One Perfect Rose

for Phil Doub

One Perfect Rose

If roses won’t prove fatal to write about, wilt they must with pleadings set with idyllic settings. You can’t always see this coming, a biochemical response beyond naming, a nameless byproduct characterized by falling up and swooning. It’s not like it kicks up any dust or anything, or sounds an alarm like a panicked conversation might, arriving both early and often to drive the unsentimental crazy.

I may not be as practical as I sound. Yesterday I went looking for the answer to a question I couldn’t formulate. It went something like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ In contrast, today is the day of days, the most wonderful I’ve ever lived through. It’s been a long time since I worked with my shirt off in the hot sun. I’m planting dwarf roses around stone walkways. Climbing ones over trellised arches. Note the care I take to prune back the element that makes a comedy romantic. It’s worth it even if all romance is hilarious. If my aversion here makes me giggle condescendingly, let me at least informally acknowledge your love of sap as an incredible source of power. But this is about science, man, and the Old Enologists who for centuries now have lived and worked up the road from here. Everyone knows the trick they play, for me a perpetual revelation: In fashioning an early warning system against sharpshooters and bunch rot, encircle your grapevines with ever-blooming roses of the same pH and watch for critters getting after them.

See this rose here. It’s yours for a dollar. You may ask, ‘Why would I pay a perfect stranger a dollar for a rose growing in my own garden?’ See that one there, the one spilling into the one you have your eye on? Before I knocked on your door, I plucked an even prettier one and sold it to your neighbor for a fiver. You get the discount for owning the bushes in the first place. You may ask, ‘Why would my neighbor give a perfect stranger five dollars for a rose out of my garden?’ One, these are beautiful flowers and, like a game of hide and go seek, it is the nature of things. Two, their scents, nasturtium, orrisroot, apple, clove, lemon, are things out of nature. Three, in our love of reds, pinks, and yellows, some splotched ones occur naturally in the wild. Four, what appear to us as our reds, pinks, and yellows may look different to their pollinators. Five is my hunch that, with the obvious exception of the sky, blue doesn’t happen as naturally in the wild as other hues do. Six, nowhere in the Bible, the Rig Veda, the Zend Avesta, or the Homeric poems is the sky called blue or its color even noted. One wonders if they ever looked up or, if they did, what color they saw. Seven, it’s a hot enough day for sweat to soak through from our armpits. Eight, kids are playing air hockey in the air-conditioned basement and roller hockey on the hot asphalt one street over. Nine: smell of grass clippings. Ten: chit-chit-chit of an old-time sprinkler system. Eleven: rubber of cars rolling over pea gravel. Twelve: wind shishing in treetops. Thirteen, the sky is blue and cloudless.

Our early warning system reminds one of the Old Miners’ trick of hanging canaries in their cages in the old mines they dug. Guinea pigs running headlong into waves of carbon monoxide may give us a sense of meaning in our own lives, when April showers once brought Mayflowers and roses fail for phylloxera’s arrival. If ever more sensitive birds get sick before men do, any sentinel species, honey bee, bat, crayfish, swallow, may inform our Climate Change Thinking. The grand dame of resistance writing, Muriel Rukeyser made it more urgent in U.S. 1, her poems from ’38, when she drove to West Virginia to record a wife saying: ‘I first discovered what was killing these men.’ Their labor was subterranean whose reverse alchemy took them away from gold into the business of carbon. Said the doctors at the time, ‘Miner’s phthisis, fibroid phthisis, / grinder’s rot, potter’s rot, / whatever it used to be called, / these men did not want to die.’ So we must answer yes to the question of whether or not silicosis is an occupational disease or a hazard.

The Old Enologists arrived here from Transcaucasia and Asia Minor with pit stops at the Fertile Crescent and the Nile Delta. ‘Hello Franschhoek,’ they said. And ‘Howdy’ to Kakheti, Istria, Valle de Guadalupe, Sherry Triangle, and Colchagua. And ‘Hi’ to Alsace. And ‘How do you do, Porto?’ They soon had everyone driving pests away from their vines and flavoring the wines of a not-so-distant future by amassing clumps of rosemary and lavender around the shanks of rosebushes. This was about the time I found a faience cup in the California loam with a chip like a bite taken out of it. It beamed not the name of a pharaoh but that of a far distant rancher.

‘The unfortunate need of words,’ I tried explaining to everyone. My most obvious emendations were the addition of words, half a dozen big ones plunked down in the middle of a plainspoken elegy, to arrest the attention of the departing dead, John Rutherford, in case he clung to his love of stilted language throughout his transition to the afterlife. In case he clung to sarcasm, I put that in, too. Insult? One or two searing ones. Wordplay? The best I could manage. Practical jokes? I couldn’t think of one in time. Like Shakespeare’s least famous fools, he never caught his own malapropisms, when opinioned is pinioned, odorous is odious, and vigitant is vigilant, so I packed my speech with them, that he might hear his own flawless diction one more time. Though he was never a churchgoer he believed in the function of God in his increasingly secular community. Explain that one to me. In any event, I can see him now, carried up the hill head-up by celestial children. Soon after their departure, the roses in his garden surrendered to convolvuluses.

Finally, the story I was meant to tell could be the trailer of a feature length movie. As sick to my stomach as it makes me to say this, for the best effect, read by rose-light from the penumbra of high personal pathos: He loved her even after she left with that man of hers. He loved her today. He loved her yesterday. He would always love her. When that man of hers died, he cried for her, and he cried. A different she loved a different he, even after he left with that woman of his. She loved him today. She loved him yesterday. She would love him forever. When his woman died, she cried for him, and she cried. They’ve known each other for a few weeks now. They remind each other of the men and women they didn’t go with. They make love in the afternoon, at lunchtime, when their spouses are away and the house is filled with daylight. There are funny parts, too. The funny parts come later. They bring us into a time when everyone looks visibly older.

“Time Passes”

What is equivalent to a surprise party (for you!) attended by your best friends from each of your phases and a beam of light emanating from god knows where to sweep dark water, windows and crags of rock?

Text Box: Answer: Imagine a novel like To the Lighthouse—one that begins with an afternoon and an evening, and accelerates, slowly at first, across lifetimes.

I don’t want to run into anyone who I hadn’t heard had remained behind. I wouldn’t want to run into anyone who hadn’t heard I’d stayed. May I not run into anyone in the darkness?

Variations On Knowing

Orchid & Guitar

I’m in a writing group called The Drunken Goats. But I don’t drink, and I haven’t seen any of my peers get too drunk. No, that’s not true. I did watch one of us get pretty fucked up at our holiday party a few years ago. He grew very affectionate with everyone, and he passed out early, with his head in someone’s lap. Before he went, though, he’d become obsessed with this sentence, the source of which no one has discovered:

The general known for sending his troops into the fray knowing full well that he would lose more of his own but with fewer overall casualties was a controversial warlord.

He must have said it a hundred times, varying the diction and syntax with each articulation, his final utterances incomprehensible because he was slurring:

Understand, you, that she will lose women of her own but not those women she doesn’t know to send into a fray anyway, before someone brands her Controversial Warlord.

And now that I’m thinking about it, it wasn’t a he-goat (Paulo, who is a loudmouthed drunk), but a she (Maggie, who is not). And she, for her love of fine art and prosodies marked by repetition and theme & variation, and for her performance that night, called to my mind Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). Put another way: The goat who drank the most was like a High Modernist.

Gilda’s Club

1.

Wandering amid the women in his life, a once-lonely man with a wry sense of humor found love simply by persisting in telling the same dumb jokes over and over again—and listening for laughter. Lifting her veil, he now tried to speak, but found himself speechless in the eyes the wisest comedienne he’d ever witnessed.

2.

American comic Gilda Radner (1946-1989) wore many faces. One she called Roseanne Roseannadanna. She played other characters with names like Brungilda, Emily Litella, Candy Slice, and Judy Miller.

Donning a huge head of tight curls, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was a fake and movingly puerile consumer-affairs reporter on the mock news broadcast on the late-night variety show Saturday Night—first airing in the early 1970s.

Brash and tactless, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, was quick to savage colleagues and viewers alike—anyone who got in the way of what she was saying—before digressing into something bodily, something scatological, like her own flatulence or the status of one of her nose hairs.

She, Roseanne Roseannadanna, dropped names so that in one moment she was reading a letter from a viewer, usually one Mister Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey, asking about quitting smoking or how breast feeding a baby works in practice, and in the next she was going on about her supposed run-in with Princess Grace of Monaco.

Maniacal, sarcastic, insistent, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, marked my earliest exposure to this kind of playacting. As a form of insistence, she, Roseanne Roseannadanna, chronically referred to herself by her full name. Save for the emphatic I, she favored fewer pronouns for herself when speaking about herself, of whom she spoke admiringly.

Though she, Ms. Radner, was a master of sketch comedy, none of the teenagers in my life have ever heard of her. This makes sense. It would be like my reciting from Lucille Ball when I was their age or a teenager forty years hence laughing at the antics of I don’t know who or what in our present moment.

Once Ms. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she famously said, “Having cancer gave me membership In an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”

Upon her death, her husband, also a famous comic, helped to found Gilda’s Club, an international organization created to support people living with cancer.

Having sworn off marriage after the death of his wife Gilda Radner, the widower did eventually remarry. Sometime after that—or was it sometime before?—he sought therapy. For what specifically, I don’t know. Loneliness? Anger? Depression? Impulsivity?  He said to his shrink something like, Hey Doc, I have the urge to give away all my money. Well, replied the therapist, how much money do you have? Me? he said, I owe $300.

One day I was walking down Division Street in Nashville when I happened upon a red brick building—home to one the chapters of Gilda’s Club. So read the bronze plaque on the facade on such a bright and muggy day. The parking lot was empty. The windows were dark. Cupping my hands about my face to peer through the glass, I got the sense of a clock ticking. Dust motes. Empty chairs. Dusky silence. A card table stood strewn with magazines. A turntable sat beside a stack of records. Beyond bookshelves, a view to a kitchen and, everywhere, jutting shadows. Suddenly overwhelmed by a sense not so much of time passing as of time having passed—of not so much death as the insignificance of a single life in the context of the sheer number of individuals who have entreated youth to linger—I backed away from the window and, looking around to see if my nosiness had raised eyebrows, I buried my hands in my pockets and, with a down-turned gaze, continued my walk as if nothing had happened.

By George (Good Day)

Washington

My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral,intellectual and physical education I received from her. ―George Washington

From a pair of Georges come two wonderful quotes, one from the novelist George Eliot, author of Middlemarch, and the other from the comedian George Carlin. “Affection is the broadest basis of a good life,” says one. Says the other, “The day after tomorrow is the third day of the rest of your life.” Can you guess who said which? I guess it’s pretty obvious. Maybe it isn’t important. They make a nice couple. No matter who said what, they make more meaning together than they do in isolation.

The poet George Oppen was a profound witness to the 20th century. As with my grandfather (George) on my mother’s side, at the end of his rich life, Alzheimer’s overwhelmed him. I learned then that when someone asks, ‘Where’s my wife?’ and he has no wife, you say ‘She’s not here right now’ as a way of going along with the forgetting person’s reality. You accept that nothing you do will bring back their ability to remember. You manage anxiety.

Back then, and finding them again now, I wrote the phrases ‘profound witness’ and ‘disease of forgetting’ in the margin beside the poet’s lines,

And it is those who find themselves in love with the world
who suffer an anguish of mortality...
A Child’s Drawing of His Grandfather
George Carlin (1937-2008)

We Eat What We Have

From a long line of Twentieth-century road-trip movies, The Grapes of Wrath, whose poor whites flee the Dust Bowl in jalopies, and Easy Rider’s hippies speeding by on choppers make an obvious double feature. When you live on the fringes, they say, you eat what you have. You go where you need to go. Locals overhear your freewheeling vernacular. Armed with automobiles and axe handles, locals go on the offensive.