Philip Roth, one of the all-time greats, died one year ago today. I’ve turned to his books again and again to feel out the grim scars of America, the stains of human psyche. The uproarious comedy. Gets me in the mood to work. Atrocity everywhere, shaded with tender stories about who we are.
He is an American visionary.
I read Sabbath’s Theater over a four-day trip to Mexico and back, in February, spellbound at 30,000 feet over the relentless malice of it all. The intricate layers of love and hate as the broad grind of culture churns onward in the background. Hell of a book.
“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”
All this talk of another full-album 20th-anniversary tour (in this case, Incubus’ 1999 scratch-funk-pop trip Make Yourself) has got me thinking about how the albums we stumble into as wayward youths end up rippling outward in meaning for, oh, say, how about 20 years and then some.
So. Make Yourself.
It’s the sort of phrase you might be given from an aged monk in a quiet room, tinted in ocher and low-lit greens, after a long pause, following the only question you could cobble together in the haze of incense and curiosity: What should I be doing here?
“Should” is an interesting and irksome word, but it’s one with which we reckon constantly, I think. The method and practice of zazen is almost explicitly meant to dissipate the word “should,” to sweep it out the back door of the mind and into some non-place on another plane. If zazen means anything at all.
The answer to a question unasked, then: Make yourself.
The album fell into my hands a year later, through the Little Nicky soundtrack, of all things. (It was a great CD. Deftones. Incubus. Pharoahe Monch. Cypress Hill.) “Pardon Me” was on the soundtrack, and, for a kid only just coming into the world of 311, post-grunge, nu-metal, etc., the space-rock inflected with near-hip-hop vocal stylings was a real motherfucker. It was a hybrid along the lines of stuff I hadn’t yet entirely realized in pop culture. 11 years old. Whole world of music unfolding beyond me.
It could have been a different time. My birth could have been earlier, later, whenever. But my intersection with something like Make Yourself was preordained. Middle-class, white suburban Cleveland. Friends. We all played guitar, or something approximating guitar. Started skating and listening to heavier stuff. Time ticked onward. High school. Hip-hop, the old-school stuff at first, then more metal, strange indie wanderings backward into the mid-90s and so on. Started smoking weed.
Along the way — and I remember this clearly, because I played this sort of stuff all the time in my ’93 Geo Prizm, en route to wherever, ca. 2005 or so — we skipped into Incubus’ earlier records. S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and Enjoy Incubus and, my personal favorite for a spell, Fungus Amongus. This is where we found seeds sown in the vein of funk, deep DJ scratchwork, psilocybin-infused lyrical humor and all that. Seeds that would blossom in different ways for all of us. For me, this music scanned as a ticket into early hallucinogen experiments and a steady appetite for cannabis. Antics ensued. The music never stopped.
S.C.I.E.N.C.E. is a powerful album, and I think it’s necessary to fully understand how the band was changing during the Make Yourself sessions.
Released two years priors, S.C.I.E.N.C.E. spends significantly more energy on the mania of late youth, red-eyed adventures at 3 a.m., conspiratorial questions. The album is relentless, and it works both in a chill, late-night billiards sort of way and a head-banging surrealistic binge. The band poured its previous years of touring and stoney head games into these songs: “Deep Inside” is one that stands out for obvious reasons. And the transition into “Calgone”? This is the mark of a paranoid beast, and only those who’ve gone over the edge of goofy-ass sativa will understand. I think.
That’s what this music means to me, years later.
“Come sail aboard S.S. Nepenthe!”
Then came Make Yourself. It’s a remarkably cleaner record, and not simply because of track No. 9. The lyrics contend more with self-actualization than lunatic drug fun. Anyone who’s eaten the god’s flesh of mushrooms will know the sense of clarity and crystalline sight that comes in the wake of a mind-altering trip in the woods or along the riverbed or in some weird, wood-paneled living room. You can’t help but see things differently. Decode the external world in a more fundamental sense.
You can’t return to the source, but you can deliver its promises into the enveloping future-now.
The only response to the unasked question, baked under haze of sunlight and hallucination, is: Make yourself. Take what you’ve learned and create your world.
And the only sensible way to do that? “Resist, unlearn, defy.” This is pure zazen.
I fail more often than I succeed, but I’m still unlearning all the built-up mental sediment from the foggy past. Still working on the resistance to something unseen, something felt in between the waves and radiation pulsating groggily between the present moment and the collapsible planes that revolve around me.
If it takes 20 years, and then some, of listening to music, sonic roots driving deeply inward, then so be it. There are far worse ways to spend my time.
I heard that Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer is leaving his post for a regional M&A directorship with Republic Services. (Lorain will be part of his territory, apparently.)
In the late summer of 2016, before one of the great all-time goons slithered into the White House and our civic-religious dogma forever, I wrote a long story about what was going on in Lorain. A city of immigrants, built and sustained by steel. An American patchwork of undulating prosperity and crushing downtime.
I don’t think anyone in Lorain or elsewhere seriously placed any working-class faith in either presidential candidate back then. The rationale behind the national vote in 2016 was angrier, more visceral and bleached with hate. You can still hear the echoes today, growing louder, in fact, studded with personal invective on your made-to-order social media platform of choice.
No, the answers to problems like the idled steel mill at the end of your street or the crowded (or non-existent) homeless shelters in your city are found in questions asked of local political representatives, of local community organizations, of ourselves. That, to me, seems like the political action — even rhetoric! — that matters. Lordstown is a great example in the news this week, a way to grasp how different levels of government shape reality and a local economy for families on the ground.
Now Ritenauer’s gone. A lot of work left undone, but that’s how it always is. And more power to him, finding more time to spend with his family. Time to ask his own questions. But the party’s central committee has a shot at appointing a successor, which is never a great starting point.
Outside of buckshot Google searches and public records requests, there is no easy way to find out about the bad cops in your state—the police officers who’ve broken the public’s trust and gotten themselves banned from the force. Who are they? What did they do?
What guardrails are in place to prevent those men and women from serving as police officers?
This is where the oft-maligned work of journalists comes into play.
Westword—in Denver, Colo.—published a similar overview of the USA Today list in Colorado. I’d like to tip my hat to writer Michael Roberts and replicate the spotlight here in Ohio.
Decertification is a public process that revokes the licenses of officers who have “engaged in serious misconduct,” according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). The form of that misconduct often ends up as criminal conviction, but it varies from state to state. USA Today chronicles 391 police officers in Ohio who’ve been decertified. Their offenses range from theft and carrying a concealed weapon to drug trafficking and rape.
The list includes at least 14 Cleveland Police Department officers. (Some of the listed officers’ names do not include a reference to their “last appointing agency.”) Among those, most Cleveland residents will recognize some names—like Gregory Jones, who was convicted of rape and kidnapping in 2014. He was sentenced to nine years in prison.
And there’s Robert Bonness, convicted of attempted rape and possession of child pornography. He was sentenced to more than 50 years in prison and decertified by the state of Ohio in 2011.
Zvonko Sarlog was sentenced to 10 years in prison—in 2008—for his central role in a Northeast Ohio drug trafficking ring. Sarlog was later decertified in 2017.
Anthony Tuleta is on the list, too. He was convicted of six counts of drug possession and one count of theft; the 8th District Court of Appeals later overturned the ruling and insisted that Tuleta never should have been prosecuted in the first place. In March 2014, he was reinstated as a member of the Cleveland Police Department.
Also on the list, readers will find officers who until recently held positions at the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office, the Cuyahoga Community College Police Department, the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority Police Department and a smattering of Northeast Ohio suburban police departments.
But the through-line for the Ohio officers on this list is a criminal conviction. Nothing less.
Even a cursory understanding of current events will lend the assumption that there’s more rot in Ohio law enforcement than the savage crimes listed here. Prosecutions of police officers aren’t often successful, if they’re pursued at all.
The USA Today list is a step toward something more accessible, toward a real sense of scale. (The news organization announced that it has also compiled a list of 85,000 officers who’ve been investigated for misconduct more broadly, which will be published in the future.) The 30,000-some officers documented by the decertification list is but a glimpse into what a national data set might look like—and about half of that total is drawn from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia, anyway. Different state statutes circumscribe decertification differently. There is no national standard, which is why there was nothing like this database until the USA Today group came along and spent time to publish one.
So, what does it mean?
According to the Ohio Revised Code, any defendant who pleads guilty to a felony and who happens to be a police officer is fired and decertified. (The officer must be warned in court and given a chance to reconsider his or her plea.)
“You are hereby advised that conviction of the felony offense to which you are pleading guilty will result in the termination of your employment as a peace officer and in your decertification as a peace officer pursuant to the laws of Ohio.”
If an officer is convicted of a felony at trial or is convicted of a misdemeanor, the court is obliged to send all documentation thereof to the officer’s employers. What happens then is up to the law enforcement agency in question.
That’s Ohio. Every other state is different. Six states don’t even have a decertification statute on the books.
The current attempt at a federally catalogued data set in the U.S. is entirely voluntary.
In May 2015, President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a call to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training “to expand its National Decertification Index to serve as the National Register of Decertified Officers with the goal of covering all agencies within the United States and its territories.”
The task force quoted Roger Goldman, a law professor emeritus with Saint Louis University, who said that a national register would effectively treat “police professionals the way states’ licensing laws treat other professionals. If anything, the need for such a system is even more important for law enforcement, as officers have the power to make arrests, perform searches, and use deadly force.”
Did President Donald Trump’s administration pick up the task and run with it?
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions went the opposite way with his departmental oversight, calling into question consent decrees held between the Department of Justice and law enforcement agencies around the country. After his forced resignation, successor William Barr has since been a bit busy.
In the midst of high-profile international criminal allegations and investigations in the U.S., the USA Today report is helpful in jerking the focus back to local anxieties.
To what standard are the peace officers in your neighborhood really held?
Timothy Loehmann, in one of the more visible examples, evaded formal charges in 2015 by a Cuyahoga County grand jury in the investigation into the shooting death of Tamir Rice. Loehmann was fired by Cleveland in 2017.
Before that, however, Loehmann had been formally reprimanded by previous higher-ups at the Independence Police Department. (Loehmann was infamously called “weepy” by his superiors, a cause for concern when the subject is handling a gun and tasked with public safety.) He’d been deemed unfit for duty, but only a public records request for Loehmann’s personnel file or a formal background check by another police department that was thinking about hiring him would have told you that at the time. The Cleveland Police Department did neither.
This remains a cautionary tale.
In October 2018, Loehmann withdrew his application to work as a part-time police officer in Bellaire, Ohio. “Hopefully, he will not be hired as a police officer by any other state,” Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, said at a news conference.
In March 2019, the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association filed an appeal to overturn the 2017 firing of Loehmann by the Cleveland Police Department.
Wherever he lands, Loehmann is still certified to work as a police officer in Ohio.
Two days before USA Today published its decertification list, the news organization ran an investigation into the criminal violations of David Cimperman, police chief of Amsterdam, Ohio, a small town of 500 between Steubenville and New Philadelphia. “In 2001,” the reporters write, “he was convicted of a felony for tampering with police radios so that he could make untraceable phone calls. Over the years, he crashed his cruiser five times and left a personnel file strewn with disciplinary violations.”
But Cimperman was never decertified. He was hired as a small-town Ohio police chief in 2015.
A few years back, Brian Lombardi wrote a fine New York Times piece about how to be “a modern man.” It’s important to remind ourselves how men can still be positive role models in 2019.
Since I often get asked about how to be a good example for younger men here in Cleveland, I figured I’d share the list that I used to hand out to the summer interns each year.
“How to Be a Modern Man in Cleveland”
The modern Cleveland man does not fill out the menu at Barrio. He orders the special and makes sure to compliment the cooks.
Yes, the modern Cleveland man still subscribes to the Plain Dealer. But he only reads the Sunday paper.
The modern Cleveland man prefers to go 45 on the West Shoreway. He knows it’s important to set a good pace on the morning commute.
The modern Cleveland man knows his ward’s City Council representative—and his or her favorite donut shop.
The modern man in Cleveland attends every one of the orchestra’s performances at Blossom. He always asks the folks next to him on the lawn if they’d like some of the spinach pies he and his wife brought in from Aladdin’s.
The modern Cleveland man doesn’t bother with GetGo’s FuelPerks program. If gas is $2.95 and the tank’s empty, gas is $2.95.
You’ll find the modern Cleveland man in the Right Field District when the Tribe’s at home, but you won’t find him anywhere near the place on “dollar dog night.” Same goes for when they do the fireworks.
The modern Cleveland man grows his beard in the winter, and keeps his face clean-shaven between the home opener and the Browns’ bye week each year.
The modern Cleveland man takes the Red Line out to Hopkins when he travels for work. But does he take it downtown for St. Paddy’s Day? What, are you kidding?
When choosing the perfect location for date night, the modern Cleveland man does not consult his wife. He knows her favorite spot is Crop, and he’s had the reservation booked for three weeks already.
You won’t find any MANCAN wine in the modern Cleveland man’s fridge. He drinks pre-2017 pinot noirs on his back patio with the guys.
The modern Cleveland man plays catch with the neighborhood kids every now and then, but he’s careful not to bring up John Rocker in front of them.
The modern Cleveland man brings his own straw to local restaurants. And he’s always got extras if anyone around him needs one.
You can learn more about the degenerative side of human nature from any two paragraphs in the Kentucky Derby Piece than in a full year of investigative reporting at Cuyahoga County’s shiny East 9th Street office. (Here’s a tip: It’s all degenerative. The plot moves in one direction.)
I read this classic Thompson yarn each year around this time. It’s a healing ritual.
“The clubhouse bars on Derby Day are a very special kind of scene. Along with the politicians, society belles and local captains of commerce, every half-mad dingbat who ever had any pretensions to anything at all within five hundred miles of Louisville will show up there to get strutting drunk and slap a lot of backs and generally make himself obvious.”
Read on, as published by Scanlan’s Monthly, vol. 1, no. 4, June 1970.
Something I’m thinking about lately, a line from one of my favorite writers, Tom Robbins, whose work shoved me onto this path a long time ago…
“A writer’s first obligation is not to the many-bellied beast, but to the many-tongued beast. Not to society but to language. Everyone has a stake in the husbandry of society, but language is the writer’s special charge—and a grandiose animal it is, too! If it weren’t for language, there wouldn’t be society. Once writers have established their basic commitment to language and are taking the blue guitar-sized risk that that relationship demands, they are free to promote social betterment. But let me tell you this: Social action on a political, economic level is wee potatoes. Our great human adventure is the evolution of consciousness. We are in this life to enlarge the soul and light up the brain. How many writers of fiction do you think are committed to that?”
What does that mean to you? What does the state of our universal language—or even our local language—feel like today? Is everything alright?