You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em: A Vignette of Bar Survival

You’re sitting at the bar and you’re tired. You’re so tired that, for once in your life, you really don’t want to talk to anyone. All you want is beer and silence, and for a moment, as you watch the beginning of the UNC/Duke game in a dull, half-attentive sense of regional duty, there are hints that you might get it. But then you smell it: the perfume of sad desperation from the other end of the bar, wafting from the slumped figure of a man already several beers in at exactly five o’clock. You recognize the overeager interest in any and all conversation, the drunken enthusiasm for a stranger’s opinion, and the sudden expertise in esoterica of all kinds. You do not know this man, but you are certain he has not had culinary opinions about elk until today. And he is hungry, oh, so hungry, and he wants a meal. Bad.

You’re a natural mark for these kinds of people, the lonely, the castaways, the neglected and the grasping, but you don’t worry because there are other people here, the goodnatured bartender and a hemp farmer fresh from a business meeting. They are your line of defense, so you drink and pray that Duke loses, because you believe in justice and there’s no point shaking the indoctrination of a North Carolina childhood after this many years.

The bartender is the first to fall. He’s attentive–he nods at the right time and knows just when to say “that sucks, man,” or “oh, shit”–but behind his eyes he’s already gone. He’s just a body now, twitching like Sonny Corleone under a hail of bullets. All movement is an illusion; what life you see is nothing more than reflex. The hemp farmer with a taste for elk goes next: he entertains a clumsy monologue about gun rights, explains the benefits of hemp plastics, declares his eternal hatred for moles, voles, and ground squirrels, and sips his pluot jerkum until his pizza and bread sticks arrive. He begins to wilt when the man offers to “help” on the hemp farm with high-pitched eagerness, because they’re buddies, pals, the best of friends now. The hemp farmer sighs. You start to think about Chester and Spike and drink faster: you’ve dodged the bullet so far, but you can’t stay lucky forever. The hemp farmer finishes his jerkum, mumbles something about how it was nice to meet the man, and leaves. The man drones on about his job and he raises his voice. He glances over at you, but you suddenly discover a water stain on the copper bar and stare at it. You pray. A couple walks in and you exhale in relief: one of them is a beautiful woman–you are saved. You drink to Jesus, Thor, Vishnu, and Vonnegut.

The man turns to the couple and begins to ask questions. The woman is with her boyfriend, but he’s invisible. The man’s loneliness, stoked by beer, has mistaken itself for confidence. “What do you do,” he asks. She answers, and so does her boyfriend. The dual stimulus is confusing and the man speaks for a moment with the boyfriend until he remembers that his girlfriend has breasts. He likes breasts. “Do you have a sister,” he asks. You almost choke. You turn around, but there’s no fourth wall, no camera or gawking audience: this is real.”Yes,” she says, “but she’s pregnant.” A strange reply, but potentially effective in its unusualness. “She’s resisting,” you think. “Good. Resistance means time, and time means freedom.” The man is undeterred.  “Pregnant and single,” he asks. And just like that, you feel shame.

You try to shake it off, because it’s not yours, but homeless shame must find somewhere to go. The man can’t feel it, so it’s found you. You take a sip and wait for it pass. Some of it must have hit the girlfriend, because she musters a fake laugh and says: “you’re terrible!” The man doesn’t know what those words means anymore, so he leans in and begins to ask more questions. The boyfriend runs interference and he takes one in the shoulder. He laughs and begins to talk about his job. It’s boring, but the man loves it and they talk some more. You are still free. When their pizza comes, the couple moves to a table as far away from the man as they can get and begins to eat. The man, cast once again into the horizonless expanse of his aloneness, looks at you again. You focus on the TV and pray. A man walks in with a growler and you drink to Vonnegut again, because clearly he is the only god listening to this.

The man’s here for a growler fill. This is the merchant marine of the bar, pulling into port for fresh water before leaving again. He’s not here to stay, but the sudden appearance of a new target, however brief, brightens the man’s face. He assails the sailor with a few questions about what kind of beer he’s getting, pretends to have an opinion about it–“oh, yeah! That’s…a good one. Yeah. I like it.”–and strings together some words about growler technology, but the sailor is polite and noncommittal. He gets his beer and he leaves.

You’re alone now. The man glances over at you and begins to fidget. The bartender is out of the running–whatever they to say to each other has been said–and the hemp farmer has left with his pizza. The hot woman doesn’t have a hot pregnant single sister, and her boyfriend still exists despite trying to ignore him out of existence. It’s just you and him. You know what’s coming, so you pour the rest of your beer into your face as fast as you can and wander over to the fridges to find a beer to go. Staying here only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation you came here to avoid in the first place. After a few minutes you find what you were looking for and head back to the bar.

The man has left his chair and plotted an intercept course. He catches you near your stool and looks at you in the eye. His face is on fire in that way only a drunk’s can be: it’s flushed and elastic and the eyes are wide, transformed from the dull cotton dryness of initial intoxication to manic whirlpools. He’s on the edge of a crash and holding on for dear life. “What’d you get,” he asks as he stands well inside your personal space. You hold up the can. “This,” you say. “Never had it before, but it’s supposed to be good. “Oh, yeah” he says blankly, “yeah.” With contact made, it’s only a matter of time now, so you stand at the bar screaming inside your head and raise your hand to get the bartender’s attention. The man makes his move. He leaves his seat and slides his beer along the bar over to the stool next to yours. The bartender takes the beer and moves to open it. “No,” you say, “to go.” The bartender looks at you with a flat expression and his words come out like sighs: “to go.” The bartender’s a nice guy, a friendly stoner with thick twisted locks and a lazy laugh, and he doesn’t deserve to be left with a gravity pit of sadness, but you have yourself to think about. This is not a time for altruism. You pay, wave to the bartender and leave. The man and the bartender watch with empty expressions as the door closes. You were their last line of defense and now you’re gone. And UNC is behind.

At the crosswalk you run into your neighbors walking their two Shetland ponies on leashes. You coo at the horses as they pass and your neighbors scowl and bark a greeting. Lingering only invites awkwardness and the kind of forced conversation they came here to avoid in the first place. They’re a mark for this kind of person, the lonely, the castaway, the neglected and the grasping, but they don’t worry because they have each other and the light is short. This is not a time for altruism. On the other side of the street you catch the smell of meat from an open bar door and wonder if that’s what elk smells like. And just like that, you’re hungry. Oh, so hungry.

Three Conversations with Ape and Canine

One: T.C.O.B.

Setting. Home, a one-bedroom apartment. The weekend. Enter APE to find CANINE hunched over a piece of paper.

APE: What’s that?

CANINE: It’s my to-do list.

APE: You can write?

CANINE: I know, I’m as surprised as you are.

APE: What’s it say?

CANINE: How should I know? I can’t read.

APE: Can I see it?

(APE Picks up list)

APE: “Eat.”

CANINE: Obviously.

APE: Obviously.

APE, cont’d: “Sleep.”

CANINE: Can’t have too much of that.

APE: Or food.

CANINE: You get it.

APE: “Bark and/or howl at noises. Addendum: wake him up in terror.”

CANINE: That’s a classic.

APE: Hmm.

(APE squints at list)

APE, cont’d: “Step on”…what’s this word?

CANINE: “Balls”

APE: “Step on balls?” Why would you write that?!

CANINE: It’s something to do. It’s on my to-do list.

APE: Right, but…why is it there? Why would you do that?

CANINE: I don’t understand the question.

APE: WHY WOULD YOU ––

(CANINE leaps into APE’s lap, right onto his balls. APE grabs CANINE and starts to pet her)

CANINE: I have my reasons.

Two: CINÉMA VÉRITÉ

Setting: Home. Night. The TV is on, the lights are off. CANINE and APE are snuggled in a chair.

CANINE: We’ve seen this before. Is there anything else on?

APE: What are you talking about? This is the best.

CANINE: I like the second one more.

APE: What? Are you–– Are you crazy? The first one’s totally better.

CANINE: This is the one with the dog, right?

APE: Yeah, here it comes right––

CANINE: SHIT! SHIT! SHIT! THERE’S A DOG IN THE HOUSE! HEY! HEY, YOU! I SEE YOU! HEY! HEY! I’M GONNA SPLIT YOU FROM NUTS TO NAVEL AND SHIT DOWN YOUR––

APE: Je-sus! Calm down! We’ve seen this at least a hundred times. You know––

CANINE: Hey, when’s the dog show up? I like him, though his performance is a little… flat. I have a hard time believing it.

APE: Just…eat some popcorn.

CANINE: It’s OK, I had some poop earlier.

APE: You’re not full.

CANINE: You’re right, I’m not.

Three: AMUSE-BOUCHE 

Setting: The street. Evening. It’s fall. APE and CANINE are taking a walk.

CANINE chewing.

APE: Are are you eating?

CANINE: I have no idea.

APE: Is it safe?

CANINE: …Yes?

APE: Spit it out!

CANINE: No!

APE: Spit it out!

CANINE: NO!

APE: Spit it––

CANINE: Too late! It’s gone!

APE: You remember what happened last time?

CANINE: Can’t say I do, no.

APE: You threw up in the middle of the night.

CANINE: That never happened.

APE: And then you ate it.

CANINE: Oh, right. It was still warm and––

APE: Jesus. Stop. Just–– Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

CANINE: About what?

APE: About what you just ate.

CANINE: What’d I just eat?

APE: You wouldn’t let me see it!

CANINE: That doesn’t sound like me.

APE: It sounds exactly like you.

CANINE: I feel a little attacked right now. Are you sure you’re all right?

APE: Look…can we just finish our walk? I have to cook dinner.

CANINE: Dinner?! Yes!

APE: You just ate, like, ten seconds ago.

CANINE: Mmmm, no.

APE: All right…that’s…we’re going home. I have to cook.

CANINE: What are you going to make? Can I have some?

APE: No.

CANINE : Can I have some?

APE: No.

CANINE: Can I have some?

APE: Sure.

CANINE: What is it?!

APE: Probably just a salad.

CANINE: Oh. Well…never mind. They don’t settle well with me. Remember what happened last time.

APE: Nothing happened last time.

CANINE: I know. What’s the point of that?

One Last Meal

Celebrity grief often feels like a transgression to me, like an ill-advised prayer to a pantheon of gods you know you should stay away from. And at a time when we have made an eldritch, malicious fame vampire our carnival barker-king, mourning Anthony Bourdain’s death – hitching your emotions to the cult of the moving picture and commodity personalities – feels shallow, and maybe even a little dangerous. But feelings are deceptive and not always true. They can talk you out of what you should know and, as they appear to have done with Bourdain, they can convince you that what you believe you know is true, that some nameless ghost knocking at the inside of your mind is more real than what’s in front of you, and that it’s inescapable.

So I’ve sat with my feelings and have been trying to understand why Bourdain’s death has cast such a deep shadow for me, why it has felt more real than all other other things in front of me, all the deaths and calamities I read about and shrug off. Some of this no doubt has to do with my own smallness, that worn and personal provincialism we all live with but ignore. But it is also true that Bourdain meant something to me, that the work he did, and the messy and stubborn curiosity with which he did it, has been real for me in ways I don’t think I appreciated, not until it was gone.

Bourdain wielded a curiosity married to an unsentimental appraisal of the raging, farting, electric shit show of human existence that, though often couched in acerbic wit and sneering contempt, was ultimately idealistic, and even tender. He didn’t just acknowledge the essential nonsense and wall-eyed absurdity of living; he appreciated it, and accepted and cherished it for what it was. In “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” the New Yorker article that would launch his unlikely literary career, he paints a picture of the professional kitchen as a collection of human offal and social flotsam, a pocket battleship manned by pirates who are fundamentally dysfunctional but unequivocally alive. “I love the sheer weirdness of the kitchen life,” he writes, “the dreamers, the crackpots, the refugees, and the sociopaths with whom I continue to work; the ever-present smells of roasting bones, searing fish, and simmering liquids; the noise and clatter, the hiss and spray, the flames, the smoke, and the steam.” There was something of the German Gossendichter, the “gutter poet,” in how he encountered life, in the perpetual, openminded noir monologue that gravitated to simple, lived experience over gesture or pretense, in the preference for honest, sincere dirt over disingenuous or ironic cleanliness. It’s this, I think, that endeared him to so many, and why his visit to The Waffle House, that midnight sanctuary for scattered and hungry wastrels all across the South, has become something of a cult classic: it’s a love letter to simple enjoyment, to unabashed appreciation and connection.

But he was not a perfect man. He was open about his own flaws, past and present, and he showed an uncommon willingness to publicly interrogate them, to forego the ritualized mea culpa and self-satisfied contrition of political and celebrity apologies in favor of  quiet reckonings. Looking back on the romantic kitchens of his early writing in an interview with Slate last year in light of our culture’s own belated reckoning with sexual power politics and abuse, Bourdain wondered to what extent his accounts of kitchen life and its crass sexuality and hierarchies had “provide[d] validation for meatheads” and “[w]hy was [he] not the sort of person, or why was [he] not seen as the sort of person, that these women could feel comfortable confiding in.” He didn’t spare himself in his appraisal. He had become, in his words, “a leading figure in a very old, very oppressive system so,” he continued, “I could hardly blame anyone for looking at me as somebody who’s not going to be particularly sympathetic.” But ultimately, the responsibility to be open, to provide support against oppression, was his, and not doing so was “a personal failing.”

Whatever he was in his private life, publicly Bourdain was a rare figure, a champion of personal responsibility without the usual appeals to the cloistered, anti-human solipsism of Ayn Rand acolytes. The quest for self-improvement, however doomed, is a private enterprise that is very much a public work, born out in how you attempt to make sense of yourself and what that leads you to do. He ate his way around the world, but what he managed to impart through his travels was a relentless drive to throw yourself against the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the unpleasant, and to hammer yourself into something slightly better through the experience. He modeled a way of engagement free of the kind of sentimental colonialism that underpins so much travel literature and entertainment, the drive to infantilize the world around you, to file it down into either a perfect, idealized picture or a profane object of scorn and superiority. Warthog anus seared in coals and served “al dente” remains a conceptual horror at the edge of understanding, and Thai raw blood soup a Levitical nightmare, but each testifies, in their own way, to human ingenuity and survival, to hospitality and fellowship. Bourdain talked a lot about what he called “the wheel,” the merciless, uncaring whims of fate and oppression, and his travels all played out against a bleak view of human history. But the result was not hopelessness or a lessening of human agency. Instead, ordinary men and women are heroes for enduring it all; there is nothing more honorable, he says in an episode in Los Angeles, than suffering the whippings of fate to create lives worth living, worth tasting, in a world that can be hard and uncaring.

It’s this last part that I find myself missing the most. He was a cantankerous voice of empathy and conscience in a world that slowly descended into ugly self-worship and almost gleeful violence over the course of his career. It’s the cruelest stroke of irony that the world he had such a passion for was a place he felt he couldn’t live in any longer, that his tenacious curiosity and militant advocacy for the simple cook, the peasant, and the migrant worker – the very people who have become the demons in a fairytale of victimhood we’ve spun in our mad collective imagination – should end now, at a time when deliberate cruelty is government policy in the service of bare-knuckle xenophobia and institutionalized hatred. There is a part of me that found a deliverance in the work he did, and who secretly looked for enlightenment through him, a conflicted man who was seemingly doing the best he could with the hand of nonsense he had been dealt. Because if he could be better, could do better in spite of himself, so could I. The world may be a roiling mess, but it doesn’t have to be.

But then again, maybe I had it all wrong. As I go over these last lines, I can’t help but wonder if it’s maybe enough to know that you had a thing, to look at the empty plate, to realize that there is no more, to try to find the last tastes of the meal in your mouth, and then to look up at the people around the table and to realize that that’s what brought you here. Food is fellowship, of presence – of being and having – but it is also loss. There is a stillness after a meal where you mourn what you had, but out of this loss comes possibility, memories, sensations, and the desire to have again what is gone. So you go home and cook for yourself, and then for others, again and again, each time different and each time better. And then you eat. And leaning back in my chair now, I realize that I was fuller than I thought I was.

Thanks for the meal, Tony. It was delightful.

 

 

 

 

Prez 4 Lyfe

I wrote a rap song about Donald Trump.

But first, a word on the whys and hows:

A couple months ago, I was struck by what I now think of as the “The Unified Gangster Rap Theory of Donald Trump.” Because more than anything else he claims to be – a businessman, a negotiator, the President of the United States – he is a gangster rapper. He’s obsessed with haters and not getting the credit he deserves; he’s psychologically required to brag about how much money he has, how much of a winner he is, and how he got to the top because he’s just better than everyone else. And his dick is HUGE. He’s so much virile man, be almost can’t handle it himself. And I started thinking: “why does someone write a gangster rap song by and about Trump?”

Well, did what I always do: I started with a ridiculous idea and ran with it. I started writing it on Facebook, asking friends to pitch in with some lines. I got some, which I’ve marked in italics (thanks, Séamus and Jonathan!). The rest is from yours truly.

Writing parody is tricky, especially when it involves something as easily lampooned as gangster rap, and it’s even trickier when you realize that winking at the conventions of gangster rap can all too easily devolve into stereotyping and, in the worst case, outright racism. Hip-hop has always been a political statement, a musical form and culture that arose from racial and socioeconomic inequality that are baked into the fabric of American society, and taking it up, even briefly as I have done, is take up these issues and play with them. There is always a danger in doing this, of “taking someone else’s voice” as your own, and in so doing, perpetuating the very cycle of injustice against silenced populations and groups that hip-hop has tried to combat. That I’m a white kid from the South doing it intensifies the risk. I can’t say that this is a good song, or that I’ve completely avoided these issues (I hope so); I can only say that I did it out of affection, and that the subject of the song, and not the style itself, is the target of the joke.

So that’s it. I hope I can make you laugh, maybe think, and that I haven’t insulted the God of Flow and Beats in the process. But that’s enough talking. It’s time to spit some rhymes.

Enjoy, bitches.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

I’m out of my tower and I got a bone to pick

Shakin’ walls, breakin’ laws like a toddler fit

Promised to build a wall, now I’m a man on a mission

Never promised the price would leave you a pot to piss in

And speaking of pots, when I’m home in Trump Tower

I love my golden toilets and I love my golden showers

I covet the powers and the prowess of a head-of-state

And tweeting out and seething about what mistakes to make

I’m an island of insanity in a sea of misery

The man without a plan and y’all are all Chris Christie

Who’s he, I forget, let’s talk about me some more

Got some time between meetings and the next Korean War

The POTUS with the mostest is a man of means

Ain’t believin’ what you’re seein’, just ask Fox & Friends

‘Cause I got fat stacks in my slacks and there’s more to come

Yes, son, that’s my name up on Air Force One

I like my name in lights and I like you dead to rights

But most of all I like my daughter when she’s struttin’ in them tights

You know the ones I mean, they’re emerald green

The color of my Jesus, no, not the Nazarene

But a true winner’s godless like hot lips in August

Burnin’ out haters with verbal quadraphonics

‘Cause my flow is manic, organic, and too hot to handle

Check your pocket, check your wallet and lock up your damsel.

Yeah, the bitches know I’m rich and that I know how to please ’em

And keep ’em, ’cause my tie ain’t all that’s waggin’ by my knees, son

Don’t run, just walk and ponder in wonder

The only thing with a circumference greater than all of my blunders

That rips your mother asunder and bankrupts your disrespect

Yeah, you know the time is upon you to contemplate my intellect

That prodigious legal mind and that scholar’s brain

That thinks three fifths ’bout money and one half ’bout hate

And that math adds up, sad cucks don’t know how to take it

‘Cause know-how’s just like sex and I’ve learned to fake it.

And I take shit like this country and I spin it to gold

Say my name and stake a claim, ’cause Trump’s the motherlode

 

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king.

Got more ice in his veins than a diamond ring

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king

Makin’, makin’, makin’ America great again

 

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

 

Hey, I don’t do nothin’ easy, okay, I’m not Obama

So how ’bout I drop some bars, this time without a teleprompter?

I’m a really smart guy, okay?

I’m just tellin’ you the facts, and not in a bragadocious way

I’m, like, the only one with as much money as me

Have you heard of Bill Gates – yeah, okay, he’s rich

But he’s not president, so, you know, is he that lit?

I’m the president, okay,  me – I done won

I’m so good all I make are holes-in-one

That’s golf, a game I’m really, really, good at, by the way – I’m the best

This NAFTA, folks, it’s a disaster, it’s straight ruinin’ the West

I learned that from Steve Bannon, I really, really unimportant guy

But I mean, come on, look at me, who’s more fly?

I rollin’ deep on Mexico, folks, so deep you won’t believe it

I got so many homies, so many there’s, like, no defense against it

None, okay, they’re done, finished – it almost makes me laugh

Even China’s lost track of how much I win, and they’re really good at math

Oh, come on, give me a break, that’s not racist

I’m the most openminded guy, I’ve been places

Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and New Jersey

There’s nowhere in the world women don’t wanna get with me

And no one loves women more than me, let me tell you

They’re all up in my business like Internal Revenue

I’m so, so respectful of beauty and a good pair of breasts

But it’s hard to look that high with my hand up their dress

I love this county, okay, no one loves it more than Trump

Ask anyone, they’ll tell you I’m on the up-and-up

And ISIS, okay, they’re losers, I’m gonna beat ’em so bad

They’re gonna wish I never inherited cheddar from my dad

Who only gave me a little bit, by the way, ’cause I came up on my own

I slung more dimes than a public telephone

But just one more thing ‘fore I drop this mic and leave you in confusion

There ain’t nothin’ to all these stories of collusion

It’s a witch hunt, chump, just haters hatin’ on my shit

I know all there is to know, and ain’t know nothin’ ’bout it

So shortly I be straight beefin’ with Robert Mueller 

Cat be trippin’ ’cause nobody be cooler

Than Trump, the best president you ever gon’ have – I’m tremendous

Man, don’t go listenin’ to all these whack-ass bitches

I go down as smooth as a well-done steak

But bitch, I’m the classiest mistake you ever made

 

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king.

Got more ice in his veins than a diamond ring

Livin’ like a gangster, born a king

Makin’, makin’, makin’ America great again

 

 

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

Hey, who’s got your name and number?

Hey, who’s that bangin’ your mother?

Hey, whose dick’s bigger than Obama’s?

Trump, Trump, Trump is the man of honor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Give and Take

PERSONAE DRAMATIS: One of the great apes [APE] and his companion [CANINE]

Interior. A one-bedroom apartment, the Pacific Northwest. Evening.

APE (to CANINE): Come here, we need to go out.

CANINE: Yes! Oh, boy! Out! I need to go out!

Exterior. Patch of pine bark behind one-bedroom apartment.

APE: Do your business.

CANINE: OK!

[CANINE remains motionless}

APE: Do your business.

CANINE: OK!

[CANINE sniffs, pees]

APE: Is that it? Do you need to poop?

CANINE: Nope! I did that this morning!

APE: Are you sure?

CANINE: Oh, yes!

APE: Well, OK, but if you––

CANINE: Oh, boy! In! I get to go in!

Interior. Kitchen. APE is pouring a beer. CANINE is nowhere to be seen.

APE: Canine? Where are you?

[Terrifying, pregnant stillness save the faint sounds of smacking]

APE: Where. Are. You?

[APE goes to door of bedroom]

APE: No, God!

Interior. Bedroom. CANINE on the bed, smacking profanely. On the sheets, a brown smear.

CANINE: Hi!

APE: Why?!

CANINE: It’s not what it looks like! I cleaned up!

APE: So it’s worse.

CANINE: Ummm…

APE: Why?!

CANINE: I had to go out!

APE: That’s what I…get out!

CANINE: You’re upset. Have you tried a beer?

APE: Get in here!

Living room. APE is on the couch drinking a beer. CANINE watches him intensely.

CANINE: Hey!

APE: What?

CANINE: Nothing!

APE: OK.

[CANINE perches by the door]

CANINE: Hey!

APE: What?!

CANINE: Nothing!

[CANINE sniffing treats]

CANINE: I want a treat!

APE: You haven’t done anything to earn one. You only get those when you––

CANINE: Out! I need to go out!

APE: Jesus, Lord of Mercy.

Exterior. Pine bark again.

APE: OK, do your business.

CANINE: What?!

APE: Do your business.

CANINE: Why?!

APE: Because you said you needed to go!

CANINE: Oh, I already went! Do we go in now?!

APE: So help me, I––

CANINE: Love you too!

APE: I know. Now, come on, let’s go in.

CANINE: Do I get a treat?!

APE: Yeah, you earned it.

 

 

I, Published, Or: The Glories of Shameless Self-Promotion

The day has finally arrived: I have inflicted myself upon the literary landscape with an officially published story. MY FIRST COMIC IS OUT!

“Where can I get what is surely to be a mind-altering journey into brilliance,” you ask? We can get People Skills, the 5-page bundle of inspiration about a robot and a cat told through amazing art by Micheal Evans, RIGHT HERE in the digital comics anthology, Make Out (Volume 2).  

And for just $3 (more if you’re feeling generous), there’s no reason not to support your local organic, free range comic creators. But that’s not all! There are 60-pages of comic brilliance to enjoy, stories forged from the finest mind-steel for as far afield as France! That’s right: you get to make me feel wanted and appreciated by purchasing my story AND you can make a whole lot of other people’s day. What an amazing deal! It’s a no-brainer.

And the fact that my first published story is a comic, a form that has done so much for me in the last couple years, is especially meaningful to me. Because I’m not exaggerating when I say that comics saved my life.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: that’s some schmalzy, baroquely emotional bullshit. And you’d be right. But it’s also true.

Three years ago, when I was at the tail end of my PhD and wading through the venomous morass of the revision process and tenured professors’ fragile egos, I was suffering from what I can only describe as profound spiritual decay. I had been a good soldier-monk for five years, writing, researching, and attending what was expected of me, but my heart wasn’t in it, and looking back at it, I suppose it never had been, or at least not enough. That’s not to say that my academic work never excited me, or that I never enjoyed it, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of alienation, a chronic disconnect between the expectations of academia – that it’s a world populated by insightful people jacking themselves into a blazing world of ideas like a cyberpunk data jockey after his last big score – and what I felt: that it was a temple of exactitudes and inflexible dictates that prized conformity over insight. It was a cold place with a cold religion. And I was good at it, too – I knew all the right incantations, the words of power, and the kind of incense that pleased the gods – but I also knew I didn’t care about it, that I didn’t believe in it. To me, an airtight academic argument smelled like what Werner Herzog calls “the truth of accountants,” where all the facts are right, where the plot is perfect, but where there’s no story, no imagination. 

And I missed my imagination. Weaving complex intellectual arguments has its appeal, but if I’m going to be honest, if I had to choose between a nuanced encounter with [insert author/philosopher here] through an application of [insert critical lens here] and any story about a dragon, I’ll take the wyrm. I tried to convince myself otherwise, that I could funnel my love of stories into research, but like most things born of thin ambition, it was a lie. The truth was that I had, somehow, talked myself into joining the Big Bang Theory fan club while deep down I thought that Sheldon was an abusive asshole. It might be someone’s idea of a good time, but I just didn’t get it, and after five years of pretending, I was a bitter, angry, little man. I drank too much, had no hobbies to speak of, and I harbored a deep resentment toward a system that, as I experienced it, was allergic to fun and contemptuous of play. I had to find a way out, or, I knew, it would eventually kill me.

I came to this realization in the most clichéd way possible: one morning, fresh out of the shower, I stared at my reflection – blurred by steam and my bad eyesight – in the bathroom mirror, and said, “what am I doing?” If I had had a red pen, I would have struck through the experience for its triteness alone, but I knew I was right. I was completely lost, and the only thing I really knew was that if I stayed where I was and assumed a role that would allow no time for dragons, pirates, and space ships, I would regret it for the rest of my life.

So I did what everyone who likes to write does when they’re looking for ideas: I procrastinated. And I read. Or at least I tried to, because every time I sat down to read, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t physically do it. In a cruel twist of fate, the medieval dental visit that is a PhD program had robbed me of the very thing that had gotten me to the tip of the educational pyramid: my love of books. After reading unknown thousands of pages for my dissertation, and thousands more in course work, I couldn’t stand to look at a page of words: my eyes would swim, my heart would begin to race, and a wave of nausea would roll over me and submerge any enthusiasm I had managed to dredge up. Like Henry Bemis, I stood in the furnace of apocalypse, undone by irony as my glasses shattered on the ground. But then I remembered: hadn’t I gotten a copy of The Infinity Gauntlet, Marvel Comics’ insane space opera masterpiece, on a whim about a year before? That has pictures. Lots of them. Why not try that? So I pulled it off the shelf, poured myself a beer, and KRAKA-DOOM! it cracked me in the jaw and knocked me through the curtain of space-time into another universe.

The wild art and uninhibited, bonkers imagination were the opposite of the lawyerly bet-hedging and preemptive shadow-boxing with an adversarial reader that I grown accustomed to in graduate school. The book was what it was and it made no apologies for itself. It was like someone had plugged my brain into a neon sign – it made me feel better. I devoured it, and when that was gone, I moved on and sucked the marrow out of another book. And then another. And another, until I had read nearly 5,000 pages. When I wasn’t at work or spending time with friends, who endured my festering angst with divine patience, reading comics is what I thought about, it’s what I did. 

And then one day, while we were poring over the intricacies of Marvel’s Secret Wars event – which included, but were not limited to, bolt-throwing barbarians, journeys of vengeance through Hulk-infested wastelands, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Enlightenment Cannon (yes, that’s a real thing) – my friend Ben, in a moment of simple clarity, said, “you should write comics.” Half a second later, in an even simpler moment of resolution, I thought: “yeah, I should. I will. I am.” And so I did, with no idea of what I was doing, but as soon as I started, I knew I couldn’t stop. Comics were the wild west: I didn’t know any of the rules, but it didn’t matter. I felt a rush – a real physical high – every time I sat down to write or to scribble ideas onto a pad, or to consult and conspire with Ben about ideas for high octane adventures. Because for the first time in a long time, I had something I wanted to learn and to throw myself into. I cared, and as unabashedly cheesy as it sounds – because I know how it sounds – I knew that comics wouldn’t turn me away if I did.

If a person’s life is a book, comics have given me something I never thought I’d have again: a story I want to read. I hope I can do the same for you.

 

 

 

 

Why, chromosome?

To Edgar, with gratitude.

 

Men of power and their members are a duo to remember

As they wrangle this November with the monster at the door.

It came creeping, slowly seeping as the President sat tweeting

Out the puss that was leaking from his mental canker sore,

This horror briskly rapping, gently tapping at our chamber door,

Dressed in a suit and nothing more.

 

“Is it truth or is it lie,” asks a man as he decries

What every woman knows by sight, for she has seen it all before––

That these “malicious rumors” truly are malignant tumors

From a system’s fetid sewers rotting at our core.

So let’s sit in courage now and endeavor to explore

The monster knocking, knocking at our chamber door.

 

It is normal to admire what one has come to desire

As one sits by the fire dreaming dreams of true amour.

One imagines gently basking in a soft light everlasting

Whose warmth is so contrasting to the loneliness of yore.

And in chambers dark and dreary it is normal to want more

Tis a fact today, tomorrow, and forevermore.

 

But we are slowing noting that we, in all our doting,

Have raised a child fond of gloating behind our cellar door,

Who takes and seizes what he wants and what he pleases

Free from all dear entreaties, thanks to his masculine allure.

And he is sure in his position, for he both hums and writes the score—

This man for whom less always, always equals Moore.

 

He lives a life of Wein and Roses, unaware of the threat he poses,

For the world to him is made of trophies to acquire and to store.

Before him goes an air of foreboding, for he dreams of having, knowing

And in secret taking, groping the angel named Lenore.

And now he stands in the darkness brooding, waiting, at our door

For us to tell the craven: “nevermore.”