The “what if” question: a writer who loves poetry rants about poetry (and democracy gone astray)

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature2The truth is that I have never really cared for most of the American poetry canon. Yes, there are exceptions. If you count TS Eliot as an American (and since he was born in St. Louis, you kind of have to), then he was my favorite (although, since he abandoned the US and went to Europe, I also wound up reading him in Brit Lit back in college). Elizabeth Bird was wonderful. Stevens and Williams, of course. There’s Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver and Charles Wright, whom I tend to view as the best poet alive. But other than that? Eh.

Which sets me rather apart from other writers of my generation, I realize. Nearly ever American poet I know seems to have grown up with the Modern US tradition. The founding father of American verse was Walt Whitman, and the most powerful recent influences all seem to have been Beats: most famously this list includes “anti-academic” poets like Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Snyder and Cassady, as well as Burroughs and Kerouac, who were better known for their fiction. (I can never quite figure out where Bukowski belongs in this equation; he wasn’t formally part of that circle, I don’t think, but his literary ethos certainly seems pretty Beat-ish.)

When you read contemporary poetry, these voices shine through, whether they’re being more or less directly ripped off by lesser lights or whether the influence takes the form of a more sophisticated background ambience in “street” poetry (or even less directly, filtered through hip-hop, in spoken word). It’s even there in what is now characterized, somewhat dismissively, as “academic poetry.”

I may be painting with broad strokes here, and I’m aware that, as Voltaire decreed, “tous les generalizations sont faux, y compris celui ci.” It’s also worth noting, as Dr. Johnson countered, that “nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.” With these edicts in mind, I’d suggest that I’m probably not far off the general truth of the matter.

For better or worse, American poetry has been informed from the beginning by the same pragmatic ideological underpinnings as everything else in our culture. The elite universities of Europe, working within more or less rigid class structures, established the foundations of Western intellectualism and asserted the value of knowledge for its own sake. Meanwhile, those who came to the New World insisted that the products of human intellectual endeavor be practical and of observable value to the community. We’re the ones who concocted the idea of the land grant university, for instance.

The ultimate institutional expression of utilitarianism in American education is found in the Morrill Land Grant Act.  The original Act of 1862 initiated a movement which saw a second Act in 1890 and 1994 legislation aimed at developing educational resources on Native American lands, and has to date resulted in the chartering of over a hundred public universities in all 50 states and several territories.

In more complex terms, the land-grant movement is the expression and diffusion of certain political, social, economic, and educational ideals.  The motives typically attributed to the movement involve the democratization of higher education; the development of an educational system deliberately planned to meet utilitarian ends, through research and public service as well as instruction; and a desire to emphasize the emerging applied sciences, particularly agricultural science and engineering.

Expressed cynically, the thinking here is that knowledge is only of use if you can do something with it, and that something is usually going to be assessed, at some point along the line, in terms of its revenue potential. If you, like I, have had your knowledge dismissed as mere “book learnin’,” you’ve experienced the idea in its most reactionary form.

Not that American poetry has more commercial potential that its European counterpart, of course. The way this ethic is expressed in our art is through a more aggressive alliance with the “common man.” Class doesn’t exist in the US, allegedly, and celebration of our democratizing principles is foundational to the history of our verse, beginning with the American Romantics (which is when things really kicked into high gear. (I mean, I guess we can talk about Colonial poets if you like, but do you really think the shadow of Edward Taylor looms especially large over the contemporary landscape?)

The patron saint of American verse is unarguably Walt Whitman, and just for fun, Google “Walt Whitman working class hero.” Turns out he founded the lineage that would later spawn everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. He was the rarefied essence of Americana, “one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest.”

The American Romantic experience stands somewhat in contrast to the English version. Wordsworth and Co. didn’t spend a lot of time exalting the importance of class divisions, but it’s also true that their Romanticism emerged from and was tinted by a more overtly class-driven and intellectual context. Wordsworth’s ideas of democracy seemed to prefer natural man living in harmony with the natural order, an organic and contemplative state that we might see as more intellectual and abstract than partisan and activist. (Although, it must be admitted that Byron, in his support for the Luddites, was a rather vocal rabble-rouser.)

Over time, the inherent obsession with applied democracy has led to a distinct “leveling” effect in the US. The rise of Whitman’s progeny, the Beats, occurring concurrently with the coming of Postmodernism, established a radical egalitarianism in our literature, to the point where it’s anathema to fault a writer for style or discipline or lack of quality. All voices are equally valid, and to insist on any measure of talent or ability is elitism.

Okay, okay. I’m pushing the envelope there, I know. Even the most committed street-level e-zines don’t accept everything without reading, I suppose. But understand: when you are rejected, no matter the publication or editor, the reasons are usually couched in terms of “not quite what we’re looking for.” It would be unacceptable to tell even a Vogon that his or work was drivel. This isn’t merely about good manners, either. There are many, many writers out there who need to stop it right now, but they are told at every turn how important it is that they keep it up. If they torture a roomful of people for five minutes every Tuesday at open mic night, they receive the same round of applause that the best poet in town gets.

This is America. This is the democracy of literature. Quality is an elitist concept and questioning someone’s validity as an artist verges dangerously on intellectual neo-fascism.

Damn. I did it again. Sorry.

To say that Americans don’t read a lot of poetry is to engage in understatement bordering on the absurd. While part of this is a function of an education system that doesn’t prioritize the arts (and truthfully, barely understands them at all), it also has to be said that much of what we “ought” to be reading is banal and mundane. All too often our poetry sets the bar on the lowest peg and still manages not to clear it. Mind-numbing public displays, such as Richard Blanco’s recent exercise in inaugural tedium don’t help. But in truth, Blanco’s poem, uninspired and pedestrian though it was, was par for the course. It was an archetypal exhibition of what’s wrong with our academic, workshop verse in a leveled culture: timid and too far removed from the grit of the real world, yet desperate in its impotent pawing after street cred – the moral equivalent of a Pat Boone record featuring a drop-in by Lil Wayne.

That’s the one extreme, and the other is the undisciplined “street” poet who knows what real life looks like up close and personal, yet who has onboarded the anti-intellectual ideology of the Beats. There’s something elitist about craftsmanship. Forget revision – that’s for the guys with elbow patches. If a poem takes more than a few minutes from concept to completion, it’s devoid of authenticity.

(A caveat: I hate to pound on this stereotype too hard. I actually know a writer who works in just this way and who manages to do it well. Very well. In fact, I have published this writer and am proud to say it’s one of the best things I have ever had the privilege of offering to S&R’s readers. So it’s possible. But just because one writer in a million can do it doesn’t mean that the other 999,999 are off the hook for their slothfulness. And be forewarned – if you accuse me of erecting a straw man here, I’m coming to your house and dragging you to the next open mic night I attend. And you’ll sit through every minute of it. Then you can come back and tell all of our readers if you still think I’m making it up.)

Here’s the “what if” question I allude to in the title: what if, instead of Whitman, William Blake had been born on Long Island on May 31, 1819? What if he, instead of the Godfather of Lowest Common Denominatoring, had been the founding father of American verse? How might our tradition have been different? What if, instead of a vaguely partisan obsession with the idea that all humans are staggeringly (and equally) talented artists who need to be heard, our tradition had instead been built on the apocalyptic potential of the soul? What if our legacy had been founded on the ambition of language instead of a deep, abiding suspicion of anything longer than two syllables?

What if poetry were something other than pedestrian, workaday prose with artificial linebreaks?


By now, I have probably made clear that I’m an insufferable elitist, an anti-democratic, peasant-bashing neo-Tory. Except that I am one of those common men so celebrated by Whitman. I grew up working class in the South, and the gods know how many young boys and girls throughout history, born into similar conditions in societies that believed in keeping the lower classes in their place, were denied the opportunity to pursue the artistic impulses that plagued their souls.

I am rather vehemently in favor of everyone getting a shot. On a level playing field. But our culture is ill-served by the Postmodern, hyper-democratic ideology I describe above and by how it is understood and implemented in our arts.

I’d argue instead that my point here goes to the essence of democracy properly understood. In a perfect democracy, everyone, regardless of race, class, gender, creed, etc., is equipped with the tools they need to succeed at the highest level and against the most demanding criteria. True democracy isn’t about grade inflation. It doesn’t accept ineptitude and laziness, shrugging, giving up and reclassifying it as “excellence.” (It’s not a bug, it’s a feature!)

That’s not democracy. That’s paternalism. It’s condescension and pandering, and it makes us all weaker, whether we like poetry or not. Why? Because our literature tells us a great deal about the rest of the society, which increasingly pays lip service to excellence while enabling (and assuring) underperformance. When our system sets us up for failure then stands and applauds, it’s giving us a gold star for showing up. When it treats the best and the worst as though they’re the same, it destroys external incentives to achieve.

Yep. Poetry tells us a lot about ourselves, whether we’re paying attention or not.


Photography: greenhouse


This greenhouse is part of a larger business that belongs to a friend of my father’s. It is currently non-operational and has been abandoned and up for sale for the last couple of years.

I can still remember watching them hunt snapping turtles in the summer and terrorizing the waterfowl on their small cattail choked pond when I was a kid. In the winters, we would wait for it to freeze over so that we could go ice skating. Skates were put on in one of the shuttered greenhouses; it was always so cold that my fingers would turn white and stop working. I have a vivid memory of my skate held carefully between my father’s knees as he laced them up for me one of those times my fingers became useless. My skates belonged to my mother when she was younger. They were a sort of roughed up, fuzzy old leather and I had used white shoe polish to try and make them look better. They had these ridiculous homemade pink pom-poms tied through the laces down at the toe and gave terrible ankle support.

When I got older, I worked a summer at the greenhouse when they were still running wholesale alongside their newly opened on-site store. I was always selected to pull flats of tomatoes, partly because their green house was short and so hot and humid it felt like there was no air to breathe, but also because I could drop down and sit cross-legged, scoop up several trays so they ran down the length of both arms, and smoothly stand up without losing my balance.

The guy who ran the place was always hatching the craziest schemes; my favorite was the one where he was going to have these fancy gardens in the middle of everything with peacocks living in them. The gardens never happened, but the peacocks did; they lived in a large shed towards the back with a huge chicken-wire wrap pen. They smelled and were absurdly loud, but the two females were nice enough; the male was kind of a jerk.

As the years have passed, age and economy made the place more than they could handle. It’s a rather typical farm sort of story: the kids don’t want to take it over, 24/7/365 is too much for the owners, and no one wants to buy it. So it sits there. The sheeting is ripping off of the two greenhouses that have managed not to collapse, and though plants grown up from seeds that were scattered still pop up and flower here and there, it is literally just a shell of what it was. Every time I see it, I have all these weird complex emotions about where I grew up, and what is happening to the space that I once knew as it becomes something new to which I have no connection.

CATEGORY: LitJournalPoetry

S&R Poetry: “Eyebrows,” by Elizabeth Ballou

and they say that’s how Brooke Shields landed
the 1980 spring issue of Vogue, after all –
before those eglantine eyes made her
a tabloid queen,
it was her brows
that floored the likes of Thierry Mugler
and Azzedine Alaïa:
those martial, luscious supercilia,
cutting across her forehead like
two thick rows of Idaho barley
in a pas de deux of susurrations,
two bisecting tire tracks
of a Ford trundling down backcountry roads,
or the lost brushstrokes of
Da Vinci’s masterwork.

nowadays we box and pin them
into draconian arches
or the flat lines of an electrocardiogram.
we beat them away with hot wax.
we trim them each morning in a ritual
as sure and constant as cleaning teeth.

sometimes I dream of putting away my tweezers
and letting my eyebrows jut together like the ‘v’
of far-off birds
in a five year-old’s landscape.
I think that maybe Frida Kahlo,
with her palm leaves and hummingbirds
and pomegranate-red lips,
had the right idea after all.

let us take again the case of Miss Shields,
legs encased in Calvin Klein blue jeans like
the two forks of a river delta
and those eyes like lighthouse beacons
and those voluptuous oak-branch eyebrows
which, my god, could just drive a person

Vivan las cejas, Miss Kahlo might say.
Long live those brows.


Elizabeth Ballou is in her first year at the University of Virginia. Her work has appeared in the Claremont Review, Crashtest, the Adroit Journal, and Polyphony H.S., among others. In 2011, she was the recipient of the New York Life Award for her short fiction.


Our favorite lyrics: S&R describes why we love certain lyrics, if not necessarily the song

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCultureOver the years I’ve come to a realization – some of my favorite songs have really stupid lyrics, and some of my favorite lyrics are in songs I’m not a big fan of or, in at least one case, I can’t stand. As a result, I put the following question to my fellow Scrogues: what are some of your favorite lyrics?

I’ve collected their responses below. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own in the comments.

Brian Angliss
While I enjoy Led Zepplin, they were never my favorite band. But anyone who puts a reference to The Lord of the Rings in a song is allright by me. From Ramble On,

T’was in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair.
But Gollum, and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her, her, her….yeah. (source)

In the last few years, I’ve come to greatly enjoy goth-influenced, techno, and industrial music. And one of the acts I’ve come to enjoy greatly is Assemblage 23. There’s one song on the album “Storm” that is very hard for me to listen to, as amazing as the lyrics are. Here’s the opening verse from 30kft:

Hello, if you’re there pick up the phone
I’m calling from thirty thousand feet above you
The captain’s just informed us that our plane is going down
So I’m calling for one last time to say I love you (source)

I’ll leave off with some of lyrics from what may well be my favorite song that I almost never listen to. Some songs just hit too close to home, in ways both good and bad:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then son
You know we’ll have a good time then (source)


In the season of boll weivel speakin evil in you ear
And pile of manure fertilizing all your fears
Yabadaba do all the way to Shangra La
Here it is with the rock and roll outlaw

Cause it’s just silly word play, otherwise I could just nominate all of the Clutch catalog for my favorite lyrics.

Lisa Wright

you’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird

it’s sooooo lame and cliche, and i cant believe that i am owning up to this, but the lyric has been something that i have held on to ever since i heard it when i was 14 or so.

Mine’s no better. Lyrics to Volunteers of America by Jefferson airplane, and the immortal, “let’s go on a picnic honey, we’ll have so much fun. You can handle the hotdog baby, I can handle the buns.” By wet willie (a regional band who got big for awhile)

saint in the city by springsteen. “rock hard look of cobra, born blue and weathered but burst just like a supernova, I can walk like brando into the sun, and dance just like a casanova…”

Alex Polombo
Call me out for being lame if you want, but “God give me style, God give me grace” sort of stuck with me from Coldplay.

Sam Smith

All the light that shines on you
Is from a dying star
The star’s been dead a billion years
Now it’s shining off your car
To light your way……

-Jeffrey Dean Foster, “Summer of the Son of Sam”

Reach out and touch me now
Aphrodite said
You aren’t the only one
with armies in your head

– Fiction 8, “Hegemony”

You’ve never dared where the angels tread
You think there’s time for heaven when you’re dead
But here’s the thing that the angels stole
A demon helix with a consecrated soul

– Fiction 8, “Winter Rain”

Now, maybe we should disqualify those last two since I wrote them….

I have argued – loudly and vehemently – that lyrics are almost never poetry. They’re simply different forms, and I don’t mean to denigrate lyrics in saying that. Painting isn’t dancing, but that doesn’t mean painting is useless. I say this as a guy who has done both.

Occasionally, though, lyrics DO stand as poetry. Like here, with Marillion’s “Pseudo Silk Kimono,” with the words by Fish:

Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono
Wearing bracelets of smoke, naked of understanding.
Nicotine smears, long, long dried tears, invisible tears.
Safe in my own words, learning from my own words,
Cruel joke, cruel joke.
Huddled in the safety of a pseudo silk kimono
A morning mare rides, in the starless shutters of my eyes.
The spirit of a misplaced childhood is rising to speak his mind,
To this orphan of heartbreak, disillusioned and scorned,
A refugee, refugee.
(Safe in the sanctuary, safe)

Mike Sheehan
John Lennon, Roger Waters, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Andy Partridge wrote more than a few of my favorite lyrics, as I enjoy clever imagery, ambiguity, innuendo, sarcasm, and (preferably scathing) social satire. Bernie Taupin can get tiresomely overwrought but “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” is still a brilliant, liberating anthem. I love Van Dyke Parks’s words in “Surf’s Up” though I don’t really understand them (nor does Brian Wilson himself, I reckon). But there is one song and one album in particular whose lyrics still deeply impress me every time I hear them.

Grace Slick, “Do It the Hard Way.” She absolutely belts this one, written and recorded in the late 1970’s as she was struggling with alcoholism. You really have to hear her tear through the last two verses, with lines like:

She said, “I’ve got to make ’em all think I’m winning, so I’ll just tell ’em lies.
That way I can make sure that no one ever knows just exactly what I mean.
Then I can beat the drums and yell it to the skies:
‘I’m the queen of the nuthouse… I’m the queen!'”

Donald Fagen, the entirety of ‘The Nightfly.’ In Steely Dan, Fagen’s lyrics typically featured saucy double-entendres, clever drug references, amusing cynicism, etc. On his first solo LP, Fagen fully bared his sentimental teenaged soul, which longed for the idyllic late 1950s with the invigorating threat of the Cold War and the promise of the Space Age. The gorgeously recorded album is laden with wry reflections on the awkward audacity of youth, to wit:

Do you have a steady boyfriend?
‘Cause honey I’ve been watching you
I hear you’re mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes I like him too
He’s an artist, a pioneer
We’ve got to have some music on the new frontier.
(from “New Frontier“)

You’d never believe it
But once there was a time
When love was in my life
I sometimes wonder
What happened to that flame
The answer’s still the same
It was you… you… it was you
Tonight you’re still on my mind.
(from “The Nightfly“)

Mexico City is like another world
Nice this year they say
You’ll be my señorita
In jeans and pearls
But first let’s get off this highway.
(from “Maxine“)

On that train, all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
90 minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young.
(from “I.G.Y.“)

Cat White
From left field:

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

“This Land Was Made for You and Me,” Woody Guthrie

Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long
And wouldn’t it be nice to live together
In the kind of world where we belong

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Tony Asher

I see skies of blue….. clouds of white
Bright blessed days….dark sacred nights
And I think to myself …..what a wonderful world.

“Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong

Open a new window,
Open a new door,
Travel a new highway,
That’s never been tried before;
Before you find you’re a dull fellow,
Punching the same clock,
Walking the same tight rope
As everyone on the block.

“Open a New Window,” *Mame*, Jerry Herman
*Mame *was my first musical–I was 14. As I have gotten older I marvel at what a formative experience that 5 months was on my attitudes, outlook, and path in life.

Jim Booth
Hey! I want in on this “let’s promote our own lyrics” thing….

But seriously:

Then take me disappearin’ through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Bob Dylan, “Mr. Tambourine Man”

And this:

My hypothesis is that I exist, let’s test this.
Raise your fist if you experience consciousness.
Now let me hear you say cogitamus ergo sumus
Or if you’re not down with that say hell yes.
So thinking is being and knowing is seeing
Or hearing or smelling or tasting or feeling
Or otherwise dealing with external stimuli
Wonder why I’m alive. Hey you up in the sky,
I’m guessing if I can hear myself when I speak
So can that person looking back at me and listening
Which means I need a system of epistemology
To know what to call my LP, you follow me?

“Experimental Railroad” Doco

Frank Balsinger
I’m in with 2…first, something positive. This is of those cases where I think the video actually does add something by way of clarity. As to why it’s one of my faves, it strikes a certain mystical chord with me

Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer

You could have a steam train
If you’d just lay down your tracks
You could have an aeroplane flying
If you bring your blue sky back

All you do is call me
I’ll be anything you need

You could have a big dipper
Going up and down, all around the bends
You could have a bumper car, bumping
This amusement never ends

I want to be your sledgehammer
Why don’t you call my name
Oh let me be your sledgehammer
This will be my testimony
Show me round your fruitcage
‘cos I will be your honey bee
Open up your fruitcage
Where the fruit is as sweet as can be

I want to be your sledgehammer
Why don’t you call my name
You’d better call the sledgehammer
Put your mind at rest
I’m going to be-the sledgehammer
This can be my testimony
I’m your sledgehammer
Let there be no doubt about it

Sledge sledge sledgehammer

I’ve kicked the habit
Shed my skin
This is the new stuff
I go dancing in, we go dancing in
Oh won’t you show for me
And I will show for you
Show for me, I will show for you
Yea, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, I do mean you
Only you
You’ve been coming through
Going to build that powerr
Build, build up that power, hey
I’ve been feeding the rhythm
I’ve been feeding the rhythm
Going to feel that power, build in you
Come on, come on, help me do
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, you
I’ve been feeding the rhythm
I’ve been feeding the rhythm
It’s what we’re doing, doing
All day and night

Then something negative, this one from Legendary Pink Dots. I think Ed Ka-Spell does a lovely job of summing up most of my angst.

Seven seas he sailed on
With cannons blazing in the night
He had shiny medals
For his eyes in Kryptonite (with lasers)

With every nail he hammered
Came the rush of flying hands
They pasted fliers
They planted flags
We watched him hover higher (higher)

Crucifix and lyrics
Holy holy sense surround
Lord, he never touched the ground

From state to state he wandered
He could have been the boy next door
You could feel that patriotic roar
Come pouring through the cracks of our existence

He took the fear away with whitewash
And scorched earth
Majorettes and cool disciples
Cigarettes and red hot bibles
And the buses ran on time

Slaves of Kali Hari-karied
On bayonets in poison ivy
We held this torch up high
Can you see? Can you see?

All the girls he never had
And all the boys who stood and laughed
And all the dopes and
All the dealers, sheilas, peelers, squealers, feelers

Come watch me fall
Watch me drown
I’m kneeling in your mirror.
See me cower in the corner of your room.

Watch me desecrate the contents of your tomb


S&R Fiction: “God’s Privates,” by David Comfort

On his twenty-ninth birthday, Clifford threw moderation to the wind and tied the knot with his Skagway High sweetheart, Linda Marie. The daughter of a Ketchikan gillnetter, Linda Marie was studying to become a marine biologist. After the honeymoon — a road trip to the Whitehorse Moosehide Gala – Colt .45 shut her old man’s liver down and she inherited his boat and permit.

Husband-and-wife gillnetting partners are not uncommon in Southeast Alaska and the experience customarily becomes a matrimonial trial by fire: the couple either emerges forged in steel, or one tests the amphibious Mammalian Instinct of the other. During their second summer, Linda Marie used the pike on Cliff in the Taku Inlet and waited a full minute before tossing him the life preserver. Her husband’s transformation into Captain Ahab on the high sea may have had something to do with this and, though he never called his wife Stubb or Bucky while at command, his “wench,” as he called her, left him for another woman and filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilably irreconcilable differences. The other woman was Sharon, the washboard player in their off-season Skiffle trio which dissolved before they had an opportunity to do the Prairie Home Companion. Linda Marie and Sharon became fishing partners and moved to Petersburg.

The second irreconcilable difference was Clifford’s father, Ole Kilmer, Juneau’s self-proclaimed liquor baron and city council chair.

A monolithic, hyperkenetic Swede, Ole had cut his teeth as a Minnesota door-to-door salesman for a silk-stocking company who motto was, “We sock the men and hose the women.” After the war, he had emigrated north to seek his fortune, and soon became an Alaskan renaissance man: a logger, a big game guide, and seat-of-his-pants bush pilot. He ran into his better half, Dorothy, a Juneau elementary school teacher, at a potlatch. Their love child, Clifford, was born exactly seven months later in their cabin. By this time, Ole had a Smirnoff monkey on his back, was prone to palpitations and tachycardia when lubed and, after crashing his Piper Cub on the bay one last time, he bought the Stag Saloon – aka The Stagger Inn — with his insurance pay-off to keep his Elk’s Club and the Indians shitfaced and frisky for the next three decades.

Ole, to the right of Hitler politically, was never bashful about airing his views around his excitable daughter-in-law. Finally, for Linda Marie’s birthday – though he had never before acknowledged it – Cliff’s old man installed a hood ornament on her PETA-stickered VW: the head of the trophy bull moose he had just bagged.

But this wasn’t the final straw on her marriage’s back. That, the third and most insurmountable irreconcilable difference, was Clifford’s first disastrous off-season business launched with Linda Marie’s grubstake.

The revolutionary enterprise was called: “Love Gaiters, Inc.” Love Gaiters were skinless skin Korean Kimono condoms with a buckskin box of Cliff’s own design. Inspired by his father’s own youthful silk stocking line for socking men and hosing women, Cliff distributed samples to outfitter and auto parts stores.

Even after her husband received orders from a Pep Boys in Anchorage and an Army & Navy in Fairbanks, Linda Marie remained unconvinced that this was truly where the rubber-met-the-road,” as he insisted, and their ticket out of the purgatory of gillnetting. Nor did Cliff succeed in persuading her to invest her inheritance in his brainstorm with his evangelist arguments. In the history of male contraception dominated by macho Ramses, Sheiks, and Trojans, he told her, the Gaiter was truly the first softer, tenderer rubber for the sensitive modern man such as himself. It galled him no end that Linda Marie, who refused to take the pill, insisted he use Gaiters, seeming horrified at the prospect of giving the Kilmer clan offspring it so desperately needed.

It galled him even more when his best friend and Sancho Panza – Victor Bell, the great American novelist, currently marooned fifteen hundred miles south in Sodom and Gomorrah, aka The City of Angels — also refused to invest seed capital in his commercial juggernaut.

“Where’s your fuckin faith? Your vision?” Cliff demanded of Victor who himself was fruitlessly looking for investors in his own nearly completed masterpiece at the time. “My cock mocs are gonna revolutionize dickwear, Jack.” The entrepreneur and fisher of men called everybody “Jack,” including his wife.

“It’s just a fucking name, Jack,” corrected Victor, who himself had never used latex except after first wife’s first abortion. “And it sucks.”

“It’s a concept!” insisted Clifford who was offering him the first IPO charter membership for a mere ten grand, though Vic was about to sell a kidney to support his own carnivorous creative monkey. “Jesus fuck. I’m throwing deep on this. Don’t you get it? What’s the biggest problem on the planet? Population control. It’s concepts that fucking drive society!”

“Right,” conceded Vic. “Model T, the steam engine, E=mc2…. Gaitors.”

“Fucking philistine,” said Cliff. “Just don’t come crying to me when Larry and Hef throw in on this.”

“Righto, Iffy.” Vic called Cliff “Iffy” because everything in Cliff’s world was subjunctive, conditional, dependent on grace, if not direct divine intervention. In short, Iffy. Except to him.

Cliff received no Ifs Ands or Buts from Playboy or Hustler headquarters. But, even after being shot down by his old man, Ole, as well, Clifford remained “bullish,” as he called it, about his invention. “The light at the end of the tunnel is small but intense,” he wrote Vic in one of his regular updates from the northern front.

Finally, when Pep Boys threatened to cancel their order due to Gaiter production delays, Iffy did what any bullish entrepreneur would do: he wrote his Korean rubber packagers a $30,000 check – Linda Marie’s inheritance. Miraculously, the couple had a joint account and no prenup. Ever the optimist in spite of his history of Hindenburgs, Iffy, expecting a Gaiter feeding frenzy, was confident he would soon deposit three hundred grand before his better half was any the wiser.

Meantime, hedging his bets, he continued to lobby visionary investors. Finally he landed the big cahoona: the chief of the Sitka fire department himself, one of Ole’s old drinking buddies. But just when the fireman was about to wire Clifford the Gaiter funds at a mafia rate, he got busted for arson. His picturesque seaport hamlet had been suffering a rash of blazes, the chief had always been Johnny on the spot, and when the police had arrived at the last burn they’d stumbled on him with gas cans. In drag. The next day, the Juneau Herald reported that the Sitka fire chief was being blackmailed by one of his gay deputies, a transvestite himself, who was trying to raise capital for a sex change.

Linda Marie filed for divorce, demanding a $30,000 balloon alimony, plus interest. Clifford made a generous counter-offer: the 49,950 Love Gaiters he had left, plus 200 promotional LG tee shirts, plus a 51% share in his latex empire. Declining the rubbers, tees, and shares, Linda Marie secured a court order, garnishing her ex’s nonexistent wages.


Clifford blamed the LG debacle on Little Raven and her avenging shaman forefathers. Raven, otherwise known to white men as Bernice, was a full-blooded Tlinket. And she’d been Clifford’s first wife. Bernice descended from a long-line of holy men, or so she had told Cliff. Initially, he had taken the claim for yet another example of her impressive line of bullshit.

He’d met her at the Stagger. Clifford was 25 and still a virgin though, by then, he’d been the bar band frontman for two years. Bernie, 18, had been around the block more than once, and was tearing up the dance floor solo to Cliff’s unbridled version of “Wild Thing.” During the band break, the liquor baron’s son found himself at a corner table with the shamans’ daughter, knocking down Everclear screwdrivers. They retired to his Isuzu camper at the KOA campground: here Clifford lost his cherry and, very nearly, all his vertebrae, to his first groupie.

Raven told him they were “made to be.” Clifford couldn’t disagree. As coincidence would have it, he had recently been adopted by her tribe at the Alaskan Native Brotherhood Hall in Auke Bay. Ole – as head of the town council and of the school board too – had hired the ANB council chief, Joseph, as head coach of the high school basketball team and, in gratitude, Coach Joe, had insisted on adopting his son into the tribe. The liquor baron had supplied the firewater for his son’s adoption ceremony, the ANB supplied everything else. The all-night initiation climaxed at 4 a.m. when Coach Joe – in a grizzly mask and raven blanket over his Adidas jogging sit – rubbed a William McKinley on Clifford’s forehead while chanting his new tribal name: S’ugeidée. In Tlinkit, it meant “little beaver.” Joe told his new adoptive son that the money message plus the handle would afford him boundless riches and good luck. With that, the initiate, who had consumed more than a fifth of his real father’s Wild Turkey, puked and passed out.

So Little Raven felt she and S’ugeidée Jr. were meant to be not only because he sang “Wild Thing” and “Satisfaction” like a warrior on Amanita Muscaria, but because they were brother and sister. Then, when she got pregnant, she was sure she’d found her soulmate.

But Clifford wasn’t so sure. First, because Bernice was the size of an Seahawks lineman, so it would be impossible to know if she were knocked up even in the third trimester. And, second, because Bernice scared him. They’d only been an item for several months and she’d already threatened to kill several other Totem groupies who had eyed her man during his Saturday night stage apotheosis. Clifford became somewhat more concerned when Raven, an old-fashioned girl in spite of her excesses, told him she couldn’t bear his child out of wedlock.

Then one sunny summer night after another round of Everclear courage and two bowls of his better half’s killer pot, Cliff found himself at the foot of Mendenhall glacier with Best Man Vic at his left, the Raven at his right, and Coach Joe again presiding. The wedding party donned Chilkat blankets accessorized with animal parts. Joe, in his bear bonnet, flung seeds in the four directions as he wailed what sounded like a Leonard Cohen tune in Arabic, the ice floe harmonizing with its subterranean drums and apocalyptical cellos.

The next morning, the groom awakened with a skull-shrinking hangover in the shell of his Izuzu 4 x 4, on the blow-up queen beside his bride. Vic, who was firefighting on Baranof that summer, was in narcolepsy in the North Face beside the honeymoon suite. The groom had promised Raven that he would secure their white man’s marriage license and drum up a justice of the peace bright and early. So, without waking her, he slipped out of his truck and rousted the Best Man inside his tent. An hour later, the groom and Best Man, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, were on the ferry south.

Vic disembarked north of Bolivia, in Petersburg, and returned to Dante’s inferno on the fireline.

Clifford sailed on to Seattle where he hoped to get plastic surgery and new fingerprints.

The inventor had not secured either one by the time his Juneau scouts reported that his native bride had blown town with a North Slope steamfitter. He returned north incognito and, after a brief recon, determined that the mother of his child-to-be had indeed blown Dodge. The coast was clear. Except his Isuzu had four flats and new bodywork that seemed to have been done by a Kodiak on cocaine. But she still fired up. So he drove her over to the post office to collect his back mail. He had only one letter waiting for him. It bore no return addresses and began: “You fucking yellow-bellied cocksucker…”

His former better half informed him that she had had an abortion.

Her Dear John concluded: “You’re gonna fucking wish your mother had one too!”

All’s fair in love and war, thought Cliff.

Except his ex’s tone disturbed him. He couldn’t get it out of his head that her parting line was not an idle threat, but a Raven curse. He became all the more concerned when his adoptive father, Coach Joe himself, refused to even make eye contact with him when they crossed paths. He felt that the riches and good fortune the basketball coach had promised him had been rescinded, if not completely reversed, by the Tlingit gods. After all, he had been an accessory in the murder of their unborn child, and his too.

“When the gun is loaded, somebody always gets hurt,” Vic told him when returning from the fire lines. “I told you you should have used latex. Besides, she probably wasn’t even pregnant.”

“But what if she was,” moaned Clifford. “What if she…” He couldn’t even get it out.

“Chummed your kid – little Cliff?” his Best Man finished for him. “It probably made a Killer out in Gastineau happy.”

Rumor had it that Planned Parenthood dumped directly into the orca feeding ground.

“May God strike you down,” said Cliff.

“Because He’s a lifer?” said Vic. Then he broke into his favorite Dylan: “God said to Abraham, go kill me a son. Abe said, What? God said, You can do what you want to But, the next time you see Me you better run — out on Highway 61.”

“Yeah, but He was just fucking bluffing,” protested Iffy.

Bluffing ? How about the Flood? Sodom? Jericho? He abort any kids there?” demanded Victor, a biblical scholar in his own right.

“How can you think the way you do, and not shoot yourself?”

“It’s not always easy,” conceded Vic.

“Well, I’m getting a vasectomy,” concluded Cliff.

“You’re the last of your line,” Vic reminded him. “What would your old man say? Besides, you wouldn’t be able to testify.”


“Swear by your balls. Your testes. Abe, Moses, Jacob – all the old patriarchs and prophets – they grabbed the family jewels and pledged on their honor and their next seven generations. “Test,” “testify,” “testament” – truth all goes back to your gonads. Get a vasectomy, God’ll never fucking trust you again.”

“Where’s that leave bitches, for Chrissakes?”

“With kids instead of balls obviously.”

“You make up all this crazy shit as you go along, Jack?”

Though he was on the phone from Sodom, the writer – who at that time was writing what he called “The New Old Testament” – put his right hand on his balls, and solemnly swore, “As God is my witness.”


So, instead of de-testifying and pre-empting another generation of the damned, Clifford invented the Love Gaiter. And he blamed its failure on the Raven curse.

In order to repay his second wife her thirty grand, he tended bar at Ole’s watering hole for $12 an hour, plus tips. Otherwise, he gigged on weekends. Singing Dylan and Pearls Before Swine covers, he passed the hat to shitfaced Tlingits, and off-the-wagon Jesus freaks and Bahai’s of whom there were not a few in the capital of Alaska when Arctic hysteria set in around Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, convincing himself that there was a statute of limitations on his curses by both ex’s, Clifford doubled-down on his other creative extravaganzas. Far from discouraging him, the Gaiter debacle stoked his fires in bold new directions.

Hardly had his rubbers gone belly-up, than he patented two brainstorms in quick succession: The Magic Orb and the Tenz Tuner. The first was a neon holographic glo-globe capable, theoretically, of transmitting live NASA satellite photos of earth to a homeowner’s living room. Cliff sent prototypes to several Apollo astronauts, plus the Guggenheim Foundation.

Waiting for R&D capital to roll in, he turned his attention to his Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Tuner. The pocket size, battery-operated unit shot ionic impulses into ailing acupuncture points, rejuvenating them while at the same time, as he explained to Victor, “musically tuning them into harmonic conversion.” Since he still had just a few bugs to work out on the Tenz, he was offering his Sancho a 50-50 arrangement for providing all the seed capital.

“Seek professional help, If,” said Vic who had just inherited enough stock from his tycoon grandfather to avoid selling plasma and to finish yet another War and Peace in LA.

“This could cut Western medicine a completely new asshole,” declared Cliff. He’d made a transition from the hedonistic (rubbers) to the humanitarian (sonic dildos), and even his partner in improbability didn’t appreciate it. “We’re talking Nobel shit here!”

“I wouldn’t pack your bags for Stockholm, yet,” Vic told him. “Go back to the Wizard.”

The Wizard was Clifford’s Seattle shiatsu-man, Yatsu Nambu. For more than a decade, the doctor had been chasing and defusing what he called his patient’s physical and metaphysical “weather systems” – his tornadoes, his hurricanes, his squalls. The eye of Cliff’s storm was what Yatsu called Bamboo Spine, otherwise known to rheumatologists as Ankylosing Spondylitis. An arthritic condition that froze up the pelvis and backbone, AS ran in Cliff’s mother, Dorothy’s, side of the family. He’d started freezing and contracting at age twelve. Dorothy had taken him to scores of specialists in the Lower 48, with little luck. By the time he turned 30, he’d grown three inches shorter – to 5’6” – and he walked with a crooked, crablike scuttle. By this time, having abandoned conventional treatment, he was going alternative. Thus Yatsu. And thus Cliff’s Tenz invention based on the Wizard’s acupressure therapy targeting not so much his patient’s congealed camel spine as those weather systems that beat against it, much like the icy, relentless rains of Juneau.

Yatsu had long recommended that his patient move to a less paralyzing climate below the 47th parallel. But Cliff couldn’t cut the umbilicus to his place of nativity much as he loathed it. Instead, he began taking annual “Lourdes pilgrimages,” as he called them, to L.A. to thaw out his vertebrae while crashing with Victor. According to the novelist’s own diagnosis, his friend’s AS had originally been triggered by penis envy of his priapic father, Ole — after all, he’d been diagnosed at puberty, when his gonads supposedly dropped – and all he required for remission was a simple affirmation of his manhood. In short, he just needed to get laid. But If found consummation impossible, even in Sodom and Gomorrah.

At last, Victor drove the cripple to the Chicken Ranch in Vegas, a junket that turned out to be both business and pleasure. In a last gasp effort to unload his 49,950 Love Gaiters, Cliff tried to interest the Chicken CFO in a package deal. Seeing a man in need, the CFO relieved Cliff of the 100-brick sampler he came with, and knocked fifty-percent off a teenage runaway from Sparks by the name of Nikki. She quite nearly broke Clifford’s spine. He proposed matrimony to her right there. But Nikki told him she wasn’t ready to sacrifice her career for family just yet.

On the next pilgrimage south, the minstrel inventor met his guru: the 92- year-old matriarch of the Alexander Technique, Marj Barstow. Marj was the successor of Alexander himself, the 19th century Shakespearean orator who conquered stage fright and free-range anxiety by loosening his “Primary Control Point” – the eureka joint where spine met skull, and body married soul. During a week in Malibu, the old lady taught an SRO crowd of thespian spine and headcases how to undo their killer HEPDOGS — Habitual Patterns of Directive Guidance – by means of PCP tweaking. After a successful session, Cliff and his fellow students experienced what Alexandrians called “Global Expansion.” Which translated, If told Vic, in supernatural bowel movements.

In an attempt to galvanize his gains and expand yet further, Cliff became a dabbler in every New Age panacea available in the Lower 48. He tried Pilates, he tried Primal, he tried Alive Polarity. But not all of it released his PCP.  The Orcas Island Forest rangers rescued him from hypothermia 24 hours into a shaman vision quest. His acid and opium weekend with his Texas AS penpal was cut short with a visit to the Austin Memorial ER for a Thorazine rescue due to what he called “my hair-trigger head.”

At last, Clifford discovered his Bible: Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness. In it, the activist author, also an AS sufferer, described his remission from the disease by means of a unique self-therapy: laughs. Belly laughs. Sphincter-puckering, lung-busting screamers. Hearing only hopeless words from his doctors, Cousins sat himself down to the Marx Brothers on TV; after a year of “Duck Feathers” and “Animal Crackers” reruns, he was symptom-free. Clifford became a Cousins’ laughter evangelist. Only he had no use for the Marx brothers, Abbot and Costello, the Three Stooges or any of the other banana peel vaudevillians. In fact, there weren’t too many comedians he cottoned to, except Pryor and Kinison.

The only person who really depressurized Cliff’s coccyx was Victor. Not because the writer was particularly amusing, but God’s golden showers on his own Promethean ambitions seemed even more gratuitous and unrelenting than what befell Iffy and invariably delivered him to hysteria. So he phoned Victor regularly for therapeutic reasons – to hear about his most recent humiliations in Gomorrah. And, coincidentally, the novelist called the inventor for much the same reason in Galilee. In fact, each might have cut his loses and shot himself years before if not for the vicarious buzz and spiritual relief each got from the other’s Job-like hardships.

As for their professional purgatories and romantic waterloos, neither was inclined to entertain the outrageous notion that they were in any way self-inflicted. “God only tortures His favorites,” Vic told Cliff after the Love Gaiter debacle and divorce.

“There better be a goddamn a good reason!” said Cliff who didn’t understand that the observation didn’t apply to him.

“Just look what He did to His own son,” asserted Vic pointed.

“That was for salvation, Jack.”

“Salvation? From what?”

“Fuck if I know. But it sounds good. Jesus Christ. We gotta have something to look forward to.”

Vic didn’t hear from Cliff again until that Christmas. From Seattle. General. A team of specialists had just bored out his esophagus with balloons. “I had hoses stuck 3 feet up and down my nose, a scope shoved down my throat,” he wrote in his holiday missive. “My E was bloated 3X the diameter but barely letting any food down. And my nurse was a dead ringer for Raven!”

On a diet of Gerber’s baby food and protein shakes, If went down to his Buchenwald bikini weight of 108 in the hospital. Returning to Juneau from his deep throating, he followed up with Victor on his Clifford Unlimited stationary: “I may be in for a spell of travail unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” He spoke of “my Quixotic endeavors,” and how his “mother of invention” was no longer “aglow.” As for his future prospects, “I’m girding myself for a letdown,” he concluded.

Then he signed off with his usual “Yers in Vitro.”


At this point, If still owed his ex the thirty G’s, the IRS five times that, plus untold sums to every financial kamikaze who had invested in his schemes. He continued to work at the Stagger as what he called “my old man’s field nigger”; his only other income was his state oil royalty check – given annually to every Alaskan, man, woman, and child – of $2,300. All of which was instantly swallowed up by his creditors.

But, worst of all, his “mojo,” as he called it – his muse – had run dry.

Not just his invention mojo but, most devastatingly, his musical mojo. His rock and roll mojo. More than an entrepreneur and inventor, Clifford, above all, considered himself a rock and roller. Like his trinity – Lennon, Morrison, and Hendrix – he had been obsessive about his discipline from an early age. He considered it the only true freedom in human life otherwise governed by robotic routine and soul-shriveling conformity.

“Glorious anarchy,” he called it.

Indeed, rock and roll was the only lubricant, besides laughter, which released the tourniquet on Cliff’s spine and delivered him to true Global Expansion.  A brief but full-throttle Voodoo Child thrash on his Strat was usually enough to carry him to Jimi’s outskirts of infinity. “Stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand,” was still enough to stand what was left of the hoary hairs on his neck. He was fond of salting his rap with the Erotic Politician’s “The men don’t know, but the little girls understand.” But his greatest liturgy was from the Eggman: “Yellow mellow custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye.”

Clifford was also fond of quoting Bono, “All I got is three chords, a red guitar, and the truth,” adding “two outta three ain’t bad.” After more than three decades on the planet, he was the first to admit that he was the still working on the last item, and that Bono was a wanker and a fraud. But, after his mojo ran dry, he seemed to lose interest even in that item. Or maybe he felt like he’d had too much truth. Or maybe he felt like his other hero, Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine: “I don’t want to escape from reality, I want reality to escape from me.” Anyway, he stopped working on his White Album which he had been threatening for years, he stopped playing open mic at the Stagger, and he told Victor that he would throw his guitars into the sea.

The novelist, no stranger to mojo loss himself, told If he had only two alternatives now: to perform ceremonial Seppuku or to be reborn. The first was a non-starter since of course Clifford had no self-discipline, not to mention gonads. Which left him with the second.

And, proving that there was indeed divine providence, even for a devout agnostic such as Clifford, he met his immaculate rebirth mother soon after his global Linda Lovelace esophagus expansion.


Gloria was sixty-one years of age. She could not keep her dog – a diesel mechanic at the mill — on the porch. So she came into The Stagger unchaperoned one night with the purpose of playing somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs on the jukebox while doing Cuervo shooters. By the end of the evening, to the accompaniment of Waylon and Willie, Clifford was pouring Gloria doubles on the house while she told him about her scum-of-the-earth lesser half and he told her about his Rocky Mountain oyster eating ex in Petersburg. Cliff had taken a monastic vow of poverty, celibacy, and obedience since the split; Gloria had joined the Juneau “Women Aglow” group which, according to their mission statement, “served Jesus as His bride.” Clifford told her this made the Savior a polygamist and, by extension, his Father an accessory. After serial tequilas that night, Gloria saw the reason of this and began casting moon eyes on Jesus’ unlikely pinch hitter.

In fact, Clifford looked more like one of the Lord’s outpatients. In a letter to Victor, he had once described himself as “somewhere between a leper and Charles Atlas.” He had cavernous cheeks, a chiseled jaw, a voluptuous Jagger mouth, jumpy sky blue eyes, and patchy gray wisps at his temple. His wire-rim spectacles lent him a professorial look and, due to his seized neck bone, he peered at you either above the rims, out of the corner of his eye, or with his head cocked like an arthritic gull. Tenderly fingering the purple gulleys on either side of his forehead, Gloria asked about them. He told her that they were from the forceps. Having resisted being born, Cliff had forced the pediatrician to drag him out of his exhausted mother with a stainless lobster claw on either side of his gelatinous skull.

“I think you’re cute,” Gloria told him. She was a retired beautician. It was closing time. She and the inventor had the bar all to themselves now, except for the two narcoleptic Indians under it.

“Wanna see my etchings,” inquired Clifford. Back at his crib he had a full portfolio of the blueprints for his magical Orb and the rest of his oeuvre, not to mention surrealist Dada studies for his debut album cover.

“I knew you were an artist,” said Gloria. Then she retired to the Ladies to freshen up. The beautician looked like Dolly Parton, except more well endowed. She weighed in at about two-twenty.

If’s crib was located next door to the Stagger. Victor, who had crashed there on his sojourns north, called it “The Burrow,” after Kafka’s story about the habitation of a mole-man. Cliff had converted the backroom of his old man’s booze warehouse into the suite. It was a labyrinth of tunnels between teetering piles old rock lps, Popular Mechanics, Hustlers, Rolling Stones, guitars, dead amps, prototypes for his countless inventions, plus his laundry. On one wall stood Hendrix in his eyeball vest and electric tangerine fur scarf; on another, Einstein, freak flag flying, rode his Schwinn in the Princeton parking lot; on a third, Little Boy lit up Hiroshima. And, in the epicenter of the Burrow, was a queen-sized bed that looked like it had been salvaged from a Calcutta Motel 6.

A normal mortal wouldn’t enter Clifford’s suite in a Three-Mile island suit. But Gloria just took it all in with the sweep of an eye, threw off of her anorak, and said: “Wow.”

It was then that Iffy, after his romantic Hindenburgs of the past, realized he had found his sweet mother of mercy. His Beatrice.

He dropped a dime on Victor the very next morning, describing in detail how he and the beautician had consummated in the Burrow; how, together, they had experienced true Alexandrian Global Expansion; and how, by dawn, Clifford awoke reborn “babbling and weeping.”

Like to tell you ‘bout my baby,” he sang. “You know she comes around just about midnight. G-L-O-R-I-A!”

“How old is she?” demanded Victor, already suspicious.

“She’s a mature woman,” allowed Cliff. “First I’ve ever met.”

Though nothing about him ever came as a surprise anymore, Victor had no idea his friend was boinking somebody’s dirigible grandmother. Clifford called her “Rubenesque.”

“You mean she’s fucking fat?” Victor pressed on.

“Nothing like a little meat on the bone,” said Cliff. Linda Marie had been bulimic. “Oughta try it with a real woman sometime, Jack.”

The inventor and his beautician had a two-year “thrash,” as he referred to it. Gloria was the only woman he had ever been with who didn’t fake orgasms, even on the rare occasion when she was sober. He didn’t have to use Gaiters either because his old lady had long ago reached menopause. “I don’t know why they call it men-o-pause,” he told Victor. “She’s a card-carrying nymphomaniac.”

Gloria was also supportive. She attended every one of Cliff’s renewed open-mic gigs. For his birthday, she bought him a Gibson Hummingbird with her husband, Otis’s, mechanic money. And she also helped resurrect his invention career with the launch his latest business extravaganza: The Chocolate Totem.

The shop, located just down the street from the Stagger, sold handcrafted Belgian bars stamped with spirit animals– — the otter, the eagle, the killer whale. Clifford was determined to see the enterprise through hell or highwater. Both arrived at the shop one day in the person of Gloria’s eldest son, Westley. The twenty-five-year-old logger told the entrepreneur that if he didn’t break if off with his mother and refund her seed capital, he was going to find his nuts in the chocolate molds.

As coincidence would have it, by that time Clifford’s old man was also meddling in his affairs. Months before, Ole had told his son to break off with Gloria, before he dishonored himself and the Kilmer name itself. His prodigal son agreed. But then he had opened the Totem with her. So Ole fired him from the Stagger. When his only boy still refused to dissolve his partnership with the retired beautician, Ole threatened to have him shut down for health code violations. Clifford remained unmoved. At that, Ole – an AA charter member – fell off the wagon. Days later, he showed up at the Burrow bleeding from his eyes. And crying. In all his life, Cliff had never seen his father cry. Ole told him he’d had fling with Gloria himself and that when he’d broken it off, she’d threatened to blow the whistle on him to his wife and go after his son. Cliff knew his father to be many things – but a liar he was not, even after a seventy-two hour bender.

“I’m a Revenge Fuck!” he told his best friend that night over the phone, almost in tears himself.

“It’ better than a Pity,” Vic reminded him helpfully.

The bachelors had long since IDed the Four Fundamental Fucks. They were, from the Y perspective (in order of X preference): the Guilty, the Pity, the Revenge, and the Necro. How can you tell if your wife is dead? The sex is the same but the dishes pile up. The Necro referred to this conjugal truism. Both chaste gentlemen were Necro vets.

“Maybe I’d have better luck if I were gay,” said Cliff.

“Doubtful, Iffy,” said Vic. “Why don’t you just cut Mr. Happy off?”

Desire is the root of all suffering, said the Buddha. But If, a lapsed Congregationalist, still clung to the freeloader idea of a no-downpayment deliverance on layaway. So Victor regularly reminded him how Jesus had recommended his disciples become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven.”


Keeping his crank all the same, Clifford fled the Last Frontier, Gloria, and the Totem, again seeking succor in the Lower 48. But this time the junket was on his father’s dime. Ole set his son up with an apartment in Seattle, a dating allowance, plus a shrink to undue whatever Gloria had done. Then, body and mind restored, Clifford would return home to gillnet with his father and bartend on the weekends as he had been doing for years.

Cliff’s Seattle shrink came recommended by his parents’ pastor at the Northern Light United Church. His name was Weinstein and he used an eclectic I’m OK, You’re OK / Purpose Driven Life approach to wellness. He got right down to brass tacks with his new patient at their first sit-down.

“What makes Clifford Clifford, Cliff?”

“… Huh?”

“How do you feel about yourself? You like yourself?”

“Yeah… Sorta. I guess. You know… I mean, shit. It varies.”

“OK, but generally. Does Clifford like Clifford? On a scale of 1 to 10.”

The inventor drew a long sigh. “Fuck. Jesus Christ. Lately?… 2 and a half. Maybe 3.”

His shrink smiled benevolently. “That’s honest. Good. Now, what do you think it would take to goose that up to maybe a 6 or 7?”

“Keira Knightley. The Nobel. Cyanide,” replied the patient matter-of-factly.

“Humor. Great medicine,” allowed the doctor. “Funny, though, comedians are some of the most miserable people. Why? Because they don’t like themselves.”

“Let’s hope they don’t fuckin start,” muttered the patient.

“You’re going to be a tough nut to crack – this’ll be fun! ” continued Weinstein. “You may not like it, but we’re going to have you up to a 10. How’s that sound?”

If rolled his eyes, pleading the 5th, then looked at his watch again.

“See – you like 3,” concluded the doctor. “You like feeling bad. It’s all you think you deserve. It’s your security blanket of helplessness and inadequacy. For next time, I want you to think about that.”

At the next appointment, the patient had no answers but, as he had feared, his shrink had more questions. “What have you ever done for another human being, Clifford?”

The entrepreneur, at a loss initially, managed to wrest a few humble examples from the days before his marriages. But, with each example, Weinstein would cut him off, “No, that was for you, my friend. I want to know what you’ve done for others.” Then he went into a rap about how a narcissist could only stop thinking about his small problems by thinking about the bigger ones of others. In short, that he could only help himself by helping others. And, in so doing, start feeling better about himself.

“Does he serve hip boots with that kumbaya bullshit?” Victor asked during the next long-distance debriefing. “What the fuck has he ever done for anybody for under three hundred bucks an hour?”

“Spoken like a true narcissist, Your Grace,” said Clifford, already a humanitarian convert. He called Victor Your Grace, Your Highness, and Your Lordship, due to the writer’s incorrigible misanthropy and megalomania. But as far as his Grace was concerned, Iffy’s life was just a series of petty disasters followed by cloud-partings, and this was just the latest.

“What the fuck have you done for anybody other than yourself, Your Lordship?” Cliff demanded.

“Not shoot them,” replied Victor.

“You call that philanthropy?”

“I call it euthanasia.”

As far as Victor was concerned, doing unto others was the most thankless job on the planet. Not to mention hazardous to your health. “Just look at Christ, for chrissakes – if he came back, you think he’d re-up for Calvary?” he demanded. “Martin Luther King –march back to Memphis? Mother Teresa – another cakewalk in Calcutta?”

“You are the fucking anti-Christ,” Clifford told him, not for the first time. “Why the hell do I even associate with you?”

His shrink hooked Clifford up with the Washington Youth Initiative. As an “activity therapist,” the inventor was paid $7.75 hourly to take WYI wards out to malls and movies for “respite and socialization.” His first kid was Charlie, 17, known to his parents as Chugger due to his habit of locomoting on all fours while thundering like a train engine. Chugger had CP. Moreover, according to Clifford, all his “circuits” were fried. For six months, he took Chugger out for two-legged constitutionals around Pioneer Square. With a delirious grin, the young man advanced with a Forrest Gump determination, forcing his arthritic consort to run interference, throwing himself in his path lest Chugger collide with other pedestrians, telephone poles, and shop fronts. After bi-weekly practice, Chugger had become a power walker and his mentor had sustained a fractured rib, a sprained ankle, and a knee hematoma.

Clifford did not fare so well with his second WYI ward, Howard the Hugger, code-named “Viper.” Howard — a 250-pound Haida with fetal alcohol syndrome — was known as Hugger due to his habit of embracing others, especially strangers, especially those who made the mistake of trying to flee him. He also had a potty mouth and was inclined to pleasure himself in public. In spite of his sunny, even ebullient, disposition, he had once tried to strangle his mother when she had attempted to interfere with his favorite pastime.

But Clifford’s mentorship of the Hugger went without misadventure. At first. Then one afternoon at the Northgate Mall, after an X-Men movie, Howard affectionately tackled a black usherette. Momentarily, the couple was on the floor in what appeared to be a WWF smackdown. Unaware that her suitor was a lover, not a fighter, the usherette flogged the Hugger with her mag flashlight, while doing a full-throated Aretha Franklin aria. Joining the fray, Clifford jumped on his back and proceeded to rodeo the hunk of burning love. Then the Hugger cried, “Viper!” The WYI chief of staff had warned Cliff about the code red word, saying that if Howard uttered it, all bets were off.

Tossing the arthritic off his back and into popcorn dispenser, the Hugger staggered into the mall, bowling down shoppers, as he continued to shrill, “Viper!”

His chaperone, pursued by a group of curiosity seekers, caught up with the young man out in the mall parking lot. Here, the Hugger had locked himself inside the Chrysler Cordoba which Ole had lent Clifford for his Seattle sabbatical, and was busy redecorating the interior. As his ward tore off the turn signal lever, then the windshield visors, Cliff implored,

“Howard, open up! It’s OK. Fuck. Open UP. Easy, buddy. Jesus FUCK!”

The town car was Ole’s pride and joy. The Hugger was now kicking in the dash and the Bose quad system, while tooling its Corinthian leather with the jagged edge of the turn signal.


Retiring from humanitarian work in the untamed lower 48, Clifford limped Ole’s customized Cordoba up the Alaska Highway, back to civilization.

He found the town of his nativity much the same as he had left it almost a year before. Only his chocolate emporium was shuttered. And his Beatrice was gone.

According to Ole, soon after Clifford’s departure, Gloria had divorced Otis and moved south to the village of Kake. Here she had opened a tattoo parlor and a new chapter of Women Aglow. What Ole didn’t mention were the many letters she had written to his son which he had not forwarded, but burned.

Clifford’s Seattle sabbatical and his mano-a-manos with Chugger and the Hugger had done nothing for his psyche, and less for his bamboo spine or his narrowing throat. Had it not been for the weekly ministrations of Yatsu the Wizard, and his pursuit of his patient’s merciless weather systems, Cliff might have been in an iron lung, or in full gravitational collapse.

But, miraculously, he had returned north with new purpose. He was now determined to cast off his former worldly distractions and quixotic schemes. Like Jonah, he had emerged from the whale undigested, faith restored, and with a mission. After two decades in the belly of the beast, he’d paid his dues and was ready to play the blues. Here at home, under the celestial spots of St. Elmo’s Fire, he would at last fully embrace his true cure, his true muse, his first and true wild mistress: rock and roll.

“We got something to fucking sing about. Not like these punks today,” he told Victor, back in the Burrow and caressing his guitars longing to savagely weep.

In Seattle he had seen the Melvins, the Pixies, and Nirvana’s last gigs. Kurt had just euthanized himself in his greenhouse with or without a hand from his better half, the omnivorous Ms. Love.

“Twenty-seven,” continued Cliff, “– what the fuck did Cobain know? Rinky dink God for putting me on this earth, being very privileged. Death in mind. Nurse!’ Please. Teenage angst paid off well, is all that whiney fucker got right!”

“You’re just jealous, Iffy,” Victor told him. But he agreed of course. Even before the punk revolution, the friends had concluded that rock and roll had become a wasteland inhabited by two non-evolving species: dinosaurs who were filthy rich and on creative life support, and X’ers who were also filthy rich but hadn’t done any living, and tried to pass of wailing, thrashing, and the destruction of perfectly good musical equipment as intensity.

“Nobody’s fucking dangerous anymore!” continued Clifford. He never tired of quoting “Like a Rolling Stone” re the essence of a dangerous man: When you ain’t got nothin, you got nothin to lose. “Everybody’s got a jingle, but nobody’s got a song – much less a message!” he wept.

Victor had never argued that with him either. The greatest cultural force of postmodern times was in real need of a transfusion from new but seasoned blood. “So what’s your message, If?” he inquired, not for the first time.

“Life, Your Highness. Motherfucking in-your-face-up-your-ass real life.”

“Punchy. That’ll cut Zimmerman a new asshole.”

“You wanna bust my balls, or you wanna grow some, get your ass up here, and we make history?”

There were no halfway measures for Clifford: either you picked yourself up, dusted yourself off, and threw the Hail Mary and made history, or you went down trying. Actually, Vic, a psychedelic guitar auteur no less than master of post-modern literature, was of the same mind.

“OK, say we start a band,” he allowed. “Hypothetically. What about bread – before we hit the charts?”

Cliff was already one step ahead. “Fishing. I got a line on another gillneter. It’s a steal. They’re making 80K a season out there — three days a week!”

They would become fishers of men and of mermaids. They would sing tales of brave Ulysses, naked ears tortured. To Victor, this actually sounded better than embarking on another Under the Volcano or Finnegan’s Wake.

“So, what would we call ourselves?” the writer went on. “Hypothetically.”

The inventor took a moment to ponder it, then said: “I’ve got just the name.”

His partner in madness had been afraid of that. “What?”

“I’m channeling it from the universe,” said Cliff, as if just now experiencing true Global Expansion. Actually, it had occurred to him after rodeoing the Hugger and during his last debriefing with his shrink about The Purpose Driven Life.

“Channeling — like Joan of Arc?” inquired Vic.

“Without the stake,” said Cliff.

Then he whispered the name like a prayer. A benediction.

Suddenly, after these many years in the penitential fires, both impossible men at last knew who they were on this their low road, slouching to the lost Jerusalem.

CATEGORY: LitJournalPoetry

S&R Poetry: “Angel Lust,” by Michael C. Rush

the pedantic romantic
his somatic compunction
his chaste waste

the static charge of arousal
is just that, static,
without the impetus of action

the semiotic semi-erotics of
formative fornicative experiences
mislead without falsehood

spurious vaginal angels
petrichor to mithridate

shamanic shagman
caress a rough flesh of lump and crease

Michael C. Rush is made very uneasy by the influence of biography on poetry and prefers that the reader consider his poems alone, on their own merits, as words, without indulging in whatever small, idle curiosity about the specifics of his background and life that they may feel.

ArtsWeek: Where can you go for free e-books?

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekA question arose in a comment thread on an earlier post. To wit: I love reading, and Kindle is cool, but books are expensive. (Okay, that’s really more of a statement than a question. You get my point.)

It’s true. Now granted, the average e-book is a lot cheaper than even a paperback, but still, if you read a lot you can run up a hefty tab in a hurry. Amazon is thriving for a reason.

The good news is that there are a lot of sources for free Kindle and e-book content. Here are a few:

You can also get Kindle books on loan. There are e-book lending libraries. Here are some more. Apparently, the whole e-book loan idea is a hit, at least with some folks.

Another thing to note: if you find e-books that aren’t in Kindle format and you’d like to convert them, Calibre is straightforward and easy (and free).

So there you go. Get to reading, and happy ArtsWeek.


ArtsWeek: Dr. Sammy’s desert island list

You’ve probably heard the old challenge:

You’re stranded on a desert island and you can only have X albums to listen to for the rest of your life. What would you choose?

I’ve probably heard this one a hundred times and have thought about it informally for maybe 30 years. But I’ve never actually sat down and tried to tackle it head on. Until today. And let me tell you, damn, this question is an absolute bitch. My friends know just what a wide range of music I listen to, and the idea that I’d never again get to explore new releases and emerging bands and interesting evolutions in style and genre is painful to think about.

But hey, it’s just an intellectual and aesthetic exercise, right? So here goes: if I’m going to be stranded on a desert island, here are the 25 CDs I want to have with me. (A note: some of you are saying “hey, it’s 10 albums, not 25!” Shut up. I tried getting the list down to 10 and nearly gave myself an aneurysm. Besides, if this hypothetical desert island has electricity or enough batteries to keep my iPod spinning, it has enough room for 15 more CDs.)

1: Jeffrey Dean Foster – Million Star Hotel
I’ve been saying for years that JDF’s 2005 masterpiece is one of the greatest albums I have ever heard and I mean it. It’s intelligent, soulful, beautifully crafted, and the songwriting is timeless. I cannot honestly tell you how many times I have listened to MSH in the last several years, but it’s easily in the hundreds. I simply never tire of it, and when we’re talking about 25 albums to last you the rest of your life, this is an extremely important criterion.

2: Space Team Electra – The Vortex Flower
STE is probably the best band I ever heard that never “made it.” That this CD didn’t go octuple platinum and get played to death on radio is as pointed an indictment as I have against the American music industry. Lyrically and sonically The Vortex Flower is as rich and complex as any CD I own. There is a depth here that never stops rewarding repeated listens. (If you let me take 50 records STE’s Intergalactic Torch Song is probably coming along, too.

3: Peter Gabriel – 3
I can only use words like “rich,” “layered,” and “complex” so many times in a piece like this without sounding like I only know three words, but if you have 25 albums to last you the rest of your life, they need to be, they must be, albums that have a “thickness” about them. They need a depth that, as I say about STE above, keeps you coming back. If you ears and your mind gets it all in one take, you’re going to get bored in a hurry. This is why I have always loved PG’s third solo release. “Games Without Frontiers” is as bottomless a song as I have ever heard and the rest of the disc isn’t far behind.

4: The Police – Zenyatta Mondatta
One of my three favorite bands of all time – the only question here is which CD to bring? Love the first one. Love Synchroncity. Love Regatta de Blanc and almost picked it. But there’s a vibe, a darkness and texture about ZM that I think carries the day. One of my favorite moments from all the live shows I ever saw was The Police doing “Shadows in the Rain,” and I’d like to have a reminder of that on the island.

5: Fiction 8 – Forever, Neverafter
I was really torn here. I like pretty much everything my buddy Michael Smith has done (and am anxiously waiting to hear the new one, which I hope will be out this year). I especially like Chaotica. I wound up going with Forever, Neverafter for what may seem an odd reason. I’ve been lucky enough to co-write tracks on it and Project Phoenix, the two most recent releases. And if I choose a disc that I’m represented on, then I’m periodically reminded in a tangible fashion of the friendship and the joy of collaboration. I picked this one instead of Project Phoenix because I have two songs on it instead of the one (“Hegemony”) on PP. Two reminders instead of one.

6: Queen – A Night at the Opera
The idea of being trapped anywhere for the rest of my life without something by my first great favorite band is unthinkable. I could have gone with pretty much any of their first eight studio discs and been fine, but ANatO was the one that caused me to fall in love with the band, so let’s go with it.

7: U2 – The Unforgettable Fire
My favorite band of all time. I’d be happy with anything up through Achtung, Baby, honestly, but this is the one I have always regarded as their finest moment. Being able to hit play and hear “A Sort of Homecoming” or “Pride” or “Bad” would make being stranded a little more tolerable.

8: The Birthday Massacre – Violet
If I’m trapped on an island alone, I’m occasionally going to need to bang my head a little. TBM has been one of my favorite bands in recent years, and Violet is perhaps where they’re at their best in stacking the power on top of the pretty on top of the atmosphere.

9: Don Dixon – Romeo at Julliard or Most of the Girls Like to Dance…
Okay, I’m hedging here. I’m definitely taking something from Dixon, who in addition to being one of my favorite artists ever is also a good friend, and I’d like to be reminded of what a great guy he is when I’m sitting around on the island. For right now, I’m going with Romeo, which has my first favorite

DD song, “Your Sister Told Me.” But I reserve the right to change my mind as I’m dashing out the door to catch my doomed flight (or boat? – not really sure how I landed on this damned island, to be honest).

10: Van Morrison – Hymns to the Silence
This isn’t Van’s best CD, although it is perhaps his most underrated. And it has always been my favorite. There is history here, lots of history, and yes, there’s a woman involved. Perhaps the woman I should have been with all along. I know myself well enough to know that if I’m faced with an eternity alone I’m going to think a lot about my life, and I’m going to spend a lot of time playing “what if?” games with myself. What else are you going to do on a freakin’ desert island? Given this certainty, I’d like to have the soundtrack for one of the most important moments of my life handy. (Disc 2, Track 6 – my heart breaks every time….)

11: Sam Cooke – The Man and His Music
Really, any good greatest hits collection works here. Not only is Sam simply remarkable period, but when I hear his music I hear echoes of the world my parents grew up in, I think. It’s like there’s a connection in the songs to the young father and mother that honestly, I never really knew.

12: Roxy Music – Avalon
The greatest seduction record ever made. It would be nice to remember times when I was with a woman.

13: The Samples – The Last Drag
When I moved to Colorado in 1993 to get my PhD, there were three big bands in Boulder: The Reejers, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, and The Samples. I loved them all, but resonated most strongly with The Samples. They were archetypally Boulder in so many ways, and the 1990s cultural gestalt of the place for a grad student making his way through the greatest challenge of his life is just about impossible to explain. The bottom line is that my mind was the sharpest it has ever been, and even though there were plenty of down moments – the kind that seem to attend our lives when we’re blasting through the curves in the dark with the throttle wide open – I was as alive as I have ever been. I was working toward something. There was a future. When I hear The Last Drag I’m back there, and it’s wonderful being reminded of how vibrant and full of possibility life can be. (One caveat, though. Can I replace “Playground”? For some reason, they decided to let their junkie keyboardist write a song, and it’s kind of their version of the time The Police let Andy Summers put “Mother” on Synchronicity. Either I need to burn a copy of the disc without this track or, if it’s okay, can I substitute the wonderful cover of “Amazing Grace” from Sean Kelly’s solo disc?)

14: The Lost Patrol – Dark Matter or Lonesome Sky
Another one of those can’t make up my damned mind moments. The whole TLP sound is so lush and textured, so haunting and beautiful, that I know I’m taking something. Lonesome Sky is my favorite moment from the Danielle Stauss years and as much as I seem to love everything the band does, I think 2010’s Dark Matter is my favorite from the contemporary Mollie Israel era. I’m going to put them both on the table by the door and let my gut instinct pick one at the last second as I rush out to meet my doom.

15: The Blueflowers – In Line with the Broken Hearted
The Blueflowers have a sound that’s similar to The Lost Patrol – layered, twangy, moody, dark. It’s a sound you can come back to time and time again, and I know from experience that I can listen to it a dozen times in a row without it getting old.

16: Rick Springfield – Success Hasn’t Spoiled Me Yet or Venus in Overdrive
More waffling, I know. When packing for the rest of your life, you have to think about the importance of a range of styles and sounds, and we all know that I’m a bad Power Pop junkie. Success is my favorite of the early Springfield records – lots of great, hooky, toe-tapping butt-dancing white-boy overbite music that I think might be good for my sanity if I’m trapped on a desert island. Venus is an equally catchy and engaging moment from Rick’s recent career. A little more miles on the tread, a little more world-wise and weary. Right now I’m leaning toward Success because I had fun in the ’80s and I’d like to maybe relive that a little, but I might change my mind at the last minute.

17: Catherine Wheel – Chrome
I can’t imagine this hypothetical island without something from the Shoegazer era – the gods know I love me some wall of dissonance noise pop and CW is one of my favorite bands ever. I thought about maybe Ferment (come on, “Black Metallic,” right?) and maybe even Adam & Eve, but in the end I feel like Chrome is the most solidly packed and consistently excellent from end to end.

18: Jets Overhead – Bridges
I keep arguing that JO may be one of the three or four best bands of this generation, and as much as I like their more recent output, nothing they’ve done has ever quite insinuated itself as deeply into my skin as Bridges, which is sort of a richly textured update on mid-’60s California psychedelia sifted through foggy modern-day PNW indie.

19: Adam Schmitt – World So Bright
More Power Pop, and this is a guy that most readers have almost certainly never heard of. Back in the ’90s he jacked out two of the best guitar pop CDs I’ve ever heard – this one (1991) and Illiterature (1993). Remarkable songcraft, a depth of sound that bears up under repeated listens, and a self-possessed intelligence that often came at you from unexpected directions. I could listen to this disc daily for the rest of my life.

20: Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Not only was Marillion writing achingly beautiful tunes back in the 1980s, but Fish was penning lyrics that actually stood on their own as poetry. I don’t say that about many lyricists. The truth is I could take Clutching at Straws or any of several solo Fish records and be just fine.

21: Johnny Clegg – Shadow Man
You know how they say “dance like nobody’s looking”? Well, this is as great as dance like nobody’s looking albums get. I discovered it in a record store in Ames, Iowa back in the late ’80s. We were looking for new music for the club where I was a DJ, and as I riffled through the bins I realized I was sort of dancing in place. I stopped, listened, then walked to the front of the store to find out who they were playing. “Johnny Clegg & Savuka,” the guy said. “I’ll take two copies,” I replied. One for the club, one for me.

22: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Born to Run
I could also make a case for The River, but if I’m stranded on a desert island, I’m probably going to occasionally have need of sheer grandeur.

23: Led Zeppelin – 4
There’s no real sentimental reason for this one. It’s just one of the greatest hard rock albums in history and my favorite Zep moment.

24: The Killers – Battle Born
I like The Killers for a lot of reasons, and if I’m off to a deserted island for the rest of my life, I’d like to take along my favorite CD from the last year that I got to hear new music.

25: Raison d’Etre – Enthralled by the Wind of Loneliness
I go to sleep with music playing. There have been a lot of artists that have serenaded me to sleep through the years – Andreas Vollenweider, Mike Oldfield, Lycia, The Lost Patrol, Love Spirals Downward, Delerium, Van Morrison, Enya and Enigma are a few that come to mind. My preferred genre these days is Dark Ambient, and this disc, which sounds like it was recorded by melancholy angels in a haunted medieval cathedral ruin, is the most wonderful of them all. I list this one last, because it’s the one that I’ll be playing at the end of the day. But it is perhaps the most important – if I could only take one album to my desert island, this would be the one.

A final note: You may notice that I have included a number of artists who I know personally – Jeff Foster, Don Dixon, Space Team, The Blueflowers, The Lost Patrol, Fiction 8 (plus I had dinner with Fish once) – and this is worth commenting on. I’m fortunate to know a lot of talented people, and I care a lot about these relationships. I care about all my relationships, and I don’t toss the word “friend” around casually. The conceit here is that I’m trapped on a desert island. I’m alone and one presumes it’s going to stay that way. If I can not only listen to music that I love, but in doing so be reminded of someone I know and respect, that counts for a lot.

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFiction

S&R Nonfiction: “Irony,” by Michail Mulvey

“Can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”


In the back, where he thinks I can’t see him, the P.E. major in ripped jeans and a t-shirt touting some brand of Tequila texts his girlfriend. The girl to his left checks her iPhone for messages. The kid to her left studies the label on his bottle of Coke Zero.

“OK . . . Can anyone list the types of irony?”


Blank stares. John, the tanned stud-muffin in the third row searches his Facebook page on his laptop. He thinks he’s fooled me into believing he’s taking notes. His buddy rests his head on one arm and doodles in his notebook. The girl behind him sits, cross legged, with arms defiantly across her chest. She glares with a look that says, “Like, I don’t want to be here.”

“Can anyone give me a definition of irony?”

Silence, if you don’t count the sound coming from the mouth of Tattoo-girl—I think her name is Ashleigh—as she chews gum while picking at her LA-style fingernails.



The student-athlete in the third row dozes. Suddenly his head snaps back, his eyes open momentarily, he looks around to see if anyone caught him, then shifts to a more comfortable position and nods off again. Student-athlete, that’s an example of an oxymoron boys and girls. Like jumbo shrimp, congressional ethics, country music, cafeteria food, living wage, and happily married. That last one’s a hoot, ain’t it? But I’d like a definition of irony. Anyone. Anyone at all.

“OK, can anybody give me an example of irony?”


“OK, let me give you a hint. How about . . . at a ceremony celebrating the rehabilitation of seals after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, at an average cost of $80,000 per seal, two seals were released back into the wild only to be eaten within a minute by a killer whale?”

“Ew, that’s sick,” says Tattoo-girl.

Finally a hand goes up. The sophomore psychology major—Joseph is it? Or Jordan? Something with a ‘J’—sitting over by the window:

“Yes,” I say with a hint of enthusiasm in my voice and a glimmer of hope in my heart.

“Like, when a fire station like burns down,” he says, smiling.

Very funny. You better hope your little brother doesn’t play with matches.

“Like, when a cardiologist suffers a heart attack,” says the biology major in the third row.

Like, when you were in the tenth grade and didn’t know the difference between a dangling preposition and a dangling testicle.

“OK. That’s a start. That works. Any other examples of irony?” I ask, hoping to somehow guide the discussion back to Oedipus.

Silence. Blank stares.

Another hand goes up. The business major in the back corner:

“Like, Bill Gates never graduated from college but, like, he’s worth fifty billion dollars.”

“OK. Good.” Bill Gates was born with intelligence, had a keen business sense, taught himself computer programming, and had a work ethic that allowed him to beat out his competitors. He didn’t need a college education. You’ll probably need a college education and a father as rich as Bill Gates to succeed.

“Any other examples of irony?” I ask. Besides the fact that this university accepted most of you.

“Like, when an English professor misspells a word he’s written on the whiteboard,” says the communication major, smiling.

Smirks and smiles from the groundlings. OK, I deserved that. I tried to explain that faux pas away by claiming that I can’t write, lecture and spell ‘accommodation’ all at the same time. Too many ‘C’s and ‘M’s to keep track of this late on a Friday afternoon. Relax. Take a deep breath. Smile. Do the math. This is a sophomore-level English class. Thirty students with one reason for being here. Three credits. Except for the girl in the front row, these are not English majors. It’s late April, Spring is in the air, three weeks left in the semester. They’d rather be somewhere hot and noisy with a cold beer in one hand and a warm body in the other.

“Yes, the height of irony,” I confess. And inexcusable. I smile.

Another hand goes up. The history major over by the door:



“Sorry. Yes, James.”

“Like, when John Hinckley shoots at Ronald Regan, misses and hits the bullet-proof window of his limo. The bullet ricochets and hits the president in the chest.”

“That’s an example of poetic justice,” says the other history major in the class. Slight titters, then a slow slide back into their individual academic comas. Several blank faces suggest that they don’t know who Ronald Regan was.

“Any other examples of irony,”


I give up.

“OK. Let me list a few types of irony on the board,” and hope I don’t misspell any words. I turn and write:

Verbal irony – a gap between what is stated and what is really meant, which often has the opposite meaning. For example using “his humble abode” to describe a millionaire’s mansion. Also called sarcasm.

Dramatic irony – when the audience is aware of facts that the characters are not. When the reader understands more about what is happening in a story than the character who is telling the story does. For example, Shakespeare’s Othello trusts Iago, but the audience knows better.

Situational irony – a discrepancy between what actually happens and what readers expect will happen.

For example, like the discrepancy between the grade you actually receive in this class and the grade you expect to get.

“Now, can anyone give an example of dramatic or situational irony in Oedipus?”


The elementary education majors in the front row all dutifully take notes but say nothing.

I sigh.

“There are other types of irony, for example, historical irony. What we now refer to as ‘World War I’ was originally called ‘The War to End All Wars,’ or ‘The Great War’.”


“And then there are ironic similes.”


“Clear as mud,” I say as half a dozen stare out into the spring afternoon. The elementary ed major by the window smiles and waves to the squirrel sitting on a branch outside the window.

Clear as mud, like this lecture.

I look out the window and see students tossing a football around the quad. Laughter and hoots waft in. Music blares from car radios in the student parking lot across the street.

Silence. I sigh. Once more …

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

“When Oedipus was first performed circa 428 B.C.E., Greek audiences knew the myth of Oedipus, the myth upon which the play is based. The audience knew what Oedipus didn’t, that he had killed his father and married his mother. Based on the definitions I’ve written on the board, can anyone tell me what type of irony this is, that is, the audience knows but Oedipus doesn’t?”


I glance at the clock. Twenty minutes left.

One more try.

“How about another example. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when King Duncan sees Inverness, the home and castle belonging to Macbeth, he says, ‘This castle has a pleasant seat’— meaning site. Banquo adds, ‘The air is delicate.’ Knowing what happens later that night, what type of irony would you say these remarks are examples of?”


“The irony here is that Duncan is unwittingly entering his death chamber.”


“What kind of irony is this? Anyone? Anyone at all.”


I sigh, take off my glasses, plant my skinny old ass on the desk, glance out the window then turn back to the class. “OK, let’s try again. Another definition of irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality. Like, this appears to be a college class but in reality . . . “The discrepancy between ignorance and knowledge,” I add.


I continue: “The incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.” I expected a class of students eager to learn. Silly me. How long have I been at this? How many decades? Maybe it’s time to retire. Maybe it’s me. “I’d write that on the board but I don’t know how to spell ‘incongruity.’” Smiles. Even the texting P.E. major looks up and smirks.

I sigh, look down at the floor, run my fingers through my gray hair, look out the window at the squirrel sitting on the tree branch looking in; What do you think, my furry-assed little friend? I find it ironic that you seemed more interested in this discussion than my students. What do you say we call it a day and retire to my favorite watering hole next town over? I’m buying. What’ll you have? A Pink Squirrel? Ha, ha ha! But I digress.

“OK, let me give you another example of irony, the difference between what might be expected and what actually happens.”

Stud-muffin chuckles softly at something in Facebook.

“When young men go off to war, what is one expectation?” I ask.

“Like, someone might get killed or messed up,” says the math major by the window.

“Yes,” I reply, “That would be a reasonable expectation based on history. In war people die.”

I’ve got stud-muffin’s attention. Tattoo-girl wonders, What’s this have to do with Oedipus?

“What if I told you I once advised a good friend to go off to war in order to save his life? Would that be an example of irony? Going off to war to save your life?”

“Like, that would be fucked up,” says stud-muffin, frowning.

“Why would you, like, do that?” asks the history major.

I smile. Now I have their attention, or at least most of them. The student-athlete continues to nap and nod. This may not have a lot to do with Oedipus, but maybe I can bridge that gap between ignorance and knowledge. Maybe not.

“I have a good friend who’s in the Army Reserve. We were in the Regular Army once, stationed together in some shithole Army base down south. He was a platoon leader in my company. We’ve known each other for over twenty years now and have followed each other’s lives for all that time. He lives in another state so we only get together every other year or so, but we keep in touch. We both have wives and families and jobs. We’re both in education. He’s a school administrator and I’m . . . here.” I smile.

“To put it simply, I married well, he didn’t. After fifteen years of marriage he discovered his wife was having an affair with her boss. Had been for some time. He was devastated. Unlike some people, he believed that marriage was for life and he trusted his wife to keep her marriage vows. In Othello, the audience knows that Desdemona has been faithful but Othello thinks she’s strayed. That’s an example of what kind of irony?”


“Like I said, when he found out, he was devastated to the point that one night he drank a quart of Scotch and downed a bottle of pills. He recovered physically but not emotionally.”

Stud-muffin closes his laptop.

“His wife threw him out of their house, the home they’d lived in for almost fifteen years and raised three children. He began to drink heavily and it affected his work. His boss took him aside and said he understood what he’d been going through but that he had to pull himself together. My friend began to see a change in his three children. They were angry and began to ask questions. They told him they thought this breakup was his fault. He despaired, drank even more, missed work, contemplated suicide again. I know all this because we talked and emailed each other back and forth.”

The P.E. major stops texting.

“One day he emails me that he’s thinking of volunteering for duty in Iraq. He asks me if he should go. I ask myself, does he want to commit suicide by war? What should I tell this friend of mine? ‘No, stay home? You have children to think of. Stay home, you’re not in your right head now?’ I wanted to ask him, ‘How will you function in the state you’re in? Will you cause the deaths of fellow soldiers because your head’s not in the game?’”

The student athlete wakes up.

“He’s a Lieutenant Colonel in military intelligence—an oxymoron if there ever was one—so he wouldn’t be kicking in any doors. He wouldn’t be driving a Hummer down the Baghdad to Basra highway hunting for IEDs. He told me the position would be with an MI unit that collects, collates, and interprets intelligence and then briefs units that move around the countryside searching for insurgents or guarding convoys. Still . . .”

The math major shifts in his chair.

“He told me the unit would be stationed at Balad, a former Iraqi Air Force base now used as a headquarters for coalition forces. I thought about it for awhile and wondered what to say to this friend of mine, a junior officer who once served under me and who occasionally still looked to me for guidance. I thought back to my tour in a war zone in a previous century, in another part of the world. I was only nineteen at the time, no wife or children, thought it was all a game, this war, a big adventure, at least until the green tracers started cracking over my head, my vehicle hit a mine, my friends started dying. There were others, many others, who sat fat and happy—safe, they thought—behind the wire in basecamp, who died during mortar and rocket attacks. Others died in accidents. What do I say to him, I asked myself? Young men die in war. Some suffer horrible wounds. Some suffer life-long damage that can’t be readily seen but comes back to haunt these young men years afterward. What do I tell my friend?”

The student with the bottle of Coke Zero, no longer staring at the label, shifts in his chair.

“Well, and this is where the irony comes in, I told my friend he should volunteer for the tour of duty in Iraq. You may be wondering how I, someone who has seen war first hand, could advise my friend to go off to war? A moral dilemma some might call it. And ironic.”

I shift position on the desk.

“It’s true, men die in war. Or at least there’s a chance of dying. But I was sure that if my friend didn’t go to Iraq he would die here, at home. He would die of grief at not being with his three children. He would die in an automobile crash after a night of drinking, or suffer irreparable damage to his internal organs from long-term alcohol abuse. Or he would get a DUI and be fired from his job. Or he would try to do himself in again. He was inconsolable. I knew it was only a matter of time. He was a weightlifter, a former football player, and in many ways, a strong man, but he was unable to deal with this breakup of his marriage and the possible estrangement from his children. He cried when he told me how much he missed seeing them off to bed at night and off to school in the morning. I was sure he would die one way or another if he stayed home, so I told him he should go to Iraq. I did the math and came to the conclusion that his odds at surviving were better in a war zone.”

Questioning looks from some. A shifting in chairs. Nobody’s staring out the window now. Nobody’s checking emails or texting.

“Can you see the irony in advising someone, a friend, to go off to war in order to save his life?”

“What if he dies?” asks the girl with the iPhone.

“Well, nobody wants to die, but we’re all going to die someday. If given a choice—and this question went through my mind at the time—how would I want to die? By my own hand? In a car crash? A drunk, unemployed, hated by my children, alone? Or in uniform, given a hero’s welcome back home, mourned by all, remembered by co-workers, maybe even a building or road named after me.”

“What difference does that make? Dead is dead,” says psych major.

“You’re right, but I advised my friend to go off to war because I thought he had a better chance of surviving in a war zone. Can you understand my choice, but more importantly—and this is the point to the story—can you appreciate the irony?”

Silence. A shifting in seats.

“Did you see The Hurt Locker?” asks one of the history majors.

“Yes, but my friend isn’t in EOD, he’s in MI and would be working in a fortified bunker,” I replied.

“Running away from your problems to solve them. That’s counter-intuitive,” says one of the education majors in the front row.

“And ironic,” I say, trying to work the discussion back to Oedipus.

“What happened to him?” asks the girl who had been glaring at me in defiance.

I smile. “He survived.”

Smiles from several others.

“He survived and after twelve months in Iraq came home healthy, sober, clear-headed, and with a medal for a job well done. While he was there he worked twelve-hour days, lifted weights, and dried out. More importantly, he got away from his wife. He kept in touch with his children via cell phone, letters, and two R&R trips back home. He and his kids—with the help of counseling—came to an understanding. He stopped feeling sorry for himself and got his life together.”


“And his ex-wife was dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job,” I add.

“That’s called irony,” says stud-muffin.

“No that’s called payback. That bitch got what she deserved,” says Tattoo-girl.

“In short, the war saved his life. That ladies and gents, is irony,” I say. “Now, can anyone give me an example of irony in Oedipus the King?”



ArtsWeek: Dinosaurs, dodo birds, books and novelists

CATEGORY: ArtsWeekAfter my first novel was published, I was invited to be on a panel at writing convention. In response to a question, I said that books and novels were endangered species. I was about to say the very act of reading might be as well, but I didn’t get to, because at that point the professor who’d organized the conference jumped to her feet, ran down the aisle, snatched the microphone from my hand and explained that I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and people would always want the smell of a new book and the tactile experience, blah, blah blah. She then pointedly handed the microphone to Robert Greer, who sat next to me.

This was seven or eight years before Kindle, so I’m sure my predictions seemed pretty outlandish at the time. But they’re not so outlandish now. Let’s take a look.

Prediction: Paper books will become obsolete.

How good does that prediction look today? Very probable.

Reasoning: Look around you in any airport at the number of people using electronic rather than paper media. Everyone, it seems, has a Kindle. Will paper books disappear completely? Maybe not. We forget that paper is pretty handy stuff and paper books handy things. They’re cheap, relatively portable, and can be reused over and over again. They resist impact and moisture which would destroy an electronic device. Having said that, while paper is good, it’s not really better than e-books, so unless The Today Show says that e-books cause boils to pop up on your forehead, I think this one is a lock. I suspect a generation from now, someone reading a paper book in an airport will be as much of an oddity as someone reading a scroll.

Prediction: Novels will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Probable.

Reasoning: There is a trend away from reading and toward watching. Movies and TV shows are quickly taking share from novels. Nor are they the only alternative crowding out books. There’s also gaming, which will grow even more as characters, plots and graphics become more sophisticated. There will probably continue to be some novels written, but that will likely be for niche markets like listening-while-driving. When the Google driverless car takes off, even that will go away. Maybe novels will survive in the same way other forms of obsolete entertainment survive, like kabuki and opera, as niche interests more used to show off erudition than to actually entertain.

Update to original prediction: Even if novels survive, novelists won’t.

Reasoning: All the growing forms of entertainment, movies, games, audio books and indeed even some forms of the novel, like graphic novels or those series of books that are branded by author (James Patterson) or character (James Bond), are collaborative efforts. Teams of people write and create movies, games, audio books, graphic novels and Patterson books. Over time, all forms of entertainment will become team endeavors. There will still be writers, but they will be Hollywood-style five-guys-around-a-table writers. The one-to-one days, where a solo writer working in isolation writes a novel and a solo reader sitting in isolation reads it, will no longer exist. As a novelist, I don’t much like this prediction.

Prediction: The act of reading itself will become obsolete.

How does that prediction look today? Too early to tell.

Reasoning: Just as well the professor grabbed the mike before I managed to get this prediction out, because this probably would have made her head explode. Look. Step back and think about it: Why do humans read? Basically, because we can’t draw fast enough. Our ancestors started communicating by drawing pictures on cave walls, which in turn evolved into hieroglyphics and pictographs, which eventually became alphabets, which lead to reading and writing. And what a phenomenal advance of civilization that was. The problem is, reading is a really hard skill to pick up. It takes at least five years of almost constant study to get any facility at all, from ten to fifteen years to become adept, and some people never get very good at (as measured by speed and comprehension.)

But now we don’t need reading because we can draw fast enough, more or less, because of programs that facilitate drawing, like Powerpoint. Even better, we can clip art and cut and paste to create visual representations of what we mean without drawing. Even better than that, we don’t have to draw at all because we can take a picture and ship it instantly because of improvements in technology such as smartphones and broadband.

We are now seeing the first signs of that. What used to be a fifty page prose report is now a fifty slide Powerpoint presentation. What used to be five hundred word letters describing that summer vacation is now a photo album with a handful of captions. What used to be a how to manual is now a link to a YouTube video. Handwriting has already bitten the dust. Some of us grew up when penmanship was an integral part of the school day. It’s barely taught anymore. Writing (in the non-mechanical sense) is also disappearing as schools replace term papers with video projects. Even those don’t use scripts, but rather storyboards. Grammar and spelling are on the way out, replaced by phonetic abbreviations.

It’s just a matter of time for reading. If reading survives at all, it will be in the same way computer languages exist today, as something experts learn.

Of course, as I learned when I was on the corporate speaking circuit talking about trends, it’s not particularly hard to predict a trend. What’s hard is to predict the timing. One day life on earth will be wiped out by an asteroid, but it makes a big difference if that occurs in ten millennia or next Thursday. People were predicting smartphones (they called them UPC’s then) in the mid-eighties, but multiple companies including Apple (Newton) and Palm lost a fortune because they were too early, and some of the current crop of wannabe’s (Samsung? Nokia?) will surely be too late.

So when will all this occur? Hard to say. There’s a lot of institutional momentum that will have to grind to a halt first—the publishing industry, schools, etc, and a lot of habits to be broken. And of course, a lot of us old book-reading dinosaurs will have to die out.

The Strain: A new vision of vampirism


Strain-coverAnyone who’s seen Guillermo del Toro’s recent movies—Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies (and a two-part The Hobbit on the way)—probably expect anything spawned by that mind to be boldly imaginative. Del Toro takes risks and he paints large while paying attention to the most meticulous details.

So when del Toro teamed up with Chuck Hogan to write a vampire trilogy, fans understandably expected something crazy, crazy, crazy good.

With the first part of that trilogy, The Strain, fans do indeed get something good—but it lacks the crazy, crazy, crazy.

Continue reading

Is your house haunted?

Horror of the “gothic” variety that occupied so much of the conversation between Byron and the Shelleys (these would be the conversations that ultimately gave rise to Frankenstein) has traditionally traded in some easily recognizable tropes. Among the most common are your haunted places. Swamps and moors are always a little scary. Graveyards and crypts, of course. Transylvania.

And then there’s haunted houses. Dark mansions, castles on top of hills. Abandoned homes where terrible things once happened. Subdivisions built on top of Indian burial grounds. And so on. Continue reading

ArtsWeek: Costumes and Parties

by mentalswitch

Tonight, tomorrow you will see people dressed up in their Halloween finest.  For your viewing pleasure I present others who are dressed up in their, well, regular party clothes.  But it might as well be for Halloween, right?

The following content is NSFP/W (what does NSFP mean?).  Click below for more….

Continue reading

Zombies: The new media darlings


Zombie: Don't worry. Only people with brains get eaten. You're safe.
Zombie: Don’t worry. Only people with brains
get eaten. You’re safe.

They aren’t sexy. They aren’t romantic. They aren’t tragically doomed.

In fact, they’re ravenous, violent, and virtually unstoppable. They ooze all sorts of bodily fluids. And they want to eat your brains.

So how come zombies are getting such mainstream media treatment?

As a culture, we love and loath things that go bump in the night. We have to have boogeymen, for all sorts of reasons. Because they touch deep psychological fears in profound ways, our boogeymen serve as a kind of moral check on behavior that laws and rules just sometimes can’t. At the other end of the spectrum, we seem to have a lot of fun being scared. Boogeymen do that for us, too. Continue reading

Scholars & Rogues & Zombies, oh my!


Got zombies on the brain? Well, it’s better than having them eat your brain, so that’s a plus.

Zombies are a hot pop-cultural property these days. Woody Harrelson’s buddy movie Zombieland has been eating up theaters. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies brought Jane Austen back from the dead to become one of the year’s publishing phenoms. Marvel Comics is now on their umpteeth iteration of a Marvel Zombies franchise that, pardon the pun, doesn’t want to die.

While zombies don’t have the long literary tradition of, say, vampires, there’s been plenty of recent zombie-lit out there to feed your brain. Here are a few recent favorites: Continue reading

The Scarlet NSFW

NSFWThe other day our friend MentalSwitch offered up a delightful little post entitled “Hello Nurse!” It featured a photo of an attractive model dressed as … well, hell, rather than me trying to describe the shot and failing miserably, why don’t you just click on over there and see for yourself. But before you do, please be forewarned that the photo is NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!!

Ahem. Well, actually, its worksafeness (or unworksafeness thereof) became the topic of some discussion here. Initially the pic was posted without a cut, meaning that the image itself would appear on the front page of S&R. Later, after some complaint and brief deliberations, we moved it behind a cut with the dreaded “NSFW” tag, indicating that the content would most certainly get you fired if it were accidentally viewed by any decent, God-Fearing American® co-worker. And since way too many of our readers work in places where others might be looking over their shoulders, this was a practical concern. As one colleague put it – and we’ll let that colleague name himself if he wants to – “if the wrong person had walked behind me with that image up on my screen, I could have been walked out the door that day, no appeal.” Continue reading

Edgar Allan Poe: there's nothing like a good opening line…

Edgar Allan Poe is – despite or perhaps because of  his proclivity for writing scary stories – one of our most beloved writers. Chief among Poe’s charms for the reader is his ability to grab us with a riveting opening line. As proof of Poe’s rare talent for the stunning opener, here for your Halloween Arts Week pleasure is a sample of great opening lines from the master of terror….From “The Tell Tale Heart”:

“TRUE! – nervous – very, very nervous I am and had been and am; but why will you say I am mad?”

From “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

“DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Continue reading