Rest Up and Wake Up

Last week, while walking a lazy lap around Echo Park Lake, I overheard a lady scolding her dog as she fed the ducks. “No, that’s not for you. Stop that,” she said to her boisterous companion: a handsome black Lab with a puppy’s playful eyes. The lady’s hair was bleached blonde. She wore cat-eye glasses and dragged a colorful suitcase behind her. I smiled and strolled. I was back on the East Side of Los Angeles, a visitor in the city where I had previously lived for over a decade. Clouds enshrouded the sky and drops of water began to fall. Over the past three years, Seattle sensibilities have transformed my relationship to the weather. Oh, this is so cute, I thought. LA is getting a little rain.  

Then came a shocking splash, and: “Lenny, get back here right now!” Soon Lenny was in middle of the lake, submerged up to his neck, doing a vigorous dog paddle toward the ducks, who scattered, their afternoon idyll interrupted by the boorish intruder. I whipped out my camera and snapped one picture after another. I felt inspired, delighted, alive.

The dog may have had nefarious intent (none of the fowl appeared confused about his motives) but oh, what life force. Lenny couldn’t be called back to land. He swam and swam, that sweet head of his the only thing showing above the lake’s surface.  

Lenny was fully and truly present.

A tall, thin man with glasses and a tidy beard walked toward me from the opposite direction on the path. Unaware of my photographic spree, he stopped to ask if I had seen the dog jump into the water. “Look at him,” the man said. “He doesn’t know what he’s doing out there.” My new acquaintance was more amused than impressed by Lenny’s fearless cowabunga into the marshy wildlife refuge of the lake. I smiled and kept moving, anxious to return to my thoughts.

As I continued walking the circumference of the lake, I passed the bearded gentleman, now laughing with a young woman in Nike jogging gear. Maybe a friend of his? More likely, a stranger such as me. He recounted Lenny’s story, this time in Spanish: “…perro loco saltó en el lago…quería coger un pato…” She beamed at him from behind her shades, seeming to enjoy their spontaneous conversation. At that moment, I loved people’s innate ability to connect over events humorous and tragic.

Soon, I was on the other side of the lake, taking in the lily pads and lotus flowers. Like magic, the longer I looked, the more flowers appeared. Some were tight and closed, others in the slow process of opening. There were even a few in full bloom, their petals as exposed to the overcast sky as they would be to typical LA sunshine. It was difficult to stop taking pictures.

*     *     *

I’m in Los Angeles for the second residency of my MFA program, and am surrounded by other writers: passionate, opinionated, young, old, middle-aged, funny, political, serious, tattooed, tattoo-less writers. We are here because we want to hone our craft, change the world, and perhaps reclaim some lost part of ourselves in the process. As my literary community swaddles me for a week straight, I become giddy. I get high. I smile until my cheeks hurt. I drink coffee and think deeply about the way we use and order our words for maximum effect. Sometimes I’m surprised by how involved I become in my peers’ manuscripts.

I want to advocate for them, make them see, steer them away from their pitfalls.

That’s our mandate as students: pay close attention and critique each other constructively. Sometimes the feedback hurts so good; other times, it just hurts. We are handling precious cargo. Still, the simple knowledge that our fellows take our writing seriously can be encouragement enough.

In such a stimulating environment, I become like Lenny. I want everything. Give me all the ducks, all the restaurants, the galleries, the neighborhoods, the natural beauty, the sexy, self-possessed people. Pass me that alternative newspaper. What bands are playing? Let’s see what the local arts scene is like. I’m greedy for life. There is so much to absorb that I exhaust myself.

Like Lenny, I dive right in. It’s a good thing. Usually.

Three days of the intense residency atmosphere and burnout sets in. After so many lectures and readings and presentations and social interactions, it’s difficult to think straight. Savoring the moment becomes a struggle. I lose my Lenny-like abandon. I am self-conscious and overwhelmed. Nothing feels right. A master poet reads and I wonder why I even bother. Poor. Me.

So I recharge. Alone. In a hotel room. Or at the lake.

This is important. Because this year—this upcoming year, this crucial year, this year that will test us all, force us to become who we are meant to be, to stand up for things that we shouldn’t have to—is the one. Everything is heightened, everything is on fire, everything is different now. There is so much to do. We have action to demand, civil rights to defend, stories to write, friends to love and support. But we need our rest, too. We must occasionally reboot our operating systems. Put on some John Coltrane or Phantogram or Solange instead of the news. Take a walk around town to clear our heads.

We might even consider lying down, closing our eyes, and listening to the rain. Last week it came down heavily over Los Angeles, a rare treat. Bucket-loads of loud, warm rain fell from the gray sky, washing away the past and ushering in a fresh start. Maybe December 31 will do the same, scrub away this last year—this loss-filled, polarizing year.

Rest up. Because we all deserve it right now. Because we need to be at our best.

Because it’s nearly 2017, the Chinese year of the rooster, and we have to wake up to its call. This is no time to expect someone else to volunteer, sign the petition, donate, be an ally, raise awareness, have an opinion, start a meeting group, or write a blog. Each of us has important work to do and our own unique tools and perspectives to help us contribute to the solution. We are, all of us, activists.

Because it’s nearly 2017 and we are in uncharted territory politically, socially, and environmentally. Things are out of control right now. There is no more stable ground. I don’t know what I’m doing out here and I’m okay with that. I’m diving in. I’m getting soaked. I’m chasing the ducks. I’m swimming out too far.

Today I’m thinking of my cohort, my fellow humans, the ducks, Lenny, Lenny’s person, the students I’ve taught, and the mentors and teachers who have taught me. We are all abloom, all at different points in the process of awakening to this grave new word. What will we do? What can we change? My intention is to wake up and start kicking. Then I’m going to rest until I regain my strength and do it again.

Bob DeBris, Iowa Beanfield, 2006. Ultrachrome pigment print,15x15.

Spotlight: Selections from Leisure Seizure

This work has been selected from an ongoing series, Leisure Seizure.

Theres a lot of weird stuff out there, some of the objects were created to promote long gone businesses, abandoned building projects or doomed theme parks. Some of it is simply an act of whimsy. […]

Notes from the Daughter of a True Believer

The many voices are taking over the mono-voice. For fuck’s sake, let them.

~Lidia Yuknavitch, December 2015, speaking at AULA


I was raised under the prism of an American myth.             

The author’s sister, left. Photo: Betty Tinker

My father taught me what it meant to be American. He was an officer in the United States Navy, and his mission took us to nine different military bases over the course of my childhood, from Guam to San Francisco to Nagasaki Prefecture, Japan. The Navy shaped my childhood, from the cross-global moves when my father received orders, to the everyday rituals of life on base. The national anthem played before every movie in the base theater. On the screen, rockets tore into space and tanks rumbled and uniformed fathers kissed their babies, while everyone in the theater stood at attention. If I happened to be outside at twilight, I knew to place my hand over my heart and freeze while the sound of a lonely trumpet rang out taps as the shadows fell. My mother timed her life around the ironing of my father’s uniforms. My father wore the stars and stripes of military insignia over his heart.

My father believed that, with the Constitution as our guide, the United States had achieved an apex of liberty and possibility for everyone. He taught me about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assembly, and the right to dissent. Going against the grain of many of his uniformed peers, he scorned the phrase, “Love it or leave it,” and defended flag-burning as a form of protected speech. It’s possible that his opinions even cost him promotions. To my father, free speech, including dissent, was essential to liberty. Dissent nipped at the heels of the nation, urging her to be her best self. When my father put his life on the line, the right to criticize the country and its leaders was among the most precious of the privileges he bound himself to protect. It took me a long time to understand that the Constitution is a kind of narrative, broadened or limited by the scope of the imaginations of those who wield the power to interpret it; that American liberty is an open-ended conversation.

*     *     *

In 1989, my father received orders to Oakland Army Base. We were housed in Ft. Mason in San Francisco, in a circle of standard base-housing duplexes nestled between the Marina District and Ghirardelli Square. I was fifteen and had the freedom to explore the city. My high school was in the Haight, and I rode the bus everywhere, spent hours with friends in cafes in the Mission and the Castro, in Green Apple Bookstore on Clement Street. The city was the opposite of the regimented cloister of a military base, where uniforms are worn and the buildings all look the same. In San Francisco, there were many voices, a multiplicitous community. Sitting with friends in Cafe Macondo, the “communist cafe” at 16th and Guerrero in the Mission District, years before the Silicon Valley invasion, I was exposed to critiques of American capitalism that upended everything. The Horatio Alger worldview that permeated my father’s teachings gave way to a story where institutionalized privilege and oppression were as undeniable as the homeless camps in front of San Francisco City Hall.

*     *     *

When they wrote that all men are created equal, the writers of the Declaration of Independence were, of course, limited in their vision. They used the word “men” not as a careless euphemism for personhood but as an exclusive category, a tight box that only had room for white, male property owners. In contrast, my father taught me that the concepts of liberty and equality have the capacity to exponentially expand, to embrace a continually widening definition of human rights. This idea of an ever-expanding potential allowed me to reconcile my father’s patriotism with the systems of institutionalized oppression I began to recognize all around me as a young woman in San Francisco. The tenuous thread that held together these two worldviews was the hope that our governing documents still contained possibility, that America was a painful work in progress. But the possibility of liberty for all depends upon the narrative itself. It depends on who is telling the story.

Now, with the election of Donald Trump, the concepts of free speech, free press, and dissent—my own tenuous links to faith in American democracy—are punctured and deflate beneath me. Were they ever really there? Was this particularly American concept of freedom ever more substantial than myth, than air?

I step into another country.

*     *     *

Donald Trump won the electoral college vote, in effect becoming the future 45th President of the United States. Feelings of panic and suffocation are now my baseline. Trump’s potential for destruction is too long to list here. The facile tweets and repugnant appointments, the shameless harassment of women, immigrants and religious minorities, the blustering and the fanning of racist, misogynist, and xenophobic hatred and intolerance—all are, horrifically, becoming normal. At this moment in our history, like the breaking of a dam, Trump and his cronies are releasing an actual and threatened torrential assault on our liberties.

I wrote the first draft of this essay on December 8, 2016, a full month after Election Day, and the President-elect had yet to hold a press conference. As I revise this essay, he has announced that he won’t be holding a press conference until after the inauguration. (And given his capricious nature, I would add, if then.) He refuses to communicate with the press in an open forum. During his campaign, Trump banned and/or revoked press credentials from several major news outlets, including the Washington Post. He has repeatedly slammed the exercise of free speech, from his tweeted assault on the cast of Hamilton to his threat to revoke the citizenship of anyone who burns the American flag. His sickening repudiation of American liberty marches on.

Trump’s open disdain for the press, for freedom of speech and dissent, is unprecedented. As writers, we are called to attention by it. This is about narrative control. Without press access to the Executive Branch of our government, the national narrative becomes shrouded and mystified. The narrative becomes, in effect, propaganda.

Propaganda is the narrative weaponized. To use Lidia Yuknavitch’s term, the mono-voice wields the story.               

*     *     *

I don’t see my father much these days. Although he’s no longer active duty, he continues to work overseas as a full-time contractor for the Navy. He visits twice a year to spend time with my children, his grandkids. I don’t know who my Dad voted for in this election, or if he voted at all. He has a history of abstaining when he doesn’t like either candidate. I have to admit that’s what I’m hoping for this time. However, in the days after the election, when my Facebook feed became a wail of anger, fear, and shame, my father commented, mildly, that he thought it might be good to have a businessman in office. I wrote back that I fundamentally disagreed with him about the man who’d been elected, and that I would continue to exercise my right to free speech, including dissent, just like a wise man taught me, a long time ago.

The winter holidays are approaching and I’ll be seeing my father soon. I wonder what he’ll have to say, whether we’ll find common ground about what it means to love this country. The importance of our being able to speak to one another across potential differences of opinion feels more urgent than ever. My father taught me what it meant to be an American. Now I wonder if we are living in the same country.    

*     *     *

I was raised under the prism of an American myth. My post-election panic and suffocation are the symptoms of the fracturing of the myth, the myth of an America passed down to me by my father.

I’m okay, even relieved, for the myth to finally shatter. I had meant to break myself of it long ago, but like a strong opiate, it asserted its will, keeping me silent and still. It’s time for a re-definition of this country, a time to break the illusion of a false equality. If nothing else, this election breaks the myth irrevocably.

Post-election, Dayton, OH

A year ago at the Antioch University Los Angeles MFA residency, writer and activist Lidia Yuknavitch warned us: “If you shut out the other voices available to the story, you are performing a colonialist act.” This December, the MFA community came together again, under very different political circumstances, and found the need to speak our truth(s) is more urgent than ever. We must refuse the colonization of our American voice(s). As writers, we must not allow the incoming administration to control the narrative, to silence us. There is work to be done.

To fortify myself, I imagine the multiplicity of voices: bits of light against the nightscape falling over our country. The LGBTQ America. The feminist America. The America where Black Lives Matter. The Muslim America. Native America. The America that belongs to immigrants. The America where immigrants belong.

Dissent runs like lifeblood through the history of this nation, generations of voices and bodies who put themselves on the line to increase the capacity of American freedom, who insisted upon their right to be included in the notion of a people created equal.

The mono-voice says, this is not your country.

But we will refuse to stand still and remain silent while taps sounds a death knell over our democracy.

Our American narrative is not calcified. It remains fluid, open to definition. As long as we can speak it—write it—it remains ours to describe. We, the many voices, will continue to stretch this country to its fullest and most beautiful, inclusive capacity. You don’t need to wear a uniform to love your country, to know that your freedom is on the line.

I’ll be the daughter of a true believer standing in the dark with her hand over her heart. I’ll stand with my fellow writers and activists. Our voices, our words, are our greatest tools of dissent. Now is the time to pick them up and hold them high. We’ll make a new anthem, together.




Melissa Benton Barker is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles. A Navy brat and native of nowhere, she currently lives in a small Midwestern town where she spends her time imagining stories, wandering in the woods, and raising children-sometimes simultaneously! Her work appears or is forthcoming in the Manifest-station, Smokelong Quarterly, and Literary Mama. She serves as Lead Fiction Editor at Lunch Ticket.


Writers Read: The Feel Trio by Fred Moten

Feel Trio CoverFred Moten’s writing is being lost. Or found. Or the kind of lost you want—the wind whipping through trees in Alabama or words that come in meaningful bursts, though you are unsure of the meaning or the source of the bursts. You reel in a mad maelstrom of feeling, entirely precognitive but at once familiar, unselfconscious. Fred Moten’s writing seems to settle somewhere in the lizard brain, or perhaps the collective brain, the third eye or whatever you’d like to call community. Black community. The collective black voice. “the violence of the coping strata is specific and seasoned,” he writes; there is a decidedly academic tone here, but one that invites rather than rejects.

The Feel Trio is an homage to music, to the musical spaces that gave voice to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. To the emotional space carved out by the work of James Baldwin.

The Feel Trio is an homage to music, to the musical spaces that gave voice to James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. To the emotional space carved out by the work of James Baldwin. In the last of the three Feel Trios, Fred writes, “I burn communities in shadow, underground, up on the / plateau, then slide with the horny horns. vision’s festival / is folded in overtones and outskirts. j tizol, harry carnival / and feel lined out around an open forte…” There is a definite nod to the genre of jazz here—musicians of color in particular, a reimagining of the life they’ve created with their art and the art that’s created their lives. But it is also music itself, rising and falling and lilting and flowing its own rhythms. In parts, The Feel Trio seems to shed language altogether, settling into sound, echoing perhaps what Lewis Carroll might do with it but in an entirely unique way. An astounding sound coupled with Fred’s voice that appears every once in a while—his colloquial voice, spoken in a noisy café, or his essayistic voice, spoken in a seminar on black radical thought, which are both the same voice but not. His writing is so impenetrable as to be unapologetically black; if you don’t get it then maybe you’re not trying hard enough, not allowing yourself to get it. So dense as to make the brain shudder. So oblique as to only be glimpsed from certain angles, from sufficient distance. In the first of the “feel trios”, entitled block chapel, he writes, “the violence of the coping strata is specific and seasoned.” Fred writes as if he is stating the obvious, but what he writes is power and place, in the same way that jazz states the obvious, fills the sonic space of what hasn’t yet been said. Music and poetry are matters of fact, and matters of love.


photo by Kari Orvik

It’s difficult to be fresh with language. It’s easy, as a writer, to fall into personal patterns or, worse still, clichés or archetypes. And yet Fred achieves this freshness—his work strays so far from archetype as to become wholly unfamiliar, unclassifiable, unexpected, which is to say that I was surprised at almost every line. The rhythms change constantly—undulating between short, terse, verb- and noun-heavy staccato shots and long, meandering lines that approach the structure of an academic paper’s sentences without ever achieving completion. Your mind, as a reader, switches so swiftly between modes of understanding that the recognizable loses its comforting swaddle and you’re left feeling raw and, ultimately, reawakened to the power of language. The way a child feels about language, before the mind settles. Fred’s words scrub the hard exterior of the uncompromising adult, chafe the brain, leave it young and curious once again. This is what the best poetry does, showing us that the ordinary need not be: “Compromised ordinariness,” he writes, “is an ordinary compromise. / as if there’s more danger in the / idea of flight than in staying / home. as if laying back where / you stay precludes flying, as if / the symposium were theirs alone.”

Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio has this something else, this duende, this authenticity of feeling, unweighed by ideation and overt intention, though there is clearly intentionality to the work. It is careful but unrestrained, which is a balance even the best poets struggle to find, but Fred seems to glide into effortlessly.

I sometimes try to explain what poetry is supposed to do to those who do not read it, to those who claim that it’s just not their thing. I want everyone to, because poetry is feeling. But I can’t. Because it’s inexplicable. Or unexplainable. Because, while we might break down the pleasant sonic quality of assonance or the way off rhymes are often more satisfying than straight thymes or the way lines breaks might imbue additional layers of meaning to a poem, all of these are craft, and poetry, good poetry, is meant to have something else. Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio has this something else, this duende, this authenticity of feeling, unweighed by ideation and overt intention, though there is clearly intentionality to the work. It is careful but unrestrained, which is a balance even the best poets struggle to find, but Fred seems to glide into effortlessly.

Fred Moten says astounding things in The Feel Trio, but it is his voice that carries the work. As a reader, I found myself alternating between the discomfort of not knowing what to think (which is an exquisite form of pleasure) and the comfort of familiarity—at times measured and at others bursting with feeling—as if Fred has always been there, coming in from some back room to impart wisdom, advice, or simply conversation. An encouraging word—the oft-repeated refrain, come on get it, which is the name of the second of the feel trios. “but I just want to sit here with you if that’s all right,” writes Fred Moten. Yes. It’s quite all right, Fred. Please do.

Moten, Fred. The Feel Trio. Tucson, AZ: Letter Machine Editions, 2014. Print.

Alex Simand_headshotAlex Simand makes his living as an engineer but sometimes muster the courage to call himself a writer. Alex holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. He lives in San Francisco, hails from Toronto, and probably talks about poutine too much. Alex worked on Lunch Ticket for the past two issues in various roles, including copyeditor, CNF editor, and, most recently, blog editor. His work has appeared in Angel City Review, Ash & Bones, Ultraviolet Tribe, Drunk Monkeys, Mudseason Review, and Red Fez, among others. He has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net Award. Alex writes good essays, bad poems, and vice-versa.

Exit Manual

You have a waking nightmare, one that is recurring.


Photo credit: Mary Birnbaum

You find yourself once again among the crowd at Disneyland pushing your small children before you in a double-wide stroller. (No, this is not the extent of the nightmare.) Everyone is steaming; everyone has theme-park fatigue and the solution is always to find a nice long ride, somewhere in the shade. The air is full of burnt sugar and popcorn, hot sunscreen and spilt sticky soda. Jolly music emanates from the bushes or maybe from the sky. Heat beats off the asphalt and off your scalp and you feel the early sting of sunburn on your bare shoulders. You know from experience that the best, coolest place to sit and breastfeed your baby is on It’s a Small World. You know that the five minutes of respite you get inside can feel like heaven. You brace yourself for the ride’s broken record serenade, its small grotesque dolls representing the peoples of the world (their eyes round as bullet holes). You’ve got stroller calluses on your palms and sweat training down your spine and between your milk-fattened breasts and you need to breathe for a few minutes without inhaling cinnamon and baking sunscreen. So you do not care about uncanny dolls. You make your way to the back edge of the park where the ride looms.

The three-year-old will be excited through her lethargy, though she has already been on this ride many times. You live near by. You take your children to Disneyland a lot. You park your stroller and wait in line with a baby on your hip and the three-year old holding your hand. The heat makes all lines feel twice as long. Everyone shuffles forward listlessly, their faces turned to the white facade of the ride, which churns like a great origami machine. There are rolling gears, spinning discs, wheels with gilded edges. A large clown-faced clock ticks in the middle, its arms—like loose blades—swing willy-nilly. Somewhere close a train whistle shrills and you startle.

When you reach the front of the line a blue boat glides forward down the river for you. Each boat is twelve feet long. There are five rows for passengers. You usher your little girl ahead and slide in next to her onto one of the plastic benches. You put your other child, the baby, in your lap. It feels so nice to sit down that your eyes flutter closed for just a moment. Though you haven’t yet entered the ride’s dark tunnel, now that you’re bobbing on chlorinated water you can taste the air conditioning, feel your body cooling. You sit very still, waiting for the boat to drift into the dark so you can pull your breast out to feed the baby. Beside you, your older daughter’s blonde hair is sweaty and dark at her temples and her slick little arm presses against yours. She cranes her neck upward and outward, her eyes wide, waiting for a view of the tunnel. As you float forward you hear her small voice try to name every topiary animal on the banks of the river. One moose-shaped bush, one bear, one deer before you’re inside. Your child’s thigh is pressed to yours and sweat seeps where your bare legs touch.

Once you are swallowed by the tunnel, the air is so cool that breathing feels like drinking water. You can pull down your shirt now, in the dark, to feed that baby. When she is latched, perspiration from you both suctions her hot cheek to your breast and when your milk lets down, the relief very nearly puts you to sleep. But not quite. This is always how it is for you, being with the children; sleep tugs at you constantly and you are rarely able to submit. When you look over at her, you see your toddler’s face is glowing in the ride’s stage lighting, which shoots up from canned spotlights in the floor, shoots down from thirty-foot ceilings, spattering the scenery. The chirping song might be a balm for a while, a lulling chant. Without any apparent geo-political logic, one cardboard country flows into another on the river banks, from room to cavernous room. Instead of trying to understand it, you allow yourself to be beguiled, briefly, in the chaos of noise and color.

There are wooden hills undulating on the right, flat like a stage set, painted plaid, meant to suggest the Scottish Highlands. On the left, frosty white triangles jut upward into peaks evoking (you suppose) the Swiss Alps. Dolls in lederhosen and bearded goats click along animatronically. In the South America room, the song’s lyrics are sung in Spanish. The dolls here are poncho-draped with plastic faces gleaming out from under real straw sombreros. Their jaws clatter open and shut. Their eyes are flat.

In your peripheral vision the neon green exit signs gleam. They lurk in the recesses of the rooms, discreet, so reality barely breaches the clement cruise. But they’re easy to spot, if you’re looking for them. And you will be. Their green-lit capital lettering is unmistakable, waiting like a promise, in case a shot is fired. They mark the doors one must push to open, leaning their body against the cold bar to release the metal catch. You imagine the way that feels. A minute or so into the ride, you find yourself scanning for the exits, actively checking them off in your mind as your boat flows from room to room, from one country to the next.

The child you hold lies heavier now, the way a baby releases its weight in sleep. She has unlatched from your breast. Her mouth makes a little O. You pull your tank top back over your nipple. You are conscious of her weight, as you sometimes are, when you make a silent calculus of how fast and how far you could go, should you need to carry both children at once in a hurry. You think of how to encircle their torsos with your arms, hoisting their sweaty bodies onto your hips with fluid strength.

*     *     *

As part of maintaining a safe campus community, we ask that you take a moment to view this PowerPoint on active shooter awareness and response measures. Although the likelihood of an active shooter event occurring on campus is remote, AU encourages the community to take an active role in preparing for such an event. Please be aware that this training, in particular the video portion, might be difficult to watch for some individuals.

-—From a November 29th email entitled “Active Shooter Awareness and Response Measures PowerPoint” sent to the entire Antioch University Los Angeles community, citing information from the Department of Homeland Security’s annual campaign.

*     *     *

You feel the plastic bench lengthen beside you when your daughter moves toward her rail of the boat, excited when she recognizes a familiar Disney character among all the dolls. There’s her little voice again, naming the figures as you float by and part of your mind is glad with her. But overwhelmingly now the exits, like beacons, are center-most in your consciousness. If a gunman opens fire, you know the fate of your children will depend on his proximity and on the type of gun he brought. You think about how, like songs, bullets can come in rounds. He may be in the boat ahead of you or the boat in back. He could be in your boat. He may emerge from within the ride, having chosen this moment after waiting for minutes or hours in a dark cleft of scenery. There are so many places he could hide in the rooms of this ride, beside this fake river, between any of the cardboard countries.

*     *     *

HOW TO RESPOND when an active shooter is present:


  • Have an escape route and plan in mind
  • Leave your belongings behind
  • Keep your hands visible

*     *     *

The water beneath the boats is shallow and the current is designed to flow lazily, so that the boat will be moving slowly when you need to jump away from it. You will need to gather your children by encircling, hoisting, just as you imagined. You’ll need to hold them firmly and scoot across the bench to the edge of the boat. First you will launch the toddler, then the baby, from the rail onto the banks of the colorful synthetic world. Your older daughter is coordinated enough to stand and to run if you throw her out. Aim for some open space, a gap in the scenery. You will try to stay low when you move.

*     *     *

HOW TO RESPOND when an active shooter is present (cont’d):


  • Hide in an area out of the shooter’s view
  • Block entry to your hiding place and lock the doors
  • Silence your cell phone and/or pager

*     *     *

When all three of you are out of the boat, within the scenery, you can cover the bodies of your children with yours so that as little of them is exposed as possible, bunching them together against your heart. You need to make for the exit light.

*     *     *

HOW TO RESPOND when an active shooter is present (cont’d):


  • As a last resort and only when your life is in imminent danger
  • Attempt to incapacitate the shooter
  • Act with physical aggression and throw items at the active shooter

*     *     *

You will waste no time thinking you can disarm the shooter, but there will be panic to contend with, that’s certain. People are going to be terrified in the noise and the chaos. People will clamber to get away, they will tear at one another, run and fall, splash and flail, sob or scream or plead. There will be no music audible over the din of gunshots and panic. You will expect these sounds. You will remember to get your babies out. If the shooter is close, there may be a reality of blood to consider, the smell of it, the quickly cooling warmth. You will still move efficiently, bearing in mind that the blood could be coming from a stranger or you or your child. You may only be able to tell once you get the children out the exit door. Your shirt may be thin enough to rip, should you need to create a tourniquet while you wait for help. There may be many people who need help but your focus must be to put a maximum distance between your babies and the bullets. You’ll have to wait to address any of your wounds. First, you must carry the kids and run far out into the safe, hot light.

*     *     *  

HOW TO RESPOND when law enforcement arrives:

  • Avoid quick movements toward officers such as holding on to them for safety [emphasis mine]
  • Avoid pointing, screaming or yelling
  • Do not stop to ask officers for help or direction when evacuating

*     *     *  

Or the song repeats, uninterrupted by shots or cries, as it has so far. The baby curls against you in her sleep, making a fist with her body. You feel overcome, in the shade at the ride’s end, and you pry that toddler’s hand up off the plastic seat and kiss her moist palm, smell its salty sweetness. You float by the remaining exits. There have been ten of them in all. The glow of the exits weakens as the tunnel reopens. Your boat is flooded by blinding light. You sail out of the song, back again into the day.

Cyclone: a biography of inheritance

(flash creative nonfiction)


“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.

“Cyclone.” Original score by George Bassman & George Stoll, 1939.


The one time I met Dad’s dad, he pissed in Mom’s closet. Grandpa George liked speedballs—cocaine and heroin in the same syringe. He liked prostitutes—the power of purchase was the one he abused most readily. But most of all Grandpa George liked Music—and Music liked him back, God knows why.


Grandpa George composed for Hollywood. He was the cyclone that whisked Dorothy to Oz, from black-and-white to Technicolor. He was chanting monkeys beating their filthy wings. He rode the high country. He got sentimental over you. He was into both guys and dolls. Passion without compassion fueled his compositions. It spilled into his Music from a pool deep within him—the rest of him withered, or perhaps was always dry.


The kindest thing my grandfather did to my father was neglect him. I shudder imagining what might have happened if he’d raised him.


The worst was already over before the beatings began: “Go get my belt,” George would whisper. My father delivered his abuser the instrument of abuse. The pain didn’t matter—the shame was in the submission.


When you became inconvenient to George he sent you to live in the Neuropsychiatric Institute. Indefinitely. First went his wife. Then his daughter Leslie. Then David—his son, my father—at age thirteen. No diagnosis was necessary. A rich man’s word is binding.


The fifteen months Dad spent in the psych ward were the best of his young life. He found love in kindred spirits. He found real education, found rebellion and counterculture. It wasn’t unlike a cyclone, hurling him from black-and-white into color.


Decades passed. Piss in the closet. Having blown the fortune his son would have inherited, George came begging for the money that was meant to buy my diapers. Later he pled ignorance when the dealers came pounding on our door.


Weekly my father would buy his father a hot meal, even though his father never fed him. He would put his father up in a motel room, even though his father had locked him in a nuthouse. And he would tell his father about how he was raising his son.


“Bassman’s later life was marred by tragedy—his personal life involved three marriages, and the last had a duration of scarcely a year. He was cut loose from his career, and he later fell in with the wrong people. He died forgotten by his profession and alone in Los Angeles in 1997.” (“George Bassman,” Wikipedia.)


Is my Music “mine” then? My own? Is his Music mine now? What is left to inherit from an empty man?


Dad was forbidden to play the piano. Grandpa George couldn’t stand the sound of amateurs. A lesser narcissist would want to spit his own image onto a vicarious heir. But George denied his son every piece of himself.

But I have come to claim my inheritance.


“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969 Photo of photo taken 2015.

“George Bassman.” Original photo by David Bassman, c. 1969
Photo of photo taken 2015.

nicholas-bassman_optNick Bassman writes songs, stories, poems, essays, Facebook rants, and weird lyric nonfiction pieces like this one. He hails from Los Angeles and currently studies at Oberlin College in Ohio. Nick writes for the Oberlin Review and co-created the quarterly art zine California Salmon Chronicle with Malcolm Gottesman. This is his first poetic publication. Find music from his band, Flowerteeth, at and his personal ramblings at