Murphy’s Laws: 47 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 47

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“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 47 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 47 judgments, opinions and observations.

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47. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

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

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

dog cone

7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

ali

16. 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 often 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 loudly and saying little? 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.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors 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.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

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

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

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34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. 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 is 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.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

47. Marriage is indeed work and, if you’re lucky enough to find the right person, it’s the most fulfilling job you’ll ever have.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

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This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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Murphy’s Laws: 46 Infallible Observations on the Occasion of Turning 46

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“With age comes wisdom, but sometimes age comes alone.”

That, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde.

Does age impart wisdom? Maybe.

It definitely provides opinions.

Some of them, perhaps, are worthwhile.

After 46 spins around the sun, you probably haven’t had an especially worthwhile time if you don’t have some observations, and a handful of opinions you’re willing to stand by. I do.

Here’s one: avoid making any important decisions until you’re sober and showered.

Here’s another: irony is essential, but not unlike caviar, it should never be cheap and should always be served in judicious portions.

And another: the only thing worse than cynicism is apathy, and the only thing worse than apathy is aggression—and worst of all is cupidity.

In the spirit of sharing, and to forestall the indignities of encroaching middle-age, I’ve gathered 46 judgments, opinions and observations.

46. Get it?

46. Get it?

1. You never feel more confident, and impatient for the world to recognize if not celebrate your brilliance, than the moment you submit a piece for publication. (The predictable, inevitable rejection has the opposite effect, taking you down the necessary notches and keeping everything mostly in balance.)

2.  These days we look for poetry in all the wrong places. Some of us even believe we’re gazing more deeply into the murky waters of existence when all we’re seeing is our own reflections.

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

4. It’s possible, if not probable that our technological toys have provided us with everything but perspective, making us increasingly oblivious to the realities of people we’re not familiar with. This might help explain a country, like ours, with unlimited access to all sorts of content being as polarized (politically, psychologically, personally) as any time in recent memory. And undoubtedly the anonymity—and security—of electronic interaction makes us more immune to/intolerant of opinions we don’t share.

5. As politicians of a certain party confirm time and again, you cease to be especially useful once you’re no longer in the womb or wearing the uniform.

6. F. Scott Fitzgerald infamously (and incorrectly, as it happened) declared there are no second acts in American lives, but he was writing his own epitaph at the time. He could not have anticipated the way artists and later, politicians, would perfect the Lazarus routine to the point that it was itself an art form of sorts.

dog cone

7. All dogs want is other dogs. People aren’t like that which, I suppose, is why people love dogs. You can always tell when a dog is unhappy because the rest of the time they are either ecstatic or asleep.

8. The way we signal our solidarity with bumper stickers, sweet nothings on national TV or pink ribbons signifies how we simultaneously take the path of least resistance and make any unfortunate situations as much about ourselves as possible.

9. The exceptional artists are too often hampered by their fragility and inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder. The hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by an unreflective Hoi polloi.

10. In the mid-‘70s, in an attempt to inspire his friend Errol Morris to complete a project, Werner Herzog agreed to eat his shoe. The project was completed, the shoe was cooked and eaten, the occasion filmed for posterity. Every artist can—and should—learn from Herzog, who has made a career of balancing the dicey line between commitment and insanity.

11. Generally speaking, the more obviously a writer wants the audience to associate the protagonist and himself, the more insufferable and lifeless the prose is likely to be. Correspondingly, the more noble or lovable a protagonist that might coincidentally be confused with the author is, the less trustworthy and insecure the human writing the book is likely to be.

12. Virtually everything about The Beatles was sui generis: they broke all the rules and, in the process, invented the new rules. It didn’t need to end; it had to end. How could they keep going; they kept going. In short and in sum: John needed Paul, and Paul needed John, perhaps more than they ever realized.

13. What if I were to tell you the 21st Century has already produced the great American novel? And what if I told you it was actually written almost five decades ago? And then I mentioned that it’s not a book, it’s an album? And then, this: no one has ever heard it and no one ever will, because it remains unfinished. And yet: everyone has listened to the opening chapter, a prologue to the most infamous what-could-have-been in musical history. The song: “Good Vibrations”. The band: The Beach Boys. The album: SMiLE.

14. Top Gun remains miraculous, a Nabokovian movie-within-a-movie where the insufficiently endowed, militarded men-children, with minds toupeed like so many half-ass John Wayne wannabes (speaking of movie-within-a-movie), achieve all the things every impotent flag waving closet case fantasizes about. Starring the epitome of style-over-substance insincerity, Tom Cruise, for whom they had to lower the volleyball net to five foot zero, the eternal box office elf wins one for the Gipper (movie-within-a-movie-within-a-cliché) and liberates the Military Industrial Complex forevermore from tax cuts and providing scared little boys a Big Daddy who’ll never disappoint (because, like Santa Claus, he doesn’t exist and is the gift that keeps giving). Everything awful about the ‘80s in America, an erectile dysfunction ad disguised as Hollywood fairy tale, a flat-top wrapped in a flag, bleached chicklets smiling to sell the used car soul of an empty empire.

15. The people I’ve known in MFA programs (yesterday, today, and probably twenty years from now) get taught to write. Or, they get taught to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write short stories. Or, they get programmed to write certain types of short stories. And? The language is usually okay, although clichés are dispensed like crutches in an infirmary. The effort, for the most part, is there (no one, after all, would take the time to take a crack at serious writing unless they wanted to do it right; the only exceptions are the ones to whom it comes easily and who write the way most people urinate: often, every day, and it’s mostly water, or the other sort: the ones who don’t have time to actually write because they are talking about all the books they have planned out in their pointy heads, not only because it’s less complicated to discuss one’s brilliance at a party or in a bar, but also because there is always an audience, however reluctant). The underlying impulse, the central nervous system of these short stories, always at least approximates technical proficiency. So? What we wind up with is a story that avoids everything the young writer has not experienced: love, fear, empathy, and understanding. For starters. Stylizing over substantive insight equals an anaesthetized aesthetic; a soulless solution for a problem the writer created. And the short story, upon inspection, is a shell that reveals its non-essence. Poetic pronouncements of some of the important things the student does not understand. In other words: short stories that might sell. Short stories that strive to be successful. Short stories for readers with short memories. And in some cases, a star is born.

ali

16. 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 often 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 loudly and saying little? 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.

17. When it comes to the often embarrassing topic of sex scenes in literature, a standard rule is that the authors 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.

18. For all its obvious and mostly superficial flaws, John Carpenter’s They Live offers as blunt and enduring a critique of unfettered capitalism, taken to its (il)logical extreme, as has ever been committed to celluloid.

19. If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passe for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original. Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, it’s in part because dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Syd Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

20. When you think about the distinctive ingredients of Americana, the elements that comprise what we think about when we think of what makes America so…American, it’s easy to recite the clichéd short-list: mom, apple pie, convertibles, rock and roll, McDonalds, sexual repression, colonialism, enhanced interrogations, et cetera. But really, when you get down to it, we’re all about violence. And, to a large degree, violence sort of encompasses all of the things listed above (the violence we do to others, the violence we do to the environment, the violence we do to ourselves–inherent in the desires we succumb to as well as deny, which are epitomized by most religions). But our religion is violence, and our cathedral has long been the silver screen. So we celebrate our addiction to violence in ways less brutal but more calculated than the barbaric Gladiator spectacles of yesteryear (we weren’t Americans yet): by perfecting what has become a universal aesthetic, the movie fight scene. Kind of like porn movie plots are a delivery device for the fucking, action movie plots are often a disposable fulcrum for the fighting.

21. The intensity of lamentation an individual displays on the occasion of a celebrity’s death via social media tends to be inversely proportional to their difficulty conveying emotions toward actual people they know.

22. I’m not certain if it has anything to do with what you study in college, or the type of person you already are (of course the two are not mutually exclusive by any means) but speaking for myself, I suspect that if you are a certain age and not already convinced that God is White and the GOP is Right (and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is certain of either of those things is already a lost cause, intellectually and morally), reading a book like The Road To Wigan Pier changes you. Reading a book like The Jungle changes you. Books like Madame Bovary change you. Books like The Second Sex change you. Books like Notes From Underground change you. Books like Invisible Man change you. Then you might start reading poetry and come to appreciate what William Carlos Williams meant when he wrote “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” These works alter your perception of the big picture: cause and effect, agency vs. incapacity and history vs. ideology and the myriad ways Truth and History are manufactured by the so-called winners.

23. Dick Cheney, the most despicable citizen America has ever produced, has so much blood on his hands he makes Lady Macbeth look like Snow White.

24. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money; someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the you-know-where so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). It’s all about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough affluence that nothing else matters. That’s how we’ve come to define success and, perhaps not coincidentally, it’s why so few people are capable of achieving it.

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

26. I can’t recall the last time I read a book where there wasn’t at least one sentence I could edit or improve. There’s hope there: we’re all human. Except Faulkner.

27. Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed. For years, I regarded this masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it.

28. I admire David Lynch, but admit that he’s very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the eye of the beholder.

29. Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun seems to me the most accurate, or at least successful depiction of what we might call “Tolstoyan”. Memento, for my money, is the most “Dostoyevskian”.

30. In my personal experience, The New Testament resonates with people who are interested in emulating and not merely obeying. Indeed, the only people who seek inspiration in the Old Testament tend to be proselytizers or repressed opportunists looking to find ecclesiastical back-up for their very human prejudices and desires.

31. We have become a country of children who want to skip the main course and go directly to dessert, every meal, and then complain that we’ve gotten fat.

32. The ‘90s Academy Awards were like a Bizarro aesthetic universe, a perverse pinball machine where smug smacked off cynical and clanged into self-satisfaction and descended into the gutter of banality (Life is Beautiful should have earned everyone involved a cinematic red card, sent off the artistic pitch for eternity; instead, of course, it won that buffoon Roberto Benigni a best actor statue proving that Life is Unbearable). But hey, if it wasn’t for the ‘90s Academy Awards, I may have entered the new millennium not sufficiently disabused of the illusion that substance beats style, or that feel-good and soulless saccharine is sniffed out by uncorrupted tastemakers. Instead, I understand the First Commandment of Modern Commerce: Money always, always means more than Authenticity. As such, I express my indifference to the pompous and circumstance of the Academy Awards the old fashioned way: by not watching.

33. I usually sleep on Sunday mornings. Everyone else, it seems, is either on the golf course or in church. As far as I can tell, I haven’t been missing much. As far as I can tell, golf affords grown men the opportunity to accomplish two things: get out of work (or, if they are married, out of the house on weekends) and drink beer. Not that I’m necessarily opposed to either activity, but I usually don’t have to dress up like a frat boy from the early ‘80s to make it happen.

newmarcatwoman1

34. Sigourney Weaver discarding her space suit in Alien; Susan Sarandon slicing lemons in Atlantic City; Faye Dunaway at any point in Bonnie and Clyde—all of those are contenders. But for my money, no woman in any performance has ever been as sexy as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman attempting to seduce Adam West’s Batman.

35. If I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

36. Playing for mediocre, at times downright awful teams, Pedro Martinez was the rare ace who could carry a franchise on his scrawny shoulders. If he had been surrounded by the talent Greg Maddux had for most of his career in Atlanta, it’s difficult to imagine how much more impressive his stats would be. Not for nothing, he played in the bruising AL East (having to face designated hitters instead of easy-out pitchers each outing) during the peak of the steroid era—when hitters (think Brady Anderson or Barry Bonds) went from skinny sluggers to beefed-up mashers seemingly overnight. The point being, Pedro played in a time of almost unparalleled offensive production and he still put up numbers that stagger statisticians. Bottom line: best pitcher of the modern era, perhaps of all time.

37. If a lousy self-published book falls into the electronic void, does it make any sound? No. This, then, is precisely why the first rule of writing always applies: no matter how or with whom you choose to publish, it’s ultimately in the author’s best interest to put forth their best product. Neither short-cut nor salvation, Amazon merely presents possibilities previously unavailable, or imaginable. The best news is also the bottom line: people in it for the wrong reasons (vanity, the illusion of fame and fortune, etc.) will invariably find this new model easy, yet unfeasible; people in it for the long haul have no guarantees and the road is as long and grueling as it’s ever been. But here’s the catch, and the reason to rejoice: mechanisms now exist wherein any artist can cultivate an audience through the most and honest and organic means known to mankind: good old fashioned word of mouth. Amazon, and the community it sustains, allows anyone to have a voice, and those voices will be creating and encouraging literature for the foreseeable future.

38. I can usually tell where people are coming from when they assail The Great Gatsby. They’re invariably similar to folks who, striking a rebellious or recalcitrant pose, dismiss Shakespeare as overrated or impossible to appreciate. Of course, too often it becomes obvious that most of these people have failed to read many (or any) of the works in question.

39. When it comes to Jimi Hendrix, there is really no conjecture. The growth he displayed in only a couple of years is unlike anything we’ve witnessed from just about any other musician or composer, ever. We’re talking light years, the universe expanding; real quantum type shit. Put it this way: Miles Davis, who didn’t have many good things to say about even the best jazz musicians, made no bones about his desire to get Hendrix in the studio to collaborate. That’s like Michael Jordan saying he’d like to play some pick-up, or Sugar Ray Robinson asking you to spar with him.

40. My .02 on a woman’s right to choose can be boiled down to one sardonic observation, which I offer with maximum disdain: If adolescent boys could get pregnant, the Catholic Church would be passing out birth control with the communion wafers.

41. Libertarianism in two sentences, same as it always was; same as it will always be. When Christians envision God they see themselves. When Libertarians envision God they see dollar bills.

42. If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul. And then there’s Bach. When I listen to Bach I feel the way I’m supposed to feel about God: awe, wonderment, solemnity, incredulity, and—this is important—joy, reverence, relief.

SJ

43. A common misconception is that, as dog lovers, we crave subservience; it feeds our insatiable egos. That’s not why people have dogs, it’s why people have children (just kidding). In truth, it’s a great deal more complicated, more philosophical than that. Sure, what’s not to love about an incorruptibly honest, obedient, affirmative presence one can count on every second of every day? And yet, I suspect, if you spoke with people who are not just dog people, but those people—the type who not only talk incessantly about their own dogs, but other dogs, and are up for talking about dogs, and meeting new dogs, even if it occasionally involves stalking an unsuspecting owner on the trail or outside a supermarket, because it’s not only bad form, but impossible to not make the attempt—they’d suggest that the secret ingredient of our obsession is at once selfish and something more than a little noble, in an aspirational sense: dogs, with their total lack of guile and excess of fidelity, are ceaselessly humbling, and remind us of what’s so lacking in our fellow humans, and within ourselves.

44. 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 is 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.)

45. An immaculately clean kitchen betrays the absence of soul; an immaculately clean house betrays the absence of pets (or love; same thing).

46. If there is light at the end of the tunnel, the sound you hear as you stride toward it is undoubtedly the cornet solo by Thad Jones on Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser”.

Bonus observation:

Don’t be cynical: find a charity you can feel good about supporting, endorse the efforts of our great artists, tell your parents you love them, appreciate—and savor—the friends who always have your back. Be good to strangers and be better to yourself: you deserve it.

(Some of these observations appear in my first collection of non-fiction, Murphy’s Law Vol. One: So That Happened.)

M LAW cover

This piece originally appeared at The Weeklings on 5/20/16.

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Backs to the Future (Revisited)

seanmurphy3-300x2351

TAKE A GUY.

Let’s say he is about my age: old enough to own a place and pay almost all his bills sometimes; young enough to understand that he is not getting any younger. Add a dose of fresh alienation—not enough to be unhealthy, of course, but enough to enable him to function in a world full of imbecility and indifference and all those unattainable happily-ever-afters awaiting him on the other side of his flatscreen TV. Take this guy and give him enough stability so that he has no excuses, but plenty of alibis. Most likely, he is utterly average in every regard, except for the fact that, unlike almost everyone he knows, he is aware of it. Finally, add the oncoming collision of the big Five-Oh (When? Someday, we don’t say) and there’s no choice but to buckle up and insert all applicable clichés, complacent epiphanies and the half-earned angst that are smirking impatiently, just offstage.

It’s time to pay tribute. Yes, at this point it would seem appropriate to tip the bottle and pour out some beer for our dead homeboy. But we don’t because we are not drinking beer. Also, he is not dead, and we are not in a music video or even a bad movie, and above all, we are too cynical, self-conscious, or married to imitate such affected gestures. Unless we were being ironic, but it’s too early in the evening for that type of commitment, so we’ll stick to doing what we do best: retelling stories that never happened exactly the way we insist on remembering them. (Plus, our class couldn’t even pull it together for a formal reunion. Been there, done that, we don’t say.) No harm done, a little bullshit and bourbon on the rocks never hurt anyone. Besides, I am increasingly aware that it is because these stories are so obviously embellished that we need them to be true. Add a few hours and more than a few drinks and once again, here we are: backs to the future, looking in the mirror for someone who should be standing alongside us.

This is not exactly what they mean by flashing back, and yet I’m trying to stay in the moment, knowing I can if I try hard enough. But first I need to make sense of that old saying, how does it go? If I knew now what I didn’t know then? No. If I knew then what I did know, now? I don’t know. I’m here, but now—and not for nothing—I’m recalling the mistake I did not make, over two decades ago.

Remember Love Boat? Not the TV show, but a blunt laced with PCP, also known as angel dust. The boat. This was the holy grail of illicit drugs, and considering the fact that all drugs were illicit, period, even a dumbass underclassman knew this was Filed Under Fucked Up. I didn’t know much but I knew that alcohol was off limits, marijuana was out of the question, and Love Boat was officially off the charts. This was the stuff that longhaired actor took an accidental hit of and then quickly found himself perched on a rooftop, trying to fly (or perhaps that was the surreptitious tab of acid in his fruit punch, same difference). We saw that movie in the ‘70s and it scared us even straighter. Nevertheless, every so often when we were shooting hoop after school, some older brothers would show up, commandeer the court and show us all the things we knew we could never do. Inexorably, one of them would see us seeing them, raise his eyebrow and say the dangerous words: “You lookin’?”

Most likely, the question never presumed a possible transaction, and was more an offhand (but not ironic, because nobody knew what irony was at that age) way of reminding us, at once, who they were, who we were, and most significantly, who we would never be. But some other kids were in on the action; they had to be. Why else would we constantly be on the receiving end of these perfunctory solicitations?

Eventually, we agreed that it could only be one group of unusual suspects: the freaks. Older students, the rock concert t-shirt wearing army of outcasts; the rebels who at one time had been athletes, or nerds, or drama dorks, and then popped through the pimple of post adolescent purgatory and found themselves born again as deadbeats. The ones, we belatedly recognized, who saw through the self-immolation of Izod shirts and feathered hair, the ones who shirked intramural activities and the safety of numbers, the ones who could no longer belong to any Key Club that might accept them as members. The ones who never even got hassled by the jocks because they simply were not worth the aggravation; a cafeteria-style ass kicking would not earn a striving sophomore any status. These were the guys, everyone knew, who dared to flick their middle fingers at student governance, decorum and the future: they were going nowhere and seemed to be in a real hurry to get there. These were the ones, we decided, who had the audacity, when the brothers asked if they were looking, to say yes.

Just say no? Remember, this was a world before computers and consoles and cell phones and even CD players. Not an innocent era, by any means, but a time when some of us read books because we couldn’t think of anything better to do. A time when growing pains were the physical kind and the one thing everyone agreed upon was that we couldn’t get older quickly enough. A time, most likely, that comprised the formative years so many adults feel an almost unbearable longing for, mostly because whatever it is they were feeling can’t ever be felt that way again. Sentimental? Shit, I still find myself craving the same things I hoped for then: a pretty girlfriend (remember going steady?), a decent report card (also known as a performance review), to be considered cool by the types of people who are considered cool, and mostly to be accountable, at last, and free to do whatever the hell I want when I grow up. Someday.

We didn’t know how much we did not know, but we knew what everyone else seemed to understand. Such as, the U.S.A. could kick some Soviet ass if it had to (ask Rocky IV), that God existed (and, assuredly, was a Capitalist God), that he who dies with the most toys wins, and we all knew exactly what we’d become after graduating from our first- or second-choice colleges: some of us would be practicing L.A. Law, some of us would be sporting Top Gun bomber jackets, some of us would get wealthy on Wall Street, and the rest of us would have the old-fashioned types of jobs that you could actually describe in one or two words. What we were not going to be was forgettable. We did not know where we were headed, but we were emboldened by an instinctual understanding that our parents’ wallets would insulate us from too much reality, or at least break our fall if any of us tripped climbing up that American ladder.

Not quite everything we believed turned out to be wrong, and life is usually kind enough to wait a while before it reveals some of the answers to questions you never knew needed to be asked. But even before graduation we were disabused of at least one illusion that took us down a notch or two: it wasn’t the freaks who dared not to just say no, it was us.

Not me, you understand. I was too chickenshit, or at least too Catholic, to dabble in the dust, and while I reckon there was a vague contentment underlying that decision, I am even more relieved, looking back. See, I went to college, and I saw the reefer (smoked it too), smelled the ‘shrooms (ate them too), saw the unsnorted remnants of white powder under the noses of blissed-out fraternity brothers (fortunately for all involved, I did not have the funds for that type of fun). And, obviously, the alcohol. None of us were ever the same after those first dozen or so hangovers: no matter what it dished out, we kept going back to the unwell, looking for something to…what, exactly? Provide pleasure? Instigate adventure? Derail inhibition? Seek fleeting solace from the cold, cruel world? Sure, all that crap, but something else as well. There is a reason the most expensive advertisements are still allowed to promote an activity that kills more kids each year than any boogeyman on amphetamines—or Nancy Reagan for that matter—could ever conceive in their darkest dreams. There is something that alcohol almost, but never quite, delivers, that keeps everyone in the game. Just like back in the day, there’s safety in numbers, and it would sure seem Un-American to cast aspersions on something so many people need to believe in.

Nevertheless, I saw a handful of buddies brought low, churned up and rehabbed before they turned twenty-one, and every year at least one friend or acquaintance finally finds something else to look forward to on Friday afternoons. What I’m saying is, I’m lucky. Because I never pushed my luck and ended up biting something that bit back and wouldn’t let go. But if I knew then what I know now, I may have unwittingly joined a few of the guys—who got better grades than I did—when they took trips across town in a borrowed car.

Get this: not only were some of the guys we knew in on the action (and for the record, as far as they knew the freaks never touched the stuff—more irony wasted, like everything else, on the young), their escapades were abetted by a teacher. Put another way, a teacher at our school was paying them to make drug runs. To an adult, today, this shouldn’t seem shocking; indeed, it is practically expected. But that is only because we are too well acquainted with irony, which merely proves that we no longer have the capacity to surprise ourselves, if we ever did.

In any event, it turns out that the mastermind of these Love Boat runs was quite possibly the least likely culprit and therefore (in hindsight?) the most obvious. Mr. X., as he was not known, since this is not his name, was at the time—and still, in my mind—ageless, simply an adult, although he could not have been much older than thirty. If this story were depicted in a movie, the car the kids borrowed would have been nice, perhaps ironically nice, instead of the unremarkable piece of shit it actually was. And, crucially, Mr. X. would be played by George Clooney, or a lesser star that still emanates the slick celluloid charisma no real people can ever obtain. In the movie, the teacher would have a tragic flaw: a college football injury that derailed his obvious path to the pros, or some type of self-loathing resulting from a dark secret that he finally confronts in the end. Or something similarly redemptory, and ridiculous. In truth, Mr. X. was a mess—not quite morbidly obese, but working on it with the inimitable dedication of a junk food enthusiast. To look at him, even then, it seemed exceedingly improbable that he was once a varsity wrestler (in another state, in another world) and an offensive tackle. Well, it was a little easier to imagine him as an offensive tackle. And he had the pictures to prove it. Nonetheless, those days behind him, he had really gone to the (hot) dogs, a second-rate high school jock who had peaked at age seventeen, then metastasized into a third-rate high school geometry teacher. At least, looking back, he’d had the educational upbringing (in another state, in another world) to have sufficiently mastered mathematics. Today, after TV and YouTube had their way with him, he would have been fatter sooner, and the best he could have hoped for was teaching P.E., although (again, ironically) the gym teachers are in better shape today than they were then. Hopefully they are dressing better as well.

Even today, it’s difficult to determine which revelation is the most unsettling: that one of our boys was casually smoking Love Boat with older, cooler guys (it was enough that, as a junior, he could hang with the senior wrestlers, the ones who walked through the locker room like Greek gods with acne), that he could dabble without fear of addiction (he could hit it and quit it, precisely what the rest of us, with our after school special sensibilities, were terrified of being unable to do), or that the assistant wrestling coach, and teacher (!), was a more than recreational user. He was crazy, and brazen, enough to loan his car, and his funds, to a group of varsity lettermen so they could cross the bridge into D.C. and get the goods. Or maybe they snuck right across town, in broad daylight, to the basketball court, near a neighborhood that was verboten even before rap music, MTV and guns were invented.

You know how this story ends: nothing happened (wait for the movie). The star athletes went off to school on scholarships and our boy, we assumed, grew out of his bad habit or, with his willing accomplices removed from the scene of the crimes, had no one to instigate further misdeeds. At least that was the way it seemed, until he stopped coming to school. Mr. X.? Long gone; no idea where, not even worth Googling. Besides, unless he found Christ or Jenny Craig, the smart money says he’s currently kickin’ it in his oversized coffin. Full disclosure: it’s not his fault that I never understood parallelograms or gave a good shit about the Pythagorean Theorem (remember that? Me neither), but he certainly didn’t do much to stem my apathy.

In any event, everyone had plans before graduation; everyone had plans for after graduation as well, but that’s a different story altogether. Some of the guys were still pilfering liquor from their parents’ supply—that eternal fountain of youth; some guys (the smart ones, the lucky ones) were still trying to get laid for the first time before high school ended. Allegedly, some of them succeeded. Some people were busy doing whatever it was everyone did before you could live your entire life online. The rest of us, bored and boring, not knowing enough to be careful what we wished for, felt begrudgingly grateful to stand on the ostensible threshold of adulthood. We posed for pictures, we put on the caps and gowns, and eventually, inevitably, we strolled across that stage.

But one of us wasn’t there that day: our boy, who need not be named, and in the interest of fuller disclosure, was only on the periphery of my circle (mental note: that would need to be addressed in more detail for the movie), did not appear in any of the pictures. As it happened, he’d made the transition from underling to ringleader without too much difficulty, and dove headfirst down that rabbithole. Those of us who weren’t doing the things he shouldn’t have been doing were just as surprised as everyone else when he vanished overnight, like one of the Communist Dissidents we had read about. While we were mostly content to snatch the occasional beer from our parents’ stash, his folks had already put him on double-secret probation for acts we never knew about. And so one day, just like that, he was gone. We later learned he’d been sent to one of those discreet asylums that only upper-middle class parents and pop stars from the cover of People magazine can afford.

Nobody acknowledged it as we clowned around for the cameras, but his absence was unavoidable, a blemish on our collective accountability. Our friend wasn’t there, but he was with us, his story an uncomfortable reminder of how human we actually were. By not being there, he was ensuring that none of us, in the name of good dumb fun, became unwitting apprentices to the Sorcerer who preys on impressionable punks. That eternal trickster, offering a free line of credit (called Experience) that is recouped later by its alter ego (called Regret), always with interest accruing at the speed of stupid. Overflowing with post adolescent pride, we believed we had stared down this malign specter that, with one angel-scented spell, might have sent us careening into an early adulthood. Or, even worse, some of these lives none of us would ever have imagined ourselves growing into.

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Backs to the Future

TAKE A GUY.

Let’s say he is about my age: old enough to own a place and pay almost all his bills sometimes; young enough to understand that he is not getting any younger. Add a dose of fresh alienation—not enough to be unhealthy, of course, but enough to enable him to function in a world full of imbecility and indifference and all those unattainable happily-ever-afters awaiting him on the other side of his flatscreen TV. Take this guy and give him enough stability so that he has no excuses, but plenty of alibis. Most likely, he is utterly average in every regard, except for the fact that, unlike almost everyone he knows, he is aware of it. Finally, add the oncoming collision of the big Five-Oh (When? Someday, we don’t say) and there’s no choice but to buckle up and insert all applicable clichés, complacent epiphanies and the half-earned angst that are smirking impatiently, just offstage.

It’s time to pay tribute. Yes, at this point it would seem appropriate to tip the bottle and pour out some beer for our dead homeboy. But we don’t because we are not drinking beer. Also, he is not dead, and we are not in a music video or even a bad movie, and above all, we are too cynical, self-conscious, or married to imitate such affected gestures. Unless we were being ironic, but it’s too early in the evening for that type of commitment, so we’ll stick to doing what we do best: retelling stories that never happened exactly the way we insist on remembering them. (Plus, our class couldn’t even pull it together for a formal reunion. Been there, done that, we don’t say.) No harm done, a little bullshit and bourbon on the rocks never hurt anyone. Besides, I am increasingly aware that it is because these stories are so obviously embellished that we need them to be true. Add a few hours and more than a few drinks and once again, here we are: backs to the future, looking in the mirror for someone who should be standing alongside us.

This is not exactly what they mean by flashing back, and yet I’m trying to stay in the moment, knowing I can if I try hard enough. But first I need to make sense of that old saying, how does it go? If I knew now what I didn’t know then? No. If I knew then what I did know, now? I don’t know. I’m here, but now—and not for nothing—I’m recalling the mistake I did not make, over two decades ago.

Remember Love Boat? Not the TV show, but a blunt laced with PCP, also known as angel dust. The boat. This was the holy grail of illicit drugs, and considering the fact that all drugs were illicit, period, even a dumbass underclassman knew this was Filed Under Fucked Up. I didn’t know much but I knew that alcohol was off limits, marijuana was out of the question, and Love Boat was officially off the charts. This was the stuff that longhaired actor took an accidental hit of and then quickly found himself perched on a rooftop, trying to fly (or perhaps that was the surreptitious tab of acid in his fruit punch, same difference). We saw that movie in the ‘70s and it scared us even straighter. Nevertheless, every so often when we were shooting hoop after school, some older brothers would show up, commandeer the court and show us all the things we knew we could never do. Inexorably, one of them would see us seeing them, raise his eyebrow and say the dangerous words: “You lookin’?”

Most likely, the question never presumed a possible transaction, and was more an offhand (but not ironic, because nobody knew what irony was at that age) way of reminding us, at once, who they were, who we were, and most significantly, who we would never be. But some other kids were in on the action; they had to be. Why else would we constantly be on the receiving end of these perfunctory solicitations?

Eventually, we agreed that it could only be one group of unusual suspects: the freaks. Older students, the rock concert t-shirt wearing army of outcasts; the rebels who at one time had been athletes, or nerds, or drama dorks, and then popped through the pimple of post adolescent purgatory and found themselves born again as deadbeats. The ones, we belatedly recognized, who saw through the self-immolation of Izod shirts and feathered hair, the ones who shirked intramural activities and the safety of numbers, the ones who could no longer belong to any Key Club that might accept them as members. The ones who never even got hassled by the jocks because they simply were not worth the aggravation; a cafeteria-style ass kicking would not earn a striving sophomore any status. These were the guys, everyone knew, who dared to flick their middle fingers at student governance, decorum and the future: they were going nowhere and seemed to be in a real hurry to get there. These were the ones, we decided, who had the audacity, when the brothers asked if they were looking, to say yes.

Just say no? Remember, this was a world before computers and consoles and cell phones and even CD players. Not an innocent era, by any means, but a time when some of us read books because we couldn’t think of anything better to do. A time when growing pains were the physical kind and the one thing everyone agreed upon was that we couldn’t get older quickly enough. A time, most likely, that comprised the formative years so many adults feel an almost unbearable longing for, mostly because whatever it is they were feeling can’t ever be felt that way again. Sentimental? Shit, I still find myself craving the same things I hoped for then: a pretty girlfriend (remember going steady?), a decent report card (also known as a performance review), to be considered cool by the types of people who are considered cool, and mostly to be accountable, at last, and free to do whatever the hell I want when I grow up. Someday.

We didn’t know how much we did not know, but we knew what everyone else seemed to understand. Such as, the U.S.A. could kick some Soviet ass if it had to (ask Rocky IV), that God existed (and, assuredly, was a Capitalist God), that he who dies with the most toys wins, and we all knew exactly what we’d become after graduating from our first- or second-choice colleges: some of us would be practicing L.A. Law, some of us would be sporting Top Gun bomber jackets, some of us would get wealthy on Wall Street, and the rest of us would have the old-fashioned types of jobs that you could actually describe in one or two words. What we were not going to be was forgettable. We did not know where we were headed, but we were emboldened by an instinctual understanding that our parents’ wallets would insulate us from too much reality, or at least break our fall if any of us tripped climbing up that American ladder.

Not quite everything we believed turned out to be wrong, and life is usually kind enough to wait a while before it reveals some of the answers to questions you never knew needed to be asked. But even before graduation we were disabused of at least one illusion that took us down a notch or two: it wasn’t the freaks who dared not to just say no, it was us.

Not me, you understand. I was too chickenshit, or at least too Catholic, to dabble in the dust, and while I reckon there was a vague contentment underlying that decision, I am even more relieved, looking back. See, I went to college, and I saw the reefer (smoked it too), smelled the ‘shrooms (ate them too), saw the unsnorted remnants of white powder under the noses of blissed-out fraternity brothers (fortunately for all involved, I did not have the funds for that type of fun). And, obviously, the alcohol. None of us were ever the same after those first dozen or so hangovers: no matter what it dished out, we kept going back to the unwell, looking for something to…what, exactly? Provide pleasure? Instigate adventure? Derail inhibition? Seek fleeting solace from the cold, cruel world? Sure, all that crap, but something else as well. There is a reason the most expensive advertisements are still allowed to promote an activity that kills more kids each year than any boogeyman on amphetamines—or Nancy Reagan for that matter—could ever conceive in their darkest dreams. There is something that alcohol almost, but never quite, delivers, that keeps everyone in the game. Just like back in the day, there’s safety in numbers, and it would sure seem Un-American to cast aspersions on something so many people need to believe in.

Nevertheless, I saw a handful of buddies brought low, churned up and rehabbed before they turned twenty-one, and every year at least one friend or acquaintance finally finds something else to look forward to on Friday afternoons. What I’m saying is, I’m lucky. Because I never pushed my luck and ended up biting something that bit back and wouldn’t let go. But if I knew then what I know now, I may have unwittingly joined a few of the guys—who got better grades than I did—when they took trips across town in a borrowed car.

Get this: not only were some of the guys we knew in on the action (and for the record, as far as they knew the freaks never touched the stuff—more irony wasted, like everything else, on the young), their escapades were abetted by a teacher. Put another way, a teacher at our school was paying them to make drug runs. To an adult, today, this shouldn’t seem shocking; indeed, it is practically expected. But that is only because we are too well acquainted with irony, which merely proves that we no longer have the capacity to surprise ourselves, if we ever did.

In any event, it turns out that the mastermind of these Love Boat runs was quite possibly the least likely culprit and therefore (in hindsight?) the most obvious. Mr. X., as he was not known, since this is not his name, was at the time—and still, in my mind—ageless, simply an adult, although he could not have been much older than thirty. If this story were depicted in a movie, the car the kids borrowed would have been nice, perhaps ironically nice, instead of the unremarkable piece of shit it actually was. And, crucially, Mr. X. would be played by George Clooney, or a lesser star that still emanates the slick celluloid charisma no real people can ever obtain. In the movie, the teacher would have a tragic flaw: a college football injury that derailed his obvious path to the pros, or some type of self-loathing resulting from a dark secret that he finally confronts in the end. Or something similarly redemptory, and ridiculous. In truth, Mr. X. was a mess—not quite morbidly obese, but working on it with the inimitable dedication of a junk food enthusiast. To look at him, even then, it seemed exceedingly improbable that he was once a varsity wrestler (in another state, in another world) and an offensive tackle. Well, it was a little easier to imagine him as an offensive tackle. And he had the pictures to prove it. Nonetheless, those days behind him, he had really gone to the (hot) dogs, a second-rate high school jock who had peaked at age seventeen, then metastasized into a third-rate high school geometry teacher. At least, looking back, he’d had the educational upbringing (in another state, in another world) to have sufficiently mastered mathematics. Today, after TV and YouTube had their way with him, he would have been fatter sooner, and the best he could have hoped for was teaching P.E., although (again, ironically) the gym teachers are in better shape today than they were then. Hopefully they are dressing better as well.

Even today, it’s difficult to determine which revelation is the most unsettling: that one of our boys was casually smoking Love Boat with older, cooler guys (it was enough that, as a junior, he could hang with the senior wrestlers, the ones who walked through the locker room like Greek gods with acne), that he could dabble without fear of addiction (he could hit it and quit it, precisely what the rest of us, with our after school special sensibilities, were terrified of being unable to do), or that the assistant wrestling coach, and teacher (!), was a more than recreational user. He was crazy, and brazen, enough to loan his car, and his funds, to a group of varsity lettermen so they could cross the bridge into D.C. and get the goods. Or maybe they snuck right across town, in broad daylight, to the basketball court, near a neighborhood that was verboten even before rap music, MTV and guns were invented.

You know how this story ends: nothing happened (wait for the movie). The star athletes went off to school on scholarships and our boy, we assumed, grew out of his bad habit or, with his willing accomplices removed from the scene of the crimes, had no one to instigate further misdeeds. At least that was the way it seemed, until he stopped coming to school. Mr. X.? Long gone; no idea where, not even worth Googling. Besides, unless he found Christ or Jenny Craig, the smart money says he’s currently kickin’ it in his oversized coffin. Full disclosure: it’s not his fault that I never understood parallelograms or gave a good shit about the Pythagorean Theorem (remember that? Me neither), but he certainly didn’t do much to stem my apathy.

In any event, everyone had plans before graduation; everyone had plans for after graduation as well, but that’s a different story altogether. Some of the guys were still pilfering liquor from their parents’ supply—that eternal fountain of youth; some guys (the smart ones, the lucky ones) were still trying to get laid for the first time before high school ended. Allegedly, some of them succeeded. Some people were busy doing whatever it was everyone did before you could live your entire life online. The rest of us, bored and boring, not knowing enough to be careful what we wished for, felt begrudgingly grateful to stand on the ostensible threshold of adulthood. We posed for pictures, we put on the caps and gowns, and eventually, inevitably, we strolled across that stage.

But one of us wasn’t there that day: our boy, who need not be named, and in the interest of fuller disclosure, was only on the periphery of my circle (mental note: that would need to be addressed in more detail for the movie), did not appear in any of the pictures. As it happened, he’d made the transition from underling to ringleader without too much difficulty, and dove headfirst down that rabbithole. Those of us who weren’t doing the things he shouldn’t have been doing were just as surprised as everyone else when he vanished overnight, like one of the Communist Dissidents we had read about. While we were mostly content to snatch the occasional beer from our parents’ stash, his folks had already put him on double-secret probation for acts we never knew about. And so one day, just like that, he was gone. We later learned he’d been sent to one of those discreet asylums that only upper-middle class parents and pop stars from the cover of People magazine can afford.

Nobody acknowledged it as we clowned around for the cameras, but his absence was unavoidable, a blemish on our collective accountability. Our friend wasn’t there, but he was with us, his story an uncomfortable reminder of how human we actually were. By not being there, he was ensuring that none of us, in the name of good dumb fun, became unwitting apprentices to the Sorcerer who preys on impressionable punks. That eternal trickster, offering a free line of credit (called Experience) that is recouped later by its alter ego (called Regret), always with interest accruing at the speed of stupid. Overflowing with post adolescent pride, we believed we had stared down this malign specter that, with one angel-scented spell, might have sent us careening into an early adulthood. Or, even worse, some of these lives none of us would ever have imagined ourselves growing into.

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