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Stress Is Keeping Me Alive

I love a good rousing physical, standing on scales and joking about my shoes weighing forty pounds, having my lungs heard, being told to cough, thumb wrestling the thermometer with my tongue. I love the banding of my arm and the pump-pump-pump of the vulcanized compressor, the doctor shuffling pages to see if I’m due for a tetanus vaccine. Even the gloved finger slipping into my reluctant caboose—not so bad.

blood pressure

Apart from the odd Bacillus infection putting me on the no fly list, the news is usually OK. Offering a sturdy, “Never felt better, Doc!” and having perfectly normal blood pressure quickly gets me out the door. I like to head to the Deli across the street for a celebratory egg sandwich on a bagel. “Large coffee?” “Oh, thanks for asking. Don’t mind if I do!”

I was born in a 40-bed hospital in central Maryland. There were three people on the graveyard shift—a doctor, a nurse, and someone to “gas the mothers.” For the past 25 years I’ve had access to “Baltimore” doctors—where even the nobodies have renown. It’s part of the old industrial and manufacturing legacy. Long after the factory shuts down, the sickness is just getting started. And Baltimore—like Cleveland and Pittsburgh—has some fantastic medical campuses.

Naturally, I was nervous about moving to the Deep South of high john root, hung syllables, and country smarts. True, nearby Charleston had been the richest city in America in the 1750s, but most of the “industry” in Aiken County had ceased operations when slavery ended. My hopes were buoyed by the presence of a nuclear weapons plant a few miles away. Plutonium and Tritium, Yay!

As you might guess, Aiken County has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation. Although I was probably too old to get cancer from living here, I’d benefit greatly from the years of environmental contamination that had sickened everyone else. The best doctors gravitate to the worst patients.

Eager to make new connections, I boldly signed up for an exam. I told the doctor I was feeling a lot of stress about the Senate confirmation hearings—that my blood was boiling. “Let’s take your blood pressure.” Dr. Besson was immediately alarmed. “We’ve got a serious problem here.”

“Problem? Serious?”

“Your blood pressure is 110 over 70. It’s very normal, and it shouldn’t be. Look at you, you’re on the obesity spectrum, and I can still smell the tequila you must have drunk last night. Your blood pressure should be through the roof.” He pronounced roof like ruff. Like the way dogs talk. For some reason, that stuck with me.

Dr. Besson pasted my chest with leads and performed an electro-cardiogram. “I found the trouble,” he said. “Trouble?” I said. “You have no heartbeat,” he said. “No heartbeat?” “Very little,” he said. “Stress is keeping you alive.”

Bradycardia isn’t rare. It’s a symptom of bad things happening…dull reflexes in your valves, thickenings, cardiac arrhythmia. What is rare is when it’s not a symptom of anything else at all, when it’s just the nature of your existence. Maybe Jeb Bush and I were cousins. Both of us had the low energy gene. Dr. Besson confirmed the nothingness of my bradycardia being with a treadmill test. It took me a long time to achieve the target rate. Both techs ate their sandwiches during the session.

I was surprised that no one in Baltimore had ever picked up on my slow beats. No one had ever thought to look at the numbers with a curious mind, or to relate them to one another in the manner of Dr. Besson’s country wisdom. It isn’t enough to know the numbers or to report the numbers. You have to know the bodies where the numbers live. It isn’t about, say, 24 million people losing their health insurance or the numbers of the well-to-do who thanklessly helped pay for it. It’s more about the soul-less feeling that happens when you realize the country you fight and die for doesn’t care about you, the salt mine you gave your body to doesn’t care about you, and the man you voted for only because he said he cared about you doesn’t give a rat’s damn.

Leaving Dr. Besson’s, I noticed a sign in the lobby which I hadn’t seen before: “Anything we can’t fix with dog spit we just cut off.” Good advice. There seem to be a few Washington D.C. office holders in need of a few licks.

Jesus Was a Capricorn

There’s a lot I don’t get about the birth of Jesus, but one thing is certain: he was a Capricorn. This actually explains a few things. For those new to Babylon, Capricorn is the creature who is one half horned-goat and one half fish, most likely a plus-sized Tilapia. The constellation butts up against Aquarius on one side and Pisces on the other in an area of sky known as the “Sea.” The Winter Solstice, Capricorn, and the Fisher of Men all go together like gherkins on the olive tray.



We’ve probably all known a Capricorn or two. The Capricorn personality is one of a natural perfectionist who always strives to do and be the absolute best possible. They thrive as entrepreneurs, trailblazers, accountants, and idea men. The Horoscope Compatibility website adds that “Capricorns are typically diplomatic sorts who win people over with their razor sharp wits and biting senses of humor.”


There is only one sign a Capricorn cannot tolerate. That would be an Aries. Especially one like me. I think this explains a lot of the deeper mysteries I wrestle with. As a Capricorn, Jesus honors tradition, neatness, goal-oriented objectives, and so forth. As an Aries, I sleep on the other side of the couch, blending a little slop with a little laze, taking risks, rocking the boat, generally being a jackass.

Life is so unfair. Forgive me while I poke my finger into the socket and vent. Everyone else gets the teachings of Christ and I get Detention Hall.


I think a lot of it has to do with the Immaculate Conception. Jesus was born on December 25th and if we cautiously assume a normal nine month gestation, that puts the Shangri-La between his mother and God smack dab at the beginning of Aries. It’s one of history’s greatest dramatic tensions: Jesus’ birth sign is absolutely contrary to his conception sign. In fact, his conception and his birth signs are notorious rivals.


If it existed back then, I’m pretty sure Mary would have been reaching for a valium from time to time. Imagine a naturally born Republican conceived during the sign of the Democrat. No wonder the Capricorn creature is a sea-goat, half goat and half fish. No wonder we eat fish on Holy Friday and lamb on Easter Sunday.

2016 has led me to question my faith, or rather, my lack of faith. I feel bombarded by too many signs for, and against, the Holy Trifecta. Gregarious in my curiosity, I ought to be able to pick and choose truth as I would at the produce market, sniffing the melons, gently bruising the avocados, maybe popping a strawberry into my mouth when no one was looking.

The holidays are tricky times for gamblers. It’s nearly impossible to turn a gift over in your hands and shake it without making some small quiet bet to yourself about what’s inside. Perhaps, a shirt? Three pairs of woolen socks? A box of pinon pine incense cones to make your room smell like New Mexico is burning?


Christmas is basically a time of ancient routines married to the mathematically ridiculous, which has always been my fetish. To this I like to add a heaping measure of superstition, which all fits squarely in what astrology purports to be.

Jesus as a Capricorn? It’s my angle and I’m sticking with it. As for Saint Peter, I’m pretty certain he was a Virgo, but I can’t prove it.

Rats, Dragons, and Monkeys

When asked what I do for a living I tell people that I’m between colonoscopies. Last week I had my fourth, and sometime during Trump or Hillary I’ll probably have another. I think of it as checking for trouble, like riding fences looking for loose barbs, or the night watchman ensuring shop doors are locked. My phlebotomist, who’s 61, is pretty sure she’ll be around for the next one. “How’s the farm?” she wanted to know, swabbing me down to look for a vein. And then, “Still writing?”

“Oh well, you know,” I said. “Horses in the age of the auto…”

“And poetry in the age of video,” she interrupted, finishing my grumpy assessment. She’d heard it before. A Gemini like my mother, we’d become old pals. The blend of rye straw and manure dusting my brow hardly made her sneeze anymore.

Nancy switched my arms right to left, and found a promising little bleeder on the back of my hand to seat the IV. Another nurse played solitaire on the computer next to my head. We were waiting for the anesthesiologist, and then we were waiting for the gastroenterologist, and then we were wheeling towards the crypt. I turned on my side. The doctor considered his tiny dragonfly.

“If you lick it, it goes in better,” I said. Then I was out.


Ordinarily, I wasn’t so comfortable about my body, but I’d been practicing for two months. There had been a pre-operative physical during which I calmly opened two snaps on my shirt. My stealthy internist pushed her hand under the cotton plaid to guide her auscultation device. She found a little wax in my ears—“just the right amount”—and some appropriate dilation in my eyes. She prodded my throat with a stick as I gasped and cried a little.

“You have to actually say ahh to make this work,” she said.

Next she squeezed my ankles and knees and wrists to check for joint swelling. “You don’t have to take off your pants as long as I can feel your bones,” she said.


And, of course, the blood work. You know by the way someone holds a syringe whether it will be good or bad. I made a fist. Sheila took three vials. “Do you know about the secret way out of here so you don’t have to go back through the waiting room?”

It was something Clinton might say. I wondered if people who think they’ll die before the election should be allowed to cast a ballot by mail, and whether five dead votes could count as two live ones the way our constitution once allotted for slavery in its apportionment reckoning.


My biggest challenge had been to receive a massage. I’d known Ann for six years. Long ago, someone had given me a birthday present—90 minutes with Ann—that I’d always felt too self-conscious to redeem. Couldn’t I just have 90 one-minute  visits?

“It’s just nudity,” my daughter-in-law had encouraged three years ago when she discovered I still hadn’t cashed the voucher. Finally settling the appointment, I covered myself in a sheet and lay back in a panic. Above me, small astrological objects twirled from wires in the ceiling. There was a grinning Buddha in the corner, and an oasis of geraniums, and jasmine oils. A somber Grecian duet of cello and piano sounding like Yanni came out of a box.

Ann was warm but indirect. “Anything especially bothering you?”

“My right elbow,” I said. “Agony.”

The sheet sailed away like the Argo. It seemed like a good time to talk about flat tires, and I told Ann a few stories of my childhood. Driving somewhere with my mother, we’d sometimes have a flat tire, and a kind stranger would stop and offer to change it. She would pay him a few dollars, and write down his name. The stranger was always so grateful for that. Later, I asked why she took his name. “He’s black, and not allowed to go to our hospital but with this good citizen reference, if anything happens, they’ll treat him.”


“Ready to wake up now?” a nurse said. “What year is it?”

“It’s the Year of the Fire Monkey,” I said. That was the funny thing about four year election / colon cycles—they always occur in years of rats, dragons, and monkeys. Only the elements change. Sometimes water, sometimes wood. Now, fire.

I was a little embarrassed about not having been ready to sign a “medical directive” requesting that my life be ended if the new life couldn’t be the same as the old one. They always ask me, and I always clam up.

The effusive gastroenterologist stepped in front of my curtain. “Good news! I only found a few polyps. Nothing hardcore.”

“Are populisms dangerous?”

“They lead to cancer, but there’s absolutely no reason you won’t be able to vote in November.”

The Softest Ears in the World

The wiry clerk at the gun store was pretty sure he didn’t want to sell me a gun so that I could shoot Georgia, my dog. But he wasn’t completely sure.

She sat on her haunches, panting softly. The Gunny looked at her, wondering if she were a good dog or a bad dog. The look on his face was the same look my father had when he tried to solve math problems.

“She ate my sandwich,” I said.

Another man still dressed for deer season six months after it ended took a knee beside the dog. “Does she bite?”

Georgia rolled onto her back and cocked her forearms to get a belly scratch. Her breath was a pungent cloud of sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. The smell of my filched Reuben panini overtook the faint circulating esters of black powder.

“It’s in her blood,” I said. “Her Uncle Simon Sad Eyes also stole sandwiches. It’s a very opportunistic line of retrievers.”

I remembered the time Simon Sad Eyes had stolen a whole pizza from three girls who only laughed and rubbed his head. One said, “Labs have the softest ears in the world.”

The man scratching Georgia was named Colt. I imagined he had two dogs named Smith and Wesson, and a horse named Trigger. “Aren’t they supposed to bring things back to you?” Colt said.

A friendly cross-stitch of the second amendment in biblical gothic lettering was mounted on the wall alongside an array of stocks and barrels. There weren’t any Guerini field guns—works of truth and beauty—but I could see the shop was making an effort at style.

Except for the fact I wanted to shoot my dog, these men were a lot like me. We’d grown up in a culture in which if you shot and missed your buddy would cut the back out of your shirt so everyone would know you couldn’t aim. We’d grown up counting breaths—three big ones—before squeezing the trigger, rather than “pulling” it.


Still, I was surprised that the dealer wasn’t absolutely sure he couldn’t sell me a firearm. He was bereft of an ability to explore the riddle of my predicament until he could understand it. Gunny didn’t ask me what had happened before the sandwich. He didn’t want to know if Georgia and I had been having a great hike on the river together. Maybe my wife had called. Maybe she’d fussed at me over something. Maybe I’d gone quiet as if grieving but really just to camouflage my rage.

A rage that could only be quelled by driving to Wally’s Country Store and ordering a sandwich.

There was a beauty parlor between Wally’s and the gun store. Arriving at Wally’s, I’d sat and watched a neighbor lead an older woman into the salon to have her hair done, as we called it. Maybe it was a duty, but it was also a kindness.

Sometimes you open your eyes and find that you are dancing with someone and sometimes you open them to realize you’re alone and everyone else is staring at you because the music isn’t for everyone.

The math never adds up. Like the old song says: I got six bullets and ten people I need to kill.

What was holding up Gunny was my right to buy a gun for any reason. That was something he believed in. It was in the Constitution. I imagined he told himself at night: What was good for George Washington is good enough for me.

And then I guess he took out his wooden teeth and went to sleep.

Georgia and I made our way to the car. Next time I feel so angry,  I promised her, we’ll get a mani-pedi.



Shepherdstown Keeps Falling on My Head

The Civil War never did anything for me. I prefer the part of American history when people wear hats made of raccoons. So it was weird to me how the current solar eclipse in Pisces had been affecting my own myth. Always a doer, I’d somehow settled into a dull routine of waiting around each day for Melissa Broder to make a tweet.

My book was published in February. I didn’t take any photographs of the box of books, or my cats and dogs reading a copy. Instead, I thought about Shepherdstown and the secret Rule of Twenty. The little town was twenty minutes west of Frederick, which was twenty minutes from the back road I took to find Interstate 70. The exit was twenty minutes south from where I was born in Westminster, which was twenty minutes southwest of where I parked my dented Scion at night.

The publisher, Somondoco Press, was based in Shepherdstown. So you might say I already had Shepherdstown on the brain when I learned about the Appalachian Studies Conference which was coming to the West Virginia “panhandle.” It was slated for mid-March when the rest of the country was preoccupied with sixty-four brackets.

Savannah Sipple

I knew a few poets who’d be attending. What could be better than to have an off-site reading at some craft brew pub located on the gravel block between the creek and the Norfolk-Southern rail line? I could debut my book in my book’s home town and introduce Savannah Sipple and Shawna Kay Rodenberg and Jessica Lynn Dotson to a hundred thousand blue and gray ghosts.

That’s the thing about Shepherdstown. If you’re driving, it’s about one cigarette to Antietam where 27,000 died in one day of fighting. And two cigarettes to the Battle of South Mountain. And three to Monocacy. And maybe six cigarettes to Gettysburg. You could knock out two years worth of Lee and McClellan in a day or so if it didn’t give you cancer.

Not very trustful of the internet, I drove to Shepherdstown to find the perfect bar with the perfect stage and the perfect sausage bread pudding dinner special and the perfect arcade because pinball sometimes just wants to happen. I locked-in the date, March 11, at the Town Run Brewery and was so thrilled that I didn’t mind getting lost on the drive home.

The other poets seemed a lot more important than me. Savannah Sipple, well, I was just crazy about her. We’d met online when she was guest editing Revolution John for Sheldon Lee Compton. I submitted an auto-immune piece which she accepted, but I rejected her acceptance, saying that I needed to pull it to keep working on it. She was so kind in her response that I almost rejected my own rejection of myself.

I stayed with Savannah, keeping up with her poetry, her bad-ass feminist impulse, her big-hearted joyous joy, her literary citizenship, her fight with Sheldon (which had recently been anthologized).

Jessica Lynn Dotson

And Jessica Lynn Dotson had a nice chapbook, Time Trials, out from Lines + Stars. Jessica and Shawna Kay Rodenberg were both contributors to my literary journal, and Jessica was also its web designer and Pay-Pal manager. Jessica wrote about engines, speed, stuck moments, angles, rituals, the night. Shawna Kay wrote about slaughtering goats, transcendence, smashing stone, the spirit, the day. Like me, Shawna Kay had some experience with Sisters of the Sacred Heart assisted living…basically, hospice for nuns. It was a strange thing to have in common when you didn’t really have anything else in common except poetry.

Everything was set. And then I got a message from Sheldon. His publisher wanted him to come to Shepherdstown. Oh Jesus. This all had the potential for a bodacious pillow fight, brother against sister, poet against prose. There would be fiddles. There would be daggers. What I hoped was that everyone would be so much in love with language and voice and singing that nothing would matter. It was the first reading I’d ever planned all by myself and I wanted everyone to be as excited as me that I could plan something.

My fetish for minutes should have been a fetish for days. Two weeks before the Shepherdstown reading I went to the Appalachian Studies website and realized I’d picked the wrong Friday. No one would be around for the eleventh. They were all coming for the 18th. I called the brew pub. No, I couldn’t have the 18th. It was booked for a square dance.

Damn, damn, damn. Sometimes I just hate myself. There wouldn’t be a reading, but there’d always be a Shepherdstown and a nice lump on my head. At least there was AWP and the chance someone would let me read in California, next May.


Shawna Kay
Shawna Kay Rodenberg







Work Space

IMG_0085My good friend Denton Loving enjoys typing in the nude, but I prefer to wear shoes when I write. It makes me feel polished and situated. It helps me to believe I could pass for someone without any troubles. Like someone who had a valid driver’s license. Someone who was so good at driving that other people wouldn’t mind being passengers. Like someone who drove all the time, and gave strangers the hand wave off the steering wheel, and yielded to the right at confusing intersections.

Like someone who never drove home naked in a Jeep after clubbing in Norfolk with that Holy Pentecostal Denton Loving.

Baring my soul is just plain easier if I’m dressed in a woodsy cardigan with button wheels sliced from a sapling. And my work is way too messy and barefoot for me to actually write in bare feet.

Sure, wearing shoes is just an illusion, but it’s a big one for me, paying attention to details. One of a million little lies that end up making a bobcat. The math is simple: ten illusions make a lie, and fifty lies make a story, and a hundred stories make a truth, and a two hundred truths make a bobcat you shoot from the porch. Every lie gets you closer to the dead bobcat.

Sometimes I’ll re-write a story using tercets, as if it were a poem. I know how wrong it is, but it’s reassuring to see so many pages of things coming in threes.

I also like the long walk into the trees before writing. It’s a touch of quiet aimless thinking before surrendering to the electric shake lighting me up.

Heading off to write on the other side of the farm is also a way of checking for trouble. Something about checking for trouble outdoors, when I’m already in lots of trouble on the inside, sort of takes me out of my own trouble.

And there’s no internet, and only spotty cell phone service. Anyone wants me they have to scream like they mean it.

I’ve written two novels in this chair. And stories that could be novels. And poems that should have been songs except I haven’t any pitch.

In May, the native ferns are mighty. Small game are plenty…groundhogs that can turn completely around inside their pelts, hares and foxes. And once in a while, a frustrated coyote. My three neighbors usually receive permits to take four hundred deer, one for every three acres planted in corn. But deer can smell a permit a mile away. They seem to know whether someone is vegetarian or not and most don’t even stand up when I walk past, strumming my sonnet like a five-stringed thing.


Barrett Warner’s Advice for Sherman Alexie

I am pretty sure I will never be asked to write a book about Sherman Alexie.

It isn’t that I wouldn’t want to write a book about him, or that I have nothing to say about “despair, poverty, violence, and alcoholism lightened by wit and humor.”

He made me laugh once. Surely, I could get a book out of that.

Not to mention the yellow face controversy last fall.

And maybe if we swabbed our spit we’d find out we were cousins. Worth a movie maybe, but not a book: “Separated by a thousand years / Two writers / One language.”

My feeling about Alexie was that if I wasn’t going to write a book about him, or if we weren’t going to have sex, why consider him at all?

I guess you could say he gets under my skin.

“The problem with mid-career poets and writers,” I once wrote inside a bathroom stall in a Truck’n America bathroom in Fredericksburg. “Number One: the battle between irony and careerism.”

I added more numbers for other Interstate-95 crappers to add their opinions.

This was in response to Alexie’s “top ten list for writers,” first published in 2010 and which shows up in my news feed every time a new MFA semester begins. It was odd because Alexie, who has written more books than there are miles in a marathon, seems to eschew the internet and yet he created the sort of listical the internet devours.

Near the top, he chastens writers who Google themselves. Well, sorry Sherman, but the rest of us don’t have admin assistants and agents and book marketing departments to do this for us. Just because you may have consultants doing it for you doesn’t mean you’re not Googling yourself.

spinach teethAnd what’s wrong with having a glance in the mirror from time to time? It’s not always about vanity. It can be that you’re worried some spinach is caught in your teeth, or that you’re interested in what the college administrator who might hire you will be finding. Isn’t it kind of like checking your credit rating a few times a year?



What if you were a user and had some trubs keeping up with your publishing record? Every time I Google myself I find some forgotten poem from the Eighties and Nineties that a print journal finally got around to uploading. That was how I learned I’d been anthologized in 1994 and how my first published story was about a guy who made sausages (sorry I so totally forgot about you, Walter).

It’s like reading old newspapers for minor things you might have missed, like a box score from September 11, 2001.

Here’s another gem: “Read 1,000 pages for every page you write.” By my math, that comes out to Alexie having read 50 million pages.

Wasn’t it Teddy Roosevelt who said, “You go into a poem with the words you have, not necessarily the words you want.” I say, make your hay when the sun is shining and read when it’s raining and forget about the numbers.

To be truthful, a lot of Alexie’s top ten advice is just about decency, and good manners. Well, okay, we should all be good literary citizens and support literary magazines, and write thank you notes to authors and also understand that authors are not just authors but people too and all people are fallible, including smart asses.

goon squadHe says, “In fiction, research is overrated.” I don’t agree or disagree with this, except that a writer has two things in her five gallon bucket of tools—imagination and experience. If you’re weak with one it helps to be strong in the other. And if you can’t experience what you can’t imagine, research is all you got so be like Jennifer Egan and make the most of it.

Near as I can tell, Alexie has written two dozen books about being Native American. Maybe if he were writing about Darfur he’d have to crack open his Webster.


Alexie also addresses the writing process. He says, “Don’t have any writing ceremonies. They’re just a way to stop you from writing.” I suppose Sherman practices Yoga on a couch rather than a yoga mat. Awesome doing those salutations while March Madness flickers on the sports channel.

But this doesn’t jibe well with what he says about blogs, how “every word in your blog is a word not in your book.” I mean, isn’t a blog just a book without ceremony? Why avoid writing ceremonies if reading is a ceremony?

For every blog post that should have been a book there are probably ten books that should have been blog posts.

Alexie, who once admitted to Bill Moyers, that his art was all about some kind of memoir, probably has a thing or two to say about whether or not a personal investment in the art is transferrable. I think 60 years of excellent confessional and personal poetry have settled that question. But personal investment that comes from experience is one thing, personal investment that is merely what Jack Spicer calls “personal rhetoric” is another.

That is why I blog. I want to make a space for my personal rhetoric to live so that it doesn’t have to live in my art.

As for the words in this post, well, so much for the idea of writing a book about Sherman Alexie.

Jack Spicer: My Vocabulary Did This to Me