Born in Dixie: The History of Smith County Vol.1 by James Smallwood

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Born in Dixie: The History of Smith County Vol.1 by James Smallwood

4 February 2019

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Spartans, What is your Profession?  And Don’t say Dance Instructor Again!: Thermopylae, Bradford, and Recent Historical Developments on YouTube

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herodotus

It probably has something to do with Assassin’s Creed, though in fact, it might actually have something to do with YouTube.

Part of my job is working regularly in the Local History room at the public library I work library-books-wallpaperat, and this entails a lot of time that is, simply put isolation.  The room very rarely receives visitors, and if it does many of them rarely require much assistance.  In fact, many people simply enter the room, grab some books off the shelf, and spend a few minutes or a few hours doing their research in relative quiet.  This is fine for me as I usually have somewhere around eight or ten tasks to perform that usually involve excel spreadsheets or the electronic card catalog.  And if I’m not doing that then I’m typically re-shelving books and microfilm boxes.  What this amounts to is long periods of isolation that would be ungodly boring were it not for YouTube.

I resisted as long as I could, but I’ve observed as of late that most of my internet time is watching videos on YouTube, but because I’m a nerd I don’t YouTube (is that a verb? Fuck it, I’m making it one, someone call OED) like most people probably do, so I wind up finding channels and videos about ancient Greeks, the Ottoman Empire, Medieval Weaponry, or TED overly sarcastic productionsTalks.  While this has lead me to some excellent books that I’ll hopefully have time one day to review, it’s also lead me to arguably my favorite channel on the internet, which has, in turn, rekindled a deep passion for history: Overly Sarcastic Productions.  

It’s a young man  and woman (everybody is starting to feel young to me, or at least younger than me) named Red and Blue who in turn make video “lectures” about history, the classics of literature, the various tropes of narrative arcs, and every now and then historical accuracy reviews of video games (I’m still waiting for Assassin’s Creed II, one day, one day).  It’s fair to say I’ve become fairly obsessed with this channel, having watched several of the videos multiple times, and I don’t apologize for this because it has, in turn, lead me to pick up books and at the end of the day as long as reading is taking place is that really so thermopylaebad?

I finished 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, having pretty much devoured the book in under a week.  And in my mania to hop into another classic book I observed the stack of history books in my office and found one that has a bit of an embarrassing history for me.  Thermopylae: The Battle for the West by Ernle Bradford, is a book I had literally started and stopped five different times.  I don’t like stopping books, it feels like a cop-out to me, but I have embraced the philosophy that if you’re not enjoying something you should stop doing it.  When it comes to a book I’ve started and stopped multiple times, however, there’s a bit of ego there.  The book was beating me, and damn it I wanted to win this time, and I wanted to learn about a battle I’d seen and read so much about, but only ever in quasi-mythic terms.

I grabbed my paperback copy with the Hoplite flanked on both sides by spears and set to work, finishing it in about a week and a half.  I beat the damn book, and the satisfaction was only slightly better than the book itself.ernle bradford

Bradford’s book is pretty dated having been published in the year 1980.  The writing style itself is not terrible, in fact, often Bradford demonstrates his ability as a historian and author by being able to craft a functional and interesting narrative as he lays out the facts of the Greco-Persian war while trying to steadily establish the larger cultural lesson of such a conflict.  There were beautiful sentences in this book that actually left me laughing, smiling, and reaching for my mechanical pencil so that I could underline them later either for this inevitable review or else so that I could simply go back later and read them.  Bradford is a great writer, but he’s not always a great historian in this book.

For starters, his book has no real list of sources apart from a very simple bibliography in the back filled with a few “up-to-date” sources and many works of classical antiquity.  There’s also the issue that Bradford only has a few actual chapters dedicated to the Battle of Thermopylae, and I know I sound whiny and pedantic as I write this but titles really do matter.  A title is a way to communicate goals, themes, and purpose behind the text and I expected going into this book a focus on the Battle itself.  Instead, Bradford attempts to cover the entire war covering Thermopylae, but also the battles of Salamis, Artemisium, and Platea.  This isn’t bad, but when I finished Thermopylae and discovered I had another 100 pages to read I was confused and slightly annoyed.  Granted, Bradford does say at the start in Preface that he wanted to balance the text with a larger narrative of the Persians as well Greeks but it just worked on me. leonidas-56aac6875f9b58b7d008f463

And finally, two more things needs be said.  The first is that Bradford uses the adjective “Churchillian” twice in this book and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing he also employs the deplorable adjective “oriental” to describe the Persians and other Asian society and peoples.  I understand that the man was living in a different time with a different set of cultural mores, and it’s a bad policy to judge someone with a contemporary hindsight and set of values, but it just became a bit galling when the man is using the word to describe the quality of an unashamed imperialist and then using a now racially insensitive term to describe Middle Easterners. 

It just, it just started to make me groan.

Though I suppose at this point my reader is probably wondering what the ultimate significance of this book actually is or why I’m bothering with it.

Like I said before in the 1453 review I want to just start reviewing history books period, but also to see whether or not they still have a lasting cultural value, which, if my regular helloreader has been paying attention, has ultimately been the goal of this blog since day one.  Thermopylae is a book which attempts to narrate one of the most mythic battles in all of human history, and that estimation is not too bold.  Even if a person knows nothing of ancient Greece or classical history, they probably at least know the general story of the “300 Spartans.”  Much like a fairy tale, the origins of Superman, or the plot line of Footloose, Western civilization has digested the story of King Leonidas and his men and it has become the kind of mass knowledge that “everybody just knows.”  Bradford then tries in his book to balance the story then, by narrating not just about King Leonidas and his men, but also about King Xerxes, Themistocles, and the alliance of Greek city-states that eventually repelled the Persians and brought about a kind of national consciousness to the cities of Greece.

Looking at one passage, Bradford is able to demonstrate Xerxes ability as a strategist as well as describe the powerful players of this conflictxerxes-i-2

Xerxes and his advisors knew that, if it was intolerable to send heralds to Sparta, it was equally pointless to send them to Athens.  The essential core of Greece which had to be destroyed was composed of these two small, even so dissimilar, city-states.  The one was the military muscle of Greece and the other provided by far the greater part of its Naval Arm.  Many of the other Greeks had already “medised’, as the term was: they had, that is to say, shown their willingness to co-operate with the Persians.  This was hardly surprising, since to many an intelligent citizen, whether of an Aegean island, or of a city on the mainland, it must have seemed more than clear that, even if all the Greeks were united(which was far from true), they would stand no chance against the massive army and navy that was coming against them out of the East.  (32).

Bradford’s writing can be a bit clunky in this passage, but it’s important to see how he is setting up his final assessment of what the lasting significance of this war would be.  The end-results of the conflict with Persia created a lasting sense of identity among the assassin's creed odyssyGreeks.  It might be difficult for a contemporary reader to understand this conflict since we are so used to the concept of nationalism and national identity, but ancient Greece was largely a collection of city-states: independent towns that acted, in essence, as their own county and nation.  Because of this, conflict between cities such as Thebes, Athens, Sparta, and Corinth wasn’t entirely unheard of, and was, actually, pretty damn common-place.  To a citizen of the United States, this probably is not that unheard of.  Being from Texas I tend to recognize that there really isn’t anything like a Texan.  The manners and customs of my state wouldn’t hold water in New York, nor would they hold in Oregan, Hawaii, or Delaware.  Each of these states tends to, whether they realize it or not, have their own sort of regional identity which is eventually assumed by the larger national collective.

But now I’m starting to sound painfully academic so let me shoot straight.leonidas

Bradford is attempting to demonstrate to his reader how the threat from Persia was not just a threat to a collection of individual city-states, it ultimately threatened the entire Greek identity which thus allowed for the recognition by these cities that they might just be one people after all.

He says in a later passage, noting the difficulty faced by the leader of the Greek defense Themistocles:

Part of Themistocles strategy was inevitably dictated by the very natural Athenian suspicion that the Spartans might let them down, might rely on the defense of the Isthmus, might (for whatever given reason) procrastinate and turn up late—as they had done at Marathon.  If the worst came to the worst, the Spartans might come to the conclusion that they could stay secure in the Peloponnese.  They and the other allies had to be convinced that, on this occasion, it was all or nothing for every state which had declared to hold their ground against the might of the invader.  For the greecepersianwarmapfirst time in their history, the Greeks had to co-operate with one another.  In only one respect did the Athenians have an advantage over the Spartans.  If Attica fell and Athens was overrun, they would—even if worsted in a sea battle—still have some ships left.  The survivors could ‘do a Dunkirk’ and (after collecting women and children from Troezen), they could abandon Greece, sail south and then west across the Ionian Sea, and plant a new colony in Sicily or Italy.  The Spartans, with their small fleet, were condemned to fight on the land—with no escape.  (90).

Alright, I’ll admit it, I only included the latter part of that quote to point out that Bradford was clearly once again falling back upon his English conservatism (or perhaps romanticism?) but in my defense that “Dunkirk” reference was too easy to pass up, and Dunkirk was, for the record a really amazing movie.

At this point though my reader is probably ready to object.  So what?  So what if the ancient Greeks hated each other and it took a potential invader from Asia to unite them?  I work a crappy retail gig at Target and I only get so many hours in the day to play video games and watch Game of Thrones.  What relevance does this war, or this old and possibly outdated book have to my life?10-facts-battle-of-thermopylae_5-min

This is a fair point, and as usual, I don’t have an immediate rebuttal to it.  Reading a book about the 5th century Persian Wars is something you really, really have to want to do and the sad fact is many people simply don’t.  They’d rather do their jobs and then enjoy their free time watching arguably great fantasy series on HBO and/or playing Fallout 4 (seriously how great is Liberty Prime? #advictorium, #fucktheinstitute). This decision is not something I’m faulting anyone for.  I work a full-time gig and by the end of the day, I don’t always feel like writing, in fact often I putter away my time watching YouTube and straightening books in my office before it’s time for bed.

What I would say to my reader, is that while this book may not have any sort of immediate relevance, great history is about observing the trends of humanity in the past and finding some sort of lesson from it.  While Bradford’s book has become dated, he is enormously successful in demonstrating to his reader the significance of Xerxes effort to expand his borders into Europe and the effect this had on the Greek population who had, up to that time,  seen each other as separate peoples rather than an ethnic or political50i people overall.

As Bradford points out in an early passage in the book:

The invasion of Greece made the turbulent, brilliant people of this mountainous and largely inhospitable land aware that they shared one thing in common: a believe in the individual human being’s right to dissent, to think his own way, and not to acknowledge any man as a ‘monarch of all I survey’. (23).

There is a great wealth of information in Thermopylae: The Battle for the West that I haven’t, and like any great history book Bradford packs his pages with small anecdotes and facts that will hopefully encourage his reader to continue reading.  Whether it’s the implication that King Leonidas might have arranged for the murder of a relative who could have inherited the throne, the one Spartan who returned to his home city to be cast as a coward, or the burning and destruction of the Acropolis in Athens, this book contains a wealth of fascinating historical information, but listing them all out would only be pedantic and I’m sure my reader would like me to wrap up so they can get back to playing Fallout (fun fact the Science Bobblehead is located in Vault 75, which is also the place where you help Cait complete part of her character arc, which is great, but then she judges you if you ever take Jet in front of her again).spartans-michael-welply

Bradford’s book is very much of its time (again the “Churchillian” adjective just makes me laugh every time) but I still believe there is a great amount of relevance to it, and not just because I spent a week and a half reading it and I want to make sure it wasn’t wasted time.  History is about finding and creating narratives from the events of the past, and so even the most poorly constructed histories are efforts to find meaning.  Bradford found a tremendous meaning in the Battle of Thermopylae, and the rest of the Persian Wars.  

It was a conflict in which a group of disjointed people found a collective whole in themselves that hadn’t existed before.  This isn’t to say that there was thereafter no more conflict in Greece, in fact, it’s fair and accurate to say that the history of Greece pretty much is just conflict among themselves until Roman occupation and even after that.  But for a moment the Greeks found an advantage in unity and overcoming their idiosyncrasies for the greater good of their society and way of life, and damn it, I think that’s inspiring.  The best examples of humanity are when people work together to create something great and find inspiration in their ideas and exchanges.  Thermopylae was a chance for a band of Greeks to work together to help the larger armies of the country fight the future battles that would inevitably lead to the defeat of Xerxes and his army.

And Bradford has a quote in his preface that really says it best:300 miller

The last stand of King Leonidas and the Spartans was told as a golden story in my youth.  Since then it would seem to have been downgraded, perhaps because their military outlook and stubborn courage have made them unattractive to a hedonistic society.  Without courage, Man is nothing.  Without the Battle of Thermopylae, that pass held against all odds, there would never have followed Artemisium, Salamis, and Platea.  Distasteful though it may have been to later historians, preoccupied with Athens, it was very largely the generalship of the Spartan Pausanias that made victory of Platea possible.  (14).

Bradford’s sentiments here, at least in my estimation, haven’t changed all that much.  spartan-hoplite-02-andrea-mazzocchettiThe 300 Spartans is a story that is told regularly in schools now almost as a kind of myth/fact.  It’s a story that has become increasingly relevant to contemporary society because it’s become a sort of fairy-tale about the might of individual courage and integrity.  People see in the story of the Hot Gates a life-lesson about holding true to one’s principles and not allowing “outside” influence to sway one from your original stance.  This in itself demonstrates the lasting importance of books like Thermopylae: The Battle for the West because it allows us to ask the question how we see the conflicts of the past and how we construct meaning from them.

The only point I’ll say about this is that I feel Bradford was definitely not a soothsayer because he believes the Spartans have been “downgraded” because the Spartan warriors were “unattractive.”  Clearly, the man never saw Zack Snyder coming down the pike because those leather panties have inspired legions of memes and erections that aren’t going away any-time soon.

Athens might have had an incredible tactician leading them at the battle of Salamis, but they didn’t have Michael Fassbender wearing just a leather speedo and a smile.

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*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from Thermopylae: The Battle for the West were quoted from the paperback Da Capo edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

In case you haven’t noticed I used one or two images from the new Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in this review.  My wife bought it for me for Christmas and I don’t think I’m anywhere near finishing my golden idol of her.  This game is the fucking SHIT dude.  I’ve met Euripedes, Perikles, Alcibades, Sokrates.  I’ve scaled the Parthenon, statues of Zeus, Temples of Apollo.  I’ve played as motherfucking, god-damn Leonidas and…Well, I am a happy man.

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Oh yeah, I forgot, YOU GET TO MEET GODDAMN HERODOTUS!!!!

 

***Writer’s Note***

I wrote something similar in the description section of my YouTube-Podcast for this book, but I thought I would repeat it here.  I know that I write a spirited defense of Bradford here, but, honestly, I really don’t think that this book is good history and that’s largely because Bradford only has a bibliography and not a very substantial one at that.  This book, while a pretty approachable and enjoyable read, just doesn’t use enough sources and doesn’t cite the sources that are used properly enough to be considered a “good” history.  Bradford’s book is sentiment and mythologization, and while these are not necessarily weaknesses as a narrative, they do hurt it as a functional historial text.

The man wrote a good book, but he needed at least two or three flipping footnotes.

The Knight in History by Frances Gies

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The Knight in History by Frances Gies

2 February 2019

Who and How F@*%$d Up Are You?-The Departed and Identity

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Departed 1

I had only seen Taxi Driver and Goodfellas when I watched Martin Scorsese tickle Stan Smith with his eyebrows.  Despite my ignorance of the man’s larger body of work at the time the scene still made me laugh because I knew enough about Martin Scorsese to know that those eyebrows are their own caricature and I’m positive they have their own star on the Hollywood block somewhere between Cher and Elizabeth Taylor.  The biopic of their life is supposed to be directed by Edgar Wright but that’s one of those rumors I don’t put much stock in.Pulp-Fiction1

I’m trying more and more to stop thinking so much about who I was.  This is not because I hate my past, I don’t, but my regular reader has probably heard me describe my youth and adolescence as a less than enjoyable period of my life.  I was a privileged kid who came from a great and loving family, but more and more I’ve realized that I have always had some modicum of depression.  I just never really liked myself and I didn’t enjoy it much when people complimented me or told me they thought I was exceptional.  This self loathing really kicked in during puberty and it was during this time that I found an outlet for the growing darkness and search for identity in three outlets: heavy metal, writing, and cinema.  My sophomore English teacher helped me with the second two, first by giving me her water damaged paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, and the second by recommending me to watch a film called Pulp Fiction.

Quentin Tarantino hit my brain like a typhoon and I just ingested the man’s collected work, and because I’ve always been the kind of person I am, when I find an artist that I like I disappear into their world and philosophy.  There could never be enough interviews by Tarantino to read, there could never be enough essays written by Tarantino, and there could never be enough books about Tarantino.  Somewhere, in all this research I kept hearing the same name over and over again, Martin Scorsese.  This name became something important, and so when I got the chance I went to Hastings and checked out Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, and Goodfellas.  If Tarantino was god, then Scorsese was a titan because I recognized something in the man’s oeuvre, even if I didn’t or couldn’t explain what it was. -

Somewhere in all this endless consumption of media The Departed came to theaters and I begged my dad to take me to see it.  To the man’s credit he did and afterwards we discussed Jack Nicholson’s character.  Dad tried to argue that the man basically recycled every single one of his previous roles and formed it into one central character.  I believed him at the time but now I’m a little dubious.  I didn’t, and still don’t, see any of the President from Mars Attacks in Frank Costello but maybe if he’d spoken a little French.

The Departed is a movie that I must have watched somewhere around  twenty or thirty times, and that number honestly feels a little low.  Being a teenage boy the film mostly appealed to me fo it’s non-stop irreverence.  One need only look at one early scene in the film when Mark Wahlberg’s character Staff Seargent Dignam makes a small address to members of an investigative unit:

Ellerby: [during a conference briefing about Costello and his crew] Staff Sergeant Dignam is our liaison to the the undercover department, his undercover work is extensive. He’s here to give us his report. Sergeant Dignam.

Dignam: Ok. My people are out there. They’re like fuckin’ indians. You’re not gonna see ’em you’re not gonna hear about ’em except from me or Captain Queenan. Departed 6You will not ever know the identity of undercover people. Unfortunately, this shithole has more fuckin’ leaks than the Iraqi Navy.

Ellerby: Fuck yourself.

Dignam: I’m tired from fuckin’ your wife.

Ellerby: How’s your mother?

Dignam: Good, she’s tired from fuckin’ my father.

Or perhaps another when Billy Costigan, played Leonardo DiCaprio, orders a drink at a bar:

Billy Costigan: [to the bartender] Cranberry juice.

Man Glassed in Bar: It’s a natural diuretic. My girlfriend drinks it when she’s got her period. What, do you got your period?Departed 10

[Billy grabs an empty glass and smashes it onto the man’s head. Mr. French grabs Billy throws him against the wall. Billy tries to go towards the man again and French holds him against the wall. Billy pushes French’s hands away]

Billy Costigan: Get your fuckin’ hands off me!

Mr. French: [calmly] Hey, hey, hey… do you know me?

Billy Costigan: No, no.

Mr. French: Well, I’m the guy that tells you there are guys you can hit and there’s guys you can’t. Now, that’s not quite a guy you can’t hit, but it’s almost a guy you can’t hit. So I’m gonna make a fuckin’ ruling on this right now. You don’t fuckin’ hit him. You understand?

Billy Costigan: Yeah, excellent. Fine, fine, fine.

Mr. French: I fucking know you. I know your family. You make one more drug deal with that idiot fucking cop-magnet of a cousin of yours and I’ll forget your grandmother was so nice to me. I’ll cut your fucking nuts off. You understand that?

Billy Costigan: Yeah, yeah, I do.Departed 9

Mr. French: What are you drinkin’?

Billy Costigan: [embarrassed] A cranberry juice.

Mr. French: What is it, your period?

These scenes are probably easy bait in terms of showing the character of the film, but when I was a teenage boy the free use of “fucks” and the constant violence of the film was something deeply fascinating.  Part of it was probably because I grew up with a working class father who would regail me with stories about the violence of the Rugby pitch, and the irreverent songs that would accompany a game.  Listening to dad I developed early an appreciation for vulgar language and considered a point of pride when I developed my own limerick about the woman named “Runt.”  Language and violence were the means of expression, as I understood them, or working class men.  Men who, it should be noted, I wanted to be and wasn’t.

They were also men I wanted to fuck, but that’s for another essay.

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The Departed was a film about men acting and being themselves, and the darkness implied by all of this violence was lost on me, to some extent.  Being a kid who loved Stephen King, being the kid who loved Heavy Metal, and being the kid who memorized every scene and line in almost every Scorsese and Tarantino movie, I’ve recognized more and more that the darkness of those films was it’s own sort of therapy.  It’s a pathetic aphorism, but young men don’t know who they are, they don’t know what they want, and they don’t understand how to really find what identifies them.  And because of all that constant shifting of identity and confusion, it’s not uncommon for young men to find solace in spiritual, intellectual, and philosophical darkness.

I gravitated to gangsters, murderers, and sociopaths in movies not because I wanted totumblr_o0g5m25yqr1t5jzlpo1_400 be them, but because in their stories I found some kind of emotional solace.  My world, really my brain, was trying to manage my personal darkness, and the only way to really handle it was to watch movies about sociopaths who stabbed people to death with pens, or, in the case of The Departed, asked people which hand they jerked off with before cutting off the other hand.

At this point though my reader is probably wondering where this is going.  Allright, they say, you’ve told us ad nauseam about the fact that you were bummed out as a teenager and so you became an edge lord.  Big fucking whooped-dee-doo, why should I care?  What relevance does your depression have to do with The Departed?Departed 7

This is a fair question and it actually gets me back on track.  You see the other day I had another spell of my depression and it became so unendurable that I had to take a day off from writing.  I spent most of the morning cleaning around the house, trying not to think about blaming myself for something stupid I’d done and in an effort to channel Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks (“Once a day, everyday, give yourself a present”) I decided to go grab some Taco Bueno and watch a movie I hadn’t watched in ages.  The Departed was on my shelf when I came home and I watched it, reciting most of the lines from memory, but by the end of the film I realized that I had missed something.

The Departed is a film that explores the violence  and vulgarity of criminals, but it also, like every Martin Scorsese film, explores identity and how young men create it.

The first lines of the film lay this concept out plainly as it opens to two men fighting in the streets, and Frank Costello begins:Departed 4

Frank Costello: I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.

Right from the start Scorsese sets the expectation of the audience and the character of the film.  Frank Costello is a man who knows who and what he is, and as he narrates his philosophy of life the reader becomes more and more aware of his individual philosophy concerning what is and isn’t one’s sense of self:

Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying, we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city. Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a fucking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the niggers don’t realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this: no one gives it to you. You have to take it.Departed 13

Scorsese opens his film with the steady integration of races showing how the lower classes of Boston handled the push, which tended to be violent, and as he narrates he focuses on his identity of being Irish has impacted his views.  Scorsese is effective in opening Frank as a man composed of darkness (Nicholson is literally hidden in shadow for the first five to ten minutes of the film) who can only see violence as a means of advancing anywhere culturally.

The idea of identity isn’t just a minor opening idea however, it’s a question and concept that’s repeated througout the film as the central conflict lies in the two protagonists William Costigan and Colin Sullivan, two “rats.”  Sullivan works for the Boston State Police Department but is a rat for Costello, and the other, Billy Costigan working for Costello, but really working as an undercover officer for the Boston State Police Departed 3Department.  Scorsese plays these two men as a sort of duality, each trying to figure out who they are and what it is that they actually want.  Costigan, played by deCaprio, has an early interaction with the head of Special Investigative Services and one scene only further’s this question of what identity actually is:

Oliver Queenan: [during Costigan’s interview] We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops. Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.

Dignam: Yeah, a lot of people just wanna slam a nigger’s head through a plate-glass window.

Billy Costigan: I’m all set without your own personal job application. Alright, Sergeant?

Dignam: What the fuck did you say to me, trainee?Departed 11

Billy Costigan: [to Queenan] With all due respect, sir, what do you want from me?

Dignam: Hey asshole, he can’t help you! I know what you are, okay? I know what you are and I know what you are not. I’m the best friend you have on the face of this earth, and I’m gonna help you understand something, you punk. You’re no fuckin’ cop!

There really isn’t a quote which feels so dramatically powerful to me than this one.  This is largely because of it’s applicability to almost any situation in life.  I’m a realist, and often that translates to a poor worldview concerning humanity that borders on cynicism, but I don’t believe I’m too far off the mark when I observe that most people in this life aspire to be something.  Often it’s not even the identity that matters so much as the Departed 2societal benefits and advantages.  Looking at myself I wanted to be a rock star.  I would listen to Appetite for Destruction over and over again, I’d listen to all of my Slipknot records, and for two years after High School I made plans to “go up to Dallas” and become a musician.  What’s important about this story is that in that time I never learned how to play a musical instrument, I never got a job working in a music store, and I never took the initiative to leave my parents house and join a band. 

The reason was, I didn’t want to be a rock star, I wanted to appear to be a rock star.  A lot of people do.  They want to smash their guitars, date supermodels and porn stars, throw tvs out windows, and just generally not give a shit.

The Departed is a film about identity and how young men create it for themselves, and who are the icons of masculinity that help them establish that modicum of masculinity.  For Sullivan it’s Costello, for Costigan it’s father first, and then eventually Captain Oliver Queenan.  The reader follows these two men as they try to be something they are, and aren’t, for entirely different reasons.  Sullivan wants to appear to be a Departed 5cop so that he can enjoy the societal and monetary perks that comes with being a corrupt cop, for Costigan wants to work alongside criminals bearing witness to atrocity after atrocity because he wants to help his community and his environment.  And in each of these men’s struggle there is something relevant and human.

In a scene about halfway through the film Costigan meets with Dignam and Queenan beneath a bridge and there’s a brief exchange:

Billy Costigan: I’m going fucking nuts, man. I can’t be someone else every fuckin’ day. It’s been a year of this. I’ve had enough of this shit!

Dignam: Calm down, alright? Most people in the world do it every day. What’s the big deal?Departed 12

It’s easy sometimes to lose who you are in this impersonal modern world.  It’s easy to pretend like you didn’t hear someone mutter the n-word when a black person walks onto the subway.  It’s easy to pretend that it doesn’t bother or offend you when somebody slaps a confederate flag on the back of their truck.  It’s easy to smile and nod at work when a customer tells you that ever since the fags started getting married that the country’s values are imploding.  It’s easy to say that you’re going to be a rockstar when your fourteen because you’ve never lived outside your parents house.  And a million minor abuses and challenges of integrity are expected in this life because ultimately because in this impersonal modern age integrity is not always observed as a virtue.

Life, unfortunately is often about compromises, and far too often about Departed 8disappointments.  My rock star fantasies ended up in the crapper as my parents finally had to confront me and tell me that I could either go to school or get a job, I chose the former and it was one of the best choices I could ever make.  I met my wife, I came to terms with my pansexuality, and I made friends that have impacted my life in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.  It was a moment of compromise that lead me to my current station in life, but it was also a moment of integrity.  I knew I couldn’t just get a job and start floating through life, that wasn’t me.  I knew who I was and what I was was an academic pussy, and a writer.

Identity isn’t something that comes without sacrifice, pain, and honesty.  William Costigan was a man who came from privilege, and by the end of the film he’s helped bring down a man who’s plagued the working class neighborhoods of Boston, whileHow Fucked up are you Sullivan has plundered and gained at the expense of good people who are trying to make their world better.  Scorsese is able to make a relevant comment about what identity is in the Information Age, which is often not what it at first appears.  Many people have to pretend to be something else either because they’re tired, because they’re afraid of other people’s opinion, because they want to be something they’re not, or perhaps they’re lying to get something out of this world because that want to be something else. 

The Departed offers up to the reader the idea that life is about choices, and that ultimately beneath all the clutter and data of “who you are.”  Put another way, the only real determining factor of identity is what you actually do.  A rat is a rat, but the rat who steals the cheese, rather than waiting for it to fall from the plate are two entirely different creatures.

cheese-types-31579-1920x1080

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes from The Departed were provided by IMDB.com

 

**Writer’s Note**

I’ve provided a few links to reviews about The Departed in case the reader would like a bit of outside perspective instead of my non-stop introspective nonsense.  Enjoy:

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-departed-2007

https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/06/movies/06depa.html

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2007/02/the-movie-review-the-departed/69423/

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2006/oct/06/thriller.mattdamon

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

10 February 2018

#941-The Annual Obligatory Indulgent Essay about Writers Writing

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purple stuff

Two kids open a refrigerator looking for something to drink when they discover purple stuff.  It’s play on the old Sunny D commercial where somebody looks through the items in the fridge and notices something called “purple stuff” before noticing they have Sunny D.  I’m not sure why anyone would actively decided to drink Sunny D, but hey, people are allowed to have their own tastes, even if they’re wrong.  Anyway these kids stop and ask each other what “purple stuff” actually is when one of the kids asks his friend, “You think it will get us high?”  The first kid smiles and says, “there’s only one way to find out.”  The following scenes show the two kids beginning a series of scientific dialogues and in-depth academic research as the begin to compile data and formulate a hypothesis.  The act eventually culminates when one kid, following a heated argument about the final conclusions of their research, is hit by a car.  The first friend holds his dying companion and says he can’t die.  His friend, in the midst of choking on his own coagulating blood says, “Maybe I don’t have to, one, last, theory.” scienceClass_1604229c

At this point I threw my remote control through the television because no scientist would ever say, “just a theory.”  It was a hypothesis because at that point there were no solid experiments, and something only becomes a theory after decades of constant experiments. 

If something is scientific theory it’s because it has been tested millions of times by millions of scientists across the world at which point it becomes a fact.  Language is important damn it, and while I hate shitting on Robot Chicken, writers need to pay attention to the philosophies, education, and ideologies that define their characters.

None of this really has anything to do with books about writing, but I thought it would be a nice opener to an otherwise pointless topic: writing about writing.

 

[0] wHy I kEep dOing tHis

I’m honestly not sure why I keep doing this.  I’ve said it once before, but I find books that are about nothing but writing to be empty masturbation.  Though even that is incorrect 200px-Onwritingbecause I hold respect for masturbation, it gives you pleasure and can help your body, over time, prevent certain types of cancer.  Books about books, and writing about writing, are rather useless because Stephen King summed everything a writer needs to know about being a writer in his book On Writing:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.  There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.  (145).

After this, apart from specific guidelines about editing and finding an agent, everything else in terms of advice about writing is really bullshit.  Anyone can offer someone advice about what works for them personally as a writer, but the problem is that those offerings are ultimately individual opinions.  Writing is ultimately masturbation, a form of self-pleasure and -self-gratification that results in a tangle physical object, and only the individual person knows how they prefer to masturbate.  Hearing someone else’s opinions about writing is, at least in my experience, a lot like to listening to them prattle on about their mastubatory habits.  It’s not unpleasant, but it’s just not going to work for me.

And yet every year I always find myself thinking about what I would say if someone asked me what it takes to be a writer.  And every year I wind up reading at least one stephen-king-on-writing-d1d225f2c6e25fcd45dce87de1f77d4d6e695e5fbook or collection of essays by writers offering advice to aspiring writers.  Whether it’s Burn This Book, Zen and the Art of Writing, Letters to a Young Contrarian, or Walking on Alligators, I can’t seem to escape this pathetic inevitability.

Starting with Bradbury seems appropriate, but I think TOOL’s song Hooker with a Penis is a better place to start.

 

[1] Hooker with a Penis

Maynard Keenan is perhaps one of the few leading singers that still inspires me in Rock n Roll, because apart from Corey Taylor and almost the entirety of Heavy Metal, nobody sounds like they do on the record anymore.  I may be becoming one of those awful people who complain about auto-tuning, but for me it’s the matter of the live show Tool_band_promopic_2006because that’s where the bones of a band are made.  Maynard Keenan sounds on TOOL albums the way he does in concert and so when I heard that he was trained operatically I was impressed, and when I watched him sing the song Hooker with a Penis I had to go back to my Aenema CD and listen to discover that it was exactly the same.  Most of the time I’d been disappointed by singers in real life, their voices sounding tired, out of tune, or just different than the record, but with Keenan the man was singing what he could actually sing and it worked.

Looking at the lyrics of Hooker with a Penis though I found something rather interesting and that was the ethos of the artist speaking plainly.  The song is about Keenan listening to a fan who told him he thought the group was “selling out” and the remainder of the song is Kennan telling the guy to go fuck himself while also musing on the nature of art vs product.

So I’ve got some advice for you, little buddy.

Before you point your finger you should know that I’m the man,

If I’m the fuckin’ man then you’re the fuckin’ man as well

So you can point your fuckin’ finger up your ass.image_1

All you know about me is what I’ve sold you, dumb fuck.

I sold out long before you’d ever even heard my name.

I sold my soul to make a record, dipshit, then you bought one.

All you read and wear or see and hear on TV is a product waiting for your fatass dirty dollar

So, shut up and buy, buy, buy my new record

Buy, buy, buy,

Send more money

Fuck you, buddy.

Fuck you, buddy

Fuck you, buddy

Fuck you, buddy.

Every artist has to determine for themselves what “selling out” means, and that in itself can become tricky.  For my own part I don’t believe I’ve ever sold out, then again someone has to want your writing before you can “sell” it.  I’ve “given” myself to my reader, largely because they haven’t had to pay for it.  They’ve paid me with their time and consideration and moderate attention while they wait for me to mention dicks or Finding Nemo. Tool-tool-10572324-1600-1200

Hooker with a Penis is a song that is much in the vein of a revenge tune, but as with everything TOOL this seemingly simplicity actually reveals a larger truth.   Though as I finish this sentence I have to ask myself when has TOOL ever demonstrated “seeming simplicity?”

Artists sell themselves, but often their writing is just a moment of themselves.  It’s a thought or feeling they were having that they then record and “sell” to people.  The consumer of an art product takes that moment and constructs meaning from it deciding whether or not the art is really significant.  But often the reader takes that feeling and allows it to become a facet of their identity, their spirit, their personal energy.  And, as is often the case, they allow themselves to think that they “know” an artist by reading this moment.

But all that you really know is what you bought, and so Maynard Keenan is able to write about writing and demonstrate to the reader that just because you have a nipple ring and new shoes doesn’t mean you know shit about TOOL.

 

[2] ZEN and THE art OF writing

Typically when someone announces that they’re a poet, when all they’ve ever written is prose, I tend to roll my eyes.  It’s not a discrimination against poetry because I love poetry.  What makes me roll my eyes is the fact that they have clearly bought into the ray_bradbury_1975_-croppedhype of themselves and they believe they possess a grasp of language so that they could call what they’ve written poetry when an examination of their prose reveals they have not paid any sort of attention to how their work sounds or feels.  Words are there to present scenes and ideas, rather than inspire feelings.

Ray Bradbury is the only author I know who I give this a pass because there isn’t any other word besides poet to describe the man.  His prose isn’t just words strung together to create images in the readers mind which in turn are designed to tell a story and sell a book.  Every word of a Bradbury novel is carefully selected to assume a meaning in its form.  And in his book Zen and the Art of Writing, Bradbury is able to argue the merits of this form of writing, which is, in it’s simplicity, simply writing in a way so that the writer is honest with themselves.

He observes for his reader that often the “goal” of the writer is either to make millions of dollars with the fantastic best seller, or else to impress the intellectual elite.  But Bradbury observes that:Zen and the Art of Writing

Nothing could be further from the true creativity.  Nothing could be more destructive than the two attitudes above.

Why?

Because both are a form of lying.

It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by money in the commercial market.

It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes.  (141).

This is something I am painfully familiar with because I have attained neither of these, yet I know, in my heart, that I am constantly desiring both.  I have written close to a decade relentlessly and received nothing in the way of commercial or critical success.  In writer-typingfact for all my efforts, I tend to remain mired in obscurity and anonymity, my existence largely ignored by the general populace of readers.  And because I am the sort of man who desires near constant external validation, this absence is a physical pain that greets me every time I check my stats on WordPress and observe yet another person has only found me because I wrote about black dicks one time, or when I check my CreateSpace page and observe that no one has purchased any of my books for the sixth or seventh month in a row.

But what this emotion is is distrust, it’s distrust of the real process of writing which is the persistence.  The quality that grows from experience writing.  On my desk, specifically on my Christopher Hitchens shelf (we’ll get to him in a minute) is a notecard taped with black electrical tape.  It reads simply “300 words.”  There was once a time when that would have read 3000 words, and there was a time when that could be achieved.  Because I was a crazy young man who wanted to be a writer and who was willing to push his mind so that the words would come.  That experience, everyday pushing those words out, led me here, so that 300 words is not so little.  It’s simply an acknowledgement that the work has been made, and more work must come, and in that work is its own lesson.

writers-writeBradbury says later,

Work then, hard work, prepares the way for the first stages of relaxation, when one begins to approach what Orwell might call Not Think! As in learning to typewrite, a day comes when the single letter a-s-d-f and j-k-l-; give way to a flow of words.  (146).

Bradbury finds, in his argument, that there work becomes the quality and that in itself becomes the pleasure.  This sentiment seems like something that would be printed en masse on blocks of wood and sold at Hobby Lobby for $45 a piece.  But, experience yields to the wisdom.

Sunday is writing day.  I chug my coffee.  Sit on my ass.  Play my Childish Gambino or Tangerine Dream or Thelonius Monk and I write.  I haven’t nailed down the typewriter yet, but the completion of an essay is a better physical release than masturbation at times, and the spirit soars eternal when I the right sentence emerges.

 

[3]  BRIEF interlude

My wife makes fun of me for thinking Katy Perry is sexy.  She says that, like a number of celebrity women, Perry wear tons of make-up to the point that they become almost indecipherable when they don’t wear it.  I tell her I know and I understand, but there’s literally a picture of Katy Perry wearing a red crushed velvet dress, tights, and black boots  while straddling a motorcycle.  Katy Perry.  Red Velvet.  Tights and Boots.  I’m a puddle.

Katy Perry

This doesn’t have anything to do with writing, or writing about writing, but I wanted to write about it anyway.

Thank you for your patience, I’ll end it on Christopher Hitchens.

 

[4] HitchslaPs BaCk

The late, great Christopher Hitchens said in his 60 Minutes interview, one of the last he gave before he finally shuffled off this mortal coil, that he was terrified that his terminal cancer would impede his ability to write.  The reason for this was simple as he explained, “Writing is something I am rather than something I do.”bk-hitchens-20110206-0829

Normally this sentiment is something I would immediately recoil from because it reeks of, well, sentiment.  Normally the sorts of persons who proclaim loudly that they’re writers and that they would die if they couldn’t write seem the sort who like the idea of being writers rather than actual writers.  And this in turn leads me to a quote from Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

Oliver Queenan: [during Costigan’s interview] We have a question: Do you want to be a cop, or do you want to appear to be a cop? It’s an honest question. A lot of guys just want to appear to be cops. Gun, badge, pretend they’re on TV.

Replace the word “Cop” with Writer and then I believe my point is made.  Most people want to appear to be writers, but they don’t actually want to be writers.  Most people enjoy drinking coffee, talking about stuff they read, and looking like they’re deep and interesting but don’t actually want to do any sort of work when it comes to creativity.  I might be a tad harsh in my assessment of humanity, but it’s largely because I’ve known many people who want to be writers when all it really takes is just the will power to sit down and write at least 300 words a day.

My reaction to Hitchens was different though, because I recognized that that statement was rooted in truth.  Hitchens as a writer is a testament to the idea of what a writer should be, and that’s simply someone who writes.  The man, during his life, never stopped writing and arguing and speaking about his writing and arguments, and that regular dedication demonstrated his identity and ambition.christopher_hitchens

The problem arises that he rarely seemed to actually write about the process of writing with the exception of a few small essays and my favorite book of his Letters to a Young Contrarian.

Written as a series of letters to his students, the book was originally inspired by Raina Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and attempts to tackle the numerous conflicts and realities one will face when one becomes a contrarian, and in this small but incredible book Hitchens manages to say a great deal about writing period.

Hitchens quotes Rilke directly, discussing the compulsion to write, and the necessity of that compulsion to define the writer.  He says,

With much less eloquence, this is what I have been telling writing classes for years.  You must feel not that you want  to but that you have to.  It’s worth emphasizing too, because, there is a relationship, between this desire or need and the ambition to rely upon internal exile, or dissent; the decision to live at a slight acute angle to society.  (16).

It may seem at first that Hitch has proven me wrong, that in fact the desire to write is a compulsion and some people really do need it. 

But if I can offer a final defense, that desire is exactly that, a desire.  Writer’s actively choose to isolate themselves from other people, they actively chose to spend their time alone and typing away, they chose to place themselves apart from the culture in order to write, and all those choices compile into a real statement: the need to write exists, but it has to be based upon a desire to write in the first place.

Books about writing honestly seem to me to be a complete waste of time, but that’s 635860977597358197-1003640765_writers-block-vintageprobably because I’ve reached a point where my desire has surpassed to the point where it has become a need.  So much of myself has been poured into the identity of writer, so much of my time has been spent writing, and for my efforts I have this blog, I have two self published books, I have a job at a public library, and I have an ever expanding collection of graphic novels.

I’m trying, more and more, to recognize in myself that the identity of writer is something that is me, and to own that part of myself, and perhaps in claiming that identity I need to give other writers a pass at their self-commentary.  Writing about writing is an exercise that feels to me largely mastubatory, but that might simply be because I’ve come to a place with my writing where the voice in my head is no longer questioning whether or not I’m a writer.

I’m writing, and that’s what counts.

Jammer Writing

 

[5] finaL conclusioN

I’m positive that my wife is correct about Katy Perry wearing tons of make-up, and I’m probably just another in a long line of guys creeping on an attractive celebrity, but I mean it when I say it, the woman looks great in red velvet and I like the song Peacock.

Katy Perry

That thought doesn’t have anything to do with writing, but I still wrote it down anyway, and in its own way that has to say something.

 

 

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from letters to a young contrarian were quoted from the hardback Basic Books edition.  All quotes from Hooker with a Penis were cited from AZlyricks.  All quotes cited from Zen and the Art of Writing were quoted from the paperback Joshua Odell Editions edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

If Seth Green or any of the writers of Robot Chicken should stumble upon this article, please know I LOVE your show and hold a secret ambition to write a sketch for it.  So please please please forgive me for being passive agressive and know that I love the show.  As for my reader, who’s probably grossed out by my ass kissing, please enjoy the following sketch which inspired the opening of this essay:

 

The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture

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The Paradox of Porn: Notes on Gay Male Sexual Culture

13 September 2018

On Being Gay, Different, or Simply Dangerous: Miller’s Line in the Sand

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987B1B8A-DFF0-4529-9802-138915BDAB4E

It’s a god-awful small affair, to the girl with the Mousy hair

-Life on Mars, David Bowie

Coffee

The only thing I wouldn’t trust myself around is someone else’s coffee, not because I have a fear that I would attempt to “seduce” the cup into becoming a homosexual, but just because I have a very real coffee addiction and I would almost certainly drain the entire glass in one sitting.  I do not believe that I have a problem, as coffee addiction demonstrates only that I am a cool and interesting person, and the tragedy of existence is because I’m a queer man some people wouldn’t even bother to learn this fact about me before telling me to go to hell.

On one side note I’m not sure how one would “seduce” a cup of coffee into becoming gay.  What would that look like?  Would the coffee turn into a rainbow?  How would it demonstrate its affection for members of its own sex?  And would it look better in jeans than me.  These are serious questions and I need answers damn it.

But another concern rises, which is that because I am gay, there are some that would be afraid to leave me around their children.  This is not an unfounded accusation as thisOn Being Gay entire essay will focus on Merle Miller’s canonical essay On Being Different: What it Means to be a Homosexual, but I should set up the intro first.  You see working in my job I’m usually stationed either in the Local History Room where I serve a largely adult (typically senior citizen clientele) community, but when I work at the information desk at least a quarter, if not half, of the patrons needing help are children.  They want to know about the 3D printer, they want to know if we have Dog Man or Percy Jackson, they want to compliment my rainbow glasses (more on this later), or else they want headphones for the kid’s computers.  These little interactions are often one of my favorite parts of my job and despite my awkwardness around kids I try to be helpful and informative.  They don’t know that I’m pansexual, that I find men, women, and everyone in-between as sexually attractive; it’s just not even on their radar.  And in this interaction is just doesn’t come up because there’s no reason for it.  There is however, some concern on my part, that if any parents knew about my sexuality they may be concerned that I was attempting to infect their children with the “gay agenda.”

The “gay agenda” of course, was a subplot of COBRA in the G.I. Joe cartoons to sway children to become members of the terrorist organization.  I can prove this by the fact that Cobra Commander spoke in a really sharp lisp and wore boots that accentuated his butt.  Only gay  men, you see, have lisps and wear nice boots.

ShipwreckGungHo-Totally Gay

My regular contester might interject here and say that my concern is unfounded.  We’re living in an information age where acceptance of homosexuality is better than it’s ever been.  Queer people can get married, sign up for the same legal benefits as straight couples, they can even adopt children.  In this kind of age there should be no fear for any queer person to be afraid of being out and open.

To this I can only sigh and respond that, yes, no queer person should be afraid, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t. I'm Gay

Yes there have been incredible advancements over the last few decades for queer people, and because of these advancements I know and trust that will not be terminated from my job, exiled socially by my friends and loved ones, and will not be imprisoned in mental facilities or actual jails for being gay, but at the same time I find myself often in a territory that, while it is not openly hostile, still bears the mentality that there are some things that should not be said outloud.  Being a queer man in East Texas is often akin to being Boo Radley: Gay Seniorsthere’s nothing specifically wrong with you, but most people would just prefer that you stay out of sight.  The fear is, as I began, that you will somehow “seduce” the next generation into being gay and that returns to me Merle Miller’s powerful essay.

One of the most pernicious charges against homosexuals is that the “lifestyle” is something that is seduced into children’s mind.  The image is that of a homosexual hypnotist luring children into the sexuality the way the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lured the children out with twinkle tarts and lollipops.  This isn’t a conversation that has died away much in the time since Merle’s essay, but it should be noted how the charge was leveled towards gay people, even by the people who were supposed to be friends.  In quite possibly the most heart-rending passage in the essay Merle describes two instances of this perception:Gay Parade

The fear of it simply will not go away, though.  A man who was once a friend, maybe my best friend, the survivor of five marriages, the father of nine, not so long ago told me that his eldest son was coming to my house on Saturday: “Now please try not to make a pass at him.”

He laughed.  I guess he meant it as a joke; I didn’t ask.

And a man I’ve known, been acquainted with, et’s say, for twenty-five years, called from the city on a Friday afternoon before getting on the train to come up to my place for the weekend.  He said, “I’ve always leveled with you, Merle, and I’m going to now.  I’ve changed me mind about bringing ———[his sixteen year old son].  I’m sure you understand.”

800px-New_York_Gay_Pride_2011_(2)“I said that no, I didn’t understand.  Perhaps he could explain it to me.

“He said, “———is only an impressionable kid, and while I’ve known you and know you wouldn’t, but suppose you had some friends in, and…”

I suggested that he not come for the weekend.  I have never molested a child my whole life through, never seduced anybody, assuming that word has meaning, and, so far as I know, neither have any of my homosexual friends.  Certainly not in my living room or bedroom.  Moreover, I have known quite a few homosexuals, and I have listened to a great many accounts of how they got that way or think they got that way.  I have never heard anybody say that he(or she) got to be homosexual because of seduction.  (19-20)Merle Miller

This passage is heartbreaking, and I know I should be shocked and appalled after reading it but, people don’t really change all that much.  I often hear friends mystified about the current political and social landscape being shocking for the fact that repugnant statements that were spoken in the sixties and seventies seem to be repeating.  And while I am disgusted by such statements, sentiments, and expressions, I can only shake my head and remember what I said before: people don’t really change.  Miller’s passage here is one that I heard spoken in some varieties and fashions growing up, either by adults or fellow classmates, and reading as much history as I do I’m aware of the fact that being a queer man or woman often meant that one had to suffer.

The argument that homosexuality is an infecting vice that aims at children is as old as humanity itself, and while the treatment of queer people in society is one of constant fluctuation (sometimes we’re in fashion other times we’re in the closet planning out next fashion statement) Miller offers a sentiment that feels terribly accurate:

A fag is a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room.  (19).

two-bottoms-successful-gay-relationship

I’ve been called a faggot before, never to my face fortunately, and as I have embraced my sexuality more and more I’ve felt a greater and greater target attached to my back.  Then again I wear rainbow glasses to work so I suppose that doesn’t help.  Living in East Texas, and in fact, living in a town that has been listed as one of the worst places in Texas to be Queer, there is always this concern that my sexuality will be perceived as a threat.  Working in a public library, I encounter a fair number of children approaching the desk looking for a copy of Dog Man, Drama, Dork Diaries, or whatever Rick Riordan has published this week.  This means talking with kids, interacting with them, and sometimes walking with them to the shelves to find the books.   It’s impossible for people to know that I’m gay without announcing it, but at the same time all it would really take is one person to assume and make a complaint. 

And speaking honestly and plainly, I live in a constant fear that my sexuality could cost me my job.  And this fear causes me to sit on my sexuality a lot, altering aspects of my behavior I normally wouldn’t alter.  The tone of my voice, the way I walk, or even just Jammerhaving a conversation with a coworker when a patron is nearby.  This in turn just fuels an life-long established internalized homophobia and I feel like, well,  a pathetic old closet-case queen.

This honesty isn’t just for the sake of creating pity, it’s keeping in line with something Miller writers about early in his essay:

I have always thought that one of the obligations of a writer is to expose as much of himself as possible, to be as open and honest as he can manage—among other reasons so that his readers can see in what he writes a reflection of themselves, weaknesses and strengths, courage, and cowardice, good and evil.  Isn’t that one of the reasons writing is perhaps the most painful of the arts?  (36).

These essays aren’t always easy to write, mostly because I check my stats daily and I Gay-Guys-Pahing-On-The-Fenceknow very few people read anything other than my early work about Finding Nemo or culture’s obsessions with black penises.  But I live by the notion that I’m a writer and that real writing is about honesty.  I try to always be honest with my reader in these essays and after finishing On Being Different I honestly felt like I was often reading many of my own thoughts. 

I feel different, a lot of the time.  And just as often I find myself trying to conform and “sell” myself off as just another guy, or just another public servant, or just another East Texan instead of the ridiculous East Texas Queen that I am.  My life feels more and more like a battle between cowardice and ambition, conformity and security, virtue and lies.  And while I struggle with this conflict, I feel often that I’m missing the chances to simply be.  Even just saying, or writing really, that I’m a ridiculous queen and a silly fag feels like bold efforts rather than just enjoyable self-declarations.

Being different, isn’t enjoyable.  Or at least it’s not enjoyable the way it was when I was a kid.

Different

Miller offers one more passage that, while it seems a dramatic turn feel accurate for everything this essay has been about.  And if nothing else it’s an excuse to return to the library.  Miller elaborates on his youth and the introduction of sexuality:Gay Librarian 3

Growing up in Marshaltown, I was allowed to take as many books as I wanted from the local library, and I always wanted as many as I could carry, eight of ten at a time.  I read about sensitive boys, odd boys, boys who were lonely and misunderstood, boys who really didn’t care at all that much for baseball, boys who were teased by their classmates, books about all of these, but for years nobody in any of the books I read was ever tortured by the strange fantasies that tore at me every time, […]

And in none of the books I read did anybody feel any compulsion, and compulsion it surely was, to spend so many hours, almost as many as I spent at the library, in or near the Minneapolis & St. Louis railroad station, where odd, frightening thingsGay Parade Madrid 2010 were written on the walls of the men’s room.  And where in those days, there were always boys in their teens and early twenties who were on their way to and from somewhere in fright cars.  Boys who were hungry and jobless and who for a very small amount of money, and sometimes none at all, were available for sex; almost always they were.  They needed the money, and they needed someone to recognize them, to actually see them.  (15).

I’ve spent a lifetime wanting to be different, wanting to be unique, and wanting to be my own person, yet constantly struggling against larger systems, organizations, or collected Jammer 3sentiments.  Whether it was the oppressive environment of attending the most expensive private school in my hometown, whether it was being bullied for being effeminate, whether it was laughed at for being strange, and whether it’s just the perception that I’m seen as some kind of freak by certain members of the community being different feels very much like being invisible.  Or, perhaps more clearly, it feels often like people would prefer I was invisible.

These are perceptions, but these are honest perceptions about my sense of self and so Miller’s On Being Different felt painfully relevant almost 47 years after it was originally published.

Miller’s essay is very much of its time, and several critics have observed that the work is not as significant to our contemporary period.  In an age where gay people can get married, adopt children, purchase property together, enjoy the same kind of insurance benefits as straight couples, and even get a third of the air of air time on Modern Family it would seem that the morose reality of the past would be “over and done with.”  The problem with this perception however is that it’s not a universal reality, and even though this is probably one of the best times be a queer person, there are still a great many of us who are struggling both internally as well as externally.gay-pride

Being different, and being labelled unwillingly as different is a drag because it promises you a lifetime of being an outsider.  And even if one embraces this term, this kind of isolation can inspire paranoia, depression, and sometimes self-loathing.  And for my own part I don’t have an answer to this.  As I said before I live with a fear that at any time someone could take offense to my existence and raise a stink, and my life could be over.

I don’t want to seduce anybody into becoming gay, I would only ever want them to be themselves and be ready to be themselves whenever they were ready.  It took me 26 years to find myself and I’m still figuring things out. 

My fears aren’t going to dissipate or disappear anytime soon, but rather than simply dwell on these negatives I try try try to stay positive, to stay ridiculous, to try on new lipsticks, and to try and figure out how a cup of coffee could be gay.  Like seriously would little arms and legs pop out of the mug?  And if they did what kind of shoes would they wear? 

I can only hope that it wouldn’t look good in pumps because damn it, everybody looks better in pumps than I do, and it’s not fair.

Pavel Patel heels

 

*Writer’s Note*

All quotes cited from On Being Different were quoted from the paperback Penguin Classics Edition.

 

**Writer’s Note**

https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/merle-miller-and-the-piece-that-launched-a-thousand-it-gets-better-videos

https://www.lambdaliterary.org/reviews/10/21/on-being-different-what-it-means-to-be-homosexual-by-merle-miller/

https://themillions.com/2012/11/the-march-of-progress-is-never-neat-merle-miller-and-on-being-different.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2gbcVaZ448

 

***Writer’s Note***

So I have come to the conclusion that it’s impossible to “seduce” a cup of coffee into becoming gay…HOWEVER, I have found what is, to my mind, the gayest and most accurate coffee mug for myself that I have ever found.  My wife agrees, as when I showed it to her she simply went “Ha, gay.”  Which is usually her way of saying I love you dear.  Whatever the case I have a mug to buy.

I_Love_penis_Mug________300x300

Jammer Talks About: Roger Crowley’s 1453

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helloWell, I’m at it again.  But this time I’m trying something a little different.

My regular reader may recall that I used to actually do YouTube videos where I would talk in front of a camera for about half an hour about certain books (or numerous books as is often the case).  For whatever reason I fell out of the habit, but recently my reinvigorated inerest in history has got me dusting off my Snowball microphone and opeing up the iMovie app on my computer.  The video below stands as my first effort, and hopefully it will be the first of many.

This video tackles the book 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West by Roger Crowley.  I’ve reviewed in written form before, but the book roger crowley 1453simply captivated me and I wanted to share my passion for the work in another format.  The video then is an attempt to understand the fall of the city of Constantinople, as well as to understand how Crowley’s book contextualizes this momunmental event.

Crowley’s effort seems largely to argue that this battle signaled the final end of the ancient world while also signalling the start of modernity for Western civilization.  He also tries, quite successfully I would argue, to show how this battle signalled the rise of Islam as more than just a religion for a few scattered arab tribes in the Middle East.  The rise of Islam became a political, social, and intellectual movement which rivalled the Christianity of Europeans and with the fall of Constaninople the Ottoman Empire ushered in a new order to the world that could not be ignored.

I do hope you enjoy this history-video-podcast-thing (patent pending), or at the very least I hope you enjoy the cute illustrations I’ve done of my fat cat Mortimer who has already asked me if he gets royalties for this.

Thanks for your time, and thanks for watching.