Friday, September 27, 2013

Off the shelf: A look back at Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’


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By John Winters

Zora Neale Hurston wrote her famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in seven weeks in 1936. It was a fast birth, but the conception must not have been easy. After quitting a much younger man, and heading off to do anthropological work on a Guggenheim grant in Haiti and Jamaica, the author settled down to write a story that was “damned up” in her. There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you,” she said. And so in Haiti, she penned what would become a book for the ages.
That tale focuses on a woman named Janie Crawford and her journey to find herself. Janie returns to her Florida home to reflect on the outcome of her third marriage to a charismatic man named Tea Cake. In recounting her tale, Janie also tells of her first two marriages, neither borne out of love and both quickly turning to disaster. Janie is stronger for her trials and returns home at peace with her life.
Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Fla., an all-black community. She bounced around different schools growing up, but eventually found her way to Barnard College. After graduation, she befriended the leading lights of the African American literary world, including the poet Langston Hughes, with whom she wrote a play. Hurston also wrote articles and short stories, but didn’t become famous until the publication of “Eyes,” her second novel.
The book is often viewed as a rebuke to W.E.B. Du bois’ Racial Uplift Program, his assertion that African Americans should forge and maintain a positive identity in American society. Hurston’s famous novel, meanwhile, is full of characters that speak in dialect. ”Lawd a’ mussy! Look lak Ah kin see it all over again,” is a typical line of dialogue. This did not mesh well with the concept of uplifting the race, perhaps, but it was real. Which is what Hurston was going for. It also drew on her work as a folklorist. The use of dialect, or vernacular, makes reading the book a bit of a challenge, but soon the sound and rhythm of Hurston’s unique style becomes familiar and adds a sense of realism to “Eyes” that would be achievable no other way.
The remarkable thing about the novel is the way Hurston depicts the obstacles facing Janie. For what is a quest if it’s easy going all the way? Janie’s first two husbands present formidable challenges to her destiny: they make her cover up her long, beautiful hair. They tell her to be quiet. They compare her to an animal and make her work long, hard hours. One of them even strikes her. The symbols and actions are powerful, recalling the ways of slavery. They take away her sexuality. They silence her voice. They treat her like property. They try to beat her into subservience. Yet, through it all, Janie gets the last laugh, leaving or outliving them and going on to find a new and better life.
Judgment is another major theme throughout the story. Janie’s neighbors sit on the porch and tsk tsk as she saunters by, thinking and saying the most unsavory things about her. Like an angry Greek chorus, the women prattle on, but do nothing so much as project onto Janie their own dashed hopes and missed chances. However, Janie’s quest was always to find true love. She does, and ultimately knows that it’s better to have… Well, I’ll keep the spoilers to myself.
In real life, “Eyes” faced plenty of judgment itself. Viewed by some as the first feminist novel in the African-American canon, and a book that was surprisingly full of humor, “Eyes” is hailed as a milestone in fiction, and a highlight of the Harlem Renaissance. However, others protested that the use of vernacular played to negative stereotypes.
In the end, things didn’t turn out so well for Zora. Her books went out of print and in her later years she struggled with a lack of money and health problems. She died in 1960, and her grave was unmarked until the novelist Alice Walker and scholar Charlotte Hunt tracked her burial site down in 1973 and had a marker put up. Walker became a champion of her idol, saying of “Eyes,” “There is no book more important to me than this one.” It was the boost Zora Nealre Hurston needed. Today, her famous book is de rigueur on syllabi around the U.S. and beyond. Its love story, themes, comedy and tragedy continue to speak to readers of all ages and backgrounds. 

Read more: Off the shelf: A look back at Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ - Quincy, MA - The Patriot Ledger
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial
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Thursday, September 26, 2013

JW’s Rules to help writers succeed:

10. Turn off the TV except for football

9.  Write every day.

8. Read the type of books you want to write

7. Read books you’d never want to write

6. Block internet porn

5. Try again to block internet porn (really do it this time)

4. Prepare for the long haul, lots of work and rewriting

3. Don’t dream of publication dates, prizes, wild librarian-groupies, interviews with Terry Gross or Charlie Rose

2. Be inspired by the greats but find your own voice and believe in it (you may be a hero to tomorrow’s writers)
1. I’m not kidding, stop surfing for porn

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sign up for email list and get short stories ebook free

Hi. If you migrate over to and sign up for the email list (see box at bottom left of any page on the site) I'll drop you a note when my short stories are free on Amazon. I hope to get the book out this week, so by mid-month I'll notify everyone on the list as to when they can snag it for nothing.


Friday, April 26, 2013

I Gave In... My Website is Back Up

I've been convinced I need to put a website back up. So, my blog and everything else is at Hope to see you over there.

Thanks for reading.

Be Well,

Monday, April 15, 2013

Our City, Stunned but Standing

What will remain with me from today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon will be the video of police and safety officials, runners and spectators rushing to the site of the explosions just seconds after they hit. Despite the chance that a third bomb was ready to detonate, these folks pulled down the barricade and fencing the victims were penned in by and rushed to help them. See the video here.

Such selflessness is awe inspiring. It happens every day in this world, though not always is it caught so vividly in high-def.

The victim’s are in our thoughts. Those who rushed in with no concern about their own safety are – in a word too often tossed about these days – true heroes.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Response to a Rejection Letter (not recommended as a template)

Dear Slushpile Reader:

Thank you for your recent rejection letter concerning my short story, “Screaming in the Gutter.” As a sender of such tidings, I’m sure you’re aware of the part you play in the long history of the genre. History is strewn with the tales of rejection initially heaped upon the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville and George Orwell (famous writers). You can now claim your place among those who served a big “no thanks” to a future literary luminary.
I trust that my missive finds you well. I know the basement where you work must be, at this hour, noisy with the sounds of your colleagues collecting coins for that communal cup of joe. Amid the tittering, I hope my meaning comes through in all its sincerity.
Your job is not an easy one. As the son of a mafia kingpin, I know we can’t change the hand we’re dealt in life. Things happen in this world and we are mere bystanders at the great parade. Deciding to kill the dreams of a fellow human being cannot be as simple as your two-line, seventeen-word form letter would suggest. Deep down, I know it hurts; your sense of humanity feels impaled, even your ankle aches, I’m sure, from each day you’re forced to stomp on the dreams of people whose only sin is the desire to share with the world a little bit of themselves.

What you do takes courage. Not the commendable type, like those going to war possess. But the other kind, that inner strength necessary to turn a deaf ear to the screams going on all around you of folks who’d hoped to tell their little tale and perhaps soak in the tiny bit of attention a few pages of print might bring into their lives. Bravo, I say. Bravo.
Life is not fair for anyone. For me, my writing career has hit a slight obstacle. For the world, a brilliant work of prose remains hidden from the light of day. While you have been put in the position of gatekeeper, Cerberus of the world of letters, a task mistress under whose watch die the dreams of hundreds if not thousands. As my uncle, who heads the auditing department of the Internal Revenue Service, always says, “Life is not fair, and sometimes otherwise good people get punished severely.”

In closing, this world is led by deciders. We need people out front – gifted and special people, such as yourself – showing the way and choosing the path mankind will follow. Heavy is the head that wears this crown. As a board member of the NRA I know the awesome responsibility that comes with power, oversight and a closet full of automatic weapons. I know if you and I were to ever meet, we would see eye to eye on many matters.

Thank you for your time. If you should decide to revisit your decision regarding “Screaming in the Gutter,” I will gladly resubmit it.

Be well.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Big Lie: (or I used to think fact checkers were a good thing. Until I had one follow me)

Inspired by some of the truth-defying claims that emerged from last year's presidential campaign, I've been thinking about this notion of honesty. Is it as malleable as politicians think, like rhetorical Silly Putty that can be stretched and molded to fit any occasion? Or is there such a thing as black-and-white objectivity and absolute fact?
Contemplating this, I began to wonder about my own veracity. Am I as honest as I imagine myself to be? Or am I just another  poseur who pretends to be truthful but in actuality sees expediency as an excuse to bend reality to my own desires?

There was only one way to find out: a personal fact checker.

His name is Mario (not his real name), and I asked him to follow me and exclaim whenever a mistruth of any kind passed my lips. He was an eager fellow and seemed to me like someone who relished perhaps a little too much the prospect of the job ahead. This, sadly, turned out to be true in the extreme.

In retrospect, I perhaps should have picked another day for my experiment, for on this morning I was running late. Being behind schedule usually obliges one to lie due to the fact that professional people and colleagues tend to frown on truthful excuses, such as "I felt like sleeping in," or "I'm sorry, took forever to load this morning."

We climbed into my car and, looking at the clock on the dash, realized I'd have to miss my dentist appointment. Not wanting to incur the Draconian $25 cancellation fee, I waited until Mario seemed distracted by the radio. Slyly I took my phone and dialed the number for my dentist. "Hi, this is John, I'm supposed to be there now, but I'm driving my pet parakeet to the vet for an emergency procedure," I said. It sounded as if the receptionist was taking the bait. "Would you like to reschedule?" she asked. I was home free.

It was then that Mario reached over and took the cellphone from my hand. "Hello," he said. "I'm John's fact checker. I'm sorry to inform you he does not own a parakeet and that he is missing his appointment because he's running late after spending too long in the bathroom playing Angry Birds and trying to make his comb-over look less like a comb-over."

At least he didn't mention the Internet porn, I thought, just before Mario added, "Oh, and he also spent a half hour drooling on his laptop over some nude Zena lookalike."

Mario handed the phone back just in time for me to hear the receptionist, her voice suddenly icy, ask for my credit card number, "to take care of the cancellation fee."

The day continued in this fashion:

The late report I'd told my boss was still at the printer, according to Mario, was, "Sitting in my briefcase covered primarily with doodles of what a love child produced by me and Katy Perry would look like."

The secretary downstairs I've been dating who asked about my weekend at mom's, was told by Mario that I'd actually enjoyed a marathon bachelor party at Club Spring Break, where the slogan is 'No I.D., no problem'."

Or when the regional V.P. asked me to dinner for the following evening and I declined, citing my Mensa meeting, Mario pulled out his iPhone, poked the screen a few times and reported that my schedule indicated "sock sorting/Housewives of BH." (Why I gave him the password to my online calendar I'll never know.)

The real downfall, however, was my IRS audit (I told you it was a bad day for my little experiment). There, an agent looked askance at my long list of deductions, which contained items such as massages, casino losses, and someone from the Bronx named "Iceman" who I listed as a dependent. As the skeptical agent finished reading off the litany, Mario said, "All bogus." Five minutes later, even my legitimate deductions for mileage and paper supplies were nixed. The upshot is I owe the IRS 16 grand (Mario also led the agent through my tax returns from 2004 through 2010, each year uglier than the last.)

Deciding I'd had enough truth for one day, once outside I tried and shake my new companion and ducked into a bar. But there he was, right on my heels, eventually pulling up the stool next to me. I ignored him as I drank enough rum to stagger a Russian battalion, and later told a doubtful looking brunette I was a photographer for Maxim (Mario didn't even bother correcting this one). At closing time, I staggered out the door.

A cop nabbed me as soon as I hit the sidewalk, grabbing me by my collar and hauling me in for being drunk and disorderly. Suddenly, a moment of honesty overwhelmed me. I told the officer that if I were to be arrested I would miss work the next morning, probably be fired, miss my next payments to Iceman and for child-support, lose my lease, and wind up on the street living in a dumpster.

Surprisingly, the officer, unimpressed by honesty, turned a deaf ear and started to drag me off toward his cruiser. It was then I noticed Mario tugging at the cop's sleeve.

"Officer, I'm not sure what happened to my friend here, he just had two drinks. It must be some sort of medical condition. I know he takes some sort of medication that can be a bit tricky. Anyway, he lives with me right up there," Mario pointed to an apartment across the street. "I'll gladly take him home to our ailing mother and see to it that he gets the proper care he needs to make a full recovery."

Grudgingly, the officer let go of me and I crumpled to the sidewalk.

Amazed, I looked up at my savoir. "Mario, you lied for me," I said.

"My name is Jack," he said, helping me up. "And yes, I lied. One thing I've learned in this business is that sometimes to save one's ass a little lie can go a long way."

I shook his hand and we shared a cab uptown. Then I immediately fired him as my fact checker.

But Mario, or Jack, or whatever his real name is, was right. Lying is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, do we really want President Obama to come out and say, "I've looked at the numbers, listened to the experts and all I can say is we are screwed, deeply and thoroughly screwed"? Or would we have felt better if Paul Ryan stared through our T.V. screens and said, "Our plan will make the rich richer and leave the poor to eat the crumbs we toss them, oh, and by the way, you'll need to kill your elderly parents because we can no longer afford to carry such dead weight"?

No, we like our politics bought and sold by big corporations and gift wrapped for us in the shiny, happy rhetoric that some might see as dishonesty, but that I view as being as American as apple pie.

Only kidding.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Musical Debate at the Heart of 'This is 40'

…(Music) is metaphysical; but the means of expression is purely and exclusiviely physical: sound. I believe it is precisely this permanent coexistence of metaphysical message through physical means that is the strength of music.

While the movie, This is 40, is amusing enough (and just out on DVD), it is the argument about music that flits in and out of the storyline that principally held my interest. As a bonus, there’s a handful of my favorite musicians featured: Graham Parker is a relatively major character, and Ryan Adams closes the final reel.

The movie tells the story of a couple hitting that milestone alluded to in the title and simultaneously coming to grips with some bad financial breaks. The film is less concerned with the real culprit in such midlife crises – mortality, and instead invests much time trying to pin the couple’s problems on their fucked-up fathers. Makes sense: It’s easier to get the great Albert Brooks to play a deadbeat of a dad than hauling in the Grim Reaper for a few climactic scenes. I think we know how Bergman would have handled things. But this ain’t Bergman. And now I’m straying from my topic.

The movie’s salvation is the wonderful music at its center. Parker represents the patron saint of the “meaningful,” that is, a writer of songs that somehow manage that ineffable mix of the all-too-human and the damn-near spiritual all wrapped in memorable melodies. It is closely aligned to the metaphysical mentioned above in the Daniel Barenboim quotation (taken from a recent The New York Review of Books in a short piece about Beethoven). This music is the husband’s métier – he even owns a small record label.

Meanwhile, the wife dances to generic club music and prefers Lady Gaga, portrayed as the evil personification of empty, commercialized corporate pop. It’s fun, she says, by way of mounting a defense of her taste.

Thus the lines are drawn. Who wins? (Spoiler alert.) They end up in a small club watching Adams play a lovely ballad off his latest CD.

Taste is tough to argue. What yardstick tells me Wilco is better than Journey? Or that the Beatles are the best band of all time? Some faced with this predicament reflexively fall back on the cheap and false out of popularity and sales figures. That is certainly a measure, and something that’s easier to get our minds around that abstract notions of quality. As Barenboim points out in his piece, we can’t really write about music, we can only document our reaction to it – and that’s different for each person.

My guess is that the younger demographic that This is 40 had in its sights prefers Lady Gaga. While my friends and I, a handful of whom just saw Graham Parker and the Rumour here in Boston, would take the other side of the debate. Though we like our face-offs to be tidily settled, this debate will rage on. There is no answer, just so much music and so little time.

If today’s Top 40 is your thing, perhaps I can convince you to check out Parker’s “Watch the Moon Come Down,” a song featured at a key moment in the film. It’s beautiful, evocative and desperate all at the same time.

And I’ll go jam some Lady Gaga in the name of equal time.

It’s all good. Isn’t that what the young people say today? - JW

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Special Thanks: Get my ebook free this weekend

Hi. I've heard from so many of you who enjoyed my article that I'd like to share my ebook with you free. No strings attached.

This weekend, Murderhouse Blues will be available for a click.

Here's the link:

The price will be zero Saturday and Sunday.

Hope you enjoy it. Tell as many folks as you'd like.

Be Well,

Thursday, March 28, 2013

So, You've Been Named the New Pope

Dear: ______________:

Congratulations on being named our next pontiff. This document will help you get started on your exciting adventure.

A few “housecleaning” items to begin with. Your locker is the first one on the right (it’s painted red, of course). It will hold all your vestments, footwear and smaller items (please note, the keys to the Pope Mobile are hung on a hook to the left of the door). As for headgear, the zucchetto, or small skullcap, may be kept inside the locker, however both the papal tiara and mitre (the tall white one embroidered in gold) are kept locked up in Cardinal Richeleau’s office (both have a tendency to “walk off”).

Your parking space is the large one out front (formerly the Vatican’s employee of the month spot). By next week it will have a personalized sign limiting it to use by you and occasionally the FedEx guy if he’s only going to be a minute.

Your quarters will be ready the Tuesday after the conclave has officially proclaimed you as pontiff. We wait until it’s “official,” as we don’t want a repeat of the 1643 fiasco, which still stings. If the quarters are not ready for some reason, we will put you up in the Vatican City Econo Lodge, where the rooms are just O.K., but we get a ten-percent discount (tell Fredo at the front desk who you are and he'll probably "forget about" charging you for any movies you watch on Selectra-Vision).

As for the ceremony itself, the cardinal deacon will appear on the central balcony of the basilica to proclaim you as the new pope. He’ll prattle on for a bit in several different languages (an aside: I think this PC/inclusive crap goes too far, perhaps you can rein it in during your papacy.... just a thought). Then you will step out onto the balcony to address the masses.

A few things while you are waiting:

-You’ll be wearing the papal tiara, which will make you sweat like Tom Cruise in a confessional booth. It’s recommended you not put it on too soon. (JP II wore a Planet Hollywood cap, only donning the tiara a second before hitting the balcony.)

-What you wear under the vestments is your business (what goes on the Vatican stays in the Vatican, as we say)

-Use the bathroom before putting on the layers of vestments, especially with the cardinal deacon going on and on in Latin, Swahili, Portuguese etc. (see my aside above).

-Yes, the heels are uncomfortable but they are required by Scripture.

We wish you the best of luck in your papacy. In closing, we recommend you see HR during your first week in office to get the paperwork and insurance all straightened out. Finally, I.D. badges are available for pick up in the security department located in the basement.

Vatican Management Inc.
A division of ChristCo

5 Shades of Oy Vey: Roth's Naughtiest Bits

Philip Roth, who at age 79 announced last month he was putting down his pen, may be America’s grand man of letters but he’s also known for something else: Highly stylized, wonderfully frank smut.

God love him.

The only novelist whose books I’ve often read one handed, Roth knew what we wanted and delivered it book after book. Whether it’s the infamous onastic attack by Alexander Portnoy on a hunk of liver or the professor who turns into a woman’s breast, it seems every type of sexual indulgence and deviant behavior can be found within the pages of vintage Roth.

Why this constant mix of high lit with the perverse? Because it’s all part of life. And this author is nothing but an honest and careful chronicler of the way we live.

Especially when our pants are down around our ankles.

With this in mind, here is my list of the five most outré scenes proudly displayed on any respectable bookshelf, courtesy of Philip Roth:

5. In The Humbling (2009), blocked actor Simon Axler, in his mid-sixties, takes up with a woman named Pegeen who is two decades his junior. Never mind that she’s the daughter of his friends from the old days in the Village and a lesbian, he persuades her to move in with him. Eventually, Axler gets around to having his new lover procure a local coed for their mutual satisfaction. A strap-on prosthetic and some acrobatic maneuvering create a lustful daisy chain that nearly unblocks our aging thespian. However, perhaps underlining Roth’s subservience in his work to the poles of “sheer playfulness” and “deadly seriousness,” Axler remains ultimately doomed to a Chekhovian end. At a time in life when some of Roth’s other protagonists were losing the battle of the bulge to prostate surgery and other indignities of aging, the Bard of Newark managed to pull out the stops one more time for this late volume delivering a lead character who goes down swinging.
4. In his film, L.A. Story, Steve Martin’s character allows that if he were a woman he’d simply stay at home and play with his breasts all day. Nearly two decades earlier, Roth beat him to the punch. In The Breast (1972) David Kepesh turns into the titular 155-pound gland, embodying the famous warning, be careful what you wish for. Naturally, as any man who’s turned into a walking talking breast would do, Kepesh sits in his hospital room while he enlists his girlfriend for hour-long sessions of caressing, listens as his seemingly oblivious father speaks to his nipple about life outside, and spends his downtime with recordings of Shakespeare’s masterworks. The novel ends with Kepesh citing a Rilke poem that concludes with the line: “You must change your life.”
3. In The Professor of Desire (1977), Kepesh returns and leads a course called Desire 341, where he shares with the class his sexual longings and encourages his students to do join the discussion. However, the novel’s pièce de déviance is when Kepesh travels to Prague and dreams of a visit with Kafka’s ancient and arthritic hooker. In this fantasy encounter, one not likely listed among Fodor’s recommendations, the erstwhile professor pays a few dollars to “face the unseemly thing itself,” and stares into her uber-exposed private region looking for answers. This gets him no closer to understanding Kafka. His conclusion is it looks like a phony mustache and not much else.
2. Ahhh, the shot heard ’round the world of letters. Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) made Roth both famous and infamous. After Alexander Portnoy, he of the “flying fist,” purchases a piece of liver and uses it as yet another masturbatory prop, people around the world began double checking their Braunschweiger before digging in. Throughout the novel, our protagonist reveals to his shrink his multiple hang-ups and family problems as he alternately abuses himself in bathrooms, on buses and behind billboards. Yet Dr. Spielvogel never once utters the advice we all know to be best for this lusty chap: “Stay out of the meat section.”

1. Mickey Sabbath is to whoremastering what Neil Armstrong was to moon walking. The protagonist of Roth’s 1995 National Book Award winning Sabbath’s Theater seemingly ran through the usual perversities and had to start inventing lurid acts to keep him occupied. In the novel, he revels in his status as a dirty old man, if only to demonstrate that Eros trumps Thanatos any day of the week (as long as your plumpish Croatian mistress, who is as debauched as you are, is close at hand, that is). Sabbath, a retired puppeteer, graduated from snatching clandestine feels on the streets of New York, to raiding the panty drawer of his longtime friend’s daughter, to marking his lover’s grave in an unusual, if fitting, manner. Somehow by the end, all this convinces him that life is worth living after all. Sabbath’s Theater is the Mona Lisa of literary prurience, as shocking as it is hilarious and death obsessed. As in much of Roth’s best work, there is an existential sadness at its core, despite the carnivalesque doings and accompanying bacchanalia that enliven so many of the pages.

And this is what makes so much of Roth’s fiction literary art of the highest order.

Unsocial Media: or “Why is every criminal in town trying to be my ‘Friend’?”

Nearly everyone who attended my seventh birthday party ended up in jail.

Little did I know looking around the room past the streamers and balloons that many of the smiling, pre-teen faces gathered round me would one day grace the mug shot collection down at the local police department. No doubt these future drinkers, dealers, dopers and delinquents were even then casing the pile of gifts in the living room or calculating how much the family’s silver might fetch at the local pawn shop.

I was lucky: I got away. My family’s gypsy-like existence meant we soon relocated to another town, far from the bad element that on that afternoon, at least, showed up in their Sunday suits bearing innocent smiles and gift-wrapped Monkees records.

Years later, when I was in high school, we moved back to that town of infamy. Gone were some of those early neighborhood friends. My first guess was juvenile hall, or the kind of reform school my father was always threatening to send me to if I didn’t clean my room. Others, out on probation or awaiting sentencing, prowled the same school hallways as me. They were now grown big and over-muscled, with hard looks having long ago replaced those birthday party smiles, and each with a rap sheet stretching from one end of a stolen Buick to the other.

I glimpsed these old acquaintances as I passed the smoking pit and the detention bench. One of them, maybe forgetting our old alliance, came up behind me on “hat day” and punched me in the sombrero. Another, perhaps remembering me all too well, gave me a wedgie and hung me on a telephone pole by the back of my underpants.
Now, decades later, I see these former fugitives on Facebook. They want to be my “Friends.” I am torn. For, as Proust says, “We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time.” Nor forget the simple fact they didtime. Ultimately, the question becomes, do I really want to be Facebook-ed by people who have been booked repeatedly on a wide range of state and, possibly, federal charges?

I imagine chat boxes popping up asking if I have a “safe room,” or inquiring how familiar I am with the state’s extradition laws. And what if I should accidentally click on a link one of these new “Friends” forwards to my page? Will I start getting unsolicited solicitations from bail bondsmen or places that buy and sell gold out of the trunks of cars? Who knows where it might end? One day I might find myself hitting “Like” for the likes of Thin Lizzy or Steve’s Switchblades Inc.

Other Friend requests would surely follow from guys named Mugsy, Legs, Louie, Bernard and Icepick. They’d send me invites to meet at racetracks or in dark backrooms where I’d be asked to hold paper bags filled with money or still-warm thumbs.

Pondering all this during a sleepless night or two, I decided what is needed in this all-too-social world are more layers of protection. In daily life, we use rumor, innuendo, stereotypes, prejudices, background checks and Google searches to judge people and decide whether or not we want to cozy up to them. Why not provide the same kind of critical information in the virtual world? After all, not every criminal psychopath wears a Charles Manson T-shirt in his profile picture.

Here are some ways to separate the felons from the true friends in the virtual world.
Everyone who’s ever had their likeness hanging in the local post office should have to use that exact image as their profile photo. You get a friend request from someone you knew in high school who’s been captured red-eyed and with Nick Nolte-hair, twitching and tweaking before a police camera, it pretty much makes for an open and shut case. Reject. Or you get a message from an old pal who’d made it big on Wall Street and his photo features him in front of a bank of microphones testifying before Congress.

Again, easy. Reject twice, just to make sure.

I, for one, would be happy if every Friend request were accompanied by a link to the criminal record of the requester. This way, one could easily draw the line: misdemeanors and below, accept; arrest for minor possession, party invitation; major felonies and multi-state killing sprees, decline.

The criminal background check could also help after you’ve accepted a troubled friend into your personal Facebook fold. For instance, say “Joey” wants a reference for a job as a housesitter but you see a string of B&Es dotting his police file. Easy one, reject. “Buster” wants to meet you Saturday morning at the local farmstand, but you notice in his record a disconcerting note from his parole officer about some past funny business with a pair of unwilling goats. Accept. And bring camera.

On the flip side, say you need to get your pregnant wife to the hospital in a hurry. A quick check of your Friends page reveals that “Mikey” did time for his role as the getaway driver in a bank heist. A quick instant message and five minutes later you’re pulling up to the emergency room with a bag full of loot for the copay as a bonus.

Also on the bright side, say you’re bored on a Friday night. Invite some of your law-abiding friends over to play Virtual Police Line Up. Log on to your Friends page and have your guests try to pick out the ones with records. The one who correctly selects the most wins.

The moral? Bad people on your Facebook page can be a good thing.

However, I know myself. In the real world my life is dotted with disasters, almost always, self-inflicted. I don’t need the help of the lawless to get into trouble. It finds me well enough on its own.

So, in the end, I decided against“Friending” any of my troubled childhood mates. All too often, Facebook is glad to remind us that we have a past. It is a world crawling with ex-wives, fired employees, unpaid hookers, disgruntled neighbors and the occasional felon. It was bad enough when I used a photo of my dog for my profile picture and several women with whom I’d gone to high school posted that I hadn’t changed a bit.

Insults I can take. Five to ten I can’t.


Wherein Socrates Seeks Help for his Drinking Problem

SOCRATES: Hi, my name is Socrates and I’m an alcoholic.
GROUP: Hello, Socrates.
SOCRATES: During a recent symposium I overindulged in wine. I called Plato a tunic-wearing twerp and demanded he stop following me, and then I told Alcibiades he could take me home. It was wrong, and I am ashamed.
CIRROSIUS: Why do you say your actions were wrong, Socrates? Is not the alcohol to blame for your actions?
SOCRATES: Cirrosius, you are bold with your words and wise beyond your years. I would be a fool to challenge your knowledge of the way things are. But isn’t it correct to say that alcohol is not a naturally occurring element in man?
CIRROSIUS: This is true.
SOCRATES: And if it is foreign it must be introduced from without?
CIRROSIUS: You are right again.
SOCRATES. And if I tell you that I recall no one putting a spout to my eager and hungry mouth do you not see that I alone am to blame for my drunkeness? Therefore it is the man who is a fool with wine and not the wine that makes the man a fool.
HEPATITUS: But Socrates, there are those of us with far greater problems than a night of alcohol poisoning. Look at me, for instance, who has ruined himself with abuse of a more serious nature. And yet there are others, like the Mormonites, who abstain all together. Does not your comparative indulgence merely illustrate your dictum of ‘nothing too much’?
SOCRATES: Hepatitus, for whom wisdom is constant, I ask you: What does it take to know a man?
HEPATITUS: To be his friend, I would say.
SOCRATES: And by friend, you mean a constant companion?
HEPATITUS: No, Socrates, we all must be alone at times.
SOCRATES: Then how can you speak with certainty about my habits? What if you learned that this was not the first symposium I’ve overindulged at? How many of you remember the night I drove my chariot into the Parthenon? On that night I was righteously pissed on Roditis, a jug of which was gifted to me that night by my old friend, Pouricles, son of Blottolius. Fortunately for me, Absintheus came to my rescue, took me home and nursed me back to health with the proper medicine.
INEBRIUS: Your talk makes my head spin. I cannot swallow any more of your words. Socrates, you are the greatest philosopher the world has known.
SOCRATES: Inebrius, your words takes me aback. You chastise me for not knowing my own greatness. But I ask you, is the great equal to the good?
INEBRIUS: No, it is greater.
INEBRIUS: Take wine, for instance. The grapes from Anchialos are good, but those from Rapsani are reputed to be great.
SOCRATES: But was I a great man when I started that fight in the agora with Obstreperus?
INEBRIUS: Surely not. You were loaded.
SOCRATES: And was I so great the night I passed out on top of Xanthippe?
INEBRIUS (smirking): I would say she did not mind.
SOCRATES: And the vomit in her hair? Was that to her liking?
INEBRIUS: I still maintain your greatness far outweighs your drunkenness, Socrates.
STUPORICLES: Great as he is, he cannot have it both ways. Socrates admits he has a problem, and we must allow him to accept that. It is the only way he will become whole.
ABSTEMIOUS: Yes, Socrates needs our help to save him from the juice of the demon fruit. I would hate to see our great philosopher turn into another Imbibius.
IMBIBIUS: Oh, Abstemius, you killjoy, may Zeus put a lightning bolt up your toga. Let us raise a glass and ask in words our friend Socrates here might use himself: Is man allowed to get drunk?
IMBIBIUS: Is Socrates a man?
IMBIBIUS: Then Socrates is allowed to get drunk.
SOCRATES: My friends and fellow lovers of the grapes of Dionysus, you have won me over. Let us go now to the Vomitorium where we shall unleash from our systems the poisons of last night so that we may drink deeply once again. ‘Every action has its pleasures and its price,’ I always say. Who among you has the price of my pleasure?
IMBIBIUS: I have enough for us all!
SOCRATES: Then fellow Athenians, to the bar!

Film Reviews by and for the Chronically Short of Attention Span

Wow, what a bunch of crap Oscar had to sit through this year, and it’s all just now coming out on DVD. Let’s get right to it.

Zero Dark Thirty: I think this was supposed to be a minute-by-minute re-creation of the capture of Osama bin Laden. Didn’t it take us 11 long years to get him? That’s what this felt like. Usually a hot redhead and guys with assault weapons will keep me tuned in for a quarter hour or more. But here, even the torture scene put me in a near coma. GRADE: F for too much slow soldiery stalking and stuff.

Lincoln: I heard this was long and talky, so I doubled down on my Ritalin. Still, I was out of there before the first top hat came out. One plus: there was some good battlefield gore– I guess there was some war going on at the time. Email me about how that ended. (In case you haven’t guessed, I wasn’t a very good student.) Better yet, Tweet me. F

The Silver Lining Playbook: Didn’t see it. There were, like, five people in line at the Red Box. What is this, Manhattan?

Amour: I would have killed the bitch during the first reel. F

 Life of Pi: I thought this was about desserts. But two hours plus with a guy in a boat with a tiger. Yeah, right. F for boring and F for misleading me with a delicious title.

 Argo: Foreigners really test my patience. Uppity ones all the more. F for boring me and Ffor lack of tasers and truncheons.

Anne Karenina: What a great idea, take a 10,000 page book and condense it down to a movie. Wrong. At least the book can be used as a doorstop. F

Flight: Loved the plane crash, but does it really take, like, seven minutes to drop two tons of metal out of the sky. Note to Denzel: If you are going to dawdle like that stop Bogarting all the coke and share some with the audience. We’d like to stay awake, too, you know. D-

Les Misérables: I loved it. I could listen to Russell Crow sing for hours. Is there anything that Aussie hunk can’t do? A

The Sessions: What a tease. No full frontal for 17 minutes? Hello? I was in Snoozetown and out of tissues by then. F for unnecessary talking and plot stuff.

So there you have it. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. But, chin up: the new Adam Sandler movie comes out next month.

Hell, I Could be Pope

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

Thank you again for including Hollister Career Consultants in the pursuit of your dream position of pope.

Enclosed are the findings following several meetings with you, a resume check, mock interview, thorough review of your online presence, financials, and interviews with friends and colleagues. If our remarks seem direct this is because we believe the only way to obtain the job of your dreams is through a process of honest assessment.

Our recommendations follow.


Initially, our counselors had to admit they did not find you very “pope like.” The first priority for you, as with most candidates, is to present a professional appearance at the job interview. While we take your point that Rome is “hotter than blue blazes,” flip-flops are out of the question, no matter how well they match your tie. Also, all tattoos should be covered, especially large ones that read, “Buttweiser, King of Rears.”

As pope, you will be called upon to hold meetings with dignitaries and to preside over events deemed holy by millions around the world. Given these requirements, we believe your communications skills will need much improving. Our counselors gave you a rating in this area of 3.2 out of 10. This range would indicate you are well qualified for the job of dockworker, but demonstrates the amount of effort you will need to put in before ascending to the papacy. We were particularly dismayed by your lack of verbal control, as highlighted by the many curse words you muttered throughout the mock interview. While none of our consultants are practicing Catholics or experts in this area, we are confident in our position that popes generally don’t do this sort of thing.

Finally, a safety pin can be discreetly deployed to solve that “zipper problem” one of our consultants mentioned to you on the way out of the interview room.


This being the first time we’ve worked with a client seeking the job of pope, our consultants struggled to define the qualifications and experience necessary for the position. While we continue to investigate this matter, we can offer our opinion that your only relevant experience as “altar boy in the 1970s” may not be enough to convince the Vatican that you are ready for the top position. But again, these things are very subjective, and your current position as “part-time ball boy” at the local CYO Center may indeed be a step in the right direction.

As for the references you listed, none of phone numbers furnished for these individuals worked. The one exception, “Wendy,” was glad to talk about you. She mentioned a large debt you owed her, “a strange rash,” and a few things gone missing from her apartment since last you were there. We recommend removing her from your list of references.


What is and why do you owe this company $323?

Also, tax returns showing alimony payments to three different parties may be problematic concerning this particular position. Again, we are not experts, but we leave it to you to try and expunge these particular records before the Vatican’s interview process gets underway.

Additionally, we recommend removing from your 2012 tax returns a dependent listed as “Weed Man.”


While it may be true that the last pope used Twitter to reach out to the faithful, we did not find evidence of a pontiff Facebook presence. That being said, you may want to simply cancel your current page. Failing that, you might take the following steps:

1. Remove from “favorite books”: Fifty Shades of Grey, The Selfish Gene, The Da Vinci Code, The Tin Drum and How to Bet on Football and Win.

2. We advise you “Like” some religious pages, and “Unlike” any that seem to be linked to so-called vices. A list of the latter would basically include just about all your current “Likes.”

3. De-friend anyone who may give the wrong impression of you or your lifestyle. We recommend disassociating from the following “friends”: “PartyDawg,” “DevilMayCare,” “WhoreMasterX,” and “WeedMan.”

4. Consider pants for profile photo.

5. Delete “spring break” photo album, especially since you never went to college and these images seem to have been pulled at random from the Internet.


Our consultants were hopeful that talking to those who know you best would uncover a side of you not previously revealed to us. Alas, we encountered nothing but stories of debauchery, selfishness, and gross indifference to the norms of proper society. Six of your closest friends asked us to mention the money you owed them, one was concerned about the contents of a mysterious package you’d asked her to hold on to, and a certain “Mary M.” wants her car back “this century.”

It is our recommendation that you keep these fine folks under wraps until the interview process is over.


Given these findings, we know it may seem you have a long, hard journey ahead of you. However, we at Hollister believe that all our clients, with the proper professional guidance, can achieve the job of their dreams. Therefore, we encourage you to stay connected to our services and continue your pursuit of the pope position. In short, we won’t rest until the white smoke flies over St. Peter’s Square and the cardinal deacon steps to the balcony and says “habemus papum!” before announcing your name to the waiting world.

Please find enclosed a bill for our services.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Apology Not Accepted: Jail for Artmstrong

Sorry, Lance.

The mea culpa on national T.V. no longer covers it. Not when one's cheating has been accompanied by threats and bullying that, as described two years ago on "Sixty Minutes," sound highly prosecutable. And what of the transporting of those illegal drugs across state and international borders? If you or I did that, make no mistake, we'd be in jail right now.

My guess is that with the money he won illegally there could also be charges of fraud brought against our pedaling pal.

Meanwhile, using cancer as an excuse for his actions is reprehensible. Millions  have dealt with much more serious forms of the disease and never used it as an excuse for monstrous, greedy and prideful behavior. This is perhaps the most shameful aspect of this big lie.

So thank you for the apology Lance. It's not enough. The government needs to do its due diligence and prosecute you for any and all crimes committed during your lengthy charade. Once you serve your time, you can rejoin the rest of the human race.

But you will do so without the words "champion" or "hero" attached to your name.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Misfires: Cynicism on Both Sides of the Gun Debate

When President Obama presented his plans for legislation designed to curb gun violence he shared the stage with several children. They had been invited to the event from across the nation, having written to the president about guns and school safety. They weren’t there for their penmanship; these young people were props in a cynical ploy to sway the gun control argument. Meanwhile, in the audience were parents of some of the children killed last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

In short, the message to Congress and the country at large was clear: do it for the children.

The issue of gun control was MIA during the two-year run up to the presidential election, but suddenly it’s on the front burner, elbowing aside many important discussions concerning the national debt and related fiscal matters. The reason is simple: 20 dead in Newtown, Conn., most of them children. Screaming headlines, heartbreaking video, an angry populace, you get the picture.

This begs the question: Is the president pushing for gun control now because this horrific event demands nothing less, or is he simply using the Sandy Hook tragedy to push through something that’s long been on the liberal wish list?

Message to Washington: Those children did not die for anyone’s agenda.

There have been and remain plenty of reasons in the aggregate for U.S. lawmakers to take up the issue of gun control at anytime. There are of course lingering in the background the echoes of the Aurora cinema shooting and the Virginia Tech massacre. Meanwhile, as of last week nearly 700 others have died of gun violence in this country since the Newtown shootings, according to @GunDeaths).

Yet today’s gun control argument is framed almost entirely by the president and others on his side of the issue by the shootings at Sandy Hook, and by extension the prospect of protecting other children.

Interweaving the fates of the Connecticut victims into the gun debate is an appeal to emotion in hopes of shaming the opposition into silence, or at least casting them as the villains in this heated debate. Invoking the specter of that tragedy also runs the risk of overshadowing the need for facts and a serious assessment of the overall situation concerning the 300 million guns in this country, the insufficient support we offer those with mental health issues, and gun laws that are already in place but not fully enforced.

However, the more the president can tie the need for additional gun control to the Newtown tragedy the less these other things will figure in the debate. Also, the less thinking many Americans will do about the subject. The hope is they’ll follow their hearts, no matter what else is presented to their minds.

The children of Sandy Hook deserve better than being pawns in this debate, and the president should abandon this cynical approach.

Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association is keeping pace in this arms race of cynicism. The pro-gun lobby has been repeating for weeks that, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This reductionist statement gives us a showdown but no context. What led to this bad guy grabbing a gun? What preventative measures were or were not in place? And who is this good guy with a gun? Do we need one on every corner and in every school hallway?

Real life is more complicated than a slogan. We can’t simply Dirty Harry our way out of every eventuality, or, as the NRA would have, arm anyone with a trigger finger. The real danger in repeating this “good guy-bad guy” mantra is that it takes our focus off any real discussion about how to address America’s violence problem.

Both the president and the gun lobby have thus far resorted to tactics meant to shame and delegitimize the other side and silence any discussion on this important topic.

Gun control is a tough and fraught issue, and the ongoing debate should not be muddied by either side with runaway emotion or empty slogans. If the U.S. does change its laws it must do so guided by knowledge and common sense, and for the right reasons.