Caddyshack Revisited

It was 1980, I was a pimple-faced fat kid who was just leaving the world of James Herriot novels and an obsession for trout fishing to enter into a lifetime fixation with, well, women. Women who, mostly, were never quite interested in me. Of course, there are few things crueler than a teenage girl—pretty little human beings negatively preoccupied with the foulness of any odors and unusual looks.
I grew up in Coventry, Rhode Island, and we had a little grungy downtown cinema frequented by the local kids. And when I saw Caddyshack I remember the audience being mostly high school kids and feeling like I was at a school assembly. I can’t remember if I saw it with my friend Kerry or not. But I can remember laughing hardest at some of Bill Murray’s portrayal of Carl. At one point Carl is tasked with killing gophers, at first he misunderstands the over-the-top Scottish accent of his boss and thinks he’s being told to kill golfers on the golf course, but once it’s made clear Carl accepts the job and adds with a shrug of resigned clarification, sure I can kill the gophers . . . don’t even need a reason. And that line, killed me at fifteen.

Netflix is carrying the old film, and it’d been about thirty-five years since I’d seen it. I selected it with some trepidation, would I enjoy it, could it possibly hold up? So few things loved as a kid do manage to survive adult scrutiny. Especially when coupled with a disdain for nostalgia. Seriously, I don’t do nostalgia.

The Kenny Loggins song kicks in, the puppet starts dancing, and I thought, OK at least it’s not goddamned CGI. Here’s what impressed me, about the revisit to an old favorite. Ted Knight’s rich bastard character was much better than I remembered. I remember hating him, and you still do hate him, but you also are impressed with his amazing expressiveness. Ted Knight for me was always Mary Tyler Moore’s Ted Baxter the dumb-as-dirt, self-important anchorman on the news show they produced. In Caddyshack his role isn’t much different as the judge, and his job is basically to cross foils with Rodney Dangerfield’s goofy loutishness, but it works. If exaggeration is a means of effective teaching, and it is, then we can imagine these incidents being told to us by not quite trustworthy blue collar pals in the break-room. Dangerfield’s strutting and tossing of bills, slamming the judge’s hat, and stupid child, and the entire zombie dance of the old folks—confusingly Caddyshack is a series of events that seem unconnected in any sensible context but it barely matters because you’re excited by the feral quality of most of the humor—the story seems intact because we all want to believe in the richness of mythological superior moments.

Moving on we meet Noonan, a regular kid acting as our straight man to most of the movie’s action. He gets slammed early on by Ted Knight’s judge telling him that the world needs ditch diggers as well as lawyers, implying solidly that he doesn’t much care what happens to our hero. As a young man this bit of asshole Republicanism lodged deep. It was as good as Mary Karr’s father saying that a Republican is someone who can’t enjoy a meal unless he knows someone else is going without. After all we are raised in this nation to believe our desire and our work ethic are what matter, not our economic hang-ups, or social position acquired from birth. Noonan takes it in stride after all he’s got an adorable, and generous lady-friend at the country club with a spell-binding Irish brogue, sorta. She also takes it in stride when Noonan clearly pursues the beautiful relation of the judge, Lacey Underall. More about this later.

One of the things that jumps out thirty-five years later is the youthfulness of both Murray brothers. Bill as Carl and his brother Brian-Doyle who portrays the caddy manager. Today these brothers are doing a podcast visiting baseball clubs around the nation and enjoying song and jokes about baseball in general. Sadly, sports-ball is not my thing and not even the clever fun of the Murray brothers is likely to assuage that, I’m sorry to say. It’s important because much of this movie revolves around people golfing, but never so much that you’re actually worried about having to watch golf. Also, gambling rears its ugly head, and quickly goes off the rails, with betters soon betting on nose-picking, and doubling exhorbitant sums in a space where gambling is supposed to be illegal. I think what I liked best about that as a kid was the portrayal of ostensible adults acting like unleashed kids, it’s both unnerving and somehow satisfying to realize that the world (or at least the world of certain movies) is populated by people who are all just a step away from unhindered foolishness. It’s not just Dangerfield and Knight who are behaving with the unhinged rambunctiousness of empowered demons. Dangerfield and Knight are of a generation both born in the 1920s and seemingly comfortable vying as contemporaries from opposite angles of the social spectrum. While both characters portrayed are wealthy, Dangerfield’s Czervik is frustrated and bored with the stuck-up attitude of the elite and acts to undermine it, making him heroic to the movie-going audience. This differs from Dangerfield’s usual self-deprecating humor in which he “gets no respect”, and which he played with great success in about 1000 Tonight Show appearances (actual score of appearances was 70!).

Alongside these heavyweight characters trading blows is Ty Webb, a strange and often wholly unfunny weirdo played by Chevy Chase. I remember as a kid wanting desperately to like him, as I had enjoyed him on Saturday Night Live and was probably the only person in the country who actually liked his TV comedy special. Chevy is strange, many of his lines are entirely oddball and seemingly random. My uncle says you have a screw loose engenders, “Your uncle molests collies.” I’m sure I guffawed and probably even tried that line out a few times at school, but now, Chase’s haunted, goofy, possibly gay, maybe a Vietnam veteran making the noise of the Six Million Dollar Man as he golfed—meant to seem vaguely mystical with a tinge of martial artistry—just falls flat. He has a few sight gags, billowing smoke between his clenched teeth, and spilling wine, and punching decorations with vigorous gestures a la Woody Allen in Play It Again, Sam. But none of it seems funny now. Especially when compared to Murray’s outstanding and lovable looniness.

OK let’s get to Bill’s portrayal of Carl. What is going on here? Is Carl autistic? Is he meant to seem handicapped? I never thought to ask back in the day, but now I’m finding myself a little uncomfortable with Murray sticking his lip out sideways and sounding rather like he’s had some sort of stroke. As his gopher-hunting activities escalate we’re along for the ride, but his appearances in the film are genuine gold. Blasting the flower heads with his drives while he improvises being on a television golf show, or producing animals to trick the gopher with out of C4 explosives I remember I was most enthralled with his wonderful fun. When, near the start of the movie, he’s got Noonan backed up against the wall with a pitchfork carelessly pointed at his throat and telling him about the Dali Lama granting him prefect consciousness on his deathbed (whatever that means) it becomes part of us. Later, when Ty and Carl meet in Carl’s shabby abode, the character is greatly expanded. Carl seems much more acutely aware than he did before. He’s interested in Ty, and tries to socialize with him. He’s even got a research project going on with a grass hybrid you can supposedly smoke. Then, they start passing a doobie and shotgunning booze over it. Chevy as Ty is oddly straight for a guy with the weirdest lines in the movie, at one point following a come-on from Lacey to tie her up with his ties with “let’s pretend we’re real human beings.” Getting back to the story at hand, Ty wants to just play his ball through Carl’s home, Carl then starts up a gas blower to clean up. Scene over. But what a fun scene, it does nothing to enhance the movie, nothing to move the story of our hero Noonan as he attempts to get a scholarship. It is there merely for the yucks produced by these two SNL alums.

Back to Noonan’s love life. Soon enough he’s managed to bed the lovely relative of the judge, boobies are out for this scene and I don’t remember having been a young person thrilled about it. I wholly forgot it. But lovely boobs are on display and what does a young man watch a movie for? I’ll tell you, boobs. Noonan gets quite lucky, until he’s boldly dressed in the robe of the judge who promptly arrives to kill him, retreating Noonan steals into the bathroom where the wife of the judge is taking a shower—the lady having walked half barefoot in her torn dress directly to the shower we presume—OK we’ll roll with it, as it’s a cute sequence of the older lady giving a fine smile to our hero.
Here’s where things get interesting. Noonan also beds Maggie, who in a later scene he offers to marry out of an impulse of chivalry. The Lacey character is also with the Chevy Chase character for an odd nude massage scene. And in the end Noonan is with Maggie again, receiving a kiss in the final celebratory moment of the film. Was 1980 a more sexually liberal time? It appears so. The final line of the movie delivered seemingly at random by Dangerfield is “Hey everybody we’re going to get laid!”, which is received with a big cheer from the crowd he yells it to.
As a boy I remember this film giving me a sense of possibilities of the future in the way some of those jackass “What Will You Do?” with your life assemblies they did at High School were meant to. I didn’t care about golf or riches. What I cared about was being loved, and finding pleasure. Caddyshack, while obviously a vehicle for rambunctious jokestering, championed a kind of celebration of epicurean lifestyle. Granted much of that style relied on extreme wealth, but the character of Noonan managed to parley, despite his lower economic status, a healthy, and fully immersed experience which was assisted by kindness and hopefulness that are the mark of any sensible band of humanity. One hopes that Carl will achieve his goals and become the head groundskeeper, and that the jokes will continue, and that we all will get laid!

Five Delicious Emergency Recipes You Can Make In a Pinch!

We’ve all been there, low supplies and ice on the roads. How to satisfy the family while keeping the meal nutritious during a nor’easter or an arctic clipper isn’t magic, it’s about using your noggin. Creativity will save the day in most situations and provide meaningful nourishment your family will thank you for, right after demanding it of you. Let’s get to it!

The first of the five emergency meals is a favorite all the time. My kids go nuts for it on TV night and I usually have it ready by the time The Brady Bunch is on. Jiffy Pop and eggs is all you’ll need and believe me it truly is fun to make!
Get the Jiffy Pop going on the stovetop. Once it’s blossomed into that fantastic shining balloon of popped corn goodness, tear it open and crack two eggs into it. Cover it back up and shove it in the toaster oven for about five minutes at 400 degrees. Pull it out and serve. That’s it! It’s a hot ticket to your family’s hearts!

The next meal for irregular situations is a practical solution to the age old problem of using up those frozen goods. We all have good intentions when we buy those Goya fruit pastes or that extra large, fifteen dollar, bag of frozen strawberries, but after awhile it is clear that those things are taking up much needed space. But what to do with them? Fret no more I have the solution! Take that frozen freezer stuffer to a well greased nine by nine baking tray and fill to the brim with any of your unwanted fruit. I like to lay the pineapple or guava paste boards in the bottom of the pan and top with berries. Set the oven to 400 degrees and bake for about 20 minutes while the kids take a bath. Have yourself a cigarette and a cognac. When the time’s up pull the piping hot fruit out and crack a couple of eggs over it and send it back in the oven for about two minutes. Health experts tell us that fruit and protein are a perfect meal for those of us putting on a bit of tire round the middle, if you know what I mean! Hey, the fruit and eggs is about done, time to get those kids on the sofa for an episode of the Love Boat while they sing mom’s praises!

The third no fuss meal for stormy weather comes to us from Beatrice Morsello and was a favorite of her immigrant family when they first arrived from their shithole country. After a long day of working the loading docks her papa wanted nothing more than to settle in with a beer and his favorite meal of baked root vegetables. That’s right, anything you’ve been saving in that bottom cupboard near the stove, the old potatoes sprouting legs, the slowly softening parsnips, the old carrots–keepers for a storm day! Arrange these root vegetables on a huge baking sheet like this, potatoes, turnips, parsnips, yucca, carrot, onion and repeat. Put enough on the sheet for a real smorgasbord of flavorless starch. Set your oven to 400 degrees and bake those suckers good for about an hour. Have the kids de-flea the family cat while you’re waiting and get them pumped for an episode of Happy Days. What does Fonzi say kids?! Ayyyyyy! As soon as you pull the roots out of the oven crack a couple of eggs over it and stick it back in the oven for a few minutes, you’ll be glad you did. Yum-yum, nothing satisfies like piping hot root vegetables. Health experts remind us that eggs have good cholesterol. And no one knows what that means!

It’s about time for that fourth recipe folks, this one is a real killer. It’ll make your kids so glad they came in from your tick infested backyard to watch Charo on the Jerry Lewis Telethon that’s been on most of the weekend and you’re out of cognac. The kids want foodstuffs and you’re prepared, aren’t you? No? Well look again at those packages of ramen! Ramen have about a hundred and ninety calories per package with or without the sauce packet. That’s right, the sauce packet is clearly calorie free! I usually have a large collection of the little foil packages ready to sprinkle onto almost any dish, chicken, beef, that weird one that you can’t really tell what it is . . . anyway get ready to use those little foil packets for all they’re worth while that lady with the fucking lambchop puppet depresses your children. Boil up all the ramen in the house, and slice up some bananas, try to use up the old ones because you know no one is taking a brown banana to lunch with them. Mash the bananas into the ramen once they’re all piping hot on the stovetop. Add flavor packets to taste. You’re probably about out of eggs by now, so for a flair the kids will love, dump some brandy on the serving bowls and light them on fire! Your kids will love and then quickly be disturbed by the dancing flames.

I know I said five meals, but Jesus I’m exhausted and Starsky and Hutch are on and the kids seem a bit woozy now, so I don’t wanna get them all cranked up again. So just get out some of that brick-hard Aldi’s ice cream and see if you can identify the artificial flavors in that neopolitan. Enjoy!

Arguments III: Self Mythology and Understanding Chaos

We love to tell successful stories about ourselves and have an astonishingly adept ability to find nonexistent patterns in chaos—we can see faces in wood grain, or bunnies in clouds—we tend to make neat narratives about our lives where none really existed. Of course, some of this is done just to simplify, but more often than not we strip our stories of the vast amounts of confusion and flat-out anxiety over the unknown.

Self-help gurus would have us get up every day and say a bunch of self-affirming dreck into a mirror. While there may be positive results of doing such (maybe you were about to slit your wrists?), no one can say there’s any evidence that doing so has the slightest influence on the outcome of our lives. Devotions to spiritual deities are much the same self-help nonsense. These games we play with ourselves may help us survive by convincing us, at least temporarily, or parochially, that we matter.

Facing the world as it is, which is to say, random and without concern for us, scares the piss out of some folks. Especially folks who grew up in that bubble of religious belief that cradled them with this idea that human beings are somehow the children of greater super parents who are looking out for us. I get the desire for this comfort, and it makes sense that so many cling to it with fervor, however it’s utterly immature, virtually by definition.

In other words, desiring a kind of super-parenting beyond your childhood is in fact the ultimate “Peter Pan” syndrome.

And I’d go so far to say more destructive to society than drugs. Why? Because belief in this supernatural sense of self-importance related to cosmic care hinders actual social progress. Believers have a tendency—despite the dedication to family and even some admirable charitable causes—to press belief over rational causality. While most American Christians have a tendency to variably define their God, it is almost certainly the case that each one considers all others wrong. It has long been understood that our nation of individuality breeds religious variation, in fact, long ago quipped by some founding father intellectual that every man in America with a Bible has his own religion. But I stray from my point.

Our self-narratives, linear and clean, expressed as solutions to problems overcome, reflecting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (especially in terms of esteem and love), are inevitably as full of bullshit as our popular movies. We adore a clean story of success and admirable, possibly even, ethical process. We want our heroes to be heroic down to their boot soles, their prosperity the result of their genius and hard work. I will admit that without some hard work and smart thinking chances for prosperity likely plummet, but it is also the case that the prosperous are, more often than not, just as shiftless and lazy about their choices as any of us are. Good fortune does not favor anything we can pinpoint. Randomness cannot be harnessed or influenced. This is why investments are gambles. This is why there are hedge fund specialists. This is why corporations and research institutions employ risk analysts. We don’t like hearing about these things. We are discomfited by the idea of so much risk and gamble. But these elements are solid truths of our society. While the blue collars sweat and toil, every night putting their hands together to appeal to God, the owners and bankers are reading the statistical research from their analysts.
Statistics are the language of science. Understanding statistics is the antithesis of con artists and bullshit. While statistics can be used to lie, the lies are only very successful with the statistically illiterate. And so, I suggest to you to read a stats book. There are many good ones. One of my favorites is Statistics Explained by Perry Hinton. I’m sure you can get a cheap used copy! And to wrap up, don’t be fooled by people’s excitable mythology about themselves. We can’t help making up the shit to make our stories seem vital and reasonable. It’s a human folly that we have little control over.

It’s as irresistible as imagining we can easily solve anyone else’s problems!

Arguments II : the Apathy Bird

The world has a way of wearing down our resolve. Vigilance gives over to complacency. Eventually the natural forces of entropy dissolve our dedication. Our razor sharp capabilities, our laser-like focus, our passion for excellence all wane. For a million reasons we nap instead of fight. We miss a bill payment, or order pizza in when we’re trying to diet. The fuck-it bird comes home to roost. We rediscover a childish apathy. I lose interest in talking to anyone but my closest associates, those with whom I can absolutely let the guard down and never be misunderstood. Fuck it indeed. Then it gets bad. I start to feel belittled and then I act out. Childish fantasies of suicide follow fantasies of violence.
A letter arrives from the DMV three days before they will revoke my registration based on an incorrect accusation of being without insurance. I have exactly one day to fix this issue because the two following days are weekend. It looks like the letter was drafted a week ago, but for some reason the letter only just arrived. I fire off an email to my agent when I get home from work. He picks it up with vigor the following morning (the good fellow) and tells me that I’m innocent of the accusation and won’t have to pay the fifty dollar fine. He shows me that he’s faxed the form and I thank him. But what the hell happened? Why am I being punished for not only doing everything right but even being the type of person who actually worries about this kind of shit. When I read the letter I felt like a criminal. I freaked out thinking I’d possibly allowed the insurance to lapse somehow. I let these bureaucratic freaks unnerve me. But then I found out that they were wrong, and they even seem to know that they are often wrong because the first paragraph of the instructions of the letter tell you that despite being innocent of the charge you’ll have to hurry up to prove it. And so now I’m mad.
I’ve been threatened by a system that I willingly participate in because I’ve always felt it was the correct way. I have acquaintances who drive without licenses and without registrations and are flippant about insurance or paying taxes. They’ve spent nights in jail, and regularly talk to law enforcement officers as though they were their superior officers, worse actually, more like the way Donald Trump speaks to just about anyone who dares criticism him. Why do I worry about this crap so much? Why am I sweating my tax efforts and concerned about my medical bills? Why do I let anxiety about my poverty and lack of lucrative work ruin my time on Earth?
When you think about it the only reason you can be chased is because you did everything right. These institutions of regulation have your name and address and the right to censure you because you’ve given all that to them freely—because it’s the process and we abide. It makes us low hanging fruit, we are nearly free—cost them little in resources—to aggressively pursue and abuse.
The jury duty letters that come from the sheriff’s office are much the same. Their attitude is one of aggressive threat if you disregard your responsibility. The letter doesn’t build up the experience as an opportunity to participate in something that should be more thought of as a civic pride. Instead it blankets the landscape with threats. Threats cover everyone from the most dedicated of socially concerned citizens to the careless who toss the letter away and never think of it again. Threats, we realize, are the most efficient way for the bureaucracy to deal with us. But it pisses us off, it makes us wish to retaliate, that’s only natural. A level of politeness would alleviate much of that sense of belittling, just a please and a thank you. In truth they are pretty good when you go do your jury duty, they do make a big deal out of thanking you for it. But still I can’t shake that sense of disrespect and that rankling of ego when professional courtesy is denied. We’re put on the defense for no good reason, and it makes one dream of providing a reason.
Before long I’m on Donald Trump’s side (not really of course, he’s an idiot, and I was done with him as soon as he said to Wolf Blitzer that his evidence of Mexicans all being criminal was that our leaders were “stupid”. This was long before he accused all Africans of having Aids and our POWs as being losers, etc. I was long ago done with that kind of belligerent bullshit artist (shit, he doesn’t even really qualify as artist, maybe just slinger). But I want to get something clear, Nixon was right about something. And that thing was this—you can’t be offended by people you don’t respect. Respect is key, and if you don’t respect a fool who calls you a name, you really can’t be injured by an unknown quantity whose voice really has no proven value. It’d be like wanting to slug a parrot for blurting a slur. Of course, if we somehow put that parrot in a position of eminence then there could be cause for a slap upside the beak.
Norm MacDonald joked recently about suicide, a roundly unfunny topic, he felt it was kind of silly that people weren’t more understanding as life does indeed seem to be a long chain of disappointments generally capped off by a calamity. I too agree with Norm and I think the application of understanding should be wide. In other words, I also understand why people are fat, or gamblers, or alcoholics, or binge shoppers. Because it’s difficult to be depressed. I comprehend how these things become our refuges for that fleeting feeling of satisfaction in a world of crass disinterest in us. Try not to become an addict of self-destructive habits, friends. And that’s really the best we’ve got. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems simplistic, and even ridiculously self-evident. How is it we’ve so long managed to avoid teaching it across the board to everyone? Even Iggy Pop said recently that the best thing in life is being loved. These needs of esteem and love really do take their toll when we’re denied and having those ideas of human desire clearly expressed, perhaps with the familiarity of the Ten Commandments would help all of us when we’re feeling crushed by the worst of our experiences.
So drink, gamble a bit, try some new experiences, meet some new folks, leave your chair, your house, your fish bowl. Just because your booklist wasn’t lauded by some NPR program doesn’t meant it’s not impressive (I never finished War and Peace). But, you should also reach out to areas that aren’t already part of your tiny existence. Stop defending your parochialism and get a copy of Anna Karenina (I did finish that one!).

Arguments and Beliefs, Race and Pride, Hate and Randomness

Is there progress without violence? Do our people respect anything short of murder and beatings? Despite all efforts to the contrary the Civil Rights marchers carried arms, and Dr. Martin Luther King paid with his life for the efforts. Those efforts can often seem to have fallen flat, I hear the word “nigger” every day. Often applied humorously and usually with an expectation of your appreciating the joke. The young blacks I work with use the word consistently, and I’ve even been embraced and called “My nigger” by one of them. This still rankles my old white sensibilities. I still see Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor in the interview sketch in which Pryor replies “dead honky” to Chase’s use of “nigger”. Times have changed I suppose, Richard was long time ago now. I suppose the argument would be that when used by my young black friends the term has been repurposed, it’s evil scrubbed and that my squeamishness is a kind of relic from the ancient history of racism. Where is our modern Richard Pryor? Chris Rock’s humor has left me shaken. His rant about hating “niggers” himself, and railing about what a “nigger” is abraded me so intensely that I thought that it’d have been no different if his work had been penned by white supremacists. Maybe I’m too uptight, and also maybe our generations get caught in tidal surges of worry that leave us stranded where islands of political correctness trap our aging understanding of social peace and justice. Should I just trust the kids? That seems to be the last thing any of us over fifty care to do!
In the past I have argued that there is no political correctness that there is only correctness. When our current administration’s tacit endorsement of the alt-right leaves us anticipating ever more grotesque debasement of everyone from non-Christians, to internationals, to even women in general it isn’t about some kind of passe or false “political correctness” that is engaged to make all Americans feel part of the process. That engagement of nation for all Americans is simply correctness, it is American correctness—period.
And this past Christmas (2017) when folks in Raleigh woke up to find Klu Klux Klan reading material carefully distributed in their neighborhoods, tauting white pride, and other race baiting stratagems, my friends shrugged and insisted that it’s really not enough people to even raise your blood pressure a tic. That there will always be some level of shittiness no matter how hard you work. And of course, this past fall when the eagerly chanting, torch bearing defenders of Jim Crow era confederate statuary were heard shouting something about not being replaced by Jews, they also shrugged and said that the story was overblown and that we were getting ourselves all worked up for nothing. And when Donald Trump who sits so bizarrely in our highest office tweeting responses to every and all criticisms with the energy and narcissism of a Old World “God Emperor” Nero somehow transported to our time—I am amazed he hasn’t yet taken to the road with a singing career as Nero did—I am still unable to grasp how so many people (yes not a majority but still too many!), even my own well-respected dad, could cast a vote for the obviously stupid reality television personality who continues to behave no differently than he did as a TV personality (which he has always been, and nothing more). For Trump, all is forgiven in the hopes that his business acumen (something I don’t have much faith in and I’ll discuss why) would be good for the nation! My dad wants me to accept that Trump is a solid choice, he wants me to understand that in his inability to keep his feet out of his mouth lies his brilliance. Somehow, the thinking continues that Trumps boorishness and total lack of any sort of social grace means he’s going to do amazing things for the people. This sort of obvious inverse qualification instead of disqualifying the candidate somehow, in the bizarre world of politics, created a choice candidate. And because of this inverse qualification nothing Trump says is held against him. He is utterly free to sound like a xenophobic walking cock, offend anyone he pleases in any manner imaginable and his supporters simply don’t care. Of course, for many people his outward belligerence toward non-white, non-Christian suits them just fine! These people are basically the hidden variety of the sons and daughters of the KKK who quietly go about their business, but when the surface is scratched bleed with a kind of human oil of dispute and disregard for anything not directly benefiting themselves. Their understanding of society and its institutions often ends with bibles and firearms. They’ve been lucky people. They’ve been able to live fairly peaceably their whole lives in a society that takes care of them utterly, and been allowed—like some failing of Lao Tzu’s old wisdom of politics—to imagine they did everything themselves. They imagine, with mental filters better than anything on your iPhone camera, that they never had any help, and that their successes are due only to their own grit and wit. And best of all will rail at you with the evil and ferocity of a Tolkein wraith if you even suggest to them that society educated them, and that society protected their rights, and that their devotion should in part be to the country they so devoutly fly little flags of on their cars or houses. The costs of running a country aren’t always sweet. It’s sometimes hard to swallow the fact that we have to support prisons, where we attempt to rehabilitate the wayward. Some people without children are expected to put in tax money so we can run schools for other people’s children. And, of course, illness and death face us all, and it’s an amazing thing that there are people in those hospitals waiting to care for you, and training right now to deal with your problems. But those are all big things. We easily forget the roads, and the buildings, and the sewers, and the water systems, all that stuff we blithely refer to as “infrastructure” as though it were nothing more than a piece of rebar mounted in a lump of concrete. Get this, society is the thing that lets us all be something other than a subsistence farmer. You know what a subsistence farmer is? It’s what 99% of all human beings did for the vast majority of human history. You lived or died on the gamble of your crop. You have a good crop this year? Good for you! Drought, insects, and disease managed to give you a pass, don’t go believing it’s your awesome relationship with Ganesh or Yaweh. Because next year you’re in the same gamble, and it will likely go horribly wrong at some point. So society made it so we could survive that yearly subsistence gamble. Without society you could live, but you wouldn’t live well. You could write all your own novels and make all your own television shows—if you knew how to build cameras, make film, and project it all yourself on equipment manufactured at home. For most of human history people didn’t go much farther than walking distance from where they were born. They had to heat with wood—a limited resource for certain (Europe used to be covered with trees)—and very often succumbed to the elements.
I have to stop here and add something important to this rant, in fact, it’s something that constitutes an entire rant in itself but requires elaboration to understand where science and liberalism come from. The crux of the argument is this: the world is a largely random place and there’s not much we can do to affect the courses of events that are our lives. Randomness pervades our existences. No matter how hard we try to manipulate the course of our lives what happens to us is mostly out of our control, but, many of us refuse to admit or understand it. It’s a terrifying reality to fully realize. None of us live a science experiment where variables are corrected for or limited. We are in the world, and every day millions of people are laid low by happenstances beyond our control. People are quite magical thinkers, and we mostly enjoy a positive narrative about ourselves, and so we self edit these happenstances into a logical story. In the same we are able to see human faces in so many inanimate objects, we are also capable of fabricating these stories where they don’t really exist. We like a moral or a self aggrandizing lesson in our tales. Most of our daily interactions with other people are combinations of these sorts of inventions. People imagine they won’t have traffic accidents because they’re superior drivers. They imagine they would survive warfare because they are resourceful individuals. They imagine illnesses can be avoided through the eating of organic veggies. When the truth of the matter is these skills and choices have only a modicum of, if any, influence. Illness are often genetic. Our socio-economic circumstances are most often inherited. You have no control over a drunk driver. Almost everything in life is a roll of the dice (fair unadulterated dice) in which no matter what, you have no influence over the outcome. People who eat right and exercise regularly still die of terrible afflictions, while heavy smokers and drinkers live on. The statistics are with the healthier choices, but just the same bad things happen to good people, as the old saying goes. Now, this is where religion comes in and this is where I find myself unable to talk to many people. Many people want to insert the care of a supernatural being into the equation. In fact, this is why gods were created. The reason there are so many religions and religious tactics is that anxiety about randomness is universal. We big-brained primates are alone in our anxiety about our own eventual suffering. Religion acts as our escape hatch. The problem is it isn’t real, and it influences how people think about other people. As soon as someone can imagine that suffering is brought on by not being amply devout to a religion that religion becomes a dangerous social disruption. Strangely almost all religions preach kindness and love, many even devote themselves to charity and alleviation of poverty, yet, they also breed a code of disgraceful superiority. Many people imagine their choices in life make them righteous simply because they are the choices they were born and raised with. This kind of condescending cultural bias is the heart of almost all social problems. The entire ghastly error of pride for accidents of birth.
When these facts of life can’t be made acceptable to the viewpoint actively arguing against me, the one that wishes to maintain their racism, their self-pride, and their devotion to keeping the goods of society for themselves because they deserve them while others do not, using some kind of rubric of responsibility, or effort, as if this self-determination meant anything in the case of success in our culture, there isn’t much more to talk about. When the people can’t see that their lives had more to do with the luck of belonging to a good functioning society it is impossible to make the argument that poor people are deserving humans as well. The simplistic and magical equation of of seeing ourselves as hard-working and therefor deserving is balderdash and almost impossible to dislodge from the believer. Of course the evidence lies all about us, yet believers are able to argue away each element of it in order to maintain their comfortable outlook. You see those hardworking and basically impoverished ethnic laborers, powerlessly operating as sweaty mules for a lawn-care service employed by the wealthy, and yet it is easy to dismiss their struggle and their plight as right despite the actual backbreaking and often dangerous work being undertaken. We often have no qualms with the idea that people who don’t have good jobs don’t deserve them because they somehow didn’t take the correct steps in life to have them. This again may have examples we can see in our lives (every conservative seems to know Reagan’s welfare queen despite it having been totally apocryphal), but more often than not we easily forget that working for someone else generally means we won’t ourselves see wealth or even real prosperity. Americans don’t want to admit that wealth does not move very much, that the wealthy are those who have been for a very long time, and those who are poor have few to negligible opportunities to break that barrier.
Mostly anecdotal tales of hard work paying off prevail and are wholly untrustworthy. The statistics, the real studies done, including of cost of living index and rates of pay, show that we are suffering. The fact that occasionally a few very lucky individuals manage to gain some wealth (usually through some ludicrously ignored lucky break) does not change the fact that most of us will never see it. Most of us won’t even be able to afford the hospital bills we’ll inevitably incur. Most of us won’t be able to afford having a family and drop into such precarious debt that it’ll never actually be paid off. These are difficult realities to digest and many folks simply don’t.
A few years ago people were bombarding the internet with handheld and handwritten testaments of their own excellence. Despite being utterly hubristic most of these placards of self-congratulations held the actual keys to their success unknowingly divulged right in the text. One person was proud of their ability to graduate from a university program debt free, but also mentioned the winning of two scholarships that paid for 90% of their schooling. Wildly, instead of a placard about such good fortune the student used this information like a whip to suggest that with hard work and self-determination two scholarships were anyone’s obvious ticket to the good life. And while the student deserves a pat on the back for devotion to the scholastic, plenty of us have devoted to academic pursuits without such help, and of course, ended up in debt for the investment.
Few people want to talk about the obvious input from family and friends. It’s not cool to talk about how easy you had it because your folks managed to pour a lot of resources into your education and living circumstances. It’s not wrong for a family to buy a child a car, but it shouldn’t be imagined a quality of life only denied those who don’t deserve it.
Beating this bias, this ridiculous misunderstanding of privilege isn’t easy. People who work hard to build a living for themselves seldom care to hear about the ease with which they managed to achieve these opportunities. Especially when the efforts are compared across socio-economic and racial / ethnic categories. More of that randomness of birth being the greatest weight on our success. There are few arguments a struggling small businessman wants to hear when he spouts some kind of cruelty aimed at his favorite scapegoats. And it is very difficult for those of us understanding of the carelessness of the universe and the uneven playing field of life selling the idea of past privilege as the actual solution to the difference between us and them. I can report this as a lifelong devotee of academia and a PhD with many PhD friends who all struggle to just get by. Effort and training have had little to do with success or lack of it. Ability to pay rent has often had more to do with chance pay-offs that have nothing to do with our chosen fields of study. And when a professorial job opens up and you hear that there were more than four-hundred applicants you begin to wish for a deity who would take a personal interest. C’mon Hanuman!
What can I say to those who are invested in beliefs as astringent and caustic as the KKK? How can I make my outlook on President Trump understood when I was appalled by his character when he was nothing more than a lousy and belligerent television personality. How can we get across to the believers that a man who misunderstands what is meant by evidence, and instead offers anecdote and a vociferous “Believe me!” in its place, is not fit to really do any adult work.
Is it possible to actually reach and persuade someone as deranged as a Westboro Baptist waving anti-homosexual signs at soldier burials? Is it possible to corral those KKK literature throwers and make them understand that their idea of pride is useless and bankrupt? How hard should I work to get a magical thinker to understand that they should do more than just wave a flag, but should instead actually wish to invest in their society, with or without the film industry, or a love of novels?
The reality is no amount of argument will matter to those folks who are so invested. The argument itself is sport and will never be relinquished. All one can really hope to do is lead by example, continue being kind, and vote and patronize thoughtfully. Life needs to be lived, don’t waste your efforts arguing with people who can’t be persuaded.

Recommended Reading

A reading list compiled by Dr. Geoff Balme
(books once categorized are in no particular order)
While a PhD student at NCState I managed to impress my advisers (one of the few times!) with my reading habits. At one point a fellow graduate student blurted at me “But you read that Stephen J. Gould stuff!” and shook his head in a kind of mock awe. While he was teasing me there was also a sense of accomplishment that was unexpected in the students, and I was quite surprised by this. Whenever one of my advisers, the fellow who ran the genetics lab I was using to do my research, held up a book in a meeting or a seminar—I bought it and read it. I didn’t know at the time that it wasn’t the normal behavior. So here is a list of reading I’ve loved, it’ll not be hard to see my philosophical underpinnings outlined as you roll down the list. There’s a great deal more, but these stand out.


Jan Pechenik Biology of the Invertebrates (it’s a textbook, but so well written I read it like a popular science book)

Abraham and Shaw Dynamics The Geometry of Behavior (if I had money I’d give everyone a copy of this book, it’s just beautiful)

Menno Schilthuizen Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions: Speciation The Evolution of New Species

Lucretius On the Nature of Things

Leonard Mlodinow The Drunkard’s Walk

Stephen J. Gould Mismeasure of Man
Wonderful Life
any of his Natural History Magazine essay collections

Carl Sagan Cosmos, Demon Haunted World
Pale Blue Dot

Charles Darwin The Origin of Species
The Ascent of Man
The Voyage of the Beagle.

Richard Dawkins Climbing Mount Improbable

E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth

P.W. Atkins Creation Revisited

Sean Carroll and Jennifer Greneir From DNA to Diversity

Daniel Gardner The Science of Fear

Ernst Mayr One Long Argument

James Randi The Faith Healers

Michael Shermer Why People Believe Weird Things

Charles Darwin On the Origin of the Species (while it is rare to actually read this work (even among scientists!), I highly recommend it as Darwin’s style and thoroughness are fascinating and loaded with humility.)
Joel Bourne The End of Plenty

Lewis Thomas The Lives of a Cell

Perry Hinton Understanding Statistics

Criticism / Essays / Popular Culture

Neil Postman Technopoly

Viktor Frankl Man’s Search For Meaning

Gore Vidal The Selected Essays of

Yann Martel What is Stephen Harper Reading?

George S. Trow Within the Context of No Context
The Harvard Black Rock Forest

Wallace Stegner American Places

Neil Postman Amusing Ourselves to Death, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century

Kurt Vonnegut Fates Worse than Death
Palm Sunday
A Man Without A Country
and at least the Playboy interview from Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.
Letters (Edited by Dan Wakefield)
Henry Miller The Air-conditioned Nightmare
The Books In My Life

Jim Harrison Just Before Dark

Eric Schlosser Reefer Madness
Fast Food Nation
Command and Control

Richard Dawkins The God Delusion

Christopher Hitchens God is Not Great

Jon Ronson The Psychopath Test

Freud Civilization and It’s Discontents

Dan Wakefield New York City in the 50s

Edward Abbey Abbey’s Road, Desert Solitaire


Charles Darwin The Voyage of the Beagle
Bart Ehrman Jesus Interrupted, Misquoting Jesus (it’s easy to get addicted to Ehrman’s efforts to put the New Testament into correct context)

Herodotus The Histories (trans. Tom Holland)

Polybius Histories (trans. Robin Waterfield)

Evan S. Connell Son of the Morning Star (I’ve never read any of his other works but my feeling is they’d be excellent.)

Tom Holland Rubicon, Persian Fire

Mary Beard SPQR

Jared Diamond Guns Germs and Steel

Michael Herr’s Dispatches

William Manchester A World Lit Only By Fire
The Glory and the Dream (America to the early 70’s)
The Last Lion trilogy of Churchill.

Barbara Tuchman A Distant Mirror, The Guns of August

Greil Marcus Lipstick Traces

Eric Hobsbawm (any)

Mark Kurlansky Cod
The Big Oyster, 1968

Simon Reynolds Retromania

Peter Vansittart Voices From the Great War

Loree Rackstraw Love As Always, Kurt (love correspondence with Vonnegut)

How To

Esther Perel Mating In Captivity

Kendrick Bryce The Fifth Kingdom (a guide to the life of fungi)

Angier Bradford How to Stay Alive in the Woods


Salinger Franny and Zoey,
Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour

Gogol Dead Souls

Flannery O’Connor Everything That Rises Must Converge

Jorge Luis Borges Collected Fictions

Frank Herbert Dune (and sequels)

Isaac Asimov The Foundation Trilogy

Dave Sim Cerebus (a huge graphic novel production of 10,000 pages)

Edward Abbey The Monkey Wrench Gang

Rabelais Gargantua and Pantagruel

Mary Karr The Liar’s Club

David Sedaris Me Talk Pretty One Day

Voltaire Candide

Kurt Vonnegut Siren’s of Titan
Cat’s Cradle

Karel Ĉapek War with the Newts.

Philip Roth Portnoy’s Complaint
Goodbye Columbus
American Pastoral.

Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow
Mason and Dixon

Fyodor Dostoevsky Crime and Punishment
Notes From Underground.

Lebov Tolstoy Anna Karenina

George Saunders Pastoralia

Maxim Gorky short story: Creatures Who Once Were Men

Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities

Saul Bellow Herzog

Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Plexus, Nexus.

Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale
Oryx and Crake

Joseph Heller Catch-22

William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury
As I Lay Dying

Norman Mailer The Naked and the Dead
The Armies of the Night

JD Salinger Catcher In the Rye and short story collections

Lord Byron Don Juan

Edward Dorin Gunslinger

Stanislaw Lem Cyberiad
Star Diaries
Tales of Pirx the Pilot.

George Orwell Animal Farm
Road to Wigan Pier
Homage to Caledonia
Down and Out In Paris and London

Thomas Berger Little Big Man
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet On the Western Front
The Black Obelisk.
Garrison Keillor Lake Woebegon Summer 1956

Sir Walter Scott Ivanhoe

Alexander Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo

Hunter S. Thompson Fear and Loathing
Great Shark Hunt

Flaubert Madame Bovary
Sentimental Education

D.H. Lawrence Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Albert Camus Myth of Sisyphus
The Fall
The Plague
The Stranger

Walker Percy The Moviegoer

John Kennedy Toole A Confederacy of Dunces

Herman Hesse Siddartha

Dan Wakefield’s Going All the Way

Halldor Laxness Under the Glacier,
Iceland’s Bell,
Independent People

Robert Coover The Origin of the Brunists

Jack Butler Jujitsu For Christ

John Steinbeck Cannery Row

Jim Harrison The Road Home, The River Swimmer, The Shape of the Journey

Nabokov Lolita


H.D. Thoreau Walden

Lao Tzu The Tao Te Ching

Homer The Iliad
The Odyssey

Plato The Republic

Walter T. Stace The Teachings of the Mystics

Clyde Kluckhohn Navaho Witchcraft

Chaung Tzu Basic Writings

Shinkichi Takahashi Afterimages

There’s no such thing as classic rock.

This boat has certainly sailed but there’s no such thing as “classic rock”. If you put John Lennon, Ray Davies, Ted Nugent, and Captain Beefheart in a room together they would not naturally produce a pop tune you would love. They weren’t in cahoots producing your childhood associations. And just because so much of that music got round the clock airplay to sell radio advertising doesn’t mean it was superior!

Current Affairs, Renaissance Man, the World is Our Heritage

I feel badly sometimes about my distraction from current events. In reading Mark Kurlansky’s excellent book 1968 The Year that Rocked the World (yet another distraction) I was rather surprised, after canvassing many folks I know who were adults in that era, that the overwhelming majority of people were simply not involved in whatever dramatic events were shaping the world at the time. My folks for example really weren’t terribly impressed with the period. In their late twenties and early thirties it seemed ludicrous to me that they could have been so far removed from the counter culture, war pressures, and artistic movements that shaped our world. My folks couldn’t name you a Bob Dylan tune. My old man blankly shrugged off my assertion that 1968 was a more difficult time for the country than the affairs that currently face us, compiling the Vietnam War effort and the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations, the country could not have been more divided. Still my old man was unmoved, what’s on our plates at the moment, so it seems, is the most difficult thing we face. After all, those of us who survived the past no longer have to survive the past, and those who didn’t, well, they aren’t concerned about it either. Granted, we face some serious issues from the pollutants causing our global warming to the ugly elevation of populist bigotry spear-headed by the rise of a loutish and feudal celebrity president who fans the worst in inevitable national consciousness—fear and misunderstanding of foreigners. These elements, basically our stupid paleolithic tribal instincts, which belong nowhere near politics, yet are the one thing that motivated so many voters to actually get off their fat, over-entertained asses to pull the trigger for the goon. Is motivation always the same? Is the state of the citizenry always basically grotesque and frightening? Are the worst elements of our populous naturally aroused by calculated, determined stroking of their childish indignation? Does every human being naturally imagine themselves oppressed? In fact, is this personal enjoyment of indignation a human trait?
Some years ago I watched a horrifying video of a narrow street being fired on by Israeli soldiers. In the video a Palestinian man crossed the street to crouch behind a barrel or pile of boxes, I can’t remember, what I do remember is that his five year old son followed him and was shot dead, the tiny boy slumping awfully on the street. The sweeping bullets carelessly took both those lives and ultimately what for? Discussing this video with a pastor friend of mine he chuckled and suggested that Palestinians stop throwing bombs. Granted this friend of mine, despite his training, was an ugly fool, and I put little stock in his dismissive attitude, however, he’s not alone in his outlook, it is in fact a common reaction. Those victims of power deserved it. A five year old clearly on his way to becoming a bomb-thrower! Maybe it’s too difficult to actually comprehend serious horror. Maybe again our pea-brains developed over thousands of years of animal evolution aren’t really capable of giving a shit beyond our own extended families and close friends (the tribe again). Maybe in self-defense, since we are so limited, we necessarily triage the incoming horrors. We can only comprehend and deal with so much of it. I still find it distressing that my pastor friend could be so callous, that he indulged that teenage machismo carelessness, as if it were something impressive.
My old man points to a Kingston Trio song he always loved: “Merry Minuet”. A cute piece that alludes to some monumental hate and most destructive weaponry. But while, like journalism, it points us to injustice and serial human foolishness, no solutions but despair appear in the artfulness. And perhaps it’s only natural to wish to avoid despair.
Similarly, we find ourselves laughing at George Carlin’s late career social criticism, dealing in ferociously nasty reality television, our ridiculous expectations of gods and Heaven, and weird overly manipulative modern child-rearing, despite it honestly not being all that funny. It’s more like cringingly absurd and hopelessly disturbing insight into a culture twisted into ship wreckage. Carlin did enjoy giving his boot-in-the-ass talks and I found them essential listening.
Lastly, I’ve been reading a vivid account of writer Timothy Tyson’s early years in North Carolina called Blood Done Sign My Name, recounting atrocious race relations in a small town southern state, and recounting explicit bigotry on the floor of a popular religious institution. Granted no town was immune to this grossest of human power struggle, distrust, and plain irrational fear, but the tale, told expertly, makes the disappointment and hopelessness of this human social problem seem appallingly inevitable, like a house built on the side of an active volcano.
The only answer I can see ultimately is one that has often been touted as a strength of our nation though few folks seem interested in honestly making it a precept of their lives. The melting pot culture that takes all these various social metals and forges a new and lasting American citizenry proud of that particular newly-forged culture. Neil Postman often talked of it in many of his somewhat conservative but nonetheless compelling essays. Why Americans seem to be dually interested in both ancestral origin (now magnified by these DNA matching corporations) as well as a whimsically sport-like patriotic fervor for a rough and tumble American spirit wholly anathema to the commercial world most of us choose to devote to (sitting on sofas rather than on horseback), is a tricky maze to puzzle out. We want to love that aspect of America that defines us as strong, of mythic independence, and tremendous resourcefulness, fighting for the spirit of some definition of freedom for all, but we also want to call ourselves anything but American. We pretend to be from England, France, Scotland, Germany, Africa and thousands of other non-American locations even when we were undeniably born in places like Hartford, Connecticut or Winston-Salem, or nearby endless cornfields in Idaho and raised on the very same mac and cheese, bologna and ridiculous television as everyone else. We played with Mr. Potatohead, worshiped Star Wars, and filled our pea-brains with He-man and G.I. Joe data (or their equivalents depending on your age).
This identity problem appears magnified today, possibly because of the possibilities of distinguishing ourselves from what James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem humorously calls “North American Scum”. Our problem with identity may very well stem from the fact that American culture is homogeneously controlled by commercial forces. I could also be full of shit about that, but it’s not hard to imagine a smart young person reaching an age where the predictability and clear formula of a beloved cartoon is finally revealed as a marketing tool to sell toys. As all American television is designed to sell product of some form or other. And all our traditions are founded on some commercial base that we’ve been raised to overlook as though we live as nature intended. There are many old and long revealed examples of this manipulation story, DeBeers diamond company created the tradition of giving a diamond ring to a lady to instill the seriousness of your proposal, orange juice and bacon and eggs are no more breakfast food than anything else eaten the world over for breakfast, they were, in fact, dying food industries that successfully rebranded themselves as breakfast food just a couple of generations back-saving their hides. Many of us were read stories as kids about Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox called Babe never realizing (in fact, I’m not sure some of the teachers who used these materials realized) that these creations were corporate mascots for lumbering and mining companies. If Disney took over public school textbook creation and filled the history books with Donald Duck and Goofy it could not have been more ridiculous. The point being, Americans choose to not have a definitive culture that identifies us as anything but consumers with endless pocketbooks. Our culture is entertainment. It’s no small wonder that so many young folks hoping to develop their minds as artists or intellectuals close off the fountain of empty repetitive pablum and reach for old books and real life experiences (playing instruments, traveling, taking up martial arts). And possibly wish to identify themselves as anything but melted into that American pot of predictably bland alloy. I get it.
Current events, if I can transition back to that initial consideration, worry me in terms of overwhelming a renaissance citizen. It’s a little like kids who only hear the most current music, or old folks who imagine only the Beatles were any good. I am concerned that people get locked into their current events, that they lose track of precedent and have extremely low capabilities of reasoning with a synthesis of history, science, and social record. It’s too easy to imagine that what’s broadcast and shouted at us is in fact newsworthy and inherently meaningful by virtue of its immediacy. We are softened by ease and dulled by entertainments. We sometimes can’t recognize satire. Hell, sometimes we can’t recognize reality. Our tribal pea-brains also love to associate with the philosophies that best support our hopes and happiness (this in other words was said by Freud in his Civilization and it’s Discontents). And just as I can’t imagine dividing those ludicrous bigots from their unfounded hatred of the black folks living beside them (in fact, it basically had to eventually die out for it to really change) I also can’t imagine digging our more modern (2018!) louts out of their trenches with reason either. Because the propensity for irrational belief and fear isn’t based on reason. It is hopelessly ensconced in our loopy caveman understanding of how the world works, all of it superstitious nonsense. But now I understand how my folks avoided the rebellion and revolution of the sixties. We can’t absorb it all. We simply can’t digest that much despair. We need to live our lives, achieve what we long to do with the time we have. I’m hopeful that that’ll include expanding our consciousness and developing a more passionate and equitable world view. The competition for that effort is however powerfully seductive, passive entertainments are always available and like fat and sugar are addictive. Sam Harris points out that there are several things humanity needs to overcome for peace. One of those items is tribalism. So moving forward, how do we re-program our brains to operate non-tribally? Emphasize once again our melting-pot culture and American alloy strength. Perhaps we should offer our commercially programmed youth some other choices besides the endless clap-trap of product advertisement, maybe Public Television and Radio needs to be more deeply funded so that history, science, and arts are given a stronger and richer foundation in our marketplace. Maybe these ridiculous DNA matching businesses need to be put in their conceptual proper place. Ultimately our DNA tells us little about who we are. DNA after all, as was deftly once pointed out at a Richard Lewontin seminar I attended, is a dead molecule (this, of course, pointed out for choice evisceration of popular genetic studies), and our beings are not much revealed by what the DNA shows us. Lastly, Americans could use some things that we can wrap an identity we can enjoy (I’ll avoid the term pride for reasons Carlin expertly pointed out) around. We can share our blues and rock music traditions. We can definitely appreciate the landscape and wildlife our nation possesses and rally around the adoption of strong preservation of these resources and national parks. We could develop an entire renaissance around the myriad and fascinating cultures of the Native American peoples. We could also reinvigorate the great explorations by outstanding scientists of all fields who revealed so much about this New World. We could promote and enjoy the founding father’s radicalism and how it inspired revolution the world over. This just to name a few items that spring to mind, would certainly help young people worry less about crises of identity that America currently exploits commercially. But the truth is, in the end, humanity can be proud (reinstating in here) of all of humanity’s accomplishments. It is world heritage that we can draw on for inspiration, not just national. From the Chauvet cave art of thirty thousand years ago to Herodotus’ Histories, from Li Po to Brahmagupta, Cervantes to Walt Whitman, Darwin to Von Homboldt, the great and the small, wonders of arts, architecture, maths and sciences. Why should we be chained to a parochial outlook? It is time to expand our human and worldly consciousness. We are members of the planet, not some street gang. And it’s high time we began acting as such.
How do we be people of our time as well as all time? How do we pay attention to the current while providing appropriate depth of understanding derived from history and sciences? How do we learn to play a horn or sketch a landscape or do a successful Judo throw? Through great effort. Sorry, you’re going to have to turn off the entertainments!


At Coventry High School in the early 80s we had the pleasure of knowing of, but not knowing well, a handsome black student by the name of Kippy Wills. I do hope he wouldn’t mind me talking about him, as everything I say about him will be in the superlative. Kippy was the only black kid we had at Coventry High School. I don’t know that I managed to look up from my own navel-gazing long enough to honestly assess that, but I do remember joking about it later with friends. We had one black guy at school and his name was Kippy and he was adored by everyone, not just because he was so unique but because he also possessed the finest social skills I think anyone had seen at that age. Kippy was like a celebrity politician, his smile was winning, his behavior always marvelous. I have to admit that I didn’t really interact with him, as he was a bit younger, and he was a sports kid.
Full disclosure here, for me, high school was a kind of unmitigated torture. I hated it. I had breezed through all my schooling until about half-way through my senior year when it finally occurred to me that it didn’t matter. No one really seemed interested in what I was doing in high school. I started quoting Woody Allen movies and reading Kurt Vonnegut books. I especially saw myself as a lone human in a world of featureless robots, just like something out of Breakfast of Champions. Looking back on it I wish I’d used the time to learn some social skills, or a horn or something, but we lived far from the school and the bus trip was long and arduous and no one had rides for us if we stayed for band practice (which I’m not even sure existed) or entertained the idea of playing some form of sports (which I knew existed because the pep rallies were mandatory). I never went to a game. I never interacted beyond a tiny group of similarly preoccupied acquaintances. Indeed much of high school really only seemed aimed at the kids who lived in the well-off Wood Estates housing area the high school had been built in the midst of. Despite this, somehow, very briefly, I had the thrill of love from a sparklingly pretty girl, but it only lasted about ninety-six hours. We managed to get a lot written to one another, but she drifted away rather quickly. I remember her saying something about enjoying being lied to. I wasn’t lying enough. The poor lass needed dreams, perhaps her Wood Estates upbringing was draining her spirit. There was something of an existential break-down for me there, but we were all soon over it, and being a teen is pretty much an endless break-down of one sort or another. And, finally, we were surrounded by pretty girls, and it was easy to day-dream about any or all of them.
If Kippy Wills had his heart broken, or forgot to join a club, I doubted he moped over it. I imagined his day being one of entirely good-natured affection from all directions. Everyone knew him because it was so ludicrously easy. I imagined that that common recognition he endured daily could be a torment as rich and distracting as being entirely alone. If Kippy had also won the mega-bucks lottery or became the first high school student in space his local fame could not have been much improved. But if I were he, I was certain, I’d be paralyzed with outrage. My favorite costume was anonymity, make of that what you will, but Kippy had no chance of that.
Sitting on the front porch with my grandfather, who had spent most of his life at the Narragansett brewery—indeed my very existence might arguably be a result of beer-he mused that Bill Cosby, then very popular with his Cosby Show, had done well for himself. I mean he’s a nigger, he can’t help that, but he still managed to do well, Grandpa added pragmatically, and possibly through an alcohol buzz. There seemed to be no particular ill-will, just a callous, back-handed admiration. And perhaps a lesson in perseverance. I was stunned by his use of the pejorative. I was at that age when my grandfather was transforming from the idealized grandpa to a man of his era. Now that I was grown, grandpa freely cussed and told Milleresque WWII tales of packing willing French damsels into duffle bags as they moved camp with their howitzer. I went to the fridge to replace his beer, dreaming of getting a girl into a duffle bag—did their feet poke out? Grandpa polished off the beers, he referred to the empties as dead soldiers. Despite this old man’s achingly absurd racist tone I never absorbed any of it, never recognized a whiff of it until I was an adult.
Most hate in New England had historically been aimed at Catholics, and the rudiments of the KKK in our history were ancient rallies from the 1920s that were discussed with glowing excitement in the newspapers of the time, kind of like the way old National Geographic magazines gloriously depicted seal hunts (a caption on a photo of the baby seal referring to it as a “brute”). Personally, I’d never much thought of my own heritage as meaningful in any way. I was raised on hotdogs and mac and cheese. Television was my culture, just as it was for every other kid I knew. By the time we had Star Wars we were united in our devotion. I never thought there was anything particularly praiseworthy about my life. I went fishing. I cut wood. I read Hemingway (and hated it). And while this lacked anything like a route toward developing identity (whatever that means), perhaps it acted as a solvent for washing away irrational tribal hatreds.
Around this period of The Cosby Show ruling the airwaves, I was standing in an East Greenwich Seven-Eleven trying to select between brands of jerky when I heard someone call my name. Looking up, I was stunned to see a smiling Kippy Wills. Hey Kippy! We chatted very briefly in the common superficial way. How’s Craig? He wanted to know about my brother who I hadn’t spoken to in a while as he was in the army. He’s great! I’m sure I spouted. And that was it, Kippy Wills had proven his sincerity, he actually knew and remembered us, and I was astounded. How is it possible? How could he remember us?
It still amazes me. I hope Kippy is well, and his life everything he dreamed it would be.

Near Do Well (excerpt: on the job)

One of my first projects is to run a steam generator all day long, cleaning about two thousand off-white, plastic folding chairs. Which get surprisingly dirty, mainly because people insist on standing on them. The steam genny runs on kerosene and stinks like the tailpipe of a diesel dump truck. Even while running it out of doors the kerosene fumes burn the lungs. There is plenty of something like Oakite that we cut into the steam carried along by the velocity of the flow, lo and behold, the chairs get somewhat clean. I set them up in the parking lot behind the building, next to a huge junk wood pile, and in front of a bunch of retired trailers that have been scavenged for parts.
At lunchtime I notice that the only thing I can taste is kerosene as I section a mango.
“What’s that?” Kyle asks, pointing with his cigarette.
“A mango, you wanna piece?”
He screws up his face, “What’s it taste like?”
“You haven’t had mango?
He shakes his head no.
“Just try a piece, I can’t tell you want it tastes like.”
“Is it like an apple?”
“No,” I chuckle, “nothing like an apple.”
He leans back in his seat and continues smoking, “You know, of all the fruits, I like apples best.”
“Uh huh,” I nod, “Do you guys have any air masks, like a filter mask, . . . painting mask?”
Kurt nods, “Yeah, you need a mask?”
“Yeah, I need something . . . that kerosene is killing me.” I can’t help thinking of the Big Black tune. I also imagine I’m knocking years off my life.
The phone rings, I slide my chair back and grab the huge black handset off the wall receiver, a rotary dialer with big clear chunky buttons to select the line, “Good afternoon, Warwick Shore Rentals.”
“Do youse guys rent bone sauces?”
“Excuse me?”
“Youse guys rent bone sauces?”
Suddenly it hits me, Row-die-lanese for bounce houses, ah, “No, sir, we don’t have those.”
“Bounce house,” I say to the guys as I hang up, “but I swear they asked for bone sauce.”
We have a good laugh.
Soon enough I’m back outside with a white painter’s filter on my face. I crank up the genny again, hit the sparker, the coils get hot. It stinks immediately, a heat vortex rises out of the huge cylinder and distorts my vision. I’m beginning to feel a little nauseous from the fumes but I stand firm. I am no pussy.
It takes about an hour to wash forty chairs. There’s only so much room so the back rows have to be moved back into the stacks as they dry. The back pad is a mucky mess, oil, grass masses, wire and twine piles, the entire place is covered in a variety of trash. It needs to be cleared off weekly.
It’s tricky business to clean things while standing nearly ankle deep in oily shit. I am careful to not let the steam blast touch the ground and launch the mess into the air.
When I’m done cleaning chairs for a bit, I’m hammering dried cement out of the returned cement mixers, or I’m splitting wood for the wood-stove situated in the middle of the garage. This last bit I’m expert at, having been so well trained by my old man, but the wood is the worst of the unsaleable junk, stumps and rotten logs, the stuff my old man would never stand for. Landscapers have basically talked the guys into letting them dump this refuse wood here for free. Another angle of the bottom of the food chain, how to save a dumping charge.
It’s rather astonishing how many of the landscapers who come in to get their equipment serviced are incapacitated in some manner. Most of them limp, a few of them severely. One of the fellows can barely bend. He walks with a kind of forward swing of one of his legs and posting it, catches up behind it, then swings it out again, like a Monty Python silly walk. Quite a few of the fellows are missing digits. One of them is clearly hunchbacked, the guys refer to him as “Lumpy”.
One of the more terrifying of the fellows, hasn’t injured himself in any usual way, but he has a great many skin tags around his eyes, sprouting like little plant buds. I find it very difficult to look at him. His regular visits are upsetting. He has the look of a bush-nosed Plecostomus, something tremendously appealing in an aquarium fish but horrifying in a person.
Kyle laughs at my squeamishness, he refers to the growths by the large, blustery fellow’s name, calling them “Lutheroids”. I’ve had nightmares about Lutheroids growing out of my face all over, around my mouth, eyes, nose, terrifying, but why the Lutheroids, wouldn’t it be worse to be unable to walk? Why doesn’t Luther get them removed? Does he see it as a kind of unnecessary cosmetic foolishness? Luther famously tells the guys a story about letting a homo give him a blow job for twenty-five dollars. The story seems remarkable in that Luther himself is amused by the punchline that he’d only be a homo if he didn’t take the money.
Later, I find out that this is a story from a Hunter S. Thompson book about Hell’s Angels. Why was Luther telling this story? Another popular story involves a lovely woman luring you to her home with sexy promises and sweetness and after rubbing herself all over you and playfully getting some handcuffs on you, reveals a lunatic boyfriend who jumps from a closet with a huge hard-on. Who, dressed as Batman, and singing the “Batman Theme”, proceeds to rape you. The guys swear up and down that this happened to an old landscaper named Crosby, and can’t imagine why the fellow would relate such a legendary tale about himself if it weren’t factual. I have to admit it’s a conundrum.
Every one of the landscapers expects a kind of preferential treatment, they expect their equipment repairs to take priority over others, when they run across one another, dropping off or picking up gear, they are cordial, like bears in the wild, until they’re alone with us, and then they tell stories. I’m amazed to find out that a few of these guys are police or formerly police. Boss Morrill has had interestingly amiable relations with many of the Warwick cops.
They come in, hang around, and tell bad jokes. . . . “So this guy, he goes up to a taxi and says, ‘I’ll smooch your pickle for a ride to the hotel’, and the taxi driver says ‘git the fuck outta heeya!’ he he he, so he goes to the next one in the line, ‘I’ll smooch your pickle for a ride to the hotel’ same result, the taxi driver tells him to fuck off, so he goes to the third taxi and just says, ‘how much to go to the hotel?’ and pays it, but as he goes by the other two taxis he gives them thumbs up and grins.”
Har har har, we all laugh. I marvel at the phrase “smooch your pickle”, is it impossible for this cop to say “suck your cock?”
Another of the boss’s landscaper cop friends tells us about a traffic stop he had, abusing some poor Asian guy as though it were the most enjoyable thing he’d done in his life, like he got lucky to have found this Asian guy he could take his frustration out on.
“I took the bastard’s keys and locked them in his trunk! Har har!” the guys all nod appreciatively.
There was some consternation about him going to Brown. “My kids don’t go to Brown,” he croaks. Implication being, why should this “gook” kid be going to Brown? Officer Kennedy . . . what a piece of work. . . .
At least while doing these outdoor jobs I’m not expected to chase after customers, but, as business picks up the idea is to go back in and help. I rush back in as I notice a few customers come in, and grab the phone, “Good afternoon, Warwick Shore Rentals.”
“Do you guys have one of those things that you attach to your car that follows along behind you?”
I’m at a loss for a second, “A trailer?”
“Yeah, how much?” I give her the price, and she hangs up suddenly after shouting the price to someone on her end. Just then the U-haul line rings. Dammit, she’s not going to be able to attach it to her car, most cars don’t have anything but a plastic bumper and so the temporary hitch can’t be attached. She’s gonna send her husband down for it, and be pissed off.
I press the button for the U-haul line, “Good afternoon, U-haul.”
There’s a curious pause and then a gruff voice, “Can I blow ya?”
I hang up with a sigh. I walk out to the front counter and help Kyle set up a floor sander rental, grabbing the various sheets of sanding grade and demonstrate how to attach the sheet to the barrel of the big sander, bending the ends in the bending slot on the front of the machine, showing them where the wrench to tighten the sheets to the drum is deposited on the back of the sander, “Don’t forget to bring that back!”
The main reason I’ve been hired is that I can hoist about eighty pounds to my chest without much issue, I can put the sander in the trunk of a car and lift it out, which, often enough is more than the customer can do. Often they get home only to find out they can’t move it.
I can hear Kurt’s cranky customer saying, “Fuh dat price a nigga should come wid it! Haw haw haw!” He wants to rent the wood chipper, a mechanism of legendary misuse and peril. Wood chippers are famous for pulling in the branches faster than workers anticipate, the branches often whip people silly, pull their clothing or glasses off which get shredded before they can be retrieved. And then there are the people who have been maimed or killed as well as the outrageous urban legends. A specific story of a wife killed, frozen and run through it, the outlet chute firing all her bits into the sea, supposedly the killer didn’t wash it out when he returned it and so he was caught. This story is recounted so frequently I begin to understand that there might be a bit of a desire around it. The worst I witness is someone running about a million pounds of potatoes through it, causing us to wonder about the massive servings of mashed potatoes being prepared.
On the way back into the shop from hefting the sander into the car, I run into Pete from Pete’s Lawncare, he’s shoving an off-kilter Lawnboy mower into the shop for Kurt to look at. Pete’s sneakers, looking like he may have been wearing them since the 70’s, leave little puddles of green-grass juice on the concrete as he walks. The mower he pushes is off-kilter because its wheels are worn through and are now only the hollow sides of wheels, but instead of replacing them, he’s filled them with acorns.
“Hey Pete,” I offer as I pass him.
Pete’s got a glass milk bottle of something that looks like tobacco spit tucked under his arm, he opens this now and takes a slug of it, “Hey Ted, is Kurt here?” he replies, wiping his grizzled chin on his sleeve, his voice is mellow — that’s cool — relaxed.
“Yeah, man, he’s right up front, he’ll be right back in a sec.”
“It’s a wheat germ juice,” he adds after he notices my eyes on the jar.
“Why’s it black?” I can’t quite tear myself away.
“Well I add a few other elements, you know, . . .” he chuckles.
“It looks like motor oil,” I screw up my face as I look over my shoulder at him.
“Naaa man, I put a beet in there, they’re loaded with folates, that’s good for your dee en ay . . . what we gotta worry about is free radicals . . .” he swirls the jar in the light, I notice that it’s got a deep reddish tinge now.
I go around the corner and let Kurt know that Pete’s back there.
Once the front of the shop quiets down again Kyle asks me, “Did you get the cock-sucker?”
I laugh as I suddenly realize they know about the blow job call I got, “I did, is that a regular call?”
“Yeah, he’s about a weekly call on the U-haul line, usually right about this time,” Kyle chuckles, shaking his head, letting a pen tap on the counter. “One time we all grabbed the line when he was on and started asking him if he was a real life cock-sucker, and what it’s like to be a poor bastard jerking off on random phone calls, but he just hung-up.”
“Crazy, I wonder what he expects?”
“Who knows!”
I circle back into the repair room, and Pete is showing Kurt the Lawnboy with the acorn wheels. Kurt is on one knee, already has the air cleaner off, and is listening to the piston as he pulls the recoil, no-compression, bad.
“I can’t afford new wheels, man,” Pete moans, “I tried to raise my rates, but they said that they might have to get a more respectable lawn service,” he smirks a kind of resignation. “What can I do?”
REM is on the radio, Kurt has already given the song altered lyrics: This one goes into the one I love, this one goes into my boyfriend’s tight be-hind!
“How’re ya stocks doing,” Kurt wants to know.
“Ah, you know, nothing’s movin’ right now, it’s flat-lined, it ain’t like it was, man.” Pete walks back out to his F350, creaking door hinges, a bible on the dashboard. Pete, of course, walks with a distinct limp. While he has all his fingers and toes, he’s got a distinct layer of grime all over him, enhancing a fierce, blue-eyed stare of a depression-era, Walker Evans photo. Free radicals, he says.
I wander back to steaming the chairs, the idea is to have a good portion of them done for the weekend, busiest time for chair rentals. The dirtiest have been being set off to the side so they don’t go out for rental, and the clean chairs are getting scarce.