Ryan Werner

Ryan Werner is a janitor in the Midwest. He runs the music/literature project Our Band Could Be Your Lit. "Always Say the Person's Name" is based on the song "Ode to Billie Joe" by Bobbi Gentry.


Always Say the Person's Name (September 20, 2011. Issue 31.)

I'm in a self-esteem workshop trying to—what else—feel better. I've been to a bunch, all over the place, and one thing they always do is hand out these half sheets of paper with two columns, ten questions each. Except they aren't really questions, just the words "I am" and then a three-inch line for your answer. Twenty times. When someone shares their "I am" conclusions out loud, they end up explaining what they just summed up and people chime in with encouraging statements like "Fear is in all of us, but so is strength, Frank," and "You know, Susan, big is beautiful." You always say the person's name when you give them encouragement.

Of course, the people in these workshops are never here because they have a problem with high self-esteem. It's hard to imagine someone coming in and saying, "I don't know what's wrong with me—probably nothing—but I just feel so good at so many things."

After the "I am" portion there are one-on-ones that take up the rest of the time. The "Six Minute Power-Up" is what they call it. Each person gets together with someone else for six minutes, and before rotating they just have a conversation about how the printer at work malfunctions at them or the ways in which their cats sense shame.

The woman running the workshop is shaped like a pill and wearing mostly denim. When it's my turn she tells me about coming-of-age in Colorado, how she worked in the public relations department of a popular but morally-bankrupt ski resort and had to overcome how she felt about spinning their problems. This takes fewer than two minutes, which is a third of our time spent together, something she has planned: always give away the bulk of your time.

"How are you?" she asks, and then pauses briefly before adding my name.

* * *

My "I am" list reads something like this: taller than most people, wearing expensive glasses, thirsty for something other than free coffee.

"I am never going to learn to sew properly," one woman says, and then while everyone else is telling her that it's a matter of practice, amongst other things ("And what does properly even mean?"), I'm sitting there thinking about how little I care about sewing and, everyone's right, how easy it'd be to just practice if I did care. The thing I'd write down if I got the kind of serious everyone here wants is I am incapable of letting the right things go. I can never figure out the correlation, but whenever I think about writing that one down I always think about a girlfriend who made me spray her with a fire extinguisher. She told me that she loved the feel of it, and it was harmless as long as I wasn't too close and she didn't get it in her eyes or mouth. So, once a day we'd go into the garage where she'd strip down and spin while I sprayed her with a fire extinguisher for a few seconds. When I'd stop, she'd keep spinning, right into me so I'd have to catch her.

I tell all that to the pill-shaped woman. Her smile is unwavering. She scratches her jaw-line and starts telling me that we all sometimes harbor odd feelings of regret. Her eyes dart around the room, maybe for a clock but maybe just to think.

I can see that she's struggling, so I go on to say that I always caught my girlfriend, but I always held on to the fire extinguisher, too. I ask her almost rhetorically if she thinks it's possible to handle them both and for the next minute she tells me stock phrases, how material goods can't take the place of human connection and how any bond is only the sum of the people in it. Then a bell dings and she moves on.

* * *

When we're on the final round of the power-ups, I end up with a woman in her late forties. She says that she has trouble speaking to people because she's afraid that anything she says will make her sound stupid. I'm gentle with her. I tell her the fire extinguisher story I told the moderator and this woman tells me that it's just a matter of getting her back.

I don't think that's it. What if it's not a matter of going back? What if it's a matter of taking back? Of being able to get back? What if that's impossible?

I only ask her that last question. She scrunches up her nose and then sets her face in a wise old way. "If it was impossible would you be telling me about it?"

What I tell her is "No." What I write at the bottom of my paper is I am saying yes.

The Legendary