In the land of grey and pink where only boy-scouts stop to think

Several years ago, when I visited Oklahoma City National Memorial, I met a woman who made regular visits to pay her respects to the victims who died on the site in 1995. Worried about the tragedy being forgotten to time, she even went so far as to suggest that many Americans might believe Islamic fundamentalists were to blame for the bombing, so unwilling were they to believe that domestic terrorism was a threat.

At the time, I pushed back against her suggestion, refusing to believe that more than a handful of lunatics could possibly believe such a thing. Today I’m not so sure.

It took a single day for the conspiracies to fly about a series of pipe bombs sent to prominent Democratic figures. No surprise there. The crazies have always been around, and they tend to be . . . well . . . crazy. I mean, people used to believe (used to) that Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode was and actual vampire. The concerning thing is how rapidly these theories spread to the masses. Conservatives proposed that it was (not that it might be, mind you– that is was) a false flag operation, organized by liberals to make them look bad ahead of the midterm election. Liberals opined that Russia might be behind it. What better way to disrupt American democracy, they argued, than to further the notion that politics is civil war rather than collective bargaining?

This would have been bad enough if it had not come on the heels of more unfounded lunacy regarding the so-called “caravan” making its way north from Central America. It’s funded by radical liberals, led by notorious boogeyman billionaire George Soros! There are terrorists tagging along! And MS-13! And those who aren’t either of these things are sick! Tuberculosis! Polio! Scabies! Brown Person Cooties!

Normally I would note the startling fact that some of these ideas have been spread by federal representatives and even the President. But that, of course, is nothing new in today’s warped socio-political landscape. The problem is that these people continue to have an audience for them. And no matter what side of the spectrum you identify with on any given issue, it is impossible to deny that the growing appetite for lunacy is doing un-quantifiable harm to our country.

My experience with Americans, drawn from hundreds of encounters in every corner of the mainland, is that most of them have a natural instinct towards friendliness, hospitality, and the fair exchange of ideas, provided they receive respect and an open minded ear in return. But these things are increasingly difficult to promise in a world where facts have less and less to do with the nature of discourse, and crime and tragedy are often viewed as political opportunity. There is no value in forming conclusions based upon incomplete, unverified, erroneous, or downright fabricated information, but this is what a growing number of Americans do, simply because their ethos has become too rigid to accommodate outliers and exceptions. It is ludicrous, for instance– not to mention dangerous– for Rush Limbaugh to suggest that “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” as if conservatives are universally righteous and liberals fatally flawed. Neither is it useful for liberals to pit conservatism as the enemy of progress, and conservatives as deluded bumpkins who are too stupid and weak to police their own. The former makes liberals more apt to believe the latter. The latter makes conservatives all the more certain that their principles are under direct assault.

I want to make clear, this is not a call to a kumbaya moment. Ideas are worth fighting for– some more than others– and there are people standing in the way of a clean, livable world and a nation of egalitarian ideals. But none of us are getting closer to these things if we give in to tribal idiocy. Of all the things necessary for freedom and democracy, truth is most required. And holding accountable those who use falsehoods to secure power is the first safeguard of those things– not accumulating the numbers to protect your own shortsighted understanding of political might. In New York, the fight over who gets to say what truth is has led us to a gubernatorial race between two horribly corrupt candidates, led Republicans to endorse a representative currently indicted for ten felonies even though he himself has suspended his campaign, and forced another congressman to refuse to denounce PAC ads that depict his opponent as a gang-banging, anti-American rapper (if you have seen the ads, you know that they would prefer the last of these words be replaced by one starting with the letter “N”). This is not good for my state. And the far less restrained national version is certainly not good for my country.

If you’ve read my book, you will probably agree with me that I know America better than most, not so much because of my travels and extensive study of its culture, but because I know that I know so little about it despite these things. More and more I fear it is a lesson the majority of my countrymen have not learned. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so hasty to seek out narratives that support pre-ordained points of view. The crazies would merely be crazies– not political bases. And I wouldn’t feel like my devotion to truth and reason is a drop of water amidst an ocean of waves that are only interested in crashing into one another.

Are You Part of the Solution Or Are Your Part of the Con?

I don’t completely understand the workings of the patriarchy. But I have my eyes and ears open.

It isn’t something that is readily apparent from traveling the country– even during an immersive expedition like mine. Sure, there were the echoes of it. There was Barbara, now a successful native arts dealer in Las Cruces, who had to escape the expectations of her family and community to settle down with a “nice boy” in order to live an independent life clear across the country. And there were the stories of women being treated unfairly by husbands and courts alike, as transcribed by Wheeling stenographer Gertrude. But even in these instances, the patriarchy was more a spectral presence than an indicted felon.

This is part of the reason, surely, that when it rears its monstrous head publicly, it is still veiled and protected not just by those who benefit from it, but by those who refuse to admit that it is actually a thing.

If ever there was a day when the armies of the patriarchy could be seen fighting for its preservation, it is today. Indeed, awful as the alleged misdeeds of Brett Kavanaugh are, they are not, in fact, the real story of his tumultuous nomination process. The real story is how vulnerable the proprietors of America’s patriarchy feel today, faced as they are with the prospect of a woman being capable of bringing down a man who has been groomed from the fount of wealthy, chauvinistic privilege that disproportionately oversees the working of our teetering republic. For them, Kavanaugh’s confirmation is now even more important. It is, after all, the pushback of the patriarchy against that most terrifying of enemies: a woman who thinks the crimes perpetrated against her are deserving of retribution.

It starts from the top, of course, not least because the president is a misogynist and an oft-accused sexual predator who not only holds the highest reins of power in the nation despite such misdeeds, but feels entitled to do so largely because he sees the objectification and exploitation of women as the right of a powerful man. It is no surprise that after a few moments of restraint, he unleashed on Kavanaugh’s accuser, saying that he could not envision a scenario where she was telling the truth, calling it a “con-game” perpetrated by Democrats (who, let’s be honest, have not exactly behaved well in this instance themselves, and should be ashamed of themselves for seizing upon the avowed childhood trauma of a sexual victim), criticizing two teenage girls for being “drunk” and “messed” up (a drunk, messed up boy being perfectly fine), proposing that it is “the single most unfair, unjust” enterprises in American history that such a “wonderful man” as Brett Kavanaugh could be subject to such attacks.

Then there is Mitch McConnell, who insisted last week that it is an “opportunity” for an alleged rape victim to be allowed to testify before a Congressional committee, and that she must accept the narrow scope and timeframe proposed by Congressmen or be done with it, as if rape victims are dying to lay themselves before the American public and reopen wounds that they well-know will be turned against them in the usual puritanical way of the disapproving. Slut. Liar. Man-hater. Party girl. And to justify these slurs, the tangential indictments of a woman who dared be strong and independent. She’s an activist (how horrible to be such a thing!). She’s a disliked professor (we are definitely interested in the opinions of those teenagers, but not the millions of young girls who have been subject to abuse? Except wait, those weren’t even reviews of her. Still, an academic? Suspect). She’s a Democrat who has donated to Democrats (no woman who gave $79 to politicians can be trusted), she participated in the Women’s March (those people), she co-signed a letter from psychologists demanding that the Trump administration stop the separation of immigrant families (and those people!). Why wouldn’t any woman feel privileged to be allowed to speak in such a forum about such a topic, given the prospect of such a reception? Especially when said leader then turned to parroting the president in calling her accusations a smear campaign designed to “destroy a man’s personal and professional life.”

And then there was the parade of senators on Monday who, having not spoken to the accuser directly, declared again and again that they were going to vote yes on the Kavanaugh nomination. Orrin Hatch thinks the Senate needs to “get it over with”– no concern about how long it might take for the victim here to get over what happened to her. McConnell and Dick Durbin say they are going to “plow through” this obstacle– no apparent concern about the sexual implications of such a phrase, much less the recklessness of jamming a lifelong appointment through without a full reckoning. Lindsey Graham complains that he and his colleagues are “in the Twilight Zone,” but that the allegations against Kavanaugh are “collapsing.” He says he is “not going to ruin Judge Kavanaugh’s life over this.” But of course, she’s welcome to have her say. “She will be respectfully treated,” he says.

And there, in brief, is it all. As the White House council worries that any man can be brought down by a woman if Kavanaugh is allowed to be brought down by this woman, Lindsey Graham is readying himself to treat her like a woman. Am I being cynical when 1) I question just how respectfully she has been treated up to this point, particularly when Graham has already declared publicly that her claims are a bunch of hooey; and 2) that I read his words to mean, “We’ll treat her politely, and then politely consign her to her place?” It somehow reminds me of Mary Surratt being shielded beneath an umbrella on the oppressively hot day of her execution. Mustn’t mistreat the lady.

This is the fight of consequence being waged today. It is non-partisan. It is between egalitarians and feminists and those with narrower views on the proper course of our culture and the power that controls it. It is the same fight that was waged when Joe Biden taught a 15-year-old boy– and his thousands of peers– that the Old Boys Club ruled the world, so go ahead and treat women accordingly. It is the same fight that was waged when Bill Clinton was ruining the lives of women, and excused each time because he was doing the “good work of good men” when he wasn’t busy with that. It is the same fight that was waged when Hillary Clinton was pilloried for “enabling” her husband’s infidelity. It is the same fight that is waged every time a woman who dares to speak out or to try to participate in the shaping of our politics and our culture is called hysterical, unruly, impolitic, rash, loud, abrasive, shrill, emotional.

These are the mortars of the patriarchy. And you better believe there’s going to be a shelling on Thursday.

And I’m Feeling Very Sick and Ill Today, But I’m Still Fond of You

As does the one in autumn, the spring convention season offers me a chance to make the kind of money my writing does not (at least for now– all artists hope such arrangements are temporary, of course). It is important for my family’s finances, and given my circumstances I wish there were more shows where my services were required. It is tiring and I am away from my wife and my writing, but I can hardly complain about such demands.

During the fall the consequence of such work was a delay in the completion of my novel. Breaking the momentum of writing is a very dangerous thing, and doing so surely cost me more than the days I was on the road.

This spring, with my manuscript complete, the effects were far more sinister.

I am not so vain as to imagine that you worried about my absence from this blog. But I did. I am conspicuously conscious about the maintenance of this site, and it bothered me to have neglected it for so many weeks. Again, the momentum of writing is an important thing to keep properly fed. And I was not feeding it.

I am, it should be reconfirmed, capable of sustaining an almost obsessive level of work for long periods of time. I wrote my dissertation faster than almost anyone I know. and during the years I was working on An American Song there was hardly a day when I wasn’t either traveling or writing. I have always been good at establishing artificial deadlines and at focusing my energies towards meeting them, and even when I am writing material that might go into the waste-file a day after I write it, I am able to justify the effort as a part of my process.

But pitching a book is a different animal. Just like writing itself, it takes a great deal of effort. And from a financial standpoint, it has a far more defined purpose. But two things distinguish it. First, it isn’t art. It isn’t even scholarship. And in being neither, it fails to enliven me. And second– and I cannot stress this enough to all those scarred by their forlorn teenage years as inefficient lovers– it involves several-hundred metric tons of rejection.

Imagine all the excuses you once conjured to excuse yourself from asking out that pretty girl (or, I imagine, that cute boy), and inject into these memories the near-absolute certainty that she will say no despite your sincere belief that you are worthy of all her affections, and you will have a marginal understanding of what it is like to try to sell a book. And then do it again, and again, and again, and again, and, well, maybe a few dozen more times before doing it a few dozen more after that.

For me, my spring workload was not only something of a relief, but a fount for the excuses I needed to let this cascade of failure wash over me. It isn’t as though I did no work. I did a lot of work on the opening of the book I will eventually write about my father, and I am in the active process of organizing the plot of my next novel, to the point where I even have the first few paragraphs down in writing. But I need to be honest with myself. I also found a lot of reasons to sit around in despair.

For Baudelaire, this type of ennui (of which he reportedly suffered greatly himself) is the bane not only of the personal self, but the crippler of the human race itself– the thing that if left unchecked will destroy the world. In “Au Lectuer” he wrote:

Dans la ménagerie infâme de nos vices,

Il en est un plus laid, plus méchant, plus immonde!
Quoiqu’il ne pousse ni grands gestes ni grands cris,
Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde;

C’est l’Ennui!

My translation, according to me limited (but growing!) understanding of French:

“In the vile menagerie of our vices, there is one more ugly, more wicked, more filthy! Though he pursues neither grand gestures nor great cries, he would willingly make of the earth a shambles, and in a yawn swallow the world. He is Ennui!”

The reason I have for so long had a disturbed affinity for Baudelaire is perhaps the same one the students whom I once dared to teach him to despised me for it. He has a knack for making the personal universal and the universal personal, and it almost always wants to make you throw yourself off a bridge that won’t be there 1,000 years from now because we are at heart a shallow, silly species that through convenience, leisure, and boredom will piss away all our greatest gifts. (Try teaching that to a bunch of teenagers who didn’t read because they were busy browsing Tinder while inverted above a keg of shitty beer.) In the past couple decades I have seen our communal ennui turn a blind eye towards the climate crisis, and in the past few years I have seen it undermine our democracy. And in the past couple months, I have known it to once again press my languid body into the overworn cushion of my couch as the days float by, my spirit too weakened to fend off my excuses of fatigue or business or self-excoriation.

I can’t say now that I forever forward swear off this habit. Ennui is not boredom, after all, regardless of how many poor translations suggest that it is. It is an affliction, an illness, chronic and insidious. Baudelaire could never kick it, and it is not unreasonable to say that it had as much to do with ending his life prematurely as opium and alcohol and poverty, so that the aphasia he suffered between his stroke and his death two years later was a kind of synthesis of the great disease of his life. Those of us who deal with similar bouts of it and are too bothered by existential reality to dismiss it through a hedonistic perspective (i.e. too stupid to accept that said meaningfulness is best confronted with a conscious striving towards the achievement of joy) beat it off with sticks gathered from our free will, just as we do the depression, anxiety, and despair that lend it much of its strength. In other words, while those in despair over our polluted planet commit themselves to the work that might save it, we in despair over our polluted souls do our best to cleanse them through acts of creation and beauty. (And join our voices to the salvation of the planet, too . . . there’s nothing quite as existentially dire as a world going to shit.)

Which is all to say, my apologies for being gone so long. I hope you will hear again from me soon.

And screw you, Morrissey. I’ve graduated to Lou Reed.

‘Cause There’s a Million Things to Be, You Know That There Are

In another trying week for America, where the news is filled with stories about corruption and apathy and intolerance and the senseless death of yet more children, it would be easy to retreat into diatribes of anger and despair. I understand the impulse, and see the utility of joining in on the outrage. But I also feel it’s important to talk about what makes the world beautiful, and humanity worth fighting for, if only so that those who refuse once more to dismiss political expedience and entrenched ideology in the name of sensible progress are reminded of the what their obstinate world-views just cost the slaughtered.

This week that comes from a strange place, in my view. The Olympics, after all, are not exactly the paragon of virtue they are marketed as. The corruption of the IOC makes FIFA look like a soup kitchen. Politicians use the games for all sorts of ingenuous propaganda. Cheating and poor sportsmanship remain rampant, and for all the talk about cleaning sports up, these things have in the end been tacitly rewarded. I haven’t had occasion to listen to Harry Shearer’s NPR program recently, but I suspect he’s having a field day with the “movement”

Still, I think that if Americans were to transcend their biases and give themselves over to the games, they would have a positive influence upon their world view. This is because any gathering like the Olympics offers the chance to look into the cultural traditions that give people all over the world great joy regardless of how stupid we in the states think they are.

I, in particular, have felt something of my Germanic roots enlivened by biathlon, which for some reason I never gave much of a chance in games past. Not only do I think the athletes are performing remarkably physical feats, but I now find it to be very exciting as a spectator sport, as the course of any race can be radically altered by a single missed shot. I never quite understood why biathlon was so popular in a country otherwise obsessed with such a beautiful and fluid sport as football, but now I not only get it, but I understand as well that my not “getting it” was missing the point to begin with. The real point was that a people did get it, and not for arbitrary reasons had this occurred.

Yeah, yeah, you say, liberal relativism, I get it. Kumbaya and holding hands and buying the world a Coke and all that garbage. And, by the way Chris, it’s easy to say this when half of the people you turn in to watch look like you– and the other half are women.

That’s not my point. Not exactly, anyway. If you find biathlon to be boring, I’m not going to excoriate you for not watching it in the name of world peace and forced brotherhood. What I’m saying is, if you don’t give it a chance, you’re closing yourself off to something that provides a people joy. And when you do that, you’re refusing to understand what makes people different. And when you do that, you’re retreating in the kind of provincialism that is causing us so many problems these days.

I’m not saying that watching a bunch of men and women in bodysuits strapping air rifles to their backs is going to prevent the next school shooting or solve the immigration crisis. That’s absurd.

What I will argue, though, is something akin to the essential spirit of An American Song. Travel broadens both the intellect and the spirit. But when you don’t have the chance to actually travel, doing it by proxy is the next best thing.

Modern Americans have unprecedented access to information about foreign cultures, and yet we largely refuse to investigate even the variations on domestic culture that make our nation so richly diverse. I hear people talk about how it would be better for California to fall into the sea or for Mississippi to sink into the mud or for New York City to just kiss off with its antipathetic amorality, and I think, no wonder Americans think Salvadorans are all gang members and Mexicans are rapists and murderers. No wonder the President can refer to an entire continent as a shithole and be defended by half the population. No wonder it doesn’t bother people when a few dozen Afghans get blown up by a cruise missile, or when a bunch of starving Syrians die of exposure in the nether-regions between Serbia and Hungary. And yes, no wonder the death of schoolchildren in one of the 49 states they don’t live in sends them careening back into the same absurd defenses of their rigid, unconditionable political positions that they resorted to the last time a bunch of Americans living out their peaceful lives were gunned down.

See, there I go again, indulging that itch to engage in the outrage!

So you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to go watch a bunch of Northern Europeans hurl themselves off a giant slab of ice. And I’m going to try to wrench some joy from the throngs of lunatics standing out in the frigid Korean winter to watch them do it. And I’m going to to try to remember that there is too much joy and beauty in this world to restrict myself to any singular perspective.

And These Children That You Spit On As They Try to Change Their Worlds

I think it’s about time we lay off millennials.

For one, there really isn’t such a thing as a millennial to begin with. Of all people, Americans should understand the difficulty implicit in cultural taxonomy– I spent a lot of time in a book that was too long for traditional publishers proposing the existence of a patchwork culture bound together by kitchen twine and Krazy Glue, and devoted a final chapter that acknowledged that the real beauty of America is that understanding ourselves is necessarily incomplete. But even in a more homogeneous culture it is a dangerous project to undertake. Sure, people born during certain periods in history learn and act according to new cultural realities, and so they are bound to have certain things in common. But there is such variance in thought and opinion and behavior in the world right now that organizing people into tidy categories is obscene. And at a time when technology is evolving at such a breakneck pace, what is a “generation” anymore, anyway? The things people can do and the ways they can communicate with an iPhone 8 are radically different than what they could do with an iPhone 5, for instance, and these capabilities alone are– for better or for worse (and I think we can list singing poop emojis as worse)– changing the way children are coming of age, changing how they analyze the world, and changing the way they behave. Add in everything else that is constantly shifting, and you might as well establish sub-phylums that group people within just a few years, so different has a 15-year-old’s experience been than a 12-year-old’s.

But that really isn’t the point I want to make here. What I want to do is explode the idea of the lazy, entitled, self-centered, tech-obsessed millennial. Because it’s just silly. (Not to mention lazy, undisciplined, get-off-my-lawn reasoning.)

Here’s the thing. When I was traveling across America, I never once thought of the idea that a young person I came across might be a millennial, and as such might be understood through a specific cultural lens. But lately, as I’ve been recalling these things, I realize that those I did meet who fit this category rarely adhered to the stereotypes that had been assigned to them. Instead, they were very often compassionate, thoughtful, and generous. Some had been to war. More than a few were devoted activists. Many were struggling with poverty. Others were working incredibly hard on farms, in coal mines, and in office buildings. In the heart of the worst recession in decades, I don’t recall a single one talking about how they should have been hired as an executive straight off. I can’t think of any of them complaining that other people should be doing things for them. And what many have taken as entitled arrogance I generally found to be measured confidence. If anything, millennials believe– or believed, at least– in the meritocracy more than any “generation” in American history. They believe that if they are smart, talented, and work their asses off they should rewarded accordingly. And they have found it very bitter to discover that this is not always the case. I dare say the majority of Americans in history have had this experience, regardless of when they were born.

And speaking of Americans in history, perhaps the best thing to do in regards to undermining the validity of the millennial stereotypes is to remember our “Greatest Generation” not as they were in the autumn of 1945, but as they were before the war (and to an even greater extent, before the onset of the Depression). That is, to remember them when they were routinely being decried by older generations for their laziness, for their lack of perspective, for their frivolity, and– most prescient of all– for their weak dedication to their country and the principles that guide it. There’s nothing like one or two national cataclysms to turn spoiled, no-good brats into paragons of virtue, is there?

What’s amazing is that many of the people of the generation that sacrificed during the war became the very people who criticized the “baby boomers” in the 1960s– you know, the people who fought a war their politicians knew was unwinnable, who struggled and often died in the name of civil rights, who put men on the moon– those sorts of trivial, unnoteworthy things. And the people that did these things turned around and went after my generation– all we’ve done to disprove them is fight two of the longest wars in American history, tear asunder many of the pillars of sexual discrimination, and reshape the idea of gender identity in America (incomplete as this work has been)– what do we want, an award? And here many of us are, happy to join those who came before us in narrating the fall of Western civilization because we’re not as proficient with Snapchat as people who are younger than us are, too pigheaded– err, I mean, experienced and erudite– to consider any explanation for this deeper than “it’s stupid and they’re stupid for using it.”

Look. We may or may not be fine moving forward. Like all people in history have, we face serious problems that are difficult to solve. And we’ve added the understanding that not only can we end the world by blowing it the hell up, but also by prioritizing modern conveniences over environmental necessities. I don’t blame people for their urge to panic, and I understand the psychology of wistfully recalling the halcyon days where some of the problems we now face didn’t seem so pressing (even as others did). But there’s no excuse for blaming “millennials” wholesale because you refuse to work through your problems logically. They’re most assuredly not a problem. They’re a resource, not a drain. Because they’re Americans. And on the whole, that has almost always been a good thing.

Been up the Thruway, Down the Thruway

I haven’t posted in a while, for reasons not entirely within my control. Autumn is a time when I make some extra money outside of New York, and so I have less time for things like this.

But this autumn I have also neglected this blog as a symptom of the writer’s version of “Summit Fever.”

Writing a book entails an odd confluence of experiences. On the one hand, writing a book requires a lot of time, and spacing out that work is important. Including all my travel, it took me 2 1/2 years to complete the first draft of An American Song. My newest book– a novel that still required a good deal of research and structural planning– is a third the length of that project, but still it took fairly consistent work for about six months to produce a cohesive draft. I’m always amazed at stories about writers who lock themselves in rooms and pump out the words, because if I worked like that I suspect that I would both go insane and that the things I put out would be absolute garbage. I’ve always worked more like Faulkner: steadily, relentlessly, but according to a schedule that doesn’t fry my brain. Everyone needs to leave time for their own personal whiskey.

On the other hand, once I get close to finishing something, I tend to ignore such rationalities. I become consumed by the need for completion. I step up my work schedule. When I’m not working, I think about working. When I can’t work, I feel within myself a moral failing, as though I am neglecting a child. Writing a blog would be like cheating on my wife.

I flew home from Orlando on the 2nd of December. The following day I recovered. The day after that I got to work doing the “polish” edit for my novel. From that day until this past Monday when I finished that work, I was of a single mind.

If I’m honest with myself, this type of mania probably hurt An American Song, not because it affected the prose, but rather because it altered my approach to traveling. I set before myself such an enormous task that I often neglected the importance of where I was at any given moment, anxious as I was to get to the next place. This was complicated by financial concerns– I didn’t have the money, after all, to stay on the road indefinitely. Regardless, my forced pace is one reason I say at the end of the book that “I have not seen everything or even everything of anything.” I’d like to think that I did my best with the terms for study that I agreed to. But a few more hours here and a few more days there would surely have fortified my understandings of the places I saw and the people I met.

I don’t think this applies to the book I just completed. Novels are different creatures, I’ve learned. Characters either develop, transform, evolve in my mind, or they don’t. A writer never truly stops writing, after all, and if they aren’t willing– anxious, even– to “kill all their darlings,” as Faulkner put it, none of their stories would ever by heard. I’m comfortable that this newest one is ready to be heard.

Hopefully you feel the same about me.

Hey Look Yonder, What do you See, Marching to the Fields of Concord?

As I often have ever since meeting him, I woke up on this Veteran’s Day thinking about Edgar Black. I met several veterans during my travels, including those of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But something about meeting Edgar on Veteran’s Day itself has stuck with me ever since.

I happened to recall what I wrote about that meeting last year, and decided to re-read the post. It was, no unpredictably, much like what I was thinking of writing today. So rather than pen a new post that reprises much of it, I decided to re-post it. Obviously some of the details about our country are different this year, but I think the essential thrust of the argument still holds.

If you decide not to read it (or re-read it, for those who have followed me since then), please do your best to not just thank a veteran today. Think about what you are thanking them for. It shouldn’t simply be obligatory, and it shouldn’t just be for doing the fighting you were unable or unwilling to do. Because most of them will agree, it is incumbent upon all Americans to fight for their country every day in the way that feels most appropriate to them. We’re all veterans of the war for our American democracy, in one way or another, and collectively we defend it, for all our missteps and fits and starts. Veterans of foreign wars simply tend to internalize these stakes far more than civilians. We can honor them by recommitting ourselves to that fight (regardless of what we think of the conflicts they were sent to). For it isn’t a serviceman’s job to secure for us our freedom. It’s ours.


Of the three years during which I traveled for my book, for only one was I on the road on Veteran’s Day. And that day I had the good fortune to meet the Black family of Lockhart, Texas’ legendary Black’s Barbecue.


I met Edgar Black while he was hanging a set of photographs of his time in the service. He was an aircraft mechanic stationed in Corpus Christi, and as I related in the book, he was desperate to go abroad for combat. The airplanes he repaired would often come to him riddled with bullets and flack marks, and their pilots taunted he and the other mechanics by asking them when they were going to see them in places like Guadalcanal and Guam. It was playful banter that resulted in an odd kind of pen-pal relationship, but underpinning it was a very specific variety of personal angst. The pilots had seen enough of war. They wanted it to be over, and they wanted to come home. And though Edgar was doing his part, knowing what the pilots were going through only made him feel like he wasn’t that much more. Men went off to war in the early 1940s. Edgar, for all intents and purposes, stayed home. The burden pressed upon him ever greater each time his requests for transfer were denied.

None of this affected the opinion combat veterans had of Edgar– not that I could tell, anyway. Black’s Barbecue was giving them a free meal in honor of their service (and this was no Grand Slam from Denny’s, either; rather, it was some of the most expertly prepared barbecue in America, cooked in the smoke of a single variety of aged oak in a pit that Edgar designed and built himself), and they thanked him graciously, never casting even the slightest dirty look at him because they had been shot at and he had not. These were not the days after the Civil War, when a man could be expected to answer the question of what he did during the war with assurances that he had performed some kind of manly feat. Conceptions of what constituted an acceptable participation in the war effort had been broadened in the 20th Century. Men and women who had done their “duty” had done enough, whether that meant enduring shelling in a muddy foxhole or stitching magazine belts in a factory in Connecticut. No one was going to assail John Wayne for not doing any actual fighting, after all. Edgar had not only been willing to go, but wanted to go– wanted to fight for the things that meant the most to him, wanted to serve his country in the way in which he felt did the most good, even as he was already doing just that. This alone made him an honorable soldier, and worthy of the respect of those who gave themselves up to the meat-grinder of industrialized warfare.

I have been thinking a lot about my meeting with Edgar in the last few days. As the nation reels from a presidential election that has left millions feeling disenfranchised, angry, and fearful of the future, it occurred to me that the anxiety they feel has likely been amplified for two distinct reasons. For some, it is because they have been struggling for decades, and they fear that the progress they have earned from their struggles– already incomplete– is set to be washed away in a series of quick, apathetic strokes enacted and supported by people who have little concern for what it actually will mean for them. But for others, it is far more personally aggrieving. For them, it is because they have never truly had to fight for anything in their lives, and so did not possess the instincts to want to fight now. Things may not always have gone their way, but nonetheless things were more or less okay. The world spun, they made a comment or two on social media, the world spun some more. They had their causes, sure. But they were nestled within the velvety cushions of a socio-political perspective in which the real danger was interpersonal alienation.

As evidence, I offer a tidbit from a piece I read on Wednesday, authored by a woman who disliked Hillary Clinton enough to vote for a third-party candidate. This is altogether fine– I am not writing this to shame people for their political decisions regardless of how they align with my own, and in any regards I have expressed publicly the problems I have with her positions enough that anyone who cares to learn of them may freely do so. What has stuck with me from her article, though, is that she had awoken the next day “sickened” by the election of Donald Trump. She had expected to be “annoyed” that Clinton was the president, but now she was horrified that the country had elected a man like Trump. Still, it wasn’t her fault, she insisted . . .

Surely not. Americans have the right to vote for whomever they want, and the notion that they do not is the impetus for voter suppression and misplaced partisan anger alike. What was at fault, though, was the idea that things would work out the way they always had. Clinton would have won, Trump would fade away back to the strange billionaire/realty TV star/privileged asshole world in which he was so comfortable, and the world would spin on. And when she inevitable fucked up, said author could proudly boast, “Well, I told you so! I didn’t vote for her!” That Donald Trump might actually be elected never crossed her mind, regardless of a system that meant he was one of two people who still could be. And still she saw no need to admit any culpability.

And this is because Americans are, by and large, no longer like Edgar Black, the man who was doing his part but didn’t feel he was doing enough. 46% of eligible Americans did not even vote in an election whose wake has prompted massive protests and wanton violence. And while some of this is due to efforts at voter suppression that need to be outlawed no matter who they are hurting (and be certain, both sides of the aisle are doing it), most of that has to be because people have become used to the world spinning as it does.

I am not absolved of blame. After a horrific attack on the city I most love in this world, I briefly considered abandoning my Ph.D program and joining the Air Force. I decided I would have made a terrible soldier, though, and abandoned the idea. That I was probably right in thinking I was more likely to be washed out of the ranks than be of much use is beside the point. I let others do the work for me.

I became politically active, advocating for reason and restraint against the counter-impulses of patriotic fervor, and for means of addressing terrorism that was not reliant on bombs and hatred. I am proud of that. What I’m less proud of is the passive, academic approach I took in protest of the War in Iraq– the self-satisfaction of being a part of a movement that I now see did as much work in congratulating itself as it did in actually fighting against an illegal war that we now know would eventually spawn the Islamic State. That war bothered me tremendously. American deaths made me depressed. Civilian suffering piled that on. But boy was it great to go to the bar after a march and socialize with cute young pseudo-radicals who had taken all the wrong lessons from the 1960s.

Really, in all its poetry and purpose, my book is the best thing I have ever done for my country– and even with that I am forced now to admit tremendous failures. (More on that in a future post.) It taught me what fighting was actually about. It introduced me to men and women who had fought and who were fighting for noble things both grand and simple, and their stories impressed upon me the duty of fighting for them with my words and self-sacrifice– to spend more time working on getting it all right than I had ever spent before, to decline multiple publishing offers that arrived with the condition that I slash the book apart to make it a profitable length. These were not the equivalent of a veteran’s sacrifice, to be sure. But they were what was available to me.

Ultimately, this is what Veteran’s Day should instill within Americans. Edgar Black’s story is one of willful sacrifice for the safety and ideals of his nation, no matter the actual level of his respective sacrifice. Men and women repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way for our country, and they do so not because some autocrat forces them to or some indifferent system brainwashes them into doing so. They do it because the best of what we are is worth fighting for.

No matter what that means to you, now is always the right time to do it.

So Leave Me If You Need To, I Will Still Remember

I have written on this site before about the chain link fence in Oklahoma City that serves as an organic, personal tribute to the victims of the bombing there in 1995, and those who remember that post might be reminded again of the space I dedicated to it in my book. It is amongst the most moving places in all of America, and I recommend that anyone in that city take time to visit it (it occupies a section of sidewalk adjacent to what it is also one of the finest public monuments I know of).

Being Las Vegas, the equivalent to this fence that was erected in the wake of the Mandalay Bay shooting wasn’t so organically wrought. The 58 crosses there sit on– what else?– green turf. At least one of the crosses memorializes a Jewish person. One of the American flags that became the first thing pinned to them commemorates the death of a Canadian. The backdrop of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign is very strange, not so much because of its incongruence with the tragedy, but because tourists were still stopping beside it to take selfies as preliminaries to the same type of partying the city has always been known for.

None of that really matters, though. The crosses– constructed by a retired carpenter who also brought them to Orlando after the Pulse slaughter, Aurora after the movie theater shooting, and Columbine after the killings in its high school (he has constructed thousands more for other shootings, all in honor of his father-in-law, whose body he found after that man was shot in the head)– became a vessel for sorrow, this time for a pan-continental event where only a fraction of the victims were residents of the state in which it took place. Locals who normally avoid the Strip as much as possible lit candles at the site. Visitors brought flowers. Families and friends of the victims, brought to town to claim bodies and perform all of the other awful duties necessary when a loved one dies away from home, took to the site as a locus for their grief, leaning photographs against the crosses, pinning mementos and personal items to them, decorating the hearts on their shafts. It became, for all its Vegassy warts, the chain link fence of October, 2017.

In this way, I found the commemoration to be irresistibly beautiful– perhaps the most beautiful and organic thing in a city largely defined by its artificiality. Americans have a long history of fueling an industry of death when they are allowed to think about it for too long, from daguerreotypes and death masks of children to garish memorials that become more about projecting the size of a person’s proposed grief than about expressing it in the purest form possible– and that’s before the public at large decides that it is worth co-opting. But the things that inhabit the best parts of our humanity are always those that are unplanned. Those gestures that are made when the feelings are not yet compartmentalized, those commemorations that simply lay bare before any who might be inclined to look on the essence of a worldly connection between souls. The Taj Mahal is impressive, certainly. But not nearly so much as the instant of pure grief in which the idea for it was first germinated. So even in a place where the enormous and ostentatious rule, it will be difficult to transcend the cluttered humanness of 58 white crosses.

Oh, Kind Friends, Oh, Ain’t it Hard?

It’s no secret that I don’t like Las Vegas all that much, and that most of that dislike is focused on the Strip. Still, I’m flying there on Wednesday to work for a week and a half. And I was thinking of suggesting to my coworkers that we eat at Border Grill in the Mandalay Bay resort that evening, because one of the things I do look forward to on any trip to Vegas is their superb green corn tamales.

I suppose it’s strange– selfish, even– to focus on my own personal connection to a place at a time like this, but right now I’m searching for context. I want to get past the pithy “thoughts and prayers” line that people use to meet some sort of impotent social obligation that won’t change anything. Usually I would wait for the facts to simmer for a while. I would think about things. Think about what I want to say. Focus my ideas towards some end.

Today, though, I find that I am very nervous about what happens next, and more inclined to get my thoughts in before they marinate off to some less important realm. The president suggested that Americans always come together after tragedies like this. I don’t know if I think that’s true anymore. I feel like people on all sides of the socio-political spectrum are waiting to pounce or defend according to the motives of the shooter– the president included, if his usual behavior is any indication. I fear that once again we as a nation will not take the right lessons from this. If it didn’t happen after Sandy Hook or Charleston, why should it after this?

Accordingly, I sort of hope that we don’t find out why this guy turned a Mandalay Bay hotel room into a machine-gun nest. The truth will only obscure the essence of the act, inflame the passions that have made so many in this country blind to reason and allergic to discourse. There are things– very important things– that we already know need to be talked about in the wake of what is, unfortunately, an intrinsically predictable event in today’s America. For once, I hope we don’t accede to the perspective of a mass-murderer. His “why” should have nothing to do with our why. Whatever his brand of hatred, I don’t want my country to let it fuel the amorphous hatred that grips it. For if people can conflate kneeling during the national anthem with some brand of anti-American insurgency, how might they confuse an act of true abomination?

My wife’s cousin gave birth to a girl on Saturday, just a few minutes before midnight. She was born into a world where the worst mass-shooting in American history happened on the first full day of her life, and the country largely took it in stride, having become used to events of its kind. When she’s old enough, I hope I can tell her that we all learned something from this particular day, and that her country has gotten better with every day since then, concurrent with her own growth into a fine woman. I hope I can tell her stories about how our country rallied against violence, pushed back against war, cleaned up the Earth that will be her home, truly committed to treating all our citizens with the respect they deserve, did all of the things it needed to do to prove that it loves her. I hope I can tell her that we came to understand all of our failings– truly understand them– and that as a fallible people nonetheless of great character, we got over our own stubborn prejudices and started to get honest about what needed to be done.

But I’m unsure. I’m doing a lot of hoping today. And when people resort to doing a lot of hoping, the specter of despair usually isn’t far off. People rarely pray for the things they’re sure will happen, after all. I guess that’s why they meekly offer thoughts and prayers in the wake of a tragedy.

Pourin’ Off of Every Page like it was Written in my Soul

I have always thought that travel is essential to broadening perspective. But it is also true, I believe, that a certain kind of travel is essential to the well-being of the soul.

Traveling for my book obviously qualified. (Though of course a reading of it will reveal that certain places prompted the effect more than others.) A trip to Puerto Rico two years ago– something that I have been thinking of a lot given the dire circumstances the island now finds itself in– was as close as I came to reviving this spirit since. Until last week’s trip to Sicily, that is.


Yes, my wife, Jennifer, and I spent three days in Rome after our sojourn to the island. It was pleasant enough. I had never been to Italy before, and there were things I wanted to see and do in the capital. Mostly, I wanted to eat. Pizza. Porchetta. Carciofi alla giudìa. Everything else that had an artichoke in it. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. At those times when I had a plate of food in front of me, I knew that there would be days back home when I would be wishing to be in Rome once more, despite the absurd throngs of tourists that we were assured constituted light crowds, despite the persistent annoyance of peddlers shoving selfie-sticks and roses in my face, despite the difficulties in connecting with a population that I discerned to be essentially welcoming but couldn’t quite figure out, and despite the new pastime of running headlong through Leonardo da Vinci Airport as a result of agonizingly inefficient passport lines (this happened during both legs of our trip, the second time despite arriving before 7.00 for a 9.40 flight).

In Sicily, though, I knew that I would always want to be there, just as I always want the option of exiting my front door to the places I love most in the world, there to re-engage the essential spirits that played upon me from the moment I first apprised them, wide-eyed for all my lack of sleep, the very air feeling different within my lungs.

As with most places I have come to love, I have not processed fully just what it is about Sicily that affected me so profoundly. Certainly it is not a perfect place. For one, the traffic is chaotic and unruly when it isn’t downright terrifying, the result of a distinct shortage of traffic lights and dividing lines and the habit of native drivers to consider every inch of the road their own at all times. Even the calm assurance of our driver, Pasquale, as he navigated the worst of Palermo’s streets with the indifferent recklessness that seems necessary for the task could not fully arrest the concerns of this native New Yorker and established veteran of Boston side roads, Atlanta highways, and Los Angeles gridlock. I dare say my mother would have been catatonic for the duration of the trip, nothing but a case of Sicilian sparkling wine and an empty bottle of Xanax to prove to her that she had ever left her living room.

Still, there is a kind of honesty even to this primitiveness that reflects everything that is enchanting about Sicily. It is the “real” Italy– or at least a part of it. A place whose people still hack out un-glamorous lives beneath an essentially African sun, wresting from a demanding landscape every ounce of flavor and beauty they can. It is a contradiction of sorts, where fertile, volcanic soils produce grapes, olives, pomegranates, figs, and pistachios, and where the sea is a bounty of unique species, but where unemployment and poverty are yet endemic. And yet Sicilians are relentlessly welcoming and inspirited, most complaints about the Italian economy inevitably relaxing into proud declarations of their island’s beauty and their own cultural richness, as though they cannot help but betray the fact that they are fully aware that they live in a special place.


Here, of course, I must acknowledge that we did little in the way of roughing it with the locals. Yes, upon our arrival we explored parts of Palermo in our usual manner, walking about neighborhoods that most tourists never see and joining in (well, at least I did– my wife hates disorder) on the riotous patronage of Panificio Graziano because I was damned if I was going to leave Sicily without eating some of their spongy, richly-flavored sfincione. But for the most part, we enjoyed the favored privilege of being the winners of a contest organized by Wine Enthusiast and Wines of Sicilia D.O.C. More than once I felt a bit awkward in my role as patrician benefactor, chauffeured about the island by my Marsalan subject, scandalously engorged on an endless parade of meticulously crafted dishes and liter upon liter of vino gratis. But hey, we all have to make sacrifices in life.

In truth, though, the experience was only alien by degrees, as Sicilians are hard-wired towards excess (or at least what we in America would decry as excess). Hours after our arrival in Palermo, for instance, Jennifer and I were introduced to the peculiar Sicilian institution of the “light lunch”– something that Luca, our sommelier at Baglio Sorìa the following afternoon, admitted was anything but light. Our light lunch at Osteria Ballarò, where traditional Sicilian street food is elevated to their more refined setting, began with a generous portion of seared mackerel filets on a bed of sweet pepper coulis, was followed by a version of bucatini con sarde sharpened by the presence of wild fennel, and finished with a disbelieving look from our cameriere because we preferred to share our semifreddo with pistachios and stewed figs. Not to be left parched, we were presented with an entire bottle of Vigna Casalj Alcamo Classico, a crisp, herby bianco crafted from Cataratto grapes grown at 2,000 feet by Tenuta Rapitalà. I would spend the rest of my time in Italy looking for this distinctly Sicilian wine from one of the island’s first estate producers (their fist vintage was in 1976), the delicate nature of which belies both its price and the reputation of the grape for contributing to Europe’s “wine lake.” But for the time being Jennifer and I amused ourselves by quipping upon the idea of a pranzo leggero, invoking Keenan Thompson’s gregarious impression of David Ortiz delight at the prospect of a “big lunch,” stretching our arms outwards as we uttered what in Italy is both its expressed antonym and its defacto synonym.

Clamorous during the day, Palermo is calm and enchanting at night, when both the hot sun and the exhaust fumes disappear and its varying arrays of colorful lights tints each corridor a different hue. We melted into the green luminescence of the fountain behind the Cattedrale di Palermo (which itself glowed a hypnotic, Arabic yellow), joined the Festa di Siete Dolori, and wandered from alley to alley, content in the knowledge that the morning would bring our escape to Sicily’s northwestern wine region.

This part of Sicily appears as a cross between the Greek isles and the valleys of southern and central California, the clay bleached to a pale yellow from its exposure to the sun (exacerbated on this occasion by a drought that had gripped the island since February) and potmarked by hardy shrubs where it hasn’t been purposefully cultivated. It is one of five distinct regions where wine is produced in the province, and upon a hill overlooking a celeste lake Firriato offers up examples from their vineyards in each of them. Most of the Sicilian wines exported to America are reds (predominantly Nero d’Avola, the varietal most associated with the island), but like many of its top producers Firriato is just as proud of its whites, most notably its Gaudensius, a bracing méthode champenoise that sources its Nerello Mascalese from the volcanic soils of Mt. Etna, and the Passulé from its Favinia label, a chewy, salty moscato whose grapes are transported by traditional fisherman boats from seaside vineyards on the island of Favingana. Still, the reds here really shine. The Quater Vitis Rosso, a blend of Nero d’Avola, Perricone, Frappato, and Nerello Cappuccio is both bright and fruity and pointedly spiced with white pepper; the Cavanera Rovo delle Coturnie is a minerally, subtly tannic Etna blend of Nerello Cappucio and Nerello Mascalese; and the assertive, inky Harmonium, 100% Nero D’Avola from a single vineyard, is layered with flavors of dark fruit, ground pepper, and dark chocolate. Perhaps most surprising was the complexity of the Le Sabbie dell’Etna, the “entry level” version of the Rovo blend. It refused to shy from the onslaught of our pranzo leggero and its prodigious quantities of estate-pressed olive oil, and it came back just as impressive during one of the evening’s many courses of upscale Trapani cuisine.

But it was the interceding afternoon, along with the entirety of the succeeding day, that cemented Sicily’s place in our souls. Though the road to Erice was blocked, we made the best of it with an engaging self-guided tour of Trapani, a seaside town where the cruise ships and ferries in the harbor immediately fade with the introduction of each tiny neighborhood of fishermen and artisans. There were teenagers sneaking tokes of marijuana beside an abstract sculpture of the Madonna, a man singing without embarrassment near an array of fishing boats, dogs playing with rocks on the pathway to the 17th Century Ligny Tower, sheets flapping with domestic patriotism from apartments jammed alongside 900-year-old ramparts. And though the city is an attractive destination for tourists, most locals don’t seem to know they are even there. Instead, they prefer to gather in semicircles of plastic chairs arranged on the sidewalks and occasionally in the streets, meander through the city’s small zoo, collect upon the patios of cafes to watch the afternoon’s football matches, retreat to narrow, cobblestone-paved alleys for superior gelati, granita, and cannoli.

Sharing their city with them put us in the proper mood for the next day, when we had become sufficiently friendly with Pasquale to sit with him and Debora, our host at the Planeta winery, and waste time in the best Italian manner, drinking wine and testing each other’s imperfect grasps upon the other’s language.

Like Firriato, Planeta has estates across Sicily, and all of their wines were available to us in the tasting room of their original estate outside Menfi, where the long, narrow, unpaved road leading up to it clearly deters many visitors despite its location within a part of the island that is nearly overrun by vineyards. They are especially proud of their Chardonnay, whose noble connections meshes with their commitment to the recently-formed D.O.C., seeing it as part of a design that will launch Sicily into international prominence as a producer of world class wine. The cellars smell of the grape and the French oak that gives it its buttery character, and from it I gleaned the beginnings of something I am sure will be good for Sicily on the whole but which I worry won’t be good for me, who selfishly prefer the island to be the same when I inevitably return to it. Like the Burdese, a lovely, dense Bordeaux-style blend, the Chardonnay is impressive, to be sure, and I can’t begrudge their success with it. But I preferred to leave California and Burgundy for Italy, and so I favored the endearing familial story behind their tart, refreshing Grecanico blend, La Segreto il Bianco, the uniqueness of their rosè of Nero d’Avola and Syrah, the unabashed provinciality of Plumbago, their single vineyard Nero d’Avalo, the nod to Etna’s most infamous eruption with their bright, minerally Eruzione 1614 Carricante, the revelatory cherry and pomegranate uniqueness of their Cerasuolo di Vittoria, and the pride they take in having revived the Mamertino, a blend of Nero d’Avola and Nocera that is described in the work of Pliny and known to be a favorite of Julius Caesar. These were the wines of a family at the forefront of a Sicilian viticultural renaissance, ringing of their own soil and soul, both modern and of a 500-year tradition, as exceptional as anything the broader world market might prefer.

It is no wonder, then, that La Foresteria, their resort in Menfi, is equally as inspiring. As much as I could ever hope for in a hotel, it sits atop a hill surrounded by vineyards, and upon its grounds grow pomegranate, olive, and fig trees, all bursting with gorgeous fruit. The resort’s restaurant, which includes a patio that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, uses these ingredients in their cuisine, along with the herbs grown adjacent to it, and dedicates themselves at lunchtime to simple, authentic expressions of Sicilian classics. Their caponata of fried and subsequently chilled eggplant was the best version of a dish I loved while growing up in New York, even its capers bearing an impossible flavor that even now sets my mouth to watering. And of all the pasta dishes Jennifer and I had during a week of spectacular pasta dishes, La Foresteria’s Spaghetti Syracusa was our favorite by light years, the anchovies playing upon the carefully sourced tomatoes to an effect somewhere between disbelief and euphoria. Even the spectacular supper of stewed monkfish, eggs with squid ink sauce, prawn soup, chickpea gnocci with octopus and squid, and tournades of scabbardfish could make me forget such a special pranzo leggero.

I may well have been influenced by this last day. I cannot deny that at that point I wanted to not only stay in Sicily, but at La Foresteria in particular. But even then I also wanted to move on to the next place, the next wine, the next dish of food evolved over centuries of love and patience. We had been to a portion of a fraction of the island, and for all our good fortune yet felt ourselves impoverished. For unlike us, Sicilians got to stay behind. And that just seemed unfair.