So You Managed to Rig the Election

First let me say my hat is off to you. That’s an ambitious achievement requiring the cooperation of hundreds of conspirators, and you’re clearly putting your Six Sigma project management certifications to good use. If you weren’t a black belt before, you should be one now.

Or a BLUE one, am I right?

Our demon prince is up by four million votes nationally, but it’s of course absurd that you’d have forged that many votes.

No, you were far more devious.

  • You convinced an innocent but adventurous foodie at the Wuhan wet market to eat a particularly sick-looking bat. Maybe you used a gun or just a nice orange pepper glaze, I don’t know.
  • With a worldwide network of agents, you guided the spread of the illness to your ultimate target, the United States.
  • There, the virus ran rampant and set up the chess board for your ultimate objective: a population worried enough by sickness to cast a large number of plausible mail-in votes for your manipulation.
  • But first, you needed the ultimate unstoppable candidate: an elderly milquetoast Washington insider with an unambitious legislative agenda and some slightly creepy behaviors toward women’s hair. Just, you know, to keep it plausible.
  • A candidate like that required the support of deeply angry and radical people, so you stoked the fires of racial hatred by encouraging the only ten racist police officers in America to act out their fantasies as visibly and violently as possible.
  • The ensuing protests unfolded in your perfectly orchestrated ballet of support for the only candidate who could truly advance our socialist agenda of white extermination: Joseph Biden.
  • You could have stopped there, but the cherry on top was finding a Black female prosecutor who will one day take the reins of government and drive our national chariot into total communism.
  • All you had to do next was generate thousands of ballots in a half dozen key states, each printed specially for a particular voting district.  
  • Then, offering day-old sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, you hired a hundred mentally-ill homeless people (also across six states) to carefully color in the correct circles for Joseph R. Biden.
  • Luckily, you had a sharp-eyed QA team checking each one and beating homeless men when they kept trying to fill out Jo Jorgensen by “accident.”
  • When it was all over, you herded most of them into a tunnel of rotating blades and rendered them into a delicious beige slurry for IAMS. (Net profit: $1.4 million.)
  • To cover your bets, you blackmailed several programmers hired by Siebold to embed pro-Biden glitches in the code of electronic voting machines. Luckily, the project owners were NOT Six Sigma-certified like you are and could not find the inserted code.
  • Election day almost went exactly as planned, but those plucky Trump voters managed to pry themselves from their sweat-soaked recliners to vote. We always underestimate the courage and conviction of the simple, God-fearing folk and we need to stop doing that.
  • So you had to bring in our crack teams of vote fraud specialists, already poised in the likeliest states for razor-thin margins: Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
  • You quickly printed more mail-in ballots for the inner city voting precincts from a company we later firebombed for total deniability.
  • Then your teams completed more ballots, sealed them, postmarked them with machines stolen from the post office, and slipped them unseen into the voting count centers while descending from wire harnesses.
  • To show their total commitment to endless silence for the cause, those teams then severed their own tongues and cut off their own fingers so they could never reveal their role.
  • Finally, after several days of completely smooth counting hidden away from the gaze of the entire world, our ballots tipped the balance to the dark prince was declared victorious.

It staggers the imagination, comrade. There will one day be statues in your honor, big concrete ones two hundred feet tall with stern jawlines.

But today, you must die and take your glory with you.

Time Capsule 2020

I’m going to Lowe’s today to buy a giant slab of marble on which I can carve an explanation of these times to the survivors wandering the smoldering hellscape. It’ll take awhile, I know, but what else am I doing?

Greetings, traveler! Tarry a moment from your scrounging for canned food and read these words of explanation for the horrors you behold!

Three generations of Americans, trained by bad movies and television to believe that heroism is the pursuit of an ideal without compromise or compassion, discovered a place where we could feel the endorphin rush of fighting evil but with none of the risk: the Internet.

Online, we chose our sides between the Enjoyers of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s good because it makes us hard) and the Resisters of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s bad because it makes us hard). We filtered our friends and our news by the dramatic passion they enflamed, and we competed to assert our commitment to the tribe with ever more exaggerated perspectives and actions. We made hasty judgments on sketchy information and then rationalized the results.

Constant and instant exposure to both the worst people we agreed with and the worst ones we didn’t distorted our perceptions of the importance, frequency, and scope of the problems we fought to solve. With no mitigating perspectives, we developed over-simplified theories of how the world works and pursued them off a cliff.

Inevitably, we dared each other to prove our commitment to our theories in the real world. Every occurrence became a symbol of why we were right, and every action became a desperate do-or-die fight for the nature of reality.

Two million years of outdated and unquestioned human evolutionary software turned us into self-righteous “heroes” fighting for the things we were most blindly wrong about.

If you’ve found this, we didn’t figure it out in time.

So You’ve Been Cancelled

One minute you’re tweeting your perfectly reasonable advice about getting over race and gender in this country, and the next, you’re hiding your Porsche in the garage from a fusillade of socks soaked in warm vomit.

Man, this job would be so much better without the fans, am I right?

The good news is that you still have the house, the car, the second house in Sundance, a current passport, and enough money to go completely Charles Foster Kane on their asses. You can hole up in Xanadu and let them gossip in awed tones about the cool mysterious things you’re doing (playing video games in your underwear, writing poetry, and learning to carve scrimshaw from YouTube).

The bad news is that you’re going to have to lie low for a while. That’s not a terrible thing; some people have done their best work in exile. You’re no Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, but celebrity is KIND OF a life’s work, too. This is your chance to take a breather, let the career inertia fade, and then choose any new path you want.

Nobody is asking you for another painful movie about the characters you’ve come to resent. Nobody’s asking you to say your catch phrase or write another song like the last ten.

You’re free. Put your feet up and enjoy your time in the penalty box.

Here’s the thing to remember: America is where generations of (primarily white) fuck-ups came to escape the mistakes they made in other countries. We’re all predisposed to a good comeback story because there’s a deep guilt in each of us for the one thing we wish we could do again better.

But first comes the sacrifice of the Designated Sinner.

Someone has to go in the Wicker Man every now and then to burn for our cultural sins of racism and sexism and homophobia and genocide and all the other shit, and this time — just like the guy in the movie — you kind of deserve it.

Really, it’s an honor. They don’t put Paula from Accounting in the Wicker Man. If you’re worth bringing down, you’re worth something. Hold on to that.

So here’s the plan.

  1. Spend the next six months letting yourself hit rock bottom. (Men, switch to wearing denim shorts and those adventure sandals that strap around your heels. Women, shave your head. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.)
  2. Then have a photogenic meltdown in a public place. Throw a cup of beer at a toddler during a baseball game. Threaten a flight attendant for not letting you smoke. The point is to show everyone you suck as much as they think you do.
  3. Next, take two years to work on whatever thing you love (your comedy, your novel, your solo album) until it is the best you can make it: emotional, soulful, and above all, penitent. If you have to, get help from someone who actually has feelings.
  4. Then begin the apology tour. One of the late night hosts will almost certainly let you on the show, and that’s where you can tell the world what you’ve learned…and the beautiful thing you’ve made to express how sorry you are.

What HAVE you learned? Well, it would be wonderful if you could say (plausibly) that you’ve listened to the people you’ve hurt to make amends. If you can’t do that, you’ve at least learned to shut the fuck up about things you don’t know much about, right? That’s almost as good.

Slowly, you creep your way back into the tribe by letting people feel good about forgiving you.

Luckily for you, we all have exactly six active slots available in our brains for grudges…and your egregious replacement just logged in.

Leaked: Donald Trump’s Speech to the RNC

Photo by Gage Skidmore

(Trump ascends to the stage holding up a small plastic aquarium.)

Can you see that? I’m not sure you can get that on camera. If you look real close, you’ll see there’s a thing swimming around in there about the width of my thumb and maybe, what, a foot long? Something like that.

Anyway, me and the family went on vacation a couple of years ago to Bali — beautiful place, by the way, the best service on the planet — and while I was practicing some dives off a rock cliff, the larvae of this little guy wormed its way into a scrape on my knee. I’m told they do that, look for holes.

Turns out that this is the Greater Balinese Brain Fluke, a trematode that laps up cerebrospinal fluid like a deer at a mountain stream. Loves it. Loves it so much that sometimes it makes a comfortable little nest in the brain of a human host. Kind of like that thing from that Star Trek movie. Beautiful movie, by the way. “Khaaannnn!” I love that part.

Anyway, this little fella set up shop near the amygdala on the left hemisphere of my brain and just started pumping away, kind of like a little fist. Like this. Just squeezing away, drinking and growing and secreting like all God’s creatures.

Wait, wait. Don’t get up. I’m getting to the point.

The amygdala, as we all know, is the breaker switch for decision making and emotional reaction, and, well, you might have noticed something a little strange about me these last few years: word salad, vindictiveness, impulsive behavior, all the classic signs. Even then, it wasn’t until I started getting the migraines and those weird sniffles that my doctor ordered a CT scan that found my little friend curled up in my skull like a puppy in a little basket.

Long story short, we had a surgery yesterday and this was pulled from my nasal cavity by a very nice Indian doctor. They’re some of the best in the world, I can’t recommend them highly enough. This guy’s great for all kinds of things, not just brain flukes.

And then my staff showed me the tapes of what I’ve been saying and doing, and holy shit, I owe all of you a huge apology. Huuggge. I wasn’t even supposed to get this job, much less turn it into this shitshow. It’s like that brain fluke made me say the absolute worst thing in every situation to make it even more horrible, like a shit-seeking missile.

That’s on me. But I do have to say that I’m a little worried that nobody noticed the symptoms of a Greater Balinese Brain Fluke splashing around in my brain this whole time. What more would a guy have to do or say before any of you said, “Holy shit, this isn’t Alzheimer’s or syphilis but clearly the ravages of a parasitic trematode”? It’s kinda my brand to be an asshole, I get it, but come on.

Jared? Ivanka? Mike? Nothing? You didn’t notice? Jesus wept.

So tonight, I’m here to ask for another four years because those first four didn’t really count. When you think about it, the brain fluke was really the president and I was just kind of like the suit it was wearing for a long, long Halloween.

What I can promise you is that my next term’s grift and bullshittery will return to the normal thresholds you’ve all come to need and expect from Washington. That’s why these new hats have the slogan, “MAKE AMERICA LESS OBVIOUSLY AWFUL AGAIN,” and you can buy them from any of the merch tables lined up in Melania’s Rose Garden.

We’re also selling the pale-veined satin lapel ribbons for Greater Balinese Brain Fluke Awareness because damn, you people need to learn the difference between politics-crazy and brain-fluke-crazy.

Necronomicon @Home Edition

Thanks to my friend Norman, I attended my first convention for science fiction, fantasy, and horror over thirty years ago: Necronomicon in Tampa. I’ve been going ever since (except for a few years in the early 90s when I was too cool and literary), and it means a lot to me that I’m one of the guests now.

Necronomicon in Tampa is among the last of a dying breed of genre gathering run by and for fans with very little profit motive. The event itself raises money for Kids and Canines, a charity that provides emotional support dogs to children, and one of the things I’ll miss this year is getting to visit with the dogs they bring to show us.

This year it’s going virtual, and if you’ve always wondered what I’m talking about when I mention going to Necronomicon, here’s your chance to go for free from your own home! All you have to do is register through Eventbrite and show up virtually on the weekend of September 25 – September 27.

I’m appearing on a few panels:

  • Saturday at 9pm: What is Your Guilty Pleasure?
  • Sunday at 10am: Laughing in the Face of Danger
  • Sunday at 1pm: The Best (Writing) Advice I Ever Got

You can check the retro-themed site for all of the other great things going on!

When to Say “Enough”

When you do something for years with only marginal success but many more days of painful trudging with no apparent benefit, you start to wonder if it’s time to let it go.

Even if you once loved it.

I’m a 47-year-old man, and it’s hard not to think that if I was going to get any better at this, I would have by now. I don’t even know what “better” means anymore, now that I’ve watched so many of my peers discover that success isn’t that…successful. Certainly not for any length of time, anyway. You grind and grind for a quick flash of glory, and then it’s someone else’s turn in a cycle that’s shortening with every passing year.

If I could plot the dopamine flow, there would be a spike before (in anticipation of a good session) and one after (relief for having survived it), but a long deep trough in the middle. That can’t be good.

As the great philosopher Rogersicus the Elder once wrote, “One must know when to hold them and then also when to fold them,” and I think it’s time.

I’m of course talking about running.

Wait, what did you think I was talking about?

Five years ago, I started running to Mordor by tracking my mileage to Mount Doom. It took me two years and 1,700 miles, but I did it. Since then, I’ve logged enough for a total of 4,030 miles – about the length of the Amazon River. I’ve run 5Ks, 15Ks, and half-marathons. I’ve run through Epcot and along the beach and over a treacherous bridge (four times).

But I haven’t had a run in nearly nine months that ended with me feeling great like they used to, and while nothing worthwhile is joyous 100% of the time, it shouldn’t suck 90% of the time, either.

I bought a bike about a month ago for cross-training, and I’ve enjoyed it like being a kid again. It’s rapidly becoming the thing I want to do, and I’ve learned to follow those instincts.

I’ll still run from time to time; it would horrify me to miss the Gate River Run, and I have a couple of 5Ks that I signed up for months ago that they’re running in socially-distanced waves. And it’s possible that I’ll come back to it again after a rest.

It’s hard to know when grinding is good (building your stamina and ability) and when grinding is bad (exacerbating injuries and making it impossible to fully recover), but I think it does us all good to know we can quit even the things we love.

For a little while, anyway.  

The Laddie Fancies Himself a Poet? Not Really.

I’ve been going through my writing archives and compiling a master document of preferred editions of my work. It feels like we’re all one reckless cough away from death, and I hate to leave a mess to clean up after I’m gone.

Early in my career (like, 1998-early), I sometimes wrote poems with ideas that didn’t quite sustain a whole story. Here’s one that I’m trying to decide if it should go into the omnibus.


Biscuits
Waiting for biscuits, crunchy butcher-sweeping goodness in a box!
If I watch the baby, I’ll get biscuits.
            Don’t let criminals get the baby.
            Don’t lick the baby and wake her up.
Watch the baby until Mama gets home from the supermarket.
She’s bringing home biscuits!

Smoke
Seeping from the laundry chute in a gray, billowy thundercloud.
Keep the baby safe from smoke.
            Smoke comes from fire.
            Fire could hurt the baby.
Get the baby from the crib and run.
Save the baby!

Fire
Sparkling, flickering, melting fur and tail with red-orange fingers.
Keep running down the stairs
            Don’t stop because of your burning tail.
            Don’t stop because of your simmering lungs.
Run outside away from fire.
Save the baby!

Fault
Burning through my fur and
PRIMARY SYSTEMIC FAULT IN LOCATIONS
           0010 0000 0E00 008E
           00E0 08E0 0880 0000

BACKUP SYSTEM ONLINE
Run through the door!

Door
Get through door without hurting baby;
Find Paramedic
If no Paramedic then Fireman Else Policeman
           If WATCH BABY then BISCUITS Else BAD DOG
     ERROR LOCATION 08E0

Stop
Place baby on ground gently, like a puppy.
INITIATE PRIMARY SHUTDOWN
     AUDITORY INPUT SUBSYSTEM
          VALUE = “Good boy! We'll take care of her now.”
BISCUITS? Y
SHUTDOWN.

Confessions of a Fiction Writer

It’s taken me twenty years of writing fiction to admit this, but I hate fiction.

Don’t get me wrong: I love lying, I love making things up, I love sharpening and blunting the corners of reality with my words.  

But I’m deeply uncomfortable with the arbitrary structures that are supposed to make good fiction like Freytag’s Triangle, the Hero’s Journey, and all that Save-the-Cat bullshit. Also, disembodied third-person storyteller voices narrating from Beyond can go fuck themselves; who are you and what’s your angle, pal?

Give me a good hoax any day. Give me a wobbly unpredictable story made of fake newspaper articles or letters or lab notes or journal entries or police accounts or depositions, and I’m with you all the way.  

(Ever wonder why so many of my stories are told in the first person and/or woven together from found objects? It’s not JUST because I suck at exposition.)

For some reason, I have the heart of a forger, so my fiction tries to explain its own existence as something other than fiction. It might have to do with discovering horror non-fiction as a kid before the made-up kind, haunting the section of the elementary school library with the books about ghosts, missing people, and UFOs that were supposedly true.

One of the greatest compliments I received for my work is the undergrad at ICFA who asked me after a reading of “Night Fever” if I planned to write any more stories about this amazing Charles Manson character I created.

(Maybe it shouldn’t be.)

The trouble is that I forget this all of the time, and there’s a phase of my writing where I grind hopelessly at a “normal” narrative wondering why it doesn’t feel alive to me. Eventually I remember to flip the con man switch – thanks, Dad, for the bullshitter genes! – and I start to enjoy the work a lot more, imagining how it will affect a reader.

That’s the key to a hoax: it has to involve empathy, extending your emotional reach to imagine what would convince other people. You can use that for evil, selling shares in things that don’t exist. Or you can use it for weirdness, convincing readers that a balloon has made it across the Atlantic like Poe did.

I use it for weirdness because it isn’t fun unless the audience eventually enjoys the artistry of the hoax.

That’s why I’m so compulsively and bluntly honest in the real world: most lies are boring.

“Can You Recommend a Book to Solve What’s Wrong with Me?”

I get asked from time to time what books I’d recommend for writers. This is a little like being a pharmacist who gets asked, “What drugs do you recommend for mammals?” The truth is, I have no idea where you are in your career or what’s wrong with you, so it’s hard to tell you what can help.

In the spirit of the right tool for the right job, here are my recommended writing books in little lists based on when they’re useful:

“I have no idea where the fuck to start”

  • Stephen King’s On Writing, which every relative will buy you at least once, isn’t a bad book for getting started, especially in a blue collar sense of making it a job instead of a magical mission from God.
  • Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction is an excellent guide to the basics of short story writing. It gives you a nice set of training wheels for your first couple of stories, helping you gather what you need to know to make a work feel complete.
  • David Gerrold’s Worlds of Wonder is also a good launching point for understanding the mechanics of fiction, though don’t get too hung up on the word “mechanics.”
  • Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing is a strong push to dive headlong into the subjects that matter most to your heart, though I think ol’ Ray makes it sound easier than it is.   

“I wish I’d come back from the future to give myself the books I ACTUALLY need to get started.”

  • Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writers Workshop would have saved me actual years of blundering around, and it is the closest I’ve ever found to a complete guide to crafting a story of any length from idea to rewriting.
  • Kit Reed’s Story First: The Writer as Insider is a recent discovery, but it too would have superseded probably 85% of the other books I read that only gave me fragments of how to write. This one resonates very much with my particular style of composition, the “put on a character’s face like Hannibal Lecter and role-play a story” method.
  • Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer, will help remediate everything your English teachers got wrong.

“Jesus Christ, I’ve got to step up my game. I can’t keep selling stories to Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium forever.”

  • Samuel Delany’s About Writing contains several great essays that are the stern talks you need from an honest professor about what it takes to make your writing worth the effort.  
  • Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook is a fabulous guide to writing fabulous fiction, full of weird and intriguing illustrations and charts and prompts that lead you away from writing the dopey ideas at the top of your (and everybody else’s) head.
  • Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story not only provides some excellent things to say at parties about the importance of fiction to the human consciousness, but it ALSO delivers practical advice for flipping the right switches in the right order to appeal to a reader.

“Oh, shit. I have to care about practical stuff as a writer?”

  • Starve Better by Nick Mamatas is the straight talk from a worldly mentor you desperately need for facing the business of writing.
  • Booklife by Jeff VanderMeer is perhaps one half step behind the marketing curve since it was published in 2009, but it is still the best guide I’ve seen for finding communities who will enjoy your work without seeming like a mercenary douchebag.

“I kind of wish I’d never heard of writing.”

  • Jason Ridler’s Fxxk Writing is surprisingly inspirational for a book that suggests maybe you’re caring a little TOO MUCH about capital-W “Writing” as your heroic, identity-making avocation.
  • Given his personification of “resistance” as an active negative universal force working against your heart’s work, Steven Pressfield may seem like something of a crackpot. His book The War of Art, however, is an important kick in the ass we all need from time to time to demystify our difficulties.   

Thank God, a White Man is Weighing In

Nothing I say can really help right now, especially when there are other voices than mine who need to be heard, and the last thing I want is to be congratulated for saying or thinking the right things. It occurs to me, though, that doing good within the reach of my arms isn’t enough and maybe it’s time to try within the reach of my voice, too.

I used to write about politics a lot more in years past. That was before I gave up on the idea that people choose them through reason instead of picking a group they want to be part of and then rationalizing and performing their membership in it, including me.

A long time ago, I was part of the stern realists who feel brave by facing (and maybe enjoying) the brutal truths that life is hard, work is mandatory, feelings don’t matter, and we all should get only what we deserve in this life or the next.

This, if you can’t tell, is a young Republican.

These days, I’ve opted to be part of the passionate and naïve do-gooders who think there’s not much point of money or civilization or government if it isn’t making people’s lives better, regardless of the cost. If America can collapse because of gay marriage, pollution control, racial and gender equality, fair wages, easier healthcare, better education, and nicer cops…maybe it should.

This is an old liberal who is more popular with dogs.

I’ve tried to determine forensically just what changed my mind between 1996 and 2000, in case it is any help for someone else.

  • Star Trek laid the foundation for the goals of freedom from prejudice and economy, but The West Wing (Star Trek for civics nerds) inspired me to think that conscientious and smart people could be working in that direction now.
     
  • A professor at UNF, Dr. Pritchy Smith, assigned us to watch the PBS show Eyes on the Prize about the civil rights struggle and I was horrified by how people could fight AGAINST such a basic and fundamental value.
     
  • My notion of how much of our fate is luck versus work changed from a 10%/90% split to a 70%/30% split after meeting countless wealthy incompetents in my working life and many more broke and brilliant people.

  • The mental gymnastics required to rationalize conservative ideals began to feel exhausting and thin. If you’re digging deep enough to get to things like, “Helping the homeless really hurts them in the long run,” and “The Civil War was about states’ rights” without feeling a little sick and desperate, you’re a better rationalizer than I was. Too good, maybe.

Mostly, though, that shift came from meeting and talking to and caring for people who weren’t as well served as I was by the system. I wanted both of the gay Roberts in my life to be able to marry who they loved. I wanted my nieces to make as much as I do. I wanted my friend Ray to get the same shitty service at the deli that I was getting instead of even worse.

The first half-step of love is thinking that the people you care about are exceptions who deserve more than they’re getting.  

The second step is realizing that they’re not exceptions.