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In Which the Scribbler Books His Ticket to Hell

There was no sudden moment when I became an atheist. Rather, my gradual transformation into one followed Theodore Kheel’s quote: “It is like sculpting an elephant: you chip away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant and what’s left is an elephant”. We’re not BORN with belief in a God. That stuff accretes to us as we grow up, as we learn from our parents, as we pass by churches or mosques, as we listen to sermons and read our Holy Writ, as we read ‘In God we Trust’ on our currency and recite ‘under God’ in our allegiance pledges. Like belief in the greatness of our country, or fealty to our favorite teams, we LEARN to put our faith in a deity.

There are beliefs we are born with, I think. We instinctively trust our parents to do right by us. Infants home in on their mother’s odor, their father’s face, the feel of familial hands on their skin. Ninety-nine percent of the time, these beliefs are correct and essential, though I’m exaggerating a bit when I call them ‘beliefs’–they’re really hardwired ways for our DNA to survive long enough to replicate itself, hundreds of thousands of years in the making. We don’t really start BELIEVING in things until our brains start to consider phenomena outside the small sphere of sensation that babies, selfish little bastards that they are, spend their initial days and months cocooned in. After that, ANYTHING is possible–Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, monsters under the bed, angels floating above it. We’ll believe the wildest stories when we’re four, five years old. We’ll believe in dragons and talking deer and UFOs and werewolves. It doesn’t take much to get our Belief Engines revving, either. In Stephen King’s DANSE MACABRE, he relates this little anecdote about another writer: “John D. MacDonald tells the story of how for weeks his son was terrified of something he called “the green ripper.” MacDonald and his wife finally figured it out — at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper. What their son had heard was ‘the green ripper‘, and later it became the title of one of MacDonald’s Travis McGee stories.”

We all have moments like that in our childhoods. Some spend a lifetime repressing them. Some forget about them. If you’re Stephen King, you write millions of words about them. When I was eight or nine I had one of my grandmothers baby-sit me and my brother while my parents were gone for the day. They came back with an inflatable plastic football for me and some trinket for Bart, and I later figured out that they’d driven up to Seattle to watch the Seahawks bumble through one of their expansion-team embarrassments, but for about six months I thought, for whatever reason, that they’d disappeared for the day and night because they’d gone somewhere to get married. It slowly (probably more slowly than it should have) dawned on me that, wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense…

And it’s not just really young kids who get stuff stuck in their heads and need a crowbar to get it out. It took me until the seventh grade to learn that the word…well, I’m not going to print it here. You know the word. It’s the C word, and it’s used to describe female genitalia. And I thought it meant ‘whore’, because the only time I’d ever seen it was in a book by Linda Lovelace and her ghostwriters detailing her experiences during the filming of DEEP THROAT, and every time it was used by one of the men (aimed at Miss Lovelace) it made perfect sense to me that they were referring to her history of promiscuity.

Let me hasten to add that my parents weren’t buying me books by Linda Lovelace and her ghostwriters. I had to steal them myself.

You get to seventh grade, though, your buddies are going to know what the C word means. That was a fun couple weeks, let me tell you; I actually argued that my definition was the correct one, and I didn’t hear the end of it for a while. Hell, in my freshman year of high school I got into an argument with one of my football teammates about the correct past tense of ‘cum’…

But that’s enough of that. We get our beliefs from a variety of places, people and sources. If they’re caught early enough, these wrong beliefs, we discard them. But if these beliefs are not only corrected, but encouraged by those we love and trust, they tend to calcify. If most Americans, and a good portion of the Western world, were invested in perpetuating the Santa Claus myth, there’d be a huge percentage of grown humans who still believed in him, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. And he’d be a Him, with the capital H.

I was raised Catholic. Went to Mass most Sundays, was educated by Jesuits and Christian Brothers, had advent calendars, took Communion, made confession, was an altar boy for a few weeks (I was also a Boy Scout for a few months. Neither of them took), grew up seeing Jesus on His cross everywhere (my grandmother thought, and still kind of thinks, that hanging a mostly-naked torture victim all over the house is like furniture, or artwork). All that stuff. And I look back on it now and think how WEIRD the whole shebang was. It wasn’t snake-handling weird, or flagellating the flesh off my back weird, but it was still pretty weird. And I, being a kid at the time, just thought it was normal, that everyone ate spaghetti without meatballs on Fridays, that when you went on a long car trip down to San Jose you made sure you had a St. Christopher medallion with you, that you said Grace before you ate. The other kids in the neighborhood didn’t have to do all that stuff, but they were the public school kids and I sort of worried about them, truth be told. Not ‘worried they were going to Hell’, but ‘worried that they didn’t know the right way to do things’.

I didn’t think about God much. My parents aren’t the kind of people who shoved Him down my throat. And, like I said, I went to Jesuit grade school, so we got to question things if we felt it necessary, without fear of punishment. St. Ignatius wasn’t the kind of parochial school where the students are molded into ideal little Christian Soldiers; the religion classes we took were frankly incidental to the real learning that went on. And I didn’t have to put on my jammies at night, brush my teeth, and then get down onto my knees next to my bed to implore God to watch out for all my relatives and acquaintances. I do remember that whole ‘if I should die before I wake’ bit, and that’s probably part of the reason that when I write, I write horror, but it’s not like I had fanatical watchdogs for parents, standing behind me with the strap while I made my nightly prayers to make sure I didn’t forget to mention anyone.

I also can’t remember a time I thought that the Bible was really, truly Holy Writ. The priests, at Mass, never hit on the bits that talked about God telling His people to commit genocide, to rape the women of the enemies, to stone their daughters to death, all that charming stuff in the Old Testament. It was mostly Jesus and His disciples, and a lot of Paul (I’d later think of St. Paul as the Malcolm McLaren to Jesus’s Sid Vicious–the guy who took the raw material and packaged it for the masses). But I was a reader, and I got through most of the book by the time I finished eighth grade. I skipped Numbers, of course, but who doesn’t? I’m not entirely sure the Pope has actually read Numbers. He seems more like a Psalms kind of guy.

So I was dismissing most of the trappings of Christianity, but I still had this certainty that God existed. What else made sense? All the arguments for His being had been laid out before me, with two thousand years of Church thought behind them. Without God, there is no morality. Without a Prime Mover, there is no universe. And the universe itself, with all its wonders and beauties–Someone must have made it that way. I wasn’t sure about the burning bush and the walking on water, but I was pretty sure that there was Someone out there behind everything, a wizard behind the curtain.

This is how most Americans feel about God, I think–that He’s some vague, undefined, powerful being. The strict definition of God, the one that states that he made the Earth and everything in it in six days, the guy who destroyed cities and sent floods, who set up a tree in the middle of the garden and said ‘don’t touch’, has gradually altered, smoothed itself out into something more palatable to modern sensibilities. There are still people–many of them–who believe in the six-days thing, but they skate right over the ‘don’t eat seafood’ thing and the ‘stone your daughter to death’ thing. The Bible has become a smorgasbord in which you can pick what you want and leave the rest.

The brilliant move on the part of the early Christians was to write the Gospels and the Epistles, in effect rebooting the Old Testament. Jesus came and restarted everything; He took the Ten Commandments and boiled them down to the Golden Rule. He had a last spasm of miracles (culminating in the Resurrection), and then miracles were pretty much put to bed–there would be no more Gomorrahs, no more people being swallowed by fish, and God wouldn’t come down to blast people like Job personally. The Church became flexible in a way that’s served it dramatically well over the centuries since. The Pope can come out against torture (eventually) or slavery (eventually) or whatever, and the whole contraption lurches in a new direction. Islam doesn’t do this, of course, and that’s part of the reason Islam is what it is–a putatively 21st-century religion that hasn’t really changed since Mohammed was running around the desert, that considers change to be heresy punishable by death.

In any case, I had my fuzzy view of God, and most everyone I knew had the same kind of feelings. I’d see a beautiful sunrise, or hear a baby laugh, and I attributed the awe I experienced to a Creator who was behind all the beauty, who’d stepped back from Creation to let it work the way it was supposed to. Eventually, though, I started to WONDER about things. Prayer, for instance–I’d see a football player thanking God for letting him make the game-winning touchdown catch, and I’d wonder whether the defensive back hadn’t ALSO been praying, and why God would come down on one side rather than the other. The six million Jews slaughtered by Hitler–hadn’t THEY been praying? I was butting up against the Problem of Evil, and, like so many before me, I wasn’t buying any of the explanations. God works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can’t know why He’s doing what he’s doing, letting churches full of congregants die in earthquakes, letting children be raped by their fathers, okaying witch-burning or wars of conquest, sending gays to Hell while the worst criminals get a free pass to Heaven if they repent on their deathbeds. The whole Purgatory fiasco bothered me. Even my grandmother got mad at the Pope once or twice–she’d spent vacations in Hawaii where the Catholic Masses included some hula dancing, but the Pope put an end to that eventually (something about pagan rituals), and she couldn’t understand why, because it had been beautiful and worshipful.

Why. That’s the God-killer right there. Why? Why create evil? Why set up a test you know your creations are going to fail? Why hide all evidence of your existence from those you want to worship you? If He’s going to be invisible, unknowable, impossible, why do we even need a God at all? And, most importantly, “Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?” (INHERIT THE WIND)

Why make us curious? Why give us brains in the first place, if you don’t want us to use them? Why, in the name of all that is wonderful and beautiful and holy, would you persecute Copernicus for delving for Truth–and finding it? As the insatiable human thirst for knowledge has advanced, pushing Creation back from six thousand years to fourteen billion, shrinking the Flood, replacing demons with germs, extending our lifespans, letting us travel off the planet entirely, religion has been forced on the defensive over and over and over again, to the point where, finally, I realized that religion wasn’t necessary. In fact, it had actually HURT the quest for knowledge, for peace, for comity, for community. It had drawn barriers over the century and when, inevitably, those barriers had been overrun by science and logic and thought, it had drawn new ones. I’m not trying to convince anyone else to become an atheist, and I freely accept that religion has done some wonderful things for civilization, but it’s not necessary to believe in God. I remember coming across Ockham’s razor–“entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”–and realizing that God Himself was such an entity. There are explanations for everything, though some things we will never reach the bottom of, but adding God to the mix is simply too convoluted, as witness the contortions Church scientists went through to keep the Earth at the center of the universe rather than accepting the elegance and perfection of the Laws of Motion. Witness the knots some religious folks tie themselves in trying to discredit evolution by any means necessary, searching for gaps and then, when the gaps get filled, searching for others.

I believe in many things I can’t prove by scientific facts, nor explain in scientific terms–love, beauty, honor, bravery, altruism. There are tentative biological explanations for all of them, of course, but, like evolution, proof is impossible. Proof of God is also impossible, but all the other things are CAPABLE of being proven, and evidence is accumulated, some of it discarded, some of it not. You can’t even have GRADUAL proof of God, but you can for physical explanations of the altruistic impulse in humans. So I cast my lot on the side of thought, of reason, of the unquenchable hunger for answers. To do anything else would be a betrayal of my own humanity.

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The Scribbler is Still Putting a Songlist Together. For Possibly the Strangest Musical Comedy Ever.

Next up is Jerry Lee Lewis, with “Great Balls of Fire”, because that’s about as pure a rock and roll song as has ever been performed. I like the whole image of Jerry Lee, the bad-boy rebel with the punk haircut and the almost predatory way of attacking a piano, the laconic, demonic smile and the combination of gentleman and pervert that he exhibited during his career. He was old and creepy at the end (rather like some other ancient rock stars. I’m looking at you, Mick), but he made some hellfire music, didn’t he?

And while I’m on the older-music track, I’m throwing in Peggy Lee’s “Fever”. The woman could sing, songwriters could write, and this tune is pretty much smoldering in its bones; the classic lovers of all time, and they come off as actual LOVERS, rather than the chaste, Disney-type romantic couples they’re often presented to be. I think William Shakespeare is the greatest writer of all time, but it wasn’t until I got past my freshman-year presentation of ROMEO AND JULIET and started to realize how earthy and sensual the relationship between those two kids was that I really started to appreciate the Bard. Shakespeare is FULL of sex and passion and desire. And Ms. Lee’s song…well, yeah. The fever burns.

Digital Underground, and Humpty (pronounced with an umpty) get the next spot, because “The Humpty Dance” is one of the greatest dance tunes of all time. Not just the beat, nor the clever lyrics, nor the innuendoes, nor the fact that anyone who can get his rocks off in a Burger King bathroom is okay by me, but because it’s sheer FUN and FUNNY. Musicians can sometimes take themselves way too seriously. These guys don’t. They just want to grab you in the biscuit, make you dance like you’re having a seizure, and drink up all your Hennessy.

hennessy

Then there’s Heart. Gotta have some Heart. I’ll hunt down their performance of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ soon, because they nailed it (and I’ll hunt down Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar doing ‘Rock and Roll’, and Trent Reznor and Karen O doing ‘The Immigrant Song’, because apparently in my world covers of Led Zeppelin songs are actually better than real Led Zeppelin songs), but for now I’m going to start with their prettiest and most sublime song, ‘Dog and Butterfly’. The image of that big dog playing with that delicate, tenuous, ephemeral flying bug–the girl falling laughing to the ground–everything about that song (not least the heavenly voices, the great guitar) makes my heart surge in my chest.

And, finally, for my tenth song, I have to put on “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead. And not just because I love the umlauts. Because I love Lemmy, is all.

Fair warning—my next group of five is going to contain two country songs and one disco song.

In Which the Scribbler Rebuilds the Soundtrack to His Life

My Cricket account had something called ‘Muve Music’, which was basically free music you could download to your phone, and I gradually collected a pretty good selection of songs. Cricket’s switching to something called ‘Deezer’ now, which is basically the same thing for a six-dollar-a-month fee, which shows a couple of things: first, that Cricket has some idiots in their ‘name our shit’ department, and second, that I’m one of those consumers that will pay for stuff I previously got for free, so long as I got a taste for it. Cocaine dealers have used the same business model with some success for quite some time.

So I’m in the process of putting together a new collection. If you’re a certain type of person, you might think this would be a frustrating endeavor. If you’re MY type of person, you’re rubbing your hands together gleefully. I love making lists, and every opportunity I get to start a new ‘best of’ list is a little like Christmas. And I want to share the joy with those of you with like minds, so I’m going to give you a running commentary on how I’m choosing which songs to download as I download them.

My first pick for the new playlist is, of course, Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine”. It’s pretty much the perfect song. It’s romantic, it’s soulful, it’s got that nice slow beat. Stephen Stills on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn (of BLUES BROTHERS fame) on bass, twenty-five repetitions of “I know”…what more could you want from a song? It makes me smile and nod my head while it’s on.

If you’re gonna put “Aint’ No Sunshine” on there, you gotta follow up with “Son of a Preacher Man”, by Dusty Springfield. The song was written for Aretha Franklin, who didn’t particularly like it. She realized her error later on, but by that time Ms. Springfield had nailed the thing, and it’s another one of those songs that everyone loves; romantic, soulful, that nice slow beat, etc…

So I get those two songs out of the way. Time for something a bit more modern. And what’s the best band ever? Talking Heads, of course. You can have your Stones and Beatles and Ramones (and I’ll have them too, because they’re all incredible), but note-for-note, I’ve always considered the Heads the most listenable band of all time. Never heard a bad song by them. Their stage shows, from CBGB to cavernous basketball arenas, are legendary. Their lyrics are sheer genius, their rhythm perfect, their willingness to do any- and everything to make the song work are my definition of great craftsmanship. And I like “Life During Wartime” best of their oeuvre, so it’s the third song on my new playlist.

It’s probably not coincidental that when I go out for karaoke I do the Heads and the Withers. I’ve also karaoke’d Def Leppard, but only once–there’s so much screaming my throat hurt the next day. There are subtle traps in the karaoke game. When the thing first started getting popular I went out with some friends and we all gave it a shot, and while you might think “Hey Jude” would be a good song to do, you’re forgetting the fifteen minutes of ‘na na na na’ at the end of it, which make you want to stick the microphone right through your eye socket into your brain. Same with the ‘na na na na’ (different na-nas, but same principle) at the end of “Centerfold” by the mighty, mighty J. Geils Band, or the eternal denouement of the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water” (in which the chorus is repeated for about a half hour). That said, Def Leppard is next on my list, with “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, one of those great rock songs in which the lyrics are so transparently sexual and the guitar beats so compelling that it transcends its stupidity to become a kind of art.

And while we’re on dumb rock, it’s about time for “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, by Blue Öyster Cult. Not my favorite band (though I DO love the umlaut over the ‘o’ in ‘oyster’), but this song has become something of an anthem for every guy who ever wrote a horror story. When Stephen King finally got THE STAND on the small screen, he picked this bad boy to be the theme music for the miniseries, and it was the perfect choice. Moody, atmospheric, got that ominous guitar progression, suitably creepy lyrics about suicide and such. Sheer thud-rock. One of the great tunes ever.

So there’re my first five songs. If I get any interest in this blog post, I’ll do the next five. If not, I’ll go back to talking about my cat and stuff.

In Which the Scribbler Revisits Hate, and Tries to Defang It

A friend asked me why I hate the Seahawks (yes, we’re back on the subject of ‘hate’–don’t worry, though, we won’t stay there forever), and I tried, clumsily, to explain that hating a sports team isn’t the same as hating, say, Hitler. Hating the New York Yankees is a time-honored tradition in America, or, to take an example from my youth, hating the Boston Celtics when they were winning the championship ninety-seven straight years or whatever it was. I hated the Celtics myself, but I also hated the Los Angeles Lakers, so when they played each other in the championship (which happened, if my memory serves, one hundred and sixty straight times), I had no one to root for but the referees. “Yeah!” I cheered. “That was ABSOLUTELY a foul! Kick both teams out!”

When I was a small child, freshly-minted as a football fan, I glommed onto the Oakland Raiders as my team. They’d just beat the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl (no one hates the Vikings. In order to work up a good hate, at least at the pro level, the object of your hate must be successful, and the Vikings never were), they wore the coolest colors, they had a bad-boy reputation, a left-handed quarterback, they had crazy athletes who knocked over goalposts and wore Mohawks. What wasn’t to like, for an eight-year-old boy?

So, back then when pro football players smoked in the locker room and didn’t bother replacing teeth when they lost them, the Seahawks were a relatively new team, and they were in the AFC West with the Raiders, and my grandparents had four season tickets to Seattle games. They’d take me up there once a year to watch my team play their team at the Kingdome, and those trips are cherished, wonderful memories. We’d drive up in the VW Rabbit, or take the train, and grandma had scrambled-egg sandwiches wrapped up in napkins to snack on, and they’d buy me a program so that I could ogle the pictures of the Raiderettes (“Tammi’s interests include rescuing animals and world peace”) and look at the stats.

I always wore my gear. Raiders jersey (first #12, for Ken Stabler, and then later I got Howie Long’s, and Marcus Allen’s), Raiders hat, Raiders socks. I had Raiders pencils and Raiders stationery at school. I actually owned a pair of Raiders boxer shorts.

So I was a magnet for the Seahawks fans up there. Most were normal human beings, but there was a very vocal, mean minority that would shout obscenities at me. If the Raiders scored, I’d jump up and scream–and get pelted with peanuts and curses. Once someone poured beer on my head. A guy in the restroom threatened me with death once.

Typical sports stuff, but it makes an impression. I had a team to love–and after a couple of experiences at the Kingdome, I now had a team to hate. The Hawks were fine people, I’m sure, and if I met them on the street I’d like them. But when you’re an embryonic sports fan, you learn quickly that just liking a team isn’t enough. You also have to DISLIKE the teams that contest yours. I hated every team the Raiders played, but I had a special deposit of hate for the Seahawks (and later the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers).

That said, it’s not real hate. I mean, come on–you ever watch a Raiders game in Oakland on television? The cameras pan the crowd, go over the Black Hole, and you see all those guys in their Darth Vader masks and spikes and leather, and you remember that a few years ago some San Diego fan got knifed in the Coliseum, and people pissed on him while he was lying on the concrete, bleeding. Oakland fans are LEAGUES worse than Seahawks fans (and I’m not even mentioning Philadelphia fans, but you can all look up THEIR story…)

“Those people are all criminals,” my brother used to say when we were watching the Raiders crowds. And I couldn’t disagree with him. He’s a Vikings fan, and the crowds at the Metrodome, in spite of their horned helmets, all looked polite and pleasant, as though they wanted to beat the Packers badly, but if that didn’t work out at least they had hot dish to come home to later. You get the sense that when the Raiders lost, their fans swarmed out into the streets to beat up nuns and play impromptu field hockey using poodles as pucks.

black hole

Professional sports inspire loyalty, but not as much as college sports do. I had a friend who attended Oregon State, and he once told me, in what seemed like all seriousness, that if any of his children decided to attend the University of Oregon he would disown them and kick them out of the house. That’s probably hyperbole, but…he meant it. At the time, he completely meant it. And this is OREGON. I’ve heard stories about alumni from the University of Alabama, or Texas Tech, that will curl your hair. Sportscasters call the game between BYU and Utah ‘The Holy War’ (for obvious reasons), but for a lot of sports fans college rivalries ARE about as close as it gets to religion. I would wear a Seahawks jersey for a variety of reasons. To please a girlfriend, or if a family member gave one to me, or because I was going to a particular type of party, or if I had nothing else clean in the closet. The friend I mentioned earlier, the Beaver? He had nothing green in his house. Nothing. It was all orange and black and bucktoothed..

beaver

I was never that invested in sports teams. I love the Trailblazers, of course, but I can hang out with Lakers fans. I hang out with conservatives, Jews, Wiccans, whatever–I have friends who think the moon landings were faked, I have friends who, in all seriousness, think Sarah Palin would be a good President.

Hate–REAL hate–should be reserved for those that deserve it. In my world, that means bullies, people who use their strength not as it should be used (to protect the strengthless), but to impose their wills on those weaker. That means people who murder their children because they believe God wants them to withhold medical care from them. That means political systems and religions and corporations that exploit the powerless to increase their own power. It means not mentioning your syphilis to the gal you met at the bar, because you want to get laid. It means using your intellect and personal magnetism to sway those who don’t have defenses against that kind of stuff. It means the kind of stuff Rush Limbaugh does, or Michael Moore does, or Pat Robertson does, the stuff that Popes have done, and imams, and union leaders, priests and politicians and pundits.

Romans 15:1; “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.”

I said, last post, that I hated FORREST GUMP. I really don’t. It was a lighthearted post, and I was exaggerating for effect. Movies, for the most part, aren’t worthy of real hatred (barring stuff like Leni Riefenstahl or snuff videos), same with books (barring stuff like THE TURNER DIARIES or THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION), same with popular songs and popular paintings or whatever. Stick a crucifix in a vial of urine or tear up a picture of the Pontiff on national television, you’re gonna get your fifteen minutes of fame, but you’re too petty to hate. You’re a child screaming for attention. There are real things to hate in this world, and I’ve named my personal bête noire. I could continue, and probably will someday, with injustice, with repression, with cowardice and treason, with harmful lies and terrifying lies, and I’ll get to religion one of these months (simultaneously humanity’s greatest creation, and its most harmful), but for now I hope I’ve answered my friend’s question about hating the Seahawks.

I don’t. Still gonna root against them every time (unless they’re playing a team I hate equally, like the Broncos), but I’d happily have a beer with Marshawn Lynch or Pete Carroll and talk about stuff.

In Which the Scribbler Embraces the Hate in His Soul

I like everything, pretty much.

It’s that ‘pretty much’ that’s important, of course. I don’t like EVERYTHING. But a thing comes along, it’s sincere, I’m gonna like it. Or, at least, I’m not gonna HATE it.

I reserve my hate for things that deserve my hate. Billy Joel doesn’t deserve my hate. He’s facile, slick, he’s got a kind of fourth-grade talent for turning a phrase, but he seems honest about his singing, his art. I know there are people out there who loathe the man, but I just can’t. True, “Captain Jack” is an abomination before the lord, but who among us hasn’t perpetrated the occasional abomination? For the most part, Mr. Joel has been true to his soul, and I like his music.

billyjoel

Dan Brown? Not a great writer. Not even a GOOD writer. But he spent a lot of time coming up with his conspiracies and boat chases and secret societies. He’s earned some respect from me. There are a hundred thousand would-be novelists out there (and I’m one of them), but he actually finished his work, sent it out there, got it published, and now he’s bathing in Champagne and lighting his cigars with thousand-dollar bills. Good for him. Don’t hate the guy.

I do hate the Seahawks, but that’s not their fault. They seem like a nice bunch of guys. And they’re playing good football. Those bastards at the Kingdome, back when I was a young football fan wearing all my Raiders gear, the cockwads who threw beer and profanities at me–THEM I hate. And that carries over to the team, fairly or not. But it’s just the team. I don’t hate Russell Wilson, or Marshawn Lynch, or whomever. I’ve abominated the Broncos for my entire conscious life, but I still think John Elway is a Hall-of-Famer. It’s the IDEA of the Seahawks I hate, the IDEA of the Broncos I hate (and the IDEA of the Raiders I love, that silver-and-black, pirate, rebel idea. Obviously, it would take extreme masochism and extreme stupidity to actually love THIS iteration of the Raiders, the worst team in the last ten years, in any sport, in any universe).

I can’t count how many times my friends, people I like and respect, have absolutely hated something that I kind of liked. I didn’t have a problem with the Backstreet Boys. I got through FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC okay–it wasn’t good, but I can see why it sold a jillion copies. I don’t hate McDonald’s. I don’t hate Hallmark Cards. I don’t hate Uwe Boll movies

uwe

You want a list of stuff I hate? Here’s a list of stuff I’ve hated, and I’ll try to explain, in each case, why I’ve hated it.

1) I hate movie comedies in which all the funny stuff comes because our protagonist keeps getting kicked in the nuts.

nuts

This is a time-honored genre in film, of course. There’s always been the sad sack who had the milk bucket dumped on his head, his shoelaces tied together, whipped his face around to find it buried in a horse’s ass…all that humiliating stuff. And I understand the hilarity of such tropes. There’s a scene in ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO in which one of our main characters is unlucky enough to be filming, from underneath, an anal sex scene, when a loud noise causes another of our main characters to…um…release her bowels on him.

I laughed out loud and rewound the scene (or whatever you call ‘rewound’ on a DVD). It was funny.

You know what wouldn’t be funny? It wouldn’t be funny if that character kept getting shit on, the entire movie. The way that Ben Stiller gets shit on for an hour and a half, in MEET THE PARENTS. The way that Chevy Chase gets shit on for what seems like a hundred VACATION movies. Richard Dreyfuss, in WHAT ABOUT BOB? The character in NO way deserves all the crap dumped on his head. Pain is funny, yes, and it’s a little bit true that all humor derives from discomfort, but I don’t want to watch it for an hour and a half. Hell, I hate Hitler, but would I sit through an hour and a half of Hitler getting kicked in the nuts?

Maybe. But I bet it would still wear thin after about forty minutes.

2) I hate movies, books, songs, whatever, that glorify ignorance. I may be the only person my age who hated FORREST GUMP, and it feels a bit like I’m intolerant when it comes to this feel-good film that EVERYONE loved. But, folks, the movie was about an idiot who gets through because he’s stupid. That is not, in any way, a worthwhile message for an Oscar-winning film to promote. Same with BEING THERE. There are others. I understand the attraction of the simpleton prevailing against the too-clever forces arrayed against him, but it’s NOT a good message. It’s why FOX News does as well as it does, it’s why Governor Sarah Palin is a folk hero, and why Kanye West is looked up to. I sat through GUMP with an increasingly uncomfortable sense that I was missing something, and when I figured out what it was it appalled me. The movie was saying, basically, that the world is a complicated, horrible place, and the only way to confront the complexities and horrors was to be a fucking moron. I can’t remember who the critic was, but there was a critic who said that the only interesting, worthwhile character in the film died an agonizing death of AIDS, and that the most moronic character ended up a millionaire.

Choices have consequences, and the best works of art explore those consequences, from Huck Finn choosing to save Nigger Jim at the cost of his soul, to Ahab choosing to pursue Moby-Dick at the cost of his crew, to Hester Prynne choosing to maintain her silence at the cost of her personhood. Forrest Gump chooses nothing. He’s acted-upon. He’s a palimpsest for some kind of liberal exploration of history. He’s not worthy of adulation, nor understanding, nor anything.

When Sarah Palin talked about ‘real America’, referring to, basically, ignorant America, she became a folk hero. And it terrified me. When candidate McCain took a question at one of his rallies, about ‘that Muslim Obama’ and gently corrected the querent, I was reassured. But the impulse, that desire to simplify and simplify and simplify until the world becomes black and white and clear, ignoring all shadings and shadows…I hate that.

3) I hate celebrities who use their fame to kill people. Gov. Palin is a politician, and I can excuse her idiocy (which, hopefully, was planned by her and her handlers). I can excuse Mr. West and his ‘books are stupid’ crap, because he’s a music star and doesn’t need intelligence to sell albums. But when it comes to anti-vaccination celebrities, I hope they all die of polio. When it comes to Cat Stevens basically calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, I’m sorry to see him still showing up on faded-rock-star retrospectives. Dennis Rodman should end up in a North Korean labor camp. Jane Fonda, in her defense, has finally figured out how fucked-up she was–but that doesn’t excuse what she did.

And this is where it gets ugly. There are plenty of politicians, and a twice-plenty amount of aspiring politicians, who use deadly language in their rhetoric. Remember who advocated ‘second-amendment remedies’ in her campaign? Remember those who suggested that President Obama wasn’t legitimate, and that in order to remove him we’d need other-than-legitimate methods?

Politics is dirty and nasty. Understood. President Bush got a lot of this crap, too. He wasn’t legitimate–he was appointed by the Supreme Court–he was a canker on society, a cancer on the body politic, people made fantasy movies about his assassination (and I hate THOSE fuckers, too)–but I never once agreed with anyone on my side who called for anything other than electoral means to remove him from office. And when he got re-elected, I sighed and waited for 2008…

Okay. Three things I hate. Maybe tomorrow I’ll blog about three things I love, because this kind of stuff exhausts me. Thank you all for reading.

In Which the Scribbler Starts to Take this Stuff Seriously

Sooner or later, if you blog, you have to tackle the big subjects. You can only write about popular music and superhero movies and your favorite kind of cheese so often before you have to acknowledge that little voice in the back of your skull, the one that says “Dude, really? You’ve been given the kind of platform that Addison and Steele would’ve killed for, and you’re talking about zombie ecology?”

(if you haven’t heard my take on zombie ecology, let me know. Turns out that the only way zombies would work in the real world is if they were actually plants. I’ve got it all worked out)

I’m pretty happy with the world right now. Some people I like and respect are pretty terrified with the world right now. They see Russia and Iran building new empires. I see two bankrupt economies trying desperately to remain relevant in the face of American energy independence. They see ISIS as some kind of existential threat to the world. I see ISIS as a spasm of idiocy that spent four months trying to take a city that should have taken any real army two days to conquer–and failing. They see a world in which the way to combat global recession is to impose austerity measures (Europe). I see a world in which the way to combat global recession is to trust your people and give them MORE money in stimulus (America). They see a threat in every Muslim…

Okay, I’m not in love with Islam. I don’t particularly care for ANY religion (though this new Pope is pretty much a rock star), and Islam is the most idiotic of all of them, but Islam is not centralized, doesn’t have a Hitler, and the most it’s capable of is the occasional horror at a newspaper office or a World Trade Center. It’s not going to suddenly become a world power, facing off against the forces of Good. It CAN’T. There’s no central authority driving it. There are a thousand fuckwad imams telling their congregants to kill themselves for the greater glory of Allah, but Islam doesn’t have a Pope. They’re going to do a lot of damage before the religion dies out, and that’s abhorrent and terrifying, but they don’t have the kind of structure nor unified theology that poses any serious threat to the world and its sane citizens.

Point being, the planet is safer, quieter, and more prosperous than it’s ever been. Global poverty is down. Wars are down. We’re beating viruses. We’re taking care of our weak at a rate that would have stunned all the ancient thinkers and philosophers. I’m not minimizing the pain felt by, say, a farmer in eastern Ukraine dealing with tanks rolling across his beet fields, nor the agony of a Kurdish father whose son died fighting an ancient lie, but the world really IS getting better.

I say this a lot, but I need to keep saying it: we have robots walking around on Mars.

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We have entrepreneurs sending private rockets into orbit. We’re seeing amazing increases in the amount of renewable energy we can capture. We have 3-D printers, for dog’s sake; 3-D printers! You can print a HOUSE, if you have enough mud.

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The human experience has always been a struggle between the fabulous feats we’re capable of and the death wish we seem to so often exhibit. “It’s in your nature to destroy yourselves” says Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg in TERMINATOR 2. It’s an easy mistake to make, that statement–just look at the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, Hiroshima, all the times we thought we were on the verge of global catastrophe

(“Well, those I actively try to avoid,” says Bruce Banner in THE AVENGERS, keeping that infinitive unsplit)

I’ve lived through the threat of Soviet missiles, the gas lines OPEC caused back in the seventies. I’ve lived through volcanic eruptions, through the wars of the Crips and the Bloods, through the dire catastrophes of Obamacare and gay marriage and Ebola. We’ve had crack babies and gay Boy Scouts and chokeholds and boat people and Piss Christ and attacks on the sanctity of marriage, the destruction of the family unit, we’ve had riots in Los Angeles, corruption in Chicago, devastation in New Orleans, we’ve survived earthquakes during the World Series, stock market crashes, and the bird flu.

People, really–STOP. Stop making up apocalypses. I understand the impulse. I understand the desire, especially when the Other Guys are in power. I understand the desperation the conservatives felt when the liberals had the Senate and the White House, and I understand the desperation the liberals feel now that the conservatives have Congress and the Court. But STOP IT.

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It’s hard to live as long as I have (forty-five years, forty-six in a couple of months) and not collect labels. I’m white, Italian-American, a liberal, an atheist, lower middle-class, a son, an ex-husband, an American, a capitalist, a right-hander, a college dropout, a fan of the Raiders and A’s and Blazers, a cat owner, a reader, coffee and not tea, beer and not wine, I sleep on my back, heterosexual, food sensitivities to fish and melons, I have splotchy skin and ears so hairy they actually need shaving. But finally I’m a human. We really ARE in this together.

Not religious, remember? But religion has provided us with so many important lessons–the Commandments are (for the most part) pretty good, barring all the coveting, which we just can’t help (and the inevitable restriction against free thought, in the First). Islam, in spite of its being stupid, has an admirable diktat for hospitality. Buddhism is a delightful concatenation of friendliness and happiness and wishy-washyness. I like Shinto and Jainism and all the other non-kill-people religions. The animistic religions are cool, and the pagan ones, and I’ve known a few Satanists who were pretty good folks (though a bit weird). And I’d like to say that eventually we’ll get away from all that crap and focus on being human, mortal, finite, but we never will. Some of the smartest people I know are believers. Some of the stupidest are atheists. And that’s how it goes. I’m going to spend a blog post very soon on my atheism, and another on my liberalism (and I’m NOT going to spend one on my being a Raiders fan. You don’t already know, you can’t understand), and I’m going to talk about other horribly divisive stuff. But for now, please…

Calm down. The world is good. Enjoy it.

In Which the Scribbler Sorts Through Some Odds and Ends

Tonight is, barring something weird happening, President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address.  If you’re a fan of American politics, this is a great event every year.  It’s not the Super Bowl or anything–the equivalent of that would be the Presidential election–but it’s a good show.  Call it the equivalent of the NBA All-Star game; nothing gets decided, but both sides get to show off their platforms and snipe at each other, and it’s full of ceremony and tradition.  Plus, you occasionally get moments like this

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We pretty much know how it’s going to happen tonight: the President will lay out his plans, and then Senator Ernst will tell us why those plans are going to lead to the destruction of the country.  And Kobe Bryant will score seventy-five points.

Still, though, it’s an important opportunity for those who don’t normally follow what’s going on in Washington to get updated.  There will be much talk about the middle class, about income inequality, about immigration and community colleges and so on.  And there will be the delicious tension of wondering whether Rep. Joe Barton will shout anything in the middle of the speech.

I haven’t blogged for a while, so this post is kind of my State of the Union address.  Nothing of vital importance will be broached, I don’t have any rhetorical goals, but there are some things I’d like to talk about.

First (as is usually the case), books.  I’m reading three books concurrently, which is how I roll.  In the bathroom I’ve got THE PORTABLE ATHEIST, a collection of essays and excerpts collected by and with commentary from the late Christopher Hitchens.

Hitch

I’m kind of skipping around the book.  Started with the Lovecraft letter, went back to the Lucretius and the Shelley, then forward to Sagan and Penn Jillette.  It’s everything a good bathroom book should be–filled with pieces short and long (so that one can tailor one’s reading choice to the estimated time of residence) and the subject matter is weighty enough that you feel you’re improving yourself during what would otherwise be dead time.

I’m also finishing up FATAL REVENANT, the eighth book in Stephen R. Donaldson’s CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT series.  I’ve been reading this series since seventh grade, when my teacher gave me a copy of the first book, LORD FOUL’S BANE.  I’ve mentioned before that she was taking a kind of risk, there; the book’s protagonist is a modern American man who, through some horrible fluke, contracts leprosy.  He becomes very unpleasant (and stays unpleasant throughout the series), and when he gets transported to the magical realm of the Land and finds himself healed of his affliction, basically the first thing he does is rape the girl who’s been helping him.

Edgy stuff for a twelve-year old reader whose previous fantasy experiences had all been of the Dungeons & Dragons variety, where good and evil were pretty clearly delineated and no one raped anyone else.  Beheaded, sure.  Got pincushioned by Orcish arrows, absolutely.  But you just don’t imagine rape in Middle Earth or Xanth.  MAYBE in Cimmeria, and then there’s Gor, but those books were still in my future.

Gor

Anyhow, I’m on the eighth book now.  It took me this long to get to it because I was waiting for the author to finish writing all of them.  I don’t mind open-ended series of books (like, say, the Spenser novels of Robert B. Parker, or the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher) where each volume is a stand-alone story, but when it comes to long, epic fantasy series, I will wait until I’m sure the writer is going to finish before I get invested in them.  When Robert Jordan died before completing his WHEEL OF TIME series, the estate hired someone else to finish it, but that seems wrong; had (god forbid) Stephen King died of the injuries he received when that drunk jackass ran over him, I’m pretty sure his wife Tabitha wouldn’t have let anyone else complete THE DARK TOWER.

The third book I’m working on is a re-read:  Daniel Woodrell’s WINTER’S BONE.  I always come back to the masterpieces, and this is definitely one of them.  I’d put it, without hesitation, into the list of best books I’ve ever read; it’s so good that it makes me sad, because I know I’LL never be that good.  Here’s a little taste for you all:

“Clouds looked to be splitting on distant peaks, dark rolling bolts torn around the mountaintops to patch the blue sky with grim.  Frosty wet began to fall, not as flakes nor rain but as tiny white wads that burst as drops landing and froze a sudden glaze atop the snow.”

The man’s an alien, obviously.  Humans don’t write that well.

winter's bone

*********

The weather has been spectacular lately. Right now I have my windows open, and sunlight and breeze is spilling in. Two days ago we had heavy rain all day, making lakes of clogged storm drains, saturating the soil so that you could pull shrubs out by hand, roots and all, but right now it feels like spring. The Demon Cat is curled up on my bed in a patch of sun lazily licking her forepaw. This is not your typical January.

Also atypical is my state of mind recently. I’ve had tumultuous times, and getting through the holidays was a bit more difficult this year than most. I don’t know whether it’s some kind of mid-life crisis, or whether it’s just one of those patches we all occasionally bottom out in, but for a couple of months I was in sorry shape. This blog isn’t a confessional, and I’m not going to bore or burden my readers with any ‘what I had for breakfast’ or ‘what kind of bowel movement it was’ details, so I’ll keep it vague, but for a period of time I felt like a failure at being a grown-up.

I’m on the upswing now. My mood, like the weather, is sunny and breezy. I am by nature a fairly happy person, and though the demons sometimes come and poke me, and though I’m also by nature a fairly CYNICAL person, I always end up optimistic and grateful. This IS a wonderful world, and no matter how low I get, the wonder eventually seeps back in, reminds me that life is a miracle. Typically in Portland January is gray and soggy and seems endless, but this January is different, for all sorts of reasons. And I want to thank all of you–you care about me, you like me, you help me. Of all the bounties of the world, friendship and love are possibly the most important, and I’m rich in both. And it’s good to be back on the blog!

In Which the Scribbler Says the Only Thing to Fear is…Well, You Know the Rest

One of the vivid memories from my childhood is the Presidential election of 1980. I was ten years old. We’d had the scholastic mock election in our class, and Jimmy Carter had won that one, but as it turned out Ronald Reagan won in the real world (I’d voted for John Anderson, because, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing, I tend to root for the dark horses and underdogs in the world). Reagan won 489 electoral votes (and 51 percent of the popular vote), and swept into office convincingly.

I spent several hours that night watching, with my parents, the returns. Then I went to bed and spent the next several hours being terrified. I cried, silently. You see, I’d seen some of the campaign ads, I’d heard adults talking about how warlike and belligerent Reagan was, and I knew that, somewhere across the oceans and continents, the Soviets were just as warlike and belligerent. I couldn’t, in my ten-year-old mind, imagine any future in which this situation wouldn’t end badly. It would be another three years before THE DAY AFTER showed up on television

DAY1

but I’d already watched the thing in my head, over and over again. I’d seen Portland blasted into oblivion, a mushroom cloud rising over the western horizon, a shock wave racing toward me like one of the four horsemen, a death’s-head grin riding the shimmer of flame and radiation and doom. Keep in mind–it had only been six months since Portland had dealt with fire to the north, smoke clouds pluming into the upper atmosphere, ash falling like the rain in Purgatory, clogging drains, killing fish, destroying paint jobs, making American citizens walk around cautiously, wearing surgical masks, scuffing powder off the sidewalk like it was snow.

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Fear is fear, of course. The fear of, say, sharks, is perfectly healthy and provides an evolutionary advantage. The fear of falling, an atavistic holdover from our time spent evolving in trees, is perfectly logical. But we humans have fears other animals don’t. I can’t remember ever actually being terrified of the prospect of Hell, but, then, I don’t actually ever remember BELIEVING in Hell (in spite of all the creepy, CARRIE-ish stuff scattered around my family’s houses–the pictures of the bleeding heart of Jesus were the creepiest). I’m sure I did, just as I’m sure I believed in Santa Claus at some point, but I don’t REMEMBER believing in all that stuff. The Tooth Fairy, the monster under the bed, Bigfoot, whatever. I was a hardheaded little bambino when it came to that stuff.

But I believed in nuclear war. Hoo boy, did I believe in nuclear war.

As it turns out, Reagan wasn’t all that bad. There were the usual circuses during his administration–anyone remember James Watt? or Oliver North? or Joan Quigley?–but on the whole he kept the ship heading straight. America went through a fairly conservative time

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but that’s not a bad thing. We go in cycles, we Americans. We’re going through a fairly liberal time right now, what with gay marriage and legal pot and pulling soldiers out of southern Asia. America swings like a pendulum do (apologies to Roger Miller), and that’s part of what makes this a wonderful country. And after Reagan, and Bush, there was Clinton. After Clinton, there was Bush II. After him, there was (and is) Obama. I’m guessing after Obama will come Clinton II, but after that, who knows?

Let’s get back to that ten-year-old boy crying in his bed. His younger brother is asleep in the bunk above him; tomorrow’s a school day, and John should be sleeping, too, but those fireballs and mushroom clouds in his head are making it tough. Matter of fact, he kind of feels like slipping out from under the blankets and cowering under the bed itself, like he used to do when he was a LITTLE kid. Not that a mattress is going to be much protection against megatons and isotopes and nuclear winter and the monster Soviets (even though our boys had showed them a taste of our gumption nine months earlier

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but that was on our home ice. Nuclear war, when it happened, wasn’t going to have home-field advantage. It was going to happen EVERYWHERE), but eventually he got to sleep.

There’s a scene in ANIMAL HOUSE where Dean Wormer…well, you all remember it.

Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life. Neither is worried, nervous, and terrified.

Which brings us, of course, to Ebola.

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Wherever else I go with this blog post, no matter what I say, believe me that I am NOT conflating Ebola with Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. It’s a deadly thing. It kills people in horrible, loathsome fashion. It’s as real as…well, as nuclear weapons. And at least those people in Hiroshima didn’t know what was coming; you contract Ebola, you get to feel it all as your organs liquefy and your body falls apart while you die in agony.

That said, I’ve come a long way from that kid weeping quietly in his bunk. There are other scares in one’s life, and I’ve experienced some of them, some of them very recently. There’s the fear of footsteps behind you on an early-morning, dark sidewalk; I’ve been mugged and shot, and I’m now hyper-aware of what’s going on around me at all times (monkey brain, augmented by painful experience). There’s the fear of loss; I’ve lost pets, friends, wallets, family members, I’ve had moments where I’ve feared the loss of my memories and my mind. Fear of pain, fear of rejection, fear of embarrassment, of loss of sexual potency, of being TOO potent (if you’ve ever had a condom break, THAT’S a fun little fear for the next couple weeks of your life), of insolvency, of inadequacy.

In 1980, it was the first time I’d ever actually feared death. Mortality. It hit me there, in my stupid Star Wars blankets, that I was going to cease to be–“then on the shore/ of the wide world I stand alone, and think,/ till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.”

And there are ten-year-olds out there tonight lying in their beds terrified that they’re going to die of Ebola. That there’s going to be a pandemic, and that the world is going to end not in fire, nor ice, but in the wildfire spread of something that makes nuclear fire seem kind and cleansing.

It’s right to be worried about disease. It’s NOT right that adults, ostensibly responsible and mature adults, are fanning these flames. It’s NOT right that Rep. Peter King says “It’s time for the doctors to realize that they were wrong and figure out why they were wrong. Maybe this is a mutated form of the virus.” It’s NOT right that Sen. Rand Paul says “This is a disease that can be transmitted when you’re wearing gowns, masks and gloves. It’s incredibly transmissible and it’s a mistake for the government to say don’t worry, it’s like AIDS. AIDS is difficult to catch. If someone is sitting next to you with Ebola and coughs, you can catch it.” And it’s definitely not right when this genius (Dr. Oz, who actually has the honorific in front of his name, like Sen. Paul but not Rep. King) — went on television to pronounce that the epidemic could alter the world “as much as any plague in history.”

Yeah. So could Kirk Cameron. But I’m not betting on it.

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Remember this guy? The Red Scare? Communists under our beds, behind our shrubbery, making policy in the State Department?

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Or how about this? James Moorman, counsel to the Environmental Defense Fund, predicted that “disastrous massive oil spills along literally thousands of miles of the Pacific Coast” were “inevitable.” That’s the Trans-Alaska Pipeline he’s talking about.

And then there’s THIS blotch on humanity:

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Enough. There’s always someone trying to terrify us, whether the threat is ISIS sneaking through the southern border (using Central American kids as human shields, probably), or Vladimir Putin sending his thousands of tanks across Eastern Europe on his way to Paris and London, or the unfathomable threat of trying terrorists in actual American courtrooms (as opposed to trying them in secret, in military tribunals, probably with the judges wearing black masks, like God intended). The Gulf of Mexico didn’t fill with crude oil. There are no black helicopters taking people off to Re-education Centers. President Obama is not a secret Muslim, a secret Kenyan, a secret anti-colonialist, any more than President Bush was an idiot, a Trilateralist, a warmongering stooge for his capitalist buddies. They’re both good men, they both did (and are doing) what they think best for this country. I’m not saying all politicians are good people, but for the most part they’re SINCERE people.

And no one wants Ebola to run rampant in this country. No one of normal human decency, or with normal human feelings. I suppose some of the extremists want a Katrina for President Obama, and I can understand that, but it’s not going to happen. This is going to be like every other disaster we’ve faced in our history–we’ll take the measure of the threat, we’ll try options to contain it, and we’ll finally figure out the one that works. There are conservative Republican doctors and nurses and interns out there right now working their asses off to contain the damage, to come up with vaccines, to fix the fucking problem. And they’re not conservative Republicans while they’re doing it. They’re Americans first–no, no. They’re HUMANS first. As are we all.

Stop being scared. You’re Americans. Act like it. We got through the Civil War and somehow, miraculously, rebuilt. We fought off acid rain, we fought off the flu epidemics, we fought off the Depression, the Dust Bowl, we took on foes ranging from the British to the Spanish to the Taliban to the Nazis, and we got through those fights.

We’ll get through this one as well.

In Which the Scribbler Loses Another Set of Knights

There’s been a perfect storm of controversy over the National Football League, its players, and domestic abuse. Ray Rice beating up his girlfriend. Adrian Peterson strapping his son. Some backup running back from the Cardinals hitting HIS girlfriend. And on and on.

Good. We need this discussion. Hitting someone smaller and weaker than you, especially if you’re a professional American football player (with the physique, the strength, the conditioning) is abhorrent and reprehensible. I’m okay with spanking your son (probably because I was spanked, and I didn’t die or anything), but leaving grill marks on the kid’s genitals is in NO WAY okay.

For a long time, I’ve been drifting away from the NFL. I’m a football fan. I think it’s an amazing sport. It’s a combination of sheer brute force, intricate planning, a funny-shaped ball, amazing strategy, all sorts of plusses. I would MUCH rather watch a goal-line stand than a towering home run, or a forty-foot three-pointer. I played football, and I played it clean and hard, and I was pretty good at it. A team I was on came in third in the state (or fourth, depending on how you look at it. There wasn’t a third-place game, so maybe Banks High School was third, maybe La Salle was, and we’ll never know, though I would’ve killed someone for the chance to play those bastards again), and some of the happier moments of my life came on that brightly-lit field, with the band playing and the crowd cheering and the coaches shouting. I’m not going to say that sacking a quarterback is equivalent to giving birth to your first child, or marrying the love of your life, or getting that promotion–but it certainly ain’t a bad thing, lowering your shoulders and laying out the kid with the ball, hearing the whoof as the air leaves his lungs, landing on top of him and knowing you just made a third-and-long out of a second-and-two. It’s a hell of a sport, football is. It’s not as mythic as baseball. Never will be. Baseball has geometry going for it, and poetry, and George Will. Kevin Costner. Baseball lends itself to fantasies. Men, grown men, once they hit thirty years old or so, know they’re never going to play professional football. If you haven’t done it by now, you never will. But there’s always some chance that you might make an MLB roster. The sport doesn’t put a premium on physical fitness. There are fat guys playing professional baseball. Drunks. And, obviously, steroid hogs.

In the NFL you have steroid guys, and you also have wife-beaters.

You can’t be an idiot and play professional football. They’ve done studies on this. The smartest professional athletes are pro football players. They HAVE to be–the game isn’t what it used to be. In the old days you had maybe twenty offensive plays, and the defense would have stunts and blitzes and such, and maybe you’d have a couple of gadget plays for the right situations. Nowadays you have playbooks that look like novels, and your stunts and blocks and shifts depend on reading half a dozen signs, watching the sidelines, listening to your quarterback’s signals, and even then a million things can go wrong. A team like the New England Patriots, the closest thing we’ve had to a dynasty in this century, doesn’t have the best athletes. They have great athletes who are brilliant team players. Men who study the playbooks, study their opponents, drill and drill and drill. Back in the day you could have idiots playing the sport, their natural talent and blood thirst carrying them forward. You simply can’t do that anymore. Brian Bosworth, god love him, would get destroyed by today’s players.

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Same with Ray Nitschke, or Hollywood Henderson, or even the greatest football player I’ve ever seen, Lawrence Taylor. I just don’t think they’d cut it anymore. That’s no slam on those men. They were warriors. They bled for their sport. They lost teeth, they got concussions, they jammed their fingers into facemasks until their digits stuck out in weird directions.

And, for all I know, they were good men who came home at night and treated their women and children kindly. Kiss the kid, hug the wife, eat the pot roast, and fall asleep watching Ed Sullivan. They didn’t coldcock their ladies in elevators. They didn’t make their sons pick a switch and then beat them until the children bled from their balls. Maybe those guys, the old guys, were better men than the current crop. I’d like to think so. I have romantic views of Ken Stabler, that left-handed riverboat gambler, of Mean Joe Greene (I wore his number)

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of Joe Montana–the best quarterback ever, at least in my mind (I never got to watch Johnny Unitas, and Brady needs another Super Bowl win before he enters the pantheon), of all those guys with the mud and grass stuck in their helmets’ earholes. They’re like the Knights of the Round Table to me. Montana was Lancelot. Payton was Galahad. I can see Mike Singletary as Gawain, if I squint.

But there’s been a long, slow spiral downward for the league. For ALL leagues, actually. The whole Sosa-McGwire crap drug-cocktail home-run chase killed baseball for me. Rasheed Wallace and his ‘cut the check’ killed basketball for me. And now this, this goddamn culture of NFL jackasses beating up their women because, though they’re smart enough to learn half a hundred offensive plays and whom to block in each one of them, but can’t be smart enough to get off the freaking elevator and cool down.

The colleges aren’t much better. I’m not going to join the chorus that wants to crucify Jameis Winston for being a freaking idiot and jumping onto a table to shout ‘pussy’. But if he’s guilty of sexual assault then, yes, crucify the talented little bastard.

We give these young men our adulation, our praise. We give them excuses. We let them skate. And then they grow up and start to make millions of dollars. And occasionally they turn into O.J. Simpson. There’s no way to change the system. But, at least now, there’s attention being focused on the problem. And I, for one, am glad.

In Which the Scribber Ponders What a Friend We Have in Cheeses

Today I was having one of those interior debates about which is the best kind of cheese. You all do this kind of thing, right?

Right?

Anyway, I had two finalists, and at last was able to make my decision, though it wasn’t easy by any means. It was kind of a Sophie’s choice, frankly, though (at least in this case) the losing cheese doesn’t get sent off to be murdered by Nazis. Because my mind works the way it does, I set up another competition, and another, and then I thought “Hey! I have a blog! Perhaps everyone else will care just as much as I do about this important subject, this Foodalympics!”

So. First. The cheeses. I’ve never run into a cheese I DIDN’T like. The stinky stuff? Love it. Straight cheddar? Wonderful. Stilton, bleu, Roquefort? All terrific. But my two finalists show the diversity of my love for fermented, moldy milk. The final battle came down to cream cheese and feta.

1cream
1feta

As you can tell, I wasn’t going for intensity here. I was going for utility. Cream cheese may be a bit bland, but it’s smooth and mouth-filling, you can spread it on a bagel, melt it for dips (I drop a cube of it into a pan with chopped chicken, Frank’s Red Hot, and diced onions for a Buffalo dip that’s incredible comfort food), make a CAKE out of it, for Pete’s sake. Dump jalapeno jelly over the top of it and serve it with crackers. Mix some horseradish into it, then roll it up in lunch meat.

And feta—goat cheese in general—is another utility player, able to take any position on the field. Stir it into scrambled eggs with a bit of sautéed asparagus, stuff it into hollowed-out cherry peppers for the potluck (and they always disappear first, long before people finally start picking over the broccoli on the crudité tray), drizzle olive oil onto it and serve with toast rounds, crumble it over olives and grape tomatoes and cucumber slices, do practically ANYTHING with it. Plus, it’s got a little bite to it, which I like. I enjoy sharp flavors. But the flavor’s not SO sharp that it becomes something to just nibble on until you get overwhelmed, as happens with, say, Stilton. It holds up through the entire meal.

In the end, I came down on the side of cream cheese. Call me boring if you will, but as long as you have a brick or two of Philly in the fridge, you can do anything. And that’s important.

“Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.”—G.K. Chesterton

Next up is the vegetable event, and there’s a wide field. As is the case with cheese, I love every vegetable, even the weird ones. Eggplant and okra and Brussels sprouts and beets are all delicious. Asparagus is probably what they serve in Heaven, steamed crisp and tender, with Hollandaise. If I were choosing simply the best-tasting, I would probably pick it. But, again, I’m going with importance rather than delectability. And for sheer importance, there are only two real contenders:

1corn
1onion

In Margaret Visser’s tremendous book MUCH DEPENDS ON DINNER she traces corn back from its early days of cultivation through the modern day. Every product in your supermarket (with the exception, if I remember correctly, of fresh fish) has SOME kind of corn product in it, whether corn syrup or corn fiber or whatever—even the PACKAGING is made partly of corn. It’s a preservative, a sweetener, the mother of all foodstuffs for the American public. And it tastes freaking wonderful roasted, slathered in butter and sprinkled with salt. There’s popcorn, tortillas, corn bread, it stars in casseroles and soups, fritters and polenta, so many things.

And then the onion. Corn is great, but the onion is THE indispensable vegetable. There are times I’m without corn (though there’s usually a bag of it in the freezer, and of course the box of cornmeal in the cupboard and the cornstarch can), but I’m never without a couple onions on the counter. My diet depends on the things. You can make spaghetti sauce without onions, but it won’t be as good. You can do burritos or tacos without them, but why? I sprinkle chopped scallions on everything—a bowl of rice, a hash brown casserole, noodles, whatever. I slice red onions thin and soak them in rice vinegar, then eat them right out of the jar. Pearl onions go into every kind of stew, anything roasted. Coq au vin needs them. Sandwiches are boring without them. Salads aren’t as piquant. An onion tart is absolutely sublime. Onions are MAGICAL—they’re sharp and acrid and wonderful, then you heat them and they turn sweet and tender and alchemical, mixing with pretty much any ingredients you care to pair them with and bettering them. One of my favorite dishes to cook is French onion soup. It’s a tremendous amount of work, but watching the beautiful threads sweat down for hours gives me the same feeling of satisfaction I get when I finish a short story. And the flavor, after the soup is finally finished…well, they probably serve it in Heaven, next to the asparagus.

“Life is like an onion. You peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” – Carl Sandberg

The third event should be fruits, but I don’t like fruits. Oh, I’ll EAT them. You give me a banana or an apple, fine. But I’d prefer some jicama or a bowl of greens. Berries don’t do much for me. I do enjoy eating fresh cherries, all juicy and messy, but I don’t go hunting for them. Melons, all melons, make me throw up. I can’t actually remember the last time I bought fruit other than lemons and limes for cooking. So I’ll just award the gold medal to the pumpkin, because I like the pie and because it’s a Halloween icon. Going to the pumpkin patch ever year is a happy thing for me. Congratulations, pumpkin! Nice job!

1pumpkin

That’s enough for tonight. Tomorrow I’ll choose the winners in the next three categories, leading up to the main event—meat. Until then, bon appetit!