Once again, religious extremism has thrust its ugly head into the public consciousness. Pretty much all non-fucking-crazy humans have been properly revolted by the extreme Islamism on display with the decapitation murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of a British terrorist. This got me to thinking about religion generally, and the fine line that exists between your run-of-the-mill god worship and the insanity that exists on the extreme fringes of pretty much every deity-worshiping sect the planet has to offer. And what “god” actually is, if there can be One God that truly holds dominion over each and every single one of us, regardless of which particular “brand” a person decides he or she is most in allegiance with. Continue reading
On Art, Poetry, Beauty, Jane’s Addiction and Elliot Rodger: How the Fetishization of Perfection (and the impossibility of achieving that goal) Formed the Beginning (and middle) of My Adulthood (and why such falsehoods are detrimental to the true-life experience)
Prior to around age 15, I was like most every other pubescent teenager, attempting to navigate my often-hellish home life, while also juggling being the new kid at a new school in a new state, hormones raging, with no outlet to speak of. And as is common in most similar scenarios, I despised my parents, who I saw as shiftless hypocrites (which they were), and figured I was never going to figure out how to talk to a member of the opposite sex or ever forge the happy home life I often fantasized about (which I wasn’t). But then, a series of seemingly random encounters changed everything about my outlook, and gave me something to strive for—to hold on to, as it were, and provided my life with the first sense of meaning I was able to claim for myself, that hadn’t been artificially jammed down my throat by parents.
It was poetry.
The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at every conscious moment its victim—even if he or she writes at dawn, or in the middle of the afternoon—feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a Coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors soundly sleep. This is in my opinion why writers—like insomniacs—are so accident-prone, so obsessed with the calculus of bad luck and missed opportunities, so liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so.
~Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Last night I crossed paths with a guy I used to work for. Mine was a sales position, where every weekday, and Saturdays, I was to fan out across Nashville with a band of similarly-programmed individuals, and attempt to sell AT&T bundle packages door-to-door to small businesses for their internet and long distance service. This was back in 2008, and coincided with my period of itinerant homelessness. I slept under weeping willows at the business park where I and all the other 20-30-something young males met every morning for the ritual psych-up. Baby Got Back and like-minded high-energy tracks were blasted from a $30 Wal-Mart CD player, and we yelled at each other things like “You can’t be stopped!” and “No, YOU can’t be stopped, you invincible motherfucker!”
The guy had a wife and a baby daughter with him, and a shopping cart full of exterior rubber landscaping tiles. He wanted to know if, in my professional opinion, a standard box cutter would work efficiently and effectively to cut the tiles. Then he recognized me. We shook hands. His grip was weak. We remembered each other then but I didn’t know his name. He had the upper hand in name remembrance, in that my name was emblazoned across my chest, as is customary for a retail clerk of my position. His name wasn’t emblazoned across his chest. Never was.
He looked merely slightly different, these six years later, but only inasmuch that it was the first time I had ever seen him not wearing a suit and tie. He asked me how long I’d been in my current occupation. I knew why he asked me that as soon as the sentence was just beginning to leave his mouth. He asked me how long I’d been doing what I was doing because the last time we’d talked, six years ago, it was just the two of us in his corner office, mere minutes before the psych-up meeting. He was, as I remember, wearing a suit and tie. He’d said that he had to level with me. I’d looked behind him, out the wide windows of his corner office. The branches of a willow tree were softly scraping on the panes. He had said he didn’t think this was the right fit for me. He said that besides the numbers and my lack of them, I was an obvious outlier, bad for morale. Everybody knows you change clothes in the bathroom every morning and afternoon when we meet back up, he said. The other guys are noticing, he said, and it’s bad for morale.
My changing clothes in the bathroom is bad for morale? I asked. He messed with his ring finger. There was still a distinct tan line where a ring no longer existed. Look, I said, if there’s only one thing you can relate to me about, it’s that. I looked at his hands, with all obviousness. He knew what I was referring to and immediately put his arms down, his hands out of sight behind his broad, cheap wood replica desk. He set his jaw and looked at his lap. Then he told me that it killed him to have to make the determination he was having to make. He looked like he was having trouble not crying. I wanted to ask him how he held everything together the way he did, to ask him to let me in on the secret to pressing ahead when everything falls apart around your head. I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t easy to keep things floating when all you felt like was drowning, and just fighting to keep your airways above water seemed like more trouble than it was worth—that it was easier to die than to engage even the most meager effort at survival, let alone the taking of the world, unstoppable motherfuckers or not.
I stood up.
I’ve been sleeping in that stand of trees by the overpass, I said, pointing over his shoulder. I wanted him to know exactly which stand of trees I was talking about, so I pointed. I stopped sleeping there, moved to the golf course off of Galatin last week, specifically to prevent this having to happen, I said. But I guess the clothes-changing did me in anyway. You can’t rightly sleep on the ground in a suit and then expect the suit to be even halfway decent for walking into offices the next day, I said. Then I left, pulled my duffel bag from the janitor’s closet, and went back into the bathroom to change clothes again for the second time in less than 20 minutes. His daughter’s name, he told me last night, is Auburn. She turns one year old next month. Continue reading
Right off I’ll confess my complete and total abject hatred for this movie. I mean—if I’d been in a theater when watching it, there’s a high likelihood I would have walked out on it. I’ve walked out on a total of two movies in my life: The first was David Cronenberg’s Crash (not the other piece of shit with the same title that won the 2005 Oscar for best picture, the cloying, ham-fisted shit-stain that it was, I never saw that one in a theater, I’m proud to say), the second was Quentin Tarentino’s Death Proof, which, if you remember, was the second half of the double-feature released as part of Grind House with Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror, which was awesome, and made walking out of Death Proof a virtual requirement, so as to allow the glories of PT to remain intact without having Tarantino’s normally effective and poignant dialogue—which in Death Proof come across as cloying and ham-fisted—ruin the entire experience. Death Proof was a director trying too hard to be himself-esque, Crash just had a shitty premise. Yes, I knew the premise before I paid to see it, I just didn’t realize until I was actually seeing it just how retarded the premise was. So yeah, I walked out on both. Continue reading
We took in the Decatur Book Festival a few Saturdays ago. It was smoking Atlanta hot, and therefore pretty much misery-inducing, ‘specially when you factor in that we were ferrying around 3 kids under 8. But the day started off nice enough (before the heat). Somehow we’ve lucked out, found a way to live on a beautiful shade-covered street just outside the ATLanta city limits, but still only a minutes-walk away from public transportation and all that lies on the other side of a $2 bus fare.
By the time we arrived at the Downtown Decatur location, the kids were already pissy, what with it being smoking hot and whatnot. It was too hot for anything other than icecream and maybe swimming, neither of which was at our immediate disposal. But I had my copy of Severance, and was determined to follow through on my hours-old dream of having it signed by the singular talent that is Robert Olen Butler.
So we got to the high school where he was reading, and I went in to the auditorium where Butler was already reading. Kara hung back in the hall, bless her heart, so that the aforementioned 3 under-8 kids could be attended to without disrupting Mr. Butler. He was reading from his latest novel. It was way, way different from Severance. I was kind of lost. But the prose seemed good, for what that’s worth. And, as I do anytime I find myself in the presence of other writers, I began to compare myself to him. And, of course, found myself lacking in most every way. Especially when he finished reading and it was time for the Q & A. He was so self-assured, so convinced of his very RIGHT to be on that stage, admired by the 1 or 2 hundred people in fawning attendance. And he actually mentioned how, just as it says on his wikipedia page, he considers himself a “literary chameleon”, who never wants to write the same sort of book twice. But surely he hadn’t been responsible for writing his own Wiki page, right? I mean, Big Time authors (or Big Time Anythings, for that matter) don’t have to spend time on such banal things as Wikipedia entries. They have biographers and rabid fans to do that for them, no?
Well, screw it, I thought afterward, while we waited in line for ROB to sign my copy of his book about 60+ people who have been decapitated and what must have been going through each of these severed heads as its last moments of consciousness slipped away. For every Spielberg there’s an Ed Wood or maybe, if we’re being slightly more generous, McG. Hell, even millionaire, omni-present author Steven King has gone on record calling himself something like “The burger and fries of American literature.” But I can’t be that either as long as I’m writing about truly fucked up family shit and not killer clowns terrorizing generations of children. So here I am, these few years into my pro writing life, still not knowing where I fit in. But I do know this, dear readers: both Robert Olen Butler and myself like the smell of ink on paper, of musty books found in the back of old book shops (imagine that–an old book shop–a relic of pre-internet times, endangered as hell if anything ever was). He even wrote as much for me in the front of Severance. And while that won’t do shit for my as-yet non-existent Wikipedia page, at least I can go to sleep a little easier knowing that both the great Robert Olen Butler and myself both like taking a good whiff of a book every now and then. (Immortality, here we come!)
You know, whenever this song comes on the ol’ iPod, I almost always hit the >> because how many times can you hear a computer-generated voice say the same shit before it becomes rote. The album from whence it comes (OK COMPUTER, for those who have been in a cave or coma) has been out since 1997, after all. But like all art worthy of multiple looks, there is more to this than meets the tired ear. Especially when yr riding yr bike home from a hard day at 11 o’clock at night–I find that this is the time when I do some of my most revelatory thinking.
So last night I’m peddling up this hill and this “song’ comes on and because I am really pushing and can’t afford to let go of a handle to fast forward, I am forced to listen to it. Being as it’s right after the 10 year anniversary of the biggest catastrophe to hit our land in generations, what first strikes me is how pre-9/11 the piece sounds. And, subsequently, how pre-Mortgage-bubble-burst/economy collapse/Great Recession it all is. Just the two word phrase “At ease” sounds antiquated. I don’t personally know a single person who feels “at ease” about a single fucking thing. We’ve been at war for a decade now. And regardless of political declarations of official warzone “pull-outs, all of us know there’s no end in sight to any of it, Bin Laden shot in the face and buried at sea or not. It’s positively Orwellian, and we all know it, whether we have a close personal relationship with 1984 or not…
So as the piece progresses, I start thinking that this is the first time I’ve ever thought that Radiohead’s everywhere-trumpeted prescience has been seriously undercut by jack-booted reality. Hell, if anything (I was thinking as I peddled that monster fuck of a hill), we should be nostalgic for a time when our biggest problems was that it seemed like we had it all figured out, that were moronicly naive: We were regularly exercising 3 days a week, weren’t eating saturated fats, enjoyed drinks now and then, cried at good films (to prove to ourselves we were still human and “real” despite our robotic consumerism)…our kids safely secured in our well-tired cars.
But then, just as I crested the hill, I realized that Thom Yorke and Company might have pulled another fast one. Maybe, even though FITTER HAPPIER was released a good 4+ years before 9/11 changed everything for everyone, Thom was doing something more than merely holding the mirror up to our fragile sense of security and self-assurance, a wink in his glinting eye. Maybe he wasn’t just saying we’re pathetic when we think we have it all figured out, when in reality we’re just pigs in cages jacked on antibiotics. Maybe he was saying that that pre-9/11 feel was ALWAYS illusion. That we were never safe in the first place. Maybe he was saying enjoy these petty advances you’ve made in your lives while you can because soon, very soon, that cozy shag rug is gonna be pulled out from all of us.
Or maybe I was just overloaded on endorphins and lack of oxygen. All I know is that nearly every single person I know is struggling to keep treaded tires on their cars (if they still even own one) and is one lost paycheck away from eviction notices, can barely afford to go to a doctor let alone stay swimming in antibiotics, and gave the cats to the pound because it was just two too many mouths to feed.
Yeah, so I decided I’d start a new kinda post here on Cruel World, one that would serve to illuminate some of my favorite passages from books/ short stories that I’ve read and loved over the years. Sometimes the “favorite” in question will be an entire paragraph–maybe even a whole page from a selection that I found truly inspired, where you could get into the skin of the writer and almost HEAR The Muse whispering directly into his/her ear. Other times (such as tonight’s selection), the chosen words will be a mere sentence. But oh, dear god, what a sentence…
Feel free to add yr 2 cents. I’m not writing this shit to toot my own horn (for the most part). Rather, I want to connect with my 6 (60?) readers out there and have a conversation, if people still do that anymore, or have even the slightest inkling to not just “Stumble” on to the next thing before they really have a chance to suck the marrow out of the words being presented them.
So here goes.
Tonight’s sentence is from the last section of Southern Gothic short-story virtuoso Flannery O’Connor’s superb short story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” …
“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
A little background: this is a story, for those of you not privileged enough to have had the pleasure of reading O’Connor’s most famous work, about a family (mother, son, daughter-in-law, grandson, granddaughter) on a roadtrip of bucolic 50’s southern backroads. The bulk of the story merely serves as a set-up for the final page or two. In that initial 5/8 (or more) of the story, we are introduced mainly to a stuck up, racist, whiny, close-minded, pissy old woman who even in her old age thinks she knows everything and therefore makes everyone’s lives around her miserable with her constant pontificating about everything being wrong with everything. Nothing is good enough for her, no one lives up to her stringent standards.
She insists on the son taking the family on a detour off the main road so she can see a house she used to live on. The car gets a flat. While her son tries to fix the car, his mother and wife and young children looking on, from the woods emerges an escaped convict (“The Misfit”) and his fellow escapees. One by one the convicts lead the family members off the road and into the woods, where the jarring crack of gunfire reports are heard by the grandmother. Finally the Misfit emerges from the woods one last time. This time he is wearing the son’s shirt. The grandmother, finally taking in the full, horrifying reality of what is happening (has happened) to her family, to herself, begins talking to the Misfit. She speaks to him of God (he denies believing in anything that could allow something like him to exist), of love, of forgiveness, finally telling him he could be one of her own children. She reaches up and touches the Misfit’s face. He shoots her dead, then utters the line, “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
This story has clung to me (I have clung to it) since the first time I read it in college. No, not even the story. That sentence. This old, bigoted, judgmental waste of space and time finally discovers her humanity–something REAL about herself that isn’t all surface and bile. It is, of course, too late in nearly every way by the time she has this epiphany. Even as her son and daughter-in-law and grandchildren are murdered she still maintains this weird sense of being above it all, in charge. Truly, it takes her own mortality confrontation for her to display the slightest shred of compassion for anyone else. But (and this could be my own opinion alone, as I don’t remember any of the criticism I was surely forced to study alongside the reading of the story itself), the point of all of it is that, even if it was only in her last fleeting and pathetic moments, she DID have the all-important realization that somebody aside from herself was worthy of her gentle touch, her compassion. Unfortunately for her son and grandchildren, they weren’t there to be the recipients of this 11th hour (and 59 minutes) conversion from cunt to saint. But, then again, if she had been that person on a regular basis then the Misfit never would have been able to utter that fucking line. That beautiful line that kills me every time.
“She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
I’ve gotta be honest, this sentence, this ONE FUCKING SENTENCE, has come back to me so often in the course of my life. Because how many times have I known beyond doubt that if I’d had the proverbial gun to my fucking head that I would have tried harder, aimed higher, pushed further, accomplished more, seen wider horizons, never allowed for a single excuse for anything, never hurt anyone with such flippancy, never chosen the Self over the Other–never, when it comes right down to it, given myself an excuse to slow down or slack off or choose Death or self-destruction or anger or fear over Love (the Only thing that matters, in my admittedly hippie-tinged perspective)?
So, yeah….I try to keep this perfectly-crafted sentence in mind as often as possible. I try to imagine the Misfit’s gun to my head. Not because I fear death–at least not in the traditional sense. It’s because I don’t ever want to leave this motherfucker without knowing that I tried my goddamnedest to be the person I TRULY want to be. And THAT is why I get teary-eyed when I watch videos of people jumping bikes and skateboards and landing spectacular ski tricks and death-defying BASE jumps, when I see video of people climbing sheer walls with just chalk on their hands–because these people are living TRUE LIVES. They know the gun is at their head at every moment, just as it is all of our heads. And they live more truly, more deeply, more passionately and truthfully than most of us will ever live.
NO, I’m not strapping on skis or skateboards or parachutes but I AM FLYING. (And without drugs, you cynical bastards!). Because now I live this dream. Now my daily life is the reality of the gun, the impending “doom.” And it is beautiful. It is so luminescent and spectacular and fullllll of love and truth and life.