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LAST QUARTER MOON by Salvatore Difalco

Image result for quarter moon free image

Lately I’ve been getting dirty looks from people. Not just young people, though they are the worst offenders. Middle-aged people also shoot me dirty looks, and old people assume expressions of mild disgust. I wonder if it’s because I am a middle-aged white man. We’re disliked by many people these days, including members of our own demographic. I understand. Not really. But I understand how white middle-aged men, who have always had it easy, have become objects of disgust, derision, hatred. When I pass middle-aged white men, I myself feel like hitting them. I never actually hit them, I don’t want to be charged with assault, but the desire is very strong. It takes everything to keep from lashing out. Even when I look at myself in the mirror, which I seldom do, an impulse to strike the image overtakes me. I haven’t actually punched a mirror, but I’ve come close. We’ve fucked things up. Not me, per se, I am powerless and poor. I have no wife, no family, no profession, no property. No one can blame me for anything except failing to meet expectations, and in the end I alone bear that burden. Still, absolving myself of genetic guilt may strike some as insensitive and evidence of a predisposition to profound self-regard and denial. These are words, and as I read them I’m reminded of how fatuous my efforts have been, and continue to be, to express myself, and give meaning to an existence stripped of all significance. When I go out for a stroll in my most recent neighbourhood, and am confronted by the uncharitable and wolfish expressions of a pack of teenaged girls, my first impulse is to flee in horror. But one has to meet one’s fears head on in this life or suffer the fate of a yellow coward. I respond, with words I know to be powerful, in kind, to the seething pack. Offense quickly registered, outcries resound through the streets. Now I must flee. I run well for my age. Arms at right angles, shoulders square, I run to the nearby park and hide among a stand of poplars. A last quarter moon illumines the sky. Fascinating. I think of the moon, hanging there, rocky and immense, and imagine it slowly falling toward us, slowly falling toward Earth.

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THE SERVICE by Thomas N. Hackney

photo credit: J. Cavanaugh Simpson

The Milky Way galaxy is estimated to contain 100-400 billion stars, the oldest of which are nearly as old as the universe itself. Half of the stars in our galaxy average 6.3 billion, with our sun checking in at 4.8 billion years old. An estimated 10 trillion galaxies populate the universe. Assuming an average of 100 billion stars per galaxy, it can be roughly estimated that the universe contains around 100 octillion or 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars.

Because the elements needed for life as we know it – carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen – are found in varying degrees of abundance in space, it seems safe to assume that biological life should be fairly common in the universe. Scientists who study these things have reason to believe there could be ten-thousand alien civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy alone. So, 10,000 X 10 trillion (galaxies) would yield 100 quadrillion civilizations, which is quite a few.

Human beings (homo sapiens) have not loafed during their 100,000-year tenure on Earth. Over the last 500 years, humans have harnessed science, invented the gun, discovered America, gone to the moon (in person), visited Mars and the outer planets (remotely), realized electricity, nuclear fission and the microchip.  No doubt about it, it’s been quite a run.  But imagine what another intelligent civilization might have discovered if it had three million times longer to figure things out. As noted, the average age of half the stars in our galaxy is 1.5 billion years older than our Sun.  Since the Milky Way galaxy is upwards of 100,000 light-years in diameter, this means an extrasolar intelligence –  let’s say, 2,000 light-years away from Earth – that began exploring the Milky Way 1.5 billion years ago would extend its sphere of exploration at the rate of only one light-year every 750,000 years to bump into our solar system. The logical questions become: 1) where the heck are they? and 2) what might they be up to?

Having harnessed worm holes and black holes to travel through space, having discovered almost any number of inhabited and uninhabited worlds, along with anything else that happens to be out there, what would keep their interest? Our beautiful planet certainly must have seemed a good one to have a closer look at. Whether the initial discovery was made close by or from a great distance makes little difference, because once identified, it would have required no great leap to conclude that life probably exists here. Depending on how long ago this might have happened, a more detailed inspection would have revealed the presence of either intelligent or proto-intelligent life.

Sentient life is a precious and fragile thing. Upon discovering a primitive but intelligent species, it should be expected that many travelers would feel compelled to takes steps to protect that species from extinction. What a terrible shame and tragedy it would be if a promising and conscious lifeform should finally emerge from the muck only to meet an ignoble and early end by something so blunderingly stupid as a two-and-a-half-mile wide asteroid. Shielding intelligent beings from life-snuffing meteor impacts should not be very difficult. It would simply entail keeping an eye on the subject world’s orbital space so that any impending extinction-level objects could be deflected. Once activated, the shield would operate automatically and indefinitely, thus ensuring the inhabitants’ long-term survival. A few small asteroids might be allowed to impact in remote, unpopulated areas to gently warn the sentient world about the great cosmic danger facing them, thus countering any false sense of security created over millennia via this unknown external god-like shield, freeing up the evolving species to develop their own methods.

Take the two most recent major meteor events that occurred in Siberia, the first in Tunguska in 1908, the second in another section of Siberia in early 2013. The Tunguska bolide flattened 770 square miles of uninhabited forest and turned the evening sky red, as reported in Europe for close to a year. A more recent explosion took place about eighteen miles above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on February 15, 2013. This bolide was approximately 60 feet in diameter, yet scientists said its momentum packed the force of some twenty-five Hiroshima bombs. It should not surprise anyone that it injured at least two thousand people (1,500 of them applied for medical assistance) on that early morning – after blowing out many of the city’s windows. More than fifty were hospitalized with face lacerations, including thirteen children. There were no deaths, however.  None.

Interestingly, the Chelyabinsk asteroid was joined about sixteen hours later by a second asteroid approximately 100 feet in diameter, called 2012 DA-14 (aka “367943 Duende”). (Say, there’s a coincidence for you – two asteroids in one day!)  As the name denotes, 2012 DA-14 was discovered by astronomers the previous year in February. Scientists had tracked and calculated Duende’s orbit and flight so accurately they knew exactly when its minimum-distance-to Earth of 27,700 miles would occur. DA14 was expected. Chelyabinsk was not.

The most energetic known meteor impacts in our solar system were those of July 1994, when twenty-one comets smashed into the dark side of Jupiter. Known as comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, the “fragments” were designated ‘A’ through ‘W’ (‘I’ and ‘O’ were not used). According to official estimates their diameters ranged from about 100 meters to two kilometers. The energies involved were staggering. Fragment “G” alone was believed to release the energy equivalent to 600 times the Earth’s entire nuclear arsenal, or six million megatons of TNT.  It’s impact on July 18 created a dark spot on Jupiter 7,000 miles across. Two impacts occurring twelve hours apart on July 19 created explosions of similar size.

This was the first time humans had ever seen a natural object (much less twenty-one of them) impact another natural object in space, yet the curious thing to note: throughout human history comets have been seen as portends of future disaster, messages from the gods, and so on.  Comets augur things, and what else would “21” comets be auguring in 1994 if not the 21st century?  Hello.

Shoemaker-Levy 9 changed scientists’ view about the cosmic environment overnight.

Dr. Eugene Shoemaker was spot on with his theory concerning a higher-than-believed frequency of major impacts. The great comet crash of 1994 led directly to various projects to search for, and track, earth-crossing asteroids whose path around the Sun cross Earth’s orbit.  Now we appear ready to begin protecting ourselves from rocks in space, and just to be sure we should more closely inspect the main default message, transcribed from the book whose title is The Facts of Life – bio-galactic life, that is. It must surely grab the collective attention that anonymous “signs from beyond” all exhibit, if not proclaim, one thing. They seek to communicate information. By slipping around the back and through the door labeled Maintenance, we find that we can not only search for intelligent life but actually find intelligent life, if we watch and listen very closely (the front door being guarded by oversized gentlemen in NASA lab coats conducting “targeted searches”). No radio-waves here. Instead, inter-world contact would seem more semiotic. Chelyabinsk, for its part, gave rather visceral notice of certain things to come, things not necessarily glibly resolved nor predicted.

All part of the service.


A particularly uncanny meteor event: Peekskill, New York. 7:49 p.m. October 9, 1992.

A 4-by-5-by-11-inch meteor hit Michelle Knapp’s parked Chevrolet that evening. The vehicle’s tail-lights measured about 5-by-22-inches across. Now, this is not supposed to happen. There was something very plain and strangely true about the fact that nothing less than consummate skill could have found that long and narrow target so precisely, nor missed all the chrome that formed its two long borders. One can hardly fail to notice that except for the small nick near the middle of the five-foot-long accent (above the number “9”), which caused it to over-score the numbers “933” on the car’s license plate, nothing made of chrome was damaged by the meteor. The visual effect of this translated: “Right, Ames!”  It was a clear, if visually propounded, response to NASA’s main hypothesis: “extraterrestrials exist.”

The 27.3-pound meteorite was the first ever both filmed in flight and recovered.  More than fourteen brief videos up to 21 seconds in duration were made of the bogey as it ate up the miles from southern West Virginia (above where it entered Earth’s atmosphere) to northern-most Ohio, in about 40 seconds. Using triangulation analysis, a team of scientists published a map showing the fireball’s exact atmospheric flight path. The fireball began its “700 km” run about seventy-five miles due west of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. The NRAO, along with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and the Goldstone Observatory in California comprised the three radio-astronomical facilities utilized by the U.S. government for a major alien hunting (S.E.T.I.) project about to get underway.  Aha!

In the early 1990s, the Ames Research Center was about to commence the first congressionally funded search for extraterrestrials, called The High Resolution Microwave Survey. Costing taxpayers 100 million dollars, commencement day for the ten-year radio-astronomy project occurred on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of America, October 12, 1992. More radio-waves were collected and analyzed for intelligent content in the first few minutes of operation than had been accomplished in all the previous fifty privately funded SETI projects since 1960 combined.

Yet the signals were already evident. Consider the Peekskill license plate. As any car owner knows, license plates are good for interesting wordplay, and what better reason could there be to select a particular car in Peekskill if not to draw attention to what effectively could be written there?  From photographs we learn that the license plate read: 4GF – 933. We can quickly surmise that the letters “G” and “F” refer to the types of stars that Ames researchers were looking for at the time – spectral-type G and F stars, these likely being the only stars capable of supporting planetary life. So four GFs appear to inform us about four sun-like stars, presumably within reasonable distance of Earth, and at least four earth-like planets that come along with them. Four habitable new earths! Was this the good news, or did this refer instead to four already inhabited worlds, such as might be duly represented by these events?  Barring follow-up communication, there’s no way to know for sure.

What about the numbers 933? Well, the most obvious thing is that 3 x 3 = 9.  It is a fact that October 9 (date of the Peekskill event) occurred three (3) days before the Big Five-0-0 (Columbus Day) and three (3) days before Ames began targeting advanced extrasolar civilizations. If we do the substitutions, we can see that SETI X Quintennial = (yields) the Peekskill event, which makes perfect sense. The numbers 933 could also be a date – i.e. 3/93 or March 1993. Falling rocks from the sky have for centuries been known to augur things soon to happen, and 3/93 was less than six months away!  Did something important or awesome happen in March 1993?  It would need to be big because cosmic portends don’t fool around. Sure it did. Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) on March 24, 1993. This “string of pearls” led to the most powerful event ever seen by man. Peekskill augured SL9 because that’s what rocks from the sky do.

Also not to be missed: the owner of the 1980 Chevrolet Malibu, one Michelle Knapp, turned 18 on October 12, 1992. As first beneficiary, Miss Knapp reportedly sold her 27.3-pound “H6 Chondrite” to a collector for $50,000, and her soundly beat-up 1980 Chevy Malibu for another $25,000. Michelle celebrated her “coming of age” the same day the western hemisphere (America) celebrated its 500th birthday, the same day NASA-Ames began targeting” extraterrestrials. This would be where the extraterrestrials in question got to ask a rhetorical question: “All grown up are we?”

Could all of this have been just “one of those things?” Of course not! No, this was more like The. Real. Thing. And we’ll never be alone again. One inescapable inference to draw is that controlling the trajectory of meteors, comets and asteroids just happens to be an extraterrestrial specialty.

As can be seen from remarks received by your author from Dr. Seth Shostak at the SETI Institute, controlling for SETI scientists might be another of ET’s strengths: “The idea that meteors are signals from extraterrestrials [in addition to being dumb –  why wouldn’t they actually send data?] is something that both insults the hundreds of academics who study these things and would be regarded as fantasy if you told them. It’s like saying that cumulus clouds are a message from ET.”  In other words, it’s radio-waves or nothing.

That prevailing scientific attitude, summed up well by Dr. Shostak, is probably exactly what the designers intended.  As for why ET should communicate this way, we’ve already covered likely reasons for this. Providing scientifically conclusive proof of their co-existence (and protection) would have violated a so-called Prime Directive (a la Star Trekphilosophy) causing many more problems than it solved, and resulting in massive interference with a species’ natural evolution.

If, on the other hand, the designer’s main intention was to wake astronomers up to “the basics” of space reality, then things seem to be going well, or as well as can be expected. NASA has already visited an asteroid in space. The “Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous” (aka NEAR Shoemaker) launched in 1996 and touched down on Eros, nearly twenty miles in length, in February 2001. NASA’s latest asteroid mission improves on NEAR-Shoemaker by being the first to bring a sample of the 500-meter wide asteroid, Bennu, back to Earth. The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-Rex) launched into space from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in the summer of 2016.

Considering how unglamorous it was in 1993 to study asteroids compared to, say, quasars, black holes, or the universe at large, it was quite good of extraterrestrials to point out our primary research deficiency. This shows they care about us and are even rooting for us, as asteroids are our most likely nemesis (cue dinosaur extinction event). It’s not exactly your Hollywood version of aliens interjecting themselves into our world, but it’s nice to know.

There’s one last link to consider: The Peekskill event occurred the very night on which the draconid meteor shower was at its apex that year. Consequently, everyone in the press and many scientists assumed that the fireball was a draconid. What else would it be that particular night? But the Peekskill fireball could not have been a draconid for the simple reason that it arrived from the south, not the north as draconids do. The fireball was what astronomers call a “sporadic,” which is not associated with meteor streams and showers.  Dr. Martin Prinz, former curator of meteorites at the American Museum of Natural History in New York apprised your author of this in a telephone interview. If it was another “signal,” we should have learned how to spot these by now; i.e. just find an outrageous improbability and go with it.

In fact, Draco was a 6th century B.C. Athenian archon whose punishments, for any small crime, were so cruel and lethal that we have adopted the term draconian.  It seems the designers wish us to know that they are not draconian in nature (hallelujah!). Now, that’s also polite. NASA could probably learn a thing or two from them about that.

The other reason to downplay (but not write off) the inherently admonitory nature of these meteor events is contained within another act that occurred in West Virginia not far from where the fireball entered Earth’s atmosphere.  It had nothing to do with meteors but everything to do with impacting projectiles – bullets, in this case. These included a .32 caliber, a .45, and a 757 Magnum hollow point. A Princeton man – that’s Princeton, West Virginia – while drinking beer and cleaning these guns, shot his own right foot. Three times. The first two shots from the .32 and .45 were “not too bad,” according to the man as quoted by the press. Yet that third one must have really hurt. Only then did he call an ambulance.

In everyday conversation, we are not primarily attuned to the sentences we utter to one another, but to what linguists call “speech acts,” utterances used to perform requests, warnings, invitations, promises, apologies, predictions, and the like. The translation should be obvious.

So, the first ounce of human flesh was taken in Princeton on Wednesday, October 7, as the meteor approached Peekskill. Friday October 9 was three days before NASA-Ames commenced the Targeted Search on Monday, October 12. Some will say it’s a stretch to attribute the Princeton man’s stupid actions to unseen alien influence. Others could say they’re damn serious about what they’re telling us.

In the end, it’s natural to question and doubt extraterrestrial involvement with any of this. How in the world could anyone do any of this, right? The simple answer is skill, millions and millions of years of it. So we’ll just go ahead and note the thickening plot by acknowledging the town in which the shootings took place – Princeton. Ah, yes, we know what that means, don’t we, Dr. Einstein?  We wouldn’t want to “shoot our own foot” with any nuclear weapons, would we? No, we wouldn’t, for how intelligent would that be?


Editor’s note: Elements of this essay have appeared previously in other venues, including Adelaide magazine, Summer 2017. 

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ON MOVING ON: A Tribute to Capital Gazette journalists

Candle in front of a group of candles

By Ann Costantino

Several days ago marked the memorial service for John McNamara, the last of the five Capital Gazette newspaper employees killed about two weeks ago by Jarrod Ramos, whose misdirected rage was aimed squarely at unsuspecting employees who had nothing at all to do with his multi-year resentment toward the paper.

The Gazette covered his story after he apparently stalked and harassed a woman who rejected his romantic advances. In turn, he stalked and harassed the Gazette until he made good on his promise to “make corpses (out of their careers).” He unloaded his shotgun into their Annapolis office after first barricading them in. Deranged. A madman.

The deaths of the Gazette staff members is so incredibly sad to me, and still so very shocking, that it has rendered me (almost) speechless about it. And, in truth, it has been difficult to move on from it. In a way, I feel stuck and cannot report or write until I process it somehow. Mostly I think I feel badly about moving on. It’s why I am sharing this now.

Part of me wants to express what I have witnessed, personally – the range of emotion, beauty, love and reverence displayed in honor of the Gazette staff members who were killed for being in the wrong place at Ramos’ apparent “right” time. But even as the news cycle is pushing everyone forward – forcing us onto the next thing to cover or care about –  I find myself blocked. I lack the right words to describe this awful event with a significance I don’t yet think has been fully appreciated. While I did not personally know any of the Gazette employees killed, I attended the memorial service for Rob Hiaasen last week, have read everything I can, and have watched other employee memorial services online.

The way they have been described by friends, family and coworkers (some with whom I have spoken) is as though they each mastered what it was to be the best version of what a family member, a friend, an employee, a co-worker, or journalist should and can be. They were each loved, beloved and were celebrated for that –  for being kind, helpful, selfless, honest and concerned about others. None of them were celebrated solely for their work, or some amazingly written breaking story or journalistic award. They were celebrated for who they were and not for what they produced. The Baltimore Sun wrote earlier this week that the paper’s only regret was not knowing the Gazette employees a little better. (The Gazette is owned by The Sun.)

For the most part, I think that most media have handled this tragedy in a respectful and beautiful way, allowing the essence of each of the deceased to shine through. And the memorial services allowed even people who did not know them (like me) to benefit from their legacies. While attending Mr. Hiaasen’s service last week, I recall someone saying something like, ‘In a room full of egos, Rob was the first to support someone else’s story or work. He was the first to say ‘good job on that,’” or something similar. (I did not take notes.)

It was a beautiful memorial. At times, while absorbed in each testimony, I forgot we were gathered due to his death; it could have been a beach-themed birthday celebration under a big white tent, on an incredibly humid day, complete with beer, wine and James Taylor music. Hiaasen’s memorial was also strangely uplifting and inspirational. Yet, every so often, there would arise this terrible dread and sudden remembrance of why 500 of us were gathered. A bereaved’s voice would crack while recalling a memory.

One could hear a pin drop in those moments, and then something else would be said and we’d all be laughing again. Even though I didn’t know him, I felt like I knew him that day, and I certainly wish that I had.

The other Gazette employees have been celebrated too. It was reported that writer Wendi Winters died as she lunged at the shooter, in protection of her colleagues. It was something people were not surprised she would have done. Ms. Winters was also celebrated for connecting with her community, writing about everything and somehow managing to be everywhere, as if bilocating for her community, in service to her readers.

Advertising salesperson, Rebecca Smith, was known for her love of her family. She was new to the Gazette and described as “sweet.” And writer and editor, Gerald Fischman, was known as shy yet full of expression for the love of his life – his wife of eleven years – for whom he would write poetry. And I heard John McNamara described as never leaving the office before asking how he could help his coworkers. A sports writer, McNamara also loved to cover kids’ games so kids could see their names in the paper. I also read that his wife was his favorite subject.

Recently, Gazette and Baltimore Sun employees and survivors of the attack participated in a parade, when they usually cover such events. Some wore shirts saying “journalism matters.” It was a stand for a freedom of the press and an acknowledgement that the murder of the Gazette employees was an attack on that – the press. An assault on truth. And the media’s right to tell it. And of our country’s freedom to do so.

I do not think the longterm significance of the Gazette attack has been yet fully appreciated. To me, the attack was like a warning shot across the sky, one that I fear will be forgotten before it is even truly understood. And, ironically, it is the media that is pushing too fast past this tragic event – at least it is for me. I think I just don’t want to move on yet. This is just way too important.

Disrespect toward the media – due to politics on the two sides of the aisle – is eroding both public trust and respect for the profession. At least I think so. But if we let it, I think the Gazette shooting should instead teach us all a lot. Among several lessons, it taught me to hold all fellow journalists in an even higher regard – even if we disagree. It’s a tough job, one in which people get mad. Really mad. Really, really mad. Some of them, way too mad.

And I think I have changed due to this experience. At least, I am allowing myself to be changed. I am taking what I learned from the memorials, from the celebrations of life, with me. It’s one of the reasons I think I cannot yet move on. Throughout the past two weeks, I have hung on every single word stated about Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara and Rebecca Smith. I have listened to what the fallen editors would tell their writers, and what their writers could share about such guidance. I have clung to every piece of advice those reporters say they were given, as though such words were my own, as if the constructive criticism was about me.

But it wasn’t only the fallen who taught me. There is also a survivor of the attack who showed me something I also will never forget. I will never, ever, ever forget the look on her face – ever. It was like she was still there in her Annapolis office, frozen in time. At Mr. Hiaasen’s memorial service, I spoke with a Gazette journalist who managed to hide during the rampage – and survive.

As we spoke, she suddenly remembered something about her editor and pulled out a notebook to write it down. She had stitches on her face and was bruised badly. She had a black eye – or maybe two. She wasn’t shaking, but she looked so vulnerable to me. All I could say was “I am so, so sorry this happened to you.” I think I said it a few times.
I did not want to ask a single question – and didn’t – but witnessed how she continued to be a reporter and documenter in the midst of her own pain and involvement in the tragedy. This was a privilege to watch. I know of no better word to describe it.
Still healing from her wounds – both visible and not visible – her focus was on a detail about Mr. Hiaasen. She described an act of selflessness he had shown her one week before he was killed. She then scribbled it on her notepad and called him “fatherly.”

I will never forget the look, the pain, the gaze of confusion on her face. It was a look of stun, frozen in time. And it’s a look I will never forget. I think, more than anything, I wanted others to know that. To see and understand that humanness in her, and in reporters in general. To know that the person behind the pen is…well, a person.

Although I was not there that day the five were killed, I will never be the same writer after the attack on the Capital Gazette. Improving myself, and taking every ounce of knowledge I can squeeze out of the tragedy is the only thing I can do to make any sense of it. And it seems the only thing to do to make any difference at all.


Editor’s note: A Capital Gazette fund for the victims’ families and scholarships has been set up. See more info here.

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The Godfather Speaks

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The Godfather at work: Lee Gutkind (Photo: Cory Morton)

I first met author Lee Gutkind at the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference at Goucher College when I was a grad student in the mid-1990s. The conference brought together some of the greatest practitioners of a literary form of nonfiction breaking new ground: creative nonfiction. Featured were authors Tracy Kidder. Susan Orlean. Gay Talese. Mary Karr. Tobias Wolff. Ntozake Shonge. Diane Ackerman. It was an Olympus of gods working in the field, writing books and long-form true narratives for The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Within a couple years, it seemed the fledgling newly defined genre might come crashing to Earth.

A scathing article in Vanity Fair accused creative nonfiction writers, of memoir in particular, of “navel gazing.” Cultural critic James Wolcott reserved his sharpest words for an unsuspecting Lee Gutkind, a conference founder, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, and then-professor at the University of Pittsburgh: He labeled Lee, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, “The Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Wolcott lambasted the form itself as: a “sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.” This, despite the fact that some of the most revered writers of the day, also including Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Barry Lopez and others, were writing nonfiction with a literary style and focus, and successfully so.

The criticism also didn’t stop Lee, a yogi and avid motorcyclist. He knew he might be okay when at work one day soon after, an elevator opened and a colleague, Bruce Dobler, went down on one knee, grabbed Lee’s hand and said, “I kiss your hand, Godfather.” That same year, Lee helped found a unique low-residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the same locale as the seminal conference: Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. For the past few years, I’ve been an MFA candidate in the program.

Lee and I met up at a 20th anniversary founders’ lecture on campus and later discussed the status of the movement two decades after Vanity Fair launched its snarky ballistic missile. Now a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, Lee continues to innovate, write, and speak about communicating true stores. Hope you enjoy our Q&A chat, edited for clarity and flow. Read, reflect, and comment. — 3QR editor Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Q: At the 20th anniversary event at Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction and in your book, You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, you lead with the Vanity Fair article and its criticisms. You mention the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” label. I’m sure you were reeling at first from the article’s slings and arrows at the genre itself. When did the sting start to ease? Maybe not right at the elevator scene?  

A: You know how sometimes a single event can change your perspective on things? That little joking confrontation that Bruce and I had was helpful to me. Changed my perspective.

About 10 years prior to that article everything about creative nonfiction was such a fight—to make creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction or the new nonfiction, which is what some folks were calling it, happen. Be accepted, especially in the academy.  No one wanted to cooperate or sometimes even listen. There were all kinds of reasons: turf battles between composition and literature folks for one thing—fearful of writing programs gaining attention and preference in English Departments.  And there were some academics who felt that the fact that we were calling this new form “creative” somehow inferred that their work was less so.  And journalists downright hated the word creative because, they insisted, that it meant that we were making stuff up.  I thought I had made a lot of progress in moving the genre forward, but then came the Vanity Fair ambush.  And it was an ambush.  James Wolcott didn’t interview me or anyone else for that article.  It just appeared one day in mailboxes and on newsstands.  For a day or two, I was embarrassed.  Hurt.  But then, almost instantly, people responded in a way I had not envisioned.  (Like Bruce.) By congratulating me because I was featured in Vanity Fair!  Either they didn’t care or didn’t read what Wolcott had to say.  The Godfather label—the positive aspects of it—stuck.  From that point on, emboldened, I was much more in an offensive rather than a defensive mode when it came to creative nonfiction.

Q: Exactly how have you been going on the offensive? It was easy and satisfying to name all of the pre-eminent writers who were writing creative nonfiction, even though they might not have called it creative nonfiction back then.  And I repeatedly pointed out that there were many opportunities for writers who could research and write true stories in and out of the academy. And very few full- time positions for poets in this world, for example, especially in ways that were self-supporting.  As time passed, the genre became very profitable for English departments and writing programs—a cash cow so to speak—which would support other programs.  And people—prospective students and mid-career professionals alike—wanted to write these stories about themselves, their work, their families.  My mantra was and is: ‘It’s a movement–and not a moment.’  And the movement is growing.  I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and checked out a literary calendar.  There were at least 20 creative nonfiction events scheduled over the next couple of weeks.  And for the courses I teach at Arizona State and in the workshops I do across the country, there are now physicians, architects, biologists—an array of people with stories to tell and a hunger to learn how to do it.

And have you embraced the Godfather label?  I have mixed feelings about that.  I want to be recognized for my work as an editor and writer.  But I realize that Wolcott’s article, his roasting of me and the genre, did exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to do.  It gave me a platform and a vastly expanded audience.  So I have rolled with the Godfather when I thought it would work to my and the genre’s advantage. It was an opportunity with certain downsides, though.

Q: You Can’t Make Stuff Up is a very modern book on writing: specific and conversational. You have written other books on writing in the genre. Why do you think this one was needed? What else does it accomplish?

A: Hardly anybody except the new John McPhee book [Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process] talks about structure. Writers need to know what it is and how to do it. It’s not just that you sit down and write and look for scenes and other stuff you think might be interesting to tell your reader. There’s an order to how we piece together our work and that order allows you to achieve the integral style-and-substance objective that is the hallmark of the genre—entertain and inform.

 Q: In terms of looking back, are their other ways you’ve seen creative nonfiction change over the past 20 years? You mention a growing role in literature, publishing, and the academy; what about style or forms? (The braided essay, for example). Is there a thread of change, moving toward what exactly? What purposes might CNF serve in the near future?

I think what is happening today is a gradual but significant return to more of an adherence to fact-based, verifiable content.  Writers now seem to be increasingly concerned with the integrity of their work and how to distinguish their work from the awful emergence of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that’s become part of our political and, alas, cultural landscape. This “thread of change,” to use your term, which I like, also, as I think I said to you, leads to many experts and academics learning more about how to employ the techniques of the genre to communicate what they know to the general public. And more and more publishers and magazines are becoming wary of writers who cannot support their ideas and observations and information with evidence. This is not happening quickly, because it takes a lot of time and effort to not make things up and not take shortcuts—but that is what is emerging now, I believe.

Q: What about the braided essay, especially in terms of social justice: According to Purdue University, this form “usually contains at least one thread that is very personal and based on memory, and at least one thread that is heavily researched. Often, the threads seem very disparate at first, but by the climax of the essay, the threads begin to blend together; connections are revealed.” Why is the personal and analytical so important? 

Yes, the braided essay looks different—and it has a cool label, braided—and it can be both a delight of discovery and a challenge to read.  But in the end it achieves the effect and the mission of the genre: to tell a personal story and to connect that story to information and ideas that the writer perceives as compelling and perhaps vital.  I like the form and [at Creative Nonfiction] we publish braided essays from time to time. It is a challenge to do well because it can become formulaic and predictable, a struggle to read.  So when we find a writer who can master the form, we snatch it up!

I encourage and appreciate the way writers push the boundaries of the genre.  From the beginning, I have been on a mission to make this genre as all-encompassing as it can be. Early on, the reason creative nonfiction became such a successful genre was because poets and fiction writers made it into something more than it could or would have been at the time had they continued their work without reaching for something new. Hemingway, Diane Ackerman, George Orwell, James Baldwin—there are only a few of the many poets and fiction writers who pushed the genre to a new level.

Q: The topics of your books are widely variedfrom thinking robots to motorcycle subculture, baseball umpires to organ transplantation, and other disparate alleyways and byways of reportage. Why are you so curious?

I guess I am curious. But, more so, I hunger to enrich my life with as many different experiences as I can fit in, and to live what I call the creative nonfiction life.  I want to interact with all kinds of people and embrace the challenge of fitting in and gaining their trust and, in the process, learn what they think and know.  This is not easy.  In my work, you have to have patience and be empathetic, waiting for something to happen that will lead to stories that will capture the essence of the experience.  When that happens, all the time and energy you have invested pays off because then, at that moment, you have something unique and special to write about.  And I am not talking just about the immersion work I do.  For the past couple of years, I have been working on a memoir, and I have been immersing myself in who I am and why I do the things I do and did.  The answers don’t come quickly.  I need to be as curious about myself as I am with others, pushing and prodding and waiting for answers.

Q: In terms of other forms, such as poetry, do you find that poets do not want to admit some of their poems are actually true?

A: This is a broad generalization, but it seems the poetry is much truer than fiction and closer to nonfiction than short stories or novels. The fiction writer tries to engage and entertain and that’s great, but it seems poets try harder to make their words matter and to capture what is true metaphorically and factually.

Q: Since you have written in many forms, including fiction, what about other writers whose work in each genre informs the other? How do you see that happening or evolving today? Any examples or authors you might suggest reading…

I think it was a bigger deal—20 to 30 years ago—for writers to switch genres. But now that creative nonfiction has been established as a literary and publishing force, writers can remain comfortably focused here for an entire career. It pays better, and in CNF you can exercise your craft in extraordinary ways, using all available literary techniques to pursue real life.  As to the reading of younger writers who cross genres, you gotta go with Michael Chabon and Eula Biss, first and foremost.

Q: What do you think of the early works of Daniel Defoe as a pioneering example? In your book, you describe Defoe’s use of the composite character–though people believed his early novels, like Robinson Crusoe to be partly true… 

A: I know so little about him, but I do know that he was in business, and was a journalist. He was in jail, in a debtors’ prison.  He traveled widely. He pushed the envelope of life and literature in all kinds of different directions.  He lived the creative nonfiction life.

Q: Do you find that some younger writers resist getting their hands dirty? Creative Writing programs are absolutely terrific. They serve a definite purpose, and I believe in them.  But they can limit student experience—keep students in the classroom focusing on craft and minimize the substance and material that make the craft useful.  “Getting their hands dirty,” as you put it, is what life is all about and experiencing and capturing real life is what creative nonfiction is all about. There ought to be a better balance.  I prefer the low-residency model, like Goucher College’s.  Many students are older, and may be into their second or third lives. Creative writing programs can also discourage the opportunity to be a Hemingway or a Kerouac. To find the world and write about the world is part of the Great American Literary Tradition.  The other problem I have is the emphasis on the MFA degree in hiring faculty.  McPhee, Talese, Lillian Ross did not have and did not need an MFA.  I don’t have an MFA degree, and I did alright.

Q: How might resistance to experiencing life first change? If I was the czar of a writing program, which I’m not right now, I would say you can’t be a graduate student in my creative writing program unless you are 30 years of age, or that you can show me you have something to write about that reflects a world view.

Q: What about a required internship in a blue-collar or similar job? Absolutely. The Peace Corps, Teach for America, the military—Starbucks, McDonald’s, being an EMT are all great ideas and ways to see something else in the world and connect with your readers. What the hell!  We become writers because we want to make an impact, to change and inform people. If we don’t have the ammunition and experience to communicate and connect with the reader, we won’t be able to do much good. 

Q: Along those lines, do you find that younger writers are less likely to use details about people, fearful of invading privacy or showing judgment/being offensive by describing someone’s girth, etc.? (An example, my students had such criticisms of “XXXL/The Giant” by Micheal Paterniti). Some people spend a good deal of time focusing on curating and selfie-izing their profiles and public images. In your view, how might this affect an ability to observe and report?

I honestly don’t think writers think a lot about political correctness and, if they do, they shouldn’t—or not until they allow themselves to be as vivid and expansive as possible. No writer should inhibit their spontaneous creative expression by worrying about who might be offended by their words, ideas, and observations.  I think their editors should worry about that—or at least help them worry about that.  But I do think, if you work hard enough, you can intimately describe people and places in evocative ways without being mean and hurtful.

On the other hand, people are very sensitive, and often, whatever you say, if it is in any way unflattering, and even if it isn’t all unflattering, you invariably get some blowback. And what’s so terrible about blowback, especially if your observations are rendered truthfully and with eloquent precision?  And, frankly, in my experience, young people are much more apt to be more honest and direct and spontaneous than older folks.  Universities—where young people learn their trade and shape their futures—fear criticism and litigation. The hesitations are enforced from higher up.  Like I said, writers should open up, go for broke initially, then reassess in later drafts, with the help of their editors.

Q: You write that subjectivity is part of creative nonfiction. Yet there’s also the objective fly-on-the wall approach, such as House, Among Schoolchildren, Old Friends, and other books by Tracy Kidder. Can you talk a little about such approaches?

A: We all know true objectivity is impossible. And subjectivity can be subtle.  I mean, who and what we choose to write about—and not write about—is a subjective choice.  Readers know that what they are reading is mostly what is seen and reported with a writer’s eye.  And I think that in creative nonfiction it is okay, although not necessary, to tell your readers what you think about—how you feel about the subjects you are writing about, including yourself—if it is personal history/memoir.  If we do our work well, we writers know a lot, more so in some respects than the people we are writing about.  When I did my book about organ transplantation, I devoted weeks and months to spending time with, living with, patients and their families. And I knew a lot more about them than their surgeons did.  I would have been cheating my readers if I had not added that dimension, even though my reflections and observations were not necessarily balanced.  Many great writers, of course, like John McPhee, capture things so vividly they don’t have to reflect so much, and that is okay. But the traditional objective journalistic barriers are way down.

Q: Is journalism still a backbone of creative nonfiction, including reportage, interviews, and being on the scene? Yes. Even in memoir.  The best personal stories include scenes, obviously, experiences and moments, lived-through and observed.  They also include conversations—you can call them interviews—with the people about whom you are writing.  And with yourself.  This is not journalism in the traditional sense of the word, but the ways in which you gather information and ideas and put them on the page is not at all that different.

Q: What about outright lies, when people make things up whole cloth. In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, you mention the many writers who did just that: Jason Blair, James Frey, and others. What is the pathology behind that do you think? There must be something more to it…

 A: I think the driving force—the pathology—is the mania and need to get published. Bringing to the public what it is you have struggled with for years or even decades. I have no sympathy for James Frey, but I can, rationally, understand what he did. Think of the life of a writer. We all live alone with our keyboard and punch this stuff out without a lot of encouragement or acknowledgment.  Then your book is done, and for various reasons, publishers pay little attention.  It is very hurtful.  And I can even understand how his imagination ran away with him, extending, for example, a few hours in jail to many months.  But that is all rough draft stuff.  At some point, it is time to go back, assess what you have written and decide what you can live with and what is honest and true and accurate, and what is not.  Frey didn’t do that, which in the end was a prescription for disaster, and he deserved all of the criticism and ostracism he received.  Equally egregious I think, maybe even more so, was Jonah Lehrer.  What was he thinking, I can’t help but wonder, making stuff up about Bob Dylan?  That’s not alternative facts, for God’s sake—it is fake news.  Frey and Lehrer, and many others we could name, will never be believed or respected again.

Q: I might be going out on a limb discussing this with the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction, but what do you think of the idea of the three-quarter-true story–what we do here at 3QR, ‘prose and poetry greater than 75 percent true?’ Some would call this simply fiction, but we think there’s another aesthetic offered by a mostly true story, the equivalent in film being based-on-a-true-story. Of course, I agree fully with your idea of nonfiction being factual and sourced, but it seemed to me that a “category” issue has led to restrictions on writers, limiting how and what they write. Why not say what it is?

A: I admire what you are trying to do. I think it’s okay to have three-quarters truth or to stretch the truth or even exaggerate or make stuff up that bolsters what you are trying to say if indeed you are honest with the reader. If you are pushing the genre as far as you can, and your own art and your own potential at the same time, there is nothing wrong with going off on something that might not be true because we do that in our heads anyway—as long as we come back at some point and be honest with the reader. Tell them what we did and why.  It is another interesting dimension.

Q: And lastly, in terms of the political and social arenas of writing, can you tell me a bit more about your recent work with the UA School of the Future of Innovation in Society, and policy-oriented work as a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes? Why are policy and science increasingly important?

A: It is important to me personally, because as we talked when we first started [this interview], I think the parameters of creative nonfiction allow writers to go far past the basics of journalism and personal writing to look at this world we are living in via expanded and analytic ways and dimensions. The world is 50 times more complicated than it was 50 years ago or even 25 years ago. There is so much we need to know in order to get along, to survive and shape the future.  In the science policy think tank, where I am writer in residence and in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where I am a professor, I work with very committed and incredibly smart people who don’t necessarily know how to take ideas and information and share their knowledge in ways the general reader will understand. The challenge for me is to help them do that, and I have gained a great deal of knowledge in the process—and a new world has opened up for me.

I have to say that I was way behind the curve with all of this policy stuff, the concern with reshaping the future in a safe and well-defined way—what my new colleagues were calling “responsible innovation.”  But I learned a lot, gradually, and was excited and invigorated by how I could open new avenues of communication—between the experts and those impacted by their ideas and achievements—through what I had been practicing throughout my life: Writing and teaching true stories.  Creative writing programs traditionally focus on craft: story-writing technique and not so much the message inherent in the story, as I’ve said, the reason for writing.

A better balance between message and technique would make writers more productive and allow their words to make a greater impact in the world.  Because of the Internet and social media, no writer, especially those who write nonfiction, is local anymore.  We never know who will tap into our thoughts and ideas, or when and how we can change their perceptions. Yes, we write about what we know, what is around us, but we should always consider the potential global effect.

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Bio Reference: Literature on Deadline

Book by Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson (Caldwell Publishing)

Literature taps the universal nature of humanity. Journalism captures life stories on deadline.  This book, Literature on Deadline: The Art of Journalism, steps in to provide an intensive and sophisticated journalism “boot camp” for all traditional and new media writers. To order, Call: 1-800-284-7043

“Could Ernest Hemingway have written The Sun Also Rises or even The Snows of Kilimanjaro when facing a 5 p.m. deadline and an impatient editor? The answer is not what we might expect. Hemingway did write on deadline—many times. And, though he spent years tugging at the seams of novels, he wrote short stories of another sort when facing the clock. Hemingway cut his teeth on reportage—the swift narrative of life.”

What the Experts Say:

“A remarkable journey into the world of burn-it-to-the-ground journalism from the best in the business. Literature on Deadline is an indispensable tool for students of the craft, masters of the art form, and everyone in between.

— Scott Higham, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, The Washington Post

“Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson shares the tricks of the trade in clear and quick prose, giving aspiring journalists the tools they need to deliver compelling narratives built on creative and rock-solid reporting.

— Dana Banker, Managing Editor, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Literature on Deadline is an excellent—and welcome—addition to books on writing.  Fledgling reporters and aspiring essayists will both find it a valuable tool in learning how to write both creatively and well—on deadline.”

Patsy Sims, author Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example

What’s Inside:

Literature on Deadline: The Art of Reportage

What separates great stories from mundane journalism? The quality of the reportage.

You’re only as good as your material. Web searches won’t do it. The best stories in the business are penned by writers who hit urban hangouts, the halls of government, and other locales where stories happen.  Literature on Deadline reveals how to observe the telling details, score revealing personal interviews, and follow the paper trail to report stories that people will read and remember.

A “boot camp” for young journalists and even experienced writers intent on honing their craft with precision, depth and flair, Literature on Deadline helps writers develop story-telling skills in a range of forms, including essays, profiles, feature articles, breaking news, enterprise stories and investigative series. Author Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson explains nitty-gritty techniques, while also exploring higher issues of truth and ethics using real-life examples and practical guidance.

Drawing on her own firsthand experience as a staff writer for The Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Cavanaugh Simpson also gleans insights from some of the nation’s top journalists, including Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times, The BaltimoreSunand The Washington Post. The book features story excerpts and Q&As with elite literary journalists, including Susan Orlean, New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief; Jon Franklin, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and author of Writing for Story; and Laura Wexler, award-winning author of Fire in a Canebrake.

In the sometimes labyrinthian world of publishing, Literature on Deadline was originally published in 2007 by Caldwell Publishing Company, and can now be found via the affiliated Diction for Singers, a subsidiary of Celumbra. Also available in the Johns Hopkins University Barnes & Noble via bookstore@jhu.edu or Alex Tardiff, atardiff@jhu.edu







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The Trumpian Test

In this new era, what we mean by “mostly true” does not include how one leads a nation (via “alternative facts”). Here a commentary on what an actual disrespect for truth (versus a literary love for storytelling) could do to a society, and how it will test all of us . . .  


 A Republic if you can keep it.

— Benjamin Franklin, September 18, 1787

This is a test.

No, this is not a test of the emergency broadcast system (though that might occur more frequently now). This is a test of our nation. Of the U.S. Constitution. Checks and balances. Of how we define ourselves as Americans.

Soon after Election 2016, The New Yorker‘s David Remnick called Donald Trump’s win an American Tragedy, a triumph for “nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.” Remnick need only cite Trump’s campaign speeches. Yet there’s another view: Not tragedy, but trial. Tweet-gauntlets thrown down to test our post-millennial complacency.

A call to action, almost despite one’s politics.

The Trumpian Test.

Recent weeks, for example, have tested the independence of judges, who have substantially ruled against President Trump’s executive orders banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s actions have prodded the press, as The New York Times calls a lie a lie, and The Washington Post adopts a new slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness.

Trump and his advisors, including unkempt alt-right Rasputin Steve Bannon, have pressed traditional boundaries with orders tainted by right-wing extremism, fossil-fuel financial interests and a thin-skinned autocracy not seen in these United States.

Or have they? Maybe this administration will prove a pop quiz on our grasp of history: President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre; the vulgar and gauche Lyndon B. Johnson; and Ronald Reagan’s anti-environment EPA director. Or, further back, to the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson, U.S. Senator, war hero, brawler and bad speller. Jackson’s unprecedented use of veto powers prompted comparisons to a dictator. He rallied the common man against elitism. At his inauguration Open House, a mob was lured from the White House when servants “set up washtubs full of juice and whiskey” outside.

Trump and Jackson represent tall men practiced in jaw-thrusting and sporting poofy hair. Trump admires Jackson, recently laying a wreath at his tomb. Populists-in-arms? Maybe not. Outside Trump’s White House, a placard recently noted: “Let Me Dream or I Won’t Let You Sleep.”

Trump is our Nixon. Our Old Hickory. The rattled strongman resemblance could prove telling. In 1838, Jackson’s racial biases relocated thousands of Cherokees—men, women, and children dying on the Trail of Tears.

In fact, 2017 could prove a yardstick year for democracy itself. We’ve been chugging along, after all—sublimely confidant in a style of governance borrowed from Athenian Greek democracia and the Roman Republic, reimagined via the Enlightenment into a system its founders hoped would never foster an American CaligulaIsn’t that what we fear now?

Trump seemed to rise to a challenge with a toned-down address to Congress on March 1. Then, four days later, he Tweeted accusations—with no evidence—that President Barack Obama had bugged his phones, calling his predecessor a “Bad (or sick) guy!”

How do we respond to this roller-coaster presidency? To the impending threat of military quagmires? Maybe we should cram for this exam of who we are, and who we will become:

This is a call for Americans to vote more and complain less. An audition for a new Resistance. A heads-up for writers, playwrights, and film makers to protect free ideas (even when facing Tourette-style Tweets. Sad!).

Writers at this year’s AWP’s D.C. conference held a candlelight vigil at the White House. A theme among literary speakers in Lafayette Square: “A vigil is a period of staying awake when you normally would be asleep.” Literature, nonfiction in particular, is on deck.

In an AWP panel titled “The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Social Change” writer Eric Sasson, a frequent contributor to The New Republic, hit the mark. “As obfuscation becomes a primary distraction and truth becomes vital more than ever, nonfiction has to be used as an agent of change,” Sasson said. “It’s so much better to think of this as a call to action, a wake-up call, rather than ‘Oh my god, what do we do… this is so awful?'”

Sasson compared the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington, which drew 2.6 million worldwide, and other recent demonstrations to the historic civil rights, Women’s suffrage, Gay Rights and LGBT movements. We are also looking to our future: Our climate, Our selves. Take the April 22nd Earth Day March for Science in Washington, D.C. Could the worst in Trump bring out the best in us?

Some voices prove the Absolute Power of satirists. Take Melissa McCarthy’s SNL cross-dressed apoplectic rendition of Sean Spicer scolding the media.

On Capitol Hill, the Trump Age will also prove a litmus test for Republican’s claimed high morals. Many were appalled by candidate Trump’s behavior, yet silent or approving afterward. And Democrats? Will a recent failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act lead to renewed overconfidence? How vehemently will Dems fight to make a difference?

Government shake-ups are expected, yet this Oval Office CEO’s threatening demeanor will assess the departmental backbones of Justice and State, the CIA, EPA, NOAANational Park Service and the Arts. Just consider the president’s slash-and-burn federal budget proposal.

We’re all on trial now. Will Americans actually tolerate the Other, whomever that might be? Evaluate our own empathy for opioid-destroyed generations in Rust Belt America or Baltimore’s drug-war zoned streets. What is any one of us going to do?

For many, the shock-and-awe of Trump’s election disrupted a complacency adopted when we elected our first African-American president eight years prior. Some touted a post-racial nation then. We thought we had all passed a major test.

In the end, this is also the test of a man.

Of one man’s self-control and sanity. Of his judgment and penchant for petulant Tweet-blasts at 5 a.m. Of his need for sleep. Or the proper medication. Of his commitment to the Rule of Law he claims to admire, even if something rubs him wrong.

Because, if it’s raining, pretending it is not will not make the rain go away.

Nor will Americans, with our own tested measures of thought. And action.


J. Cavanaugh Simpson, the founding editor of 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, is a university lecturer, essayist, and author. She is currently working on a book about the future of digital culture and counterculture, delving into how we might survive an age that has, among other surprises, sparked an online-celeb and Twitter-addicted prez.



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That’s hot stuff.

I was skimming through the newspaper when I inadvertently glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universea glimpse of which physicists (and artists and poets) have been searching, and mostly missing, for millennia. I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.

“To my mind,” wrote the noted physicist John Archibald Wheeler, “there must be, at the bottom of it all, not an equation, but an utterly simple idea…that idea, when we finally discover it, will be so compelling, so inevitable, that we will say to one another, ‘Oh, how beautiful. How could it have been otherwise?’”

I have no idea why I, an ordinary man of humble origins, humble intellect and, I assure you, even humbler attainments, accidentally glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe that simple, primordial idea for which the great minds of the centuries have been searching. Just plain dumb luck I suppose.

Here’s how it happened: In the newspaper, I read that physicists had created what appears to be a new form of matter, what they call quark-gluon. Scientists from 26 different countries collaborated to make this quark-gluon stuff at the European Center for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. They used a microwave oven (of sorts) 100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun. The mere thought of something—anything—100,000 times hotter than the center of the sun should give any attentive brain cause for pause.It did mine. That’s hot stuff.

The stuff they made in this hot oven is supposed to be just like the gunk from which the whole universe was made, shortly after the Big Bang. (As the bumper sticker says: “God spoke the Word, then Bang!”) By “shortly after” the Big Bang the scientists mean ten millionths of a second after. (There’s another cause for pause. What kind of watch are we using to measure ten millionths of a second, eleven billion years ago?)

The scientists speculate that when the universe was born, after that first ten millionths of a second, that original stuff then coalesced into your standard old quarks, leptons, muons and neutrinos, from which, of course, we get our everyday atoms, and from atoms come our bathtubs, hairdryers, staplers and other familiar things. Basically, the Geneva scientists speculated that they had succeeded in creating a tiny bit of original stuff identical to that from which the whole universe is made. “That’s neat,” I’m sure their bosses told them.

Thinking about this, I remembered reading some years ago about another group of scientists who had likewise succeeded in making original stuff out of atom guts, but instead of using a very hot oven they had used a very cold refrigerator (of sorts.) According to a report in Science Magazine, researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology at the University of Colorado at Boulder had cooled atoms down to within a few billionths of a degree of absolute zero. (Again, billionths of a degree? Which drugstore sells such nifty thermometers?). These Boulder atoms got so cold they lost their atom identities, or personalities, and mooshed into a singular glob. These scientists proved what Albert Einstein and Sayendra Nath Bose speculated might happen if you chilled atoms that much. That’s why this cold stuff is known as Bose-Einstein condensation. Or maybe that’s the name of the process.

At any rate, thinking about how atoms are made, I started to wonder, when the universe was born, was the original silly putty really, really hot or was it really, really cold? Or maybe, with everything so smooshed together that not even night and day could squeeze out, might the original stuff possibly have been both really, really hot and really, really cold? Could it have been, paradoxically, hot and cold at the same time?

From the modest bit I know as a curious layman, such a paradox is the nature of quantum physics, where it appears you can indeed have it both ways: have a particle and/or a wave, have it hot and/or cold, day and/or night, here and/or there, all depending on the position (and intention) of the observer. In other words, how you look, where you’re standing, and apparently how you’re holding your jaw when you’re conducting the experiment.

So, back to the glimpse. As I said, after reading the scientific reports, I wondered whether the universe was unthinkably hot or unthinkably cold, not only right after it was born, but, more importantly, just before, in that timeless (eternal?) instant just before the Big Bang. Since in the before there couldn’t have been any stuff yet (right?), it occurred to me: Whatever was here before the Big Bang, no matter the temp, was not stuff at all but rather more like a mood. It just made sense to me that what existed before the Big Bang was a timeless, space-less (dimensionless) mood.

Obviously, it must have been a pretty good mood. In fact, it appears that the pre-universe mood was, in a word (Word?) pretty darn happy, even joyous, just before it broke into a hot/cold, quark-gluon song like it didjust before it burst into ever-expanding swirling galaxies and horsehead nebulas, not to mention staplers.

Thinking about this moment—or pre-moment, as it were, since even time hadn’t been invented yet—I suddenly glimpsed the fundamental nature of the universe: Eureka! It was obvious that the mood of happiness itself, joy itself, must be the original stuff of the universe.

It seemed clear this was the “utterly simple idea” physicist John Archibald Wheeler predicted we’d find some day. That the universe is made of happiness is indisputably a simple idea. But of course, the scientists, being scientists, would want proof that such a Snoopy-like presence could be the idea at the bottom of it all.

Using standard scientific expectations of duplicated empirical evidence, we might prove that happiness is the original stuff of the universe if we could offer evidence that:

1.) Happiness manifests, depending on how you look for it, as either hot or cold, or maybe both hot and cold; and

2.) That, given all the actual and potential forms of the universe, happiness must be able to assume any particular shape or form it wants or needs. (We have to prove that happiness is infinitely pliable and malleable, even more so than silly putty.)

Okay, so let’s take it step-by-step: The temperature dichotomy.

From direct personal experience we can all attest that, yes, happiness can appear as either or both hot and cold. For example, when I owned a furniture refurbishing business, a cranky fellow working for me would—almost every day, for almost any reason—get angry, unhappy, even hot-under-the-collar, so to speak. He was a young guy, big and bulky, and would bum everybody out by getting red in the face, boiling mad at the slightest slight.

“Good morning, Joe,” I might say, coming into the shop.

“What’s so good about it? Nobody fixed the coffee.”

That kind of guy.

The best way to cool him down, we all learned, was to stay in our joy, maybe tell a little joke, or say something lighthearted.

“That’s another reason I don’t pack a gun,” I might respond. “Somebody doesn’t fix the darned coffee, they’d get a slug right in the shin.”

If we could maintain our own good mood, get him to laugh or even just grin, he’d cool off; the red would literally drain from his face. He’d chill.

Using humor to cool things down is not unique. War buddies, for example, know a quick quip helps everyone survive tough spots. As Winston Churchill once observed, “Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.” Or as poet and essayist Samuel Johnson put it: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Someone who keeps their cool, often via humor, in hot circumstances is known to be grounded. Grounded in what?What else? Grounded in the basic stuff of the universe: unflappable joy!

So okay, happiness can cool. Might it also warm things up, when needed?

For example, Gladys, a middle-aged woman who worked in our front office when I was a stock broker, had the nickname of The Ice Queen. Everybody’s known somebody like Gladys. Say good morning, goodnight, I’m going to lunch, I fell off my bike—no matter what you said—Gladys was an ‘ice-cycle.’ The only way to warm her up was to laugh, preferably at yourself, or the world around, or maybe the bosses upstairs.Then you might glimpse a tight, tiny, ever-so-slight smile appear then quickly disappear across her face. Ice cool, if not cold, is a stance many humans assume. This is why speakers talk about “warming up the audience” with a joke or two. If a stranger on the bus makes us laugh, we warm to him.We all know, from both personal and communal affairs: Happiness can clearly have a warming effect, when necessary.

So, again, it’s clear that happiness might be the basic stuff of the universe because it can be either hot or cold, warm things up or cool things down. Happiness keeps life moving, flowing, evolvingever upward, or outward, downward or to the side, depending on what’s needed. The scientists in both Switzerland and Boulder should be happy with such simple evidence of the joyful nature of the primordial stuff.

So much for proof number one.

On to proof number two, whether happiness can take any shape or form necessary.

This one’s easy. Just look around.

It’s quite obvious that the universe is quite happy to express itself in a gazillion different shapes and forms. If the universe wasn’t happy to have so many shapes and forms, we wouldn’t have all this stuffplanets, and asteroids, and moons, and neutron stars and pulsars; hair dryers and computer mouse pads; mouse tails and mouse earsto name just a few. The universe is the most powerful thing inwell, in the universeso it can do whatever the heck it wants, yes? Making a lot of forms, a gazillion different forms, is obviously one of the things the universe is happy to do.

And from our human point of view, it’s also clear that no matter the form, somebody somewhere is going to be spontaneously happy with it. So, humans tend to resonate with the cosmic background, which is, I posit, happiness itself. For example, some people are quite happy with quasars, others with football statistics, still others are thrilled with maggots or fire ants (for pity’s sake) or, more commonly, the radiant colors shimmering off the sunsetting clouds. Not everybody will accept every shape the universe throws out, of course, but somebody somewhere finds joy in every form imaginable.

Sure, we could find exceptions to that rule; find some item or activity somewhere in the vast universe that absolutely nobody is happy about—say a mosquito bite or stubbed toe. Still, such a find would only make some grouchy contrarian happy that a primordially sad situation was found! So to answer to the question, “Can the basic happiness stuff take on any form it wants?” Again, obviously, yes.

So the evidence stands:

Happiness is obviously quantum, it can either warm us up or cool us down, depending on what we need.

And happiness is infinitely pliable, wantonly making and unmaking shapes and forms throughout the universe. Happiness meets all the (simple) scientific qualifications for being the fundamental stuff of the universe.

But the scientists aren’t the only ones weighing in on this topic. For thousands of years prior to the “scientific revolution,” prophets, poets, saints and sages were giving their own take on the essence—the basic stuff– of the universe.

Genesis puts it this way: Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good.(If “good” doesn’t include happiness, or doesn’t actually mean happiness, then who needs good?) Happiness as reality’s core is further confirmed in Ecclesiastes: I commend mirth. And later in the 42nd Psalm: God has a smile on His face.An early Jewish proverb has it: “As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul.”

The Taoist Lao Tzu concurred in 531 BC: “As soon as you have made a thought, laugh at it.” And the Buddha: “When the mind is pure [i.e., real], joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

Jesus was on board: “I have come that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full.” How much clearer could it be? And the Muslims are not to be left out. The Koran explicitly affirms, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.”And last, but not least, the contemporary seer, Dr. Seuss: “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

Fortunately, by coming across a few scientific reports in the newspaper, I happened to be given the insight that happiness is the quantum, fundamental stuff, animating both the art and science of the universe. I am quite humbled, even awestruck, (not to mention tickled) being offered this glimpse into the basic reality of absolutely everything.In a nutshell, within and without, above and below, in the micro and the macro, in the stillness and the flow, AllAll, All, Allis Joy.

As Archibald Wheeler might say, how could it be otherwise? Isn’t it an utterly simple idea, and beautiful?

Now, after writing this happy little essay, I’m off, under the wife’s command, to shovel all the joyous, oh-so-tactile (and heavy) growing piles of snow stuff off my irritatingly long concrete sidewalk. I first frown, then, remembering to tune myself to the frequency of Basic Stuff, I grin.


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BLUES IN by Tom Larsen

It’s a fable as old as recorded music.

The new releases at Rasputin’s Records were directly to the left of the checkout line. That’s where I first saw Art Pepper staring out from the cover of a Blue Note twofer.  With those haunted eyes and sunken cheeks, he had the refried look of the nasty habit. Friends of ours back home had that look. It got so you hated to answer the door. Junkies were why we moved four time zones. The speed freak might rewire your house, but he won’t bore you shitless then steal your stuff.

“Death warmed over,” I said to my wife. She was staring at the picture, thinking the same thing. Andree was married to a junkie for seven years and knows the look better than I ever will.

“Blues In,” she read the title, clutching an armful of Steely Dan. “Who’s Art Pepper?”

“Never heard of him,” I nudged her toward the register. “Just another be-bop burnout.”


Smack and saxophones – an image so set in the fifties it defined cliché. Every neophyte knows the Yardbird story: Jazz genius goes down in flames taking a truckload of wannabes with him. It’s a fable as old as recorded music. From Bix to Hendrix the best licks tend to bow out early. Bird wasn’t the first junkie jazzman, but he had the fire. One of the few who find what they were born to do. So great was his talent he had to invent a form to contain it. Improvisation so florid and precise it will always take your breath away. Not just the speed, though speed was the essence. Bird could hit every note on the nose. No slurring or lagging, just flat out and ripping. Of course, you had to be up to the chase. As fast as Bird was, you get the feeling he could have played faster if anyone had the ears to follow.


I’d always wondered about jazz. I envied the way Kerouac dropped the names and I was partial to saxophones and smoke filled rooms. But it seemed like a too big world with no easy access and aside from a few records, I remained jazz ignorant.

This Pepper guy intrigued me. It was partly the picture, but also the fact that I’d never heard the name. Like most snobs I’m drawn to the obscure, and this guy looked every inch of it. A year would pass before I finally bought the record, but that moment in Rasputin’s was a premonition.

I don’t know what it says about me, but I’m a guy who needs his heroes. Despite the ravages or because of them, I knew this was someone I could get behind. If I was going to open the door to jazz I needed someone to lead me inside. Pepper had the look. If he had the talent, I was set to go. From the first track I was gone.

Pepper came out of big band swing, Benny Carter, Stan Kenton and the zoot suit clubs of central LA. He personified the cool, deceptively breezy west coast style that be-boppers couldn’t abide, too arranged, too loosey goosey, way too white. Another example of the times getting in the way, I suspect. You can’t see how it is until the dust settles. Bebop was young and angry, filled with sharp chops and hard edges, west coast was older, more polished, still swinging. Where the New York players made you bob and weave, the white boys just made you dance. I’m a guy that likes to dance.

Given the times and the dynamics of innovation, bebop was bound to prevail. It was brand new rather than reworked and refined. It captured the spirit of the post-war boom and the sensibilities of the avant-garde. Bop was raw and sexy. It broke from the past instead of evolving from it. Time was ripe for all things new. In the end it’s always a matter of context.

So bop assumed the big band mantel, modern music for modern times. And while Bird and his flock won the accolades, the west coasters just kept on swinging. What followed was a revelation. In an effort to remain cutting edge, bop veered into free form and eventually chaos. Coltrane, circa Miles, to Coltrane in the end is a tragic conceit, not a musical direction. No one ever tapped a toe to “A Love Supreme,” and no one ever will. In the meantime swing downsized into rhythm and blues, Louis Jordan, The Church Street Five and eventually rock and roll.

Bop vs. swing, a funny thing. Both played music but one was more … well, musical.


You can hear Charlie Parker in Pepper’s playing. For a young musician of that time the influence was inescapable. But Pepper’s cadence, his timing and rhythm are rooted in swing. The notes fly in a lyric dance that owes more to Goodman than Gillespie. While his fellow soloists reworked the theme, Pepper soared above it, putting the simplest ditty through majestic paces. Like Bird, he could hit every note, yet his use of time and space drove the melody instead of pulling it along. What they say about the great ones is true. It’s what you don’t hear that kills you.

But what set Art Pepper apart was emotion. His capacity for the heartfelt was exceeded only by his ability to express it – unbridled joy and effervescence, real pain, as opposed to show biz pain. Not to mention rejection. Where Bird was at least credited, Pepper was a sporadic presence, if not musically, then physically. Periods of incapacitation followed by longer periods of incarceration put him out of commission through the music’s heyday. That he recorded as much as he did is a tribute to talent alone. He was more in demand than in attendance.


Smack and saxophones. Like Bird, Pepper was a junkie first and a jazzman second. Scoring and fixing were the order of the day, and incidentals like club dates and recording sessions were secondary. Unlike Bird, he did not have an adoring public and visionary promoters to push him out on the bandstand, no slumming socialite to ease the descent. Heroin wreaked havoc on Pepper’s life, but unlike Bird it couldn’t kill him.

Too much heart, you can’t help but hear it.

Followed by years of poverty and dissipation.

Like Chet Baker he was a white junkie in a black junkies’ world. As white jazzmen, they were easy targets and the cops came down early and often. The way that worked is the way it always works. Give us a name and we’ll go easy. Guys like Baker knew the drill. But Pepper knew what he couldn’t live with and, unlike Chet, he did the time.

Too much heart for his own good.

Followed by six years in San Quentin.


Like the natural he was, Pepper never practiced, walked away from his horn for years at a time. He didn’t live and breathe the music. It came too easy, paid too little and got in the way of his downward spiral. The alto was the one thing that could save him, but one hope for a junkie can be worse than none.

By any measure the sax men fared badly. For the most part their stories end on a grim note and their recordings echo the talent wasted. The great plummeting Bird hit the rocks and, like lemmings, the others soon followed. The survivors were few, but Pepper was one of them. Maybe big hearts are the hardest to kill. As immovable object a forty-year habit has no rival. Enter, Laurie of the irresistible force. Why some get what they don’t deserve is one of life’s thornier questions.

The alto didn’t save him. The lady did.

Leading us all back to Berkeley and Rasputin’s.


A short spot on the radio led to my only meeting with the man. As part of a book promotion, Pepper was to appear at that same Rasputin’s. The book was Straight Life, the Story of a Jazz Survivor, his recently published memoir. By then I was deep into the music. Pepper’s “Blues In” twofer had grown to twenty albums that covered his progression from pure swing to hard blues.

And if ever there was a ripe time for a comeback the late ’70s was it. Rock music had hit a wall and the jazz bandwagon was starting to roll. Laurie, Pepper’s third wife, had assumed the task of compiling a discography, tracking down side sessions and collecting royalties on hundreds of recordings dating back through the fifties. She also transcribed hours of taped interviews into his memoir, one of the best of the genre. Thanks to Laurie, Pepper’s recording career was back in gear and he was touring and playing to rave reviews. Live long enough and anything can happen.

His history was part of the attraction. Pepper wore his dissolution like a cheap suit. Photos from the sixties and seventies showed what appeared to be a concentration camp survivor with bulging eyes and a death’s head grin. The first time my wife and I saw him play, in 1976, he looked like he wouldn’t survive the set. Morbid fascination, yeah, that was part of it.

Mostly though, it was the chops. His style had evolved. The up-tempo numbers had a flaring sound, and the ballads were baleful and brooding. The light touch was gone, replaced by a searing intensity that told the real story. Pepper had bulked up a bit, but the tattoos and prison pallor made watching him difficult. Listening was something else again. Not easy but spellbinding, each tune telling a story.


Our conversation with him would tell its own story.

We parked on Bancroft across from the Berkeley campus. A heavy mist muffled the streetlight. I had my copy of Straight Life and as we moved down Telegraph, I realized I’d never done anything like this before. When we got to Rasputin’s, I could see a few browsers but nothing resembling a crowd. There was a panhandler by the door, and a guy eating pistachios at the corner bus stop.

We went inside, slipping past a pair of skinheads. I fingered my way through a bin of used records. Pepper was late. The whole thing had the feel of a no show. Then, out of nowhere he was there. A bit shaky but dressed to kill, Laurie, smiling weakly beside him. I took a quick look around. There were six of us in attendance. A kid in a Mohawk met the Peppers at the door and steered them to a card table stacked with books and records. Everyone looked uncomfortable. I wished we hadn’t come.

“Hi, I’m Andree.” My wife stepped up with a great big grin. “My husband and I are huge fans.”

What the hell was she doing? These were living legends not yokels from her yoga class. I hurried to join them before she could blow it.

“Mr. Pepper? I’m the husband,” I reached a hand around.

“Please, call me Art.” His fingers were like ice.

“We just saw you at Davies Symphony Hall,” Andree blabbed. “I lost my hat.”

Art smiled and shook his head. “I’m real sorry to hear it.”

“That’s OK. I always lose my hats.”

Laurie chimed in “With me it’s umbrellas.”

“It was a cloche hat, black, with a lace veil. Tom had just bought it for me. Isn’t he sweet?” Andree gave my cheek a pinch. “Your book is fantastic, by the way. I can’t imagine being able to play music AND write.”

“Transcribe,” I said through my teeth.


“The book was transcribed … from tapes.”

“Oh, well it’s some story. I plan on reading it again.”

“Thank you,” Art nodded. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“And YOU!” Andree turned to Laurie. “What a fantastic thing you’ve done! Pulling it all back together again, it’s like a miracle!”

“You don’t know the half of it.” Laurie sighed.

I looked behind me. No one was cueing up and the store seemed deserted. When I turned back Andree was bent over the table sketching something on the back of an envelope. The lost hat, presumably. I looked to Art. He studied his pen.

“I thought the book was incredible,” my voice barely registered.

He glanced up. “I’m sorry?”

Straight Life? I thought it was a masterpiece.”

“Thanks, man. I appreciate it.”

The wives burst out laughing and their voices dropped to a whisper.

“Listen Art,” I had to force myself. “Do you think you could autograph it for me?”

“No problem, that’s what we’re here for,”

I handed him my copy.

“To … ?” Art hesitated.

“Andree and Tom. Tommy, actually. …  Make it Tom.”

He wrote something then handed it back. “There you are … Tom.”

Andree gave me a poke. “Did you ask him about the clarinet?”

“Oh yeah, I, … the uh, …”

She snaked an arm around my waist. “We think you should play it more often.”

“That makes three of us,” Laurie nodded in agreement.

”So why don’t you, Art?” Andree pressed him.

Pepper smiled and shook his head. “I love the sound. But the damn thing has a mind of its own. You can sneak up on it sometimes, but usually it’s a battle.”

This was the sort of info I was after, a rare glimpse into the mind.  His answer was revealing, but more importantly the question sizzled with jazz savvy. Possibly no one had ever asked him about it. There were a million more things I wanted to know, but, try as I might, I couldn’t think of one.


Despite the night’s light turnout, Pepper’s star continued to ascend. “Straight Life” was a critical and commercial success and the volume of recordings released during the 80’s rivaled his most prolific periods. I still claimed him as my personal discovery, but the public was quickly coming around. By 1983 he was riding an unprecedented wave of popularity, and his club dates and concerts were hot ticket items.

Like all things cyclical, interest in jazz ebbs and flows. The surge in virtuosity that marked jazz, and to a similar extent, rock music has been largely lost to the mainstream muck. At the same time, a revitalized black culture seems better served by hip hop than bop. No matter. The tales that survive are the one’s you can’t forget. Art Pepper’s story is as troubling as it is trademark American — the interminable struggle, the long-shot happy ending — Pepper lived it and his recordings bear witness.

In 1985, at the height of his comeback, Art Pepper died of a stroke at his home in Los Angeles. Survival has a shelf life, as it turns out. His impact on jazz has been undervalued, but history has a way of settling accounts.

“To Tom and Andree. Hope you dig this. My best.” Art Pepper 1/14/81

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ABSOLUTES by Ingrid Jendrzejewski


He says the speed of light is an absolute, a universal physical constant: 299,792,458 meters per second, no more, no less, but then I say that’s nothing to how quickly my mind races when he’s away the way he is now, away in the night when I know-damn-well-know that he’s not still at work, that the glow illuminating his face is coming not from a computer screen but from beer-filtered neon and another woman’s cigarette.

Still, I know already what his response will be, possibly because the speed of sound has quickened such that I can hear his voice before he’s even started to speak but more likely because it’s an argument we’ve had before, and I have a good memory for such things.

No, he’ll say, he says, he’s said, no, your mind can’t move faster than the speed of light; your mind’s nothing but a network of electrical impulses, all firing off all-over-the-place, just synapses firecracking, and synapses, well, they’re bound by the laws of physics, just like everything else, just like you and me.  I don’t doubt they’re quick, but they ain’t never gonna go faster than the speed of light.  Just not possible.

Then he’ll quirk a smile, that smile that’s meant to end conversations, change subjects, as if being right about the nature of electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum absolves him from talking about other absolutes in the universe, absolutes latent in minds and bodies and hearts.

And I will try to redirect the conversation, deflect us back to what’s obvious, what’s visible, what’s blinding: the missing phone bills, the new cologne, the late nights and the way he’s started to radiate in a way I’ve not seen since the days before the mortgage and the kids.

This is where my momentum is, where I’m leaning, where I cast my shadow.  But he is good at refraction; he will make himself into a mirror and bounce my words back at me: naked, glaring, distorted, opaque.  I will watch my words fall and bend like particles of light being sucked into the black hole of his logic, a black hole that can absorb everything I have to offer–so much, too much more.

He tells me that the speed of light is an absolute, a universal physical constant, and already, already he’s walking away.  If only I could learn how to luminate, to shine so brightly that I could stop him in his tracks, make him turn around, shade his eyes and smile into the brilliance, then I could say to him, yes, an absolute, a universal physical constant is exactly, exactly what I want.

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It’s hard to sort out after all these years when I really started to care about MUSIC as a THING. It played such a huge role in my life, since before I was even conceived, that it’s almost no wonder I haven’t thought about it much. Except to know the music I wanted to listen to was “straight from the pits of hell,” according to my dad. Direct quote. No, that’s not quite right. That’s where he said break dancing came from.

I was in like second grade when MTV broke out. I had to sneak-watch it. I wasn’t even allowed to listen to Weird Al. Let that sink in for a minute.

Seems it always comes back to my upbringing and my family. I was raised a straight-up Bible-thumper. To set the groundwork a bit, my Great Uncle George—who called Santa Claus SATAN CLAUS—sold all his belongings back in the ’40s or ’50s and went out on top of a mountain to wait for Jesus to come back. Or so the story goes. His wife, my Great Aunt Ada, made the best damn tacos I’ve ever had, though.

My dad—20-year Army man and two-tour Vietnam veteran—was also a Fundamentalist Baptist preacher. The Book of Revelation was his jam. I’m not surprised. His own father, also a minister, dropped dead one night of a heart attack after delivering a sermon, right there behind his own pulpit. My dad was in Vietnam when it happened. Let that sink in for a minute.

My dad was also a truck driver. There’s a Clutch song that goes “A preacher, a trucker, a high roller…a holy rollin’ preachin’ rollin’ trucker!” Sorry in advance for the pun, but that song always struck a chord with me…

In any case, before he was a SANCTIFIED BY THE BLOOD OF THE LAMB, gospel-spouting Christian, my dad, by his own admission, was a bit of a hell raiser. He played guitar in bars and such. Mostly Elvis tunes, he said. And later, when I was about ten—by which time we were full bore into Jesus—he showed me a few chords on guitar, and it wasn’t long before I was playing alongside him, both of us accompanying the piano player at our church.

My mother, for her part, came from a long line of singers. So my dad got me an electric guitar and a shitty little Peavey amp that sounded more distorted clean than the dirtiest Iggy Pop and The Stooges album. He got my younger brother a bass he learned on the fly, and then put together a little family band. We were The Jeffrey Family and played in our church and other local churches, mostly in the summer during Church Homecoming season, but also at tent revivals and homeless shelters. He had big plans, my dad. We’d played alongside some big names in the gospel music business, after all. The Primitives. The McKameys. Groups like that. He wanted to go whole hog, be a sort of revivalist Chuck Wagon Gang. Professional, I mean. So did my mom and brother. Not me, though. I was the black sheep almost from the beginning. I went along grudgingly, but I was more interested in learning how to play CCR or Grateful Dead tunes. On the sly, natch.

In the end, I think I broke my dad’s heart. He told me once he thought I’d never really been saved. Maybe he thought that would hurt me. It didn’t then, but sometimes now it does. Not because I feel the need to get RIGHT WITH THE LORD, but because my dad’s dead. And I feel guilty because now I know the path I took hurt him. He tried to get me back on the STRAIGHT AND NARROW PATH—tried praying for me, tried to get me to break out my guitar and play some songs with mom for old time’s sake—but I refused. He died thinking—no, knowing—I’d suffer all eternity in Hell. The Circle would NOT be Unbroken.

The irony is: I can listen to bootlegs of Jerry Garcia singing “Cold Jordan” or “Angel Band” and I can dig it, but hearing those same songs spouted from the lips of a TRUE BELIEVER in THAT OLD TIME RELIGION grates against the very fabric of my soul. I can’t explain it any better than that…especially seeing as how I don’t believe in THE SOUL OF MAN as a THING. I believe in Soul Train.

I believe in James Brown.