Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

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WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

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Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14, and is featured in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

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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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Some Day A Real Rain Will Come: What Travis Bickle Can –And Cannot– Tell Us About Tucson (Revisited)

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Voices In Our Heads

You talking to me?

It is the pivotal scene in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and it remains one of the seminal moments in movie history. Not so much because of its improvisational nature, or the uncanny way Robert De Niro (playing the alienated and ultimately violent Travis Bickle) disappears into this character, managing to seem invisible and menacing all at once. Most important, this short scene echoes a question that all of us, to a certain extent, ask the world every day.

“Are you talking to me?” we ask, and the tone may be inquisitive, rhetorical or defiant. It may be those and many other things. Mostly, as we interact in a mechanized, sped-up and increasingly unreal reality, we want to make sure people know we are there. We use our voices, our eyes, our frowns or smiles, our horns, our phones, our e-mail, our clothes and a thousand unspoken thoughts to affirm that our presence does not go entirely unnoticed.

In a way, it was easier a few decades ago, around the time Taxi Driver (1976) was released. There was no Internet, no texting, no cell phones, no cable TV, no electronic anything. If you needed to reach out and touch someone, you had to do just that. It’s possible that with the proliferation of devices and toys, in our information-overload moment (which, as it relates to art, content and information, is definitely not a negative thing), we are lonelier than ever before. This ground has been well-covered and there are compelling arguments on either side. On one hand, it can be conjectured that by remaining indoors, behind a glowing screen, we’ve effectively cut ourselves off from old-fashioned interaction and our communication—however ceaseless—lacks intimacy and engagement. On the other hand, people who in another era (including this one) may be best described as socially awkward (due to a variety of societal and self-imposed factors) have myriad opportunities to connect that simply did not exist even ten-to-fifteen years ago.

And the above observations almost entirely relate to action as opposed to reaction. It’s difficult to accurately gauge precisely how a constant bombardment of content, opinions and steadily louder voices is affecting our perception. Not too long ago it was a common joke to talk about (either in celebratory or castigating tones) how we had one hundred channels to choose from via cable TV. Now we have hundreds of channels, as well as streaming video, social media, blogs, and a dedicated website for every news channel, program and talking head in the world. And all of these voices are trying to tell, or sell, us something. Always urgently, never off message, constantly competing with all the other noise to get inside our heads and influence our opinions in one way or another.

 

Who Owns The American Dream?

You’re in a hell, and you’re gonna’ die in a hell like the rest of them.

It was horrifying enough when we had Travis Bickle types who, for their various reasons, sought violent ends to make some type of statement or try and quell that voice screeching non-stop in their ears, like a demented wasps’ nest. Taxi Driver, though wrongly or at least simplistically described by too many as the story of a psychopath, is very much a cautionary tale about what can happen when an alienated citizen has no one to talk to. The fact that it’s set in one of the busiest cities in the world is less ironic than tragic: anyone who has spent time in a bustling urban environment can confirm that it’s sometimes—if not often—the case that one can feel most alone when surrounded by millions of people who don’t know or care about them.

Loneliness, alienation and even violence are sufficiently commonplace as to be unremarkable facets of American existence: watch the news or consider your own life story. This certainly holds true in any society, particularly our plugged in but often disconnected post-millennial era. It seems safe to suggest these conditions are most rampant and profound in the United States. There are countless reasons and/or symptoms, and they are rooted more in myth than reality. For instance, while America does not have the rigid and stratified class systems that still plague Europe, we do have a collective addiction to the white-washed fantasy also known as the American Dream.

Lest that sound like a facile dismissal of a very complicated and, in many ways useful illusion, there are undeniably certain aspects of the American Dream parable that are provable and worthwhile. The ceaseless influx of grateful immigrants is sufficient testament to the inherent promise of an ostensibly free society. The same promise luring men and women to illegally enter our country is the same impulse that served as a siren song for Irish, Italian and other immigration movements through the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, this speaks to the dream of America itself more than what we call the American Dream. Being able to do something is altogether different from being able to do anything. Most of these immigrants (then, now) are obliged to work excruciating hours doing horrific work at woeful wages, and the only thing making it tolerable is that it is (usually) better than the alternative.

The proposition that any of us, regardless of who we are and whatever our initial station in life can, with the correct combination of industry, initiative and luck, ascend to a status of wealth festers as one of the more powerful, if poisonous fictions our country has produced. More, it is not merely promulgated but actively inculcated: history books and sentimental movies tend to tout the exceedingly rare rags-to-riches allegory while ignoring, denying or conveniently dismissing the typical reality, which is that the working poor are likely to remain exactly where they are. In fact, as we’ve seen in the last few decades, this is more—not less—the case in a political and cultural system that has steadily ensured that those who have more will get more, usually directly at the expense of those who have little.

This dichotomy between what we see on screens or inside magazines is not new, but commercials, ads and websites telling us how can be or who we should be are incalculably more prevalent and powerful in today’s world. Thus, the same types of alienating forces that the lonely, angry and outcast citizens have historically been subject to are alarmingly more intense in a 24/7 info-tainment unreality. Which brings us to the Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular. The GOP has auto-piloted the Horatio Alger story to the extent that counties receiving the most federal aid will lash out most indignantly (if ignorantly) about the perils of “big government”. Indeed, generation after generation illustrates that those who benefit most from higher taxes (and who have the least likelihood of ascending to the upper tax brackets) are consistently fanatical about keeping taxes low for those who earn the most. There are an unfortunate number of tragedies we commit as Americans, but this is one of the more profound examples.

Someday A Real Rain Will Come…

Loneliness has followed me my whole life…there’s no escape. I’m God’s lonely man.

One of the more devastatingly poignant (or poignantly devastating) scenes in Taxi Driver occurs when Travis sits, silently in his apartment, watching the attractive and fashionable folks dancing on TV. Alone in his sweltering studio walk-up, the look on his face—at once longing, frustrated and confused—reveals the hastening recognition that he will never attain the easy, if superficial, security he sees on the screen. With subtlety and lack of sentimentality (the script is actually somewhat slight, which only underscores the astonishing work De Niro turns in), we see that Bickle is the ultimate loner, an underground entity who is as much insect as human, scurrying in and out of his pointless and preordained routine.

Add to this the fact that he is a veteran, perhaps the most overlooked, yet prescient touch of the film (flash forward thirty-plus years to see how we treat our soldiers when they return from the wars we ask them to fight; little coincidence that it’s the same party that salutes the flag most tearfully who are quickest to slash and burn the programs designed to provide physical—and especially mental—assistance). The result of these circumstances and lack of choices provide us, circa 1976, with a character sketch of someone who, if one thing leads to the next, might opt for a more sociopathic solution to his problems. Importantly, Bickle is not revealed as a man destined to snap; while he is far from blameless for his predicament, he is very much a casualty of the world (the real one and the manufactured one) that he can’t master but must exist in. Therefore when he decides “my whole life is pointed in one direction…there never has been any choice for me”, it is both a confession and a one-man verdict, his indictment against this world.

There is some irony, looking back on the candidate he turns his grim attention toward: Palantine, running under the campaign slogan “We Are The People”, seems to espouse a very optimistic (if clichéd) message. (Further irony in that this notion of a collective synergy only amplifies Bickle’s isolation.) Imagine all of these elements contributing to Bickle’s disintegration placed in the context of our contemporary culture, with venom being spewed 24/7 by charlatans and circus clowns like Beck, O’Riley and Palin. Imagine Travis Bickle watching Fox News each day. If you can, you may begin to see why the concern and loathing of the Tea Party movement had much more to do with what happened this week in Arizona and little to do with comically misspelled signs and morons telling the government to stay out of their Medicare.

Travis gets his guns after a frightening encounter in his cab (and having heard about the violence fellow drivers have suffered). Only after he feels himself finally out of options does he contemplate using his gun on an innocent person (and later, people). Even in 1976, this was sufficiently compelling commentary on the ease with which Americans get access to guns. Today, appallingly, gun laws are looser than ever (and—shocker!—one political party defends this madness with the same tenacity they bring to cutting taxes and eliminating federal aid programs) and instead of a lone madman with one round, we have the sickening spectacle of semi-automatic weapons. Flash forward to Columbine, Virginia Tech and Tucson.

It slowly comes into focus: it is easier, now, for more people (except perhaps the politicians and mainstream media, the two most culpable parties) to understand the calculus that made this weekend’s tragedy predictable and, perhaps, inevitable. There are and—as ass-covering TV talking heads remind us—always will be lunatics in our midst who will kill and maim others and there is little we can do (other than disarm them). That said, it is way too easy to suggest this was an ambivalent act with random victims: in the same state the cretinous Sarah Palin put gun-sights on in a map of “targets”. It’s not necessary to pile on Palin, no matter how much blood she has on her carefully manicured hands; it is every bit the supine and opportunistic media’s fault, since they have breathlessly provided this imbecile with a public platform every step of the way. Special disgust, certainly, must be reserved for the reprehensible propaganda machine at Fox News: that so many Americans receive their “information” (and/or marching orders) from these scavengers debases us all.

And so, while the GOP gleefully fed the ill-conceived ire of the Tea Party faithful, they continued to double down on the very things that have caused so many of these folks to feel genuine hardship. It would almost be comical, except for the immorality and the guns. If someone in a red (or blue) state wants to endorse candidates who blithely promise to increase the collective misery, one can only laugh—unless one can’t help but cry. But when we see these candidates urging “Second Amendment remedies”, we need not wring our hands and ask how we all share the blame. No, the bulk of the blame can easily be laid at the spit-shined shoes of the pied pipers leading these rats to the water’s edge. That, an older and/or more cynical observer might suggest, has always been the case. Except now these rats are packing heat and they don’t mind taking out as many of us as they can, smiling as they do it.

This essay originally appeared in PopMatters on 1/26/11 and is now in Murphy’s Law, Vol. One –available now.

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50 BULLET POINTS CONCERNING AMERICA’S GUN PSYCHOSIS

 

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  1. Let’s politicize these acts, if for no other reason because, in America, we politicize everything else.
  2. Of course it’s a mental health issue.
  3. For starters, the mental handicap of anyone who thinks this weapon, in the public (or private) sector is useful, safe or justifiable on any level. ar154. Oh those annoying, anti-American liberals, right? Wrong. Let’s allow General Stanley McChrystal the floor: “I spent a career carrying typically either a M16 and later, a M4 carbine…and a M4 carbine fires a .223 caliber round, which is 5.56 millimeters, at about 3,000 feet per second. When it hits a human body, the effects are devastating. It’s designed to do that. That’s what our soldiers ought to carry…I personally don’t think there’s any need for that kind of weaponry on the streets and particularly around the schools in America. I believe that we’ve got to take a serious look — I understand everybody’s desire to have whatever they want — we have to protect our children and our police and we have to protect our population. And I think we have to take a very mature look at that.”

5. Certainly I’m not the only person who, immediately upon hearing the news, suspected that Omar Mateen was a closeted, likely tormented gay man—a reminder that religion is always the problem.

6. President Obama has, as of this date, had to give fourteen press conferences to address gun-related massacres on American soil.

7. If you continue to rationalize the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are not merely part of the problem, you are the problem. We can—and do—count on the NRA and the cretins bought and paid for by their blood money to assume the hardest and most irrational line; they count on moral equivalence, sanctimony and above all, hope for frustration to lead to social media sloganeering with no action.

8. If you continue to defend the NRA’s role in these atrocities, you are a traitor, however ignorant or unwitting.

9. Fuck the 2nd Amendment. Follow the money.

10. No, seriously. If certain entities weren’t making obscene amounts of money (and spreading it around to keep craven opportunists on the payroll) this issue would have been remedied decades ago.

11. Special committees have been formed to explore, just to cherry pick some low-hanging tempests in a tea (party) pot, the proliferation of witchcraft, opposition to the dangers of dancing, the creeping spread of communism, the hidden, evil messages in certain rock lyrics…and the mere suggestion that maybe an amendment written when muskets were cutting edge weaponry is grounds for scorched earth opposition. This is a profound sickness.

12. This is still the single best commercial on the topic.

13. You know the commercials with first-hand testimony to what cigarette addiction can do to the human body? Start making commercials with statistics of kids shooting each other. And find some brave people willing to go on the record about what unintentional gun violence has done to their family. Or people whose loved ones have been victimized. Tasteless? Too personal? Well, the possibility that any of us could be killed by an accidental (or, in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, intentional) gunshot couldn’t possibly be more personal. And the fact that, thus far, the will of a clear and overwhelming majority is thwarted by a relatively tiny faction with unconscionably deep pockets is about as tasteless as anything imaginable.

14. Be clear: it’s not that nothing can be done, it’s because so much can be done. Sensible and overdue gun control is a slippery slope, as it should be. The people with nothing to lose, except money (and, presumably, those with minuscule and/or impotent penises), are very aware of this.

15. Whether it’s a drive-by, a road rage incident or a calculated assault, guns are the refuge of sissies who wouldn’t last three seconds in a fist fight.

16. Good guys beat bad guys with the benefit of bigger guns. This is the America we have manufactured, via movies and the marketing of war.

17. Speaking of marketing: lobbyists and the political machines they’re paid to pimp have made a sick science of selling unreality to a nation of terrified suckers.

18. Speaking of terror, how many different variations of the same formulation will it require? gun photo

19. If the only time you pay attention to gun violence is to grandstand on your Facebook feed (or worse, send “thoughts and prayers”), you are not merely a coward, you’re acting entirely within the pre-approved script.

20. Imagine if we felt “hopes and prayers” were sufficient, or all we could do every time a drunk driver killed someone.

21. If you’re still alive, you’re not Orlando. Do something.

22. We have made airport travel into the most inconvenient, obnoxious ordeal conceivable, yet it’s many times easier for anyone to bring a gun into any public place than it is to board a plane, even without luggage*. (*White males, that is.)

23. Guess what demographic (hint: not Muslims) is responsible for the majority of gun massacres on American soil?

24. Start showing the dead bodies on the news.

25. Ditto for returning soldiers. As T.S. Eliot once observed, “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Americans, of course, can bear very much reality TV.

26. “Hate will never win.” Hate isn’t trying to win. It’s trying to kill.

27. “Well, if he didn’t have a gun, he would have had a bomb!” No, he wouldn’t. Because, for starters, you can’t buy a bomb at Walmart.

28. Although we have a specific cultural malady, mental illness is, of course, experienced by all ages of all people in all countries. Without guns, you can’t easily enact slaughter. Full stop.

29. Any time anyone walks into an establishment with a gun and body bags are required in the aftermath, it’s an act of terror.

30. All it would take is one shooting spree in the United States Capitol to ensure extreme action was immediately taken.

31. Anyone in congress expressing condolences without mentioning the word “guns” should be shamed from office. Anyone in congress expressing condolences who has accepted money from the NRA should be shamed from American citizenship.

32. In America, the only thing more powerful and effective than money is shaming. Call on any and all elected officials to return their soiled money, or send it to the families of victims.

33. Guess what? Here’s a list of GOP senators who voted against ensuring people on terror watch lists can’t buy firearms. (Props to journalist Ivor Volsky for doing heavy lifting in the service of exposing this illimitable hypocristy.)

34. It takes considerably more time and effort to adopt a dog that’s facing being euthanized than it is to purchase a firearm in America.

35. Seriously, America is the only place this happens.

36. This is the single best (and hilarious, to boot) take on America’s unique gun psychosis.

37. I’d rather have a limb hacked off than be censored in any way. That said, Hollywood has a lot more blood on its hands than anyone acknowledges.

38. Video game manufacturers too.

39. Enough with the accommodations and equivocations, let’s treat—for a start—gun manufacturers the way we treat cigarette companies.

40. Start taxing the shit out of organized religions. Why? Because the same type of illogic and—be clear—highly organized, orchestrated and effective propaganda keeps these institutions unregulated and unaccountable.

41. In our society, police forces have become more martial and intimidating in direct proportion with our dread of potential danger posed by anything “Other”—inexorably people who aren’t white. This is not coincidental.

42. An average of seven children under the age of 20 are killed by guns every day.

43. Read this.

44. Just like actually speaking to issues of economic inequality and the dissipation of a healthy American working class (and commensurate wages) is politically viable, action on gun violence will attract, not repel voters.

45. Seriously, Democrats have been paralyzed for the last half-century by the ludicrous trepidation to offend a constituency that wouldn’t, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway.

46. Whatever you want to say about Obama, this is what he had to say on June 1.

47. This is what the presumptive nominee for the Republican party had to say in the wake of the single biggest gun-related massacre in American history: dt48. At one point in our nation’s history, women’s suffrage, civil rights—first for women, then racial minorities, then gays and lesbians—were all considered insurmountable obstacles, politically suicidal, and, a special bonus, “endorsed” by biblical scripture. Progress is inevitable, so long as people clamor (and are willing to work) for it.

49. If we can’t set the bar at the embarrassingly low level of getting the AR-15 banned from civilian ownership, we are officially the Roman Empire, super-sized and on Soma.

50. William Carlos wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day for lack of what’s found there.” That’s always worth remembering.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 6/14/16.

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In Defense of Stephen King (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Borne Back Ceaselessly Into the Past: Steinbeck, Nostalgia, Empathy and Amtrak (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

WHEN I FIRST read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America I was not quite old enough to drive. Still, I felt I could appreciate his somewhat elegiac ode to a world that was quickly disappearing, literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that old things were becoming new, being torn down, refurbished, modernized; figuratively in the sense that airplanes had become more accessible (affordable) and de rigueur as a mode of business travel, while highways continued to get people from Point A to Point B a hell of a lot more efficiently. As a result, people who found themselves on the road were missing (intentionally) the long haul through less-traveled paths, and missing out (unintentionally?) on interacting with the places one doesn’t see, and the people who populate those less-known places.

And that was in 1960. What is there to say, over a half-century later, about the things we do and the things we don’t see?

Perhaps more to the point, how many of us, given the opportunity, would be interested in an old school trek from coast to coast, stopping to sniff the sights and taste the sounds made by towns that time has forgotten? In this era of two-weeks paid vacation, where staying-employed is the new promotion, would anyone have the means, much less the inclination, to take an extended jaunt from coast to coast?

A leisurely circuit through several red states is, perhaps, too much of a good thing, so how about splitting the difference between automotive crawl and air-travel excursion, old school, train style? Quaint? As it happens, in 2014 you can’t be whimsical enough: skinny ties and dirty martinis are back in the game, making TV watchers believe they’re on to something that hasn’t once again been marketed and served up on a cynical (if tasteful) platter, new school, Mad Men style.

Still, some types of nostalgia, let us concede, are better than others. If the archaic Old-Fashioned—which I remember only senior citizens ordering when I waited tables in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—now doesn’t seem quite so…old fashioned, less ancient fads like Zima remain mercifully buried beneath the basement of our collective consciousness, at least until some hipsters dig those cases up.

Nostalgia, in short, is arguably the most irresistible elixir. Amtrak, in an impressive grasp for relevance—or at least recognition—seems keenly aware of this, and this spring they featured a series of promotions for a writer residency program. (Travels with Siri, anyone?) Good press and many applications ensued: the company claims to have received over 16,000 submissions from would-be road trippers enticed by a free 2-5 day trek. However calculated this potential escapade might be, it’s interesting to contemplate how many of these aspiring Steinbecks have even been on a train before. In terms of wistful or aesthetic import, it hardly matters: everyone has likely been on a plane and planes, as we know, are hardly conducive to creativity.

Then again, is anything conducive to creativity these days? Even when we’re alone, we are never truly isolated, at least in the sense that anyone who was sentient prior to Y2K can recall or comprehend. Once the Internet became ubiquitous and we could hear the siren-songs of new e-mails announcing their arrival, we typically had to walk into the other room to read them. Now, our machines are equal parts security blanket and business imperative: we are never without access to the wide, webbed world. And for people with a penchant for introspection, or a compulsion to compose, distraction is now a full-time adversary.

One wonders what Steinbeck would make of our sociological intersection, circa 2014. Innovation has advanced to the point where just about anyone can carry a miniature computer in their pocket, and Google Maps provide virtual road trips to places we can’t pronounce. At what cost? Steinbeck might inquire.

Have our technological toys provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with? Is this one possible explanation for a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content, being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory? Has the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction made us immune to and/or intolerant of opinions we don’t share?

The country Steinbeck described, that awesome, even intimidating mid-century experiment, is now overdue for resuscitation. A society still unsettled and, at best, uncertain after our recent recession has definitive answers for questions that are not being asked by the appropriate people. Highways, tunnels and bridges that once signaled our arrival as a genuine global model to be envied have become a sullen indictment of our myopic priorities.

Perhaps it’s not prospective authors who most need some quiet time on a train, but the politicians who are too preoccupied by 24 hours news cycles and sound bites substituting for policies. Assuming, of course, most of these cretins consider such things; further proof that we don’t manufacture cities, or elected officials, like we used to.

Since poets are likely to remain our unacknowledged legislators, here’s hoping as many of them as possible are able to take a tour of the places that otherwise glisten from below when seen through the window of an airplane. Riding a train is, of course, a paltry approximation of what Steinbeck experienced, but there’s something to be said for a brief, backward glance at an invisible America.

Here are some field notes from a recent journey, spread out over three hours on the Acela Express from Newark to DC.

ii.

Most of the time, it’s a blur of trees or water or dark (as in, when it’s nighttime or when you’re asleep) so the only times you tend to look are when you are aware—instinctively or otherwise—of being alongside something you’re not accustomed to seeing. Driving through the ass-end of deadbeat towns, back alleys that no one remembers; the kind of real estate that seems vaguely mortified about its dirty laundry being aired to mostly upper middle class commuters.

Look: a ramshackle white building with the painted black letters House Of Flowers. Except the only thing visible is an assortment of junked cars and worthless tires, begging the question: does anyone frequent this place? (Does anyone sometimes this place?) How about the name: was it, at one point, an actual house that sold flowers? Is it now? Is the name intentional or ironic? Both? Neither?

A few clicks along the tracks and there is another in a series of dirt clearings strewn with trash. There is a large green bag that had been filled with bricks. Naturally, the bricks broke through their confinement and have formed a makeshift wall around the plastic that only briefly concealed them. Rained upon, rusted, growing mud and moss, they are incapable of fulfilling their intended purpose. Kind of like certain types of people.

More things contemporary eyes don’t see or understand: sprawling pipes standing three stories high, tarnished kettles with nothing left to hold inside, barbed wire encircling works in progress that had their plugs pulled by design or default. Most of these monuments are graveyards for machinery that has decayed in direct proportion to the time passed since industrious hands operated them like so many human ants.

Dozens of bridges, covering creeks and sporting graffitied coats of many colors; one big backyard that never gets raked, watered or mowed; limbs of trees at the end of the line, immobile and out of time. Warehouses, 18 wheelers, school buses, cinder block cathedrals and stolid electrical grids, genetically indifferent to the power they provide.

You lose count of the burned out buildings, all harboring grudges against the good old days, hoping for central heating. Their shattered windows have blinded them, denying a jealous glance toward the other side of town, or even across the street at their regentrified brethren. These broken properties are like the broken people who enlist in the military or throw themselves at the not-so-tender mercies of the types of churches named after obscure saints: they need to be torn down and rebuilt from the roots up. A new lease on life, an extreme makeover that only requires forfeiture of the souls they once possessed.

Through it all, the trees remain impervious; the trees adjust to the death rattles and reclamation projects—they are planted on firm ground. The trees grow, get green when Nature calls, and mostly are kind enough to offer no comment. They are uninterested in passing judgment on the concrete and the cars and the punks with their spray painted patois. Quietly and in some cases long-sufferingly, they provide cover for the plants and animals, offering window dressing for the inquisitive eyes barreling by at the speed of surround sound.

And then, of course, there are the neighborhoods. New ones and especially the old ones: Oddfellows and American Legions and taverns with Christian names. Fences and grass and street signs, an arithmetic formula found in translation. There is money here. Little league fields, churches and bicycles in repose. The rain feeds the lawns and the sun warms the driveways of four car families. The birds circle the well-stocked feeders and can’t quite believe their good fortune. Even the worms are relieved to burrow in safer soil, praying that once they are eaten and shat out they can fertilize the earth they once called home.

This is the calm calculus of civilization, just out of earshot from the neglected intersections that choke and sigh but no longer scream. Sometimes docile dogs and curious cats sneak past their security gates and wander too close to a reality their caretakers keep them from. They sniff the fear and sense the dread and understand the choice was never theirs to make. The wise ones, inherently aware of the whim that separates fate from fortune, run safely back to masters who speak a language they’ve learned to understand.

*This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 7/2/14.

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Sorry, Charlie: On Art and Extremism (Revisited)

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OF COURSE RELIGION IS the problem.

For anyone who, understandably, would say it’s a political issue and not a religious issue, I aver that so many of our political difficulties exist because of and not in spite of religion. And we muddle the matter if drawn into a debate about whether Religion-with-a-capital-R is ultimately a force of Good or Evil. I know how I feel and you know how you feel. More importantly, religion isn’t going anywhere, so we heretics must remain skeptical, and vigilant. And if there’s one thing that unites East and West it’s the chasm between those convinced more religion is the answer and those for whom the less the better.

It has become a tad too fashionable these days to pit believers vs. non-believers (and there are few things more exasperating than proselytizers playing the victim card). Let me stand up and be counted as someone who respects—in theory and practice—anyone’s right to believe anything they choose. Indeed, I’m relieved we have a handful of commandments, however randomly obeyed, to keep would-be-sociopaths in check, their eyes on an eternal prize. The problem, as always, involves those amongst us who would initiate mayhem, compelled by the imperatives of their faith.

We do ourselves a great disservice by failing to acknowledge the role religion has ceaselessly played as either an instigator of, or cover for, violence. In this regard, a similar impulse connects what happened in Paris and what happened during the Crusades and that disaster porn saturating the Old Testament: perceived righteousness in the name of divinity. Yes, clever commentators can point out that, at least in some instances, religion is a cynical shield for atrocity. It has always been thus.

We have, at least, advanced culturally (one might say we’ve evolved) to the extent where no one can be taken seriously for condoning massacre of innocents. That, in any event, is not the crux of the matter before us. What we see, and what has been polluting the discourse these last two weeks, is a refusal to denounce, without reservation, the religious rationalization signaling—then seeking to explain—such acts.

A single quote resurfaced in several news stories last week, and it crystallizes the cause and effect so many are struggling to see with clarity. Nasser Lajil, a Muslim city councilor in France, had this to say regarding the slaughter of 11 journalists: “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.” (Emphasis mine.)

Two simple points need to be made. One, any sane argument begins and ends with a declaration that under no faith-related circumstances is murder of human beings ever acceptable. Two, if your faith is capable of being threatened by a cartoon, your faith is a cartoon.

 

ii.

Which brings us to Charlie Hebdo. Our collective reaction requires more J’Accuse and less Je ne sais quoi. Anything other than a full-throated and unequivocal denunciation of such carnage renders one a coward. When it comes to free speech and matters of life and death, you are either an advocate or an accomplice; there can be no middle ground. Satire is not possible without someone’s sacred bovine being savaged; the complication is that so many of us are equal opportunity instigators until it’s our cow getting cudgeled. Free speech, in short, is not an à la carte arrangement.

It is, therefore, dispiriting to see anyone, especially (if predictably) the liberal intelligentsia, so cavalier about throwing down what’s typically a trump card. Is Charlie Hebdo racist? It’s an interesting question for curious minds to ponder, but irrelevant in this context of assassination and presumptive self-censorship. Even if, however hysterical the argument, we concede that this magazine exists only to offend, does that in any way legitimize the act of murder?

More, it’s precisely because so many of these cartoons are juvenile that we must defend their right to exist. It’s generally painless to rally around literature we consider sacrosanct, and feel smug doing so, but if we don’t allow the claptrap to function as an aesthetic caboose, we risk being elitists as well as defeatists. How revolting, then, to read pundit after political analyst after Op-Ed arbitrator stroking their chins and opining that the images were, after all, in questionable taste. Or, if you provoke certain groups often enough you have to expect some type of reaction. Really?

Any form of suppression, especially as it pertains to someone else’s faith, is an act of accommodation. Full stop. These intellectually bankrupt rationalizations, in effect blaming the victim, smack of our rape-enabling semantics. Some of the self-righteous comments sullying our newspapers and blogs call to mind the familiar formulation: “Yes, she was brutally raped but should she really have worn that skirt?” Translation: Rape is awful, but maybe next time she’ll think twice about the decisions she makes.

It’s situations like this that help me understand what pushed Christopher Hitchens, the erstwhile socialist, over the edge. It was occasionally perplexing to see him stand alongside (figuratively and sometimes literally) the architects of Iraq and unrepentant exploiters of America’s underwear-wetting sensibility concerning all-things-terror post 9/11. But even then, while I couldn’t forgive it, I could fathom it. Here was a dude who talked the belligerent talk, but also walked the uncompromised walk: he spent considerable time in the very hot zones he wrote about, and bore witness to the atrocities we excoriate in editorials.

And while many lamented his ostensible act of betrayal and/or expedience in the years before his death, he had political and creative skin in the game. Also, and this is important: it quite clearly wasn’t a game for him; whatever else one can say about The Hitch, he had the courage of his convictions and they were not easily earned. His good friend Salman Rushdie, one might recall, was targeted for the infamous fatwa—a price on the author’s head equal parts medieval and postmodern—and, it’s quite worth noting, this occurred several years before the first Iraq war. As such, he saw the reaction of the literary community, which ranged from muted to craven. Everyone, it seems, is all for artists’ rights until it’s their ass in the crosshairs.

It obviously galled him, over a decade later, to see the usual suspects, secure in their tenured offices and café latte circle jerks, sniffing about imperialism and why our Big Bad Empire had come to bring all this grief upon ourselves. Nevermind the fact that these internecine quarrels predate the founding of America by several centuries. (Look it up, it’s in the Bible.)

And that is the real (dark) heart of this matter: of course it’s about religion. Invariably, it’s always about religion. (It’s always about money, too, but the two are not mutually exclusive; indeed, it’s arguably the lack of money—and resources, education and democracy or at least unregulated thought—that makes one susceptible, if not ravenous for what religion promises to those who can’t find heaven or even a hint of transcendence here on earth.)

 

iii.

Let’s be clear: our collective hands, in the West, are far from clean as it pertains to policies and actions antithetical to our own beliefs (due process, drones, etc.), and certainly there are myriad dots that must be connected before we can hope to comprehend the resentment we’ve allowed—if not enabled—to fester. In so many ways, we have so much to answer for. Nevertheless, the underlying symptom, religion, was alive and unwell long before our current, clichéd clash of civilizations.

We can respect, or at least tolerate the existence of, cultural mores (see: subjugation of women; lack of walls between church and state, and so on) that seem odious or at least antiquated to our Western eyes. We can also acknowledge that perhaps it’s not our place to interfere, particularly when we have our own complicated quandaries of race, class and sexuality in the states. But we can, and must, judge. If we abdicate our obligation to denounce such archaic attitudes we are derelict, rationally and morally.

Here is an affair, at long last, that should serve to unite the Left and Right: a genuine atrocity that’s at once easy to understand, and revile. It has done so, to an extent, but for the wrong reasons. The only thing more hypocritical than conservative Christians becoming convenient allies of Muslims only because they can’t stomach denigrations of their own faith is the faction of liberals who disparage All Things America even as they bask in the very freedoms their country provides them. (Want a laugh? Contemplate how long any of our textbook radicals would linger in the offices of Charlie Hebdo after the first death threat.)

A commitment to free speech inexorably allows bigots an opportunity to spew sewage, all in the name of ill-will. But that is precisely the price we pay for free speech, and hurt feelings are an exceedingly small price to pay, especially compared to the body count accumulated in religious conflicts throughout history. But there is a silver lining: allowing, even encouraging, morons to get their outrage on does us the collective service of isolating the antisocial and potentially psychotic amongst us. Free speech is, like it or not, an all-or-nothing proposition. Where are we, as Americans, if we agree the KKK must be allowed to legally march, but draw the line at religious satire?

Are we actually in a place, circa 2015, where we unthinkingly submit to X-ray scans at airports but confiscate cartoonist’s pens? We soil ourselves if a color-coded terror alert goes into effect but don’t see that “Terror” really is winning if we let extremists dictate the terms of engagement—artistic or otherwise? If we are at war, even metaphorically, what is the fight about if we can’t agree that unfettered expression is inviolable?

This debate can—and should—continue, but on the topic of faith-based violence, the concern should be plain and pure: free speech is a non-negotiable precept. It has everything to do with everything we talk about when we talk, often speciously, about American exceptionalism. Ironically, or not, it was free speech that enabled early Americans to practice the religion of their choice (!); it is the guarantee of free speech that underpins our Great Experiment and gives Americans the freedom to not believe. It is, ultimately, free speech that ensures the pen is mightier than the sword, and that no one has to die proving otherwise.

*This piece originally appeared on 1/23/15 in The Weeklings.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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My Most Embarrassing Thanksgiving Memory? (Revisited)

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Question: What was your most embarrassing Thanksgiving moment ever?

Answer:

I’ve got nothing here. I mean, I was raised in an Irish-Italian Catholic household so there were two things we could always count on: church every Sunday and a family meltdown on every major holiday. I can’t think of a Thanksgiving, at least from adolescence on, where someone wasn’t screaming at someone. Here’s the thing: it was always about something trivial, like a movie or book or that day’s political scandal. We saved the serious shit for more mundane occasions, family fights being nothing if not mundane (All happy families are alike, et cetera). Of course, it could be said that these ostensibly trivial flare-ups were tardy detonations of slights and angers that built up over time, maudlin librettos in search of an approving audience.

I guess there was also the time, when I was seven or eight, that I made the mistake of having second helpings of my (Irish) grandmother’s Lemon Meringue pie (the first mistake was having the first helping) and puked all over the table. To this day everyone swears I had the flu. There was also the time I drank too much wine and passed out on the couch while everyone else was having coffee. And arguing. Oh wait, that’s every year. I guess what I should be most embarrassed about is that, as we’ve mellowed or grown or lost the edge that kept us younger, and Italian, and Irish, and Catholic, we no longer fight. Our family meals have become almost amicable; so much so that I kind of look forward to my sister’s grandkids puking up the pie I make in twenty or thirty years. That is, after all, tradition.

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for the same question. Check it out!

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The Problem with The Homeless Problem (Revisited)

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THERE IS A MAN who sits near the pumps at the gas station I drive by each day. The man is very obviously from somewhere else and has about him a certain look—the meek, awestruck eyes, the apprehensive gestures—that indicts him as someone who speaks little if any English. A stranger.

He remains respectfully distant from the customers—who incessantly fill their tanks, like bees returning to the nest before heeding the urgency of their instinctual obligations—but near enough to the action to remain in plain view. He sells flowers. Actually, he doesn’t seem to sell anything; he pretty much sits there, on an upturned milk crate, often from early morning until well in the evening, after the rest of the weary warriors have commuted past him, home from work and their worries of the wicked world. He silently plies his wares, content to play his part in the charade: he is not accomplishing much, he is begging, and the milk crate and collection of fading flowers at his feet communicate an inexpressible anguish. Please help me, his unscrubbed face, his unlaced sneakers, his oversized slacks, his filthy, fidgeting fingers—everything but his voice—all ask, saying what he cannot, and will not, say for himself.

***

Hey brother, can you spare a life, the woman moving past me does not say.

I’m in too much of a hurry to stop (like always, like everyone else getting on and off the subway), but there is something so familiar about her that I’m compelled, despite everything I’ve learned, to pause and look back: she is still there, off to the side, shabbily clad, immediately recognizable by her contrast to everyone around her; she wants to approach one of these businessmen, but all of them are walking too fast, too deliberately, too purposefully. Getting from Point A to Point B so we can get paid.

Automatically, the doors move aside and sweltering air earnestly greets everyone headed its way. It takes about five seconds (as always) to feel the heat and then the money dread: if it weren’t for the money, it wouldn’t take much—in a strange city, lost, alone. Broke. That’s how shit like starvation and sleeping on grates gets started. Quiet in the corners, huddled under bridges, working the frenzied crowd for a friendly face, hoping for the handout that never comes.

I don’t have any lives to spare, but I’ll dig deeper and give ‘til it hurts.

This hurts me more than it hurts you, I don’t say.

***

Who was he?

I think the same question each time I see him (once a week, sometimes more, occasionally double-shifts: the same man in the same spot, holding the same sign that tells everyone who he is, now—prompting the question: who did he used to be, at some point in the past?) at the intersection he has stood at for several months now. The cardboard sign he holds both question and answer: Homeless veteran (the explanation), can you put some pocket change in this plastic cup (the question). The sign says he is a veteran. Okay. And even if he isn’t actually a veteran, he has been homeless long enough to be a veteran; or if he is not actually homeless, he has been acting the part long enough to earn the title. Either way, it is time for a promotion.

And so, I think, this is the problem with the homeless problem: it wasn’t (some of us learn—too late) the ones who hustled or even approached you who were down and out; they were the ardent ones, half the time they weren’t even homeless; it is the ones you never see, even when they’re sprawled on the concrete right beside you, the ones who are down, the ones who are out, the ones who have nothing to ask for, nothing to say, nothing to do except wait, sit it out until time or the whiter man’s burden delivers them that eventual, inevitable verdict. It was the ones you could afford not to be afraid of, the ones who could not even hurt themselves, because they’d already dug as deep inside as their ashen fingers could reach, the ones too dead to tear out their hearts, but not dead enough to unloose their souls, the ones who learned (too late) that death was only impatient for the fools who failed to acknowledge it, it had all the time in the world for those who the world owed nothing except the decency of an overdue release.

Could that be me?

A primal foreboding, an ancient fear. Who knew how it happened, who could make sense of it? And yet. These people do not wake up one random morning, on the streets and out of their minds. Or do they? If you believed the signs the man on the corner held, the government did this to him—and could do it to anyone else: that was his message, his mission.

The problem with the homeless problem is that these people who don’t see you and can’t see themselves are all chasing something they can no longer name: memories. Or, even worse, it is the memories that are chasing them, speaking in tongues they long ago ceased to understand.

***

A memory:

Newark Airport. That shithole. A place has to be exceptionally beautiful, appalling, or incomprehensibly pointless in order to be easily remembered years after a brief visit.

When I was a kid, (I couldn’t have been much older than ten) my father and I had a layover in Newark Airport. Even then, I was perceptive enough to understand that this was no place I ever needed to return voluntarily.

An unassuming older man (at any rate, he was noticeably older than my old man, which made him old) sat in one of those impossibly plain plastic chairs, with his pants leg rolled up. It wasn’t until we got closer that I realized two things: he was alone, and he was scratching at a series of scabs on his shin. For some reason he looked our way at the moment we passed him, and after sizing us up, he stood and amiably approached my father.

“Sir, did you need someone to help you and your son carry your bags?”

“No thanks, we’re okay,” my pops replied, looking ahead and picking up the pace.

The man was persistent. In the space of fifteen seconds—my father denied him three times—my emotions slid from the appreciation of possibly having someone carry my suitcase for me, to the vague, uneasy suspicion that my father was being somehow rude, a jerk, to the unsettling awareness of recognition. I sensed something I’d seen plenty of, but never before in any person older than myself: fear. I saw it in his eyes, and felt it in my insides.

As we walked away my old man waited until we were at a charitable distance, then looked at me meaningfully and offered the somber assertion: That’s as low as you can go. I asked him to elaborate, as was my style, and he was either unwilling or unable to add anything to his observation, as was his style. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand what my father was saying, I understood him perfectly. It was because I understood him that I needed him to say more, to talk to me a little longer about it, about anything, anything to interrupt that silence and the sudden thoughts that accompanied it.

***

It’s easy to believe that people like this exist for our sakes: they are dying lessons on how not to live, warnings of what could happen if you weren’t careful and found yourself scratching at scabs in the world’s ugliest airport. Or enlist, get used up and ask not what your country can do for you, because you’ve already received the answer. We forget, or we don’t allow ourselves to entertain the idea, that these people have histories; that these shadows and signposts don’t happen to serve a purpose for anyone else; they were once actual people themselves.

I realize, now, my father was wrong about one thing. That’s not as low as you can go. You can go lower, a whole lot lower. But perhaps it’s more disturbing to see the ones that are on the way down, it’s somehow easier to accept the ones at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the ones who are sinking, who are still within reach, who are drowning noisily in front of you, who sometimes have the temerity to ask you to hold out a hand. These are the ones we can scarcely tolerate, because every so often we look at them and see ourselves.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings, 11/5/2014.

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