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.

* .

*                                                                       *                                                                           *

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 (pjword@pworden.com) 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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RIP Muhammad Ali (Jan. 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016)

He was the greatest. He told us so, but he really didn’t need to. His greatness was easily seen, perfectly understood.

When he was 12 years old, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, his bicycle was stolen. Young Cassius Clay, as he was then named, told police officer Joe Martin that he would find and thrash the thief. Martin, who was also a boxing coach, told the youngster that he’d need to learn to fight first. And with Martin’s help, he did.

What makes a great boxer? There has to be more, some X factor, beyond the speed, strength, agility, stamina, and technique that are required just to survive in the ring. Whatever it was, Ali had it. Within six years of the start of his amateur career, he’d won more than 100 bouts, won numerous Golden Gloves, and captured gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

His professional career began soon after, which brought worldwide, lifetime fame, and a series of ups and downs that would also last a lifetime. In the run-up to his first title fight, against Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali achieved pop-culture immortality when he promised to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He also explained away his boasting with a simple, prophetic, and unarguable truth: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” He beat Liston in seven rounds and became the heavyweight champion of the world.

It was Cassius Clay who won that fight, but it was Muhammad Ali who announced, just weeks later, that he’d become a Muslim and had joined the Nation of Islam. His popularity ebbed. And it hit a nadir a year and a half later when he refused a draft summons, declared himself a conscientious objector, and famously said “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He was stripped of his title and banned by the World Boxing Association, and indicted as a draft dodger by the Justice Department.

But he was The Greatest. He had that X factor, that force of personality, and these too would be fights he’d win. In 1970 he succeeded in getting his boxing suspensions overturned. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court vacated his criminal case. In March of that year he lost a 15-round decision to heavyweight champ Joe Frazier. He fought rematches with Frazier in 1974 and 1975 (the Thrilla in Manila) and won both.

Then George Foreman. Then Leon Spinks, Then Larry Holmes. From the seventies into the eighties, Muhammad Ali kept fighting. He was visibly slowing, wasn’t winning as consistently, but he was still The Greatest. He was perhaps the best known sportsman on the planet. He remained cocky, but he was never unkind. He was quietly philanthropic, extraordinarily open and approachable to his fans. By now a Sunni Muslim, he didn’t talk much about his faith, other than to encourage peace and inclusiveness

In 1984 Muhammad Ali, age 42, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, a degenerative neurological disorder similar in impact to Parkinson’s disease. Its effects were glaring, heartbreaking. Ali was retired by now, much less in the limelight, but he didn’t hide away. He’d still grant interviews, speaking slowly and carefully, with tremors wracking his body. His mind remained strong, he still had much to say, and far from being shamed by his condition, he seemed content to share it, for the sake of understanding.

In the coming years, rumors of his declining health abounded. So, in his inimitable style, he surprised us all in 1996, at the opening ceremonies of the summer Olympics in Atlanta, by appearing with torch in hand. He slowly made his way through the hushed stadium and lit the Olympic flame. He’d reprise his surprise role in 2012, in the London games, presiding over the Olympic flag ceremony.

Muhammad Ali’s health issues have persisted so long, and he bore them so well, that I suppose we all were in silent agreement that the champ was winning, that The Greatest had rope-a-doped Parkinson’s. Would that were true. A series of systemic infections weakened him over the last twelve months or so. In the last few weeks he developed difficulty breathing. Two days ago he was unconscious, and breathing with a respirator.

Last night The Greatest passed away in a Phoenix hospital, not far from the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center. May he have gone gently with the knowledge of how much he meant to us, and may he rest in peace.

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Memorial Day 2016 – Recognition and Thanks

Memorial Day, as has been noted before, is the unofficial start of summer, a pre-solstice revelry of warm weather and outdoor fun. For many of us, myself thoroughly included, it’s a long-anticipated 3-day weekend, a barbecue bacchanalia, a day to relax and unwind.

But we’re all too aware there’s a somber, almost sacred subtext to the holiday, one we know we can’t rightfully forget or ignore. Memorial Day isn’t merely a recognition to those who wear or wore the uniform, as is Armed Forces Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is the day of remembrance for those who never made it home.

In post-Vietnam America, military service has become strangely fetishized, Soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines, and the officers who lead them, are placed upon pedestals to a degree unknown heretofore in our nation’s history. It’s a strange phenomenon, and in some undefinable way (to me at least), it’s unseemly. The U.S. military shares relevant traits with most large organizations: peopled by mostly good folks, a few not so good ones, by no means infallible, and hopefully mostly well meaning.

It is the professional, all-volunteer armed wing of the world’s oldest democracy. It has been, and probably frequently always will be, ill-used by its political masters. It has been used dishonorably, yet on the individual level, honor abounds. Historically such forces are used to build empires and to seize wealth (“Gold will not always bring you good soldiers,” said Machiavelli “but good soldiers will always bring you gold“). That tendency hasn’t been unknown in the history of the United States armed forces but when it happens it triggers outcry and revulsion, within the ranks and without.

Our forces serve best, and we support them best, when they’re mobilized to serve the greater good. They’re rescuers and protectors. In the worst of times and in the heat of battle they can be depended upon, unlike the overwhelming majority of their peers worldwide, to preserve the lives of innocents caught in the crossfire. That is honor.

Valor is a particularly military concept of honor. It encompasses bravery, yet goes beyond. It does not imply fearlessness, because fear is part and parcel of warfare. But it implies the grit and ability to subsume fear, and to do the necessary, even at the risk of one’s own life.

And all too often that risk solidifies, and “the last full measure of devotion,” as Lincoln said, is given.

To all American service men and women, past and future, whose lives are lost in the course of their duties, this day is dedicated. Thank you.

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