What I Read In April

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I thoroughly enjoyed my April reading. I finally caught up on back issues of The Sun, Barrelhouse and The Baffler. I also finally read Edward Abbey’s brilliant Desert Solitaire. I’m a big fan of Sparrow, so I was excited to get to read his new book ahead of its release in May. I’m still reading the wonderful manga series Lone Wolf & Cub. And finally I read (and was underwhelmed by) a couple new comics. How about you?

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The Narrowness Of Our Thinking, or, A Message To Zort 137

The Narrowness Of Our Thinking, or, A Message To Zort 137

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As I, like you, surf the waves of this interminable election season, I am once again disappointed at the relative nearness of the horizon for which even the most progressive candidates are aiming. Yes, we have a socialist running for president, and yes, he seems to be doing fairly well (though nearly guaranteed to lose). But even the Great Septuagenarian Avenger can’t or won’t say what needs to be said about the system in which my children will grow to an increasingly despairing adulthood.

As a people, we have narrowed the scope of our thinking and limited the range of our compassion until any crumb dropped from the master’s table seems like manna from the heaven we mostly don’t believe in anymore. We’ve fallen so far that even the ideas of a patrician such as FDR seem like the radical ravings of a revolutionary compared with what we’ll now accept as progress.

Companies don’t send hundreds of thousands of jobs to distant lands (like Canada) because they otherwise stand to lose money. They offshore the work to make even more obscene profits than the merely profane profits they’d make if they kept those jobs here at home. The idea of ever-increasing profit is no longer even questioned. It’s taken as a given, like sunrises, death, and private health insurance. It’s been so long since the charter of any corporation was revoked – an act which, in these days of corporate personhood, is murder – that most citizens don’t even realize that’s an option. Corporations are here to stay, they must be profitable, and they may use any means necessary to achieve that end. The recent release of the Panama Papers is shocking only for the utter lack of surprise contained in those pages. We might have a few proper names that we previously lacked, but we certainly have no new information about the way our system works.

There is more than enough food to feed every person in the world. There is more than enough money to clothe and house and educate every person in the world. We have the technology and the resources to cure – or at least ameliorate the symptoms of – most illnesses. We know the kinds of food people should eat to remain healthy, and we know how to grow them with relatively little harm to the planet on which we live. These are not opinions. They are facts. That they seem like science fiction is only because we’ve lost the ability to think beyond … well, beyond. Here in The West, we’re raised to consume, taught to obey, and steered away from thoughts that might rock this leaky dinghy on which we’ve staked our meager survival. In the global south, the fight for survival is so clear and present that there aren’t extra hours in the day to imagine a world better than this, and even fewer hours with which to act upon such daydreams in any case.

Any sane observer of this planet – the aliens, say, that we have to hope won’t show up to marvel at our ineptitude – could only conclude that we are so hateful and lacking in compassion that we choose to let children starve while we build bigger weapons, bigger cars, bigger factory farms. Because otherwise how could the human race let this much suffering happen? The argument against the Biblical god is that He couldn’t possibly be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, because babies die of malnutrition and innocent children are beaten to death. But using that same logic, it becomes harder and harder to believe in the existence of humanity. Perhaps we’ve been replaced, without our knowledge, by seven billion perfect copies with the hearts taken out.

In these debauched and dismaying times, it’s incumbent upon all of us to work to lessen the suffering of our fellow travelers on this spaceship. That’s an inescapable truth. But that lessening suffering is the apex of our hopes is the surest sign that this experiment – human life on earth – has failed. When the aliens do, inevitably, arrive, the best we can hope for is that we’re already gone. Zort 137 and its comrades can land, take a few selfies in front of moss-covered mounds that used to be skyscrapers, then head back onto the spaceways to meet up with other creatures who spent more time focusing on improving the lives of everyone than on poisoning and bludgeoning and short-changing and enslaving as many of their fellow beings as possible.

Zort 137, if you’re reading this, we’re not sorry. Most of us never really even realized we were doing it.

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What I read in March

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March was nothing if not eclectic. I read a book about how the Pittsburgh Pirates used data analysis to turn around the team’s fortunes; a collection of samurai manga; and a book about Dogen’s Shobogenzo, one of the seminal texts of Zen Buddhist philosophy.

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Owen & Jason play “Honeybee” by Steam Powered Giraffe

Let me tell you a thing. I think I first had a girlfriend when I was 14 or 15. I’m 42 now, which means I’ve been dating people for 27 or 28 years. For all of that time, I’ve wanted to play music with someone I dated. Today, for the first time, it happened. I really can’t explain how happy this makes me, so I’ll just show you this video of us playing together. Every day I find new things to love about Owen.

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What I Read In February

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In February I finished the Harry Potter series for the second time. It was even better the second time around. I also read a great book about the making of They Might Be Giants’ Flood, and the first volume of an omnibus series collecting the samurai epic Lone Wolf & Cub. And the one book in the image above with no cover is a book of Unitarian Q&As.

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Punching Up, Or, Stand-Up Comedy And Its Discontents

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I’m at the very start of my time as a stand-up comedian. Ever since I was a kid, stand-up has been sacred to me. I remember in high school spending many weekend nights watching Robin Williams Live At The Met with my friends. That’s what we did while other kids were out drinking. We watching Robin and Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl over and over again, memorizing every line.

I moved to Japan for a year after high school, and watched Fawlty Towers for the first time, thanks to an American friend who loaned it to me. This was Python but angrier, with John Cleese using television to send up and tear down the society around him, sparing no one.

When I got home from Japan in the summer of 1992, the first thing I watched, after a year of seeing very little English-language programming, was George Carlin’s Jammin’ In New York. I can still remember sitting on the couch at my parents’ house in Canandaigua, laughing until I ached. To this day I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at anything as hard as I did at that first viewing of Jammin’. Having spent a year in Japan, I was also starting to think of politics – especially American politics – in a different light, and Carlin’s razor wit and insightful commentary were perfectly aligned with my new understanding. In high school I’d taped battle maps from the Gulf War on my wall. A year later, I was ready for George to tell me that the war had been unjust and racist.

During my brief time in college, I worked at the campus radio station. This was the early 90s, so there was still a decent vinyl collection at the station, including some comedy. I don’t know why, but for some reason I was attracted to a copy of Thank You Masked Man by Lenny Bruce, which was a sort of greatest hits collection of some of his sketches. I don’t think I’d ever heard of Lenny, nor did I realize Carlin’s debt to him. My friend Mike and I played Lenny’s “Captain Whackencracker” sketch on National Smokeout Day, for reasons that will become apparent if you check out the sketch. Then, in a tiny CD and record store in Potsdam, New York, I found a copy of Lenny Bruce’s Berkeley Concert, which Frank Zappa’s record label had released the year before. I bought it, and it changed everything for me.

Whereas Robin Williams’ comedy was mostly about manic energy and creativity, and Carlin’s was a direct examination of the current political scene, Lenny’s comedy, especially by the time of the Berkeley Concert, was an almost postmodern take on the job of the stand-up comedian. Yes, he excoriated those in power, but he spent just as much time with a painstaking examination of the American legal system, and his own battles with it. I listened to the CD dozens of times. By now, I must be in the triple digits. I knew – and know – every word, every pause, every breath, every verbal tick, every crowd reaction. I didn’t know comedy could be like that. I wanted more. I found everything I could get my hands on by Lenny and devoured it all.

P1030723 Over the years, I’ve done a ton of public speaking. I’ve run for office, worked as a radio DJ, run the bullhorn on picket lines, hosted several poetry series, and just generally spent a ton of time speaking in front of people. I usually try to be funny, and many times over the years people have approached me and said I should be a comedian. I’ve always thanked them politely, but in my head I’ve known that it’s different to be funny in a room of your friends, or when people aren’t expecting it, than it is to be intentionally funny when people have paid you to make them laugh. Other than a couple open mics in the early 2000s, I’ve always stayed away from doing stand-up. It’s too sacred, and I didn’t think I had what it took to make it.

Last year, through a fluke, I ended up as an MC at a comedy club in the small central PA town where I live. I was asked to do it by the owner, who’d seen me MC another event. I figured the stakes were very low, and if not now, when? So I said yes, wrote a few minutes of material, and auditioned. I got the gig.

The job of the MC is straightforward. I go out before the main comedians to warm up the crowd and get them ready for an evening of comedy. I do 5-10 minutes at the top of the show, then introduce the featured comedian. After the feature, depending on the mood of the room, I either do another few minutes or just bring up the headliner. After the headliner, I thank everyone for coming, take care of announcements and raffles, and that’s it.

I’m in my second season now, and this season my partner has often accompanied me to the shows. Seeing this comedy through their eyes has been very instructive. I’ve noticed how often I squirm in my seats as comedians take shots at women and people of various races, sexual orientations and gender identifications. I squirmed last season, too, but being there with someone I love, and who is a member of the LGBTQ community, heightens my discomfort. It’s easy to say why:

Comedy should punch up, not down.

Making fun of gay people, transgender people, women, latin@s, and others is worse than lazy. By which I don’t mean to say that anyone is safe from being the target of a joke. But jokes that come at the expense of people who are already disenfranchised feel, to me, like a waste of stage time. I’ve spent too many years listening to Lenny, Carlin, Maria Bamford, Bill Hicks, Margaret Cho, Richard Pryor, Simon Amstell, Tig Notaro, Hari Kondabolu, Stewart Lee, Eddie Izzard, Janeane Garofalo, Louis CK, W. Kamau Bell … and the list goes on. These are very different comedians, but what unites them in my mind is that they use comedy to point out the things that our society most needs to focus on, and the ways to make our world better. And they do it, not at the expense of the disenfranchised, but in the service of those who most need to spoken for.

I’m not trying to tell anyone what they should find funny. I’m not trying to tell comedians what’s OK to joke about and what isn’t. I’m just saying that for me, in this world we live in, comedy can be a powerful tool of transformation and uplift, as well as being funny. The more I hear people use their time at the mic to belittle and wound, the more I want to fight that with my own comedy. I’m at the very beginning of my comedy road, but I’m trying to write material that I feel good about delivering. I want to get off the stage and be able to look my partner or any audience member in the eye and feel like I used my time well.

For years in my various studios I had just two photographs – Israel “Cachao” Lopez, a Cuban bassist, and Lenny Bruce. Whenever I wrote, I always imagined Lenny watching me, and I always tried to write in a way that would make him proud. I lost that photograph in a move several years ago, but I haven’t lost the image, or the desire.

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