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Revision to Mick’s Rules

March 7, 2011

[The original rules are here.]

9. Wear Clean Socks. It’s the simple things that matter most.


Precious And Necessary Things

February 21, 2011

I was recently in a Barnes & Noble and bought the collected works of Frank O’Hara. I don’t buy books as often as I used to, but when I do these days, it’s usually poetry. I don’t buy books because I tend to buy more ebooks since I was given a Kindle. Let me say: I really like my Kindle. A lot. I like that I can carry around any number of options of things to read while I’m doing laundry or doing whatever. And since I publish more or less exclusively in an ebook format these days, it safe to say I’m a proponent.

But I also really like books. Not just because of the words. Yes, the words are the most important thing – which why ebooks, which are cheaper to put together, easier to distribute, and easier to carry around are making headway they are. But there’s something about the presence of books that I’ve always found … well … soothing. It’s a comfort thing. They’re more than depositories of words. They’re companions. As I type, I’m sitting at my desk upstairs, space heater running and listening to Mahler’s Symphony #1 on Pandora, and in front of me, behind the netbook screen, are the Books I Like Around Me When I Write. The authors range from Whitman to Algren to Thurber to Hunter S. Thompson to Rimbaud to Rilke, and from to Hawthorne to Céline. Bukowski and Fante. Kafka, Conrad, Ferlinghetti, Salinger and Rexroth. Twain and Steinbeck. T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas and Burgess and Melville. There are a few others. Robert Lowry, the near forgotten Cincinnati writer is among them. So is Vonnegut and Márquez. These are writers who have, over the years, spoken to me and comforted me. They are the ones who continue to speak to me.

I have other books lining the floor. I won’t list those. I have more books in storage. I could tell you what books are in storage, but again, I don’t want to list them. Sometimes I want to flip through a book, only to remember that it’s in storage in Cincinnati. That’s incredibly frustrating. In the process of moving from Arizona to corn and god country, I lost some books in the mail. I mourned their loss the way I mourn the loss of people. Over time, I can replace the titles, but never the books themselves. Sometimes it still bothers me. Really.

And while I have replaced some of those titles in the form of ebooks, my relationship with them is different. My relationship with ebooks is different in general. I like my Kindle, like I like my netbook, but it doesn’t offer me the same kind of comfort as volumes of bound books and a solid, reliable typewriter. (I have a few of those and have a preference for the mechanical beasts with return arms. I would use them more, but it’s difficult to get the correct ribbons and even more problematic when they need repair.) My fondness for typers and fountain pens are one of the few nostalgias I allow myself without judgment. It’s difficult for me to find a pen I like nearly as much… all this smooth gel ink leaves me cold. I like the friction between the nib and the paper. Friction creates energy, and on some weird writerly process level, it DOES make a difference.

One of the reasons that ebooks are so popular is that, for a few exceptions that are the result of big publishers still trying to get their retail percentage, they’re cheaper than bound books. Book binding has so much overhead attached to it; and the bind isn’t even really that good. Hardly anyone sews binding anymore, except for very expensive special editions, and the glue binding popular with trade paperbacks (publishing term) stands up tolerably well… but it’s still just hot glue. Paper costs, and good paper costs even more. So does the heavy paper used in color covers. So does the ink. Ebooks are pretty easy to format, if you know what you’re doing. (I’m still learning.) You can download free shareware that will format books for Kindle, Nook, or Adobe Digital Editions.

Every once in a while I’ll hear of someone crying about the end of books as we know them. J.K. Rowling, for example, refuses to have any of her Harry Potter books published in electronic format. Good for her; she’s a billionaire and can afford to be particular. There are a few “literary” presses around that still insist on looking down their noses at ebooks… but in all honesty, they’re just being the same editorially narrow-minded and pedantic academes they’ve always been. They looked down on small presses, too, until small presses became trendy and everyone wanted to have one … kind of like when everyone wanted a Chihuahua because Paris Hilton carried one around in her high-priced bag-lady sized purse. Shit, even I wanted a small press; and for a while, I made it almost work. (The average life of a small press is 2 years. One-Legged Cow Press, RIP, lasted 3.) Now the trend is being a “publisher” instead of a small press – which means they go to Kinko or hire it out to a POD (Print On Demand) book printer. At least they get credit and their retail percentage, I guess.

I’m not actually too worried about the disappearance of books. Not yet, at any rate. The news that Borders Books sought Chapter 11 protection didn’t really bother me. They haven’t kept up; and in spite of the fact that I see no real difference between a Kindle, a Kobo, a Nook, or a Sony Reader except that they refuse to have a common format (.epub is a generic format created by Microsoft, but it creates problems… at least on Kindle.) these are the tedious times for e-publishing. Eventually it will all even out.

But even when that happens, I’m still not all that worried.

There was a time when books were precious things: written and illustrated by hand, stitched and bound by hand. They were precious, expensive things, and only the monied classes could have them or read them. Then Gutenberg invented the printing press and books became cheaper to manufacture, which led, over time, to the spread of literacy. And while I miss the idea of cheap paperbacks – badly made, but a book is a book and sometimes a ragged book means it’s a book that’s been read and loved a little too much – I think maybe that bound books will once again become precious things. Special editions, limited editions – all with digital copies saved on a server somewhere, of course.

And I think that maybe it’s for the best. As a writer, I want people to read my work, and, ye gods willing, maybe make a little money to keep the lights and space heater one and Dvorak going. I’m enjoying the hell out of Frank O’Hara. No word on what shelf he’ll end up on yet, though.

Fuck Hallmark (Or, Dear Wife I Love You More Than My Life)

February 14, 2011

– a Valentine Soliloquy.

I am not a romantic man. The reasons for this are unclear. I grew up with parents who demonstrated for me on a near daily basis what a good marriage looks like, and my father, as stubborn and as harsh as he could sometimes be, was in no way delinquent in demonstrating how to be a good and loving husband. And poets are, as I understand it, a romantic lot. Or, at any rate, we’re supposed to be. This is a constant source of frustration for my wife, who deserves all the romance that is beyond me and much more.

I have learned to be sweet, though. Sometimes. Occasionally. (I really do try.) And while I like to think this is an adequate substitute, I know it’s not.

This isn’t merely a rant on the Valentine’s Day, day of ill-repute, invention of greedy gift card and candy companies to make up for the slow season between Christmas and Easter. If that sounds cynical, let me explain.

Commercials spend a lot time trying to, and largely succeed in, convincing the consumer public that a new diamond necklace, perfume, a dozen roses, sexy lingerie, and the right box of chocolate is the appropriate way to show that special someone that we love them. And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with buying any of those things for someone; there certainly isn’t anything wrong about taking advantage of the sale price that tends to accompany “holiday” sales. I suspect this all has less to do with a desire to show deep affection than it does with a rampant consumer culture and the inevitable guilt people feel when they pay less attention to the person they love than they do a ham salad sandwich.

I’m equally cynical when it comes to weddings – I bring this up because tomorrow, the 15th, is mine and my wife’s anniversary. We will be married 8 years, together for 10. Note: I said WEDDINGS not MARRIAGE. Weddings are sold to innocent little girls from the moment they’re old enough to say “Barbie” as The Event That Should Mark Their Entire Lives. This, too, is utter and complete bullshit. The Industry that has built up around two people promising to love and honor til death do they part is absurd. Planners and cake bakers and dress makers. Bridezillas and an increasingly disparaging number of Reality TV shows dedicated to showing all the reasons why people should either 1) never get married or 2) have the good sense to elope. Used to be, you could just tip the preacher or judge a little extra and be done with it.

A wedding always ends up having to do, one way or another, with someone’s mother. Guest Lists. Gift Registries. Who sits on whose side. Vests versus cummerbunds. Live band or a cheap stereo. And if it’s not about someone’s mother, then it ends up being about everything else and not what it ought to be about – which is that after the bands have been read, two people are actually MARRIED.

That means you wake up the next morning with bad breath and a stinky ass, and the person next to you in bed is still married to you. One or both of you will snore. One or both of you will forget to close the cap on the toothpaste or leave your dirty socks in the middle of the floor or forget to replace the roll of toilet paper once it’s used up. Somebody has to do the dishes. Somebody has to take out the garbage. As a society we’ve acknowledged that these are not gender specific duties; but all that means is that SOMEBODY has to do these things. It’s nice when the work load is spread out. It almost always is unless one of you is a doormat.

Now, other than my anniversary and Valentine’s Day being so close on the calender, you’re probably wondering what they have in common. Valentine’s Day exists so that forgetful spouses can spend money, fueled by guilt, in order to convince a spouse or significant other that the love is genuine. In some circles, the price tag of the gift is in direct proportion to the emotion that has been taken for granted over the course of the other 364 days of the year. Weddings are a nice way convincing people that being married is easy – it’s the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony that matters. I’ve heard people – mostly women – say they like Valentine’s Day because it makes them feel special. I’ve also heard the same thing from brides-to-be. They want a day, they say, where they can feel special.

This is the problem.

I’ve been asked before whether I “get in hot water” if I don’t get her something for both Valentine’s Day and our anniversary. I have started telling the same story in response, which is this. Once, for her birthday, I bought her a thermos mug. I bought her a thermos mug because she wanted one she could take to work that would fit in the cup holder in our car. So, I bought her a REALLY nice thermos mug… the kind that will actually keep the liquid hot or cold. We were living in Arizona at the time. Not long after that, one of my friends from the bar … I’ll call him “Ned” … asked what I bought my wife for her birthday. Now, keep in mind: Ned is 45, single, and spends more on the dog races than I made in a week. So I told him what I bought her.

“What!” He almost yelled at me. “You’re not serious?”

“Sure I am.”

“Was she pissed off?”

“No. She wanted a thermos mug. She’s been talking about it for a while.”

Ned went on for a while about romance and “what it takes.” Ned. Ned who is 45, single, and is probably nowhere near as successful with women as he likes to pretend.

I’m not romantic. When I have tried, it’s a dismal disaster. Romance, like dancing and the perfect Trifecta, are beyond my skill set. To her eternal credit (and my undying shame) my wife puts up with me, the stumbling baboon that I am, when I snore or stink. I suppose I could fake being romantic if I was married to a woman who needed diamonds and roses to define her self worth. Lucky for me, she is made of stronger and better stuff. We both know she DESERVES all the diamonds and roses; and if I had the money, you can bet your ass I’d shower her with it. She’d be sick of by the time I was done because I’m nothing if not predictable.

But since I can’t, and chances are good – since money avoids my pocket the way junkies avoid taking a bath – that I won’t be able to shower her with all that she deserves any time soon, the best I can do is to tell her I love her everyday, try to remember when it’s time to take out the garbage, and sometimes wash my stanky ass. Because in the end, that’s how I think about love. Love is making sure to show in some little bit every single day that I love her and that my life would be one giant shit-heap without her.

I love you, Melissa… in that sloppy silly way that continues to amaze me, just like you continue to amaze me, just like you will always amaze me.

Getting Behind The Mule

February 11, 2011

I’m developing a love/hate/hate relationship with some local political figures. At this point, what butter I bring home for my wife’s bread depends upon writing about local politics, happenings, and the various innuendos that occur in the life of local – especially county – politics. Town politics – referred to locally as “city” politics more for the municipal form than the size of said “city” – is surprisingly clear-cut. There are those who want to accomplish things and those whose entire purpose is to keep everything exactly the way it is until they die. Among those who want to accomplish things – there are various levels of disagreement as to what EXACTLY ought to be done. This is normal, and for the town, it mostly comes down (like most things to most everyone else) to money.

On the county level, the stakes are a bit higher and more personal… and every bit as contentious as politics can be and still claim a vestige of civility. What it comes down to is this: the world is changing and there are those who understand this and those who see themselves as being the only thing standing between the world they know and love and a world they can’t wrap their minds around.

The county I live in is primarily agricultural, and the town is basically here because once upon a time, farmers needed someplace close to grind corn and flour and buy supplies. Seriously. The reason this town is the county seat has something to do with the fact that once upon a time it was easier to put the corn mill here than it was to put it 10 miles down the road in a larger town that sits right on the Mississippi River. And although the main north to south artery through the state, IL-78, runs right through the middle of town, it takes some driving to get to the interstate. As a result, except for corn and corn related industries, there’s little else here. This is attractive to some people, and over the years people have trickled out from other parts – Chicago and it’s suburbs are the most commonly cited culprit – to retire or to escape what they thought was the “insanity” of “city living.” For many years there was a small liberal arts college here, the campus of which sits nearly empty and decaying like an abandoned archeological dig. There are empty houses sitting around and empty buildings, some owned by out-of-state “investors” and holding companies that keep them empty in order to write off the property taxes and shuffle around money. Sometimes people swoop in, buy the historical structures, gut them of all the copper and metal and wood fixtures so they can sell them somewhere else at an exorbitant profit, only to let the husk sit and rot and become a public nuisance.

As you might imagine, this creates some negative feelings among the natives here. It is a negative feeling I understand. This is one of the corners of the country from which people take a lot and give little back.

I get it. I do. But it’s this negative feeling, along with a lack of local investment and vision, that makes it next to impossible to get anything done around here. The farmers, justifiably, want to make sure they can get their crops to market, get a fair price, and be able to maintain a vital part of American life… and if you don’t think it’s vital, think about where the food you buy comes from. But to be a farmer means doing things the way they have always been done. If it worked last season, it should work this season.

But that’s not the way things are going. And the level of myopia is staggering. Rather than find creative and useful ways of making sure we can call live together, there’s continued resistance, even as good things are happening all around. Culture evolves in the same way that people have evolved. It’s a long, slow ride, and we are a culture that doesn’t understand what that actually means. We’ve become accustomed to the myth of decade packaging sold to us by Madison Avenue marketeers and academic historians more interested in getting tenured than they are in teaching; we ignore the cause and effect nature of things in favor of an instant gratification version given to us by a long line of political leaders who took their lead from McDonald’s. We want our Big Mac and we want it NOW, god dammit!

I never expected to enjoy writing about politics; as a matter of fact, I expected to hate it, because on many levels, government is tedious. Most of what happens does so behind the scenes and percolates to the surface to become public knowledge. Everyone thinks they’re misrepresented in the press. Everyone thinks it’s a journalist’s job to be their PR copy writer. Everyone seeks to use the media like a tool, not ever considering that it’s not the media’s function to be used. At least, it’s not supposed to be. Although I’ve forgotten (on purpose) most of what I learned in those journalism classes I took as a college undergrad, my one lingering hold over is the idea that journalism in all it’s forms is The Fourth Estate. (For the historically confused, I suggest Google.) So I tend towards the junk yard dog approach – in journalism and in art. This means, of course, that I’ll probably never be liked by the people in position of power. I don’t lose a lot of sleep over this. But it also means that they have no choice but to acknowledge my existence… which, if I can’t be liked, I’ll take as a ready substitute.

3 Reasons Why Indiana Jones Will Always Be Cooler than Grey’s Anatomy

February 4, 2011

I will admit to a certain bias. I hate Grey’s Anatomy. I have always hated it. I hate hospital shows in general – probably because I hate hospitals, despise doctors, and distrust the medical establishment. But since I have always hated Grey’s Anatomy and my wife, for the exception of one season, has always been a fan of the show, it has maintained a place in our television line up.

My wife, whose love, patience, and tolerance is unparalleled among women and among humanity as a whole, often makes fun of the shows I like to watch. Cartoons, for example. In spite of the fact that I will be 38 years old this month, I still enjoy watching old Tom and Jerry, Loony Tunes, and (when I can find them) Woody Woodpecker. I have mentioned many times before, in writing and in various conversations over the years, that I owe much of my basic cultural knowledge – as well as my interest in such things – to cartoons. I learned about classical music as well as some tidbits of American History from Bug Bunny. (Think about the WW II era cartoons with the BUY WAR BONDS digs.) I learned about the limits of critical thinking from Wyle E. Coyote. I learned about jazz and the blues from Tom and Jerry cartoons. I learned my first lessons about the nature of chaos and anarchy (which is not the same thing) from Woody Woodpecker.

I also have soft spot for certain superheroes, and if there’s a hero flick out, I will make a point to watch it at some point, even if it’s a character I’m not all that interested in. The only exception to this was the 2006 Bryan Singer (who should have known better) debacle, Superman Returns. Not that I think Christopher Reeves was the be-all-end-all Clark Kent; but the truth is it may take some years before that franchise can really be resurrected. The genius of Superman is that he is an icon of the American Dream. He’s an immigrant who made good and dedicated his life to protecting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is not the world we live in anymore, if it was ever how the world was anyway.

[For the the record – my favorite superhero has always been The Incredible Hulk, and my second favorite is Spiderman. I also developed a fascination for The Shadow, well before the Alec Baldwin movie that, while it wasn’t great, was honest to the original radio show and early serial magazines. That the post Prelude to a Kiss Baldwin is himself a bit cartoony and seems to know it helped.]

Growing up in the 70’s and especially the 80’s I also grew up loving Star Wars. George Lucas is a mediocre writer and myopic director – look at every Star Wars flick EXCEPT The Empire Strikes Back if you don’t believe me. That was the only movie he didn’t direct and have absolute control over. It moves better, the lines aren’t as awkward, and what little romance there is isn’t horrible. Lucas can’t write a love scene to save his life. (Think: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The only thing that saved some of those lines was Natalie Portman.)

I also grew up enamored with Indiana Jones, from Raiders through the trilogy. I didn’t even mind Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though I wish somebody would tell me what’s so interesting about Shia LeBeouf. Okay, so he got to kiss Megan Fox in that Transformer movie. For $10 bucks and some jello shots, I could probably kiss Megan Fox – though I would need to get my shots updated afterward. I don’t mind that Harrison Ford is older, or that Indiana Jones is older. In ten years when some unimaginative Hollywood douche decides to “revive” the Indy Franchise – which will ruin it beyond all recognition – I’ll be wishing for a Raiders/Temple/Crusade/Skull marathon.

My wife calls these movies – the ones I like – boy/man movies. She has learned, over the last ten years (8 of them married) that I need these things in my life. They’re a a little silly, and I recognize their silliness. But silly and goofy aren’t the same thing, and it occurs to me that I can outline, quite clearly, why Indiana Jones – which is silly – is now and will always be cooler and more culturally relevant than goofy Grey’s Anatomy.

1.Indiana Jones made history and archeology cool, and encouraged people to become historians and archeologists. Grey’s Anatomy makes hospitals look, at best, like rabbit farms and, at worse, a junior high school.

First of all: If there’s an archeologist out there who was a growing up during the 1980’s who claims not to have been impacted by Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Temple of Doom he is lying. Granted, real archeologists don’t wear fedoras, carry bullwhips, and get to kiss Karen Allen and Kate Capshaw. Real archeologists probably aren’t hounded by sex-starved co-eds.

But history, studied properly, is a long record of blood, wars, heroes, villains, success, and failure. If this weren’t the case, Hollywood would have been fucked a long time ago… as well as William Shakespeare. And the more we learn about history, the more we learn about the our own civilization. Rome fell for a reason. So did the Mayans. So did the Aztecs. So are we.

History is cool. Archeology is one of the ways we have of filling in the gaps and telling the story of the human race.

From Episode 1, Season 1 of Grey’s Anatomy, it was clear what the show was about. Sex. And not even good sex. Rather, it’s implied sex and implied nudity. (Ever notice that when an hour long drama-esque show wants solid first episode ratings, implied nudity is always involved? I submit for your consideration the first episode of the underrated and  ill-fated cop drama/ comedy The Unusuals, staring Amber Tamblyn – who flashed a red bra within the first 5 minutes.) The whole first season, as well as every season except the current one, always comes back to whether Ellen Pompeo will simply fuck Patrick Dempsey, or have the strength to really fall in love with him. And after that affair got predictable, the writers put Sandra Oh in bed with Isiah Washington, Katherine Heigl in bed with Justin Chambers, then T.R. Knight, and then Justin Chambers, and then that guy who always plays dead husbands, and then Justin Chambers again – only to give her cancer.

Lately they’re trying to redeem themselves with topical discussions of PTSD (that’s Post Trauma Stress Disorder) and gay adoption using not bad on the eyes lesbians. You know you’re reaching that shark jumping point (think Fonzi on Happy Days) when you have to rely on the one common denominator that will guarantee an audience: hot chick on chick action. Only, it’s not REALLY hot chick on chick action. It’s only IMPLIED chick on chick action with some on screen kisses that aren’t worthy of even low grade porn. And before you tell me about how important it is to talk about cultural issues like gay marriage and gay adoption, keep this in mind:  if McDreamy and McSteamy came out of the closet as gay lovers who decided to adopt a kid, believe me, that would never fly in prime time. Dueling penises and rug burn blow jobs– no. Some boob to boob action with implied mutual muff diving– yes.

2. Indiana Jones is a homage to a genre of serial pulp literature, television shows, and movies, as well as indicative of the hero mythos that has been a part of the human collective unconscious for as long as we’ve bothered recording, retelling, or remembering anything. Grey’s Anatomy is a nothing more than a soap opera with a budget, pays homage to nothing, and is reminiscent of a day-time TV genre whose purpose was to entertain bored housewives in order to keep them home and from thinking about getting jobs.

Indiana Jones is reminiscent of another globe trotting adventurer, Allen Quatermain, played campily bad by a too gay to play straight Richard Chamberlain (along side a pre-boob job, pre- Basic Instinct beaver flash Sharon Stone) in King Solomons’ Mines and later by Sean Connery in the underrated literary/camp flick League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Quatermain made his first appearance in the 1885 book King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Indy is also in the group of rugged heroes, like Robin Hood, Daniel Boone (think the Fess Parker television show), The Lone Ranger (radio and television), as well as Wyatt Earp,Wild Bill Hickok, and Billy The Kid. (Keep in mind: I’m referring to the pop culture created caricatures of these people, not the actual historical people.) Like Quatermain, Indy is a man of the world, as wary of women as he is the bad guys. But unlike Quatermain, Indiana Jones is American, and like many American heroes, often misunderstood and is sometimes thought to be a bad guy. Of course, we know better.

Grey’s Anatomy is one more variation on the daytime TV drama genre known as Soap Operas – a term coined by the 1930’s American press because these “family drama” radio shows – and later the early television counterparts – were unwritten by companies that manufactured cleaning products. These shows were marketed primarily to women and children. While they, like the early action shows Indy pays homage to, are also serial in nature, this is where the similarity ends.

[Note: There is a difference between paying homage to a genre and being another watered down variety of it. Paying homage denotes not only respect, but also a respect of the inherent absurdity. Indiana Jones is never quite as suave as he thinks he is, and half of his successes are almost dumb luck. He’s also afraid of snakes. McDreamy and Co. reflect none of the absurdity of the genre or its characters, and the plots are overwrought and weighed down with pretense.]

3. Watching Indiana Jones makes me think about all the histories we have yet to discover, the things about ourselves as humans and as a civilization that we don’t yet know, and makes me want to visit a history museum or read books on the subject. Watching Grey’s Anatomy makes me want to avoid hospitals and doctors in general — and in particular, any hospital or doctor in Seattle.

We never know as much as we think we know, and this is the little nugget of truth beneath all of the Indiana Jones movies. And because we never know as much as we think we know, we should never take any idea, fact, theory, hypothesis, myth, or hair-brained idea, for granted. From this perspective, the only thing we should ever be absolutely sure of is that we can never be totally sure about anything, and this should drive us to learn and to be more.

The only nugget buried under the hubris of any Grey’s Anatomy episode is that the marketing people have got American television audiences figured out. There are no great and inherent truths to be found in whether Ellen Pompeo opens her legs for McDreamy, McSteamy, or that veterinarian played by Chris O’Donnell. And if you’re about to say “Yeah, well, sometimes people DIE on the show. That’s a larger truth: everybody dies”, then might I submit that needing a badly written prime time soap opera to tell you that is uncovering an even more disturbing truth – you’re a naïve moron, or you’re under the age of 10. If you’re under the age of 10, you’re doomed to outgrow your innocence. If you’re a naïve moron – well, go buy some soap. I can do nothing for ye.

Content Provided

January 28, 2011

I spent forty years as a writer and now I’m a ‘content provider.’” – P.J. O’Rourke

Although I’ve never needed a second opinion to support my point of view, when I get one – especially one that wasn’t asked for, and especially from someone whose insight and intellect I respect (this is an extremely short list) – I know I’m definitely on the right track. So Susan B, this one’s for you.

I wasn’t home when the State of the Union speech started; I was out covering a City Council meeting.(Note: city denotes the municipal form of local government and not the population of said mole on the flea on the ass of the castrated dog.) Nothing of consequence happens at city council meetings in January; most of the decisions could be made just as efficiently by a Magic 8 Ball, and with as much insight. Imagine the expedience of it:

The Mayor: “Should we pay the bills?” [Shakes Magic 8 Ball.]

Alderman #1: “What’s it say?”

The Mayor: “It says “Try Again.”

Alderman #2: “Lets’ try Medulla Ricotta!”

Alderman #3: “Who’s that?”

Alderman #4: “Medulla Ricotta! The carnival fortune telling machine in the Police Chief’s office that answers 911 calls!”

The Mayor: “Why not?”

Alderman #5:“Fine. Who has a quarter?”


Of course, there was the “Executive Session” which is a legal loophole municipal governments use when they want to talk about how to spend the public’s money without having the public in on the discussion. But I stayed until it was over. I stood in the barely heated outer hall in the hopes that they would come back from “Executive Session” – which sounds more like a polite term for the CEO’s private pisser or the back booth at a low rent strip joint – waiting to see if there was anything print worthy. (Note: not the same as news worthy. A lot happens that’s news. But it can’t be printed without offending either an advertiser or some local busybody who would rather save it for the gossip trough at the Church of God.) There was an “action item”, but the collective body of the mayor and aldermen/women said as little as possible – I’m sure with the full intention of giving me nothing for my weekly deadline – before officially adjourning the meeting.

Lucky for me, we have a DVR player. So after I stopped at the corner Mobil station for a couple of well deserved cold deucers, I went home, popped one of them open, sat in my green chair, and began my SOTU’11 Experience.

To begin: Barack Obama still knows how to give one hell of a speech. Put him in front of a crowd and he plays them well. And all the little kiddies in Congress were, as they had publicly decided,playing nice and sitting, not on their usual separated sides, but mixed together in a series of saved seats that reminded me of riding the school bus when I was a kid. Goodie Goodie. When I first heard about this particular political stunt, I was worried that all the theatrical genius of the SOTU would be lost; but I was not disappointed. Each side clapped, held their hands in front of them, stood, sat, and cheered at all the appropriately partisan times. Thank the gods! If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s fake civility. All this talk about removing the vitriol from public debate had me worried… but alas, it’s still there. Safe and sound as John Boenher’s retirement fund in that numbered Swiss bank account.

And I was not initially disappointed with the speech, either. Rather than blow smoke up the collective ass of the American People, The President pointed out some harsh truths about where we stand versus the rest of the world in education, in innovation, as well as in science and technology. He referenced his Race to the Top Program, which was fine and dandy for those states who actually got a piece of the money… but here in Illinois, a state already crippled with a $13 Billion deficit and no way to pay it off except an increased income tax and a bonding issue (think: payday loans for governments) that passed educational reforms in the hopes of qualifying and didn’t – reforms that still need to be paid for, by the way – there was little solace in the reference.

By the time Mr. Obama got to our “Sputnik moment” one thing was very clear. The winnable future – that wonderful rhetorical trope that tied our George Jetson dreams to our unreasonable and lethal nostalgia for a revised version for the past – had no place for me. I realize that long division will probably save the world; but I submit that a long poem has as much complexity, as much nuance, and is the soul of the entire equation.

Sensing the absence, it didn’t take GOP’ers long to jump. Let’s cut the NEA and NEH, they said. After all, that would save a combined $335 million in the budget that could go towards teaching Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann how to read cue cards and look into the camera at the same time; maybe it could pay for an eyelash augmentation – those massive flappers must have obstructed her view of the camera.

The usual golden calf of the federal government – the Department of Defense – is, however looking for a $2.9 billion increase in funds, just to increase ground force troops… which doesn’t really include paying them or protecting them. That’s probably just the price of gas, really. Those troop transports burn a lot of Texas Tea. Now, if The President can follow through on his call to end oil company welfare, maybe it’ll balance out in the end. Maybe. But somehow, I doubt that the oil lobbies will let that happen. They own too many members of Congress, in both parties. And those Tea Party nut jobs are waiting for the Second Coming of Jesus, so they don’t see a need for environmental reform. (Yes, I put all my crazies in one big basket. They fall together so nicely and with so few new wrinkles.)

The not so suspicious absence of the arts in Mr. Obama’s outline to “win the future” was disappointing. But: it was NOT SURPRISING. America is a country that has never really liked the idea of supporting the arts or artists. Americans tolerate Hello Kitty pop art and reprints of Warhol’s soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. They like to see stories on The CBS Sunday Morning Show about retired factory workers who paint pastoral scenes and accidentally sell one to a collector who got lost between New York and Rhode Island. They like hacks who scribble forgettable books with conveniently soothing plot twists and a moral structure that supports their world view. They like Hallmark card poetry, because it says something deeply personal in an impersonal and mass produced way.

And it never occurs to anyone in power – or at any rate, anyone in power who has enough political capital to do anything about it – the arts, more than helping create more artists, also encourages imaginative thinking and problem solving.

President Obama referred to teachers as Nation Builders; and for the good teachers, that’s true enough… not that teachers will ever be afforded the respect or pay (because we ARE capitalists here in America… still… in spite of the fact that in Capitalism, like every other economic system on the planet, the money and power flows to the few and the shit and debt flows to everyone else) that a Nation Builder deserves. But here’s another truth:

Artists – that’s painters, poets, writers of novels, novellas, and short stories, sculptors, and multi-media geniuses – are Nation Builders too. Pick your over-used metaphor. If America is the Body Politic, the arts are it’s soul. If America is a skyscraper, artists are the stairs and elevators. If America is one giant Bread Basket, artists are the yeast. (And not that kind that goes away with a liberal coat of Vagisil. Think Beer and Bread. If you have an itchy crotch… well, that’s another matter altogether.)

Art, in all it various forms, is more than a commodity. Yes, as an artist, at some point you need to sell something… not so you can claim the title Artist or Writer, but so you can continue to create more art. And selling something means establishing value and putting a price tag on it. It sucks, but it’s the truth. And America, as much as it has gained from the Arts – still doesn’t understand it’s relationship with Art enough to assign it a respectable value.

And yes, I blame the government. I blame big house book publishers and unimaginative market driven literary agents that take their cuts off the top. I blame art galleries that focus more on the business of art and leave nothing for the real artists, like the galleries in downtown Phoenix, AZ that wanted to limit number of people selling their own stuff at the First Friday Event because all those dirty independent artists were freaking out the wine and cheese crowd.

On some level, I blame other artists, too. We have collectively bought into this idea – fully supported by an establishment that neither cares for nor thinks about how important we really are – that we should create Art “for Art’s Sake.” Now, if you mean that the Artist should be true to his or her vision, then I agree. But that’s not how it plays out. What really happens is that we’ve given the culture an excuse to not pay us. After we’re dead and our work can be copied ad nauseum, they’ll pay out the nose. But while we’re ALIVE and need to keep the lights and heat on? Forget about it.

I also blame the various content mills that underpay and own the words, as well as all those little scams that want independent writers to PAY THEM to help market a book. They are the worst kinds of leeches, other than maybe politicians.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out the rest of my day. Where in the hell did I put that Magic 8 Ball?

Use Your Words (Or, Why I’m a Pacifist)

January 24, 2011

You have to look at your capacity for violence… You are going to have to learn to confess it, and learn how to deal with it in every situation every day, for the rest of your life, because it is not going to go away.” And I was able to lay all of that down.” – Utah Phillips

The level – or should I say depth – of cultural discussion over the last few weeks has been interesting to watch. From what I can tell, the only talking head who has said anything remotely reasonable about the shootings in Tuscon, Arizona a few weeks back is The Daily Show’s John Stewart – who, in spite of often being accused of complicity with the non-existent specter often referred to “the liberal media” is an equal opportunity offender. There have been calls for a less vitriolic social discourse; both sides of the political isle in Washington have blamed the other, and all parts of the larger political spectrum in the United States have blamed one bobble-headed politico or another. Incitement is a new buzz word amongst the politically tolerant of both conservative and liberal bents.

There have also been calls for more violence, more “2nd Amendment remedies”, accusations all around using all the evil little isms people can think of to describe the people we disagree with. (For the confused: follow this link to some entries from The Parsons Dictionary of Often Used Words and Phrases for a definition of “ism.”) The only ism that I’ve used in this larger debate has been “Fascism” and mostly I have used that either to describe the policies of former President George W. Bush, or to describe the underbelly of corporate and multi-national corporate influence on our political process and everyday lives. I’ve also, on many occasions, used this term to describe Wal-Mart… but if you really knew just how Wal-Mart and the Wal-Mart mentality has thoroughly fucked us over, you’d use it too.

I have also used the term “idiot” and it’s various and sometimes more colorful synonyms to describe the thoughts and ideas of people who demonstrate a clear absence of intelligence. These include (but are not limited to): Mike Brown, George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, The governor of Illinois, the governor of Arizona, several Chiefs of Police, a long list of academic department chairs, lackeys, and weasels, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Jack Van Imp, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and the chairman of the Carroll County Illinois County Board.

And before you start thinking that I’m about to apologize: I’m not. And chances are, I won’t. Ever.

The problem with our cultural discussion is that it rarely includes the honest admission that vitriol has ALWAYS been a part of political speech. It can certainly be found throughout American History, and if you back a little further, you can find it in the English tradition that we sprouted from and later outgrew – except for our chronic need to adapt British TV into Must See TV.

What’s worse is that we have developed this tendency toward omission. We seem to think that if we omit the offensive word that somehow it will create a positive change in the discourse. Scholars bowdlerize Mark Twain to get rid of the word “nigger”, in spite of the fact that Huck Finn is a much better argument against slavery than the propaganda piece Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The FCC has radio and television by its collective miniscule balls – which hasn’t changed in spite of the succinct and hilarious commentary of this by George Carlin more years ago many of the people who currently have an internet connection have been alive. This tendency towards omission has affected generations of American History textbooks and even the public reading of our country’s sacred documents. I’m referring, of course, in case any one missed it,  to new House Speaker Boehner — who, I have the personally distasteful task to remind people, comes from my native state of Ohio —  when he read the Constitution and left out that pesky part about blacks being 3/5 of a person.

But then I’m reminded of something that most parents try and teach their toddlers: “Use Your Words.”

As long as we hamstring ourselves by working to omit unpopular speech – even though person spouting it may be an idiot, like John Boehner – we are doing nothing but hamstringing our evolution as a culture. And when we try to silence people, we are guaranteeing that one or more of them will choose violence to make themselves heard. And the truth is, regardless of our whitewashed history, regardless of our technical and informational advances, violence is as much a part of being human as farting and fucking.

Part my personal development as someone still more or less human has been to acknowledge my own capacity for violence. As a child, I lost a lot of fights out of an unwillingness to hit back; at the time, I told myself it was because I was peaceful. The truth was, though, that I wasn’t peaceful. I was afraid. I was scared and I had – and still have – an awful temper. Someone I know here locally once described herself as have “all this unresolved rage.” For years I denied my own unresolved rage – rage that, despite what some people think, pre-dates my father’s death. I have so much anger that I don’t know where it came from, and I don’t always know where to put it.

Later I found that not only did I like letting my unresolved rage loose on the world, but that I rarely, if ever, felt bad about it. The problem, of course, is that I’ve never been much of a fighter – that is, I’m not very good at it. I ended up winning a few and losing a few. But other than hurting my hands, I’m not sure what I ever got out of it. It would be nice if I could blame booze – there are those who do, not only in me, but in others – but a violent drunk is a violent person who hasn’t figured out that most fear in this arena is unwarranted. I can be obnoxious, and an ass. But that’s not the same as being violent… and the times when I have let the monster under my skin loose while drinking had very little to do with being drunk and everything to do with being afraid.  Once I figured out that I had nothing to be afraid of – one ass beating more or less feels like another and unless someone is enough of an idiot to bring a knife to a knife fight or a gun into a bar, they all end up the same way – I lost my worries about defending myself.

But I’ve seen the monster under my skin enough times to know that it doesn’t help anything. I became a pacifist because in any of my experience, and in any bit of history I’ve read or lived through, violence always ends up begating more violence.

There will always be more enemies to kill. Dropping the bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima ended World War II; but it also created a nuclear club that now includes petty dictators as well as former world powers (and yes… I mean the United States.) In an attempt to avoid mutually assured destruction in the Cold War, we funded smaller conflicts in the Middle East, we’ve propped up South American dictators, we fought and lost wars in Korea and Vietnam; and all of it has, in some fashion, come back on us.

Violence always brings more violence, which leads me to the conclusion that there is no moral or ethical superiority in violence, and whatever pragmatic superiority there is a mirage meant to support the multi-national corporate arms manufacturers, private mercenary companies, and the egos of small-minded fools.

So I guess I don’t mind vitriolic language. I would rather hear some loony idiot (Glenn Beck) rant than see people get killed over ideological points that no one bothers to read up on and understand, anyway. And I will continue to unleash my own vitriolic vocabulary when necessary and call people out when they merit it. That’s the first and last obligation of the Artist. It’s the first and last obligation of free thinkers. It’s the only thing that matters.

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