62. five years ago

I wrote this five years ago for a creative writing class. It’s better than most of what I write, but it’s got a few holes. For one, I ripped a line wholesale from John Irving. Also, the goal was to limit multisyllable words, and I didn’t quite get there. 

But I’m proud of it. It’s the first time I ever took fiction seriously.

We have to do it. That’s what Tim says, and no one says no to Tim. But the more I think on it, the more I think he’s right. What they did to Gibs was messed up.

Tim and I went to see him last night at St. James, and he’s still banged up bad, lots of beeps and boops doing his living for him. His neck was wrapped tight, but I know what’s there. Tim says it’s called a Harlem sunset. I thought it should have a worse name than that, but no one says no to Tim.

I’m not as tough as the rest of the Four Swords think I am, but at least I know that. I don’t think I could do what Paul did to that kid he caught messing with his cousin. That night, as the rain soaked my feet through my shoes, he told me it was a piece of cake.

“All it took was a bat,” he said, grinning and swinging at me. But I saw it took guts. He’s a strong kid, and now no one will mess with his cousin. I wish I could do that. I wish I had the fire in me that guys like Tim and Paul have.

“Why did they cut up Gibs?” I asked Tim on the drive home.

“Hate to ask you this, kid, but do you got a smoke?” I fished in my coat for my cloves and lit one for both of us. He was trying to quit smoking, and I was trying to start.

“I think it had to do with Kate,” he said.

“Who’s Kate?”

“Mike D’s girl.”

“Who’s Mike D?”

“He’s a Duke.”

“Oh.” I gave Tim a grim nod, apt for the rare use of the D-word.

“You’re in tonight, right?” I knew what he would want me to say.

“We have to do it,” I said.

“That’s my guy,” he said, ruffling my hair. “We have to do it.”

The rest of the ride went quick, my head buzzed with smoke and fear and the sound of Gibs breathing through tubes.

“Meet at Paul’s at eight,” Tim said when he dropped me off. “Bring your dancing shoes.”

Mom had left for work by the time I got home, so I knew it was at least six. I called Syd and Jack to see if they would play some ball with me to calm my nerves, but both calls went straight to voicemail.

I went up to my room and locked the door. I dug my dad’s old Ray Charles disc out from my desk and put it in my boom box. I wished I had Georgia on my mind like old Ray. I layed on my bed and tried to sleep, but when I closed my eyes I saw Gibs.

What will I feel? The guy that got Gibs, what did he feel? Did he know who Gibs was or just that he was a Sword?  I felt my hate for the Dukes well up, and, remembering what Tim said, I reached under my bed.

The 6-inch switch caught the light from my lamp when I clicked it. The back of the blade was scraped up from rubbing it on the brick wall next to my house; no Sword’s knife is new.

Seeing it was ten to eight, I locked the house and left for Paul’s. In the warm air, my fear was close to gone. My steps were light on the walk. I would make the Dukes pay for Gibs, and then I’d smoke a clove with Tim and go to St. James to tell Gibs the whole story. And then it would all be done.

51. wheat thicks

I love being in a newsroom by myself, surrounded by the shadows and silence and latent hum of computers.

I wasn’t alone all night, though. The first half of my shift was spent in the auditory company of Harris Wittels, one of my all-time favorite podcast guests ever. What a brilliant guy.

An NPR memorial called my attention to Wittels’ second appearance on Pete Holmes’ podcast “You Made It Weird.” In it, the writer-comedian recounts thea entire odyssey of his drug use, from being a casual toker to getting hopelessly and desperately strung out on heroin.

The way he tells it is so characteristically, bizarrely hilarious that it’s impossible to not relate with him — even as he gets mixed up in Scientology and robbed multiple times. There are also liberal references to Wheat Thicks, a Harris classic. Gimme that wheat.

Near the end, he reflects on Robin Williams’ death, and it gets spooky and premonitious.

I know I can’t do heroin again, he says, Because I’ll just die.b

It’s devastating to hear. That was four months ago. Doesn’t it feel a little like this generation’s Mitch Hedberg moment? Thinking about that, it finally struck me what made his comedy so unique.

The Jameson Cannibal Affair

Near the end of the 19th century, Europe’s colonial powers were still convinced Africa was a game bird to be carved and shared. Land was raped for resources; people enslaved for labor.  It was grim and deadly, and one of the few frontiers where spoiled aristocrats could still pay to have an adventure.

This is the story of the Jameson Cannibal Affair. 

James Sligo Jameson, heir to the Jameson whiskey fortune, bought his way into the heart of darkness in 1888. His explicit job was as a subcommander in the rear column of a Belgian relief expedition, but he wasn’t much interested in leading, and the unit fell into disarray under his supervision.

Instead, Jameson was darkly fascinated with the customs of the Congo natives, especially their penchant for cannibalism. The macabre eating habits had been widely documented, right down to the gleaming points at the end of the natives’ sharpened teeth. In his own letters, Jameson recounts the common recipe – Wash bodies; Stuff bodies with bananas; Roast bodies. Serve bodies.

But something in Jameson wouldn’t rest. Inside him curiosity widened a black cavity he couldn’t fill with secondhand accounts.

See, Jameson himself had never seen man eat man. And what self-respecting tourist would miss the chance to confirm, with his own eyes, the sordid rumors whispered in parlors by wide-eyed women in corsets, grimly speculated by dapper gents between brandy apertifs?

This is where accounts of the affair dovetail. Some say Jameson asked to see cannibalism first-hand and asked what it would cost. Like it was the toll on the Liberty ferry. In his own accounts, released posthumously by his wife, Jameson says he thought the whole thing was a ruse, a trick the tribe was playing on the foreigner, and he wanted to see the punchline.

What is agreed upon is the price of six handkerchiefs. That is what James Jameson paid to see a 10-year-old girl from a rival village procured, tied to a tree, and stabbed twice in the torso. The cannibals beheaded her, carved her up with practiced efficiency, and took her in parts to the river for washing. The complete mise-en-place.

“The most extraordinary thing,” Jameson wrote, “was that the girl never uttered a sound, nor struggled until she fell. … When I went home I tried to make some small sketches of the scene while still fresh in my memory, not that it is every like to fade from it. No one here seemed to be in the least astonished at it.”

With the whole of the expedition failing spectacularly, word trickled back to civilization. Stomachs and public opinion turned.Jameson became a poster boy for Africa’s capacity to bankrupt a man’s morality.a He died of illness before he was held accountable.

For six handkerchiefs, Jameson got what he paid for; humanity tied, sliced, torn, stuffed and spitted. The devil’s price is always cheapest.

41. first, they came for leno

First, they came for Leno, and I did not speak out — Because Leno sucks.

Then, they came for Conan, and I did not speak out—Because Conan had that job for, like, six seconds.

Then, they came for Pete Holmes, and I did not speak out—Because I think I’m the only one who watched that show.

Then, they came for Colbert, and I did not speak out—Because I was weeping uncontrollably.

Now, they have come for Stewart, and I say nothing—Because I just realized he’s Jewish, and this is an extended Holocaust allusion, and I am embarrassed.

36. brady is immortal

What you’re about to read is a 500-word essay penned after a night out on the town by a close friend and Patriots fan. The conceit regards his lord and savior, Tom Brady. I received it at 6:14 AM — 3:14 AM his time — and it’s one of the loopiest, funniest and sincerest things I’ve ever read. This is why I love sports. 

I’ve been inspired to rewatch the SBXXVIa video. First off, I feel old. My god, look at Brady. Look at belichick. JR Redmond? Who is that? Vrabel still plays for the Pats? This is weird. The offenses are strange and seemingly simplistic. High schools are running the same plays Kurt Warner made famous.b

Here comes the second year QB, 90 seconds left. Even the helmets are weird, Brady looks like a Neanderthal. But you can still see his eyes. Everyone talks about how cool he was during that drive. He’s not even mentioned at the X-Factor. “They’ve got a great kicker.”c

Watch closely. He’s shitting his pants. Two years removed from the Big 10 and now he’s on football’s biggest stage. Of course he’s scared! He’s playing exactly like a second year QB would, taking the safe passes.d He checks down three times in a row. he throws one away, barely outside the tackle box. He makes one amazing downfield pass. He’s aware of the clock, probably the biggest thing that sets him apart from other quarterbacks of his experience. What other first-time starter has the guys to run up and spike it, knowing full well he’s wasting a down?

Brady engineered that drive, no doubt. He set himself on a path to become elite in 80 seconds. He knew he didn’t have to score. Warner needed a TD and got it, but just enough is plenty. Brady just needed enough. He dink and dunked his way to fame before dinking and dunking was the way of the NFL.e He moved the ball like he would with a slot receiver without one.

Brady isn’t a great deep ball passer. When did people begin to think he was?f  QBs are supposed to mature into these passing machines that toss great deep balls and make spectacular throws to move the chains 15, 20 yards at a time. Brady was never that. He moves the ball by completing his passes and letting his team do the rest. Screens and checkdowns all day. The reason they won this year? He dinked and dinkedg his way. With randy moss, he become unstoppable in the record books, but couldn’t win a championship. He couldn’t win without a backfield receiver either.h

Brady is immortal.i He’s top three all-time. Maybe the greatest ever. But not of quarterbacks. He’s a game manager.j He knows exactly what needs to be done and when to do it. He won’t complete huge gainers all the time. He’s not the great deep passer some people think he is. He can make those throws when they count and he completes the easy passes because he knows a lot of small gains can lead to a big return. He’s Chad Pennington crossed with Brett Favre.k He makes the most of the small plays and makes the big ones when he needs to.

In a word, he’s clutch. No other player defines it like he does.l

In all seriousness, this is loving sports. It’s a booze-soaked brain translating honest, raw emotion from the heart as best it can.

And even though I’m teasing him, I’ve done this too. I’ve stayed up late watching replays of the 2010 NBA Finals. I’ve mashed up Deion Sanders highlights with Lauryn Hill deep cuts. And yes, I’ve penned my own embarrassingly long and emotionally stilted essays about my favorite football team. And mine were written sober! And were published! By real news outlets!

The thing is, it’s impossible to rationalize being a sports fan. Bethlehem Shoals once said rooting for one team is like an arranged marriage between two sadists. It doesn’t make sense. It hurts. Fans either see their team win the Super Bowl, or see their team’s season end in a loss or without a postseason. Every year.

And every year we go back and watch more history unfold, knowing full well we will revise it when we’re wiser, drunker and more nostalgic.

8. Elvis & Bowie

Today is David Bowie’s 68th birthday. It also would’ve been Elvis’ 80th birthday, had the King maybe cheated on his diet of barbiturates and Fool’s Gold Loaf sandwiches.

Smarter and more qualified people than I have already discussed their respective iconographies and legacies. Elvis and Bowie each left a monstrous footprint on rock during the genre’s most impressionable ages. One helped bear it into the world, and the other took it to space and gave it hard drugs.

I dig each of their discographies for different musical reasons, but the central raison d’être for my appreciation is my dad. I’d bet even money he wore an Elvis tie to work today and adopted the burden of ensuring his students are, if not appreciative, at least aware of both artists’ lasting contributions.

As I get older and assimilate more pop-culture worlds into my database (and yes, that’s exactly how I envision it — that’s the only way I can justify watching a WKRP In Cincinnati marathon in the year 2015, so shut up), my dad always knows exactly when to send me through wormholes into some of the planets he conquered when he was my age. Part of my Christmas present this year, for instance, was a John D. MacDonald starter kit.

Almost without exception, his suggestions are valued, and they literally stretch back since before I can remember.

IIRC, I got into Bowie on my own, and he was a heavyweight in my middle-school foray into ’80s radio hits. In fact, I once made a tragically short-sighted bet that I could listen to Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure” once per day for the rest of my life. That should give you a good idea of the ignorant/stubborn/naive composite that was me at 14.

I raided my dad’s Bowie albums shortly after, right when “Ziggy Stardust” appeared on the first Guitar Hero. (Hell yes, I got in on the ground floor of that franchise. ) That got me into Spiders From Mars and Diamond Dogs, which begot Thin White Duke and Aladdin Sane and totally and completely detonated my perceptions of what a solo artist could do with his career.

And while I have traveled through the loose ends of Bowie’s career on iTunes and Spotify, it’s my dad who’s sent me the cool backstage photos and isolated instrumental tracks as Scenic Route signposts along my journey.

My Elvis education was a similar experience, but I was more deliberate in my tuition. I knew his standards growing up, but in college, I explicitly asked my dad for a flash drive of Elvis. Since this is the man who almost named me Elvis, he was proud to oblige.

Nowadays, Elvis is less accessible than Bowie, both musically and also, you know, literally, and getting through some of his live stuff was an admitted slog. His loose stage confidence is always affecting, though, and he found himself alone on shuffle during my trip to Memphis in 2011.

I was wondering today what the music landscape would be like if he were still alive. Would he still be recording music like McCartney?  Would he have had to suffer an ugly talent declination in front of aging Vegas crowds like Sinatra?

I doubt Elvis was deft enough to pull off Bowie’s magic act — that maintenance of critical and public admiration accomplished by keeping a low profile and answering to no one. I choose to think Elvis would have aged gracefully into his role as an aging music monarch. I know my dad would still love him, and so would I.

Viva la Colbert

Basic cable is a little less funny today.

The Colbert Report, my favorite show on television, aired its finale last night, and I’m really, really, really gonna miss it. Refreshingly genuine. Different from anything else that came before it.

I got into it in high school, catching reruns while I cooked ramen and finished my homework. In college, the show pried open my provincial mind and taught me about the silliness inherent in the country’s bureaucracies. It was like learning AP Government from Spongebob.


A little more than a month ago, my fandom reached a peak when I went to a taping.

Before the show, Real Stephen fields questions from fans.

“Young man in the back,” he said when he called on me.

“If you can have dinner with three people from history, who would you choose?” He started laughing, and instead of giving me a real, significant answer, he eased back into character.

“Jesus,” He deadpanned. “And… that’s all you need, really.”

It was an easy answer, and a little bit disappointing, if I’m honest. But we connected, and for a second I felt first-hand the hum of creative energy that turned a recurring sketch character into a nine-year, world-influencing franchise.

What I’ll remember most from that day came during the segment break, when the crew sets up the next programming block.

“Bigger Than Love” by Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis was blaring from the speakers, and other than tapping his pen, Colbert didn’t even look like he was paying attention.

But when Gibbard’s voice kicked in again, Colbert’s face came alive. His eyes scanned the crowd and his smile widened — the “Who, me?” look — and he started mouthing the lyrics.

That’s what has always stuck with me; his infectiousness and happiness. The viral tributes and best-ofs this week have reminded me of that — how joy spreads so easily when combined with talent and professionalism.

Gonna miss you, buddy.

Catholic Throwdown with Jack White

Better Know A Challenger – Jake Rush the vampire

A Coast-to-Coast Poem for the Jabronis

On this festive occasion, here’s a brief note to my fantasy football league…

‘Twas the week of the big one
And thus there were two
In one corner, Ryan,
In the other, Yours True

But before we get into
The year’s main event
Here’s a note on the eight
Whose seasons are spent…

Dan, you were sudden,
Quick and forgotten
Like a badly stubbed toe,
Your season was rotten

For Russ a domain:
My fantasy skill
Clearly came from my mom

Levi’s forgiven,
He’s out of his habits
You can’t watch the waiver
While fucking like rabbits

Lance was unlucky,
No wonder he’s mad
But see his two titles?
Don’t feel too bad

Nick worked the wire,
The Jester Of Scrap
He’ll have more success
When he doesn’t draft crap

“Avoid land wars in Asia,”
The wise men all say
But Dustin invaded,
And his roster would pay

Anders, the heel,
The thief of first place
You invited our venom
On you and your face

Taylor the good guy,
His RBs were gold
But deep in the playoffs,
The Bells finally tolled

Now, Ryan, your comeback
Is nearly complete
Just little ol’ me
Is left to be beat

As no truer words,
Have ever been wrote,
I’ll leave you with this,
A philosopher’s quote:


The weight on my feet

photo-2-300x300My dog is smart. He’s a flat-coated retriever. I knew he’d be clever. What I didn’t realize was how clever, how full of canine ingenuity his furry two-year-old body is.

Chief came from a farm family in Oregon that claimed to find him wandering across their land as a lost puppy. So right off the bat, he’s got the same origin story as Wolverine.

The family gave the new-found pup up because their husky felt threatened and physically intimidated him. That’s how he came to live in the chaos of The Shire.

With five dudes coming and going, not to mention the constant parties, Chief never had a chance to get comfortable or grow out of his life-long timidity. When Grant had knee surgery, I adopted Chief and drove him out to Montana with me while I looked for a job.

He rode shotgun in my Camry that whole summer, and the first time I realized he was always listening, always learning, was when he learned that the difference between “go for a ride” and “go for a walk” was him helping me look for his leash.

My living situation in Brooklyn isn’t as generous to him as it was in Montana. He doesn’t have a backyard anymore, and he rarely gets a car ride. (That’s going to change this autumn.)

His intelligence manifests itself when he’s desperate. I’ve already come to terms with the fact that as the first stable thing in his life, I’m never going to get total privacy if we’re in the same building — I’m typing this with his chin on my feet, one of his favorite positions.

When I’m in my room with the door closed, he’ll get on two legs and paw open the door like a damn velociraptor. It’s insane. When I’m out of the house for a couple of hours, and his anxiety kicks in, he’ll paw open the drawer under the sink and drag out the garbage can to keep busy.

His dexterity amazes me, and it’s taught me that even when I don’t think he’s paying attention, he is. He’s finally thriving and learning how to live in the kind of comfort he never should’ve had to live without.

Happy anniversary, big guy. Thanks for being my wingman for the last 12 months.

What are the greatest hits in Mystery Jets’ ‘Greatest Hits’?

Here are the lyrics. I’ve linked every album to Spotify for your enjoyment and edification.

You can take The Lexicon of Love away
But I’m keeping Remain in Light
You can take away It’s A Shame About Ray
But I’m holding on to Country Life
Well you can keep No Need To Argue and I’ll keep The Aeroplane Over The Sea
But hold on to The Boy With The Arab Strap
‘Cause I’m holding on to Village Green

I don’t know if the knot just needs untangling
Cassette tapes get stuck all the time
But either way I’m keeping Double Nickels On The Dime

These were our greatest hits
The best of me and you

I still remember buying you Band On The Run
On the first day that we kissed
But you always did prefer McCartney One
‘Cause it reminded you of being a kid
No way you’re having This Nation’s Saving Grace
You only listen to it when you’re pissed
But when you sober up, it’s always why the fuck
Are you still listening to Mark E. Smith?

I don’t know if the knot just needs untangling
Or if we forgot which way’s up and which way is down
But still the tape keeps going round and round…

These were our greatest hits
The desert island discs
The best of me and you