Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Always Say the Person's Name": A story based on "Ode To Billie Joe" by Bobbi Gentry, as suggested by writer Jenny Diski (13/100)

Always Say the Person's Name

I’m in a self-esteem workshop trying to—what else—feel better. I’ve been to a bunch, all over the place, and one thing they always do is hand out these half sheets of paper with two columns, ten questions each. Except they aren’t really questions, just the words “I am” and then a three-inch line for your answer. Twenty times. When someone shares their “I am” conclusions out loud, they end up explaining what they just summed up and people chime in with encouraging statements like “Fear is in all of us, but so is strength, Frank,” and “You know, Susan, big is beautiful.” You always say the person’s name when you give them encouragement.

Of course, the people in these workshops are never here because they have a problem with high self-esteem. It’s hard to imagine someone coming in and saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me—probably nothing—but I just feel so good at so many things.”

After the “I am” portion there are one-on-ones that take up the rest of the time. The “Six Minute Power-Up” is what they call it. Each person gets together with someone else for six minutes, and before rotating they just have a conversation about how a free throw is so easy but so unattainable or the way their cats look at them when sensing shame.

The woman running the workshop is shaped like a pill and wearing mostly denim. When it’s my turn she tells me about coming-of-age in Colorado, how she worked in the public relations department of a popular but morally bankrupt ski resort and had to overcome how she felt about spinning their problems. This takes less than two minutes, which is a third of our time spent together, something she has planned: always give away the bulk of your time.

“How are you?” she asks, and then pauses briefly before adding my name.

* * *

My “I am” list reads something like this: taller than most people, wearing expensive glasses, thirsty for something other than free coffee.

“I am never going to learn to sew properly,” one woman says, and then while everyone else is telling her that it’s a matter of practice, amongst other things (“And what does properly even mean?”), I’m sitting there thinking about how little I care about sewing and, everyone’s right, how easy it’d be to just practice if I did care. The thing I’d write down if I got the kind of serious everyone here wants is I am incapable of letting the right things go. I can never figure out the correlation, but whenever I think about writing that one down I always think about a girlfriend who made me spray her with a fire extinguisher. She told me that she loved the feel of it, and it was harmless as long as I wasn’t too close and she didn’t get it in her eyes or mouth. So, once a day we’d go into the garage where she’d strip down and spin while I sprayed her with a fire extinguisher for a few seconds. When I’d stop, she’d keep spinning, right into me so I’d have to catch her.

I tell all that to the pill-shaped woman. Her smile is unwavering. She scratches her jaw-line and starts telling me that we all sometimes harbor odd feelings of regret. Her eyes dart around the room, maybe for a clock but maybe just to think.

I can see that she’s struggling, so I go on to say that I always caught my girlfriend, but I always held on to the fire extinguisher, too. I ask her almost rhetorically if she thinks it’s possible to handle them both and for the next minute she tells me stock phrases, how material goods can’t take the place of human connection and how any bond is only the sum of the people in it. Then a bell dings and she moves on.

* * *

When we’re on the final round of the power-ups, I end up with a woman in her late forties. She says that she has trouble speaking to people because she’s afraid that anything she says will be seen as stupid. I’m gentle with her. I tell her the fire extinguisher story I told the moderator and this woman tells me that it’s just a matter of getting her back.

I don’t think that’s it. What if it’s not a matter of going back? What if it’s a matter of taking back? Of being able to get back? What if that’s impossible?

I only say that last part to her. She scrunches up her nose and then sets her face in a wise old way. “If it was impossible would you be telling me about it?”

What I tell her is “No.” What I write at the bottom of my paper is I am saying yes.



Bobbie Gentry is an American singer/songwriter mainly known for the song that this story is based on. It seems like people were really latching on to that meandering, Bob Dylan story-song thing at the time (stuff like "Tangled Up In Blue" kind of pisses me off, but I was never a huge Dylan guy), but Gentry nails it. Just the perfect amount left unsaid. She put out a shitload of albums--fourteen between 1967 and 1971, four in 1971 alone--and singles in a short amount of time and then said "Fuck it" and quit show business in the late-70s. She was one of the first female country artists to write and perform her own material, which is impressive, considering a dude like Scott Walker was still mostly sucking from the Jacques Brel musical teet at the time. Also, she had big hair and was really adorable. Nobody's really heard shit from her since 1981, but, hey, here's to her.

Jenny Diski
is a British writer who loves to smoke. She has about a dozen-and-a-half books in print, and while I'm sure they're all fantastic (her personal exploration of the sixties looks especially awesome), I've only had the pleasure of reading Stranger On A Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions. In it, she speaks humorously and honestly about America, riding the trains in search of nothing much and finding truth (and the truth about truth, in all its clichéd glory) without having to go much further than the smoking car on her train. The best parts of it, however, are the ones where she reflects on her past, her times spent in mental institutions and coming of age at a weird time in the world. As if there isn't a weird time to come of age in the world. I mean . . . you know what I mean. Buy the book here and read it. Jenny lives in Cambridge with The Poet, leading, I hope, a very pleasant life.

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Next week: A story based on "Your Friend and Mine--Neil's Song" by Love, as suggested by musician Bob Bucko Jr.

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