Sunday, February 3, 2013

McSweeny Lives

by Jesse S. Mitchell

illustrated by rhoda penmarq




I think I was Tallulah Bankhead in a past life.

No, not really…well, maybe really, why not?

It is just a thought that sometimes flutters down out of the ether and into my head and every thought, no matter where it flutters from, is just as valid as the next.

Life is a strict study of contradictions anyway; the pressure and drive to achieve, the upward grasping to something big, all the while the firm and persisting notion that only the small things matter, only the little moments never fade. The brain haunts a person in this way.

And Tallulah isn’t the only thought that invades my mind, the only possible dead personality I suppose I could have inhabited: Beethoven, Hans Christian Andersen, the guy that invented the folded paper boxes Chinese take-out comes in…but whatever I was, I know what I am.

I know what blood I presently possess, interesting blood. I am the son of a lonely cattle farm deep in the Midwest, a product chiefly of emigration/immigration (you can’t do one without first doing the other), but not entirely. My family was at one time a relatively well-heeled high-born Irish one.

Really. I know almost every Irishman encountered claims some sort of regal ancestry, but in my case it is a genuine claim. Whatever happened and wherever it happened is still something of a mystery. Flights of Earls, plights and English occupations, we ended up here, awash upon the shores of America where we promptly married into a tribe of eccentric Russo-French Jews, and some Cheyenne got mixed in as well…it is America after all.

Interesting mixture, I believe, and I think about it a lot, or at least I used to, when I was younger. Now it is basically imprinted. A Celtic, Jewish, Native Monster.

Three of the losing tribes of recent history, but far from the only losing tribes. Fact of the matter is everybody lost in the Twentieth century and we all appear to still be losing.


But the story of my family in this country is essentially a Twentieth century one and I doubt that my latest ancestors would consider their story a losing one. My family, despite some of our strange outward facades, is a highly successful one.

Owners of medium-large tracts of land, absolutely no debt, comfort. I didn’t need to apply for government aid for college, for whatever that is worth. We are safe, happy. I grew up in a busy, bustling household filled with relatives and joy as opposed to most literary types and their characters, lonely in a cloistered apartment deep in the trenches of some major city with life and wonderment and traffic blurring all around them.

I was in the middle of a maelstrom of familiar happenings up close, and all around the outside of the house was the emptiness. And it is empty around our cattle/soybean/corn/whatever-fascinates-us-farm, ten miles in any direction (more depending on the direction) to get to anything most people would consider civilization, a store or even a gas station, a few houses between.

I still like barrenness. I like wilderness. I like openness.

I like cold weather and I like sincerity. I think all of this is reliant on my life as it has been up until now. I also believe happiness is reliant on these things.


 But the story of my life is conversely a Twenty-first century narrative. One of doubt. One of where-does-a-person-go-from-here wondering. A lot of stagnation afflicts our modern society, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, a further condensation of power and centralization of all things.

Three, two, one major publishers, a megalithic television/movie/entertainment conglomerate. The guise of greater resources but a shrinking limiting of real access. A big balloon lie of wild excess, everything waiting on the needle pin prick of privation. A shaking voice in a stiff wind unsure of what or of any evil to speak against, what harm is caused even by disturbing or disrupting, everything so spider-webbed together.

A constant state of war. A war we can’t win. And I don’t just mean actual war, bullets and bombs, but culture war, sociological war, economic war, no sides to choose, no right from wrong. We cannot win.


 I think a lot about the lives I might have once had. I wonder what they would do now, how they would live in this world. Every defining feature, Dalton Trumbo strength, Josephine Baker courage, Harry Truman character, but I always come up short, at a loss.

I don’t know their lives. I don’t know their blood. I only know mine. I only know my life. I am an invention of my time after a long series of attempts.

That is what the present is: a right-now, a right-now that could only exist right now after years of attempts and evolution and change and all we have to do is keep going, keep our little lives going. And keep the future presents going after all our attempts.



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