Warning

Like most who came of age in the mid-00’s and had a passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis, I spent a lot of time listening to Incubus. Their early stuff was on repeat in my ’93 Geo Prizm, let’s just say. And while I drifted on in my life to catch different musical waves, for whatever reason this song spun out of the cosmos toward me this week. I’m glad it did. Stuck in my head absurdly.

I guess I’d just add that my passing interest in psychedelic mushrooms and cannabis became not only a career choice but a serious therapeutic cog in the great wheel of fortune in my life. I’ve sifted through enough ups and downs to know that it all shakes out about even in the end. Of course, I could be totally kidding myself. I’ve barely scratched the surface of how maddening and tragic this universe can be. But the lessons are the same: Buckle up, brace yourself, keep your loved ones close. Listen to your heart.

We’re going to be all right.

But we’ve been warned.

Old radicals

Every Monday, while I lived in Athens and for much longer that that, Art and Peggy Gish led a lunch-hour vigil outside the county courthouse. They were calling for international peace and justice. They were local heroes, I thought, and I was fortunate enough to spend time talking with them occasionally as a writer and editor at the off-campus progressive newspaper, The InterActivist.

I’m writing an essay now that’s sending me backward to this era. It was around this time that I began to think about the tiers of society—the comfortable and the afflicted, as salty gumshoe reporters might have once said. It’s easy, once you’re looking at your jagged community with clear eyes, to see that some need help and others need to be held accountable for how their relative comfort is distorting society. Inaction breeds inequality. Inequality foments the us-vs.-them narrative that keeps us locked in wartime. The engine steams ahead. You can’t afford to be neutral on a moving train.

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are in Cleveland tomorrow night. I’m not one to get all bent out of shape over presidential politics as sport, to believe that a high office would do anything but corrupt its own electorate, but this is a simple enough decision. One set of values lifts people up. The other set of values: Well, “nothing would fundamentally change,” we’re told.

Two stories as old as time.

I hesitate to make the 2020 Democratic primary sound like the great climax of political narrative, but it seems to be a pretty obvious parable for the future. Which path does your heart lead you down as you scout the horizon line of your self-as-yet-to-be? How do you visualize a better world for your children? What story are you telling yourself about who you are?

Art and Peggy Gish were featured in a short documentary called Old Radicals. It’s terrific. A good reminder that life is both short and long, and each decision you make leads you and your community into the next moment.

McCoy Tyner

“To me, living and music are all the same thing. And I keep finding out more about music as I learn more about myself, my environment, about all kinds of different things in life. I play what I live. Therefore, just as I can’t predict what kinds of experiences I’m going to have, I can’t predict the directions in which my music will go. I just want to write and play my instrument as I feel.”

That’s McCoy Tyner, who sadly passed away today. He was one of the all-time greats, a member of the John Coltrane Quartet for five stunning years and a prolific master across his entire life.

But I think about this a lot, the interplay between living and whatever practice you’re developing (music, writing, horticulture, whatever). It’s not that the work becomes/subsumes your life, but rather the work echoes what you learn in life and how you move through each moment. Are you creating something empathetic, generous, freeing?

How you live your life, then, echoes the work you’re creating and sharing with the outside world. You can create a rich inner universe by surrendering to the flow in life and work.

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.