. . . it points to something much more frightening — that love itself exists outside the framework of justice. There is no court at which to plead your case, no authority who can grant you recompense.
Over three years ago I wrote an essay about how environmental calamities that have hit the places where I grew up -- Flint, Michigan, Parkersburg, West Virginia and Southern West Virginia -- were not mere accidents. They occurred because those with wealth and power consider the lives of poor people in poor places like that to be cheap by design.
I ended the essay by noting that such has always been the case and that, in all likelihood, it always will be the case. It will happen again and again because politicians simply don't care about the people who live there and the general public, for the most part, cannot be bothered to care.
This morning I woke up to see this:
I've lived long enough and I know enough history to know that our system is frightfully efficient at crushing both hope and the hopeful. I know that powerful forces will align in an effort to thwart anyone who dares push back against the power and the priorities of the wealthy. I know that a handful of progressive politicians and activists are, at present, no match for both the machinery of corporate America and the apathy of most Americans.
But seeing a politician actually say things like this out loud is unbelievably inspiring. Every bit as inspiring as it is shocking.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was "The Conversation." It's still number one. I'm having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.
It's not a movie that, when you finish it, you say "ah, that was fun." It's not at all uplifting and there's very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don't blame those who don't like it for "not getting it" or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That's kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.
Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it's just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn't an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul's personal style.
More deeply, I identify with its themes.
I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I'd often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I've become a writer -- working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis -- I've felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I'm under stress or when I'm unhappy. It's not a good quality, and it's something I've worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I'll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it's too late.
I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola -- conducted by Brian DePalma of all people -- about the making of "The Conversation." It's from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, "talk about your classic movie" stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands -- it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films -- but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn't now if you asked him. It's also interesting because (a) there's an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent "Blow Out" seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making "Apocalypse Now" a few years later coming straight down Market Street.
There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I've read a lot about that stuff before, but there's a new bit in there I hadn't read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't think about while watching it, oh, 10 times.
It's been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I'm going to have to make it 11 soon.
A couple of Twitter friends recently told me about how, as a fun exercise, they identified the number one song on the Billboard charts on their birthday for every year they were alive. It sounded like a fun idea.
And it was a fun idea until I remembered that I'm older than them it takes me a lot more time to do this sort of thing. Which is fine. I got a lot of time. It's what I have most of, actually. So let's do this thing.
Per the Billboard Hot 100 chart archive, here is the number one song on July 14 of every year since I was born, along with a thought or two about each song or, short of that, a tangential thought or two each song inspired in my too-much-time-on-its-hands brain:
1973: "Will It Go Round In Circles" -- Billy Preston: Preston is one of many who has been called "The Fifth Beatle." In related news, just before this one took the top spot, a George Harrison song and then a Paul McCartney Song hit number 1, so he was the third "Beatle" to have a hit that summer. Note: I do not think he was the fifth Beatle. That was Clarence Walker.
1974: "Rock Your Baby" -- George McCrae: The second of three "rock" songs to hit number 1 in 1974, along with "Rock the Boat" by The Hues Corporation and "Rock me Gently" by Andy Kim. This one was the best of the three. In other news, I was baptized on my first birthday, so this is a fairly appropriate song.
1975: "Love Will Keep Us Together" -- Captain & Tennille: They actually divorced eventually, so this song was a lie.
Last year I wrote a long true crime story that hit close to home. Like, really close to home: my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather with an axe one snowy December morning in Detroit back in 1910. You'll be happy to know that she did this after my great-grandfather was born, thus allowing me to exist. Thanks for holding off on that, Nellie. I owe you one.
I had published all of this as a short ebook on Amazon and many of you bought it. Thanks for that! It's been out a while now, so I figured it was worth publishing the whole thing for free here, so here it is, in all of its dysfunctional family glory. Feel free to share it with family members who annoy you. It will really creep them out and, I suspect, treat you more kindly in the future.
If you paid $2.99 for the ebook and feel ripped off now that it's free, well, sorry. I'll make you a deal though: if someone important and powerful reads it and decides to option it for a Netflix movie or something fun like that, I'll invite you to the screening and/or buy you a beer at some point.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about the history of the namesake for the University of North Carolina's football stadium. The upshot: in 1898, William Rand Kenan Sr. -- for whom Kenan Memorial Stadium is named -- led a white supremacist paramilitary force which rode through Wilmington, North Carolina on a horse-drawn wagon, massacring dozens and possibly hundreds of black citizens with a machine gun. The aim: to commit a coup d’etat overthrowing the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies.
My aim in writing that story was to bring to light a dark chapter of American history the specifics of which had been long-buried, but the reverberations of which have lived on for 120 years. History has whitewashed the Wilmington Massacre itself, but a direct result of the massacre was full and thorough ushering in of the Jim Crow era, the effects of which are still felt socially and economically to this day. What's more, many of those responsible for Wilmington -- while having their crimes either excused or forgotten -- went on to fame, fortune, greatness and, in the case of Kenan, were immortalized in monuments to their memory.
When I wrote that story, I hoped that it would start a conversation that might lead to a greater awareness of just how much of modern American society rests on a foundation created by slaveowners and white supremacists. I hoped that, eventually, someone might ask whether or not a giant college football stadium, for example, should stand as a memorial to a guy like William Rand Kenan Sr.
I didn't think, however, that the conversation would last only two weeks:
UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son . . .
While it's being couched as merely changing the plaque, the fact is that the place is "Memorial" stadium, with said memorial being the plaque. If you change who is being memorialized I think it's fair to say that, technically speaking, you are changing the name of the stadium. Or certainly the purpose of its name.
I likewise think that while changing the memorial to Kenan's son is something of a cute move by the university -- no new signs or letterhead or anything else needs to be ordered -- it is, in this case, significant enough.
As the university's chancellor noted in her official statement on the matter, the son -- William Rand Kenan Jr. -- is a far more important figure for the university. His multi-million dollar bequest to the university in the 1960s led to a $300 million+ foundation that continues to benefit the university in countless ways. While some of his money was, in fact, family money inherited from the Kenan's slave owning past, it was only a small fraction of it, earned at least a couple of generations before him. He built the vast majority of it through his work as an industrialist and inherited a great deal more through his sister who had married the oil man Henry Flagler who predeceased her.
To be sure, the slave holding past of the Kenans is significant and should be noted by the university (efforts are being made to do this) and, as I wrote in my story, Kenan Jr., like so many men of his time, chose to overlook and minimize what happened in Wilmington specifically and in America at large. They should not be absolved of that. It's the case, however, that Kenan Jr. was born after the Civil War, was not involved in Wilmington and does not have any documented history of active participation in white supremacist organizations, white supremacist history or white supremacist acts. Yeah, I realize that's a pretty low bar when it comes to memorializing someone, but in light of that and in light of his undeniable impact on the university during his lifetime and in the decades since his death, it does not strike me as inappropriate to memorialize him if UNC thinks it appropriate. Especially given that the alternative would be either keeping the current monument to a murderer or mounting a long and 100% certain-to-fail challenge to get any reference to the Kenans removed from the stadium.
Being satisfied with the move from Kenan Sr. to Kenan Jr. is not just a matter of pragmatism, however. I think there's a benefit to be had in doing it this way.
As a result of the removal of the current monument and the stadium's re-dedication, the university is committing to working with UNC's "history task force," which is charged with contextualizing the university's past. If they were to simply change the name of the place to "Tar Heel Stadium" it'd be pretty easy to paper over the Kenans and their history and pretend it never happened. By changing it to William Rand Kenan Jr., one holds out hope that there will be a bit more room, in the new memorial, to explain both his history and the history of the stadium's name change. That's what "contextualization" is, after all. William Rand Kenan Sr.'s actions in Wilmington were completely and utterly unknown by almost everyone before now. By keeping it Kenan, it'll be a lot harder to bury that uncomfortable history.
And that should make everyone happy, right? So many people who dislike the revisiting of our country's slave-owning and white supremacist past decry that to do so is to "erase" history. They should be pleased then, because this does the exact opposite. It brings history that had been intentionally obscured by darkness back into the light.
Good job, UNC. You have a long way to go to fully contend with your past, but at least in this instance you got it right.
I came from a couple of small and disadvantaged towns that did not have some prefabricated assembly line of future leaders. The people who came from those places and who did, in fact, accomplish things did so because they sought to transcend geography or race or socio-economic status or family history. They had to. They needed to break the mold of their surroundings or their ancestry in order to do good things in life because falling into the common expectations and routines of their environment meant doing less than they aspired to do.
Later, when I went to college and especially when I went to law school, I began to encounter Brett Kavanaugh types. The ones I met were angrier and jerkier than most because George Washington was their safety school and they were disappointing dad by not getting into Yale, but they were of that mold. A lot of them, actually, came from Bethesda and prep-school-laden suburbs like them.
I never heard of Brett Kavanaugh until recently, but I've spent my entire adult life thinking about guys like him. The ones for whom trying to transcend anything would be bad for them rather than good, because everything had been set up for them to succeed and they had better not fuck that up.
Most of them did succeed, of course, but almost all of them are boring, average and pathetic people, no matter their station, wealth or power. Pathetic because they never had to do a damn thing. Because they never once, in their entire lives, had to dream or to work particularly hard. Because they did not, in fact, ever consider the possibility of doing so.
Over at Jacobin today, Megan Day writes about Brett Kavanaugh, men like him and their sheer, mediocre banality. In doing so, she puts her finger directly on that which I've been feeling about guys like him my entire life. It's a feeling that is often claimed by others to be envy, but it's anything but. I feel sorry for these men. I feel sorry for those who have been handed everything in life and, thus, appreciate nothing.
I feel sorry for men who never stop to think of how far they have come because, really, they never went anywhere.
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.
I took my kids to Cleveland for the Orioles-Indians game on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.
I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.
I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.
Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).
Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:
All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.
Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.
“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.
“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Saturday was Karl Marx' 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you.
I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.
My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan's America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I'm something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn't hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what's wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn't understand them.
In college I actually took the time to study history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I'm more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before.
There's still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I'm not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There's more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I'm not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what's viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I'm not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it's usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I'm just goofing around.
It's much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself.
Political philosophies don't have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole "multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings" thing. There isn't a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It's something that's rather hard to be massaged, as they say.
There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren't truly practicing Marxism, but you're not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting "scoreboard" isn't always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your "actually, the Soviets weren't Marxists" argument alone, comrade. It's not gonna go well for you in most contexts.
Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx's central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.
For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today -- and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else -- the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn't panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn't get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat's chains weren't nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.
Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx' banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one's own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It's hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment.
I think it's fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.
As was the case in Marx's time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people's health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis -- and and it is a crisis -- but it's not unprecedented. Historically speaking it's merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I'll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce.
Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action -- he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary -- he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, "we all wanna see the plan." Marx didn't have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can't took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don't call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me.
That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it's not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.
We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don't call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don't read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.
But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say "This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn't change a thing!," you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism's flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now -- hopefully to more humane and practical effect -- have followed that path.
That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny's and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx's birthday, but it does mean you can't dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.
In the last year we've learned all too well that Donald Trump is seemingly immune from scandal and impervious to shame. Not a week goes by that he doesn't say or do something that would end anyone else's political career. We've lost count of the things which have happened in and around his personal and political orbit that would stop a politician's agenda dead in its tracks. At the moment his top advisors are being investigated for conspiring with Russians to subvert our democracy. That's something which got people executed in my parents' lifetime.
Despite this, the Trump train, however slowed in the public opinion polls and however assailed by the public opinion pages, continues to chug, more or less, forward, announcing policy initiatives that will likely pass and which will shape our country for decades to come. No one in a position to stand up to Trump and say "no" seems willing to do so.
A little over a year ago I wrote a post about the troubling manner in which politicians and public figures talk about complicated subjects. About how they seem to increasingly rely on anecdote and references to their personal experiences when addressing matters of policy, ethics or morality rather than on facts or ideas. About how, for some reason, they could not talk about, say, sexual harassment without referencing their "wives and daughters" or they could not talk about taxes or social policy without making reference to some local farmer or businessman who would be affected.
On some level I get why they do this. People like stories and first person accounts. We respond to them well. On a geologic scale we're barely removed from a time when oral tradition was our primary means of understanding the world, so it makes sense that we respond to personal appeals.
Our public discourse seems to have gone too deeply into the personal and anecdotal, however, to the point where tales, rather than facts, data and ideas, have come to dominate the conversation. Yes, my friend, I'm glad that you care about the advancement of women now that your daughter is getting her MBA, but can we talk about the advancement of women who are not your daughter? Sure, I suppose I'd be curious to know how this new regulation personally affects Joe Smith from East Alton, Illinois, but it's probably more important to know what it means in objective terms -- defined by facts and figures -- for the country as a whole, wouldn't you agree?
The point of that essay was that we spend too much time creating narratives when it comes public life and policy, often baseless ones, and not enough time thinking. We spend a lot of time talking about our feelings too -- using the language of anger or personal offense for the most part in recent times -- but we do it in a rather self-centered way, lacking in empathy for anyone beyond ourselves or our immediate circle. That's an acceptable way to run a village, maybe, but it's no way to run a county of over 300 million people.
I wrote that post a month before Donald Trump was elected, in response to the 2005 "Access Hollywood" video in which he bragged about sexually assaulting women. I wrote it because everyone asked to comment on it referenced their wives and daughters and did little if anything to say, full stop, that such behavior should be condemned as unacceptable even if you don't have a wife or a daughter. Little did I know when I wrote it that such a scandal -- the sort of scandal which would definitively wreck any politician who came before him -- would be a mere footnote on Trump's way to claiming the presidency, regardless of how many wives and daughters were invoked.
Little, also, did I know that what would transpire since the election would validate a warning I first heard 26 years ago, which explains both that which troubled me a year ago and that which is transpiring today.
Back at Ohio State, in the early 1990s, I had a history professor named Alan Beyerchen. I wasn't a history major -- ours was merely an intro to western civ class and most of the curriculum was outside of Professor Beyerchen's specific area of research -- but he was more engaging and enthusiastic about teaching freshmen and sophomores than most professors I ever had. He'd often digress from the day's lecture to talk about larger cosmic issues. One he hit on, time and again, was about how history is animated by its actors defining their personal identity in opposition to that of their enemies (people proclaiming that which is "self" vs. that which is "other" explains oh so much over the centuries). Another one of the big cosmic issues he talked about was how, in his view, we seemed to be on the verge of entering a "high tech dark age."
Beyerchen seemed focused on what he felt as the then-primordial information age's attack on literacy and personal agency. He worried about us moving away from writing and books -- he was particularly upset at how poor his students' writing skills were, mine included -- and suggested that computers and the ability to edit without a lot of hassle was partially responsible. He talked about the prospect of virtual communities supplanting real communities, the ethical hazards of technological advances (which then, as now, were so often promised to be benign) and what all of that might mean for an enlightened civil society. He wasn't necessarily alone in these preoccupations, of course. A lot of people were worried about that stuff then, albeit on a much more superficial level than Beyerchen was. Just look at the science fiction of the mid-90s and all of its virtual reality and Internet panic as evidence.
It went deeper than that for Beyerchen, though. He wasn't some guy merely grousing about technology and all of its alleged perils. For him the most serious risk of the coming high tech dark age was an epistemic crisis. A crisis in which, due to the waning influence of institutions that characterized enlightened society such as libraries, universities and governmental bodies run by and for a literate, educated and engaged populace, simply agreeing on what truth and knowledge and information is would be a challenge. If knowledge was less etched in stone than transferred via ephemeral means, would it not risk becoming intangible? Mutable? And if it did, what value would it truly hold for people?
Once you're in that situation -- a situation in which people find it simple and even preferable to disagree on basic facts -- truth itself is a malleable concept. Once human beings aren't sure what is true, they tend to revert to superstition and fear. Once you have a population of fearful, superstitious people who don't know what is true, those in power are able to warp reality even more and are able to exert control over them more easily than they already do. If the people are afraid enough, they'll be quite happy to allow it.
That, for all practical purposes, is the definition of a dark age. It's a dark age even if we have a lot of shiny technology and even if we've eradicated the plague.
This afternoon I read something which makes me believe that the epistemic crisis which would usher in a new dark age is already upon us. It's from David Roberts at Vox, and it describes the way in which the right wing political and media establishment has rendered facts malleable and increasingly meaningless:
Roberts' concern: that Robert Mueller's investigation will prove a case of Donald Trump's participation in an illegal conspiracy to subvert our political system and that no one will do a thing about it. That the Republicans in charge of the legislative branch will shirk their responsibilities to check the executive because they fear political reprisals from a base that is intoxicated with a cocktail of misinformation and anger, served by the right wing media establishment.
It sounds right. It's not driven solely by technology, the way my old professor worried it might be, even if it's driven by it a good deal. Mostly it's driven by a craving for power and an utter lack of scruples or shame. Any way you slice it, it sounds like the stuff of a new dark age.
The drive between New Albany and Granville, Ohio used to take you down a two-lane country road, but traffic eventually got heavy enough to where they needed to make it a freeway. They did that about six or seven years ago. As far as freeways go it's fine. It cuts through the country and, though it'll likely change the area sometime in the near future, there hasn't been too much in the way of development along the route just yet. It's still a nice country drive. The barn where my wife keeps her horse is out that way so we're on that freeway a lot.
There is one thing on the road that sticks out, though:
This house sits just east of the exit for Route 310, right up against the freeway. It's looked like that since about the time the freeway went through. "O.D.O.T.," stands for Ohio Department of Transportation.
I've always assumed it had to do with some dispute arising out of the condemnation of property to build the freeway, but I've wondered what the specific story was for years. Today I did a little searching and found this, written by a man who says that he spoke to the owner a few years back:
The owner's side of the story was that ODOT used eminent domain compelling him to sell the portion of the property they needed for the freeway, but that they refused to purchase the entire property, including the part on which the house sat. His problem, though, wasn't that he was stuck with a house right next to a freeway. That would be bad enough, but at least understandable. Rather his problem was that the portion of the property they compelled him to sell included the leach field for the house's septic system and the remaining parcel that the house sat on was too small to install a new leach field that would meet local code. So he wasn't just left with a house next to a freeway, he was left with an uninhabitable house next to a freeway.
It's been a while since I practiced law, but the foggy parts of my memory related to these kinds of cases suggest that there is likely a bit more to this story. Local juries determine land value when there is dispute, and they almost always tend to overpay landowners who challenge state valuation in condemnation cases. In light of that, the state usually comes in with high offers to begin with. Maybe he was screwed on the parcel with the house, but I suspect he came out fine overall after they bought the parcel they needed for the freeway. There's plenty of injustice in this country, but rural landowners tend to do OK financially speaking when the bulldozers come to plow places like Licking County into the 21st century, even if they are inconvenienced or displaced.
Regardless of the specifics, I've always been struck by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house. While I suppose most people who see it think of it as nothing but an eyesore, I'm amused by it. Both at its existence and by the fact that it's lasted in the state it's in for so long.
Some quick searching shows that the deed was redone in 2007, with the current owner conveying the house to himself, likely in connection with whatever it was ODOT did with respect to their other land. For tax purposes, the house is only worth $800, with annual taxes on it running around $13, which the owner has faithfully paid. While the house is uninhabited, a quick search of property records shows that the owner of the house lives in similar but slightly larger home two miles away. It's neat, tidy and inviting. It's also close enough to the old house that it's no inconvenience at all for him to go put a fresh coat of paint on his "O.D.O.T. Sucks" sign whenever necessary. Which he clearly has, by the way. The house faces south and the sun would've bleached those orange letters pretty badly by now if he had let it be. Today, however, they're as vibrant as the day they first went up. My wife took that photo when we drove past yesterday afternoon.
I wonder who will blink first. The owner could, if he wanted to, simply abandon the basically worthless property. If O.D.O.T. grows weary of the sign, it could restart negotiations with the owner to see how much it would take to get him to either give up the land or, at the very least, bulldoze the house or cover the sign. The county could maybe get involved too, perhaps creatively reassessing the value of the property -- it's right next to an exit, so might it be rezoned for a gas station? -- raising the owner's tax rates to the point where he's no longer able to cheaply maintain his sign. Given that an influential new neighbor is moving in just a couple of miles up the freeway soon, maybe someone else will come to the table too.
In the meantime, I'll continue to drive by the "O.D.O.T. Sucks" house a few times a week, acknowledging that, yes, it's an eyesore, but smiling that it's still there. Not because I take the landowner's side, necessarily. I don't know him and I don't know the specifics of his beef. No, I smile because we live in a world where powerful forces always seem to win, conformity always seems to reign and anything old, small, unique or just plain weird seems to get plowed over, literally or figuratively.
The fact that someone on the wrong end of the plow's blade has basically held his middle finger up like this for close to a decade gives me hope that the powerful forces' victory, even if inevitable, won't always be easy.
This morning the President of the United States, in response to an accurate news report that made him look bad, threatened the license of a national broadcast network:
It happens to be the broadcast network that employs me. I'd hope, however, that such a thing angers people who don't work for NBC. I mean, I get that he's mad, but the most powerful member of the United States government threatening the media because it criticized him is, if not the most un-American thing ever, certainly in the top-10.
I'm pretty sure if Obama had said this about Fox News in 2010 there would be talk of impeaching him. Short of that, it'd dominate the news cycle for several weeks and be cited in the rants of conservatives for years and years. Now, I presume, we'll just chalk it up to "Trump being Trump" and stagger on to the next unnecessary crisis he creates or legitimate crisis he neglects.
In the meantime, Trump can take my NBC WordPress login from my cold dead hands. Or whatever it is people say in such situations. Sorry, I'm new to this "living under a petulant dictator" thing. We all are.
Last night at dinner, my kids -- who are always online and always see everything -- mentioned President Trump's irresponsible threats of nuclear war. They're bright kids who, I suspect, are about as well-informed as any other 12 and 13 year-olds, so they know the general outline.
I remember being pretty freaked out at the brinksmanship of the Cold War and, of course, "The Day After" scared the living bejesus out of me when I was around their age. So, despite their relative savviness and maturity, I was nonetheless cautious about how I talked about it, not wanting to upset them.
Then my son said, "I wonder what the last meme will be before the world blows up?" and he and my daughter began laughing their heads off about it. When I woke up this morning I saw that my daughter had sent me this, answering her brother's question.
If the planet does survive long enough for my kids to reach adulthood, it will be powered with disaffected irony. Not great, but I suppose there are worse things.
I first came across Scott McClanahan's work in his 2013 "non-fiction lite" book, "Crapalachia." McClanahan's writing -- at turns immediate, clear, funny, affecting, raw and, above all else, alive -- grabbed me and would not let go. His novel "Hill William" followed in the same year, building on "Crappalachia," doing everything it did well, but raising the emotional and dramatic stakes. Within the space of months I had a new favorite writer.
It wasn't just McClanahan's prose that grabbed me. I was drawn to him because he was writing about a place I knew well, southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised and still lives. I grew up in Beckley and I still consider it home, even if I haven't lived there for a long time. West Virginia was a character in these stories, every bit as alive as the people who inhabit them, and as such these books felt something like home to me.
All of which made me worry when, soon after I read "Crappalachia" and "Hill William," I learned that McClanahan was writing a book about the end of his first marriage.
When I read his last two books I was still recovering from my own divorce. Like McClanahan and his first wife, my ex and I were both from Beckley. It's a small place and there were bound to be parallels in our respective stories. When I heard about his divorce book I was going through a period in which, no matter how well I was doing for long stretches, I could still be derailed fairly easily by a triggering memory or suggestion. Three or four years ago a book on this subject, set in that place, by a writer with McClanhan's gifts, seemed like more than I'd ever be able to handle. In fact, a small, selfish part of me even hoped it would never see the light of day and that McClanahan would move on to another project.
The last couple of years have been much better to me. I finally sloughed off the last bits of baggage from my divorce and, rather than get bogged down by old memories, I learned how all of it -- the good and the bad -- fit in the context of my life. I learned how to enjoy and appreciate what my life is rather than worry about what it is not or what it could've been if things had gone differently. Most importantly I got married again to a wonderful woman who did more than anyone to help me through it all. My life is pretty fantastic now. A book about a big messy divorce set in the hills of West Virginia isn't going to destroy me like it might've a few years ago.
McClanahan's "The Sarah Book," was published earlier this month after a long gestation. I'll never know how I would've received it in 2013 or 2014, but I couldn't be happier to have it now. It's a fantastic book, as raw and immediate as his previous work -- I devoured it in two sittings which could've easily been one -- but it possesses a greater emotional depth than anything he's written before. McClanahan has been described by some as an enfant terrible of independent publishing, but "The Sarah Book" is a work of a man maturing and growing. A book that could only be written by someone who has seen some shit, lived through it and learned something from it all.
Which is not to say that this is a happy and pat story in any way. The (I suspect only slightly) fictionalized story of McClanahan's divorce is not at all comforting. It's, above all else, about loss. And death. Not merely the formal loss of a lover through legal process or the figurative death of love or a marriage but about actual loss and literal death and about how all of the stories we tell ourselves and all of the parts we play in this life -- as husband and wife, among other things -- are, ultimately, meaningless. Indeed, he begins the book with this notion, giving the reader no illusions in its opening passage that it's about anything else:
"There is only one thing I know about life. If you live long enough you start losing things. Things get stolen from you: First you lose your youth, and then your parents, and then you lose your friends, and finally you end up losing yourself."
Sarah is a nurse and McClanahan constantly returns to the stories she'd tell him about patients who'd come through Beckley's ARH hospital where she works. Dead or dying people whose lives, for the most part, do not adhere to the conventional life and death narratives we're used to hearing in polite fiction. Scott and Sarah have an elderly dog who dies, and his death is not pretty or poetic either. Any effort Scott and Sarah make to impose some sort of sense on the end of their marriage backfires as well. Scott thinks for a time that the marriage can be salvaged, not because there is anything inherently salvageable in it, but because, dammit, that's how the story was supposed to go and how dare Sarah fuck with the ending? But as "The Sarah Book" goes on, McClanahan impresses upon the reader that, no, that's not how things go. Everything dies eventually. People. Dogs. Marriages. No matter what your plans for them happened to be.
Despite it all, though, it's not a sad book. At least it wasn't to me, because McClanahan shows us that, even if death is inevitable and entropy is undefeated, there are moments of grace to be found in life. Or, at the very least, moments when we can sit and appreciate that life is less of a drama than it is a brief period when we all just try to do the best we can and, sometimes, actually manage it.
Sarah can find humor -- and does, often -- even when life is bringing her to tears. Their children can find happiness being held upside down by their grandfather, even when their dad is falling apart. Scott and his friend Chris can find moments of joy even when both of them are at their worst. The elderly dog can experience one last good healthy piss on the way to the vet's office before his undignified end. Scott and Sarah can each find love again, with other people, even when it seemed like their divorce was the end of the world.
The final scene of the book features Scott and his new wife sitting down for burgers and fries with Sarah and her new husband with Scott and Sarah's kids in tow. After all of the drama of the previous 200 pages, life is all about slightly awkward conversation, french fries, ketchup on a mother's fingers and a three-year-old boy looking up at the sky at airplanes. Is it anticlimax or is it a clear-eyed realization that, no matter what goes on inside our heads and our hearts life, in all of its quotidian detail, goes on? I suppose one can take it any number of ways. But having lived through much of what McClanahan did in "The Sarah Book," I was happy to see it. Drama and pain can only sustain a person for so long and, since death and loss is inevitable, it's better to push that stuff aside as best one can and do as much living in the short time we have as possible.
"The Sarah Book" does a masterful job of chronicling the pain and drama of a divorce, but there is hope in it as well. We need to endure the former but acknowledge the latter, even when it seems impossible. Thankfully, we have someone as talented and insightful as Scott McClanahan as our guide.