Write Essays Archive

4

Fly Fishing in Maine (Or, Father’s Day)

“I took up fly fishing when Danny was in Iraq, to keep my mind off of it. It was the only thing I could do to stay focused. You just watch the water all day. Your line. It was the only thing that worked for me when Danny was in Iraq.” Dave is Dan’s father and he is seated to my left. Dan is seated to my right. We’re in Dave’s elevated 2002 Dodge Ram pickup and I’m riding bitch, awkwardly adjusting my legs whenever we need to downshift. We’re driving to northwestern Maine. Dave is telling me how he began fly fishing.

Dave is about six foot even, 275 pounds. Bald, he wears a baseball cap most of the time. Far-sighted, his glasses fog up when he fishes in the rain, but he can’t tie his flies (flies being the fly fishing equivalent of regular old fishing lures) as well with contact lenses on as he can with glasses. As life is a constant compromise, he chooses to wear glasses the morning we go out to Magalloway River, betting on the high pressure system moving into the region. That morning it rains, hard, for several hours. We all get soaked. We all hike about on the banks of the muddy Magalloway wondering exactly how we got ourselves into this situation in the first place, and when the sun comes out (finally) we rejoice until we don’t, and when we don’t it’s because it’s raining again. Because it rains and rains and rains on the Magalloway over Father’s Day weekend — at least, it does on Saturday morning.

But in the end the sun comes out. You can watch the sunset over Rangeley Lake. It’s pretty.

***

The moose we eventually see is a yearling, but we have to admit that we were grimly hopeful that the ambulance we saw turn around and flash its lights was responding to a moose-automobile accident. It is not. We never figure out what the ambulance was for. Anyway, “Watch out for moose,” Dave says. He’s been saying it all weekend. I’ve never seen a moose in the wild. I don’t know that I’ve ever even seen a moose. Jesus Christ, how can I not have ever seen a moose? I must have seen a moose. Maybe I have seen one, after all.

I realize that I’m at the age where I can’t be sure about things in my memory anymore, and it worries me, because that means I’m dying. Which of course you can only do while you’re still alive.

***

“So your dad died, huh?” Dave says. We’re alone. Dan was inspired to fish our campground’s lake during a lull in the wind. Dave and I are barbecuing asparagus and carrots in steak juice and butter. They will be delicious.

“Yeah,” I say, cheerily. I’d made a toast to my Dad the previous night, in the context of a long and drunken conversation about God and the age of Planet Earth (Dave says 6,000 years, I say 5 billion-ish; he’s a card-carrying member of the Christian Right, and he’s pretty cool). I’d said, “I actually am more religious now than I’ve been since I was a child, because I want to believe. I want for there to be a heaven, where my Dad is happy and looking over us and saying hello in sunsets and shit. But I’m also shitfaced, and honest enough to admit that committing to that isn’t something that jives with the rest of my worldview. But, fuck that, I’m drunk. My point is, I have become slightly more religious lately, because I’ve never wanted that before, but I kinda do now? I don’t know, man.  I’ve never just fucking longed to say hello to someone again,” — and this is the part where you, or I, tear up, and STOP, goddamnit, because we are men and there is a campfire and you are never going to see anyone who’s gone ever again — “And, fuck it. Fuck it, you know? I’d just like to say that my old man was a great man, and I miss him, and I always will, and that’s that, and cheers.”

And we have a cheers all around, and I look hard into the fire, because it’s the only way I can avoid breaking down.

***

Sunday morning. Today. Androscoggin River. 30 minutes up an old logging road, over a bridge with no railings, spindly, spiny, foresty Maine all around us, wind ripping like caterpillars if caterpillars ripped, which they don’t. Dave stays in the truck while Dan and I wade down the river. I bring three beers, even though we begin at 8:00 in the morning, because fuck-it-I’m-on-vacation-and-I’m-fucking-fishing-and-I-want-to-nap-on-the-ride-home, that’s why. I practice my roll cast. It’s getting pretty good after three days, but I still don’t know how to tie a knot worth shit, and ultimately this will be the difference between adoptees of fly fishing and rejectors: this tolerance for knot-tying. I can’t really get with it. But I do like to stand in the water and wish for fish.

“Your main problem,” Dan says, “is that you don’t know when you’ve got a catch,” which is undoubtedly true. I can’t tell the difference between a genuine bite and the motion of the line in an eddy, or down a rapid, or stuck on a rock. I can’t snag the bites I get if I don’t know they’re bites, which makes catching the fish my flies are tempting a bit more difficult. “Yep,” I reply. “I can’t.”

“Let’s get going.”

We go.  Along the way I snag my first fish of the weekend, an eight-inch landlocked salmon, accidentally. I go to reel my line in and notice a pull, and I say to Dan, “I’ve got one!” and he says, “Bring it to shore. Rod up!”And when I pull it off the hook, the salmon wiggling and striving for something not made-up, I say to myself and no one else, “Hey, Dad.” And the fish stops wriggling because it’s out of oxygen, and I pull it off the hook and coax it back to life under water, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t just splash its way out of sight against a backdrop of mountaintops and swamp grass and dangerous bridges. I’ll be damned if it doesn’t disappear down the river, never to be seen or heard from again.

I’ll be damned, old man.

17

How to Reject Advertising Dollars

Yesterday was a landmark day for the good people at Brutish&Short: we received our first solicitation from an advertiser! We were all like, “Aww, fuck yeah! Make money get paid!” because, and let me make this as plain as can be: we are not averse to advertising. In fact, when we started this site and our plans for it were much grander, we had The Advertising Discussion. It went roughly as follows:

Me: We should have ads.

Ben: Yeah, we should.

Trevor: Yup. Do you think we should wait a little bit, though?

Ben: Hmmm.

Me: Fuck no, let’s have ads. Free money is free money.

Trevor: We could roll them out after a month or so.

Ben: Maybe after we’ve gotten to a milestone, like 100,000 hits or something.

Me: Fine, fuck it. We don’t even have a name yet. What should our name be?

Fin.

We’re now well past 100,000 hits, and still no ads. Why? General laziness, and an aversion to self-promotion mostly. We probably could have made the money we invested in this little adventure back by now (as it was only about $50) if we were smarter about the whole thing, but the truth is that it’s a sunk cost. Plus, I still owe Ben and Trevor my share. Sorry, guys! I’ll pay you real soon!

Anyway, up at the top of the site, there’s a little “Contact” button, which, when you click it, reveals that we have an email address. Sometimes people click it and send us mail. It’s exciting! A little thrill runs up the leg when that happens, if you know what I mean. So, yesterday somebody clicked it, and this is what she wrote. Her name is Christie.

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1

Still going tanning? Well, you know, STOP. Just stop.

Look, I get it: being tanned is attractive. It evens out skin tone, masks unsightly blemishes and freckles, and implies a vigorous outdoor lifestyle — or at least the socioeconomic status necessary to enjoy multiple sun-drenched vacations a year.

Of course, as my fellow polar bear and not-yet-fellow (on my part) comedian Hari Kondabolu once pointed out, you don’t hear a lot of Indian guys getting complimented on their tans — nor, for that matter, has it historically done much for the central and south American, Caribbean, or African populations around these parts — but on white people, they’ve evolved into something of a prerequisite for upward mobility, even to the point where a micro-trend seems to have developed in which the obscenity of one’s tan is directly related to the obscenity of one’s power.

See, for example:

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0

The Week is Over

For some reason this week felt long, didn’t it? It did. You cannot escape the fact that this week felt long. It felt so long, in fact, that I haven’t the energy to impart to you any anecdotes or hijinks from my personal life, as is my custom. Things happened. Events occurred. Most of us are still here. Those of us who aren’t have been sacrificed to oblivion, but hopefully they lived it up a bit when they had the chance.

Dear God, what have you wrought?

Enjoy the long weekend, my fellow Americans.

4

A Story About Wondering About Rachel Zolf’s “The Neighbour Procedure”

A couple of days ago I had to write what’s called a “wonderment” about Rachel Zolf’s book “Neighbour Procedure” for this poetry salon thing called Influency that I’ve been participating in. Here Zolf is performing a poem from the book with Judith Butler:

And here’s the description Coach House (the book’s publisher) provides on their website:

Rachel Zolf’s powerful follow-up to the Trillium Award-winning Human Resources is a virtuoso polyvocal correspondence with the daily news, ancient scripture and contemporary theory that puts the ongoing conflict in Israel/Palestine firmly in the crosshairs. Plucked from a minefield of competing knowledges, media and public texts, Neighbour Proceduresees Zolf assemble an arsenal of poetic procedures and words borrowed from a cast of unlikely neighbours, including Mark Twain, Dadaist Marcel Janco, blogger-poet Ron Silliman and two women at the gym. The result is a dynamic constellation where humour and horror sit poised at the threshold of ethics and politics.

Nothing wrong with the facts, but I think it suffers from the same thing that was making writing a wonderment about the text extremely difficult: the tone is queasy-making (at least to me). Off but in a way that’s impossible to put a finger on. Maybe it’s that the mood is too concrete (narrow).  

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0

Many Sam Harris Fans Don’t Like Me AND! Why Sam Harris is a Bad Atheist

Surprise, surprise: my last post on Harris — benignly titled “How to Blame Poor People For the World’s Problems” — made a number of Redditors (people with accounts at www.reddit.com) very angry. Apparently it was “an exercise in profound intellectually dishonesty” (ouch) “mixed in with mental masturbation” (yeah, there was some of that in there), and it was “ten times as long as it needed to be in order to express its message,” that message being, apparently, “the Bible can be dangerous, and Sam Harris doesn’t want that danger because he’s privileged, so he wants to strip the Bible of its power” (not what I was trying to say, but if that’s how people are reading it, I guess that’s on me). Mostly though, I apparently set up “a pathetic straw man” because Sam Harris totally “does not advocate ‘science-based morality” (O RLY?) and I need to “adjust [my] meds” (I’ll be sure to tell my doctor).  I’m also, apparently, “a bloody-minded pervert” (that one seemed unfair).

As much as I think these criticisms/insults are a bit (fascinatingly) off the deep end, Tom wasn’t wrong in last week’s “The Week is Over” to characterize the post as wildly extrapolative (shut up, red squiggly line, it’s a word now). Its extrapolations do seem, upon sober second reading, pretty wild. The quote that prompted it was just kind of a dam-breaking drop of water and I just found myself swept up in the angry current that burst forth (not to put it too grandly or anything). Turns out I’ve accumulated a pretty solid reservoir (to stick to the metaphor) of extraneous-to-the-particular-quote issues through my various encounters with Harris’ work over the years.

As wildly random as they may have seemed, these issues did (do) come from somewhere. And, if only to assuage the many polite concerns articulated in the comments I linked to above, I think I’d better  take up and unpack, in a few individual follow-up posts, some of the more controversial among them. Hopefully whatever ends up resulting from this closer and more sober engagement will be at least somewhat convincing and marginally less bloody-minded and perverse (still don’t really get that one).

Tentative plan for follow-up-post topics:

  1. Concerning the Claim that Sam Harris is a Bad Atheist (Below)
  2. Concerning the (Un)Measurability of States of Consciousness as Expressions of Values (Tomorrow, maybe)
  3. Concerning Sam Harris’ Terrible Theory of Motivation and Legitimation (Monday, unless I go to my friend’s cottage this weekend)
  4. Concerning the Surprisingly Controversial Claim that the Bible Contains Some of the Most Profound Existential Insights in Literature (Tuesday, but probably not)
  5. Concerning the Claim that Sam Harris is in the Business of Blaming Poor People for the World’s Problem AND A Clarification of My Theory As to Why He’s in Said Business (I’m gonna guess Friday)

Before proceeding the follow-ups, though, I want to nip a couple likely bugaboos in the bud:

  • No, I don’t believe in a magical God that cares about me or how I treat people. In fact I don’t believe in any kind of literal God. Some of my earliest memories are of thinking that the Catholic bullshit they were trying to get us to swallow at Sunday school was bullshit. I’m not arguing for the sake of some secret religious agenda.
  • No, I don’t think that any social practice within our global social system is beyond reasonable criticism (I have no trouble criticizing the Taliban). Demonstration: The way the Taliban treats women is wrong and bad. See?

But enough dilly dallying…

***

Follow-up Post 1:
Concerning the Claim that Sam Harris is a Bad Atheist
(Disclaimer: this is wonkish as fuck)

Sam Harris’ thought goes off the rails the moment he makes the claim that whatever we call values can be “reduced” to states of consciousness (read on for the source). He flies off a cliff when he claims that these states of consciousness are objectively measurable (but we’ll get to that in the next post). Sucks for him that these two moments come in immediate succession right at the axiomatic foundation of his moral reasoning. Why does it suck for him? Well… make a guess based on the title of this follow-up post and read on to see if you’re right…

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11

Jodi Picoult’s Gonna Make You Fat

A friend and I had lunch with our high school English teacher recently, a small, lively woman with an acid tongue and a penchant for gossip that had not diminished in the years since we’d last seen her. Over soup and sandwiches at Panera, we discussed other members of the faculty who had come and gone, teachers who’d had babies, teachers who’d retired, teachers who were new when we knew them and were now head of the department. My friend, an ESL teacher on her way to a secondary English degree, had many questions for our former educator — a conversation that culminated in two terrifying words: Jodi Picoult. Apparently, our ex-teacher informed us with no little scorn, a Massachusetts public high school English syllabus is something to be modeled after a book club for suburban moms. And author Jodi Picoult has officially made the cut.

When did reading become play instead of work, and when did school become the place where we promote it as such? Reading used to be an edifying, active pastime, a skill acquired with time and effort, as one might learn to play the violin or speak a foreign language. Zadie Smith gives an elegant summary of what it means to be a reader in her 2006 interview with KCRW’s Bookworm series when she says:

The problem with readers…is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true.

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7

Why Not Celebrate A Killing?


Like most schools, my alma mater donated a fraction of its undergrads to the national party following the killing of Osama bin Laden. Being the opposite of a party school, the University of Chicago’s response was no match for, say, Penn State’s riotous street party, but nonetheless (according to an article in our student paper), one fraternity’s members “marched, chanting and singing patriotic songs” to a local bar to celebrate and planned a party for the following night, “America!!! F*CK YEAH!!!” The accompanying picture of two dozen or so exuberant undergrads decked out in red, white, and blue made me feel slightly ill, which, according to Jonathan Haidt’s editorial in the New York Times last week (“Why We Celebrate a Killing,” 5/7/11) classes me with those who “[missed] all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations.” Agreed. But I believe in the end that it’s Haidt’s argument that is missing something essential — specifically, a legitimate step from our tribal evolutionary heritage to a moral justification for any modern expression of that heritage.

Haidt argues that (a) the post-ObL celebrations exemplified what Durkheim called “collective effervescence” — the strong, ego-dissolving emotion that allows individuals to experience themselves as part of the group (in this case, the tribe of America), and (b) we therefore should embrace this kind of response as good and perhaps even necessary for us to “[step] out of [our] petty and partisan selves” and act in service to something larger.

I believe that (a) is more or less correct, and (b) is dangerously wrong.

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2

How to Blame Poor People For the World’s Problems

A couple of weeks ago, Sam Harris — standard-bearer for New Atheism, advocate of science-based morality — gave an interview to the New Statesman. Here’s an exchange from that interview:

NS: Richard Dawkins wrote a piece for the New Statesman at Christmas praising the King James Bible precisely as a work of literature.

SH: And we would have no problem if everyone read these books the way we all read Shakespeare. There are no wars being fought over rival interpretations of King Lear.

The implication is clear — as Harris sees it, the salient distinction between scripture and literature is that people take scripture to heart. It has a kind of meaning to them that propels them to action. Literature, by contrast, is benign — something pretty which we can appreciate for its prettiness but from which we, as political animals who act in the world, are removed. This sentiment underlies the Dawkins piece too, which highlights particularly familiar and elegant passages from the King James, but says nothing of substance about what makes them powerful or beautiful — he praises in the negative: Ecclesiastes appeals at least in part because it’s “hardly religious at all.”

This pattern of thought is one that sees science as much more than a method for seeking scientific truths about the natural world, but as a model for a way of approaching being. Within this framework, aesthetic and normative truths — which are experienced by what they think of as the subjective individual — are subordinated to the empirically objective, and ought to be cast off the moment they impede the pursuit of empirically objective truth.

Within the scientific disciplines (as well as those disciplines, like much of economics, that would ape it) an accusation of non-objectivity is equivalent to a denial of validity. What is objective, is. What “isn’t,” if it motivates any kind of social action, ought to be flushed along with all the religious bullshit. This works within science, but as a way of approaching life, not so much. It’s fundamentally in conflict with reality as we experience it.

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4

I Am Mildly Flabbergasted By Modern Technology

My iPod Touch is having problems. It is a second generation iPod Touch, which I was perfectly happy not knowing for as long as it didn’t have problems, but which I was forced to figure out when it came to self-prescribing a solution for said problems. I’ve had this magical device for a year and a few months. A couple days ago, I was bored and then I was like, “I guess I will go for a walk and listen to music.” So I put on my shoes and turn on my music and the left headphone on my second generation iPod Touch starts squigging out on me. All crazy in and out and bzzzt and boing and whizzzbang and whatever. And then silence. Left monitor dead.

No amount of jiggling the headphone jack would bring it back.

One of the difficulties with being relatively ignorant about the inner workings of the technologies that we use on a day-to-day basis is that when they break, we can’t fix them. This is obvious to anyone who’s ever tried to fix anything, but those numbers don’t seem to be trending upward, if I may be so bold as to make broad cultural observations without citing any sources. What I mean is that the pace of change in technology is so rapid that learning how to fix things as they’re released approaches futility: after all, why bother repairing an outdated product when you can replace it with the latest model for the same price?

This is particularly true in the case of Apple, which suggests that I send my iPod to them in exchange for a new one (for $100 and without any of my music on it, which — PROBLEM! — because the last time I updated my iTunes software, you fuckers erased like 20 albums from my library). But it’s also a simple fact of life in an age of Moore’s Law. There’s no point falling in love with a particular technology when the technology is slated for obsolescence in a couple of years.

This is all in stark contrast to the way human beings lived throughout history and up until not very long ago, when life-changing technological innovations were not multiple-times-per-decade types of events. When the VCR broke, you brought it to the VCR repair guy. When the record player needed a new needle, you went to the record player repair guy to get one. You had shoes re-soled, pants hemmed, shirts tailored and patched. Et cetera, et cetera, and get off my lawn while we’re at it, and so on… but the larger point is simple and it is this: your typical consumer product is no longer the same kind of investment it used to be. People willingly spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to get the flattest\shiniest\lightest\fastest gadget there is, and when it inevitably breaks they aren’t like, “WTF, that cost me a lot of money,” they relish the opportunity to buy an even jazzier one!

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