The clowns bring a message

Great civilizations tend to be visited by great prophets, when they begin to topple or go astray. Sometimes the wise words are heeded and crisis is averted. More often the messengers are ignored and the terminal waves come crashing over.

We should be wary, then—especially wary, now that the oracles walk among us, and they deign not to warn us with oratory but rather with their chilling nighttime leering.

This is entirely right and good, in accordance with the dire message they carry. The scaramouche form they take is the message, or at least the subject line. They’re appealing directly to your and my atavistic fear reflex, as triggered by the panoply that starts with greasepaint and winds on down to their oversized shoes.

Because what else is there to fear these dark days, besides clowns on the lurk? That’s right, it’s That Candidate. You know the one: the one you loathe and fear so much, you know beyond doubting that That Candidate’s ascension can spell only doom for you and all you hold dear.

So what we have here is a coast-to-coast metaphor, spotted everywhere, apparently; deliberately or otherwise reminding us that we’ve got a lizard brain buried way back there that’s not as easy to ignore as we’d like. Lizard Brain reacts most strongly to fear, and in the grips of a strong enough dose of it, Lizard Brain is ready and able to take the wheel. Scare it badly enough and it wouldn’t hesitate to steer us all right into the ditch.

But there’s a corollary message along with the one about clowns and fear. It’s this: Clowns haven’t always equaled fear. Once upon a time they meant delight. Seems like it’s only in living memory that they somehow morphed into those things you hatefully fear deep down in your gut.

It’s been a bit longer that the political class has also been so deeply despised, but once again, it hasn’t always been so. Nor must it always be.

The best we’ve ever been served (and maybe this is an idealized past, but it was the ideal) was when there was no per se political class. Office holders at all levels, as foreseen and designed by Tom Jefferson, were just patriotic citizens, taking their turns at the necessary for a few years, before handing it off to fresh and similarly motivated patriots and going back to their lives. Seems to me that our turn for the worse might have started when we got away from that, and we allowed politics to be become a permanent and lucrative profession.

A few followers of That Candidate, or maybe it was you, were more right than they knew when they began screaming that it’s a revolution we need in this country. Except it’s not one where we hurt each other, or are even uncivil. It’s one where we use the powers granted to us in our national charter, to turn our political system back into something we can be proud of.

Because when we let it get to the point where the grandest and most consequential ritual of our democracy becomes the stuff of our nightmares, we’ve all become clowns.

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What I saw at the HRC rally

There’s a little mental calculus that comes into play when you’re thinking about attending a political event. First off there are the known disincentives: There’ll be long lines and lots of waiting. Decibel levels will be high. Spirits will also be high, and that can be a good or bad thing. Then there are the things that could happen–the entire spectrum of crazy that’s liable to come out and play. At best it’s a crapshoot.

Outweighing all that, for me at least, was the fact that on Monday, October 3rd, Hillary Clinton spoke not just in my city, not just in my neighborhood, but literally down the road from my house. Odds of craziness notwithstanding, how could I not go?

The entire experience cost me about 3 hours, give or take, from the time I walked out my front door until I walked back in. Most of that time was indeed spent standing, queuing, waiting. A few hundred of us (rough estimate) stood in two long lines stretching out from the main doors of the venue, down the street and around the corner. There were a handful of protesters of the “Hillary for Prison” variety; I heard a few rancorous exchanges but for the most part the folks standing in line refrained from engaging. There was one gentleman, picketing back and forth on the other side of the street, holding forth with great gusto on (I assume) all he hated and feared about HRC. There were two lanes of rush-hour traffic separating us, though. I overheard someone else in the line say, “That guy is about to give himself a stroke, and I can’t hear a word he’s saying. Win-win.”

Eventually we filed in, and made our way to stadium seating an an upper tier, or for yet more standing on the event-hall floor. I chose the latter and ended up not more than 20 feet from the podium. More waiting ensued, predictably, then finally the warm-up speakers: local party people, then the mayor, a couple members of Congress, then finally the speaker herself.

If you’ve followed even a modest amount of politics, you probably have a decent idea of how events like this unfold. I saw and heard nothing particularly unexpected in that respect. I’d heard that Clinton’s speech would be one on economic policy, and although that and a lot of other ground (national security, education, not much alas on the environment) was covered, she spent at least half her time attacking her opponent. That’s a predictable political reality, I suppose, but I found it nevertheless disappointing. And on a pragmatic level, I wonder if it was even necessary—Trump seems to be doing fine crashing his own campaign with his own words and deeds. Me and Ali prescribe a rope-a-dope strategy.

But in any case, it wasn’t a bad speech. The delivery was better than I expected—she spoke with notes, no Teleprompter, and she was much more engaged (and engaging) than I’ve seen in all too many of her appearances. She also looked pretty damned good for someone weathering a bout of pneumonia just three weeks ago.

All that time, though, I was less interested in the speaker in front of me than in the people all around me. The turnout, in size and demography, was surprising and encouraging. The crowd looked like my city. All ages, all races; a larger number than I would have expected, frankly, of guys a lot like me: white and over forty. Even better, all of these people were just plain nice. In tight quarters, where toes were inevitably stepped on and all the unavoidable jostling occurred, I heard not a single angry word. All around me, people were simply being kind to each other, striking up conversations and, I’m sure, striking up more than a few new friendships.

Above all else, though, what I found most encouraging as I looked around, was the number of millennials in attendance. This much-maligned generation—probably the most unfairly heaped-upon generation in history—was out in force, and that prompted me to reevaluate them in depth. The many accusations against these young people includes the one about being politically (even civilly) disconnected. Twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings made up not just a plurality of the crowd, as far as I could see, but also a majority of the campaign staff. So if there’s a disconnection somewhere, it isn’t with them.

Millennials are also accused of being self-centered, of being coddled, of coming up with the sense of entitlement that comes with being in that ‘everyone gets an award’ generation. Well, I wasn’t likely to confirm or deny any of that based on a three-hour political rally, but then again I didn’t see any need to try. Because even a moment’s worth of thinking on it reveals how ball-bustingly unfair those accusations are. Millennial attitudes and mind-sets, for good or ill, are the products of the people who raised them. Millennials didn’t invent the concept of passing out awards for showing up—the previous generation did, and the millennials just happened to be the guinea pigs on whom the idea was tried out.

They’ve grown up in a world where they’ve been able to take for granted the ubiquity of advanced technology, yet they’ve been showered with constant blaring assertions that this, right now, is the worst things have ever been. When they were small we told them they must go to college if they ever hoped to make something of their life, then we handed them an economy and a job market where their degrees were more like extremely expensive jokes.

They’ve also come of age at a time when perpetual war and looming environmental crises come with the territory. The costs of both of these are to be paid, disproportionately, by the millennial generation and the generations that come after.

I realized, then, with the unlikely backdrop and impetus of a Hillary Clinton rally, that against all odds and contrary to the lousy hand they’ve been dealt, the millennial generation are doing their best to, well, make America great again.

When I left I was hardly thinking about Hillary Clinton or this chancre-sore of an election. I left feeling very, very optimistic.

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Happy Birthday, Leonard Cohen

Today is Leonard Cohen’s 82nd birthday. He isn’t resting easy, though, no matter how well that rest might be deserved. After 49 years (and counting) in the music business, and 13 studio albums to his credit, this anti-crooner and songwriting tour de force is still hard at it. His 14th album, You Want it Darker drops one month from today. He’s been kind enough, though, to share his birthday tidings with us all by releasing the title track, embedded below. It is gravelly gravitas, just like his entire body of work. To honor that retrospective, I’ve also included a wee slice of his older work, including that one gorgeous hymn that’s so often imitated, and so far from duplicated (“I hate that song,” the missus said once as we listened to some anonymous hack mangle it. “Oh but darlin’, you haven’t heard Leonard sing it.”). Enjoy.

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No no don’t worry. I’m not talking about blocking users here (least of all you; you’re my favorite). No, I’m using the word in a much older context, referring to a dread phenomenon bitched about by some writers, and existentially denied by others. Those others, a convincing lot, will tell you that a writer doesn’t get blocked, a writer gets lazy.

Perhaps. And perhaps laziness metastasizes into paralysis. Seems like the result is the same.

No matter—no definitive diagnosis is needed. And I didn’t come here to bitch about it, or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. I’m telling myself that I’m merely reporting on events.

And they’ve been…uneventful, as far as writing goes, for me. Words in written form seem to be in short supply. Not much blogging, not much freelancing, not much work done either on those prose-and-poetry projects that I keep in long-lived and little pecked-at files, that are as full as guilt as they are words as long as I’m not pecking at them.

But what the hell. Blocks and laziness need not be forever. Already I’m at word 183 of this little blog post. That’s not nothing. And last night in the wee hours (because on the weekend, wee are the hours I keep), I wrote a little bit in my guiltiest file, the novel I want to finish the most, the story I’m most enjoying unraveling. I didn’t write much: two paragraphs. That’s nothing, practically, in the context of a novel. That’s a ten or twenty year novel rate, that is.

But here’s the thing: I like those two paragraphs. I’m well pleased with them. That is something, something fine.

And that’s the way, I think—along with a few words spilled in posts like these (closing in on 300 words now)—to break out of that rut, and to chip away at the block or the laziness, or whatever it is, or whatever it isn’t.

Dial it in and don’t overthink it. There are two states of being: writing and not-writing. I can’t write all the time. I can however not-write all the time, if I chose or if I allowed. I do not.

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Happy Labor Day, all you Wobblies

Okay, so maybe you’re not a card-carrying member of the One Big Union—AKA The Wobblies (legend sources the nickname to the IWW’s international outreach: a non-English speaking member tried to pronounce IWW but it came out I-Wobble-Wobble).

In fact, odds are you’re member of no union, rabble-rousing Wobblie, or otherwise. Union membership in the U.S. is at a nadir, with less than 7% of public-sector workers sharing the protective umbrella of organized representation and collective bargaining.

Be that as it may, we can on Labor Day (and hopefully on every other day) to look back appreciatively and honor the gifts that organized labor has bestowed upon us all: The 40-hour workweek, paid vacations and holidays, health insurance and other fringe benefits, and the implementation of workplace-safety and child-labor laws.

But you know—we don’t have to admire from afar. Workplace union-building is on the wane (because workplace union-busting is ever on the rise). Nevertheless, if we feel so inspired, we working-stiffs can still join a union, as solitary members (and secretive ones, if needed) . Here’s a few worth checking out:

IWW – The Wobblies

Working America (a branch of the AFL-CIO)

Freelancers Union

Look ‘em over, give it some thought, and see if you might be inspired to be one of the few and proud working to rebuild the glory of the great American labor movement…

…and don’t forget to have one helluva Labor Day weekend.

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Stand with Standing Rock

Something extraordinary is happening, ominous yet inspiring, a scant half-mile from the northern border of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, near Fort Yates, North Dakota.

The largest gathering of Native Americans in five generations has convened to support the Standing Rock people in their quest to halt construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

DAPL is a proposed 1,168-mile crude-oil pipeline, designed to link the Bakken oil fields in the Dakotas with distribution terminals in southern Illinois. The pipeline would cross four states, and traverse under the Missouri River.

The Standing Rock tribe’s objections to the project hinge on the threat to their reservation’s aquifers, which would be poisoned by pipeline spills. The worry is not an idle one; pipeline maintenance is notoriously lax in the U.S., with regulatory enforcement nearly non-existent. Under these conditions pipelines almost inevitably leak, to devastating effect on the environment, agriculture, and nearby communities. Thus far in 2016, pipeline accidents have resulted in at least 350,000 gallons reported spillage of crude oil, gasoline, propane, and other petroleum byproducts.

It’s interesting to note that the original pipeline route proposal would have had it cross the Missouri river north of Bismarck. That proposal was rejected, with the pipeline rerouted southward toward Standing Rock, due to perceived dangers to water supplies serving the North Dakota state capital.

A second objection of the Standing Rock people, no less urgent, is that construction endangers ancestral lands, burial grounds, and cultural heritage sites along the pipeline route. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which gave final permitting approval for the pipeline in July, says it completed both environmental and archaeological surveys, and accepted public comment during its deliberations prior to approval. The tribe, under legal representation by EarthJustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, contend that their objections were ignored and that the impact surveys were cursory at best. They have filed for an injunction to halt construction of the pipeline, with U.S. District Judge James Boasburg set to issue a ruling by September 9th.

Meanwhile the gathering grows, with Native people and others arriving daily at the protest site to support Standing Rock’s struggle. Arrests thus far have mainly been for trespassing, which spotlights an intriguing historical point: the focal area of the protest is considered private property, under lease by the pipeline management company; however this land had previously been part of the Standing Rock reservation, and was seized without consent in 1958 for a dam project by the aforementioned Army Corps of Engineers.

This weekend, for the first time, the confrontation became violent. Private security forces employed by the pipeline say they were attacked with sticks and rocks. They pepper-sprayed and unleashed guard dogs on protesters. Six people, including a child, were treated for dog bites, and more than 30 were sprayed.

State police and local sheriff deputies, observing from the air and from ground stations, did not intervene.

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We need to stand with Standing Rock not just because the energy-industrial complex is endangering the planet with an irrational dependency on fossil fuels and 19th-century technology, and not just to begin to set right the long and sordid U.S. history of broken treaties and stolen land (American Indians, with good reason, have a differing and painful definition for the term ‘white lies’).

We need to stand with Standing Rock because they and the people standing with them have drawn a line, one that will rightly be remembered for all time. It is a line demarking justice and inequity, harmony and exploitation, survival and extinction. We need to stand with Standing Rock because they are standing up for us. #NoDAPL

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RIP Gene Wilder (June 11, 1933 – Aug 29, 2016)

Occasionally an actor passes, and it’s only after they’re gone that you realize how much they truly meant. We lost Gene Wilder today, and can now reflect upon his enormous and invaluable impact. From his genre-defining collaborations with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, to his generational classic turn as Willy Wonka, to his star-crossed marriage to Gilda Radner (can you imagine how funny they must have been together?)—which resulted in his whole-hearted advocacy for cancer awareness…in his wake we can now appreciate how many of the smiles, gut-laughs, and warm good feelings of decades past this man was responsible for.

Gene Wilder died today, aged 83, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

May he rest in peace. And may we continue to ever enjoy the enormous and endlessly entertaining body of work he so selflessly gave. What more might we get, now that this comedic genius is gone? We’ll let him answer for himself…

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The beer sonnet



With thanks and salud to Max Stossel.

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Vote for the crook, it’s important

1991 was another year in which we saw David Duke crawl out from under his rock. In that case he was challenging the perennially corrupt Edwin Edwards in Louisiana’s gubernatorial runoff election. Half the state’s electorate said they believed Edwards was a criminal (and he was; less than nine years later he’d go down on fraud charges), but on election day they indicated it’s preferable to put a grifter than a grand wizard in the governor’s mansion. Edwards’s landslide win was prophesied and presaged by the unofficial campaign slogan that sprung up on his behalf: “Vote for the crook. It’s important.”

2016′s presidential election/bad reality show is crying out for a relaunch of that desperate plea in the form of a slogan. I say this not because I believe Hillary Rodham Clinton is a crook; I say it because even if I believed she was—even if I believed the blackest deep-web tinfoil conspiracy theories out there about her—I’d still say, “Yeah, but vote for her. It’s important.”

Is HRC a criminal? Man, I don’t know. Hillary doesn’t seem to have much aversion to the unseemly, the unsavory, and the ill advised, but she also seems smart enough not to cross certain lines. That’s about as spirited a defense as I’m inspired to mount for HRC, except perhaps for this addendum: She’s gotta be the most investigated person on the planet. If there was something to send her to jail for, surely somebody’s found it by now.

No, the ‘import’ part of our relaunched appeal has nothing to do with HRC; the same could be said if she were replaced by any reasonably well-qualified candidate, crooked or otherwise. Because any of them, and indeed literally almost anyone else in the country, is preferable in this election to the GOP’s candidate.

It’s dizzying to grasp all the ways in which this is true. The man didn’t know what Brexit or the nuclear triad was. He mocks the disabled, former POWs, and parents of slain U.S. soldiers. He’s told us that his best policy advisor is his own ‘great brain,’ and that if his daughter wasn’t his daughter ‘perhaps I’d be dating her.’

And the dizziness compounds on a daily basis, because every day he adds to the litany of evidence against his readiness, worthiness, sanity, and humanity. At this tempo it’s a real worry that by November we’ll be numb to his antics.

I recommend a narrower view, then, and I think this can be applied to the universe of electoral politics. Concentrate not on the overall awfulness (or the obverse, if applicable) of any one candidate, but rather on their stances on one or two issues that you really care about.

I long ago opted to be a single-issue voter (this would be at about roughly the same time I decided that I was steadfastly independent, and that the two-party system was dead to me).

Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. All other issues naturally and needfully take a lesser place of priority. Because if we fail to confront climate change everything else becomes inconsequential.

The 2015 Paris Accord very well could be our last, best hope to save ourselves, although many argue it’s too little, too late. Others see it as a first step, and a holding action, that might stave off the worst climatic disasters and buy time to develop technological solutions. Regardless, most would agree that the most certain death knell for worldwide climate action would be an early U.S. withdrawal from the treaty.

So for me, single-issue voter, the only acceptable 2016 candidate is one upon whom I can depend to uphold Paris and to fight for even stronger climate action. The next presidency will be the one to shepherd the earliest and tenderest years of a multi-generational self-preservation project. That’s why it’s important.

Am I thrilled with the alternative forced upon me by the two-party system? No, but I think I know where she stands on climate change. I can only guess about her GOP opponent, based on contradictory things he’s said and done. Actually I’ve heard the somewhat convincing argument that he’s such a celebrity worshiper that all we need to win him over is to have Scarlett Johansson show him Al Gore’s slideshow.

But still, no thanks. And before you remind me that there are alternatives, Dr. Jill Stein and Governor Gary Johnson, I’ll submit that although the two-party system I so readily hate on isn’t encoded in any law, it still exists in fact. The incomparable Matt Taibbi said recently that the way to build a Green or Libertarian party into a national force is to start at the bottom of the ballot, electing councilmen and mayors and state legislators. A run at the presidency prior to such org-building isn’t serious politics, it’s posturing.

Nonetheless I wouldn’t be adverse to casting a protest vote (mine would almost certainly go to Zoltan Istvan)…if I lived in a state like Texas or California or Hawaii. But I live in Ohio. There’ll be other important bellwether states this election (New York, anyone? One of these candidates is going to lose their home state), but now as always the path to the White House goes through the Buckeye state.

That’s why I’ll be voting for someone who wasn’t my first, second, or even third choice. Someone about whom I have serious misgivings. Because the stakes are, as I said, existential. Because a Trump presidency is unthinkable.

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Friday freebie – a novella just for you

A question I’m frequently asked, not always in the most patient of tones, is what becomes of the central characters, Sara and John, from my first novel, Mind.Net.

Well…I still can’t completely answer that, as the sequel to that book is still very much a hypothetical entity (#NotProlific but #AmWriting). However, perhaps I can offer a little alternate edification…?

The Plug and Play Life tells another version of their story, in which they’re wearing different skins, called by different names, and inhabiting an unforgiving slew of different worlds.

It’s an odd little yarn (I hope I mean that, and you’ll interpret it, in a good way). Both style and genre I’d describe as “experimental.” I didn’t even realize, for the first few thousand words or so, that I’d gone back to the Sara Kincade & John Wasner well. But their personalities are unmistakable, as is their resiliency in the face of hostile forces and unwinnable quests.

The P&P Life is still available from Amazon and elsewhere as a download, but I’m making it available here in its entirety for your online, multimedia (it has pictures!) reading pleasure. It clocks in at about 15K words or so, making it a long-ish short story, or an abbreviated novella. Either way, it shouldn’t take you longer than a half hour, give or take, to wade through.

I hope you like it, but the only guarantee I can offer is this: if you don’t, I’ll do everything in my power to alter the laws of space and time, and unconditionally refund your half hour.

So check it out—and if you’d be so inclined leave a comment or drop me a note ( and let me know what you think.

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Paradise Lost: the 8-bit dance mix

Plenty of attempts have been made down through the centuries to recast John Milton’s 1660s epic poem, Paradise Lost, in some or another multi-media format. Artists ranging from William Blake to Salvador Dali have taken their turns at providing the visuals for a saga that spans the earth, the heavens, and the depths of an unforgiving hell.

Now comes London electro-pop duo, Delta Heavy, and their new video, “White Flag.” The video reimagines Paradise Lost as an 80s-era, NES-ish console game. Satan is your player-avatar. Beelzebub is a rather pathetic NPC. God seems to be the level boss. Delta Heavy provides your soundtrack—and quite a good one.

It’s absolute magic, and scratches simultaneous nostalgic itches for Gen-X’s salad days, and 17th-century literature. Enjoy.

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America’s 240th Birthday

The Fourth of July isn’t just a date, or a holiday, or a commemoration. It’s a concept, heavy with meaning, offering symbolism for all, for every viewpoint, good or ill, that one might assign to the birth of the world’s oldest extant democracy.

But one viewpoint often ignored or forgotten as we pursue our star-spangled reveries, is that the foremost Fourth, the one in 1776, was by no means an end in of itself. The document presented and signed that day brought no finality—it marked instead a most uncertain beginning. It was with sincere solemnity, and perhaps even fatalism, that the signers pledged their “Lives…Fortunes..and sacred Honor.” Years of war and privation lay ahead of them. Most of them would go to their graves not knowing if the nation they’d forged would endure, or would expire.

In that light, it’s as important to know what’s not in the Declaration of Independence as it is to know what is. The word “democracy” appears nowhere in the text. Nor does “republic” nor “capitalism.” It is, in a sense, a blank slate.

Two hundred and forty years later we have written upon that slate; we’ve often chosen our words in haste and have been forced to go back, to erase, to recompose. In times of unity we’ve etched soaring passages, and offered inspiration for all of humanity. And in more frightened, parochial times we’ve authored prose that is far beneath us, that is in no way worthy of our history and potential.

But still. That slate still lies before us. Two hundred and forty years have left it incomplete. We have chapters yet to write.

There is no stasis in what America is, and what America becomes. The dynamism and trajectory of this nation belongs to us all, and it is our collective responsibility. What happens next is what we the people choose for ourselves.

Happy birthday America, and Happy Fourth of July, Americans. May the ideals we celebrate today live on tomorrow and beyond.

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Max Stossel’s timely poetic appeal

Multi-media philosopher/bard Max Stossel is back with a gut-wrenching plea in the dual, synergistic form of a poem and a video. It is timely, pertinent, and well-nigh inarguable. Give it a watch:

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Dispatches from Art Basel

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