Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Christmas Eve Sermon

Or Christmas Day?  I don't know, it's after midnight.  By all rights, I should be sleeping.

I'm posting tonight, but I don't really know anything unique or profound that I should write.  I have some writings I could share, but they aren't really done.  I could make something up, but it probably wouldn't be any good; I tried writing a little poem a few minutes ago, and I couldn't think of anything except the word "blue."  Now, I like the word "blue," but it takes more than just that to write anything.  If I want to write tonight, then I've got to write what I want to say.

So what should I say?  I guess that all I really want to say is "Merry Christmas."  I don't mean that as a political statement.  Whatever your holiday of choice, I'd be glad to hear that December 25th passed as pleasantly as possible for as many people as possible.  We might not be able to resist cynicism the rest of the year (I know I can't), but it's good to have at least one day set aside for feeling selfless. 

That's what Christmas is supposed to be, really: a celebration of selflessness.  Unfortunately, it can feel like the opposite sometimes.  Nothing involving this much money can ever be pure.  But if we want to give ourselves a worthy challenge, how about this: why not take the time to rearrange our lives to make other people comfortable?

Whether it's Jesus's birthday, Jesus's fake birthday, or just another Sunday, let's all act like decent human beings.   Hell, let's be merry.  Let's look at every ordinary thing like it's the coolest thing we've ever seen.  Let's act like we enjoy human company, even if it's with some unenthusiastic humans.  Let's pretend that the best way to serve our self interest is by serving the public interest, rather than the other way around.

OK, that turned into a little bit of a political statement.  I'm sorry.

(A brief aside to more pressing business.  If I don't get up and turn off the DVD player soon, those singers on the menu screen for A Christmas Carol are likely to keep singing forever.  Rest ye, merry gentlemen, indeed.)

So have a merry Christmas, everyone.  If you can, try to keep the merriment up through the New Year.  Longer, if you can; there's really no reason to stop, ever.  If you can't make it past January, though, don't worry about it.  Sober up and try again next year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Poetry Jam #8

Welcome to the latest installment of my growing poetical corpus, a curious body of strange ideas and uncomfortable over-sharing.  Today we have poems written between February and  April of this past year, having aged in my folder for the requisite time and achieved the proper vintage.

Actually, I've been putting off this post for a while, concerned that the backlog I like to keep might have worn thin.  Opening said folder now, I find this to be an entirely unfounded worry.  I have lots of poems in there, enough even to justify holding back the really awful ones.  The terrible poems will dwell in the folder forever, or at least until a future archaeologist explores my artifacts and finds himself wondering what the hell I was thinking.

But enough of that jibber.  Here's the goods:

Teenage Secrecy

Let's carve a place out of the hill
And keep it for ourselves, forever;
We'll care for it, and make it clean,
And keep it to  ourselves, and never
Talk or tell a single soul
About the work that we have done.
We'll cuddle in our little place
And close the warmth inside,
And keep it for ourselves, forever.

Let's whisper in each other's ears
And keep it to ourselves forever;
We'll wait for something good to come
And keep it for ourselves, and never
Leave our pleasant little place
We carved into the tender hill.
We'll catch the moment in a jar
And cool it in our arms,
And keep it for ourselves, forever.

Real Presence

Fill me, phantom,
          face me now,
Awake, and warm me
          with your smile,
Your beaming body
          bearing ever down
In dreams and only dreams,
          in days and nights,

I wake and whisper,
          where'd you go?
It's not enough
          to know you're there,
To rise and reach
          for your real presence
And find it to be false,
          a fading, empty sight.

The Liar

I told a truth, but no one else believed;
They each condemned me, charged that I deceived
And lied in muck and shit, just like a worm;
They scorned me, and I scorned them in return.

I ran away in rage-arrested fright;
I gnash on comfort bones and hone my bite,
To eat and speak a filthy-worded meal
And tell the truth that suits the way I feel.

The Softness of a Broken Wing

The numbing, warm and gentle sting
Of mouth and brain and acid wine,
The softness of a broken wing;

What thoughts and dreams they often bring
Of hopes and plans that once were mine,
This numbing, warm and gentle sting,

This memory, this borrowed ring,
The feel of something small and fine,
The softness of a broken wing.

Within my ear, a length of string
Becomes a pure melodic line,
A numbing, warm and gentle sting,

And resting, nestled in a sling,
The touch of yours for which I pine,
The softness of a broken wing.

At times I hear a woman sing,
And as she does it calls to mind
That numbing, warm and gentle sting,
The softness of a broken wing.

The Magpie

Ten, eleven, twelve o'clock and nothing sounded in the kitchen,
Nor the hallway, bath or bedroom of my lonely little home;
Hours advanced across the window, and the night increased in darkness
As I rested, reading terrors in my sitting room alone;
Hours of existential horrors in my sitting room, alone,
When I chanced to hear a groan.

Minutes, hours and days seemed past, but still the sound resisted silence,
All my best attempts to find it faltered, and the noise grew loud;
Louder, fouler always, ever sickening my brain and body,
Never shrieking din so ugly was so hidden by a shroud;
An excruciating presence hid completely by a shroud,
Never was a sin so loud.

One, and two, and three o'clock, and not a sound in my apartment,
Not a sound could I perceive as I stared madly at my phone;
No sensation in my eardrum, no vibration in my body,
Only memories of terrors met impoverished and alone;
Heard perpetually in silence, isolated in my home,
Since I chanced to hear that groan.

The Ladder

Gaze at the city beyond from the balcony,
Dreaming of freedom and narrow escapes;
Listen for someone who doesn't reply,
Look for the ladder and learn to fly.

Climb on the ladder, to peer in the opening;
Breathe in the dust of that musty old place.

Howl in the attic and bark at the sky,
Fall from the ladder and nearly die.

Two Thousand and Five Degrees

Only a dwindling season in paradise;
Dancing and quivering under the moon,
Talking together, alone in the light,
Slowly unraveling, squeezing white.

Summer in paradise, glowing and simmering
Rocks in the water and heat in the dark;
Bottled and bursting alone in the night,
Sweating and breathing and squeezing tight.

Now a shell of boiling summer,
Shrinking under shine of day;
Someone calls for something bright,
Something must ignite.

I Am Not a One of Them

I am not a one of them:
Unencumbered, unrestrained,
Undeterred by passion, lust
For flesh or drink or breast,
Underwhelmed and under-stressed.

Behind the Door

If everybody's got to make a living,
It stands to reason, someone's got to pay;
And some of us can be too eager giving
While the other ones are taking it away.

A fortune for a moments satisfaction
And a universe of hunger for the same;
Desire pinching at the same reaction
In my heart as from the moment that it came.


Secretly whistling words in my ear,
Wishing for something unsubtle, she
Beckons to hold her and scold her at will,
Name her my darling, my dearest, my dear;

Crushing my shoulders and holding me still,
Wasting for something unspoken, impatiently
Pining for, dying for me to come near,
Slowly unwinding, exposing a chill.

Cascade Square

The trees are swinging in the sky;
Their leaves are shining in the light,
And now a cloud is passing by
As noon is drifting into night.

And lying on my back, I wait
And hope that things are not too late.


My love is like a summer's dream
I woke from in a fitful start
And tried in vain to recollect,
An absence weighing down my heart,

An impulse felt, denied and mute,
The urge to run away, ignored;
A heat is blushing at my neck
As I am walking slowly, bored.

Golden Wire

Entangled in a golden wire,
Hanging from a yellow thread,
I lie consumed in silent fire
Burning in my silent head,
And drowning as my dreams are mired
In the darkness of my bed.

Yes, that's the way I feel tonight,
Alone and frightened, hurt and sad,
My heartbeat isn't feeling right,
My brain is slowly turning mad;
If she would only shine a light
I might have cause to feel glad.

I don't, because she's far away,
Her glow is shaded from my eyes
Although it shines as bright as day,
And somewhere in the night she lies
Alone and empty, locked away;
But does she know I realize?


And now for some notes!

I wrote Teenage Secrecy out of a desire to write something sweet and dreamlike.  My friends and I have a (somewhat) weekly writing group, where we share our scribblings by email.  One of my friends read this particular poem and, bemused by my "tender heart," suggested I try writing poetry a little more like Edgar Allen Poe.  This will be relevant later.  I struggled with the title for a while; I had half a mind to call it Teenage Sex.  With that title, the perspective changes a little bit, and I wasn't sure if I wanted that to be the perspective people brought to it.  Anyway, since the poem is about secrecy, I think it's appropriate for it to have a "secret title."  But now everyone knows it, so...

Real Presence is a kind of experimental poem.  I was intrigued at the time by the aesthetics of the alliterative meter used by Anglo-Saxon bards in days of yore.  I wrote another poem around the same time that was even more experimental, using a complex pattern of alternating between voiced and unvoiced consonant alliteration.  But while Real Presence is pretty and meaningful, this other poem (which really deserves no title) is ridiculous and terrible.

The Liar is a meditation on an observation I had about how two people can tell the truth about a single situation, and still disagree so strongly with one another that they devolve into trolls, or something.  I don't know.  I was reading about international politics at the time, and I generalized back to individuals.  Sometimes people's interests are the truth.

The Softness of a Broken Wing is a really pretty one, if I do say so myself.  It is written in the form of a villanelle, a very strict form of verse requiring the repetition of the first and third lines at specific points.  It's a beautiful form: Dylan Thomas wrote a very famous one, Do not go gentle into that good night, that everyone seems to like.  It's also frustrating as hell to come up with six rhymes for "wing" and six for "wine" that actually flow together in an interesting way.  Villanelles are fun, but like many strict forms, I don't find myself committed to them for long.

The Magpie is my response to that friend who asked me to write more like Poe: it is, in fact, a flagrant Poe pastiche.  I lifted the meter directly from The Raven (a magpie is a smaller member of the corvid family of birds, you see), the "plot" is an echo of The Tell-Tale-Heart, and the tone and diction are as generally Poe-ish as I could manage on my ability.  Looking at it now, it seems kind of silly, but I worked much too hard on it to keep it suppressed.

The Ladder and Two Thousand and Five Degrees are both experimental, in a way.  They're both products of my (successful?) attempt to invent a unique, reusable poetic form, which is why they have the exact same meter (excepting the coda to the second one, which is just a condensed form of the meter).  Two Thousand is kind of steamy, I guess.  Everyone likes some steamy goodness.

I wrote I Am Not a One of Them and Behind the Door one night in San Francisco, apparently in a monkish sort of mood.  It wasn't until I wrote it out just now that I realized that the first one makes absolutely no sense, but oddly, that makes me like it more than I did before.

And as for the last four... honestly, I was obsessed with a girl at the time.  There's no redeeming way to say it!  Awkward as I am, I don't have a whole lot of experience with dating, but last April I managed to land myself in an emotionally exhausting run-around for about a month with a person who didn't seem able to make up her mind about what she wanted.  The specific course of events don't really need to be related, seeing as they were extremely confusing.  Needless to say, I wrote (or started writing) a LOT of poetry at the time.  Most of it was horrible, but I like these four.

Insecurity, in fact, I would go so far as calling really, really good.  Look at that rhyme scheme!  Look at those unstressed rhymes on lines two and six!  So good.  Cascade Square is pretty little piece of fluff, a poem for a postcard you might say.  Weight works (for me) primarily because of the jarring contrast between the cliche first line and the subversion that immediately follows it; other than that, I don't have much use for it.  Golden Wire is pretty heavy on the psycho-melodrama, so I don't blame anyone for hating it, but I felt pretty strongly about it at the time.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Grown Up Business

While I've been known to articulate some vaguely radical political philosophy, the truth is that I'm very much a moderate in my habits.  I'll vote at any opportunity, and I'll gladly speak my opinions when moved to do so.  I'll even sign a petition or two, fixing my (largely illegible) signature in support of a noble cause.  But I don't like holding signs or chanting slogans, especially when such activities are held outdoors, where temperatures can reach such frightful lows as fifty degrees (or worse!) and I might be forced to carry on conversations with complete strangers. 

Even a privately symbolic act, like changing banks, is something I undertake only with reluctance.  Ideologically, I stand with the 99%, and regard large banking corporations with distaste.  Stories like this little gem can only serve as proof that America's financial giants exist primarily for their own sake, a perversion of whatever nobility there is in a capitalist system.  And yet, for as long as I can remember I've kept a small sum of of money in an account at Bank of America, one of the biggest of the Wall Street bigs.

When it comes to something like changing banks, the practical simplicity of the act is countered in my mind by the conceptual difficulty of overcoming the inertia of familiarity.  The Bank of America in scary news alerts seems almost like a different company from the one that holds my spare cash and issues me a convenient debit card.  Lately, however, the kind and gentle behemoth I remember has been acting more like the ogre the rest of the world sees.  This spring they pushed me into a new type of account that imposed an eight dollar monthly fee if I committed certain rash, irresponsible actions, like speaking to a human teller.  Then there was the farce two months ago when the company threatened to impose a five dollar monthly fee on the use of debit cards.  If they hadn't backed down when they did, I would have probably dumped them as soon as the fee went in place.

The final push came when I realized that I was more thoroughly entangled with Bank of America than I'd ever realized.  A while ago my favorite (and only) credit card, originally issued to me by Charles Schwab, became disassociated with that company and managed directly by a group called FIA Card Services.  It never occurred to me to check, but I learned this past month that FIA was, in fact, owned by Bank of America.  Paying my bill on the Charles Schwab website was fairly simple; every change since then has only made paying more inconvenient.  I might have gone on with the status quo indefinitely, but I was tired of trying to play the bank's game.  I decided on Wednesday to go to my local branch and, once and for all, sever all of my connections with the company.

On the long march downtown, I girded myself for an emotional battle.  Bank of America is a very large, intimidating organization, much like the mafia.  I imagined they would try to talk me out of it, perhaps by appealing to our long history together, or prophesying  the collapse of the financial system, or making veiled threats against my family while caressing a baseball bat.  I am terrified of confrontation; even though I was definitely sure that I didn't want to bank with them anymore, and had absolutely no shame about my motives, I dreaded explaining myself to the people whose livelihoods depended, in part, on my money. 

Once inside, however, the staff were nothing but polite and professional.  When I announced that I wished to close my account, they did not ask why.  They simply ushered me to a cubicle to process my request quickly.  The lady at the desk even smiled the whole time.  It was a little creepy.

There were a few road bumps.  The lady informed me that she'd "heard somewhere" that cancelling a credit card could have a negative impact on a person's credit score.  I was sensitive to the prospect of bad credit, but I held firm; credit card providers are a devious lot, and that sounded like exactly the sort of bluff they might try on a noob like me.  I held my ground, and insisted on ending the card.  She promptly called an associate, and handed the phone off to me.  Score one for the 99%.

The man on the phone who manages credit cards asked me, point blank, if they had "done anything wrong" to warrant the loss of my business.  My resolve shook: a more committed ideologue would have readily recited all of Bank of America's corporate sins, laying them at the feet of the hapless employee and demanding an apology.  A more disgruntled customer would have recounted a tale of woe and abuse, shaming the employee and demanding an even weepier apology.  I, on the other hand, felt compelled to reassure the poor man by offering a vague "it's not you, it's me" excuse and insisting I only wanted something "simpler."  I think he took it well.

There were some charges on my credit card, so I told the lady to take them out of my checking account before closing it.  She then left me, ostensibly to retrieve the cash from the secret vault, but possibly to give me one last chance to repent my sins.  I waited.  I sat up straight, lest my slouching posture alert observers to my degenerate socialist nature.  I eyed the passersby for signs of concealed cans of pepper spray.  I clutched my Charles Schwab checkbook, hoping it might ward off the demons of financial insecurity.  I thought of the good old days, and I yearned.

Finally, the lady returned with my (woefully meager) balance, and I was free.  I was proud of my accomplishment, but felt suddenly vulnerable as I realized that I now lacked the ability to pay for anything except by cash or check.  And so, even as I stepped out into the cold autumn air of liberty, I eagerly leaped back into the warm embrace of another (significantly smaller) financial institution.

Ironically, my exit from Bank of America resulted in perhaps the best customer service they'd ever given me.  I worried that, having to deal with decent human beings rather than a faceless corporate "person," I might back down from this confrontation and consent to keep my money in the big machine.  But realistically, there was no confrontation.  They did what I asked, and I left with no strings attached (at least, no strings that I know of).

I felt a little guilty about the protests that had taken place on the branch's front drive back in October.  While Bank of America may be a perfectly legitimate target for populist rage, most of the people in that building were as much a part of the 99% as the people outside.  I don't feel bad about cutting the corporation down to size, but I'm also not entirely eager to see the downfall of large banks that offer employment and the possibility of assistance to ordinary people.  If we had some concrete assurance that the powerful financial institutions actually regarded their mission as one of helping others rather than merely enriching themselves, we wouldn't have any reason to occupy everything under the sun.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Things Become Momentarily Real

First of all, happy Thanksgiving, everybody!  I hope you've each eaten many turkeys and gravies by now.  Lord knows we can't let them rest after what they've done.  (They know what they did).  If you're not American and didn't celebrate Thanksgiving today, then I wish you a happy Thursday.  Thursdays are pretty fantastic, too!

But that's not really the point of all this.  No, I actually wanted to tell a little story, about myself.  It's not really a story so much as a description of a train of thought, experienced over the course of about ten minutes.

Like most people, I fantasize.  In fact, I fantasize a lot.  In the car, on the street, in the shower; wherever I am, even if I seem to be paying attention to something else, my brain is often constructing an alternate universe of thoughts and ideas that everyone else finds very interesting indeed.  It's a useful byproduct of my amateur insanity, because it provides me with conversation topics (not usually as useful in the shower), as well as ideas that sometimes find their way into the words I scribble on the computer screen.

About a week and a half ago I had one such story idea.  Actually, and improbably, it began with a title.  While running bizarre and unconventional sentences through my head, analyzing them for phonetic and metrical beauty (or whatever strikes me as beautiful), I happened upon the phrase "a hundred degrees in my head."  I liked it, and my first thought was to use it in a poem.  It suggested a lot of things: fevers, obviously, but also uncomfortable buzzing of an overclocked, overstressed brain, or a mind on the cusp of a meltdown.  It had that familiar um-DA-da um-DA-da um-DA beat, long associated with some of our culture's finest poetry, and it struck me that I'd never heard anyone say it before, even though it was (I thought) a pretty awesome line.

But before I could think of any accompanying lines, I began wondering, and fantasizing, about what sort of things (apart from spontaneous illness) might make someone's head feel superheated.  It struck me that A Hundred Degrees in my Head might make an excellent short story title, and since my record with titles is remarkably dismal, I thought it would be a bad idea to waste this one.

My fantasy immediately sprung into action.  Half-thinking, half-mumbling, I assembled the skeleton of a basic plot.  I cobbled together disparate snatches of autobiography and furtive melodrama, with an eye to something both fictional and true-to-life.  A sequence of progressive vignettes took shape in my mind's eye: a series of misfortunes and disappointments, climaxing in a mental and physical collapse, followed by a slow slide into a jaded paralysis.  It was pretty depressing.  I liked it.

By the time I was out of the shower (for I'd been there the whole time!), I had practically scored the entire thing to music, having developed grandiose plans to film my newest opus.  With a camera and some actors, we could shoot the movie on a modest budget.  We would take Sundance by storm.  I'd make a million dollars and retire to France, eating all the hot, buttery croissants a million dollars could buy.

I was getting the slightest bit ahead of myself.  I decided to stick to what I knew, or thought I knew: the short story form (movie rights can always be negotiated later).  But even so, I felt energized.  I was genuinely excited by the story.  It had potential; it felt honest, expressive, even relevant to today's issues and stuff.  I wanted to do a really good job on it.  And supposing I did, was it unreasonable to think of finally getting seeking some form of professional publication?

Suddenly, it felt like a hundred degrees in my head.

As it is, I'm still running the story through its paces.  Plot details have to be ironed out, characters have to be named.  The right tone still has to be set.  But I feel really good about it.  If its potential holds up, I may try some things I've never tried before.  Right now, I've got to focus on getting it off the ground.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Neighbors: A Brief Tale Of Irritation

"Goddammit, I'm working here!"  It was two in the morning.  He should have been sleeping, but he probably couldn't do any of that, either.  Some distractions were simply too profound.

The sound was familiar and unmistakable.  He stared at the ceiling for a while, seeing nothing (except the ceiling), but hearing more than he needed; the furtive creaks, the muffled voices, the unaccountable changes in pace and tempo.  He could not work, he could only stare.  But why stare?  Why bother?  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creakcreakcreakcreak...

"Goddammit, got to finish this."  The work didn't need to be finished.  It wasn't really work: it was strictly voluntary, pro bono, for the good of the people.  Just like procreation.  And there he went, thinking about procreation at a time like this!  He had work to do; he worked harder.  What did she look like?

A train sounded in the distance, and that was just ridiculous.  He imagined that he could hear drums.  He couldn't, but suppose for a moment he could?  What the hell were they doing up there?  "What the hell are they doing up there?"  He knew what they were doing; somehow it just helped to imagine they were doing it in the middle of a massive drum circle.  A massive drum circle in their tiny little apartment.  Full of hippies taking drugs and eating brownies.  Brownies?  Special ones.  "I'd like some brownies," he thought.  Not the special ones, though, because they tasted like shit.  Where did the train fit into all of this?  Was the train even involved?  Of course not, because trains don't fit in apartments.  It didn't matter, he couldn't hear the drums anyway.  He wished he could.

It was two fifteen.  Was she pretty?  He focused on his typing.  He typed harder.  It was almost loud enough.  Two twenty.  Jesus Christ.  The woman said something, and he was irritated at the thought that he couldn't hear it.  But why did he care?  "I need a drink."  There were no drinks to be had.  The stores were closing.  The bars were far away.  He had work to do.  The bars were way too far away.  He heard some more voices.  Why weren't there any drinks in the fridge?  What did she say?  Wait, how many people were up there?

He kicked the wall and no one heard it.  He didn't bother to kick it again.  "Now my foot hurts," he said, and he grabbed his foot to show himself he meant it.  It didn't hurt for very long.  "My foot hurts and it's late and I have work to do.  I don't want to do it, but I have to!"  He wanted to have to, really badly.  What else did he have?  Nothing for a sore foot.  Nothing at all.  Brown hair?

Two thirty.  He began browsing Wikipedia; any article would suit him.  After a few lines of Flag Day, a sudden realization: the noises had stopped.  He looked from side to side, as if there were something to see.  He saw nothing.  He slowly looked behind his chair; did his roommate hear anything?  He scratched his brow and turned his head, ears tuned to maximum attention.  Nothing.  A voice.  Nothing.  What did she say?  Nothing. 

"Thank God," he sighed, "I can get back to work."  It wasn't very important.  It was only a distraction, a profound distraction.  Distractions were unavoidable; at any rate, he couldn't avoid them.  No one likes to admit such things, but he had to have been aware; there was nothing in his life except for two in the morning, and "work," and maybe Flag Day.  Flag Day was on June 15th, more than half a year away.  Did he miss it?  "Man, I can't even remember."  Was that the day of the barbecue?  With the beach and the sand, and the hippies, and all the pretty girls in bikinis?  The lithe, nubile, brown-haired girls in the tiny flag bikinis?  Was that Flag Day?  Did that even happen?  He googled it, but he couldn't tell.

Two thirty five, and he heard music.  "What?"  It was faint music, and he couldn't tell what kind.  It could have been opera.  It could have been hippies, playing their hippie panpipes.  Not their hippie drums, though.  It could have been Spanish pop.  Music, and then, tentatively, creaking.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  Creak.  "Goddammit."

He couldn't work.  It was important, but he couldn't work.  "I'll do the rest tomorrow."  He went to the living room, where he couldn't hear the creaking, to play some video games. He stared at the television, and the screen was empty.  He didn't see a thing.  Some distractions were simply too profound.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Smile Sessions

In 1967, the Beach Boys narrowly missed out on the opportunity to become the boldest, most avant garde act in the history of pop music.  Fully explaining why they missed that opportunity would take pages upon pages; it's a long and involved tale of contractual problems, drug abuse, mental illness, and personal conflicts between members of the band.  However, the opportunity certainly existed.  The previous year, the band had begun work on an album that almost certainly would have produced an impact to rival Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, months before that album was even due for release.  Brian Wilson, the band's leader and principal composer, was bound and determined to shock the world with his sound.  Forty four years later, the fruits of those labors have now been commercially released, and their psychedelic sound can still startle.

The album, Smile, didn't come out in 1967, because it was not finished.  In 2004 Brian Wilson finally settled on a running order, and enlisted his collaborator (songwriter Van Dyke Parks) to write new lyrics for tracks which still had none.  With a new band he rerecorded everything from the ground up, producing a very successful album that, nevertheless, wasn't really Smile.  Now, the Beach Boys have finally released The Smile Sessions, a collection of the most complete and most intriguing music recorded from the time.  But that isn't really Smile, either.  It's Smile with an asterisk, or a grade of "incomplete," in more or less the state in which it was abandoned all those years ago.  

None of this should detract from the beauty of the music, which has been newly remastered.   The album's key tracks (Heroes and Villains, Cabinessence, Wonderful, Surf's Up, Vega-Tables, and Good Vibrations) sound excellent, and are as near to "complete" as one could ever ask.  Secondary tracks such as Do You Like Worms? and I Love to Say Dada don't carry the same impact without the lyrics added for the 2004 version, but their relative completeness is remarkable.  Painfully, you can see how, with another month or two and a clear plan of attack, Smile probably could have been finished in time to really make its mark. It wasn't, so this (generously expansive) collection will have to do.

The sound of Smile, or at least The Smile Sessions, is defined by its eclecticism.  Many songs are defined by baroque instruments like pianos, horns and harpsichords, but heavily distorted electric guitars make appearances at surprising turns.  Melodic, dynamic bass lines enhance the arrangements, and in some places even try to dominate the mix.  Of course the truly dominant sound is of the Beach Boys' unparalleled singing; except when it isn't, and the Sessions present us with long stretches where the words were either never written, or simply never laid down on tape.  Thanks to the 2004 album, we now have lyrics to go along with them, but the fact that they were written so late (who knows what the words might have been in the 60s?) helps to preserve a bit of the mystery from long ago.

Smile, as originally conceived, was completely unlike anything ever attempted in the world of rock and pop.  It was meant to be constructed like a puzzle; songs would be built from small, separately recorded pieces which could be stitched together to form larger compositions.  Pieces of those compositions could then be used to sew the songs together, allowing them to flow with few to no breaks between tracks.  The songs themselves were also unique; the bulk of it was new work with highly abstract lyrics by Parks, but mixed in among them were excerpts from classic 40's and 50's pop tunes (Gee, You Are My Sunshine, I Wanna be Around).  Put together, Smile was supposed to be serious, humorous, spiritual and spontaneous: more or less, everything at once.

Pieces of the puzzle have always been available for those willing to explore the Beach Boy's 1970s albums, as well as the tapes spread by the noble bootleggers who've kept the legend alive.  Now that they've been assembled, it's easier to see the scope of Brian Wilson's ambition, and it helps to take the edge off of mourning for the greatest album that never was.  It isn't everything at once, but it is definitely something special.

Embedded amongst the outtakes and alternate versions are tracks that, while properly belonging to Smile, weren't integrated into the 2004 version.  The merits of songs like He Gives Speeches may be debatable, but it's obscure ephemera like that that make Smile special, and add to the value of the Sessions.  The main event, however, remains the core tracks.  They are among the very best work the Beach Boys, or any band of their era, ever recorded, and it's wonderful to see them finally enshrined in their discography where they belong.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Insanity Calls the Bells of Halloween

In honor of Hallowe'en and all of the spirits purportedly rising from their graves, I've written a thematically appropriate poem.  It's sort of like a zombie apocalypse, but because zombies aren't really as interesting as everyone thinks they are, I've replaced them with knife-wielding ghosts, driven to madness and murder by the sound of bells on All Hallows Eve.  I hope you enjoy!

You say you don't believe in magic spells;
But something's cast and something fell has come
To ring that iron bell.  And now it's ringing
So I tell you, playing dead won't end
This hell; just pick yourself up off the ground
And stand alert: you'll know them by their smell.

The iron breaks and tremors shake the walls,
And horrors from the earth are crawling from
Forgotten graves.  They sprawl across the city
Streets and call for allies, reinforcements;
All our homes will swarm with evil shapes
and shadows, seizing lives within their halls.

And soon the shades will set about their work;
They start in stages, first by lurking, then
Emerging from the murk to claim their prey.
They go berserk with ghastly rage and sharply
Jerk their frightened victims from their homes,
To menace them with cruel knives and dirks.

Until the night is through we'll be at war;
I fear the bells won't stop before they tear
Our fences down and bore their terrors in
Our skulls! The score is grim: the revenants
Abhor us, their insanity will break
Our flimsy gates and batter down our doors.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Feeling Well Enough and More.

Greetings, citizens of the world.  It's been a little while since I wrote in first person on this blog, so I thought I'd take a moment to let everyone know how I'm doing.

I can feel your anticipation from here.

As it happens, I'm doing pretty well.  Looking back on the last time I talked about myself here, I can see that I was in something of a foul mood.  Nobody likes guys in foul moods: they sulk, they make snide comments, and they often refrain from bathing.  A guy in a bad mood doesn't even particularly like himself, so it's very important that he find his way out of it as soon as he can.

Anyway, about a month and a half ago I'd just started a regular daily exercise routine at the gym.  Since I had hardly ever "worked out" a day in my life, it was rough going at first.  My body reacted to the sudden lifestyle change with petulance and pain, and I responded by punishing my body with buckets of sweat.  The two of us weren't on good terms for a while, and I suppose that had a lot to do with my unnecessary surliness.

Well, my mood has improved significantly since then.  I can do more than handle the routine I set for myself; I've had to increase its difficulty repeatedly.  And most significantly, I'm beginning to notice changes in my physique.  Shirts that previously fit tightly are hanging a little looser, and some of my looser shirts are even looking a little over-sized.  It's a little ridiculous to admit this, but it always seemed kind of abstract before: apparently, regular exercise actually has an effect on a person's shape.  Imagine that.

So it's entirely possible that I've lost some weight.  I can't confirm this, because I don't have a bathroom scale and I refuse to use anyone else's (because they can't be trusted), but it seems highly probable.  I'm not really making a point of counting calories one way or another.  I just follow a simple principle: if the day's workout doesn't make me feel spent, then tomorrow's needs to be harder.  It can be painful sometimes, and I'm beginning to suspect that "runner's high" is a myth created to entice fat people to move around more.  But the joy of realizing that I've poured so much energy into something that's actually, objectively good for me is absolutely thrilling. 

Being healthier has obviously been good for my mood.  In fact, I've heard it said that the healthier you get, the more likely you are to stay in a happy state of mind.  That means fewer episodes of irrational rage and surliness, which presumably makes me a more pleasant person to be around.  Everybody wins!

Well, I got all caught up in my passion for aches and sweat and forgot to talk about the blog. Let's have a little word on that now.

In the past month I've put out two short stories which I am very proud of.  I've wanted to say a couple of words on each of them, but I kept forgetting to, so I thought I'd say it now.  Both of them are significant for me, because they revolve around dialogue.  Writers have strengths and weaknesses, and while I like to think I'm strong generally, my weaknesses are very obvious to me.  Writing convincing dialogue ranks up with describing clothing as something I hardly consider myself capable of doing.  John in the Box, however, is mainly centered around a conversation between two people, while Red Alert is composed entirely of a single conversation.  Neither of them were especially easy to write, but they were not as difficult as I thought, and they're both more enjoyable to read than I had hoped.  Small successes can make a person very happy.

But even so, looking back on them I see obvious cause for criticism.  Even as the author, the omnipotent and all-seeing creator of the universes in which these tales take place, I can't quite distinguish where my voice ends and the voices of my characters begins.  This probably results from my method of composition.  I often carry on very involved and evolving internal monologues which can turn into the substance of future conversations and stories; when dialogue is necessary, I play it out in my head as if I'm talking to myself.  This has a way of making characters who speak at length in my stories seem just a little less real.

I think Red Alert actually plays to this weakness as a strength.  You could almost call it a stream of consciousness piece, as I transcribed more or less the conversation I held inside my own head.  The two characters essentially are myself, engaged in a transparent metaphor of my creative process.  If they both speak with my voice, that's to be expected; and yet, the fact that they disagree and seem to have different priorities creates the opportunity for some interesting interpretations.  I of course interpret the story as evidence of my own latent insanity, as I always do, but I wouldn't say that's all there is to it.

It's nice when art can bend to the limitations of the artist and still become something worthwhile, but all the same I really ought to get better at writing dialogue.  Limitations can only take you so far.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Red Alert

"So, I had an idea."

"That's an improvement.  Let's hear it."

"OK, here it goes.  So we start in the middle of the action, to make it dynamic."

"Right, right.  This automatically makes it dynamic."

"It damn sure does, now listen."

"I'm listening!"

"Right, in the middle of the action, and the guy is on a space ship."

"A spaceship?  Really?"

"Yes, really.  You don't like it?"

"Well I don't know.  Is it a cliche?  I don't know if spaceships are cliche or not."

"Well they might be.  They might very well be.  But there's no law against cliches."

"There kind of is.  That's kind of why they call them cliches.  They are things to be avoided."

"Maybe so, but I'm not going to avoid writing about outer space just because Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and whoever wrote about outer space fifty years ago.  Space is fertile ground."

"It's a fertile space."

"It sure is.  Now, he's on a spaceship."

"Or a space station?"

"It could be a space station, too.  I can make it a space station if you'd like.  If that's less of a cliche."

"I'm not sure it is, but I think I like it better."

"Well if you like it better, it just might be better.  I'll change it, just for you."

"Well, it might not be better, but let's run with it.  See where it goes."

"Where it goes, right.  In the middle of the action."

"Just what is the action, exactly?"

"I'm getting to the action!"

"OK, OK!  The action's very important you see."

"I do see.  Anyway, there's an emergency."

"Go on."

"It's a really bad emergency.  The spaceship is melting, and there's hundreds of people trapped inside."

"The space station is melting?"

"It sure is."

"Wow, that is bad.  Really, really bad."

"Not something you want to stick around for, right?"

"I think I'd try to get far away from that."

"Well here's the thing.  This guy can't."


"Can't get away, you see."

"I do see.  Why can't he get away?"

"Here's the deal: he's running through the corridors of the spaceship."

"Running, running, I see it."

"And everyone else is running, trying to get away."

"To the escape pods?"

"Exactly, there's escape pods all along the rim of the ship, all the other guys are running to them, it's super chaotic."

"Very exciting.  So, he doesn't make it to an escape pod?"

"No, no, hang on a sec.  So you see, while he's running, things are just starting to melt, the air conditioning or whatever's knocked out."

"I don't think they have air conditioners in space."

"They do, it can get very hot.  Anyway, there's lights flashing and alarms blaring and shit's melting, everywhere."

"Very tense, very tense."

"It's super tense."

"Do we want to start out that tense?"

"We absolutely do, because it's just one long, slow, release of tension after that."

"Is that a good idea?"

"It is a great idea, which you will quickly see if you let me tell you the story."

"I am listening.  You know I'm listening."

"I guess so.  So it's really tense, and the alarm is blaring something over and over, like 'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"


"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Yeah, I see how that could get very tense."

"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Ok, stop now.  Please, stop."

"Well that's the point, man.  It's a verbal refrain throughout the story, and it starts out really frequent, and it becomes less frequent and more distorted as the story progresses and the ship is melting and everything's breaking down."

"I get that.  But I think you could explain that without saying it over and over to me."

"Maybe, but I'm trying new things here."

"Do you really want to just write 'Red Alert, Red Alert,' over and over in the middle of the action?"

"Yes, I do.  You know, used correctly, repetition can be a very powerful literary tool."

"Is this what you're going for, a leitmotif?"

"Yeah, I guess so.  It's very arty."

"Very.  So, he's running, and everything's going all 'Red Alert' at him, and he can't make it to an escape pod."

"No, no, man, he gets to the escape pod.  You're not listening."

"He does?  Why can't he get away?"

"Because the escape pod gets stuck in the tube and can't launch."

"...OK, so he's trapped in the tube, and he's got to frantically find a way out?"

"No, it's pretty much stuck, there's nothing he can do.  He's stuck in the escape pod and the escape pod's stuck in the tube, and everything's melting and just blaring 'Red Alert, Red Alert!" constantly in his face."

"How long is he stuck in there?"

"Pretty much right until the end.  It's a really small pod, and it's shaped kind of like a bathysphere, with lots of cool rivets and stuff and a little window on the door, so he can still see the interior of the space ship as it's melting."

"You know, I don't know about this."

"Why not?"

"It sounds like you've killed the story halfway through.  You start off in the middle of the action, and all of a sudden there's no action whatsoever.  The tension's dead."
"No no no, the action hasn't stopped.  Let me finish."

"I'm trying."

"So, like I said, the window's there on the door.  There's still action going on outside the window.  There's pipes bursting and shooting out steam, and there's some stragglers trying to get to the last pods, and the alarms are still going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' and all kinds of things like that."

"They're still doing that?"

"Yeah, but less frequently after a while, because everything's all melty and malfunctioning.  Maybe some of it gets distorted like, 'Red Aleeeerrrrt...'  and sparks start coming out  of things.  Things that shouldn't have sparks coming out of them."

"But the main character's just watching all of this, safe behind a magically heat-proof glass window?"

"Well he's not just watching it.  You see, simultaneously, there's a lot of psychological drama going on in his head."

"That's some tricky territory."

"It is, but I've got an idea on how to do it really well."

"Let's hear it."

"So at first, when there's lots of panic and things are breaking and sparking and the alarms are just constantly going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' the narration is really hectic and clipped and there's all kinds of emotion, reflecting the main character's inner state.  It's really fearful and desperate, and he's desperately pressing buttons, but nothing works, so he just gets more frustrated and afraid."

"Alright, alright."

"Then, as things progress, everything outside starts melting into a more uniform state, I guess.  Everything's just melting together, glowing red, and the alarms are dying, and everything's flowing together.  And when that happens, the narration starts getting a little more relaxed, just like the main character."

"Wait, is the main character the narrator?  Is this first person?"

"Well, no."

"So why is the narration reflecting his psychological state?"

"Huh, well...actually, that's an interesting idea."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's like he is the narrator, but he 's not narrating it as though it happened to him.  He's describing someone else, but it actually happened to him."

"Or maybe some other, more confused and opaque circumstances?"

"Maybe.  These are some good ideas, though."

"So what's the point of all that, anyway?"

"Like I said, it's a gradual release of tension.  The narrator relaxes, the main character relaxes, even the space ship relaxes as it goes from a solid into a molten state."

"And then, the escape pod is able to get free of the molten tube?"

"Hmmm...I guess it could work that way.  Actually, I was having trouble deciding how it would end."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had two ideas.  On the one hand, like that, the ship eventually melts away, and the pod is free, and he goes off to tell his story to the survivors or whoever."


"But on the other hand, the pod could start melting too, right?  And right when he thinks he's safe, all of a sudden it's getting hot, and he's starting to panic again, and he still can't get it to move and his own alarm is going 'Red Alert...'"

"Really, this again?"

"Yeah, so?"

"It seems a little... B movie, you know?"

"It's a great twist!"

"Is it?  It seems more like you're cheapening what you're going for.  Like on the one hand, there's this gradual relaxation and looseness, and then bam, you've got a gremlin on the wing."

"Is that bad?"

"It can be, if you don't do it just right."

"And what makes you so sure I won't do it right?"

"Because doing it right is hard.  You seem a lot more committed to this ending than you let on."

"Well, I think it's more interesting.  If anything, the 'safe' ending is just an escape hatch if the other one turns out to be too hard to write."

"Well, I can promise you that it will be very hard to write it well.  But if you ask me, the 'safe' ending is actually more interesting, from the right perspective."

"From what perspective, exactly, is 'the lone survivor goes off to tell his tale' an interesting ending?"

"Well, not the telling of the tale, that's for sure.  But the survival aspect is more interesting on its face than a cheap cliffhanger."

"I don't see suffocating in a melting escape pod as a cliffhanger.  Once that pod starts melting, he's as good as dead.  Everyone knows he's not getting rescued."

"Alright, fair enough.  But does that contrast too much with your theme?"

"My theme?"

"That gradual release of tension you're so excited about.  The reason you start in the middle of the action, and then halfway through switch to trapping your protagonist in a box so he can watch everything through a window."

"Well, death is the ultimate release of tension."

"Really?  You're going with that?"

"And why not?"

"Look, I don't know if that's a cliche, but it should be.  It is cut from the very same cloth."

"I don't think you understand how cliches work.  Every cliche was original once, and most of them started off as good ideas."

"Well, going on one long slide from tense to relaxed, then tensing up at the very end with only an implied relaxation afterward, is not a good idea."

"It's a better idea than just letting the protagonist live after all that.  What's his struggle? What's he done to safeguard his life?  There's no danger!"

"Well, there's no more danger in certain death than in probable survival."

"I guess my story's screwed either way, then?  Who'd have guessed I could write a story about a man nearly melting to death in the vacuum of space, and fail to put him in the slightest bit of danger?"

"Look, forget the danger.  That's not my point."

"Really?  It isn't?"

"No, and it shouldn't be yours either."

"Then what is my point, sir?"

"Look, your story's kind of weird in its structure, but that's probably the best thing it has going for it.  You have to commit to that structure and end with a complete relaxation.  No last minute change ups, no gimmicks."

"Well, it could be possible to still kill the guy without necessarily tensing the story up again.  He could be resigned to death."

"You could do it that way, but if you ask me the story works a lot better as a metaphor for birth than death."


"Well, you don't have to spell out what corresponds to what.  But the journey out of the space station into the vacuum of space is like the journey from the womb into the wider world."

"Suddenly we have shades of 2001 in here.  Are you sure this is original?"

"This is nothing like 20012001 was an epic on an epochal time scale.  This is all a brief moment in time."

"Alright, I guess I can see it like that."

"But in order for the birth metaphor to really stick, the protagonist has to live.  Do you see what I'm talking about?"

"Huh.  Well, I suppose the story could be about that."

"It seems a lot stronger to me."

"But on the other hand, not every birth is successful."


"Things can go wrong, and the baby won't survive."

"You want to throw a stillbirth angle into this?"

"I want the story to be interesting, man.  There are lots of stories about birth and new life and all that jazz.  Who's ever told a story about an unsuccessful pregnancy, told from the perspective of the baby?"

"I thought it was about a man trying to get off of a melting space station."

"It's about whatever the metaphor is."

"Well at a certain point it becomes about bad taste."

"Have it your way, then.  He floats off in his pod, with the melting wreckage receding into the distance, safe and sound."

"Who's safe and sound?"

"The man in the escape pod, obviously."

"That's what I thought."

"That opens up an interesting visual possibility, too.  I imagine the space ship would sort of congeal into a gleaming silver ball.  Maybe it hardens back into a solid sphere as he leaves?"

"I'm not sure I see how that fits with the metaphor, though."

"People can interpret it however they like.  I just think that a giant ball of molten steel would look terrific.  It could glisten like a great big jewel, or a pearl or something.  It's got to symbolize something."

"I guess I can't argue with that."

"It'll be pretty difficult to do the image justice, though."

"By the way, why is everything melting?"

"You know, I haven't the slightest idea."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

WFJ Book Club # 7: Less Than Zero

Prejudice should never be something to take pride in.  It's hurtful in many instances, and intellectually lazy in most others.  However, we all have prejudice, and the best way to deal with it is to lay it out in the open.  Finding out what triggers our prejudicial instincts can take us a long way in understanding our reactions to anyone or anything at all.

In my case, I carry two formidable prejudices: one against the city of Los Angeles, and the other against the mass culture of the 1980s.  In my mind, both represent the best possible case for the notion that hedonism and decadence lead to the downfall of civilization.  I'm no doomsayer, but I have a theory that Armageddon occurred on the Sunset Strip sometime during the rise of Hair Metal; all of history since then has merely been a traumatic hallucination, a collective defense mechanism against the overbearing awfulness of the modern world.

According to my theory, Less Than Zero, the 1985 novel by Brett Easton Ellis, would be an artifact of the end of the world, a graphic record of our civilization's greatest nightmare preserved for the education of its benighted survivors.  It isn't, of course, because the world didn't end in the 1980s (we're still living with its ill effects today).  But even with all of the references to payphones and Atari and other echoes of the last century, the story still reads like apocalyptic literature.

Truth be told, reading the book is painful.  Not stylistically; there's a lot to admire in the descriptions and characterizations, as well as the variety of contemporary references that gives the setting breadth.  The plot, however, is excruciating.  Scenes range along a continuum of troubling, depressing, disturbing, and abominable, sliding back and forth without mercy.  I'd recommend this book to anyone on the basis of its art and craft, but I'd hesitate to promise that they'd "like" it.

Less Than Zero works on a number of levels for me, to the point that I was a little afraid of the book in my hands.  As a portrait of privileged nihilism, I recognized a lot more in the characters and situations than I hoped I would.  If you disregard the specific trappings of time and place, the actions of characters bear a distressing resemblance to real life.  Even ordinary, respectable people spend most of their time doing what they believe they can't help doing.  It's a lifestyle that looks ugliest when those imagined imperatives are chemical addictions, but is just as bleak in principle for anyone else.  A book like this offers the chance to see the equivalence, in the comforting guise of morbid voyeurism.

I've come to expect tales of hedonistic excess like these from Los Angeles.  But in spite of my prejudices, are they realistic?  Well, I have heard some things.  I haven't seen nearly as much, but I've seen some; I know that humans have an astounding capacity for destruction, whether they direct it at themselves or others.  Families disintegrate, friends disappoint, and lovers fall out of love: in ordinary terms, these are the least of our troubles.  The collapse of ordinary life didn't happen in the 1980s; it happens everywhere at every time, as soon as our eyes are open enough to see it.

But a "collapse" implies some kind of finality.  Somehow, life and civilization survive to endure continuous new collapses, as we continue to surprise ourselves with new lows.  It may not make us stronger, but it hasn't killed us yet.

Oh, was I talking about a book?  I suppose I was.  Less Than Zero is a good one, if you're looking for a good punch in the gut as well.  Just take a weekend and watch the world explode.

Monday, October 3, 2011

John in the Box

“Get back in the box!” I gasped, recovering my balance.  An old hiking staff lay near my hand, and I clutched it with both hands, hoping to ward off the strange man.

“I don't want to go back in the box.”

“Get back in the box!  That's where you belong!”

“Says you.  I think I like it out here.  Who are you to order me around, anyway?”

“This is my room!  This is my house!  That's my box!”

“Then you get in the box.  I'm going to get a soda.”

I pushed the stick in his face, and my eyes contorted with crazy, stupid rage.  “You.  The box.  Now.”  He looked down the end of the stick, unconcerned but visibly annoyed.  “We don't have soda, anyway.”

“Now that's ridiculous.”  He pushed the stick away with a wave of his hand.  “It's a hundred degrees out here.  You've got to have refreshments.”  He started walking to the door.

“I don't like soda.  It makes me gassy.”

He stopped walking.  “You.  You are ridiculous.”

It was then that I remembered myself.  “Get back in the box!”

“Oh not this again.”

“I mean it!”  I meant it.  Sort of.

“Look, why do you even want me in the box?”

“You came out of the box.  Now...I'm scared?  Of you, out of the box.  So get in the box!”

“Let me get this straight,” he said, as he sat down on the aforementioned box.  “You open a box that has been sitting in your closet for, how many years now?”

“Three.  Three years.  Five.  Eight?”

“You have no idea how long this box has been here.”

“I know it was after middle school.”

“Yes, and that was a very long time ago.”

“Ok, sure.  Ten years, maybe.”

“Anyway, you opened a box, and it's been here for a decade.  That's a very long time.”

“I suppose it is.”

“And when you opened it, a scary man came out.”

“Ummm...yes.  Yes, that is basically, exactly what happened.”

“And God knows how long he's been in there, right?”

“I know!  That's what makes it so scary!”  I was having a little trouble staying focused.

The man sighed.  “And now, you want that scary man to go back in the box, to sit in the closet for another indefinite period of time?”


“Probably watching you while you sleep...”

“Please, please tell me you haven't been watching me while I sleep.”

“Well I will now, if you make me go back in the box.”

I covered my eyes with my hands, in shame.  “My God, you're an asshole.”

"You're the one without any soda for your guests."

"Just...just tell me, who or, what, the hell are you?"  I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples vigorously, desperately trying to will the last ten years out of existence.  It didn't work.

Gently, he picked up my fallen staff and leaned it against the wall.  He sat down next to me on the bed, a look of deep compassion on his face.  "Which?"


"Who, or what?"


"Well," he said, "what I have to tell you is going to sound very, very difficult to believe.  Unless you do your best and keep an open mind, I'm afraid it would be a big waste of time."

"I'll see what I can do."

"You see," he began, "my name is very difficult to pronounce, so you can call me 'John.'  I'd tell you my true name, but it would take you a while to say it right, and I'd rather not waste all of that time."

"For someone who's been sitting in a box for ten years," I interrupted, "you'd think wasting time wouldn't be such a big deal."

"Who said I wasn't busy?  If you wouldn't interrupt, I'd get to that a lot faster!"

"I'm sorry."

"Anyway," he continued, "it just so happens that I was very busy the entire time.  Or, most of the time, anyway.  You see, I belong to a race of people who live in boxes.  We have a name, but it's not a very good name, so you might as well call us the Box People.  Most people don't know very much about the Box People, because most people don't go looking in old boxes very much.  Understand?"

"Very much," I answered, "as far as it goes."

"And it goes further than that.  You see, from the first invention of boxes, my people have lived in them.  We've lived our entire lives in boxes, moving from box to box as needs arose.  We've raised our families, conducted our businesses, and sought out the mysteries of the universe, all from within the confines of boxes; thousands, millions of boxes, all over the world.  Inside of each box there may be a whole community of Box People, or there may be none at all: more rarely, a box may be inhabited by a single Box Person.  It is a lonely existence, but there are certain aspects of living in boxes that can only be appreciated in isolation."

"Living by yourself, in a box," I observed, emptily.

It occurred to me that continuing to react as emotionally as before would not do me any good.  The situation was very weird, but it was real.  At least, real enough that it had to be dealt with responsibly.  So I decided to think it out.  I sat for a minute, pondering his tale and pondering the most appropriate response to it.  At length I turned to the man and said, "you're making that up.  I can tell."

"Oh really."

"Really.  First of all, it's completely impossible.  You don't address any of the inherent impossibilities in your story.  It's like you expect me to suppose some magical element that makes it all possible, even though you never even bother to describe what that element is, and I can't even begin to imagine what it could be.  I don't think anyone could.  Or should, really.  It's clearly just a ridiculous lie."

"And yet," he said, smugly, "I'm here, and you can't explain it to yourself."

"That's true.  And I almost believed you for that reason.  But since you told the whole story with that same smug, condescending tone you're using now, I've decided to go ahead and assume that you don't really mean to tell me who you are, and that you've just been messing with my head this whole time."

"Well, you can believe that if you want."

"Thank you.  I will."

"In the meantime," he said, exactly as smugly as before, "I'm still a guest in your house.  Maybe you should get me some soda?"

In one sublime, fluid motion, my palm met my face with a resigned slap.  "Fine.  Fine.  Fuck it.  I'll get you a soda.  You just stay right here, don't go anywhere.  I'll get you a soda."



I left my parents' house and drove to the nearest gas station.  It was already evening time, and if I'd had my way I wouldn't have been going anywhere, but sometimes things happen that have to be dealt with immediately.  Well, perhaps not immediately, but it's usually better if you do, because otherwise they sit around in your room, telling you lies and complaining about what you do and don't have for them to drink.
I walked into the Seven Eleven, half-ignoring the customary greeting from the kid behind the counter.  Almost automatically, I I retrieved the requested beverages from the refrigerator in the back, and traversed the sticky floor back to the registers.  It felt much more familiar than it had any reason to feel.

"A six pack of Pepsi?" asked the fuzzy young man behind the cash register.

"That's what I've got."

"Did you want anything else?"

"Well, what else would you recommend?"

"Ummmm..." he stalled, desperately searching for something to offer me.

"Actually, I'd really appreciate a suggestion.  I'm probably not going to enjoy this Pepsi very much.  Too gassy, you know?"

Visibly confused, he scratched his head, stuttering finally, "beef jerky?"


"Do you want some... beef jerky, I guess?"

"Huh.  You know, I think I would like some beef jerky."

"Do you... still want the Pepsi?"

I sighed as I paid the cashier, and began counting the days until summer's end.

I ran into my mom as soon as I got home, though I tried not to make eye contact.  It didn't matter: she simply had to know why I was cradling a sixpack of diet Pepsi on the way back to my bedroom.  I couldn't blame her for being surprised.

"I don't know.  I had a craving?  A craving for Pepsi."

"Well, you usually don't crave things like that."

"Yeah, well, weird things happen sometimes."

"By the way," she added, "I put those things back in the box in your closet for you."

My heart stalled.  I played it cool.  "You did, huh?"

"Yes, I did.  Did you want to take any of those things back home with you?"

"Umm... no.  No, I definitely don't want anything in that box following me home."

She laughed, probably because it sounded funny.  "OK.  I'll keep holding onto it for you.  Let me know if you change your mind."

Back in my room, I found no strange men lurking in the shadows; only a closed box, sitting in its familiar spot in the closet.  None of its contents remained outside, least of all my strange visitor.  As relieved as I was, I didn't see myself changing my mind any time soon.

"Asshole," I muttered, placing the box of warm Pepsi cans on the lid of the box, thereby fulfilling my promise to my unwanted house guest.  I took one for myself, in a halfhearted and unnecessary display of hospitality.  I drank it, and it was warm and gassy and terrible.  I'm sure he would have enjoyed it.

I didn't know where John the Box Man had gone, or whether he was telling the truth about his life and adventures.  I really couldn't be sure that he was even real, or just the product of a bored imagination.  The only way to confirm his existence, opening the box, didn't seem like a very good idea.  Now that he was gone, frankly, I found it surprisingly easy to just stop caring.  I could go a very, very long time without opening that box again.

After about an hour or so of TV, I felt tired.  More tired than usual, actually; I told myself I wasn't feeling well.  People can hallucinate when they're under the weather, and I couldn't be happier than to know I'd been hallucinating.  I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed, confident once again that I was truly alone.

And after about a minute, I thought better of it, and closed the closet door.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't Panic

Something's very, very wrong.  Actually, everything's wrong.  But some things are more wrong than you can imagine.  Broken, warped, twisted and perverse: whatever you want to call it, it's wrong and nothing you can do will make it right.

But don't panic.

You see, it turns out you're wrong too.  As part and product of this world, you've evolved to be as twisted and perverse as your distressingly wrong surroundings.  You were molded and shaped by them; in essence, you were made for them.  Which means that at the very least, you've got a fighting chance.  Probably.

So in the words of Douglas Adams, don't panic.  You can panic when you're dying.

This is the sort of thing I tell myself when I'm in a foul mood.  To be perfectly honest, it's really the sort of thing I tell myself the day after I've been in a foul mood, because at the relevant time I'm usually much too busy thinking up creative ways to be surly and sarcastic to even begin trying to bring myself down to Earth. 

And then the next day comes along, and suddenly I just don't feel that way anymore.  I'm not even sure why I felt so angry in the first place: I can't really will myself back into that position.  All I can do is pat myself on the back and tell myself it's OK now.

Why do that?  As much as I've "reassured" myself, I've also gone and justified all of my negative emotions, without getting a better understanding of why I felt them in the first place.  I suppose it's easier to live with them if I treat them as mysterious and inevitable. 

Oh, I'm sorry.  You're still here.  Don't panic, I'm alright.

The truth is I don't know why I get these mood swings, or why a perfectly good day can lapse into an evening of irritation and irrational frustration.  But I woke up this morning and decided, I'd probably better say something about it, and do it out loud so that other people can hear me.  And since I felt anxious and self conscious about standing on the street corner with a megaphone (perhaps this is related?), I chose the more restrained course and said it on my computer.

But you know, today was a pretty good day.  I feel good about it, and I feel pretty good about how I spent it.  So don't panic.  Everything's going to be just fine.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Next Great Convention

Let's play pretend for a minute.

Pretend that there is a document, an incredibly old document, written by hand in archaic language by a legendary council of wise men, and proclaimed as a timeless guide to the proper ordering of society.  All of the people throughout the land worship the principles enshrined in the ancient charter, so much so that they venerate everything related to it, even the paper it's written on.  The words of this document are not only synonymous with law, but with the ideals and values the law is meant to protect.

But you already know I'm talking about the U.S. Constitution, don't you?

Although it may seem eternal, having always existed for as long as liberty has struggled with tyrants, the Constitution has in fact been in operation for no more than two hundred and twenty three years (though its birthday is coming up soon!).  This is ancient by international standards, and carries an air of long-standing authority.  But compared to the entire political history of the world, the Constitution is only one among many articulated visions of how to run a state, and not necessarily the best possible.

Because it is the Supreme Law of the Land, and not uncommonly capitalized as such, the Constitution's aura is sometimes disconcertingly religious.  When a branch or agency of the government does something outside its legal authority, it is properly called "unconstitutional."  However, when pronounced in moments of high passion by breathless people, unconstitutional has other, unmistakeable connotations: tyrannical, unconscionable, even evil.  When one word deriving its authority from a single document can commonly describe both the random arrest and prosecution of citizens, and the placement of a cemetery cross on Federal land, I think we need to to be extra careful about what the authority of that document actually means.

The Constitution is not an eternal authority.  It was written to replace a different constitution that did not work, and was explicitly designed to be amended whenever the nation required it.  In theory, it could be replaced by a new constitution (we might even call it the New Constitution) for exactly the same reason.

Our political system is now in dire circumstances.  The Constitution has been through worse times and survived, and that is a testament to its fundamental soundness and flexibility.  However, its effectiveness as an actual guarantor of liberty is being eroded, bit by bit, as empty words, lip service, and twisted "originalism" have created a political culture that cares more about red, white, and blue than it does about equity and good governance.

Most, if not all, of our problems could be solved by simply amending the Constitution, or even by ordinary statutes.  But nothing on that level could push back against the bitter partisanship that stains our system, or diminish the constitutional cults that produce such "timeless values" as States' Rights and Nullification.  A new constitution would be controversial and iconoclastic, but it could prove, for the time being, that the life and values of the Republic are determined by the people, and not bound in place across centuries.

Where, Who and How

Article V of the Constitution describes how the document can be amended, either by Congress, or by a convention held at the request of two thirds of the states.  The 1787 convention was itself originally intended to merely amend the first constitution, the Articles of Confederation.  Therefore, it should be possible to replace the entire current Constitution with a new one at a new convention, provided the requirements of Article V were met.  It bears insisting at this point that this scenario is utterly improbable, but as a historian I can't help being fascinated by the possibilities.

Both of the first two constitutions of the United States were written in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  In the 1770s, Philadelphia was the largest city in the country, as well as its first capital; today, it ranks fifth, and is the capital of nothing.  The Founders chose Philadelphia because of its relative importance at the time, and while a city of one and a half million people is nothing to sneeze at, in the present day the capital and the most populous city are Washington and New York, respectively. Should the convention be held in either of these places?

I'd argue against it.  Washington is so thoroughly politicized that anything placed there would almost certainly be poisoned.  New York isn't much better: between the two of them, you get a half a dozen anger-inspiring buzzwords like Wall Street, the United Nations, and East Coast Elites.  Philadelphia has history and the Liberty Bell going for it, so it remains the most appropriate setting.

And who should be trusted to sit in the now air conditioned seats of Independence Hall?  This is undoubtedly the most critical question of the entire process.  Contrary to the mythologizing of later eras, the authors of the present Constitution were just as regional, partisan, and ill-tempered as the politicians of the present day.  The critical difference, of course, was the small handful of men present who commanded enough respect to force the others to behave civilly and make compromises.  But even with luminaries like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin at the head of the table, their work was still derided as treasonous by uncompromising people like Patrick Henry.

It sounds ridiculous to even contemplate it: there is no living person in American politics with even half the reputation that George Washington had in his own time.  No politician has anything close to that kind of gravitas and bipartisan support.  In fact, the whole enterprise might be more successful if we entrusted it to some relative unknowns; moderate state senators, respected legal scholars, and other qualified people who don't get enough time on TV to be rejected out of hand by one side or another.

Finally, such a convention would have to be left to work under extremely strict conditions.  The delegates would have to be kept strictly separate from the public, particularly lobbyists and members of the news media.  There is a good reason that the 1787 convention was conducted with closed windows in stifling heat.  Leaks of controversial ideas to the press, in the age of the Internet, would have immediate and catastrophic effects on the ability of the delegates to work earnestly.  It would encourage the kind of showboating and dramatic obstructionism that thrives in today's media, distorting and probably ruining the entire process.  Forbidding the intrusion of cameras might even keep the most irrational and extremist voices out of the delegations; people like that are usually more interested in pandering to their supporters than in winning over other committee members.

The New Constitution

I don't intend to do this imaginary convention's work for them, but I wouldn't be suggesting this idea if I didn't have a few thoughts of my own about what should go in the New Constitution.  My ideas aren't necessarily a radical departure from the current charter; I genuinely believe the U.S. Constitution is in theory one of the best governing documents ever written.  The institutions it creates are in many respects worth preserving, and the three branch structure is inherent to our political tradition.  All of them, however, could use some work.

As a liberal, my ideas of how things should be are of course informed by my ideology.  If you are a liberal, my suggestions may (or may not) seem very sensible.  If you are a conservative, and you haven't already stopped reading in disgust at my blasphemies, you may see my ideas as a Trojan horse designed to create an enduring liberal stranglehold on the government.  Cut me a little slack on that, and I promise not to be too savage about your constituency's support of constitutional bans on flag burning and gay marriage.  Anyway, I have a few modest proposals that I think would have a dramatically positive effect on the way this country does business:

1) The term of a member of the House of Representatives should be extended to four years, coterminous with the term of the President.  Elections to the Senate should continue to be held every two years.

2) The statutory limit of 435 members for the House should be abolished, with the population (at each ten-year census) of the least populous state taken as the average size for all Congressional districts.

3) Congressional rules (such as the Senate's filibuster) which impose super-majority requirements on the passage of legislation or the confirmation of judges and other officials should not be permitted. 

4) The District of Columbia should be abolished, with the land that it now occupies being ceded back to Maryland, and all its residents becoming residents of Maryland.

5) The war-making powers of the Congress should be more explicitly defined to include formal authorization for all offensive actions outside of the borders of the United States.

6) The annual budget of the combined branches of the military should not exceed twenty per cent of the total tax revenue for any given year.  No other part of the budget should be similarly restricted.

7) The "personhood" status of corporations and other entities consisting of multiple individuals should be renamed and redefined as legally distinct from natural personhood, and exclude certain rights such as freedom of speech which naturally belong to individuals, while including certain rights such as freedom of the press which naturally belong to organizations as well.

8) The right of workers to formally organize and bargain collectively should be recognized, and job discrimination based on union membership prohibited.

9) The language of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, banning legal discrimination against people of one sex or another, should be adopted.

10) The organization of political parties above the state level should be abolished.

11) The drawing of Congressional districts should be assigned to nonpartisan (not "bi-partisan") committees, rather than state legislatures.

12) The Electoral College should be abolished, and the President and Vice President should be elected by nationwide popular vote.

13) The President should be required to personally address and respond to each house of Congress at least four times in a year.

14) The Supreme court should be constitutionally defined as composed of nine members.  The terms of federal judges, as well as Justices of the Supreme Court, should be reduced from life to eighteen years.  They should be divided into three classes and reappointed or replaced at six year intervals, with reappointment set as a default.

15) The principle of judicial review should be officially codified.

16) The death penalty should be abolished at the federal level.

17) The individual's personal right to privacy should be officially acknowledged and protected.

Most of the amendments to the current U.S. Constitution should be copied or essentially paraphrased into the main text of the New Constitution: specifically, all except the 12th, 18th, 21st, and 23rd, which are either superfluous or already addressed by changes I mentioned above.  The rights and protections provided by the New Constitution should be explicitly guaranteed by the states as well as the federal government.  As for the 2nd Amendment, it should be rewritten so as to allow states to regulate the sale and use of weapons to convicted criminals, minors, and the psychologically unbalanced, and the federal government to regulate the formation and activities of mercenary armies and militias.

Finally, many important pieces of Supreme Court precedent should be explicitly codified in the New Constitution.  While many such doctrines may be valuable, the most important should be the recognition that secession is not legally possible, and that no state legislature (or majority of state legislatures) may invalidate or "nullify" a federal law.  All current state and federal laws and regulations not in conflict with any sections of the New Constitution would remain in effect.

I do not really have the space or time to provide a detailed rationale for each of these suggestions: doing any one of them justice would require a lengthy article.  However, I'd be more than willing to discuss any of these with anyone, along with any good ideas I might have missed.



I don't have any illusions about the feasibility of most of my proposed changes, or even the calling of a new convention at all.  Likewise, I don't regard all of my suggestions as being of equal gravity, nor do I regard them collectively as a cure for all the country's ills.  Our protracted natural sickness is a consequence of our history and culture, and most of all our tendency to take our positive attributes for granted as they erode beneath us.  Wrapping so many controversial changes in an omnibus overhaul, in an atmosphere of such intense partisan deadlock, is a bleak proposition.

All of my proposed changes pertain to a small number of goals: to increase and protect the rights of individual citizens, to make the three branches of government more representative and accountable, and to reduce the influence of corporations and entrenched national political parties on the governing process.  These are my priorities, and any concrete changes that went toward achieving them would please me greatly, even if a few of my specific ideas were rejected.

The U.S. Constitution is the heart of a system that is outlasting its usefulness as a living structure.  If we transplanted that heart, in the spirit of 1787, we would do more than rectify a few systemic errors: we would force the evolution of a new system.  No one could predict what would spring forth, and it may well be that in two hundred years we'll only have another dragon to slay.  But it would be a different dragon, and we'd have a handy precedent with which to attack it.

I understand that my specific suggestions, and even the broad basis of my argument to replace the Constitution, stab into an ancient and sensitive cultural divide.  Many Americans believe fervently in principles which I have denounced and wished to abolish in this article.  My drawing a line in the sand is not going to earn either their agreement or their respect.  But I can't argue for anything other than what I believe is right.  It's the function of compromise to make the best in ideas come to life, and it is the spirit of compromise that I wish above all to restore.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Idle Threats and Politics

America, we need to have a talk.

We need to have a talk about your rampant insanity.

I want you to know right off the bat that I don't consider this entirely your fault.  The world, as usual, is up to its poles in crazy.  Between the wars, the terrorism, the climate change, and the continuing mass of delusion that is the global economy, our little space pebble is writing itself quite a depressing stretch of history.  Assuming there's anyone left to look back on all this, they won't be calling this a golden age for planet Earth.

But does that get you off the hook?  See, that's the problem, America: it's exactly that kind of thinking that's put you on the hook in the first place.  You seem to think that you can be as crazy as a headless loon and still command the respect of the world, as long as you're rocking the most kick-ass theme music.  It is precisely because of that sort of attitude that, in spite of our tremendous wealth, we cannot have nice things.  Things like equality, justice, and a moment's peace from the squabbling of an entitled political class.

For as long as I can remember (and probably longer than that), the political process has been marked by an impossibly endless regression.  Every time I get used to a sub-par status quo, a new one comes along to make me yearn for the days when I was merely "uncomfortable."  And now I have to sit and consider whether the liberal, progressive President I voted for in 2008 is cynically enabling the gibbering zealots of the dreaded opposition in order to look better by comparison?  It's giving me a terrible, terrible head ache.

America, I live about four hundred miles from the Canadian border.  Yes, the Canadian border; beyond which lies an enchanted fairyland of delicious pancakes and unfailingly polite lumberjacks, and a system of healthcare that is more concerned with serving its purpose than with keeping up appearances.  What a delicious, maple syrup-covered border it is.

Am I threatening to move to Canada, like so many liberals have threatened before?  Threat is such a strong word.  I'm merely reminding you, America, that Canada is right there.  It wouldn't be hard.  A couple of forms to fill out, a crash course in French, and a new wardrobe of beaver pelt coats. It would be weird having a monarch all of a sudden, but it's my understanding that Canadians don't really pay attention to her.  I think I could handle that.

So why don't I go?  Honestly, I still like you, America.  In spite of all the rage you inspire in the blackest depths of my heart, your potential for true greatness is blindingly obvious.  You may have to slip down a few notches before you see how far you have to climb.  You may have to stumble around the woods for a while before you take off the damned blindfold.  But one day, you'll grow up, take off the tea party hat, and act like the responsible and benevolent nation state you were always meant to be.

If worse comes to worse, I could always try and have it both ways and move to the socialist paradise of Alaska. In Alaska, I could continue to salute Old Glory every morning, while still enjoying the hearty Canadian lifestyle of wrestling polar bears and living off the government teat.  Somewhere in the Great Frozen North lies the American Dream.