The many-tongued beast

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?



(I’m writing this if only to remind myself to write more about this topic: synecdoche as a crutch for journalists.)

Seth Godin ran a great podcast episode on this idea earlier this week. It’s something I’ve been thinking about, but I’m not sure I had the right framing in mind.

Synecdoche is “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in Cleveland won by six runs (meaning “Cleveland’s baseball team”).” You see this all the time in local news reporting—and don’t even get me started on the national desk, where ideas go to die.

The Plain Dealer ran a great example of this concept in the paper earlier this week. “Cleveland City Council: Silencing residents for 183 years.” It’s a good piece for us residents to consider. In the past six years, especially the five years I spent as a reporter at Scene, I’ve met and learned from so many engaged residents who know their way around not just this city, but the very economic and political governance of it. I’ve also met folks who just plain don’t know what to do about a perceived negligence on the part of City Council. What that negligence looks like is unique to each taxpayer, but it inevitably leads to the dead-end thought: Well, what am I supposed to do about it? Who do I talk to?

City Council public comment is not a clearinghouse for specific odds-and-ends concerns about the city. Rather, it’s both symbolic and actionable: It’s a gesture of good faith from elected representatives (limited, usually, by rules and time) and a focused platform for ideas. It’s a place where the real stakeholders of local government can truly express themselves, and it’s far more visceral than the voting booth.

Anyway. The Plain Dealer piece is good, and it’s something we should be talking about in this city. But there’s an indictment that’s not coming through, at least in my reading. “Cleveland City Council” isn’t silencing Cleveland residents; the 17 members of the elected body are willfully enacting this policy every time they gather in chambers. At 7 p.m. on Monday evenings at 601 Lakeside Ave., Joe Jones, Kevin Bishop, Kerry McCormack, Ken Johnson, Phyllis Cleveland, Blaine Griffin, Basheer Jones, Michael Polensek, Kevin Conwell, Anthony Hairston, Dona Brady, Anthony Brancatelli, Kevin Kelley (president), Jasmin Santana, Matt Zone, Brian Kazy and Marty Keane are very specifically silencing residents through inaction on this policy that’s been on the books “forever,” as the Plain Dealer‘s Andrea Simakis writes. Each week that they fail to lift the ban on public comment, those 17 men and women uphold the ban and ensure that Cleveland residents do not have a chance to speak publicly at City Council meetings.

It’s not council that’s the problem, because what is council? It’s the choices made by individuals. “City Council” as the monolith baddie does no one any good, from a public discourse standpoint or from a journalistic standpoint. 

Kelley was reportedly asked for comment; “he hasn’t responded,” according to Simakis.

Book No. 15 on the year: Kingsley Amis’ ‘Lucky Jim’

I’m halfway through Lucky Jim and loving it. Leaving the narrative arc aside for the moment, Amis is just a joy to read. And he’s a killer example for how to convey a humorous angle in writing. Even if the scenes themselves weren’t hilarious (and they are, universally), Amis’ way with words most certainly is.

Not that this next line is funny, but it’s worth sharing. I’ve found some neat parallels between Dixon’s movement through life and mine.

“Cautiously and contortedly he got hold of matches and cigarettes and lit one of each in succession. More than ever he felt secure: here he was, quite able to fulfill his role, and, as with other roles, the longer you played it the better chance you had of playing it again. Doing what you wanted to do was the only training, and the only preliminary, needed for doing more of what you wanted to do.”


10 years ago today, a few of my heroes returned from what had once looked like a bleak, terminal split in 2004. It ended up being a reset button on four individuals’ lives (and many others’), a chance to cut corroded bonds and redefine the meaning of the story. We make these opportunities for ourselves each day. That’s one thing I’ve learned in the last 10 years.

I like to think that the story is still being felt out incrementally and shared with anyone who happens to tune in and contribute to the great arc. “Set your soul free,” and all that. In this, the music, to me, is a lens for the good fundamentals of life. Humor; mindful irreverence; bone-deep education of your craft; swings and misses, home runs and strike-outs; the very impermanence of our station—not to mention the necessity of dance. It’s all there in the book.

10 years now! Think of everything that’s happened! Life chugging onward, replacing the future with the past, flipping backward through the doors and through the windows. And still the music never stopped, right?

Countless hours spent happily over those swirling years—my 20s, mostly—just listening, taking notes, obsessively charting the history of one song against another. It’s a language encoded onto each passing moment, each exchange with the world around me. And it’s not always the high-brow schlock I’m making it out to be: Sometimes, you’ve just gotta get extremely high and wander around Madison Square Garden, listening to the echoes of something that’s created again and again with great friends. That’s important too.

“I think that this exact thing happened to me—just last year!”

At the 3/6/09 show—note the tidy trimeter in that in fabled date—in Hampton, Va., they opened with Fluffhead. Brought us back to the root of the thing.

Take a moment to relish the sound of joy in the crowd—the ecstatic roar!—the waves of tear-stained hugs blooming into memories staged in a long and complicated relationship with perhaps the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band there ever was. Just the first two minutes in that video, even—listen to the exhalation. I don’t mean to make a mountain out of a mole hill here, but this is some real-deal historical magnitude for so many wonderful people I’ve been fortunate to meet along the way. People who have set to work on creating long-standing art and social networks. To cleave faithfully to something greater, something beyond the scope of our day-sized compartments—family, justice, history, a mindful resistance to dogma—this is the outward ripple of a human life lived. To have lived! Imagine! Music, surely, is a playful soundtrack to the hard work of finding ourselves in all that racket. I’m grateful for the whole trip.

There’s an old one-liner that maybe you’ve heard on lot before a show. It goes like this:

“My favorite version of Tweezer is the sound of my family laughing.”


The music is just a reverberation of something else, some ancient energy buzzing in our hearts and spinning a soul from the thick fog of the past. When it hits, you feel no pain.

Happy Ass Handed Wednesday, folks.

‘The Continuous Life’

“When was the last time an album completely blew your mind?”

What a knockout lede from this 2011 revisit of 311’s exceedingly spacey aperture explosion, the aptly titled “Transistor.” I set the record on our turntable at home and couldn’t help but dig around for some afternoon reading material while Forrest and I sunk into Side A.

Imagine stumbling upon this alien trip at the impressionable age of 10. “Galaxy” was playing on my buddy’s speakers in his upstairs bedroom in Rocky River, a pre-cannabis adolescent artistic wandering-experiment of music. 311 was ubiquitous in those years. For us. Our crew. What would that sort of thing do to a person? Before all the hormonal uncertainty even had a chance to take hold? What sort of tone does that set for a life? This album was an education.

When was the last time an album completely blew your mind?

Think about it. It’s a gift, if you’ve got an answer handy. I’ve been lucky enough to land many head-shattering listening experiences in my day. These are peak discoveries, rare signs of life along the road into the fog from which the present moment emerges. These treasures — the resulting rearrangement of brain cells — are the things that help guide a person through their story. To have your mind blown by an album!

Sitting there with my buddies, trying to figure out Tim Mahoney’s chords, his strange phrasing, the Lake Erie sunshine filtering in through hazy windows. Who plays guitar like that guy?

Then, 30 years old, dog by my side, the sturdy Terminal Tower standing guard outside the living room, clouds newly formed above the Cuyahoga River’s chilly water. “The continuous life, there is no end, moving through life, moving through death.”

Sure, “Transistor” blew the shit out of mind. Okay? Why deny it? Why deny that this thing, this music, set me on a course that I couldn’t shake, even if I’d wanted to? I grew up with the faith that music and creative expression and words — packages of ideas, books, Gary Larson frames — were the stuff of life, the primordial compound that each young cub with a Little League uniform was meant to harness. Ride the lightning, what it is to you and yours.

I still go to 311 shows just about every year.

First few shows were in high school. Smoking mids. SA’s robotic dance moves freaked me way out, and the roof of Tower City Amphitheater rippled in the north shore wind. Last saw them in Chicago, early July 2017. Chad’s developed a more electronic drum kit over the years, which has its positives and negatives; the band still doesn’t let their songs breathe the way I’d always wished. 311 relies heavily on song structure. It’s best to let it be.

People create what they want to create, what they can’t help but create. If if blows some kid from suburban Cleveland’s mind and sets his life ablaze with a new outlook on rhythm and the solar system, then so be it.

Clarence Thomas’s dissent

You can find attacks on the First Amendment baked into most conversations about social dynamics, politics, business and even the boring concept of celebrity these days, but rarely have they been as clear as Justice Clarence Thomas’s concurrence in McKee v. Cosby today. It’s an opinion that’s shared by the self-absorbed idiot in the Oval Office, and it’s part of a broader assault on the very fragile tradition of a free press — free speech! — enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. You’d almost be forgiven for thinking that we’d tossed the Bill of Rights in the recycling bin a long time ago.

Thankfully, there’s a rich public record of this struggle that we can bring to bear against any revisionist history on the bench.

Read Thomas’s dissent here.

This is a very nuanced and easily distorted debate, I think, and it’s subject to even more violent social whims of thin-skinned identity politics than the Second Amendment thrashing you see on Facebook most days. Freedom of speech is a necessary prerequisite for a functioning democracy. It’s not scaffolding for an equal-time rule, and it’s not a form of “whataboutism,” and it’s certainly not a shield against an angry Facebook mob. It’s a right, in the classic sense of the term.

What Thomas is attacking is an articulated interpretation of defamation in America. It’s part of a larger history, one that — surprise! — is still able to mete out hard truths involving the willful liars in public and private office. Thomas and Trump and anyone like those two rotten apple cores should certainly be afraid. How we fight back is on us.