Nov. 3, 2009

Driving at Night

by Sheila Packa

Up north, the dashboard lights of the family car
gleam in memory, the radio
plays to itself as I drive
my father plied the highways
while my mother talked, she tried to hide
that low lilt, that Finnish brogue,
in the back seat, my sisters and I
our eyes always tied to the Big Dipper
I watch it still
on summer evenings, as the fireflies stream
above the ditches and moths smack
into the windshield and the wildlife's
red eyes bore out from the dark forests
we flew by, then scattered like the last bit of star
light years before.
It's like a different country, the past
we made wishes on unnamed falling stars
that I've forgotten, that maybe were granted
because I wished for love.

"Driving at Night" by Sheila Packa, from The Mother Tongue. Calyx Press Duluth, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the humorist and cultural critic Joe Queenan, (books by this author) born in Philadelphia (1950). He's a journalist and critic who has become known for ridiculing almost every aspect of popular culture in his writing. His working-class background inspired him to become a critic because, he said, "Blue-collar people like me have zero tolerance level for the problems of celebrities."

It's the birthday of the playwright Terrence McNally, (books by this author) born in St. Petersburg, Florida (1939). He's best known for his play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1987), about a romance between a middle-aged waitress and a short-order cook who work at a café together.

It's the birthday of William Cullen Bryant, (books by this author) born in Cummington, Massachusetts (1794), who worked as a lawyer, hated it, wrote a history of world civilization in verse while still working as a lawyer in his 20s, quit his attorney job, became a journalist, and edited the New York Evening Post for 50 years, during which time he promoted unions, condemned slavery, and advocated for a Central Park in nascent New York City. Bryant Park next to the New York Public Library is named for him.

But he's perhaps best known for a poem that he wrote at the age of 17, "Thanatopsis." The title is a fusion of the Greek words for "death" and "sight" and is often translated as "Meditation upon Death." It was first published in The North American Review when Bryant was in his 20s. Even then, it was so mature and well-crafted that the editor of the Review was incredulous about its authorship, saying to another editor: "No one, on this side of the Atlantic, is capable of writing such verses." Bryant later published "Thanatopsis" as the title poem in a collection (1821) that some critics consider the first major book of American poetry. He was a mentor to fellow New York resident Walt Whitman.

It's the birthday of comedienne Roseanne Barr, born in Salt Lake City, Utah (1952). Her parents, who were Jewish, sold crucifixes door to door to support the family while she was growing up. She said, "Friday, Saturday, and Sunday morning I was a Jew; Sunday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, and Wednesday afternoon we were Mormons."

"I was just a real weird woman from the day I was born," she once told an interviewer. When she was two years old, she would run out into the street to slow down speeding cars. When she was three, she hit her head on the dining room table, and her face became paralyzed. Her mom called a rabbi immediately, and the rabbi said a prayer, but Roseanne wasn't healed. So her mom called the Mormon missionaries the next day, and Roseanne got better. Her Jewish mom took it as a sign that Roseanne should be raised Mormon. Her dad was an atheist and fine with the decision.

When she was 16, she read in a medical textbook about a type of temporary paralysis, Bell's palsy, which lasts about 48 hours, and realized that that is what she'd had as a child, and that her mother's decision to make her daughter Mormon based on the healing "miracle" had been a false pretense. That day, Roseanne rebelled in a very adamant way: She got drunk, smoked, and told her boyfriend she was ready to give up her virginity. She also got in a car accident, and was knocked unconscious, and when she came to, she had nightmares and wasn't herself, and ended up in a psychiatric ward. She spent eight months there, and says it was a very good and very valuable experience: "I learned everything I need to know there. It made me everything I am. It's an incredible thing to have a group of insane people be your family for a year."

A little while after her release, she picked up a woman's liberation newspaper left on a sidewalk, and it inspired her to hit the road. She got on a bus and ended up in Colorado, where she fell in love with a motel night attendant. After living together in what she jokingly calls "a hippie commune," they got married and moved into a trailer. Her husband drove a garbage truck, and she was a housewife raising three kids. On the side she wrote comedy routines and put them aside in garbage bags.

Because she and her husband were short on money, she took a job outside the house, as a cocktail waitress. She began trying out her jokes, largely about the incompetence of the male species, and the people frequenting her bar loved it. To men who did not wash dishes, she said, "What's the matter — is Lemon Joy kryptonite to your species?" and about husbands who couldn't find their own socks, she said, "They think the uterus is a tracking device."

A lot of her comedy came from her observations and experiences as a housewife and stay-at-home mom. She said, "As a housewife, I feel that if the kids are still alive when my husband gets home from work, then hey, I've done my job."

And, "Experts say you should never hit your children in anger. When is a good time? When you're feeling festive?"

And, "Women complain about PMS, but I think of it as the only time of the month when I can be myself."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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