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.

Filing the Rejections

My less-than-spectacular webmail provider recently updated their system, allowing me to categorize my emails. I put all my rejections into one folder because I’ve always saved my rejections as a reminder to keep at it. The rejection folder helpfully displays how many emails it contains. In the last seven years, I’ve collected 400+ rejections.

I put this out there because, while I’m sure I posted on Facebook about every single publication during this period, I doubt I’ve ever mentioned any specific rejection. That paints a skewed picture of what my writing life is like.

I do not enjoy being rejected. Surprising, I know. Every last one of them gives me anywhere from a moment to an entire day of pain and self-doubt. But that collection of rejections themselves? I don’t mind them. They are a record of perseverance. A small perseverance, for sure. There is so much worse for others to endure. But this is a writing blog. And I am a writer. And rejection is what we must learn to handle. Processing it and then sequestering it in a little folder on the side.

Writing About Race as a White Guy

This is not a political website. I’ve worked for political websites and I gave up on those websites because I could no longer bear the daily hate and lies of the political world. I did not, however, give up on thinking about issues. On engaging with this nation and world.

I think about race a lot. Not just when major incidents occur, but in my day-to-day existence. It seems to be such a false barrier. By which I mean, so much of race is a social construct, an exterior imposition that says you are this color and so you will be perceived this way and given these rights. And yet there isn’t one of us who is like another. Our skin color may hold us down or give us privilege, but it is not what we are.

That may seem obvious. Yet it needs to be said. Because I’ve heard too many proclaim that those protesting the events in Ferguson and Staten Island are “rioters” or are at least supporting “thieves and thugs.” That kind of proclamation is, I think, the very definition of racism. This inability (this refusal) to see people of similar color as unique individuals with unique perspectives worthy of honest consideration.

Sometimes, as a white person, it is uncomfortable to talk or write about race. There is the fear of offending someone, of course. And there is the sense that the experience of a white person is too far removed from the experience of a person of color for the white person to be able to provide anything of use. But I think when white people excuse themselves from the conversation they are creating more problems. What is racism in America if not predominately the subjugation of minorities by a white majority? How can we ever improve if white people of good conscience don’t think this is a problem we too should be discussing?

So, I write about race. My novel currently out with agents includes characters of multiple races, because I don’t know how to write about modern America without writing about how race affects friendship, business, violence and love. Am I worried I’ve written something that someone might find offensive? Yep. There could very well be an embarrassing cliche or a flagrant act of social blindness in my novel. But I’d rather make the mistake of ignorance than the mistake of silence.

Aaaaaaand Done

Kind of. Done enough. Given that nothing is ever 100% done.

I’m writing about the novel. The (capital t) Novel. Which is actually the third novel I’ve written. But sometimes it takes a few to get to the right one. I think this is the right one.

It will be seeking out someone to love it soon.


I can’t even express how much I would enjoy seeing that printed on the cover of a book.

An Accounting of Words

I am entering the sixth draft of my novel in progress. I should probably start referring to it as my novel in finishing, because the editing process is down to the final polish. My method of writing includes large numbers of mini-revisions within every main version. For instance, there is one chapter in the novel that has gone through upwards of 80 revisions.

So what’s left to do? Wordstuff. I’m making sure every word is the right word. One way I like to do this is to use a word frequency counter. I’ll insert the text for the entire novel and see what words I’m using and how often I’m using them. What makes this so valuable is that the words are divorced from their sentences and syntax, allowing me to consider the relative quality of each.

Obsessive? Probably. Interesting? Absolutely (what with me being a word nerd and all).

The most frequent words are the smallest. In my 65,000-word novel, I use the word “the” 4,892 times. That is 7.5% of my novel given over to the direct article. But that’s not a problem. Nor is my use of “a” or “he” or “to” or “and” or “with” or any of the character’s names (the protagonist’s name appears 1,370 times, the sixth most frequent word in the novel). These words are the back-beat of language. The bass line essential to rhythm.

No, the words I look out for are the ones that can connote sloppy writing. Like “just” (55 uses) and “then” (202 uses) and “suddenly” (0 uses) and  “but” (173 uses). Even “that” (367 uses) can be problematic. I will examine each use of these and I’ll pass judgment one by one.

But the usage of those common words are not the most interesting revelation. What the word frequency counter really does well is make me aware of my overuse of words I might not otherwise think to examine. In this instance, the best example is my usage of “back.” I did a cursory version of this exercise before the fifth draft (to give me a sense of what to look out for) and I discovered I used the word “back” 195 times. That seemed excessive. As I went through the draft, I discovered the problem. My characters were often looking one way and then looking back. He looked back. She looked back. I also had a lot of touching of backs. The usage is now down to 90, which seems a lot more reasonable (although none of the backs are free from further fits of extermination).

One other benefit of the word frequency counter is it allows me to look at all the words used once or twice (or thrice). For this novel, that includes hundreds of words. Maybe a thousand or more. I scroll through them, seeking ones that seem odd or show-offy. For instance, do I need the word “amoebic” or is that being used so I can look like a fancy writer? Same with “mucoidal” and “intransigency” and “flacidity.” And then there are the three uses of “playfully.” Do I need that particular adverb so much?

All said, the novel includes 7,685 unique words. I want all of them to be the perfect word. So it’s one more draft and then … I’ll be obsessed with the query letter.

Moving to a New Age

I turn 40 in two days. I remember turning 20 and, in the overdramatic way of my youth, I felt old and directionless. I would like to pat that poor kid on the back. And then slap him upside the head.

I wanted to publish a novel by the time I was 40. I don’t think that’s happening. But, on the positive side, during my first 40 years I did learn how to walk and feed myself. These are important achievements too.

Is it a cliché to say I don’t feel old? If anything, I feel right. Hell, I’ll say it. I feel happy. Are we cool kids (what do you mean I’m not a cool kid?) allowed to admit to happiness? I have a wonderful wife and wonderful children and a wonderful home. I go on wonderful vacations. I have wonderful friends. I have better and truer friends now than I’ve ever had.

In those overdramatic days I used to say I wouldn’t mind dying before I was 30. Seriously, I’m going to go give that kid a stern knock on the noggin.

I want to live forever.

At least if it stays like it is now. Which it won’t. But at least I get to be here. Because now that here IS here, it will always be here, in the way the past forever remains present.

Part of me wishes I had some profound insight about moving into the next decade of my life. Part of me knows there’s no need. Next week will be the same as this one. And that’s cool. I can still publish a novel before I’m 42.

Hide Your Body

If you’ve muddled around on the Internet in the last few days, you’ve probably heard there are some nude photos of celebrities recently made available thanks to the criminal actions of hackers. Otherwise decent people (predominately men) who would never knowingly buy someone’s stolen wedding ring or stolen wallet, have had no reservations about viewing these stolen images.

But that particular societal blind spot is another post. Maybe an essay: delving into so many men’s desperate need to express their culturally enforced manliness (constant lust for women, aversion to emotions outside of anger, fear of homosexuality, etc.) no matter how many people may be harmed.

All I want to say here is: I am simultaneously amused and disturbed by the number of people who say “you shouldn’t take naked photos of yourself in the first place.” Really?!? Not only is that blaming the victim but: think about the implication. You shall not bare your body. Flesh is sin.

The puritans messed us up, y’all. There is nothing wrong with taking naked photos of yourself. There IS something wrong with stealing those photos.  

The Return of the…

I have not written a real blog post in over a year. That was on another version of this site at another point in my writing life. Then (June 2013) I was marketing a novel no one wanted. Now, I’m writing a novel no one has read. I hope the “not read” part changes soon. It will, I believe, see it’s way out into the world sometime this year. I imagine I’ll mention it here.

I imagine I’ll mention many things here. I’ll mention all the things. Writing and politics and race and movies and food and booze and friends and family and that dark little spot inside always threatening to collapse me into a marble. A pea. A pinpoint.

The writing keeps me expanding. The reading keeps me expanding.

I so prefer living outside of myself. In all the ways that can be done. Through literature. Movies. Fantasy. Intellect. Through reading someone else’s words and allowing yourself to see through the warps of their individual experiences. We are all so tiny. And mortal. We need each other to live beyond the confinements of our minds and bodies. Does that sound pretentious? Okay. That’s okay. I still think it’s true.