New Project

Hi all,

It’s been a while since I last posted. Reason being is that I’ve been involved in a new project that has taken up a good amount of creative bandwidth.

The new project can be found at cubecomics.net. Here’s our Instagram page.

It’s a comic called Tanner & Peebles, about two aliens that traverse the universe in a series of silly misadventures, prompted by a mysterious desire to leave home and to find purpose, wherever that may take them.

It’s really been a labor of love.

Anyway, I still intend to post on this blog. But a lot of creative energy will be going into these comics. So if you’d like to follow along the journey, check us out 🙂

And as always thank you all for your support.

Dan

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Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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Interested in the notebooks of writers? Check out The Notebooks of Tennessee Williams on Amazon: 

The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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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:

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

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

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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.

My Favorite Rapper is a Woman

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Lauryn Hill, Source: The Atlanta Black Star

1.

I have been a music nerd for a long time—it’s difficult to judge my favorite music without waxing nostalgic. The associations that go along with my favorite records and songs are deep and span periods of my life that seem epochal but still tangible. I remember the lost childhood art of boredom and the freedom music provided from it; for instance, long summer evenings mowing the grass with a Disc-man in the pocket of my cargo shorts, or listening to the radio on the bus to and from school while looking out the window. The accompaniment to this impressionable period tends to stick in the mind regardless of its quality.

But sometimes you get lucky and listen to something really good that holds up over time.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was one such album which brings to mind long afternoons at my first summer job as a ride operator in a local arcade. The arcade was empty on particularly sunny days—kids were at the pool or playing outside—and the managers, older high school kids, would take long “smoke breaks,” which meant they were going to sneak booze out back by the dumpster, leaving the staff to watch over the tedium of unused games and ugly carpeting. During these times I would sneak an earbud and listen to music.

At the time I had no idea about the political significance of Lauryn Hill, her activism, or what her struggle embodied. All I knew was that The Miseducation didn’t sound like anything I’d heard. The drum kit on the first track “Lost Ones” was aggressive but ambling; a thumping guitar hung on the back of the offbeats like a Bob Marley song, and there was this woman rapping: a tenor voice which was smooth and at ease with itself.

3.

The theme running through The Miseducation is inseparable from its sound. In the opening skit there is the sound of a school bell ringing and a teacher taking attendance. A flamenco guitar strums chords in the background. The teacher calls for Lauryn Hill but she’s not there. “Lauryn Hill? Lauryn Hill?” he says.

There is no one ‘right’ interpretation of what this means but the implication is: this is Lauryn Hill’s “miseducation,” and in the title track “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” she opines:

I look at my environment

And wonder where the fire went

What happened to everything we used to be

I hear so many cry for help

Searching outside of themselves

Lauryn’s solution is the classic artistic solution—her “miseducation” is individuation. In “To Zion,” an ode to her newborn son and a celebration of motherhood, she sings:

But everybody told me to be smart

“Look at your career,” they said

“Lauryn baby use your head.”

But instead I chose to use my heart

Implicit in the artist’s journey is the belief that the truest expression is the individual’s. When the collective weakens or becomes conventional, the job of the artist is to breathe life back into it with a new expression which is easier said than done. The Miseducation is not just a title but a description of Hill’s mission to revivify hip-hop by weaving together previously unacquainted elements to create something original.

In an interview shortly after the release Hill talked about the personal meaning of Miseducation:

“Every day it means something more, actually. People automatically thought, she must have not done school, or the teachers didn’t teach anything. But that wasn’t it. The meaning behind it was really a catch and me learning that when I thought I was my most wise, I was really not wise at all. And in my humility, and in those places where most people wouldn’t expect a lesson to come from, that’s where I learned so much… It’s contrary to what the world says is education, this education came from life and experience.”

4.

Much of Hill’s solo effort was prefigured in her previous work with the Fugees (reggae samples, mellow beats, and political overtures) who, as a group, were groundbreaking in their own right, but The Miseducation is unobstructed by other voices. Like many artists who are exploring new territory, Hill pushed hip-hop further by critiquing it. She sings in the song “Superstar”:

Yo hip-hop, started out in the heart

Uh-huh, yo

Now everybody tryin to chart

The Miseducation critiques hip-hop in both form and content. Hill raps on most of the songs but not all, and even on the rap heavy songs—“Lost Ones,” “Doo Wop (That Thing),” and “Final Hour,”—she carries a melody throughout. Therefore it’s from both within and without that she’s able to critique, with one foot in and one foot out of hip-hop. The Miseducation transcends genre by blending elements from rap, hip-hop, neo-soul, gospel, reggae, and traditional Caribbean music. No one before or since Lauryn Hill could blend these elements with as much taste and restraint.

5.

Hill is concerned with more than the technical and personal. She is overtly spiritual. Even her most catchy songs find a way to invoke the metaphysical:

Talking out your neck, sayin’ you’re a Christian

A Muslim, sleeping with the jinn

Now that was the sin that did Jezebel in

Who you gon’ tell when the repercussions spin?

Showing off your ass cause you’re thinking it’s a trend

Coming partially from without, Lauryn Hill was in a unique position to express this even deeper critique of hip-hop culture. Instead of focusing on the outward trappings of fame & excess, The Miseducation is a series of introspections, aided in part by allusions to Rastafarianism, Christianity, and personal experience:

I wrote these words (I wrote these words) for everyone who struggles in their youth

Who won’t accept deception, in instead of what is truth

It seems we lose the game

Before we even start to play

Who made these rules?

This was not the first time these themes were explored in hip-hop but The Miseducation was the popularization of a new kind of positivity in a genre that was struggling to define itself (after the violent deaths of its biggest stars, Tupac and Biggie Smalls), and was desperate for a note of hope.

6.

When I was a kid I listened to a lot of bad music—trendy, cheesy, ephemeral—I listen today and cringe. How could I have been so deluded? But there are a handful of artists I listened to that stood the test of time. I listened to many of them in that dusty old arcade. I first discovered Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life,” and John Mayer’s “Continuum,” those lonely summers.

The only time I got in trouble for listening to music is because I got caught listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

I got caught because I was bobbing my head.

 

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Buy/stream The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill