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WRITE CLUB Chicago Humanities Festival - Belknap DEATH - 11/4/12 & 11/12

Interesting. Used (slightly modified) piece twice. First bout (vs. the estimable Bilal Dardai) victorious, second bout (vs. the Live Lit bone-cracker Samantha Irby) a crushing defeat. Sidebar: the Poetry Foundation is just about the fanciest place into which I've ever been permitted entry.

If you could reanimate the corpse of your civics lessons, you’d no doubt recall that patriot Patrick Henry famously said: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

We think.

Given our context – a festival in celebration of… whatever the humanities are, in this TEMPLE erected for a literary form nobody cares about – I mean honestly: look at this place. It’s a fifty million-dollar bookcase. All those books back there? Poetry. Or worse: about poetry. Building this palace is like launching an aircraft carrier to defend stamp collecting.

But since we are here in this I’m ascribing to each of you and extraordinarily high degree of egg-headedness. As such, I shall operate on the assumption that you care about things like attribution and provenance – you recognize that as ideas are passed from hand to hand, there should be an anally retentive record of these pathways.

Anything short of this kind of butt-squinching documentation about the chain of possession for ideas sparks a frenzy of academic knife-sharpening that makes the average flame-war on Yelp!  or Amazon seem positively sedate by comparison.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the kind of crowd where if I speak the words “epistemology,” or “tautology,” or “semiotics” – if you listen carefully you can hear the nerd-nipples stiffening.

Like most Americans, I cannot with confidence tell you what “epistemology” or “tautology” or “semiotics” mean.

But academic hackles are known only go up where there is nothing at stake, which is what separates dork-fighting from the real kind. Only at Comic Con is it possible to witness slap-fights about the place of Jar-Jar Binks in the Lucas canon. Likewise, it is only in the halls of academia where bitter tears are shed by the gallon over disputed punctuation in the doctoral thesis nobody will ever read.

In fact, the ONLY time you’ll see historians retract their catty claws is when the detail in question is agreed to be of abiding benefit to the national narrative. Which, in the case of Patrick Henry’s alleged statement, is clearly what’s going on.

First of all, let’s just say it: Patrick Henry is a one-hit wonder – “Give me liberty or give me death” is the “Hey Mickey” or “Baby Got Back” of its time – a shallow, idiotic tune we should all be mortified for having danced to so lustily. And it’s a hit from era of such chronic lameness, men were expected to march to their deaths behind a dude playing the fucking fife.

The trouble? Henry never published the text of the 1775 Virginia Convention speech alleged to contain this line. The version we think we know was published 17 years after his death by his biographer. Who wrote it from memory. A full twenty-four years after the speech in question. Now, speaking as a guy that’s constantly walking into my kitchen and forgetting what I came in there for, I readily concede people were smarter back then – but even so, twenty-four YEARS is a long-ass time to wait before jotting anything down.

But even if we accept this quote as valid, and even if we set aside the false dichotomy of Liberty vs. Death, it’s STILL no contest. Look – in principle, Liberty is appealing. Who among does not think we want freedom? However, we invariably find that that Liberty, so virtuous in principle, turns out to be total nightmare.

Because in practice, Liberty is nothing more than the paralysis of too much choice. And this mind-cracking weight of choice squashes from us all sense of control and clarity like grapes in a wine press until we are ankle-deep in an ineffectual puddle of our own waffling.

America has been in this Liberty bidness for a long-ass time.

With too much Liberty, we become the fattest country in the world, where the national pastime is gun violence. We elect paunchy helmet-haired men who declare that global warming is not real from what has become the Atlantic coast of Kentucky; men who draft constitutional amendments that defines rape as being between a man and a woman; men who lobby to “solve” the society-smashing perils of gay-marriage with drone strikes, and immediately get caught in the airport bathroom trying to give a handie to the dude in the next stall while chanting USA! USA! USA!

This is where Liberty leads us. We can’t handle it, man. Because we tend to be selfish, ignorant, short-sighted swine. No disrespect intended.

In his acceptance speech last night, President Obama acknowledged this – in talking about the messy nature of life in democracy, he talked about this tendency for rancor and squabbling. He said “These arguments we have are a mark of our liberty.”

We suck at ramifications. We got no patience for consequences. Complexity is super-boring. We like tidy conclusions with only the most casual relationship to the facts – Americans will flatly declare things that are insane like “Racism’s over – we elected a black president,” or “Kim Kardasian is a star.”

And here’s what the Patrick Henry lobby, the fat cats in the pocket of Big Patriotism, don’t want you to know, brother: Death? It’s the completest Liberty there is. In Death, there is no rancor and squabbling, Mr. President.

When laid beside Death, is Liberty not a stingy little thing? A self-seeking and small-minded little thing? Of course it is.

Death is the Great Emancipator, because it is only Death that offers complete freedom from choosing. Anything. Ever. Only Death that grants the cessation of desire, the everlasting reprieve from longing and unrequitedness. Death alone that bestows freedom from all striving – and we, The Unfulfilled, know from bitterly won experience that our striving leads only to misery and want. Only in death, my friends, are we relieved of the chaotic snarl of our hankering, the restless clot of our hungering.

If you claim to cherish Liberty, then you know it is only in Death that real freedom is possible, only in Death that true Liberty abides. Counter-intuitive though it may seem, you must cast your vote for Death. To do otherwise constitutes cowardice of the worst sort, and only serves to declare your contempt for the Liberty of any lasting kind.


(Victorious) Shame That Tune - 11/9/12

Listen here: if you haven't been to see Shame That Tune @ Hideout, you're a damn fool what's been robbing yourself of terrific experience. Abraham Levitan is an improvisational musical genius and Brian Costello is a sharp, wry host. Their interplay is spot-on, and the whole thing zips along briskly. Oh, and I won. I may lose at WRITE CLUB with frequency, but it's clearly an outstanding proving ground, because whenever I do anybody else's competitive reading, I seem to win.

The year was 1978, and I was on the cusp of my sexual awakening. Which I think we all recognize as literary code for “still pubeless and untouched by the hand of another.”

In 1978, I was 12 years old, and, knowing nothing, I was drawn to the same coltish and blandly attractive girls as the other dudes in sixth grade – all of whom seemed more advanced and sexually precocious than I.

I just copied the other guys – your Ray Wilsons, your Paul Theilmans, your Mark Tibaldis. In the sixth grade of Fort River Elementary, there were two alpha females – one blonde (Kristin Mallory), and one brunette (Dana Townsend), just like Betty and Veronica.

I developed a bad crush on Kristin, the blonde one. The Betty. She was a gymnast, so she was everything I was not – where I was a chunkwad who had to shop in the Husky department, Kristin Mallory was lean and tall and straight. Where I was halting and dopey, Kristin Mallory was graceful and poised. She was a sun-kissed wonder. I was a hapless and artsy little nerd.

That was the year that the sexual baseball diamond method for categorizing intimate encounters was explained from boy to boy. Honesty compels me to report I had yet to even round first base, because I was, as you will recall, on the cusp of my sexual awakening.

As a budding artist, I had a vivid inner life, and my dreams were far more engrossing than what passed for reality. It was the revelation of one such dream, about an amorous encounter with Kristin Mallory, that made me a sixth grade pariah.

The dream was this: each spring, a fair came through town – a Tilt-A-Whirl, and Ring Toss, and so forth in the town square. In real life the fair was always a shabby mud pit where you had to dodge puddles of puked-up funnel cakes.

But in my dream, the fair was held on a clear and bracing spring afternoon, the grass lush and green. In my dream, Kristin Mallory and I were on a date – I had won her a stuffed panda, and had demonstrated valor by not blowing chunks on the After Burner, which all agreed was the scariest ride. We were ending our perfect date with a placid ride on the Ferris wheel just after sundown.

The bony-faced attendant of this dream Ferris wheel possessed secret carnie knowledge, and though he did not speak, his wall-eyed gaze wordlessly imparted the following as we boarded:

“I kin tell it’s true love for sure. Imma hep you out.”

I feel I may have super-imposed this Sling Blade voice later on, but still. Feels right.

My carnie mind-meld matchmaker then STOPPED the Ferris wheel when Kristin and I were at the tippy top.

Which in dream logic made it sexy time. I totally felt her budding boobs, you guys – AND, she let me put my dream hand down her dream pants, touching the mysterious and fleshy gateway that we sort of learned about in health class, the exotically named parts of which, like labia, I always got confused with the names of flower parts, like stamen. Even in my dream I worried there would be a quiz.

I spent the balance of that dream making tender finger-love to Kristin Mallory in the swaying cradle of the Ferris wheel.

Which would have been fine. It would have remained a cherished memory from the cusp of my sexual awakening.

Except that later that week, I told a few of the other guys in my class that I got to third base with Kristin Mallory in my dream. And they immediately ran and told her. And with scalding tears running down her enflamed cheeks, she confronted me. I hung my head, struck mute by her mortification and outrage.

It being a small town, and word of my perversion traveling like wildfire, I didn’t touch a live human female for two years after that.


WRITE CLUB Toronto - Belknap, Original - 10/23/12

Lemme open with a question:

Who would you rather be – Chuck Yeager or the cast of Wings? Would you rather stride into immortality as a giant, or suffer syndication death by a thousand cuts?

Original crushes Counterfeit every time.

Origin – root, foundation, primary source.

Counterfeit – “counter” meaning “against,” obviously, and “feit” meaning “everything good and right and pure.” Don’t check that – it feels true.

To find in favor of Counterfeit, is to go against everything good and right and pure. Which is basically like admitting you’re a war criminal or a pedophile. So. You’re EITHER a genocidal child rapist, OR you vote the right way. Your call.

I will concede that there is the perception of the counterfeiter as a kind of gentleman thief, a figure that exerts a kind of rakish charm, a trim David Niven type, a dashing pencil mustache guy, a roguishly appealing ne’er-do-well with the nerves of a cat burglar and moral relativism of the Republican Party.

I would remind you, however, if you are in the thrall of this misguided conception, that a counterfeiter – whether of fine art or of currency – is a waste case who squanders her gifts on the gutless pursuit of mimicry. Even if that mimicry is perfect – even if it eludes the detection of experts, even if it is in every aspect indistinguishable from the original, it will always be lacking. It will always come up short. It will always and forever be deficient and inauthentic.

Do me this favor – make this mind’s eye comparison for me.

Close your eyes. I want you to imagine the following as precisely as you can. I want you to see this:

Steve McQueen, in aviators and pegleg khaki pants, leaning against a ‘65 Mustang convertible.

Got that? Good. Now hold that picture in your mind. Instagram that shit. And contrast it with the following picture.

Present day action star Jason Statham, in that dark suit he always seems to be wearing, leaning against a late model Audi or whatever.

OK. Now set those two pictures next to each other. On the left, you got McQueen, irreducible in his coolness. You could chop him down and count the rings of his coolness. If you could harvest his bone marrow and inject it in your eye, you’d instantly be way cooler than you are right now. Like by a quintillion percent.

But Statham? Looks like he’s got a swagger coach. And a stylist to maintain that four days of stubble he’s always got. There’s something… homeopathic about him. His is a hand-me-down and thumb-worn Kinko’s kind of badassery. His wisecracks are neither wise, nor do they crack.

Make no mistake: I know Statham could beat my ass without breaking a sweat. That’s not what I’m talking about. And you know it.

And originality extends in the other direction, too – which kind of crazy would you rather learn about? That woman astronaut who put on a diaper and drove all night from Florida to Houston kill her ex and his new lady friend? Or the swampy, incremental crazy of your clinically depressed mom, who chain-smokes in her grimy nightgown and only heaves herself out of bed to give you Boo Berry cereal for dinner again?

I know, in advancing the cause of Original, there might be the expectation that I would trot out DaVinci and Edison, Einstein and Darwin – but to do so would be a bullshit hack move that played right into my opponent’s hands, so I’m not gonna do it. Quit thinking about those guys. Right now.

Original is the shit.

I know this’ll get your nerd-hackles up, but Shatner is more important and enduring than any other captain on the bridge of the Enterprise. Rathbone is Sherlockier than any of his successors. And I say this as a guy with as raging a Cumberbatch boner as anybody. And if you tell me that Robert fucking DeNiro’s ham-handed Frankenstein monster has anything on Karloff’s, I will strike you in the face in full view of everybody.

Originality is like stem cells – you can build a liver with it, or you can make hair; it can be blood vessels or nerve endings, balls or boobs. You know what Counterfeit can be? A poorly functioning copy of the one thing that it seeks to mimic. And nothing else. Counterfeit is not mutable, it is not variable, it is janky and stilted and weak – it’s like watching robots fucking –clanking, mechanized, anguish.

Which brings me to my opponent, this “Kirk”, who is pretty transparently an android. An android of frankly quite shoddy manufacture trying to pass as one of us, which is ridiculous, since his flesh is made of the same lifeless and unconvincing polymer that covers Mitt Romney’s endoskeleton.

But listen – the main thing is this: this “Kirk” – is trying to USURP my hard won WRITE CLUB dominance, which means he is the tip of the robot spear sent here to REPLACE US ALL. WE CAN STOP HIM RIGHT HERE, you guys. But listen: if you can live with yourself by voting for this fucking robot, great. You wanna throw in with the android overlords intent on enslaving you, instead of myself – the inventor, the HUMAN inventor – of WRITE CLUB, then you, my friend, are a self-loathing and consciousless betrayer of your own species. And if that’s the case, sleep well, you Monster. Sleep well.


Special Limited Edition Command Performance of WRITE CLUB - 50/50

OK, this was the coolest - Ann Cibulkis, fan of WRITE CLUB, was celebrating a 50th birthday with her twin sister Suzan, also a fan of the show. Ann commissioned myself and her good friend David Isaacson (mighty and poly-victorious WRITE CLUB combatant/member of the fearsome Theater Oobleck) to perform a special single-bout birthday surprise command performance edition of WRITE CLUB - in honor of the occasion, the topic: 50/50. As I was stalking my way to the stage, Suzan, the surprised sister, declared: "Ohmygod! WRITE CLUB"

On the face of it, 50/50 would seem to be the most evenly matched bout possible. It is – again, on the face of it – the soul of equanimity, the embodiment of equilibrium, a paragon of identicality. On the face of it, there is nothing for my opponent and myself to grapple with – there is no bone over which to contend, for this is the Even-est Steven there can be. Again I say: on the face of it.

Because for anything to be evenly divided, for there to be an equal split of anything, there is the reality – as unavoidable as it is unpleasant – that there is a shittier half of everything. The perennial futility of debating whether the glass is half full or half empty is beside the point – the semantic sparring over this non-distinction representing as it does the hair-splitting depths of ineffectual academic folly. What MATTERS, the question WORTH asking is this: IF there is anything remaining in the glass, then IS it shitty? If shitty, destroy the glass and shed not a tear. If unshitty, reflect upon the senselessness of everything and grow sorrowful.

When someone hands you half a cookie, you KNOW their half is bigger; as surely as you know that in every set of twins, one of them is… evil. There can be no even split. Of anything. Ever.

It is the same with age. Middle age. PLEASE. The average life expectancy of an American is 78.5 years, which technically means that be of middle age you have to be like 39. TOPS. So, the latter half of life has you in its grip. Upon the sea of this life, aging is time’s undertow – you take yourself to be lithe and trim and fit as you stride in, one foot on the sun-baked sand, the other circled to the ankle in the cool aqueous embrace of the briny sea. One foot in. One foot out. 50/50. Half. And half.

My opponent would have you believe that half is great, half is worthy, half is nearly MOST. My opponent does you a disservice. Truth to tell, my opponent insults your intelligence by suggesting that you should deny the evidence of your senses, and fail to arrive at anything like a sensible conclusion about the nature of things. Which, as if you need reminding, is this: squalor and faltering; rupture and madness and waste.

My opponent is a lily-gilder of the worst sort. He stands before you glibly lying to your faces about the so-called virtues and the alleged advantages of what he claims to be the better half. In so doing, he insults your intelligence – and make no mistake, this is no garden variety insult, but a stinging and resonant wiener-slap of an insult; whereas I take you to be clear-eyed and sharp-witted enough to accept the truth of the situation, my opponent is slapping you right in your brain with his misshapen man-parts.

On your behalf I say this aggression will not stand. I urge you not to be taken in by his pandering assurances that there can be anything like equity or justice in this life. He and his collectivist agenda would have you believe that life will deal us all a fair share. POPPYCOCK. You know it and I know it.

One need only think of Lucy’s mishaps in attempting to divide the Ricardo apartment with masking tape, or the time Ralph and Potsie were roommates and attempted the same thing. HISTORY TEACHES THAT THIS CANNOT WORK. Someone will always be getting the kitchen with its food supply, and someone will always be getting the bathroom, which for most of us is the favored pooping spot.

It is only by abandoning the dream of equality and fully embracing the crookedness and unfairness of it all that you can know anything like happiness, or victory over the systemic failings of life, the universe, and everything. Liberation from the tyranny of the unequal division – of wealth and power and love and time and friends and talent and good fortune and health and good looks and smarts and courage and candor – this liberation is only possible where we accept the certainty that these things, indeed all things, exist in criminally uneven supply.

It is only by cleaving close to this injustice, by keeping constant sight of it and keeping it near your heart with constancy and fidelity – it is only coming almost to cherish this injustice that one can know peace. It is only by keeping the ember of this injustice bright and hot in your heart that you can know anything of bliss.

Push from your mind the fact that your bliss sprouts from the festering soil of unfairness, which rests upon the grievous and harsh bedrock of injustice – this cognitive dissonance in unsustainable. Focus you gaze instead upon your thousand little victories, the countless ways the injustice that fuels this crooked system plays in your favor. For every deficit on your ledger, there is an asset; for every fallow field, there is a harvest, and for every pile of rubble, there is a palace. To gaze upon the sweeping vista of injustice and harm and want is to know madness. Narrow your focus upon the bounty at your feet, for only then can you know victory over this irascible reality, because it is only this confounding Paradox of Plenty that allows us to reconcile ourselves to these teetering Scales of Injustice.

Which is what our milestones are for – our weddings and funerals and birthdays – they are a time to take stock of our abundance, to disregard for a moment the tide of unfairness that laps at our shores, and to know that we are favored by fortune. Our milestones are visits to the pantry of our lives – a time when we may survey the shelves piled high with all things nourishing, and know that the sometimes galling inconsistencies outside are of no consequence, for we know freedom from want, and are therefore rich beyond measure.


WRITE CLUB - Belknap, Start, 9/18/12

Start is the best and only site of auspiciousness, the only place where everyone has equal reason to hope. Start is the only place where each pair of feet set into the starting blocks is as fleet as any other in the race, the only place where every rocket will deliver its payload to the stars, the only place each preschooler is a genius and each freshman is valedictorian.

Starting is best. There is no defeat in starting. There is no woe or sorrow. There is a limitless vista of victory and valor. The start is the only place on one’s timeline that is not sundered by disappointment. At the start we are each of us lean and lithe, our features fine and fair – our beauty is arresting and total, since it predates the intercession of mirrors and their attendant judgments and unkindness.

At the start, we are limitless in our capacity, we are favored by providence. At the start, we are unhindered by custom, we are unhobbled by misfortune. It is only at the start that our world is swollen with possibility and promise.

At the start, the phrase “he has SO MUCH POTENTIAL” is not a lament, as by an exasperated guidance counselor, but a statement of plain fact.

The start is the only place where universality and harmony are attainable, the only place where we can claim commonality with our fellows, the only site of equality. Up to a certain point, the fetus of a human, and the fetus of a pig, and the fetus of a chicken are nearly indistinguishable from one another – vertebrate tetrapods, curled like fiddleheads. They unfurl, of course, the fetus of the human and the pig and the chicken, and grow into the big-brained bipedal primate that is master of all he surveys, or lunch, as the case may be.

And it is not just that start is thrumming and fulsome with all things bright and beautiful – far from it. The start is engorged with the entire spectrum of possibility, every eventuality of every sort stands beneath its infinite canopy – in the manner of the expanding universe, the start represents everything currently possible, and enlarges to include every possibility not yet conceived. It is no exaggeration to say that the start includes everything within it literally – that every conclusion is foregone, every culmination or consummation – no matter how far off, no matter how involved or improbable, no matter how internecine or circuitous – every ending, every FINISH, has its roots at the start.

There can be no finish – no finish of any kind, ever – without having had a start. Start is the primordial ooze, the enzymatic slop, the genetic material without which there could be no finish.

Think of stories. They do not begin:

“And they lived happily ever after,” or

“And they found, on the handle of the car door … a METAL HOOK!” or

“And then he turned the gun on himself.”

Were stories to lead with their finish, they would be deeply dissatisfying exercises fraught with confusion that would only contribute to our sense of dislocation and misery. Stories would, instead of fostering a sense of kinship as they do now, by their nature make us feel like stupid losers. We’d have no idea what was happening.

Which is what my opponent is attempting tonight. Finish is intent upon making each of you feel like stupid losers with no idea what’s going on. Finish considers you ignorant swine undeserving of any kind of sensible progression. Finish is all massacre and aftermath and rubble.

Start is pudgy, sweet-smelling babies. Finish is placenta. Viscous placenta between blighted rows of corn. On a wind-swept plain. Trailing between the emaciated and blood-streaked legs of a dying Okie, tethering her to the scrawny wad of her stillborn son.

Start is the bloom of a first kiss, dewy and trembling. Finish is robotic missionary sex with your spouse of many years, on sheets gritty with the dander of your failings. Scheduled sex – a chore for which neither of you has any appetite – you avoid eye contact during this dry and joyless grinding.

Start is the tentative shoots of the crocus probing upward to the sun through the winter-hardened earth. Finish is the dying breath of the final Scandinavian botanist tending the world’s last seed bank deep beneath the scorched and sandstorm-blasted hellscape that was once Norway.

Start is sinking one’s teeth into the first bite of a meal lovingly prepared on a sun-dappled porch, surrounded by people you love. Finish is the last drop of acidic and acrid-smelling bulimia-barf, pushed to the back of your closet, in a Nine West shoebox lined with a Forever 21 bag. And you know something? YOU’RE STILL FAT!

Start is the first hour of the first day of your first real job. Finish is being escorted from the building, with your personal effects in a file box.

Start blushes and yearns; it is that place we carry inside us before we were ground down and compromised and leached of our hankering. Remember if you can that pure version of yourself – I’m talking about yourself at your most unafraid. That self you are meant to attain, the one untrammeled by circumstance, unbowed by worry and in no need of solace. I speak now to your strongest self, the hero within you that cannot be struck down; the stalwart and steady-eyed self who remains willing to start even though you know you may not finish.

To this self, your best, most fervent self, your self that aches for discovery and wonder and majesty. It is ONLY in starting that these things are possible. It is my hope that you find for possibility and promise – to do so, you must find for Start. To find in favor of Finish is to concede that your dreams are dead, your aspirations extinguished. I know you to be a dreamer still, and know that you will vote like one.