Then and now and what’s to come

You can buy oatmeal, kidney beans and sugar in five-gallon buckets. White rice in 40-lb. bags. #10 cans of pears, apple slices, peaches (use the syrup as a tasty dessert for your kids). You can buy canned ham, canned chicken, canned tuna, canned pork. Vienna sausages are a nice snack to eat while listening to the public health bulletins. Canned turkey. Dinty Moore stew, for when the neighborhood sweeps don’t leave time to cook a “real dinner.” The neighbors like Spaghetti-Os, but we prefer Chef Boyardee Beef Ravioli. We shout inventive recipes at each other through the air vents. You can buy peanut butter in whatever size you like. Thing big. Think in months, not days. Think in years. What was the last thing you did before it happened? Where were you? Sports drink mixes, for when you’re kicking around the rubber ball in the living room and trying to explain to your kids what “soccer” was. “Football,” “baseball.” Coffee beans, yes. We grind them by hand. You need to seek out new hobbies, living like this. Have you tried counting to a million yet? You can buy coconut oil in five-gallon buckets. We eat a lot of seeds now. We peck at things. We watch warily through our curtains, through the bars. Before it happened, we didn’t know what “powdered eggs” were. Don’t forget about salt. You don’t understand how important salt is going to be. “10 pounds iodized salt per person per year.” You need to think in years. You need to think in decades.

Primary season

Today’s the last day to register (or update your registration) to vote in Cuyahoga County. The primary is March 17. If you believe the hype, I’ll be crawling over St. Patrick’s Day floats and half-in-the-bag cops on Public Square to get to my polling place. Whatta town!

But I write this mainly to say that something sinister is happening in the Democratic wing this year. Surprise! I’d recommend pulling your copy of “Manufacturing Consent” off the shelf and reading up on a few of the basic tenets of corporate media decision-making in this country. It’s nothing new! This is cold, hard, circle-the-wagons political news programming. It comes from a place of fear and kowtowing incompetence. It’s a virus that infects newsrooms all over the country, often attacking the spineless “political content producers” who slept through ethics class back in undergrad. And, right about now, it feels more damning than it has in quite some time.

The discussion of “frontrunner” status alone has been almost unbelievable to watch. The discussion of “socialism” has been a perfect example of how we use memetic templates to talk about reality. It’s like social media preempts real life now! Surprise! The complete inability to grasp the stakes of the hour — our global climate crisis, the movement of refugees and immigrants seeking safety across borders, the rise of white nationalism in dying republics, the very idea of what *words* mean — well, good luck finding your way through that thicket if you turn on your television or open up your three-page weekday newspaper, to say nothing of the overwrought garbage on your newsfeed (hi!).

The cartoonish possibility of two billionaire henchmen squaring off for political power in November is too much to bear. It’s so of-its-time that we may as well give away next year’s screenwriting Oscar right now. If I sit for too long on this topic, my eyes begin to cross and I start instinctively grasping for my unborn children.

We can help put a stop to all of this in Ohio on March 17.

And you know what? Go ahead and pull your copy of “Aesop’s Fables” off the shelf while you’re at it. It’s all there, too.

“A groom used to spend whole days in currycombing and rubbing down his horse, but at the same time stole his oats and sold them for his own profit. ‘Alas!’ said the horse. ‘If you really wish me to be in good condition, you should groom me less and feed me more.'”

Charles Portis

“I was driving across the state at the time, very fast. There were signs along the approaches to town advertising cheaper and cheaper motel rooms. The tone was shrill, desperate, that of an off-season price war. It was a buyer’s market. I began to note the rates and the little extras I could expect for my money. Always in a hurry then, once committed to a road, I stopped only for fuel, snake exhibits, and automobile museums, but I had to pause here, track down the cheapest of these cheap motels, and see it. I would confront the owner and call his bluff.”

What a voice! What a ride!

I’ve got to present a piece of nonfiction to a workshop in a few weeks (elements of the craft and so forth), and I’d been sort of vacillating among a few. Now, though, I may need to roll with this down-and-out doozy from Charles Portis, who died today. 86 years old. Five novels. Totally off the radar of the literary establishment, for whatever it’s worth. A true original.

I’ve now got that weird sense of melancholy that will chase me all day, the bummed-out feeling that another legend has passed on and the bittersweet thanks that I’ve still got a bunch of his stuff unread on my bookshelf at home. I’d only dug into Portis last summer when a good friend recommend The Dog of the South. And I loved every word. He was a master in writing with real wit and effortless humor that can only come from the soul.

I’m glad he told me to read that book last year, and I’ll leave you with this, wise and tasteful friends: Go read some Charles Portis. Now. Tonight. Don’t go to sleep tonight without getting a few pages in. Then call me in the morning.

Octavius Williams

In my latest feature (and in something of a return to form at Scene), I looking into the case of Octavius Williams. In 2011, Williams was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 2019, the judge and prosecutor let him walk out of prison, free, but still dogged by felony convictions that have no basis in fact.

It’s a story of how elected officials mete half-measures of justice and how local voters end up accountable for the discretionary decisions that make up the criminal justice system. It’s a story of how one 27-year-old man is finding his way back into world where the rest of us have been this whole time, trying to pick up the pieces of the nine years we stole from him.

Check it out. Thank you.

Herman

Originally published April 5, 2019:

I meant to do something specific with this piece, but then I left town for Las Vegas and spent my week talking with a lot of smart cannabis growers about how this intoxicating plant could play a role in human empathy and in the very process of death, and then I got sick and spent a night drinking at the Wynn with good people and then I came home and figured I’d share it anyway. It’s about what happened after the 2016 NBA Finals.

“Herman”

It’s easy enough
To walk cracked concrete walks on 69th
Herman
65th to Lorain and back
Pleasant, even, when the day bears no aim
No sunrise wisecrack game
No need to be any more
Than being

What day is it again? (What year is it?)
No feeling in my feet
For all the fleeting footsteps
Baked into the street, the memories
“The Block”
And that one time the kids down the street ran the play
Over and over
For decades, it seemed

I used to live there, there, there
Nodding along to past summers
And time spent listening to hymn
From Mt. Carmel, ringing in our ears
Bells,
I mean, the chiming
And Forrest the hound was always there
To lick a wound or a child’s face

When the train comes through
You’ll feel it in your eyes and in the windows
Rattling Norfolk Southern
Like your dad used to talk about
A glass of whisky on the kitchen table
Neat,
Of course, the way you drink it now
And you drink it deep

The lake’s still there, I see
Nothing changes
Water’s warmer, I suppose
I see
Pleasant, even, before you get to thinking
And rolling the idea in your mind
How it’s all different in the end
Even if the sunset comes again

Back up the hill
Twisting ‘round and through the tunnel
Stars are out now
Shining on a map of the United States of America
Shining on a map of a life splayed outward forever
69th and up a set of stairs
A comfort, a home, bespoke
And then – gone!

Paragraph junkie

My first book of 2020 is James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. The prose is unbelievably smooth, and the story takes an inventive approach/point-of-view to more traditional romance and erotic narrative. This quote, from a New Yorker piece on Salter’s work, describes what I enjoy finding in a lot of the stuff I’ve read in the past few years. Salter stood up to this notion with gusto.

From Nick Paumgarten:

“Richard Ford, citing a peerless ‘intuition for the world’s details and for its unobvious emotional business,’ declared, ‘It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.’

“Holding up a single sentence as proof is like pulling a bluefin from the sea: right away, the color fades. Anyway, Salter’s style may be less about sentences than about paragraphs. It is elliptical. The details and observations accrue in such a way—obliquely, melodiously—that they pull a reader forward in anticipation of the next unexpected leap: a stray object, an odd gesture, a bald declaration, or a rash act. He can be suddenly cruel. The syntax is cool, fine-hewn, rather than self-conscious or pyrotechnic. It doesn’t sound like speech. He forgoes colloquialisms and the mad chatter of American life. It’s been his style from the beginning, and it’s hard to determine where it came from.”

New year(s)

The years just keep sliding by, don’t they? You ever notice that?

I guess it would be weird if time just stopped, but it’s also pretty strange that it just… keeps… going… What’s really happening here? What’s going on?

I know a few folks who are heading on up ahead tonight, skipping 2020 and going about halfway up the decade until they find somewhere to hang out for a while. They’ve got a bus out back of the Harbor Inn, gonna push off around 11 o’clock or so. Driver tells me they’re trying to outrun the heat in America. Things have been getting a little too goddamn vivid around here, he says, and I can’t blame him. And, yeah, they’ve still got some open spots if you’re looking for a ride tonight. Bring a guitar. And ice. You can tell them that “Dr. Glorkblat” sent you.

Me? I’ve got big plans in 2020. Bae and I are getting married! We’re working on something big here, sort of a longform improv bit that’ll run on across the years. See, we’re trying to take the infinite possibilities of the universe and bend them into what-I’d-call “moments,” fleeting scenes of shared joy and experience each day. There’s no way of knowing where we’ll go, what we’ll do, but we’ll be doing it together. Total communion with the great drift of the present moment. I’m thrilled about all of this.

Oh, and I’ve got a few stories on our haphazard criminal justice system coming out soon, with more to come. I’ve told myself to finally get around to writing that thing about that one thing I mentioned at the bar that night a while back.

In a couple weeks, our hound, Forrest is turning 3 (that’s 21 to you and me). We’re planning a big bash. So, if you happen to know a good dog-clown…

And I imagine there’ll be a whole hell of a lot of blues music, Salvadoran coffee, mid-afternoon runs, postmodern novels, West Coast cannabis, East Coast custard and long, languid golf games with good friends and a head full of whisky in this new year. If not, well, we may as well all get on that bus after all. Things are going to get very dicey around here in 2020 if you’re not prepared with good tunes and a nice spot to chill out and read a book somewheres.

To everyone else out there, all you idealists and wanderers, political organizers and potheads, musicians and poets, have a wonderful new year—whichever one you land in tomorrow—and be sure to treat all intersections as a four-way stop when the traffic lights are blinking purple, orange and blue. Glorkblat out.