Sticky Images: Notes on “Two Ways To Say Goodbye To Milford”

“Two Ways”, which the good people at Elsewhere Lit decided to put in their 7th issue (out today) has its origins in two images, one from a real event, the other from a sitcom, that stuck with me long enough for me to combine them into something new. This isn’t unusual. Fiction writers do this a lot, but often times it’s hard to remember precisely where the images that inspire us come from. Here, it’s easy.

The first image comes from the fourth season of the TV sitcom Wings. In the episode “Goodbye, Old Friend” airplane mechanic Lowell Mather’s friend and mentor Weeb Gilroy passes away, and Lowell is asked to deliver the eulogy. But Lowell is not a words man, so he has no end of trouble penning something appropriate. In the end, he decides that in lieu of words, he’ll finish the project he and Weeb had been working on together for years: the restoration of an old biplane. He finishes the plane, and he gets Joe, his pilot friend, to fly it for him during Weeb’s funeral as a tribute. The show, presumably hampered by budget considerations, never shows the plane in the air, but the image I pictured of it buzzing the funeral stuck with me for decades afterward.

I’m a soft touch sometimes. Sue me.

The other image is more recent, and I remember it with less pleasure than I thought I would when I first saw it. When last year’s third presidential debate ended, Hillary Clinton had once again taken Donald Trump apart on stage, and you could tell that he knew it. Hillary had left her podium to shake hands with the moderator, meet her family, and wave to well-wishers in the audience–typical stuff politicians do, win or lose, at the ends of debates. Trump, by stark contrast, stayed behind the podium, seething. None of his family went near him. He’d been bested, by a woman, again, in front of the whole country, and he had no way of dealing with it. He just stood there, ripping pages from his notebook.

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In the end, combining these two images was quite simple. Howard Zez is already established as my Trump stand-in, and putting him in a situation where he feels like he’s going to shine, as the one who delivers his brother Milford’s eulogy, puts him in a lovely situation for a comic face plant. And letting Howard’s sister deliver the coup de grace to his eulogy by flying the WWI plane she and Milford had been building over the funeral home let me to preserve the dynamic of the third presidential debate by having a woman show Howard up.

It was fun to write.

One more note. This is the first story I’ve written in this series told from Howard’s point of view. In other stories I’ve done, Howard comes of as a bluff, right-wing, vain, incompetent heel, which he certainly is. He’s Archie Bunker with more money and a camera. But when I wrote a story from his point of view, I had to find a way to connect with him, some aspect of me that I could see in him to humanize him. What I found was Howard-as-frustrated-artist. Howard decided to stay away from the family business to devote himself to making movies–a thing his has tremendous passion and no talent for. However much he tries to puff himself up, on some level he suspects that his relatives and friends think of his work as a joke, which contrasts sharply with the rest of the world’s utter indifference to it. Howard is desperate for acclaim and respect, and underneath his bluster he wonders if he’ll ever get it. I know I’ve felt like this from time to time, like I’m the only one who gives a damn whether I keep writing or not. And when I see social media posts from friends and relatives and strangers who seem to be doing so much better than I am, it makes me feel lousy about what I do and I wonder when or if it’ll get better, or if I am, in the end, any better at my art than Howard Zez is at his. It’s that insecurity, which I confront daily, that helped me connect with Howard Zez in “Two Ways To Say Goodbye To Milford”. To the extent that he isn’t just the two-dimensional butt of one of my jokes, that’s why.

We’ll most likely return to this next when my next story in the Zezverse, “The Day Molly Got Into Room”, appears in Constellations sometime in the spring of 2018.

 

A Few Behind the Scenes Notes on the Making of Stanny Couldn’t Make It

“Stanny Couldn’t Make It” came out today in Across the Margins, and, as my practice will be with stories in this series–I’m currently calling it the Zezverse–come out, I have some notes to share about how this story came to be. So, short story trivia fans, prepare to feast.

–The fictional movie in the interview, The Agitator, has a real world counterpart, the 1962 Roger Corman feature The Intruder, written by Charles Beaumont (who wrote several of your favorite Twilight Zone episodes), and starring William Shatner, whose Canadian-ness and background as an actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival serves as a partial inspiration for the character of Jack Renner.)

–Stanny is the name of my 1st cousin. He’s very much alive.

–The story is written in the style of Onion AVClub Random Roles interviews, which are among my favorite things on this planet.

–The rise of Donald Trump contributed to the development of Howard Zez’s character. In his earliest incarnation, Howard was bumbling and conservative–but basically benign. As 2016 went by, he became more Trump-esque. Though, since the story is set in 1969, it’s probably better to think of him as a kind of proto-Trump.

–The movie Dope Dealers From Outer Space has no real world analog, though the idea grew out of Reefer MadnessTeenagers From Outer Space, and Ed Wood, Jr.’s anti-porn flick The Sinister Urge.

–An audio version of this short story is available here.

 

 

 

My Movie List For July 4th

There’s something about July 4th that usually gets me feeling contrary. It feels like such an aggressive, bombastic holiday, demanding emotions from me that I refuse to feel simply because they’re demanded of me.

My response to it has been to counter-program it, in my own quiet way, by watching movies that air my grievances about my usually-better-in-theory-than-in-practice country of origin. (It’s very Festivus, I know.) I sometimes let this go when my country and I are on better terms, but as you may have noticed from recent posts, our relationship has become strained recently.

So here’s this year’s list, which I quite enjoyed.

  • The Pentagon Wars
  • Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb
  • Do The Right Thing
  • Network

I traditionally include All the President’s Men in this list, but I’ve been watching it too much lately.

So ends the airing of grievances. Now for the feats of strength.

With All Due Respect, Fuck Civility

With All Due Respect, Fuck Civility

Occasionally, I make a dreadful life mistake and I read a pundit. I know, disgusting habit. I’m trying to quit, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. (Maybe pundits are lacing their columns with extra nicotine, like Brown and Williamson. Someone should look into that.) And so it was that I read Marc Theissen’s Washington Post column, “America Is On Its Way to Divorce Court“, calling for greater civility toward Republicans who are, at this moment, trying to shred my health insurance so rich people can have more money.

So if you can, disable your gag reflex, and we’ll dive right in.

There is a place for contempt in our public discourse. We should have contempt for a regime in North Korea that brutalized a young American student named Otto Warmbier. We should have contempt for a regime in Syria that uses poison gas to massacre innocent men, women and children. We should have contempt for Islamic State terrorists who behead Americans, burn people alive in cages and systematically rape Yazidi girls.

But we should not have contempt for each other.

Really, Marc? We shouldn’t have contempt for each other? Why not? Do all the others who do nasty things live outside our borders or follow religions that aren’t dominant here? Our current President, just for one, is a serial rapist and con man who ignores crimes committed by our local Nazis. And since those local Nazis are presumably also part of our geographically determined “each other”, we’re not allowed to have contempt for them either?

Yet, we do. Our politics today is descending into a bitter spiral of contempt. And we saw the consequences in the attempted assassination of Republican members of Congress on a baseball field in Alexandria, Va., last week. Back when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) was shot in 2011, many on the left were quick to blame conservative political rhetoric — falsely it turned out. But the attack on Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and his colleagues was politically motivated. The assassin volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), called President Trump a “traitor” on social media and, according to witnesses, asked if the players were Republicans before opening fire.

Well, I suppose it would be unfair to bring up the murder of George Tiller (egged on by the now disgraced and ever disgraceful Bill O’Reilly) or the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal building, both of which involved plenty of right-wing political motivation. But both-sideism is a boring game, so fine, if it makes you feel better, I don’t like politically motivated violence any more than you do, Marc. Not only is it ethically dubious at best, but on a purely practical level, it usually creates more problems than it solves. (See Marcus Brutus–including the version of him in the play that has the Trump people so pissed off.) Barack Obama expressed it well, “However profound our differences as Americans over difficult issues such as abortion, they cannot be resolved by heinous acts of violence.”

See, Marc, the last President covered the only halfway useful message of your column in 138 characters. The Post could have saved column inches by just printing that instead.

Onward.

No one is responsible except the would-be assassin. But his actions should serve as a wake-up call that the demonization of our fellow Americans who disagree with us has gone too far. The culture of contempt permeating our politics has now had near-fatal consequences. We need to put on the brakes and learn how to distinguish once again between our opponents and our enemies.

Oh, Marc, you’ve only just now noticed that politics in this country can be a lethal business. Oh, diddums. You know who’s known this for a long time? Women and pretty much every ethnic, racial, and sexual minority in this country going back to those whom white people enslaved and those whose land white people stole. To take just one example, here’s how Americans expressed their politics just a grandfather ago.

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Notice the guy near bottom left corner grinning. This picture of a lynching was taken in 1930. If you hurry and catch someone in a nursing home before the Senate kills their funding, you might find someone who remembers what this was like. My Dad, a black man in New Orleans during this period, lived with the threat every day, which was why he always made it a point to tell me to be careful every time I went outside.

Many of us have been aware of the difference between opponents and enemies for some time, long enough to know that the difference between them is often so fine as to become invisible.

Case in point: A few weeks before the Alexandria shooting, Hillary Clinton gave a commencement speech at Wellesley College where she declared that Trump’s budget is “an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us, the youngest, the oldest, the poorest” (emphasis added). No, it is not. Using nerve agent on the innocent is “an attack of unimaginable cruelty.” Putting a hapless college student into a coma is an “attack of unimaginable cruelty.” Reducing the growth of government spending is not.

I have a pretty dark imagination, so I consider both of these deeds attacks of perfectly imaginable cruelty. But whether you’re killed through government action or through deliberate government neglect (“Reducing the growth of government spending” is French for neglecting the vulnerable), you’re equally dead.

Think for a moment what Clinton was saying: It’s not simply that Democrats and Republicans have an honest disagreement about how best to help the most vulnerable among us. In Clinton’s telling, Republicans are waging war on the vulnerable. That is toxic.

No. We’re not having an honest disagreement at the moment. If we were, Republicans would own up to not really wanting to help the most vulnerable. That would be contemptible on its own, but would have virtue of honesty. Instead, Republicans pretend that $800 billion in Medicaid cuts aren’t cuts, and that health care access and affordable and worthwhile health insurance are the same things. Republicans have been lying about this issue, among others, for years, to promulgate plans that do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. That’s what’s toxic, Marc. It’s exhausting to be lied to, especially when the lies are meant to cover deliberate harm.

No doubt, Trump has contributed mightily to our descent into the culture of contempt. (For example, the media is not the “enemy of the American people,” Mr. President). But since Trump’s election, the scope and scale of political contempt on the left have reached unprecedented heights. Just a few months ago, when President Barack Obama was in office, it would have been unimaginable for a comedian to proudly pose for a photo holding up the president’s bloody, severed head.

You keep using that word “unimaginable”, Marc. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

That aside, you don’t seem to get that these two things are not equivalent. Kathy Griffin did something in bad taste. (Not that we need taste lectures from the people who elected Donald Trump.) She got her share of shit for it. Done. Trump, by quite stark contrast, isn’t just in bad taste. He was a year ago, but he’s President now. When he declares the press an “enemy of the people”, he’s actually threatening freedom of the press. When he bombards the nation with daily and often hourly doses of lies, it corrodes the trust that citizens and allies have in every pronouncement of our government. The damage Trump can do with a single idiotic tweet is now catastrophic, and it’s hard to live in this country day by day knowing that. That you can live with it so easily says things about you that are less than flattering, Marc.

Worst of all, we are in the process of cementing these attitudes in the next generation. On college campuses, students are being taught that it is acceptable to treat with contempt those with different ideas. We saw this phenomenon on display when Charles Murray — a distinguished conservative scholar — was shouted down and assaulted at Middlebury College in a riot that sent a professor to the hospital. Not a single student suffered any real consequences. Similar incidents are taking place on campuses across the country. Young Americans are learning that people they disagree with are not to be listened to respectfully and debated; they are to be silenced and driven out of the public square.

Again, fine, it’s awful Charles Murray and the professor interviewing him were assaulted. Violence isn’t the answer to Murray. The answer to Murray is to note that his views have already been debunked, repeat the reasons why they’ve been debunked, point out that his “different ideas” function merely to give apparent verbal and statistical solidity to what is purely racist wind, and treat him henceforth the way we’d treat a creationist or a 9/11 truther.

That said, sadly, Charles Murray remains firmly in the public square, receiving far more respect than he deserves. The same is true of Ann Coulter and even Milo Y. As long as there are right-wing audiences who either enjoy what these figures say or love how they piss off liberals, they’ll never lack for a platform or a dinner invitation.

This is not to suggest that there is no role for righteous anger in political discourse. Conservatives felt anger about many of Obama’s policies, and liberals have every right to be angry about Trump’s policies they find objectionable. And they have every right to fight like hell to stop them.

But it wasn’t so long ago that, despite bitter differences over policies, Republicans and Democrats still found ways to work together. President Bill Clinton and Republicans in Congress worked together to pass NAFTA and welfare reform. George W. Bush and congressional Democrats cooperated to pass tax cuts and education reform. Today, that kind of cooperation is unimaginable.

Marc, I’m beginning to suspect you have no imagination at all. Russia sanctions recently passed the U.S. Senate 97-2, so I gather working together across the aisle on the Hill does occasionally happen.

As for the rest, oh, thank you. You’ll allow me to be angry then? That’s right neighborly of you. Are there any other emotions I’m allowed to have, Marc? I’ll be sure to wait until I get word from you before I feel any of them.

And the reason is simple: When anger transforms into contempt, permanent damage takes place. As American Enterprise Institute President Arthur C. Brooks points out, a marriage can recover from anger. But when couples become contemptuous of each other, they will almost certainly end up in divorce court. That is where our country is headed today.

At least we reach the absurd heart of Theissen’s column. Citizenship is not analogous to a marriage. Marriage requires a level of trust and intimacy far beyond that of any other social relationship. All I require of my fellow citizens is that they follow the same laws I do, signal before they change lanes, and refrain from farting in elevators (you fuckers know who you are). I don’t have to trust them beyond that–and don’t, or there’d be no need for laws. If they do shitty, stupid things, I can think they’re shitty, stupid people. If they do shitty things that hurt me, I can be intensely pissed at them. In this, citizenship of a nation less like marriage and more like having a college roommate in the days when colleges didn’t care much who they stuck you in a dorm room with. You try to get along, but in the end, you may be stuck with someone who teaches you, by puking all over your lab notes, the pleasures of solitude. Your goal is to make it through the year without killing each other, and you might make it, but contempt is definitely going to be felt.

Liberals need to understand: When they show contempt for Trump, they are expressing contempt for the millions of Americans who voted for him — including millions who twice voted for Obama. These Americans felt that the establishments of both parties were ignoring them and wanted to send Washington a message. The response they are receiving could not be clearer: We have contempt for the man you elected, and we have contempt for all of you who put him into office. They will never forget it.

We need to pull back from this spiral of contempt before it is too late. North Korea is our enemy. Our fellow Americans who disagree with us are not. It’s time we learn the difference — before someone gets killed.

know I feel contempt for the millions of Americans who voted for Trump, including those who voted twice for Obama. You’ve got to be a special kind of dipshit to have been an Obama/Trump voter. “I know who I want next: someone who’ll crap on everything the guy I voted for twice did.”

And I won’t forget it either. There are things I consider unforgivable. Voting for Trump is one of them. If you did that, may your hair get cowlicks right before a big job interview. May every peach you eat from this day on be mealy. May you get run over by a Bentley purchased with money that could have gone to your health insurance, you shitty, racist fuck.

Oh, and Marc, not to belabor this, but people have been killed, just not the people you care enough to write columns about. By an extraordinary coincidence, they’re the people Trump, for whom I’m not allowed to feel contempt, declared open season on.

Well, fuck you, Marc. I feel contempt for Trump and for the perpetrators. I consider them my enemy, a deadlier enemy than North Korea is likely to be for me. You don’t, because you’re confident they’re not coming after you and yours. I get that. I have contempt for that too, but I don’t consider it unimaginable. I get it.

 

Should You Outline Your Next Novel?

I don’t write a ton of stuff on literary craft here. (I haven’t blogged a whole lot period in the last couple of months, I know.) But the Twitter chat I had with Ann B. Gelder, who spends a lot more time blogging about craft than I do, should prove of some interest to those who make the enormous life mistake of choosing novel-writing as a career. (Seriously, read her blog. It’s full of good stuff.)

So, what about the rest of you? Outline or no outline? Know that there is only one correct answer, and I will judge you harshly if you get it wrong.

Mugs and Suckers

Last year, much to my surprise, Donald Trump, in all his appalling ignorance, taught me what may be the most important lesson I could’ve learned in 2016. You see, throughout that campaign, I took it as read that Trump could never be elected President because he was such an obvious con artist. No way, I thought, could a guy who’s basically a gold plated Angel Martin from The Rockford Files ever get to 50%+1. There just aren’t enough stupid people in the United States to make that happen. After the November 8th horror, I had to rethink this, and I remembered something crucial.

The success of a scam depends not on the skill of the grifter but on the greed and fear of the marks.

This is what con artists will tell you about their victims, that there’s no way they could have stung them if they weren’t consumed with some combination of avarice and paranoia. Greed and fear are extraordinary motivators, and the person who can manipulate them, however crudely, can take power others. He can get them to invest in fake companies. He can get them to buy worthless information. He can get them to vote for him for President.

Now I and 65 million others weren’t taken in by Trump’s con, and I while I think that’s to our credit, I don’t think it’s because we’re significantly smarter than Trump voters. Instead, I think it’s because our fears and desires don’t match up with Trump’s pitch at all. I don’t fear or hate immigrants, refugees, liberals, or racial minorities. I’m not afraid of women. I’m not worried about someone shipping my job overseas. I’m not aching for an upper-class tax cut or the deregulation of my business. I don’t worry that my health insurance premiums are too high. I don’t worry about someone taking my guns. I don’t see myself as a temporarily embarrassed rich person who’d get my villa and Maserati if only Washington bureaucrats would get out of my way. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian who can’t handle gays getting married or women getting their contraception paid for by their health insurance. Trump could pitch at me all day and get nothing back but my hostility.

But Trump’s voters are afflicted by at least some, if not all, of those fears and desires. They feel them in different combinations and different levels of intensity, but as long as Trump hit on each of these in turn, any given Trump voters could rationalize supporting him. Hey, I may not like the racism, but he sounds like he’s really going to stick it to those Washington bureaucrats and get me my Maserati. Or You know, the whole immigrant thing bothers me, but I don’t think he’ll really hurt them, and I really want a Supreme Court justice who’ll make women carry babies to term. Or Maybe I don’t need that upper class tax cut, but I love how he puts blacks in their place and drives the liberals crazy.

Sadly, the people with the most reasonable fears, those afraid of losing their jobs to automation or overseas competition and those sweating their health insurance premiums, are the ones Trump’ll sting the hardest. Even if he cared about helping them–and since he was hoping to sign a bill that would strip them of their health care entirely, it’s obvious he doesn’t–he has no clue what to do for them. Trump’s a thief, not an economist or public policy expert. They’d have better odds of getting their share of a Nigerian Prince’s fortune. The people driven by pure greed or fear, greed for upper class tax cuts, fear of women or minorities, will probably get something to make them happy. Trump’s a con man, but he’s a genuine bigot and misogynist, and he’ll endorse any scheme that inflicts pain on those that he hates or that makes them pay his taxes for him.

The depressing part of this is that it’ll be nigh impossible to argue Trump supporters out of their choice. Since most people find nothing more embarrassing than admitting they’ve been had, they’ll instead concoct elaborate rationalizations to explain away Trump’s behavior. They’ll try to shift responsibility by saying they wouldn’t have voted for Trump if coastal elites weren’t always calling them bigots. (So you voted for a bigot just to prove you’re not a bigot? I guess you showed me.) The more time they’ve put in to supporting Trump, the harder they’ll be to talk out of it. And the smarter Trump supporters will be hardest of all because smart people build better rationalizations. However much he hurts them, most of them will stick with him. This doesn’t owe to any special talent on Trump’s part, but rather his supporters terrible willingness to suspend their disbelief.

For a bit more context on this, here’s Laurence Rees on Hitler, describing a similar dynamic between Hitler and his followers.