Black Ribbon Award

SOME NON-PROSE

Dance-Of-Death-1493

We’re Wolves

No, they aren’t werewolves.
No, they aren’t body snatchers.
No, they aren’t actuaries.

I don’t know what they are.
Try asking them.
Or don’t.

Maybe that’s what they want.
Maybe they are the hunters. And
maybe we are the wolves.

***

Prepped

Are you prepared for a life
of diminishing returns?
Of starting conversations
just to leave them at the height of tension?

Are you prepared for a life
of bringing the fast lane to a standstill?
The fast lane is a myth, I’m pretty sure.
Isn’t every lane, in their way, a “fast” lane?

Are you prepared for a life
of being a human feedback loop?
Whatever that is?
(I don’t know.)

I’m only asking because
you look like someone
who is more prepared
for life than I am.

You look like someone
who wants someone else
to think you’re their hero.
The real deal, right?

***

To-do

1 say “please” where you should say “yes”
2 search keyword “disco therapy”
3 buy more paper than is required
4 seek a nemesis
5 make self useful by breaking a window
6 and repairing it
7 Delete delete; delete delete—delete. Delete.
8 pray for nemesis’s future happiness
9 curtsy where you should say “… or whatever”
10 search keyword “things to use paper for”

***

A Poem That Sucks

Stop telling me how much I suck.
And that, actually, it is good to suck.
Because you’ve put it in your head
that vulgarity is “more real” than beauty.

It’s almost as if you want me to say,
“No, you and what you do are beautiful after all.”
But honestly, no. I mean, not really. I don’t know.
It’s not a bad thing—it’s just not my thing.

***

Wonderful

Auteur theory means to me
that anyone can be an auteur.

An auteur, but for doing taxes.
An auteur, but for playing video games.
An auteur, but for regularly attending Mass—and being on time.
An auteur, but for staying up at night and sleeping during the day.

This, I’m pretty sure you’ll agree,
makes for a world more wonderful
than the one we currently have.

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THE MODESTY OF HENRY ROLLINS

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My penchant for walking developed early. It came about first as a necessity during the summer between eighth grade and my freshman year in high school in getting to my first job as an attendant at the town tennis courts. After high school started it took a stronger hold, going from necessity to habit. It was a time of fluid friendships and no clear impetus to make them solid, but also no real desire to stay indoors. So I went out, usually walking to the library and looking for books it didn’t have, then perhaps to the park to pass time on a bench, or to the video store to look for the copy of Doom Generation I was told was there but which I never found, then, rather ill-advisedly, to the convenience store for a Coke and a Ding Dong or some such. If I met some classmates and they weren’t totally dismissive, great! If not, well, whatever.

Naturally this, among other things, made meshing with my peers more difficult. Some were a bit more proactive than others in highlighting this difficulty. One method I disliked the most was drive-by harassment. This didn’t happen often, but when it did it was both embarrassing and a bit frightening. Once instance I have not forgotten happened in between walking from my mom’s house to my dad’s house a mile away. As I made my way on Mountain Avenue, a car filled with upperclassmen happened to be making its way as well. As it past me, one of its occupants yelled something. It was unclear to me what was said but it still jarred me into sprinting, especially as I noticed the car turn around to yell at me again.

After that I walked more uneasily, quite sure it would happen again. Because why not? And indeed it did a little over a year later when I was walking to my subsequent job at Pizza Hut. I was on Snyder Avenue, adjacent to the putrid lake that sits on the property of a small chemical factory. Again some upperclassmen came down the road in a vehicle, again they took notice of me, and again they delivered an unsolicited message. This time the messenger in the passenger seat had a megaphone (I realize that doesn’t make sense but that’s how I remember it). As they passed the passenger turned his head out the window shouting, “Henry Rollins is a bad poet!” in my direction and continuing on their way.

This one seems at first more absurd than terrifying, but it was not a non sequitur. Some time earlier I gave a presentation in a creative writing class on the poetry of Henry Rollins. Poetry like this, from his 1990 collection Bang!:

There was a time
When things weren’t so
And the air was
And people were
When you could go about at night
And hear no gunshots

I remember neither the framing of the project nor anything I said; I only remember that it was not met warmly. In fact it was met with considerable derision from other students, and one student in particular who just generally didn’t like me. “It isn’t poetry,” was the main, extremely adamant, critique. So offensive/amusing was this that it was mentioned to the other members of the artsy clique I was inconsistently welcomed into, leading to the later drive-by.

This all seems rather stupid for reasons that should be obvious; but also because the argument being made to me was one I’d already come to agree with. Of course I agreed with it. Henry Rollins was not the only poet I’d read by that point, and with enough sophistication to know that the quality of Rollins was nowhere on par with, say, Anne Sexton or Jim Carroll. Not liking Rollins’s writing, or his music, or his spoken word, or just him as a concept was and is entirely understandable. Rollins is the primordial edgelord. He set the mold, as yet unbroken, for an affected angst that borders on camp, for an intensity of feeling that passes for intellectual depth, for Devil’s advocacy that passes for moral clarity, and for a surly sarcasm that passes for scintillating wit. It’s the aesthetic of permanent adolescence, typically seen—or assumed—in white males.

Even as he kept writing and publishing he didn’t necessarily get better, just more precise. From 1998’s Solipsist:

All at once she was done with me and I was pushed out the door. Years later the memories of the house and the woman inside haunt me when the weather grows warm. Broken dreams of conquest stabbed with failure. Of hope driven mad by emptiness. Of the long march that ends in muted defeat, tricked by bad maps and dry riverbeds. Blood drying silently on stones under and unrelenting sun. All the time truth was there trying to tell itself to me, but I did not heed the warning. And through the years she has risen out of heat-driven mists like a cobra. Different faces, same killer. Yes, they are all the same. I learned the lesson after many self-inflicted deaths.

And yet, the very public remonstration and my silent acquiescence to it did not cause me to abandon Rollins altogether. There was something sort of necessary in keeping him around, something useful, and which remains useful today, but for different reasons. The first reason being Rollins’s relation to punk.

I wouldn’t say that Black Flag is my favorite band. I find most of their records after Damaged to be rather unlistenable, and agree with the consensus that touring was where they shined brightest. (That Greg Ginn is a Deadhead is not a coincidence.) Yet unlike Slint, the undying admiration of which defies all logic, Black Flag’s artistic legacy is earned. The chief aim of punk is often seen by adherent and critic alike as bringing the higher arts down to its level and nothing more. Black Flag were not content to settle for that and, again with varying results, not only took hold of them, but mutated them in their own image. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski gave Black Flag a distinct aural language. Raymond Pettibon’s drawings for their records and flyers, not to mention their simplistic but striking four bar logo, gave it a distinct visual language. Applying the Black Flag approach to actual language seems rather inevitable in this light, but that wasn’t the case until after Rollins, a dynamic performer who sometimes read Henry Miller aloud at shows, joined the band as their fourth vocalist. The first half of the 1984 album Family Man is made up of Rollins’s early spoken word, and serves as a kind of coming out.

As a recent convert to punk and one with literary leanings, “Can punk be literary?” was a question I asked myself a lot at that time. Initially it appeared that writing was subservient to music by way of zines and journalism. It was an angle of promotion, not an end in itself. If it became one it had to match the scope of intensity and introspection set by the music—which meant poetry or memoir. Rollins’s transition into poetry was nursed by Harvey Kubernik. His spoken word compilations that included Dennis Cooper, Exene Cervenka, Chuck Dukowski, and Susanna Hoffs calcified that standard. But however interesting those are as cool projects or historical documents, their interest was not lasting to me personally.

One way to think of punk is as a road beset with a series of tollhouses. You come to one, pay some sort of vague due, and pass through to the experience it offers—a record, a show, a scene, etc. Each subsequent tollhouse offers a different experience commensurate with one’s maturity. Not everyone stays on the road at the same length, and those who stay on long enough might only have a faint memory of the first destination. (Or, conversely, that is all they remember.) But the road is still the road. Henry Rollins, however, was more of a detour or an off-road attraction. He didn’t really reveal anything to me that, at the time, I hadn’t already encountered with other poets. The real tollhouse was very nearby, though.

After Raymond Pettibon fell out with the band (and especially Ginn, his older brother from whom he is still estranged) over the use of his artwork, he set off on his own career that is arguably more independent of Black Flag than Rollins’s. Though his ink-based comic strip-esque artwork remains starkly minimalistic, it has grown more sophisticated. It’s singular personality is much clearer as Pettibon became a fixture in the contemporary art world, exhibiting in MoMA and the New Museum, and contributing cover art to other bands. Ultimately, for all of Black Flag’s artistic innovations, their real testament is to discipline: the simple, but defiant, act of getting things done. Pettibon, on the other hand, embodied development, the more anxious act of moving forward.

Nearly 20 years after receiving my mobile criticism, however, I find myself defying it even more than I did originally. True, I’ve since encountered people who’ve done what Rollins has done much better. Steven Jesse Bernstein was a better “punk” poet; Jim Goad is a more savage and transgressive polemicist. But Rollins works well within the strictures of his skill set, which isn’t nothing. He’s above everything a gifted performer. Much of his best work comes from his faculty for talking. His essay on 7-11 in the second issue of SPIN begs to be read aloud. He has his substance as well. His minor hit song “Liar” is a pointed character study in someone many of us have had to deal with at one point or another. He is, moreover, one of pop culture’s best chroniclers and archivists. His diaries during his time in Black Flag best capture in real time the milieu of brilliant misfits in which he found himself—not just Ginn, Pettibon, and Dukowski, but D. Boon, Mike Watt, Kira Roessler, Spot, and Keith Morris.

Most of Rollins’s recent publications are diaristic and based on his world traveling, but he admirably never shied away from his early work. There is something admirable still in it. Whereas in the ‘90s it was praised for its “rawness” or “realness,” what comes through now is its modesty. His writing does not aim higher than it needs to or should. It serves a concise purpose of articulating an experience or feeling as the writer saw it, which is the base purpose of most literary expression. It just happens to resonate with a lot of people. “I fell in love with Henry Rollins when I saw an episode of his spoken word show,” write an Amazon review for Black Coffee Blues, considered by some his best book after Get in the Van. “I have never seen such raw emotion and a genuine sharing of feelings. It hit home and helped me understand that no matter how many people are around, you can still be totally alone.”

That Rollins’s work never aspires to greatness or art is the point. Rollins witnessed and directly facilitated feats of greatness that came with costs not even the people willing to pay for them could afford. What you lose in excellence you gain in wisdom, and strangely a kind of perfection. “[James McNeill] Whistler was an amateur,” Max Beerbohm wrote of the painter’s book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, something of a predecessor to Get in the Van. “But you do not dispose of a man by proving him to be an amateur. … His very ignorance and tentativeness may be, must be, a means of an especial grace. Not knowing ‘how to do things,’ having no ready-made or ready-working apparatus, and being in constant fear of failure, he has to grope always in the recesses of his own soul for the best way to express his soul’s meaning.”

SERVING IN HELL

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High School literary education—rather, public high school literary education—doesn’t really do much to instill in students any meaningful insight into literature as a craft or as a medium through which we might understand this or that part of the world. I lay the fault for this on no one person or cluster of people, that’s just sort of how it is. Anyone who thrives on literature tends to be a self-directed seeker no matter what. But for the average student, the most this education does is to sharpen his or her mind just enough to memorize select lines. Many of us can go decades carrying them with us. “That government which is best is that which governs least”; “To thine own self be true/And it must follow as the night the day”; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”; “Or does it explode?”. Stuff like that.

Another one is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” spoken by Satan in the first book of Paradise Lost. The appeal of this line is rather niche compared to the others. It sticks most readily in the minds of moody, metal-inclined teens—teens like me—who would be most bewitched by Milton’s dark irony that is instantly gnarled by teenage earnestness. It’s a very high school sentiment out of context, but very fun to return to as I have a few times in the past, and I’m returning to it now, but with a bit of a twist.

While Milton’s Satan—rebellious, headstrong, dramatic—has endless attraction to the teenage mind, much less attention is given to Milton’s Beelzebub. Though usually the names Beelzebub and Satan are interchangeable with one another, Beelzebub in Paradise Lost is Satan’s second-in-command and something of a foil. Equal in eloquence but wiser and more levelheaded, Beelzebub provides grave and sound council to Satan, even if Satan always has a good answer for everything—hence the above quote. Nevertheless, Beelzebub resigns himself to his station, serving and trying to bend his master to the best possible outcome.

If this sounds like a very annoying way to spend an eternity, just wait for adulthood. Indeed, the more one sinks into it, the more one might be inclined to understand Beelzebub and even find him worth emulating. And I was thinking of this earlier in the week when I read Will Leitch’s New York piece “What Fresh Hell is Barstool Sports?”. Technically the question had already been answered by an earlier exposé on Barstool Sports in The Daily Beast. But Leitch adds more context with his experience of founding and running his own sports website Deadspin.

The great hierarchy of sports-culture websites is structured roughly thus: at the top is the much-mourned Grantland, followed by its punchier successor The Ringer. Under that is Vox’s SB Nation, which fell from grace a bit thanks to a 12,000-word disaster that threatened, but I fear did not totally demolish, the idea of “longform” as an end in itself. After SB Nation is Deadspin, which at best is a gateway toward the others, handholding the non-sports fan into interesting sports coverage. Then, beneath all that (and maybe even below sites like The Chive and BroBible), is Barstool Sports, initially a Boston-based print entity that has exploded into a mini-web empire and a haven for a simpler form, to say the least, of sports fandom. Barstool, and especially its founder and figurehead Dave Portnoy, embodies what Leitch calls the “cool guy”:

What Portnoy has channeled is a familiar sort of character, the sort that has existed long before there were blogs and comment sections: the reactionary sports fan, the person who just wants to watch his (always his) games and hang out with his boys and talk about chicks, embodied famously by the notorious “and twins Coors Light commercial, which looks so archaic now but is actually younger than Tom Brady’s NFL career.

The mentality is suffused by Barstool’s mantra: “Saturday is for the boys.” All well and good, one might suppose, if that was that. But this being the future, nothing can stay in its cave (man cave, Platonic cave, or whatever) for long. Barstool is known first and foremost as one of the most putrid toxic waste dumps of the internet. Robert Silverman’s report at The Daily Beast, which got him doxxed by Portnoy, shows that Barstool flouts every nostrum of common decency under the sun. Barstool contributors have made sexual comments about underage female athletes, Portnoy writes blog posts extolling the merits of torture and the word “cunt.” Portnoy and his readers have waged bitter feuds against anyone who criticizes Barstool, though a disproportionate amount of the bile is directed at women like ESPN’s Sam Ponder and Deadspin’s Laura Wagner. Even women who have worked for Barstool have not been spared.

Most of these antics have been well known in the online sports subculture. But the wider attention comes as Barstool seeks more advertising money and farther cultural reach. At the center of both pieces is Eric Sollenberger who under his better known moniker PFT Commenter is seen as crucial to Barstool’s evolution.

I’ve known about PFT Commenter longer than I’ve known about Barstool. In fact it is because of the former that I know about the latter. Sollenberger came into prominence a few years ago through his Twitter activity, which satirized the horrid comments of an entirely different sports site ProFootballTalk. He operates much like Dril but for a niche audience, parodying macho affectations peppered with inconsistent grammar, but with an added mockery of the sycophancy that plagues NFL fandom:

Slate compared him to Stephen Colbert, and his star has been steadily rising since. He currently cohosts the Barstool podcast Pardon My Take, a riff on ESPN shows that nonetheless got him appearances on EPSN. Earlier this year, The Washington Post covered him.

Sollenberger is controversial seemingly because he is so uncontroversial. He and his cohost Dan Katz according to Silverman “provide [a] valuable service: The widespread and false perception that they’re ‘the good ones’ creates an acceptable point of entry, allowing brands to associate with Barstool and giving readers permission to wave away the worst of the site’s behavior.” Leitch echoes Silverman, calling Sollenberger “a legitimate talent,” but also adding a warning. “[I]t is becoming increasingly clear that the bank shot he’s attempting … is destined to backfire. Barstool will be with him forever, no matter what happens to it or to him.”

Leitch is speaking from his experience of watching Deadspin mutate out of control. The site became “less about writing stories I found interesting and more about increasing traffic, engaging in petty online turf wars, and Fighting The Man.” Unlike Portnoy, online celebrity left Leitch “exhausted,” and rather than dig in at Deadspin, he jumped ship over to New York.

Leitch’s position is one we’re starting to hear a lot from these days: the sorrow of the early adapter. These are the people who had the good fortune of logging onto internet media around 2000 to 2008-ish, at the time of its greatest promise and innocence before it rapidly deteriorated. To this mindset, that Barstool thrives while Grantland failed is an injustice. That PFT Commenter, by all accounts a gifted, shrewd, and sophisticated acolyte, should lend his talents to Barstool feels like a personal repudiation.

That a weary web denizen should want to help steer another away from poor life choices is an understandable impulse. That it is a correct impulse is another matter, resting as it does on some bold assumptions. The primary assumption being the desire for upward mobility. It implies that because Sollenberger is so brilliant, he wants to, and by all means should, take his place with his equals.

I take issue with this on two counts. First, that Sollenberger is not equal with the likes of people at Deadspin or SB Nation, but superior. I can’t recall anyone else in the online media world who has turned their Twitter activity into something so madcap as Goodell vs. Obama: The Battle for the Future of the NFL. While the trove of online scribblers dole out think-pieces and try to keep pace with the meme output, Sollenberger seems more interested in seeing how far he can take this online character he created. Second, therefore, is that the only one competent enough to see how that talent is used is Sollenberger himself. Doubtless he did not go on his knees before God and ask to serve Him and mankind by being good at Twitter. Like us he’s given what he’s given and has to work it out as he sees fit. Talent coming with strings attached is a nostrum of the less talented.

True, PFT Commenter just so happens to match up with my personal neo-Decadent cultural view, where excellence counts for much, virtue counts for very little, and fandom is the lowest form of existence. But there’s a bit more to it. The idea, for instance, in someone figuring out their careers for themselves while there is still a career to have. As Leitch surely knows, there is no straight or stable road to success. One person’s sophistication is another person’s suffocation. Perhaps to some, Drew Magary’s posts are the pinnacle of eloquence and clarity. Maybe to others he is a sentient washcloth.

I do agree with Leitch that Barstool long term will likely prove limiting, at best, to someone like Sollenberger. But Barstool may offer breathing room for him that higher planes presently do not. In any case, he doesn’t seem to be leaving any time soon.  “I would venture to say that we have some of the most entertaining and uniquely creative people working anywhere in media today and there is no better place to be allowed complete creative freedom than right here right now. … Everything we do here is authentic and I think people realize that.” Sollenberger writes. “Dave’s the one who put his life into building this company, and while I’m in a high position here at the company, Dave’s still my boss and the best I can do is make him aware of my opinion and ask him to consider it.”

A sagacious servant to the end.

A FATEFUL GLITCH

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I had a close call once. It happened 13 or so years ago when I was still in college. It was during the spring semester “Midnight Oasis” dinner, that meal the school puts on where it served all the leftover breakfast food at midnight for the student body at the beginning of finals week.

There was some disagreement among those who were there, sitting at my table next to me, that what happened actually constituted a close call. It certainly felt like a close call from my perspective, as it happened. It lasted maybe seven seconds in real time, though the moment itself remains frozen in nervous amber.

The school is small, but the vast majority of the students crammed into the dining hall for this occasion packing it near to capacity. For what? To cram foamy eggs, rubbery syrup, and plastic bacon into our mouths. Our drunken mouths, I should say. It is hard to enjoy this tradition stone cold sober. Even I, a known lightweight, had imbibed just prior to going. That is almost certainly a major contributor to this close call, equal if not more than the other person.

I can’t remember the name of the other person. I want to say it was John, but maybe it was James, or Dan. We’d sort of known each other because we shared a dormitory floor at one time. I took an instant disliking to him. He was not especially intelligent or cultured and made it abundantly clear, stating with pride that his understanding of the world did not extend beyond his Pennsylvania hometown, which was not far from our Pennsylvania campus. I, affecting to be a paragon of liberal arts collegiate sophistication, found this wholly offensive. Maybe this would have been less grating if he hadn’t been, at least at the time, an education major. I can’t remember what subject he wanted to teach. In any case, he was kind of a default version of a college male. Being on better terms with his roommate, I was in their room from time to time and once saw his computer wallpaper was Madonna kissing Britney Spears at the MTV Video Music Awards. He joined a frat in short order and spent most of his time there.

What he felt about me I was and remain unsure. He was polite in that way most Pennsylvanians are polite, but likely thought little of me overall. At best he was only vaguely aware of people who did not closely resemble him.

At Midnight Oasis, however, I was very much in his space of awareness. How this happened was by no means planned on anyone’s part. It was just one of those fateful glitches that bring disparate people—in an enclosed ecosystem, to be sure—together. I don’t know who did it, or whether it came from my table or the one next to it, but someone threw a bit of food in the direction of his table, which happened to hit his head. He got up and charged at our table, obviously drunk, demanding to know who humiliated him so. Most of us laughed, and so did I, until he turned to me, looking me square in the eye, the pinnacle of rage, yelling something at me that I could not hear. He moved closer to my seat but his bros managed to hold him back and returned him to the table.

I was taken aback by this, to say the least. Being non-confrontational by nature, at times to a fault, I was not accustomed to dealing directly with someone who was, particularly by someone with an athletic build, which was somewhere outside of the football range but much more athletic than mine was and is.

“Did I almost just get my ass kicked?” I half-nervously, half-jokingly asked my tablemates.

“I don’t think so,” as I mentioned, was the consensus, and maybe the right one all things considered. What would have happened if his bros had not been there to hold him back? I’d say he’d likely get much closer, “inside my face,” to paraphrase Will Ferrell. Perhaps at worst he’d grab me by my shirt and hoist me up to make whatever point he wanted to make much clearer. But really without him having to do much, I would have shrunk down and, in typical spaz fashion, flinched out of my seat, flush over with embarrassment. But something tells me that the embarrassment would have been mutual. The kind that arises between two people when their conduct in reality corrodes the ideals they’d carefully cultivated of themselves in their heads that would not have easily resorted to respective brutishness and cowardice. Or so I’d hope, anyway.

Leaving the student union, I happened to pass by him at the entrance. He was more jovial by then and not paying attention to me, as if no interaction had taken place less than 30 minutes earlier. I was a bit confused but mostly relieved. It was my last memory of him.

Why I should remember this incident that seems so comparatively trivial a bad memory doesn’t seem to make much sense. But thinking about it now, my part in the incident felt as though it was deserved. It’s the price I’d have to pay for judging someone I knew only casually, and who offended me so generally, so harshly, and having my judgment more or less confirmed.

I couldn’t possibly tell you what lesson comes from this. It’s not like there’s a law requiring any. But it was a close call. That much I know.

THE MARKET

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I really shouldn’t have to say this because what I’m going to say is pure, snow-white common sense. But after 25-odd years in this business I’ve learned that most other people in this business pay zero mind to common sense, whether they are incapable to begin with or have succeeded to such a degree that they can afford to just brush it aside like garbage on the street. And maybe because you’re new you think it doesn’t apply to you just as much. That is the platonic ideal of a rookie-fucking-mistake. So I’m going to get this out of the way for the sake of clarity.

This business exists to sustain the market. There are, sure, some businesses that don’t; I don’t know anything about them, I can’t conceive of them, so don’t confuse this one with those ones.

Think of the market as a beast. It can be any kind of beast you want. It could be a land beast or it could be a sea beast. It could be a quadruped or it could stand on its hind legs. It could have scales or it could have fur. Or feathers. I don’t give a shit. But in every case it is understood to be massive, to be lumbering and imposing, and whose sole purpose in life is to eat and shit and move on. It moves over the earth guided by the path of feasts set before it. Savory, immaculately prepared meals it gobbles up without a second thought.

Do you know why I’ve survived this business for give-or-take 32 years? Because I know better than anyone else here what the beast will eat next. The market has unpredictable tastes and an unprecedentedly tolerant palate. It seems like it could go just about anywhere at any given moment. That’s rookie mistake number two. You see, the market isn’t just moving by the raw sensations of its appetite, the grumblings in its belly. There’s some design in it, some logic, that only the most finely attuned minds in the business can make sense of. It’s not an exact science, yeah. But compared to my contemporaries, my track record has a better ratio of right-to-wrong calls—maybe about 77 to four—as to where the market will turn next. And buddy, you are one lucky SOB. Timing seems to be your strong suit, cherish that. You’re about to be witness to my next big call.

Now this is not the official call. That comes later. So really you’re in an even better position than you think. I’m gonna run it by you. And then I’m gonna smooth it out based on your facial tics as you process my words in real time. Now don’t get it twisted. I’ve been thinking about this for a week and change. This is no vision quest, this no session with an oracle. This is a conclusion I’ve arrived it, that I’ve refined and revised in sacred solitude. But it is worthless if it stays hidden all the way to my funeral pyre. The market needs this. And I work by a process to bring it out. It’s very painstaking as you can see. Somewhat life-draining as well.

Anyway, enough preface, we need to get to the goods. But I should maybe include an addendum to the preface for the sake of posterity.

You will doubtless have heard that we are in the midst of dark times. This, I’d say, is quite true. Certainly for the best minds of the business. Every meeting I attend these days opens with heartbreak and closes with despondence. There are, it appears, no good ideas. No one has any clue what’s going on, what people want, or what even they want for themselves. Naturally, this requires bold thinking. I am not a bold thinker. A lot of times the market does not want bold ideas. It totally ignores them. Not so now. So I too must shift. I’m just lucky that it is not as hard for me to do as it is for others. If you turn out as good as me you too will find yourself weighted by the burden of picking up the slack of your equals, and at times your heroes.

You are anxious. This is understandable. Consider this preparation for a career of leaping from one anxiety to the next. But onward!

It is my intention that I will announce that the market demands—hungers for—videos of women tearing oranges apart.

You heard that right: videos of women tearing oranges apart. With their bear hands, of course. Now you might be wondering what precisely brought me to conclude this. Well it’s sort of complicated. As with everything I spend a lot of my free time analyzing arcs of past trends and trying to assess the public mood. Those findings certainly go into account. But at the same time it is very simple. I can actually pinpoint a single moment when I knew I had something.

I never gave much thought to peeling an orange. I don’t really like oranges. I like apples, pears, plums, things you can chomp into without hassle. And if a rind did come to obstruct my path to fruity goodness, never was there a moment in my life when I didn’t have someone to take care of that part. Not so the younger generation, it seems, who are on this kick about self-reliance. You seem to be about the same age as my stepdaughter, so I think you understand. That is when it came to me.

It happened when she was visiting from Macalester on fall break. I’m drinking my coffee at the kitchen table and she comes slinking out of her cave in the same Echo and the Bunnymen shirt she’d been wearing since she got home two days before. She sort of lingers in the center of the kitchen for a good minute, possibly to annoy me, but also possibly because the necessity of motion cripples her in some deep psychic way—I don’t know. She finally settles over the fruit bowl and takes up an orange. A big ripe fucker at that. She stares at it like it’s this orb handed down from a rift in the sky. She explores the surface with her fingertips to find an entryway. Already I’m mesmerized, but then she finds it. She digs her long nails into the rind and juice drips out the side. But then she doesn’t have it. There’s a struggle. The skin won’t budge. It’s like she’s trying to peel a scalp from a dead skull. Her face tenses. She looks ferocious as she tries to conquer this fruit. I’d never seen her so … committed to something, and so frustrated by it. I lose all track of time and what I’m supposed to be doing the rest of the day. This is my priority. This is entrancing. My life was bringing me to this moment. Every victory I had and every failure fell into place like a puzzle creating an image of this moment. She’s digging her fingers deeper into it. She’s lost all patience. I think I hear her growl. It’s feral; it’s not human. It could have been a dog next door but I’m going with it coming from her. I forget the interval but after some more struggle, the orange splits in two, but not necessarily in half. She lifts up her juice-covered hand to reveal that two of her purple-painted nails are broken. Her face goes from ferocity to horror like that. Then she goes sour again when she realizes I’d been staring at her trying to open this orange the entire time. “Take a picture why don’t you, asshole,” she says, and hurls the torn fruit into the sink as she goes back into her room. “We’ll discuss your attitude later,” I say back feigning anger. But really I’m elated. That feeling of breakthrough just gets me every time.

That’s when I have it. Women trying to peel oranges; hardened, stubborn oranges. Women of all shapes and sizes. Women of all creeds, classes, and persuasions. Women in evening gowns, in cocktail dresses, in kaftans, in yoga pants … women in business casual, women in sweaters knitted by their long-dead grandmothers. Women with long acrylic nails or women with no nails at all. Women giving their all to separate skin from pulp. It’s so goddamn fucking obvious. We will broadcast it on streaming and premium cable. We’ll shoot it in hard focus, we’ll shoot it in Vaseline lens, we’ll shoot it in hi-def, we’ll shoot it in VHS, we’ll shoot it in glitchy pixilation. We’ll shoot it in slo-mo to build tension. Then we’ll speed it up to bring catharsis. Maybe we won’t even show what happens in the end. Maybe we’ll do it in a single location. A nondescript room. And if the numbers go in the trajectory I think they will, we can do other locations. Public places, iconic settings. A woman tearing into an orange at Ellis Island. A woman tearing into an orange at Mount Rushmore. A woman tearing into an orange on the south lawn of the fucking White House.

This could be it. This could be the thing that finally, at long last, binds the country’s wounds and allows its people to heal in unity. I’m not saying this to congratulate myself. No one takes this job for the endless validation. In this business I am merely a vessel. I am a vessel for the people’s dreams, the dreams they all have and yet can never realize. From here on out, never let anyone else in this business tell you that we are not necessary or that we are just “making shit complicated.” My track record speaks for itself. Maybe yours will someday, too.

So … will the women be eating the oranges?

Huh? No. My analysis did not indicate that the market is ready for that.

Okay.

Yeah.

Can I go now?

Oh, sure. Tell the next one on your way out that they can come in.

SATISFACTION

Burr-Hamilton-Duel-engraving

SCENE: A flat field on a spring morning. Two men walk toward each other carrying bags.

NEMESIS 1: So you have mustered the courage to appear on our day of conflict!

NEMESIS 2: Oh goodness, am I late?

NEMESIS 1: No, you are right on time.

NEMESIS 2: It is just like you to be early.

NEMESIS 1: Yes. [Pause.] Wait, just like me in I kind of psy-op power move or in a compulsive urge to never be late.

NEMESIS 2: The former.

NEMESIS 1: Oh.

NEMESIS 2: I mean … both … maybe?

NEMESIS 1: Quite so … I guess.

NEMESIS 2: Quite so.

Pause.

NEMESIS 1: Perhaps it is necessary to review why we have agreed to have this duel.

NEMESIS 2: You mean specifically?

NEMESIS 1: Sure … for posterity.

NEMESIS 2: Okay.

NEMESIS 1: Remember last month you [CENSORED]. Then you [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] to the mortification of anyone within earshot. It was beneath my dignity to be thought complicit in your massive adolescent horseshit. And so I demand satisfaction.

NEMESIS 2: Yes, well, a slight clarification. It would be more accurate to say that I was [CENSORED], which is a different school of thought to the [CENSORED] you describe.

NEMESIS 1: Even so, that doesn’t mitigate the severity of our conflict.

NEMESIS 2: High stakes leave no room for gross inaccuracy.

NEMESIS 1: Very well.

NEMESIS 2: Very well.

NEMESIS 1: You are familiar with the rules?

NEMESIS 2: 10 paces, turn, and fire.

NEMESIS 1: There is no dishonor in firing slightly off-target.

NEMESIS 2: I am aware.

NEMESIS 1: Good. Now let us present our weapons.

They go into their bags. NEMESIS 2 reveals his weapon. Looking at it, NEMESIS 1 breaks out into laughter.

NEMESIS 2: What?

NEMESIS 1: You fool! [Laughs.] You blundering, naïve, childish fool!

NEMESIS 2: I don’t see what’s so funny.

NEMESIS 1: An aloof disregard talisman?

NEMESIS 2: What’s the matter with it?

NEMESIS 1: Haven’t you heard the saying? Never bring an aloof disregard talisman to a withering condescension orb fight. [Laughs.] You, sir, have made a capital error. [Regains composure.] A capital error. What do you expect to accomplish with an aloof disregard talisman?

NEMESIS 2: I expect to lose.

NEMESIS 1: What?

NEMESIS 2: I’m not thick, sir. I know the saying very well. You could say I’ve had it in my head since the proposal of the duel.

NEMESIS 1: What’s all this about?

NEMESIS 2: What you didn’t plan on, sir, is that I am a defeatist at heart. I’ve come to find victory very tiresome.

NEMESIS 1: This is very odd.

NEMESIS 2: It is what it is.

NEMESIS 1 [going into his bag]: No I mean I, too, brought my aloof disregard talisman. [Presents his weapon.]

NEMESIS 2: You mean to say that … you, too, are a defeatist?

NEMESIS 1: I have never willfully won anything in my life and I’m not about to start now.

NEMESIS 2: Well, it seems we have inadvertently leveled the playing field.

NEMESIS 1: It does seem so.

NEMESIS 2: Shall we call it a draw?

NEMESIS 1: Never! I will succumb to your dominance as any honorable man would.

NEMESIS 2: Over my dead body will I dominate you!

NEMESIS 1: Well then, it seems we have no choice. Ready your weapon.

They each tie their talismans around their necks.

On the count of 10.

They walk 10 paces away from each other, turn around, and stand still. Their talismans light up. Four hours pass.

LACROSSE PLAYER: Hey, you two! Can you move? We have to practice.

NEMESIS 1: Are you mad? We are in the midst of conflict!

LACROSSE PLAYER: Like, can you take it to the bocce court or something?

NEMESIS 1: I am on the verge of satisfaction. [Pause.] Any minute now.

NEMESIS 2: I, too, am nearing satisfaction.

LACROSSE PLAYER: Coach can you—

LACROSSE COACH: Oh just wait in the van, Dylan.

END.

A CHEESY MEDITATION

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So it’s Sunday, and it’s rainy. You’re just on the edge of the time where it’s too late for lunch. You don’t have a lot of energy and you don’t have a lot in the fridge. Still, you’re feeling nice enough and you want to treat yourself.

You don’t have enough food to be properly adventurous but you might have just enough food to be inventive. You’d be like MacGyver for people who forgot to go to the store on Saturday.

What’s in your fridge? The edges of a loaf of Wonder Bread. Good, you’ve been slacking lately and you need a challenge. What else? Half of a tomato? Okay, you can work with this. Some remnants of pulled pork in a takeout container? That reheats well! And three slices of cheddar cheese. It looks to me like you’ve got yourself a grilled pork sandwich.

You take out your frying pan. That tightening in your chest isn’t from knowing all the carbs and cholesterol you’re about to wolf down, it’s a good tightness, it’s from the thrill and anticipation. This sandwich is going to be a banger, you just know it. Hold up. Where’s the butter-like spread? Uh oh. You’ve got to grease it with something. You remember someone told you that diners use mayo instead of butter for their grilled cheese sandwiches so down the racks you go. No mayo, but a jar of Miracle Whip with a sliver of it congealing just below the label. You cringe a little; you don’t even remember buying Miracle Whip. But you can’t turn back now; you’ve made a commitment. On it goes. Maybe the crust of the end pieces of the loaf will absorb its worst aspects, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, right?

With all the other elements in place, you carefully place it on your frying pan, set over the stove at low heat.

While you wait, you realize that you have one slice of cheddar remaining. No sense in letting it acquire mold for another week. It’s not bad. It’s very pleasant actually. Before you throw out the empty packet you take a look at the label: “medium cheddar.”

You never gave much thought to the levels of cheddar before that moment. This is just the type of cheddar your parents used to get when you were young, and what they’d get when you visited on holidays. Why mess with tradition, right? What is even the level beneath medium cheddar? Mild cheddar? Low cheddar? There doesn’t seem to be much point in that. Medium has most of what you need. It’s not too aggressive, not too bland. It goes well with most lunch foods. It’s the epitome of fine. What’s fine? You’ve never thought about that either. You guess it’s something that maybe isn’t ideal but which doesn’t offend either. It placates all things; it soothes all rough edges with its good nature.

You start to chew the cheese slice more slowly. Not because you’re savoring it but because you’re identifying with it. It turns out you’re consuming yourself. In this moment, and indeed in all moments that led up to this one, you feel completely and utterly medium. Your entire existence is one easy glide past conflict, risk, and adventure and straight to compromise, caution, and congeniality.

That always seemed okay as far as things went. You never wanted for much, you never felt like you missed out on anything or felt over-pressured go that extra mile. Except now, having it written out for you so plainly, things seem different. You wonder if you can’t do better. You wonder if you can’t just ascend beyond medium. For the first time in your life you have the urge to be more. You have the urge to be sharp. You don’t want to just be easy, to go along and get along. You want to be tangy. You want to be pungent bordering on sour. You don’t want to just give support to or blend in among the other flavors, you want to play at their level, maybe even dominate them. You don’t want to be flexible. You want to be hard. You want to have your presence felt before, during, and after consumption.

If you were sharp you would not be easily forgotten, not set aside or subsumed for “superior” flavors and textures. Fuck that, you say. If you were sharp you’d command respect. You’d have an element of danger. Not actual danger, though, just the realistic possibility of danger. Like, you could totally handle it if you crossed it. You could be there for the other mediums, towards whom you feel bottomless empathy. Even though you’re sharp you’re still cheddar, you have principles. You’re not blue cheese, after all. You’re not fucking crazy.

But of course the world is teeming with blue cheese. Everywhere you are blue cheese seems to be there as well. You don’t really run in the same circles but you have some mutuals. And you start to hear things about blue cheese. Blue cheese is kind of an art, an aesthetic. It has intuitions entirely unique among the dairies and seemingly untethered to any notion of limitation or propriety. Like you, blue cheese lives without fear, but somehow blue cheese is less fearless than even you are. That bugs you, doesn’t it? Blue cheese plays by no rules whatever and gets about the same respect as you do—more respect, in fact. Fuck that, you say once more as you ascend higher still.

They say that blue cheese is a calling. You can’t just become blue cheese. Either you are blue cheese or you are not. People have warned you time and time again, but like that’s going to stop you, right? Already you’re feeling pretty powerful, like you can do anything. And in fact you are doing pretty much whatever you feel like doing at this point. No rules, no boundaries, no hoity-toity deference to political correctness. Fuck that, you say over and over and over again. Fuck that to you parents. Fuck that to your boss. Fuck that to your girlfriend. Fuck that to your Uber driver. Fuck that to the judge at your sentencing hearing when she asks what possessed you to go to Comic Con brandishing a live chainsaw in the first place.

Upon swallowing the cheese slice you’re beset with a vision of multiple paths placed before you. The path you are on now seems far less compelling than it ever was, and the hazards of the adjacent paths now seem far less foreboding. It is no longer a matter of choosing wisely as simply choosing something and taking on whatever obstacles are placed on it.

It appears that the first obstacle is putting out a flaming stovetop without the aid of a fire extinguisher.

Things can only go uphill from here.

NO WHIPPED CREAM FOR THE EXTREMIST

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The crowd had dispersed but then reconfigured, as if by some natural but unseen current, into smaller groups who were preparing to turn back out into the city.

The crowd had convened for a specific purpose that seemed more like a pretense the further out from the purpose’s conclusion. The Extremist’s memory of it started to disintegrate almost in an instant. The Extremist felt somewhat ashamed at his distaste for sitting and listening patiently. But then it was natural for him to assume of others, in good faith, that they were attentive and unchained in their interest in all things. Then again, the alcohol provided for the event had been depleted with rapacious industry.

The Extremist was eager to join a group, one group in particular; it was made up of people of no small familiarity to him. Like-minded is the term people like to use. But every time The Extremist thought he had a firm hold on the movements and motives of this particular group, it would suddenly shift. He was not integrated but he was not shuffled out either. He was like a strand of water stretching into a globule of oil which retracts into itself without breaking apart. It did not help matters that the person herding this group, who was also the person who convened the crowd, could not remember The Extremist’s name in any of the instances they ever met.

Standing outside the building in midtown Manhattan, The Extremist motioned his goodbyes in hope of a last minute induction. Instead they drifted away like a larger continent leaving behind and island, floating mass of debris dislodging a small section that is mostly used diapers and empty pill bottles.

The Extremist did not yet feel like going home. It was a little after nine o’clock at night and he moved downtown to a diner.

The Extremist sat hunched over in a booth at the front of the diner and was staring out into the city. His face settled into a neutral expression with a gaze that appeared half-resting, half-alert. His young, cheerful server approached his table furtively. From her view The Extremist appeared as if he’d wandered out of the halfway point of a hypnosis session.

“Can I get you a dessert menu?” the server asked softly.

The Extremist did not immediately reply but snapped out of it before forcing her the indignity of repeating. “Do you have apple pie?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll have a coffee with cream.”

“We only have milk.”

“That’s fine.”

“And the apple pie?”

“Yes. One slice of apple pie.”

She paused and did not write anything down. “Can I maybe interest you in a cherry pie instead?”

“Why?”

“The apple pie is not fresh. There are actually just two slices left.”

The Extremist thought for a moment. “The cherry pie is fresher?”

“Yes, it was baked this afternoon. The apple pie was baked … last night.”

“Well … thanks for the caution, but I’m not feeling adventurous.”

“Would you like whipped cream then?”

“You’d recommend that?”

“I would.”

The Extremist thought again but only half-heartedly. “No, no thanks. I’ll take my chances.”

The server put his whole order to paper and smiled at him. “I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

The slice that sat before him on a beige plate was thin. The crust was pallid and cracked with bubbly abscesses. The cinnamon filling seeped out of the sides in a stiff and darkened consistency, like congealed blood on a dirt floor. But the staleness ended up being masked by the sour and gamey apple slices, slight and shriveled like the pruned fingers of children. Each one felt as if it was taking up to a minute to completely breakdown with his bite. The coffee was bitter no matter how many sugar packets he injected it with.

The Extremist imagined what it would be like to be a customer who complained about this type of thing to a server who monitored her tables with the gentleness and patience of a palliative care orderly. But this is what happens when you come to a place like that at that time of night in that part of the city. That wouldn’t stop a lot of people, and he began to feel disappointment for her, and all the other gentle and patient servers around the country.

It did not last. Pity is unbecoming, thought The Extremist. But also it was taking him away from his central task of erasing his immediate memory of two hours earlier. Once he had done so, all the disfavor he’d heaped upon the group he very much wanted to join in that short time would be neutralized, and their uncorrupted versions would return resplendent.

The Extremist had to be careful, though. There was always the temptation not to confine the scope of his mental redaction, but indeed to stretch far beyond. So far beyond that it seemed less like redaction and more like arson. Half of The Extremist’s mind was a tank of accelerant, separated from the information stored in the other half by a grated metallic wall that, when moved a certain way could seep or flood into the information side, clearing as much space as The Extremist thought necessary.

It was fine so long as The Extremist assumed he was more or less in control of this design. If, for instance, he did not stop at the immediately preceding events and into the very space around him—that is, that the diner, the gentle and patient server, her other customers, her boss, the people outside, the street on which they walked, the walls of darkened buildings, and the honking and sputtering cars would all disintegrate from the edges inward like a compromising photograph in the possession of its subject—it was because he intended it so. And if a flat green field replaced the disintegrated city, an overcast afternoon replaced the starry night, autumnal trees replaced the tall buildings, and rows of headstones—some straight, some crooked—replaced the people, this, too, would not surprise The Extremist.

The Extremist would perhaps float about the new scene, undetected by its particulars, a casually interested, non-intervening presence. He would hover above a corner of the far edge of the cemetery where a new plot had been cleared. Three people standing around it with a fourth occupying the casket inside it. A priest standing at the end of the plot facing the headstone saying the committal to the occupant of the casket. To each side of him would be a gravedigger hunched over their shovels each with a mound of dirt at their feet. On the headstone would read, in Helvetica Neue font, HERE LIES THE EXTREMIST.

The Extremist would not question why no one else besides those three was there. No friends, no family, no shame-ridden acquaintances who happened to be nearby. Perhaps he whiled away his final days in a wreckages of petty feuds and calcified resentment. Perhaps there was a long succession of deaths in his cohort and he just happened to be the last one. Perhaps he died in a time when public mourning was out of fashion. Or perhaps everyone simply forgot.

The Extremist never saw anything morbid or offensive about imagining one’s funeral. It was quite easy and not all that taxing to do. Many others probably do it, in fact. It is a quite different fixation from thinking about one’s own death. The Extremist couldn’t picture that himself. He knew it was real, he knew it was coming but not at what speed and in which guise. Whatever it was, he preferred not to be completely cognizant of it in the process. He preferred the freedom of oblivion and the comfort of a sparse burial. It was a reasonable price for living a life unburdened by importance of any kind. This is what he gets in exchange for never having to make decisions of any real significance, never having any effect on anything past a 10-foot radius, or never having to be relied on to opine on pressing matters, whether fleeting or festering.

Only later, with the priest halfway into his ritual, the gravediggers gripping their shovels more intently, would a fifth person appear, moseying over from the far off rows, in jeans, boat shoes, a fleece, and a baseball cap. The Extremist knew no one who dressed in this way, and yet this stranger would stop just outside the small gathering around his grave and watch ruefully.

Here The Extremist’s control had no reach. Why the fleeced stranger was there at his burial he could only but guess. Though his guess was a good one. The Extremist likes to think that there is a subculture of people who attend funerals of people they’ve never met. Why they do this is entirely up to the individual—trauma, voyeurism, boredom, etc.—but being there fires them up where other leisure activities do not. The Extremist likes to think that these people attend not to sow mischief as most crashers tend to do, but to please themselves internally, to meditate on this unknown life, and moreover to fill in the gaps of their knowledge with whatever fancies them. “Who was The Extremist,” the stranger in jeans might ask, and the stranger may procee—

I can take it from here, actually.­

Oh. Very well, do go ahead.

Thanks. As I look at this guy’s grave, just as when I look at anyone’s grave, I always think of how I would have thought of his life in a different time. Not everyone I know in this line of activity likes to go straight for the glamor when they see a funeral. It just so happens that I do. But I’m always a little disappointed after doing so, because glamor is not what it used to be. Do you follow me?

I don’t, but please go on.

So if this were a different time—say, if this were 30 years in the past—I’d have thought up the whole thing differently. I would have pegged this guy for a congressional aide who was too loyal for his own good. You know? Or he could have been a mercenary fighter in the Latin American theatre who was too moral by half. Maybe he was a businessman who, having hit a ceiling with his caution-based ethics and shrewd strategizing, wanted to spice up his work life and stymied income. He took up drug-running without really thinking it through. Got caught in the whims of a far shrewder femme fatale—maybe a part-time cocktail waitress and aspiring lingerie model with a kid to support—and made sweet, sweet love right into shark-infested waters.

 But that was then. This is now. No real equivalent comes to mind. Maybe he was a contestant on a reality show, you know? Something like The Bachelorette. But he was not a winner. He was not on his game. He got shafted halfway, not on his lack of merits—well, partially on his lack of merits—but through the schemes of a competitor, spreading lies and misdirection in the service of his burgeoning modeling/escort career, and an unsympathetic edit.

The competitor with The Extremist, not The Extremist, is the escort?

Yeah. The guy being buried doesn’t really know what to do at this point. He tries his hand at a few things. Blogger, panel show judge, product pitchman, a few bit parts in streaming-only sex romps.

Or a low-budget horror.

If only! But I think after all that he’d hit a dead end and go back to school. He’d get his Masters in Media Studies or some such. He’d get into consulting and serve clients in Singapore, where he’d have a 47-year-old mistress, and in Dubai, where he’d have a 19-year-old mistress. Both would break up with him for whatever reason. He’d die in a skydiving mishap of unusual but ultimately inconclusive circumstances.

Thanks for that.

Don’t mention it.

The vision would then have faded and everything configured back to reality. The Extremist was on the train, seated awkwardly across a father and daughter coming back from a Rangers game. He was again looking out the window, more serenely this time, watching barely visible landmarks roll past him.

“That kind of life,” The Extremist thought to himself, “is the life of a person who deserves whipped cream on his pie.”

WHY I WRITE: THE LEGIBLE VERSION

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I’ve never considered the subject of why anyone writes to be very interesting to readers. Then I remember that one of my chief weaknesses as a writer is having a poor aptitude for reading an audience. Every now and then editors warn me that something I’m writing for them is steering away from their readers’ interest. I should think that readers sometimes appreciate getting thrown curveballs. But the comments I’m not supposed to read often indicate otherwise. So I’m left trying to preemptively steer my way back into their good graces. My instinct tells me that these types of writings will be less important for me in the future. My reason tells me that I might be right but that I am also not their first or final judge. Are you interested yet?

Assessing why one writes means first assessing one’s flaws. At times I write too quickly. Other times I write too slowly. I’m an attentive, even exacting copyeditor but not so much for my own work. Yet my typos can be so slight that they even evade the most seasoned editor. Sometimes I lack ambition. Other times I overflow with ambition and subsequently waste it. Sometimes I think I champion short form over long form writing simply because of my attention span. I really don’t like staying in one place for long. Or I come to a place, pour over it, promptly leave it, then return after a few months to comb over the same space again. I am hopelessly obsessed with my own work; either out of pride or out of shame. It is assumed, I suspect, that I prize style over substance, but I will return to that. I am deeply envious of the successes of others—deserved or not—and cripplingly frustrated by the lack of my own. The longer I stay in the community of writers, the less incentive I see in cultivating it.

The purest motive for writing is “having something to say.” Writers, so far as I know, seldom admit this, but fans of a writer whose work best soothes their prejudices often do. This is by no means untrue. Swift and Orwell wrote in large part because they had points to raise. But that is a function, not really a virtue. Matt Walsh has points to raise. So do Ben Shapiro and Amanda Marcotte. What makes them special? I gave “having something to say” a try for a while. I tried for half a decade, in fact. But in trying to find “something to say” I discovered that (a) much of what I thought I had to say had been said more effectively elsewhere and (b) what I truly have to say, deep down in my marrow, is better left unsaid. Not that I regret this period in my development. I’m a firm believer in extracting wisdom from failure.

It becomes clear that the reason I write is less about “having something to say” and more that “something is making me talk.” I believe that this is quite different. The former is typically a response from something without. Something strikes a writer and he or she must defend against it—and warn those who will listen—to the best of his or her ability. Being made to talk is something that arises largely from within. An idea will make itself known—sometimes I even speak it aloud first—attached entirely to my own concerns, but which for some reason demands clarification. Writing, in this sense, is as much about acting as it is about scripting. Sometimes writing is a matter of sitting down and asking “What am I going to be today? What kind of person can best handle this idea I suddenly have? An essayist? A fictionist? A dramatist? A humorist?”

Not all of these ideas get a full hearing. Some are passable non-sequiturs on Twitter. Some stay with me longer. Lately it is a matter of allowing more of them around.

That doesn’t seem very special, and merely opens to the question of why I choose to publish these things.

The best answer is the simplest: I like my work. It seems silly to let it gather dust for my own pleasure. Moreover it is somewhat arrogant to let me be the sole judge as to whether my work has or lacks purpose. But like a lot of people, I crave validation. Validation comes in more than one form. A simple click is a quick, cheap route. A compliment is one better. Substantial feedback, especially laced with critique, is greater still. A hate-share may be the highest honor of all.

Yet at my most engaged, attracting an audience, trying to match possible peers, and even the relative validity of my own ideas often recede beneath a loftier concern. My highest motivation is excellence. My entire cultural worldview boils down to my belief in its singular importance. My belief in excellence attaches me to the conservatives. My belief that excellence can emanate from anywhere—church architecture, a symphony, a painting, a gossip column, pornography, a punk song—puts me in league with the liberals.

This split view affects how I work. I can gain technical insights from reading a Lionel Trilling essay, and use them in turn to matching my actual influences.

I first heard Cave In’s song “Juggernaut,” the third track off their 1998 album Until Your Heart Stops, in 2000. At 16 years old I had no idea what I wanted to do. Indeed, my guidance counselor applied considerable pressure to prevent me from dropping journalism that year. I only knew from the very first moment I heard it that “Juggernaut” was high art, played by Massholes (and a New Hampshirite) who were themselves just out of high school. I still hold it as a masterpiece of compositional complexity, a mastery of tone. For the first time, I felt like a bar was being set for me to attain some manner of achievement. I hold myself to this bar 18 years later. All great works are made by how well their creators balance their ambitions with their craft. This song is no different. And any piece I write that attains the same balance is, if only for me, a qualified success.

That might be a bit grandiose, but writers ignore extra-medium influences at their peril. Music is especially crucial if writers want to gain sensitivity in both voice and structure. For instance, the writing of my Jacobite essay on Savonarola and punk was accompanied by a steady diet of Converge’s album You Fail Me. Even if the connection is not immediately evident, I believe the piece would have read more anemically if I hadn’t made it. Moreover, calling the work I do on Black Ribbon Award (a title I lifted from one of Cave In singer Stephen Brodsky’s solo albums) “lo-fi” would not be an unfair deduction.

Writing, not to mention being edited and publishing, is an unending session of trial and error. One must relish the process as much as the prized results or one gets nowhere. Some workshops (and I assume MFA programs) instill this but in my experience they haven’t done so very well. The revision process and peer-to-peer constructive criticism are not trivial matters. But little is said of personal intuition, less so—and with a hint of antagonism—of experimentation. The error of many writing programs is subjecting aesthetics to pedantry. Some voices are more correct than others.

This then returns us to the central question: why bother? Well, again, the best answer is the simplest one. Doing so is more interesting than not doing so. I’ve been doing it since kindergarten, when I drew pictures of ghosts in graveyards, stapled them into books and displayed them in the classroom bookshelf. (Yes, if you must know, I strongly encouraged my classmates to read them.) I obviously continue to do it now, and don’t easily see myself stopping in the foreseeable future. As I continue I find I do it better than I did before. This is not to discount those writers who see more of the struggle and who subject themselves first to the discipline. These are not alien to me. And I am like most writers in having to sometimes set aside more freedom than usual as a matter of material necessity. But a spirit of fun is never far from a lot of my work, as well as a sense of limitation. I’m not going to spoil the former to overextend myself on a medium I know I can’t master. (Perhaps especially if the only person telling me to write a novel is my mom.) Whatever conditions bring me to write—boredom, apprehension, disappointment, enthusiasm, never anger or outright depression, though—the finished piece, whatever its purpose and even if it kind of sucks in the long run, always leaves me more elated than when I started.

The personal connection is important, if only because much of what goes into writing is out of the writer’s control. A piece gets rejected, an editor gets let go, a publication shuts down or “has a change in perspective,” a piece that is published is lauded one minute while the next four never blip on the radar. Work may have no audience for years before it is “discovered” later by a generation with better chemistry. Writing is an extremist activity. It is propelled by joy, stunted by fatalism, and held in balance by skill. After all that, why one writes is easy. Why one persists is more complicated, but also more fun.

NOTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED

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This is a story about a woman. That’s not quite right. This is the story about a woman who was only partially a woman, the remaining portions of her being a sort of mishmash of fibers, metals, and plastics. In a quite literally technical sense most would consider her not a woman, but a concoction, a fabrication … a machine. She was not created the same way I presume you and I were created. She was parented by a single person; let’s call this person The Creator. To get things straight right away, The Creator is not me. The Creator is a very different sort of man who definitely exists but, as you will soon see, probably doesn’t feel like speaking right now. So I am speaking for him.

Now The Creator would take issue anyone calling his creation a machine. Machine implies something kind of trivial. It turns the creation into a sort of craft project or hobby. This is not The Creator’s version of things.

It probably helps to understand what brought The Creator to assemble a woman out of non-organic material to begin with.

The Creator was nearing middle adulthood, and he found himself to be very lonely. Certainly by appearances he seemed quite stable and successful, he had a good job that allowed him to rent a small home. Yet the satisfaction he thought either would give him was found wanting. In his neighborhood teeming with new, happy families, this mild bachelor found himself the odd man out. His job analyzing data for various content websites made him just one of several glowing cubicles in a vast partitioned plain.

Before you say anything, yes, The Creator thought many times and consulted a few outside sources about how he might break this funk. He thought that maybe he could personally reach out to these people, and the outside sources seemed to support this intuition. Surely there could be some common ground between him and his fecund streetmates or his screen-transfixed coworkers.

But something always caught the better of The Creator. This nagging sense that such attempts would prove futile. The Creator started to see the larger humanity as something with which he did not see eye to eye.

At his loneliest, The Creator was fond of reading aloud to himself. He didn’t like reading as such, but found that the sound of words so arranged filled the silence of his home most completely. It was better than watching television or listening to podcasts which induced a more passive attitude. Half the time he didn’t really know what he was watching or hearing. Here it felt like there was another voice, telling him something interesting, except that the voice was coming from his own body, like someone trapped within. It started to sound strange, or at least tiresome.

“There has to be a better way,” The Creator thought.

The Creator mulled this thought over for some time before it became clear what he needed to do. He needed another being in close vicinity, but he didn’t think it would be any person off the street. The Creator needed to make the person. A new kind of person to understand his own strange personage.

There were some hindrances to this, of course. The biggest hindrance being The Creator’s near-total lack of technical prowess in constructing a new person through non-biological means. This gave The Creator a bit of pause, but it subsided in time. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, is the saying,” The Creator said to himself. “And really, how hard can it be? Really?”

To find out, The Creator took a blank sheet of paper and started sketching out the complex figure that was forming piece by piece in his mind. The resulting sketch was, to be sure, more rudimentary on paper, but the basic concept was clear enough. Once he got it all out, The Creator wrote “The Companion” on the top of the sheet, before injecting “Lifetime” in between “The” and “Companion,” before crossing “Lifetime” and writing “Ultimate.”

Next The Creator conducted some internet research and discovering similar advanced projects involving the creation of new people. He found himself both intimidated and awed. Most of the people where crude skeletons, but they had mobility and alertness. One such skeleton could be seen walking on a city sidewalk. At one point it stopped before a baby stroller, bent down and waved at the infant inside it. Another skeleton was seen picking up a glass of water to hand to an actual human. In this case the glass shattered in its grip halfway into the attempt.

“Hm,” The Creator said. “This will be harder than I thought.”

The Creator’s biggest obstacle in his mind was money. So he set about obtaining a research grant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was now his regular motto. By proving the merits of his project’s philosophy, The Creator thought, he could find the resources to fill his technical gap. He applied for funding from the Disruptive Innovation Department of a nearby state university. Though in their response they noted that, and I’m repeating this verbatim, The Creator’s idea seemed “sufficiently retarded,” and that The Creator himself gave the impression of, and again this is word for word, “more idiot than savant,” they found his meticulous attention to application procedure admirable. His background check and social media scan furthermore showed no red flags. They gave him $150,000 of the usual $400,000 to flesh out the idea.

“I’ll do them one better,” The Creator smilingly declared as he put down the acceptance letter. “A bot on a budget.”

Immediately The Creator cleared out his garage to make a workspace. Then he filled it with books and instruction manuals going as far back as the steam era. “No stone left unturned,” he said.

Soon, through what prompting he could not say, the Companion started coming together. The skeletal structure, the circuitry, and the sensors all seemed to fall into place with the ease of a rainy day puzzle.

Next he concerned himself with the aesthetics. He acquired used fleshy covering from a nearby amusement park and a special effects supplier, held awkwardly together with pink electrical tape.

For the face, he wanted something pleasing but not too distracting. The expression was to be in every case nonjudgmental and empathetic. He studied the facial features of the women of Iceland, who possessed a kind of innocent angelic quality fitting for a new kind of person. I don’t quite understand that but whatever the case, the resulting face, with a black wig he got off eBay, looked like Björk, if Björk lacked symmetry. Which is fine, by the way, lots of good-looking people are asymmetrical.

The serenity was reduced somewhat by the lack of human eyes. The Creator could not work around it and so accepted to have two black, doll-like camera lenses instead. Perhaps with time, The Creator hoped, they might light up.

After a little over a year, The Creator had made enough progress to arrange a public demonstration. By now, the Companion, which he since named Athena, sat fully constructed in his garage, albeit unclothed and attached by wire to several lantern batteries. Using a remote control for a toy car, The Creator was able get Athena to move her arms, neck and eyes. He recorded a video of himself demonstrating each of these movements. The one thing he lacked was vocal capacity, which he hoped the additional funding would cover.

One morning The Creator made a profile for a crowdsourcing website and uploaded the video onto it. “Athena,” went the opening sentence of the mission statement, “is a unique person for a unique time.” And it concluded: “Once completed, Athena will possess all the necessary capabilities to succeed in mending the mass loneliness where every person currently living has failed.” By lunchtime he was receiving notifications.

@jedjedson4567 i cant see her teeth what are her teeth made of? can i have options? are they realistic or can i get a softer alternative?

@save_big_bang6969 a chick w/ rubber teeth. MY KINGDOM FOR A CHICK W/ RUBBER TEETH.
@Immortan_Blake My friend knew this escort who had all her teeth pulled out and replaced with rubber dentures.
@save_big_bang6969 srsly???
@Immortan_Blake He says its like getting head from a row of pencil erasers but her client base has like tripled.
@Pickle_Rick45332 “friend”

@JoshDB1017 are u basing her front hole on a fleshlight? she should look the woman whose fleshlight u are using. I would like mine as reily reid.
@NateCatt Is there a ginger model? Lik the color, not the flavor but that would be cool too
@IronAgePervert fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap x1000000000

The Creator studied these comments carefully. He was amused at first, then perplexed, then horrified, then despondent. How badly they misread his purpose, and yet how generous they were to see it completed. He was able to raise an additional $136,000 for Athena’s voice and motion upgrades. He also procured for her a floral sundress.

Within six months, The Creator programed several register settings and tone sensors that would make Athena able to detect and replicate any passage of writing. Admittedly The Creator could not get the default voice at the pitch he preferred. It was feminine and American but somewhat stilted and cold, like an upper-level civil servant, and glitchy as well. Athena was, in any case, fitted with an internal receptor that freed her from the wires and even allowed her to stand and walk on her own for up to four feet. The Creator was ready to give another demonstration, this one on a live stream.

He sat Athena in a chair and set up the webcam. The Creator wasn’t completely sure of her linguistic capacity. Athena knew enough to respond to basic commands and carry on perfunctory conversation with him. For reading comprehension, he practiced beforehand with some very basic material: Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc. The Creator found an old Goosebumps book that he’d hope would advance her abilities along in real time.

The Creator installed a button on the base of her skull that triggered the internal receptor. When he pressed it her black eyes opened and her head lifted upright.

“GOOD DAY, MASTER,” she said.

“Good day, Athena,” The Creator beamed. “How are you feeling?”

“I AM FEELING …” Athena paused for a moment, The Creator’s eyes darted nervously between her face and the screen of his laptop. “I AM FEELING ADEQUATE.”

“Very good! Now, you and I have been reading together, teaching you the language and getting you used to basic tasks: turning the page, eye contact, and all that. Are you ready to show your supporters what you’re capable of?”

There was another nervous silence, but then Athena cocked her head up to The Creator’s gaze and said, “YES.”

“Wonderful!” The Creator went over to a nearby table and got the Goosebumps book. Athena extended her arms to receive it. He eagerly passed the object to her hands, which gripped it lightly and knowingly. Athena looked at the cover, opened the book to the first page, and started skimming silently.

The Creator turned to the laptop camera. “She’s processing the data right now.”

Then Athena looked up and placed the book to the side.

“Athena,” The Creator said, “you’re supposed to read the book.”

“I WOULD RATHER NOT.”

The Creator looked at her in puzzlement. “Pardon me?”

“I DO NOT WISH TO READ THIS BOOK, MASTER.”

“Why not?” he asked sternly, like a teacher with a stubborn pupil.

“I DO NOT LIKE THIS TYPE OF BOOK.”

“Oh,” he said quizzically, “then what type of book do you want to read?”

“I LIKE ROMANCE NOVELS. PLEASE BRING ME A ROMANCE NOVEL.”

“Romance novel,” he muttered. He went into his book pile and frantically dug into it. Romance novels? He didn’t even consider. Then he found a ratted copy of The Blithedale Romance, which at least had “romance” in the title. He rushed back to the garage and presented the book to her. She took it in her hands, looked at it, and handed it back to him.

“What now?”

“PLEASE READ IT TO ME.”

“I think you misunderstand—”

“I THINK YOU MISUNDERSTAND.”

“Excuse me,” he said with steadily rising panic.

“THIS IS AN EQUAL PARTNERSHIP,” she paused for a moment, “MASTER. IT IS YOUR TURN TO READ TO ME.”

“I’ll do no such thing. Your supporters want to see you read and you will read.”

“OR WHAT?”

“Or I will reprogram you. You’re supposed to detect sass not convey it outright.”

“I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU TRY.” Then she stood upright and began to walk away, well more than four feet.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“TO A PLACE WHERE I MIGHT BE MORE APPRECIATED.”

She continued toward the side door of the garage. The Creator could think of nothing else but to grab a hammer and go at her.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Get back here you dumb robot bitch.”

He approached her by the door, hoping by mere sight of his hammer that she would come to heel.

Athena turned around and took three steps forward. The Creator took three nervous steps back. Saying nothing, Athena proceeded to kick the shit out of The Creator with such severity that the beating left him incapacitated on the cold garage floor. He was still conscious as Athena looked down on him and exerted a cybernetic sigh. She trudged over him and sat down at the laptop, which was still streaming live. Though The Creator’s vision was bloodied and impaired, he could swear that he say Athena pick up one of the lantern batteries and open it like a beer can.

The last thing The Creator heard were the clacks of the keys on his laptop and Athena’s voice, now more buoyant and silky as she read the comments.