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Guts & Glory - Godless 11/20/13

I don’t believe in God.

Which. Big fucking deal, right?

I live in a major urban center. I’m in the arts. Politically, I have long been agitating for a new Robespierre to start filling baskets in the center of public squares with the heads of bankers.

Furthermore, I have two kids. And I feel the world has enough gullible people ruled by their fears, and don’t wish to create any more.

Given these facts, the likelihood that I’m going to be devout is pretty slight.

So. No shock. Water is wet. Artsy egghead in city is atheist.

But. For me. This is a bit of thing, actually.

Not because my family is churchy. Not because my wife is religious. Not because I think I owe my kids some kind of relationship to the divine.

It’s because I’m an alcoholic in recovery. I’ve been going to Alcoholic’s Anonymous meetings since 1994. So if I make it to next spring without a drink, then I’ll have gone 20 years with drinking alcohol.

Outside of the meetings, I rarely talk about being sober. For a couple of reasons: main one is, like much of what is really real, it is none of your goddamn business. That’s the selfish reason. The better reason that I mostly keep it on the down-low is that if I ever start drinking again – which is always a risk, most days it’s a low-level risk, but a risk nonetheless – it could be misinterpreted as a failure of the program, rather than my personal failing, if that makes sense.

Because if somebody who’s a drunk, or a druggie needs the help of AA, like I did, but then they learn that I’m a member of the Fellowship, and they see me drunk, then they might not believe the program works, and they might give up and die a horrible, pointless death.

And maybe this sounds weird to you, but I take this obligation really, really seriously. I owe everything I have to Alcoholic’s Anonymous – I know that sounds corny as fuck, and that we’ve all been conditioned by Upworthy videos to view such a statement as hyperbolic and dopey. Or I have, anyway.

But it’s the literal truth. Everything I have, I owe to AA.

If I had not found my way to Alcoholic’s Anonymous, I would never have gotten married. I would never have had children. I would never have started writing seriously. I would never have started my show WRITE CLUB. I would never have found a way to forgive my dad for killing himself at what, for me, was an age when I could really have used a man-shaped person to help me figure shit out. I would never have made what peace I can about my grandfather’s unsolved murder.

And mostly, I would be dead. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I’d have been dead by like ’97 at the latest.

And I’d have died alone, just like my dad – a-wallow in despair and self-pity; enraged by phantom injustices; choking back the always-rising bile. The surest fucking way to become exactly like the parent you hate is to make elaborate, repeated claims that you’ll never, ever, ever be anything like them – it is the perverse joke of the human heart, which may have greatness in it, but also can be a huge dumb-ass.

But so when you are an alcoholic, and you remove the alcohol, you are left with the feelings. Which you must experience. In all their un-minimized fury.

Which, for a person like myself, is a fully horrifying prospect. Most of the time, I’d sooner pound a tent stake into my own thigh than feel the feelings. But this is not an option. The emotional life of an alcoholic without alcohol is a gunfight – either the smoke and fire and blood-letting, which at least has the a grisly kind of clarity – or the anguish of standing in the dusty street, twitching hands poised over your gun, waiting.

For the non-addicted among you – you can know repose, for you tranquility, or at least neutrality, is possible – for us, even where we may outwardly appear to be free of turmoil, likely as not, we are coiled. We are in that single breath that precedes fight or flight. We are on a rolling boil even when we don’t look like it.

So. Given that this is as you can imagine an exhausting condition, it follows that we need relief. We turn idiotically to every form of feeling-cessation there is – TV, internet, gambling, porn, food, rage, work – any substance or activity upon which it is possible to binge. Where there is no precedent for abuse, we will invent one.

But we find, inevitably, that none of these is effective for very long. We need something more – more comprehensive, more encompassing. Which is why the program of Alcoholic’s Anonymous is framed as a spiritual one. To gain relief from the unendurable tyranny of the fucking feelings that never, ever stop for even a second, no matter how desperately you might plead with them, we are advised to turn to God.

Which makes sense. Since we are under siege from inside our own skulls, there is a sound logic to seeking relief from some outside source. And God, let’s face it, is a classic.

But I find myself unable. Not unwilling – it’s not for want of effort. I have prayed. A lot, actually. AA is a temple built by “fake it till you make it,” and it is populated by people of good will who wish to help you for no other purpose than to see you get well. So I have been advised to pray even in the absence of belief. And I have.

But whether it’s my own intellectual pride, or lack of humility, or any number of deficits that plague me, I have never been able to shake the feeling as I pray that I am a fraud, and that I am talking only to myself.

When I first got sober, I was vehement in my atheism. I was strident in my certainty.

Now I have no such certainty – I am marooned, actually, by my lack of belief. I can see in other people that their belief – even if it is rooted in nothing – is effective. I have witnessed the relief, the calming, the reduction in turmoil and hate. I see it all the time.

As you probably suspect, I hate acknowledging my vulnerability. Hate it. I also hate acknowledging that I have love in my life – that I have married the girl of my dreams and have the privilege each day of living with a woman far too good for me. I hate admitting hat I am stricken by love for my kids, a love of such intensity and ferociousness, I did not think myself capable. I hate acknowledging that I am blessed and fortunate. I hate conceding that I have found the work I need to be doing, and that despite its frustrations and the fact that it is largely unpaid, it is fulfilling and constitutes a for me a sense of purpose. I hate acknowledging that people whom I respect seem not to be lying when they tell me they like my work.

I hate all these things only in part because I hate the kind of soft-headed affirmation-spew that exists as a slack shorthand for actual feeling, the kind of psychobabble boosterism that stands as a spineless substitute for actual self-examination.

But mostly, really, I hate these things because I am afraid - chronically, feverishly afraid of losing all of it. It’s not a fear you could see, probably. I’m not one of those anxiety monkey-type people.

But I am afraid. Because of the kill switch mounted on the wall of my skull. I am afraid that one day it will all prove too exhausting, too overwhelming, too impossibly large and important and confounding, and in a moment of weakness or depletion, I will abandon it all and leap into the abyss of self-immolation that always awaits me.

People – inattentive people, mostly – too readily mistake me for a cynic. Which I get. I rant. I say mean things. I adopt a tough-minded posture.

But the people willing to peer through the cracked windows into the flimsily constructed house just past that posture, though, can see that I am no cynic. I am afraid. I am badly, hopelessly afraid.

I have a heart that is warm and wounded, and I have much – so much – to lose. So in a corner of that flimsily constructed house, I crouch around it all like a cornered animal, clawing at any who draw too near.

I wish it was possible for me to invite God into this house. I actually envy those who can, because if I could, mine would become a house less lonesome. But even with its warped floors and poor layout, the rats in the walls and leaking roof, this shabby house of mine is a true house. It is real.

So even though God is not unwelcome, exactly, he seems to me to be a made-up thing, and therefore cannot stay.


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.


Stories From the Bottom of the Glass - Version Fest 5/18/12

Here's what I did at a Bridgeport spot called Co-Prosperity Sphere. Stellar lineup of storytellers at a cool place, all telling booze-related stories. Warning: not safe for those averse to reading about ass hair.

Full disclosure: I quit drinking 18 years ago.

BUT, where boozing is concerned, I have so many stories to choose from. So, so, soooooo many stories.

But most of my hammered stories end in a halo of crusted vomit around my mouth, coming to on a grimy concrete floor with bottle caps and cigarette butts mashed into a face covered in scabs of unknown origin. Or passed out on church steps - and just so we're clear: I'm not talking about passing out ALONG one step, I'm talking about passing out diagonally over a series of steps. Or in a snow bank.

So I thought reach farther back – I thought I’d spin one of my deep cuts for you, and lay the needle on a track that would not sap you of your will to live. Cool? Cool.

This is when I’m like 18 or so. Summer after high school. My hometown, Amherst, Massachusetts. I’m working as a lifeguard. So it’s like dirtbag Bay Watch all summer long.

I should be saving every nickel for college in the fall. But instead, I poured every nickel down my gullet in the form of well gin and boilermakers, depending on the special at Barselotti’s, the grimy tavern downtown where I am wasting my life.

This is 1984, so the legal drinking age in Massachusetts is 20 – became 21 the following year. So, as an 18-year-old, every time I park my ass in that caved-in stool with the cracked vinyl at the end of the bar at Barselotti’s, I am breaking the law. Just like Judas Priest.

But you gotta understand – this is a college town. And as a college town, the main industry is drunkenness – instilling it, maintaining it, cleaning up after it. It’s like a mining town or a mill town – it’s the only game there is, man – without it, the whole town grinds to a halt.

So when 40,000 students empty the place out each May, that is a shit-ton of drunkenness that is failing to happen. So the good folks at Barselotti’s are understandably a little more lax where this bit of compliance is concerned. And in their defense, I was pretty haggard looking even by this time. It fell to me, along with a handful of scarlet-nosed lifers to carry them through that lean summer. And I carried my weight,

I can tell you. If powering down off-brand whisky and watery beer was swinging a hammer, I’d have been John Henry. I didn’t just get drunk, I got folk hero drunk. Every goddamn night.

And then the next morning, I’d haul my carcass out of bed to stare into the middle distance by the pool where I should have been paying attention to the children swimming. In terms of my unresponsiveness, I was like the guards at Buckingham Palace, but with way more sweating and dry heaves. I was like a horrifying Eagle Scout, earning badge after badge in Hangovers and Remorse.

Needless to say, I did allll right with the ladies. I am a catch, as you can well imagine. I am a prize. Or at least I was to a cocktail waitress at Barselotti’s. Her name, perhaps inevitably, was Tammy. Do you know? How she reeled me in? Was it the shocking blue eye shadow? Or the denim vests? The headband she wore some shifts? The leg warmers? Certainly these all played a part in her bewitchment.

But the sealer of the deal? The thing that caused me to slop off my barstool and stagger out the sidewalk and lean my slanty ass on the wall outside while she closed up the bar, and prop myself against her as she guided me back to her place? Well, that’s easy, friends – she called me “smart”. Not just “smart,” mind you – she said “you are sooooo smart”.

This was untrue, obviously. But Tammy is to be forgiven for drawing this wrong conclusion. She was ill-equipped to make such assessments. It would just be asking too much of her apparatus, you know? It would be like removing engine from a moped and putting it in a bulldozer and expecting it to do the same job. Tammy was… untroubled by ideas.

But the reason Tammy is to be forgiven for finding me “sooooooooo smart” was that I perpetrated a bit of hoax on her – because each night that I’d be pounding them back and getting sloppier and sloppier, I’d have a book there on the bar next to me. Laid open. Like I had been reading it. Which I had not.

Oh, sure. When I’d stagger back to the rat hole apartment I shared with a few other guys at 2am, I’d pass my eyes over the words in books, but I mean, a squirrel can do that. And like the squirrel, when you get me hammered, my comprehension takes a nosedive, and I retain I nothing.

When asked – or, more likely among the lifers at Barselotti’s “axed” – about the book, I would rear my head back at the maximal musing angle, and spout off some canned monologue about it being a lamentation about the futility of the human condition. Squirrels are know to do this, too. It is an irritating habit. And one of the reasons we regard them as pests.

But I would have a book propped next to my coaster. And I was still pretty fresh off the SATs, so I was the only dude in that place that found his gin and tonic “bracing.” So, obviously, what Tammy was taking to be smarts was, in point of fact, a teenager being a pretentious asshole.

But Tammy was fooled for sure. So she shanghaied me back to her place one night, with its well-trafficked carpeting and cable spool coffee table.

And we’re making out on this couch that’s upholstered in the kind of plaid gabardine you might see on a jacket worn by neighbor Larry from Three’s Company. And she drags me back to her room, and shoves me on her mattress which in on the floor in the way of college-age people and minimally functioning depressives.

She places a calloused finger to my lips and says:

“Stay right there.” The sheets, it goes without saying, are gritty.

Tammy then proceeds to undress in the sexy style. She sliiiiides her cutoffs down. Having neglected to take off her Reebok high tops, so what began as a pretty fluid motion ended in lots herky-jerky action. She places her hands flat against the wall and peers at me over the shoulder of her sleeveless denim shirt in what is clearly meant to be a coquettish manner. But on the wall, right above her head, is a ceramic mask of a mime’s face, clutched in the mouth of which is a single dried rose. That mime face? It is the saddest goddamn thing I have ever seen. And I’m including my dad’s suicide note.

And she’s talking to me in what she imagines is this breathy Marilyn Monroe voice, but which sounds more like Smurfette if she had pretty bad asthma.

And Tammy drops the denim shirt, and then she shoulders her way out of her bra. And I gotta say – these are some boobs of exceptionally high quality. Boobs SO exemplary, that I have only seen perhaps two or three other sets to rival them.

Despite the ceramic mime face pinning me with its wistful gaze, I was now starting to come around the merits of this whole situation.

But then she removed her panties. And she waggled her ass at me in a way intended to be fetching. I remained un-fetched.

Tammy had a hairy ass. Now let’s be clear – I’m not talking about an ass with some hairs on it, I’m talking about a hairy ass. Not a sasquatch ass, maybe, or a wookie ass, but still. Hairy.

But I am not here referring to the kind of downy pale fur that covered that whatever-the-fuck-it was in Neverending Story. I’m talking about coarse hair. Hair that was wiry. You remember that scene in The Fly when Geena Davis snips those like QUILLS off of Jeff Goldblum’s back? They were like that.

And they are fanned across each ass cheek like fireworks.

Did her ass look like mirror images of Randy Macho Man Savage? Not quite, no. But Randy Macho Man Savage did occur to me as I gazed at it.

Now you may be going:

“HEY. BUDDY. This is a story about some girl’s hairy ass, not about drinking.”

On the contrary.

It was the shots of whisky and bottles of Rolling Rock in the hours preceding this encounter that permitted the possibility of pushing aside visions of Randy Macho Man Savage and bringing the evening to its moist conclusion the upon her gritty sheets. 

And now, all these years later, when I think of Tammy – managing a Quizno’s, maybe, or keeping books at her dad’s lumber yard – I say a word of thanks to her and her ass beard for playing a small part in accelerating my decline, and permitting me eventually to stop drinking altogether. 


WRITE CLUB - Belknap, Black, 1/31/12

It will not escape your notice that I am white.

But I am not SO white that you need to land on the “H.“ White. So while it might be true that I am a white man, I am not The White Man.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, though, I have spent a lot of time NEAR The White Man. I grew up in a town called Amherst, named after Lord Jeffrey Amherst, a commander of British forces during the French and Indian War. A commander who authorized the delivery of blankets infected with smallpox to the Ottawa tribe in 1763.

Which is what The White Man calls innovation. Because in the mind of The White Man, there are two kinds of people:  Human. And Non-White.

Let me emphasize again: while I am inescapably a white man, I am not, nor shall I ever be The White Man.

Not only would I never volunteer, but I am prevented from ever becoming The White Man. I do not come from money.

It is Class and Capital that flavor the Goulash of Whiteness. I have neither. Consulting The White Man Glossary, we find that Class and Capital are what you and I would Oppression and Thievery.

It is The White Man who commits genocide wherever he makes landfall as surely as it is The White Man who starts a fucking lacrosse program at every school his children colonize. The White Man is the cause of Eric fucking Clapton, John fucking Mayer, Frank fucking Zappa, and all annoying manner of guitar-based beating off.

The White Man owns every basketball team, and he can watch gravity-defying miracles performed on the court far below his skybox, and still speak of a bygone era of the more “brainy” play of Bob Cousy and Jerry West.

The White Man sells cheap handguns to the desperate and then blames rap lyrics and baggy pants for all the toddlers getting shot down. The White Man blames hiphop for his crimes AND he’ll send the black reporter to cover the Senate hearings with a straight fucking face.

The White Man is available in three flavors: banker, date rapist, and date rapist banker, or serial date rapist. Each of these flavors answers to the name “Job Creator.” Newt Gingrich. Perfect example. You know why his hair’s that way? His skin is insufficient to contain the full measure of his whiteness.

The White Man appropriates every bit of culture on the planet, leaches all the cool out it, and sells it back to you. The fact that I can say the word “jazz” and anybody on the face of the Earth will see the Jeri-curl head of Kenny fucking G. blowing on that pin-dick sax of his is a testament to the rapacious and culture-killing power of The White Man.

My condemning The White Man this is NOT white guilt. LIBERAL guilt compels me to worry that I’m inadvertently perpetuating a patrician and racialized narrative of oppression by displacing the brown-skinned peoples who are its rightful inheritors. WHITE guilt leads to handguns with a seventeen-shot clip because The White Man is always in danger of being attacked by a mob seeking justice, for he is a whore-hearted demon cock.

If you suspect for a second that The White Man does not make everything worse wherever He goes, that The White Man cannot take a horrifying situation and render it even more distressing and awful and unfair, you need look no further than the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. This is from – another way you can tell I’m a lowercase white man:

“When the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, Signal FM was playing ‘Hotel California.’ The Earth groaned and the building shuddered, but just before the DJ ran out, he had the presence of mind to hit the "repeat" button.

So for the first 30 minutes of Port-au-Prince's descent into hell, the only thing you could hear on the radio was the Eagles' standard — over and over and over.”

Now. A half hour in the immediate wake of a deadly earthquake is a horrible way to spend your time. But a half hour in the immediate wake of a deadly earthquake with “Hotel California” playing on fucking repeat is an unendurable hellscape from which light and hope cannot escape. It’s a fucking White Hole that extinguishes everything good and true.

I’d sooner be crushed under the rubble of my collapsing house than listen to the goddamn Eagles – because a rubble-crushing is mercifully swift; and even if it’s not, I’d rather stare at my own jagged fucking femur piercing my pant leg for EIGHT HOURS before I bleed out than listen to eight fucking seconds of “Hotel California.” Like any right-thinking person.

I know I’m supposed to have Black in this bout, and have spent most of my time running down White, but listen: everybody’s horrible. It’s just that the White Man is clearly the MOST horrible. By a country fucking mile.

Black people: stop shooting each other. You are not Dick Cheney and therefore cannot avoid prosecution and have your victim, whom you shot in his fucking face, apologize to you publically.

Black men: stick around and parent your children. If you do, then MAYBE they’ll stop shooting everybody.

Black people: quit it with the weird made-up names. Can we please just agree that the maximum number of times the letter “Q” appears in a name is not to exceed one?  

That’s about it. No more shooting, dads don’t be dirtbags, and ease up on the weird names. But even if you DON’T do any of that, you’ll never be as bad as The White Man.