Chapter 34

I have the novel planned out to the 34th chapter, now. The 34th chapter, as it stands, is the last chapter of the book. Unfortunately I am still working on chapter 26. And since chapter 26 was a giant pain in my ass, I shelved it and moved on to 27. For 26, I had written a preliminary draft but not gotten to the ending, and I still haven’t, but for 27 I hadn’t written any of it, yet.

28 I have never written on.

29 is near to finished, if I remember correctly. I liked how it came out initially. 

30 hasn’t been written but for some brief notes on the initial idea, not much of which I expect to keep, but it’s a character interaction I’ve been looking forward to and I don’t want to write too much on it ahead of time. 

31 is pretty much done, has been around since the early days and will likely retain much of its original form.

32 is a continuation and culmination of a plot, probably about half written already, the latter half of which is again something I want to experience and focus on intensely when I get to it.

33 has not been written.

34 will I hope be the end. 

Obviously the chapters that have yet to be written need to be written, but even the chapters I think are near complete now may turn out not to be. Because the closer I get to the end, the more I am forced to keep the whole thing in mind, the whole plot, the whole picture, start to finish. It reminds me of sewing. I don’t have a ton of experience with sewing but I did have two years of Home Ec in junior high, and from what I remember, the patterns come in various pieces, which you pin and cut and sew together one by one, and this sleeve might look like a perfectly good sleeve now and so might that one, but once they’re both attached to the shirt they might be as mismatched as a thumb and a finger. And maybe it’s not even the sleeves, maybe the sleeves are perfect but the middle is what’s throwing off the whole perspective. Everything needs remeasured, recut, adjusted for balance, and so in a way the chapters I haven’t written yet are easier because there’s nothing to fix. 

The toughest thing to do is to make the sleeve anyway. To know full well the shirt is a mess but to be willing to complete it a mess, and in so doing make more work for yourself later. Chapter 26 is only the latest to challenge me in this way. I try to let it loose, let it run, and then I find myself somewhere new that feels right, but I don’t know yet how it fits in with the rest. Chapter 26 was one I didn’t think would take long, either. All I had to do was find the end. But now the end seems to be suggesting I might need to readjust my plan for 33, and possibly 31. But it’s trying to be heavier than that, even. It’s already impacted 27 with its gravity, and probably will have a similar effect on 32. And obviously, 34, being the end, will be thematically tied into everything else.

So what’s to be done? I could’ve stopped 26 fourteen pages ago, before I even took this side-venture, which was a gamble anyway but the reason I haven’t dropped it is because I thought it was speaking to one theme and wound up coming back to another. It surprised me. I like being surprised. 

Being surprised, however, doesn’t mean you’ve discovered closure, or even that you’ve discovered a path worth traveling, only that you’ve been made to look in an unexpected direction. It might all be fruitless. It might all need to be toned down, reined in. I can’t imagine these extra fourteen pages will remain fourteen pages, even if I do find an end to the chapter in one or two or seven more pages. It’s going to be hewn. Cut back. 

Aaghhghgh but that’s the problem, you can’t create and edit at the same time, and it’s so so hard to take the long way around, to wander through the forest aimlessly until by luck you reach the other side and can look back on it and see a more direct way through. 

What’s more, school has started again, I’m still working at the golf course, I’m feeling the pressure of having a free weekend now but will be grading all next weekend, plus there’s increased social activity, plus physical therapy for my shoulder once a week, not to mention the at-home physical therapy I’m supposed to be doing. All this pressure, all this pressure! I’m pulling my hair out over here. 

But it feels better already just to complain a little bit.  I know I have a good life, I’m lucky in so many ways that I often won’t allow myself the luxury of moaning about my problems. But I guess everybody has to, sometimes.

Also who am I kidding, there’s going to be a chapter 35. I know there’s something I’m forgetting. Which is better, it’s a better number than 34, it’ll be for the best. 




Say You’re Sorry

I went to the ocean by myself today, because my wife is awesome and agreed to put the free beach parking sticker on my car this year, mainly because when we go together we usually take my car, but also so that I can go on occasion on my days off. I spent a lot of time in the water, because no one else was there to entertain me. The current was not strong, small waves, a good day for floating.

So I floated. 

For about an hour I floated on my back, eyes closed, taking in deep breaths and holding them, ears submerged, hoping to eavesdrop on some passing dolphins. I took turns in imagining myself as a slice of wet bread floating on the surface or just imagining myself as water, for a while at least, then I remembered my decision not to have shoulder surgery and opt for physical therapy instead, of which I have not informed my doctor yet, so I thought I could do some shoulder exercises while I floated there, and I did range-of-motion and some snow angel swimming strokes and amused myself with the difference between where I thought I would be and where I was when I opened my eyes.

Later on I realized since I was holding my breath and closing my eyes anyway I could float face-down, and I did this for about an hour as well, drifting like a corpse in the surf, a little closer to shore this time so I could drag my fingers in the submerged sand, and it occurred to me that this is probably the sensation of birds, who can be buoyed by air, this weightlessness, this rejection of gravity, my body physically incapable of remaining in contact with the soil just by my selection of a certain posture and the will of the fluid surrounding me. Sucked away from the earth, I grabbed handfuls of sediment, to no avail. It reminded me of a book I read in elementary school called Dr. Gravity, in which a doctor invents a potion or treatment that causes those under its influence to rise hundreds of feet in the air and remain there. The whole town moves there, up to the clouds, the houses, everything, and at first everything is blissful, but before long people just stop caring. They lose any drive or ambition and are content with literally just floating along. 

It occurred to me that if anyone were looking on they might think me dead. I imagined a confrontation with a concerned citizen with quick reactions seeing my white bread body bobbing in the surf and rushing out Baywatch-style to wrench me away from Poseidon’s grasp, only to discover angrily that I remained as yet among the living. I imagined apologizing instinctively for worrying them. But even in my imagined scenario I knew I wasn’t really sorry. Just wait ten seconds before you get your Jordans all salty and maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and why are you wearing your Jordans to the beach in the first place, really that one’s on you.  

But I couldn’t imagine not apologizing. I knew I would. I had no remorse in my heart for playing in the ocean the way I felt like playing. But I would apologize for it if anyone took offense. Some would say this is just good etiquette. I tend to think it’s more indicative of the tragic flaw of America.  

I’m not religious anymore, but when I was I was Catholic. One of the tenets of Catholicism is the forgiveness of sins, which is possible through a ritual involving confessing those sins to a priest and receiving a certain sentence, usually an accumulation of prayers to recite plus a promise to God not to repeat the sin, and perhaps a recommendation for behavioral modification for assistance in helping you avoid the sin in the future. This is what made me question my faith in the first place. I didn’t like the idea that I had to tell my sins to someone else, even a representative of God, in order to receive forgiveness. Two main reasons for this, which combined to thump my guilty conscience into submission and get me to back slowly away from Catholicism and religion altogether: First, I was more than aware that priests were just regular people with a collar. My first confession, I told Father Sam about my temper, about how I would get mad at my sisters when we played games and sometimes I yelled and said mean things or hit them or ran to my room and cried if I lost, which I believe came out of my mouth as “Sometimes I get mad at my sisters when we play games.” To which Father Sam raised his eyebrows and said, “That’s it?” We were face to face in the rectory. Alone, but highly visible to each other. I wasn’t prepared for that. On TV you always have a protective screen to at least shield the priest from the hot breathy vapors of your sins, if not add a certain anonymity to the whole affair. He assigned me a certain number of Our Fathers and Hail Marys and I had to admit I didn’t know the Hail Mary, at which he somehow rolled his eyes without moving them and switched all the prayers to Our Fathers.

So Father Sam couldn’t turn off his personality even while standing in as the representative for God. That’s fine. Still my favorite priest ever. In high school the priests at my Catholic school tended not to have much of a personality, for starters, and what’s more, listening to their sermons, I felt more adequately adult, more mature and intelligent, more savvy, more relevant than they were. Like if we’d ever have found ourselves eating at the same restaurant together, I would’ve felt compelled to order for them. Which isn’t to say I felt advanced, or beyond my years. But they all seemed very behind on life, stuck in place from the day they started bible study. And I was supposed to tell them my sins?  How would they even understand the ways that I could sin?

Second reason: they said I had to confess even if I was pleased with my performance since my last confession. If I had modified my behavior to rectify past sinfulness and hadn’t acquired any new bad habits since, to my knowledge, this was no good enough. They said to think of something. We are not perfect creatures. We all sin. You just have to find it, even if it’s a small one. To which I thought, That’s bullshit, and no I did not count that cursing, because I’ve never believed language arts to be sinful. You want me to go in there and make something up? Not that they were wrong, because I certainly could have found something to confess in the month’s time between confessions, but also hypothetically I was right. It was possible, in fact it was more than possible not to sin for a certain amount of time, if you put your mind to it. Just because I never did that didn’t make its possibility any less true.  

Still though, on the whole, I think I prefer the Catholic model to the other varying offshoots of Christianity, all of which I know very little about but I put into two categories in my head, either diluted Catholicism, or Catholicism Plus. With Catholics, if done correct, you have to ask for forgiveness. It’s not automatic. You have to admit your misdeeds, to another human person who will judge you whether they reveal their judgment of you or not (maybe that’s what the screen’s for), and who will judge you more harshly the next time if you don’t shape up. That’s deterrent number one. Number two, the sentencing. Saying a prayer fifty times in a row actually really sucks, and that’s assuming the priest doesn’t come up with more creative punishments or methods of making amends.

How that translates into other forms of Christianity, I can’t say, but I know how it shows up culturally. We prioritize the apology over the admission of the crime. From a very early age. At least in Catholic confessionals, they make you identify the sin. But in the hasty conveyance of morality to our toddlers, I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the phrase, in fast food restaurants, in malls and grocery stores, “It doesn’t matter. Say you’re sorry.”  

Say it. 

I don’t know enough about other forms of Christianity to be specific, but I bring it up because of Easter and Christmas, and all the church signs I see that try to entice attendance during these two specific occasions during the year. The two-day-per-year Christian crowd, of which there are many, given how full up the parking lots always seem to be on these days, at least at all the churches I’ve ever lived near, would likely fall into this lip service category. How can you be loyal to something twice every 365 days and still call it God?

Even if that’s a gross oversimplification, that is undeniably the message of our culture. Just say you’re sorry. God will forgive you. Consider yourself absolved, and then do it again next time. Manners over modification of behavior. Apologies over empathy. It’s all about appearances. Say one thing, do another.  

I live in the South now, not Texas anymore but the traditional South, the slavery South, where the phenomenon is even more pronounced. People are very nice down here, much more so than the miserable bastards in the Midwest, and I suspect they always have been, exceedingly cordial and polite at the dinner table and then brandishing the whip in the fields. My wife’s first trip through Tennessee, I don’t remember what happened at a gas station but evidently people thought she needed help with something and like four people offered, on the spot, men and women. And these are same people who voted in a pussy grabber.  

(Sidebar: I’m trying not to think about this upcoming “Peace Summit” with North Korea, because Trump is such a pronounced liar, so ingrained, he seems to only tell the truth through its opposite. So when he says he wants to make peace, I get very very nervous. All I can hear is “I’m about to go piss off an unstable dictator—on purpose—to start a war. “)

My kids will not apologize if they aren’t sorry. They will not be taught to get out of an uncomfortable situation by lying. I’d rather bring them up Catholic than bring them up two-faced. They will know empathy first, manners a distant second. And they can do the dead man float in the ocean as much as they damn well please. 

I mean, I hope they don’t, because I would freak the hell out. 



Inherently Dangerous

I’m feeling selfish today because I want to work on my own personal pet project of a novel instead of solving all the problems in the world I can’t stop thinking about even as I work my mindless job, even as I try to fall asleep, and I have become a pro-fessional at shutting down my mind to fall asleep. But I think it’s the right decision. It’s the only self-generated project I’ve got going, and it’s got no hope to solve the world’s problems, but all my solutions I keep obsessing over which seem so obvious to me at midnight, they are all responses, and responses cannot work because people don’t listen to them, because they will never matter as much as the opinion you’ve already settled on before you hear the rebuttals. I have a very intelligent friend who disagrees with me whole-heartedly about all the shootings and gun control and I know he’s smart enough to understand what I want to tell him, what I’ve already told him, but he still disagrees with me. On individual facts, we can agree, but the interpretation of them we cannot, and then I see him gravitate back to the easier to digest talking points in conservative memes that provide the familiar comfort of his previously established world views, and he’ll parrot these and say “hear hear” without vetting these sources, without demanding the facts I know him to otherwise require, and I don’t know why he can turn a blind eye to the authors of articles or the biased publications these articles show up in or even to facts, basic facts like what is more “inherently dangerous,” a gun or a book, a gun or an idea.

It’s guns, btw. I have tried to kill with my ideas before, even while in the same room with my intended victim. Have yet to succeeed.  Haven’t tried to kill anyone with a book, though, so I guess the jury’s still out on that one for me.

He’s libertarian, which frees him from the constraints of the two major parties and their drawbacks and inconsistencies, much in the way that I only consider myself a democrat because the republicans are in power now and I don’t have the luxury of the allure of Bernie and democratic socialism.  The libertarians are more than happy to quarrel with the left, however, even if they can conveniently set themselves aside from the politics of the right, of the people they helped vote into power. He posted a video today, my friend, that was very helpful in explaining the libertarian point of view on guns. The video’s author disinvited the radical left to coming up with solutions for the school shooting epidemic, because their solution is bigger government, more regulation. He takes on the favorite talking points of gun control advocates and dismantles them with quick rebuttals that can be boiled down to “I know the facts and the facts don’t support you.” He doesn’t claim to know the answer to school shootings, but he’s tired of getting blamed for them. In another video he says every gun owner would immediately give up their guns if they knew it would save even one child, but the violence is not the fault of the prevalence of guns and getting rid of guns would have no effect on these murders and murder rates. 

According to other videos, he says this is the best answer to decreasing gun violence:  

 YouTube video  here , the other video is on  Facebook .  

YouTube video here, the other video is on Facebook.  

Assume the gun is loaded. Be mindful of the muzzle’s direction. Don’t put your finger on the trigger unless you intend to shoot. Be aware not only of your target but also what’s behind it. And another one not in the bullet points listed on-screen: prohibit minors from having access to your guns. That last one could’ve helped in Sante Fe, Texas, but it would’ve been no use in Parkland, and I think the shooters in both cases otherwise assumed the guns were loaded, that they were mindful of the direction they pointed the muzzle, that their finger was not accidentally pulling the trigger, that they knew their targets and the collateral damage possibly lurking behind.

I want everyone to watch these videos. I want them to be able to identify the gaps in logic.  He says the Australia gun law argument makes no sense (no mass shootings since the restrictions enacted on semi-automatic rifles and shotguns in 1996, in response to the Port Arthur massacre [35 dead]) because there was a mass shooting in Australia in 2011 (Hectorville, 3 dead). He doesn’t mention the Monash University shooting in 2002 which killed two, or the two shootings in 2014 which killed five and three, respectively (or the one that occurred just a few days ago, May 11, 2018, in Osmington, six family members murdered and a suicide), but you get his point. Their gun laws did not stop these shootings. And what’s more, Australia’s population is barely a 13th of the United States, and since the US has a gun for every person, and Australians would have to gather five people to share even one gun, that would mean there should be approximately 65 times more mass shootings here, but there’s not! Which means actually we’re being much SAFER with our guns. (He doesn’t say 65 times, by the way, but he does bring up the population and gun disparity, and that’s the resulting math that’s implied by his logic.) 

Except, by my figures, that’s four mass shootings in Australia in over twenty years, if we count a mass shooting as more than one death by gunshot. The US tends to categorize mass shootings as four or more deaths, however, because if we went with broader definition—say, four victims shot, not necessarily killed—there would statistically be a mass shooting somewhere in the country every single day, and that’s just too depressing to think about. So, going with the four or more killed definition, there have been 361 mass shootings in the US since 1996, which is actually more than the 65 times threshold of about 260 represented by Australia’s numbers (65 times the four occurrences of multiple victim homicides via firearm, IF we are counting all four multiple-victims occurrences and not just the single occurrence with four or more victims).

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say 1996? That’s actual 361 since 2006. And only up through December 31, 2017. So, not counting any data from 2018, or anything before December 31, 2005.  (They only update these figures at the end of each calendar year, over at USA Today, because they’re a newspaper and they just don’t have the kind of budget to go real-time with it, you know?)

So, at least attempting to work with the same definitions, between 2006 and 2017, there was one mass shooting in Australia and 361 in the United States. Which is more than 65 times, because it’s 361 times, and 361 is bigger than 65. In fact it’s over five times bigger. If I want to take the comparison back to 1996, when the now famous anti-gun law was enacted in Australia, the comparison gets a little more difficult, because again there are just too many episodes of mass gun violence in the US to keep track of, but the Washington Post tries to do so by narrowing their definition of a mass shooting to exclude familial, single household executions—i.e. no private household-type mass murders, or gang-related mass murders, only the scarier public kind—and they come up with 152 of these public shootings of four or more murdered victims, as of today, May 22, 2018. Which would put the comparison at 152 to 0. Which is inifinity times more public mass shootings, because that Australian 2014 mass shooting of five victims was a single-family murder-suicide, so it wouldn’t be included in the Washington Post’s calculations. 

And once again, infinity is more than 65, because it’s infinity. 

The point being: according to the perspective of libertarians as represented in this video, and to my friend who said he’s been looking for a long time for this expression of his views and “couldn’t have said it better” himself, Australia’s gun restrictions did not solve mass shootings, that restricting guns is not the answer, and that people who suggest this restriction are not allowed to participate in coming up with the real solution, whatever that may turn out to be. That because we have as many guns as we do humans in this country, we are actually a lot safer from guns than Australians are, percentage-wise.

But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it. Even if the math would back up that claim (and, no, it doesn’t, see above), I don’t care about being safer percentage-wise, I want to be safer, period.  The man in the video says guns don’t matter because murder rates overall are about the same. That we would know these things if we knew how to do a little research. Just an internet search away, he says. I may not have mastered the Google, but my research says in Australia the murder rate is about 1/100,000, and in the US it’s about 5/100,000, which looks remarkably similar to how five people in Australia would have to share one gun, but in the US all five get their own. Which isn’t directly correlating evidence, I know that, but you can’t say guns aren’t a factor if you’re using the factor of five times more guns per person to even out those murder rates.

More guns equals more deaths by guns. It could not be more plain to me, and yet I cannot convince even the smartest of my conservative friends otherwise. 

And then you add in the second amendment debate and the whole goddamn thing goes off the rails. To have the audacity to claim we need the right to own guns to protect ourselves from government tyranny, while the current administration attacks right after rightfreedom after freedom on the march towards fascism, and you who have tasked yourselves as the watchdogs of big government say nothing? Do nothing?

But these are all responses, and my responses will not sway any of those who’ve already made up their minds. Because it’s like Inception, I’ve realized. You can’t be seen as responsible for planting an idea, or the idea gets rejected. The mind has to come up with the idea on its own for it to take root and grow. So, if I want you think the way I think, to see what I see, I am far better off showing you how my mind works at its core, sans context, and letting you come to your own conclusions, instead of trying to correct the conclusions you’ve already come to.

I’ll just save my breath and get back to my novel.  It’s not about guns, not even a little bit. I hope you will read it, when it’s finished. And then you can write one and I’ll read yours and maybe that will finally start to get us somewhere. In the meantime, school is out for the summer, which hopefully means I’ll get to hold off on my next gun rant until fall.



I Work At a Golf Course

As it turns out, I really like Frightened Rabbit. Their singer just died. Or I guess the guy who was the band, which became a band with more people in it, and those remaining people are tweeting about mental health awareness. Good gravy I hate Twitter. It's extremely unsettling how this happens, how what happens, how you discover these dead artists after they're dead, over and over again, how you discover over and over again how much your own personal emotional patterns overlay and complement those of the terminally suicidal, how, when you're listening to their music for the first time and you are reading an article that quotes a song lyric, your eyes find the lyric at the exact moment it plays out loud the very first time to your virgin ears. This has happened to me numerous multiple times. Sometimes it's difficult to believe I'm not in the Truman Show.

And it starts to rain the exact moment you decide to take the dogs for a walk. How is this not scripted.

I don't know how to acquire information reliably anymore. I can determine that perhaps up to sixty Palestinians died and some 1000+ (!!) were injured by the firing of bullets from guns during protests at the Gaza border, according to reports from various sources. But I don't know how, and I don't know why. My liberal friends are firing off memes about it being in direct response to Trump's a-hole decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, saying things like this was a peaceful protest like the Parkland-inspired student protests or the Women's March, and these Israeli troops mowed them down indiscriminately. Israel says the violence was justifiable in the protection of their borders, and that 28 of the dead were identified as having demonstrable ties to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, that they had "documented terror background[s]." And the US is apparently blocking a UN investigation into the violence, saying things like, if anything, Israel showed restraint in ONLY killing sixty. Because I live in just the worst country. We're just, the worst.

It's not that I don't trust my liberal friends anymore, but I just don't think they have the kind of time to research and vet their sources. I don't have that kind of time, and I work at a golf course. These people have like career-type jobs and kids and diseases and real actual problems that take up a lot more time than my problems and so how could they possibly know for sure what information they're passing along is true and accurate. We live in a world where an organization called Human Rights Watch sounds like a biased liberal Facebook group, but they have been around since 1978, and they have somebody on staff whose job title is UN Director, which as far as I can tell isn't a sanctioned UN position but merely their in-house title for the guy who gives their official responses to UN happenings, so yes, perhaps they have a liberal bent but are they biased? Do they lack facts to back up their opinions? This UN guy they have, he worked for Reuters literally at the UN headquarters in New York for at least five years, he's a journalist who if nothing else probably for years drank coffee on the same park benches as the people who have the best access to all of the facts.

So can I trust Human Rights Watch? This international, non-governmental organization? I have no idea. They've been criticized for being too ingrained with US foreign policy, for not accurately reporting on human rights violations by relying too much on civilian eye-witness accounts and discounting military or government accounts, for being biased against Israel, for being biased for Israel, you name it. Their take on the recent Gaza conflict is that it was a "calculated killing of protestors" and that there should be a UN investigation, and that the US is being hypocritical in blocking this investigation against Israel when they're calling for investigation and intervention in Syria and Myanmar. That all sounds rational, logical to me, but I have to hesitate before I believe it. I just want to know why these people died. I just want access to the facts.

I spent about three hours today picking golf balls from the driving range, cleaning them, putting them into bags three by three, returning them to the clubhouse to be purchased and dumped and whacked back out onto the range again. Golf balls are approximately the exact size of those what's-it-called, those zen ringy balls that were popular for a hot moment in the early 2000s. They have different balls for the driving range than for regular play, supposedly they're softer, more absorbent of force and thus don't travel as far, are not as easily lost, are more easily controlled, less prone to being launched over the protective netting and into traffic. There are also balls that are labeled for use by women, but for the life of me I can't figure out what this is supposed to mean. Are they... easier? Smaller, to travel further, or larger to make better contact? Heavier for more control, lighter for more distance? Harder for better transference of kinetic energy from club to ball? Softer so they're easier to add spin? Is it just marketing, is it all marketing, is everything marketing?

I work at a golf course because I'm an English teacher who doesn't know if he'll be teaching in the fall and even if I am it's not for enough money, so I need a summer job to make ends meet, and I'm so sick of customer service that I opted for working outside, in the sun, in the fresh air, performing rote, near mindless physical labor for barely above minimum wage. I have two master's degrees and I'm answering to more experienced high school students, or I would if they had any semblance of responsibility or ambition, but they are providing me with some clarity. They forget to do the basic tasks of the job more often than one would think would be continually employable, and they revel in minor rebellious acts like chewing tobacco and hitting driving range balls up the number one fairway, and their time is worth the same as my time. They have access to the same facts that I have access to. They are almost all there for the free golf. It costs $44 to play 18 holes on this course. I don't spend that much per day to feed myself, my wife, and my four pets combined, usually. That's a lot of money for a few hours of entertainment. And I get to do it for free. When I applied for the job they asked me two questions. Will you show up to work, and do you golf. Because they knew the job doesn't pay. Mostly what they pay you in is golf.

Today after work I stopped at Goodwill and I found a golf bag for $10 and three irons and a putter, which means I now have seven clubs in total, which is more than enough. Now I can golf free, too. Collect all my benefits, instead of just the perks of next to zero customer interaction and the whiling away of hours spinning golf balls in my hand.



The Violent Bear It Away

I make my students freewrite. I should have to freewrite. Pay the toll.

I didn’t work on the novel today. I took a day off, spent about two hours drawing instead. Also grading and cleaning and dog maintenance, I didn’t ONLY draw all day, but I thought if I’m not going to get to writing the novel, I should at least write something. 

A plane crashed today but I don’t want to write about that. Or the people that died, all from Puerto Rico, all of whom apparently worked to transport aid to the island after the hurricane. They deserve to be remembered, I’m sure, but they haven’t released the names yet, and I don’t know how to process it otherwise, because it came down in my city, on the median of a busy highway, somehow not hitting any cars or buildings even with the subsequent explosion, so perfectly placed in a not unpopulated part of town near the airport that onlookers suspect the pilot crashed where he did on purpose to save lives. 

I don’t know how to write in the mornings, but I’m trying to convert. It’ll probably have to start with freewriting in the mornings because otherwise I just cannot get myself to move from passive to active recreation. The phone screen, the internet sucks me in, whether I’m in a good mood or not, I don’t think this is a depression thing so much as a natural circadian sort of brain rhythm. My make-stuff hackles don’t get raised naturally until about 2 p.m., but the mornings are more often than not the best time to get writing done, before the appointments and tasks of the day get going, let alone before my dog is fully awake and annoying, bugging me for attention. I think eventually what it’ll have to be is a workout. A bright-and-early, first-thing run, get the blood flowing, reset my rhythms, if possible. This particular morning, however, I tried to meet my brain halfway by reading, which is the most active of passive recreations available.

I finished Flannery O’Connor’s novel today, which as it turns out wasn’t really a novel at all but a 200-page short story, because some people are just so good at one thing they keep doing it even when they try to do another thing. It all happened in just about the span of five days, for the most part, with the necessary flashbacks for context. The plot was a short story plot, the characters short story characters, even the setting was limited to three main focal points, or two, if you wanted to argue that that last one was just serving as a stepping stone to the other. It was repetitive in its drama, especially the dialogue, but that was also one of the main themes, an inability of the characters to move on with their lives, so the fact they seemed to keep having the same conversation over and over again made sense in that respect.

I don’t want to wake up and run tomorrow. But more than that I don’t want to be someone who knows what needs to happen and doesn’t do it. But even more than that, I don’t want to write that thing down and post it on the internet and then not do it, because it’s one thing to know yourself a fraud, but another thing entirely to be judged one by the public. 

Oh! Speaking of judging, I’ve been following that Michelle Wolf drama in the media, much of which is focused around her criticism of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. How could you say such things to her face, is the gut reaction of most people who found the comic’s jokes in bad taste. Which I just wanted to mention is the perfect reaction to demonstrate the problem. Fox News famously got blacklisted by Obama, if I remember correctly. He would do interviews with all the major news networks except them. I don’t blame him for this decision, really, because of (obviously) the eight-plus years they spent in a jealous rage flinging barely contained racism in his direction, but the thing is, if he would’ve gone on their stupid network the same as any other and given them the interviews, it would’ve been fine. It actually would have most likely helped with their radical conservativism, because they never would have said those things to his face.  

I think there are liberals and conservatives, sure, but another key distinction of that binary sort among Americans is the “to their face” distinction. On the one side are people that would prefer to keep their criticism to the locker rooms, shared only with what they assume to be like minds. The other side want the objects of their criticism to hear that criticism and respond. There’s another of today’s news stories that serves as a kind of metric for this one, wherein Draymond Green invited Charles Barkley to punch him in the face. Why? Because Barkley said on national television the way Green plays basketball makes him want to punch him in the face. Barkley’s comment was the locker room type, but he was not only speaking to like minds. It was a criticism on a personal level and had not much to do with analyzing Green’s basketball skills. Imagine if Barkley had said such a thing in the same room as Green, directly to him. Hey Draymond, I don’t like your style and I want to punch your face. Would any of us have been surprised if Green stood up, went over, and decked C. Barkley right in the jaw?

This is why people assumed Wolf should not have said what she said. While such a comment from the Fox News pundits about Hillary Clinton is just fine on their network, it would be in considerably worse taste to call her a liar if she were seated just four spots down from the podium, dressed in formal wear, listening politely. You don’t slander in person, dammit. You keep it civilized and slander someone to all of your friends and internet followers and wait for that person to hear about it secondhand. 

The thing is, Wolf didn’t believe what she was saying was punch-worthy. She was not trying to slander the woman, she was criticizing her for her abhorrent behavior, and she would love for Sanders to have to answer for it. Charles Barkley issued an official apology for his comment to Draymond Green. He knew he was being a judgey little pissant, that he’d been showing off, acting out, and got busted for it. Wolf, though a comedian, was not showing off or acting out. She is sick of this administration’s bullshit and she wants some answers, and if it takes challenging them to their collective faces to get them, so be it. 

What I would’ve loved to see, if Obama had been giving them interviews, would’ve been the day someone at Fox News finally cracked. Where behind the scenes, in what I’m assuming are the filthiest of actual locker rooms, somewhere in the bowels of the Fox News building, these grumpy pundits who made their money pissing on Obama would dare each other, and dare each other.  Say it to his face. No you say it to his face. Eventually, one of them would have, and I imagine it would’ve gone about as well for him or her as that congressman who shouted “You lie!” during the state of the union. 

If what you’re saying isn’t something you’d say directly to the person, than please, take Draymond’s invitation. Either come at me, bro, or just shut the fuck up. 



River Purgatoire

The last week of my first semester, teaching for the first time since 2014. One of my students tried to guess my age. He said between 19 and 30. I said no. No no no, no. No.

The semester has been good. Solid. I taught one full-semester course and two half-semester, which meant that essentially I was teaching five classes for the second half. But since I was only able to collect seven students for each half-semester course, I may have been teaching for five classes but only grading for two. It was a good way to get back into the teaching thing, and now here comes summer, the best reason to be a teacher, bar none. I’m working to get a good start on finishing this novel before the end of summer, before final grades have even been submitted. 

And yet, I had the pleasure of putting on my best plaid shirt and second-best khakis and not wearing a hat for the majority of the day so that I could go to a couple job interviews without a funny crease in my hair.  

We bought this house, see, is the way I sum it up quickly to people, but the reason we can’t afford for me to take the entire summer off to write is more complicated than the house. Actually we’d be paying more for the rent at our old place, if we were still there. No, it’s more like we bought a house so we have to have a cushion for when stuff breaks and we’re getting close to paying off our credit cards to have that cushion but we’re not there yet and by the way we’ve got if not mountains’ then at least more-than-molehills’ worth of student loans which even when you make as little money as we collectively make they still expect you to pay off an increasing portion of as the years go by, although I’m most definitely paying less per month than the interest I’m accruing, oh and we have one car payment now but there’s the issue of paying my wife’s folks back for paying off her car and her car is going to need replaced eventually as well, not to mention if we ever get around to having kids then what kind of world will we be leaving for them if we don’t figure out a way to donate to some political campaigns before the midterms, much less the 2020 election, and the Republican majority continues its fleecing of the American economy, taxpayer, and environment, which that last is of course not merely an American issue but we’re sure trying to own its destruction, aren’t we??

Oh but also my current university isn’t able to guarantee I will have any classes in the fall, due to the recent merger with a larger university and some unexpected financial constraints and my lack of seniority in the teachers pool.

Fortunately my wife has picked up the motivational rhetoric for me lately, asking if I’ve written today or if I need to schedule some writing time tomorrow, etc., and my writing friend of more than a decade and I have recently started actively keeping up with each other’s progress, checking in once every couple of weeks. I had a rather low word count total last check-in, plus I’ve been mired in working my way through a particular chapter for the past month-plus, so she’s been encouraging me to take emergency measures, to send her what I have for help in finding the way forward, but it’s the phrase she’s used that has proved really motivating. That sounds like purgatory. You’re in purgatory. Get out of purgatory.

So I’ve been working this fortnight on forcing my way through, with machetes and fire. I’ve pounded my keyboard through every conceivable aspect of the scene until I found where I wanted to start, and then cut everything I had in the chapter and started back from the beginning, and now that I’m about 3,000 words back into the thick of it I’m figuring out what material I’ve already cut I can save for later and what cuts will never come back, plus a surprise perspective move, as originally I was in a roving close third and then figured this was probably better being locked into one character’s perspective and now tonight I discovered that the second half of the chapter will be from the other character’s perspective. People like to debate whether or not master’s writing programs are worth it, since people seemed to write just fine before they existed, to which I would say yes, they are, I agree with those who argue that if nothing else they will potentially allow you to find those one or two writers whose opinion you trust and with whom you will trade work and criticism for the rest of your life, but what those people who argue that fail to mention is that, if you’re really lucky, one of those readers could also become your wife. 

Tomorrow is my check-in day, so I should get back to it, because I think with all the deletions I’m currently about -6000 compared to last time, but more importantly, I’d really love to finish this chapter and get out of purgatory. 




The boy was probably about fourteen, but he threw the ball so hard it curved. You had to read the curve. Hitting someone in the head was not allowed. He hit me in the head twice. I got to stay in, but my understanding of the rule was that he should be out. In the subsequent games I watched my nephew play, the kid with the fastball always threw at the biggest guy on the other team, because that was what was fun for him, and when there were no big kids left, he’d underhand it. If he would’ve beaned one of those kids in the head, I suspect that yes, he would’ve been out. You weren’t supposed to hit people hard in the stomach/torso area either, but when you can throw the ball that fast, so fast it doesn’t stay straight but obeys the magnus effect, it’s not so easy to adjust your aim by a few inches this way or that. After I’d already hurt myself and was just watching my nephew play, the kid whipped one at a big kid in the opposite corner of the trampoline arena, but it curved, and just stepping out from behind his target was a very competitive ten-year-old who was a little stocky but regularly one of the last kids still in. He took it in the pills, dead-on. Everybody ooohed. The boy went down, embarrassed. The teenager ran over to check on him. He didn’t mean to do it. He was only throwing at the big kids that hard.

If I’d watched a game or two before playing, I probably wouldn’t have thought he was picking on me when every fastball he threw had my name on it. But I did. I mean I tried not to, but he just kept winging them at me, twice hitting me in the dome and knocking my cap off. So I calmly kept throwing at him, if that was the game, getting the other team’s best player out, it’s not personal, no. But I kept throwing harder, and then harder, and then I thought I saw an opening as he glanced away to pick up a ball, and I threw super hard, and the ball of my shoulder dislodged itself from the socket, and I freaked out and fell over.

I mean, internally I was freaking out. Externally, no one was sure why I immediately stood back up and dashed off, as fast as one can dash on a floor made of trampolines. More like cantered. I cantered off, and my sister was standing there and said something to effect of Are you hurt for real? and as I started to explain My shoulder’s out, I lifted my arm up as high as I could, remembering the Czech Republic and the hours I had to wait until they agreed to pop my shoulder back in and envisioning myself there at last admitted behind closed doors of the emergency room and the instantaneous relief of feeling my arm rejoin the rest of my body concert and I thought about the angle they had to put my arm into in order to snap it back in place and I tried not to think about how it took two doctors and the shredded remains of my Morphine t-shirt they wrapped around my upper arm for one doctor to hold as he pulled one direction and the other doctor pulled the other no no no don’t think about that think about the angle, I raised my arm up higher, knowing the pain was as yet not unbearable but remembering how unbearable it ultimately became, raised it up and in mid-sentence of my description of my injury to my sister, my shoulder slid back into place.

Last time, fourteen years ago, after my shoulder was out of socket for six hours, they put me in a sling and said keep it immobilized for a month. I spent the last three weeks of my Czech Republic trip wearing my forearm strapped against my stomach like a fanny pack. When I got back to the states and started physical therapy they said I should’ve never done that, at least, not for that long. My range of motion took months to return. Lots of pulling on big rubber bands. This time I wanted that sling so badly but Walgreens didn’t have the fanny pack kind, just the over-the-shoulder kind, which would be worthless for my intended purposes, falling asleep, as I have woken up before from horrible detached-arm dreams only to find my arm dangling at a weird angle over the side of the mattress.  I wanted the immediate comfort of immobilization, and only when I got to Walgreens did I remember the advice that immobilization was not necessarily the best course of action. 

When I went to bed, I lulled myself to sleep on my left side for the first time in years, hoping if I hugged myself into a tight enough fetal position I wouldn’t roll over in the middle of the night and undo myself again. Usually, I start on my right side and only switch to my left when I get uncomfortable, much later. Often not at all. Both times I did it before, I had been in sleep-on-my-right-side phases, and both times I had to re-learn to sleep on my left. I told myself, it’s cool. I got this. I’ve done this before.

But you don’t have to reassure yourself if you aren’t afraid in the first place. I fell asleep afraid. My arm hurt, and not just in my shoulder. I remembered how in the Olomouc hospital how first my shoulder hurt, than after a couple hours my entire arm hurt, and by hour six it was rolling spasms of pain that I couldn’t isolate to just here or there. So spreading pain was an irksome symptom. I said to myself, it’s fine, the ibuprofen will kick in soon. The pain won’t spread any further. I fell asleep in willful denial. It wasn’t that hard. Most nights I have to debate myself to sleep, convince myself that all the thinks trying to be thunk don’t need thunk right now.  Most nights I have to pretend I’m somewhere else, someone else, doing something else. This was not that different.

That’s not exactly true, about how I usually fall asleep. Sometimes, yes, I do astral-project completely outside myself and my current body, I do listen to my white-noise box fan and pretend it’s the steady hum of the engine outside my window on the 747 and I’m flying just after sunset to somewhere way out west, or over the ocean, and this noise I’m hearing now I’ll be hearing for the next five hours, unceasing and unaltered. Other times I get very meta, go very deep inside my own experience. It’s the surface thoughts, the writer thoughts, that need tamed.

I don’t mind it. I’m used to it. 

Recently my sister posted a link to a Joe Rogan webisode about how depression might not be the chemical imbalance we’ve all been told it is by big pharma. She said it was a must-hear. I didn’t listen to it. Most debates I am interested in hearing both sides. Not this one. Depression feeds on doubt. If I start thinking my medicine is a placebo, it becomes a placebo, and eventually ineffective.  For the past two days I’ve had to fight off defeatist, dark thoughts, which I think are a hangover from the deep fear of the intense pain I’d experienced in the past. I’ve been cleaning pretty much all day because if I give myself a spare moment on the couch it isn’t long before I find myself thinking about dying. I’m not afraid anymore. I’ve got about 80% normal range of motion back already, and after using my arm all day it is a little sore, but mostly I haven’t even thought about it. The fear is gone. But my brain chemicals haven’t caught up yet. I’m still out of whack. I forgot to eat lunch for about four hours today, not that I was keeping all that busy or anything, it just didn’t seem important.

I’ve been watching comfort movies for background noise all day, because if I were to allow myself, I know I could close my eyes, point my mind in a particular direction, I suspect downward, towards the pit of my stomach, to my core, and I would start to cry in a matter of seconds. Right now it’s Wayne’s World, my favorite movie to watch with friends when I was about twelve. Before this it was The Sword in the Stone, my favorite movie to watch, period, from the ages of about six to ten. Whenever I was given a choice to watch something, I’d pick our taped-from-cable copy of The Sword in the Stone, complete with the absurd eight-minute commercial breaks of WGN in like 1988. I turned it on today because it was comforting to think that now that I’m an adult, I can treat myself to certain things, I have certain choices. 

This is what depression is, or whatever the fuck is going on in my particular head. It is recognition of the situation, and taking action. Maybe that’s what the Joe Rogan webisode was about. Recognizing the cause of your blue feelings and doing something to address the real-world cause. I’ve heard that one before. Depression isn’t real, you’re just poor, and your wife left you. That’s why you’re sad, ya jerk. Get more money and get another wife. Also, go exercise. Pills won’t help, they’ll just lock you into the cycle, keep you where you are.

I wanted to write about this because this scenario seems pretty perfect for demonstrating my own personal chemical imbalance theory. My brain does not balance itself well. It’s been two days, dammit. I’m having a two-day reaction to a ten-second dislocation. I don’t think it’ll be over tomorrow, either. 

Think I’m going to watch Deadpool now. And eat pizza. Before the medication, I used to go the opposite direction. I used to watch sad movies and wait around in the darkness. But even if I can’t turn on the lights, I can imagine myself in a different place, in a different body. I don’t have to be the depressed lump in bed all day. I can pretend to be a good husband, a responsible adult, who keeps up with his job and his life and who follows his sports teams and responds to emails and looks for jobs. It’s not me. Not right now. But it’s a reasonable facsimile and it’ll get me through the night.



I Have No Enemies

Instead of watching the State of the Union address tonight, which feels irrelevant when you live in a world where "No transsexuals in the military" is something that happens at random, on the internet, I watched the new documentary on the Avett Brothers on HBO. Quick review: it's a whole lot of watching them play and sing, and a little context besides, but that's what I was hoping for, honestly. Soul food.

I'm feeling antsy. Anxious. I stumbled across my comp essay for my MFA this afternoon. It's been about four years since I wrote it. The good news is, I think I'm still writing the way I was trying to write, based on that essay, which is to say, opening up my imagination, not holding back or worrying about criticism in the way I found myself completing my first novel. The bad news is it's been four years. I still haven't finished this book.

Before this documentary on the Avett Brothers came out, I saw an interview they gave after the first screening of the film, where the brothers took audience questions. Someone asked how they pressed on after the album they're making during the documentary ("True Sadness") got some less than positive reviews. Seth Avett said he never looks at reviews because if he did he wouldn't be able to write songs the way they write songs. So he didn't know about the negative reviews, which I believed, because he looked genuinely surprised. What way do they write songs? From the gut, from the soul, so they say, which is something easy to feel in their music but also something difficult for a cynic like me to believe.

And yes, during the documentary they do talk about fame, about success, getting out of North Carolina, selling records. Scott Avett tells a story of himself in a lip sync contest at eight years old, imagining some New York record exec happening by and signing him to stardom. They say the things that rock stars say, like my family is the most important thing, all that. Plus they're on a major label, produced by Rick Rubin, who has worked with everyone from Run-D.M.C. to Metallica. Including Slipknot. And Tom Petty. Black Sabbath. Lady Gaga. Seriously, like everyone. That Rubin guy is a crazed-looking mofo, btw. He's got a beard like he's in ZZ Top (he's also worked with ZZ Top) and he talks about producing music like he's leading an undergraduate fiction workshop. I don't want to tell them what to sing, he says, I just want to help them write the songs they need to write.

So, like I said, the documentary is mostly these guys playing and singing, watching this album generate and grow, which is neat. Near the end they show the entire recording of the song "No Hard Feelings." The Avett Brothers band actually has seven members, collected over the years as needed and mostly getting together to play shows, apparently, as this is the first album that all seven people have recorded at the same time together. This five minutes or so of this song's recording shows all seven people playing their parts, Seth singing the lead part and playing guitar, Scott singing harmony over his banjo accompaniment, Rick Rubin jamming by himself behind glass in the background, hips rocking, beard swaying to and fro. They've shown the final few seconds of a recording before, where the artists all kind of freeze, hold still, hold their breath, to have some silent space at the end of the track, and at the end of "No Hard Feelings" the same thing happens. And then those few seconds expire, and everyone allows themselves to move. No one appears to be very happy, although it was a great take. No one except Rick Rubin, who comes into the recording area of the studio, you can tell just bursting at the seams, wanting to tell them how great a take that was, and he tries his best. Seth stands up, says thank you awkwardly. Scott stays sitting there. The other musicians in the band start to file out. The keyboardist, I think, or possibly the drummer, both of whom were in their own isolated rooms, but I think it was the keyboardist who came out last and told the brothers they hit it out of the park, with that song. They hit a home run. The brothers receive that news just as awkwardly. Seth says they need a break, need a breather, need to take five before the next song.

Outside, the brothers look shaken up. The cameraman, or the director, either Judd Apatow or the other director, asks Seth if he can ask him a question, as they sit there in the near-dusk light on the back porch of the studio in Malibu. Seth says sure thing. Judd (or the other one) asks what it is about that song that makes it so emotionally taxing. Because you can tell, these guys look like they just got kicked in the diaphragm by, I guess, true sadness. Seth, the younger brother, starts to hem and haw and try to come up with a good answer. Then Scott says, without looking directly at the camera or the question asker, that it's something he still wrestles with, being congratulated on singing songs like this. "No Hard Feelings" is about dying, contemplating dying, and the release from life's ugliness it will provide (they hope). So you only get to write a song like this by living life, experiencing life and suffering, and that's a weird thing to be congratulated on, suffering, and he doesn't know how to handle that.

Seth says he gets it, and he tries to imagine they're just being congratulated on having a clean take, on playing their instruments and singing well. Scott's like, yeah, but. It's not that. Seth says yeah but that's how I get by, and Scott you can tell isn't buying it, because Seth is only slightly less visibly shaken than his brother, and Scott asks him Really? You just ignore it like that? And Seth says yeah, like what else can you do.

That's not the end of that scene, and that's not the part of the movie that made me cry, but it was my favorite part. Because I know if I am going to come correct in the writing of this novel, if it succeeds, not even commercially, not even to the point where people congratulate me for writing it, but if it simply succeeds on its own merit, than that's the best possible feeling I could hope for. That emotionally exhausted, gut-check, raw nerve tenderness, the melancholy, bittersweet satisfaction of evoking pure, naked pain. They weren't unhappy with the take, they knew it was a great take, and it did the song justice, exactly the way they wanted it to go, but at its completion they couldn't even enjoy it, so much as be relieved to have finally expelled it.

What a strange profession this is.

A much better feeling is coming across an interview with a literary journal you respect, and a few questions in the editors are asked, What are you looking for in the work you publish? and they say Oh well you should try your best to write like this guy, and then they name-drop someone who was in practically every writing workshop with you as an undergrad at Ohio State, someone whose writing you've always liked and whose critiques you trusted and now is enjoying a measure of well-earned success. I'm not gonna lie, that shit is pretty fun, when it happens.



Popping Bottles

After finishing the last chapter, I was able to go back to my chapter list and restructure. When the reorganization was complete, suddenly it didn’t feel like I was writing a 600-page novel anymore. It looked a lot more like 350-400. 

Having a finished draft by the end of the summer suddenly feels a lot more feasible. 


In other news — It’s still cold. And I have to drive an hour to get to work. 

Something happens when I drive in the winter. My wife has a tendency to leave stuff in my car. Trash, mostly. Unimportant mail, grabbed as we drive away and never retrieved. Gum wrappers. Actual gum, just, on things. Empty plastic bottles. The thing about an empty bottle with the cap on in a cold car is, it contracts. Crinkles up a bit. The air shrinks. So when you drive for a while, and the car gets all warmed up, the air inside starts to gradually expand again until — PAPP! — the plastic un-caves, reforms, reconstitutes, and almost inevitably scares the crap out of you.

There was a particularly thick and therefore loud bottle under my passenger seat for a few months’ time a couple winters ago, when we drove back to Ohio to bury my brother-in-law. I think it was a Gatorade bottle, actually, probably one I was saving to use as a water bottle later. After the viewing at the high school, we got in the car and were driving away, feeling like all kinds of shit. Everything was especially surreal. Like, nothing was landing, nothing was making a mark. Music on the radio didn’t prove poignant or memorable, it was a gray Ohio day same as most Ohio days. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but the emptiness of significance was palpable to me. It was my old high school, too. I hadn’t been back there since I graduated, but being there didn’t resonate. There was no nostalgia, or animosity, remembrance or remorse. The office was an office, the lunchroom a lunchroom. Hallways felt neither big nor small. I couldn’t remember my old locker numbers. There was sorrow in the gym, where they had position the casket up by the stage, expecting a big turnout, which they got. But outside the gym? May as well have been anybody’s high school, or a dentist’s waiting room, or the DMV.

Then the car achieved critical warmth, and the bottle went off like a firecracker, and my wife and I jumped out of our skin, and after the piquing of our adrenaline subsided — we smiled. And I’m not especially one to see signs, to interpret tea leaves or see shapes in the clouds as runes of the other side. But I could not deny, in that moment it felt like Ben was in the car with us.

Tonight, on my way to go teach, I got treated to a little pop from an empty water bottle. Same after I was done teaching, driving back home. 

I miss him. I wish he’d gotten the chance to read this novel. I would’ve loved to know what he thought about it. Especially the baseball parts. 



Anybody Else Suddenly In the Mood For Botox?

 Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

So let's talk about this guy.

On his face, I've never trusted him. By which I mean, I saw his face and decided he could not be trusted. Snap judgment, I know, but most of life's judgments are snap, because we're busy people. I'm not actively religious, I'm not in the market for a guiding figure in that arena. I'm not actively anti-religious either, so for all intents and purposes, in my life, my snap judgment sufficed, and I felt free to ignore anything related to him I came across, because I didn't trust him.

Then the hurricane hit Houston this past fall, and since I lived in Texas as well as various other coastal-type areas, I had a bit of ingrained empathy for the victims of the flooding I was seeing on the news, perhaps a little more than other people who weren't immediately affected by the storm, perhaps not, I don't know. I cared, is the point. I was paying attention.

When I saw the story that claimed Osteen's church was not allowing hurricane victims to take shelter in their building, his status in my head switched from nonentity to active villain. I reposted a story on Facebook which referred to a public backlash against the Lakewood church. Which for me is a significant thing. I don't dole out likes too often, much less feel compelled to forward something along, to insist other people see it, too. But I felt bad for the Houstonians! I thought they were being shat upon, in their hour of need, when they needed their community leaders to step up! It seemed to me to be a pretty clear case of rich guy values his possessions over human life.

My sister didn't see it that way and a couple days later posted the first sermon Joel gave when the Lakewood church reopened for regular services (they did open for shelter for the flood victims shortly after I'd reposted their shame). In it Joel says whoa whoa whoa, let's not all jump to conclusions, here. We of course wanted to open our doors, but guys? We're in Houston too, hello? We. Were. Flooded. Too. Duuhhhhhhhhh.

Perhaps I'm tipping my hand, but I still don't like the guy. In any case, my sister posted this and said, See? Shouldn't go casting blame about until you have all the facts. I suppose she is allowed to give me some shit, given she's my older sister, but this seemed excessive. She'd already offered her correction once on my original post (after I'd referred to him as a "craven gluttonous shitpile" which she told me itself seemed excessive). But now here she was again, drawing my attention to the quote-unquote facts. Rubbing her little brother's nose in it.

So. Since the facts around that situation are debatable (TMZ posted what was reported as a video from right outside the Lakewood church showing no substantial flooding, while Lakewood responded with its own photo of their flooded parking garage), I can't be certain it's my predetermined attitude toward the man (liar) making me choose my side. I want to say Nobody wanted to take shelter in your friggin parking garage, you scabrous twat! They wanted inside your building, inside the locked doors! but that might be my bias talking, so I'm going to concede that point. The Lakewood church, for all I know, did everything it could to help Houston's displaced citizenry in the wake of the hurricane.

Now what I'm interested in is whether my gut instinct not to trust him was correct or not. What makes someone untrustworthy? Lying, sure, but you'd have to look pretty far and wide to find someone with zero demonstrable occurrences of a lie or the spreading of misinformation. Just scrolling back in time through my own Facebook feed, I found things I'd posted that now I was like, well that's not true anymore, that changed, should probably delete that. But I didn't. 

I already know if I scour the web for examples of Osteen lying, I'll find it. I'll find it because he's a human and celebrity and you can't be both of those things without somebody calling you out for something stupid you said or did, because at some point you did say or do something stupid. What I'm more interested in, I guess, is whether his untrustworthiness is of the evil variety.

One of the earliest comments on my sister's response post was a hearty endorsement of my gut reaction, saying Osteen is an evil money-grubbing troll and fuck him right in the earball, or something. Which wasn't any more productive than my original post had proved to be. What little I could confirm was that yes, he lives in an extravagant (~$10 million) house. But the evidence I'd expected to find wasn't so readily available. 

What I'd expected was, honestly, a bold proclamation on their website of "Pay us money and God will reward you with success in your life," which is how I understood the Prosperity Gospel, according to its critics. Prosperity Gospel ministries, according to other evangelical churches, are defined by their insistence that true believers are due "not just the removal of sin, but also the removal of sickness and poverty." By that definition, I would say Osteen fits the bill, but the article linked above also gives six defining characteristics to help you recognize a Prosperity evangelical when you see one:

  1. The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity of suffering

  2. The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial

  3. The absence of serious exposition of Scripture

  4. The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture

  5. Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles

  6. A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God

Before I get too deep into this, I should ask whether or not Prosperity Gospel itself is an evil enterprise. We've collectively decided that it's okay to preach about a God that will forgive us our sins, if we only believe and ask for that forgiveness. Is it also okay to include poverty and illness as sins on the list? I can't say no, because I can't define what a sin is for anyone else. For instance, I personally find Funyuns to be an abomination unto the lord, but who am I to judge? What might tip the scales in the evil direction for Prosperity Gospel, however, is preaching that these two particular sins will be forgiven in this lifetime. If you only believe. 

Is that damaging? Probably. Yes. Yes, that is dangerous. Especially the illness part. But is it evil? Well, that's complicated. I don't usually assign the evil label until money is involved. Like, for instance, this book, sold on the definitive Prosperity preacher Benny Hinn's website, which is written by a Dr. Francisco Contreras, seen here offering the opinion that "laughter and music . . . are the most potent immunostimulating agents" and are therefore the two best cancer treatments of all. Which is damaging in several ways, because not only is the scientific evidence offered to back up that claim a link to an article on the same website, which offers a brief explanation how one component of the immune system works (the lymphatic system) followed by ten things that can screw it up, and which incidentally does not mention music or laughter at all, but also, and rather importantly, cancer is not a disease the way measles and mumps are diseases. The immune system doesn't have a singular relationship with cancer's development. It's not kill the virus, kill the disease. Cancer is the result of mutated chromosomes. Which mean, it's complicated. Sometimes the cancer hijacks immune cell development which allows the cancer to spread, in which case a too-burly immune system would be a decided disadvantage.

So, yeah. Selling cancer patients a book full of advice like Got cancer? Pray more! is pretty patently evil. And if that's Prosperity Gospel, the whole lot of them can go rot.

But Osteen's online store doesn't sell that book, or anything resembling it. Mostly it's just books they (the Osteens, collectively) have written themselves. They do sell a $40 bible, but not that book. So is he Prosperity, or not? Let's check the list.

I don't know how to address issues one through four. It's tough to prove an absence. I've read a bunch of blog posts. I've listened to about five recent sermons. I can't say for sure there's an absence of an emphasis on suffering. One recent post does, in fact, remind people that belief in God is not for the good times alone, but also the bad. Number two, though, it's looking doubtful. Peppered pretty regularly throughout the sermons and the blog posts are assurances that no, actually, self-denial isn't all that necessary at all, because if you recognize that this God is a big God (?), your eyes will be opened to all the "blessings, favor, and victory" that are just over the horizon.

Number three, again, who knows. The dude brings up Scripture all the time, and yes it is relentlessly oversimplified, but he probably considers this serious exposition, and I'm sure most of his followers would agree. Number four, though, thanks to that oversimplification, is probably the easiest of these absences to prove. There are never any questions brought up by the scriptural quotes, only clear and potent messages.

Number five, $10 million house.

 Via Google Maps via Daily Mail

Via Google Maps via Daily Mail

Number six, I didn't ever actually register a marginalization of God (beyond referring to him as merely big, which, I don't care what God you're praying to, that adjective has to stay at the bottom of the barrel when you're searching for descriptors). Oh, and also that God cannot change the past, because he is a God of the present, which is probably just a semantic quibble. On the whole, Joel and company seem to be pretty adamant that God can do all things. But there is also a strong emphasis on the self, and accomplishing one's own personal desires. He's having his cake and eating it. It's pretty impressive, actually. In a way.

So. Is it definitive that the Lakewood church engages in the sinful ways of the Prosperity Gospel? Well, yes. Kind of. But they come by it honestly, I think. They do tell their followers that a stout belief in the same God that they believe in will result in said God rewarding them with prosperity (I don't see much mention of health or healing, but he can't hide his admiration for wealth and gold and thereby equating their accumulation with piety and spiritual resolve — millionaires are often referred to with the same respect and admiration as otherwise reserved for saints). But then again, why shouldn't they believe that doctrine whole-heartedly? It's exactly what happened to them. 

I don't think he's evil. I think he's harmful to certain people, to some degree, but also quite beneficial to others. His sermons are filled to overflowing with pop-psychology maxims and choruses of affirmation and hope. I think he kept the doors closed because he was worried about lawsuits, assuming that there would be some sort of liability issue if he allowed anyone in before he was absolutely sure no one could sue him for the quality of his care. Which is a typical rich guy move, but not at all uncommon.

Joel and his family are, I think pretty clearly, rich people first, pastors of the word of God second. I don't think it's intentional, I don't think they're even all that aware of it, and of course would vehemently deny it in any case. It's just... who they are. They value money. They do, but they don't ever explicitly say that giving money is required for salvation. Only your faith, only your belief. Of course, donating is a pretty large indicator of how strongly you believe, so . . .

That same commenter mentioned above, who clearly did not like Osteen whatsoever, mentioned that the "$50 million a year" Joel pulls in (figure unsubstantiated) means he is "an embarrassment to god" and to himself. My sister calmly reminded that commenter and the audience at large that having money doesn't make you an inherently bad person. 

Maybe she's right about that. But that argument gets thinner the more money you accumulate. Who knows, though, maybe old Joel is like Bill Gates and he's got some grand plan for his financial slush pile akin to ridding the world of hook worms and malaria. If he doesn't, then clearly he prefers possessing that money over the good deeds that could be performed with it. Or bad deeds. Really any deeds. Rich people are only rich because they prefer having money over spending it. 

Buuuuut . . . It gets a little thinner still when you recall that Joel Osteen is not the businessman responsible for Microsoft but is in fact in the profession of ministry, of spiritual service to his flock, flinging around the name of a dude called Jesus, noted temple-destructionist.. Good deeds is kind of implied by the job description, isn't it?

Thinner still when you see at the bottom of his website a link and a phone number for "Customer Service."

And when you remember that house.

Whatever. I already told you I still don't like the guy, but that's a personal opinion, one I don't expect you to adopt. And whether or not being rich makes you evil is a debate for another time.

TL;DR: I rescind my statement that Mr. Osteen is a craven gluttonous shitpile. He is not craven. He is a perfectly average — socially and ethically speaking —  gluttonous shitpile.

So there, sis. Thbbhbpptbbhtt.