The Boring Sameness of Celebrity Cover Stories

One of the most bizarre and popular forms of journalism is the magazine cover story/ celebrity profile. To get a clear idea of what I mean, examples can be found here, here, and here. These are Esquire on Shia LaBeouf, GQ on Brad Pitt, and Vanity Fair on Chris Pratt, respectively.

What I find so hilarious about these pieces is the current in-vogue approach used by the these journalists to couch their supposedly laid back narrative. Each one begins their piece, in the very first sentence, as if they are telling a unique first-person story:

Shia LaBeouf is nervous about this story—“I have so much fear about this thing,” he confesses to me when we first meet…

Brad Pitt is making matcha green tea on a cool morning in his old Craftsman in the Hollywood Hills, where he’s lived since 1994.

Chris Pratt wanted to cook me lunch—you can tell a lot about a person by the way they cook.

I don’t know what it is about these sentences that absolutely kills me. Maybe the forced casualness. In our age of entertainment, whatever this age is, we want our stars to be down-to-earth, person-next-door types, when in reality, to understand even the most basic components of their life, one must account for these processes & formulas that are able to harnesses billion-dollar-generating star power. These are secular gods. There is no way around the rituals.

When I arrive, I see LaBeouf through the window. He is alone at a four-top, his eyes trained forward, unmoving. As I approach him, he stands to greet me. His outfit is Valley Dad: well-fitted if unassuming khakis and a sweatshirt.

Pitt wears a flannel shirt and skinny jeans that hang loose on his frame. Invisible to the eye is that sculpted bulk we’ve seen on film for a quarter-century. He looks like an L.A. dad on a juice cleanse, gearing up to do house projects.

He [Pratt] was wearing a flannel shirt and jeans and had let his beard grow to stubble. No shoes, just socks. He’s a big guy, six feet three in boots, 220 pounds, in shape, and has the knock-around ease of a regular guy drinking campfire tequila on the set of a John Ford movie.

These are three different journalists, although you would never know that by simply reading these articles. Of course they probably didn’t have final say editorially, but still. It’s all the same sort of thing: here is a big star and yet, wow, look at how damaged and complex they are. And here is Shia LaBeouf doing artsy poses in a $4,000 bomber jacket:



Oh, and here’s Brad Pitt wearing a $485 shirt doing, uh, well, I don’t exactly know what:



Now, let’s catch up with Chris Pratt about his hobbies as he casually steps out of a race car:


What interests me most is that, despite the obvious amount of money spent on these cover shoots, creatively, they seem remarkably half-assed. They all evoke the same images and boring scenarios.

I keep imagining an ancient corollary in which Virgil describes a casual interview with Caesar Augustus. Like a washed-up wanna-be Gonzo journalist.

He invited me into his palace. Greeting me at the gate, he wore a surprisingly casual brand of toga and sandals. C’mon in, he said, waving me in and, as we passed through the palace gates, he haphazardly spanked one or two concubines on our way. I just want the people to know that I am a normal guy, you know, he said. We just like to have a little fun around here.


Review of The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is a book that upsets some people because of the expectations that come with such a work. It is lauded by so many great authors, and assigned in just about every English Lit classroom, so when we sit down with it we expect nothing less than a tectonic event. If that doesn’t happen it’s easy to feel let down by the work, or to wonder what on earth all the hubbub is about. This happens with many great works. All art comes down to taste and sometimes it feels more like work than fun if it doesn’t meet us where we’re at.

Gatsby is an interesting case. Like all great works, it’s a creation of its time, but perhaps even more so. Fitzgerald is responding very particularly to the vapidity of his age. ‘The jazz age,’ which he is so often associated with, and also to the ‘American Dream.’ He prefigures the Great Depression (remember, it was written in 1925) by pointing out the emptiness in a preoccupation with style, wealth, and with the petty trivialities of life. Sound similar to any other time? He does this most notably by pitting Nick against Gatsby, and Gatsby against Daisy and Tom, as representative postures in relation to human happiness.

Fitzgerald is critiquing his time and the idea of the American Dream, but he’s also saying something universal. It’s no mistake that all the main characters in Gatsby are rich. Their wealth couches them in a system of events that Fitzgerald can critique. Against this commonality there is one major difference – Gatsby and the way in which he uses his wealth. While Tom and Daisy use their wealth for its own sake, and are caught up in the fads of their time, Gatsby uses his wealth as a means to an end, the end being his love for Daisy. And his love doesn’t take him into the future. It takes him into the past.

This is why Gatsby is such a enchanting character. His anachronisms are purposefully shallow, aligning with the shallowness, not of his love itself, but of the object of his love. He says things like ‘old sport’, has a bogus pedigree, and is pursuing Daisy with the ferocity of a medieval troubadour. His tragic mistake is in the consideration not of love itself, which Tom and Daisy don’t even really have, but in the correct aiming of one’s hopes. This is why Daisy Buchanan is so easy to hate. She’s meant to be hated while we ponder the meaning of Gatsby’s love for her. We watch him fall for the same incantation so many have fallen for – the nostalgic consideration of the present. This is why Gatsby wants Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him. He wants to rewrite their history.

It’s okay if you don’t like The Great Gatsby. You don’t have to. It sits along many other classic works that take time to digest, and have the occasional hurdle for us to jump over in order to come to terms with the story and ultimately enjoy it. It could be that the book is just as irrecoverable for those of us who weren’t part of the turn of the 20th century as Gatsby’s dream was itself irrecoverable for him.

I give Gatsby 4.2 out of 5 maroon polka-dotted pocket squares

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Review of Huckleberry Finn

UC Berkeley Library

What can be said about Huck Finn that hasn’t already been said by someone better and smarter than myself? Well, it’s about the only book that can unironically be called the Great American Novel because Huck Finn is so full of irony it naturally deflects, like the stronger of two repelling magnets, any attempts from lesser storytellers or critics to parody or critique it. Anything you can throw at Huck is already being thrown by Mark Twain. This is why it’s impossible to exaggerate about Huck Finn. Somehow Twain managed simultaneously to crank his satire and poignancy dials all the way to eleven, and then kept on going, and made a masterpiece.

I must admit I love when Huck Finn is attacked or maligned as a bad book or as undeserving of its status, because, well, there’s that rush you get when someone attacks or even hates something you love, and it’s all the sweeter when they do it from the moral high ground; and attacking Mark Twain or Huck Finn or the ending of Huck Finn from any moral high ground is stepping into an obvious trap.

Let me just say that Huck Finn isn’t a how-to manual for upending racism, although many readers have superimposed that onto the novel. Huck Finn is a highly symbolic and picaresque story. (I think the best serious novels have to be in some way be deeply unserious at their core, and since Don Quixote was Twain’s favorite novel, I suspect he thought something similar.) The whole point of novel writing is not to spout a lesson or wag a finger (many writers fill whole volumes of this sort of thing), but to entertain and, if you happen to possess a once-in-a-generation talent, to facilitate a sense of wonder, which, as a writer, requires making yourself lower than the reader rather than higher. Something Twain was always happy to do for us.

I think as long as people are free to buy and read any book they like–these days who knows how long that will last?–a certain type of person will always hate and go so far as to want to censure Huck Finn, either by trying to tarnish Twain’s reputation or by some other “committee” or “board” decision or some such trash. You know the type. This is the person who eats kale because “they just like the taste of it,” or the person who would rather than simply congratulate you on exciting news must instead immediately share something of their own, or who complains endlessly that the reason they cannot find a date is because their standards are so “high.” These are not people to have in your life. Really, these are lizards who look like people, and things like Huck Finn will always get on their nerves because there is no twinkle in their eye.

As long as Huck Finn is around and making noise it means that great art need not be sterilized. It means that deep down we still believe great stories are from the heart and not from strict moral philosophies or propagandists or boardrooms full of bores. It means, despite all evidence to the contrary, we can still have a bit of fun now and then. It means that the schoolmarms still haven’t yet outsmarted Huck, and hopefully never will.

I give Huck Finn 9.4 out of 10 whoopee cushions

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How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.


            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.


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How to be a Thug Rose

Weigh-ins are a great tradition in combat sports. Each fighter stands on the official scale and flexes their muscles, and then the champion and challenger stand toe-to-toe, eyeing each other fiercely, sometimes sparking a pre-fight tussle, or at least some controversy to be caught on camera which will in turn sell tickets. When done right, these moments can produce some truly iconic images:

Sugar Ray Robinson and Robert Villemain, June 5, 1950
Joe Walcott, Harry Matthews, and Rocky Marciano, July 28, 1952
Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell, Feb 6, 1967.


To me, these dynamics are what make a fight worth watching. It’s true fighting is physically brutal and violent, but I suspect that alone isn’t enough to interest most people.

These moments are what endear athletes to their fans as symbols. A public personae can take on characteristics larger than a single person and can even embody entire social currents. This requires projecting a kind of public mask which may or may not reveal the actual person wearing it. No one knew this better than Muhammad Ali who was equal parts showman and athlete. Coming to prominence during the Vietnam War and Civil Rights, Ali’s personae was inseparable from these issues and took on a significance fans responded to, and he knew it didn’t really matter whether they loved or hated him, because they would buy tickets in either case:


While Muhammad Ali is without a doubt one of the most iconic sports figures of all time, I personally relish a different style of athlete. Because I think we live in a culture and time in desperate need of a healthy dose of understatement, the athletes I root for tend to be soft spoken which is something unexpected from someone who punches other people in the face for a living. But Rose Namajunas is exactly this type of athlete. Nicknamed “Thug Rose” and standing at 5’5” and 115 lbs, Namajunas is the introvert’s fighter.

On November 4, 2017 Rose Namajunas wasn’t the favorite going into her Strawweight title fight against champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. The odds were against Namajunas 7-1. Jędrzejczyk had defended her title six times,—a record set by Ronda Rousey—was undefeated, and was considered by many to be far and away the more technically sound and experienced fighter. This was even more pronouced given Jędrzejczyk’s confidence and flamboyance during press conferences and interviews, with a style not unlike Muhammad Ali’s—one many fighters today try to emulate.

While Jędrzejczyk scowled and bragged and hammed it up for the cameras, Rose Namajunas didn’t budge, didn’t seem to be effected at all. She stood stone cold without any expression on her face.


And the pattern continued with each press event.


Some journalists were puzzled at the time by Namajunas’ demeanor, but not much beyond that was made of a no-name fighter’s attitude at press conferences.


Then the unexpected happened.


Rose Namajunas knocked out Joanna Jędrzejczyk in the first round.

But what caught people’s attention the most, beyond the press conferences, and beyond even the fight itself—a huge upset—was Namajunas’ octagon interview right after the fight.


For the first time in her public life Rose really seemed to shine, which, given the circumstances, is perhaps not surprising. But almost immediately in the interview it was apparent that she wanted to connect the significance of her fight with something larger than the fight itself. This was surprising.

“There’s so much crap going on in the media, the news, and stuff. And I just want to try and use my gift of martial arts to try to make this world a better place and change the world. This belt don’t mean nothing, man. Just be a good person. That’s it. This is extra. This is awesome, but let’s just give each other hugs and be nice, man. I mean I know we fight, but this is just entertainment. Afterwards, it’s nothing.”

“You are the new strawweight champion of the world. Tell us how you feel,” Joe Rogan said.

“I’m just a normal person, man. I’m just regular. Ain’t nothing special here,” Rose said

I cannot speak for all of Rose’s fans, but what I personally find refreshing about her is that, against a media culture consumed with publicity stunts, hashtags, and virality, Rose Namajunas still believes in being the good guy. There is something about her personality which seems unaffected by media attention and celebrity. And, despite the surface-level dissimilarity, she shares a surprising trait with Muhammad Ali, although it wasn’t clear until after the fight; she knows that what she does is entertainment and will pass away, and that in order to make an impact she must align herself with something higher than entertainment. She must stand for something. Yes, her speech was maybe a bit naïve and had a cliché or two, but there is a time and a place for everything, and maybe these are things we still need to be reminded of every now and again.

It can sometimes be distressing to watch successful people who are mean, even if it’s only to promote a fight, because maybe over time we start to falsely correlate the two things—success and meanness. We expect our heroes to have more important things to do than be nice. We expect them to have a sharp edge to them that they’ve had to cultivate to get to where they are. And this might even be reasonable to expect. If we ever do meet our heroes, we wouldn’t want to be disappointed.

It was one small moment in sports, but I think Rose’s demeanor, both pre-fight and post-fight, demonstrates that you don’t have to be mean to win. You can be nice and a great fighter.

There will probably always be the problem of publicity and gaining the attention of the crowd with braggart behavior and media circuses. Whether in fighting or in the news. It’s all the same stuff. But at least now we know that sometimes, if only very rarely, those of us who still cling to the desperate hope that decency can sell are maybe not always hoping in vain.


Bizarre Adventures of the Modern Reader

Being a reader in the age of technology is sometimes a bizarre existence. Many people do still read, but there are so many books published each year, and few helpful points of reference to navigate from one book to another, so, often times it feels like a vagabond existence, wandering from book to book, hoping to catch a glimmer of something, the thing that propels you effortlessly through the pages, when exactly the right book meets exactly the right reader, and the book sort of reads itself. It’s rare and hard to describe. Sometimes it comes from a classic, and sometimes from not-so-much-a-classic; sometimes from a writer you already know and love, and sometimes from a new writer with a new voice. But in any case, if you are a reader, chasing this elusive dream will take you down many paths you never expected. You will sometimes go into a book being confident of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and then you turn a corner and the thread of your interest will disappear like a mirage and the book will feel like work. Where did it go? Or you will think nothing of a book—maybe it’s an offbeat recommendation from a friend, just a silly page-turner, or, on the other hand, a serious snobby tome you would otherwise never read if it hadn’t been recommended—and that book will go straight into your heart. And it’s so painful! because the most you can probably do to showcase this joy is to write a good review on the internet. Which is so inadequate. Surely, most of your friends’ eyes will glaze over if you try to tell them about it because they are in the middle of Stranger Things Season 2 or scrolling through Facebook, and will think you sound like a crazy person. Or, even worse, if they don’t read at all, and have never felt what I’m talking about, they will interpret your talking about a book in any way as a kind of elitism and will really shut down. So you just sort of have to keep it to yourself and nod politely at what other people want to talk about. All the while this thing sits in your chest and drives you to read everything you can get your hands on. Like navigating through a storm in the dark, you are looking for any piece of land, an island, even a sand bar, anything; and when you finally do get there, you realize you’re alone. Maybe other people have been to Huckleberry Finn island but they’re gone now. You see scant signs of life, a parasol sticking out of the sand or a wide-brimmed sun hat. But you have the time of your life on the island. There are so many things to explore and uncover. Treasures not available any other way. You go to the other Mark Twain islands and they are good, but not as good as Huckleberry island, so you set off looking for other islands like the best Mark Twain islands and see where that takes you. Carefully you’re navigating your tiny ship and BLAH! BLAHHHH! A huge cruise ship unnoticingly storms its way through your path and blares its horn. It’s stuffed with passengers. BLAH! The name of the ship, you can see on the hull, is Social Media. People are barfing over the sides into your water. You’re like okay, I can take this in stride. The ship will be gone soon enough. But as soon as it’s gone another makes its way onto your path. BLAH! And the name of this one is Netflix. You’re like where are all these ships coming from? And they keep on coming, one after the other—Video Games, The News, YouTube. The water gets so choppy and barfy you’re wondering how you’re going to find any more islands. BLAH! BLAHHHH! Your tiny ship is rocking back and forth and you’re holding onto the sides for dear life. Please! you say. Somebody help! But the horns are so loud and the music coming from the ships is Bumch, bumch, bumch. Nobody can hear you. Nobody cares. But then you remember. You packed something for just this sort of thing. You go down into the tiny cabin of your tiny ship and grab a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Hello! They are big round muffs. You put them on. Immediate relief. The water is still choppy and barfy but at least the noise is gone. You pull the ship onto a little island. It’s not too bad. Margaret Atwood island. It’s fine. There’s some interesting stuff here. You’re rummaging around the island and a short distance off in the waters a Hulu boat chugs by. BLAHHHH! There is a lot of commotion on the ship, but you look up and see a guy standing apart from the crowd. He’s got his hand cupped above his eyes, blocking the sun. You wave. He waves back. Seems like a nice guy. You motion like, hey, dude, c’mon over to this island. It’s not so bad. You do this with your hand and then you look at him. He smiles and raises his cup and looks at it and then back at you. He smiles again and shakes his head no. I’m good, he mouths, and raises his cup as if to do a toast. You reply by raising, in accordance with his offer, a nearby coconut.


Interested in reading a book? Do yerself a favor. Here’s one on Amazon you can buy and then read later:




In Memory of my Grandpa, Marvin C. Raether

Christmas Eve 1997

Ever year just before Christmas we piled into a tan conversion van and drove from Cincinnati to Wuakesha, Wisconsin. Apparently it hadn’t gone too badly because we had all survived and were now just a few minutes from our destination. We drove slowly so that the tires crunched on the snowy roads and then we turned into a trailer park tucked between pine trees. Grandma and grandpa’s street wasn’t a cul-de-sac. It was a dead end. The street just stopped and at the end of the street was a pile of recently plowed snow reaching almost to where the branches of the pine trees above it began, covered yet again with a fresh coat so that the pile was a hilly smooth continuation of the snow around it, twinkling in the light of street lamps. To this day when I hear the lyrics walkin’ in a winter wonderland the picture that comes to mind is of my grandparents’ trailer park.

Meanwhile at the last trailer on the right, grandma and grandpa were surely waiting for us. We hurried out of the car, skillfully ignoring dad’s calls to help carry bags inside, and we rushed to the door where, sure enough, they stood. Immediately grandma hugged us. She smelled like flowers. We hugged grandpa too. But his hug was more like an elbow grab. His hands were very strong and his hair was a smooth backwards-dancing white swoosh. His face, my mother told me, was just like an older version of my face. He had deep set eyes. He was lanky and his walk was just like mine, meandering and wide-legged. But the most important similarity was that his head was too big for his body. He was always leaning it slightly forward as if to hear you say something in confidence or to say something himself, although he wasn’t a man of many words. He could be in the room with you but not always in the room. He would sometimes seem to be somewhere else and then come back just in time to answer a question you’d asked.

Whether in the trailer or out on a frozen lake or at the bottom of a sledding hill, grandpa’s way of relating to us was very tactile. This was in keeping with his personality. He always kept a small notepad in his front shirt pocket with pens lining it on either side and a red Swiss Army pocket knife. These were important items. The pad and pens were for writing down little ideas for us, maybe about how to crack a walnut. The knife was inherently interesting because we weren’t allowed to play with knives unless it was grandpa’s. He would proudly show us the extensions inside—the little scissors, wood-saw, and can opener. We were slightly abstract little children raised with video games and TV, but Grandpa wasn’t an abstract man. He once showed us what baked Coca-Cola looked like. Out of the oven, all that was left in the pan was a sludgy disgusting looking paste. This is what you’re really drinking when you’re drinking Coke, he said. Every emotional bridge to him was via some real physical object or scientific predicament. To grandpa a knife was important because it was a tool; but to us kids that same knife was important because it was an excuse to get him talking. He of course knew this and would extend his explanations of how to crack a walnut beyond what was necessary and if we were lucky he would slip up and show his wry sense of humor or make a more general comment about something else. When I think about him now that he’s gone, the memories that come to mind are these little vignettes.

As Christmases came and went, grandma and grandpa moved from Wisconsin to Cincinnati, close to us, and the nature of our relationship changed.

For one thing, the more I saw grandpa the more I came to realize that when he leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs and put his hands behind his head and squinted at the ceiling, he was often slyly still listening to the room. Sometimes it only looked like he was gone on some vacation in his head, and really he was there, and would pipe up with some surprising comment or a joke when you least expected it. This happened more and more and I began to realize how little I actually knew about him. As his grandson after all, I could only bear witness to the twilight years of his life and only ever from a certain angle.

In the later years I was able to see that grandpa’s apparent distance wasn’t really distance, or, if it was, it was a complicated distance. I don’t think he was ever for a single second indifferent about anything my siblings and I said or did. He would look you in the eyes and say, how’s it going?, and he would physically hold on to you until you told him. He didn’t like small talk. He didn’t want a line. He really wanted to know. And when you told him, if you weren’t giving him a line, or could muster something half-genuine, he’d smile and let you go. I don’t know whether this change was only apparent because I’d grown old enough to see it, or if grandpa had actually changed, or both. I didn’t know then and I don’t know now, but what I do know is that this change caused me to think differently about him. No longer was he a far away mythic grandpa; he was my personal grandpa, my mom’s dad, right around the corner, there every Sunday at church, there for every birthday and holiday, there for my wedding, there to see me become a father, and there to know my wife and son.

These changes came quickly and with them came a realization. I had my direct experiences with him, sure—very precious memories to me. But every grandchild must realize at some point that their grandparent isn’t simply a background character in their life, and if they seem like the background that’s only because the grandchild fails to notice the very terrain they’re walking on. Indeed, now that I have a child, I see grandparents have a double influence. Once through direct experience, and then again millions of indirect times through the influence on their children, who happen to be your parents. In my own case this is my mother. Every interaction I have had with her is in some way a response to the cumulative experience of her life, of which my grandpa played no small part. These millions of conversations, gestures, and events, both conscious and not, form an invisible imprint passed down from grandpa, to my mother, to me, and to my own children, and so on.

This is why to me grandpa isn’t really gone. The effects of his life, this imprint, were there even before I knew about them and will continue to be felt even when I’m not thinking about them. This is perhaps what has always been meant by the word ‘ghost’, a clumsy metaphor for how scary it is that we are all basically making it up as we go along, and no matter how hard we try not to effect our children, in the end we will. Good or bad, our presence will be felt and responded to and the outcome of this transaction will live on whether we want it to or not.

For me the most valuable imprint came at the very end of grandpa’s life. The family was there with him when he was dying. Standing at the foot of his bed, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was all very unreal. Grandma leaned over gently and explained the situation to him. His life support was delaying the inevitable. There was no way around it. And you know what? The man didn’t bat an eye. He matter-of-factly faced down his own death. I saw a truly peaceful look on his face. He was brave and never uttered a single sentimentality, even at the very end. This and the birth of my son were the two realest things I’ve ever seen. When all pretense was stripped away grandpa allowed me to see what was necessary to do a thing like that. Call it German reticence or introversion if you like. But to me it was grace.

At week’s end, after those early Wuakesha Christmas visits, and after grandpa’s many subtle designs to catch our interest, we all piled in the van again. We pulled away and grandma and grandpa waved to us as they stood in the doorway. The plowed mound of snow at the end of the street–a once shimmering pile of possibilities–had inevitably, over the course of our stay, been mutilated by our footsteps and converted into a snow fort. Eventually grandma and grandpa receded out of sight and then the mound was out of sight and we were officially on the trip home. We turned out of the trailer park and onto the main road. Now, I sat down and relaxed in my seat. This trip would be much shorter, smooth sailing, really, because we hadn’t yet learned the art of anticipation. Home was nothing. The seven hours in the van would seem like nothing. And when we got home we would have all year to wait to take the long trip again, and every Christmas thereafter.