Utne Blogs >

Musings
A collection of our favorite short stories, poetry, zines and more.

Quitter #7: May

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fifth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part four, see Quitter #7: September.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

My first name is rumored to have a basis in a tool known as the oscilloscope, a small bench-top machine that measures the wave shape of electrical signals. The lines appearing on the screen of the oscilloscope are referred to as the “traces”, usually just one but up to several lines on a basic X,Y divided axis. When I was a kid my brother and I would mess around with our father’s oscilloscope, try to get the lines to make crazy shapes or pretend we were in a space capsule and the lines were voice transmissions from beyond some moon. We did not understand what the oscilloscope’s purpose was other than to make a bunch of squiggles on the screen when you fiddled with the knobs. And that was enough for us at the time.

We always found the oscilloscope in the middle of the workbench in my father’s shop, a small room in the corner of the enclosed breezeway dividing the house from the garage. The shop was heated, so we spent a lot of our Wintertime in there watching my father take things apart, fix something or put some piece of what-not back together. Sometimes we would help melt the solder from a variety of electronic boards and separate the capacitors and resistors into little drawers. If I close my eyes long enough and think about it, I could probably remember what the color codes on the resistors meant. We had to memorize it since we had to put the resistors in the correct drawer and couldn’t ask him every time we had to file each little piece away.

The shop was always full of disassembled VCRs, ancient game systems, black and white televisions, telephones, cable boxes, kitchen appliances. If you could plug it into a wall socket, it could be found in the shop — and usually in several different pieces. Later into our teenage and young adult years, the shop was where we would go to smoke cigarettes, drink Dad’s beer and make copies of rented movies. To all of the piles of assorted electronics, those new uses added quite a few half-full ashtrays, stacks of unlabeled video tapes and cardboard cases full of empty beer cans. The whole shop was a constant mess, a study in theoretical physics, evolution and decomposition, all in real time, all occurring only because of our existence there and our horrible habits, all ignored because of little green strings tracing across a screen.

String theory is the idea that electrons and other particles within an atom are not dots revolving around a nucleus but rather oscillating lines. In the field of theoretical physics, there are five major string theories, each one attempting to form an elusive Theory of Everything, a single mathematical formula to describe the physical interactions of the entire universe. But only this particular universe, since string theory also opens up the possibility of the mulitverse, layer upon layer of variant universes all with their own laws of physics.

The gap between Einstein’s general relativity and modern physicists’ quantum mechanics cannot be bridged without an entirely new theoretical construction. Researchers and theorists get close, discover that they need to construct another theoretical dimension or smaller particle that has a possibility of actually being observed in a real life experiment. They then test the new theory and move from there. What we can write about in a few pages of text require decades of experiments, new hypotheses, emerging talent from the university systems. Basically the five different string theories end up as untestable within any of our own sense of the word “test”.

Is it at all possible to violate the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says that disorder can never decrease but only come to an uneasy and most likely temporary equilibrium? Disorder can never be reversed (says the law); work is always undone. Any momentum towards disorder is natural, adequate in purpose, sometimes easy to see, like a laundry hamper filling with dirty socks. You may clean the socks once the bag is full but you must always introduce work and calories and heat in order to do so. Yet the socks end up back in the hamper, a bit more worn than they were previously, just as the feet they were on are a bit more worn as well. There are no solutions to avoid the eventual disorder of the socks. Simply letting them be, letting them sit completely still on the top shelf of a closet, even keeping them sealed up in the packaging they came in, does nothing but add infinitesimally small amounts of time to the universes’ plan to make those bound threads and space-age polymers into random scatters of particles.

Our own natural equilibrium most likely occurs as billions of free range molecules in the air, water and soil, not as the pliable warm flesh we are accustomed to. It is the whole mythology of “dust to dust” backed up by centuries of true observation as well as various thought experiments. My name, the shop in the breezeway, the oscilloscope — all temporary formations of matter and minutia studied with head scratching and dreams, the calculations drawn on chalk boards here and there, populating the archeology of our dim understanding of time and its infinite patience. Are we ourselves neither strings nor particles, rather just random assemblies of physical actions, chemical reactions and hypotheses about which cupboard holds the plates in a stranger’s house?


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Quitter #7: September

Trace Ramsey’s All I Want to Do is Live (Pioneer’s Press, 2017), personalizes common themes of survival, depression, and life in America at a time of division and upheaval. In this collection of essays, flash nonfiction, and poetry, Ramsey examines his family history and shows us how darkness can trickle through generations. He looks to people like his grandparents and his partner for hope and works to move beyond abuse and mental illness to find what is worth passing on to his children. In a unique voice of clean, deliberate prose, he relays stories about the damage of the past and recovery in the present that is both brutal and achingly pretty. As the personal often sheds light on the universal, Trace’s memories of his childhood and the scenes from his life today also give us the story of our time, our country, and a people longing to find substance, freedom, and meaning. The following excerpt is the fourth in a series from the chapbook “Quitter #7 (2013).” For part three, see Quitter #7: July.

To find more writing that piques our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

 

I remember it was sometime in the Fall; all day long the cool air dried my throat on its way in, the same air emerging warm and humid, personal clouds of breath falling up and away into the surrounding atmosphere. At the time I was in Western New York. That particular atmosphere was most likely gray and barely concealing the threat of snow or sleet. It was too early for snow, if I recall correctly, even for this small town sandwiched between Lakes Ontario and Erie and its lake effects.

Fallen leaves blew into the street, crashing and skittering into each other like poorly made airplanes. Against that threatening gray sky the variant colors of leaves haloed the random limbs of the nearly empty trees, the branches narrowing to the twigs at the extremities, each little wooden finger moving crisply with the air movements above. From minute to minute these trees are safely bolted to the ground by a thickened trunk and miles of root hairs and fungal partnerships, their leaves safe to depart without harming its own life.

Beginnings and ends are buried in this particular color contrast; browns and reds fidgeting against the dirty white background above us, those few hopeful, final leaves holding on to that last stage of senescence just long enough to end up right on the top of the pile, the last to land, the last to decay. With the passing hours and minutes, the leaf layer forms on the lawns and the curbs and the shrubbery of the immediate world, not only a beginning but an end point in a constant cycle.

So what am I remembering exactly? The time I am thinking of is just like any other from that point in my life — awake to the boredom of youth, brush against the boredom of family during breakfast. Get on a school bus full of variable stressors and hassles, depart and navigate the hallways and school lunch table seating. Become obsessed with vaguely defined friendships, sexual frustration and the confused and bullying tastes of peer pressure. The cycle is repeated in reverse, the bus empties me at home, the television comes on and the disaster of teenage life hides itself in the couch cushions or the sheets of an unmade bed.

When I was a teen, there were moments in which I laid in bed for an entire day, stomach down, face toward the wall. I was immobile, pushed into the mattress by a compression of something outside of my control, something I did not understand. Breath came short and shallow, the room dark enough to give shadows very little running room into the corners. The sheets on the bed warmed rapidly and cooled slowly, crumpled in the middle and taut at the corners, stagnant under my weight and despite my darting thoughts. I felt like a leaf caught in the bushes.

When you are young, you can’t assign a name to it, this thing, this “depression”. You think it is just a part of life, something that comes along with breathing and aging and carrying a heavy mammal brain. Left untreated the first bout of depression will usually lead to another several years down the road. From there the half-life continues to decrease until a handful of minutes is all that stands between the dawn and the dusk of a depressive episode. For me, I am old enough now that there are no longer horizons on which to seek shelter. It just comes on, a quickly spreading net of thoughts and inaction. There is no refuge, no chance to turn it back. It just comes.

My depression shows up and opens all my doors and windows to the elements — rain, wind, sun, volcanoes, earthquakes. I am forced to greet all of it, begrudgingly welcome all the things I have no interest in revisiting — Oh hey, remember when I punched that parking meter because I got rejected by some girl at a party? Remember when that kid threw my sneakers on the roof of the school?

There isn’t anything particularly emotional about what I feel, just a low energy custody of despair and sullenness, a cold thin soup of presence. My sighs become autonomic; I chew my teeth and vibrate my fingers imperceptibly. I lose words, become silent as a conservation of energy, stare at things as if they hold me upright in doing so.

I become a ghost unsure of my manner of haunting. Depression can be like a frost; unpredictable, furious, disappointing. There is hope that neither will come at a bad time, a time where something is needed that cannot be disrupted, a time containing plans for the future and a singular requirement for growth. A flower, like a healthy mind, brings a promise of fruit.


Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 5