“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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My First Time (Revisited)

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It was my great pleasure to guest-post at The Quivering Pen, a fantastic site for writers (and readers) curated by David Abrams (himself an excellent reader and writer: check him out, here).

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My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

 

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last. In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

My novel Not To Mention a Nice Life is now available.

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Straight, No Chaser (Revisited)

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This Sunday’s New York Times magazine features a lengthy, but worthwhile appraisal of John Cheever by Charles McGrath. The piece reassesses Cheever’s current status (McGrath correctly concedes that Cheever, who died in 1982, has had his star fade in the last decade or two), and perhaps in light of John Updike’s recent passing (he made it to 76; more McGrath here), it is difficult to believe the “Chekhov of the suburbs”, as he was sometimes called (in a way that only a regular contributor to The New Yorker, that literary bible of upper-middle class, over-educated and angst-ridden WASPs could be) did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his collected short stories. Those stories, taken along with his novels (some highly regarded, others not so much) seemed to constitute a significant pillar in the modern American pantheon (modern meaning three to four decades ago).

When Cheever died, McGrath recalls: his literary reputation seemed as secure as literary reputations get. You would have bought shares in it if you speculated in such things. He was a widely acknowledged master of the short story, in a league with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Updike, who said that Cheever wrote “as if with the quill from the wing of an angel.” Now, not so much. The aforementioned collection of short stories, still largely regarded (for better or worse) as one of the seminal works of 20th Century American fiction, sells approximately 5,000 copies a year. Not shabby, McGrath acknowledges, but pretty depressing when you consider this asshole probably sold more books in the last ten minutes than the Cheever catalog will sell in the next ten years.

Nevertheless, (and this seems to be one of McGrath’s implications) it stands to reason that with the understandable hubbub stirred up by Updike’s death and the celluloid reincarnation of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen it yet, but if it’s half as depressing as the novel, it will be very depressing indeed), the time may be ripe for a reassessment of Cheever, that bard of suburban despair. We’ll see. As we slouch toward a not-so-great Depression, I suspect that nostalgia for the black-and-white TV era in America might not entice too many young readers. Having to brown bag lunch it once in a while (do they even make brown bags anymore?) is about as retro as most middle-aged clock punchers want to get. I can’t say I blame them. Also, remember how quaint some of the characters seemed, when we read about them in the late ’70s and early ’80s? Think about how ancient, and boring, those loquacious and well-mannered (not to mention mostly lillywhite) characters will seem to X-box educated pupils today.

Let’s put it this way: to get a handle on Cheever, you need to have at least a passing appreciation of a time when people poured their spirits out of glass decanters (you need to know what a decanter is). An era when women drank, and smoked, all through their pregnancies just so they could keep pace with their husbands. McGrath speaks to Mary, Cheever’s 90 year old widow, and she reminisces about how certain folks rolled back in the day: “I just couldn’t keep him from drinking,” and went on: “But everyone drank a lot back then. People don’t always understand that now. Sometimes someone would even have to be put to bed before dinner, but that’s just the way it was.”

That remark, remarkable in its stoic, unsentimental honesty, reminded me of Cheever’s much-anthologized short story The Swimmer http://shortstoryclassics.50megs.com/cheeverswimmer.html

It also (inexorably) reminded me of something I wrote*–which I do not quote to flatter myself by comparison with Cheever (trust me) so much as to acknowledge that the generational divide I invoke is from the same era Cheever lived, wrote and drank in:

With Pavlovian precision, I make my way to the medicine cabinet and pour myself a bracing plug of bourbon. It’s more than I need or deserve, I think, but I don’t want the bottle to suspect I was unfaithful in another town, waiting for my return flight for instance, in a cramped and crappy airport bar at La Guardia. If this were a movie (I think, mostly in the past, but even today), I would grab my crystal decanter, filled with obviously expensive spirits, and administer that potion the old-fashioned way, needing no ice cubes, especially since I would never get around to drinking it, as it’s only a prop, a cliché. No one reaches for that tumbler these days (except in movies); the question is: did they ever? Even in the ‘50’s? Or has it always been part of the script?

I still have hangovers, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge of. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50’s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become. Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives. It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

 

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Brooklyn Reading #9: Good Neighbors/Newark Airport, 1980

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May 29, 2014.

It was billed as a throwback to the old Beatnik days, minus the bongos and clove cigarettes.

As such, New York City was a mandatory locale; Brooklyn made it perfect.

Full, unedited video HERE.

My neighbor, whose name I’ve of course forgotten—if in fact I ever knew it in the first place—(and, being roughly my age, never objects to and always answers my irrefutably cordial salutations which include chief, dude, bro, and the ever appropriate and all purpose man) is standing outside my door: I can see him through the peep hole.

While I wonder if I should wait to see if he’ll knock again, he knocks again. It’s eight-thirty in the morning, what’s the worst thing that could happen?

“Hey Byron,” he says, embarrassed or anxious. Or both (at least he remembers my name).

“What’s up my man?” I say, not missing a beat.

“Listen, sorry to bother you…you on your way to work?”

“Yeah, actually…why, is everything okay?”

“Uh, yeah, listen, do you mind if I come inside for a second?”

I back up obligingly, resigned to roll with it. What choice is there? After all, I did open the door.

He corners me in my kitchen and asks if I know anyone who might be interested in buying a condo. His condo, for instance.

“I’m sure there are plenty of people who would love to live here,” I offer.

“Yeah, I know, but…I mean, do you know anyone who’s looking to buy a place?”

“I’d be happy to ask around, you know, put the word on the street and whatnot…”

“Yeah, that’d be cool, I’d appreciate that.”

He looks away and it’s my turn to say something.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, well, I got laid off, you know? So I’m just gonna move home for a while, with my folks. You know, ‘til I get my shit straight.”

“I hear you,” I say as encouragingly as possible, but it’s only half true. I do hear him, but I also hear myself (saying I hear you) as well as the voice inside my head, which is processing this situation and repeating the verdict: Not good, not good, not good.

He is sweating, his hands—which seem puffy and pale, I’ve never noticed what unbelievable meat hooks he has, though admittedly, the only times I bump into him are in the hallway as he disappears into his end unit with a case of Miller Lite cans under one arm, McDonalds or some other fast food monstrosity in the other—his hands, exhibits A and B, are shaking like the lid on a boiling pot, they are very obviously not obeying their master, and before I have half a chance to put two and two together he interrupts my internal assessment and looks at me searchingly.

“Hey Byron, you got any beer?”

At eight thirty-three in the A.M., there is only one possible answer to a question like this: “Sure,” I say.

I open the refrigerator and remember: I drank my last beer last night, which makes me a liar.

“Actually, I don’t,” I start, but sense that will not suffice, so I hold the door open and let him inspect for himself, which he does, making us both feel better—or worse—depending on how you look at it. He accepts this answer, but is clearly not satisfied with my response.

“Oh. I have plenty of liquor, if…”

“Yeah, do you care if I take a shot of something?”

Are you sure you’re okay? (To myself I say this).

A pint glass is obviously inappropriate, so I grab a juice glass and put it down on the counter, sliding it over to him like a bartender from a black and white western. He has eagerly grabbed my fifth of single-malt and I tell him to help himself.

He pours a generous, bordering on unbelievable, belt of my booze and inhales it in one febrile motion. This is strictly business (to myself I say this).

“Better?” I inquire, and actually mean it, I actually want to know.

“Uh…do you mind if I get another one?”

“Hey bro, knock yourself out,” I say. Stupidly.

He doesn’t notice because he’s too busy securing the second round in case I try and give last call at the last second. Even the sweat on his forehead seems relieved. Although I know exactly what time it is, I can’t help myself from looking up at the digits blinking on my oven: 8:34.

He looks at me and nods his head, expressing gratitude with his burning eyes. The eyes never lie. Then he snatches a tube of toothpaste out of his front pocket, puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

“So, you wouldn’t mind asking around, you know, just see if anyone is looking to maybe live here…I’ll cut a deal…”

“No problem,” I assure him.

“…I’ll hook you up with a finder’s fee too…”

“Oh don’t worry about that man, I’m happy to help.”

Not good, not good, not good.

“Let me give you a card,” he says, putting the toothpaste back and reaching into his other pocket. I’m surprised, in spite of myself, that between the shaking and the sheer size of his hands he can even fit them into his shirtsleeves.

“Fuck,” he says, frazzled or furious. Or both.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“I left my fucking cards in my place…”

“Well don’t worry about it, let me just write your number down and…”
“No, let me run and get them, and you can hand them out and shit…”

“Okay.”

 

I wait (too long) and go down to get them myself.

On the way, I think: Gambling debts? Drugs? Or both?

Drugs, it must be drugs.

Whatever it is, it’s something I know I want no part of. It’s obviously something my neighbor wants no part of either, or we wouldn’t both be here right now.

 

I knock on the door.

It opens, quickly, and my neighbor walks out, shutting it behind him. Apparently I’m not supposed to see inside. Perhaps I don’t want to see inside.

He follows me into the hall.

“Hey Byron, I appreciate anything you can do.”

“No problem dude, I’m happy to help…”

“Listen,” he leans in close. “Do you mind if I grab another shot?”

“Sure man.”

I’ve already locked my door on the way out, so I let myself back in, tricking my dog into thinking a full day has already passed.

The bottle and glass are still on the counter, forming sticky circles of an early morning crime scene.

“Do you mind if I pour a stiff one?”

“Help yourself, chief.”

You want to take the bottle with you? (To myself I say this).

He pours a shot that would give Liberty Valance pause, polishes it off, and then pulls out the toothpaste from his holster.

I ask no questions, he tells no tales.

I tell my dog to hold down the fort (again) and my dog looks confused or disappointed. Or both. I lock the door (again) and escort my soon-to-be-ex-neighbor out.

“Thanks again Byron.”

“Okay man, take care of yourself.”

“Give me a call if you hear anything.”

“Will do.”

Both of us seem to understand, as we go our separate ways, that we’ll never see each other again, and we are each somewhat deflated, probably for opposite reasons.

Buy the novel HERE!

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Over/Under the Volcano

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I STILL HAVE HANGOVERS, thank God.

Everyone who has known an alcoholic knows that as soon as you stop feeling the pain, it’s because you are no longer feeling the pain; you are no longer feeling much of anything.

So, I welcome the horrors of the digital cock crowing in my ear at an uncalled for hour, am grateful for the flaming phlegm in my throat, the snakes chasing their tails through my sinuses, the smoke stuck behind my eyelids, the shards of glass in my gut, and the special ring of hell circling my head. Because if it weren’t for those handful of my least favorite things, I’d know I had some serious problems.

All of us can think of a friend whose father (or mother for that matter), we came to understand, was in an entirely different league when it came to the science of cirrhosis. The man who falls asleep fully clothed with a snifter balanced over his balls, then up and out the door before sunrise—like the rest of the inverted vampires who do their dirty work during the day in three piece suits. Maybe it was a martini at lunch, or several cigarettes an hour to take the edge off. Whatever it was, whatever it took, they always made it out, and they always came back, for the family and to the refrigerator, filled with the best friends anyone can afford.

Our friends’ fathers came of age in the bad old days that fight it out, for posterity, in the pages of books, uneasy memories and the wishful thinking of TV reruns: the ‘50s. These are men who have never opened a bottle of wine and have no use for imported beer, men who actually have rye in their liquor cabinets—who still have liquor cabinets for that matter. These are men who were raised by men that never considered church or sick-days optional, and the only thing they disliked more than strangers was their neighbors. Men who didn’t believe in diseases and didn’t drink to escape so much as to remind themselves exactly what they never had a chance to become.

Theirs was an alcoholism that did not involve happy hours and karaoke contests; theirs was a sit down with the radio and a whiskey sour, a refill with dinner and one before, during and after the ballgame. Or maybe they’d mow the lawn to liven things up, tinker under the hood of a car that had decades to go before it could become a classic. Or perhaps friends would come over to play cards. Sometimes a second bottle would get broken out. This was a slow burn of similar nights: stiff upper lips, the sun setting on boys playing baseball, mothers sitting on the couch watching TVs families did not yet own, of forced smiles battling bottled tears in the bottom of a coffee mug, of amphetamines and affairs, overhead fans and undernourished kids, of evening papers and a creeping conviction that there is no God, of poets unable to make art out of the mess they’d made of their lives.

It was a hard time where people did not live happily ever after, if they ever lived at all. It was a time, in other words, not unlike our own.

***

When I lucked into my first so-called real job I got in the habit of referring to the time—admittedly too long—spent in the service industry as the bad old days. It wasn’t because I had no fun (I did) or that I thought there was any future in it (I didn’t). It wasn’t that I felt joining the corporate world (grad students and waiters refer to it as the real world) was any type of instant ticket to peace or fulfillment. But it did remove one from the front lines of a scene with too many lives on the fast track to nowhere. Most people there fail to understand where they are, and where they are not going.

And when I think of the place some people never find a way to leave, it makes me remember one person in particular. More than the implicit slights suffered or the stalled potential each day I strapped on an apron, when I think about what I could never afford to lose, I think of Izzy. That, of course, was not his real name, but it was what everyone called him. When he and I first met I would have sworn he was in his forties, but in fact he had only recently turned mid-thirty-something. Not old in the nine-to-five arena but ancient in the restaurant business. A lifer who had never been promoted to general manager, he was a satellite drifting through the soiled orbit of a franchised business. He was never handed his own place to run, and he seemed entirely satisfied with that arrangement. In fact, as I came to see for myself, he counted on being an assistant behind the scenes, the hardened soldier who could close up shop and count the checks. We were often the last two left, hours after the final customer had called a cab or rolled the DWI dice. After a shift that started at 4 PM Izzy would set up camp in the sweltering office in the back of the kitchen, going about the unexciting but excuses-free business of book-keeping.

When Izzy showed up for his shift the following afternoon he always looked like someone had scraped him off the bottom of a greasy skillet. Red eyes blurred, his neck shrieking in silent agony from the burn of a blunt razor, the cigarettes and coffee escaping in sluggish waves from every inch of his sagging skin. Head bowed not in deference but disdain of the daylight; he could scarcely formulate the words being signaled from bruised brain to long-suffering lips. He would step up to the bar, shake his head and ask me to call him an ambulance. Then he’d disappear into the men’s room for a minute or two, emerging like a televangelist with a badly ironed shirt. He could barely tie his shoe, but after his magic act in the crapper he would be ready to plate a thousand entrees and run laps around the building in his wingtips (managers who wear comfortable shoes are never taken seriously, but they don’t realize until it’s too late it’s not because of the shoes).

For the next eight-to-ten hours, in between return trips to the powder room (occasionally he may have even used the toilet), Izzy was constant, awkward motion. All the waiters were in awe of him and all the waitresses were repulsed by him (especially the ones he had slept with). Izzy could sweat out more alcohol in a single shift than most of us could drink in an entire weekend, and he never missed a day of work during the two years I knew him. Even if you didn’t catch him ducking into the bathroom you always knew he had recently refueled because he would suck his teeth like someone trying to extract snake venom. The lip smacking and teeth licking were, to me, the black and blue collar stage of development between rock star and burnout, the line so many in the service industry straddle before they get out or go under.

None of this fazed me, which isn’t to say it was not unsettling, but grunts in the trench don’t offer advice to their sergeants, so I mainly focused on my own unsavory habits. But I could never figure out how Izzy, when he retreated to the office each night to match receipts, guest checks and time sheets, was able to polish off an entire bottle of peppermint schnapps. When he finally went home, closer to sunrise than midnight, that bottle he took back with him would always be empty. At first I figured he was trying to impress or even intimidate me (full success on both fronts), but after months of the same scenario, I had no choice but to acknowledge that his appetites and obsessions had, at some point, evolved from unhealthy to superhuman. That bottle was not something he wanted, and was no longer something he needed; it was simply something that he required, along with the bathroom breaks and the air his lungs inhaled. I worked dozens of shifts where I didn’t see him eat a scrap of food, but he never went into that office without his bottle of schnapps. And at least once a week he’d arrive at work with fresh bottles he kept to stock the bar. I could never fathom the physics, or biology (or algebra) that enabled a man to drain a fifth each evening and still function, but I also learned the hard way in high school that some subjects would, for me, remain forever mysterious.

By the time he took his transfer to the next location (never a demotion but never an advancement) he looked like he could collect social security. How long can that lifestyle sustain itself? I asked myself, then, and ponder it now. Where is Izzy today? Is he in an assisted living facility somewhere, or at the bottom of a river? Will I find him patrolling an intersection one night, not embarrassed to ask for tips after all these years? Or did he take the hard way out and start a family; his bad habits replaced by baby bottles, dirty diapers and manicured lawns? Or most likely and equally unsettling: has he subscribed to an altogether different sort of salvation, whacked out of his skull with sobriety?

 

*This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 11/4/15.

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The Story of Self-Publishing (Part One): Past is Prologue

Past-Is-Prologue-400

In my role as an industry analyst for the tech industry I’ve followed the developments of our shifting cultural landscape with keen professional as well as personal interest. In particular, I’ve noted the ways the book publishing industry is, in many regards, mirroring what’s happened (and what’s still unfolding) in the music industry. The hot topic du jour is whether streamed services are saviors or disruptors as they relate to the evolution of music in particular and content in general. In my opinion, they are a bit of both, but practically every innovation in each industry has been. Furthermore, I suspect history will look more favorably on these services than we might imagine today.

During the last decade advancements that, I maintain, benefit artists and consumers, have all revolved around the democratization of content. What does that mean? In brief, it no longer requires archaic and expensive technologies and processes to make and acquire works of art.

As difficult as it might be for younger consumers to appreciate, the home audio business remained relatively uncomplicated for the better part of a century. The book publishing industry operated according to a fairly specific—and consistent—model for hundreds of years. Naturally the Internet came and changed everything. In the bad old days, gatekeepers held sway, overseeing the acquisition, creation and dissemination of content. These days, artists have the ability, and resulting channels, to create, distribute and promote their work.

I am old school enough to remember typewriters. More, I used them. More still, I took a class once that, in hindsight, was perhaps the most important—or at least most practical—one from my high school years. Flash forward through college (word processor), graduate school (a PC I could access only in a computer lab) to my first computer—a miracle with a printer that could produce dot matrix pages in sixty seconds, per page. Eventually I began writing for an online-only magazine, and finally created an obligatory blog. Then e-readers came along and eventually, tablets.

As an avid (if obsessive) reader and music aficionado, I have embraced each stage of progress as it relates to the ways content is made, purchased and utilized. These innovations have inexorably made it easier and more affordable to engage with our world; indeed they have opened up or created entirely new worlds. Throw in the marketing miracles inherent in social media and the people—not the self-appointed or well-connected tastemakers—are now equal, arguably more important arbiters of what matters and what is relevant. This is a very good thing.

In my capacity as a music critic, I used to receive the occasional (now, more frequent) request from musicians, asking me to consider their work. Initially, they would offer to send a self-produced CD; these days they’ll lead me to their website, where sample files are accessible. Of course, stories like this are becoming the new normal: despite what myopic naysayers stuck in the past insist, there is more incredible art being made today than most of us could hope to keep up with. As usual, the only ones lamenting these developments are the same sorts who always resist or stifle progress. These are the same folks who benefited, unfairly, from the rigged rules of the antiquated, imbalanced system.

In 2013 I made the decision, like so many musicians and, more recently writers, to go the independent route. Along the way, I’ve collected more rejection letters than I could count, but I’ve also seen the 20th century SOP steadily disappear as an unhappy memory. Today, just about anyone can publish a book, and a lot of people are trying. Does this potentially flood the market with inferior product? Certainly. Does it also ensure that more writers (and musicians, and movie makers) have the opportunity to be heard and discovered? Without doubt.

The good news: with sufficient ability, awareness and time, anyone can publish without paying for it or surviving the scrutiny of hit-seeking middlemen. The bad news: as liberating as this new DIY ethos is, the onus is now entirely on the artist. As such, I necessarily became acquainted with the nuts and bolts of creating a book, taking an idea all the way from legal pad to Amazon. Suffice it to say, this demands a proficiency at production, distribution and marketing.

The bottom line? This process represents the very essence of innovation, in actual practice. If you want it done, do it yourself. If you want it done well, understand and learn all the things you do not know. In halcyon times, writing a book was itself the hard part, and pretty much the only thing an author controlled. Too many authors had to hope that their publisher could generate sufficient interest, garner reviews, set up a book tour, etc. If that didn’t happen, there were few options other than luck or a miraculous endorsement from Oprah.

Today, even taking the independent route will cost you money (unless you happen to be a book designer, website builder and professional editor). On the other hand, it cost you money back in the day, as well: those advances given to authors were typically contingent upon future sales and the cost of assembly; editing and distribution were factored in on the front-end. I worked with the appropriate people, and worked on my game-plan with every spare second I could afford. Without a publisher or promoter I secured my own blurbs and booked my own reading events. No one to answer to but myself: equal parts miracle and mountain to climb. It’s beyond what I could have imagined, and just the way I would have imagined it, in some implausible future.

That future is real and it is now; in fact, milestones being made this moment will already be surpassed tomorrow. In the past I celebrated certain advancements from the sidelines, in solidarity. As I watch, and experience, the empowering mechanisms of innovation create previously unimaginable opportunities, I understand it’s now also the story of my life.

*This post originally appeared at The Independent Publishing Magazine on 8/5/15.

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Under the Influence: The Story of My Life, Cont’d

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Q: What did Holden Caulfield do when he grew up?

A: He got a job.

That is the elevator pitch of my novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, reduced to two lines, a simple question and answer.

(Here is an excerpt that expands on the narrator Byron’s dilemma:

Something was wrong with me. I applied to the appropriate colleges and one of them accepted me. I applied to the appropriate graduate schools and one of them accepted me. I decided not to apply to any PhD programs (it didn’t seem appropriate) and so none of them accepted me. The unreal world of academia beckoned; the unreasonable world of reality awaited. Neither seemed particularly appealing and I found myself paralyzed: options aplenty, none of them especially enticing. And so I decided it was time to go underground for a while. I found myself serving the people who had the sorts of jobs I regarded with the ugly envy of the underclass. I made less money than I might have liked but I got more free drinks than I could ever have imagined. One way to see the glass being half-full is to ensure that it is always half-full. While I worked on emptying those glasses I came to the conclusion that money is wasted on the wealthy and retirement is wasted on the elderly.

Something was wrong with me. I drank myself sober and couldn’t commit myself to more serious indiscretions. I did the unthinkable: I started thinking about that unreasonable world again. I found myself skulking around the library, picking up magazines and thinking about that itch I could never quite scratch. I read an article about this world wide web. How ridiculous it all seemed. So this is what people do during the day? A million possible futures unfurled in unreal time, right in front of my not so open mind, none of them remotely appealing. There it was, I thought: it’s already over; I’m out of options. And then a funny thing happened. I got a job.)

Of course, I’m taking some presumptive liberties and the question would not be possible without the heavy lifting J.D. Salinger did to create Holden Caulfield in the first place.

My novel does not mention The Catcher in the Rye, does not in any conscious way imitate it and the invocation of Caulfield is only a conceit.

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In fact, and for full disclosure, I’ve weighed in on Salinger’s novel (inspired to do so shortly after his death, in 2010). I concluded that I was perhaps a tad too old or insufficiently impressionable when I first encountered it, though I did –and do– love the short story “For Esme–with Love and Squalor”. Here’s a taste:

The narrator of this story is reeling from actual experience in the real world, so it resonates to a young reader about to enter it, and certainly a more mature reader who has seen and felt some of those proverbial slings and arrows. It is, for me, difficult to recall a more quietly coruscating image in literature than the narrator lifting Esme’s (KIA) father’s wristwatch, which has shattered in transit, out of the care package. The question, as the story ends, is: does that broken glass represent the narrator’s spirit, or will he rally to once more become part of the world?

Q_ What did Holden Caulfield do when he

Speaking of becoming part of the so-called real world, one of the reasons the instant classic film Office Space is so beloved is because it’s so real; it resonates with just about anyone who has spent a single day in the unreal world of corporate America. More, it retains a nostalgic vibe for its irreverent and accurate deconstruction of the dot.com error, I mean era.

To be certain, Office Space, and any work of art that attempts to take the piss out of our increasingly mechanized, complicated and incomprehensible modern world, owes a tremendous debt to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Anyone who understands Heller’s masterpiece as the ultimate insider’s sardonic assessment of the insanity/inanity driving so much of military muscle is at once accurate, but selling it short. Heller is going after America, as a corporation, and his writing, while prescient, is also distressingly relevant, well into the 21st Century. In many regards, he understood the way middle management and their underlings would be used as proverbial cannon fodder (foxholes becoming stock-boosting rounds of layoffs), while increasingly isolated and aloof higher-ups would divide the spoils and conquer their 401-ks. Yossarian is our guide through this surreal hall of one-way mirrors, but it’s not the commanding officers, but the evil star of the supporting cast, Milo Minderbinder, who epitomizes what our country has become, and who has engineered the shift. It’s not by accident that the average employee wages have stagnated for decades while the riches of the executive officers have multiplied by factors that would be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Making Monopoly money a real thing via stocks and shares and seeing profits increase as production craters has long been the American Way. For all the success stories from the dot.com era, we now have systematized a formula where the game is rigged to imperfection: CEOs are brought in like exterminators to kill a company from the inside-out, and then they parachute away with millions of dollars (and shareholder approval) for their efforts.

Suffice it to say, Catch-22 has informed my sensibility as a writer (and thinker) and has more than slightly inspired some of my writing. The corporate shenanigans in Not To Mention a Nice Life owe a debt of respect and gratitude to Mr. Heller.

And I think all of us, dot.com veterans or not, owe some measure of approbation to the iconic Steve Jobs, one of the few citizens who we can actually claim changed the entire world.

Certainly, the dot.com era and the online reality of the Internet would be very different (if it happened at all) without his input and influence. Here is some of what I said on the occasion of his passing in 2011:

While I’m congenitally disinclined to join the choruses of hagiographers anointing this outstanding marketer, salesman and genius as some type of saint, I’ll certainly throw my hat in the very crowded ring and concede that our world would be much different (and not for the better) without his influence. As trite as it may sound, Jobs did in many ways help transform fantasty into reality. For that alone, he is a monumental figure in American history and should be celebrated as such.

For now, it seems right –and human– to celebrate the life and accomplishments of a man who undeniably left his mark, and provided a past, and future that would be radically different (and not for the better) had he not made his mark. Equal parts iconoclast, counter-cultural guru and corporate crusader, he made a complicated motto (Think different) and turned it into a postmodern religion of sorts. We could have done much worse. Whatever else he did, Jobs thought differently and in the process, took much of the world with him.

HarveyPekar

It’s easy enough to admire (and envy) the abilities and lifestyles of the great artists, especially the ones talented (and/or fortunate) enough to actually make a living out of making art.

For me, I take a special inspiration (and kinship and solidarity) from the folks who never had it easy, who struggled to make art and/or a living. The ones who plugged away, with little assurance of pay-off, artistically or otherwise. They did it, ultimately, for the same reasons anyone tilts at the creative windmills: they don’t really have a choice. As such, Harvey Pekar remains someone that anyone with artistic aspirations can appreciate. In the excellent film about his life, American Splendor, he wakes up from a nightmare, and then remembers he still has his job. He actually stops to appreciate that he can pay his bills and understands how much worse things could be. In that one scene he provides proper perspective for all the naval-gazing narcissists who feel the world owes them a living, and lament that the world is so full of imbeciles who can’t appreciate their genius.

Here’s some of what I wrote in tribute to Pekar, when he passed, in 2010:

And while Pekar was groundbreaking in a way for making the primary source of his subject material his own life, his life story is more remarkable than anything written by or about him. To go from a genuinely obscure misanthrope living in squalor to becoming the mostly obscure misanthrope living mostly in squalor…that’s America. It’s definitely the American Dream, through a broken glass darkly.

It’s almost impossible to envision now, with everyone’s daily trials, tribulations and ablutions the focus of a billion blog posts, or the solipsistic Greek chorus of the Twittering class, but what Pekar did, then, by pulling the soda-stained cover off his personal life in the service of art was a revelation. Certainly, the subject of our immortal Self goes back to cave drawings and Don Quixote, and only official autobiographies are truly fictional. But when it came to the more postmodern type of tilting at windmills, Harvey Pekar was the patron saint of the unshaven, recalcitrant crank (actually crank is too harsh by half; he was more misanthrope who looked at life the way a chronically ambivalent dieter regards that piece of cake: he knows better but he just can’t help himself).

To become a meaningful artist one must be intolerant of cliche. To become a meaningful human being one must be intolerant of untruth. Although it came at a considerable cost, Harvey Pekar was incapable of cruising along the soul-crushing streets of quiet desperation. In becoming the poet laureate of disinclined endurance he helped remind America that there is a splendor in our shared obsolescence.

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Finally, I pay tribute to the force in my life that rivals the solace and inspiration I take from books and friends and family: music.

I could say more (and likely will), but I put my love affair in writing for my memoir Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (2013). While the book describes my relationship with my mother, whom we lost to cancer just after her 59th birthday, the memoir is also the story of my life, and the things that have helped motivate, galvanize and shape me. The chapter is entitled “Bright Moments”, and an excerpt is below (the inspiration for that title is written about in detail, here.):

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

Even though I write (for fun, for real and forever), I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); that is all that’s required for it to work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind, and your heart and, eventually (inevitably) your soul, it is capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

You hear plenty about the suffering artist syndrome, the suicides, the drinking and the desolation, because these are the things that people who write about artists tend to write about. Certainly, the artists themselves express this angst in their art, but you seldom see the solipsism on the screen or the stage or in the grooves of the vinyl. But then again, these artists don’t need anyone to celebrate their achievements, because the art they created does so with exceeding adequacy and eloquence. You can’t believe everything you read, but you can always have faith in what you hear; the ears never lie. Not when it comes to music.

I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

To be continued, of course.

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Not To Mention a Nice Life: Another Day at the Office (Reading)

NTMANL

As I navigate the familiar route, I almost drive off the road when I see a building that I’ve never noticed before, waving to me from the side of the road. It wants me to notice, as if I’m not going to notice. Office buildings, especially ten-story monstrosities, do not just pop up overnight, do they? Even these days, where anything is possible, this couldn’t be happening. But there it was: people, who had presumably been up and at ‘em since before the sun came up, streaming in from the five story parking garage, putting in their time before they’ll enjoy a well-earned rest: dinner, maybe a cocktail or two and several hours of somnambulant sit-coms before the nightly newscasters lulled them to sleep.

Sleep. Somehow while I’d been asleep, the splendid imprimatur of industry had struck again. Overnight, a miracle of the modern age had occurred: clandestine plans had been approved, blueprints implemented, construction commenced. Trees had been felled, brick and mortar meticulously amassed, offers had been made, salaries negotiated, moving vans hired, new houses occupied, paychecks deposited, kids sent to imprudently priced daycare, new dentists and family doctors consulted, second children conceived, extramarital affairs instigated, divorce papers served, summer softball leagues formed, cutbacks announced, departments laid off, stock options doled out and quickly cashed, inestimable hours and dollars spent on alcohol, cigarettes, dangerous as well as non-addictive drugs, pornography—always the pornography—and unused health club memberships.

Industry and big money are all about initiative; they don’t sleep until the job is done. And the job, of course, is never done.

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, available now.

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Not To Mention a Nice Life: Area 51 (Reading)

NTMANL

Listen: there are people who actually believe that the moon landing never happened. Lots of people. Not that it didn’t happen, necessarily, but that it was an elaborate, carefully staged scam; that it happened out in the desert, secret film crews capturing the entire thing. Unfortunately, most of the people who agreed to be interviewed all happen to live in trailer parks, which tends to undermine their credibility.

But I’ll be damned if, fifteen minutes in, I’m on board, buying just about every argument. After twenty minutes I’m talking in increasingly agitated tones to my TV. A half hour later I’m ready to make a down payment on a used trailer.

Listen to them: these people might not be crazy, but they are playing the part to perfection. Wide eyes working to wash away the one-two punch of alarm and indignation, creased foreheads wet with the weight of their weird worlds, the insistent outlook of the converted Christian or polished politician, the unburdened body language of a puppet who has finally plucked the wires from its back.

And, I think: Please!

Please let this be true. Imagine: all the churchgoing, flag-waving, right wing radio listening, free market following, see-no-evil simpletons (and that’s just Whitey) if they found out?

And then, this: No!

Nothing, it eventually occurs to me, could conceivably be worse than if those astronauts actually landed on Earth. Because it is marginally acceptable, or at least comprehensible, that in a time when millions of people are starving and dying of decades-old diseases, we’d have the effrontery to float billion dollar babies in space—that is enough, that confirms all we need to know about priorities and good and evil and the fact that there is, of course, at the end of the night, no chance whatsoever that God is watching over all this. But to think that the suits who call the shots arrived at the decision that it was ultimately to their advantage to take the time and imagination to choreograph a made-for-TV miracle to propagate compliance, or boost morale, or whatever mendacious busywork those men who don’t work for a living get up to when they are hard at work behind those fortified doors.

If that is even a possibility, then all bets are off. Then suddenly even the cynics are shit out of luck, and things like fake wars and flying planes into buildings begin to seem like a rather ingenuous part of the program. See: it is conceivable that money gets spent every day on scientific charades that serve no practical purpose. Or conceding that God obviously does not exist, so it can’t be His fault (because He never existed). But finding out that we are capable—and worse, willing—to pull off that kind of crap? It is almost enough to make you join a militia. It’s almost enough to cause you to cash it all in and start looking for the alien transmissions in your fillings. Or hunker down in a trailer park on the outskirts of Area 51.

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, available now.

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Not To Mention a Nice Life: The Dreaded Day Trip (Reading)

NTMANL

These day trips ask a lot of you, almost so much that you find yourself fondly reminiscing about the good old days you never knew, the days when horse-drawn carriages were cutting edge business travel, days when people might have fantasized about a few hundred miles in less than an hour, not anticipating planes that make your mind feel microwaved.

Cooked on the surface but still raw inside, it’s all in a daze work as the cab carries me home through disorienting yet familiar streets. Survival suburban-style; a metropolis in transition, trying its best to live up to the image it was designed to imitate—sprung from the minds of forward-thinking people who are trying to recreate the past. On the corner high school punks stand beside a phone booth, making no calls; a quick right turn and I’m feeling the money dread as we cruise past several blocks of four car families. Being outside the city is safer, particularly if you prefer the sound of crickets to cop sirens. Eventually, I’m deposited in the middle ground of this middlebrow town, and for lack of any other options, I am relieved.

And yet. This is supposed to happen later, with wife and kids and a basement to be banished to after hours. I’ll deal with that later. I think.

My front door is the one mystery to which I have the key, but for some reason I still feel as though I’m sneaking up on a stranger every time I return from a trip; I’m not sure who I expect to see, who might be hiding from me, who possibly could have found the way into my modest refuge from friends and memories.

With Pavlovian precision, I make my way to the medicine cabinet and pour myself a bracing plug of bourbon. It’s more than I need or deserve, I think, but I don’t want the bottle to suspect I was unfaithful in another town, waiting for my return flight for instance, in a cramped and crappy airport bar at La Guardia. If this were a movie (I think, mostly in the past, but even today), I would grab my crystal decanter, filled with obviously expensive spirits, and administer that potion the old-fashioned way, needing no ice cubes, especially since I would never get around to drinking it, as it’s only a prop, a cliché. No one reaches for that tumbler these days (except in movies); the question is: did they ever? Even in the 50s? Or has it always been part of the script?

*Excerpt from the novel Not To Mention a Nice Life, available now.

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