Quarantine and Lexapro

I’ve seen people out in droves, hoarding all they can from grocery stores – their eyes nervously darting, hoping the customer next to them isn’t a carrier.

            I’ve seen empty city streets, empty parking lots, and empty businesses – the modern day, self-imposed ghost town.

            I’ve seen neighbors staring out their windows, locking eyes with me but for a moment, naked in their fear, desperate to connect.

            And I’ve seen college students partying on crowded beaches, unaware or perhaps ambivalent about the danger, reveling in their unrivaled irresponsibility. 

            Much of this – with the exception of meeting eyes with neighbors – was seen through my new window, the television. I like TV, but I’m not really one to spend much time in front of it. I don’t particularly binge shows, I don’t flip through channels – but as the situation evolves, I find myself more or less glued to the television, enraptured in pure morbid curiosity. 

            The daily rise of infection and death numbers, state government announcements, presidential updates, and pandemic news from abroad have become my steady information diet. Hourly updates from the New York Times and NJ.com ping my phone, giving me the latest bad news. But strangely, I’m doing all right. Before the virus even arrived in America, I was paranoid about it, constantly convinced I had it. Once the virus arrived, each and every train ride was a nightmare. I felt as though everyone was suspect to everyone else – it felt wrong, it felt dark.

            These are dark times, indeed. But for whatever reason, I’m doing all right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m scared. I’m scared for my mother and father, each 64-years-old. I’m paranoid of touching things anywhere outside of my home, and sometimes even there. I haven’t been outside in quite some time. So, why am I OK?

            I keep asking myself this as though I don’t have the right to feel well during this time. I’m an anxious person, often prohibitively so. It’s unlike me to feel in control, especially during times like this. One of my secret weapons is that after decades of dealing with my anxiety and depression without medication, instead relying on therapy alone or worse still, drinking, I started an antidepressant, Lexapro, a week before the pandemic took hold of America and everything shut down. So, as the weeks go by and the medicine continues to take hold, I’m getting better. Hell, Lexapro should come in the mail like Tide detergent samples – we all need it.

            Also, I had to stop drinking due to a stomach issue – gastritis – for six months to a year. Between starting Lexapro, stopping drinking, and the comfort of knowing that all my loved ones are safe in their homes where they should be, I’m making the best of this. I decided that this quarantine is the ideal time to start reading Thoreau’s Walden, an ode to solitude. That reading has inspired me to begin recording thoughts and observations which I’ve tentatively titled “Notes from Quarantine,” a somewhat abstract and poetic account of my experiences during the pandemic. 

            But, this isn’t to say that all is well in my world or our world. Though each day that we wake up well is a gift, the suffering near and far is omnipresent. It’s in the air, it’s in the silence, it’s in the empty streets.

            I find myself baffled by the confident ignorance of Americans who don’t believe this pandemic applies to them. Whether it be college students filling up beaches, saying things to TV reporters like, “If I get it, I get it, I’m still going to party,” or adults claiming the pandemic to be some form of fake news; we seem to be spelling out our own doom. The aforementioned spring breakers are falling into the same pattern that all people that age seem to – social life and exercising their freedom is paramount. At that age, all I cared about was being with friends and getting high – anything that could potentially keep me from it was met with skepticism and bitter fought resistance. Even President Trump lacks a strong grip on the crisis, insisting that we’ll all be back out and about by Easter. Meanwhile, Italy is losing people by the hundreds. 

            But at the same time, I feel a pang of almost dark joy at reports of global warming slowing down due to the dramatic halt to industry and travel the world over. I don’t want a pandemic, but in our illness, nature begins to wrest back its hold. That much, I can appreciate. But still, I wonder how many of the deaths in America will have been because of malignant confidence born of stubborn ignorance – is this survival of the fittest? Are those too reckless, self-centered, privileged, or skeptical to protect themselves to be lost to the gaping maw of death and disease?

            What does mean for all of us? Who are we now? Those of us listening to the guidelines, following the new rules, and reaching out to others in all ways possible without proximity, we seem to want this to go away. We believe it will end if we stay on top of it. But what of those who don’t seem to care? Will they foul it up for the rest of us? Can anything be done?

            I don’t have an answer, though I search for it daily. What I do know is that for a homebody like myself, this quarantine is a piece of cake – especially with my new pal, Lexapro. It’s as though I’ve been training for it, and now I finally get to show off my skill: quiet introspection from afar.


Reluctant American

For 47 years he waited to make it real.

Now that it’s real, he feels nothing.

No pride, no accomplishment – he returned to work the next day.

José Brito is a 64-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant who has lived in the United States for 47 years, and only in 2018 did he become a citizen. 

In those 47 years, Brito married a woman with five children who he helped raise, had two children of his own, and became a grandfather several times over. 

Brito wasn’t longing to be considered an “American,” nor did he feel like an outcast. 

So, why now? Why wait?

Brito just wanted to be covered. Things are changing, and he doesn’t even want to entertain the notion of being sent back to Ecuador. Home is here for José.

Brito was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1955 where he lived with his parents, two younger sisters, and his brother. Life was quiet, but life was good. 

Brito and his family were middle class. They had all they needed, and wanted for little. But still, José’s father wanted more than Guayaquil could offer them. And so, in 1968 his dad left for New York City. He would send for his wife and children once he had a place for them to go.

When all was said and done, it took six years for Brito’s whole family to make it to the United States and be together once again. 

A year passed, then two, then three. Four years after he left, Brito’s father sent for him and one of his sisters. In May of 1972, José and his sister boarded a flight to New York City where their father already arranged for their permanent resident status.

“All I remember is, ‘OK, I’m ready to come, this is the date,’” said Brito, “and then you know you’re coming, and then you just separate from everybody.”

Brito’s father was a cook at a college in Upstate New York. For the first few days, Brito and his sister stayed with their dad at the college before moving into a coworker’s house for a few weeks. 

Then through some friends, the three managed to find a spacious two-bedroom corner apartment in New York City for $250 a month in a quiet neighborhood. All the while, José’s father was preparing to send for his wife and remaining children in Ecuador.

In 1974, the family was finally reunited – mother, father, and all their children together in Manhattan, all permanent residents. Life could once again resume. 

Brito was 16 when he arrived in America, right in the middle of high school. However, because of the language barrier he couldn’t just pick up where he left off. Brito would later get his GED after learning English and getting a foothold in his new country. 

But what of Ecuador? Was it hard to leave home?

“For me, no,” said Brito. “I don’t know about anybody else, but for me it was fine.”

High school was out of the question, but José needed to work. No less than a month after moving to the city, Brito landed a job at a factory in Secaucus, New Jersey where he worked in shipping and receiving for quite some time. 

In 1981, José moved to New Jersey. He was 27, had great hair, flashy boots, and the world in the palm of his hands. He went out a lot, partying and meeting people. Then in 1983, Brito’s friend introduced him to Marise, and everything changed.

Marise had five children from a previous marriage when she met José, but that didn’t bother him. He was 27, and not necessarily in the “kids” mindset, but he liked Marise, and her kids were part of the deal so he had to get with it or move on. 

He got with it.

“As kids they were always shy,” said Brito, “and then I started to be more around and stuff. So yeah, that’s how we pretty much became a family. It’s pretty cool now that you take me back.”

And so, José became a father to Marise’s five children, who would come to call him “dad” in time. 

Five kids were not enough. In 1983, Marise gave birth to Stephanie, her sixth child but José’s first. Life was good, but they still weren’t married. Much like citizenship, marriage didn’t matter much to José. He was with Marise for years, they were raising a family, they were together, and they were happy – they didn’t need a courthouse to give them that. No courthouse can give you that.

But Marise’s parents were devout Catholics. They didn’t like their daughter “living in sin” with a man to whom she wasn’t married. In 1990, seven after Stephanie’s birth, and nine years after starting their life together, José and Marise were married.

“We made it legal first, but then I wanted to get married in the eyes of God,” said Marise. “My mother and father were the witnesses, we didn’t have a big wedding because all of my kids thought we were married already. My mother and father were very religious. It was scandalous, we were living in sin. They were very traditional, hardcore traditional, they went to mass every day.”

“She [Marise’s mother] was on us all the time,” said José.

A year after the wedding, Marise gave birth to her seventh and final child, Joseph, named after his father. The family was complete – there was Marise and Jose, and their children Karina, Janine, Jennifer, Christopher, Daniel, Stephanie, and the youngest, Joseph. 

Their lives went largely unimpeded. Children move out, get married, move on. The house was sort of like a school, kids matriculated out once they were ready to move on. There was no time when all seven children were living under the same roof – their ages were too far apart. 

But, in 2007, Jennifer, one of Marise’s eldest children, died of unknown causes just before Joseph’s 16th birthday. The family was set adrift, but they were adrift together. Those wounds never fully heal, but as a family they forged ahead. 

After more than 40 years in America, a lifetime, José finally decided to get his citizenship. But once again we ask: why now?

“It started to become a pain in the ass,” said José. “You renew it every 10 years and I didn’t want to go through the process. And then the laws started to change.

“Trump got into it. I said, ‘I don’t think I’m any different from anybody else, and he might start picking on it.’”

José felt like he was under President Trump’s microscope, and he wanted an insurance policy that he would be able to stay in America with his family. The only way to do that was to become a citizen.

Once again, Brito was pushed into making things official. He didn’t feel the need to get married until his mother-in-law made it a sticking-point, and he didn’t feel the need to become a citizen until it became imperative that he do so.

Brito went through the typical application process with no real issues to speak of, but he still had to take the test. He hadn’t had to study for anything since he got his GED, and so he was a bit intimidated. Brito didn’t study the first time he took the test, and he failed. Luckily, you’re afforded two chances to pass the test. 

I was born here, so I never took that test, but I wanted to know if I would pass. I have a hunch that many people born here wouldn’t pass, so I set out to test that, at least on myself. I took the test and scored an 85%. A few questions tripped me up – the number of amendments and James Madison writing the federalist papers, just based on my not-knowing. However, a question that not only tricked me but disturbed me was one asking what Ben Franklin was most famous for, which is a bit subjective. None of the given answers were what I knew him for, so I got it wrong. Apparently, he is known primarily for being a diplomat – go figure.

José didn’t like studying, but he knew he had to pass, so he memorized the material and took the test again only to find out it was the same. Needless to say, he passed and was ushered into a small ceremony for himself and the other new citizens.

“To me it was something that I had to do,” said Brito. “It was like going to get my license for the first time. But I can say that I was relieved because I wanted to do it just to protect myself, so I did it. I don’t think what’s going to be the next step, I don’t think it’s one more. But, that should be it.”

José Brito isn’t alone. The Washington Post reported that the same year José got his citizenship, the number of people who got their citizenship climbed to the highest it’s been in five years. 756,800 people were made citizens in 2018, a figure that’s up 16% since 2014. People are being scared into citizenship. People like Brito who were fine with their permanent resident status are starting to conclude that it might not be enough, it might not save them.

In 2018, José Brito became a citizen, an American at last. Did it change him? Did “becoming an American” bestow upon him the gravitas that the President’s supporters hold in such high regard?

“No, not really,” said Brito. “I’m the same.”


Newark Joins the Whiskey Trade: All Points West Distillery

Originally Appeared in ChicpeaJC.

Gil Spaier’s mind is a proverbial Pandora’s box of grain spirit knowledge. Open that box and you’re introduced to Spaier’s encyclopedic expertise – a seemingly endless torrent of historic knowledge and a lexicon of terms old and new. Spaier isn’t messing around, he knows his stuff.

Spaier, 45, is the owner of the All Points West Distillery in Newark’s Ironbound district. The distillery produces whiskeys, gins, and vodkas – but they’re not your typical spirits.

Newark, NJ – 09/13/2019 – APW Spirits – This is Gil Spaier, founder of the All Points West distillery.

Spaier’s thorough understanding of all things grain lead him to an older method of distillation – the pot still. “In a pot still, you’re actually boiling your mash,” said Spaier. “Whether your mash is a fine beer or whether your mash is a gloopy mass of various grains, you’re still going to take the ethanol and water, you’re going to separate them out, and condense. Whatever solids that are left behind in the still are not going to transfer over.”

Spaier recalled the history of spirit distillation in Europe, saying that the Europeans outlawed the use of corn in pot still whiskeys, fearing what bourbon might do to their domestic market. Thus, Spaier’s use of the pot still actually resurrects a method that had gone largely ignored for quite some time.

Newark, NJ – 11/22/2019 – APW Grains – Grains on the APW bar

“I’m making two whiskeys here, All Points West Malt and Grain Pot Still Whiskey, and All Points West Grain and Malt Pot Still Whiskey,” said Spaier. “You get a whiskey with a higher content of un-malted grains, but also they’re tracing something else, the introduction of corn as an ingredient and Scottish whiskeys.

“By tracing both the history from all points west from Ireland to America and also tracing the technology from Ireland to America, I’m able to make that transition from a malt-forward, almost traditional Irish malt or pot still whiskey all the way to an almost grain-forward American bourbon but I’m in between the categories.” 

Newark, NJ – 11/22/2019 – APW Whiskeys – All Points West’s flagship whiskeys.

The All Points West whiskeys are an anachronism – a spirit from a bygone age. “I don’t actually meet the standards of an Irish pot still whiskey with my inclusion of corn and I don’t actually meet my standards of an American bourbon,” said Spaier. “Both of these really stand between the established whiskey styles and trace a history that’s lost.” 

Inspired by Mark Bittman’s “No-knead bread” recipe in the New York Times and his time spent as a college student navigating the New Orleans cocktail culture, Spaier took an interest in grains.

“I was making bread, living in industrial lofts in Newark that used to be beer places, and my wife decided to buy me a grain mill – she wanted more bread,” said Spaier. “Unfortunately for her, I stopped making bread and put the grain mill to use making beer in a variety of styles.”

“Beer proved to be more complicated than bread,” said Spaier, “but after a few months of making beer I started to get the hang of it and I started to really enjoy it, and started to think about a spirit that I enjoyed more than beer – whiskey – and I realized that whiskey had never been made here.

“Whiskey really comes out of beer. You don’t have beer without whiskey. Whiskey can be simply defined as distilled beer.”

Newark, NJ – 11/22/2019 – APW Whiskeys – All Points West’s flagship whiskeys.

Spaier’s attention to detail has served him well. The “All Points West Malt and Grain Pot Still Whiskey” won “2019 Whiskey of the Year” and the distillery itself received a gold rating from USA Spirits Ratings. Additionally, a blind taste test conducted by the Manchester England Whiskey Club voted All Points West number one.

It’s not just whiskey. All Points West also produces Bone Black Vodka, which is filtered through bone char, Cat House Gin, as well as Cat House Pink Pepper Gin and Bone Black Black Pepper Vodka. “Pepper has a couple things inside of it,” said Spaier. “It has these aspects that are sharp, these aspects that are spicy, it also has a rich oily earthiness to it.”

Newark, NJ – 11/22/2019 – APW Pepper Spirits – All Points West’s Bone Black Black Pepper Vodka and Cathouse Pink Pepper Gin

Spaier credits his distillery’s Newark locale to Philip Roth’s 1997 novel “American Pastoral,” and he set up shop in the Ironbound, ready to produce spirits with an old-world charm.

“For me, here in Newark,” said Spaier, “which is really like the gateway region, people came from Ellis Island, got off the Jersey Central Railroad and headed to all points west and brought everything across New Jersey to the rest of the country, and I thought it would be great to kind of reinvent these traditional styles here in New Jersey.”

All Points West opens for tours and tastings on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Visit online at: www.allpointswestdistillery.com 


The Woman Who Fell to Earth

A Trans Story

“I never went to high school, I just kind of appeared and have been functioning as an adult ever since,” said Taylor. “I definitely fell to earth.”

Taylor is a 25-year-old trans woman living in Washington, D.C. For the purposes of this article, she preferred to go under the pseudonym “Taylor” for her own protection due to an abusive relationship while she was living in Richmond, Virginia.

She’s not hiding, she’s private.

The anonymity only adds to her character. Taylor thinks of her life as a woman now as completely separate from her earlier years as a man. “It’s like black and white how different my life is,” said Taylor. “He was a separate person. I’m a completely new individual, I think. That’s how I rationalize it to myself now. It feels like so long ago and a lifetime away.”

Taylor’s story is one of radical rebirth. She’s 25, but her existence as Taylor marks the beginning of her life after coming out as trans at age 18. By her logic, she’s a seven-year-old woman who fell to earth. She compares her transition to getting a new set of eyes.

“It’s like having human eyes and then mantis shrimp eyes,” said Taylor. “You know how they can see millions of more colors? It’s like that. I straight up did not know I had that many emotions in me at any given moment and I definitely didn’t know that they could change if I just let myself feel them.”

Taylor takes hormones and will be doing so for the rest of her life. While she resents the arbitrary hoops to jump through and waiting periods prior to getting the hormones, ultimately, she was able to get the medication. The hormones changed Taylor in ways she didn’t expect.

“I knew I liked women, and, being on hormones, let me be emotionally honest, I am kind of attracted to guys sometimes,” said Taylor. “But wow, that’s a thing, my sexuality changed just a little bit. It’s set in stone, but now I have female hormones coursing through my veins and so now my brain responds to male pheromones so sometimes I’ll be like ‘mmm, guy smell.’ It was very weird.”

With the hormones, Taylor had to unlearn years of her behaviors she learned as a man. Her emotions are in glorious technicolor now, a psychedelic maelstrom of feelings hitherto unknown to her. Whereas before she only felt one emotion – anger – she now feels them all. “Sometimes they can change quickly but then it’s like, ‘oh wait, I was just on my period,’” said Taylor. “Which also, I get those [periods]. Not necessarily all of it, but I get bloated and then I get horny and then I get hungry and I cry.”

She also lost a considerable amount of weight in the last six months which she credits to “the power of crop tops.”

Taylor, who plays the drums, remembers the moment that everything changed for her. She was in a drum lesson when her instructor showed her a song called “The Ocean” by punk band “Against Me.”

The second verse proved especially meaningful: “If I could have chosen, I would have been born a woman. My mother once told me she would have named me Laura.”

Shortly thereafter, the singer of “Against Me” came out as trans and has since been known as Laura Jane Grace. Grace’s public coming out garnered her quite a bit of attention, and awakened something in Taylor.

“I think it would’ve been inevitable because it was getting to the point where it was like, ‘I’m miserable, I can’t articulate it, but something’s up,’” said Taylor. “I’m different somehow and it’s not because I’m not straight. And then Laura Jane Grace came out and I was like, ‘wait, you can do that?’”

And so, Taylor was born anew – a woman out rose out of the ashes of an 18-year-old boy.

“Looking back, if I had the language, I probably would’ve transitioned when I was 15 but I didn’t. And, I was also not in a place emotionally where I was ready to ask for help. Honestly, I’m just getting to the point in my life where I can ask for help and be vulnerable a little bit.”

When it comes to others’ tolerance, Taylor says that she gets the most trouble from overly supportive people. Being a private person, Taylor doesn’t like when people overtly voice their support for the LGBTQ+ community, outing her in the process. “Society just hasn’t caught up to it being weird,” said Taylor.

Her penchant for anonymity is deliberate. While living in Richmond, Taylor found herself in an abusive relationship which changed her perspective and she modified her behavior to be less “loud and proud.” In her D.C. neighborhood, a trans woman was recently murdered, and so Taylor would rather just live as a woman, and not a trans one.

Around the time Taylor came out, she also dropped out of school. Transitioning was hard enough, and doing it publicly in a university setting only made it more difficult. Her metamorphosis was hers to own, and college – a terrarium for self-discovery – didn’t facilitate that. “I just wasn’t ready to be that vulnerable, that publicly,” said Taylor, “like visually very vulnerable as I transitioned in a school environment.”

Fortunately for Taylor, her parents were accepting of her decision and she remains close with them. However, playing the drums never quite came back to her. Music proved to be too emotional, she says.

Taylor lives with a form of survivor’s guilt – guilt that things worked out for her but don’t work out as well for others in her situation. “I’m not naive. I know that some people won’t be able to look as ‘passing,’” said Taylor. “I hate that word. I know that not everybody is going to have the same situation, the same transition as I do. So, I have this weird sense of survivor’s guilt because I have the ability to just be like a ‘normal chick.’ I have that survivor’s guilt but I also love myself, so I’m kind of not letting it get me down, I guess.”

And so, Taylor lives on in Washington, D.C., the woman who fell to earth. She loves herself, her body, her life, her friends, and her girlfriend. She works at two concert venues and was even doing live concert lighting for the first time on the day of the interview.

Somewhere in our nation’s capital lives a 25-year-old woman with no past, and she’s loving life.

“I’ve got to say, being a chick fucking rules,” said Taylor. “The sexism sucks, but I wouldn’t trade any of this for the world.”

New Music: “score for nowhere”

I hadn’t planned on making anything at all, least of all anything for consumption. But the pandemic dislodged something within me, like it’s done for so many – albeit, some people didn’t channel the internal rearrangement so constructively, let’s say. I digress. I took an open-ended break from writing for a number of months – not intentionally at first, but when you ignore something for long enough, you’ve got to be doing it deliberately. I wasn’t done writing, but my creativity pulled me back toward music in the latter bit of 2021 – hence, the dislodging. To be fair, “pulled back” is strong. I just started buying more pedals, a weird experimental synth, and a few more guitars. What ended up happening was that after I received the aforementioned synth in the mail, an Arturia Microfreak, I plugged it into a bunch of effects and just started recording free form, layering sounds upon sounds, making digital chaos. It was, like all recordings I make, completely improvised. That 10-minute chunk of music felt like a part of a greater whole, a bigger piece of music I needed to at least complete – though I had no real idea, only a key: c minor. That’s what this is – a 30-minute continuous piece of music, the soundtrack of a movie no one has seen, a place no one has been – a score for nowhere. 

The piece being improvised, it’s difficult to say there’s a concept for it. There are musicians who’ll wax poetic about the genesis of their ideas, their divine inspiration or whatever else they say to dress up the messy act of creating. I’m not so precious about anything I make. To a fault, I’m pretty hands-off about recording and editing, never fixing anything – coming from a recording environment in an old band of repeated takes, my propensity toward playing things only one time took centerstage when I began recording the score for nowhere – a title I arrived at only moments ago. But I still didn’t have a lofty concept, some greater goal of evoking some feeling in anyone else. Nope, I wanted to pursue whatever music came out of me to its logical end – that’s it. Keep it all in the same key, use the same instruments, never record a second take, and record all pieces within a short span of time.

And so, on a cold mid-November weekend I recorded what would become the middle section of the greater piece. The following weekend, I recorded what would become the end piece. And lastly, I recorded what would become the beginning of the whole piece. Why out of order? Well, there wasn’t an order at the time. But after recording the first piece with no drums whatsoever, the next piece definitely needed to groove – hence the sludgy drum beat throughout the last 10-minutes of the piece. So then, I had two related pieces – similar chords, melodies, and sounds. But something needed to move, and fast – chaos from note one. So, I recorded the introductory chunk last. It was only later that I stumbled upon what became the arrangement of the whole piece.

I had recording everything with my custom Fender Telecaster, my Gretsch baritone, Fender P-Bass, and the aforementioned Microfreak synthesizer. But just before Christmas, I got the guitar-buying itch again. I bought a big hollow body Gretsch guitar and recorded over the entire 30-minute piece in one long take. I barely mixed it, just made sure you could hear everything you were supposed to hear – then done. 

Music is visceral, but ultimately ephemeral. The first thing you play or record is usually the most interesting, and that’s what I’m after exclusively when I play and record for myself.

But why are you reading this? It’s because as I worked on the score for nowhere, it seemed like something I wanted to release – not for money, though. I just wanted to put this out there. If you have the patience to get through an emotionally taxing 30-minute chunk of music, I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s one of the more visceral expressions I’ve been able to make – go figure, it has no words. Writer my ass.

— Christopher Goodlof, January ‘22

Nothing Profound

“This is perfect,” I thought to myself, “I’m in a beautiful house surrounded by gorgeous nature, clearly this is an occasion to begin writing a masterpiece – a profound, career-defining work born of an isolated, personal connection with the natural world.” How could I not think that way? So many incredible works are written in solitary communion with the nature and oneself. 

            But what pressure, right? I mean, for fuck’s sake. What a goddamned aspiration, what a sight to set. So, by virtue of being near nature, I’m supposed to simply begin writing something profound? I mean, I guess it worked for Thoreau – surely it could work for me.

            Trouble is: Henry David had nothing to distract him, and quite literally no comforts to speak of. He built his own fucking house and lived in the damned thing.

            But what am I doing?

            A valid question.

            I’ve gone away for an extended weekend with friends to a rented mansion in rural Massachusetts. While Thoreau was left to his own devices to build himself a place to live, I’ve arrived at a lavish mansion primed for leisure.

            And still, I brought my laptop with the explicit purpose of doing some writing. Feeling as close to inspiration as I was going to get, I excused myself from my friends and adjourned to a classically appointed study – complete with walls of books, volume upon volume of aged texts talking about who knows what. 

            I put on some abstract music to set the mood, opened Microsoft Word, and stared slack-jawed at a blank page. Waiting for something to arrive, I tried typing a few self-indulgent, verbose sentences about grand subjects, only to delete them seconds after their wretched creation. “Surely,” I thought, “something about this setting will inspire me to do some highbrow writing, some truly memorable shit.”

            But I had nothing, not a thing – a big empty page, not a thought in my brain. Begging for interruption, my thoughtless ramblings were cut short by sister and our friend. They found me, evidently just the person they’d been looking for. “We’ve found something for you to write about,” one of them said. 

            I was then led to a sunroom where a solitary pinecone lay on the floor, resembling a turd of considerable size. Moments later, I arrived back to my computer, inspired to write. None of the profound revelations I expected came to me, but a more important one had. I had rather pretentiously assumed that since I going to be somewhere noteworthy, surely excellent writing would follow suit. I’d sit in a fancy office and begin a masterpiece.

            Not only did I not create a masterpiece, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would’ve been a lie. I feel no profound connection to anything, I’m just happy to be away.

Stop It, Marvel.

When I was younger, I loved superheroes, namely Batman. Before nerds come for my throat, I’m aware Batman isn’t Marvel – holster your angry thumbs. I loved Batman and continue to do so. I’ve even got the Joker and Harley Quinn tattooed in the art style of the Batman cartoon from my youth. So, to an extent, I bought into the superhero world. I kept up with the movies which came out with no particular frequency. I was a kid, even the dumb movies were good to me. That was before Marvel started churning out movies as though they were trying to occupy cinemas.

            I stopped keeping up with these movies a long time ago, making an exception for the Guardians of the Galaxy movies – I’m a sucker for space. But other than that, I ran out of time to watch every movie – movies that now each feature every Marvel character. The movies seemed to have success without my seeing them, go figure. I stopped keeping up with them because of the sheer volume and frequency, yes, but more so because the films treaded firmly into the territory of “who cares,” and worse still, “I’m a goddamned adult.”

            I realize how popular these movies are, but their ubiquity doesn’t say anything of their quality. Every time a Marvel movie is even remotely solid and well-reviewed, there’s nonsense talk of Oscar nominations which never materialize. Why? Because a good superhero movie isn’t a good movie, it’s a serviceable action film. Years back, I was hearing that the first Avengers movie was great – I saw that it was streaming on Netflix, and so I gave it a shot. After 15-minutes of unexplained explosions, I turned it off, still never having revisited it to this day. The action was boring, if that even makes sense. I felt like I was becoming dumber as each explosion took the place of what could’ve been words, or better still, meaning .

            I even waited years before seeing Black Panther, which came out to rave reviews and calls for Oscar nominations. It was a monumental and beautiful achievement, albeit a long time coming, that a superhero movie finally had an all-Black cast. But when I finally watched it, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. It was a solid superhero movie, but not what I would consider to be a good movie. It’s still an action movie, and no matter how it’s dressed up, a superhero movie isn’t all that special.

            But I fear we’re being dumbed down by this. Superhero movies are the biggest events in cinema. I used to think that in America, superheroes and comics were our folklore – but now I’m worried that they’re everything. These mediocre childhood fantasies have fully grown adults in their thrall, lining up at midnight to see a three-hour slog through more action nonsense. 

            I’m cranky, I know. But this has been a concern of mine for quite some time. We’re losing our grip on actual art, and good writing. I can’t even tell you how many new, critically acclaimed movies have left me feeling like ad-executives penned the script.

            So, what’s the point here, baldy? 

What’s your damned problem, and what then is the solution? 

I don’t think there is a solution. With Disney and Marvel digging their claws into so many of us, it’s hard to see a return to more meaningful art culture – especially with a near-religious devotion from the fans.

            We’ve glorified pulp, and now we’re doomed to sub-par art until we can shift the balance. 

Land of the “Free,” Home of the “Brave”

It’s in our national anthem, it’s chiseled in stone, it’s known around the world – it’s our motto, our claim to fame as a country, I suppose. Perhaps at one time it was applicable, when it needed to be, but in the years since the American Revolution, that creed, that promise, has become a burden. To me, “land of the free and home of the brave” is an antiquated statement in every sense. It’s a nuisance, as you’ll see.

            Starting with the first part of the phrase, “land of the free,” we already run into trouble. Or, I should say that the phrase was only true for a select few. White men are generally the “free” in that statement, with everyone else experiencing something much less than freedom. I’m sure it was empowering at the time and throughout history, but the phrase itself seems a rather arrogant distortion of the truth. It never really applied to the country at all. Whether a woman, an indigenous person, or an enslaved person, historically, the phrase comes up hollow, and continues to do so.

            But my main point of contention comes with how poorly the latter part of the creed, “home of the brave,” translates into contemporary times. To the people the phrase matters to, once again white men, “home of the brave” amounts to a justification of their impropriety. I’m certain those delightful fun-seekers at the January 6, 2021 insurrection are proud to consider themselves among “the brave.” But as far as modern delusion goes, the phrase has served as a dangerous call-to-arms for the sorely misguided of America.

            When it mattered, America showed its bravery, I suppose. In fleeing oppression in England, early colonists came here in defiance of their former lords, only to oppress everyone they found. That bravery was expended on the voyage overseas from Europe, it soured into delusions of grandeur and power.

            But now, when misinformation is ubiquitous, when citizens can choose their own information source to confirm their existing beliefs and biases, “home of the brave” has become a total nuisance. The misleading phrase seems to tell insurrectionist-types that they need to fight for America, and be brave, to maintain their freedom. The trouble is, theirfreedoms are not at stake. The stakes are wholly misconstrued. While the far-right seems to think that everything is being “cancelled” and their rights are in jeopardy, not much has changed. It’s a supreme privilege that so many white folks stormed the capitol with little to no consequence, if that’s not an indication of freedom, I don’t know what is. Meanwhile, protesters continue to march in the streets to protest grave injustices perpetrated by the police – but sure, it’s the white “patriots” that are really the victims here.

            I’m not suggesting we getting rid of “land of the free, home of the brave,” nobody would go for that. I’m simply pointing out that the phrase has misled generations of right-leaning people into thinking that not only are their rights being trampled, but they have to fight for them. There are Americans fighting for their rights, and they’ve been doing so since the civil war – and to be clear, they’re not white folks with land and guns. So, to those taking it upon themselves to storm the capitol and “taking back what’s theirs,” they are the brave, they are the free. But that simply isn’t true. They’re misled, they’re mistaken – and perhaps someone should tell them, because they’re sure as hell not going to listen to someone like me. 

Shark Tank Disturbs Me

Hold on tight, I don’t know where this one is going. When I come up with writing ideas, I immediately write them in my phone’s notes so as not to lose the thought. These notes can be quite detailed, outlining just what it is I’m thinking about writing – generally, when the notes are thorough, I don’t even have to look back at them. The mere act of writing the notes engrains them in my mind. But other times, the notes I take for myself could not be more scarce or cryptic. The notes generally take the latter form, cryptic and brief. My notes are fun to look through, because they’re completely unrelated to one another, loose, and sometimes utter nonsense. For instance, I recently took a note that says, “I’m afraid of men with camo hats.” I stand by it. But the notes prompting today’s piece say simply, “Shark Tank, Not Cool.” 

Now, I don’t watch the show Shark Tank with any regularity, I don’t find it enjoyable. It’s not that the show isn’t good, or it’s boring – those are subjective qualities. No, Shark Tank is wrong at its core. Entrepreneurs do deserve a shot, but does their shot have to be so degrading and bizarre? I know, these people choose to go on reality TV, but that doesn’t change what the show is. The very concept of the show disturbs me. Poor aspiring entrepreneurs must make their appeal to four or so glib rich people, who decide whether or not the contestant’s idea has merit. 

The trouble goes beyond the show, but it just so happens that Shark Tank is an apt metaphor for America’s own problems. I suppose the thing that bothers me the most about Shark Tank is the deference the contestants must pay toward the “Sharks.” These people, who lord their wealth and success over the contestants, act as though they were self-made and have all the answers. The contestants treat them as though they’re business gods, practically swearing fealty. 

But is it that we’re supposed to respect about the “Sharks,” that they’re wealthy? Business success? Clothes? Being needy enough to judge a reality show? I just don’t see it. I don’t see any of the “Sharks” and experience anything even close to admiration. The idea of pitching an idea to these people is so degrading. The show serves as an ego boost for the billionaires, and an embarrassing stab in the dark for entrepreneurs hoping for success. But this is America now, and has been for a while.

How much are we supposed to respect and revere the wealthy? They’re not superheroes, and in many cases, they’re actually quite villainous and cold. Where along the lines of becoming super wealthy does a person decide that it’s a privilege to speak with them? This mindset goes so much further than Shark Tank. America is structured in a way that these “Shark” people have the ability to get and do whatever they want. The laws are bent to accommodate not only their current wealth, but their ability to accumulate more than any one person could need several lifetimes over.

Money is important, I suppose, but it’s not everything. Billionaires are an anomaly, but they’re still people, and therefore are undeserving of the pedestal they’re placed upon. Those who demand respect don’t earn it. Being a judge on a reality show where entrepreneurs try to impress you into giving them money, that’s a shameless ego massage and a needy grab for respect. It’s sad, creepy, and disturbing – America is better than that, we have better people to look up to than simply the wealthy. 

Little Victories

I wouldn’t call myself an optimist per se, but I certainly wouldn’t label myself a pessimist either. Generally, I lean towards what I would call cynical optimism. Cynicism is just a symptom of having open eyes. It’s difficult to look at the world, or just America, and feel something like pure optimism. Now, I’ve been feeling better about our outlook lately, but that’s not what this piece is about. No, I wanted to discuss the little victories that can stave off the cynicism, if only for a moment. 

            If you were to record yourself on a daily basis, what would you hear back? Would you find a person complaining? Hopeless? Angry? All of those feelings and states are normal, and if you’re anything like me, you experience all of those over the course of a day, or perhaps upon waking. All it takes is a glance at some bad news or a disingenuous display on TV for me to spiral into a day’s worth of venomous ranting and crankiness. But, a person can’t live that way. 

            Years ago, I recall being in a van with my band outside an especially depressing venue we were playing in New Orleans. We sat in the van discussing something or someone, and I remember weighing in to talk about what I called my “little victories.” It’s likely self-explanatory, but little victories are the smaller things that can brighten up your day, if only for a moment. These moments might seem insignificant, and they are, but they can pull you from the brink. 

            The first example that always comes to mind for me when considering these little victories is a cup of coffee. It seems so simple, but it can be the difference between a day in darkness and a day with some levity. I look forward to coffee every day, multiple times a day. It brings joy every time I drink it, and I know that without fail, no matter how shitty the day is or how little faith I have in humanity at the moment, that I’ll have my cup of coffee and get a much-needed boost. 

            These little victories can be anything at all. I find myself especially looking forward to the time after dinner, after the cooking is done, the eating, and the cleaning. I look forward to finally settling down, putting a record on, and getting lost for a bit. It’s only for 45-minutes to an hour or so, but that time is precious, and I think about it throughout the day. Hell, I even try to decide on the record or records I’ll listen to. Sometimes at breakfast, I’m considering whether I should spin the Flaming Lips or Miles Davis. 

            We all need these little victories. Whether it’s a food, a drink, a show, music, or an activity, these things bring us joy. A cup of coffee or a record might not seem like much, but it can go a long way in pushing back the tide of cynicism. I can get quite low and judgmental if I allow myself to, but when I fight it, when I take my little victories where I can get them, I’m better for it. Even something like listening to a silly podcast while you’re grocery shopping can bring you back from bitterness, or perhaps playing with a pet, or even a game. The point is to find something small to look forward to, or seeing the joy in something seemingly insignificant. 

            Life is hard, life is weird – but it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. Give yourself those little victories. 

I’ve Never Been in a Fight

It’s probably not surprising to know that I’ve never been in a fight. Verbal fights, yes, most certainly, though they’re to be avoided at all costs. But physical fights, I’ve managed to steer clear of those for 30-years now. I’m proud of that. And while I’m sure, to some, this signifies a weakness of character or betrays that I’m not a “real man,” I don’t care. Fighting is a mistake, not a solution. 

First, the “real man” label is an embarrassment. Let those so concerned with masculinity and what it means to be a man live on their own island somewhere they can hunt and fight and yell and sweat and objectify women from afar to their heart’s content while the rest of us go about living a life of meaning. I’ve always been annoyed by talks of “being a man.” It’s utter nonsense. And perhaps the calls for proper masculinity were more apropos during a time with more imminent/immediate physical danger; but, in modern times where we settle our differences with words and not fists, fighting doesn’t make you “a man,” it makes you a nuisance, a liability, a child even. If masculinity calls for escalating words to blows with little provocation, then I reject it wholeheartedly – call me what you will, but I’m not a “man” in that way, that’s for sure.

Fighting is an embarrassment, simply put. It’s an utter failure to communicate, and a total intellectual failure. At the risk of sounding pretentious, or rather, more pretentious, I find physical fighting to be the last refuge of the barbarian. It signifies that a person bypassed their rational mind and went right into animal instinct. There are those who think such a strong connection to our primal nature is an asset. It isn’t, it’s a total liability. Knowing someone who is given to fight with little to no goading is exhausting.

I’m sure I’ve been in situations that have seemingly gotten close to a physical altercation, but it’s never gotten there, thankfully. I’m too rascally with my words, fights fizzle before they begin. As I said before, this is something I’m proud of. I can see no good reason to engage in some form of physical fight, I don’t know what it accomplishes. To the men that are given to brawl, I imagine it amounts to a badge of honor, it signifies the defeat of an unworthy foe, I’m sure. But really, it shows the completely lack of intelligence and intellectual maturity on the part of the fighter. A fight only happens when words fail, and words fail because one or more participants let them fail. What I mean is, a verbal argument only gets physical by way of one or both parties nudging it that way. Intellectual arguments rarely, if ever, end in a physical altercation. This is because physical strength could not be more irrelevant to intellectual matters. Somehow, when people fight, they seem to believe that it settles a disagreement. What it really does is tear you further away from your own humanity.

Fighting, to me, was always disturbing. The idea of using your body to deliberately hurt another person is rather alarming, and indicative of a disturbed person. We’re not talking about self-defense; protecting yourself from an attack is another situation entirely. But fighting when words fail, to me, betrays an obvious inclination for hurting others. If fighting is not only an option in your toolkit, but one of your primary options, it shows that you’re a brute, an animal. It doesn’t show that you have strong convictions, it shows that you’re perhaps a bit sick, that you don’t mind hurting people. That, to me, is something I can never get behind.

So, no, I’ve never been in a fight. I don’t even associate with the kind of people that would fight. It’s an unevolved mindset that leads one to settle a verbal disagreement with physical combat. I find the instinct to fight, or even confront, exhausting. Hell, there’s people who most certainly would like to fight me just for my last year of published pieces. But let them live with themselves, their lives and minds are far too turbulent for me to bother with. Fighting is a failure, a failure I can’t be bothered with.

Creativity and Aging

Things change as you age, and if you’re doing anything even remotely the right way, you’re growing as the years add up. I was giving some thought to artistry and how it can be affected by aging, how your tastes and proclivities can change, and so does your art. Specifically, I was considering artists who not only grew older, but as they did, their output only got better. But, it isn’t a given that you’ll become a better artist with age. Some artists never grow, and continue to have the same output, to the delight of no one save the fans clinging to their youth through music.

            I’m drawn first to an example of age and artistry, Scott Walker. I’ve wanted to write about him in greater detail at some point, but for now let’s just use him as a case study. In the 1960’s, Scott Walker was in a pop group, the Walker Brothers. Their biggest hit, “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” is actually a great song. But, Scott Walker was not content to simply remain a pop artist. His solo albums became increasingly more inaccessible to longtime Walker Brothers fans, but the music itself had something much more interesting, albeit frightening, to say. Then, in 1995, after 10 years of working, Walker put out “Tilt,” an avant-garde masterpiece, which he managed to top twice more with “The Drift” in 2006, and “Bish Bosch” in 2012. All three records were so bold, so vulnerable, often with Walker singing without any musical accompaniment.

            That’s how an artist can age and grow, but it isn’t always like that. Often, an artist can be wholly unaware that they’ve aged out of their style, continuing to have sub-par output. It happens. But I’ve noticed that as I’ve aged, so too have my creative tendencies. My first few bands were on the punk-side of music, and ALL of those bands that influenced me during that time are foreign to me now. Not a single artist from my pop-punk youth carried over into adulthood. The same goes for rock music in general, I listen to very little of it. It’s boring. Trying to make music for arenas is boring to me, immature even. I’m much more interested in music and art that can take you somewhere, make you think, not just makes you move.

            I don’t know how useful of a bandmate I’d be at this time in my life, and to be clear, I’m not even remotely looking to be in a band. But the idea of being in a band that plays “songs” every night with little change, that doesn’t interest me. It’s disappointing to have to play songs please the fans. I’d much rather play longer pieces of music without lyrics, even if no one hears them.

            This is all to say that we ignore growth at our peril. As artists, stagnation is the enemy. And whether you’re a musician, visual artist, writer, etc., you’ve got to grow. 

If You Didn’t Learn This Year, You Never Will

Over the course of one rather abusive year, we all grew accustomed to isolation, and with it, introspection. Most of us did, anyway. There was almost no way around it. In those early months of isolation, I imagine that the terror still had its teeth in most of us. Rightfully so, it was new, there was so much we didn’t know. Hell, I even had the foolish idea that even though I detested former President Trump, perhaps it was time to act like an adult and trust our leader. That proved wrong in short order, but perhaps it wouldn’t have been a wasted sentiment if we had an adult leader.

            I digress, the opening months of the pandemic saw us braving supermarkets and avoiding contact with strangers at all costs. But, the pandemic continued on, and spring became summer. We couldn’t continue to be afraid of the pandemic, more information was rolling in. The pandemic became something that most of us were acutely aware of, but we attempted to make the best of our newly isolated lives.

            This is all to say that once our thoughts turned from surviving the pandemic, once it became clear that rational behavior and simple precautions would carry us individually through the pandemic, our minds went inward – at least some of us.

            There has never been more of a forced opportunity for introspection than during the COVID pandemic. Left to our own devices and holed up indoors, it was nearly impossible not to take inventory of your own life, and yourself as a person. I began to identify my flaws and making changes accordingly. Similarly, I decided to publicly share my experiences as a person leaving music. That turned out to be helpful to most who read it, but infuriating to my former band, especially the singer. I would publish and write it all again, it was personal story and not an assault on anyone’s character. 

            I’ve mentioned this all before, but it remains relevant here. Through the lonely weeks and months, I began to dig through my memories, remembering my time in the band. What I was left with wasn’t a fond feeling of nostalgia, but instead a feeling of outrage. I had changed so much of myself to be in that band, cast aside so much of my own true self. I became a different, much worse person during that time. But it was inevitable, I was living the way that the singer and the rest of the band had come to live for a decade or so. I didn’t see the warning signs then, but damn did I see them when I looked back during the pandemic. We did all we could to preserve a carefully coddled lifestyle that had existed for decades before I even got into the band. I now know that I was in a situation whereby the person in charge was immensely flawed, and we had all been conditioned to feed into those flaws.

            For my writing, I lost friends, though I think if anyone in that camp were to remove themselves from the situation, they would see the mess I see. All this is to say that I learned in isolation, I dug deep. I changed what I needed to change about myself to be better for others, but more importantly, to be true to myself. I’m comfortable in my own skin, and I’m not left missing my former life or thinking I deserve better. But, if you came through this pandemic without introspection, if you found yourself only reaffirming the belief that you’re always right, you’re worse off than we thought.

Thoughts on George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin Trial

I was driving on the highway as the verdict was about to come in. I was nervous that I would miss it, but then I remembered that AM radio exists. I tuned into NPR at the perfect time, the judge was just entering the courtroom. I listened nervously and attentively as I navigated the early-evening traffic. But then, the verdict was read: Derek Chauvin was pronounced guilty on all counts. I whooped and yelled in cathartic excitement, pounding the roof of the car, and gesticulating wildly. I cheered so much that my throat was soar for the rest of my drive. 

            But this isn’t about me, this is about us. We needed this verdict to come through the way it did. Anything short of a guilty verdict would have been the last proof anybody needed that the police system in America is broken. It is broken, but at least we have justice for George Floyd, and that’s an important first step. It was hard to imagine that a jury would be compelled by the defense’s case, whatever it was. It must have been difficult to defend Derek Chauvin. I don’t care how skilled a lawyer you are, you can’t fight the videotape. 

            Police accountability is something I’ve not seen a great deal of. Sure, when something goes wrong, police departments publicly announce a suspension or a firing, or the officer in question resigns. But, when it comes time for a trial, I can’t think of a single time in my memory when an officer was held legally accountable for a flagrant abuse of power and human rights. I have no recollection of ever being pleased with a verdict in the case of police murdering someone; the police always got off, and the landscape stayed the same.

            Even police apologists can’t defend Chauvin’s actions. There was no real danger of Floyd doing anything at all, he was cuffed – and yet, for minutes on end, he was deprived of oxygen, dying on the street in front of a crowd of people watching – they’ll never forget that, we’ll never forget that. But often I’ve heard talks of police reform where Chauvin is separated from the rest of the police, citing that Chauvin was a completely different kind of case. It’s only different in that we all saw it, and that Chauvin’s naked cruelty was on full display. But you can’t separate Chauvin from the bigger police problem simply because his case was so unique, so heinous. 

            Chauvin is indicative of the power-tripping tendencies of the police. Despite citizens’ pleading, citizens who he swore to serve, Chauvin did not change his position, and Floyd died as a result. The police are not infallible, and clearly, they’re not setting the example for the rest of us. We want the police to help us, to handle things with delicacy, not brute force. But time and time again, that balance shifts against the citizens, and people die from a flagrant act of police brutality.

            I watched as much of the trial as I could while working at home. But what I did see were attempts by the defense to diminish Floyd’s character, to say that he was a drug-user. I watched Chauvin’s bespectacled lawyer cross-examine witnesses for ungodly amounts of time, betraying no clear end-goal to his line of questioning, heading nowhere in particular. Chauvin’s lawyer was the definition of tedious, but this isn’t about him – he had a job to do as a lawyer, and I imagine that wasn’t an easy job considering the circumstances. 

            Chauvin didn’t take the stand, his attorneys advised him not to – a bad sign. It was thought that if Chauvin took the stand, the prosecution would ask about his previous misconduct, yet another bad sign. Chauvin likely shouldn’t have still been a cop after years of citations. It makes you wonder just how many cops have a record of misconduct, but continue to mete out justice their own way. 

            But what’s to come? We hope that major police reforms are to come as soon as possible, but not a defunding – no, a radical restructuring is more the order of the day. Police need training, not for a few hours a year, but substantially. Officers need to be confident that they have the tools necessary to end conflict non-lethally. Officers aren’t trained enough to feel that confidence, a little bit of instruction a year is forgotten the next day.[1]

            George Floyd became a symbol in the last year, a symbol of the change we so desperately need. But now that his killer has been brought to justice, we must remember George Floyd as a father, a grandfather, a lover, a partner, a sibling, a son, and indeed, a martyr. Floyd shouldn’t be gone, but he is, and we cannot let any of this be in vain. George Floyd will live on, the patron saint of police reform.

[1] https://www.trainingreform.org/not-enough-training