three grand structures; it feels like a möbius strip, and at gloaming, the sky’s rose reflects through the gothic windows. We go first to the wrong theater, but a kindly man with white hair directs us further down the strip. We are greeted by the director, but then she knows who we are. We’re friends. The place is packed.

We’re lucky to get a row. We’re lucky to see this production, but I don’t know that yet. I’m just happy to be seeing my first bit of live theater this year.

Before going to see the Chelsea Players perform Marjorie Prime, I’d never heard of the play, but it’s been crowned in glory — a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a 2017 movie with actors such as Jon Hamm and Geena Davis.

I read the plot summary, but it didn’t come close to communicating the emotional power the play has. The Chelsea Players brought the characters so vividly to life that, weeks later, I am still haunted by a particular expression on Marjorie’s face, I am still thinking about what the play showed us and what it didn’t show us.

Beside me, a silvery older gentleman says — with the crackle of a bemused smile in his voice — “It looks like Faye Ringel has her own fanbase.”

“I know about this performance because of her; she’s incredible!” I say, turning away from the people I came in with. “What about you?”

“We love the Chelsea Players,” he says. “They’re just fantastic. We’ve tried to see everything for, oh, the last twenty years.”

He goes on to paint a picture of a theater troupe with an extraordinary repertoire, of a brightness in the community. The lights flash; we’re being summoned into silence, asked to become audience. The man and I smile at one another, then pay our attention stageward.

Here’s the basic plot. Marjorie is an old woman with Alzheimer’s, being taken care of by her daughter, Theresa, and her son-in-law, John. Theresa and John have signed up for the “Prime” program via Senior Serenity, which sets you up with a holographic AI that can be given the shape, voice, and eventually personality of a person from your life. The idea is you’ll help this Prime become more like the person it looks like so it can tell you stories about your life and you’ll remember them.

Marjorie has chosen her dead husband Walter, but a young, hot version of Walter. The whole thing weirds Theresa out. Theresa is skeptical about the program, skeptical about whether or not it helps. Theresa is raw and angry and wonderful and she asks a lot of the questions that we ask. John is enthusiastic about the program; he is a compassionate, likable man, who helps feed the AI stories about Walter and Marjorie’s life.

The play marches on. We see Theresa speaking to a Marjorie Prime, because Marjorie has recently died. We see her reacting to all of these almost-Marjorie gestures, to what is exactly her mother and what isn’t. Theresa is not dealing well with her mother’s death.

The play marches on. We see John speaking to a Theresa Prime. He is quiet, gentle, and so sad. He puts the Prime away.

We see them talking with one another, all of the Primes. They only ever use lines from stories they were told but the stories have life. We, the audience, know when they’re not telling something true, but they don’t know.

The truth will out, however.

I wept.