Donald Trump and Participation Trophy Politics

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A lot?—?since the election and particularly during the past two weeks?—?about the cliché (typically, in personal experience, uttered by my right-leaning friends) involving our so-called “participation trophy” generation and how it’s making everyone so soft, and spoiled. You have to earn it, this complaint implies. You have to understand defeat to fully appreciate triumph. If you expect to get rewarded just for showing up, it cheapens it for everyone, et cetera.

There’s no shortage of context and counterarguments about how a win-at-all-costs mentality translates to society, or if emphasizing sportsmanship is the worst thing, or, finally, how in America we instinctively ignore the fact that all people don’t start from the same place, physically, mentally, economically. Marginalization has historically worked best when the people in positions of privilege don’t acknowledge or even imagine themselves as anything other than fair, objective and industrious folks.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

I find myself at once dismayed, yet not at all surprised to behold the increasingly sorry spectacle of a newly-elected president?—?who has benefitted from virtually every advantage?—?endorsed by those he’s spent his life ignoring, ostracizing, swindling. (Never mind how this pathology of Americans voting against their best interests is a phenomenon that, to an extent, has always existed, but super-sized itself in recent years.) Here’s a candidate who undeniably had outside assistance (Russia, voter fraud, James Comey) to squeeze out the narrowest of “wins”, who is obsessed with approval, not understanding it must be earned, and who inexorably makes every occasion about himself (etc.). None of this is especially perplexing for anyone who’s paid attention over the last several decades. He was never an especially confident or competent man, but he played one on TV.

(And despite the hysteria and hand-wringing that’s followed Hillary Clinton’s loss, the key takeaway seems clear: it’s not that she (or Democrats in general) don’t talk to working class Americans; it’s that she (and they) still don’t know how to. A lot more on that issue, here.)

As we enter a steadily surreal landscape of alternate facts, braindead braggadocio masquerading as foreign policy and daily dumpster fires that titillate social media but also provide cover for the shady shit going on behind the scenes, it’s painful to conclude that idiocy has found an unprecedented symbiosis: only the most eager to dissemble can consistently reach those most in need of being deceived. Donald Trump is not the president most of his voters actually need, but he’s the one a distressing number of them want.

Again, enough can never be said about the myriad ways Democrats (including, of course, Obama and his team) were either too haughty, impatient or sane to belabor how demonstrably beneficial the vast majority of their enacted policies have been. But have we reached a point where a black man providing affordable health care is literally less tolerable than a billion-dollar baby with a bad combover taking it away from them? Are we through the broken looking glass where a tenure without terror attacks on American soil (not counting our homegrown terrorists with unconstrained access to firearms, all of whom tend to skew fascist, I mean conservative) is less savory than an isolationist bellicosity cut with impetuousness and pig-ignorance? Are we, at long last, in an irony-free fantasy land where virtually all regulation (safe drinking water is such a liberal diversion), much of which has been a century or more in the making and inspired by avoidable calamities, is the real roadblock to collective prosperity?

I think, and fear, we are.

And that, more than fake news, bigotry and not-so-quiet desperation, may explain Trump’s atavistic appeal. The red hat brigade is definitely not safer, but they feel safer (they want to); their wages won’t increase but their Dear Leader promises we’ll get tired of winning so much; no immigrants are stealing their jobs, but finally they have a Bully-in-Chief who feels their perceived pain. It’s a new world order of rationalization instead of realization (emphasis on real); it’s participation trophy politics.

With the invaluable assistance of an alternately prurient and supine media, we’ve unleashed an orange genie who reinforces our most brutish instincts. In this less kind and gentle America, it’s those who talk toughest most in need of mollification (it begins at the top and tweets its way to the bottom), who require readymade villains and celebrate their victimhood, who need a Big Daddy to remind them they’re special, that no sacrifice is required on their part.

(Behold, with equal amounts of bemusement and disgust, the way our part-time custodians of culture are submitting themselves (spines and shame not required), excusing and/or overlooking this manifestly unqualified adolescent: a man who proudly declines to read books, or learn, or make efforts to be coached by anyone with insight and experience. A man born rich who refuses to play by any rules (where are those tax returns, genius?), a man whose callousness and incuriosity makes George W. Bush look like Ralph W. Emerson. Behold, with maximum disdain, the way these bought-and-sold bitches live to do the wet work for Big Business. These same frauds, who make themselves arbiters for morality and decency, are entirely enabling this ongoing disgrace, a man they loathe, a man they’d otherwise decry and avoid (#NeverTrump? The only problem with shaming people like this is that they require a sense of shame, and a soul, for it to matter). And make no mistake: it’s all in the name of lower taxes for the wealthiest percentile, as ever, as always.)

In The Donald’s America, everyone can live vicariously, eliminating doubt, self-discipline and consequences. All that’s required is the renunciation of cause-and-effect and Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The only losers are the saps who refuse to trust Trump’s lying eyes. The (White) House always wins, but everyone gets a trophy in this game.

*This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 2/3/17.

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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 24th annual honor was awarded last week and Erri De Luca takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Day Before Happiness. 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 the worst passage from 2 years ago, 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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The Weeklings: Final Popped Culture

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In this much-beloved feature launched for the very final time, our editors and contributors each respond to a single cultural question.

As always, please, no wagering.

 

Five years later, what Weeklings essay has stuck with you the most?

 

Ashley Perez
My introduction to The Weeklings came about when then-editor Antonia Crane introduced a feature called Welcome Kink, an essay series that featured the good, bad, and amazing on kinky sex and kink culture. She worked with me for six months to get my essay ready for the series, as well as a lot of other talented writers. One of my favorite essays from that series is Seth Fischer’s essay, “The Skinner Box”, which brings together kinky sex, bisexuality, masturbating, and psychology. What more could you ask for? I think this is what The Weeklings can be most proud of; fearlessly bringing the best writing on every topic to a wide audience.

Janet Steen
I don’t know how to pick the Weeklings essay that has stayed with me the most from these past four years. So many still spark in my brain: pieces by Jennifer Kabat, Lawrence Benner, Sean Beaudoin, Henry Cherry, Jana Martin, Greg Olear, Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Sean Murphy, Derek Bardowell, Barbara Mansfield, Deirdre Day, Robert Burke Warren, and others. But I will complete my assignment by choosing one that resonates with me especially in these days of catastrophic news and foreboding election coverage: Nathaniel Missildine’s essay “Catching Us at a Bad Time.”  It’s a perfect example of the sort of essay I wanted to see at The Weeklings: nimble, questioning, unpredictable, baffled. Missildine tries to parse the strange, nonsensical texts his young daughter is sending him while also absorbing the horrible news of the day: beheadings of journalists and aid workers, murderous cops who escape indictment, school shooting rampages. And all of this from his bucolic expat life in France. It’s a piece that has questions but no easy answers, and that captures the feeling that this world is fucked up beyond understanding right now. “I don’t know where we go from here,” Missildine writes at one point. That line sticks with me in these strange days.

Kurt Baumeister
Top GOP Excuses for Romney Being a Loser,” by Elissa Schappell. The qualities I most admire about Elissa Schappell’s writing are her style and wit. From her short stories and journalism to her Facebook posts and Twitter tweets Schappell’s work embodies something I like to call “savage urbanity”, an acid wit (barely) contained by her eloquence. This rare quality is fully on display in Schappell’s short post mortem on the 2012 election. From “Lord Mittens” to “panda jerky” and “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Who Doesn’t Want the Government in her Vagina” this piece shows Elissa at her best. And it points to one of the greatest attributes of The Weeklings as an endeavor: Freedom. People on the outside may not realize it but there was a lot of freedom in the content The Weeklings produced, a lot of room for individualism. There are other sites and magazines where this exists, to be sure; but in a sense The Weeklings was a little like an asylum run by the inmates, something any lunatic in his right mind can appreciate, something that will be missed. Beyond its content, this piece is memorable for me because Elissa is one of the first new (to me, at least) writers I admired when I began to pursue publication a few years ago. The fact that she was one of The Weeklings original contributors is, more or less, why I wanted to write for The Weeklings in the first place. And I’m very happy I did.

Hank Cherry
Rather than pick one essay, I offer one each by the four founders of The Weeklings. I’ve been reading Sean Beaudoin’s written work since we sat next to each other in Philosophy class back in college, me the younger student, him the wizened bulb ready to enter society and bend it to his will. Check out his excellent meditation on the Newtown school shootings, “Going Home.” Jennifer Kabat always directed light and diligent intelligence with particular concern for the arts, from her pieces came conversations that lasted long after reading. Read her brilliant “My Favorite Marxist” essay. Greg Olear presented a firm grasp of word-smithing but always with a particular zest, daring anyone to rob him of his love for Billy Joel while still remaining remarkably credible. And of course, Janet Steen offered real clarity of concept in her pieces while cloaking each essay with incisive poetry. Her offering, “The Gravity of the Situation,” will make you a better, smarter person. From them, others sprouted: Joe Daly, Sean Murphy, Michael Gonzalez, my friend Antonia Crane, along with many others (Bob Devine!!!). But if you’re here reading, it’s because of Janet, Greg, Jen and Sean. So l thank them now for giving us all the room to move. I, for one, am much, much better for the opportunity. And if you need something else, check out Hank Cherry’s sublime “Soul Seduction – The Bar-Kays” for an indelibly raw and vibrant commitment to musical appreciation. It should have been a contender! The Weeklings are dead! Long live the Weeklings!

 

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Litsa Dremousis
Choosing my favorite Weeklings essay is like choosing my favorite Top Pot donut or picking the cutest kitten in the box: damned near impossible. That said, I’m particularly drawn to Janine Canty’s “Don’t Blame Yourself”: A beautiful, blunt, bloody look at grief and the ways in which life seemingly targets each of us again and again. So vivid that reading it is like watching a film. And while, from a technical standpoint, Canty’s sentences occasionally need polishing, that’s one of the things I love about her work: she’s not precious and she’s true to her voice. Sometimes publishing feels like a round-robin, circle jerk, echo chamber where all of us know all of us know all of us. Canty, a nurse in northern Maine, knocked down the damned door with the weight of her talent and we’re each the better for it. She’s not one more MFA darling spending a paragraph describing a tree. (Seriously, guys: call it “a maple” and then move on. You’re not writing for Martians: we know what a fucking tree looks like.) I’ve never met Canty in person, but when I read her essays, I feel like I’m reading a supremely gifted friend. As for the end of The Weeklings, I guessed it was coming because all of us on the masthead and all the regular contributors are fortunate and tenacious enough to be supremely busy. Which doesn’t mean I won’t miss it. Writing for The Weeklings has been one of the favorite parts of my career. To a person, the aforementioned are not only superb writers, but kind and trustworthy. Goodbye, Weeklings. You were the meal AND the dessert and I always licked my plate clean.

Jamie Blaine
It’s difficult to pick from all the fifty greatest band names and drug-addled albums, from riffs on Bowie, Prince and GNR but I have to give it to Robert Burke Warren’s coming-of-age tale of lazy eyes, metal groups named Ickee Phudj and forming a punk-funk band with RuPaul called Wee Wee Pole. Sweet and nostalgic with a lot of soul — everything I love in good writing. For example, this line, when a reluctantly-grown-up Burke found himself playing songs at his son’s preschool. “And I always told them, to their astonishment, that skin, bones, and hearts are stronger when they heal.” Also that time Questlove played his song “Elephant in the Room” on Jimmy Fallon was pretty darn cool.

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Jen Kabat
I have four essays, not one, and death is truly what unites them. The first is Judy Juanita— a former Black Panther’s take on guns today. The Panthers took up arms; they armed others. They believed in their right to bear arms. And, Judy carried a gun in her purse. In a world where black men were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and doing-anything-while-black could be called a crime (to this day), the Panthers armed for defense and offense. Here she writes about her own gun and the power of guns, their poetic and psychic strength as well as their sheer horror. Her essay is as lyrical as it is nuanced and angry. To say I am proud of it isn’t nearly enough. It begins and ends with Trayvon Martin. The week I write this that essay seems ever more timely and urgent. And, then there is Sean Beaudoin’s essay also on guns and the inane/insane shooting at Newtown, CT where he went to elementary school and how to make sense of loss.  I still don’t know how to make sense of it, or any other. Finally as meditations on death that also try to comprehend loss and the unaccountable calculous violence leaves there is Nelly Reifler’s “Blue Spark.” Janet Steen always manages to circle around ideas in ways that slip in something unexpected— loss, family, hope, but death too… 

Sean Beaudoin
Well, if I were to get technical about it, the essay that has “stuck with me” the most is one that I still get regular hate mail about, even four years later. Who knew Beach Boys fans were so sensitive? Or I could pick all two years worth of Hank Cherry’s classic “Sunday Light & Word.” I’ll admit to being enamored with Vince Navy’s take on the moral legislation against having an opinion about Caitlyn Jenner that fails to be cloyingly positive. I also loved Jamie Blaine’s elgiac “Tuesday’s Gone, Ride On,” but in terms of most affecting as a piece of prose, I’m going to go with Bob Devine’s “Delmark Records 1965.” I solicited it, as Bob was college professor of mine and in-between lectures would sometimes tell cryptic little tales about his years interacting with iconic blues personalities, some of whom were my heroes, both then and now. It’s a great piece that sets you firmly in a very specific time and place that can never and will never come again. But it’s also a document, a story that might not have been told. If nothing else, in five years at The Weeklings I’m proud to have been a part of something whose greatest purpose might have been to give a platform to obscure voices, and archive stories that might otherwise have just disappeared.

 

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Greg Olear
We’ve run a staggering 1,320 pieces (!) since April of 2012. I just now scrolled through the list of titles, which runs to 64 pages, and it’s amazing to me how much good stuff we published. I wish Diana Spechler wrote more. I wish James Greer wrote more. I wish Whitney Collins wrote more. I wish I wrote less. I wish Big Ron Dantomine had taken off. I wish I knew why some pieces got a lot of hits, even if they didn’t deserve it, while other really great ones died on the vine. I wish we’d had a real budget, so we could have paid everybody and/or promoted the site more. As for which post has stuck with me, I’ll go with Lawrence Benner’s “The Island of Apples.” One of my favorite writers, Larry tends to write about weird, obscure stuff, or else come at current events at a particularly peculiar angle. But this post is about something so real, and so inherently sad, that I didn’t take it at face value until I was several paragraphs in. Just a sublime piece of writing.

Sean Murphy
When I first met Sean Beaudoin, which is to say when I first met his writing, it was love at first sight. I suspect I’m not alone in this, but as a writer it makes my love, well, complicated. We read, often without reward, hoping to encounter that rare piece that will both inspire us and reinvigorate our passion for why we do what we do in the first place, despite the rejection, obscurity and annoying groupies (okay, mostly the first two). So it’s a tad awkward when you find yourself hating a writer a little bit because they are so good at what you try to do. Yes, it’s useful and refreshing and all that crap, but it’s also a reminder that we ultimately must measure ourselves not by clicks and likes but by our peers. However, all of these mixed emotions are forever redeemed by the first piece of his I read, “Ronald Reagan, The Greatest President Who Ever Lived.” It contains all the elements that make Sean’s writing so memorable and satisfying: humor, erudition, just the right amount of cynicism (easy to attempt, near impossible to pull off in an essay) and, most importantly, he did heavy lifting for those of us who wanted, no needed to write an essay exactly like this. Thank you, Brother Beaudoin, for writing this so I didn’t have to. On a personal note, the essay that will stick to me is this one, since it led to a note from Julie Newmar, and what guy doesn’t have a message from Catwoman on his bucket list?

 

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Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Bern

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Hey Bernie Bros!

What’s up, fellas? First, I feel you. To a certain extent, I am you. I love me some Bernie, and, to establish some obligatory street-cred, actually knew who he was (and admired him) many years before he decided to run for president.

Secondly, I get it. Check this out.

I have to say, you younger dudes are reminding many of us of the obdurate blowhards who claimed, in 2000, that their only choice was Nader since (as Nader himself said, to his eternal shame) Bush and Gore were essentially two sides of the same soiled coin.

Here’s the thing: quite a few folks knew not only that this was bullshit, but that the feckless and untested Bush wasn’t remotely up to the job. Yes, it was infuriating to witness some of the most irresponsible media negligence of our lifetimes (little did we know it was a test run for the run-up to Iraq), but at least, without the literal benefit of hindsight, it was impossible to prove Bush would be incompetent in ways that made even our most cynical suspicions seem…naïve. Here’s the other thing: we already know, without even the slightest iota of uncertainty, that Trump is not merely a reckless, obscene and ignorant buffoon, but that his election will put the very concept of American democracy in jeopardy. Speaking of Iraq, imagine Trump…no, let’s not even go there.

So, with condolences and admonition, let me toss fifty well-intended turds into your oh-so-pure punch bowl before your precious, but increasingly nihilistic “Bernie or Bust” antics do our nation irreparable harm.

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1. Donald Trump.

2. Trump’s VP? Google “Pence. Abortion bill”.

3. Take a quick gander at the GOP platform. And read this.

4. Imagine, for one moment, that you’re not white, or had a vagina. Or were gay. Or, if that’s too frightening and uncomfortable, what our country will be like for any and all of these folks.

5. Pretend (and this is probably the biggest stretch of all) that you ever, under any circumstances had to work a blue collar job.

6. Contemplate Newt Gingrich as Secretary of State.

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  1. Contemplate Chris Christie. (Not even necessarily in any position of power; just contemplate him.)
  2. Imagine, for one second, this idiot feeling vindicated.
  3. The fact that the cowardly and cretinous Rudy Giuliani has recently inserted himself into the public eye with the typical grace of a rabid ferret in a crowded train, and could easily be named Attorney General, should be enough to make you not only vote for Hillary, but get excited about canvassing for her.
  4. If you seriously believe, for one second, that living under a Trump regime will be in any way cathartic or cleansing, do us all a favor: go live in North Korea for a few months and let us know what you’ve learned.
  5. Have you actually ever read anything by Orwell or Kafka or even the pre-9/11 Christopher Hitchens? Didn’t think so.
  6. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose”, right? Trump’s another word for it, too — for people who’ve never lost anything, or have excellent jobs or benevolent parents to shelter them from shit when it gets real. Speaking of freedom: everything this concept conveys is something Trump had handed to him or has fought to obstruct his entire life.
  7. Hillary a tad egocentric for your tastes? Fair enough. Think she puts herself first too much for comfort? Okay. Compared to Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa and June Cleaver rolled into one.
  8. Think of Hillary Clinton as the pâté of politics: overvalued by the wrong type of people, appalling in its pretensions, bought by well-connected sorts, but undeniably created through expertise and time-tested processes. It, in short, might not be especially appetizing for all kinds of reasons, but fast food it ain’t. Think of Trump, on the other hand, as a worn out chicken breast raised on a chemical and steroid mash inside a rank, concrete factory that is months past its inflated expiration date, then had bleach poured on it for coloration before hitting the meat aisle at Food Lion.
  9. Everyone who really wants Trump to win really hates everything about you.
  10. And they would not hesitate to harm you, physically, if they could get away with it.
  11. And they would be encouraged (and, perhaps, exonerated) by Trump, if he had the power.
  12. Read the short story “Mario and the Magician” by Thomas Mann.
  13. Read something by any writer who lived through a dictatorship.
  14. Read this excellent piece from founding Weeklings editor Greg Olear.
  15. Imagine all the right wing radio listening, bigoted and elderly dunces who detest Obama (because he’s black) and fantasize about them spending their miserable last years ranting in their futons because a woman just became president for two terms.
  16. I would say, imagine Secretary of Defense John McCain, but The Donald prefers Secretaries of State who didn’t get captured. You know who definitely never gets captured? Short-fingered cheese-dicks whose daddy helped them avoid military service in the first place.
  17. At a certain point you just have to grow up. There are few things more appalling than the way sausage is made (literally and figuratively). There are also few things more enjoyable, or American.
  18. You know how you love Bill Clinton despite the ways he drives you crazy because he’s such a gifted natural politician with such cripplingly poor judgment? Hillary Clinton, in virtually every regard, is his opposite.
  19. Read this.
  20. Read this, too.
  21. More knowledge dropped by Mr. Olear.
  22. Put this in your pipe and smoke it.
  23. Donald Trump is the tragi-comic apotheosis of the GOP successfully, for decades, side-stepping all reality-based criticism by insisting the media is liberal. (The only way that story ends happily, and appropriately, is if Trump loses in spectacular, historically humiliating fashion.)
  24. Also, the Fox News-enabled transition from low information voters to no information voters has been deliberate, if cynical, and will have one of two results: epic comeuppance that will rend the GOP into several desperate, greedy and angry (always angry) factions, or the utter collapse of democracy, assuming Trump wins.
  25. Seriously, the distance between Hillary and Bernie, though profound in some regards, is like the gap between Starbucks franchises in any major city. The distance between Hillary and Trump, on the other hand, is not even calculable by man-made means; we’re talking quantum physics black hole time space continuum type shit.
  26. See how long you can make it through this:

33. Am I the only person who, whenever Donald Trump is speaking (invariably about himself), thinks he is a much dumber and more dangerous realization of this classic character?

34. You notice how the Republican Establishment has, of late, tripled-down on calling itself “the party of Lincoln”? That’s not accidental. This election needs to ensure that for the indefinite future they are, correctly, known as “the party of Trump”.

35. Getting back to that Republican platform. Did you know they’re against medical marijuana?

36. And that they are still shamelessly anti-gay marriage, anti-gay adoption and for the farcical “conversion therapy” snake oil? (Follow the money, opportunism and denial, always the GOP Unholy Trinity.) It’s one thing to be unrepentantly bigoted and call yourself “traditional”; it’s another to essentially fly your flag of intolerance and dare people with their hearts and minds on the moral side of history to do something. Now’s the time to ensure you do something.

37. Hey, smart guy: can’t be bothered to be appalled by anti-abortion (even in the cases of rape and incest!) laws? How about when your online porn habits start being monitored and persecuted?

38. Still unmoved? Get a load of this exhaustive (and yes, epic) takedown of all-things Trump by our own Brother Sean Beaudoin.

39. You’ve got your panties in a pretzel over Hillary’s emails, but you don’t realize Trump University alone should be enough to ensure Trump is doing the hardest possible time at Rikers Island?

40. Ever seen Dr. Strangelove? Donald Trump is Buck Turgidson, General Jack D. Ripper, Colonel Bat Guano and Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski, all in one. Only dumber and more dangerous. And much less amusing.

41. Remember this?

42. Just vote for Hillary and then complain and whine as much as you want. That’s what blogs are made for.

43. For the sake of the country, be the one saying “I told you so” each time the media, on rinse, wash, repeat, blasts out the latest manufactured Hillary-related outrage. We can take it; we’re prepared for it. Don’t be the person being told “I told you so” by the rest of us, as our collective future flatlines.

44. Ensure another essential Democratic win just to see if it finally causes this evil motherfucker to implode.

45. Just because Batman had some megalomaniacal tendencies doesn’t mean you rooted for The Joker. (If you did root for The Joker, it’s time, at long last, to move out of your parent’s house. Also, too: see #9.)

46. Every great leader, including FDR, had personal foibles that, if scrutinized the way Hillary’s have been for decades, would prevent them from being elected to their home owners association, much less president of the United States.

47. Imagine the good Bernie can continue to do in support of a (grateful, and accommodating) Clinton administration.

48. Visualize every hero who has fought for social justice in the history of the world. Who do you think they’d want you to vote for? (Hint: not Trump, never.)

49. Have the courage of your convictions: go light your house on fire and send every penny you have to Donald Trump. That will allow you to get it out of your system and repent before you help usher in the apocalypse. Win/Win.

50. Seriously. President Trump? You’re better than that. We’re better than this.

Final words from the man himself.

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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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“20 MINUTES OF ACTION” WARRANTS MORE THAN 15 MINUTES OF OUTRAGE

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CAMPUS RAPE IS AN epidemic seemingly without comparison in terms of its frequency and how often it goes unreported—not to mention unprosecuted.

We have, arguably, become uncomfortably numb to the archetypal rape scenario, where—without the benefit of witnesses—even if an accusation makes it to court, the proceedings often degenerate into a repulsive spectacle of he said/she said in which the victim must, essentially, explain why and how she allowed the violation to happen in the first place.

The Brock Turner case certainly has elements of this too-familiar tale: the sickening details of forced entry, violence, abandonment and lack of accountability, only more so. Much more so. In this case, the raped woman was in fact unconscious, dragged behind a dumpster and then left, mostly naked and alone. One would never want to rank such attacks by severity, but the heartbreak of this image would likely be over-the-top even for the most unimaginative and sleazy movie director. It’s that bad.

In a twist that should have brought clarity and finality to the sentencing, two Samaritans (Swedes, actually) saw the crime-in-progress (or before it was completed, anyway), and overtook Turner as he fled the scene. So…without these two, it wouldhave been a felony with unidentified perpetrator. Visualize that, and recoil accordingly: this frightened young woman waking up, knowing she’d been demeaned and left outdoors with her clothes balled up beside her, not having any idea exactly what happened or who did it.

What happened next is predictable as it is appalling: Turner’s parents hire an experienced and aggressive defense attorney (naturally) and in addition to the usual blame-the-victim antics, much hand-wringing occurs as to how the consequences of this indiscretion will impact…wait for it…his future (naturally). It’s almost impossible to imagine what a victim of rape experiences during and especially after the ordeal. It’s instructive that this victim was brave enough to document, for posterity, what she endured. Of particular note are the specific questions she was forced to answer as the defense angled for any possible opening to impugn and implicate her.

But at least, for a change, there’s some justice, right? After all, there were eyewitnesses, who chased down Turner, which is enough to prove beyond any reasonable doubt he was very aware of what he did, how wrong it was, and what the aftermath might entail. Turner was found guilty of three felonies: assault with the intent to commit rape, sexual penetration with a foreign object of an intoxicated person and sexual penetration with a foreign object of an unconscious person.

Here then, an opportunity to remind would-be predators that—beyond being morally repugnant, unacceptable on any societal level and just plain one hundred percent wrong—this is a crime, with consequences. The kind that will change your life forever, for the worse. And, in this instance, depending upon Turner’s capacity for reflection and remorse, sufficient time to meditate on the ways the victim’s life has been irretrievably impacted.

The sentence? Six months in county (not state) prison.

Six months.

(If you want to understand what male privilege is, consider that sentence. If you want to consider what white male privilege is, calculate what the sentence would likely be if the assailant were an African American student. If you want to consider what our society unconsciously condones, imagine if the assailant were an African American male not affiliated with the university.)

Six months. Lenient to the point of insult. And that’s assuming this sentence is not successfully appealed.

Even in the most charitable quid pro quo formulation, you’d figure that the minimum exchange would be one year—the same amount of time the trial took and the days Turner stole from his victim as she and her family struggled to not only piece together a shattered life, but to effectively defend themselves in a very public trial, where her sexual history, decision-making and so many trivial aspects of her life that would be no one’s business except for the fact that she was raped behind a dumpster while unconscious were all dissected as if she were an etherized butterfly on a lab table.

Certainly one advantage to our civility and civil rights is that we can’t be convicted without a trial. At the same time, anyone who insists the American Dream is an equal opportunity proposition and we’re largely a classless society needs to contemplate the travesty of a rape victim compelled to answer—if not rebut—incriminating questions from a determined attorney (just business as usual; besides did we mention this young man is a promising young athlete? There’s more than just another white male life to salvage, he has the potential for remarkable things, and let’s consider how detrimental an extended prison sentence would be for his prospects…Business. As. Usual.).

So far, and unfortunately, there’s not much about this particular case that seems unfamiliar: bad guy (key word: guy) has ways and means to do everything in his (key word: his) power to get away with it. With the full support of his family, naturally.

And speaking of that, it’s the letter Turner’s father wrote—which demands to be read in full—that puts this atrocity at a whole other level. In a beyond-parody instant classic of the worst sort, Turner addresses the judge who felt six months, not 14 years, was appropriate. With four words that should—and must—henceforth become a permanent part of our cultural lexicon, Turner’s father laments “(six months) is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

Twenty minutes of action.

Reading this made me think not of cartoon characters representing evil, like Gordon Gekko, or our national treasure of satire The Onion (because, my first and then second reaction upon seeing that letter was to think: there’s no way that letter was really written; there’s no way that’s actually real, is there?), but of the very human and peerless reprobate, Lloyd Blankfein. As the economy cratered and tax-paying citizens’ 401(k)s were evaporating—courtesy of the intentional (and still inadequately disciplined) malevolence of these so-called masters of the universe—Blankfein revealed the disgusting depths of his sociopathy when he wryly demurred that bankers were merely doing “God’s work”.

Let’s face it: life seldom offers up such stark, such unambiguous occasions where, once they’ve occurred, they become immediately and eternally unforgettable. Even in the most clear-cut cases of depravity, there’s typically some nuance, some room for alternative interpretation, some slight possibility of misunderstanding. Thus, as enraging as it is to behold such brazen and pitiless sincerity (connecting the dots, as usual, between men, sports, money and “winning”), it’s nevertheless edifying.

Shame on Mr. Turner for so many things and so many reasons, but shame on us if we let father or son not be reminded of this for the rest of their days. More than the proverbial teaching moment, this anti-epiphany (twenty minutes of action!) is sui generis; it’s so wrong it’s a paradoxical but perfect gift. Finally, a sentence about the sentence that henceforth, in one sentence, can serve to illustrate cause, effect, and accountability (or the lack thereof), all from the father of the felon. In addition, it’s a reminder of our responsibility to protect one another, to elevate awareness, and push back against the narrative—empowered by money and the influence it buys—that all too often confirms a very human outrage: if you can get away with it, it’s not a crime. Or, if you can own the narrative, you can revise reality.

I am in no way intimating that any portion of this victim’s anguish is justifiable or worth the opportunity for others’ enlightenment. But considering how often these transgressions occur, how seldom they are reported, and how unusual it is to see anything approximating penance, this case (in general) and Mr. Turner’s letter (in particular) supply us a concise synopsis of the violence done to women. And more, the circumstances that too often accompany it. More still, the ugly one-two gut punch of silencing and rationalizing that serves to leave victims even more broken and without recourse.

That injustice of this magnitude is tolerated, or even overlooked as part of an imperfect system, should be overdue impetus for resolution: hold ourselves and our system more answerable, and do much more to eliminate the shame and suffering forced on guiltless survivors of these traumas.

And in the meantime?

I’m not particularly proud of this wish, equal parts uncultured and clichéd. And yet, if we’d like to imagine a sentence a tad more commensurate with the crime, perhaps some willing inmate—presumably one bigger and stronger to facilitate a sense of symmetry and perspective—will give Turner a taste of his own intrusion and let him see, smell, taste and feel what it’s like to have a most private orifice energetically penetrated.

Never mind the humiliation, belated accountability and comprehension for what all this involves; let’s see how quickly Turner moves on, physically and especially emotionally. A case study of sorts. In a sense it would only be appropriate, poetic in a way, for one hackneyed situation (the frat house rape) to be repaid with a correspondingly overwrought one (the prison rape).

Six months, way too brief by any criteria, still contains 4,320 hours. Is it too much to hope that Turner gets “twenty minutes of action” that he’ll never forget?

 

*This article originally appeared at The Weeklings on 6/7/16.

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Muhammad Ali’s Biggest Victory (Revisited)

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Question: What cultural figure of the 60?s best represents you–the way you dress, act, create, see the world, or wish the world saw you. It can be Chuck Berry or Chairman Mao. It can be Betty Friedan or Betty Rubble. More importantly, why?

Answer: I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import, be it artistic, social, political, cultural, opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter.

Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loud and saying nothing (unlike, say, the cat who wrote that song)? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

Is there one figure (don’t say John Lennon) who humanizes, epitomizes, the racial, sociological, human upheaval of the era? Here is the rarest of folks who was the best in the world at what he did, at the height of his ability to make history, and money, willing to sacrifice it on principle. And more: a cause that every year is proven more prescient and unassailable on both moral and military levels. April 28, 1967, a little over a month before Sgt. Pepper initiated the Summer of Love, Ali made a statement as brave, audacious and impactful as any of that—or any—decade.

Look: we live in a time where we can boast about our beliefs and have our righteousness measured by likes and follows, all from the safety of an overpriced coffee shop. As such, I’ll continue to be humbled and inspired, as a dude with big hopes and modest abilities, by the icon who stared down doubt, ignorance, security and compliance. Ali is the exception to the way we’re ruled, and how we roll, and like the rest of us mortals, his biggest fight took place outside the ring.

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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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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Murphy’s Law, Vol. One: A Primer

M LAW cover

In this collection of essays, reviews and ruminations, best-selling author Sean Murphy attempts to tackle the world in writing, one topic at a time. Selecting a sampling of his most popular pieces as well as some personal favorites, Murphy ranges from music to movies, literature to politics, sports to tributes for the departed. At his blog, Murphy’s Law, and as a columnist for PopMatters and contributing editor for The Weeklings, Murphy has combined enthusiasm and proficiency in the service of short and extended analyses. Throughout this compilation he shifts seamlessly between culture, the arts and an ongoing interrogation of American society.

Why is Robert Johnson the most influential American musician of the 20th Century? How—and why—did Dennis Miller go from being one of the better comedians in the world to a humorless hack? Why are even the most gifted novelists unable to write convincing sex scenes in their fiction? Was the first round of Hagler vs. Hearns in 1985 the most exciting three minutes in sporting history? Is it reasonable to suggest that Chinatown is the only perfect American film ever made? What does it mean to declare Stephen King the Paul Bunyan of letters? Is it possible we don’t adequately celebrate either Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby? Why should everyone consider cancelling their subscription to The Washington Post? Does nostalgia play a defensible, even necessary role in one’s art or life?

Equal parts reporter and raconteur, Murphy brings an informed acumen to essays mercifully free from academic jargon and pretension. His subjects cover so-called high and lowbrow and just about anything in between, and it’s obvious throughout that his only agenda is to celebrate, or castigate, or cross-examine his own impulses and predispositions. By turns studious, confrontational, hilarious and philosophical, Murphy’s Law, Vol. One will leave readers better informed, provoked and, hopefully, inspired to discover the work of some geniuses who’ve fallen outside the lower frequencies.

***AVAILABLE IN PAPERBACK AND KINDLE FRIDAY, APRIL 29***

MORE INFO, AS ALWAYS, HERE!

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Hard To Get Over Lonely People

cat

I am not alone.

I have a best friend, who happens to be a dog. He’s really good for me, reminding me to eat, sleep, go to the bathroom and generally making sure that I get out a few times a day. He walks me whenever he gets the chance. Our favorite time is after work, when we reenter the building and the walls and halls come alive, warm with the savory smells of home-made meals (I can never smell fast food, although that scent lingers in the elevator, as if ashamed to be associated with the honesty, the effort and industry of these prepared productions).

No one sits down to dinner anymore, but all around me, people are sitting down, eating meat loaf, or some sort of roast that has simmered on low heat all afternoon. Maybe there is even a pie prepared for dessert. Maybe, inside someone’s kitchen, it’s still the 1950s.

(If I had lived in the 50s, I would eat an egg for breakfast each morning with either bacon or sausage or sometimes both, I would also eat pastrami sandwiches, drink whole milk and smoke endless streams of cigarettes, I would be father to as many children as God (most certainly a Capitalist God) saw fit to provide, I would live closer to my parents, I would miss church service seldom on Sundays and never on Holy Days of Obligation, I would know how to fix my toilet and sink if they dripped, I would never have had a shirt professionally pressed, I would drive an American car and never wear a seat belt, I would have a job that I could actually describe in one or two words. I would be, quite conceivably, content.)

I remind myself that someday, if my cards play me right, I will enjoy a real meal around a table, and experience all that I’ve been missing during these efficient years of isolation. I will clear the table and clean the dishes, I will sit on the couch and take a crack at the crossword, or catch a made-for-TV movie, or go run errands or consult a book of baby names for the offspring on the way, and eventually I will work on improving my bad habits and attempt to overlook my wife’s inadequacies (the quirks that were so endearing in those early days). I will, at last, learn to communicate openly and as an adult. Mostly, I will not be alone.

***

I’m listening to the old woman again.

This is another part of my daily routine: every time I enter the building after walking my dog, or if I’m stopping to get the mail, or anytime I am anywhere between my front door and the main entrance, this woman (I have no other option but to say she is an old woman) whose name I of course cannot remember, appears like a mosquito at a campsite.

She is there every time—every time—if I’m walking out (I’ve learned not to step out of my door in only my boxer shorts) to throw my trash down the chute, she’s there; if I am coming or going to work, she’s there; if I open your door (I’ve learned not to open my door without my boxer shorts on) to get the newspaper, she’s there; and especially if I’m returning with rapidly cooling carry-out food, she’s there.

I had half-seriously begun to consider whether or not she had rigged my door to some sort of homing device, and then I slowly started to notice, over time, it isn’t just me (of course it isn’t just me)—it’s even worse than that. It’s everyone, it’s anyone: anyone she can see or talk to, anyone she can make that human touch with, however fleetingly, any excuse she can find to escape the oppression of her immaculate isolation.

***

Hard to get over lonely people.

That is a line from a very famous song, although those are not the correct words. Those are the words I heard, which sounded and seemed real enough, until my older ears eventually understood that I had in fact been making a great song even better—in my mind anyway.

Ah, look at all the lonely people, I think. To myself.

A vision:

Cats are everywhere.

How did this happen? When did that slippery slope of sentimental turn from simple companionship to disconcerting, then beyond even that? It’s not your fault: you could see the other cats coming, waiting out there in the evening; and yourself, inside, able at any time to make it all better. All of these overlooked lives, are they the symptom or the antidote for that feeling you cannot constrain? Are they serving a separate purpose, a preemptive action against isolation? An excuse to keep connected, in some small way? A strategy to keep from slipping, to stave off starvation? Or the streets, which are always hungry, always eager to be kept company when nights bring the cold comfort of winter?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?

Yes, you think (to yourself again): it could be all of those things, eventually. Inevitably. But mostly (you know), any effort you might someday make would be driven by the fear of becoming that person. The person who everyone knew, the one who had patrolled the same city corner for as long as anyone was able—or wanted—to remember. The man with his hand-scribbled signs, capital letter screeds against the machine, words that sought to explain who he was and why he was here. His message, excusing himself from any culpability, of course, and allowing everyone who took the time to try and make sense of it all that they were either with him or against him; if they did nothing to intervene, they were abetting the not-so-secret society that could snap a finger and take everything you owned, including your identity. He stood at the intersection for years, outlasting several politicians who recycled themselves in public office, sworn to uphold the status quo and ensure that the have-nots would not, and keep everyone else safe from the crimes committed by people who could not close their eyes.

And then, one day, he was no longer there. He had just disappeared.

How does this happen?

All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

***

You’ve seen some things, of course. You’ve heard them, read about them. The things people talk about when they talk about crazy people. The sort of people who, after numerous squabbles with long-suffering neighbors, finally had to have it out with Johnny Law over the piles of junk spewing out from their cellars, piling out from inside, forming extensions of the hand-me-down universe they’d created (in their own image?)—misguided gods of an always-imperfect world. These people who would holler and curse, and show up in court, when convicted, to protest that there was a method to their madness (they wouldn’t call it madness at all), a purpose to their paranoia, that it was no one else’s business if they found some sort of salvation in other folks’ debris, redeemable lives otherwise left for dead. Exasperated landlords, forced to take pictures in order to appeal to the proper authorities, having to prove that they weren’t capable of fabricating this sort of insanity: carpets pulled up from the floors, the linoleum in the kitchen removed, presumably by hand, the stacks of unread newspapers, the insects. And the pictures, of course, only half told the story, since pictures don’t move, pictures don’t stink, pictures only imitate what they are programmed to report. The stories that go far beyond the obligatory shit-smeared-on-the-walls sort of psychosis that always seems so overdone in bad movies (because the movies are bad; because truth always outpaces our best efforts to expose it). 

Then what happens?

You are (of course) left asking questions that always better unaddressed. Who could explain the motivation behind behavior like that? Who would want to? Who could comprehend where a mind has been, or is going, to find sense or security in this imitation of living?

***

I’m listening to the old woman again.

The fast food fiasco in its bag has already gone cold, but this time I don’t care. This time I don’t mind putting in the time; this time I’d do anything to be of some use to this woman who obviously has no one who can console her when she cries.

She is crying, now, in the hallway and I’m not sure if I should hold her, if just hearing her will suffice, or if there is simply nothing, at a moment like this, that a child like me can conjure up in the way of commiseration that a woman like her has not already heard and seen through in her not inconsiderable life experience and the unfair share of hurt and harm this world is all too eager to hand out to all of us, over time.

“Why?” she asks, again, and I can’t answer for at least two reasons: I don’t know (the answer, or what she’s asking about), and it’s obviously not me who she is really asking anyway.

I may not know what she’s talking about, but she is still holding the letter, a scene that makes me remember that all those melodramatic moments in badly made movies have their roots in reality. I don’t know what the letter says, or who it is from, and perhaps I’m not supposed to know; it’s not important that I know, only that I am here, at this particular moment, to provide a brief, human buffer against the knowledge that in the end, all of us, whoever we are, will be alone.

“Why?” she asks, again, and again I have nothing I can hope to say.

It’s a long time before I realize she has left and I’ve been standing out here, alone, still unable to find anything useful to say. To her. For myself.

***

Denial is like a dyke—the water is wide, waiting, impassive. You’re never certain but most of the time you know, you sense the security of that invisible shield; it’s only when you stop and look that you see the cracks, circling up slowly from all sides, that you become concerned. It’s only then that you look at the stranger in the street and struggle to avoid his eyes, because you’re actually seeing yourself.

***

If I had lived in the 50s, I would have taken a real job right out of college, or I may not have gone to college. I would have had to start earning a living to support my family: married at twenty-two, a father within the year. That’s just the way it would have been.

Maybe I’d like my job; maybe I would be content. Maybe I would consume so many steaks and cigarettes and whiskey sours that nothing could touch me. I’d be obese, an impenetrable fortress of flesh, and no pain could get past me.

Or maybe I would work and eat and smoke myself into a muddled mess and punch the clock prematurely—another casualty of the Cold War. Maybe I’d be smart enough to leave my family something, and maybe my wife would remarry and live off the fat of my labor and I wouldn’t begrudge her because I was in a better place, drinking Bloody Marys on the great golf course in the sky.

Or maybe my wife, being of her time, wouldn’t wish to remarry and instead focus her energies on the grandchildren and church functions and the increasingly mundane exigencies of old age. Maybe she’d wish to meet another man but her prospects would be poor—after all, she was once married to a big slob whom she somehow stayed devoted to and still mourned. Plus, there were always the kids to contend with. Used goods are used goods, whether you’re talking cars, real estate or relationships.

Maybe she would solider on, alone, oblivious to the insanity of the 60s and 70s, indifferent to the surreal psychosis of the 80s and 90s, and grow into her shrinking body the way a spider’s web settles into a windowsill.

Maybe she would eventually understand that the family home—the house in which she lost her virginity, raised her children, cleaned a thousand rooms, cooked a million meals—had outlasted her, and embrace the inevitable.

Maybe, in the end, she would be a lot like the woman across the hall. She’s had a good life (please allow her to have been happy: in my mind if not in actual fact). She, at least, once had a husband, and maybe a son and daughter whom she dotes on and who love her dearly, but they live so far away and are so busy with work and kids and life and time just slips away and so it goes.

Or maybe it is even worse than that: maybe she was never married, never found exactly what she was looking for, or the right ones overlooked her until it was too late. Maybe she was cursed with the burden of being always apart, in all the important ways, from the utterly average, anonymous faces she came into contact with day in and day out, and like almost no one else she knew, she was unaware of it.

I want to walk out your door, but I can’t.

And this time, for once, it’s not because I don’t want to, it’s because I’m desperately certain that she won’t be outside waiting for me.

Originally published on 3/14/16 at The Weeklings.
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