Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sidewalk Sale, a short story:

I lugged books and DVDs and assorted sellables, as well as a makeshift table, down three flights of stairs, waded through the masses of thrift shoppers, set up my table alongside others on the block eager to make a buck off their unwanted wares, sat in the merciless humidity, watched the people of Rogers Park sift through the merchandise, haggled, compromised, and made a small amount of profit before unpacking the makeshift mart and lugging unsold contents away, tired, seating, hungry, ready for a beer. 

A quick clean up a la George Carlin and I was sitting with my beloved and eating my first and only meal of the day washed down with a pint of Guinness.  Immediately felt ready for bed.  Walked to the video store, returned home to walk the dog and settle in for a movie, fell asleep in 20 minutes. 

Once, I was able to do all of this sweaty work several times a week.  I would eat three times as much and drink steadily throughout the day.  And I would finish my shift and stay up all night drinking and watching movies and smoking a lot of cigarettes.  But not anymore.

It’s called aging and it’ll happen to you too. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Explaining My Lack of Faith (Badly)

I started a website to promote my book and to carve out even more space on the internet for my brand of bullshit.  It’s available here for those interested, though anyone reading this probably has friended me on Facebook by now and surely has seen more than enough of my self-promotion.  I bring it up because there is in the ME section a bit of a joke regarding my birth at Christ Hospital, wherein I cried so violently that I had to get away from Christ.  I included it because it made me chuckle, though I monetarily worried about offending various friends and family members who do identify as Christians.  Then I remembered something: if you have faith, no smart ass joke can shatter that and there is no real reason to feel offended.  I was not saying that Jesus is bad or the religion constructed in his honor is wrong—how the hell should I know?—so I left the joke in.  Taken literally, the line simply states that I stopped being a Catholic, which is 100% true.  Me.  I made a decision.  I rejected the faith in which I was raised.  That’s the thing about being an individual with the capacity to make conscious decisions: you get make conscious decisions. 

My lack of faith is often a thing that troubles some of those before mentioned friends and family members.  As my default setting, for good or ill, is humor, I tend to come off as contemptuous of religion.  I’ll admit to a grain of truth there.  I do have a certain level of contempt for most of the major organized religions, though not the texts they claim as their basis, and certainly not every single person in those faiths.  Just the jerks.  

 Here’s the thing: I can respect the Bible (as a work of literature or a philosophic text) by reading it through a historicist lens, but the manner in which many religions, Catholicism high among them, have taken the text and run with it makes me sad and angry. 

So I left the church.  This happened after a lot of speculation and teenage angst and confusion, though, as I write on my website, my high school theology teacher didn’t help.  He did have us read Thomas Aquinas and Jean Paul Sartre in an effort to show us where Aquinas was right and Sartre was wrong.  At the time, I only knew about Sartre from the film Caddyshack. (“In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher.’”)  And I can’t claim to have understood much of what I read, but Sartre—whatever it was he was up to—seemed intriguing in a way that Aquinas didn’t.  Now, as the years have passed, I’ve come around on Aquinas, but I’ve also come to understand that the gloominess associated with Sartre’s existentialism is a misconception and the very root of why I had to leave the church.


If we are alone in the universe—if there is no god and, thus, no entity judging our actions—than life is meaningless. We are here through a series of accidents and events.  If there is any meaning at all, it is up to us to make it.  We give our lives meaning through our conscious decisions, our actions, our relationships.  The meaning of life is not a set thing but any number of things that make us as individuals continue existing.  Literature, cooking, backgammon, our children—why shouldn’t these be reasons to continue living?  And if we are so in control of our lives, so blessed with the ability to create our own meaning, why not respect all others so long as they don’t, you know, insist that their consciously or unconsciously chosen reason for existing supersede yours? 

Okay, that stated, let me try to explain my ongoing rejection of religion. (Again, this is a personal rejection, not a cry for anyone to join me in my agnosticism.)  To me, religion seeks to explain the inexplicable.  And to that extent, it does as good a job as any other belief system.  Science, which can certainly replace religion for some, does a good job as well, but both religious and scientific zealots often describe their respective faiths as if the other were total rubbish.  To me, science and religion don't need to be so mutually exclusive. (I’m comfortable believing in the Big Bang Theory, but where the hell did the exploding dot come from?)  But I get why they are often seen as adversaries.  Science deals with what it can examine in a mostly concrete manner while faith, when it’s at its best, examines more abstract matters.  (Of course, while writing that sentence I began to see less of a difference between the two.)  But religion’s answers never made sense to me.  This may speak more to my shortcomings, but the basic idea of do good or be judged always bothered me.  On the other hand, “Whatever is hurtful to you, do not do to any other person” makes more sense.  But I shouldn’t need an edict from the son of god to tell me that.  If I have to be told not to be an asshole, if I have to avoid assholish behavior because I fear punishment, then I am not necessarily a good person.  I’m an asshole who is too scared to act on my impulses. 

So I asked myself: is it possible to be a good person without religious instruction?  Of course it is.  Some of the other philosophers I studied and probably misread seemed to offer good ideas along the lines of: do good because it is good to do good.  Or: don’t be an asshole because why would you?  Or: if there is a god, it is understood as a force that lives in all of nature, not necessarily a man in the sky.  And that force in nature is in all of us.  Thus, we understand what is right and what is wrong.  We see suffering and we are compelled to ease it not because of god’s direct command but because of the force (call it god if you like) within us. 

People are basically moral.  They want to do good and help others, despite selfish inclinations.  But they get frustrated and sad when they witness injustice or actions that are clearly hurtful and (for lack of a better word) evil.  So they make sense these actions, which are so contrary to their kind nature, by assuming that they are only kind because they believe in a god who dictates kindness toward others.  The evil doers, therefore, are not spiritually right with their god.  An easy answer.  But if that is the case, religion serves the instincts of man rather than controls man’s actions. The house of cards collapses. 

To me, this explains why members of religious communities tend (according to studies religious friends often mention) to be happier people—they have a sense of belonging.  They have a tribe: a group, they assume, of like-minded, morally upright individuals. This satisfies the human need for connection and validates their belief.  And as a gathering place (I have no problem stating it) religion is not a bad thing, though it becomes corrupted when used as a means of othering those outside the faith. 

Along with my website and the silly joke therein, much of my wayward thinking on this has come from reading this article by Louise M. Antony, from which I quote:

So what about atheism?  What I think all this means is that the capacity to be moved by the moral dimension of things has nothing to do with one’s theological beliefs.  The most reliable allies in any moral struggle will be those who respond to the ethically significant aspects of life, whether or not they conceive these things in religious terms.  You do not lose morality by giving up God; neither do you necessarily find it by finding Him.

Of course, it may be easier to keep our inherent sense of morality by constantly referring to a text like the Bible, but, as the Bill Mahers of the world will often point out, the book has contradictions that are hard to ignore, which is why biblical study is very important.  Of course, I often worry that studying the text as the literal word of god (ignoring the whole translation problem) is the wrong approach.  Studying it as a big, complex book of ideas and parables seems more practical if one is seeking moral instruction, but doing so requires that the student also study the history of the book and accept the limitations of the text.  And such instruction ought to go beyond the Bible.  I’m reading James Joyce these days, but it would severely limit my reading were I not also reading critical texts by scholars a whole lot more familiar with the great Irish modernist's work.  Why do so many people read a biblical passage and stop there?  It’s not like there aren’t scores of theological books on the market.  And, while we’re at it, this ideal biblical student ought to at least be familiar with the texts out there that have informed the other religions.  Doing so would allow one to see how these faiths converge.  Might stop the holy wars.

Assuming the average churchgoer is not inclined to read anything other than the Bible—and even then, I assume most of the people I rubbed shoulders with as a young Catholic only knew the passages they heard coming from the pulpit—they might easily develop a sense of us v. them that, it seems to me, flies in the face of the Jesus they claim to love so much.  And it also may contribute to the idea that atheists and nihilists are one and the same.  And it’ll cause them to reject the notion that morality can be found, understood, and developed in ways contrary to theirs.  Assuming this is the case, why wouldn’t I leave the church? 

It seems valid that a person may spend their lives committed to a religion they believe in with all of their faith, just as it seems invalid that one go through the motions when they have no faith at all.  I had none, so I left the church.  It was pretty easy.  Inaction, really, as opposed to a big ceremony.  But I'm not going to be so smarmy as to suggest that people who believe in god (however they understand that god) are wrong or stupid or faking it.  I am sure there are some who are stupid, though there are plenty of stupid agnostics as well, and some who are faking it because it’s all they know.  Tradition is hard to defy.  Still, I’d sooner not pretend.  And while I am not perfect, I think my own sense of right and wrong is in place well enough.

And here’s where you may point out something I’m glossing over: I was raised a Catholic.  I went to church.  I went to Catholic high school.  Thus, despite my current agnostic position, I am the product of Christianity.  I heard the sermons, I read the book, I absorbed the lessons.  That may be why I am a (mostly) moral individual, not because of Kant or Spinoza or Sartre.  You can take the boy out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the boy.  Perhaps.  I can’t contradict this idea that religious upbringings stay with us, but I still maintain that a lifelong exploration of morality requires actively asking impossible questions and, in my case, accepting that I’ll never know sure if there is a god but I do know that the way I was taught to understand him (and god, if there is one, is surely male as no woman would fuck things up this badly) is insufficient.  So, if I am to go on being a moral person, I can do so by accepting that maybe the religion that was a part of my young life did offer some instruction (plus a lot of guilt and repression), but as I have grown, so have my beliefs.  I mean, I was raised in an area where, and at a time when, it seemed perfectly normal to discriminate against homosexuals.  Casual racism was a daily thing.  If I never challenged these practices, I’d likely be a rotten person.  Obviously Catholicism is not as nasty as racism or homophobia… oh, wait.  Yeah, it can be.  At least when practiced in its worst fashion.  But that’s just it: one need not follow the dictates of the Vatican to be a good, moral, Catholic, just as it is okay to disagree with the actions of the government and still be a patriot.  If critical thinking and active disagreement with the church result in a rejection of a religion, well there’s always that inborn sense of right and wrong.  And, to reiterate Antony’s point in the above referenced article, moral action without religion is actually a beautiful, important thing. I can keep the good things I got from being a young Catholic and use them as an agnostic adult.  I threw out the bathwater, not the baby.  The bathwater was dirty.  I'm not about to put my faith in it. 

This rambling post probably has not properly explained anything or made sense or adequately  addressed the very short and not all that brilliant joke in the ME section of my new website.  So it goes, as Vonnegut wrote.  But, assuming anyone is nuts enough to have read this whole post, at this point a few things should be clear.  I’d restate them here but perhaps I’ve gone on long enough.  If you require clarification or wish to challenge any of this malarkey, email me and we’ll get a drink or three. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Calling it Quits at the Right Time

While thinking about the end of Jon Stewart's time with The Daily Show, I started to recall other  examples of people going out at the top of their game.  Why not make a list? I thought.  I need something to fill the void.

Juan Rulfo

Sure, you've read Garcia Marquez, but have you read the book that taught Marquez what he knew?  Pedro Paramo remains one of the most bizarre, fun books to come out of anywhere.  While Reinaldo Arenas dismissed Garcia Marquez's work as a pastiche of Faulkner (and he wasn't wrong), he could have easily added Rulfo to the list.  Rulfo stopped writing (giving birth to my favorite Enrique Vila-Matas book) after this novel, which only adds to its allure. The guy wrote this damn near perfect book then did the equivalent of dropping the mic.  Respect.


This band could've been a mere footnote in alt-rock history.  They put out a string of fun noise rock records before peaking with the double CD Leaves Turn Inside You.  This was a serious departure for the feedback laden songs of the past and more than a few fans took note.  I never thought too much of them before the final statement, but it became clear to me after one listen that Leaves Turn Inside You was (and is) a masterpiece.  The rock is there but so is the drone, the quiet, the sadness, and the ghosts.  I reviewed it a long time ago calling the record the ideal soundtrack to a three day rainstorm.  I stand by my description, though now it makes me recall the days after 9/11 when all I wanted to do was listen to Unwound and not talk to people.

Jane's Addiction

I was very into this band when they broke up.  It didn't take much commitment to be a fan.  They only released three records, all of them blending metal and art rock so well that one couldn't help dig the simple bass hooks, tribal drumming, and blistering guitar.  The vocals were crap, but that was part of the appeal.  And it's true that they wouldn't have been the band they were with a more stable, less douchy frontman.  And Perry Farrell is a douche.  Of course, I thought he was cool at the time, but I also ate Funyuns.  The years have proven me wrong, as has Farrell who seems intent on cashing in on Lolla (assuming he's still involved) and periodically reuniting with 2/3 of his former bandmates to make rent or finance a lousy EDM record.  This from the writer of "Mountain Song".  But their breakup (the first) was pretty perfect.  They were a top draw among the 120 Minutes crowd, they had a breakthrough hit, and Farrell had just created what was thought, at the time, to be the closest thing my generation was going to get to Woodstock (oh, I was so young).  They were the biggest thing in alternative rock and they ended before putting out a crap record.  They ruined it by touring again and putting out a fourth record, but most of us are willing to pretend that never happened.

Krzysztof Kieslowski

Sure, he'd been making movies since the 1960s and was an old man when he retired, but he went out after finishing Red the final movie in the Three Colors trilogy, arguably his best movie (though Blue remains my favorite), arguably the best movie of the 1990s, maybe the best movie ever.  The thing is, he probably could've made another movie, but he announced his retirement (so that he could spend more time smoking cigarettes) and then promptly died.  Still, he could've pulled a John Houston and directed from a wheelchair with tubes in his nose, but he knew he was at the height of his powers and decided that Red was as good a movie as he, or anyone, might ever make.  So he did the smart thing and cashed in his chips.  He'd more than earned them.

Dylan Thomas

Not a conscious retirement-- he drank himself to death, though some might argue that such behavior is tantamount to quitting-- but Thomas left the writing game and the world after completing the best thing he ever wrote, and this was the guy who wrote "And Death Shall Have No Dominion" not to mention that poem everyone likes to appropriate (looking at you, Christopher Nolan).  Under Milk Wood, Thomas's play for voices, is about as good as literature gets.  Definitely an essential read, it manages to be completely unique while doing what many other literary works have done: chronicling a day in the life of a city.  Immediately one may think of Joyce's Ulysses, and while that stands as a testament to the possibilities of the novel, and of Joyce's genius, Under Milk Wood is compact, loose, and--I'll say it-- more fun.  It inspired a pretty good movie featuring Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, and Peter O'Toole, but even their collective talents can't best the reading of the play featuring Thomas himself.  Top notch.


I'm not the biggest fan of the holy trio of the Pacific Northwest, and while they were, in many ways, a fine rock band that could never live up the hype that swallowed them, they did put out three solid records, though the last was their best.  In Utero begins with two songs that constitute a fuck you to the MTV machine that made them famous.  "Serve the Servants" ends so sloppily it once caused a musician friend of mine to pull at his hair.  "Scentless Apprentice" is about as noisy as the band got, complete with Cobain's limited voice stretched to absurd lengths. And then come a few more Nevermindesque songs, some that made their way to the radio and are probably on a billion Spotify playlists, but the noisier gems that dominate the record are what keep me coming back.  Kudos to Steve Albini for producing a record that made the band sound raw and interesting as opposed to the slick package that is Nevermind.  Again, as with others on this list, the end of Nirvana was not really a mutual decision, but Cobain's suicide (or murder, depending on who you ask), tragic as it was, is a case of the Nirvana boys ceasing after doing their best work.  I shudder to think of what they'd be doing now.  Thankfully, no one has heard from the other members since 1994.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Favorite Writers

When asked (which is rare) and even when not (which is often), I will state that there is a seven-way tie for my favorite book ever.  The seven:

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
Three Trapped Tigers – G. Cabrera Infante
The Obscene Bird of Night – Jose Donoso
Vilnius Poker – Ricardas Gavelis
The Color of Summer – Reinaldo Arenas
Belfast Confetti – Ciaran Carson

And that’s not counting Finnegans Wake, which I’m still reading and barely, if at all, comprehending, yet is so remarkable an achievement I have to add it as an honorable mention.  And “Bartleby, the Scrivener” a novella that ranks up there with the best things ever written. And there’s Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson, which should make the list as it represents a lot to me personally, but we won’t get into all that now, thank you very much.

I list these as my favorites because each of them has produced in me a moment of awe the likes of which are uncommon.  That, for me, is the test of a favorite book. 

But not really.  There are authors of this caliber that I might investigate further were I so drawn to big books written in (let’s call it) experimental prose.  Virginia Woolf, who I’ve only read a bit of, or László Krasznahorkai, who I’ve never looked at—I should be drawn to these writers.  I should be emulating them.  But when I look at my poems, my stories, even my essays, I don’t see that level of literary ambition.  The need to reach new places is not really of interest to me.  No, my own work seems to be more in line with the writers I cite as favorites who have not made the above list: Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, and Sergei Dovlatov.

These three writers are the ones I keep in mind when writing prose.  And for good reason: they all stress clean, economical writing.  I’ve read their books and been astounded by the brevity, the way they are able to compress so much into quick, seemingly effortless prose.  Vonnegut is tops at this.  The big ideas that permeate his best work (and even his worst) are worthy of dissertations, yet his books are constructed to be polished off in an afternoon. 

Consider Cat’s Cradle, one of Vonnegut’s more celebrated novels.  In this slim book of incredibly short chapters, Vonnegut confronts technology, military folly, religion, persona, provincialism, love, death, the apocalypse… No small feat!  And he does it while eliciting genuine laughter.  The metaphor of the cat’s cradle, as employed by the character of Newt Hoenikker, is perhaps the best I’ve ever read in any book.  Surely on par with the albatross. 


I first read Cat’s Cradle on a train from Homewood to Matoon, Illinois.  During the trip, I began having a nic fit (I was deep in the dungeon of cigarette addiction) and to relieve my anxiety I began tearing pages from Cat’s Cradle.  One page was only slightly damaged, but I couldn’t read the last word.  Just one damn word.  Surely I’d live without it.

I ended up buying a new copy.  Were it any other book, I wouldn’t have bothered, but I needed to read that one missing word.  Vonnegut always picked his words so carefully; it seemed criminal to ignore any of them.

By the way, I put a semicolon in that last sentence, a punctuation mark Vonnegut advised against using. 

Bukowski is another writer who taught me the most valuable lesson of all: you may not be exceptional, so you need to work hard.  To quote from his gravestone: “Don’t Try.”  Many have misread this quote as Buk’s advice from the dead to give up and be a bum, a lamentable though understandable misreading considering the many stories and poems he wrote about being unemployed and drunk.  But Hank is really telling us not to try but to do. 

In his book Women, which is just below Factotum if you ask me, the Bukowski stand-in Hank Chinaski is having it out with a young woman.  She tells him that she’s going to one day be famous, that she is a better writer with more potential.  Hank answers something like: Every baby in every crib has more potential than I do.  The difference is: I do it. 

That lesson is an important one for any writer, not to mention any teacher, plumber, CEO, or bricklayer.  Talent and aptitude are great, but working steadily is what keeps you in the game.  And Bukowski was not a master craftsman in the sense that his prose, while readable and often very moving, is not polished and beautiful on the level of Joyce.  But Bukowski wrote every night.  He went up to his room, opened a bottle of wine, tuned the radio to the classical station, and wrote while the cats played at his feet.  This was how he managed to produce a staggering number of publications.  (Of course, it helped that he had a friend who basically published everything he wrote without much interference, but still, the guy produced a considerable amount of writing.) 

I would be a better writer if I followed Hank’s example, but I have my obligations and excuses, often one and the same.

More recently, I started reading the novels of Sergei Dovlatov, a writer who makes simplicity look easy.  Apparently, this was not the case.  Dovlatov spent hours painstakingly crafting each sentence.  His daughter, who translated the most recent of his books to appear in English, discussed this along with his infamous rule of not using a word in a sentence that started with the same letter of any other word in the sentence.  So, I could write: I went for a walk with my dog, but it would break the Dovlatov rule (three W words).  I took my dog for a walk—that would work.  Of course, this is perhaps easier to do in Russian than in English, and the rule is, really, not all that practical or appealing (I like alliteration), but it speaks to Dovlatov’s precision.  Of the three writers I am discussing, Dovlatov is the only one I read in translation, which means I am reading him and his translators.  Without going into a whole tangent about translation theory, or why it is of great importance to translate and read world literature, let me state that I see in his novels a certain deceptive directness that is delightful (sorry Sergei, three Ds there), one that allows me to shelve any concerns about the authenticity of his work. 

Nothing bums me out more than people who tell me they can’t read translations because they don’t like the layer of removal from the original text, save only for jerks who rant about how I am not reading the real Dovlatov or Dostoyevsky or Vallejo because I am reading it translated.  Both of these types can, to quote Vonnegut, take a flying fuck at the mooooooooon!

Dovlatov, like Bukowski, wrote about work, though where Bukowski’s concern has to do with the drudgery of menial labor and its imposition on the artist, Dovlatov’s best writing often deals with the absurdity of working life under the Soviet regime.  I’m thinking of The Compromise—my favorite of his books—and The Zone as well as Pushkin Hills. All of the drinking, hitting on women, indifference to work, short tempered exchanges with supervisors… it feels familiar—we’ve read these sort of stories before— yet I am still delighted by the efficiency of Dovlatov’s writing as well as the humor.  Without a few well-placed laughs, the story would be no more than a pile of solipsistic moaning.  Dovlatov’s humor, like his humanity, is lovely.  The uncluttered prose certainly helps. 



Speaking of bureaucracy, for whatever reason, I just read a blog written by a former colleague who has remade himself as a literary critic and poet.  He is employed by a top university, a fact that has ensured that his criticism is sharp but cumbersome and that his poetry is a yawn.  His blog fares better, though I was taken aback by his dismissal of Vonnegut.  (I can guess his thoughts on Bukowski.  I doubt he’s read Dovlatov.)  One of the points he makes is that Vonnegut is a writer who appeals to the young, as Vonnegut often wrote of bureaucracy in a satirical way.  I don’t know that I agree with that assessment. (Vonnegut’s themes are larger than that. Maybe he was mistaking Vonnegut for Kafka?)  Regardless, the academic poet wrote that lampooning bureaucracy is a trait of the young would-be revolutionary and that adults realize that a certain level of bureaucracy is needed.  This may not be an indefensible statement, though on its face it’s as dumb as a bag of hair.  I assume that a career academic is likely to make such a claim, though I know many people who teach (myself included) who view rigid bureaucracy as more than slightly irksome.  I suspect my old acquaintance has his sights set on becoming chair.  Good for him.  He can polish his papers on Adorno and assume some administrative duties while I reread Hocus Pocus.  I think I’ll get the better end of that deal.


And then I see my own writing.  The cluttered sentences!  The unnecessary similes!  How shameful! 


I wrote the above four sentences (most of them fragments) at the end of April with a semester’s worth of work behind me as I entered a summer that was filled with editing.  Editing is a painful process.  Some thrive on it; I know a few writers who feel it is the most invigorating part of the composition process.  Me?  Not so much.  I tend to see it as a chance to feel rotten about my work.  I see the mistakes, the awkward phrasings, the lazy metaphors, but, worse: I see the residue of a good idea that was never fully expressed.  I have great ideas.  I know this.  But the execution of these ideas is hazy.  Making them vivid is difficult.  Frankly, it is unnatural.  We are not born with language skills.  It takes a lot of practice to effectively communicate with words.  But it is our task and, thus, our responsibility to do it well.  This is something I consistently remind my students:

“You are a writer whether you like it or not,” I say.  “You get to choose what kind of writer you are: the kind that gives up after the first try or the kind that strives to better communicate your ideas.  Either way, you can always do better.  We all can.”

I will keep this in mind as I revise my own work.