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A rhetoric professor of mine used to amuse himself by saying, “The truth is always simple.”  By this, he usually meant that accurate-seeming propositions are built from small assumptions, arrayed around a central premise easy to accept as common sense.  The central premise is simple.  The rest is usually a complex rhetorical exoskeleton designed to protect it.  He didn’t believe in a single monolithic truth.  A genuine sophist, he looked for the validity of persuasive discourse.

It took a while to understand that his “simple” was shorthand for this idea.  But that’s how some people communicate, by elision, ellipses, implication.  It gives them room to persuade, to demonstrate, to marshal sources and mould arguments without being hampered by culturally prescribed truth narratives, attestations of belief, professions of faith, declarations of what is real, what all respectable people of good character are expected to think.

I find I’ve increasingly come to resemble my teacher in this way—not in his preference for indirect expression, but in his distrust of the “true” and the “correct.”  There seems to be no shortage of sacred truths and respectable opinions in the United States right now.  Everyone is suddenly in church.

Maybe it’s the Coronavirus.  Maybe it’s the emotional fallout from the recent protests and riots.  Maybe it’s because I’m turning 47 this year—not yet old, but no longer young—that I feel like I’ve had enough.  Enough newsfeed.  Enough hypocrisy.  Enough banal evil.  Enough stupid authoritarianism and reflexive outrage.  Enough identity politics.  Enough lip service and moralizing.  Enough monetized nostalgia.  Enough sadomasochism, dread, and consequences.  Enough fake performative virtue.  R. Crumb was fond of asking in his underground comics, how much can one man take?  I’m at a point where I feel I can answer that, at least for myself. 

I’m sick of being told what’s true and false, right and wrong—as if anyone actually knows.  I think I’ll need to find a mountaintop soon, or a subterranean cavern, someplace quiet, away from all the respectable people telling me what to do, what to think, and how to feel.  America is obsessed with propriety but unwilling to admit it.  And it’s only getting worse. 

I just read about the Arctic explorer, Augustine Courtauld, who, in 1931, was trapped in a polar weather station for months.  The biography made it seem like a dreadful ordeal, and I suppose it was.  But the idea of that much solitude is very appealing right now.  I suppose I might feel differently after months of it.  Then again, maybe not.  At least, in that deep isolation, I wouldn’t be waiting in line at the confessional.

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about Mark and Patricia McCloskey, now immured forever in the pages of the New York Post, which is where I first read about them, along with every other newspaper and social media platform in existence.  They are the suburban St. Louis couple who recently brandished their guns at a crowd of George Floyd protesters. 

Not a very nice look.

Since first seeing the McCloskeys’ terrified vacuous expressions, I’ve felt that the fact pattern in their dumb predicament is all rhetorical exoskeleton.  What really happened?  Two mousy attorneys thought their house was going to be burned down by a mob and overreacted.  They also happened to be white, irritating to look at, and apparently prone to making terrible decisions—just like four cops in Minneapolis not too long ago.  And they could have killed someone.  It seems like sheer luck they didn’t.

They said they were defending their property.  They said they’d only touched their weapons twice since moving in.  They said they were afraid of a “storming of the Bastille” situation (they thought of their home as an 18th century French prison?).  They said they were afraid of terrorism.  They said they had guns in order to keep mobsters away (The Untouchables in suburban St. Louis?).  And they said they support Black Lives Matter.  Of course they do.

I imagine them saying all these things in a single exhalation, without pauses, then dabbing their faces with perfumed handkerchiefs.  Honestly, Valmont, it sounds like an ordeal.  Howsoever did you survive it?  Well, dearest, they’re called the underclass for a reason.  You have to be fair with them but stern.  Violence is all they truly understand.  Oh, Valmont!  You ravish me!

The central premise, on the other hand, is something easy to accept: white people are afraid.  It dovetails nicely with the abundance of twitchy columns and articles steaming out of the New York Times, The Atlantic and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Washington Post, which often seem more like professions of faith instead of reportage: this is what good people everywhere now believe.  Rich white people are dangerous.  Proof positive of what we’ve been saying all along right here in St. Louis.  The truth is always simple, isn’t it?

As a white moderate liberal who believes in the marketplace of ideas, humanistic inquiry, literacy programs, diversity, the possibility of equal opportunity through non-violent reform, and the continued applicability of certain quaint democratic ideals, I’ve been accused by those to my left of willingly perpetuating a racist system (as if I were something more than a nobody with a laptop).  Those to my right have called me a snowflake, among other unpleasant things, and accused me of writing thoughtless garbage.  I’ve even gotten a few death threats in the post-apocalyptic hellscape of Twitter, which now just seems par for the course, especially on social media.

What I haven’t found is anyone willing to agree with me that the riots made perfect sense but the fanaticism of critical race theory does not.  Kill people and their friends, families, and communities will respond in kind.  They should protest.  Everyone should when the police have gone feral.  It’s understandable that when people feel oppressed, they’ll act out their frustration until they see changes.  At least, they’ll destroy some monuments, burn some cop cars, throw the butt urn down the courthouse steps, and spray “ACAB” on the windows of the local network affiliate.  Well, it’s something.

But the current woke gamesmanship being played by our corporate, managerial elite willing to indulge in the worst excesses of critical race theory in order to be on the right side of profitability is repugnant.  As a fellow writer at Splice Today put it: “lots of white guilt and centering individualistic narratives of change,” a venting mechanism meant to preserve the status quo: “Class and socioeconomic privilege are preserved and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too can only exist to support class status.”  Put the right slogan on your T-shirt and you can have your BLM cake and eat it, too.

Maybe it’s better to say that, while I don’t know what’s true, I have a sense of what isn’t.  It’s a sense that tells me certain perspectives are more profitable than others right now for celebrities, politicians, and brands.  It tells me the only way positive changes come about is when people stop trying to leverage the trends, set aside their differences, and work together in the spirit of common humanity and good will.  And it adds that such changes are never going to happen if you’re preoccupied trying to storm the Bastille or if you’re out on your front lawn with an AR-15, trying to defend it against the mob.

Mostly, I’m just as tired as anyone in this pathological country.  Every government is somewhat horrible and evil.  But I’m not interested in pulpits and commandments.  I’m not trying to be virtuous or right.  I’m not interested in today’s purity test.  I didn’t even plan to be in the United States for more than two weeks.  It’s been almost four months.  I’ve had enough American exceptionalism and respectability to last me at least until our brave new police-free utopia hits its stride sometime in November.

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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“Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

― Noam Chomsky

“Perhaps if you know you are insane then you are not insane. Or you are becoming sane, finally. Waking up.”

― Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle

Subjects

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum