Old sailing ship in fog

Fighting Words

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

I’ve been thinking about the Hollywood writers’ strike, and especially their picket signs, signs like, “What we have here is a failure to compensate,” and, “Our shows are household names but we can’t afford houses,” and “I told Chat GPT to write a sign and it sucked.” They’re a reminder that when you can’t use language to negotiate because the ones in power—the studio heads, the arrogant bosses, the MBAs running the Incompetence Office, the deans schooling faculty in low morale, the self-proclaimed and misnamed Freedom Caucus, the jerks, the indifferent, the micro-managers—when you can’t use language to negotiate because the ones with power think there’s nothing to negotiate, still you can use it to punch back with punch lines, which is good. You can use it to skewer, use it to spotlight, use it to express, and sometimes just expressing well is like a vitamin boost to your dignity.

So this one’s for everyone who’s ever had a jackass boss:

The Story of the Crew

Since the captain wasn’t sure how to get there, he took a quick survey of opinions. Not that he planned to listen, just indulge, let a few of the crew feel included.

One said, “I see that your map is all wrong, and it’s covered in sea-monster doodles.”

So the captain slapped down a gangplank and ordered him to walk.

Another invented the sextant, but the captain just threw it at a seagull. There’s a sea shanty now in remembrance of the splash, how it sank and the crew’s hopes with it.

When a storm rose and waves cracked the mainmast to splinters and the sailor who’d been in the crow’s nest nearly drowned, the captain sent a morale-boosting memo: “I’ll need to see everyone’s Goal Sheet and Plans to Improve.”

So, did the Admiral come to the rescue then, appear on the horizon?

Goodness, no; what story are you thinking of? The captain named the next island for himself, allowed the crew to divvy up a coconut…

Now it’s hard not to run across their messages in bottles. They keep drifting ashore from all four corners of the world.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s first collection of creative nonfiction, Accidental Gardens, is out now from Stormbird Press, and his new book of poems, Call and Response, is available from Black Lawrence Press. Previous books include Facts and Figures, The Last Tiger is Somewhere, The Book of Sharksand 88 Maps.

Read an interview with Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: “The Ocean is Full of Questions.”
Read Rob Carney’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by Terrain.org and Trinity University Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in Terrain.org: 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to an interview on Montana Public Radio about The Book of Sharks.

Header image by Matthew Z., courtesy Pixaaby.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.