There Are Literally No Words for Trump

The first president I remember clearly is Ronald Reagan. And what I remember is that he was a crook and a liar and a heartless bastard.

I’m not sure who told me this. I probably overheard it from friends of my parents during routine political discussions. But no matter where I heard it, I spent many years certain that Reagan was one of the worst things to ever happen to America.

At least until the Gingrich revolution, which, of course, was going to end civilization. Although, wait, no, the buffoon George W. Bush was the real apocalyptic threat. He was evil. He was Hitler. He was going to stage a coup and claim a third term with the help of his four horseman: Cheney, Haliburton, Diebold and Rove.

No, wait, no, there’s worse. The Tea Party is ripping apart the very fabric of the universe, shredding the laws of physics so the Koch Brothers can build thrones out of the bones of the 99% and force-feed the survivors Monsanto until their souls dissolve into piles of collateralized debt obligations.

Okay, I may have gotten carried away in describing the exact nature of the criticisms. But it is true that, for as long as I can remember (and I’m middle-aged, mind you), the opposition has been a grave enemy and something to fear, and often hate.

The exact same dynamics have, of course, been at play on the right for just as long. A peek into the way many conservatives speak about Obama will reveal a shit-stream of fear and hate roiling with such frequent comparisons to Hitler that the slur has become weightless, part of the miasma.

You can even see this rush-to-demonize happening in intra-party contests. A small but vocal percentage of Bernie Sanders supporters spend countless hours online portraying Hillary Clinton as some form of corporate-powered Kaiju beating the poor with bags of Goldman Sachs money. Meanwhile, hard-line conservatives are regularly portrayed by their harder-line Tea Party opponents as traitors to cause and country.

Over the last few decades, we have become increasingly incapable of reasonably criticizing the failings of our opponents, or appropriately defining the stakes in front of us. Every opponent is the WORST human being to ever live. Every election is the difference between American ascendancy and the End Times.

That’s not to say important things haven’t been at stake or that certain leaders haven’t been less than beneficial for the country. But it is to say: we’ve wasted all our words.

Now we have no way to describe the force that is Donald Trump.

Both sides have exhausted our language in an attempt to portray the other side as evil. Now our vocabulary is bare, our metaphors exhausted, our dire warnings dead on the road. There is nothing we can say about Donald Trump that hasn’t been said about far lesser threats. And that means there’s nothing we can say that will make his supporters pause and reconsider. Why would they pause at warnings they’ve heard all of their lives about every other politician?

Trump is an existential threat to the character of our nation. He has no respect for the dignity of the office he’s running for and no interest in protecting the Constitution or following international law. And by allowing the space for white-supremacists to move freely within his movement, he is giving power to a dangerous element that threatens the well-being and lives of millions of our citizens.

He riles up fear and hate in a way that is truly comparable to Hitler. And yet that analogy is useless. It won’t convince a single Trump follower to reassess because we’ve rendered the analogy meaningless. Indeed, everything I said is meaningless to anyone who is predisposed to support Trump. It’s all been said before, and said louder, and said with more rancor and spit.

When we overuse our words, we choke out our ability to speak truth. For the first time in my life, there is a real monster rising within our political system. But we’ve already named a thousand lesser threats monstrous. What do we call Trump? How do we find words that hold any meaning? Where are the words that will stop him?

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After We Stop Playing God

I’ve written three novels. And by “written” I mean I have taken three novels to the point where I was confident enough in their quality to send them out in an attempt to secure representation. But this isn’t about the process of submission. This is about relating to a novel once we are through writing it, once we’ve stopped being the godhead of the world we’ve created and start observing it from further away.

My first two novels are gathering digital dust in the “dead projects” folder on my computer. I long ago stopped sending them out. In fact, I stopped sending them out pretty quickly in the process. Neither ever went out to the quantity of places it usually takes to find representation, let alone a publisher.

Why did I stop so soon? Because the novels died for me.

When I explain this in conversation, I usually say “I decided that neither was a novel that really captured what I wanted to write.” A lot of people nod, a bit glassy-eyed, probably thinking my words are just a way to make my failure to get the books published seem less failure-y. But it wasn’t about other people’s opinions (I can handle rejection for far longer than I gave either novel). It was about what the novels meant to me. They were like sweaters I’d knitted for months only to discover that the arms were too long and the neck was too tight. I wore them around for a while because, damn it, I’d spent a lot of time on them. But there’s only so long you can be choked by your sweater before you set it aside and make a new one.

Of course, I’m now mixing metaphors. I initially described a novel as something that can live or die. Clearly, the problem with my first two novels was deeper than the way they “fit” me. Yes, it’s true, they didn’t fit well (there were parts of both I never got to work in the ways I wanted them to work). But the real problem was: they didn’t stay alive.

This happens to me all the time when I read novels. I might enjoy a novel while reading it, but after I put it down, it dies, leaving little but memories of plot points or well-written passages. That doesn’t mean the novel isn’t good or can’t live forever inside other readers, just that it stopped living for me.

I don’t want to put a book into the world that feels dead to me.

But why did those novels feel so dead? Usually, a novel stops living for me because the plot was engaging but there was nothing that pierced me deep. For more literary endeavors, the death is usually due to the opposite problem. There’s plenty of depth—exploration of big ideas that I find important and meaningful—but no real consequence, no heat that scars me.

Is it that simple for our own novels? Did my first two novels cease living for me because they failed to pierce me and/or burn me? I wish I had an answer. But I don’t. Not fully.

What I know is that writing this newest novel felt different. I was in a much deeper fog during its creation and particularly during its revision. And my own thoughts on the world changed during the course of the writing. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything during the writing of my first two novels; it’s that neither novel bothered my sense of my place in the world like this novel bothered me.

I don’t know if that means the new novel is a better novel. I’m sure a good agent/editor could improve it in ways I can’t possibly see. But I have to say: I do like its chances. If nothing else, I’m going to give it a much better shot to find its place in the world.

Coming Out of the Revision Fog

Six months ago, I spent two weeks at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in Tennessee. I had the joy and privilege of working with Alice McDermott. Her advice sent me into a six-month long revision of the novel that I’ve been working on for the last two years. I don’t think I’ve ever been so deeply engrossed in a revision. Other than my family and my freelance clients, I ignored everything and everyone until I finished the scrubbing every metaphor and adjusting every comma.

Now, the novel–THE SKY CONTINUES BEAUTIFUL–is making its way out into the world, seeking some love. And I’m stumbling out of the fog and getting back to all the things I’ve been ignoring. Like this blog.

In Support of Indiana

A lot of people are upset with Indiana right now, thanks to an anti-gay (or, I guess, a pro-bigotry) “religious freedom” law passed by the Indiana legislature and signed by the governor. Despite this being a political matter created by a select group of politicians, a lot of the comments I’m seeing on social media conflate “the government of Indiana” with “the people of Indiana,” damning everyone who lives in the state. As a Texan, I know what it’s like to be damned for the decisions of politicians.

If you have left-leaning Facebook friends or read comments on stories in liberal publications, you’ve likely seen more than few remarks that go “I would never set foot in Texas” or “Texans are all a bunch of idiots” or “I hope Texas secedes; I hate them.” Usually, if pushed, people will grudgingly acknowledge that maybe Austin is okay. Of course, thinking Austin is the only “okay” thing about Texas is the first sign that someone knows nothing about Texas.

I know nothing about Indiana. I’ve never been. And the only aspect of the state I can discuss with any authority is a fictional town. But I’m willing to bet Indiana’s governor did not win with 100% of the vote. And I’m willing to bet that 100% of the people who did vote for Indiana’s governor aren’t super happy about the state’s newest law.

Which is to say: I voted against Ted Cruz three times before he was elected to the U.S. senate. Once in the Republican primary (we have open primaries), once in the Republican runoff, and once again in the general election. And yet I’ve seen people imply or flat-out state that the man should make me ashamed to be Texan. Why? Because I live in a state where 56.5%  of people who bothered to vote did so for a less-than-qualified man with some seriously wrongheaded ideas?

“Well, you’re okay,” people have said to me. Great. I’m the Austin of my coastal compradres. But, let’s be clear, I’m not in Texas because I have to be. I’m not suffering through it or yearning for the blue lands of America’s love handles. Nope. I choose to be here. In fact, I absolutely love it here. I love heading down to the Pearl Brewery for a drink. I love hiking Big Bend National Park. I love camping in Marfa. I love kayaking the Colorado River. I love sitting on the beach in Port Aransas. I love taking my kids to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Fort Worth Zoo and the Dallas Museum of Art. I adore Fiesta. I have a blast at Dallas Cowboys games. And at Spurs games. I look forward to my neighbor’s crawfish boil. I’ll take any excuse to stroll past the old homes up the street, or walk along the Museum Reach. And I am proud of Gemini Ink and particularly their Writers in Communities program.

Oh, and yeah, Austin is okay too.

I could go on. Seriously, the list of things I love about my home state would exhaust you. The list of things I don’t like is a heck of a lot shorter. The eternal construction on I-35 sucks. August temperatures over 105 are not enjoyable. And a fair number of the decisions made by our state-level and national politicians do not conform to my political leanings. That’s all I can think of to put on the dislike list right now. And yet that third one is supposed to make me want to run screaming from my state? Heck, that third one is the only one that I have hope can improve!

When I see someone spitting vitriol about Texas, I have several reactions. First, I am irritated. Then I feel sad that someone would deny themselves the openness to love such a lovable place. Then I end up feeling disheartened that so many view politics as The Defining Thing About a Place. Or: The Defining Aspect of Who We Are. In the past, I’ve been guilty of making politics too central to my enjoyment (or lack of enjoyment) of life. So I know how it happens. But I try not to let it happen anymore.

Don’t get me wrong. I do care deeply about homosexual and transgender rights (and many other political issues). And I do think Indiana’s law is a harmful law. But I am also convinced that the politics of Indiana is a tiny fraction of what Indiana really is. If economic pressure helps right the wrong of that law, I’m all for it. Let’s do it. Let’s just do it without labeling all Indianans as some lesser species and their state as some cesspool.

We can’t allow politics to deaden our empathy or shut us off to the rich complexities of people and places. When our desire to reform a law—or when our disagreement with a politician—causes us to send a surge of hate into the world, we’re making the world less. There’s no sense in that. Not when there’s so much out there to love. In Texas, and in Indiana too.

I Became Irrelevant

Last week, I came across a story in GQ about a man who lived alone in the hills of Maine for 27 years. This fascinated me. Not just because the story is so unusual, but because the novel I’m currently trying to get into the world is about a man living alone in the hills.

My character runs to the wilderness because he believes a plague is days away from ending humanity. The fellow in Maine had no such dark conceptualizations. Indeed, he survived through hundreds of thefts perpetrated upon the residents of a nearby town. And yet, like the main character in my novel, he went years without speaking to or being seen by another human. In the article, he speaks to the consequences of that.

“I did examine myself,” he said. “Solitude did increase my perception. But here’s the tricky thing—when I applied my increased perception to myself, I lost my identity. With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”

Can we only be free by living without connections? That question is an ancient one. The Buddhists instruct us to let go of our wants, that suffering is only ended by living in neither the past nor an imagined future. Is that how this man in the GQ article lived? Surely not. He was a thief, always coveting, always plotting how to survive the hard winters.

And yet there is indeed a romanticism in the idea of escaping the world and its people. Particularly nowadays when so much of what we do is observed and cataloged. While no one may know my name in the supermarket, cameras capture me, my credit card company logs me, my phone tracks me. Is that not a form of bondage? And if it is, then doesn’t the only true freedom exist outside of it?

In his heart, the character in my novel longs to to live free from the observations and expectations of others. As for the man in the GQ story, he says he doesn’t know why he retreated to the hills. Perhaps he has forgotten the reason. Or perhaps he never could articulate it to himself. But I can understand what would pull someone away from the world. Even though I am content in my warm house, submitting words to the databases of the world, I question if I am free. If any of us are.

Why the Oscars Matter

I saw a number of people on Twitter dismissing the Oscars as irrelevant. That was their way of expressing frustration over the Oscar nomination’s incredible whiteness and (in categories not specifically designated for women) maleness. Their frustration is a good one, but their critique is incorrect. The Oscars are very relevant. Not just because their results drive the industry (or at least the part of the industry trying to make something other than superhero blockbusters) but because, in an increasingly shattered culture, the Oscars represent one of the few mass-culture moments. Even those who don’t watch the broadcast (or the movies awarded) are likely to hear about the results. And those results help sculpt our perceptions of and our relation to the greater culture.

The lack of color and femininity amongst this year’s Oscar nominees is not a good thing at all. But the problem isn’t that the well-reviewed and well-received movie Selma failed to earn a nomination for any of its black cast or for its black, female director. These kinds of snubs happen to good movies all the time. Indeed, the history of what didn’t win or wasn’t even nominated is as rich, if not richer, than the history of the winners themselves. No, the problem is: Selma was about the only place from which there could’ve been a nomination for an actor of color or for a female, black director. What other Oscar buzzy movies featured black leads? Latino leads? Asian leads? Middle Eastern leads? Women directors? Women cinematographers. Etc. Etc.

I have nothing against the many white actors or the male directors who were nominated. They are all surely talented and deserving. But is it a fair competition when the opportunities for people of color and women are so slim? I mean, even if you put aside the fact that Robert Duvall was nominated for playing pretty much himself (according to many critics) instead of David Oyelowo for playing a nuanced Martin Luther King (again, according to many critics), you have to ask the question: did the role Robert Duvall play have to be played by a white man? Could the judge not have been black? Or Latino? Or Asian? Or, good lord, an Asian woman?

You could do that exercise for several of the nominated roles. But not all of them, of course, because biopics dominate the Oscars once again. Even Selma is a biopic. Why are there so many of these “looks back?” Do we, culturally speaking, need so much celebration of Great Men in lieu of original storytelling? Is, for instance, The Imitation Game really all that culturally critical? Or did it get made because it was considered “mainstream” arty while movies that didn’t feature white actors or weren’t produced and directed by white guys (Alejandro González Iñárritu aside) weren’t considered mainstream enough and thus never received the opportunity to be made?

We have to be cautious of the word mainstream. It usually just means: what the powers that be deem inoffensive. And if the powers that be are predominately of one gender and one race…?

That’s the problem. The Oscar voters are just the symptom. The malady is in the system itself. When so few Oscar-type roles go to people of color and so few women or people of color are given the opportunity to direct or be cinematographers, etc., the pool of Oscar contenders becomes very white and very male. And that’s bad for our culture. Because a diverse people deserve a diverse art.

Art, after all, is one of the most vital ways humans connect. Through our art, we should be connecting with all of America and the outside world. Instead, because of a lack of opportunity, we are continually connecting with the same old, same old.

This Was the Year…

This was the year my son turned 10, bounding toward adolescence, deft with a touchscreen and quick with a humorous retort.

This was the year I returned to Big Sur, the wife and I hiking the hills and combing the beaches and drinking wine above the waves.

This was the year I learned how one dies in the desert, taking a too-long hike on a too-hot day, feeling my body weaken, my water no match for the heat. We could see the car, miles away, a wavering glint of metal. We forced it to grow. We made it home.

This was the year I turned 40, celebrating it with Vegas and my wife and the man who’s been my best friend since we were just a little older than my son is now. He turned 40 three days after me. We ate and we drank and we gambled. And we weren’t too old for that shit.

This was the year I visited North Carolina for the first time, tramping through the streets of Asheville with a poet and a journalist, drinking micro-brews and dining on rabbit and cracking each other up late into the night.

This was the year I finished the third novel I’ve written, the one I hope will be known as my debut.

This was the year my daughter turned 8, skating through a party with other girls and boys, their youth a thing of awkward grace, bouncing when they fell and laughing too, the ground, for them, so wonderfully close.

This was the year my dog died, lasting a few days past his 15th birthday, his old age having become a cruelty, robbing him of his ability to chase tennis balls or climb stairs, leaving him incontinent and embarrassed and pained. The end came with the help of a vet and a needle. I felt him twitch and spasm and go. I do not like thinking about it. I remember him chasing tennis balls, tongue lolling and eyes bright.

This was the year good people were shot from the sky and young men were shot by cops and cops were shot by psychopaths and one of the heroes of my childhood was exposed as a rapist. This was the year of ISIS. Of Russian aggression. Of school kids abducted in Nigeria and murdered in Pakistan. This was the year without consensus. Without courage. Without peace. This was the year too many white people denied the existence of their own racism and too many men denied the existence of their sexism. This was the year of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Of anti-science and anti-religion. Of hating Republicans and hating Democrats. Of name-calling. Blackballing. Facebook fiefdoms and Twitter wars. This was the year we picked at our scabs. This was the year we took a few more uneasy steps towards getting better.

This was the year we got a cat. We love her very much.