Thursday, January 23, 2014

Just A Writer

Some writers construct symphonies with words, mastering semantics, cadence, and rhythm. Flowing poetry, seamless and succinct. Displaying a copious vocabulary, a knack for wordplay and nailing everything perfectly.

I have yet to do this.

They construct mansions with their words, elegant spaces with comfortable nooks, sprawling gardens and classical elements. I construct a hovel, whose cardboard walls are flimsy and in danger of collapsing. Yet I can erect the four walls, so that’s something.

With every story I write, I’m learning. With every story I read, I’m learning. The mantra they teach you about writing is: Read. Write. Repeat. Read different genres, write something out of your comfort zone and continue doing this until you’re dead.

Writing should not be a dilettante hobby. It’s a lifelong commitment. It’s the monkey on your shoulder flinging its poop at you whenever you get complacent, whenever you feel sorry for yourself and want to sit on the couch, eat Cheetos and watch “2 Broke Girls”.

That’s especially sad.

The monkey smacks you on your head, urging you to continue, forcing you back into Word City, driving you forward. It pries your mouth open with its little monkey fingers and pours coffee down your gullet. It chants eek eek ook ook and gets you to regroup and write.

You are not a human being with free will. You are that monkey’s bitch. Mistress Monkey with the 9-inch stiletto heels and bullwhip, smacking you around, forcing you to meet deadlines.

You’re a writer. You’re weird. Get used to it.

Twenty years ago I came down to Cape May County to work in newspapers. I started out editing obituaries, because 23-year olds find typing and proofreading death notices mentally stimulating and fun. From there came a plethora of mundane assignments; covering the freeholder board, local zoning boards, school boards and town councils.

Journalism doesn’t have a monkey muse on your shoulder. It has a gorilla on your shoulder, crushing your spine, wearing you out and thrashing you about like a suitcase in a 1972 American Tourister commercial.

It’s brutal, the hours and pay suck and as far as respect, Congress has a higher approval rating. The print media is a dinosaur going extinct. In 2013, the Wall Street Journal named newspaper reporters as the worst job in America. That means the guy who cleans the elephant shit in the zoo has more job satisfaction than newspaper reporters.

I dedicated my adult life to a sinking ship. Cynicism, gloomy prognostications and hand-wringing fill newsrooms. The once idealistic and gullible writer I was became squashed under the gorilla’s fist. The hot breath from the monster’s nostrils down my neck. A stressful, thankless parade of writing on deadline, getting a paper out and doing it all again. Not allowing myself time to relax. Not laughing. Letting the corrupt system running the world chip away at the writer I was.

No wonder why so many reporters are alcoholics.

It’s taken me years to ignore the false doomsayers in the media and politics and refocus my energies on writing. Only on the cusp of middle age do I grasp the importance of words, of this bizarre gift and curse.

When you’re north of 40, you’ve lived half your life. You assess yourself, where you’ve been, where you’d like to go. I didn’t want my remaining years consumed with further regret. I refuse to be a washed-up hack, toiling in front of a computer screen. If I’m going to further commit to this, I’m doing it my way.

Full throttle, balls deep, in the zone.

This career is not just another way to pay bills. It’s not just about competing with other newspapers and websites for readers. Since editorial doesn’t generate revenue, as one editor told me, I am not as important as the advertising department. I disagree. The pen is mightier than the sword. It’s mightier than an F-16 fighter jet carrying a 100-megaton nuclear warhead. Words can do more than entertain and amuse. They can change the world. They can send the forces of corruption and evil running for the hills. They can topple careers, expose abuse and neglect and burrow right into your gut like pinworms with super powers.

Words inflame your passions and raise the dead. Lazarus frantically typing away, cursing the darkness and shining the Fresnel lens of truth. Your Mighty Word Beacon illuminates the night, scattering ugliness across the land, like the deformed demonic critters from a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. With your skill and perseverance, you squash every one of those corrupt buggers.

Every. Single. One. 

Maybe there’s a tiny bit of the idealistic young man inside me, even though I’m old and petulant most days. Perhaps keeping a sense of humor, a need for satire and a reputation for honesty and truth helps.

Especially in a small town like this, where truth is often swept under the rug for expediency’s sake, and superficiality replaces substance.

But I wouldn’t know anything about that.

I’m just a writer.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Come At Me, Bro

Life is the ultimate bully, picking on 98-pound weakling you, kicking sand in your face and stealing your girl.

When things are at their darkest, life bursts from its seedy grime-covered hole and starts poking your chest. “Come at me, bro!” it taunts. “Come at me!”

At age 11, I lost both my grandparents, one to a heart attack, the other to liver cancer. Life left a traumatic impression, like waking to a rat skittering across your chest.

“Come at me, bro!” life mocked.

I wasn’t like the other students and was left behind a grade. It wasn’t that I lacked motivation or intelligence; I just wanted the pain to stop. Wanted people to listen to me. Didn’t want them to tease me.
“Come at me, bro! Come at me!”

Every girl who rejected me in school, who made fun of my last name, who laughed because I was withdrawn. The fights after school on the playground. Humiliating. Blood on concrete. Muffled sobs into a pillow because I didn’t want my parents to hear.

“Come at me, bro!"

Jobs with asshole bosses. Suffering the ridicule and the positions I didn’t want but slogged through because I needed the income. Trying to squeeze out of the shell suffocating me.

Life became a drunken lout and boorish jackass.

“Come at me, bro! Come at me!”

When I struggled through an unhappy marriage and stressful divorce, the disillusionment poured over me like waterboarding. Whispers and promises, paying bills and drowning in a torpid routine. You’re flawed and she makes you feel small, makes you regret. Makes you attempt suicide. Noose slung over beam in garage.

 “Come at me, bro!”

What you thought was love was only lust. Drunken tryst with someone you regarded as your soul mate. Turns out you were too immature for anything deep.

Hurtful words said in the heat of the moment. Hurtful words you could not take back. Life calling you a loser, a failure, a nobody.

Life slaps you, punches you, gives you a bloody nose.

“Come at me, bro!”

A series of missteps, accusations you’re incompetent. Self doubt. She texts you, calling  you a liar and saying you’re afraid of life. Your writing career is a joke. What the hell do you have to say? Back pain. A herniated disc. Hypochondriac. Munchausen syndrome because you want others to feel sympathy.

You just want someone to feel anything for you.

Life jabs you repeatedly, uppercut, overhand, hook, liver punch. Staggering and stumbling, seeing stars.

“Come at me, bro! Come at me.”

Then you do the most unexpected and surprising thing, when life has you on the ropes and you’re drooling blood and black puffy eyes obscure your vision.

You punch back.

You’re Muhammad Ali, Rocky Balboa and Popeye the Sailor beating the shit out of life.

That’s all you can stand, you can’t stands no more.

When life retaliates, you don’t throw in the towel. You defend yourself and swing.

No matter how much life bullies you, knocks you down or trips you, you don’t give it the satisfaction of quitting. Punch back, spit blood, grunt like a wolverine on steroids and say “Is that all you got? I’m still standing. I won’t be undone. I’m tired of your bullshit, tired of feeling sad and insignificant. I will kick your ass.”

That moment life realizes you’re not weak and easily intimidated. It wobbles like a battered crane, hobbling on one foot. Mouth agape, stunned into silence.

You lean over, scrunch up your face and say to life, “Come at me, bro.”

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Somewhere the Devil is Laughing

The more I take my yearly travels around the sun, the more I learn uncomfortable truths.

Namely, everything no matter how grandiose or miniscule, has a beginning, middle and an end.  Life exists, thrives and dies. Seasons change. Nations rise and fall.

The second truth is, politicians lie to preserve their careers and legacies.

They lie, distort, mislead and misdirect. Both political parties do this. They manipulate the press and voters, even bullshitting their own supporters and backers.

All for their greater good. A grand journey of manipulating the public and securing backers with fat paychecks. I think of them as Chucky, the evil puppet, for isn’t that what politicians are when you deconstruct them? Evil puppets? Bought and paid for by corporate or lobby interests to shill a specific agenda?

When their loyal toadies transgress, these unsavory ones must be culled from the herd and slaughtered for self-preservation’s sake.

Which brings us to the George Washington Bridge fiasco, or Bridgegate, or Bridgeghazi, or whatever ridiculous moniker the media uses.

Here’s what happened:

Last September, before New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, the George Washington Bridge, a vital link between Fort Lee and Manhattan, experienced lane closures. These closures delayed traffic, caused terrible congestion problems and inconvenienced everybody.

Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor Mark Sokolich asserts the lane closures were in retribution for him not supporting Christie’s reelection.

Emails released Jan. 8 between Christie’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly and Christie-appointed Port Authority official David Wildstein indicate efforts to close the lanes for political retribution.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee, “ Kelly wrote to Wildstein on Aug. 13.

“Got it.” Wildstein responded.

A text conversation between Wildstein and an unknown sender (whose name was redacted), reveled in the closures and the problems they presented.

“Is it wrong that I’m smiling?” the unknown texter wrote.

“No.” Wildstein responded.

“I feel badly about the kids. I guess,” the person wrote back.

“They are the children of Buono voters,” Wildstein wrote.

In another exchange, Kelly asked Wildstein if the Port Authoirty was going to respond to several of Sololich’s complaints.

“Radio silence,” Wildstein wrote to Kelly.

These exchanges sound like the worst revenge porn, grudge-fucking while wearing clown masks, or the filthiest golden shower/Cleveland steamer Penthouse Forum letters ever written.

They portray a decadent government whose dysfunctions rival that of ancient Rome, accept the Romans actually patronized the arts.

Those involved are blindly loyal to Christie, complete partisan hacks who’d sell their mothers into slavery in order to pad their political resumes and curry favor with the governor.

It’s as if they were all lounging on crushed velvet-covered divans, typing these emails on their iPads, clad only in silk bathrobes, popping Belgian chocolates and getting handjobs from their Guatemalan nannies.

How these debauched reprobates could brazenly carry out such a flagrant abuse of power all to settle a petty political score boggles the mind.

Wildstein resigned Dec. 13 as the controversy grew. By then the proverbial shit was ready to hit the proverbial fan. 

Gov. Christie held a press conference on Jan. 9 and begged the state to forgive him. He fired Kelly and demanded an inquiry be conducted. Now his administration is under federal investigation, and the rats are scurrying all over this sinking ship.

It didn’t help Christie that his administration told the public the land closures were for a “traffic safety study”.

The issue isn’t just about an uncivil and petty political system, but how truly warped our society has become. We don’t view each other as equals, as human beings. We tend to compartmentalize and divide people into easily-defined labels and categories. We’re either conservatives or liberals, religious or secular, straight or gay.

Familiar or alien.

Us or them.

It’s tragic these political zombies, mindless drones whose fealty to Christie blinded them to right and wrong, decided to act without conscience and enact a revenge fantasy against a politician who didn’t support their boss.

The ugly incident reminds me of how political campaigns were fought 90 years ago, when the thugs and local gangsters intimidated factory workers and everyday citizens, bullying them into voting for their candidates. The recent season of Boardwalk Empire illustrates this perfectly, with hoodlums flanking workers emerging from a factory, cajoling them with threats and displaying baseball bats and other weaponry if the proles didn’t vote their way.

New Jersey’s political climate mimics this dreadful scene, with Christie’s lackeys waging a stealth war against those who don’t play ball.

This “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality is ultimately destructive and breeds resentment and fosters ill will among the populace.

Such bullying tactics may have worked in 1920s Illinois, but not in 2013 New Jersey.

The governor sets the tone for the state. He brags his administration is bipartisan and works with Democrats, as demonstrated by his cuddlefest with President Obama following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Yet the incident at the George Washington Bridge exposed the administration’s rotten core, one festering with the stink of cronyism, payback and partisanship.

While this scandal doesn’t bode well for Christie, who is a potential 2016 presidential candidate, it doesn’t play well for the Republican Party.

Even during the dark days of former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who incidentally did to New Jersey what the Hillside Strangler did to runaway prostitutes, things weren’t this bad. Sure, everyone lived in dung-covered hovels and eked out a peasant’s living while the Trenton glitterati held orgies in Drumthwacket, but at least things were civil.

No political operatives shutting down lanes on a bridge to punish recalcitrant Republicans. 

Not that they haven’t tried. Democrats in this state might be incompetent, but they’re not psychotic. Ever since Christie got in, his circle of friends and backers increased. The stakes became higher. The spin became faster and agenda broader.

This underlies the real difference between Democrats and Republicans here.

Democrats are well-meaning, but deeply flawed, goofy intellectuals, Don Quixote charging at windmills. All idealism, but zero organizational skills.

Republicans here are well-meaning in doses, but the higher you climb up the food chain, the more devious and brutal they become. It’s as if Darth Vader and Satan had a baby and the result is a New Jersey Republican political operative.

This unholy spawn, this goat-headed bastard baby only wants one thing: to feed on the tears of Democrats. Writhing in its suit, driving its towncar, Damien only wishes to sup upon misery it created, while bolstering support for his dad. Utterances against his dad will be dealt with harshly. So the operative colludes with his buddies to make life miserable for the opposition. To thwart anyone perceived as an obstacle or enemy of the state. During these stealthy, pitched battles, they vie to increase dad’s prestige and power, trampling any dissenters under their cloven hooves.

Lying is wrong. For public officials to lie is a breach of trust.

Yet in the malformed mind of a political operative, lying is part of the game. It’s how they deflect truth and pass the buck.

If Christie truly cared about his legacy, he’d cast these beasts into the furthest depths of perdition, banish them from public office for life and let them rot in prison. Their names shall be nothing but blasphemous heresies mumbled in garbled tones by disheveled madmen wandering the state capital.

The governor did the right thing by firing Kelly. We need more of a purging, a grand cleansing to wash away the stink. Then he should reexamine those close to him and choose those who want to serve all of New Jersey, not just the Republican inner circle.

Partisan politics has grown outrageous and toxic. It’s time to reassess our priorities and clean house.