Bernin’ For You

 

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I’m…

Don’t say it.

I’m F…

Don’t say it!

I’m Feel…

Don’t say it!!

I’M FEELING THE BERN!

Are you serious?

I’m as serious as the heart attack The Establishment is about to have!

Well, you know what they say…

What’s that?

Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.

Love is all around us.

Are you serious?

What’s the problem?

You mean other than Bernie Sanders can’t get elected?

Yes, other than that.

The other party is imploding and you want to hand them the election?

We’re not handing them shit. This country is not going to elect Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

But why take the chance?

What if going with Hillary turns out to be the losing bet?

That’s what you said in ’08.

Exactly.

Don’t you want the next president to be able to get anything done?

That’s my favorite argument: that anyone is naïve enough to think the Republicans are going to work with Hillary!

At least we know what they’re going to throw at Hillary. They’ve already done it.

I’ve got several hundred million Koch dollars that say you ain’t seen anything yet.

At least we know what we’ve got with Hillary.

If we wanted half-measures, we should have just voted for Hillary in ’08.

It might have worked out better…

Better? Hillary would have one-and-done Jimmy Carter style and been beaten like Mondale.

No. Hillary getting elected would have killed the GOP. Just the fact of her in office would have annihilated the entire Republican party.

Actually, she would have energized them for a generation.

No, she would have won. The Clintons always win!

Except in ’08.

Okay, fine. But why not get on board now?

I can’t.

Why not?

Because that’s what the Republicans always do.

Do what?

Going with the safe bet; going with the Establishment choice.

They’re not doing it this time.

Yes, and it’s going to cause them to lose in historic fashion!

Not if idiots like you make a Socialist the nominee.

Democratic Socialist.

Full-on Mao Communist by the Time Fox News is finished with him.

Fuck Fox News!

No. Fox News fucks you. That’s the history of the last two decades in a nutshell.

Those days are over.

Those days have scarcely begun.

It’s different this time.

That’s what you suckers say every four years.

You’ll see.

What is your problem with Hillary?

Nothing. If she wins the nomination, I’m behind her 100%.

Why not now?

She wants it too badly, which is alarming. She expects it, which is insulting.

Can’t you say that about any candidate?

No. Her husband wanted it more badly than breathing, but he never expected it. Dubya expected it, but his life wouldn’t have ended had he lost. Obama cut the balance.

So what’s Bernie’s secret?

He is allowing the people who want it badly to make the difference.

You mean like Ralph Nader?

No, this is different (and that is insulting).

What’s different?

Well, for starters, look at his poll numbers.

Well…

And, um, how about his showing in Iowa and New Hampshire?

Well…

And the fact that, from jump, Nader knew he was playing spoiler, at best. Also, fuck Ralph Nader. And fuck Gore for not fighting harder. And double-fuck him for running a campaign that made Dukakis look competent. And fuck Scalia and the rest of the so-called Constitutionalists for handing the election to Bush, just like the founding fathers intended…

Look, I’m all for fairy tales and rainbows, but I’m also about reality.

What’s unrealistic about the most grotesquely wealthy country on the planet investing in its own?

It’s unrealistic because it can’t happen.

It has happened.

A long time ago.

Yes, and even a long time ago, it was the result of struggle, and a politician who was willing to fight the special interests.

You mean FDR?

Yes, I also mean Teddy Roosevelt.

That was a long time ago.

You know what Obama could, and should, have done, at any point during his first six years?

What?

Borrowed the “I welcome their hatred” speech from FDR.

He did the best he could with what he had.

No, at first he was too cocksure everyone would go along with him, then he was unwilling to get his bully pulpit on, and he only started fighting back once he’d been already been shat on for three years.

So a rational, moderate liberal can’t get it done, but a full blown Socialist can?

Yes, you’re falling into the trap again. It’s not because Obama really wanted it, it’s because he was too easily corrupted, too easily cowed, too easily distracted. I’m not saying he didn’t do his best for the most part, but do you actually believe he really wanted it, like up in the middle of the night agonizing over it?

So you’re going to fall for this Sanders flavor of the month shtick?

Sanders has been walking the walk for decades.

So has Hillary.

Sure, she’s evolved, and fought the pretty-good fight. But Sanders was marching for minorities, women and gays when Hillary was still a confused Republican. (Also, let’s not rehash the policies from the Clinton years that hurt employment, fucked minorities and opened the casino doors to the Wall Street shitshow that crashed our economy.)

Look, every Democrat can get behind the spirit of what Sanders is saying…

I think Hillary—and her supporters—are incredibly wrong to assume voters, especially young or undecided voters, are going to be swayed by caution and the same formula that fails to work in every mid-term election.

It’s not Hillary’s fault she isn’t exciting.

No one gives a shit about that. Do you think people find Bernie Sanders exciting? It’s what he’s saying and the lack of fucks he has to give that is resonating with liberals and, quite possibly, people who usually tune politics out.

People get scared of what they don’t know.

No, people get enthusiastic about what they never knew was possible. Bernie’s support thus far has already proven that.

Hillary isn’t promising people magic and dreams.

No, she’s promising that she’s going to tack to the center even quicker and more naturally than Obama did. And that’s why she’s not inspiring people. Don’t blame the people who fail to be impressed that she hasn’t been impressive.

What if Bernie has already hit his ceiling?

Bernie hasn’t even begun yet. Wait until the mainstream media can no longer ignore or further marginalize what he’s accomplishing.

What makes you so sure?

We know Democrats tend to sit at home during mid-terms. Do you think the debacle of this last cycle that might have had something to do with that load of craven, faux-centrist shitheads running away from Obamacare and trying to split the difference between tea-party lunatics?

So they won’t sit it out this time?

Have you seen the crowds Sanders is getting?

Are they sustainable?

Here’s the thing. We know Democrats get demoralized, especially when they’re offered the same old shit. But how about the fact that Republicans undoubtedly sit out too? Maybe a whole lot of them. Maybe the ones who are, at long last, fed up with being taken for granted and generally fucked over during the last three decades, but pandered to every four years, and every time jobs go overseas and wages freeze and their kids are sent to ill-advised wars and their water is poisoned and they’re told how great America really is, maybe some of these otherwise impossible to reach old and young red state voters might find someone who’s actually telling them precisely what he’d do and exactly who he won’t work with and how his policies will tangibly improve their lives. Maybe this is proof that all the inside-the-beltway, elitist Democratic strategists with their lobbyist friends buying them dinner are entirely wrong and being forever surrounded by career consultants, like Hillary, is exactly why she suddenly finds herself battling for her life against Bernie Sanders.

Won’t you feel silly even if Bernie gets elected and none of his promises are attainable?

You know what I think is silly? Not prosecuting a single Wall Street executive. Insisting that it was way too soon to have reasonable and belated action taken on same-sex marriage (thanks again, Joe Biden!). Going to the negotiating table meeting intransigent Republicans half-way to the farthest right position (then getting shut down), and making that mistake time after time throughout the better part of two terms.

But what if little of what Sanders talk about is achievable?

By moving the conversation to the left and resetting the terms of the debate, he’ll be doing, at long last, what the GOP has been doing for their cause since 1980. If nothing else, Sanders will work toward a very overdue recalibration.

If he helps Hillary be more outspoken about liberalism, isn’t that a good thing?

It’s not a bad thing. But the fact that it requires Bernie’s presence to persuade her speaks volumes about why people are flocking to Sanders.

But at the end of the day, we’re not Europe.

We’re not Europe. We’re not even America anymore, as we once knew it. And just accepting the very least we should expect from representative government is neither tolerable nor sustainable.

I still think you’re dreaming.

You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

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This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 2/19/16.

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Being for the Benefit of Dr. Carson

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There’s simply too much riding on the 2016 Presidential election to be intimidated by its vast field of candidates. So in the spirit of true post-partisanship, the Weeklings has decided to help America vote right. Over the course of this 8-part series kicking off with the Iowa Caucuses and running through the New Hampshire Primary, we break down our favorite Republican contenders, and tell you exactly who’s worth pulling the lever for.

BEING PRESIDENT, THEY SAY, is not brain surgery.

Well, guess what? Ben Carson is a brain surgeon!

And let’s cogitate what it means to open up a sick person’s skull and examine their brain. Dr. Carson has in effect torn apart America’s festering head and beheld the waste and decay. This unassuming man does not especially want to be president; he’s been called into service by the great hospital administrator in the sky. He doesn’t need to be the surgeon for our country’s soul but we need him.

Recall that one of our beloved and influential presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, once proclaimed: “Speak softly and carry a big stick”. Here is a humble man of accomplishment who speaks softly and carries a sharp scalpel. That scalpel is what will save us; it’s what America needs. America has a malignant cancer that has metastasized under the godless, liberal pathologies of Obama and his minions. Dr. Carson has, in his tranquil and unorthodox fashion, identified the disease, and his presidency will be the medicine we need. The first step is identifying the problem. America is in bad enough shape that even the other potential Republican nominees can articulate it (hint: eight years of Democrat ideology and the rot that follows). That, frankly, is the easy part.

Next, we need someone who can extract the tumor: someone with the hand/eye coordination, the smarts, the savvy, the nerve to put our body politic on the table and apply the anesthesia, make the necessary cuts, stop the bleeding, and put the patient in the recovery ward for four and hopefully eight years. Dr. Carson is the only person qualified to do these things. We must not only vote for him, we should thank him. And be grateful that God, even after eight years of disobedience and despair, has once again anointed someone who can save us from ourselves; who will lead us not into liberalism, but deliver us from tax increases.

And let’s face a fact most Republicans—or at least the so-called Establishment—find unpalatable: despite the by now obligatory veneration of all-things-Reagan, and regardless of how many of these recent wannabes draw flattering comparisons (from the risible Romney to the flat-out offensive—or at least farcical—Scott Walker) is there a single one of them who is more analogous to the Gipper than Carson? Let’s go to the tale of the videotape. Soft-spoken with that creepily avuncular vibe? Demonstrably disinterested in the intricacies of world affairs?  Devout with the dead-eyed certainty of saints and opportunists? Given to embellishing tales of his own upbringing and fond of relaying events that most definitely didn’t happen? Astute enough to parlay a previous specialty (acting, operating) to bolster ostensible “outsider” bona fides, or to preempt accusations of being an “insider” in ways tailored  to a certain, not particularly discerning demographic? Checks, please.

So, what does he do?

For starters, Dr. Carson will put the free back in free market, where it belongs. After decades of false starts and phony promises, Carson will make the tax code transparent and fair: a flat tax that extends to everyone. No more soaking the rich, no more opportunities for certain folks to get away without paying their share. Everyone pays, everyone profits. Finally, you won’t need a degree in economics, or a friend at the IRS to understand why we’re taxed, where the money goes, and who gets it. Everyone wins.

Next, as a man who has already saved lives with his extraordinary skills, he will put the bully back in the pulpit and outlaw all abortions. No more murder on our hands. More unwanted lives allowed to reach the destinies God intended, which also means more able bodies to pay taxes and more soldiers to keep us safe. Strength, in every sense, through numbers, is what will really make American great again.

Finally, he will pull the ultimate rope-a-dope on the rest of the world and just ignore everyone. We’ve tried everything else: unwise wars, failed negotiations, half-assed engagement. Expensive, embarrassing, futile. You don’t show the world you’re number one by acting like number two. (We’ve had enough of that the past eight years, right?) President Carson, surrounded by a cabal of bad actors from previous administrations? No thanks. President Carson, spending hours in briefing rooms and weeks abroad meeting with bullies and despots? No way. President Carson, kowtowing to commies and climate change freaks and people who can’t bother to learn our language? Not happening.

It’s actually not that complicated when you think about it. President Carson, in short and in sum, is the antidote for a country that thinks too much and believes too little.

bencarson11This piece originally ran at The Weeklings on 2/2/16.

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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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Over/Under the Volcano

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I STILL HAVE HANGOVERS, thank God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Lou Reed: Rock and Roll’s Dark, Beautiful Heart (Revisited)

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EVERYONE WHO JOINS A ROCK BAND WANTS TO BE HEARD.

The good ones want to be unique, while the pretenders tend to imitate what has already been done. The soulless ones regurgitate musical ideas manufactured by others and served up to them on soiled platters. Sadly, this third group tends to enjoy the greatest success.

And what is success? Financial success certainly is the easiest to measure, with an artist’s influence ranking a close second. What is not so simple is identifying what will endure. In all but the rarest of cases, only the inexorable passage of time can reveal, long after the artist and the initial audience has expired, what has truly mattered to us.

Lou Reed was just such a case. His import and legend were established pretty much from the get-go, and he went wherever he wanted to go: underground, gutter, mainstream, whatever. He was a leather-wearing Whitman for a postmodern America, and his leaves of grass were the kind we used to smoke before, during and after we tuned in. Sweet Lou was inscrutable, elusive and still, somehow, everywhere.

1967 was for rock music what 1959 was for jazz.

Consider both the quantity and quality of ’67?s seminal releases; obviously Sgt. Pepper assumes the spotlight, but those twelve months also yielded a stunning spectrum of halcyon platters from Love’s Forever Changes to the (then, unreleased) SMiLE by Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. How about the debuts? Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead went on to become two of the biggest bands on the planet. Yet even including the mind-boggling brilliance of the Doors/Hendrix/Captain Beefheart holy trinity, it might not be wrong to suggest that The Velvet Underground’s shot heard ’round the underground remains the most influential.

Hendrix changed the way the guitar was played, and everyone who has picked up a guitar ever since is, in some way, paying homage to the Temple he raised. But Hendrix was not human; Lou Reed was the New Testament Jesus (or Jesus’ son, if you like) compared to the Old Testament God (or at least Moses) of Hendrix. As such, we stand in awe of Hendrix, but we recognize we are not of his kind; no one ever will be. The Velvet Underground on the other hand? Well, since everyone else always invokes the quote, I’ll do my obligatory bit and nod to Brian Eno’s astute assessment: “The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.”

That may well be true, and in fact, it may even be an understatement. But none of those bands — ranging from R.E.M. to David Bowie to The Pixies, just to name a few — ever released anything as strange and ecstatic as the first Velvet Underground offering. Over four decades later, it continues to confront our innate capacity to understand or to assess; it is simple in the way Dylan is “simple”: ostensibly straightforward stories sung by voices that never won any talent shows, which inspires the visceral appeal of the Velvet Underground in general, and Lou Reed, in particular.

Reed was the perfect imperfection rock music needed: neither a naturally brilliant guitarist nor a honey-throated singer, and not always the best lyricist; let’s not let his death sanitize the fact that he wrote a lot of ham-fisted stinkers over his long career, although Lou might have been the first –and best– example than anyone could do this. It’s an illusion, of course: many people have tried, and most of them have failed. But Reed got there first, a darker version of Dylan who combined punk, glam and the paradoxical one-two punch of apathy and self-aggrandizement. Precious are each generation’s artists who can cultivate such a subtle flash of brilliance.

As much as he’s both lionized and lambasted for his poetic pomposity, Jim Morrison tapped into something quite a bit darker than Dionysus For Dummies circa ’67, as songs like “The Crystal Ship” and “The End” evince. Reed was tapping into something even darker and more disturbing (his own veins, for one thing). Setting narcotics, sexual ambiguity and S&M to exotic, surreal soundtracks, like a marching band in Hell, Reed not only wrote like a grown up in what had long been a child-like art form, he wrote –and sang– like no adult anyone had ever known (the same could be said, sort of, for Nico, who functions as an uncertain angel to Reed’s imperious demon on the debut). He still sounds that way to today’s less sanitized sensibilities, and for decades he took his role as reporter and raconteur as a badge of dishonor. Some of those early tracks still sound surreal and exhilarating half a century later: if you ever want evidence of a wholly unique and inimitable vision, stand in awe of “Venus in Furs”.

One way you know you’ve made not merely an indelible impact—itself enough of an achievement in our fifteen-minutes-of-fame-dumb-world-order, and yes I’m invoking Warhol on purpose— is when the accolades come fast, heavy and quickly. Circa 2013, when hipper-than-thou tributes compete for pathos-per-pound –as they have been with Reed—you are likely to remain relevant. Aside from the musical and cultural import that he carried like a piece of tattered luggage, Reed never stopped mattering because he didn’t half-step to anyone else’s beat. He was the drummer of his own perplexing parade, and he was both confident and cool enough to keep the interlopers, imitators and especially the music critics at bay. Well-played, indeed.

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Speaking of cool. It’s easy to attempt when you’re young, since that’s when it matters the most. Reed dodged all appearances of giving a shit for the entirety of his career, and consequently he only became cooler as he aged. Although it happened to become a big hit, it still seems remarkable to consider what Reed pulled off with his signature song “Walk on the Wild Side” (He was a she? The colored girls? Even when she was giving head?). Or the middle finger to everyone in the world, including possibly himself, with the electric drill in the ear assault of Metal Machine Music. Or that he played with musicians ranging from Don Cherry to Metallica and, for lack of a better cliché, did it his way. It didn’t always work, but Reed always did it the way he wanted, and anyone who wasn’t down could hit the bricks. That, in art as well as life, is how cool happens.

More: he carried the cool as neither a burden nor a status to maintain; he was what he was. He did not just live in and sing about New York City, he was in every regard a living seed in that big dirty apple. Most legends don’t live this long or that well when anointed so young. We could all learn a lot from Lou Reed, and our world is a lot less cool, and a great deal colder without the beating of his dark, beautiful heart.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 11/04/2013.

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The Power of Political Narrative: Part Two, The Dems (Revisited)

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i. Ridic, Redux

LAST MONTH I WROTE about the Power of Political Narrative and the ways Republicans have kept it simple (stupid) and mostly stuck to an inflexible script for the last thirty years. No matter how flawed that script is, in reality, and no matter how many times reality makes a point of pointing out that virtually every talking point—taken as Gospel and enforced as Scripture—results in the opposite of what it claims (Clear Skies Act, etc.), a reckoning never occurs.

As such, we saw austerity when we desperately needed stimulus, coddling of Wall Street cretins when perp walks were well-warranted, craven acquiescence on the Guantanamo catastrophe, “Death Panels” instead of a public option, et cetera. Not that these are the results Obama (or the left) wanted or predicted, but because of—at least in part—the ability of the other side to sling the same excrement at every policy, proposal or achievement, defying a twice-elected leader to bring about change we can believe in. Or pocket change for the middle class. Or something.

Certainly, it sucks to see a party whose signal accomplishment the last two years (doubling down what they did the previous four years) was acting petulant and saying no like a paroxysm rendered Reductio ad absurdum, smug and certain they are about to retake the Senate. By refusing to govern they are likely to be rewarded, not because anyone (even Fox viewers) particularly likes the results, but because they have stuck so steadfastly to the scheme: lay blame on Obama, Democrats, and Government, respectively. At best tolerated (at worst abetted) by a degraded mainstream media they have done this repeatedly, and mostly with impunity.

And because we expect less than little from the intransigent GOP, how can we resent them for proving the cowardice of their convictions? Particularly when the profiles in courage not on display by their political opposition is so…typical. My concern is—and has been for some time—the ways in which Democrats are congenitally incapable of articulating their achievements, and crafting a message that is either compelling or consistent. The shame of it is, all they have to do is tell the truth and it would set them (and the rest of us) free.

I’m not suggesting it’s easy, or that it would be embraced—at least initially. As I argued last month, it’s a hell of a lot less demanding to pick a handful of platitudes and recite them like zealots at a Sunday service. But this is not a matter of formulating counterpoints or rebuttals; it’s about crafting a narrative that is consistent and, as no less a salesman than Henry Kissinger once said, has the added advantage of being true. Naturally, telling the truth does not come naturally to elected officials who are often paid for before they take the oath of office, and this circumstance is further complicated by the question of how many of them really believe in left-of-center principle in the first place. Still, any introductory class in marketing or communications (or English Literature for that matter) will emphasize the importance of narrative; the necessity of telling the story you want to tell.

It’s not that difficult to imagine, and this shit practically writes itself. One speech, early in ’09, wherein Obama declared: “not only am I going to fund these projects, no American who wants to work will go without on my watch. I’m going to spend this money, because it is an investment on people, and you will be able to measure the results immediately. This is a mission on behalf of our well-being, and if you want to judge me in four years, I will take those odds. And if I’m wrong, the worst case scenario will be an early retirement where I can drive across this great nation over new roads and rebuilt bridges, and take advantage of the radically improved infrastructure that these projects made possible. I’ll walk away from the Oval Office happy and proud, because I’ll know we made a difference, and that is what I was elected to do.”

Obama was either too clueless or (worse) haughty to believe he actually needed to make a case, and be ready to fight back against the full-scale war the GOP declared on him the second he was elected. (His refusal to bother himself getting involved in the health care brawls all summer of 2009 is the second largest blunder of his presidency: he not only allowed the malevolent Republicans to define the narrative (wrongly), he let the Tea Party lunatics get a foothold and, with the lack of any consistent, intelligible message, determine that opposing government was the correct, patriotic thing to do. By the time he saw the grammatically-challenged writing on the signs, it was arguably too late. Meanwhile, against all probability, the masses with their pitchforks and flames, had—for lack of a tangible target for the ire—latched on to the Fox-spewed propaganda filling the inexplicable vacuum of what passes, these days, for political discourse.

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ii . Coal Mines, Sean Connery and (of course) George Orwell

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell’s masterful investigation of the English working class, he makes the following observation: Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes people inhabit.

That succinct, typically clear-eyed assessment has stuck with me because, like so much of what Orwell wrote, it is not tied to any particular period of time. As I get older, I realize this quote can be applied to any number of professions. Put simply, money and means enable certain people to reside in entirely different realities. After one has read Orwell—hopefully at an early enough age that it makes one allergic to relativism and libertarianism—one can’t help but view the world through a sociological lens.

Quite by chance, I just watched an old classic that had been languishing in my Netflix queue: like St. Peter allowing a purgatoried soul into heaven, I finally brought it to metaphorical salvation via my DVD player. It’s one of those movies I’ve heard about many times and hear referenced often enough that I’ve had it on my to-do list for entirely too long. Plus, the notion Richard Harris sharing screen space with Sean Connery was, suffice it to say, enticing. The movie in question, The Molly Maguires, did not do well upon its release and has become something of a cult classic—with an emphasis on the cult.

The story, in a nutshell, involves the gruesome exploitation suffered by Irish immigrants (and workers in general including, of course, young children because this was before Teddy Roosevelt, horrified by the depictions in books like Sinclair’s The Jungle, got inspired to seize some manner of control from Big Business and introduce those quaint concepts of regulation and workers’ rights: in other words, this story takes place precisely in the era that today’s GOP is aggressively working behind the scenes to bring us back to) toiling for paltry pay in the coal mines.

If you are imagining an environment where safety was tenuous and the conditions were barbaric at best, you are not incorrect. It is also a workplace where the owners controlled everything, including the breaks not given and the payment not rendered. In one illuminating scene the new employee (Harris) stands in line to get his weekly wages: the boss adds up the coal collected and announces the amount; Harris smiles. Then the boss subtracts the damaged tools, the wear-and-tear (a 19th C. version of “administrative fees”) and the final amount is reduced from nine bucks and change to just change. As Harris stands in disbelief the boss, flanked on either side by police officers, glowers at him and says “Next!” If that sounds too much like a bad out-take from It’s A Wonderful Life, check yourself: these are the conditions that absolutely existed, as men like Sinclair (and later, George Orwell, of course) observed and reported.

The reason the movie was probably unsuccessful, and the reason the timing of my first viewing is serendipitous, is because of the subject matter: way before unions existed; circumstances were suitably dire that the use of drastic measures were required, and understandable. As a result, a group of protestors (or terrorists, depending on what century you live in and what newspapers you read) took to undermining the mine’s profitability by using incendiary tactics, literally. Harris, the “good guy” is a paid detective assigned to infiltrate this mob and help the honchos crush the uprising by killing the culprits. If this sounds a bit familiar, the story is based in large part on true events inspired by the reprehensible actions of the Pinkertons, who operated kind of like union busters before unions existed.

The movie is clever: by making Connery grim and uncharismatic (no mean feat considering this is Mr. Shaken, Not Stirred we are talking about) and playing up Harris’s roguish charm (yes, that is a cliché but if anyone could ever be said to possess roguish charm it’s the ever-ebullient but burly Harris), the viewer is almost conned into empathizing with, and rooting for the putative protagonist. Only after the film concludes does it finally—and fully—occur to the viewer: if the movie had been shot, or written differently we would be pulling for the “bad guys” all along. And that is the point. If the movie was told from the alternate point of view, it would have been preachy, unconvincing and free of emotional conflict. Which is exactly why it’s a good movie and most likely why it did not set the box office on fire. It also might make one recall the other chestnut (speaking of clichés) about history being written by the victors, the power of language to shape story and the mechanisms always at work to manufacture how reality is perceived.

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iii. The Medium Remains the Message

As we stare down the ignoble specter of the GOP taking back the Senate next month, it is at once exasperating yet simple to see how we got here. Yes, the Democrats’ incompetence at crafting an actionable narrative has, at best, enabled the Republicans to proselytize their fealty to an ever-more-free market. But at least when they try (see: Clinton and Obama in campaign mode), they can compete, and occasionally win (!). The deeper and more disturbing issue is the way they’ve abandoned the very middle class their policies demonstrably support.

What has long befuddled me is that, even if you can cynically concede that even Democrats tread lightly before their corporate masters these days, it makes political sense to maintain a healthy relationship with unions. During the Tea Party shenanigans in ’09, I kept asking myself: when is our chronically aloof commander-in-chief going to start reminding everyone that this big bad government has historically been the bulwark between the people and an Industrial Revolution lifestyle? Does it need to actually get to the point where the Republican Party literally says “let them eat cake” before people start to realize wages are stagnating, prices are rising and the only people getting fat are the wealthiest one percent? Apparently it does.

Feel-good (or, feel-bad) lip service is paid to the undeniable, growing discrepancy of salaries paid and taxes not collected on the makers vs. the takers, but the song remains the same (see: a dose Romney, a dash of Ayn Rand and an unhealthy smattering of Religulous paranoia to expedite a state like Kansas acquiescing itself into fiefdom). And we’ve not come to terms with the fact that the wealthiest percentile don’t just look down on—or worse, ignore—their lesser brethren. They neither understand nor want to understand: they contemplate the impoverished the way many of us might ponder serial hoarders: we see it, are disgusted by it, and wouldn’t ever want to be like them, but we simply can’t fathom how they got to be that way; what happened to make them so unreasonable.

What Orwell articulated so well, in part because it was (is?) so stark and systemic across the pond, is the way class is at once an explanation and excuse for imbalance—not only in practical and political terms, but as ingrained disposition: things are this way because they’ve always been this way. After a while, injustice just seems to be the natural order of things. Okay, but it’s supposed to be different in America. We ostensibly have laws and systems in place to prevent unchecked stratification. That we can’t quite challenge—or even believe—what our lying eyes tell us is, again, what the Reagan Revolution has wrought. However much he has disappointed, it’s certainly not (only) Obama’s fault that his party has generally avoided the entire issue of class for practically half-a-century.

But even if the seemingly unsophisticated battle to prove the relative benevolence of government (or compassionate conservatism—ha!) seems a non-starter in 2014, it should not require too much PowerPoint proficiency to compile a quick commentary about what unions have wrought: minimum wage, forty-hour work weeks, health insurance, pensions, vacations, sick-leave, etc. All of the things people assume exist as an evolved conciliation, or were always just sort of there; or best of all, were the inevitable rewards of laissez-faire philosophy until big government came along and screwed everything up.

Regardless of her short-term political (e.g. presidential) aspirations, Elizabeth Warren—and the Yes-We-Can-type approbation she’s accruing—is, if nothing else, an indication that at least one notable liberal understands the power of going back to the future. The fact that someone like her (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) exists is encouraging, but the fact that people are responding to this message should translate to a broader game plan, the sooner the better.

No matter what happens next month, it can hopefully provide sufficient momentum for the marble-mouthed Democrats to cobble together some cohesive messaging en route to 2016. One would think the mere act of pointing out the truth would not require heavy-lifting and soul-searching (but those without souls, admittedly, can have difficulty here). Again, I do not count on any of these center-left pols to suddenly find religion, so to speak, but presumably they can grasp that there is a purely political advantage to being on the right side of the middle class, not to mention history.

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 10/22/2014.

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On Losing Faith and Finding Myself Instead

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AUGUST 30, 2002. I was in a church for the first time in forever. The church where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation. The church where my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The church where my sister was married. The church where I almost got married.

(My father had said: Obviously you’ll deliver the eulogy.

Question: How will I get through it?

 Friends and family asked: How did you get through it?

Answer: I don’t know.)

It had been half a lifetime since I’d experienced this vantage point. Standing on the altar, looking down at a church filled with somber, expectant faces. All those years as an altar boy, hearing the words and receiving the ritual on its austere terms, the practiced movements and mannerisms that sought to convey the meaning—and purpose—of existence in sixty minutes or less. Carefully studying the priest who presided over the congregation, routinely looking up at those stained glass images that looked down at us and filled the room with an inexpressible awe and approbation.

Periodically I would be called upon to serve at a wedding and less frequently, at a funeral. Weddings were preferable for both obvious and selfish reasons: happy events, pretty women and typically a few extra dollars for my time. The funerals were, in practically every sense, contradictory occasions. I had only been to one funeral before. At age ten I’d been old enough to remember it. I mostly recalled how surreal it was to see my grandmother in an open casket, and the way my mother, her siblings, and their father wept, and not being able to console them or fully grasp the depth of my own sorrow.

“Listen to the words,” my father told me, sensing my ambivalence before I prepared for my first funeral mass. “It is actually a very beautiful service.” I listened to him, and I listened to the words. I listened to everything, then. The passages and prayers—some familiar, some not—were carefully chosen, and went a considerable way toward impressing upon my adolescent mind how communal, and inevitable, this rite of passage was for everyone who drew breath. Someday each of us will watch a loved one die, and eventually all of us will pass on from here to there. That is where the meaning of the words, and whether or not you believed them, came into play. I believed the words; I believed everything, then.

***

God’s will?

Who knows? I don’t, but neither do you. No one can say except for the vulnerable ones who say it, who need to believe it in order to grant order or at least coherence to things that are, by any other measure, incomprehensible. Whether one is grappling with the death of a parent or contemplating the plight of impoverished people, there exists—in God—an easy, irresistible answer that removes doubt and eradicates responsibility (ours, His). When one is young, or weak, or wanting, the concept of God is less a matter of belief than an enchanting vindication or our inability—or unwillingness—to confront our own fates.

Whether it’s a relationship, a job or a religion, as soon as your participation seems pointless, or painful, or if it ceases to inspire you, it’s time to look around, or better yet, inside, for other options. Some people need an answer; some people can never stop asking questions.

***

The worst moments, of course, occur in the waiting room. It’s unconscionable the way families are obliged to receive the news, good or bad, in front of each other: that negative diagnosis a public spectacle hardly tolerable for loved ones, much less strangers; a positive diagnosis a slap in the face of those anxious and suffering within earshot. In ’97 the news had been unexpected—and not good—but they caught it (They got it!), so the shock was mitigated by how much worse it could have been (She’s going to make it!). 2000 was the same scene, only more so. 2001 was disconcerting, a surprise (It’s back) coupled with an inconclusive report (We can’t get rid of it all). We absorbed this verdict in the crowded space where everyone else sits and waits, a nerve-wracking purgatory we pay to provide (and, if possible, avoid).

“I’m going to the chapel,” my father announced, and I followed him. “You don’t have to come with me,” he said, almost gently. It was the first time I’d seen him this close to defeat, the first time I’d noticed the thinnest red streaks on either side of his mouth—burst blood vessels from clenching his jaw so long and so hard. “No, I’ll go with you,” I said. It was the first time I’d ever voluntarily accompanied him to a place where you pray for things.

I sat while he kneeled. I put a hand on his shoulder and we each thought our own thoughts. And even here, in this poor approximation of the churches we’d always attended, even as matters of life and death were being decided all around me, that familiar voice could not keep quiet. That voice inherited as birthright by anyone born into a family of faith, the conscience inside and beneath the sense of right and wrong, somewhere between my gut and my memory, the voice that sustains itself by feeding on fear and fantasy: Maybe if you believed it would work. Maybe, I thought, looking at my old man, his eyes squeezed shut and his mouth mumbling words I didn’t need to hear. Maybe if we all believed nothing bad would ever happen, the troubles we cause could be more easily explained. Maybe if nothing bad ever happened we wouldn’t need to believe. Maybe if we didn’t believe we would never inculcate this formula that can make a human being like myself, at his most frail and vulnerable, capable of entertaining thoughts like this.

***

Believing in miracles requires faith. Faith in miracles, faith in faith.

The Bible, taken on faith, is God’s word and the document of His work. Miracles are, for the faithful, not merely possible or even expected, but inevitable. Blood into wine. Blindness into sight. Death into eternal life. Virginity into conception and then ascension, beyond and back into the skies. With faith all things are conceivable.

One becomes wary of miracles the same way—and for the same reasons—one disdains forced faith. After seeing a magician reveal his tricks, whether he’s wearing a black cape or a white collar, the spell can never again be unbroken.

One conditions oneself to put away childish, or unreasonable things: one learns not to pray for miracles, to neither count on nor believe in them. It has less to do with forsaking faith in the possible and more to do with reconciling oneself with what’s not possible.

***

Was that as bad for you as it was for me?

That’s the question I didn’t ask when Father _____ left our house. On to his next appointment; all in a day’s work.

Extreme unction: the old-fashioned term for that quaint custom. It serves its purpose even now, I suppose, but I couldn’t help thinking on this particular occasion it’s more often a ritual designed for everyone except the person lying on his or her death bed.

Speaking only for my mother, she was too busy dying to want, much less appreciate, the solemn incantations and grim officiating on offer. It didn’t help matters that our local church’s current pastor had a personality that made even the surgeons we’d dealt with seem convivial. It wasn’t his fault; he was an older man from an older school: the twenty-first century didn’t suit him, just like it wouldn’t suit over-the-hill academics and the stratified folks still clinging to every ism they could get their claws on. The world keeps spinning and younger, more insolent models keep popping up to replace you. Some learn how to take this in stride; others resist and end up like insects flying against traffic. And some just disengage and surf that sluggish wave into the safe haven of senility. Father _____ was of the latter ilk; it wasn’t that he was going through the motions so much as the motions were going through him.

And who could place blame at the exhausted feet of a man ten years past retirement age? Not I. Can you imagine earning your living re-reading the same book (no matter how much you enjoyed it the first thousand times; even if you believed that as soon as the words left your humble lips they ascended straight to God’s impossible ears) and knowing, every day, how this particular story ended? Worse, telling a tale with a conclusion that already occurred, since everything we do—if you follow this narrative—has already been plotted out in that great workshop in the sky. And all this role required was that you promise to anyone willing to listen the same salvation you could never be sure of; no matter how certain you were, no matter how achingly every aspect of your existence relied on this deus ex machina.

Father _____ had quite apparently made peace with his place in the world (or worse, resigned himself to it) long enough ago that by now every rote gesture was divorced from anything approaching passion. But was passion, in his case, even a prerequisite? He was, at this point, incapable of being surprised by anything: in certain vocations this might signify the highest possible level of proficiency.

In any event, I couldn’t know—and didn’t particularly care—if his visit was doing anything for him (that was between him and the surprise ending awaiting him once he got a taste of his own unction). I knew it was doing something for my old man, so I contented myself with the diminishing returns of dubious blessings. Pops was receiving the same dispensation he attained at each Sunday service: a box checked off, a chore completed, an obligation fulfilled. It was, at best, a somber sort of solace, but I certainly wished, for his sake, it was bestowing some measure of spiritual respite.

“Does she want to receive communion,” the holy man said, more a statement than a question as he reached for his stash, a to-go Eucharist in what looked like a Tupperware container. At that moment he more than a little resembled a parent ready to placate an unruly child with a treat, and I realized (reflecting on this later) that my observation signaled the tipping point of an extended but ultimately unsatisfactory experiment with the Catholic faith. The priest’s indifference (even worse than the indignation he may have managed in his younger years) when my father broke the news that his wife was not able (none of us could say she was not willing, but we all had our opinions) to partake didn’t rankle me as it might have in my younger years. If this had gone down a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have yet seen enough of the world—and the ways it wears on all of us—to appreciate how even the noblest occupations are, at the end of the day, a way to put bread on the table, even if that bread is supposed to signify the body of Christ.

It wasn’t anger I felt, just relief that when finally confronted by the thing I feared most in the world, I was neither willing nor able to clutch at the redemption he stuck back in his coat pocket. I couldn’t feel disappointed and I dared not feel pity; what, after all, did I know about all he’d seen and the things he felt? I hoped then, and hope even harder now—though I’m not quite willing or able to pray—that he was still alive somewhere inside, or had been at one point. I hoped, although his extremities were growing cold, that an ember of faith and hope blazed warmly somewhere inside the recesses of his worn-out heart.

***

You don’t lose faith (and here I refer to Faith with a capital F, or maybe that should be faith with a lowercase f—whichever kind we can associate with feelings not involving supernatural entities—the bigger kind, or smaller, depending on where you stand on such matters).

When you lose a loved one or something indelible happens to shake your balance or even shatter your belief that there’s anything sensible about this life, you eventually come to a place where the one remaining issue is the only one you can’t avoid or get around, and it turns out to be the thing that saves you. You’re still alive, you’re still around to try and make sense of it. Or, short of that, to keep drawing breath and taking more out of existence than it takes out of you. Just being is winning in the existential sense, no matter how cynical or nihilistic one feels about such matters.

Only until it happens to you, until you get your own death sentence (or, if you’re lucky—or unlucky, depending on where you stand on such matters—you die suddenly and unexpectedly); only when your own light is about to be extinguished (forever or temporarily, depending on where you stand on such matters) do you have to confront whether or not you still have faith in how your life has played out.

In my case, my mother’s death didn’t shatter my faith; I’d already taken care of that matter on my own.

***

Milan Kundera, in the book Testaments Betrayed, explains his vision of the novelist’s acumen, which is “a considered, stubborn, furious nonidentification, conceived not as evasion or passivity but as resistance, defiance, rebellion.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, during the chapter entitled “Rebellion,” the mercurial Ivan lays out his rationale for rejecting God. If the ostensibly benevolent—and omnipotent—Being who created us in His image can be credited for everything we see and achieve, He must also be accountable for all the inexplicable misery. Ivan is, ultimately, less concerned with Heaven or Hell than what occurs on God’s watch, here on earth. Even if his personal salvation was secured, even if every soul’s redemption was guaranteed, the arrangement is intolerable if it depends upon one innocent child being forced to suffer. Ivan is incapable of accepting any circumstance where ultimate peace is contingent upon anyone’s pain. This is his rebellion.

Ursula K. Le Guin takes this scenario one step further in her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” synthesizing elements of what both Kundera and Dostoyevsky describe. In her tale, once certain types of people ascertain the way things really work (on earth as it is in heaven), they turn their backs and forsake the security of organized society. Unable to reconcile the cost of a not-so-ignorant bliss, Le Guin’s heroes rebel by refusing to endorse—or even abide—the practical, and spiritual cost of doing business.

In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut draws an intractable line in the sand (or salt), siding with vulnerable humans over an infallible God: “And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.”

***

Once I’d dispensed with organized religion and then determined that academia was no longer a suitable solution, I might have become paralyzed, either because of other options or the lack thereof. Instead, I felt oddly liberated, although that realization by no means occurred overnight. Eventually, I found I wasn’t running away from anything so much as feeling compelled to run toward almost everything. Avoiding quiet desperation became my approach; finding ways to make art into life and life into art was my new mantra. (So simple, so impossible.)

My rebellion, if it could accurately (or fairly) be described as such, was rather simply an antagonism against cliché: clichéd thoughts, actions, excuses, and even intentions. I still wasn’t certain what was going to work for me, but I was steadily recognizing what wasn’t going to work. Understanding that bills had to be paid, relationships had to be cultivated, mistakes had to be made, and, above all, that one day I would no longer be around, my objective revolved around an obsession to live a life nobody but I could live. During those post-graduate years I steadily fortified, for all time, the most important—and rewarding—relationship of my life: the one with myself.

***

I visited my mother’s grave the first several years for the same reason I used to attend church: it was expected, it was meant to make me feel better, it was supposed to signify something. I stopped going for the same reasons I ceased attending weekly services. Catharsis by commission most likely satisfies only those who don’t realize the game is rigged, spiritually speaking. Or else, they do know it’s a game and they couldn’t imagine it any other way. (It’s not the people with genuine faith the faithless have reservations about; it’s the folks who find their faith so onerous or insufficient that it causes them to act in ways antithetical to the precepts they purportedly approve.)

The historical intersections of culture and psychology suggest that there can be no archetypal way to grieve, just as there are no ultimate answers for how we might reconcile our place in the world, including the non-place before we are born and wherever we go when we die. But there is certainly a wrong way to grieve and grapple with the transient nature of existence. Anytime we are encouraged—or obligated—to follow a path someone else prescribes (particularly someone who is getting paid for the prescription), it’s a shortcut to resolution we can only attain for ourselves.

Cemeteries are like churches: created to contemplate people not accessible to those still living. They serve as memorials, affording an opportunity to ponder this world and reconcile our place in it.

I’ve been to the cemetery, and I don’t mind going to the cemetery. From a purely aesthetic perspective it is a lovingly constructed memento for departed souls: names and ages and years connected by what all of us ultimately have in common. The cemetery is where my mother’s body rests. Anyplace else I go is where she lived; where she still exists. Wherever I go, she accompanies me.

But sometimes this is not enough.

So I return to the lake by my father’s house. The house I grew up in; the house where my mother helped raise me; the house where we helped her die. The same lake I walked around during those last two weeks, my own routine once the August sun began its slow descent and most families sat down to dinner. The only place I was ever alone those last two weeks: a respite from crowded and uncomfortable thoughts; a retreat from the inevitable rituals of adulthood. The same lake where my father and I ended up, later that final night, after it was over and my sister had returned to her family. The lake we silently circled, not saying much, not needing to do anything other than exist.

This is where I go. I return to this lake. It is my church, my sanctified place for reflection. The water flows and recedes, feeding and restoring itself. The trees surround the water, their leaves emblems of Nature’s enduring procession. The sky stares down impassively to see its ancient face reflected up. At night the stars strain toward the earth, fulfilling their preordained purpose.

sean lake

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 8/26/15 and was also picked up by Salon on 8/30.

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The Molly Ringwald Evolutionary Trio (Revisited)

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Question: The Molly Ringwald Evolutionary Trio: What celebrity did you desperately want to have sex with at three different ages–sixteen, twenty-one, and then thirty?

Answers, below.

Summer ’86. I had just turned 16 which meant I could drive which meant I could go on dates which meant I could finally get laid! Well, I went to a lot of movies, anyway. And I fell in love one night. Not with my date, but with the woman on the screen (unfortunately for my date, unfortunately for me). Sigourney Weaver, I mean Ellen Ripley. Of course I’d seen her years before in the immortal Alien, but I wouldn’t have known what to do with her, then (I wouldn’t know what to do with her, now). But, I figured, if Ripley could save the human race, she certainly could find time to offer me some sexual salvation. Understanding the difference between wanting sex and having sex is something almost every 16 year old boy is a reluctant expert at; the difference between needing sex and having sex is something almost every man spends the rest of his life acknowledging.

(Vid is surprisingly difficult to come by, but I have no problems with this one. Do you?)

By 21 I had learned a thing or two. I had also made up for lost time, sexually speaking, exorcising the demons of the repressed Catholic kid I had unwittingly become. As such, I knew I was ready for a woman with experience, like Susan Sarandon. From the first time I watched Atlantic City on my Betamax (when we watched movies the way we masturbated: in analog), not really appreciating the plot but causing me to wish I was a sliced lemon so I could get closer to those impeccable, impossible breasts. Louise never would have careened over that cliff if she’d had me, Cliffs Notes in one hand, lukewarm PBR in the other, waiting on my student apartment futon.

By 31 I’d been there, done that, at least figuratively speaking. I was already a lost cause, a sad clown whose fate lay in recognizing all his soul mates had been born before his time (or had never been born at all, literally speaking). Still, perhaps because we long most for what we can never attain, I carried a tragic-comic torch for Faye Dunaway. Back to the future: 1967, Bonnie Parker, the perfect woman. Did any actress ever look as good in any movie? Not for all the money I don’t have in my bank account. And even though I wasn’t as exciting or nearly as pretty as Warren Beatty, I understood her pain. I could give her what she really needed (sorry, Clyde); I could help her help herself. I could help her help myself. Or something. I suspected, then, and know, now, that like me, she was simply searching for something she couldn’t find, something she could never have.

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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Ornette Coleman and The First Day of the Rest of My Life (Revisited)

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Topic: The Album You’d Give Anything To Hear Again for The First Time

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I still remember everything about it.

Fall semester, senior year. The more I learned at college, the more I understood how little I knew. Something, obviously, was working.

I was wise, prescient or just plain lucky enough to sign up for an elective called “Introduction to Jazz”. I knew the genre was vast, intimidating and would take considerable effort to navigate; I’ll always credit this class for giving me a framework to acquaint myself, a three credit Rosetta Stone® for my Rosetta Stone. We’d gone through the century, decade by decade, and it got better as we went. Yes, Bebop was what I’d been missing all along without realizing it.

But it was what came next, the more formless expression that started creeping out of the margins like lava oozing through ancient stones, that portended obsession. Those names: Mingus, Monk, Miles, Trane. And then, as we tackled the topic of “free jazz”, a cat who had the audacity to name his 1959 (the best year in musical history, by the way) album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

Ornette Coleman, the canary in the post-bop coal mine. Like all iconoclasts, initially greeted with indifference, then disgust, then fear. Chords? We don’t need no stinking chords, his compositions scoffed, a freak flag flying out of the underground into the avant-garde. I still remember how quiet the room was and how concerned my ears got: What is this? Like nothing I’d never heard or felt; a new language, a new sensation, a new way of seeing everything, that first amoeba slithering onto shore. How is it possible, I thought, to make instruments scream in agony and shriek in joy, at the same time? (And those song titles, telling everything you needed to know: “Lonely Woman”, “Congeniality”, “Focus on Sanity.”)

I walked around campus after, the autumn sky all schizophrenic yet serene with colors. And those notes I couldn’t get out of my head. This is it, I thought. This is music. This is addiction. This is love. This is the first day of the rest of my life.

From The Weeklings feature Popped Culture #2

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