Him, and Us

          This isn’t an article about him. I promise. People like me are getting just as sick of writing about him as people like you are getting sick of reading about him. This is an article about us, and what we need to do. However, it took me a while to figure out how he got elected, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my discoveries because what I’ve learned is something we all need to realize to move forward.

          As I’m sure you know, our high-school students test well below their peers from different countries. You can google it if you’d like, but globally, I think we come in thirty-sixth place or something embarrassing like that regarding test scores. But there’s still one place on the global statistics chart where America is number one: confidence. The nebulous “they” have started asking graduates from across the globe to guess about how well they did on their SATs, and American students lead the pack in confidence even though their final scores suggest that they shouldn’t’ve. Isn’t that crazy? Even though our students suck, they feel like they’re awesome. Unfortunately, we’re not actually teaching our children what they need to know to compete in the global market, but we are teaching them to be illogically arrogant, and we’re doing it better than any other country on earth.

          So, that’s how we came to be where we are right now. Somehow, we’ve become an entire nation of people who think that we’re the best even though we don’t have the evidence to support such a claim. And here comes the hard part: not only do we deserve our current president, we need him… bear with me, I’ll explain.

          Middle America came home last October and they turned on their televisions. They saw a strange, orange man on the screen with whom they could identify. He was fat like them. He was crass like them. He was ignorant and angry and arrogant, just like them. So they said to themselves, “you know what? That guy reminds me of me. I’m going to vote for him, because I am awesome.”

          Do you get it? Middle America thought it was awesome even though it wasn’t, just like our students think they’re the best even though they’re thirty-sixth. Our country as a whole has become propped up confidently on our collective worth, even though in reality, we’re culturally bankrupt. That overconfidence has become a bubble, and just like all the other bubbles in our past, this one is going to pop. Just think about the “housing bubble” or the “stock market bubble” and then think back to how and when they popped: eventually, reality caught up, and things fell flat.

          Right now, reality is catching up.

          Middle America put into office a person who reminded them of themselves, and now, that person has to produce. To stay in power, that person has to prove his base right by being a good president, but unfortunately, all he’s got is his opinion: that he is the best president ever, even though he has no fucking clue what he’s doing. See what I’m getting at? That strange, orange man from the television is failing in spectacular fashion, but we need that to happen so Middle America can see the truth: people who sound like them and act like them and think like them, in reality, aren’t actually good enough to lead the most powerful nation on earth, despite the fact that their arrogance has led them to believe otherwise. When Trump fails, they fail. They’ll see that maybe they aren’t as good as they thought, and in four years, hopefully, they’ll just stay home, sulking in their embarrassment while they watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. drive in circles, instead of firing up the ol’ pickup to go vote for the guy who “sounds just like me, golly gosh!”

          This is where I get to us, and to what we need to do. Look, I know I talk a lot of trash about Trump supporters, but the fact is that quite a few of them are normal, educated people just like the rest of us. They just made a mistake, and frankly, everybody makes mistakes. Even I put too much faith in Anthony Weiner, thinking him to be a rising star in the Democratic Party, right up until the point he proved me wrong by sending pictures of his junk to children. However, once I saw the evidence, once I realized that Weiner was a dick, I rescinded my support, admitted my mistake, and I moved on.

          I recently read an article that explains why people are so stubborn when it comes to open-mindedness. When we’re exposed to information that supports our beliefs, there’s a dopamine release in our brains, and it makes us feel happy. But we get addicted to that release, and eventually, we only open ourselves to information that supports what we already think because we’ve become chemically addicted to the result, to the dopamine. Unfortunately, we’ve evolved physically to become myopic, close-minded, stubborn asses when it comes to admitting that we’re wrong, but if you think about it, it’s understandable—stubbornness leads to survival, and without it, our species mightn’t’ve gotten to where we are today. Stubbornness is how we beat the saber-toothed tigers. But to go further, to continue to progress together, we need to let go of that stubbornness. As promised, that is what we need to do; this is what will help “us.”

          The good, educated people who mistakenly voted for Trump need to admit their mistake like the adult patriots that they are. They need to go cold-turkey from the dopamine that’s been keeping their eyes closed. And furthermore, since they are the ones who put us in danger by putting that man in office, they need to work harder than anyone else to get him out of office and back into that gaudy, gilded New York tower prison where he belongs. I know it’s hard to admit wrong doing, but as a grownup, I also know it’s the right thing to do. And really, that’s why I’m writing this. I swear to you that I’m not just another liberal who’s writing an “I told you so” article, but rather, I’m a fellow American, one who has made mistakes of his own, and I’m writing this to ask for help. I’m writing this in the hopes that a few of the good Americans who made a mistake last November might read this and finally admit that they didn’t have a good reason to vote for the orange candidate even though they felt like they did (“crooked” Hilary? Seriously? Are you reading the news?). Maybe a few of them will read this and understand what I’m saying about our unfounded arrogance, and maybe they’ll do the right thing and make amends for their mistake.

          Maybe they’ll help us, become part of us, and maybe we can make it through this together, repairing that which needs to be repaired, with the newfound knowledge that we aren’t the best, but together, maybe we can be.

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Serious Nonfiction #4

          I’m allergic to proposals. I just finished and mailed a twenty-eight-page proposal for a work of fiction that I just wrote, and throughout all of it, I had to battle back the lazy, incredulity that Rabiner talked about at length. Won’t they just read my book and give me money? Can’t they just do what I want them to instead of doing what they’ve learned works throughout their careers? I knew my indolence was childish and ignorant, so I just muscled through and did what I was supposed to.

          And as a curveball, I’ve changed what I’m going to write about given the comments our professor posted on my last blog. The whole “cult” thing would’ve worked because it’s garishly interesting, but it would’ve only worked hypothetically because I have no particular expertise in that Kool-Aid drinking realm. So, in a nutshell, I’m going to write a work of serious nonfiction about the detrimental effects of cellphones on today’s teenagers. In this arena, I swear to you that I’m one of the premier experts in the field. And as to our assignment this week, here’s the story that piqued my interest in the subject:

*** 

          My teenager attends a charter high school. It’s one of those newer institutes that stresses all sorts of new-age thinking and alternative structure, but it’s a good fit for our oldest daughter. I was called into school because she had done something wrong, and they told me her phone was becoming detrimental to her learning. So, I asked the obvious question: as her teachers, can’t you guys just take her phone while she’s in class? That way, I’d still be able to get ahold of her after school, but the phone wouldn’t be a distraction. Problem solved, easy-cheesy.

          But they said no. As it turns out, teachers have learned that taking a child’s phone does more damage than good because when it’s taken, the anxiety becomes crippling for the child, and it becomes impossible for them to function throughout the rest of the day. Seriously. Some of the teachers even prefer it if the children leave their phones on their desks—facedown, of course—while they’re taking tests because the pacifying reassurance of having their phone on hand assures fewer distractions and higher test scores. Isn’t that crazy?

          So, I started doing a little research and I discovered that the problem is far more detrimental than most parents think. When we were children, we’d learn about the scary things in life piecemeal, and we’d do so slowly. And when we’d discover something shocking, we’d take it to our parents and try to process the new information organically. But now, every bit of that scary information is blinding our children through the lightning rods they hold in their hands and stare at incessantly. There is no filter; there is no natural time to process one piece of adult information before moving onto the next. And the effects are observable: children are growing more desensitized than ever before, they’re doing drugs and having sex earlier than ever before, and they’re considering themselves to be adults, even though they aren’t. And why shouldn’t they? If they’re privy to all the information that was once reserved for adults only, doesn’t that by default make them adults? The answer is no, obviously, but modern children disagree because their social media reassurances tell them it’s okay.

          I’m obviously not going to make the same mistake with my eight-year-old; she’ll get an actual phone when she’s mature enough for one. But I learned my lesson through experience. So, what about all those parents who’re looking forward to the teenaged years with trepidation regarding technology and social media? In all honesty, I think I could write a book—an actual book—that would scare the bejesus out of these parents to the point wherein they’d make a more rational decision than we did. So, that’s what I’m going to do.

Serious Nonfiction #3

Elegance is a crutch, albeit pretty one, when you think about it. But regarding serious nonfiction, it’s all I’ve got. Frankly, if I were to actually write a work of serious nonfiction, I’d be screwed because I don’t have any of the requisite credentials associated with the topic I’m writing about—at least, not any official credentials. So, I wouldn’t ever land an agent with this book, and even if I did, I’d never attract a publisher. It’s a good thing the book I’m writing for this assignment is hypothetical, because if it wasn’t, a quick trip to the discount table is the best I could hope for (and the knee-deep pile of the “polite rejection letters” mentioned by Rabiner would be more realistic).

So, given that the chapter we’re writing is for a hypothetical book, can I just make up some credentials? The chapter I’ll be writing (and the associated editorial proposal) is about Buddhafield. I’ve never joined a cult for a few obvious reasons, but for this assignment, can I say that I’m an escaped member? You know… maybe I lived in that commune for years before escaping with nothing more than a bag of Cheetos and my cult-issued pair of speedos. That would even make for a snappy chapter title: “Cheetos and Speedos.” Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Once I address the credentials shortfall, I’ll need to address all my “audience identification problems.” And admittedly, I had a few. I had originally intended to write what Rabiner referred to as a “character driven work of narrative nonfiction.” I figured I’d be great at “wringing” out the meaning: “meaning that transcends the details of an event,” but the specific meaning at which I’d aim was nebulous until I read about Rabiner’s fictional “women who kill.” She said that if the pretend author were to amend the scope of his work slightly to be about “women who kill their children,” it’d broaden the general interest because all mothers would want to read such a work. Supposedly, they’d want to learn what spurs mothers to commit infanticide so they’d be able to flesh-out the aberrant trait within themselves, if it existed. And once I started thinking about it, I realized that I could market my work similarly: we all wonder what leads people to join a cult—what convinces a heterosexual male to join a cult like Buddhafield wherein he’s raped routinely by a gay, failed ballet dancer slash washed-up porn star like “Michel,” the founder (I put his name in quotation marks because the guy changes it at least once a decade to avoid pitchfork-wielding mobs).

What is missing from these peoples’ lives that leads them to join a cult? Do all the members have some sort of deficiency, some sort of mental marking, which I can root-out and show to my readers? And if I did so, would my book rocket to the top of the best-selling list because everyone would want to make sure they’re not at risk for joining a cult? I’d like to think so, because that curiosity is alive and well in my mind. I remember the first time I watched a documentary on Jonestown. These same questions popped up in my head: is there any part of my psyche that’s weak enough to be seduced by a cult leader? Would I have let my wife be ransacked by that cult leader like the other two-hundred or so tranced male members of that cult? Would I be brainwashed enough to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid when the time came to “ascend”? Or worse, if I were a child, would my mom have given me the drink of death like all those other mothers did in the late 70s?

I think that if I address these questions, I’ll broaden my potential audience, and I’ll not “exclude even one potential buyer” as Rabiner put it. I think I’ve considered adequately the “people who buy books,” and out of them, I’ve also considered the people who’d be  receptive to my “treatment” of this subject, as she put it. Granted, I’ll still rely heavily on the gratuitous spectacle that’s inherent to cults—we all like to be outsiders looking in because it reassures us that it can always be worse—but I’ve decided to hone down my message per Rabiner’s suggestion, and I’ll try to pique that inner curiosity we all have in regard to this subject: would I ever join a cult?  And in that vein, I’ve decided to make that “big, daring decision about the scope” of my book. The title (or a rough version of it anyway): “Buddhafield Followers: Would you Join a Cult?”

jonestown-suicide-massacre

Serious Nonfiction #2

O’ faithful readers, this week I shall try your patience once more with an assignment, and I shall winnow out the casual followers once more. But I know for a fact that a couple of you are serious nonfiction writers, and through this post, you’ll at least discover a new book that you need to own. Seriously, if you’re such a writer, go out and buy this immediately. Anywho, let’s begin…

Does Rabiner say anything to push or pull your thinking in a new direction?

It’s odd that she labeled as “genteel” the publishing industry of old, because to me—an outsider always looking in wistfully—the industry is, and always has been, a callous collection of elitists who look down on authors like myself (I’d like to think I put the “fiction” in “serious nonfiction”). But in her, I’ve found an agent/editor/writer with genuine compassion, and my thinking veered off from its normal tack as a result. It was awesome to hear her say that we lowly plebs deserve the “author” title just as much as the fancy best-selling folk, and it was reassuring to learn that someone of her caliber isn’t a stickler because she said that no author should be denied because he or she didn’t “understand the submission package.” If this industry were utopian, the submission package would be a single sentence: “Here, I wrote this book and it’s awesome. Now read it and throw your money at me.”

And at one point, when she said “if all you want to do is write whatever you want,” Rabiner spoke directly to me. As an author, I usually sit in front of this screen figuratively with my fingers in my ears, refusing staunchly to “write what sells.” “Oh yea?” I say, “you’re telling me collections of short stories about white trash hillbillies with super powers don’t sell that well? Cool. I wrote one anyway.” And admittedly, it hasn’t gotten me that for. Secondly, in that light, I might be screwed if I’m to think about my writing career “from the very first project” because my very first project was a middle finger held high to traditional publishing. Oops.

And lastly, when Rabiner prompted her readers to ask if their book was “important,” she alluded to the notion that “important” might not mean what I think it means. I hate the imposed subjectivity, but for something to be important, the masses have to agree. I can’t tell you how annoying this truth is because through it, the McRib at McDonald’s is “important” from a culinary perspective, and that just sucks. But it is what it is, and Rabiner makes a damn good point.

Does Rabiner give me a clearer sense of what serious nonfiction writing entails?

Yup.

Writing serious nonfiction that actually sells seems to be more about the presentation of information than the information itself. I might be too much of a purist, but frankly, to hell with that. If “managing data” is more important than beautiful prose in this genre, I can guarantee that I’ll never be a best-selling author of serious nonfiction. Microsoft Excel is for managing data: writing is for creating beauty, and I hereby swear to never sellout*.

That being said, I understand the necessity. Thanks to her mentioned lack of co-op money for works of serious nonfiction, writing in a certain way—speaking broadly to cast a wide net—is probably the only means to a successful career as a serious nonfiction writer (Capitolisim-1, Creativity-0). And that’s just the way it is, so I appreciate Rabiner’s honesty because she’s giving benevolent advice from an experienced standpoint: “gone are the days” when books are published because they’re deserving, and here are the days when books are only published if they make a ton-o-money.

And lastly, Rabiner really got me thinking when she said that I’d need to “treat competing theses with respect” in regard to writing serious nonfiction, because not doing so would alienate a portion of the general public. I’m directing this question to the other students in my editing group: is that something I really need to do? The book I’ll be proposing will highlight the lunacy inherent to cult leaders and their meek followers. The only competing thesis to this notion would be that “cult leaders are okay and their followers might have valid reasons for drinking poisoned cool-aid.” Do I really need to act like this competing thesis should be respected?

 

*This is a complete lie and fabrication. If anyone ever offers me actual money, I’ll sellout quicker than The Backstreet Boys.

The Stranger

This is a copy of my article from this week’s edition of The Durango Telegraph, so if you’re a regular reader, here’s your spoiler alert. 

***

          He was wearing a leather kneepad, just one of them, on his left leg. It was tied to his dirty blue-jeans with knotted strips of hide that hung down, swaying back and forth pendulously as he walked in.

          The coffee shop was packed.

          He stood just inside the doorway for a moment, like a cowboy entering a saloon. I put down my phone; I stopped watching my beautiful wife; I sat back in my chair and wished for a bag of popcorn because I knew I was in for some epic people watching.

          He walked up to the counter and ordered a cup of black coffee. A simple drink, rugged and masculine. I tried to categorize him because that’s what people-watchers do: his coat was too clean for a homeless man, but his boots and shirt and skin spoke of a life lived outdoors. He wasn’t wearing any jewelry and he didn’t have a cellphone, but that might’ve been intentional: a choice. He paid in cash from his front pocket. No wallet. No identification. How interesting.

          He took his coffee from the pickup counter and walked around the room. It was filled with the attractive people who seem to be ubiquitous in this mountain town. Not too young and not too old, dressed well for the winter months and lost in meaningful conversation. He walked unnoticed around them and through their midst. He made a perfunctory stop at the corkboard. There wasn’t anything for him on that board, but I think he knew that before walking over. He turned and looked around the room for a seat. He dismissed the solitary chairs that would’ve made for a quiet morning lost in thought, alone with the fragrant steam rising from his cup. Instead, he spotted an empty chair at a four-top table against the window. There were already three people sitting there: a man and two women. He walked over anyway.

          I tried to get my wife’s attention. I stared at her as hard as I could, trying to tell her telepathically that something weird was about to happen… she was hypnotized by her phone. I looked around the room, frantically searching for another people-watcher so we could share a “holy crap, are you seeing this?!” look, but I was alone. Either nobody else noticed the scene playing out right in front of them, or they all had too much social grace to watch it openly. I didn’t suffer any such compunction. I crossed my arms and settled in. This is going to be good, I thought.

          Coffee held high in his left hand: it was a statement to all that he belonged. He put his right hand on the empty chairback. “Is anyone sitting here?” he asked the table. The man in the seated group answered politely: “no.” His answer came with a hand gesture saying “sure, take the chair wherever you need it.” But that wasn’t kneepad’s plan. Instead, he sat down confidently with those three strangers and ignored their incredulous looks. Those looks said “um, excuse me sir, but the three of us know each other, and we were talking about something.” Kneepad looked away—either he dismissed the table’s looks as irrelevant, or he was too oblivious to see them. Either way, I sighed in relief. Since kneepad broke a social convention by intruding on a group of strangers, I was justified in breaking a social convention by staring blatantly with wide-eyed, open-mouthed astonishment. Seriously, who does that?

          The two women grew uncomfortable. They shared guarded looks, disguised by sips from their cups, that said “oh…my…god…” Kneepad was sitting closely to one of them, looking over and seeking eye contact, making small-talk overtures. Both women stood up and went over to the corkboard. I smiled at the irony: those two women were sure to find something of interest on that board. They were the right demographic.

          Kneepad must’ve known that the women left because of him, but he just shrugged it off and looked across the table at his last chance for conversation: the man who let him sit. He was in his late thirties. Intelligent looking, with salt and pepper stubble, he was wearing one of those puffy coats that’re so popular here: colorful and filled with feathers, it looked expensive with narrow rows of insulation. He was staring at his phone intently, but not because he was ignoring kneepad: puffy-coat was tending to pressing business.

          I looked back over to the two women, drinking their coffee in exile. They’d already dismissed kneepad. He didn’t affect their morning, and their conversation carried on organically. Wow… These were good people, accepting and tolerant people. That’s not me (I’m far too cynical), so I looked back to the table.

          Kneepad leaned forward and said “excuse me.” He had something important to say, something intent. Puffy-jacket held up a hand and said “one moment please.” He finished his business on his phone, typing out a quick message or response, and then he put his phone on the table, face down, and said “how can I help you?”

          There’s a fine line between people watching and eavesdropping, and for the sake of journalistic integrity, I’ll admit to crossing that line. Here’s their conversation:

          “Do you believe in reincarnation?” Kneepad asked.

          “Excuse me?” Puffy-jacket was being rhetorical.

          “I said, do you believe in reincarnation?” Kneepad didn’t catch the rhetoric.

          “Look,” Puffy-jacket spoke slowly and clearly, gesticulating with wide hands, trying to get his point across, “you and I don’t know each other. We’re strangers. And that’s a rather deep conversation to have with a stranger. Okay?” Puffy-jacket was still polite, but firm.

          “Hmmm,” Kneepad made a begrudging noise, as if puffy-jacket might have a point.

          Kneepad broke eye contact and let the silence linger. Puffy-jacket picked up his phone and left moments later. Kneepad sat alone at that four-top long enough to make it look intentional. He didn’t mind being alone—that’s what he wanted all along—as per his body language. He got up and walked through the room one more time, looking at nothing and everything, and then he left the coffee shop.

          I wanted to stand up and clap. It was a bona fide show, the slice of life that I just watched, and as I looked around that packed coffee shop, I shook my head in astonishment. That show had a one-man audience! Everyone around me was trapped courteously in their own conversations, their own little worlds, and they’d missed a profound lesson in humanity.

          If I’m being honest, I’m not writing about kneepad. That man didn’t teach me anything about myself, and I’d have a ceaseless pool of inspiration if I wrote about all the rudeness I see daily. In truth, these words are about puffy-jacket. It doesn’t matter which metric you use: that man was a good human being, and he was the civil embodiment of everything I love about Durango. He was everything I could not be, in such an awkward moment, and I need to get there if I want to be a true local.

          If kneepad would’ve tried to sit at my table, next to my wife, his morning would’ve differed greatly. I would’ve said things that can’t be ignored and everyone would’ve noticed. Kneepad’s exit wouldn’t have been dignified, and later, I would’ve regretted the way I treated another human being, regardless of my reason for doing so. I regret it even though it didn’t happen, and I should try to change.

          So, how did puffy-jacket come upon his social wherewithal? How did he maintain his composure even though his morning was ruined, and how did he keep inside all the things he wanted to say? It was incredible. He used his “pleases” and “thank yous” even though he was dealing with someone who’d broken ties with propriety long ago. Hell, puffy-jacket even nodded affably to kneepad as he was leaving: I would’ve given two middle fingers, even on my best day.

          I was staring at the empty four-top against the window, thinking about how lucky I was to live in a town like this, surrounded by people like you, when my wife broke my reverie. I’m sure she noticed the expression on my face—the baffled look of wonderment that comes from good people watching—and she asked what I was thinking about. Her question was dry and sarcastic; she knew it’d be a while before I shut up. I leaned across the table and told it all in the salacious whispers of someone sharing a secret. She smiled at me and shook her head, knowing immediately what would’ve happened if kneepad sat with us, and then we got up and walked out, completely unnoticed by everyone else in the coffee shop.