Notes on “Your Time On Earth Is Finished”

This is the first published story in this group that depicts the actual making of Howard Zez’s Dope Dealers From Outer SpaceI should say that although I’ve been involved in productions where the atmosphere was toxic–not in the Harvey Weinstein sense but more in the Verbally Abusive Asshole Who’s Forgotten He Isn’t Paying Me sense–none of what happens between Zez and his actors here has ever happened to me.

I have, however, heard about it. Zez’s giving Trish direction through her co-star because he’s mad at her, and Zez’s angrily shooing away passers-by who wander into his shot come from Whitney Moore’s descriptions of her experiences working on Birdemic: Shock and TerrorAs for the Allen Stubbins, the inspiration for him was Harvey Keitel’s Auggie Wren character from the movie Smoke.

That’s all. Go read the story. Come back here and leave a comment, or go on Twitter and say something to me, when you’re done.

Notes On “The Ungriftable Howard Zez”

First off, sorry for having been away for so long. The usual excuses apply.

Anyway, I’m afraid I don’t have a ton of notes to give for this story. It started when I asked myself how Howard Zez would try to finance Dope Dealers From Outer Space, and it occurred to me that since Howard was the perfect combination of arrogance and ineptitude, he was a man ripe to be conned. It also occurred to me to have his wife Peggy rescue him from the con, and in doing so reveal more of her own backstory. I also love using scams in stories. They provide a useful structure for the plot.

The con is a variation of one that a guy tried to work on me. The idea was to hire me as a tutor and convince me to take a cashier’s check to the bank for an amount far over what I was ostensibly to be paid for the tutoring job, cash it, then bring the money back to the operator to give him his “share”. The check would prove a forgery, of course, and since only my signature was on the check and I was alone on the bank’s cameras, I’d be the one stuck explaining things to the FBI while the con artist ran off with the loot. I decided to combine this fraud with a variation on the Spanish Prisoner con, using the smaller sting–the advance fee for the SP scam–as a way to rope the mark, Howard Zez into the bigger game, involving a forged check written on a genuine account.

My thanks to Page & Spine for publishing “The Ungriftable Howard Zez”. We’ll be talking about another story, “Your Time On Earth Is Finished”, in this space soon.

Leave a comment if you have a comment to leave.

His Haughtiness

David Brooks, the aggressively moderate swell who writes aggressively moderate columns for The New York Times, is seldom so entertaining as when he gets haughty. It affronts him when people of any other political persuasion but his own make mock of his helpful suggestions on how to put the world right–well, center right, anyway–so he gets on his high horse and pens columns like this one:

The people pushing for gun restrictions have basically done the exact opposite of what I thought was wise. Instead of depolarizing the issue they have massively polarized it. The students from Parkland are being assisted by all the usual hyper-polarizing left-wing groups: Planned Parenthood, Move On and the Women’s March. The rhetoric has been extreme. Marco Rubio has been likened to a mass murderer while the N.R.A. has been called a terrorist organization.

My, my, my. No matter how many cucumber sandwiches we offer, our national Lady Bracknell won’t be assuaged this time. WE HAVE IGNORED HIM, AND HE WILL NOT BE IGNORED!

To dig into this a bit, I’m not aware of too many people likening Marco Rubio to a mass murderer. Few would give him credit for so much guts. People are likening him to various invertebrates and saying he’s a wholly owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association, which commits the political sin, in BrooksWorld, of accuracy. As for the N.R.A., I don’t think of them as a terrorist organization. Terrorist organizations murder people in the name of their ideology. The N.R.A. is perfectly content to see people murdered in the name of their ideology. The moral difference isn’t great, but I’m happy to acknowledge it, for whatever it’s worth to them. As for hyper-polarizing left wing groups, none of the ones Brooks listed includes me. (Though they, much like the N.R.A., are composed of lots of ordinary people.) I’m just one of those unaffiliated folks who’d like to go see Black Panther without wondering if some frustrated, entitled prick with more ammo than brain cells is going to come into the theater and blow my head off as his last gesture against a world he hates. There are a lot of us. A lot more than the N.R.A.’s membership lists can boast, I’ll warrant.

Moving on.

Yet I have to admit that something bigger is going on. It could be that progressives understood something I didn’t. It could be that you can win more important victories through an aggressive cultural crusade than you can through legislation. Progressives could be on the verge of delegitimizing their foes, on guns but also much else, rendering them untouchable for anybody who wants to stay in polite society. That would produce social changes far vaster than limiting assault rifles.

Is Brooks about to admit that another human being knows something about the human condition that he doesn’t? Should I get my hopes up, or is this like when Trump holds one of those televised bipartisan meetings where he tries to sound reasonable, only to turn around and fuck everything up a few hours or days later? My money’s on the latter.

Two things have fundamentally changed the landscape. First, over the past two years conservatives have self-marginalized. In supporting Donald Trump they have tied themselves to a man whose racial prejudices, sexual behavior and personal morality put him beyond the pale of decent society.

Decent society does not include CPAC or the Republican Party, but that was true long before Trump showed up. Trump’s awful, David, but he didn’t make your party awful.

Second, progressives are getting better and more aggressive at silencing dissenting behavior. All sorts of formerly legitimate opinions have now been deemed beyond the pale on elite campuses.

Ah, excellent. Brooks must find a way to say both sides are equally problematic, so he goes to the right’s standby issue. In one case, we have a rancid, racist, backward movement that controls one of the country’s two major political parties, which means that it’s hard to avoid putting them in charge of the vast powers of the government at least some of the time. In the other case, we have students who try, and usually fail, to get Charles Murray and Ben Shapiro banned from campus. Sometimes they show up to their events and say rude things to them. A little tip, here, David. Few of us have ever set foot on elite campuses, and even fewer are affected by what’s happening on them now. A lot more of us have to live and work every day in the United States.

Oh, by the way, what formerly legitimate opinions are now deemed beyond the pale?

There are a number of formerly popular ideas that can now end your career: the belief that men and women have inherent psychological differences, the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, opposition to affirmative action.

I guess in the first instance, Brooks is talking about James Damore, the Google guy who misused and misunderstood the science of gender differences, and then kept doubling down and being a colossal dick about it until he was, quite legitimately, fired for being an ill-informed, misogynist dick. (I guess it shocked Damore to discover that colossal dicks aren’t in a protected class.) The second belief, though certainly bound to make you unpopular in a lot of places, is practically a job requirement to teach at many religiously-affiliated schools. As for the third, that belief probably won’t end your career on campus, and even if it did, you could always join Charles Murray in the right-wing think tank world, where billionaires will pay you to write bitter screeds about how intolerant the academic world is. If that’s how a career ends, it’s a pretty soft death.

But semi-seriously, David, ideas come and go, waxing and waning in popularity. The thing about the university world is ideas have to keep passing tests to stay popular. Some ideas–life forms evolve through natural selection, gravity bends spacetime–keep beating their competition and stay. Others rise in popularity only to be supplanted or debunked. And some ideas go away because the people they hurt finally gain just enough power in the world to say, “Stop that. It hurts” and have someone listen. To expect ideas to retain stable, enduring popularity forever, just because, is foolish. The world, David, is allowed to move on and leave your pet notions behind. It’s called life.

What’s happening today is that certain ideas about gun rights, and maybe gun ownership itself, are being cast in the realm of the morally illegitimate and socially unacceptable.

It must be disappointing for gun nuts, after forty years of stacking the courts with right wingers who believe that the only unlimited constitutional right lies in the second clause of the Second Amendment’s single sentence, to discover that the fruits of their labor got a lot of people killed and pissed everybody else off, but again, that’s life. Maybe if they’d been less absolutist about asserting their right to carry military hardware around so they can dream dreams of one day fightin’ big gummint, we could’ve come to an understanding. Ah, well.

Continued school shootings could be just the thing that persuades the mainstream that conservatism is vulgar and socially illegitimate, somewhere between smoking and segregationism. If that kind of total victory is on offer for progressives, why should they take my advice and tone things down for the sake of a few small gun laws? The big prize here is not gun laws. It’s winning the culture war, with the gunfight as the final battle.

You’re quite right. Why should we? When we fought smoking, it wasn’t just because we didn’t like smoke. It was because people were dying horrible, preventable deaths while the cigarette manufacturers juiced their product to make sure there’d be more addicts to replace them and keep them hooked. When we fought segregation, we did so because it was one of our nation’s great crimes, and the people backing it were criminals, thieves, rapists, and murderers.

Though a direct comparison is hazardous, the Klan and the N.R.A. do have some things in common. Once upon time, the Klan, like the N.R.A. now, was a mainstream organization in American life. 6 million people belonged to the Klan at the height of its power in the mid 1920s. Politicians were members, many because they wanted to be, others because they felt they had to be. They had governors, legislators, members of Congress, and a Supreme Court justice among their number. Why did those numbers shrink? In part it was the Klan’s own behavior. The D.C. Stephenson case exposed the Klan’s corruption and its hypocritical claims of defending white womanhood. But it part it was because the drift of the 20th century was away from the Klan. Its formerly popular ideas of white supremacy backed up with violence became more abhorrent with each passing generation. People saw the simple, moral legitimacy of the Civil Rights struggle set against the bigoted moral bankruptcy of segregation and turned away from the Klan. Klansmen are no longer socially acceptable, except among Trumpists. They should never be socially acceptable again.

If the N.R.A. chooses to go down the path of the Klan, threatening those who question them while spreading paranoia and hatred, they’ll lose. Over time, they’ll bleed members who either age out and die off or just tire of the extreme rhetoric and lies, like millions of ex-Klansmen did. Movements against them will grow and gain confidence. Politicians will walk away, or lose their seats, and in the end, the N.R.A. will be as the Klan is, a small collection of bigoted, angry malcontents, watching old vids of Charleton Heston saying “From my cold dead hand” the way Klansmen watch their DVDs of Birth of a Nation (not the new one) and yearn for a return to the glorious past.

If that’s their fate, it doesn’t bother me a bit.

The only thing I’d say to my progressive friends is, be careful how you win your victories. It is one thing to win by persuasion and another thing to win by elite cultural intimidation. Illiberalism breeds illiberalism. Using elite power, whether economic or cultural, to silence less educated foes usually produces a backlash.

Uh-huh. You know, something, David, last month was Black History Month. I’m not sure you keep track of that, but during that month, one of the things that people like to do is read Martin Luther King’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. In it, Martin Luther King addressed the David Brookses of his era who thought his protests were upsetting the delicate sensibilities of white southerners. I’ve never read their remarks to him, but I’m guessing they said something like what you’re saying here, or what you said in your column two weeks ago about how “It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points.”

David, the world’s a better, more just place, Martin Luther King ignored them. And so, even though I know it twists your shorts, I think it’s best if Parkland’s students, and the movement they’ve started, ignore the living fuck out of you.

Notes on “The Day Molly Got Into the Room”

Of the three published stories about the making of Dope Dealers From Outer Space, this was the one written earliest. It’s sets the conflict between the right-wing movie director Howard Zeleznick–or, as he likes to be called, Howard Zez–and his stepdaughter, Molly, which is touched on in “Stanny Couldn’t Make It”.

Molly is a smart young woman, nearing the end of her undergraduate studies in film at the (at the time quite new) USC film school. Like her mother, she’s much smarter than her stepfather, but unlike her mother, she’s happy to let him know that. Molly loves her mother but doesn’t understand why she married Howard, who seems to have little to recommend him besides comparative financial stability–Howard inherited a share of his family’s heavy harvester business, which he uses to finance his terrible films–and a disinclination to physical abuse, which does put Howard one up on Molly’s biological father, Duke. Still, a stable income and a lack of abuse strikes Molly as a depressing reason to marry someone as retrograde and foolish as Howard.

In “The Day Molly Got Into The Room”, Molly’s supposed to learn a bit about the movie business from sitting in on a meeting with Howard and his screenwriter, David Freem. Instead, she learns something about her mother, which shocks her but leaves her with a better understanding of some of the choices she’s made.

“The Day Molly Got Into The Room” is based to some degree on some people I know, and I won’t name them because I’m sure at least one of them would find it insulting. If that person does figure out which character is close to him, he should know that the character also has a lot of Donald Trump in him, so he should think very hard about where he ends and the Orange Menace begins.

You can’t find “The Day Molly Got Into The Room” online. It appears in Constellations, a Boston-based literary journal. You can buy it from Amazon.


If you buy it and read it, feel free to leave a comment or question below.

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.


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.