My Favorite Love Story: Leaving Las Vegas

This was originally posted at www.smilepolitely.com  a culture blog based in my hometown.  It's been a year, so I feel justified in posting it to my site. 

Love stories aren't my area of expertise.  I write about gods, demons, and fascist governments.  Nicholas Sparks, I ain't.  However, even surly speculative fiction writers can be touched by a well-written, thoughtful examination of human connectedness.  That's why Leaving Las Vegas is my favorite love story.  I am referring to John O'Brien's novel, however, the film adaptation from 1995 is a pitch-perfect retelling, and has great merit in its own right.  

    Within a few pages of Leaving Las Vegas I was transported to the seedy underbelly of Vegas.  It was 2am and I was standing on the strip, watching the flashing lights reflected in puddles of beer and the glazed eyes of junkies.  Like the city itself, the book is loud, abrasive, shameless and ultimately heart-breaking.  But unlike the city, Leaving Las Vegas cuts through the neon and soiled bedsheets and asks "now what?"

    The book examines two self-destructive lost souls: Ben, a successful-guy-turned-drunk in the final stages of alcoholism, and Sera, a weary prostitute on the downside of her prime.   They arrive in the city at different times, with different agendas, but a chance encounter brings them together.  

    Leaving Las Vegas is the most moving, powerful love story I have ever read for a few reasons.  For one, there isn't a shred of falseness, cliche, or candy-coating in the book.  They are two people who have destroyed their lives beyond repair, that briefly find existential meaning in a relationship with each other.  It doesn't fix them.  It doesn't make them industrious, tax-paying citizens.  They share a period of peace and togetherness in their otherwise lonely, rudderless lives.

    The love between Ben and Sera takes root in the most toxic soil.  Two broken people with nothing to offer momentarily grasp something pure and divine. Their love is a flower growing in the trash of a Las Vegas gutter.  Its beautiful because it wasn't potted or cared for.  It flowered in spite of the poison all around it.  

    If you read the book, be prepared to be offended, disgusted, and depressed.  But also be prepared to be moved by the most unlikely of characters and knocked flat by the transcendence of love.  

Confession Corner: Damn That Bieber!

At first I thought it was a passing aberration. What Do You Mean? would come on the radio and I would begrudgingly notice the little pan flute part was catchy as hell. I would find myself whistling the tune at work, and freeze—terrified someone would recognize the song and all my credibility as a music connoisseur would be destroyed. 

Then Sorry hit the airwaves and I knew there was something seriously wrong with me. It wasn't just one little part, it was the whole damn song! I was panicked. I listen to Minor Threat. I listen to The Doors. I don't listen to Justin Bieber. 

The clincher was when Love Yourself started its rounds. I would catch myself singing—lets be real, belting—"My mama don't like you, and she likes everyone one" in the shower. That was when I realized it. I'd gone native with the 12 year old girls. There was no coming back from this. I liked Justin Bieber, God help me. 

I am considering starting a support group for grown-ass-men-who-usually-have-good-taste-in-music-but-accidentally-started-liking-Justin-Bieber and our families. I think I'll call it GAMWUHGTIMBASLJB - ANON. The only way we can heal is if we come out of the shadows. 

Being Crappy: My Experience as a Writer Lacking Brains, Talent and Formal Writing Education

 

f there is one thing I've learned from writing fiction for ten years it's that I'm a crappy writer.  I use infinite-verb pharses.  My diction swings from colloquial to formal in nonsensical patterns.  My narrative distance is schizophrenic; in someone's head one minute, a million miles above them the next.  My grammar stinks.  My syntax is worse.  

 

In all of my failures in the literary field I have learned that my ideas are hackneyed, underdeveloped cliches and my writing is stilted, clunky garbage.  As I analyze the reasons for my continual artistic face-plants, I have come to the conclusion that every successful writer has at least one of these three things: Superior intellect, prodigous talent, or a formal education in writing.  

 

I certainly don't have superior intellect.  My ideas would be dismissed as infantile and absurd in the hallowed halls of academia.  I can't even understand some of my intellectual friends' facebook posts, much less the philosophy, economics, or physicsthat they study.  

 

I also lack prodigous talent.  Some people integrate all the mind-numbing rules of what makes good writing into their collective literary voice as if it is the most natural thing in the world.  And for those with prodiguous talent, it is the most natural thing in the world.  For me, it is a constant battle between flat, boring prose and stilted, flowery abstractions.  Somewhere, between those two things is good writing.  Or so I hear.  

 

Some writers can attain proficency via formal education.  While I do have a Master's Degree, it is in a completely unrelated field.  Sorry to say, there is not a lot of synergy between Social Work and Creative Writing.  

 

So what make me think I have anything to say? Why do I have a right to self-publish my innane drivel and take up space on the internet with my dopey blog?  The answer, it turns out, came from my son.  

 

My wife handed me a blue piece of paper when I got home from work one day.  On it was a lopsided circle.  In the circle were two asymmetrical dots and a squiggly line underneath.  There were two parallel lines sticking out of the bottom of the lumpy circle.  After a moment I saw what it was; a person.  It was my three-year-old's first concrete concept, rendered in way that you could discern what it was.  It moved me so deeply, I started crying.  I could see the labor and passion he had put into it.  I could see his creative spirit channelled into a tangible work.  It was art.  Beautiful, touching, powerful art.  

 

I had an epiphany when I saw his drawing.  It didn't matter that it wasn't revolutionary avant-garde Cubism that was going to define American art for generations.  It spoke to me more than any other piece of visual art ever had.  It was a genuine expression of all the physical, psychological and spiritual things that make him who he is, filtered through his fingers.  

 

That's when I realized that, no matter how crappy my writing is, it still has the ability to speak to someone.  There is no person who has the exact same make-up of life experience, principles, faults, emotions, knowledge, or even gaps in knowledge that I have.  There is no human like me, or you, or the kid next door. Therefore the art that we create is a unique confluence of innumerable factors, brought together in a synethesis that is unlike what anyone else has created, ever.  

 

Even if you write the most cliche vampire romance novel, nearly indesernible from the thousands, maybe millions of novels just like it, there is something unique about it because of its creator's subjective interaction with the world.  There is also someone out there who is bound to me moved, touched, entertained, or amused by it.  

 

Art is a subjective experience.  Try as we might to apply concrete principles and therefore create "objective" criticism, it is an act of futility.  What one person finds boring, mindless, inscrutable, shallow, arbitrary, or self-important, another person is going to be riveted by.  Or it will make them laugh until they pee their pants at the library.  Or it will remind them of their first love and mystify them with nostalgia.  Just as the elements that make up the artist are a unique sequence of traits, so too are those that make-up the reader.  The themes of any one piece are bound to communicate themselves effectively to someone out there who has the necessary make-up to be touched by just such a piece.

 

So that is why I keep writing my crappy stories, and why I encourage other crappy writers to keep writing their crappy stories.  Because they are purely our own, imperfect as the persons who created them, mined from a psyche made of endless possibilities.  And the outcome of this expedition-of-the-imagination is bound to speak to someone, infinite-verb phrases and all.  

Posted on October 19, 2015 .

The 5 Douche-iest Instruments in the World

It never fails.  You are driving through campus on move-in weekend and you see a  douche-bag in a horizontally-striped tank top outside his frat strumming one for a circle of sorority girls.  Or you are working on your novel in a coffee shop and a white-guy-with-dreds douche is pounding one and reading free verse poetry.  They are the dreaded douche-y instruments.  Try as you might, you can't escape douche bags, nor can you escape the fact that they all play one of these five instruments, and invariably always have it with them, ready to be played.  I want to talk about the 5 Douche-iest instruments in the world.  

Let me give you a disclaimer:  Not all of these instruments are inherently douche-y.  Many of them (except for 1 notable exception) can be used to make wonderful music, that is not in the least bit douche-y.  However, for whatever reason, these instruments draw a disproportionate amount of douche-bags who are eager to impress woman or generally appear cool.  Thus, they are the 5 douche-iest instruments of all time.  

  #5 The Mandolin

The mandolin's douche-yness is a relatively new development.  For many decades it was simply a cute little twanger used along side slide guitars, and stand-up basses.  It was like a less-redneck banjo.  But with folk and blue grass music's meteoric rise in popularity over the last 10 years, the collateral damage is that mandolins have fallen into the hands of douche bags.  The type of douche most likely to play a mandolin is an urban hipster who has romanticized rural-southern culture and has purposely and self-consciously dressed himself in the signature style of blue grass musicians.  This is not to be confused with the non-douchey southern guy who just genuinely likes folk music.  They both have beards and wear flannel shirts, but you can tell the difference when the douche bag says "Merle who...?" when asked about Merle Haggard.  

#4 Moog/Synthesizer/Keyboards

I am pointing the finger directly at myself on this one.  This instrument can add a unique variety of sounds to any song.  Unfortunately, untalented douches like myself will sometimes join bands under the guise of being the "keyboard player" when in truth they are the unskilled-but-well-liked friend to the band.  The real band members will tolerate the keyboard player because he is nice, or is a pretty face or has engaging stage presence.  While there are many talented piano players that play the keyboard/synthesizers in rock bands, there are many more people like me who just pretended to play an instrument to trick people into thinking they are musicians.  

#3 Steel drums

Perhaps the most regrettably douche-y instrument on the list.  Some great bands have used steel drums periodically.  Bob Marley.  The Clash.  The Police.  Unfortunately the steel drum has been hijacked by douche-nozzles ranging back to OAR in the early part of the centry to Magic! and their particularly douche-influenced song "Rude".  This would be an example of bad bands trying to appear relevant by absconding a psuedo-obscure instrument for their own pop music ends.

#2 Acoustic Guitar

The level of douche-yness increases significantly with this entry.  Some of the greatest signer song writers have twisted our hearts in knots with nothing but an acoustic guitar.  And some of the biggest douche bags in the universe have tried to imitate them in cringeworthy performances around a fire.  Or on a beach.  Or while sitting on the hood of their car.  Or at the farmer's market.  Or...

#1 Bongos...dreaded bongos.  

Simply the douche-iest thing on the planet.  Unlike the other instruments on this list which have redeeming usages throughout the history of music, bongo drums have exclusively been used by douche bags 'round the world for millions of years.  I am sure the earliest cave-douches spiked up their hair with wooly mammoth fat, popped the collar on their animal pelt shirt and started playing bongos to impress the woman he planned on hitting over the head with a club later.  As college campus's seem to be hot beds for douche activities, bongos can be found everywhere...on the quad, on the porch of the frat house, or just outside the Sculpture and Painting building.  It takes no talent.  It makes a bland sound.  It looks good paired with a soul patch...It is the DOUCHIEST INSTRUMENT IN THE WORLD!!!

 

Posted on August 26, 2014 .

Whimsy throughout the Galaxy

If Star Wars wasn't busy taking itself so seriously, it would be Guardians of the Galaxy.  This is not to say that Galaxy is a better movie, but simply to say the playful tone is refreshing.  

The sci-fi landscape is littered with ultra-bleak movies and books (mine included, which, by the way, is called The Charlatans and you can buy it for the low low price of 2.99 on amazon.  I'm not above shameless self promotion) or space operas rife with "serious" love stories that come across pretty clunky.  Guardians on the other hand, revels in its whimsical story-telling, quotable one-liners and 70s pop soundtrack.  

The basic premise is nothing special.  Peter Quill is abducted by alien space pirates in 1988 on the night his mother dies of cancer.  Yondu, the lead pirate becomes a tenuous father figure to the young man.  

The film's charm shows through when we meet Quill 28 years later on Morag, where the childish-but-lovable thief has been sent to steal a mysterious orb.  Chris Pratt is perfectly cast as the charismatic dope who is trying to find notoriety throughout the galaxy by calling himself "Starlord".  When the orb turns out to be more than it appears, Quill has fame thrust upon him in a way he hadn't bargained for.  

Quill inadvertently draws together a band of hilarious oddballs and misfits, as well as drawing the ire of several evil-but-oh-so-cool villains.  

The movie works well because it blends elements of space opera (unique alien races, vivid landscapes, politics and subterfuge) with elements of farce (humor, self-awareness, snappy dialogue) in a seamless, even tone.  It's exciting, funny, visually stunning and, while no one is going to get it confused with a nuanced character study, the heroes have a little depth to them.  

Additionally, the heroes have great chemistry, and quirks that make for fun, memorable scenes. Bradley Cooper's genetically-altered raccoon is a constant stream of sarcasm, while Dave Bautista's Drax character can only understand things in literal terms, which makes for some of the funnier parts of the movie.  While there a bit too many baddies in the movie, they are stylish and scary, as good space opera villains should be.  

The film does fall flat a bit in places.  The scene with Quill's mother dying is quite cheesy, and there are a few parts where it is trying too hard to be funny and it just doesn't work.  These flaws are minor and easy to overlook in light of all the things there are to like about the movie.  

Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy is a highly entertaining, easy-to-digest piece of summer fare I would encourage anyone to go see.  Along with Edge of Tomorrow it gets my "Summer Movie of the Year" award (Honorable mention to X-Men: Days of Future Past).    Final Grade:  B+  

Posted on August 9, 2014 .