Christmas 2018

Dear Everyone,

My brother and I were each conceived in New York City, almost exactly two years apart. We happened during an annual diamond show my dad used to attend for the family business (well, more accurately after the show, not like in the middle of it, which, let's be real, would be impressive). Mom tagged along twice, got two boys out of it, then decided she wouldn’t go back.

My favorite story she tells of those trips took place in the elevator in the very secure and very unmarked building that hosted the show. One time they got in and, right as the doors closed, a massive and hairy arm shot between them, and an honest-to-God Hell’s Angel stepped in, big as life and twice as unconcerned. Mom, new to the big city, naturally assumed that this would be the moment of her death. But he quietly rode up to the diamond show with them and was waved through security without so much as an ID check.

Turned out they were using Hell’s Angels as couriers. Because, really, who would think a large, leathery beardo who might have punched up a 1969 Rolling Stones concert would have $100,000 worth of diamonds in his saddle bags? Who on earth would try to look?

I heard the story decades ago, and it never left me. It was one of those early glimpses into my parents' history that made me start to wonder what else they'd been through, what they'd seen that I hadn't. You grow up thinking that your parents are boring…well, parents. You learn by fits and starts that there've been things going on when your back was turned. Or, indeed, when you were a steak dinner and two glasses of scotch away from existing.

There was the time Jennifer came home from college, where she’d gotten an earful of students discussing their heritage. This one was German-Irish, that one Ashkenazi Jewish, another whatever bare fraction of Native American. She’d had no idea of her own heritage, so she asked her dad, what am I?

He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess you’re half hillbilly and half swamp.” That opened up overlooks of identity and history she hadn’t explored before. She carries that with her now, as I carry the story of the bejeweled biker, little pieces of our parents that they broke off and slipped into our pockets for safekeeping.

We have bucketfuls of these pieces. My own dad used to wake my brother and me up by pretending to be a superhero named Underwear Man, barging into our bedroom with tighty-whities yanked down over his head. Mom once heard us listening to Cyndi Lauper LPs, charged into our room wearing every bracelet she owned, her hair frit up into some insane and hasty architecture, and proceeded to dance. Jennifer’s mom once watched me politely choke down her banana pudding, learning the hard way how much I hate bananas but love Nilla wafers and the approval of potential in-laws, and from that day on made me my own tiny banana-free pudding at family gatherings.

More trinkets: I have never been in the military but can report with the confidence of an expert that you can safely burn plastic explosives and use them as a makeshift campstove. Just don’t try to stamp out the fire. Dad taught me that. I know, because of mom, how to make giftwrapping ribbon curl up by running scissor blades down one side of it. I know how to set up a sewing machine because my mom showed me, and then I forgot, and then Jennifer showed me, which she could do because her mom showed her. Her dad taught me every contour of the yard my children now play in, including where the surveyor's pins are buried and the details of the deal he struck with a neighbor to not have to mow the far side of the creek.

So many fragments of them, bits of colored glass etched and rounded by grit and time. I stumble across them everywhere, in coat pockets with wrinkled bills, at the bottoms of desk drawers, in neglected storage boxes and scattered among the roots of the dogwood out back. They make a satisfying clack when I put them in my pocket, next to Molly McGee's old watch.

My mom and dad have moved nearby. I haven't been this close to them in over a decade and a half. It used to take a four-hour drive to go have coffee. Now I walk Mugsy to their new home on Saturday mornings, after I've got the kids situated with donuts and cartoons, and mom pours me a cup. I bump into them at the grocery store. I may have to build a shed to hold this new cascade of pieces, souvenirs of what might prove to be their last big adventure together.

So too with Jennifer's dad, though for different reasons. Time and circumstance have whittled away at the life he knew until only the pure shape of him is left, the love and humor and concern he used to steer himself and his family through the last eight decades. He needs us to care for him now, in much the same way he cared for the woman I love. He's wheelchair-bound and sometimes understandably frustrated at what he perceives as his lack of usefulness. I want him to know that his use is not gone but distilled. He doesn't see what we're collecting in the wake of his wheels.

There's pain and fear in all of this, of course. That's the price of admission. For my part, every now and then I'm struck by the weight of time, by the bone-deep awareness of how temporary this flood of fragments is. So I hoard them like a crow. I don't organize or catalog them, but I keep them close by, tucked hither and yon with no easily perceivable strategy or plan. God's own filing system.

Sometimes I cast them on the ground like chicken bones or yarrow stalks to tell my fortune, and it always comes up the same way: Quit screwing around with nostalgia and look around you. Let what you see change you. Go do something. Rilke put it better:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

I nod and gather the shards back up, and I know I'll go looking for more. Maybe it's because I wonder if the lesson will change. More likely it's because I know I'll forget it. But it's also because I want to show these pieces to you, the scratched and stained facets of the love that built us, because I want you to hold them up to the light and watch how they cast their colors down on you.

“I don’t give a fuck about your horse”

Somewhat stranded in a different country (Mexico) and a different state (uncertainty), plagued by flaming assholes of both the literal and metaphorical variety, caught in the crossfires of ongoing dick-measuring contests and consistently reminded that no one considered him a threat in this regard, Robert Vaughn was tasked with embodying an emasculated dandy. And, seemingly unfazed by any of the above, he went about his work and played the absolute hell out of him.

This essay about the cast of “The Magnificent Seven” spraying diarrhea from their butts and insecurity from their egos is dang near perfect. It’s funny as hell and gets right to the hollow core of the cultural golden calves we’ve constructed to worship an era and an ideal that never existed.

Better than Drakkar Noir

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When you have a friend who makes ads for a living, the one-off text conversation jokes operate on a whole ‘nother level.

The Cruelty Is the Point

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

That’s the upshot from the final paragraph, but the whole thing is worth a read as a document of our viciousness and how little progress we’ve made.

The final nail in the coffin of my both-sides-ism was the 2016 conventions. One party kept stressing how its members were bringing aid to those most in need. The other was pointing out who should be locked up.

Pachydermatous Outer Melon Layer

Ricky Jay died this weekend. If you have the time, I strongly recommend you read this New Yorker profile of him from 25 years ago.

If you don’t have the time, I strongly recommend that you watch him throw playing cards at a watermelon.

If you want to learn how to do that, you will have to pay for it.

A delightful man, unsurpassed at his craft, who evidently hated kids. I never met him, but I will miss him.

You look lost, little boy

Oh, my dears, my cousins in the sulphur, can you possibly imagine? It was better than the time [the devil] tricked self-important, brooding Uriel into revealing where the secret garden was located (it was in a fizzy puddle in Pangaea). It surpassed, in terms of comedy, the look on his ex-girlfriend's perfect features when her seventh husband in a year died on their wedding night, the devil having stopped his heart a second prior to the intended consummation. Why, it even beat that moment of hilarity during the Fall, when one of the low-ranking devils, Sabnock or some other marquis, who'd been consequently pushed down further into the excruciating quagmire of material awareness than the others, had called out "Truly this sensate world is one beyond endurance, though I am delighted to report my genitals have started working", whereupon the builders and the devils they were using as a form of psychic landfill all put down their flaming snooker cues for a few minutes until they'd stopped laughing.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Voice Like a Dockworker’s Fist

May Minnie Warren, leathery old so-and-so who'd got a voice like a dockworker's fist, with which she'd no doubt pummel Tom to death if him and Doreen didn't get a shift on and extend the Warren line. Tommy was frightened of his mam, but so was everyone.

He could remember, on Walt's wedding night in 1947 or round then, the way their mam had cornered him and Frank out in the corridor at the reception, which was at the dance hall up in Gold Street. She'd stood there by the swing door, with people going in and out so that she'd have to shout over the music that kept blasting forth—it was the band May's youngest brother managed, Tommy's uncle Johnny—and his mam had read the riot act to him and Frank. She'd had half a pork pie held in one hand what she'd had off the buffet table and the other half of it was in her mouth part-chewed while she was talking, flakes of lardy pastry, ground pink pig-bits and yellowy jelly mashed together by her few remaining teeth or in a meat spume, spraying over Tom and his young brother as they stood there quaking in their boots before this strychnine Christmas pudding of a woman.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Who among us has not known and indeed adored this woman.

It was all the “and then and then and then” of it that scared him

There seemed very little choice in any of it. Half his life had been dictated by his family's financial situation, and the other half dictated by his own compulsions, by his need to be adored the way his mother had adored him, by his frantic scrabble to get somewhere and to be somebody.

But that wasn't the whole story, was it? Oatsie knew that was what everybody thought about him privately, all of his so-called pals from in the business, how they saw him as a climber, always chasing something — chasing women, chasing any scrap of work he had a sniff at, chasing fame and fortune — but he knew they'd got him wrong. Of course he wanted all those things, wanted them desperately, but so did everybody else, and it was never really the pursuit of recognition that propelled him through his life so much as the great black explosion of his background rumbling behind him. Mother starving her way into madness, father swelling up into a stinking, sloshing water-bomb, all of the pictures flickering past to a percussion made by fists on flesh and dustbin lids on gratings, hammering and clanging in the rising sparks. What kept him on the move, he knew, was not the destiny that he was chasing but the fate that he was running from. What people saw as climbing was no more than him attempting to arrest his fall.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Seems appropriate that it was Diablo

Blizzard announced this week a new Diablo game for mobile, not PC or console. Fans completely lost all perspective and succumbed to blind rage.

It’s really, really easy to make a nerd burn here or do the usual “kids today are so entitled” thing that literally every generation has done. But the real concern for me here is yet more fandamentalism. More from the new Church of Entertainment. More of people trying to find meaning by clutching at things that could not be more meaningless. And waiting in the wings? Are those ready to exploit it.

It’s easy, too, to get lost in judgment while watching it, but what I feel right now is heartache. Because what I see is a whole lot of needless suffering and fear. Fear of what Russell Brand (!) perfectly termed the unrelenting echo of an unfillable void.

I don’t know how we fix this. I refuse to believe that it isn’t fixable. But the rot is deep and the scale is staggering. It may take massive calamity before we awaken to it. Or, as Alan Watts once put it, “You won’t wake up until you feel you’ve paid a price for it.”

Out Alone In the Heaps

I've been put out, I thought.

I've been snuffed out.

I'm not alight any longer.

It was like being lost, dropped out, thrown out, spat out, shovelled under, dropped down a great hole. Small. Very small. Knowing then in the black coldness how small I am, that I'd never be anything big. Crumb. Splinter. Lost thing. Little lost thing. That's how it was. Something like that. Only that doesn't quite do it either. Not yet. It's like you're dead, being out alone in the heaps, absolutely dead, extinct, done in, never remembered by anyone ever, never existed even, not ever, not known anywhere at all. Like that. Except you're alive, except you're breathing, except you're there in this dead place, alive with all the thick deadness about you, on top of you, all around, moving in. That's where I was. Out in the deep of it. There I trod, panting and miserable in the thick leather suit with my hulking metal helmet covering my noggin and all of it so big for me that I had to shuffle up inside of the suit to see out of the helmet window. Me and all those dead things. Hundreds and hundreds of different sized things, all smacked up together. Load of rubbish, wasn't it.

I'm sorry, I thought, I'm so very sorry. For all the broken things. Ugly objects, how did you get like this, who did this to you? I'm sorry no one cares for you. I am sorry. But I can't care for all of you, there's not enough of me. I can't. I don't. You'd snuff me out, soon as anything. You'd have me in an instant.

Just ahead of me was an old wooden staircase, broken and cracked, with some steps missing. It must have been a long staircase, once upon a time. I wonder where it went. Now it climbed up to nowhere, but it stayed where it was, waving a little bit in the growing wind, but not sinking. A bit of a place, it was, I thought. As much of a place as you're ever likely to get out here. Not very solid perhaps but more solid. I reached for it and dragged myself up it and clambered and heaved up its steps, the banister shuddering, until I was higher than the heap ground and I could see then that it was still connected to some building and that for the moment, it was on top of the heap, the highest bit, like a mast of a ship. There I scrambled and there, on a step, I sat. Feeling sick. Gulls about me. They're living they are, I thought, hallo to you. I am here. I'm still here. Still alive.

—Edward Carey, Heap House

What an unexpectedly lovely book.

We Are What We Pretend to Be

I just finished watching Lodge 49. It’s wonderful. No one I’ve asked has heard of it.

It’s difficult to describe, beyond the setup: a down-and-out surfer finds a signet ring from a local fraternal order on the beach and returns it to the lodge. When he sees the dying lodge and meets the struggling people within, he falls in love with it and asks if he can join.

The lodge’s history is steeped in alchemy and ritual, so the show itself has mysteries, of course. But they almost seem beside the point, despite their intrigue. Todd VanDerWerff wrote about this halfway through the season:

It’s not clear what the larger point of the series is, or where all of its mystical portents and hints about some larger purpose for these characters are going. There’s a strong subplot about Dud’s twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who’s working at a Hooters-ish sports bar named Shamroxx, because she’s so burdened down with debt passed down to her by her and Dud’s deceased father. There’s a dead body in a secret, hidden room in the lodge. There’s a loose seal wandering across the road.

All of this, I think, has led to people trying to guess what Lodge 49 means. It has some of the outward trappings of a mystery show like Lost or Twin Peaks, so it must play by the same rules as those shows, right? But the series’ fourth episode, “Sunday,” is as good an argument as anything that the series is less about trying to make sense of its many loose ends and more about realizing that you find life amid the loose ends.

Lodge 49 is the anti-Lost. It’s a deliberate inversion of the (very successful) mystery-meat show format. In this case, the mystery isn’t the main course; its function is mostly to agitate the characters into opening themselves up to one another. It gives them reasons to build and sustain a community. So the show will reveal the occasional mummified corpse or Bruce Campbell, but it’s mostly content to wander and explore and build connections. It’s been called “deceptively aimless”. And that makes it a breath of fresh air.

Todd wrote this more recently about the overdue decline of the white male anti-hero and the punishment of women for entertainment. It hits the issue from pretty much all sides, and the whole thing’s worth a read, but this bit leapt out at me:

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve capped an era full of white male antihero protagonists with a president who feels like he might as well be the main character of an antihero drama in some other universe, where viewers thrill at how he always dances one step ahead of the forces that would bring him down, cheered on by toadies and sycophants who eagerly abandon principle in the face of finally grasping power.

This is also a delicate dynamic to talk about because the surest path toward boring, bland art is to insist that it be morally, ethically, socially, and politically palatable. We need shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to help us ponder the darkness within humanity, and within ourselves as individuals. To insist that art conform to some code of righteousness is a shortcut to making art that’s not worth thinking about....

What I am suggesting is that advocating for representation on TV and in films is not merely about painting an accurate, inclusive picture of the world we live in. Yes, we need more women antiheroes, more antiheroes of color, and so on — but we also need to think about how the stories we tell create long grooves in our culture, grooves that eventually crystallize into reflexive beliefs about who gets to be the protagonist and how they go about being that protagonist.

Read that last sentence again. The stories we tell create long grooves in our culture. It took me a while to understand that there is such a thing as a cultural illness, and that too many Travis Bickles and Jesse Jameses and Eric Cartmans often lie at the root of it. If you don’t believe that, sit down and listen to how Johnny Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Then go into any bar where it’s playing and listen to how the drinkers sing that line.

Vonnegut wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” But he decided that wasn’t clear enough, so he wrote this too: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I used to think that people who were troubled by phenomena like South Park were being uptight and humorless. Now I wonder whether South Park’s omnipresent “screw you for caring about stuff” theme carved some of the grooves that helped pave the way for our current predicament.

My hope is that we’re waking up to it. The current president* may not be a coincidence, but neither is the appearance of two movies about Mister Rogers or the slow rise of shows like Lodge 49 or The Good Place. I don’t think stories will save us. But maybe we’re starting to realize that stories have shaped us more than we suspected.